Memo to My Fellow Americans

Better police, protest marches and T-shirts with militant slogans on them is not going to cure racism. Nor will passionate condemnations of White Supremacy, the Legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow. Ditto for the defacing and pulling down statues of Confederate generals and American presidents who owned slaves and genocided Indians. Instant history and quick fixes won’t result in meaningful change. As long as we Americans remain pig-ignorant of the more recent and more important causes for how we ended up in this situation, the future will look pretty much like the present. And those causes occurred not in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries but during the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents.

America is more segregated today than it was fifty years ago. We live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate and unequal schools despite the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with young black men. The rest mostly live in urban and suburban ghettos. Black net worth per capita is less than 10% of white wealth, its income about half of White. This is not because of slavery and Jim Crow and color prejudice. Those were necessary but insufficient reasons. African American poverty and segregation are the consequence of mandated federal policy from the 1930s on by successive Democratic and Republican administrations, not by racist banks and individual prejudice. That government policy deliberately excluded “Negroes” from American society as surely as the Dalit, India’s so-called Untouchables, were deliberately relegated to lives as collectors of human waste whose shadow must not fall upon that of any of the higher castes. What we call Race is not a biological or even matter of personal prejudice or even of “systemic” discrimination in this country. It is a social caste, and only one group of people belong to it: Blacks. It existed before the administration of FDR, but it was only then that the death blow to African American inclusion occurred, the wilful and public exclusion by law that condemned Americans of African descent to an economic and social status beyond the pale.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Redlining Map, 1936

The decision not to afford home ownership to people of African descent under FDR’s Federal Housing Act of 1935 and its broad implementation for tens of millions of new, White home owners after the second world war, divided the nation into two groups: White and Black. And so it remains. The euphemism “people of color” is not just inaccurate, it’s misleading and dangerous. No other group, not Mexicans, not Japanese, not East Indians, were denied the right to home ownership under the auspices of the FHA and VA without whose underwriting virtually no mortgages for new or refinanced housing were granted. Only Negroes were denied. It was a requirement laid down not by men in white hoods but by acts of Congress signed into law by presidents whose political base lay in the segregated South and the segregated North. It remained the law of the land for several decades. The stipulation not to sell or rent to Negroes was written into the deeds of those homes, built by the millions for working- and middle-class people, especially after the second world war for those who had themselves been considered less than White until then, though their status had little or nothing to do with skin color. By making Negroes foreigners in their own country, our parents and grandparents were transformed overnight into honorary Whites. What made them so was just one thing they all shared in common: they were not Black.

Had there never been slavery or Jim Crow, if African Americans had been allowed to buy into residential neighborhoods like other Americans, that period of history would be just that: history, not a living reality. But if we keep focusing on Black slavery and Jim Crow, we will never overcome their true legacies: the economic and social exclusion that occurred by laws enacted in the 1930s and beyond, laws that established today’s segregated nation more effectively than slavery or Jim Crow were able to do.

It’s a lot easier to see today’s dysfunctional Black communities, whether we call it the result of “racism” or “black-on-black” crime, as the legacy of horrors perpetrated by people who lived in the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries rather than the responsibility of our parents and grandparents. After all, how many of us are direct descendants of slave owners? But 1935 and 1947 are too recent to be called “history.” If centuries of African American oppression could have been overcome so recently by including Blacks in the so-called American Dream instead of legally excluding them from it, that’s hitting a bit close to home when it comes to this generation’s responsibility for the present situation.

A house bought for $8,000 in 1947 ($100,000 in 2020 dollars) is now worth $400,000-$500,000. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to borrow against for a child’s education or invest in a new or existing business or to will to that child to secure and improve their own life. But, even more importantly, the value of that house is dependent on its location in a desirable neighborhood, meaning one with good schools, home-owner-friendly zoning laws, good libraries, supermarkets and medical care, all of which are necessary to a middle-class life. Force African Americans into ghettos, at first urban but now more and more suburban zoned for manufacturing, with third-rate schools and other essential amenities, and you have a country of South Sides and Fergusons on your hands, if not on your consciences.

So-called Whites and Blacks, at least working-class ones lived together in cities all across America (even in the South until after the Civil War). They attended the same schools, made friends, fell in love. They had to be forceably separated by federal, state and municipal law. Those old “mixed” neighborhoods were demolished (think “urban renewal”), with Whites moved into Whites-only public housing and then into Whites-only suburbs, and Blacks left in what rapidly deteriorated into Blacks-only public housing and neighborhoods that deteriorated into urban slums after the industry and jobs that city-dwelling folk of all backgrounds used to rely on departed, creating Black slums in their place. The idea that racism is about color prejudice is just not true. It wasn’t even true in the Old South, except as a marker, after the fact, of social status.

Let people of African and non-African descent live together with no financial disability for either and within a generation or two we wouldn’t even be using the absurd phrase “mixed race.” What grandparent thinks of their grandchild as anything other than their beloved grandchild? What parent strives less to give their child less than the best possible advantages no matter what their ancestry?

What’s to be done? Street protests brought on by the flagrant murder of yet another Black man by a policeman is only a beginning and will be all there is unless a new Civil Rights movement at the grassroots level follows. America must be integrated residentially. There is no other effective way to level the playing field.

To do that ways must be found to make homes affordable to Blacks who otherwise would not have the cash to purchase them at today’s prices. A government subsidy could be one way to do this. Also and essentially if we are to break undo the lies we have been brought up on, textbooks in our primary and secondary schools must be revised to tell the real history of African Americans, the history that explains and takes responsibility for what our parents and grandparents benefited from to the detriment of their African American fellow citizens. Today’s texts pretend that present-day segregation is the result of private prejudice. That’s a lie. American apartheid in 2020 is the consequence of law, acts of Democratic and Republican administrations through the Federal Housing and the Veterans administrations. It was our moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers that allowed it to happen, and now we ourselves for perpetuating it and adding to it during our own lifetimes with “prison reform” and the criminalization of Black poverty.

To remedy these evils will take more than one generation, just as the Civil Rights Movement took many generations to achieve its modest goals of ending the legal segregation of schools and public accommodations. Will we accept that responsibility or settle for the feel-good but by themselves ineffectual street protests and destruction of the images of long-dead slave-holders?

“Isometry”

My new short story in Eclectica:

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

We grew up together, Mack and I. Or at least we shared the same classrooms from Sister Mary Margaret’s kindergarten through Father John Patrick Denning’s 12th-grade history class. But it was only later, after my wife and I divorced and Mack was just getting engaged, that we became friends.

Mack was the name he preferred. His real name is Judah Maccabeus O’Flaherty. It should have been “Judas” Maccabeus, of course, but his mother was afraid the other kids would tease him for having the name of the apostle who betrayed Christ—an odd scruple on her part, given the handles she actually did burden him with. But parents are like that. They rarely consider what it’ll be like for their offspring to wear a sandwich board of weird monickers for an entire lifetime. I should know. My parents called me Christopher Aloysius Lifkovitz….

Read the rest.

“Not My President!”

If I see one more posting on my Facebook page of a painting or photograph of Barack Obama in a blue, gray, tan or no suit all looking like an ad out of Gentleman’s Quarterly, I might “phrow up.”

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

That venue, GQ, would be appropriate. Obama is seen by his fans as the Very Model of a Gentleman. He is dignified, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-mannered, good-looking and neither more nor less intelligent than a gentleman should be. In other words, he is not Donald Trump.

Never mind what kind of president Obama actually was: his capitulation to Wall Street even before he took office and his abandonment of millions of stressed American home-owners, his ratcheting up of a war in Afghanistan even as he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, his deportation of more than 2.5 million immigrants, his Tuesday drone strikes that killed nine bystanders for every alleged terrorist targeted, his neglect of African Americans, etc. He looked like a president. He spoke like one, better than anyone since John F. Kennedy. He was respected and even loved by other heads of state with the exception of Vladimir Putin. If being the leader of a great nation is about looks and eloquence, he can’t be beat.

Contrast that with the current occupant of the White House. Donald J. Trump is inarticulate to the point of idiocy, unsightly, mean (read his tweets), ignorant of even basic matters any minimally-informed citizen is aware of, vulgar, vain and egomaniacal to a degree someone less well-heeled might be institutionalized for. And that’s leaving out his appalling history of sexual predation (did I mention Obama’s squeaky-clean record on that account at least since his college days?).

How could anyone but someone who is delusional support, never mind be happy to have, someone like Donald Trump for president?

But, leaving aside that both Obama and Trump serve the interests of big money, the difference between them is mainly in style and personality.

Obama is in the mould of the charismatic politician writ large. He’s slicker and smoother than Clinton and Bush Senior, smarter than W and Reagan, but fundamentally the same, a political creature begat from and existing in a political environment. His morality is that of politics, not the world of trade and finance, though he served both. A politician like him may be corrupt, but he knows how to appear not to be and to stop short of behavior which might cost him his job.

(Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Trump is a businessman. His morality is a businessman’s. That’s why he exposes himself so flagrantly to criticism and derision as a public official. In his world, the world of business, it is moral to bribe and return favor for favor. A businessman need not be acting cynically if he does a deal that, from an outsider’s point of view, involves threats and extortion, just as a politician can sincerely believe s/he is acting in the public interest if s/he engages in behavior that involves compromise, horse-trading, pork-barreling and daily lies to the public. The businessman justifies himself on the grounds of “that’s business,” the politician with “that’s how politics works.”

When I was a civil servant I was offered what amounted to an illegal gratuity on two occasions. In neither instance was the person offering the benefit (a free meal, a pair of shoes) aware that she or he was doing anything inappropriate. In the ordinary course of doing my job I had inadvertently made their own job or personal life a little easier. The proper etiquette in their eyes was to show appreciation, and in both cases it would have been out of their own pockets. What amounted to a crime under the law was to them the done, i.e. moral, thing. It would have been wrong, as they saw it, not to respond with a tangible token of their appreciation.

But business morality becomes problematic when it gets transferred to a political environment. Business, certainly big business, is feudal. The king reigns, everyone else takes orders. If he is king, he is by definition always right by the grace of God. Trump is used to that kind of environment and still thinks within it. He hires and fires as if he were sitting in his office in Trump Tower. He doesn’t feel any need to care about the good or bad impression he makes. His object is to win, make the deal, come out on top ahead of the competition. And winning is not just good, it justifies the winner (think war). Business people believe this as sincerely as any cleric does the validity of his or her faith. So do most heads of crime families.

But what Trump-haters I know actually object to is his personal style, not his policies, which are not all that different from the administration’s that preceded his. It’s his lack of “class”that infuriates them. He acts and talks like the sort of people they try avoid having for neighbors. They love Obama because he would not be an embarrassment at their dinner party, would in fact be the making of it. The atrocities and false promises Obama was guilty of don’t enter into the picture. Appearance is what matters. Trump is killing Americans by the thousands with his cuts to the social safety net and his failure to prepare for or deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not his incompetence or even his lack of common decency that irks Trump-haters. It’s because he represents everything they find distasteful, especially about the lower classes.

In ancient Greece, as in modern Great Britain, manual labor  was incompatible with gentility. No Greek who worked with his hands, even if he was the sculptor Phidias, could be considered a gentleman. Likewise, no member of the gentry in England wants their child to marry someone in “trade” (though many have, for the money). A similar snobbery is at work with Trump-haters, though they seem unconscious of it.

My Trump-hater friends’ willingness to embrace Joe Biden, knowing or caring nothing about what he has stood for or is likely to do as president, is the measure of how far they are willing to go to rid themselves of the orange buffoon. To do that they seem willing to suspend not just their judgment but their rationality. I too would like to see the back of Trump, but not to replace him with whatever is at hand and guarantee more of the same with different optics. I’d rather a slob who does the right thing than a gentleman who doesn’t have a clue to what the right thing is or care. Alas, I’m not going to get either.

And It Came to Pass (or maybe not)…

(Transcribed and translated from the original Ur-text by Thomas J. Hubschman, B.A.)

And it came to pass that a great Plague was upon the land. And the people were sore distressed. And their leaders knew not what to do, for the chief among them had declared the affliction was of nought and would pass betimes.

And the chief’s physicians were confused and did dispute amongst themselves, some saying the plague was the wrath of the Lord and to resist it was sin, and others that it was a test of the Lord’s gift of the wisdom he had vouchsafed unto his people to cure themselves.

And, lo, there arose among these latter a servant of the people. And he said that the people must wear a cloth upon their countenance and do social-distancing. But the Chief did mock him, and some of the people mocked him as well. They took up arms and defied the servant of the people, saying, Nay, but we shall not obey! For are we not free men to do as we wish and come and go as we please?

And the Chief said that the defiant ones spoke true and that the venom of the asp and the adder would cure the affliction, for so it had appeared to him in a dream. But the people knew not whom to believe. Some said foreigners had brought the disease upon them, others that they themselves had offered impure sacrifice to the Lord and the plague was His punishment thereof.

And as they did contend amongst themselves, many died and many more fell ill. The old did fall away as leaves from the trees. But the young were spared the worst. And some did say this was the will of the Lord, for the old had lived their lives and the young had not yet and the dying of the old was the will of the Lord and was good for the kingdom and that now the people must go about their business as before.

And those who did believe this prepared to do so. The sellers of the slaughtered sacrifices and the sellers of figs and dates and barley did return to their accustomed places in the markets and the young men came forth to play at their games again.

And as the fruit trees began to put forth their abundance and the people, those who had cried, Lo, this blight shall pass betimes and those who had said the affliction would endure and that the people must practice sacrifice and good fellowship in their affliction until their wise men learned the cure thereof, behold it came to pass that… [Remainder of text missing.]

Covid-19 and Us Elderly

(My thoughts as in mcsweeneys.net)

The way we elderly were dismissed at the start of this COVID-19 thing, as if we had passed our expiration dates anyway, was just an exaggeration of how we are treated all the time. If we are occasionally shown respect, it is for our longevity, not our present usefulness. To the young we look like dried-up fruit. They don’t realize that inside these parched exteriors, a rich mental life and torrents of emotion are still rushing like spring floods.

Albrect Dürer’s Mother

I used to assume I was an aberration, a grotesque exception to the deceleration that seemed synonymous with advancing years. If I found myself getting excited about a new idea or weeping from music that used to make me feel merely exalted, I figured I’d better keep it to myself lest someone try to medicate me. When I fell in love — it could be a toddler or a puppy as easily as a human being, a sudden pang as startling as my first kiss — I scarcely recognized this “I” as the same man I was twenty or even ten years ago.

And it’s not just intensity. There’s a difference of kind. That first kiss in the hallway of my teenage girlfriend was intoxicating, stupefying. But what I call “falling in love” now seems to be experienced by a different kind of being, before an undeveloped gray creature but now multi-colored and winged. Where did he come from?

I’m not alone. Other old people feel what I feel but keep it to themselves: It’s disgraceful, even pathological, to experience deep feeling at our age. When was the last time anyone saw two flabby, wrinkled bodies coupling in a movie? Passion is the provenance of youth, a scandal in the old. If we’re noticed at all we’re seen standing, not quite steadily, on a line at the supermarket looking a bit overwhelmed, or leaning against a railing to catch our breath — scarcely sensible, never mind living at a pitch some people take illegal drugs to achieve. If we’re seen holding hands in public, people stare and wonder what sort of ember could possibly glow in such dry, wasted forms.

The worst of it is not that the young don’t realize what we are, it’s that we ourselves don’t appreciate it. No one holds us in greater contempt than we do. We not only don’t celebrate our enhanced sensitivity, we accept its medicalization all too readily. Indeed, we do fall into genuine depression. How could we not? But is depression not appropriate to someone no one values, a mere burden to family and society in general? And do we not, in fact, turn into husks, old fools, even demented old fools as a result? How could we do otherwise, apart from the sturdy minority who maintain some sense of self-worth?

It’s not easy to resist an environment that reinforces such negative attitudes. Ask any member of a so-called minority group. Yet, we elderly are the goal humankind has striven so long to reach: an old age with bodies and minds still in working order, ready to impart not just wisdom but what it means to feel life at its deepest level. Reaching this point used to be the privilege of a select few. Now threescore and ten is commonplace. Why should we not share the blessings of this maturity with everyone else? Would it not be irresponsible to do otherwise?

“Question Mark”

My new story at Eclectica…

QUESTION MARK

(c) Thomas J. Hubschman

My father died with a big question mark over his head like the one in the bubble over a cartoon character who can’t make up his mind. No one saw it but me. I had been sitting for two days at his bedside watching him slip from semi-consciousness into coma. I had brought The Brothers Karamazov with me to the hospital, which I had started rereading after many years when my sister called to tell me pop had had a second stroke and wasn’t expected to last long.

It seemed odd, spending those hours by his bedside in the company of both the comatose man who had begot me and with Papa Karamazov. One, my father, was about as curious and tentative a human being as I’ve ever known. The other was a self-absorbed narcissist who cared about nothing but his own pleasure. And yet, because they were both fathers, they shared something universal on that account: an unhealthy influence on their sons’ amour propre. I found the two men getting confused in my mind—lecherous, single-minded Karamazov and my own one-woman, ever-questioning parent—as the hours dragged on and I got little sleep except for cat naps on a cushioned chair a nurse kindly provided….

Read on…

Who’s Afraid of Big Bad AI?

 

Silver didrachma from Crete depicting Talos, an ancient mythical automaton with artificial intelligence.

“We think, we have consciousness, with our hands and feet, guts and muscles, just as trees “think” with their roots and leaves. To be sure, there is a way to make a machine that is identical to all the functions we have as human beings. The polite term for it is sexual intercourse.”

My latest at Eclectica: http://www.eclectica.org/v24n2/hubschman_salon.html

 

A New Year’s Wish

In the house I grew up in, the Great Famine was a living memory. The starvation of a million Irish a century before I was born was the Holocaust I lived with, not the one that had recently occurred in Europe. Europe was far away, Ireland was right there in my mother’s kitchen. In those early years after a war that had engulfed the entire world, cost half a million American lives and ended with the destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic bombs, the Nazi concentration camps were only starting to enter public consciousness, never mind my six-year-old’s. At the same time, a civil rights movement for African Americans was beginning to gain traction. But Jewish refugees were told by fellow Jews to forget what had happened to them or their relatives in the old country and to get on with their lives. And African Americans were warned by their leaders and sympathetic Whites not to go “too fast” in their quest for equality….

To read the rest:

http://www.eclectica.org/v24n1/hubschman_salon.html

Why Fiction?

My latest at Eclectica…

In his essay on Gogol, V. S. Pritchett wrote about “the carelessness, the lethargy, the enormous bad taste of genius, its liability to accident, it’s slovenly and majestic conceit that anything will do. Don Quixote falls in half, the Chartreuse and Le Rouge et le Noir go shockingly to pieces, Tolstoy stuffs a history book into War and Peace, Fielding and Dickens pad and Dostoevsky wanders into ideological journalism…” Pritchett contrasted these faults in the great novelists of the 19th century with the modern novel which, he says, “has reached such a pitch of competence and shapeliness that we are shocked at the disorderliness of the masterpieces.” But in contrast to the unfinished patchiness of their antecedents, “In the modern novel we are looking at a neatly barbered suburban garden,” while in the greats, “We feel the force of a great power which is never entirely spent, but which cannot be bothered to fulfill itself.”

Not quite what we were taught in our English lit courses. But, true enough, it seems to me, and even more so since the ascendancy of post-modernism. The conclusion one reaches, or at least the one that has nagged at me for years, is that we who practice the art of fiction in contemporary times do so in a kind of silver or perhaps bronze age, unable to reach the heights of the 24-caret stuff produced by those lazy geniuses of the 18th and 19th centuries. We may write, some of us, with good form in carefully constructed sentences, but we’re just not made of the same stuff as a Dostoevsky or a Jane Austen….

Continue reading…

Is the Catholic Church Too Big to Fail?

The Wall Street banks were considered too big to fail and were forgiven for driving the economy into the ground and wrecking the lives of millions of Americans and who knows how many other people on the planet. They were not only forgiven, they were pumped full of trillions of dollars and allowed to go back to business as usual.

If Boeing or General Motors or any other giant corporation gets into serious financial trouble, they too have friends in high places to come to their rescue. Is this the same reason, too big to fail, why the Roman Catholic church, after decades of revelations about widespread sexual child abuse as well as continuing sexual assaults on seminarians and nuns, can avoid being held accountable for hideous crimes it has perpetrated and then covered up?

Why, in fact, do we use the euphemism “sexual abuse” for an act that amounts to rape and physical assault when talking about the felonious acts of the clergy of any religion? If public school teachers were accused of such crimes on a scale the Catholic clergy have perpetrated, would we demand nothing more than apologies and promises to do better? Would we continue to pay taxes without a substantial, basic overhaul of the educational system? Why do we leave it to the Vatican and the same people who have enabled and covered up clerical criminality for so long to take the necessary action?

The Church claims more than a billion members worldwide. It lives off the money those members contribute along with substantial corporate investments and other income. How many of those billion are practicing or even believers, I have no idea. What I do know is that no one in the Wall Street banks responsible for the Great Recession of 2009 faced criminal charges as a result or their criminal behavior. And I am not aware of any prosecutions of Catholic or other clergy on a scale commensurate with the crimes that have been alleged against them. Why not? Why are we satisfied with apologies and reforms instead of demanding long jail sentences?

Why also are we not hearing more of the details of specific, individual crimes that have done severe physical as well as lifelong psychological harm? I have in mind the rape of a boy by a clergyman reported in the New York Times, not Catholic in this case, who had to be operated on to repair the damage done to him. Such stories, when they are about media moguls or public officials, fill the front pages of our tabloid newspapers and much of the TV news. Why are graphic descriptions of assaults by those who are not the victims of priests and other clergymen appropriate for the media but the same acts by clergymen are not? Individual stories, whether shocking or heartwarming, engage our feelings in a way no statistics can. Those late-night TV shakedowns by organizations trolling for our contributions always show the appealing faces and withered bodies of individual children. Even legitimate charities attempt to connect individual suffering human beings with individual donors. News media trade on a fact of human nature: the tale of a specific individual is a tragedy, the report of thousands is a statistic. We rarely read about or hear graphic descriptions of clerical criminality, only reports or statements by victims who were “sexually abused,” usually over a period of years. But one graphic description is worth a thousand such reports, just as the account of an individual family who lost their home as the result of a predatory bank is worth any number of cold recitations of the number of such homes that defaulted.

The Catholic Church lost much of North America and almost all of Europe even before the current sex scandals were exposed. It has since concentrated its efforts in Africa and Latin America where it faces serious challenges from evangelical Protestantism. But it’s not yet in danger of going out of business. None of its lay members have any vote about who fills the ranks of their clergy. That clergy claims divine appointment – the same assertion monarchs used to make. Some Catholics agitate for a priesthood that includes women or for the right to use birth control, but they have no power to do anything more than humbly request such reforms. The Church hierarchy retains all authority to itself while demanding complete obedience from its members under pain of excommunication and eternal torture in an afterlife. It is an institution predicated on its own authority, not on democratic principles.

As long as we give our financial and corporate institutions permission to set their own rules we will continue to suffer the consequences of their greed. And as long as we accept the idea that autocratic religion, or “faith” as it is euphemistically called these days, can operate shielded from substantial consequences for its bad behavior, we will suffer the abuses that come with allowing such institutions the privilege of being too big to fail and too big to jail.