Archive for the ‘society’ Category


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.


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.

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?


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.

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.

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.


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.

Juxtaposed Without Comment

August 17th, 2013

I had been planning to write a post contrasting the hundreds of millions of dollars the State of Vermont is lavishing on the development of HealthConnect, the glorified web site that will be the local incarnation of ObamaCare, and the legislature’s mean-spirited nickel-and-diming of relief for the homeless.  Then I found this.  Here are two items from this week’s Seven Days, Vermont’s alternative newspaper.  I found them in a column titled “The Scoreboard: This Week’s Winners and Losers.”  See if you can tell which is which:

Anya Rader Wallack — Two weeks after stepping down from the Green Mountain Care Board, Vermont’s health care czar is close to signing a $100,000, no-bid contract with the state to oversee a $45 million federal grant she helped obtain. Good work, if you can get it!

State workers — To save $2.5 million, the Shumlin administration is cutting overtime, travel expenses and temporary staffing.

land of chickenshits

April 18th, 2013

Some thoughts on the U.S. Senate’s failure to do anything about gun violence today, in the face of a filibuster.  The following came tumbling out of me in a comment on  Facebook, and I thought it worth repeating here:

As any thinking and feeling person must be, I am appalled by the intellectually threadbare, morally barren, opportunistically craven attitudes that give the gun lobby its political ascendancy. I’m not convinced that the gun control measures currently under discussion will actually do much to provide relief from gun violence, but if they could save even one life, they would be worth it. Against that, however, is counterbalanced the vast fearfulness that has made a lie of the claim of this country to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave” for longer than such a claim has been made. Fear of god, fear of indians, fear of black people, fear of brown people, fear of yellow people, fear of white people, fear of irish, fear of germans, fear of jews, fear of catholics, fear of communists, fear of working people, fear of government, fear of women, fear of men, fear of children, fear of adolescents, fear of illlness, fear of death, fear ultimately and most deeply of each other, whoever we are. Fear of losing their guns, which for so many of our fellow citizens are the fetish items that they use to hold these other fears at bay. We’ll know this is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave when that changes. It doesn’t really have all that much to do with filibusters.

Nothing New Under the Sun

January 25th, 2013

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.  I’m sure you will remember the law recently proposed and nearly enacted in Virginia that would have required a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an involuntary invasive ultrasound procedure.  The other day, a friend of mine shared on Facebook a satirical proposal that men’s penises should be similarly probed.  Bearing that in mind, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1759, and chapter 20 of Book One of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Just in case you cannot immediately recall to mind exactly what transpires at that juncture of Mr. Laurence Sterne’s novel, let me assist you.  Tristram, the narrator, is busy instructing the reader that said reader should have deduced that Tristram’s mother was not a Catholic (or, as Tristram would have it, a “papist”), from the fact that Tristram’s mother said that it was necessary for Tristram to be born before he could be christened.  Not so for Papists!, says Tristram.  He cites – well, quotes in full, actually, in French – a purported 1733 opinion of the Doctors of the Sorbonne, then a Catholic institution, that in certain extreme cases an unborn infant could be baptized sight unseen “par le moyen d’une petite canulle… sans faire aucun tort à la mere.”  Mr. Shandy, speaking one presumes for Mr. Sterne, goes on to suggest that a similar operation might benefit the “Homunculi” which were at the time supposed to be the male contribution to conception, “par le moyen d’une petite canulle… sans faire aucun tort au pere.”

I hasten to add that I am unable to verify the authenticity of the Sorbonne Doctors’ opinion.  Sterne might have made it up.  In any case, I am sure it does not represent present-day Catholic teaching regarding baptism!  It’s comforting to know that at least some things change.  It gives one hope that some day all men will respect women’s bodies as they do their own.