Monday, September 21, 2020

Shame Me Once, Shame on You; Shame Me Twice, Shame on Me!

2020 is turning out to be a replay of 2016, campaign-wise.  Specifically, the Democrats are running another superannuated party hack whose main selling point is that he isn't Donald Trump, and they're furious that voters aren't as enthusiastic about him as they think we ought to be.  Even more than last time, though, they're on the attack against anyone who declares his or her lack of enthusiasm and criticizes the candidate or the party for running a lackluster campaign.  They accuse the dissenters of wanting Trump to win, and their venomous attacks again lack factual truth, rationality, and even good political sense.  Among their targets are Susan Sarandon, Bernie Sanders, former Sanders staffers such Brianna Joy Gray, the journalist David Sirota, and the podcaster and organizer Ryan Knight.  I've been spending more time than I should on Twitter, just for the pleasure of attacking the attackers in turn.  

One thing that has begun to bother me is the term commonly used for the attacks: "voter shaming."  I suppose it fairly captures what they're trying to do, but I don't think it's an effective epithet if, as I've been seeing, they see it as a valid strategy:

Calling it "vote-shaming" lets them know they've scored a hit, and that you don't know how to fight back.  It's another version of the liberal standby, "Oh, how can you say such an awful thing, you're an awful person!"  This never works, and one would think liberals would have figured that out by now, if one didn't know better.

I think that if you want to get the "vote-shamers" to back off, if you want to defeat them, you need to find ways to put them on the defensive.  And I feel a bit uneasy about telling people to grow a spine, but I really think they need to grow a spine.  Why should you be ashamed of doing what you believe to be right?  If you are ashamed of not liking Biden and Harris more, if you are ashamed of wanting substantive policies rather than platitudes, if you're ashamed of being angry at the Democratic Party establishment for waging an inadequate campaign against the most dangerous President of the past century and possibly ever, then maybe you need to pause and take stock.

My preferred term for what these people are doing is "voter suppression."  They clearly are less interested in winning over undecided, let alone opposed, voters than in getting their licks in against people they blame for Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016: Sarandon, Sanders, and the like.  If you really want to persuade people to vote for your candidate, hurling abuse at them is exactly what you shouldn't be doing.  It's not as if this is some extreme-left, avant-garde, postmodern idea: it's the basic principle of canvassing and organizing.  Yet I'm seeing a lot of (admittedly anecdotal) reports of people telling Biden phonebankers that they're undecided, and being blown off, no attempt made to find out why they're undecided and persuade them to vote Biden/Harris.

I have to remember that people feel isolated and so find it hard to stand up to attacks from any direction, and I don't want to attack them myself.  I must have felt much the same way fifty years ago when I was just coming out and forming a left political stance, but although I did get attacked, from the left as well as from the right at times, I somehow kept bouncing back.  I know that within a year or two of coming out I was enjoying attempts by homophobes to try to shame me for being queer, even though there was in those days precious little solidarity from other gay people.  Somehow I felt that I was part of something larger than myself, a network of people who rejected bigotry and bit back at it, even if I knew few of them in my own locale.  I later learned that some of the writers and thinkers I felt connected to didn't live out their own rhetoric very well.  No matter: they gave me the courage to do it. The same was true of politics, though that took me longer to develop.

It just occurred to me that when I tried to get involved in local politics, the local party organization had nothing for me to do.  I left my name and phone number at the local Democratic Party office, but no one called me.  Maybe I should have tried harder, but why?  (Part of the problem was that I had an odd, irregular work schedule, and the local party was oriented to people who worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.)  The same happened in the 1990s when I volunteered for a new LGBT organization in town: I signed up, no one got back to me.  That organization, as I recall, didn't last very long anyway -- I wonder why!  One of the ongoing problems with left organizing is that it is more oriented to getting media attention, which the groups don't know how to exploit even if they get it, than to welcoming new members.

Then too, even if I'm not a joiner I'm still enmeshed in a network of left media that keeps me informed.  I don't sit around surrounded by hordes of the conventionally political, the inhabitants and devotees of the two-party system, without any sources of information to buttress me against corporate media propaganda.  I tend to forget that most people don't know about alternative media, which is why so many people are flocking to follow Ryan Knight's Twitter account.  But we've been there before: I'm seeing echoes of the exaltation many people expressed to Michael Moore, or Noam Chomsky: At last somebody dares to tell the truth!  They're looking for someone to follow, a hero or heroine who'll tell them what to think; and when they find out that their hero has feet of clay or, worse, doesn't want to tell what to think, he or she would rather they think for themselves, they'll fall resentfully away, looking for the next hero.  I went through something like this myself when I was younger, though I didn't usually reject those who'd taught me: I honored and cherished what I'd learned from them, and added on more teachers.

What to do, then?  I don't know, and I'm not optimistic.  But for now, I'd like people to stop using the term "vote-shaming."  They have nothing to be ashamed of, only the vote-suppressors do.  They also need to remember that you don't learn to do politics, winning politics at any rate, while standing on one foot.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the more inspiring success stories of late, didn't just stand on a street corner, give a speech, win a primary, and then win an election and go to Congress.  She got involved with Justice Democrats, who welcomed her (along with others), trained her, and supported her.  And then she defeated an entrenched, complacent incumbent and won the general and went to Congress.  Ignore the vote-suppressors, don't let them get to you; you aren't alone.  Look at how others are answering them, and work out your own response.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Become the Helper

I just finished reading The Hunt, by Maurice Sachs (1906-1945).  I picked it up, along with Sachs' previous book Witches' Sabbath, after reading about it on the Neglected Books Page.  Sachs was an odd but remarkable character: queer, notoriously charming, amoral, energetic, talented - even brilliant - but unfocused: he began many projects but finished few of them.  Witches' Sabbath was a memoir, fascinating yet exhausting as Sachs ran wildly about, cramming an immense amount of study, scamming, and socializing into his short life.  Like many queer French writers, he wrote openly about his affairs with men, and it's not surprising that Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt drew homophobic fire when they were published in France soon after the war, and in English a decade or so later.  I reminded myself as I read that these books would have been much more shocking then.

The Hunt picked up in 1940, a couple of years after Sabbath left off, as the Nazis invaded and occupied France.  Sachs was Jewish by ancestry, and though he knew the danger he faced, he not only backed away from escaping, he went the other way, into Germany itself.  He left only a fragment of The Hunt, which his publisher filled out with letters he wrote from Hamburg.  I found these letters the most interesting part of the book, especially this one:

The entry for April 23rd, 1860 in the Goncourts' Journal reads as follows: "A vague unease, for no particular reason, and it's pacing restlessly round inside me all the time.  Life is decidedly too flat.  Not two sous' worth of anything unforeseen to be had in the world. Nothing ever comes to me except catalogues, tiresome minor ailments, the same old migraines.  And that's all.  I don't inherit a fortune from someone I don't know.  That pretty house I saw for sale in the Rue La Rochefoucauld will not be presented to me this morning on a silver plate.  And when I look back over my whole past life, it has always been like that, nothing outside the usual humdrum flow of everyday events, and I have the right to call Providence a harsh stepmother.  I have only had one adventure in my whole life: I was in the arms of my nurse, looking at a toy, a very costly toy.  And a passing gentleman stopped and bought it for me."

I could not read this page without sadness and pity. What?  Could Edmond and Jules de Goncourt find no remedy for melancholy of that sort?

Good Lord! what ignorance.  The remedy was to make themselves into the passing gentleman who stopped!*

That reaction seems uncharacteristic of Sachs, who was by his own admission a very selfish person.  Even when he was generous, which was often, it was with the expectation of getting something from his beneficiaries.  Yet here he recognized the importance of being a benefactor, with no evident return.

The passage reminded me of many people today who think of Fred Rogers's exhortation "Look for the helpers" as an invitation to look to others to protect and help them, rather than to help others. I'd thought that this kind of self-pity and sentimentality the Goncourts expressed in the quotation was a much more recent phenomenon, a paradigmatic First World Problem, but there it is, clearly expressed 160 years ago, along with its refutation.


* Witches' Sabbath and The Hunt, translated by Richard Howard, Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 371

Friday, September 18, 2020

Poetry Friday - Saul


This upstart shepherd boy, of no account
except that he is handy with a sling,
presumes too much.  The daughter of the King
he may not covet, much less may he mount

thereby the throne of Judah.  Let him keep
his place!  I have a son.  Let this boy dare
forget his station, I'll return him there:
he may do what he wishes with this sheep.

This upstart, in defiance of the Law
of Moses, came from nowhere to upset
my house.  I know I never shall forget
or banish from my dreams the thing I saw:

My son endured this shepherd's touch upon
his face.  My son kissed him.  He kissed my son.

November 9, 1977
[This is one more poem from my Quadragesima project, a series of poems on subjects related, often tangentially, to religion.]

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Is Your Hate Pure?

Samuel Moyn was referring, I thought, to Democratic loyalists' obsession with Trump and their evident belief that all criticism of Democratic politicians comes from the Right, and is therefore motivated by love of Donald Trump.  People on the left who vote Democratic but still criticize Democratic candidates must therefore love Trump and want him to win in November.

On reflection, though, I had to admit that I don't hate Trump all that much.  I want him out of office, I want him in prison, and he seems to be a completely loathsome person.  Is there anyone who likes him as a human being, let alone loves him?  He seems to have plenty of toadies, hangers-on, people who cling to him in hopes of scoring some money, prestige, or power: but asking whether they like him is like asking whether remora fish like sharks.  That's what a powerful man is supposed to be like, isn't it?

Perhaps since I'm at a safe distance from Trump, I don't feel a personal hatred or loathing for him.  I'd feel a profound satisfaction if he was convicted for his many crimes and spent the rest of his life in prison.  If he caught COVID-19 and died strangling in mucus, I'd feel a detached sympathy for him, but I would still say "Good riddance," and I wouldn't indulge in the eulogies that most people can't seem to resist about the worst human beings on the planet: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John McCain, etc.  I figure there's a good chance I'll outlive him, and after the terrible damage he's done to this country and the world, I'm curious to see if the usual suspects try to paint him as a good man despite everything.  How low will they sink? ... But the point is, I don't hate him the way so many of liberals do, he's not an itch I have to scratch 24/7 until I bleed.  As my mother always said, if you pick at it, it won't get well.

I used to feel the same way about Barack Obama, as evil as he is.  I admit, when I learned he'd been lying about the Affordable Care Act, claiming falsely that "if you like the policy you have, you can keep it," I felt great anger and disgust; but that was about me, because I'd been defending the ACA based on that claim.  In the end I was even angrier at liberal ACA apologists who defended Obama's lies.  But I didn't hate him; to me that would be as absurd as loving him, thinking he's my father and and that he loves and cares for me. 

Until lately, that is.  His interventions and comments on the political scene this past year have been progressively more obnoxious, and last week he gave us this:

Quite a few people quoted Obama's by-now notorious boast:

“You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president. That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas that was me, people.”

This is funny, really: I thought that Obama couldn't do anything, he was totally helpless because the wicked Republicans obstructed him at every turn?  So apparently he could do some things: subsidize fossil fuel companies, open the Arctic to drilling, waffle on the Dakota Access PipeLine, okay other oil pipelines.  Ironically, though, according to the AP article which quotes Obama's boast, many don't agree that he can take the credit for America's increased oil production.

People threw Obama's terrible environmental record back in his face.  One of the pleasant things about Twitter is that you often can get up in a politician's face, or at least his account, and tell him or her off.  You'll almost never get a reply, but it's better than shaking your fist and yelling at the TV. 

I've said before that Obama unknowingly did serious damage to the claim that voting can bring about change.  That ultimately helped to give us Donald Trump, as large numbers of people lost faith in the promises candidates make.  It didn't help that Obama was openly contemptuous of the voters, especially poor black voters, once he was in office, and just as contemptuous of activists who organized to pressure him outside the electoral process.  His wife, friend to war criminals, seconded that contempt this year. 

So now Obama claims that "Protecting our planet is on the ballot."  Is it?  Biden's website (recently and miraculously updated after the actress and activist Susan Sarandon pointed out it had been neglected) promises lofty goals, even alludes glancingly to the Green New Deal.  Will he deliver, assuming he wins the election?  Who knows?  Given his past, I sure don't.  One would have thought protecting the planet was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, but it didn't quite work out that way.  Like it or not, you're not voting for issues, you're voting for a candidate, and then you're expected to shut up and get out of the way -- until your candidate needs more money.

Now, though, when I see that Obama has tweeted something, I feel a twinge of hatred.  Hatred isn't something I give lightly.  Like a vote, it has to be earned.  And I'm finally recognizing that Obama has earned it.  Which, I admit, with a dollar, will get him on the bus.  But it's a milestone for me.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Return of Poetry Friday - Kismet


Worse things have happened to me, I admit,
than meeting you, and no doubt will again.
I tumble in, I clamber out the pit;
one does need entertainment now and then.

We never do suspect our endings, do
we, from the humble spots where we begin?
How karmically appropriate of you
to come by when you did, and push me in.

-- On metaphysics, though, I shall not dwell.
I clamber out, I tumble in -- such sport!
(And such good exercise for me, as well.)
The pit is deep, the fall is very short.

The fall is very short, but oh, the climb
takes just a little longer every time.

October 16, 1979

It's been over a decade since I ran out of poems to post here, but I recently had reason to go through my papers, and I turned up a number of poems I was afraid I'd lost.  So, while they last, I'll post them on Fridays.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

By Any Memes Necessary

Yesterday NPR's Morning Edition did a segment on antifa.  Noel King interviewed Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers and the author of a new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  Bray seemed to have his head on straight, and was even able to resist King's repeated efforts to ignore what he said and turn the discussion in a direction she preferred. 

Bray pointed out right away that antifa is not a "singular organization.   It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations." King wasn't having it, though: she kept referring to antifa as a "group."  Bray corrected her, but she wasn't listening.

To Bray's report that "the antifa argument is that we need to treat all far-right and fascist groups as if they could be the seeds of a new genocidal regime", King countered: "The rebuttal would be nonviolent protest has a history of working - right? - and no one gets killed."  If I'd been in Bray's place I have pointed out that it's false that "no one gets killed" as a result of nonviolent protest: there's a long list of nonviolent martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement.  She can hardly be unaware of them, so what she presumably meant was that the movement's opponents don't get killed.  This is an attitude typical of US news media, which report that things are "calm" in Israel-Palestine as long as no Israelis are killed, no matter how many Palestinians are killed.  There's a long history of white-supremacist, arguably fascist violence in this country, and right now police officers all over the country are defiantly killing unarmed people, despite the growing backlash against them.  Police are meeting nonviolent protest with batons, chemical weapons, and other violence -- rioting, in a word -- and apologists like Noel King never seem to fret that they're just hurting their own cause.

Does nonviolent protest work?  There is a good case to be made that it doesn't.  Violent white racists succeeded in terrorizing African-Americans and their white allies with impunity.  Only after decades were some of them tried and convicted.  Segregation receded in the South, but it's hard to find a direct connection between the protests of the 50s and 60s and the changes that finally took place.  A combination of factors, including legislation, court orders, and economic pressure played as much of a role as direct mass action, and as we're seeing now, white supremacy just went underground.  The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the iconic action usually cited as proof of the efficacy of nonviolence, has been overstated.  Terrorist violence by whites continued, and hasn't ended to this day.  Rosa Parks -- you've heard of her, I'm sure -- had to leave Montgomery, moving north, to escape threats and retribution.

I recently read a classic work, Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, a North Carolinian who returned home in 1945 after serving in the Marine Corps, determined not to accept racism anymore.  He joined the local NAACP chapter and moved it in a more militant direction.  He also formed an NRA-chartered gun club to prepare for black self-defense. This led to some exchanges of gunfire with white racist vigilantes, and ultimately to trumped-up kidnapping charges that drove Williams and his wife into exile, first in Cuba, then in the People's Republic of China.  They returned to the US and the charges were dropped in 1975.  Along the way the Williamses became friends and allies with Rosa Parks.  His account of his activities is interesting and inspiring, but I ended up doubting just how successful his embrace of self-defense really was.  Does nonviolent protest work?  Sometimes, maybe; but often not. Does armed self-defense work?  I'm not sure it does, and it certainly doesn't if you don't have local police, state troopers, and the FBI on your side, as white racists did.  As we've seen this summer, they still have the police on their side.

There have been a few more recent, scholarly books on black anti-racist self-defense in the South during the Civil Rights era, and I'll be reading them soon.  As I've said before, I don't rule out violence as a form of protest or resistance, but I don't get the impression that most of those who talk about it have a clear idea how to do it and make it work.  It doesn't help that mainstream voices, like NPR, are so malignantly ignorant and dishonest.  But I'm increasingly convinced that babbling "by any means necessary," a popular slogan of the 60s and 70s, is just posturing.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Were They or Weren't They?

I was procrastinating this afternoon when I happened on an old column by Slate's former movie reviewer David Edelstein.  He had recently reviewed The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the vexed question of the bond between Frodo and Sam had stirred up a reaction in Edelstein's email.

Here’s scholar Jeanette Zissell on the tabloid antics of Sam and Frodo: “The intense relationship between Sam and Frodo, for example, is exactly of the same kind as Patroclus and Achilles, or Roland and Charlemagne. These men were extremely close, bonding in situations where their lives depend on each others’ actions. Their relationships read as verging on the homoerotic to a modern reader, and yet fall short of actualizing that tension. In Sam and Frodo’s case, as Tolkein was a devout Catholic, this relationship also reflects the communion between believers, and the respect, self-sacrifice and love they owe to each other. And while such sexual tension may or may not be present in any instance, each has a theme of friendship it is easy to miss. If these were stories of women, would we be so quick to discount feelings of loyalty and sentimental love in this way? As a culture we are often uncomfortable with male sentiment, something medievals had no difficulty in expressing. And while I understand your assertion and to a large extent agree, I would bring attention to the complications of these concepts that modern culture does not understand. We could well benefit from an inspection of that kind of bonding, and to look further at the self-assurance and lack of shame at male feeling that it involves.” Bravo. Gimme a kiss, Jim.

I wonder what Ms. (or Professor?) Zissell is a "scholar" of.  She ought to know that though Homer's Achilles and Patroclus weren't depicted as lovers, they were widely read as lovers by Greeks just a couple of centuries later.  This was not a confusion engendered by "modern culture," nor was it due to discomfort with "male sentiment."  It was an ancient culture revising its forebears, and since the characters in question are fictionalized if not fictional, it's as much a waste of time to insist that they weren't 'really' having sex as to insist that they were.  She should also know that sentiment and loyalty between women, historical or fictional, makes many people uncomfortable too.

As I've discussed before at length, ease with intense male bonding has coexisted with unease about it through most of Western history.  Even now in our supposedly more enlightened day. there are turf wars over the sexual orientation of this fictional character or that historical personage.  Where Frodo and Sam are concerned, I find it very interesting that so many modern readers devoured The Lord of the Rings without apparently being bothered by their closeness.  Maybe they were comfortable as long as they were immersed in the story, and only got nervous when for some reason they had to think about it.  As Jeanette Zissell's remarks show, even specialists in ancient or medieval literature don't think about it very well.  Maybe I should get around to reading The Song of Roland.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Fall of the House of Kennedy?

Incumbent Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) decisively beat back a primary challenge by Joe Kennedy yesterday, and I very much liked this take on his victory:
Corporate Democrats want to make the left out to be purity-obsessed and unwilling to compromise, but the left rallied around a longtime politician with a mixed record because he actively courted their support and became a champion of one of their major legislative priorities.
Someone else tweeted, before the results were in:
It's not that Markey is some democratic socialist, and no need to revise him as such. It's that he made a bet that the young left would redefine and save him, leaned into it, and so far that bet seems to be paying off. That is validation and power on its own.
Kennedy lost despite Democratic establishment support.  Nancy Pelosi endorsed him, for example, despite her former opposition to Democrats primarying Democrats, so Kennedy's defeat was among other things a rebuke to her, and a sign that her faction is losing its influence.  As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “No one gets to complain about primary challenges again.”

What had Markey done to draw Pelosi's opposition?  Presumably, he'd become friendly with Ocasio-Cortez and the other leftish Democratic newcomers known collectively as the Squad, and adopted some of their policy proposals such as the Green New Deal.  As a result he won support from the kind of activists and workers whom centrists denounce as purists.  You'd think that the Dem establishment would be celebrating their willingness to compromise, but I haven't seen that happening yet.  As someone else commented, "Liberals don't believe in compromise or coalition building or democracy... they want a 'party' that is entirely authoritarian dictates by their favorite oligarchs."

The corporate media have been singing one note about this primary: Kennedy's status as a scion of a political dynasty.  The Boston Globe, for example, called it "an unprecedented defeat to a Kennedy in Massachusetts."  It's the first time in decades that Massachusetts hasn't had a Kennedy in office!  And some backseat drivers have been saying things like "He was impatient. He should have waited", or "Let him wait his turn. There was no need for a change" (this from a "Sports columnist emeritus" from the Globe).  "His turn" implies that the seat was Kennedy's by right, perhaps by birthright, and when the time is fulfilled he can claim it.  I heard similar claims about Hillary Clinton: it was her year.  (There was a funny thread a couple of weeks ago, culminating with "He who can draw this golf club from the bag will be the Rightful Senator from Massachusetts!")  But it's not how a democracy, or even just a republic is supposed to work, and reminding the political establishment of that fact is one of the best things about Kennedy's defeat.

I've said it before: the elites and their sycophants claim that the dumb voters just care about personalities, while they care about issues.  They keep reminding us that we should vote for the guy we'd like to have a beer with, not the one whose policies we support.  Again and again we're seeing the opposite, and I find that heartening.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Without the Bottom of the Pyramid, The Top Is Nowhere

This may be obvious; I think it ought to be.  But I haven't seen anyone stressing it, so here goes.

The outcome of the Presidential election in November is important.  But the downticket races are more important.

If Biden wins but the Republicans keep the Senate and, worse, retake the House, we can't expect much to improve during his administration.  Biden's famous (or notorious - take your pick) for his ability to work with Republicans, but that doesn't bode well for the country.  And I expect that the Republicans consider it one thing to work with a right-wing Democratic Senator, but quite another to work with even a right-wing Democratic President.  Biden has already said he's good with fracking and fossil fuels, he will veto a universal healthcare bill even if it reaches his desk, and his foreign policy is even worse.  A Democratic Congress, especially if more progressive and left members are elected, might even be able to push Biden in a better direction.

If Trump wins but the Democrats take Congress, they will be able to block him.  They might be willing to impeach him again, and possibly remove him.  They might be able to pass halfway good legislation over his veto, refuse to confirm the judges and others he wants to appoint, and so on.

The same goes for all the downticket races around the country: governors, state legislatures, judiciary, city and county governments.  The national Democratic establishment neglected them for decades, with results that everyone can see.  Even this year, that establishment has tried to block progressive and left candidates and officials, by backing corporatist challengers to such figures as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  That they failed is a very hopeful sign, it seems to me.

I mention all this because, though some candidates and races have gotten coverage, at least in my part of the Internet, I don't see many commentators looking at the larger picture - the necessity of booting out the Republicans who've taken over most of the country, with dire effects.  Dangerous as Trump is, and feckless as Biden is, there is more to our government than the Executive branch.