Author Archives: Thomas J. Hubschman

Human, All Too Human

(From my Salon piece in the October/November issue of Eclectica)

I’ve remarked more than once in print and in personal conversation that maybe our societies should be run by primatologists. I can’t remember ever getting a response to this remark. Presumably it’s taken as a joke or at least as a dismissible apesexaggeration. When I verbalize the idea in person it inevitably draws a blank stare.

I wonder sometimes what those reactions, or lack thereof, imply. Is my suggestion, always expressed in the context of a discussion of human behavior and the restraints we expect ourselves to exert over it, just not taken seriously? Is it beyond the pale of permissible thought that we who share so much with other primates genetically, socially and, if the recent science is any indication, cognitively, ought to investigate ourselves with the same objectivity we study chimpanzees?…

Read more.

Gray Matters

I still marvel at how my mind-brain works. I’m convinced each brain is different and that there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. But you would think after so many years my own would at least be familiar to me.

Not so. It still perplexes, sometimes seems downright alien. The difference in my more mature years (my mother said Hubschman men mature late, but this is ridiculous), is that I do marvelNIA_human_brain_drawing or at least am bemused rather than angered or depressed by its fickleness.

What I’m talking about is the way I seem to experience one kind of mind for a period of time – a few days or a week – and then pass on, quite unexpectedly, to a different one with all the appetites and aversions a new mentality involves.

It’s tempting to say what I experience is a matter of one side of my brain taking over for a while, then losing interest and yielding to the other side. What puzzles me is why this happens. Why am I enthusiastic for a new piece of writing I’ve just started, thinking about it the last thing before I go to sleep and the first thing after I wake up in the morning, and then suddenly become apathetic about it? How can I spend a day busily taken up with that new project and wake to find it may as well be something someone else is writing and about a topic in which I have no particular interest?

What do I do when this happens? Well, apart from the self-recriminations I used to plague myself with, what I did in my younger years was listen to music. And not just listen, but listen. I would find my mind as eager, as hungry for musical sounds as it had been for the written word. I devoured one symphony after another.  I found pleasure in jazz performances that used to leave me cold.

This would go on for a few days, and then something would switch off in my gray matter and the next day another part of that organ would switch on. I’d be back to making sentences, or at least rewriting them, and taking pleasure once again in reading someone else’s.

The difference is that nowadays, since I’ve taken up the piano, instead of just listening to other people’s performances I make music myself – sort of. I experience that delicious feeling thathuman brainresults from hearing Chopin or Brahms come out of the tips of my fingers and then reach deep inside and massage my soul the way nothing else can. Then, in a few days, I’m back to making sentences again.

Does my right (or is left?) brain just get tired of words, overdose on them, and turn off in favor of the left side the way it yields up consciousness to a different state when it has had enough of the real world for while? And then does the left side feel glutted and switch off in favor of its other half?

These alternating brain functions obviously have a restorative function. Ideas for a story work themselves through even as my pencil (virtual or otherwise) lies dormant and I worry it will never rise again. And despite the old saw about the need to practice every day, I find after a couple days away from the piano (also virtual) I not only remember better the few pieces I can play than if I had taken no time off, I play them with more understanding and deeper feeling.

I know, of course, there’s nothing unique to me about any of this. I have friends whose habits are not as up-and-down as my own, who do the same work each day without any loss of will  as far as I can see. And I know almost everyone has their ups and downs, their periods of enthusiasm and despondency. My own alternations simply occur in areas of activity that are easily identifiable and open to theorizing (in words, of course).

To put a positive spin on it,  my brain may just belong to a subset typical of artists. No doubt it served a function in the evolution of the species, as has the brain of my neighbor whose apartment is never clean enough or clutter-free enough to suit him.

Hopefully, it still does.

Tears in the Morning, Clearing by Afternoon, Some Wisdom Possible Before Sunset

Tears in the Morning, Clearing by Afternoon, Some Wisdom Possible Before Sunset

Thoughts on the heightened sensitivity that comes with age.  My latest, in the new issue of Eclectica.

Thoughts on a Speech Delivered at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5th, 1852

“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” -Isaiah, as quoted by Frederick Douglass

The founding myths of nations are created after the fact, after the thing itself is secured. Then the story is put about by that nation’s leading historians that the land rightly belongs to the people of that nation because they have lived there since time immemorial, since the Gauls, the Teutons, since Socrates and Moses. History for these historians is no impediment. It is simply ignored. The bloodlines are verified, the big lie of “the people” is given official endorsement by the intellectual elite which exists largely for this purpose.

Every year at this time we renew our faith in our own founding myth, that of the day we declared our separation from Great Britain, our Independence Day. On that day we became a people too. We did not do so, like the Greeks of the 19th century, who were more Slav than Greek or the Italians of that time who varied from descendants of

Surrender of General Burgoyne

Surrender of General Burgoyne

Visigoths in the north to the progeny of North Africans in the South, because we had inhabited this continent ever since the beginning of time. We claimed a right to self-governance because we formed a nation of free men, free “white” men at least, who deserved self-rule on their own soil as much as did any Dutchman or Englishman.

It was very much an 18th-century argument, based on reason and “natural law,” derived from the great French thinkers of the Enlightenment and from middle-class rebels of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of the century before. The racial — today we would say “ethnic” — argument for nationhood that arose in the  19th century, a product of Romanticism, was about blood not reason. And if there is a good definition for Roman-ticism it is “storybook thinking.” Walter Scott provided the rationale for a Scottish people, Wagner for a German one.

It is no accident that racism in its modern sense flowers at the same time as the idea of a separate nation-state for every people. The formula Blood = Land is as basic to the Wilsonian principle of Self-determination as it is to the Nazi idea of racial purity. The word anti-Semitism dates to 1882, and as should be obvious denotes not a religious but an ethnic group, a “people” (also a modern concept) with a common language and culture. Africans and other non-white peoples became scientifically distinguishable at that time as a kind of sub-species of the higher, northern-European race. Modern genetics has since demolished that idea, but our presidents no less than our intellectuals and ordinary citizens still speak of “race” as if it were based at least to some degree on biology. Think how readily we use the word “bi-racial.”

On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Rochester Hall, New York. Douglass, of course is himself the preeminent abolitionist, a man who escaped slavery and went on to champion not just the cause of freedom for American slaves but for all people, including the near-slaves of Ireland who received him with great warmth.

The first part of his speech (the full text is available here and is well worth reading to the end) is restrained, even apologetic in tone, though he carefully maintains a wording that places him as an outsider to the festive observances

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

of the 4th of July. Later in the speech he makes up for his earlier diffidence with a thundering indictment of the American nation, the most famous passage from which is:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

That was then, we might say, this is now. Things have changed.

They have indeed. There was a Civil War in the offing that would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, most of them what we call “white,” who as the war progressed believed they were fighting as much against slavery as against the secession of the Southern states from the Union.

After the North’s victory in that war there was a period of Reconstruction, barely a decade, during which the former slaves enjoyed something like freedom. But then the North withdrew and left the South again to its own devices which promptly included a new system of social and economic repression of the freed slaves that was almost as beneficial to their former masters as was chattel slavery. That was the beginning as well of Jim Crow, the de facto apartheid system under which Southerners of African ancestry lived until the latter part of the 20th century.

What kind of speech would Frederick Douglass make today if he could come back and give one? Early on in the talk he gave in Rochester he speaks of the youthfulness of the American nation, how it is easier for a young nation to make changes than it is for one that has been doing things the same way for many centuries. He lauds the Founding Fathers for the principles they espoused: love of liberty, putting country before self, bravery. He calls upon America to make good use of those virtues and end the abominable practice of slavery, though it’s clear by his words that he sees a nation whose citizens would rather celebrate the greatness of their ancestors once a year than emulate that greatness in the present.

The last time I checked there was still no major museum to the atrocity of American slavery or the genocide of the American Indian. Our righteous emotions are reserved for foreign travesties committed by foreigners, not by God-fearing Americans. Our sins go unacknowledged, our glories loudly celebrated.

But there is a school of thought that would say Douglass was too generous in his depiction of the motives of the revolutionaries of 1776. The scholar Gerald Horne is one such. Professor Horne’s research (The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States) argues the American Revolution was fought in large part to avoid the abolition of slavery toward which Britain was moving. The end of slavery would have meant a major economic adjustment for the colonies. The fact that slavery was in fact expanded after independence, just as it had been expanded earlier after it was deregulated by the British crown, taking it out of the hands of the King and placing it in those of the entrepreneurial class, makes this argument seem all the more plausible.

A similar argument has been made by other historians who maintain that the British when they made treaties with the Indians did so more or less in good faith, while the colonists never intended to honor those treaties and waged a revolutionary war largely to free themselves from the restraints placed upon them by the crown from pushing Indian tribes further and further west, in the process destroying their civilizations, not to mention the slaughters that occurred when they resisted displacement.

Those two motives — removal of restraint by the mother country on further westward expansion and forestalling Britain’s declaring slavery illegal — seem to me sufficient in themselves to explain the Revolution without bringing in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Among the long list of grievances brought against the crown in the Declaration is the following:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

It takes a certain cheek to write words like that after the way Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples for the previous two centuries.

Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out the colonists had fought against the French settlers in America in the so-called French and Indian War, 1754-1763, the American version of the Seven Years War in Europe. During this war some of the Indians who fought on the French side did indeed torture and massacre British captives, something Mr. Jefferson & Co. chose not to forget. But the outcome of the war was that France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, and French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (including New Orleans) was ceded to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain. This opened up vast new territories which the colonists saw as their manifest destiny to populate with their kind, the indigenous people on that land being mere obstructions to that God-given purpose.

There is no mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and only a political one in the later Constitution which allowed the South to count 3/5’s of its slave population as citizens for the purpose of gaining more representation in Congress than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The very silence of the Founders on

Slaves for Sale New Orleans, 1861

Slaves for Sale in New Orleans, 1861

the subject of slavery in their official documents, though, speaks loudly. A nation economically dependent on a system of chattel slavery was an embarrassment to everything those high-minded men claimed to stand for in their fine words about all men being created equal. And, as Douglass points out, then and in his own day there was no question but that the master class knew the humans they owned and worked like animals were human beings. In the early days of settlement as well they recognized the native people’s humanity, depended on their knowledge and know-how for their own very existence. Later, when the settlers had the upper hand and had demoralized the Indians they regarded those peoples with contempt.

There’s nothing uniquely American about our refusal to face up to our national disgraces, the results of which continue to plague tens of millions of our fellow citizens as well as the descendants of those indigenous peoples we exiled and slaughtered. Turkey has yet to acknowledge its genocide of the million Armenians slaughtered in 1919. Japan refuses to take responsibility for their own massacres in China and elsewhere. The Allied Powers of the second world war prefer not to talk about the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, which caused more civilian deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If hypocrisy is an indication of a bad conscience, we have a bad conscience of epic proportions. There’s no reason why we could not celebrate the independence of this nation without leaving out the moral and practical work which, more than two centuries later, still needs to be attended to. A true celebration of the Fourth would include a bill of grievances that is still outstanding, starting with a factual account of how our nation was cobbled together out of the land of other peoples, and not just Indians. One third of the United States was taken by force from Mexico, though to what extent Mexico itself had a legitimate right to “own” that land I’ll leave to a Mexican to determine. The consequences of several long centuries of slavery and then the slightly more subtle forms of repression and abuse that followed must also be dealt with if we are ever to be morally whole as Frederick Douglass hoped we would be.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate the 4th as we always do, with fireworks and hot dogs, no more thinking of the nation’s unfinished business than a child does. We have in effect decided we have done enough. We have other fish to fry — “terrorists” to kill or torture, foreign “enemies” to contain or punish.

The American empire, like all others, will fall eventually, and not all it stood for will be seen as hypocrisy and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if before that day of judgment arrives we could add to the list of things we did well the  setting right of the outstanding moral obligations bequeathed to us by those same sons of the revolution we make so much of on this July 4th? We are only a century and a half older than we were when Douglass held out the hope that a nation as young as the United States could still mend its ways.

Or are we like the drunk who would rather have another drink to forget what he hasn’t the will to face and overcome? Perhaps we are not young after all, not high-minded, and perhaps never were. Someone said  a hypocrite is salvageable because he at least acknowledges virtue even though he chooses vice. Beneath our self-inflicted national amnesia there is a broad reservoir of decency in our people not shared by most of its elected officials and other elite. If that decency were to be mobilized and expressed, not even the powers-that-be could resist it and we could claim in good faith and with a clear conscience to be the nation we like to believe ourselves to be.

 

The Enemy Amongst Us

According to experts, there are 134 million demons or evil spirits in the world.

I learned this from a television newscast. I live on the top floor of a building in Brooklyn that faces south, and I pick up several New Jersey and even Philadelphia stations. This particular broadcast was coming from south Jersey.

The anchorperson, an attractive blonde, went on to recount in her detached anchorperson voice that the reigning pope (John Paul at the time), both in his former capacity of bishop of Cracow and as pontiff, performed and was Demonscontinuing to perform exorcisms.

Then she broke for a commercial.

I immediately began to wonder about that figure 134 million. It seemed seriously inadequate, especially if you allow for all the guardian angels and other benevolent spirits flying about or attending to the divine throne in heaven. There are about 6 billion people in the world. That means that to have some sort of evil influence on each one of them, every demon would have to service about 45 people. I used to work for a big-city welfare department. I also counseled drug addicts. So, I have some idea of the maximum caseload a professional can competently handle. Fotry-five seems to be right on the edge.

Of course on any caseload there are always some clients who require only the minimum of attention. For demons, these would be the Hitlers and Stalins of the world and their small-time counterparts. Also, the Christian Right, hardline Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews, not to mention the hundreds of millions of ardent Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and other godly folks, would be among the harder spiritual nuts to crack and might reasonably be put on a back burner.

That leaves us with a core constituency of perhaps twenty to twenty-five souls ripe for each demon’s picking. Not a number beyond the ability of any well-trained professional, especially when you consider that a demon, being immaterial, can go at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with no time off for paid holidays, sick leave or vacation.

This particular television station, by the way, was the same that used to flog a videocassette about the sins of the flesh committed by our then-sitting president. The commercial pulled no punches and spared no delicate civic sentiments. Bill Clinton was depicted as the willing slave of the Devil.

Since it was “experts” who came up with the number 134 million for the demons at large in the world, I didn’t question it initially. But then I got to thinking: Why 134 million and not 135 million? Or some other number entirely?

Until I remembered that at the beginning of the current era (A.D./C.E.) well-educated people took for granted the existence of demons and other various good and evil spirits. In fact, the experts of that day knew the names and rankings for each species, so to speak—Dominions, Powers, Thrones, etc. Each kind of spirit had a job to do for good or ill. Paul the Apostle and other intelligent men and women, Christian, Jew and pagan, never questioned their existence.

It was an age that prided itself on its science as much as we do our own, and had pretty much figured out how everything worked and where everything’s place was in the cosmos. Ptolemy, for instance, devised an ingenious and mathematically precise set of formulae to describe the workings of the universe based upon the obvious fact that the sun revolved around the earth, as did everything else in the heavens. Why shouldn’t the theologians and philosophers be able to classify the varieties of spirits and, with a little help from holy writings, calculate precisely how many there were?

The pope, as a modern man, uses aircraft, television and even public relations people to help him get across his message. The Ayatollah Khomeini preached his revolutionary call via audio cassette during his exile in heathen France before boarding a jet to assume civil power in Iran. And of course the most hardcore religious terrorists use weapons of a distinctly modern cast when they want to blow up a building or take out an abortionist.

So, I suppose it should have come as no surprise to find that well-groomed anchorwoman being able to precisely pinpoint the number of devils, minor and major, plying their trade. Nor should it have been a shock to find that commercial airing about Bill Clinton. Putting one and one together, it all began to make sense: 134 million evil spirits loose in the world; a degenerate in the White House; the pope (recently sainted John Paul) feeling obliged to personally cast out devils in his spare time. The planet is going to hell in a handbasket, and the bulk of us are worried about ephemeral matters like health care and climate change!

Thank God there are still people of faith as well as science keeping abreast of what is taking place in the invisible world. While physicists argue about how many quarks can dance on the head of a proton, god-fearing folks are passing along the much more important spirit count provided by the world’s front-rank demonologists, with special emphasis on those ensconced inside the Beltway.

Check these people out on your own local stations. Neglecting to do so would not only be unscientific but could be dangerous to your spiritual health.

 

THE QUALITY OF MERCY

The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s Kardinaal_III_Danneels_en_Kasperknown as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul's] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.

But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.

Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.

If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim.  John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.

The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line.  Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.

Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.

John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.

Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extremePope Francis authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.

There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.

There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do.  The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.

We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.

At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.

Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE. RIGHT?

The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in a recent interview said he was “becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalized, it was the revolt of the marginalized against the center.”

This idea runs counter, of course, to the generally accepted version of the reason why the Nazis came to power. It also contradicts the still popular notion, however discredited, that there was something in the German character that was all but innately anti-Semitic. “Jews were at the center,” Hitlermusso2_editShlomo goes on, “in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler.” Unlike the Jews of eastern Europe, the Jews of Germany or France had no other, Yiddish culture. They were Germans and French whose religion, not ethnic identity, was Jewish, and that’s what they had been for more than a hundred years.

They were also urban and hence relatively well-educated. The people of the countryside in any nation feel a loyalty, even a primary loyalty, to their village or province that is impossible for a city-dweller. The word civilization derives from the Latin word “civitas,” meaning “city.” It may be a bit chauvinistic to say so, but civilization and hence national identity is primarily an urban phenomenon. Being urban, Jewish Germans like other city dwellers constituted the “real Germans,” as the diarist Victor Klemperer described people like himself, Germans who stood for the high culture and progressive thought that Klemperer himself represented.

Nazism for Sand, then, was a takeover by those outside the mainstream of national culture against those who represented the mainstream, not just Jews but anyone who stood for any point of view that was not in accord with National Socialist orthodoxy.

I wonder if we aren’t experiencing something similar today in the United States — not a Nazi or neo-Nazi revolution but a takeover of our government by our own marginalized minority against the mainstream. How else can we account for the dissonance between what pollsters tell us and how the government acts? Even before Obama came into office polled showed a 70% approval for single-payer national insurance — Medicare for all, i.e. But Hillary Clinton when confronted with this fact by the Harvard physician who headed up the single-payer movement at the time, told him to “Get real.” And Barack Obama took the single-payer option off the table before negotiations for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) even began.

A similar percentage of Americans in 2003 opposed attacking Iraq. It was the first time in US history a significant anti-war movement formed and took to the streets before a war began. Bush-Cheney bombed and invaded Iraq anyway.

Today we have a Republican House of Representatives that’s controlled by its most radical members who want to undo Social Security and Medicare and severely limit or abolish the social safety net that protects the least advantaged, especially those underemployed or unemployed. They hold to a doctrine that state assistance leads to chronic “dependency,” the same argument, indeed the same word, used by British parliamentarians in the Skibbereen_by_James_Mahony,_18471840s to justify their allowing a million Irish to starve to death in a land that continued to export food to England.

The Democratic party, in thrall like the Republicans to large corporate backers, is under the influence of an equally marginal ideology.

Meanwhile, the American people, despite tens of millions of born-again Christians and others who espouse a radical conservative agenda, still back social programs and foreign policy that is at odds with what the government gives them. This looks to me like what Professor Sand proposes was the situation in Germany when the Nazis came to power.

How long will we tolerate our elected officials acting against what the American people want? Will we, like the German people, come to a point where our votes no longer count but are just plebiscites staged to provide cover for the Leader’s latest abridgment of our freedoms?

As it is, we can barely claim to be a democracy any more, according to a recent study out of Princeton University — hardly a bastion of progressivism. The system only works for those who oil it with big bucks. And if we think our salvation will come at the hands of a political messiah, the disappointments of Barack Obama’s two administrations should make us think again.

In our case the margin that is taking over our nation, or has already largely done so, are the financial and corporate elites, not an ideological cadre of malcontents. Those elites don’t have an ideology beyond a belief in what makes them even more wealthy. If useful idiots like Paul Ryan espouse a political theory that suits the one percent that control the wealth of the nation and through that wealth its politics, fine. But the one-percenters could not care less about Paul Ryan’s ideology fantasies. As long as he and his cohort support the practical business of money-making, he could spout Marxism or devil worship for all they care.

And the latest bad news is that the rich aren’t just earning a greater and greater proportion of the national wealth as earned income. The present generation of super-rich and their progeny are now raking in a greater and greater percent of the annual GDP as income from investment, as Thomas Picketty’s very popular new book Capital in the Twenty-first Century documents. This development is putting us in more or less the same position as those South American nations which for centuries were owned and run by a handful of families. The rest of us become reduced to the status of serfs and vassals. There’s a kind of runaway global financial warming going on that will soon become too powerful to effectively challenge. But, if we think the super-rich run America now, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, if Monsieur Picketty is right.

And, lest those among us with professional or other advanced degrees and/or six-figure incomes think this is only bad news for the laboring masses, assuming they can find jobs, we should consider if material security purchased at the price of personal freedom and democratic governance is worth it. As things stand now the intellectual classes already labor in the vineyards of the status quo. Is there some offal we will not eat, or is a ticket to a prestigious university and a life of middle-class privilege all we aspire to for our children and grandchildren?

America has perfected the art of controlling its population without the crude tactics of the Nazis or their mirror image the Bolsheviks. Our media self-censors as effectively as either of those fascist dictatorships muzzled their own press. Almost nothing gets onto the airwaves or into print that the ruling class does not want, and when anything unfriendly to it is allowed to appear it is spun as radically as anything in Pravda or Das Reich.

When the ruling class of the South lost the Civil War and their legal right to own other human beings, it didn’t take long before they — having themselves become the marginalized — found they could produce a similar labor force by simply arresting freed slaves and putting them on chain gangs. The practice continues today in our increasingly corporate-run prisons. Again, the margin — in this case the staff that make up the jailors and, in the case of privately run facilities, the owners and stockholders — has taken control.Victor_Klemperer

We have already slipped into a semi-police state without most of us even noticing it. American citizens can no longer count on the protection of the Constitution to safeguard us against unwarranted searches, detention or even extra-judicial execution. The takeover which the Nazis of Klemperer’s time had to effect discretely until they had achieved absolute power has been realized in America by open acts of Congress and by acts of the president taken on his own initiative, beginning in earnest under the Clinton administration, as was documented and decried at the time by Nat Hentoff, and continuing under the Bush and, even more so, Obama administrations.

It may be springtime in America for the super-rich and their political enablers, but it’s going to be a long, hard winter for the rest of us and our progeny. Fascism may look more benign here than it did in the land of the Brown Shirts and the SS, but the results for our freedom and our republic may not be much different.

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.

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