Wearing the Black Star

America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them “black” ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from “dark-skinned” Africans), to entirely take it off.

Read my essay in the current Eclectica. Let me know what you think.



I Think, therefore I’m Wrong

The longer I live on this planet the more it seems to me we’ve got it wrong about the sort of critters we really are. Even though we’re more or less willing to give up the idea we’re immortal spirits trapped in physical bodies — a notion David Hume saw through almost two hundred years ago — we cling to our reason and consciousness as setting us apart from the rest of creation like members of a David_Humemiddling caste that can at least feel superior to those below it on the social scale.

I’m not even talking about the revelations (science now provides “revelations,” a function once exclusive to holy writ) that our free will is as predictable as a crossing light if you apply electrodes to the right parts of the cranium. Rather, I’m referring to mind itself, the thing we experience on a moment-by-moment basis, the thing we like to think is separate from, if not entirely free of, our feelings or emotions. Hence we speculate on the possibility of a computer achieving something like human consciousness. No one but Hollywood script writers assume cyber-consciousness would be accompanied by emotion. Mind, reason, we like to think, can function by itself given the right algorithms and sufficient chip speed. Emotion is something left over from our more primitive days before the great evolutionary leap forward that gave our prefrontal lobes command and control.

It ain’t so. We are feeling animals, not thinking ones, or at least not as thinking as we like to believe we are. Other animals think. Probably all of them do. You could even say that plants think. One of mine recently outfoxed me when I tried to prevent its putting forth a powerful-smelling flower in order to reproduce itself. It got wise to my trick in the past of cutting off the shoot before it could fully bloom and stink up the room. This time it put forth the shoot hidden in the back of the plant where I didn’t notice it, and it did so entirely out of season in the autumn when the daylight was waning instead of in the spring when it had previously bloomed. And the clever little bugger almost succeeded. I smelled something but didn’t immediately recognize what it was until the shoot was almost in full flower and only then after skeptically searching through the dense leaves and discovered it sequestered deep down in the dark recesses of the plant. Tell me this isn’t intelligence, if not exactly conscious thought.

I don’t know what kind of affective life that plant has, though I worry when I cut off its withered leaves. But I do know so-called animals have a very rich emotional life. Yet, we have denied animals, even cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals, the possibility of having true feelings and have treated them more or less the way we would treat a vegetable or a stone. In the real world, though, we and they are identical in this respect, whatever our specific and superficial differences. A dog doesn’t think as I do, he thinks as a dog. But he seems to feel pretty much the same things I feel, and it’s his feelings, not his thoughts, that make him who he is, just as mine do me.

My consciousness gives me the illusion of operating at a distance from my emotions, those dark, animal chemical states left over from a deep past which other species have not been able to break free of. This sense of separation between emotion and consciousness is an illusion, but it’s a powerful illusion, and it must have been given a great boost when the mutation that took place tens of thousands of years ago changed us into the sort of people we are today. It made possible art, philosophy, science and, of course, language, the latter being our distinguishing attribute, or so our wise men and women keep telling us.

But just as we were wrong for so long about the mind’s being a spirit, we are just as wrong about its being the essence of what makes us human. And we are probably just as wrong about the quality of the so-called animals’ interior states.

We can see this same failure on our part to recognize other species’ likeness to ourselves if we look at the way we view human civilizations that have not had the same tools for recording themselves as our own have. Unless a people has left behind a written, architectural or some other discoverable proof of their intelligent life we assume they had none, or none comparable to our own. Until a couple hundred years ago the civilizations that lay beneath the sands of Mesopotamia were mere backdrop to the high achievements we accorded ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures, firstly and especially because the Greek and Hebrew cultures form the bases for our own but also because until fairly recently we had nothing from any other that compared with the Bible or the Homeric epics.

Now we know that the Bible is largely a product derived from those buried civilizations, that ancient Israel, which disappeared as a state about 750 BCE, and Judea, which only came into its own after the sixth century BCE, were, like every other culture, products of contact with the great civilizations surrounding them plus their own local contributions to those derivations. For millennia we lived without any major literary text that Gilgameshpredated the stories in the collection of Hebrew texts we call the Bible, until in the mid-19th century the epic tale of Gilgamesh emerged from beneath the sands covering the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, Gilgamesh, like the Book of Genesis, is itself a compilation of tales put together from material dating all the way back to the Sumerians many centuries earlier, predating either the Bible or the Iliad by a thousand years.

My point being that it’s only because we can express ourselves, put into literary or some other artful, recordable form our thoughts and feelings, that we claim a priority for our own or other recorded civilizations in what used to be called the Great Chain of Being. We write, paint, build, invent, compute…therefore we are. If it were only thought that proved our existence as human beings, the great majority of human beings who have occupied this planet could not be considered existential human beings, because they left behind no record of themselves, any more than a dog or a cat does. The peoples (we dare not call them “civilizations” if they left no sophisticated records) who have lived without acquiring the art of writing and built no monuments to themselves we dismiss as irrelevant to human history. An oral culture may in fact surpass that of one that is literate or at least one that has a scribal class (all cultures have been 95% illiterate for much of their development, the ancient Greeks being the first to achieve something like 10% literacy), but we have no way of knowing such a civilization apart from the artifacts it created and so discount it as “primitive.”

An oral culture that dies out or is subsumed by one that either incorporates or rejects its body of oral art becomes a non-culture. In effect, it never existed. It is the literate cultures, in the West the Greek and Hebrew, that we see as the great achievers because, like us, they not only produced significant art and thought but, more importantly, they recorded themselves. If other cultures also recorded themselves, as did the one that produced that version of Gilgamesh that lay buried for so long under the sands of Nineveh, but remained unknown or underexplored because we believed we had all the art and literature of the ancient world that mattered, they may as well have not existed at all, even if, as in the case of the Sumerians, they were seminal to all the civilizations that followed them in that part of the world. We already had the intellect of the Greeks and the revealed Truth of the ancient Jews, so why go digging in the desert to see what may or may not turn up when we had such low expectations of finding anything comparable there?

But all peoples in every age have led full, rich emotional lives whether they had the means to express those feelings or not. Less “civilized” societies must have also been less encumbered by the illusion of a disembodied consciousness and lived in their bodies more comfortably, or at least without the fantasy that they were essentially different from the other living things around them. The notion of a separate entity — call it “soul” or “spirit” — marks the beginning of our ignorance about our true nature and even about how we live on a moment-to-moment basis. Art is our best way of expressing this life, what it means to be human/mammalian. Art is accessible to the consciousness but cannot be experienced except in a much deeper part of ourselves. Do other animals also express themselves in some similar way? For the most part we have worked hard to prove they do not, and that unwillingness to share a common life with our fellow creatures has hobbled even our most rigorous scientific efforts. After all, it’s only in the last century that some parts of the world have admitted the female sex to humanity. We have a lot of catching-up to do with our more furred and feathered brethren, especially the domestic, edible versions for whom, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “every day is Treblinka.”

Descartes should have written, “I feel, therefore I am,” but he was victim to more than two thousand years of Western hubris. And, by “feel” of course I’m talking about the very rich and complex total state which we subdivide at our peril into “consciousness,” “subconsciousness,” “emotion,” etc. Even DescartesDescartes, when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” was really describing an experiential rather than a purely rational state. That’s why the proposition he stated seems self-evident: it’s compelling, like the experience of free will, and the experience of a compelling notion is hardly something that can be called abstract or purely rational. We exist because we experience existence. We have free will because we experience choice. In that we are not a whit different from any other creature with a brain. We just prefer to believe we are. But, then, I suppose if dogs or cats could express themselves in a way we could understand as language they would also claim preeminence over every other species.



Genital Mutilation/Circumcision

Imagine if there were no such thing as circumcision — or, if you prefer, as I do, “genital mutilation” — either female or male. No history of it anywhere among any ethnic or religious group. And then one day someone reported finding a group deep in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or the wilds of Utah practicing it on their young children and newborns.

We would, most of us, be outraged, just as most of us are now outraged by the practice of the cutting of female genitalia whether it is performed in Africa by an old woman with a rusty knife or by a top-flight surgeon in a fancy Western hospital. And, yet, a lot of intelligent, even well-educated people who approve of female circumcision in both those places do so on grounds that it is a revered and time-honored tradition. Most of us find their attitude appalling, given the frequent consequences of female circumcision — sexual dysfunction (which, we are told, is ultimately its purpose, i.e. the reduction of female sexual desire) and the incontinence that is its unintended but not infrequent consequence.Campaign_road_sign_against_female_genital_mutilation_(cropped)

Less criticized, in fact more frequently defended and even, in the case of HIV/AIDS, promoted, is the practice of male genital cutting. It is, of course, a less radical procedure than what is practiced on young women, though female circumcision from what I understand varies from the removal of part or all of the labia major to complete excision of the clitoris. Male circumcision means removal of the foreskin, the tissue that covers the sensitive area just behind the crown or tip of the organ. That area in an uncircumcised penis becomes exposed during an erection and contributes greatly to sexual pleasure during intercourse.

Or, so I am told. I wouldn’t know because I was circumcised at birth, not for religious reasons but because it was until very recently standard medical practice for newborn boys. Why?

There seem to be many answers to that question. The usual medical — really pseudo-medical — one is hygiene: an uncircumcised penis is more prone to infection. Odd, that we should not only have survived as an organism for so many millions of years without evolution correcting for this defect in the male anatomy if it has been serious enough to cause modern doctors to do so with such regularity. You would think the males whose penises got infected during the course of that evolution would have died out at such a high rate that nature would have selected for a penis without foreskin, though the opposite seems to be the case, and not just among humans, as any pet owner or visitor to a zoo can attest.

I suspect the main reason for widespread secular male circumcision in the 19th and 20th centuries was moral: male, like the more drastic female circumcision, decreases sexual pleasure and therefore, the reasoning goes, reduces the incidence of masturbation, which was considered a serious physical and mental danger to human health once modern methods of surveillance in boarding schools, prisons and other mass-residential institutions was introduced. About 1800 “an epidemic of masturbation,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, seems to have broken out all over Europe, thanks to that surveillance.

Medical texts in the 19th century depict side-by-side portraits of the Masturbator — thin, stooped, slovenly, wild-eyed, a physical and mental wreck — and the non-Masturbator: upright, clear-eyed, healthy. Not just men were under suspicion. Girls had their fingernails inspected for the tell-tale erosion caused by pubic fluids, and even in the late 19th century clitorectomies were performed on middle class women for the purpose of curbing their sex drive while during the same period physicians treated high-strung, “hysterical” women — the word means something like “womb crazy” — with something they called therapeutic “manipulation.” Sigmund Freud, otherwise fairly original, is said to have inspected the trousers of boys brought to him for traces of dried semen. And, in the mid-20th century the high school catechism in use at Jesuit (also considered otherwise progressive) high schools listed the effects of masturbation, among which were “insanity and even death.”

Just in case you think male circumcision is a more or less benign procedure, ask a nurse who has assisted at one.  They describe babies howling in pain. Some of these professionals say they refuse to participate in circumcisions after experiencing what they are really like.

Nor do we hear much about what happens when a circumcision is botched in a hospital, though recently there has been coverage of the more frequent injuries done by the mohel, the man who does the cutting at a Jewish circumcision ceremony (Muslim male circumcision is usually done medically). I have no idea what the incidence of fistulas is, but I can tell you from personal witness a fistula can result in the loss of the entire crown of the penis, ending virtually all sexual feeling in the organ.

I don’t know what the doctor who cut my penis or the doctors who cut my sons’ penises a generation later were told in medical school was the reason for this procedure. I discussed the matter beforehand with the man who performed it on my younger son (the idea of doing so never occurred to me nine years earlier, such was the degree of acceptance for the procedure). Sensing my misgivings, he smiled and suggested he do a “partial,” whatever that meant. But doctors have notoriously recommended procedures and practices in other matters — breast milk bad, formula good (1930s); women with radiation sickness living near atomic-bomb proving grounds diagnosed as neurotics (1950s) — on the grounds of good medical science only to have their theories later exposed as politically, racially or morally motivated. Think of the Eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century, endorsed by many of the people we regard today as secular saints, from Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes…and, of course, Adolph Hitler. Thousands of Americans were sterilized, and millions of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the US after 1925 — a large part of whom could have been spared the Nazi slaughter — as a result of an act passed by Congress after testimony before appropriate committees by well-credentialed members of the scientific community.Circumcision Poster

Circumcision has been around for a very long time (it’s dated to at least 15,000 BCE), at least in the form practiced by what we drolly refer to as homo sapiens. Australian aborigines, who separated from the rest of us about 40,000 years ago, circumcised themselves in their adolescence, sometimes vying with each other for who could cut more off. Circumcision was already common in ancient Egypt and the area of the world we now call the Middle East at the time the ancient Israelites adopted it. What possessed the man or woman who first got the idea that it would be a neat thing to cut off some of their own or their child’s sex organ is beyond me, just as it is beyond me why there is still so much tolerance for the practice today in the United States. But, then, we put up with a great deal in the name of either religious freedom or science (which is frequently anything but),  even when that involves violating the right of a minor to her or his bodily integrity. The BBC recently ran a piece about a young woman, a British Muslim opposed to female circumcision, who went out onto the High Street and asked non-Muslim pedestrians to sign a petition in support of female circumcision. She approached nineteen people, as I recall, and only one failed to sign the petition, some of them saying they don’t approve of the practice but, since it is “your tradition,” Muslims should be allowed to go on with it.

But there are push-backs current as well. Not all Muslims feel obliged to have their sons, never mind their daughters, circumcised, and there is a group called Jews Against Circumcision numbering in the thousands in the US. And, of course, there is a worldwide campaign being waged against female circumcision/genital mutilation, which is still widespread in both the more remote and most cosmopolitan parts of the world.

But I don’t think it’s wise to separate the horrendous practice of FGM without addressing its male counterpart (leaving aside for the moment the question of AIDS prevention, which can perhaps be argued on medical grounds and on a temporary, voluntary basis in places where AIDS is epidemic; the argument for circumcising males in order to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer may also be worth addressing but not as a way of simply ending the discussion). In both cases mutilation is taking place for no good reasons that outweigh the risks, according to a growing number of medical professionals, some of whose numbers were of this opinion even at the height of the practice of male circumcision in American hospitals. And, unless you subscribe to the notion that sexual pleasure is not a serious reason for anything or believe that males have enough of it anyway without demanding what nature provides for when left alone, there don’t seem to be any reasons left for the practice except religious ones.  We already hold parents accountable for withholding medical attention for religious reasons from a seriously ill child. Why would we not hold them accountable for mutilating their child’s sexual organ?

15,000 years seems long enough to be held captive to this cruel, gruesome practice. No one I know would support FGM, but male circumcision, though far less drastic and usually less horrific in its consequences, is mutilation nonetheless. To allow one while condemning the other is not only illogical, it’s counterproductive because when you make exceptions for one group of victims and not another the result can be bad news for both. If we want the maximum support of men for the abolition of female genital mutilation, we should not pretend their own experience of genital mutilation is not worth addressing just because it’s not as extreme as FGM or because by addressing it we will step on the toes of one group or another. Circumcision is genital mutilation in both cases. Pretending otherwise is like denouncing racist or anti-religious murders when they are perpetrated against one group or religion while remaining silent about lesser violence against another.

It just makes no sense.

Ban the N-Word?

Easily the most accessed post on this blog over the past year has been “BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!” Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough so that the link there to this blog posting shows up on the first or second search page, depending on what wording you use. I suspect these searches are students trolling for material to use in term papers. Even so, if they actually read the posting they may be exposed to a different take on the novel, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Huckleberry_Finn_bookFinn should be banned not because it’s use of an offensive word but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? They might actually start thinking for themselves.

I wrote this piece before the new edition of the novel came out in which the word “nigger” has been changed to “slave.” The N-word, as it is now known, is problematic and certainly controversial. But one thing it is not is out of use. I hear it spoken all the time, and not just spoken by African Americans. White kids refer to each other as “nigger,” with no offense or even racial reference intended. African Americans refer to each other using the word in a benign, even affectionate way. I’ve even heard one person use it to refer to his automobile: “The nigger wouldn’t start!” And, of course, and all too frequently, people use it as an insult or as a slur.

The difference between those who take offense at its use and those who use the word freely and without any offense intended seems largely to be one of generation. Two African American friends of mine of a certain age both bristle at the reference to the word, while their children’s generation use it blithely as if it meant nothing more objectionable than “guy” or “dude.”

But the point of my article is that getting into a wax about the N-word misses the real social and political bombs in Huckleberry Finn: Huck’s deliberate and well-thought-out choice to violate his conscience and help the slave Jim escape, thus willingly damning himself to hell by doing what he clearly recognizes is the wrong decision; and an episode in the novel that denigrates the character of the army, any army. Unless I am the first person to notice these two flagrant assaults on traditional morality, the fuss about the N-word can almost seem like an attempt to divert attention away from more serious issues within the book.

But I am neither original nor are the folk upset with the use of the N-word in the book that thoughtful. Objecting to the N-word is an easy way to look and feel morally upright without having to spend precious time or calories (the brain uses 30% of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else’s thoughts. Never mind what I said above about the contradictory ways the word is expressed and received by people in the same family. What about the way it was used in the South during the antebellum period in which the novel  is set? What did it mean to the people who spoke it then in that place? Could Twain have used some other word without sacrificing verisimilitude? Was he too dense or too uncaring to do so?

There are lots of things wrong with this novel plot-wise and in other ways. Great novels of the past are rife with faults, largely caused by authors’ laziness, bad taste and carelessness, as V.S. Pritchett points out in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Those books are nevertheless great works of art. More recent novels by comparison, well-crafted and meticulously edited, are flawless as literary artifacts but rarely rise above the mediocre as literature. I suspect Twain gave serious thought to what he was doing when he let Huck Finn and the other characters speak the words real people used. About that he was not careless or lazy. Nor was he tasteless. And banning words, like banning books, is not a good idea. Nor is it effective except to make readers, especially young readers — those delicate souls the banners are trying to protect — eager to look up the naughty word for themselves.

Meanwhile, I suggest you read or reread  the novel (it wasn’t until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim), in the original. And, then, “discuss.”

A Superbowl for Supermen

This  year’s is supposed to be an especially good one: the best defensive team against the best offensive one. I have no favorite. I hardly follow professional football. I grew up watching it on TV, and my brother played for our home town high school team (one of my home towns; we moved a lot) whose colors happened to be the same as the professional baseball team the family Super_Bowl_XLVIII_logorooted and sometimes wept for. The town was located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island, but in many ways it might have been in Indiana or some other part of the interior mainland of the country. It was as sports-crazy as any Southern or Midwestern community, politically conservative and, at least in the case of the religion in which I was raised, extremely religious.

My other older brother also played high school football. His best friend died as the result of a ruptured spleen he suffered during a practice scrimmage.  That was my first experience of someone being seriously injured in a sports contest, in this case a very up-close experience — I can still remember how deeply shaken my brother was by his friend’s death. Nowadays the media are full of reports and debates about head concussions and their long-term effects, starting with kids in the youngest junior leagues. Back then a fatal injury like was just one of those things, a freak accident.

But it’s not the brutality of football I want to discuss here. All sports are dangerous (the last I heard, baseball players are more frequently injured than any other athletes). Football is just more obviously brutal than other sports, with the obvious exception of professional hockey which looks as barbaric as professional wrestling but unlike professional wrestling is not play-acting. What I have in mind is not the violence of the sport, any sport, but the reasons why we celebrate achievement in sports in the first place.

There’s a direct connection between a nation that places high emphasis on athletic prowess — as well as the qualities that promote it: physical conditioning, team-spirit, victory above everything else — and militarism. They go hand in hand, or maybe the better metaphor would be “in lock-step.” In the early years of the twentieth century college football was in serious decline, so much so that a president of the United States took steps to revive it. He didn’t do so out of a personal love for the sport. He understood that without a rigorous athletic regimen in the schools the quality of the American military force would be HSFootballdiminished. If that president were alive today he would be very happy on that account. Not only does every small town cheer on its local high school teams (sometimes with a prayer before kickoff), but college football, basketball and to some extent baseball are all thriving and have become an industry worth billions of dollars to those schools and to the media networks that air their games.

We like to think militarism is something only bad nations engage in. Our military is for defense. As such, why shouldn’t we want it to be as efficient and strong as possible? That’s a reasonable conclusion to a false premise. Our history is full of military adventures and continues to be so, from the genocidal ones we waged against the original native populations to those we undertook against our neighbors on this continent and in the Caribbean to our most far-flung wars in places like the Philippines and Southeast Asia and now the Middle East. Those were not defensive wars by any stretch of the military imagination. They were imperialist wars — more like slaughters in many cases.

This week our current president gave his annual State of the Union speech. Toward the end — the best time for whipping up patriotic hysteria — he introduced a victim (the preferred word is “hero”) of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, a young man who received serious, enduring and disfiguring injuries as a result of that explosion. The reaction: standing ovation. You might say: standing ovation all across the nation. No one would not show support for a wounded veteran and by inference the cause in which that wound was sustained, would they? On that we should agree, is the implication of this kind of political theater. An enthusiastic applause is pretty much guaranteed from congress members and other government officials very few of whom have enlisted or ever would enlist in the military. Had the president introduced the young soldier as the victim of  an unnecessary war and asked his audience to look upon the pitiful result of our militarism in action, congress might have passed a motion for the president’s impeachment the next morning, if not sooner.

Sport, at least the kind of emphasis we place on it, is virtually synonymous with militarism. That’s why the fascists and the Nazis placed so much stress on sports while at the same time downgrading intellectual activity to the point of ridicule. Our received history is otherwise on the following, but I found a passage in Victor Klemperer’s book on the language of the Nazi regime (The Language of the Third Reich) compelling in this regard. He lived through that period in Germany, and he Hitlermusso2_editdescribes the support given by the Hitler regime to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin as absolute to the point of not only praising foreign “Negro” athletes who won medals but for celebrating, even allowing the German people to idolize, their ace German fencer who everyone knew was a Jew under the Nuremberg Laws. Why? Because a fit body in an empty mind was the goal the Nazis, like any totalitarian regime, aimed at. And this occurred at games from which the United States withheld a star runner because that runner was Jewish and our government did not want to offend the Fuehrer!

Sports the way we foster and idealize them in this nation embody and inculcate the qualities we want and need for an elite military. In addition to strengthening bodies and instilling team spirit and unquestioning loyalty, they build character — an amorphous term we prefer to leave that way. At the turn of the twentieth century, George Orwell relates in his essay on his school days, faculty considered the boy in the schoolyard who made others bend to his will, suck up to him, run his errands, as a young man of “character.” Today we would call that boy a bully, not because of the effect he has on other boys but because of the methods he uses: physical force, coercion, etc. His bullying should be channeled into more acceptable activities like politics and corporate management.

The Nazis stressed athletic metaphors throughout their twelve years in power, but never so much as when they were losing the war. Goebbels was frequently on the radio, reminding the German people it didn’t matter who was ahead in the game but who was in the lead at the game’s conclusion, who breasted the tape last, who scored the knockout punch. Happily, we Americans have never had to resort to that kind of self-delusion, have we. Or was our insistence that we lost the war in Vietnam “at home” such an excuse? Have we embargoed and boycotted Cuba because the regime there is communist or out of spite because we “lost” that island in 1959? Did we go to war illegally and immorally in Iraq because we believed Saddam Hussein had nuclear and/or chemical weapons or because we resented his still being in power a decade after we had ignominiously defeated him in the “Mother of All Battles” (isn’t it interesting — it certainly would be to Klemperer — how that expression “mother of” has entered our language almost as just another intensifier?).

So, no, I guess I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year, because when I see those 300-pound linemen butting heads with a ferocity that would kill a bull I can’t help thinking this game is really just a less lethal version of what the gladiators did to each other in the Coliseum as the crowd yelled and cheered exactly the same as they will do on Sunday. And that exercise of athletic prowess, in both cases, is actually a preparation for the real thing, whatever other purposes it may serve as entertainment. May the best Uebermenschen win.

The Emperor’s Tailors: Lit-Crit as Orientalism

In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.

I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently Reader's_Manifesto_coverAmerican, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.

The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.

My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.

But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?

These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.

I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see theEdward_Said same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?

What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.

A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is builtOrientalism_Book on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.

I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.

The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.

The Game of War

My latest at Eclectica:

(For an ongoing discussion of this topic and other ideas it has spun off, please go to the comments section at the bottom of this page.)

War is a game—a lethal game (or “match,” if you like), but a game nonetheless. In the modern era, for the last couple hundred years, we all participate, if only passively as victims of its atrocities, assuming we don’t do so as combatants. It’s a game that affects everyone, but it still comes down to a winner and a loser,war the contest decided by “sides” that perform and are directed in much the same way a more conventional sport like football or basketball is coached and managed.

This is a thought that has been growing on me for some time but only became obvious during my recent reading of Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Third Reich (I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945). If the Nazis had fielded a soccer team instead of an army, and their opponents had done the same, and the outcome of the conflict including the fates of the populations of all the nations involved depended on who won the match, then the way the war was conducted, I mean the mentality of it, would not have been much different…. Read more.

I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945
A Diary of the Nazi Years
By Victor Klemperer

Victor Klemperer was a professor of French literature, specializing in the Enlightenment, employed at the Technical University of Dresden at the time the Nazis came to power in 1933. At that point in his career he already had a few scholarly works in print and was planning another, a project on the 18th century he continued researching and writing until circumstances forced him to postpone that work. But he did Victor_Klemperercontinue the personal diary he had begun many years earlier, now with the purpose of documenting not the big picture of Nazism in Germany (he would leave that to historians) but the experience of it by a single individual, along with other ordinary personal matters he had been recording for decades.

The fact that the Nazis considered him a Jew despite his conversion to Protestantism in his youth put him in the bulls-eye of their abuse. But he was married to an “Aryan,” and on that account some of the harshest measures heaped on non-Aryans were sometimes blunted or postponed, including shipment to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where most of Dresden’s Jews were to meet their deaths. He had to wear the yellow star, avoid contact with Aryans, not use public transportation, subsist on starvation rations, and would in fact have been sent off to his death within a few days had not British Lancaster bombers rained fire on the population of Dresden, Aryan and non-Aryan alike, in the spring of 1945, allowing Victor and his wife Eva to escape the city and leave behind his Jewish identity by claiming his identification papers were destroyed in the fire.

There are plenty of books about the Nazi era. What’s so special about the Klemperer diaries? Why would I recommend these two volumes to anyone interested in learning what the Hitler regime was like over any work by a professional historian, however worthy that study may be?

My answer has to do with the special character of the diaries, their combination of documentation of a horror growing worse with each passing day (everyone Klemperer talks to believes such an absurd regime will surely fall within months) and the details of a middle-aged upper-middle-class couple’s life, including the stresses and strains on their marriage, not all of them the result of Nazi oppression. One quickly comes to feel one is living with the Klemperers, if only as a fly on the wall, as they struggle to complete the construction of their “dream house” in a suburb just outside Dresden — Eva’s obsession despite their having to subsist on a modest pension after her husband losses his university post.
The daily visits to the house site as they scrape together the money to lay a foundation, then construct modest living quarters and, of course, a garden, seem like an exercise in futility, given what the reader knows is going to happen a few years later. You want to shout at them, “Get out! Get out!” But Eva is determined to have her house, partly, one suspects, because she had given up her own career as a musicologist and performer in favor of her husband’s career. Besides, Hitler really did seem too extreme, too downright surreal, to last much longer (odd, that in America he was seen as a “moderate” who would keep the Bolshevik menace in check). And, besides, as the author of these diaries keeps asserting, he, Victor Klemperer, is a German, a real German, not like the aberrations who had taken over his country, though his faith in that identity is sorely tried over the next twelve years.

The course of the Klemperer marriage, however inadvertent, is continuous and detailed. In the ’30s, Victor is careful to not complain about Eva’s morning fits or constant dental emergencies or her obsession with the house, but the reader wonders what is going on in the woman’s mind, when (with the hindsight of history) the dreadful future seems so clearly written on the wall. But as the years pass and the noose tightens economically and in every other way around the necks of Jews, Eva meets each new deprivation with remarkable personal resources, not just sharing all of her husband’s social and economic disabilities but assisting neighbors in need in the “Jews houses” where the Klemperers are finally forced to live, right down to scrubbing their floors. She also risks her freedom (as an Aryan she could have secured her own status simply by divorcing him), if not her life, by smuggling the manuscript pages of his diary to an Aryan safe house. Using her Aryan ration card she spends hours each day scrounging for food (mostly potatoes, sometimes rotten). And, yet, the Klemperers maintain a remarkably active social life, mostly with others marked as Jews but also with a handful of Aryans.

In the end, the diaries reveal the slow maturing of two human beings who are already well into middle age at the point the diaries open. Victor evolves from a slightly ivory-towerish academic into a more fully rounded person capable of both empathy and a sense of complexity for the people, all the people, he lives among; Eva, from a house-hungry spouse with possibly a grievance about the loss of her own chance at a career into a courageous and devoted spouse and neighbor. Their marriage and love for one another grows stronger with each new stress placed upon them. What seems in the early pages of the diaries a marriage held together perhaps largely by routine and convenience, by its mid-point has become a thing of unshakable devotion and deep affection.

The diaries provide documentation of many different aspects of German society under the Third Reich, despite the restriction of their being written from one man’s point of view. Among these is the obvious fact that many Germans had no use for Hitler, were sympathetic to those the Nazis designated as Jews or otherwise non-Aryan and, as might be expected in a situation where getting the wherewithal just to survive became more and more difficult, were largely ignorant of the strictures Jews were living under. Why else would they risk their own freedom and lives by befriending and assisting individual Jews? There is a naïveté about some of their expressions of support — a stranger crossing the street to shake the hand of someone wearing a yellow star (much to the chagrin of the person wearing it, knowing how dangerous such an act was, primarily for the star-wearer); a shopkeeper slipping extra food into the bag of someone wearing the star and offering a whispered word of encouragement to hang on, it won’t be long now till the war is over.

There are far too many of these acts, some of them a good deal more substantial than what I’ve indicated, to put them down to anything other than sincerity. And on the question of what ordinary Germans knew about the “Final Solution,” even Jews themselves didn’t realize what shipment to Theresienstadt meant until the last year or two of the war. For a time they even entertained a belief that in Theresienstadt they would at least have a better diet and get decent medical care. It’s hard to believe non-Jews could have known something more, at least not ordinary working stiffs, despite the manic, irrational broadcasts by Goebbels blaming “World Jewry” for all the evils in the world (in one he insists the Jews using their American dupes were bombing Rome in order to destroy Christianity, just a first step in their plan to kill all the gentiles in the world). Even when the truth becomes clear about Auschwitz and the other death camps, some supporters of Hitler insist the Fuehrer could not have known about the camps because he was a “man of peace.”

Klemperer writes:

“…National Socialism was already [in 1923] …powerful and popular. Except that at the time I did not yet see it like that. How comforting and depressing that is! Depressing: Hitler really was in line with the will of the German people. Comforting: One never really knows what is going on. Then the Republic seemed secure, today the Third Reich appears secure.”

But he also writes, later:

“There is no German or West European Jewish question. Whoever recognizes one, only adopts or confirms the false thesis of the NSDAP and serves its cause. Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else…. The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were a part of the French nation, etc. “

There seem, in fact, to be two distinct kinds of (Aryan) Germans in these diaries: Nazi thugs who descend on Jews’ apartments, beat up the old women and men and steal the butter off the table before trashing the place; and “ordinary” Germans, even officials like local police who, when they had to visit the Jews Houses, doffed their hats, shook hands, apologized for the intrusion and even offered words of reassurance. One wonders how this could be the same country, never mind the same city. These “good” Germans give Victor hope, though by the end he believes the entire nation will have to be reeducated in the values he believes to have been essential to German culture dating back to the Enlightenment (he blames Romanticism for Nazism). He, happily, lives to see that day and even to reclaim his former professorship at the Technical University of Dresden, which lay then in the Soviet zone and becomes part of East Germany.

One wonders why these diaries are not more widely read as firsthand witness for that horrific period of German history. Is it because life as Klemperer records it is too complex for our sound-bite culture (some of the older men in the Jews House cheer for the Wehrmacht — they had fought against the Brits and French in the first world war and can’t bring themselves to change sides). Is it because he insists early on that Zionism and Nazism are ideologically the same thing: blood = land? I keep expecting him to change his mind about Zionism after the slaughter of Jews goes into high gear in 1942-43, but he sticks to his guns. He fully expects to be one of the slaughtered, watches as his neighbors are taken away in twos and threes. He loses his faith in the Germany he believed in before 1933, but he never loses faith in the principles he believes that culture exemplified at its best.

It’s impossible to summarize a work as varied and rich as these diaries, never mind give a sense for the experience of living through those years vicariously with the Klemperers. The diaries end in 1945 with a return to their suburban home after living for several weeks as refugees in Bavaria. But that return is, of course, just another beginning. The volume of the diary that takes up where these two leave off extends as far as 1959 and was published in Britain, but not in the US. Klemperer died the following year, 1960, of a heart attack.

The Silence of the Lambs

How is it we, especially we in the modern West and especially we in the USA, look upon monarchic and other authoritative systems of government with disdain but accept unelected, hierarchical and highly authoritarian versions of governance in other areas of our lives, such as in our religions?

We wouldn’t dream of allowing politicians to appoint themselves and then appoint each other to offices we consider critical to our civic well being. True, those political officers do appoint judges and other officials, but we like to think we maintain ultimate control over our destiny by reserving the right to elect the appointers themselves. But, however much Roman Catholics complain about Rome’s intransigent policy on birth control, the Anglicans’ haggling among themselves about making homosexuals bishops or Orthodox Jews refusing to allow female rabbis…to name just a few of the issues that get decided not by popular vote but by men, mostly men in funny skirts and hats, I have rarely if ever heard any believer say, What do we need a hierarchy for anyhow? Who gave them the last word — or the first, for that matter?AntiChristus2

Well, of course, they gave it to themselves, didn’t they. The Christian churches gave themselves that authority in the name of their God (as all clergy always have), though the earliest Christians managed to do without a clergy quite nicely, thank you, and the best versions of modern Christianity (“best” in terms of their track record, not just what they preach) seem to be groups like the Quakers, who have the least ecclesiastical structure.

Rabbis gave themselves the power to decide who was in and who was out when they assumed that right for themselves after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. As a result Judaism, however much altered, survived. The church did much the same thing for Christianity after it became apparent that the Messiah was not going to return to earth any time soon. Roman adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the early fourth century sealed the deal (relegating the much more popular Jewish religion to the precarious margins).

But those were the days of kings and emperors, also divinely appointed. We don’t hold with that idea anymore. The British and Dutch seem fond of their monarchs but give them little or no say in their lives. Protestants claim to be free of Roman authoritarianism, but I note they excommunicate and defrock their own clerical miscreants and are not shy about telling their flocks what God wants them to think and do without first asking for their votes.

And, why is it we get warm and fuzzy when we hear that word “flock”? What is it a flock of? Well, the keeper of the flock is a pastor, and that’s a shepherd, so the flock must be sheep, or goats. What happens to sheep who have been tenderly cared for by caring shepherds/pastors? The last time I checked they ended up as Sunday dinner. Or are they only tended so lovingly for their wool?

So, what we have become is flocks of sheep (usually considered among the dumbest of animals) tended by unelected clerics presumably for our own good — that “good” being determined by, you guessed it, those same clerics and their superiors.sheep

Why do we not only tolerate this situation, with some agitation for the relaxation of one stricture or another but without questioning, never mind demanding, a democratic process in the very structure of our religions that includes every member, not just clergy? Is this an example of the compartmentalization that atheists accuse believers of engaging in so their rational mind does not intrude upon the precincts of their religious mind? Or do we actually like having the security of a shepherd to protect us from the wolves of this world and the next?

Dostoevsky aired this out about as well as anyone in “The Grand Inquisitor.” People don’t want freedom, is the conclusion there, not even the freedom Jesus offered them. Freedom makes them anxious. They want mystery, miracles and authority — and, of course, bread. It’s a scary piece of writing, one of the high points of Western literature, though as far as I can tell Dostoevsky himself was very much a believer, at least in his own version of Christianity.

We complain about the oppressiveness of Rome or the pre-medieval strictures of Talmudic and Sharia law, but aren’t they petty stuff compared with what organized religion combined with state power can get up to? Is there any doubt that Rome would behave with even more authoritarianism if it had the kind of power it had in the past? And, isn’t it obvious what fundamentalist Judaism and Islam are like if we look in parts of the world where those religions have significant political power?

When religions have to operate without that kind of authority they make do with what they have, enforcing their wills on the faithful within the walls, so to speak, if not in the wider community generally. They even take on a friendly aspect, try to appear reasonable, amenable to science and other modern ideas, within limits. But when not operating with limitations they revert to type — think what the church was like in Ireland until recent decades, what sort of laws the ultra-Orthodox impose in Israel or the way things are run in Saudi Arabia. To think otherwise is to put your faith in human nature in a way we would never dream of doing so if the system in question were not religious.

Of course, religions aren’t the only entities we allow to operate outside the bounds of democratic participation. Our work place is just as undemocratic, even medieval in its structure and just as cold-blooded in its punishments for flouting authority. To say, well, religion is one thing, an area we enter into voluntarily, but work, our job, is necessary to our physical survival and so another matter — we don’t have any meaningful say in whether we get a job or keep it or the conditions under which we do our work, by and large. But is that true?

We don’t work in democratic environments because we accept the system as it is, basically the way it was run back when there was a lord of the manor and his flunkies whose job it was to see that the rest of his human capital were productive for his benefit. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realize that we hold our jobs, whether as janitor or senior vice-president, at the pleasure of whoever owns the operation, and not a moment longer. We may not have to give up our brides to him on our wedding night the way serfs did back in the old days, but we do have to give up our right to determine our destiny and the quality of our lives in a critical area of our existence — critical not just to ourselves but to the wider community we live in. And we do so for the most part unthinkingly. We even prepare ourselves with lengthy and expensive schooling in order to be able to please our masters and gain favor in the form of promotion and greater compensation. Some of us dream of becoming our own bosses, some of us do, but how many of these new lords of the manor behave any less authoritatively toward their own employees?

Most people admire the rich and want to be like them, even if that means keeping in place an unfair, undemocratic system that relegates them to economic chains. It’s the same mentality that keeps some of us playing the lottery in the belief we are just as likely to win as the next guy. Few consider replacing the current system with one that allows them ownership and control of their workplace. Even fewer actually try to accomplish these goals, though there are many instances, thousands it’s said in the US alone, of companies that are run cooperatively, along with plenty in other nations, some of them as large as the largest traditionally owned corporations.

But that’s socialism, isn’t it? I have no idea what it is, nor do I care. It makes sense, and that’s all that matters as far as I’m concerned. Call it anything you like. For a start, though, call it democracy, what we Americans seem to think we have because we cast a ballot for a candidate who has usually been carefully vetted, approved and funded by the same people we give our sweat to every day in return for whatever they see fit to pay us.  And then on the sabbath we entrust our souls to a God also carefully vetted and approved by religions run by men we never chose who consider the very idea of such choice diabolical.

That’s not the behavior or freedom-loving human beings. That’s the behavior of sheep.

Big Brother, Big Daddy

The term “Orwellian” is common enough that it should be used without capitalization. His warnings about how language molds thinking, which in turn molds politics, is as true for our society as it was for the overtly totalitarian ones that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But I’m beginning to wonder if a different cultural reference isn’t just as relevant as Orwell, perhaps more so….

My latest at Eclectica.com:



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