Using a Sledgehammer to Swat a Fly

March 6th, 2019

Congress is on the brink of voting on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, intended as a rebuke to Representative Ilhan Omar, who questioned why it is “okay” for powerful lobbying groups “to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” meaning Israel, compounding her previous sin of criticizing the influence on Capitol Hill of the American Israel Public Action Committee.  As a sop to even-handedness, language has been added to the resolution also decrying anti-Muslim bias, but the clear motivation is to slap down Rep. Omar.

As a Jew who frequently doubts whether Israel deserves the level of support it receives from the United States, I have written to my Representative, the excellent and honorable Peter Welch, urging that he abstain from voting on the resolution.  The fact is that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs is brutal, discriminatory, oppressive, and often and in many ways violative of international law.  By referring to an age-old canard that American Jews have divided loyalties, Rep. Omar chose a tactless way of challenging our government’s reflexive support for Israel; but dissenting on policy, which is what she intended, is a far different thing from embracing bigotry against Jews.  A newcomer to the national stage, Rep. Omar needs to learn to express herself in a more acceptable manner.  On the other hand, the House needs to consider the substantive merits of what she has to say, and not to react in such a hysterical, extreme manner as to drive home the very point that Rep. Omar is making.

Sound bite

February 7th, 2019

My publisher, Fomite Press, asked me to provide for their website a recording of an excerpt from my work that relates to a particular calendar date or event.  I thought I might as well also post it here.  My trilogy, In Dante’s Wake, is a retelling of the Divine Comedy as if it were happening to me.  It takes place in August 2005, the time of Hurricane Katrina.  The first two volumes, To Join the Lost (corresponding to Dante’s Inferno) and Among the Lost (corresponding to Dante’s Purgatorio) have been published by Fomite.  You can purchase them here.  In this excerpt from Volume 3, presently a work in progress, I am standing with Dante and some others on a beach in paradise at dawn, looking out across the ocean.  Dante is talking.

Banging all our heads against the wall

January 4th, 2019

As the nation, or at least the media, obsesses over the president’s insistence that spending $5.6 billion on a physical barrier along the southern border is more important than nearly everything else the executive branch does, along comes Francisco Cantu in the January 17, 2019 issue of the New York Review of Books to remind us of the context to which the phrase “government shutdown” currently refers.  Mr. Cantu points out that since the 1990s our government’s policy regarding immigration along the southern border has been known officially as “Prevention Through Deterrence,” that is, reliance upon the forbidding geography and climate of those regions to make migration prohibitively difficult and dangerous and to channel migrants who persevere into areas that can be blocked by patrols and barriers.  The predictable result is that people die trying to cross the border.  You may be interested to know how many.  No accurate count exists, because, according to Mr. Cantu, the death tolls do not include thousands of people “who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.”  The official tally, says Cantu, is more than 6,000 between 2000 and 2016.  “When the Border Patrol demands recognition for saving lives,” says Cantu, “it’s as if firefighters were asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief.”

Take a moment to let that sink in.  Our government’s official policy since the Clinton administration has been to create a state of affairs leading to the deaths of at least 6,000 people, nearly all of whom wanted nothing more than to become productive members of our society; and our current political imbroglio centers upon the president’s insistence on taking measures which could be relied upon to up the death rate.   Building a wall along the border will not stop desperate people from trying to go over, under, or through it, or die in the attempt.  When you hear or read a reporter or commentator tossing off the phrase “government shutdown,” that’s what they’re talking about.

Thousands of people are dead by design already, pursuant to official policy of the government of the United States.  The so-called “debate” over the wall is little more than a disagreement over how best to run the death machine.  I say, good for Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues for standing firm against the president’s horribly wasteful and monstrous demands.  But that’s a far cry from moving towards a humane, sensible, reality-based immigration policy.


December 27th, 2018

My attitude about real estate development is summed up by the old joke about the Vermonter showing his flatlander cousin, up from New York for a weekend visit, around the family hill farm.  After climbing through woods, they reach a small meadow with an expansive view across the valley.  “Beautiful!  Great place for a house,” says the flatlander.  “Great place for a meadow,” says the farmer.

In my book To Join the Lost, a takeoff on Dante’s Inferno, while walking through the grove of suicides we encounter a real estate developer.  He’s hiding in a pile of used clothing, like a homeless street person trying to keep warm.  As we bid him good-bye, a pack of wild animals finds him and begins ripping at him with their teeth:  “something scorned exacted revenge.”  So much of the way we treat the land is ultimately self-destructive.  Sooner or later the meadow, and the wildness and beauty of which it is the placid seeming face, will have their way with us.

Other, more anthropocentric values are implicated, too.  Once in a while I receive a card or a latter in the mail from someone who’s canvassing my neighborhood looking for homes to buy and flip.  They buy it, they upgrade it, they sell it at a profit.  I write back and tell them that they are opportunistic scum, destroying neighborhoods with absentee ownership and artificially inflating property values so that housing is ever less affordable.  I tell them that what they are doing should not be legal.

Ken Schatz, Commissioner of Vermont’s Department for Children and Families, recently announced that homelessness is worsening in Vermont, despite all our creative policies and the millions of dollars we’ve poured into programs to address it.  (Ken, I hasten to add, is one of the best, most competent, conscientious, good-hearted, and hard-working public servants I’ve known.)  Homelessness is a multifaceted problem.  There’s not one single magic wand solution.  However, experience has shown that one of the major, most effective things that can be done about it is to – wait for it – put people into houses.  Yes, if people have housing that they can afford, they tend not be homeless.  One thing we could do to enhance the availability of affordable housing would be to discourage speculation in housing stock.  Mommy and daddy should not be allowed to buy a house for Biff or Buffy to stay in during their four years at UVM, with a view to either retaining it as a rental income property or selling it at a profit after the little darling graduates.  Colleges should be required to provide adequate on-campus housing for their students, so that the transient student population doesn’t eat up the affordable housing stock, driving up rents and depreciating the physical condition of the dwellings and the neighborhoods.  All forms of speculative investment in real estate involving housing should be subject to severe discouragement through confiscatory fees and taxes, calibrated so as to allow residents to upgrade the properties they live in while denying rewards to flippers and absentee owners.  Conversion of owner occupied properties to absentee owner rentals should be particularly strongly discouraged.  The point is not so much to privilege owning a house over renting it, as to combat the practice of treating a house as a profit center.

If we were in the midst of a famine, we would not permit speculative investment in staple foods to heighten scarcity and drive up prices.  Why do we allow this with housing?  People fill the homeless shelters and routinely exhaust the funding for emergency motel beds.  Families sleep through the winter in their cars.  A house isn’t just a financial asset.  We shouldn’t allow housing to be treated that way.  Homelessness is one result of something scorned, exacting revenge.


Ten Questions for the New Year

December 20th, 2018

  1.  What would happen to Trump’s support if, after being indicted or impeached, he were to seek asylum in Russia or Saudi Arabia?  (In contemplating this question, it may be helpful to remember Sabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth century “mystical messiah.”  He won a huge following in the Jewish world of that time, many of whom held fast to their faith in him even after he disavowed his messianic mission and converted to Islam.)
  2. Why do we still occasionally hear the phrase “enhanced interrogation” used to describe torture by U.S. operatives?
  3. With so much happening in the world that is worthy of intense discussion, why would Mary Louise Kelly of NPR devote her most vigorous questioning of Amy Klobuchar to followups designed to wheedle an indication that she is going to run for president, after Klobuchar already told Kelly she’s “considering” it?
  4. Even if “wanting your children to do better than you did” may have been at one time a component of the “American dream,” why would a parent want his children to do better than he did if he had given them a comfortable, privileged start in life?
  5. Why are Americans nostalgic for a snickering mediocrity who lied us into an unnecessary war of aggression that resulted in the worst disaster for American foreign policy since 1812?
  6. Why is it considered important, among the news media, for us to know almost everything that Donald Trump says, leading almost every newscast with his latest tweets when it is as well established as could be that literally everything he says is either abusive, false, or misleading?
  7. Why does so much of the national media’s political journalism consist of speculation about what may happen, or what may be said, or what the effect will be on one political party or the other, instead of telling us what the political class, individually and collectively, are actually doing?
  8. Why do American reporters in the national media never challenge stupid, false, misleading, or outrageous statements by major politicians, in contrast to the BBC, whose reporters do not hesitate to interrupt heads of state and tell them to their face that what they are saying is not credible?
  9. Why do American journalists persist in pretending, in the face of all the evidence, that Donald Trump has any substantive reasons for anything he does, other than impulse, ego, financial self-interest, and nativist racism?  To put it another way, why does “journalistic objectivity” create an ethos of willful stupidity?
  10. Why do we rarely or never hear, in reporting on the marijuana legalization  movement, about the impact on costs and other aspects of the mental health and substance abuse treatment systems?

Black Friday

November 28th, 2018

Suppose you are the manager of the biggest department store in town.  Black Friday is approaching.  From various sources, you hear that thousands of shoppers are going to converge on your doors at 8:00 that morning, drawn by the attractiveness of your wares and their inability to obtain similar merchandise in their home towns. Even now they are gathering in the suburbs and parks, hiring buses to come to your city, planning their approach and their strategies to take maximum advantage of the bargains on display in your windows.  What do you do?

Although you might hire some additional security to maintain order in the aisles, I am pretty sure that you will not employ armed forces to beat the shoppers away from your doors.  More likely, you will beef up your staff of checkout clerks and floor walkers to handle the increased traffic.

I have been watching our government’s response to the so-called “immigrant caravan” with horror and disgust.  A sane and humane government, confronted with the approach over weeks of a few thousand people fleeing terror and desperate for the benefits of life in our jurisdiction, would not greet them with tear gas and thousands of military personnel. These are not ravening hordes bent on pillage, rapine, and destruction.  These are people who, for the most part, want nothing better than to contribute to our society by giving it their labor, their intelligence, their imagination, their children, and themselves.  How sad that our response to people who want to give us precious gifts is to beat the shit out of them.  I am perfectly aware of the need to protect our borders and to maintain legal order with respect to immigration.  The way to do so, in this situation, was not to rush military units to the border. What our government should have done, and still could do if it were not headed by a psychopathic narcissistic sadist, would have been to send thousand of bureaucrats to the border, each with a briefcase, a computer terminal, a stack of forms, and the training to process asylum and other immigration claims in an accurate and expeditious manner.

Tree of Life

October 30th, 2018

Let me share a few thoughts I have as a Jewish person relating to last week’s massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg.  I don’t write as a representative of Jewry or of any of its rich, complex, mysterious lineages.  I write as a Jewish person, in a very personally Jewish spirit, the spirit, for example, of remembering that the first girl I kissed, some fifty-odd years ago at summer camp in Vermont, was from Squirrel Hill.  I hope she and her family are alive and well.  When the names of Mr. Bower’s victims became public, my first impulse was to scan the list for hers.

I am prompted to write, to add my pittance to the overwhelming babble of lament, analysis, and commentary, by some things I heard on the radio on Monday.  One was the claim by advocates for immigrants that this was an attack on all immigrants and minorities.  Another, coming from a diametrically opposite point on the political cow-pie, was Attorney General Sessions’ announcement that this was an attack on American values.  A third was a commentator’s statement that Jews are like “a canary in a coal mine,” with rising anti-Semitism indicating social disruption and dysfunction.

Well, no.  I’ll take up the “canary in a coal mine” later, but, with regard to the first two, it wasn’t either of those things.  What Mr. Bowers attacked was a Jewish person, and another Jewish person, and another, eleven times.  He previously had been known to the public, to the extent he was known at all, for virulent on-line statements directed at Jews as the alleged instigators of what he considered to be a campaign of genocide against whites. He went to a famous Jewish community. He entered a Jewish house of worship. He sought out the Jews inside.  He killed as many of them as he could. While he did so, he yelled anti-Semitic invective at them.  He told the officers who arrested him that Jews are committing genocide against his people and he wants to kill Jews.  In short, it would be hard to imagine how he could have been more narrowly specific in his motivation (hatred and fear of Jews), targeting (Jews), and execution (killing eleven Jews).

Despite which, people from both the left and the right converge on characterizing the event as something other than what it was.  It’s not “just” an attack on Jews; it threatens immigrants and other minorities and American values.  What is the reason, common to left and right, that creates this distortion?  I think it has to do with making the massacre relatable. We have an instinctive common humanity that makes us recoil from the kind of horror that Mr. Bowers perpetrated. But that is overlaid by the vast perceptual and conceptual apparatus with which we consciously apprehend the world; and that is where relatability comes in.  The gravity of the horror demands that we relate to it.  But how are we to do that?

Start with attitudes about Jews.  There is going to be an element of caricature in the next few paragraphs, for which I apologize.  My excuse is that it would take a book of several volumes to present a fully fleshed, nuanced vision.  I hope that what I depict here will bear a recognizable enough relation to reality so that it can be considered broadly accurate, if not entirely fair.

American leftists, even including many Jews of that description, think about Jews, when they do so at all, mostly in terms of Team Israel v. Team Palestinian, with their sympathies tending towards the latter.  Otherwise they stereotype American Jews as Ashkenazi, quasi-white, economically successful, well educated, and liberal, all of which “privilege” tends to place us outside the sphere of leftist concerns.  Simply put, American leftists don’t tend to care about Jews as people who are Jewish, apart from the reflexively schematized issues of social and economic and political justice that are considered ideologically important.  So to describe a massacre of American Jews as “a massacre of American Jews” does not, for American leftists, make the event fully relatable.  But there is the undeniable horror, and the need to make sense of it.  How is this gap to be bridged?  This is done, I think, by using the same mental cantilever out of which the largely bogus concept of “intersectionality” is constructed.  As used on the left, this term largely seems to mean, “Whatever your issue or problem is, it’s actually all about me.”  Anyone who has gone to a rally about climate change and had to sit through speeches about LGBTQ rights, or vice versa, knows what I mean. Thus, a murderous assault directed at Jews can be made to appear to implicate whatever the cause du jour may be.

Non-Jewish, American right wingers have their own constellation of reasons why it has to be about something other than Jews if it’s going to be relatable. They mirror the attitudes of Jewish right wingers, but for different reasons. Jewish right wingers, like most Jews born in the post-WWII era and before, are afflicted by severe cultural post traumatic stress disorder, consequent upon the Holocaust.  Due to their proclivity for authoritarian, nationalistic “strength”, they cling to Israel as a sort of lethally capable security blanket.  Although they would consider me utterly absurd for saying so, I do not think that right wing Jews care that much about Jewish persons, as apart from the Jewish State and its institutions.  (Consider, for example, how the right wing Israeli government, which American right wing Jews adore, treats all strains of religious Judaism to the left of Orthodoxy.)  The non-Jewish right wingers come to their attitudes about Jews and Israel by a somewhat circuitous route.  There is an Evangelical Christian notion that Judgment cannot occur until all the Jews have gathered in Israel.  This makes Israel (a) eschatologically necessary and (b) the vehicle for getting rid of the Jews.  The latter component is congenial to right wing thinking, which has a long history of casual anti-Semitism and worse.  The Evangelicals’ electoral importance mandates the right wing’s adoption of their attachment to Israel.  The bottom line is that Israel matters, but Jewish persons, as such, don’t.  Confronted with an atrocity on American soil against American Jews of such a magnitude that some sort of response is unavoidable, a right wing Christian like Sessions automatically downplays the victims’ religion and ethnicity in favor of using a politically expedient label for the pigeon hole in which to bury them.

I recall an incident that occurred to me over forty years ago at Middlebury College, when I was a student there.  It is, I think, emotionally if not logically relevant.  It occurred after dinner in a lounge in one of the small dining halls on the south fringe of the campus.  My chair was backed up against one of the thick columns that supported the ceiling, invisible to a group on the other side of the column who were engaged in talking about their fellow students.  Said one of them, loudly and clearly, “He’s not a person.  He’s a Jew.”  To the credit of the others, there was a moment of silence.  Then the gay banter continued.

Here’s the point.  We live in a culture that does not care about Jewish people as people who are Jewish.  An assault on us is not relatable unless it can be characterized as an assault on something else – in which, case, of course, it no longer is an assault on us!  It cannot be seen and lamented just for being an attack on Jews, as such.  To the dominant culture, right and left, to the extent we are Jewish, we are not persons in the same sense they are.

When I was little, my mother told me something I have wrestled with ever since.  I don’t recall exactly what elicited it.  I must have come to her with some complaint about how the other kids treated me, or how they were treated.  She said, “You are different.  You always will be different.  You can deny it, but it always will be so, and they always will know.” I used to think about this mostly in relation to Christmas and Easter, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even after I went to Middlebury.  The Tree of Life massacre reminds me how deep it really goes.  Speaking of which, I listened to the radio all day Sunday and Monday and never heard that word, massacre.

Now for that third thing, fellow citizens.  I am not your fucking canary in a coal mine.  I am not an instrument with which you can diagnose your disease.  I am a person.  I am Jewish.  I am American.  And I don’t live in the same sick country as you.


October 26th, 2018

There were several ways they used to do it.  One depended on our being small enough, so I assume it was used only on younger kids, in the early grades.  The crackly voice would come on the school public address system and we would slide off our seats onto the floor, under our desks, where we would crouch in silence, the teacher standing silently in front of the room by her desk, until the crackly voice told us it was okay to emerge.  I wonder now what the teacher was thinking.  Unlike us, she did not hide under her desk.  How did she feel about that?

It was like the shooter drills they subject kids to, these days, except we weren’t hiding from some potential random lunatic with a gun who might or might not exist and who might, if he or she existed, kill or wound some of us.  We were hiding from the mutual assured destruction that was the explicit policy of the great powers that ruled our world, from the universal total incineration of which only governments are capable.

Another way they did it, that I remember (and surely there were more, given the ingenuity of those who devise these systems of child abuse), was to march us in single file out into the hall.  It was colder there, the floor gleaming.  We’d curl up against the brown lockers on our knees, their metal doors cool against our foreheads, our hands clasped over our heads as if to shield us from something.  We weren’t allowed to look up, but I wondered, if I looked up would I see the acoustic tiles from the ceiling come crumbling down at me.  Would I see the light burning through.  Would I feel anything.

What I feel, now that Donald Trump and John Bolton have announced their intention to withdraw from the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty, one of the most successful arms control agreements in history, thus rekindling the arms race that blighted my childhood, is a level of loathing and anger that I never have experienced before for any politician.  It goes way beyond “may they rot in hell,” although that is included.  Am I alone in this?  I don’t like to say that anything is intolerable or unbearable, because after all, if you can say something was intolerable or unbearable, you tolerated it, you bore it.  But the thought of a world plunged back into that darkness for my children, for their children, is close to intolerable.  It is close to unbearable.  I know that millions of people of my generation shared my experience.  Am I alone in feeling that the wound, which I had thought long healed, has been ripped freshly open, and in feeling utter revulsion for those who would do it?

If I am not alone, this November may our collective anger at what we had to endure, at what he would have our children endure, scorch Donald Trump to the ground, reduce him to ash floating on the uncaring breeze, and erase him from any further ability to inflict his evil upon the world.

Blowing in the wind

September 30th, 2018

Oh my god, they are ugly, these aging, wealthy, powerful, white men: contorting their little faces, stomping their little feet, and flailing their little arms in synchronized tantrum because their hollow sham of a pretense of a proceeding, after all their efforts to put a good face on it, was not going their way; exploding with rage from their lack of the elementary self discipline to sit quietly and to allow the woman they had hired to continue to do the good job she was doing of what they had hired her for, because what they really wanted (destruction of another woman) was not the job they had hired her to do (elicit the truth); frothing at the mouth about vast nebulous conspiracies to hijack their sham and turn it to other ends, conspiracies to destroy them personally, conspiracies to use them as a proxy for avenging ancient grievances unrelated to the matter at hand; sniveling and beating their little chests and demanding our pity and demanding that we believe them and no one else because they had worked so hard and they had done some good and they have a right to our belief; denying denying denying; spinning spinning spinning; abandoning any pretense of respectful listening except to proclaim repeatedly, loudly and angrily that they had listened respectfully (in the face of their refusal to listen even to their own lawyer); yelling at and talking over and rudely mocking and refusing to answer those who dared to question them, at the same time complaining of being mistreated; lying openly and contemptuously about matters large and small.  These, the flower of our nation, the representatives of our people, the honorable members of our great deliberative body; these excrescences of a too-long dominant, too-slowly fading demographic.  Another generation will take them to the rubbish heap of history, but until then, they stink.

For the record

September 26th, 2018

Under the heading of “boys will be boys”, of which we are hearing so much lately from the ostrich wing of the Republican party, I would like to offer my testimony. In my teenage years, I did my share of stupid, impulsive things.  I drank and took drugs, often at the same time.  I behaved towards a few young women in ways of which I now feel ashamed.  But I never:

a) turned up the music, pinned a girl to the bed, put my hand over her mouth, and attempted to remove her clothing despite her resistance;

b) stuck my penis in a drunk girl’s face when she wasn’t expecting it, or, for that matter, even when she might have expected it;

c) or did anything remotely like either of the above;

d) or knew anyone who did.

Frankly, the idea that such actions may be considered in the light of normal boyhood indiscretions is offensive, and says more about the morally and spiritually impoverished milieu of the people who believe it, than about the nature of masculine youth in America.  We absorb a lot of toxic ideas and behavioral models when we are kids, no doubt about it.  But the notion that acts of sexual assault and rape are a normal part of the personal behavioral experience of young American males is false and obnoxious.  The perpetrators exist, but they are a small minority.  Their behavior is a distorted reflection of the mainstream, not normative for it.  Part of the tragically disjunctive experience of men and women growing up in this society is that the worst aspects of oppression impact a disproportionately large number of women – most of them – while being committed by a disproportionately small number of men.  I do not mean to excuse complicity with the evil, which is a thing most men do, in fact, have to answer for.  But there is a morally significant difference between passive complicity and overt action.

That said, if Kavanaugh did what he is alleged to have done, I am not sure that automatically disqualifies him.  The allegations concern things that happened decades ago, and there does not seem to be a pattern continuing into the present.  Maybe he no longer is that person.  No: if he did what he is alleged to have done, he is disqualified not by the acts he committed, but by his denial of them.  Do we want to hire a judge who lies to get the job?  Of course not!

This is a job interview, not a court proceeding.  We are not dealing with burdens and standards of proof, we are dealing with the decision whether to hire a person for a lifetime appointment as the nation’s highest authority on what the law says.  So perform a thought experiment.  Say you’re hiring a babysitter.  You’ve got a nice middle aged person who wants the job, a little strict perhaps, maybe with some ideas that don’t jibe entirely with yours about child-rearing, but overall seemingly someone who likes kids and could do the job.  (I’m purposely slanting this in favor of the candidate.)  You check this person’s references, most of which are glowing; but then you hear from someone not listed on the candidate’s resume, a person by all appearances disinterested and credible, who hired them as a babysitter many years ago and came home from the movies to discover bruises on the kid.  You confront the candidate with this.  The candidate denies it.  I don’t know about you, but I’d thank them for their time and look to hire somebody else.  Why take a chance, if you don’t have to?