Author Archives: Thomas J. Hubschman
A House Divided: Why We Need a New National Narrative
A new social contract should have replaced the First Constitution in our national consciousness as the recognized source of our most sacred freedoms. But we continue to insist on arguing about the “original intent” of the 1787 document instead of acknowledging the “rebirth of the nation” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg. Ignoring that new, Second Constitution and sticking to a national narrative out of date since the days of the Civil War is tearing the nation apart.
The history of a nation is its national myth, the story it tells itself about who it is and why. The role of historians is to create and reinforce that myth.
This isn’t to say the myth or story is a complete fabrication. But history is not a science; it cannot run experiments to verify its conclusions. Historians, the best of them, do rely on facts and an empirical approach. Even so, a professional consensus is maintained about what the national story is, the biography of a nation, people, or civilization. That narrative is true to the extent any biography may be, even those we fashion for ourselves individually, editing and enhancing as we go along. We pass on that autobiographical narrative to people in our lives in bits and pieces until they have what seems a plausible story about who we are. We do so for various reasons, any one of which may be more important than the truth of the narrative itself, which even we may stop doubting after enough repetitions.
Historians are supposed to be more careful than we are about our individual life stories, but they are no less prejudiced. They may have no official constraints on the content of their work, but an inclination to tell the most flattering and edifying tale is built in to the profession. But the historian’s job is to make sure not just that the young but everyone in a society is exposed to the approved version without too much variation. Founding myths about a nation are necessarily created after the fact. First you cobble together a political entity by force and clever political maneuvering. Then you declare it a nation and provide it with a history demonstrating the people who live within its boundaries have a common identity based on deep ancestry and mutual consent. You can spin the myth in various ways at different times to suit the changing requirements of the times. France is a social contract that includes all its citizens of all origins on an equal basis; America is a land of immigrants based on the idea of God-given equality of natural rights. In 21st-century America there are competing national myths: America was founded as a Christian nation vs. America is the brain-child of the 18th-century secular Enlightenment; America is a people that wants all human beings to be free like them vs. America is an empire that engages in the same atrocious behavior as all other empires.
Differing versions of what happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it occurred have exposed the contradictions in the narrative our history textbooks used to be so confident about. Millions of Americans view the acts of that day as sedition, an attempt to subvert by intimidation and violence the constitutional process of electing a president. Other millions insist it was an attempt to put to rights a criminal disregard of the people’s will. For the former, the then-sitting president’s refusal to accept the outcome of the November 2020 election and the violent protest that occurred on January 6th, 2021, were violations of its most sacred law. For the latter, that cold winter day was an act of supreme patriotism grounded in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
Not by accident, some of the protesters on January 6th carried Confederate flags. The Confederacy from the South’s point of view was of a piece with the spirit of the Revolution: a people’s right to take up arms against a tyrannical government. The rebelling states in 1860-61 also claimed justification from a Constitution favoring the rights of states over the central government and guaranteeing the sanctity of private property (slaves).
The debate over slavery and states rights in mid-19th-century America was decided by a war, which cost the lives of three quarters of a million men. And then, before the nation could be fully reunited, the divide between North and South reopened thanks to the Union’s failure to remain an occupying power in the South long enough to rid it of the power structure that had detached the rebelling states from the rest of the nation. It was as if after the second world war the Allies, instead of installing new democratic institutions, had occupied Europe only for a year or two and left without dismantling the political structures of fascism….
Read the rest of the essay at Eclectica.org.
Sarah’s Laugh, Donald Duck, and Jesus’ Other Woman
I learned the Bible, the first two books of it at least, if not at my mother’s knee, then up close on our old maroon sofa a couple years before I started Catholic school. That sofa was also where she read me the story of Little Black Sambo, who started out as a boy but ended up as a pancake; “Water Babies,” of which I have no memory but the strange title; “Tom Thumb,” as well as dozens of nursery rimes, all out of a set of handsome faux-leather red volumes called Journeys through Bookland.
The Bible stories came from another place, probably an abridged version for children. I have no memory of the book itself. What I do recall after all these years like old sepia family portraits are images of Noah’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for disobeying God’s command not to look back on the destruction of Sodom; the great flood Noah escaped by building an ark to save two of every living creature; the mugging of Benjamin by his brothers for his beautiful coat; and of course the bondage and rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. I was especially impressed by the plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians until the pharaoh relented—the frogs, the duel between the Jewish and Egyptian magicians that ended with the Jews’ team turning their staffs into snakes that ate up the Egyptians’, and of course the slaughter of all non-Jewish first-borns by the Angel of Death.
Then I turned five and my mother enrolled me in the parish school, where I never heard any of those Bible stories again….
Days of the Donald
Donald Trump is a character right out of As the World Turns or one of the other soaps that have been recycling the same kitschy plots since someone discovered he could use radio waves for something other than sending SOS signals.
Trump is the ambitious young surgeon with the year-round tan working his way through the nubile nursing staff with cold efficiency. Then he’s the middle-aged top-man-in-his field with two divorces under his belt and a libido that won’t quit, the aging but still feral fox in the hen house.
Later on he turns up as head of surgery, cruel to subordinates who don’t kowtow, ruthless to those who do, scourge of any hot RN’s who don’t see him as Zeus and themselves as this-is-my-lucky day milk cows, married to a rich socialite twenty years his junior, bane of feckless interns and an overworked Mexican maintenance staff, sublimating his still smoldering libido into an all-out campaign to destroy the talented young cardio man even the moth-eaten receptionist has a crush on.
Finally, the Old Man’s in what may be his most challenging role. Demoted from chief to emeritus, voted out by a hospital board that can’t afford to keep shelling out millions for his faux-pas in the OR and his long reach in the back stairwell the younger nurses use instead of the slow elevators, he has one last trick up the sleeve of his bespoke Savile Row blazer.
He may have three malpractice court appearances just this week; he may have caused the director of nursing, a woman the same age as himself and showing every year of it, damn her, to take a spill and fracture her hip when she told him he no longer had any authority to tell her what to do. But he isn’t ready yet to hang up his gold-plated stethoscope. He’ll show them all he’s cleverer than any ten Doctor Pretty Boys. And he’ll have the last laugh on those gutless traitors on the board who back in the day used to jump to attention when he stepped foot in the VIP lounge. If they think he’ll just take their gold watch and slink away to his three-million-dollar shore-front property in the Hamptons, they have another think coming.
We love this stuff. The cornier the better. Men have sports, women soap operas (though probably as many men watch them as women), not to mention the rom-coms, sitcoms and other Hollywood fantasies we use as wannabe templates for our uneventful lives. Males pretend we’re doing the caveman thing when we throw a steak on the grill and pop open a cold one in the parking lot of MegaCorp Stadium before the big game. But the off-field drama of the ballplayers’ lives is just as important to us as the manly mayhem on the field. Will the new tight end miss today’s showdown because he clocked his pregnant wife bigtime when she burned the toast the morning after last week’s loss? Will our slugging first-baseman be able to play after taking one in the jaw last night, and – more to the point — will our guys retaliate in kind like they should?
Now we have the sudsy drama of Donald Trump. Trump is the Everyman slob who lives our impossible dream – babes, money, power…the frigging presidency! He’s crude, like us. He’s overweight, like us. He talks not so good, also like us. He’s not the brightest bulb in the box, also like us. Sure, he’s a billionaire, unlike us. He’s had thousand-dollar whores, we should be so lucky. He gives us an image of ourselves we can embrace, a bozo with a gold toilet, a walking Big Mac, foul-mouthed and pig-ignorant. Like us. Minus the gold toilet.
We can’t be like that smartass fancy-pants Obama. And God knows we don’t want to be the bitch-from-hell Hilary. Dubya turned out to be even fecklesser than we expected. But the Donald is just right. He calls a shithole country what it is – a shithole country. He’s not afraid to say out loud that dagos are druggies and rapists. And he’s right, we would turn a blind eye if he chose to square things up with some dude via a magnum .44 on Upper 5th. Hell, he could tell us to storm the Capitol and we’d do it. In fact, we did.
He knows facts are just opinions. Wrong opinions if they aren’t his, because he’s a natural genius. That’s not boasting, it is what it is (his uncle was a doctor). Trump knows as much about science stuff as any egghead PhD. He understands leaders of foreign countries better than the entire State Department put together.
And everybody loves him. They can’t help themselves. The illegals who work on his golf courses and scrub pots in Mara Largo love him. Putin loves him. Boris Johnson loved him. Even that French guy who married his high school teacher (okay, she was hot back then, but why would a good-looking guy like that tie himself down with an old bag?), yeah, even Macron loves him.
And Trump’s stayed true to his roots. No fancy Upper East Side accent for him. A Queens guy through and through. Ever hear him say “schmuck”? Chuckie Cheese Schumer couldn’t hit that final “k” with more pizzazz. And he throws “schlong” and other New Yorkisms around like he grew up behind the counter at Zabar’s.
Come to think of it, his life could be a prime-time reality show as-is. Days of the Donald. No need for script writers. Just hand out copies of his tweets and news conferences. His off-the-cuff one-liners can keep the plot going for two seasons on their own. Let the actors ad lib.
In fact, let Trump play the leading role himself. No rehearsals. Do it live, and watch the ratings soar. He’s available most days, at least until the 2024 campaign gets into high gear. Only, this time the well-preserved twice-face-lifted head of surgery nails that wunderkind cardio bastard with a wicked right cross live on-air (you could use a stand-in for that bit) and the sweet young things in those hip-hugger uniforms wise up to who their real daddy is.
Hey, Trump could have been a great writer himself.
We’re lucky he went into politics. Who reads anymore anyhow.
Orwell’s Preface: The News We Never Get to Hear
In his preface to the now-classic Animal Farm, George Orwell described how censorship in the British media worked 80 years ago. There was no need for the blue pencil of the Soviet bureaucrat to make sure newspapers and radio broadcasters stayed on message. The media did that job on their own. They knew what to print and what not to put out on the airwaves. They knew it as if by instinct because they, the reporters and newsroom editors, were all part of the same establishment, had attended the same exclusive schools, subscribed to the same ruling-class values. For more than a century, those men (almost always men) and their relatives had been administering an empire based on a common set of imperialist values. The job of journalists was not to question those values but to preserve them.
The preface Orwell had written for his parable of how political thought is manipulated in a non-totalitarian society was omitted by the publisher of Animal Farm. It was one thing to describe in fictional form a bunch of farmyard animals wresting power from their human overseers and then using it to create a society just as oppressive. It was quite another to demonstrate, as Orwell did in that preface, how Britain accomplished the same goal without an all-powerful Ministry of Truth (as in his novel 1984). Great Britain’s educational and class systems did the job on their own without fuss or threat to the average Englishman’s faith that freedom of the press and, by extension, freedom of thought were guaranteed.
The media in the US operate in much the same way…. (Continue reading…)
My wife’s ashes were ready for pickup three days ago. She died January 19th. The excuse for the delay was that winter is a busy time for the funeral business. She would not have cared. She gave no thought to what became of her after she died, didn’t consider it worth her time. I tried to see the delay at the funeral service the same way, but the idea of her lying in a cold morgue all this time bothered me. Most of her life she felt cold even though the temperature in our living room remained, summer and winter, 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I once saw a photo of her taken when she and her first husband were camping out on their way back to the east coast after a year spent at a university in Oregon. She is still in her sleeping bag. Her eyes are only half-open. She looks as if, were it up to her, she would no more come out of that bag than a cat would jump into a cold lake….. (Read more.)
Beyond Good, Evil, and the Split Infinitive
I learned moral relativity from a linguistics course I took in my junior year of college. It was one of the few interesting courses I had in that institution of higher learning, and ironically, it taught me something about the real world contradictory to everything the place, a religious college, stood for. That lesson turned out to have as profound an impact on me as did my finding out many years earlier about the way babies were made, though in this case the force of the revelation operated over the course of a couple semesters rather than in a few staggering minutes in a schoolyard.
But revelation it was nevertheless, and that one course changed my understanding of the moral world more profoundly than did the fifteen years of religious schooling preceding it. And, unlike its birds-and-bees counterpart, the revelation that there are no linguistic absolutes, no rights or wrongs about how a language is used beyond the way people do in fact use it, became a template I could and would apply to almost every other area of human experience, even if I only did so mostly in retrospect…. (Continue reading)
I invite my blog readers to sample my new novel, Beer, for free at Amazon/com: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09LSQ853W/ref=sr_1_1…. It will be soon also be available in other e-versions as well as in a print edition.
Beer is a novel in the form of family memoir compressed into one hot August afternoon, each member’s narrative interwoven and framed by the youngest’s account of that ordinary, extraordinary day.
A young boy sits in a dark bar waiting for his father to finish his beer. His mother waits for them on the baking sidewalk outside. At the end of the day they will return home, the father drunk, the mother furious, the day’s outing an all-too-familiar disaster.
Other voices alternate with the boy’s own, past alternating with present and future in a timeless continuum. Mother and father ask understanding for behavior they could neither control nor understand. The eldest son still smarts years after the physical and emotional violence he endured as collateral damage of his parents’ unhappy union. A daughter still craves the maternal support she never received. A second son continues to bear the weight of being both the object and victim of his mother’s all-but-incestuous love.
The reader has a sense of eavesdropping on family secrets, drawn into a kind of complicity with the revelations of this one family but addressed to the dark heart of families generally: how is it so much love has so much power to destroy?
The afternoon drags on, first in that bar, then in the surrounding neighborhood where the boy-narrator and his mother seek relief from the heat and their long vigil. For the boy, these family histories have yet to take place or are buried in the deep past. For the others they are accounts that flow backward and forward, weaving what has already taken place into what has yet to happen.
As the boy-narrator puts it, “Home is where a part of you a goes on living long after you have moved elsewhere and grown old, that tugs at you and is perhaps better left unrevisited because, no matter how much bad there was, it always remains a paradise lost, the one time when your existence was complete, when all the characters that should be there were there, when happiness seemed not only possible but a daily routine that could so easily be mistaken for normalcy.”
In the television series Star Trek the crew of the spaceship Enterprise take their vacations on something called the “Holodeck”—a play on the words “holiday” and “holovision.” They are transported into a virtual world in every way as real-seeming as the one they live in on the Enterprise. Plus, that world can be anywhere and at any point in history, or pre-history for that matter. They can go back to the gun-slinging days of the American frontier or the time of the dinosaurs a hundred million years earlier. But whatever place and period they choose to visit, they exist there as real people vulnerable to the bullet of a six-shooter or the jaws of a tyranosaurus.
I don’t remember any members of the Enterprise explaining just how a Holodeck worked. Presumably, the virtual reality was generated algorithmically in the same way a virtual reality is produced for us today by putting on special goggles hooked up to a computer. Only, in Star Trek the “reality” is of a much more sophisticated kind. Science fiction is more about the present, in any case, than it is about the future, a matter of what-if added to what-is. Star Trek was entertainment, not epistemology. The play’s the thing, not its plausibility. The audience must believe, at least for as long as the show lasts, that the characters have been transported in space and time and exist there in as real a state as if they were still back on board the Enterprise. That’s no more a demand on an audience than to expect them to believe a spaceship can travel at “warp speed,” a catchy phrase for a phenomenon best not discussed in detail.
But that holodeck, a reality generated by machine, can be taken as a metaphor for the reality we earthbound folk actually live in, except our reality, the only one there is, is generated not by computers but by our imaginations, continuously, for as long as the organs we need to create that unimaginable imaginary are in good working order. But it is not just a reality we generate, it and we are that reality, the only reality there is….
My latest short story at Eclectica:
“Three extensions, all usable both as telephone and intercom. Two rings mean, “I’m going to the bathroom,” so I don’t inconvenience her and am not myself interrupted. Three rings means I took my blood-thinner. Three rings from her means I should do so if I’ve forgot. One ring means, “I’m going to bed,” though neither of us bothers with that one much. If one of us is going for a walk, we say so face-to-face, usually as we’re on our way out the door.
“I have my room, she has hers. We used to share a king-size mattress before she hit menopause. Hot flashes, frequent urinations, night sweats, insomnia. I couldn’t get two hours sleep without interruption, and once I’m awake, I’m up for hours. I started sleeping in the spare room, the one Jerry grew up in. It still has the Minnesota State comforter on the bed. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. My wife was apologetic about the menopause. Can’t be helped, I said the night I picked up my pillow and headed into the boy’s room. It will pass, I said. God, I hope so, she said….”
To read the rest:
Running for the Bus: Life and Love in the Time of COVID
“People who endured ongoing aerial bombardment must have experienced something like this, though of course in a more urgent way: Live for today, love for today. If it’s really important, do it now. Or, just as essential: relax, stare out the window, watch the leaves and snow fall, enjoy the screeches of the children playing on the street and the noises of workers and machines making road repairs. You can’t waste time, you can only misuse it.”
Thoughts after a full year of lockdown….
The complete essay: