Some Thoughts on American Terror

December 4th, 2015

Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent anecdotal history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the things that is falling into place for me has to do with gun violence and gun control in America.  I want to avoid oversimplification and reductionism, but it seems to me that in order to understand the peculiar nature of gun violence in America you have to understand the history.  And I think there is more to understand than what the Second Amendment meant to the Founding Fathers, or the role of hunting and home defense in colonial and frontier society.

One huge thing gets overlooked when we talk about American gun culture. For about a hundred years after the Civil War, an entire section of our country was ruled by terrorism.  It was a peculiarly American form of public/private partnership. The entire American South was governed by private terrorism in league with government terrorism.  This is not hyperbole.  It is a plain statement of fact.  Black people were oppressed through a public-private collaboration in terrorism.  Whites were kept in line by the same means.  Until you absorb the meaning of that, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of guns in our culture.

Let me pause on this a moment. President Obama recently memorably observed, with regard to the seemingly endless series of almost daily mass murders by firearm that occur in the United States, it doesn’t happen in other places. Well, in fact it does, but not in very many places. Not very many places share a similar, recent history of such severe repression of such a large proportion of the population over such a large extent of the nation’s territory by such a seamless partnership of governmental and private terrorism. One thinks of South Africa during apartheid. Nicaragua, in the death squad era. Usually government reserves for itself a monopoly of violence. In the Jim Crow South, that was not the case.

This means that such technical gun control measures as limits on magazine capacity, banning of private ownership of military style weaponry, and universal background checks – all of which seem like commonsensical, good ideas to me – are somewhat beside the point. It is a form of swimming against the current.  The NRA, I am sad to say, is partly right.  Guns only kill people when people use them for that.  But the NRA’s take on this is a lie, because the NRA wants you to think that people act as isolated individuals.  The lone crazed gunman or the vicious outlaw, what can you do about that?  But that’s not the whole story.  People are social beings.  We live in a society in which, for broad swathes of its members, guns are an ancient and accepted tool of social control.  There’s a reason many Americans tend to think you can solve a political or social problem by shooting at it.  They’re not crazy.  It’s a strategy that worked for them for a hundred years or more.  And of course the poison spreads.  You don’t have to be a lineal descendant of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest to be infected.  I am fairly sure that the first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants who perpetrated today’s San Bernardino mass murders will be found to have well acculturated himself to this. The Southern model of terrorism will have found many students, even unwitting ones.

The Jim Crow terroristic state arose after the South was rid of Reconstruction and Southern whites once again seized exclusive control of the apparatus of government.  The nongovernmental terrorists, such as the KKK, were ready and waiting for this.  Since federal power had destroyed the ability of southern government to re-enslave blacks, and private actors did not have the power to accomplish re-enslavement without at least the acquiescence of the state, it was necessary to form a private/public partnership to exert totalitarian control over blacks and to suppress white dissent.  For the period of Jim Crow, government terrorism and terrorism by private groups were mutually permeable phenomena, linked and in service to the same cause. This worked at least until the 1960s, when the machinery of government began to be pried loose once again from the hands of the white supremacists, and the private arm of the Southern terrorist machine was driven underground.  But cultures do not change as quickly as laws.

The private actors in the public/private terrorist state had lost their investment in government.  The government was no longer theirs. Through the experience of their own collaborative efforts, they knew what government can be turned to, and they had reason to fear that it would be turned on them. Since the line between official and non-official terrorism had been, in their experience, so indistinct, they had little or no conception of government as an entity apart and separate from the classes that controlled it. That is the root of the otherwise difficult to explain meme that “gun control means the feds are going to take our guns away; we are the bulwark against tyrrany.”  It seems laughable when the gun interest claims that private gun ownership is a counterweight to overwheening government power.  We rightly scoff and say tell that to the marines.  No sane person thinks that an unorganized mob of gun owners is going to be able to combat the U.S. armed forces.  It wasn’t even true in the age of Jefferson and Madison, as Daniel Shays learned to his chagrin, let alone today. But that is not the point.  The point is that the terrorist state’s private partners, having lost control of the state, are thrown back upon their own devices.  Their society, evolved in a pervasively terrorist regime, had little experience of a government of laws, a government relatively free of corruption, a government grounded in civil liberties.  These are all meaningless abstractions to them.  What has meaning to them is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, because that was their society’s reality for so long. Now the government is no longer theirs, who knows when that knock might come. All that remains to them is their guns; and if their government could be taken away, why not this other source of power? What will they be left with, then?

In sum, in order to reduce gun violence in America we must first directly confront and somehow heal the effects of our nation’s history of massive terrorist totalitarian control over large sections of its people and territory.  We must rid our culture of the complex of notions that legitimate the use of firearms in private hands as a means of social control.  Such an understanding in itself won’t do the trick, because American gun violence has many causes.  It is necessary, but not sufficient. But it will go far.  Unfortunately, this complex of notions is deeply ingrained, having ruled so large a part of our country for so long and having been renounced by the organs of power only fifty years or so ago, and that renunciation having been rather less than thorough and sincere, as so many police shootings of black men demonstrate.  It’s a long road to go.

It occurs to me that one way to get at this would be to take seriously the call for reparations to black Americans for the oppression they suffered under slavery and continue to suffer in its aftermath. The point would not be to “make them whole” in the sense of legal damages – what could? – but to engage the entire society in an open and concrete debate about how we got to where we are. It would be a much more concrete, down to earth matter than a mere airy “discussion about race.” Even relatively token compensation is, after all, compensation. Such a discussion, aimed at the intersection of justice and history, would serve a function equivalent to that of the “truth and reconciliation” initiatives that often follow a transition out of dictatorship. We have had our unacknowledged transition out of a terrorist totalitarianism. I am afraid that until we make some real effort to acknowledge what that meant and what it now means, we will continue to murder each other because among its legacies is this: that murder is the way that much of our society learned to govern itself.

Susan

October 18th, 2015

My dear friend Susan Weiss died this summer after fending off breast cancer for several decades.  Susan was a difficult, courageous, charming, immensely talented and creative, warm, caring, smart, wacky, alert, profound, perceptive, sensitive, funny, principled person.  She and I got together regularly for years to talk about writing and about our families.  Susan wrote novels, one of which, My God What Have We Done, was published and is highly worth your while to seek out.  The publisher is Fomite Press of Burlington, Vermont.  One feature of Susan’s writing was her penchant for meaningfully juxtaposing pairs of subjects that one would think had little if anything to do with each other.  The effect was kind of like if you tinkled one of those little tibetan meditation bowls that you see in gift shops, and out of it came the clangorous reverberations of a great church bell.  In My God What Have we Done a failing marriage is juxtaposed with the Manhattan Project.   In the last book she completed before she died, Susan wrote about a mother seeking relationship with her children, and a murder of crows.  Here is a poem I wrote after visiting Susan in the respite house where she spent her last month or so (with insincere apologies to Dylan Thomas):

I know you’re tired,

too tired to sleep well.

You could rage against the

dying of the light, but the

night doesn’t care.

I can imagine you

wasting breath on that, but

not too much.

Or you could go gently.

Whatever.  Really, I see you

stroking the tiny throat

feathers of that crow

sitting on your shoulder, its

strong beak poised at your

ear, asking it to

let you tell its story.

The Law of Conservation of Reality

June 7th, 2015

This came to me in a dream.  When an event – call it a miracle – occurs in a manner incompatible with the established dynamics of the universe, the universe instantly adjusts so as to conserve reality by reconfiguring the past so that the miracle is not incompatible with physical dynamics but is compatible with them; and it does so in the most economical and efficient manner.  A giant stone appears out of nowhere in the middle of Times Square: instantly, it always was there, or its arrival has a history.  Miracles may happen all the time, but they are undetectable as such, due to this reconfiguration.  Not only that, but the efficiency principle governing the reconfiguration also implies that no traces remain in conscious memory of the antecedent conditions, the ones according to which the miracle was miraculous, since those conditions (now) never existed.  Only in imagination, which is the faculty of perceiving the unreal, is the miracle dimly perceived.

Bernie!

May 26th, 2015

I just listened to Bernie Sanders formally announcing his candidacy for president. It was a moving experience. I cannot remember the last time I heard so much truth from a politician, except perhaps the last time I heard a speech by Bernie, or maybe it was Obama’s great “race” speech in his first campaign. I don’t know whether it is possible for Bernie to win, and I don’t really care. Now is not the time to sigh deeply and choose the lesser of two evils. That may come in November, but this is May. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Anyway… I honestly don’t know whether I just heard the standard gospel according to Bernie, ho hum, or the beginning rumblings of a political earthquake. I hope it’s the latter, but the former is good enough for me!

Memorial Day 2015

May 25th, 2015

“It’s Memorial Day. What’s on your mind?” Thus asks Facebook.  Okay: I am sad to think of all the young men and women who have been sacrificed to their leaders’ avarice, stupidity, anger and pride. On Memorial Day I remember all those young lives thrown away for nothing. I am saddened by the so-called patriotic urge to pretend that all those sacrifices had “meaning.” Their meaning is that they were meaningless. I am angry at the manipulation, deceit and coercion used by those gangs of well-dressed thugs who run the world to get our young people to make these sacrifices again and again.

Tamasha

May 23rd, 2015

I am reading Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, second volume in a trilogy of historical novels about the Opium War. One of the characters is a Zoroastrian. In that religion, Ahriman is the chief spirit of darkness and evil. The book uses a lot of language borrowed from hindi and other Indian languages, including the word “tamasha,” meaning a great show or performance or celebration. Towards the end of the book, the character muses that Ahriman’s kingdom (which we would call hell) is “An unending tamasha in a desert of forgetting and emptiness.” And reading that, I thought, America.

Yippee!

May 29th, 2014

fireworksI was going to title this post “Yahoo!” but that might have been misinterpreted.  So much of our language has been commercially appropriated.  Eat more kale, says I.  Anyhow… I am pleased and proud and tickled and relieved to announce that the second volume of my poetic trilogy, which revisits Dante’s Il Purgatorio in much the same way that To Join the Lost revisited L’Inferno, has been accepted for publication by Fomite Press, a publishing house after my own heart.  Visit their site and you’ll see what I mean.  The “relieved” is because I took some risks with this one, and they seem to have paid off.  Both of the editors who have read it so far have liked it enough to want to print it.  Projected publication date is some time in the first half of 2015.  So… if you haven’t bought a copy of To Join the Lost yet, now would be a good time to do so, so that you can be all read up and prepared when Goldfish Rising (or whatever we decide to call it) hits the streets!  You can get your very own copy of TJTL here; if you ask, I’ll autograph it for you.

Down the Tube

March 31st, 2014

Queets_River_Douglas-FirSo… a little less than a week ago I finished my revisions to Goldfish Rising and sent the mansucript off to the publisher of the first volume of the series, To Join the Lost.  (Which, if you haven’t bought it, you should, in preparation for Goldfish Rising.  Not from Amazon.  From this site, or from this one.)  I am old enough to remember when that would have meant packing a neat stack of pages into a special box, wrapping it with bubble wrap and butcher’s paper, addressing it in permanent marker, and taking it to the post office for the ceremony of buying stamps and handing it over to the clerk and watching it disappear into the mysterious rooms in the back of the building or (with some detriment to the sense of occasion) get tossed into a big bin.  Now it was just a matter of clicking on a “send” button.  I am no luddite, but that is definitely less satisfying.  I clicked the button, stared at the screen, and let the inevitable feelings of emptiness and “what do I do now?” sink in.

What I do now, in the evenings at least, is not what I intend to be doing for much longer.  Someday in the not too distant future, the publisher I like to think of as “my” publisher will respond to my manuscript, I hope and expect with acceptance and, if so, also with a list of possibly as many as several hundred comments, questions, and recommendations for change, which will keep my evenings happily occupied for weeks or even months.  Right now, however, I’m at loose ends.  Used to be, for the past several years, most evenings after work would consist of making dinner, eating dinner, washing up after dinner, an hour or so of brisk walking, and then working on the book. Take the book out of the equation, add in weather that is not very conducive to walking outdoors, and you get some long hours to fill between dinner and bedtime.  So, being a good American, I watch TV.

I want to tell you about two shows I saw last night.  Channel surfing, I happened across the series Nature, and enjoyed an hour-long episode about recent research into the social life and behavioral characteristics of plants.  Anybody remember that movie Steve Wonder did the film score for back in 1979, The Secret Life of Plants?  It was about plants’ responsiveness to stimuli and was generally regarded at the time as highly woo-woo and far out there.  Well, apparently not so much.  Plants engage in highly specific forms of communication among themselves and with other classes of being, engage in foraging and aggressive behavior, exhibit aspects of self awareness, create social networks for mutual defense and assistance, and even, it appears, nurture their young in some cases.  What I particularly liked about the show was the careful description of the experimental and observational bases for the scientsts’ conclusions.  We got images of scientists washing the dirt off seedlings’ roots and looking at pictures of rootlets in action and holding geiger counters to baby douglas firs.  Not only did we get to hear what the scientists thought they were learning, but what led them to think so.

After that I watched Cosmos, the remake of an old Carl Sagan miniseries.  Very flashy visuals, lots of special effects, and constant reminders to the audience of how “incredible!” it all is.  It was very unsatisfying.  I am sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the genial and soft-spoken physicist who hosts the extravaganza, did not intend it this way, but the only real compelling element of the series is his evocation of his own personal relationship with Sagan, who was something of a mentor to Tyson and started him on his scientific career.  Oh, and Tyson’s occasional slaps at fundamentalist religious dogma, such as that the universe is 7000 years old, are amusing if disheartening when one realizes that in America in 2014 this is rather daring.  Other than that, it is all “gee whiz! look at this!” and incoherence.

The real difference between Cosmos and the Nature program, I decided, is that Nature told us as much about the process of arriving at a new perception, as it did about the new perception itself.  Cosmos presents us with a jumbled bunch of Revealed Truths.  At the end, I found myself thinking about what I had seen on Nature, and finding my worldview subverted and transformed by it.  Plants and the forest are not what I had thought they were, but they are much more like what I had dreamed and suspected.  I have not thought much about what Cosmos presented to me, at least not substantively, because Cosmos did not give me much substance to work with.  Again, I am sure Tyson did not intend it this way, but it is the difference between science reporting and scientism; between new perceptions of the world, on the one hand, and something that can take the place formerly occupied by Holy Writ, on the other.

Unsurpisingly, Nature is brought to you by PBS, and Cosmos by Fox and the Koch brothers.  The one show teaches us something about science, how it works and what it’s like to do it and what kind of humble but startling understandings it leads us to.  The other teaches us a new wowie zowie mythology suitable for use by workers and consumers in a technologically sophisticated oligarchy.

 

Close to the Core

February 7th, 2014

Mary_Fahl_performingMary Fahl‘s new solo record, Love and Gravity, is out on Amazon this week.  If you already know what Mary Fahl sounds like, all you need to know about this album is that it more faithfully represents her than any other recording I know of. If you don’t know what she sounds like, buy it. You’re in for a treat.

When talking about the former lead singer for October Project, the place to start is with her voice. It’s “a voice for the gods” according to Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, but that kind of throwing-hands-in-the-air hyperbole doesn’t tell you much except that the writer was blown away. Which may be all the information you need. I’d add that Mary’s rich contralto is oceanic in its variety of color, range of mood, flexibility, subtlety, and power. She has a unique sound, velvety and luscious. To pile on a few more adjectives, her singing is passionate, emotionally direct and genuine, and sensitive to all a song’s nuances. A few more: she sings with high intelligence, deep emotional maturity, and the wisdom of experience.

Love and Gravity consists primarily of love songs, both covers and originals. The covers are generally stronger than the originals, as Mary is a stronger interpreter than songwriter.  She is a fine judge of a good song.  Her songwriting is uneven, ranging from pedestrian to brilliant.  An example of the former on this album would be Exiles, an unfortunate late addition to the collection; but it is redeemed by a ringing performance.  An example of the latter is Johnny and June, inspired by Mr. and Mrs. Cash.  The first time I heard this country-flavored ode to perseverance in the face of romantic disappointment, a few years ago, my reaction was “Holy shit!”   An eclectic artist, Mary has proved on other recordings that she can sing just about anything convincingly; her stylistic core revolves around celtic influence, american roots, chamber pop, and modern folk music, and that is what is mostly represented on this album. Mary has stretched herself stylistically elsewhere; this collection holds closer to the core.

The production is relatively spare and tasteful, for today’s pop music. Producer John Lissauer, who was responsible for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah among others, has the good sense to give Mary a supportive atmospheric setting and then mostly stay out of her way. I do have one quibble: in song after song, Lissauer tints Mary’s voice with a hint of big room echo. It’s not bad, but why gild the lily? It interferes with our ability to hear clearly a great vocal instrument. She doesn’t need varnish or embellishment! On your next album, Mary, please insist that the producer stay the hell away from the effects kit. But, as I said, this is just a quibble.

After a couple of dozen listenings, the record holds up well. Nothing sounds tired, nothing’s weak, nothing’s stale. There are no songs I find myself wanting to skip in order to get to the good stuff. At this point, four songs stand out for me. “How Much Love” beautifully captures that point in a failing relationship when the pursuer begins to question whether the game is worth the candle. “Under the Cottonwoods” expresses the memory of erotic fulfillment so completely you may want to turn over after hearing it and have a cigarette. The lovely “Sirens” defies genre. “Both Sides Now” exemplifies the saying that a good artist borrows, a great artist steals, by making the song indelibly Mary’s. No, I lie. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” also never fails to pick me up, so that’s five.  Okay, six – “Johnny and June,” about which I already told you.  But you will have your own favorites, and I will probably have a different list tomorrow. What I’m trying to say is, how many records offer an experience that stays alive and keeps growing deeper after months of repeated listening? This is one of them.

(Full disclosure: I have written promotional materials for Mary, for hire. The present review, however, is entirely uncompensated.)

 

Writing on a Wall

February 1st, 2014

Portsmouth,_New_Hampshire_-_bridgeIt’s nice that the President has noticed that our country has a problem with “income inequality,” as it is the fashion to call it, or, as I call it, excessive numbers of excessively rich and excessively poor people.  In the spirit of the time, I would like to forward some words from a person who was professionally concerned with the topic.  This is printed on a poster in the conference room at the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ Morrisville District Office. David Murray, who wrote it, was a long time employee of the Department’s Economic Services Division.  Or, as we used to call it when things had names that meant anything, the social welfare department. He passed away a few years ago.  Please forgive the acronyms and references to outdated programs.  I think you’ll get the gist.

I was sitting in a Voc Rehab office this morning with a person who is at ETC and has medical barriers to work. To help pass the time I asked what her kids were doing this summer and she told me they were doing volunteer work. Then she asked me if I was taking a vacation this summer. I said yes, the family and I were going to Maine for a week. She thought that was nice and said she had never been to Maine. This woman is my age – over forty. I thought it odd that she had never been to Maine, as most people seem to go there to see the ocean, so I asked her if she had gone to New Hampshire to see the ocean. She said, “No, I have never seen the ocean.”

This may show how naïve I am, but this amazed me. I can remember as a kid headed for Maine for the first time, my parents told me that the water was so wide I wouldn’t be able to see the other side. I didn’t believe them. How could anything be that big? But it was and when I got there I was thrilled at the sight!

She is forty-something years old, lives five or six hours from the ocean and has never seen it. She has been on welfare for a long time and can be called one of the “hard to serve.” Are these facts connected? Who can say? If this were 1986 and I were still an SPOP worker (ask an older co-worker if you don’t know what this means) I would suggest she save up her SPOP allowances for a few months and use the money to go see the ocean. Maybe then I would have my answer.

In the rush of ETL dates, conciliations, sanctions, job placements, assessments and all the rest, I think we need to keep some perspective, especially with the hard to serve. We need to keep in mind that it might be hard to see a future if you haven’t seen the ocean.

You all know there are many things the hard to serve haven’t seen besides the ocean. Like supportive parents and spouses, praise for jobs well done, involvement in constructive school activities and on and on and on.

Our job is to help people see the future. Maybe that should be one of the questions on the assessment form, “Can you see your future; have you seen the ocean?