gall and gumption

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Gods of Journalism Are Kind Sometimes

You are a newspaper journalist. You cover the funeral of a minor political functionary, an event that promises to be long and dull.

I quote the story in full here because I don't really know what the Jamaica Gleaner does with its links after the day of publication. I have bold texted all my favorite bits. Note that the person who wrote it is listed as "Staff Reporter." A humble sinecure, you see. Mr. Mitchell is sent to places where nothing interesting is expected to happen. But the Gods smiled on Mr. Mitchell that day, even as his wiser, shall we say jaded colleagues were back at the office feeling superior and reading their email.

Wrong body
published: Thursday | December 30, 2004

By Damion Mitchell, Staff Reporter
MOURNERS WHO turned out early yesterday to have a last look at the body of political activist Allan Dobson were in for a shock as it was the body of another man that was neatly laid in the dark brown wooden casket that was intended for the People's National Party (PNP) loyalist.

This sparked uproar at The Church of Reconciliation in Bridgeport, St. Catherine, and sent undertakers scurrying back to the Kingston-based Central Funeral Supplies for the correct body.

"It's was the wrong man!" blasted Janet Brown, a mourner, when The Gleaner arrived at the church.

Roy Hylton, who has had a 36-year-old friendship with Mr. Dobson, said such an error was an embarrassment to the memory of the former councillor of the Hughenden division in the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC).


At 1:00 p.m. when the funeral was originally scheduled to start, mourners were still milling outside the church awaiting the arrival of the correct body, prompting the Reverend Father Walter Dorsey to begin the thanksgiving service with the paying of tributes until the undertakers returned.

But even then, relatives and friends were still hurt. One woman, who said she demanded to identify the second body before it was taken into the church, said it was not properly dressed.

"This is a man of dignity, love and respect; he has done nothing to deserve this," Marie Levy said.

But in his closing words the Rev. Father Dorsey sought to reassure that Mr. Dobson could still rest in peace. "May he discern everlasting joy and the companionship of the saints," he prayed.

Meanwhile, Clive Dobson, the brother of the deceased, told The Gleaner that the family would be considering taking action against the funeral home for the embarrassment it caused. However, he said the decision would be finalised by the widow, Noeline Dobson. She left the church before The Gleaner could make contact with her yesterday.

"Today (yesterday) is a day not even to think about," said Mr. Dobson who is also the president of the National Workers Union (NWU). "His body was as cold as ice because they just took him out of the morgue and brought him here."


As a result of the error, the casket was opened for viewing after the service.

Several government representatives attended, including Information Minister Burchell Whiteman, National Security Minister Dr. Peter Phillips, Local Government Minister Portia Simpson Miller and State Minister for Transport Dr. Fenton Ferguson.

Contacted yesterday, Prince Baloo, who identified himself as the proprietor of Central Funeral Supplies, acknowledged the error as 'very bad', but said his company could only apologise to the bereaved family.

"It's a mistake and no one can avoid mistakes; I will apologise publicly if I have to," he said before disconnecting his cellular phone when asked whether he would be willing to make a refund.

Allan Lopez Dobson died at the age of 56 on December 19. Up to the time of his death, he was a member of the PNP's National Executive Council continuing his political journey, which had seen him as the personal assistant to four former government ministers.

If you've ever spent time around seasoned journalists telling war stories, there is this thing they do, where they always mention luck. This is of course the obligatory pose of modesty. Luck is a pretty mysterious thing, you think. They must have deserved their luck in some way to have this break, this incredible thing land in their laps. You want to tell them that, and you suspect that they will not disagree, that on reflection that is how it seems to them too. Pressed, it will turn out that all their efforts ever since they were in short pants were guiding and coaching them for this moment.

The Staff Reporter who finds out that the funeral director at a fiasco like this is named Prince Baloo has the right to consider himself singled out by destiny. It may be that destiny singled Mr. Mitchell out for just this one thing and has no further plans for him. But this one thing is worth a lifetime of gratitude.


There is a flock of wild turkeys that lives in town and today they were running a sort of unofficial checkpoint on a street a few blocks from the house. There was a car stopped in front of me that was in conversation with a couple of them, and I could see the whole flock of about 20 of them under the apple trees in the front yard of a house.

The two that were engaged with the car were evidently the turkey police, their heads were bald and bright blue. They let the driver through and turned their attention to my car, charging straight towards it looking, from the neck up at least, like alien ghouls with a grievance. From the neck down they looked like turkeys, frankly. They peered over the hood in a menacing manner and then circled the car as if they were searching it for explosives or contraband, making this hideous conspiratorial noise.

The dog, in the back seat, had an expression on her face of utter gobsmacked disbelief. While the two police turkeys were arguing among themselves about whether they should open the trunk, I crept away thanking the Gods of Traffic that I was in the car and not on foot.

I like birds -- if it has fur or feathers and doesn't shit in the kitchen drawers I want to be its friend basically -- but these fellows, I'm just glad I'm not alone in some sort of detention cell with them now.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

And Getting Meaner

This is a post I wrote and saved a few weeks ago, but I'll post it anyway.

According to this year's annual report from the National Coalition on the Homeless, California is the meanest state of all when it comes to the civil rights of the homeless.

If you want to know what it is like, read Mike Davis's City of Quartz, a history of 20th-century Los Angeles.

In the meantime Sonoma County, in its stand-up forward thinking wisdom, is making sure that the state keeps its leadership position on this issue. Today's Press Democrat does not mention the Coalition's report. Don't you just love that headline? It is a work of art. It is a real shout out of loyalty to the paper's real consituents, among whom the homeless do not feature.

The homeless, you see, are nobody's constituents. Where are people supposed to sleep? You have public servants going about at night waking up the public for sleeping on public property. So who does the public property belong to?

I know there is some level-headed type who will say, "But the law applies to all," so presumably if some owner of a vineyard house decided he felt like parking and sleeping in his car at the side of the road he would be sent on his way too. But, oddly, those people never seem to feel like sleeping in their car at the side of the road.

William Blake said, "One law for the lion and the lamb is injustice." This ordinance
is a perfect example of that principle.

What the residents of West County are cheeering about is that they have now transferred what is a small problem for them (view obscured, litter, having to look at poor people) onto the shoulders of people for whom it is a big problem. Daily the body demands sleep, daily the homeless will have to struggle to find it. If they move away, it costs money that they can't spare which will make their situation even more tenuous. This transferring of the burden of the problem onto those least able to bear it is easy to do, because they are also least able to resist the transfer. But it isn't a solution.

You can only think it is a solution if you think that the point of it is so that you don't have to be troubled with thinking about the homeless people. Rich people buy tracts of land and shelter themselves from the sight of poverty and distress. People who aren't rich go and get the police to clear the view for them. Revolting. Just revolting.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Cranky Old Lady

That's what I'm going to become, I know. As people get less interested in finding out what's going on down the front of your shirt you have one less thing to keep them listening to you.

Have I made the best use of all that? Well, I think so. Sometimes I look back over my strange disjointed life and it seems to me that there was some sort of force pushing me to the margins of something, always.

I have a Bessie Smith CD in my car. When I was an undergraduate in college there were two Bessie Smith songs that I loved and when I listened to an album of hers I really only listened to those two songs. One was "Mississippi River Blues" and the other was "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Now I listen to, and hear, her other songs and they just amaze me. There's the one where she sketches out this scenario: she shows up at the Barber's Ball and fires her gun at her cheating lover. He ducks, and when the smoke clears and the band creeps out from behind the stand, they hear her say

When I get home I'm gonna change my lock and key...

A thorough tongue-lashing proceeds, in which these memorable lines occur:

You just got to be the latest squeeze?
Well let 'em squeeze you in your BVDs

She bought him all those clothes, thank you very much.

Take off those clothes or I'll shoot them off
I'll shoot them off if I hear you cough.
When I get home I'm gonna change my lock and key.

A certain lack of that in my character.

I've been thinking for the past few weeks about Gary Webb, that journalist who killed himself. Webb wrote a series of stories in the mid 1990s for the San Jose Mercury, connecting the Nicaraguan Contras and the CIA to the crack epidemic in the cities of the US. That is, Webb's articles alleged that the CIA and the Contras were funding the Contra war against Nicaragua with laundered cocaine money, while the cocaine was ending up on the streets of black inner cities in the US in the form of crack. Somebody edited those articles and found them satisfactory, and initially the paper stood by Webb, but then they caved in under a pretty sustained assault from the media.

I am in no position to know anything about this. I lived in a country for two years whose second largest industry was offshore finance and my sense of the majority of it was that it was boring in the extreme: plastic surgeons hiding assets from their ex-wives, tax avoiding cranks, dull and shifty people in shorts carrying briefcases and sunburn. The rah rah days of laundering huge sums of drug money were gone, thanks to stringent measures on the part of the OECS and FATF, and you could hear the lawyers complaining.

There were still a few sinister characters about the landscape, but as I said, you could only have your suspicions and sort of connect imaginary dots. Nothing material at all. You could see things on the ground as it were that really lent themselves to certain explanations. But you could not materially connect them to a higher source. It just kept the best explanation to the question: Why is this person here? Nothing as dramatic as Contras or war, just things not being all they appeared to be.

So I say all this by way of saying I am not an expert on anything, have no claim. But based even on that and knowing the little I know about the sums of money involved, the Contra connection seemed quite plausible. Huge massacres were going on in Central America during the period in question and if you could aid and abet massacres why shouldn't you take advantage of all that cash that needed to be disposed of somehow?

That's pretty much where it is for me. I make no assertions as to fact. And most of what I observed in the Caribbean is years after poor Webb got hounded out of the business.

But when I got to Columbia, in '97, the Human Sacrifice of Gary Webb was under way. His name would come up in discussions, or rather the San Jose Mercury series, and without knowing anything or having an opinion one way or the other about it I remember being struck by the peculiar venom that manifested itself around the subject. It was as though the very idea of someone doing what Webb had done, which included taking the risk of inflaming the anger of the black community (Jesus! what if they riot again?), could not be repudiated with enough scorn.

As I said, I knew little enough about it, hadn't even read the articles, but I remember that something in me quietly stiffened its back against the attacks on Webb that I heard. It was only a feeling that whenever a whole gang of very safe people all start after one man who has risked his own reputation in that way, there is something fishy to all of the moralizing of the gang. Not that there was a conspiracy or anything behind it, but there was certainly something nasty about human character. There was no substantive discussion of the details of the stories. It was only the embarrassment to journalism that was discussed and that was taken as axiomatic, so poor Webb was not to be spared.

I am not a perfect person, my expertise is not in conspiracies, it's in literature, which I love. I love literature because it has taught me -- and my literature teachers have taught me -- to be suspicious of anyone who gives you permission to behave unkindly towards other human beings or indeed other creatures.

Life is lonely. I think I know as much about that as I ever want to know. It probably won't be up to me to decide how much more of that I have to learn, as in so many other things. I do believe that if you can't abstain from unkindness out of love, then you should abstain from it out of a sense of justice and if you can't manage even that then at least have good manners.

Now, as for me, living on the margins and turning into a cranky old lady, I look forward to becomig even more resistant to the kinds of appeal that are made against people like Gary Webb by people who took none of the risks but who certainly jump in for their share of mocking the failure. I look forward to being less and less useful, more and more invisible.

And you know? I suspect that whoever was looking down my shirt wasn't really listening anyway.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Diana Athill

Her book, Instead of a Letter, is the story of how she was jilted by her fiance and of what life was like for her in the years afterwards. It is cool, witty, lucid, judicious, candid and so so sad. You get the sense that sadness was the air she lived in for a long time, unconsciously, the way a fish lives in water. And yet this doesn't sit heavily with you because of her objectivity and the total authority of her prose.

In this interview with The Guardian, published today, she is funny and hugely sane. The interviewer keeps bringing up Philip Roth. Well, Roth has published a new book that has been widely praised. Good for him. But this still leaves me with the feeling that the interviewer (or an editor) thinks Philip Roth a more interesting subject than Diana Athill. Well, he isn't.

The article also mentions, in passing, Athill's partner Barry. "Barry" is Barry Reckord, a West Indian playwright (Jamaican or Guyanese, I'm not sure) who is a very old friend of my Uncle Anton. Barry wrote a very successful play ages and ages ago, it may have been the first crossover West Indian play in London. At a party at Anton's years ago I met another playwright, actually a TV writer, who had a quite successful situation comedy on, also with West Indian characters. I shall not name him. Anyway he and Anton told me about Barry, I don't remember why we got onto the subject but I do remember Anton telling me that Barry was still writing plays -- it was just that they were impossible to produce, because they tended to feature certain recurring preoccupations and themes that just would not do on stage. Anton is very fond of Barry, respects his achievement, and really would have liked to put something on. But no matter how he tried to encourage Barry to branch out, the same topics kept coming up. He described these to me and it was one of the funniest evenings I have ever spent in my life. I was howling with laughter.

It was some time after that, I mean years, when I realized who the woman was that Barry was living with. What a strange world. I only like her the more for her steadfast affection for this odd person. It seems to me completely real in some way, the way that all true generosity of heart, when you meet it, is more real than the stuff that people bargain it away for.

Joys of Slavery Revisited

Constant readers may recall a long angry rant about slavery that I posted here in reaction to an article about this outfit in Idaho that has been supplying textbooks to homeschoolers and these Christian "Classical" (WTF?) schools. They have sought with this textbook to make the case that slavery was just one big long Thanksgiving dinner for all concerned.

Here is the followup to the outing of the writer of the textbook and the organization.

I am grateful to these folks, I must say, since it is not the usual practice of their kind to be quite so explicit about their ideals and their intentions. Here we have good ole lizard brain ignorance puffing out its chest, not hiding behind slimy geniality and euphemism and salesman's double talk to get the foot in the door.

If you have ever found yourself in a discussion with people of this ilk -- and I number millenial tuna-fish hoarding Armageddonites, anti-abortion crusaders, victims of affirmative action, creationists among them and I have been in such arguments -- you will notice the way that they collect a whole lot of what they like to think of as evidence for their various cases. They have the dinosaurs figured out; they have found out the flaw in carbon-dating methodology; they have masses and masses of minutiae and sources to support their point of view.

Remember what Roger Sale said in his book On Writing? Evidence can be assembled to support any argument, no matter how stupid, especially if you are not too particular about its provenance. It is important, when they dump their truckload of "evidence" in your lap, to remain totally unmoved. Do not concede anything to them. You do not need to sift through all that rubbish, you are not a person to be persuaded by such niggling and you do not engage in it. Let it wash over you, let them exhaust themselves, they enjoy it. And then tell them it is rubbish.

These folks believe that your demand for empirical evidence is a matter of form. They therefore assemble evidence that (they imagine) satisfies this supposedly formal requirement and that also supports their thesis. What doesn't support the thesis is ignored or explained away. This is intellectually dishonest, and I, for one, don't feel any need to be polite to intellectual dishonesty, especially when it gets up of its own accord and walks across the room and starts braying in my ear, dissatisfied with my mere tolerance for its benighted ignorance.

If there was a God he wouldn't deliver his messages through such mean and dirty hands.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Why I Read the Guardian

I don't know, to tell the truth. It will be less interesting now that David Blunkett the embattled Home Secretary is gone. I think he might find it useful to talk to Larry. It certainly seems that everybody suddenly turned mean on him.

For weeks and weeks I read it and I don't know why. It isn't to read Penelope Twistleton-Smythe's list of favorite children's books. It isn't because I've been lying awake all night thinking about the Booker short list. The Booker Short List. Marvin loved to tell the story of a sign he had read about outside an office somewhere in India: the proprietor's name, followed by the letters "B.A." followed by, in parenthesis (failed).

Marvin did believe that you should always get some credit for at least showing up. Though not as much as if you showed up and did something.

I like Steve Bell's cartoons. He makes the Incumbent Ape look like a cruelly shaven and especially stupid chimp. In one, he is stepping off Air Force One, asking "Where are we? Is this Yurp?"

Today and I remember why I go browsing there. And if that isn't reason enough, surely this would be. And they are kind enough to provide the runners-up, allowing you to test your own chops as a judge of bad literary sex. If this keeps up I will manage without Mr. Blunkett.

A Voice from the Past

I'm enjoying reading James Wolcott's blog. Imagine he's been writing for Vanity Fair all this time and I never read him. I know that that is because of my aversion to certain aspects of the magazine. I can't get past the celebrity covers, for a start. I know, I'm a snob, I tend to think that no publication with a picture of Gwyneth Paltrow in an evening gown on the cover has anything in it that I want to read. Also it always smells like perfume. I don't mind perfume on people if it's nice perfume, but I don't much like it in magazines or books.

A less superficial reason is my sense of New York magazine culture as the Radioactive Poo capital of the world, with Vanity Fair as the tallest mound with the biggest brightest flag. A course I took at Columbia, the famous magazine course that is supposed to launch people into the industry (ironic laughter here) only served to confirm that impression. It was a course in the hungry pursuit of celebrity publishers, editors and journalists. The big fish that was landed that year was Steve Brill. Who remembers him now? Who cares?

Graydon Carter was always spoken of in hushed tones, as if you would never be cool enough to even wait in the ante room to the ante room of his assistant's assistant. You ranked in class exactly in proportion as you were able to deliver status with your subjects. Well, maybe that was the point. I didn't quite get this. I did a story on a woman who started a writing workshop for homeless people and got some quite well-known (at least to faithful magazine readers) to participate. This pitch impressed no one. The woman turned out to be a complete dink and it was with no small satisfaction, after repeated and unsolicited rudeness on her part (She didn't stand to gain anything from me and apparently thought I wanted her to help make me famous), that I invited the teacher of the class to kill the story I was writing on her for Glossy, the magazine on the magazine industry.

No whoppers to my credit, I sat through week after week of this class, bored to near stupefaction. I was under the impression that there were things one could learn in a class like that, about how to do journalism. That's why I took it, I suppose. But the main business seemed to sharpen your schmoozing talent so you could get a job as an editorial assistant somewhere at less than a living wage, sort of like being a page in an Elizabethan court. What all this had to do with writing or finding things to write about was a mystery to me. No, really, a mystery. I was sure, at the time, that I was missing something. Was I not as clever as the person who wrote the Steve Brill profile? I copy edited his piece. It was unutterably stupid. What talent was it that I lacked, that he had? To this day I do not know.

I continue to feel uneasy about my habit of reading political crap. It just makes me depressed and angry, mostly, and vaguely ashamed of myself. As if I had spent an entire day with two Costo-sized bags of potato chips and a six-pack in front of the TV watching Jerry Springer reruns. But not even Jerry's howling hodads can deliver the kind of gross satisfaction I got (I am not going to use that big old German word that was so popular a few years back because I don't speak German and I hate that sort of affectation) from the fall of that no-neck nonentity they proposed for Homeland Security Chief.

Wolcott (and I did begin this thing with Wolcott for a reason) wrote, as far as I am concerned, the best sendoff. That was a day or two ago. Then in today's entry -- if you are lazy about checking links and haven't checked it yet, go now, Creative Studies friends -- I was surprised by a familiar quotation. I read it and thought the only person who could ever have written this in just this way was Marvin. And in fact I think it was Marvin. By that point I had reached the attribution and it was him and I felt this relief that I used to feel in the recurring dreams I had for years, in which I would find out that he wasn't dead after all.

You know how you could meet someone and they would seem perfectly nice but then you would find out something about them that made it impossible for intimacy to proceed further? I mean literary intimacy, by the way. Like I know that I can't be literarily intimate with someone who doesn't like Jane Austen. Now there are lots of people who don't read and I can have all kinds of relationships with them. Some of them are related to me. It just goes all the way around. I doubt that any science fiction enthusiast would seek or enjoy literay intimacy with me. Well, what is literary intimacy, by the way? Oh for now let's just call it mutual trust in literary judgment and associated matters. Marvin's influence on me has pretty much precluded my forming literary intimacy with whole classes of people, starting, for example, with most English professors, most bookchat people, (magazine people?) most literary critics, etc. This is all based on reading what these people have written.

I don't know James Wolcott. He could be just another horrible magazine person, he definitely lives high up on the Radioactive Poo mountain. But as a writer he is sort of a figment of my imagination and a rare, welcome one. He likes Marvin Mudrick and makes me laugh.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Big Helpings

You can just picture him, can't you? He'd be one of the judges presiding over the auto da fe. The one with his pinky finger in one ear. Since the the heretics and Jews had recanted (i.e., accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior) before being consigned to the flames I suppose in a sort of nonempirical way they were safer.

This story came out the day after some dingbat wrote into the paper to make the same statement, that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. never intended the separation of church and state.

Here is what I wrote in my journal(the one that uses lined paper and fountain pen technology) after we received that letter:

First of all the writer reveals an appalling ignorance of the history of the last 2000 years of the civilization to which she no doubt claims to belong. History that would be known to the average European 13-year-old. So it represents, to me, a failure of the American educational enterprise, a built-in failure that is the direct consequence of teaching history as something that only happens to Americans -- a collection of shallow, simplistic national myths.
When the authors of the U.S. constitution sat down to write they had more than 1700 years of history -- which as scholars, intellectuals and observers of current affairs, they knew as fact -- to refer to and review. And what they saw, reviewing history, was what everyone in those days knew: All religious persecution was religiously based.
All governments that practised religious persecution against Jews, heretics and the unbaptized, unsaved heathen did so in the name of and for the glory of God. There was not a single instance, since the first time Christians first hold of a government in Rome, that the persecution of religion did not claim a religious sanction.
There were no non-secular governments, O.K.? NONE. 1750 years straight, not one.
In recent history, the history of the previous 200 years, the Framers could look at the Spanish invasion of the Netherlands (end result, 1/3 of the population massacred tortured and driven into exile in Jesus's holy name); the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre that even more than a hundred years later still sickened Voltaire. The
Spanish Inquisition dispossessing, torturing Jews, everyone beating on the Jews.
Torture, imprisonment, confiscation of property right up into their own time, all claiming Christian sanction, not conducted secretly and underhandedly, but proudly and boastfully as the great business of government. That was the world that everybody lived in, and it was a fully Christian world.
Well, someone will say, you're talking about Catholic persecutions.
Who were the first pilgrims who came to North America? They were the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who exiled themselves from England, wave after wave of them after the Restoration of Charles the Second. When they got hold of political power in England they waged a fierce and bloody war against their religious opponents, confiscating property, destroying and vandalizing churches, torturing, killing. They executed the king, Charles I, and they went and well, to put it in plain language, raised so much hell in Ireland that the Irish have still not forgiven Cromwell, their leader.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1688 he had some scores to settle. But he actually did a lot less of that settling of scores, partly because of his rather laid-back personality and partly because the shrewd people who orchestrated his return understood that the important thing for the security of England was not to tear up the country with prolonged vendettas. Many people were actually amnestied. They left because their religious convictions would not allow them to conform to the Established Church. They couldn't get jobs, they faced fines and political persecution. Which they would just as readily have dished out themselves if they had half the opportunity. Because they were, though claiming to be fundamentalist (before that term was much in use) religious conservatives, they were political radicals and could not stop making a nuisance of themselves.
In later years, throughout the 18th and early 19th century, for example, they allied themselves with the most politically radical parties in England.
They were troublemakers.
Jefferson could have gone down to the wharves any day of the week and watched these people get off the boat and known them for exactly what they were. Bullying and dangerous fanatics, however much he believed in their right to their beliefs. That is true liberalism. It is not, as their debased and clownish descendants like to say, moral relativism.
These were people who believed that government did not have the right to persecute people for religion unless they themselves were the government. This is moral relativism of a really extreme kind: when I do something it is good, when you do the exact same thing it is bad.

That Jefferson understood exactly the political character of these religious refugees is amply documented by himself, and Lenni Brenner has been good enough to supply the documentation, chapter and verse, as the Bible thumpers like to say.
I will only add that Jefferson and Madison knew that the commonest sanction for beastly behavior is the claim that one is doing it for God. They were up on the philosophy of John Locke, who was hounded out of England for suggesting, among other things, that torture and confiscation were not the most suitable means of bringing people cheerfully into the fold. Locke believed that a truly religious person would turn his heart willingly in love towards God. If such a turn wasn't made in the mystery of willing love it wasn't done at all. There is nothing spiritual about wanting to browbeat and bully people into comformity with your beliefs, especially when, as was already demonstrated, most of the time most people don't know what the hell they themselves are talking about.
Religious self-righteousness excuses your conscience and fills you with certainty. J & M knew that if you armed a government with this weapon you gave to weak-minded, frail and even vicious persons extra power to hound and terrorize and discriminate unjustly on the basis of their half-baked notions.
The Incumbent Ape claims that that his Christianity and his office put his actions beyond question, a 21st century version of the Divine Right of Kings. Not even original. Maureen Farrell shows that this puts him in most excellent company. Any government would be quite dangerous enough without this, and for the framers their whole business in the Constitution was to make sure that governments would be as little dangerous as possible with such power as you absolutely could not avoid giving them -- I hope the ghosts of the those shrewd and enlightened men are giving Antonin Scalia long and vivid nightmares every single night.
When, no doubt to appease the savages (they had to get these people around the table so they could join their forces into a coherent union) J & M mentioned God, they said "under God". Not sanctioned by God, not authorized by God, not the armed representative of God. Because as even John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (theory of absolute submission of one's own free will to God -- or else) and author of ten gazillion politically rabid and inflammatory pamphlets understood: God doesn't need any ordinary muddleheaded nasty old human to be his enforcer.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Do you think if we put it on a baseball cap...?

You know, normally I am not the sort of person to get exercised about these lower life forms. But I honestly think that they have arrived at their bizarre position with the assistance of an error that occurs in the teaching of history and, indeed, throughout the humanities as they are currently "taught." Too, too often, slavery is represented in popular culture dramatizations as something that was bad because it made the slaves feel bad.

Therefore, you see, if someone can prove that the enslavement of black people in America didn't make the slaves feel bad, then slavery was -- well, maybe not so bad. No harm no foul, right?

My dear and brilliant friends, I know that you do not need to be told what I am about to say. You teach, you have students, you stand in line at the supermarket and hear people say stupid things. I am only wanting to arm you for the moment when you hear this argument too.

OK. So here we go.

Slavery was a crime. It was fundamentally immoral. There is absolutely no discussion to be had with anyone who proposes to discuss how "nice slaveowners were to their slaves." Do not allow anyone to think for a millisecond that this proves anything. Slavery was a crime. Period. It was immoral, it was a huge, blatant prolonged immorality not because of the suffering it caused -- though that was part of it too -- but because it was kidnapping, detention of people against their will, it was forced, unpaid labor at gunpoint, it was signing of contracts respecting the rights of other persons when those persons were not at liberty to agree or disagree. It was being punished for violating a contract that you didn't voluntarily enter and that you could neither read nor sign. Ask them: did the slave have the right to pack up and move somewhere else if he didn't like the place where he was, for whatever reason?

The answer, of course, is no. No amount of nice, not even daily foot massages and champagne with breakfast every morning will satisfy that and it is not a point that is up for discussion until that first, larger moral point is settled.

Cheap bastards. There you have this three hundred years of guilt and this Christian sleazebag proposes that the victims of it didn't mind because what -- they got to play the banjo and eat watermelon? This is supposed to compensate for the crime?

You know, when I went to Sardinia a few years ago we were traveling on a highway one night and stopped at a truck stop. The person I was traveling with and I both needed to use the restroom. He went to the men's I went to the women's. I'd never seen anything quite like it. It was simply a hole in the cement floor with two foot-shaped imprints, one on either side of it. You squatted with your feet in these imprints and tried not to think about what was below.

It was amusing. My traveling companion came out of his and said, "It was Orrible." Which it was, I guess, but mostly it was amusing.

I mention this because it illustrates, for me, an important point that has to be made about slavery and Jim Crow, about this aspect of American history. The suffering was bad, the nasty restrooms, the back of the bus were bad, all of that was quite bad enough. The denial of hope, the denial of a future, was bad.

Read James Baldwin, again. What made people sick was the immorality of it. It was like every day someone was calling you asshole and hosing you down with sewage for no reason, and you were not allowed to complain or even to acknowledge consciousness of injustice. To claim so much humanity for yourself was to invite another insult, another humiliation. To feel that you have no protection against immorality, no recourse, no justice to appeal to, is sickening. And that was the condition of American blacks from slavery until well into the first half of the 20th century. And it was a crime, it was a disgrace. There is no other word for it. Anyone who tries to suggest, today, that anything about it was "nice" is a liar. It is like a person who burns down your house and rapes your wife thinking you ought to be grateful if he gives you a dollar. What does such a person take you for? I say, surprise him wherever you find him by calling him by his proper name. He's a coward a fraud and cheap, cheap cheap. He wants even the credit for the resilience of the human spirit at surving for so long. Because, you know, people can live under all sorts of conditions. But that doesn't mean it's all right to inflict injustice, or to give your soul's consent to injustice to others.

That person wants to unload the whole burden of his bad conscience on the victim of -- in this instance, it's not even his crime, it's someone else's crime the guilt of which he is too stupid and corrupt to acknowledge. Ideally, like a member of the Snopes family, he would like to commandeer some of the moral capital of the victim because why should he not have it if he wants it?

Everybody is a victim of something. Victimhood is slightly higher moral standing than perpetratorhood, but when the Left based political attacks on the moral status of victimhood (Bob, what's that wonderful thing Marvin said, in the sixties, in The Man in the Machine, about people "trying to outdo each other in showing off the bloodiest scars on the tenderest psyches",) then it opened the door for these people.

Well, you see, that's how quickly you exhaust the moral capital of victimhood. I think it has failed the left terribly to take that tack. It would have been better to have the law on your side and the principles of justice on your side. The self-pity and the feeling of entitlement to being understood or even being happy, these really didn't help at the point of leverage. It would have been better to be telling dirty jokes and having better command of the facts of history, than to be equating fat girls' self-esteem with civil rights and protection from violence. We wouldn't be sitting around today having to give headroom to the Snopes family. (Please someone find me a nice essay on the Hamlet.)

I believe that the left pissed its moral capital away, walked away from crucial fights in the 1980s, intellectual fights. They didn't teach history, they didn't teach humanism, they were simply selfish and greedy and ambitious for status at the expense of everything else, especially their students. They were as Reaganite when it came to their own personal comfort as anyone else. Certainly the campus liberals were, and they were all liberals in those days. They didn't do the job they had to do of protecting the principles of political liberty, of the life of the imagination, all those concepts that sustain, for example, an empirical approach to claims of fact, that underpin things like intellectual honesty, by teaching them to their students. I know I am generalizing. It's the middle of the night and I can give specific instances of what I'm talking about, I can find the texts, I can cite incidents, things people said and did that revealed a state of culture in the academy at the time. Just not right this minute when I should have gone to bed an hour ago.

You had victim literature, fervid and overdone like boarding school broccoli, with victims in the color of your choice, where, tediously, the idea of being a victim was presented as a literary idea. It isn't, OK? It just isn't. Now please leave it alone.

Or you had French theory. For the highbrows. Such highbrows. Bullies, mostly.

Well I'll stop here for now. It is past me bedtime.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

One Less Reason

It has always been at the center of my dog management philosophy that dogs need to run around loose and hang out with other dogs. Most of the people I have met in dog parks, and their dog companions, apparently see things the same way. As did, unreservedly, the previous dog, the late and still lamented Linus.

So I live in a town that has no dog park because it is sort of a sensitive place where people worry about every little thing. The county has just approved a dog park for the county park at the edge of town, and it won't be built for years.

So today, finding myself with some unexpected free time during daylight, I decided to do this good deed for the incumbent Sweetie. The dog park is a good half hour drive away, on the far side of Santa Rosa. So it is a bit of a hump but, I thought, worth it. She hadn't been all that enthusiastic about it the first time but people assured me that she would get used to it. On one hand I thought that would be nice, play some tag, maybe learn to chase a ball instead of just cringe and look for the exit, in the manner of all Caribbean dogs, when someone bends down to pick up the ball.

Well, certainly progress was made. Clarity must be regarded as progress. And she has become more clear and decided in her mind that the whole thing is loathsome, best simply observed from the safety of the top of the picnic table, where she can try to plant kisses on the cheek of a total stranger named Larry whose life is apparently one disaster after another. "Committed SUICIDE? Oh my goodness Sweetie NO KISSING!" All sorts of people have suddenly and for no reason turned mean to Larry. Except his dog, a big collie who likes to comment on everything. About 2 minutes into all the miseries of the last couple of years of Larry's life I begin to fear that I may end up being one of those people who suddenly and for no reason turns mean on him. I'm starting to look forward to it.

But Sweetie won't, she can't seem to get enough of his wonderfulness. Usually she shuns strangers, people at the office who she has known for months, who give her treats and massages and didn't yell at her when she had an accident by the fax machine, she will suddenly decide that they are the enemy and go bolting and scooting about the office at the sound of "Hi Sweetie!" Or will bark at the owner of the paper, a man who shows up three or four times a week, because he is wearing a hat.

But Larry. She just really suddenly spontaneously liked Larry. I suppose she felt sorry for him. I think she would have licked his ears until he fell over asleep, if either he or I had given her the least encouragement.

I used to go to dog parks in New York and in the East Bay with the late lamented. I do not remember there being this sort of gab, and I will tell you I met some pretty odd folks at the ones in New York. They were odd but they were at least fun.

But nothing like this. There are people who stand there at the Santa Rosa Park and just talk about their dogs the entire time. "When he was a puppy, just a little bitty thing, my cousin had this dog, she's smaller than he is now, and she just had puppies and he went out in the flower bed and all of a sudden he found her standing straight in front of him, she gave him a piece of her mind, I tell you..."

You could hang your coat on a stick, put a hat on it, and just walk away and come back, they probably would just talk to the hat and stick wearing coat without even a pause.

"Last year she got a rash from swimming in the pond..."

"He won't let anybody dominate him..."

"He loves that stick. He loves sticks." Then follows this sort of Bubba Gump Shrimp Aria but it's about sticks.

This is how bad it was. Larry noticed that one of the Dog Talkers was wearing a 49ers jacket and said something about the football season, which finally got the conversation off dog biography and Larry biography and I was relieved to hear sports talk -- even football talk which is the worst -- because at least it meant that they were no longer channelling dog and despair.

Well I have pretty fascinating tales I could tell about my dog if I felt like it, but under the circumstances I just didn't even try. It was just too humiliating even to think about. So I sat there and listened and nodded and said "Wow" and other polite noises (I seem to be increasing my repertoire of these and am not altogether happy about it for some reason).

So really. Sweetie just sat on the picnic bench and peered over my shoulder at the other dogs who were all happily romping. And took a break from that occasionally to offer the comfort of a cold wet nose to Larry. I think I mentioned in a previous email that I was not unsympathetic to her distaste for the other dogs. I mean they seem like canine yahoos, slobs, and I was worried about what sort of influence they might have on her character. But she has settled all this, as far as I am concerned.

It was a relief to think I didn't have to try and do that any more.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Near Miss

Leroy Aarons lived in Sebastopol. I went to his memorial service today because we didn't have time for an obit for the paper and I thought we should have something. I had never heard about him until I read his obit in the Press-Democrat, and after I read it I found myself wishing I had known him, sorry I had missed the chance by so little.

The music for the memorial was all show tunes, mostly Cole Porter, sung by someone who probably sang karaoke with Aarons at the Coffee Catz cafe in Sebastopol, where I gather he appeared regularly. There was a slide show of him, showing this incredibly shrewd and lively character, usually laughing.

His brother said that Aarons often told him this fantasy he had of his own funeral. He would be in his box, lying there, and all the people he knew would be there in this great outpouring of unconditional love, and "he would be basking in it," the brother reported. This was a man, I felt, who had really made something (including, possibly, a minor nuisance) out of his desire to be loved, out of a blazingly affectionate heart.

After the ceremony there was a gathering of people and snacks. I recognized the publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, whom Lucia had introduced me to a few years ago, but I couldn't remember whether he was nice or not, and I was sure he wouldn't remember me at all. Mrs. Maynard, the widow of the founder of the Maynard Institute, was there but I didn't recognize her. Lots of journalism and gay community folks. After Rawlie, the publisher of our paper, left, there was no one I knew there except the mayor, Linda, and I couldn't find her. I felt lonely and sad and like I would have liked to be part of a community that Leroy Aarons had been the center of. It would, I was sure, have been a warm and friendly and smart and tolerant and stimulating one. But that scene and that time was not the time to go looking for friends. Or maybe it was.

Like I said, I left feeling lonely and sad. Came home and did what I do when I feel a little down, curl up in bed with an art book and fall asleep. I just want it to be very quiet around me. So that's what I did.

Later I took the dog for a long walk. While walking it occurred to me that I had exacerbated my low feelings by constructing this feeling of connection to Aarons. I didn't know him at all. But at the same time I realized that I was feeling the lack in my local life of people of my ilk. People who live by the word, people with, simultaneously, gregarious curiosity AND detachment. People who live in their imaginations, the way I do. People who dramatize everything. People who are compelled to turn everything into a story. People who are unsure of their identities so they just sort of make it up out of old tin cans and rubber bands and paper clips. People who don't really expect help with their problems. I definitely have some problems I need help with, like getting a better job and getting over the two years in St. Kitts, but on the other hand I have a lot of problems that don't really require help; mostly they require someone that I can bitch to until I and the other person are giggling.