Why Not Let’s Just Kill A Buncha Folks

April 10th, 2018

In the ongoing media yakkety-yak concerning the recent Syrian/Russian chemical attacks on civilians in Douma, reference is made frequently to the media’s hazy recollection that Trump ordered missile strikes on an airfield a year ago in response to something like such an atrocity.  Will he or won’t he do it again?  One of the things that seems to be forgotten is that the missile strikes did minimal damage, and the airfield was in use again almost immediately.  The missile strikes were a public relations display of ire at human suffering, ordered by a man who is indifferent to the sufferings of others but is fairly sensitive to public relations.

I mention the above in order to emphasize the point that this story is not really about Donald Trump and whatever he may or may not do, although the American media, speaking to and representative of a supremely narcissistic nation, persists in presenting it that way.  The story is about Bashar al Assad.  When you think about it that way, one thing becomes glaringly obvious.  Assad is fighting an existential threat to his regime; and not just to his regime.  For him, one may be reasonably sure, the existential threat is personal.  From that perspective, any action, including the use of chemical weapons, is measured by whether it makes his survival more or less likely.  And by that yardstick, the chemical attack on Douma has been a success, in that it helped secure the battlefield from his enemies.

An equally obvious corollary is that any “punishment” child Trump may, in his “wrath”, mete out, is entirely beside the point unless it is directed tellingly and personally at Assad himself, with sufficient impact to threaten to reverse whatever gains he may have accrued toward his own survival by virtue of releasing the chlorine gas in the first place.  Otherwise, it is just a cost of doing business.  One may surmise with reasonable confidence that Assad and Putin made this calculation for themselves long ago; literally scores of such attacks have taken place since Obama drew his red line.

Take it a step further.  Suppose Trump blows some stuff up.  Suppose he even kills some people.  Suppose some of them are Russians.  Suppose, finally, that Assad and Putin are not the only people playing this game who know the score well enough to understand that every bomb not dropped directly on Assad’s head is a mere public relations gesture.

I am not advocating anything here, much less that high explosives be deployed by the U.S. in the cause of regime change.  I am just pointing out who is getting played for dupes in media coverage that breathlessly enquires, over and over, “What will he do?  Will he do what he did before?”  The deaths likely to result from the imminently forthcoming “punishment,” since that punishment almost certainly will not reach to Mr. Assad, will serve no purpose but public relations; it is hard to believe that Mr. Trump, Mr. Assad, and Mr. Putin do not understand this.  It occurs to me that ISIS was universally reviled in these parts for lopping off people’s heads in order to make a statement.  Tell me how we’re different.  I’m listening.

 

UPDATE 4/14/18:

Well, the good news, if it is not premature to say so, appears to be that they didn’t kill anybody.  So, for only tens of millions of dollars in expended munitions, it seems the following results have been achieved:

  1. Trump enjoyed a catharsis.
  2. Macron and May picked up potentially valuable IOUs against the United States.  You don’t think their participation came free, do you?  I say “potentially” valuable because the debtor-in-chief is Trump, and we all know what his word is worth.  This may explain why Merkel decided the game wasn’t worth the candle.
  3. Trump, May and Macron got to look tough in defense of “international norms”.
  4. Putin got to look tough in standing up to the US, and loyal in standing by his ally, Assad.
  5. Trump got to look tough on the Russians.
  6. Trump got to commit an act of war against a foreign sovereign nation without getting congressional approval, thus striking another blow for the fuhrerprinzip.
  7. U.S. weapons manufacturers will get to build replacements for the expended munitions.  Jobs jobs jobs!
  8. Some empty buildings in Syria got blown up.
  9. Assad got to use chemical weapons on “his” people, again, without paying anything much for it.  Sure, see #8, above.  But this doesn’t amount to much, given the stakes he is playing for.

I’d call this a win-win, wouldn’t you?

Mass action

April 7th, 2018

Now that Trump is sending National Guard troops to the southern border to fend off a threatening caravan of mostly women and children fleeing from gang violence, thereby showing just exactly how tough he is, we are being reminded from various media platforms that his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor took similar measures, albeit they were acting against drug traffickers and not against noncombatants fleeing for their lives.  I thought it might be relevant to quote some lines from To Join the Lost (which book, coincidentally, you may purchase at this website), describing a certain European head of state of seventy or eighty years ago:

Thousands of tiny

human forms composed his mass,

an assemblage of rococo subtlety

and power, limbs and torsos wrestling,

clenching, leaning, bending, stretching, grasping.

A muscle in his jaw twitched:

committees leaped.  He waved his arm: armies

marched.  Backs impossibly bent to

hitch his belt.  His stomach rumbled: they wept.  He

shrugged his shoulders: hundreds slumped with

relief – contortions Rodin might have sculpted.

Proportionality

April 2nd, 2018

I do not understand how it is “proportional” to use live ammunition against a handful of young men who are throwing stones and rolling burning tires against a fence.  Normally I try to avoid making judgments about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, because I do not think anyone who does not live there can be intimately enough acquainted with the facts and history of the situation to have a sufficiently informed understanding of it; and I try to be reticent about expressing any viewpoints about it, as I think that meddling from outsiders is in large part to blame for inflaming things (I’m thinking of you, Sheldon Adelson).  But when an extraordinary claim is made, such as that it is a proportional response to use live ammunition against people on the other side of a border fence who are armed only with stones, slings, and burning tires, I believe some additional explanation is necessary in order to avoid the conclusion that “proportional” does not mean the same thing to the IDF that it does to people who use the word honestly as if it had meaning.

On Legalization

December 11th, 2017

(This is an essay I wrote in the form of testimony to a legislative committee.  the Vermont legislature will be reconsidering legalization of marijuana in the coming session.  I hope they eighty-six forty-two.)

 

This is testimony based on my personal experience about what the people advocating marijuana legalization are trying to sell you.

 

I was sixteen and new to the high school, but I knew what to do with the fat hand rolled cigarette my new friend had given me.  Even though I never had seen one before, I had heard about such things.  So I went to the second floor bathroom in my house, opened the window, put a towel under the door, and smoked it.  By contrast with the harsh tobacco I had tried, I could keep the smoke from this one down.  When I went outside on that sunny summer day, it seemed sunnier than sunny, and I felt happy and relaxed and at ease.  I had not felt so relaxed and at ease for a long time.

 

That was 1968, when pot was a lot weaker than the 10% or more THC content it is purposely bred to now, and thus began the next seventeen years of my life.  By the time I got to college, I was smoking every day, if I possibly could.  I smoked my way through law shcool, rarely attending classes, barely graduating, and then I failed to use my law degree for another eleven years, until after I had stopped smoking.  In the meantime, living in Boston on a near-poverty level stipend from VISTA, I bought pot with whatever money I had left over after paying rent and food, and when I couldn’t afford to buy a lid I stole it from my housemates, sneaking into their rooms when they weren’t there and stealing small amounts, taking roaches out of ashtrays and garbage cans, scraping hash pipes for residue, making sure I could get high every day.

 

I will leave it to others to quibble over whether to call this addiction.  You may say people have the right to make choices, even bad ones.  I did not sign up to spend a quarter of my life in dull stagnation, but that’s what happened.

 

When I say got high every day, I do not mean that pleasant, relaxed, aesthetically heightened state that I found at the beginning, when the birds’ singing was more musical than music and music itself was a transcendental experience – the drum solo in Inna Gadda Da Vida, man! The sound of a zilch bomb dripping into a bucket in a friend’s apartment at 3 a.m.!  Although it is bad enough, in retrospect, to have been so absorbed for so many hours by such meaningless stupidity.

 

Even those experiences eventually were beside the point.  When you’re high all the time, what was intense to begin with gradually greys and dulls to the stuff of quotidian routine.  The point of getting high becomes not the heightened aesthetics, not the jollies, which in any event are no longer so heightened nor so jolly, and in fact now are tinged with numbness and paranoia.  I just passively let stuff happen around me.  I watched a lot of TV.  I felt empty, so I ate a lot of lousy food.  We laugh about munchies, but poisoning yourself with junk food isn’t really funny.  Why are those people are looking at me?  Am I behaving oddly?  How should I know?  No, the point of getting high becomes simply that, to get high.  Furtively digging that little lump of crumpled, browned, saliva stained paper out of a housemate’s wastebasket, unfolding it, and finding a crumb of vegetable matter inside – oh good it’s not a seed – to add to the other little bits of vegetable matter I’ve scrounged and burn them and suck it into my lungs so I can get to that place that is somehow different from the place I would be if I hadn’t done this.

 

Seventeen years of putting my brain on hold, of putting my emotional development on hold.  A pothead might do startling or clever things, but he’s not growing, and although he might feel he is being creative, his ability to create is hampered because his ability to deal with life is impaired.  That impairment is the other point of being high.  Pot makes you stupid, but in a particular way.  It provides a rug and a broom and you can use that  broom to sweep under that rug all the stuff you should be dealing with.  In my case, that included the death of someone I loved and a history of early childhood sexual abuse.  Being high all the time put that stuff so far away from me I couldn’t see it.

 

When you’re high, it’s difficult to sustain a thought or develop an image.  Mental processes may begin with a whoosh of energy, but they soon dissipate into curly digressive tangles.  Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer.  But writing is hard, particularly the part where you have to make yourself sit down and do it.  I look back at my marijuana years, and see a lot of time spent away from the typewriter, a lot of fitful starts, a lot of crumpled paper and unfinished work, and what little I produced was stunted and shallow.  Because I was.

 

Dealing with the painful stuff of growth and development, and of overcoming trauma, requires sustained effort, a willingness to gaze steadily on ugliness and to accept pain in order to move through it.  But the stoner is hedged off from that mental space by a thicket of distractions and diversions.  Avoiding all that discomfort can help you function, but at a minimal level, and at the cost of stagnation.  You sacrifice your capacity for joy.

 

Listen to the language we use and what it tells you.  Ripped, baked, fried, stoned, blasted, wasted, f-ed up.  These are the words that our culture has grown organically, as it were, out of the experience itself.  They’re more honest and truly descriptive than any of the carefully chosen language you’ll hear from a marketer or advocate.

 

When I stopped smoking pot, I had to play a lot of psychological catch-up, years of therapy for which I am grateful the state employees’ health insurance plan paid.  If I hadn’t had access to that, I might still be struggling merely to function.  Of course this service didn’t come free: thanks to all those state employees and taxpayers for funding it.  Maybe if I’d addressed the stuff I needed to address earlier than I did, I would have addressed it quicker and more cheaply.  I might have written more and better, contributed more to the community as a lawyer,  learned what I needed to become a better husband and parent.  But I smoked pot instead.

 

I am a lucky one.  I did not have a psychotic break, although a pot smoker is 2.6 times more likely to suffer this outcome. I know a few people this happened to.  I’ve known a number of drug casualties, people whose mentation, shall we say, is of the vague and wandering sort.  Don’t we all know people like that?  Nobody got injured in any of my car accidents.  I scrupulously stuck to my self-imposed rule about never using a needle, so I escaped that kind of addiction. Studies now show that opiate addiction is more likely for pot smokers.  Sure, my memories of those seventeen years are haphazard and spotty.  So a quarter of my life is mostly lost to me.  That’s the kind of price the lucky ones pay.

 

Pot is not the safe and innocent pleasure I thought it was, back in the sixties, despite what adults and the government wanted me to believe.  The adults’ standards regarding everything else, from sexuality to religion to the meaning of success, were suspect and crumbling, and the government was lying to me about matters of life and death such as war, and there wasn’t any science to back up their hysterical overreaction to this seemingly benevolent drug.

 

Now there is plenty of science.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t legalize it.  You may ask, what difference would that make?  Criminalization didn’t stop you, Mr. Steinzor, from abusing it.  But legalization would do several things.  It would make it more available, and it would feed into the misperception that this is a harmless recreational activity.  People who want to believe that would seize on this as an authoritative statement.  It’s called confirmation bias.  We tend to focus on information that supports what we want to believe, and we dismiss the rest.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t support legalization unless you really think it would be fine for your kids to spend a substantial portion of their lives grubbing around among the dust bunnies under the couch for a few grains of weed.

 

I am not calling for criminalization – what a disaster that was!  But I’m not saying the status quo is acceptable, either.  Get real about substance abuse.  Get over the notion that a rich person’s God-given right to have lots of money is more important than what I’m talking about.  Raise taxes if you need to.  Fund the mental health system adequately – our so-called “system” of services for adolescents is a sick joke.  Give kids healthy things to do in school and especially out of school – sports, outdoor education, art education, music, theatre, community service.  Invest in programs that support and strengthen families.  Invest in community, in making our villages and towns places where people can have daily encounters with beauty, where they can expect to live creative, productive, happy lives, where the strength of neighborhood supports them.

 

Or, you can give all that money to the marijuana industry.  You’ll never get it back.  Your choice.

Psychopath Trump

October 20th, 2017

I think it is unfair to criticize Trump for attempting to console a fallen soldier’s widow by telling her, “he knew what he signed up for,” or words to that effect. Trump is a psychopath. He no more can comprehend another person’s feelings, or express genuine empathy with them, than a shark can play the flute. It is not within his ken. To him, shit happens, and if you knowingly walk into a situation where shit happens and indeed shit happens to you, well, you had it coming. That makes you weak and a loser, like John McCain, who got caught. Unless, of course, you are Trump, in which case whatever shit happens is somebody else’s fault. To ask him to comprehend another’s grieving or to express heartfelt sympathy for anything whatever is to make a demand he is not equipped to meet. If I am right, his occasional clumsy simulations of compassion represent somewhat grudging moments of forced obedience to social norms he neither shares nor understands (this is a guy who boasted on a national radio show of refusing assistance to someone he thought was dying), and mask a deep contempt for people (all of us) who have not mastered the arts of survival and personal aggrandizement as he thinks he has. It is sad that people persist in the delusion that he is a more or less normal but flawed person who cares about at least some of them. White men, coal miners, unemployed factory hands, etc. He cares about them only in that they feed his ego and otherwise can be used by him. There is a theory that psychopaths are not fully human, that they are something like a predatory subspecies for which we are prey. If so, then how ironic it is that our first black president, eminently human, should have been succeeded by our first nonhuman president, who campaigned on the promise of walling out aliens! I revile Donald Trump, and wish him a short, unhappy, and unsuccessful time in office. I do not make the mistake of expecting him to be able to counterfeit humanity convincingly. Calling him “insensitive” is like calling a brick hard. Of course it is. To those who would reproach the brick for not being permeable to their emotions, my warm condolences.

Good riddance

August 14th, 2017

“We will not be replaced,” the white racists chanted, and they’re right. They won’t be replaced. Smallpox wasn’t replaced. The dinosaurs weren’t replaced. We’ll just watch them die off. They will make a lot of noise as they go and of course they will kill some people because that’s what they do, and then they will be gone, and they’ll leave a hole that nobody wants to fill. The artifacts of their delusions, the confederate battle flags and nazi memorabilia and statues of slaveholder tools and dupes like Lee and Jackson, will gather dust in the corners and basements of museums that nobody visits. It’s long past time for white people in general to get over themselves, and white racists in particular. They’re poorly adapted to live in this world. The world doesn’t need them and it’s not going to care when they’re gone, which will be sooner than they think if not as soon as they fear. Good riddance.

How to make a poem

July 26th, 2017

In John Williams’ novel Augustus, one of the Emperor’s oldest friends, a poet named Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, quotes the poet Horace on how to make a poem.  It is the best thing I have read on the subject.  According to Maecenas, Horace said, “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so – but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I concede an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so.  And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command.  I borrow from others if I have to – no matter.  I invent if I have to – no matter.  I use that language that I know, and I work within its  limits.  But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first.  For every solution entails new choices, and every choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on.  Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

Attitude adjustment

April 21st, 2017

It is amazing how many people tell me, without being prompted or asked, that they wish he would die.  I’m not going to say his name, but you know exactly whom I am talking about.  Admit it, you have felt this way, too.  Just this morning I was talking to a friend and she dropped it into the conversation with about the same degree and type of emphasis that she might have used in confessing that she doesn’t like cats.  I had to admit that practically every morning when I wake up I check the news right away hoping to read of a popcorn choking incident or myocardial infarction. This does not make us better people, I said.  She said, well, but so long as it’s just him we’re thinking about, it’s not so bad. I suppose that’s one approach. For a while I tried imagining myself inside his head, so that through the magic of empathy I might be able to see him as a human being, like me, deserving of compassion the same as I am. I thought of him as severely emotionally crippled, isolated, unable to connect effectively with other human beings, suffering the pain that goes with that. I’m not that kind of person, but at least that gave me something to work with.  I know something about loneliness.  I was aware that there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in trying to connect with him this way, but it seemed to make him more real and less of a malevolent fantasy.  But then a friend I respect, a psychologist highly experienced in working with criminals, told me that he is a psychopath and he doesn’t feel any pain, at least not the kind of pain I was imagining. I pretty much believe her.  So there goes any basis I can find for relating to him, bringing him within my world of experience, and now what do I do? Empathy doesn’t work if it’s fantasy.  I still don’t want to be the kind of person who wakes up every morning wishing that somebody were dead. Maybe the answer comes out of meditation. There’s no point in repressing a thought. That just attaches you to it and gives it power. Instead you allow the thought to happen, acknowledge that it is happening, and then say goodbye to it. I wish it were that easy to deal with him: allow him to happen, acknowledge that he is happening, and then say goodbye to him. I am impatient. I want to get to the goodbye part without going through the rest. I must remember that “going through the rest” constitutes most of what we call living, and that wishing to cut to the end, the goodbye part, is in that sense a wish for one’s own death to come closer. Am I large enough to live in a world that also contains incomprehensible evil? I hope so. Remember to breathe.

Wonderful review

February 1st, 2017

Necromancy Never Pays has some fine words for Among the Lost.

To impeach or not to impeach

January 19th, 2017

A friend of mine passionately asserted the other day that Trump should not be impeached because that would give us a Mike Pence presidency. In her view Pence would be far worse than Trump because Trump is unpredictable and might do some good things whereas Pence is a known quantity who can be relied upon to do evil every chance he gets. My friend maintained that this may be a gendered issue, and that I would understand and share her perspective more strongly if I were a woman. She may have a point. But I think that ultimately the balance weighs in favor of impeachment. Partly, this is because I do not think that Pence has that much of a personal following, and he would be unlikely to take the GOP much farther into its already strong inclination towards misogyny. More to the point, however, is that Pence is just an individual man and if he isn’t gone in a maximum of eight years then we have far greater problems than sexist ideology to contend with. Whereas if Trump is not impeached, in the face of his blatant violation of the Emoluments Clause from the first seconds of his presidency and his likely treasonous collusion with Vladimir Putin, then we have driven another nail into the coffin of constitutional government in this country. Our constitution is neither self-enforcing nor self-preserving. We may be more of an oligarchy than a democracy already; all the more reason to tend carefully the constitutional system that protects us, however tentatively and inadequately, from the depredations of the rich and powerful. Once the constitution is shredded, literally nothing stands between us and them. Damage to the constitution lasts long beyond any individual person’s term of office.  It is cumulative and extremely hard to reverse. So I have to conclude that impeachment, despite the horrible aftermath in the form of a Pence administration, is the necessary lesser of two evils.