Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2017

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Allah Bless Us, Every One!

A really sweet story turned up on Twitter today: four years ago an English toddler saw a man with a full white beard on the street and called out "Santa!"  The man heard him, gave him some money, and has continued playing the role of Father Christmas ever since: befriending the boy and his family, giving him and his sister presents for Christmas and on their birthdays.

The punch line is that the bearded man is a Muslim accountant named Hussain.  Which of course is not surprising, because Islam no less than Christianity has normative traditions about charity and kindness.  So do Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and probably all religions.  Not everyone is equally charitable, of course, and what makes the story of Alfie and Hussain so charming is that Hussain's response was so gratuitous, so random.  Given the widespread hostility to Muslims in majority-Christian countries, it also took some courage on his part to come knocking on the door of a Christian family he didn't know, and offer kindness.  So the story also has the exemplary function of encouraging people to ignore cultural and religious prejudice, which is also nice.

But I want to Grinch for a moment, because of one Twitter response that was echoed by numerous others:
Makes me sad that this gentleman embodies the spirit of Christmas so much more than many so-called Christians in America - especially our current POTUS. Actions matter more than words.
Awww, that Mooslim is acting like a Christian!  Since kindness and charitable giving are part of Islam, this remark, though well-meant, sums up the sectarian imperialism of many religious believers.  I'm not singling out Christians here: I imagine that many Muslims or Buddhists or Jews would see a case of Christian generosity the same way, as an approximation of their religion by an unbeliever.  No religion or culture has a monopoly on virtue, especially what might be called consensus virtues.  This story is touching because the impulse and action it describes is a human virtue that would delight people even if we'd never invented religion.  And it appears that many non-human animals exhibit similar behavior.

Nor am I persuaded of the supposed wisdom of children, about which another person gushed.  I see no reason to suppose that Alfie saw Hussain's "kindness" -- he saw the beard -- or that he expected Santa to come right back and see him.  But children also may decide that an old lady with a hooked nose and a big chin is a witch, just because of the way she looks.  Come to think of it, so may adults.

What is "the spirit of Christmas," anyway?  It often seems to be equated with charitable giving, which by Christian norms should be a year-round practice, not a seasonal one.  As I've pointed out before, Christians (and not only Christians, I'm sure) are intensely ambivalent about charitable giving, which they often deride as "handouts," degrading to the recipient and unpleasant but spiritually hygienic to the giver.  Maybe that was why Jesus recommended it, I don't know.  I don't see anything in the Nativity legends of the gospels which foregrounds charity: the Three Wise Men, for example, brought gifts to Bethlehem not out of charity but as tribute to the newborn King of the Jews.  Christmas as a Christian feast day is about the ritual commemoration of the birth of the Savior, not about gift-giving or spending time with family, which are common to numerous religions and/or cultures and characterize other holidays.

Of course you can read anything you like into those stories, as with the Bible or other scriptures generally.  But since generosity and kindness, specifically taking pleasure in doing something for other people, are basic human impulses, I dislike to see religious believers of any stripe trying to take monopolistic credit for them.  But there's also that contrasting, inhibiting impulse, the fear of giving too much and having nothing left, the fear of giving charity to someone who doesn't deserve it, the fear also of being rebuffed by a person afraid of being degraded by a "handout," the fear of looking foolish.  The lesson I take from the story of Hussain and Alfie is one of permission.  It's all right to give, it's all right to receive.  Go, and do likewise.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Kicking Away Tiny Tim's Crutch Because His Father Voted for Trump

Just last week I realized that it has been less than a year since Donald Trump became President.  It seems like so much longer.  And we have at least three years more to go.

Today Corey Robin, whom I've begun following lately, posted this on Facebook, referring to this tweet from Eric Alterman.  (Doug Henwood also noticed the tweet.)  I'm glad I'm not the only person who's noticed the behavior he's talking about:
I'm surprised when liberal writers and journalists say they're fine with Trump voters losing their jobs, health care, access to potable water, and so on, because they had it coming to them. Since jobs, health care, and clean water are critical to one's survival, such calls are essentially an endorsement of death on the installment plan for one-half the country. Imagine the reaction of these very same writers and journalists if the radical left were to call for—or endorse—the death of their domestic political enemies.
Or if the radical right were to do so.  Recently my Right Wing Acquaintance Number One gleefully linked to an article about child malnutrition in Venezuela, sneering at that country as a "worker's paradise."  Of course, those children had voted for Chavez and Maduro, so they had brought their misery on themselves.  A day or so later RWA1 linked to a story about Roy Moore's attack on the gay son of his victorious opponent Doug Jones; RWA1 declared that Moore, like the late Fred Phelps, was of Satan.  I commented that RWA1 needs people like Moore and Phelps so that he can pretend to be a moderate while he does a happy dance at the plight of starving brown children.  I might also have pointed out that child malnutrition is a serious problem in the United States, thanks to the policies of both parties over the past few decades; but I doubt RWA1 cares about that either, since those children probably voted for the "aspiring Mussolini" Barack Obama.

Robin's post sparked some discussion, with a few people actually defending Alterman's remarks.  Some denied that anyone besides him had expressed such sentiments; a couple doubted that he or any other liberal could actually mean such a thing.  That excuse could probably be made for many Trump voters, though.  Later in the thread Robin added:
This country has had a large anti-democratic element since its founding. If anything, I would say the size of that element is considerably smaller (and less violent) today than it was the year I was born. I also think comments like the one I posted are not symptoms of populism; they're symptoms of tribalism. Party tribalism, where your team is the good guys and the other team is the bad guys. Even tribalism is too fancy: it's just groupiness and cliques. That again is why you see a lot of heated rhetoric from this quarter but no action.
I was glad to see that he too has noticed the limitations of the word "tribalism."  This, as Henwood noted, is why liberals are so popular, and as one of Henwood's commenters remarked, it's how to win elections.

Unlike Corey Robin, I'm not all that surprised by Alterman's sentiment, since I've seen so much of it already -- just extremely pissed off. But it also makes me feel a bit more hopeless, because it means that the people who are supposedly, nominally, on my side are really not, which means that there may be hardly anyone to make common cause with. In the US at least. As a result, I get called a nihilist, which is funny but stupid - and also depressing since it comes from people who are nominally on my side. Well, you live and learn.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Eliminate the Fake Tribalism, Give Us the Real Tribalism

This comment was posted under Ian Welsh's latest post:
The trick is in being able to shift as much of the common culture away from tribal identity and towards what’s really going on, who the real enemies are. [Roy] Moore was a good poster child for the corrupt nastiness that appears to want to benefit white males, but really only benefits the top 1%.
It pretty well demonstrates the vacuity of the term "tribalism."  The commenter is perfectly happy to carve humanity into distinct groups (or tribes, as he's using the term); he just wants his tribe (which is not my tribe, thanks anyway) to oppose the real bad tribe as he sees it, the "real enemies."  Ironically, his position is the exact opposite of Welsh's in the post he's commenting on.  It's common for people to use comments sections to soapbox for their own positions, but I don't think this guy even realizes that he's disagreeing.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"This Man Should Not Be In Charge Of a Government"

What set off the exchange between me and the Democratic loyalist I wrote about on Sunday was my posting this screencap of a tweet by MSNBC pundit and despicable hack Joy Reid:

My acquaintance commented, "Your nihilism is adorable."  Though I'll admit to nihilism on a cosmic level, it was odd to be accused of it when I had just made a harsh moral judgment of Reid's celebrity-cult treatment of the Kennedys.  But then Reid and my acqaintance have no principles save partisanship and leader-worship.  She'll accurately catch Trump and the Republicans in their falsehoods, but she's uncritical (and an amplifier) of Democratic lies and misconduct.  My acquaintance didn't get it; he's a Reid fanboy for her partisan attacks on Trump, which are all that matter.

It's amoral to celebrate the Kennedys, or anyone else, for their glamor while ignoring their actions.  "Teddy chased redemption" seems almost a Freudian slip, since Teddy, like Jack and Bobby, chased women with a good deal more sincerity; if these guys were alive today, they'd probably be on the hot seat for sexual aggression and assault along with so many other American elites.  I have some sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy, who I presume didn't know what she was getting into when she married that compulsive cockhound; but "pathos" is not a moral virtue, nor a particularly attractive quality; I'd say it's downright creepy of Reid to voyeurize her pain, when she surely knows what caused it.  I suppose she was visualizing Jackie in her bloodstained pink suit, or draped in widow's black at the funeral.  That's no better.

(I suddenly realized while I was writing this that 2017 is JFK's centennial, and that must have been what Reid was referring to.  I haven't noticed the kind of celebration that I'd expect for such a national icon; is it just me?)

But there are graver concerns, which Reid presumably is also aware of but is happy to ignore: JFK's attempts to block the Civil Rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, his waging of state terror against Cuba and other Caribbean countries, his escalation of the US invasion of Vietnam.  And perhaps his most discrediting achievement:
On 14 October 1962, in the classic pose of a public-school boy after lunch, legs straight out from a leathery armchair, I picked up a newspaper and saw on the front page that Kennedy had threatened Khrushchev with atomic war unless he recalled some ships carrying Russian missiles to Cuba.

I was horrified.  I'd paid no attention to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, I had little interest in unilateral disarmament, I'd gone to only one 'ban the bomb' march and I disliked Bertrand Russell.  I'd dismissed the subject from my head, for the simple reason that it would never happen.  Yet here we were, on the brink of the smouldering pit.

For me this was the beginning of the Sixties.  I was never an 'easy rider' or a counter-culture protester, but when Kennedy gave his ultimatum I thought: Gambling with the end of the world is dumb, this man should not be in charge of a government.  The hero of that dreadful confrontation was never, for me, Kennedy. The hero was plump, occasionally foolish, even though ruthless, Nikita Khrushchev.

This did not mean I automatically supported Russia from that moment on, but it did mean I was an early convert to one of the great illusions of the Sixties: where power is involved, there's nothing to choose between one side and the other [279].
In one of those cases of synchronicity that keep life interesting, I've just finished reading Matthew Spender's 2015 memoir A House in St. John's Wood: In Search of My Parents (Farrar Straus & Giroux), which contains the passage I quoted above.  Spender, the son of the poet Stephen Spender, was 17 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.  (I was 11, and though I remember watching news coverage of the crisis, I don't remember what I thought of it.)   Then, today, I read David Swanson's reflections on Daniel Ellsberg and (among other issues), the Cuban missile crisis.  Like any important historical question, there is room for disagreement about Kennedy's legacy, but the kind of fatuous celebrity adulation Reid exhibited is inexcusable in a self-styled journalist.  I suspect she has fantasies of a hot fifteen-minute tryst with JFK in a White House closet; many people do, as they fantasize about Barack Obama. 

Donald Trump also has glamor, after all: it's part of what his fans love about him. C'mon, Joy, can't you see Melania's "glamour and pathos"?  So did Ronald Reagan -- but I'm going too far there, assuming that Reid is immune to his charisma.  Many sincere Democrats hold Reagan in the highest regard.  Our wise and noble leaders have frequently responded to the glamor of dusky foreign men in uniform, such as Mussolini.  Which is fine and dandy, but a bad idea when you're supposed to be thinking about issues and policies that affect the lives of billions of people.

I think it's possible, and not really all that difficult, to recognize Khrushchev as the real hero of the missile crisis without succumbing to what Matthew Spender called a great illusion of the Sixties, "that where power is involved, there's nothing to choose between one side and the other."  In this case, there certainly was a good deal to choose beween JFK and Khrushchev.  One can condemn one side without overlooking the faults or crimes of the other, and certainly the crimes of the Soviet Union didn't excuse the crimes of the US.  But this is also a great illusion of the present day: for example, that if the Republicans are bad, the Democrats must be good; if the Republicans are stupid, the Democrats must be smart; if Hillary is crooked, the Donald must be honest.  The evidence simply doesn't support such a conclusion.  But who needs evidence?  The situation is far too grave to worry about such trivia.

It's not nihilism to recognize the faults or crimes of one's own side along with those of one's opponents; it's more like nihilism to ignore them and denounce those who point them out.  I agree that Donald Trump should not be in charge of a government; but I also agree with Matthew Spender that neither should John Kennedy have been.  (Nor Obama.)  Kennedy's apologists have tried to defend him, pointing to the pressure he was under from militarists and hard-liners, but those defenses backfire: if he couldn't resist such pressures, he had no business being President.  We lucked out in 1962; we may not be so lucky next time.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

But Already It Was Impossible To Say Which Was Which

It's frustrating to be called a faggot.  But liberal Democrats tell me it's important that I empathize with their pain over Hillary's loss last year, which can only be expressed adequately by fag jokes.

Oh, of course, they aren't talking about me, or so they will claim.  Well, maybe they are talking about me, because I voted for Clinton without adoring her, which indicates that below my left-wing surface I'm really a Putin-loving cock holster.

What they don't get is that when they call Trump a cock holster, or post cartoons depicting Mike Pence on his knees gobbling down the Donald's manhood, they are revealing how much they despise me and every other faggot.  (And by corollary, every woman.)  We're the polluted bogeymen who unsettle their dreams, and no matter how much they support gay marriage they keep waking up in a cold sweat, clutching their scrotums to make sure they haven't undergone sex-reassignment surgery in the night.

A liberal Democratic Clinton supporter I know posted a video clip on Facebook the other night which he said expressed his hope that Jared Kushner will soon be in prison being violated by brutal hairy felons.  I called him on it, and he accused me of trying to blind everybody with my intellect, but he wasn't cowed and would stand by his principles.  He claimed that he couldn't see what I stand for; which I understand to mean that one only 'stands for' a political party, specifically its anointed and corporate-funded leadership, with fervent and unshakeable loyalty.  So, opposing rape requires an advanced intellect, and fantasizing online about prison rape -- for someone else -- shows one's courageous devotion to principle?  But maybe his fantasies about Kushner's ravaged rosebud are driven by economic anxiety.  Whatever: it's good to know what I'm dealing with.

What I'm dealing with is an all-American, bipartisan anti-intellectualism.  I'm quite used to being accused of a smarty-pants know-it-all by far right-wingers, less so by near right-wingers of the Democratic center.  But the Dems are howling for the heads of pointy-headed intellectuals more and more these days.  What worries me is that this guy, who seems to have trouble keeping a job (economic anxiety?), sometimes works as a substitute teacher.  Sometimes he posts his contempt for his charges on Facebook.  His students, good or bad, shouldn't have to defend themselves against such attacks.
Jon Schwarz had linked to "this incredibly prescient" 2012 Onion video a few days earlier on Twitter, but he presumably saw it as a harbinger of the right-wing rage that made Donald Trump the Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

And it is that, though any reasonably attentive observer would know that demented right-wing rage has always been with us.  It wasn't new when Father Coughlin, a Rush Limbaugh in a clerical collar, had millions of radio listeners from the 1930s onward.  Jon knows it himself, since in October he recommended a documentary about a 1939 pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden.  Hell, the Pilgrim Fathers brought this kind of rage with them from the Old World in 1620, though it already existed here among Native Americans from time immemorial.

But the same mindset can be found among nominally liberal Democrats, and never more than in the Age of Trump.  This shrieking white-hot sphere of pure rage, we're informed, howled "'Guns ... Not my America', and then it just repeated "faggots' at a deafening pitch for hours and hours."  When it became clear that Trump had won the Presidency in the electoral college, the shrieking white-hot sphere began winning adherents among mainstream Democrats: they began to say that Trump was not their president and his America was not their America.  They fantasized about Resistance, even armed Resistance.  The first human sacrifices were offered up.  And liberals began repeating "faggot" at a deafening pitch for hours and days and months.

I know, I should be compassionate.  I'm finding it very hard to be so, because Democratic loyalists would like me to believe that only they can stop Trump and block his dastardly designs.  It doesn't look to me like they have any idea how to do so, let alone repair the damage he's already done and will continue to do.  So this isn't really about them, it's about me and the other people who are Trump's and Paul Ryan's real targets as they dismantle the systems of social and economic justice that were built at such human cost in the past century.