50 BULLET POINTS CONCERNING AMERICA’S GUN PSYCHOSIS

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  1. Let’s politicize these acts, if for no other reason because, in America, we politicize everything else.
  2. Of course it’s a mental health issue.
  3. For starters, the mental handicap of anyone who thinks this weapon, in the public (or private) sector is useful, safe or justifiable on any level. ar154. Oh those annoying, anti-American liberals, right? Wrong. Let’s allow General Stanley McChrystal the floor: “I spent a career carrying typically either a M16 and later, a M4 carbine…and a M4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round, which is 5.56 millimeters, at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed to do that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry…I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we’ve got to take a serious look — I understand everybody’s desire to have whatever they want — we have to protect our children and our police and we have to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that.”

5. Certainly I’m not the only person who, immediately upon hearing the news, suspected that Omar Mateen was a closeted, likely tormented gay man—a reminder that religion is always the problem.

6. President Obama has, as of this date, had to give fourteen press conferences to address gun-related massacres on American soil.

7. If you continue to rationalize the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are not merely part of the problem, you are the problem. We can—and do—count on the NRA and the cretins bought and paid for by their blood money to assume the hardest and most irrational line; they count on moral equivalence, sanctimony and above all, hope for frustration to lead to social media sloganeering with no action.

8. If you continue to defend the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are a traitor, however ignorant or unwitting.

9. Fuck the 2nd Amendment. Follow the money.

10. No, seriously. If certain entities weren’t making obscene amounts of money (and spreading it around to keep craven opportunists on the payroll) this issue would have been remedied decades ago.

11. Special committees have been formed to explore, just to cherry pick some low-hanging tempests in a tea (party) pot, the proliferation of witchcraft, opposition to the dangers of dancing, the creeping spread of communism, the hidden, evil messages in certain rock lyrics…and the mere suggestion that maybe an amendment written when muskets were cutting edge weaponry is grounds for scorched earth opposition. This is a profound sickness.

12. This is still the single best commercial on the topic.

13. You know the commercials with first-hand testimony to what cigarette addiction can do to the human body? Start making commercials with statistics of kids shooting each other. And find some brave people willing to go on the record about what unintentional gun violence has done to their family. Or people whose loved ones have been victimized. Tasteless? Too personal? Well, the possibility that any of us could be killed by an accidental (or, in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, intentional) gunshot couldn’t possibly be more personal. And the fact that, thus far, the will of a clear and overwhelming majority is thwarted by a relatively tiny faction with unconscionably deep pockets is about as tasteless as anything imaginable.

14. Be clear: it’s not that nothing can be done, it’s because so much can be done. Sensible and overdue gun control is a slippery slope, as it should be. The people with nothing to lose, except money (and, presumably, those with minuscule and/or impotent penises), are very aware of this.

15. Whether it’s a drive-by, a road rage incident or a calculated assault, guns are the refuge of sissies who wouldn’t last three seconds in a fist fight.

16. Good guys beat bad guys with the benefit of bigger guns. This is the America we have manufactured, via movies and the marketing of war.

17. Speaking of marketing: lobbyists and the political machines they’re paid to pimp have made a sick science of selling unreality to a nation of terrified suckers.

18. Speaking of terror, how many different variations of the same formulation will it require? gun photo

19. If the only time you pay attention to gun violence is to grandstand on your Facebook feed (or worse, send “thoughts and prayers”), you are not merely a coward, you’re acting entirely within the pre-approved script.

20. Imagine if we felt “hopes and prayers” were sufficient, or all we could do every time a drunk driver killed someone.

21. If you’re still alive, you’re not Orlando. Do something.

22. We have made airport travel into the most inconvenient, obnoxious ordeal conceivable, yet it’s many times easier for anyone to bring a gun into any public place than it is to board a plane, even without luggage*. (*White males, that is.)

23. Guess what demographic (hint: not Muslims) is responsible for the majority of gun massacres on American soil?

24. Start showing the dead bodies on the news.

25. Ditto for returning soldiers. As T.S. Eliot once observed, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Americans, of course, can bear very much reality TV.

26. “Hate will never win.” Hate isn’t trying to win. It’s trying to kill.

27. “Well, if he didn’t have a gun, he would have had a bomb!” No, he wouldn’t. Because, for starters, you can’t buy a bomb at Walmart.

28. Although we have a specific cultural malady, mental illness is, of course, experienced by all ages of all people in all countries. Without guns, you can’t easily enact slaughter. Full stop.

29. Any time anyone walks into an establishment with a gun and body bags are required in the aftermath, it’s an act of terror.

30. All it would take is one shooting spree in the United States Capitol to ensure extreme action was immediately taken.

31. Anyone in congress expressing condolences without mentioning the word “guns” should be shamed from office. Anyone in congress expressing condolences who has accepted money from the NRA should be shamed from American citizenship.

32. In America, the only thing more powerful and effective than money is shaming. Call on any and all elected officials to return their soiled money, or send it to the families of victims.

33. Guess what? Here’s a list of GOP senators who voted against ensuring people on terror watch lists can’t buy firearms. (Props to journalist Ivor Volsky for doing heavy lifting in the service of exposing this illimitable hypocristy.)

34. It takes considerably more time and effort to adopt a dog that’s facing being euthanized than it is to purchase a firearm in America.

35. Seriously, America is the only place this happens.

36. This is the single best (and hilarious, to boot) take on America’s unique gun psychosis.

37. I’d rather have a limb hacked off than be censored in any way. That said, Hollywood has a lot more blood on its hands than anyone acknowledges.

38. Video game manufacturers too.

39. Enough with the accommodations and equivocations, let’s treat—for a start—gun manufacturers the way we treat cigarette companies.

40. Start taxing the shit out of organized religions. Why? Because the same type of illogic and—be clear—highly organized, orchestrated and effective propaganda keeps these institutions unregulated and unaccountable.

41. In our society, police forces have become more martial and intimidating in direct proportion with our dread of potential danger posed by anything “Other”—inexorably people who aren’t white. This is not coincidental.

42. An average of seven children under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.

43. Read this.

44. Just like actually speaking to issues of economic inequality and the dissipation of a healthy American working class (and commensurate wages) is politically viable, action on gun violence will attract, not repel voters.

45. Seriously, Democrats have been paralyzed for the last half-century by the ludicrous trepidation to offend a constituency that wouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway.

46. Whatever you want to say about Obama, this is what he had to say on June 1.

47. This is what the presumptive nominee for the Republican party had to say in the wake of the single biggest gun-related massacre in American history: dt48. At one point in our nation’s history, women’s suffrage, civil rights—first for women, then racial minorities, then gays and lesbians—were all considered insurmountable obstacles, politically suicidal, and, a special bonus, “endorsed” by biblical scripture. Progress is inevitable, so long as people clamor (and are willing to work) for it.

49. If we can’t set the bar at the embarrassingly low level of getting the AR-15 banned from civilian ownership, we are officially the Roman Empire, super-sized and on Soma.

50. William Carlos wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what’s found there.” That’s always worth remembering.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 6/14/16.

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Donald Trump: The Man in America’s Mirror

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i. Orwell, Again (Obviously)

Even before the Reality TV circus American politics and, by extension, American life, degenerated into late last year, George Orwell was the go-to guy for so many writers and thinkers. His observations on everything from class to work (and the inexorable connections between the two), to literature and, yes, politics, has often helped inform and explain how things could become, or how they’ve always been.

This has less to do with the critical laziness that declared him our ultimate quote machine and seer of modern existence (it’s amusing to think how many, particularly in the political sphere, have invoked him without reading much if any of his work; like with Shakespeare, why bother to read the books when the aphorisms are readymade?). Rather, it’s for the simplest and rarest of reasons: Orwell was the real deal, a peripatetic and curious theorist, a philosopher one could claim, never mind the color of their collar. Not content to report from afar, he needed to put himself in the mix, as a dishwasher, a soldier, an officer; a sort of restless cylinder distilling the truths and deceptions of the 20th Century. Simply put, there was never anyone quite like him, and this, above all, is why he matters. It’s why he’ll endure; his work is not timeless so much as incapable of aging. This, regrettably, is in no small part because humanity persistently proves the most cynical and saturnine prognosticators somehow uninspired. (Especially here in the United States.)

Still, for both indolent and obsessed, the embarrassment of riches contained in his last two works, Animal Farm and 1984, tends to suffice, sui generis source code. It’s somewhat ironic that of his writings, these two have arguably aged most poorly. Not because what he depicted was improbable, but history has shown them to be, remarkably, almost trivial. We look at the spectacles of Mr. Jones’ farm and our textbooks and think: Been there, done that. After the successive outrages of dictatorships beneath us and across the pond, the mendacity of totalitarian impulses inevitably worked its way west. Between The Patriot Act and color-coded terror alerts after 9/11, it was like life imitating artless farce. (Think about Hitler, in theory; in actuality: virtually everything he did and said is risible, ludicrous, embarrassing. The mistake we’ve made trying to get a handle on him is not what skills or charms he ostensibly brought to the table, but the fact that millions of angry, credulous citizens enabled it, clamored for it. His repellant genius was in knowing precisely what thirst he was quenching.)

 

ii. Are We Not Entertained?

Which brings us to Trumped in the U.S.A., circa 2017.

Just like the man with the funny mustache, a grandstanding, solipsistic and soulless imbecile like Donald Trump could never be taken seriously unless a country didn’t take itself seriously. That’s both diagnosis and epitaph for the circumstances making the improbability (the impossibility) of President Trump our unique national nightmare.

How can—or should—we grapple with the fact that the right wing has made its bacon for decades castigating virtually everything Trump represents? Hollywood, immorality, gambling, infidelity, insufficient fealty (and/or downright sacrilege) regarding all-things-military, wild and easily disprovable boasts (in this regard making him the anti-Al Gore). For starters.

And speaking of Al “Internet” Gore, perhaps it’s as simple as this: politics aside, he played well on T.V.

Something more is at play, obviously. Yes, white racial antipathy is a YUGE factor. To argue otherwise, at this point, is both delusional and dangerous. Scarily, thought, it goes far beyond folks being whipped into a self-abnegating fury by Fox News. It’s the 21st Century, and we’re obliged to wonder: are the better angels of these folks’ natures being corrupted or, at long last, did the right cult of personality disorder finally reinforce the things they want and need to hear?

The hollowness of the Christian right is now irrevocably laid bare, as they don their MAGA hats in support of a man representing practically everything Jesus denounced.

And yes, there’s no question that as actors, athletes and even “Fake Media” outlets print money at unprecedented rates while red states insist on electing people opposed to living wages, Trump can be seen as the symptom, not the disease.

Still, it’s a combination of resentment, rage and denial that make anyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, able to suspend disbelief to the extent that they still, after eight months, support President* Trump.

Sure, we could talk about the undeniable Russian collusion, the unconscionable decisions James Comey made, or the myriad mistakes the Clinton campaign is begrudgingly beginning to acknowledge—none of which should ever let the obstreperous Bernie Bros off the hook. We certainly must contemplate the havoc right-wing media has wrought, a decades-long work in progress which, in hindsight, makes Trump seem almost inevitable. And despite the imperfect storm of factors that contributed to Trump’s win*, the fact remains: it should never have been close. So, even if we come to discover every worst-case scenario and fear is true—that votes were rigged, Russians did their worst, that God Herself made it so—we must grapple with the depressing fact that even Trump probably never realized how incomparably he appealed to every horrific instinct simmering just beneath the surface of America’s cauldron.

Just because there are plentiful reasons to explain how and why Trump happened, it doesn’t mean we should accept it. Or worse, resign ourselves to it. Indeed, as more evidence of the mendacity, cynicism and malpractice (both political and journalistic) pours in, we are presented with an opportunity. And therein lies a sliver of hope for these very ominous times.

iii.                On Tramps and Trump

Revisiting Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition that occurred in the latter pages. With his laudable compulsion to be involved in his reporting, the author spends several months as a dishwasher in Paris, and then living amongst the tramps in London. In a scene that could have been written today (In Paris, London or especially America), Orwell complains about the mindless waste of food he witnessed while working in one of the charity kitchens. His companion—a veteran of the rough roads—manages to astound a writer celebrated for not being easily astonished.

“They have to (throw away the extra food),” he said. “If they made these places too comfortable, you’d have all the scum of the country flocking to them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging them. They’re scum.”

I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:

“You don’t want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don’t want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They’re scum, just scum.”

…I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps.

Sound like sentiment we’ve heard once or twice these recent months, as unemployed “patriots” in opioid-infested states clamor for their “big, beautiful” wall?

The cynic might inquire: same as it ever was?

Maybe. But this passage serves as a necessary reminder: the cancer (which is, take your pick: anti-patriotic, anti-reason and most definitely anti-Christian, all three labels Republican branding has brazenly co-opted for decades) metastasized long before a slum lord scion became Tweeter-in-chief.

If there’s any silver lining in Trump’s curious and untenable ascendency, it’s that this monster of our making is no longer operating under cover of darkness, abetted by propaganda and innuendo. It’s out in the open and, for once, some of the (literally) torch-carrying villagers are chasing him, not because he’s a monster but rather a perverse Pied Piper.

Of course it’s depressing that, post-Katrina and Wall Street meltdown, this seemingly ceaseless reminder is even necessary. Race, resentment and political malpractice, again, aside, we are seeing how the GOP rolls when they’re obliged to do something aside from obstructing. Trump’s victory* proved we still hadn’t learned. Does this mean we are not capable of a course correction?

(Regarding malpractice, Obama in particular, and the Democratic party in general, own their fair share of the blame: they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a forceful, irrefutable case for the efficacy of government and policies that used to be both uncontroversial and bipartisan. To insist that Obama counted on some collective accord just as Trump has instigated a cultural cacophony is at once accurate yet insufficient. Unreasonable hopes, naïveté and overconfidence allowed an imploded ideology to rise, and rally.

There’s plenty of tragedy and dark humor regarding what could have been. The pertinent issue is whether Democrats can, finally (for once?) organize, unify and convert this calamity into…change we can believe in? It’s hardly hyperbole to insist we’re at a threshold moment.)

Books and careers will be created describing how 2016 happened, but if we’re not able to excise this tumor, Trump will endure as preview instead of apotheosis.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings.

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How to Kill a Cliché: Celebrating Sam Shepard

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Lee: …That’s stupid. That’s one a’ those?—?whadya’ call it? Whadya’ call that?
Austin: What?
Lee: Whadya’ call it when somethin’s been said a thousand times before. Whadya’ call that?
Austin: Um?—?a cliché?
Lee: Yeah. That’s right. Cliché. That’s what that is. A cliché… that’s stupid.

True West (1980)

My personal mantra, for more than two decades, has been doing everything humanly possible to make my life more artistic. That doesn’t merely extend to pursuing creative goals, but actually striving to some sublime, evanescent sweet spot where the lines blur: art as life and life through and in art.

From my own experience and what I’ve seen, read and heard, even our best literary practitioners have had a difficult time doing this with success. Most writers are on record, with equal parts regret and impunity, confessing that in order to fully dedicate themselves, it was inexorably at the expense of friends, family, life itself. Conversely, the inimitable Oscar Wilde lamented “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
The moral? Artists, too, are only human. Even the best of the best can only do so much, and something has to give.

This is one of the many reasons Sam Shepard has long been both idol and inspiration, as a writer and person. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain I can pinpoint anyone from the 20th Century who more fully realized his potential, as individual and artist. Like Wilde, he was blessed with talent and charm (not to mince words, he was a beautiful man), and he somehow managed to incorporate virtually every cliché of Americana, distilling it into his own, unique persona.

Semi-tortured artist, channeling our pathologies via works that were, on arrival, sui generis? Yes. Prototypical rugged individual, who mostly shunned the hackneyed trappings of fame, preserving both his integrity and his soul? Yes. Man’s man comfortable in the outdoors, and adept at working with either animals or his bare hands? (Quick: think of how many playwrights you’d actually be able to hunt with, get shitfaced with, talk books and music with, and with whom you’d hope to have by your side if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most contemporary men of the pen, Shepard could change his own oil, literally and figuratively.) The dude who got to spend quality time with Jessica Lange? Yeah, he did that too.

Oh, he was a pretty good actor, as well. A leading man who, like Neil Young, preferred heading into ditches of his own design.

As I said, clichés abound, but Shepard somehow wore them like rented tuxedos, suitable for the occasion. Actually, that’s not accurate; Shepard never rented or borrowed anything. That was the point of him.

Shepard managed to be his own man while inhabiting what we talk about when we talk about masculinity?—?both the manufactured and instinctive types. He was, in short, the real deal. Jim Harrison came close, Charles Bukowski, in his way, was a kind of poor man’s everyman; Ernest Hemingway was a legend in his own tortured mind (but, in fairness, he could walk the walk on a fishing boat or in a bar brawl). I’m still not certain there has been a superstar who stayed at the top of his game, on so many levels, for so long. To invoke the overused parlance of our time, Shepard acted like he’d been there before, even though he was continually exploring previously unmapped territory. Perhaps he’d appreciate the irony of using clichés to describe an iconoclast who obliterated cliché.

My favorite fact about Shepard, which has been confirmed in myriad interviews and features over the years, is that he could?—?and regularly did?—?just get in his car and drive. Anywhere, nowhere. He wasn’t running away, and this never seemed like some half-ass Jack Kerouac trip (In fact, I can’t recall a writer who more convincingly invoked nostalgia without being cranky; who could articulate what we’ve lost or are losing, sans sentimentality).

Check this out:

So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin’ down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.

That’s from True West, arguably his best play, and probably his most autobiographical. It contains multitudes in ways that would make Whitman blush; it’s about nothing in ways that make Seinfeld seem like even less ado about little; it’s about everything (or at least identity, men and America) in ways that manage to make even DeLillo seem inadequate, or at least academic. Like a much less loquacious David Mamet, it captures and celebrates the drunk poetry of passive-aggressive male dialogue (not to mention the poetry of drunken men not being poetic) and nails both violence and ritual in ways that recall?—?and rival?—?the best work of Flannery O’Connor and Martin Scorsese.

In this one play, Shepard somehow manages to diagnose and deconstruct what it means to strive: as an artist, as a man, as a son, brother, father and failure. There’s plenty of humor, of course, but there’s also an unblinking desolation that Cormac McCarthy has made a career out of: we can attempt to outrun or outgun fate, or reality, or even cliché, but it’ll find us, eventually, alone and vulnerable. Go West, young man, the cliché says, and many men?—?famous and infamous?—?have died trying.

Did any writer go as deep and dark, so far and insightfully, into the machinations of mythologization and destruction inherent in our American Dream mythos, as Shepard? Plays like Buried Child (1978) and Curse of the Starving Class (1978) lay bare the hard scars of family dysfunction, the near-impossibility of self-invention (or reinvention), and the unappeasable thirst for something sweeter, better, different.

Shepard, with a historian’s appreciation for, and understanding of, a less complicated but more complex era, became a custodian for posterity. His ability to translate archetypal dreads for audiences without his acuity make him preternaturally modern. Time won’t touch his work, because his characters, and their concerns, are never here nor there; they might hope or need to be anywhere but in the present tense, but the forces compelling their motion (forward or backward) are infinite, and immutable.

Shepard needed to be everywhere, and nowhere, in order to write the way he lived, and vice versa. Self-aware but not above some old-fashioned existential angst, his art didn’t reflect his life so much as subsume it. Above all, he understood that conformity is the biggest cliché of them all. Even when he lit out for the lower frequencies, he always knew where he was going.

*This tribute originally appeared in PopMatters on 8/8/17.

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July 20, 1969 or, One Small Step for Man’s Mind

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Listen: there are people who actually believe that the moon landing never happened. Lots of people. Not that it didn’t happen, necessarily, but that it was an elaborate, carefully staged scam; that it happened out in the desert, secret film crews capturing the entire thing. Unfortunately, most of the people who agreed to be interviewed all happen to live in trailer parks, which tends to undermine their credibility.

But I’ll be damned if, fifteen minutes in, I’m on board, buying just about every argument. After twenty minutes I’m talking in increasingly agitated tones to my TV. A half hour later I’m ready to make a down payment on a used trailer.

Listen to them: these people might not be crazy, but they are playing the part to perfection. Wide eyes working to wash away the one-two punch of alarm and indignation, creased foreheads wet with the weight of their weird worlds, the insistent outlook of the converted Christian or polished politician, the unburdened body language of a puppet who has finally plucked the wires from its back.

And, I think: Please!

Please let this be true. Imagine: all the churchgoing, flag-waving, right wing radio listening, free market following, see-no-evil simpletons (and that’s just Whitey) if they found out?

And then, this: No!

Nothing, it eventually occurs to me, could conceivably be worse than if those astronauts actually landed on Earth. Because it is marginally acceptable, or at least comprehensible, that in a time when millions of people are starving and dying of decades-old diseases, we’d have the effrontery to float billion dollar babies in space—that is enough, that confirms all we need to know about priorities and good and evil and the fact that there is, of course, at the end of the night, no chance whatsoever that God is watching over all this. But to think that the suits who call the shots arrived at the decision that it was ultimately to their advantage to take the time and imagination to choreograph a made-for-TV miracle to propagate compliance, or boost morale, or whatever mendacious busywork those men who don’t work for a living get up to when they are hard at work behind those fortified doors.

If that is even a possibility, then all bets are off. Then suddenly even the cynics are shit out of luck, and things like fake wars and flying planes into buildings begin to seem like a rather ingenuous part of the program. See: it is conceivable that money gets spent every day on scientific charades that serve no practical purpose. Or conceding that God obviously does not exist, so it can’t be His fault (because He never existed). But finding out that we are capable—and worse, willing—to pull off that kind of crap? It is almost enough to make you join a militia. It’s almost enough to cause you to cash it all in and start looking for the alien transmissions in your fillings. Or hunker down in a trailer park on the outskirts of Area 51.

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life.

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Memorial Day: A Poem

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Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

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Donald Trump and Participation Trophy Politics

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A lot?—?since the election and particularly during the past two weeks?—?about the cliché (typically, in personal experience, uttered by my right-leaning friends) involving our so-called “participation trophy” generation and how it’s making everyone so soft, and spoiled. You have to earn it, this complaint implies. You have to understand defeat to fully appreciate triumph. If you expect to get rewarded just for showing up, it cheapens it for everyone, et cetera.

There’s no shortage of context and counterarguments about how a win-at-all-costs mentality translates to society, or if emphasizing sportsmanship is the worst thing, or, finally, how in America we instinctively ignore the fact that all people don’t start from the same place, physically, mentally, economically. Marginalization has historically worked best when the people in positions of privilege don’t acknowledge or even imagine themselves as anything other than fair, objective and industrious folks.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

I find myself at once dismayed, yet not at all surprised to behold the increasingly sorry spectacle of a newly-elected president?—?who has benefitted from virtually every advantage?—?endorsed by those he’s spent his life ignoring, ostracizing, swindling. (Never mind how this pathology of Americans voting against their best interests is a phenomenon that, to an extent, has always existed, but super-sized itself in recent years.) Here’s a candidate who undeniably had outside assistance (Russia, voter fraud, James Comey) to squeeze out the narrowest of “wins”, who is obsessed with approval, not understanding it must be earned, and who inexorably makes every occasion about himself (etc.). None of this is especially perplexing for anyone who’s paid attention over the last several decades. He was never an especially confident or competent man, but he played one on TV.

(And despite the hysteria and hand-wringing that’s followed Hillary Clinton’s loss, the key takeaway seems clear: it’s not that she (or Democrats in general) don’t talk to working class Americans; it’s that she (and they) still don’t know how to. A lot more on that issue, here.)

As we enter a steadily surreal landscape of alternate facts, braindead braggadocio masquerading as foreign policy and daily dumpster fires that titillate social media but also provide cover for the shady shit going on behind the scenes, it’s painful to conclude that idiocy has found an unprecedented symbiosis: only the most eager to dissemble can consistently reach those most in need of being deceived. Donald Trump is not the president most of his voters actually need, but he’s the one a distressing number of them want.

Again, enough can never be said about the myriad ways Democrats (including, of course, Obama and his team) were either too haughty, impatient or sane to belabor how demonstrably beneficial the vast majority of their enacted policies have been. But have we reached a point where a black man providing affordable health care is literally less tolerable than a billion-dollar baby with a bad combover taking it away from them? Are we through the broken looking glass where a tenure without terror attacks on American soil (not counting our homegrown terrorists with unconstrained access to firearms, all of whom tend to skew fascist, I mean conservative) is less savory than an isolationist bellicosity cut with impetuousness and pig-ignorance? Are we, at long last, in an irony-free fantasy land where virtually all regulation (safe drinking water is such a liberal diversion), much of which has been a century or more in the making and inspired by avoidable calamities, is the real roadblock to collective prosperity?

I think, and fear, we are.

And that, more than fake news, bigotry and not-so-quiet desperation, may explain Trump’s atavistic appeal. The red hat brigade is definitely not safer, but they feel safer (they want to); their wages won’t increase but their Dear Leader promises we’ll get tired of winning so much; no immigrants are stealing their jobs, but finally they have a Bully-in-Chief who feels their perceived pain. It’s a new world order of rationalization instead of realization (emphasis on real); it’s participation trophy politics.

With the invaluable assistance of an alternately prurient and supine media, we’ve unleashed an orange genie who reinforces our most brutish instincts. In this less kind and gentle America, it’s those who talk toughest most in need of mollification (it begins at the top and tweets its way to the bottom), who require readymade villains and celebrate their victimhood, who need a Big Daddy to remind them they’re special, that no sacrifice is required on their part.

(Behold, with equal amounts of bemusement and disgust, the way our part-time custodians of culture are submitting themselves (spines and shame not required), excusing and/or overlooking this manifestly unqualified adolescent: a man who proudly declines to read books, or learn, or make efforts to be coached by anyone with insight and experience. A man born rich who refuses to play by any rules (where are those tax returns, genius?), a man whose callousness and incuriosity makes George W. Bush look like Ralph W. Emerson. Behold, with maximum disdain, the way these bought-and-sold bitches live to do the wet work for Big Business. These same frauds, who make themselves arbiters for morality and decency, are entirely enabling this ongoing disgrace, a man they loathe, a man they’d otherwise decry and avoid (#NeverTrump? The only problem with shaming people like this is that they require a sense of shame, and a soul, for it to matter). And make no mistake: it’s all in the name of lower taxes for the wealthiest percentile, as ever, as always.)

In The Donald’s America, everyone can live vicariously, eliminating doubt, self-discipline and consequences. All that’s required is the renunciation of cause-and-effect and Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The only losers are the saps who refuse to trust Trump’s lying eyes. The (White) House always wins, but everyone gets a trophy in this game.

*This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 2/3/17.

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

 

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14, and is featured in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

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50 BULLET POINTS CONCERNING AMERICA’S GUN PSYCHOSIS

 

gun

  1. Let’s politicize these acts, if for no other reason because, in America, we politicize everything else.
  2. Of course it’s a mental health issue.
  3. For starters, the mental handicap of anyone who thinks this weapon, in the public (or private) sector is useful, safe or justifiable on any level. ar154. Oh those annoying, anti-American liberals, right? Wrong. Let’s allow General Stanley McChrystal the floor: “I spent a career carrying typically either a M16 and later, a M4 carbine…and a M4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round, which is 5.56 millimeters, at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed to do that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry…I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we’ve got to take a serious look — I understand everybody’s desire to have whatever they want — we have to protect our children and our police and we have to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that.”

5. Certainly I’m not the only person who, immediately upon hearing the news, suspected that Omar Mateen was a closeted, likely tormented gay man—a reminder that religion is always the problem.

6. President Obama has, as of this date, had to give fourteen press conferences to address gun-related massacres on American soil.

7. If you continue to rationalize the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are not merely part of the problem, you are the problem. We can—and do—count on the NRA and the cretins bought and paid for by their blood money to assume the hardest and most irrational line; they count on moral equivalence, sanctimony and above all, hope for frustration to lead to social media sloganeering with no action.

8. If you continue to defend the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are a traitor, however ignorant or unwitting.

9. Fuck the 2nd Amendment. Follow the money.

10. No, seriously. If certain entities weren’t making obscene amounts of money (and spreading it around to keep craven opportunists on the payroll) this issue would have been remedied decades ago.

11. Special committees have been formed to explore, just to cherry pick some low-hanging tempests in a tea (party) pot, the proliferation of witchcraft, opposition to the dangers of dancing, the creeping spread of communism, the hidden, evil messages in certain rock lyrics…and the mere suggestion that maybe an amendment written when muskets were cutting edge weaponry is grounds for scorched earth opposition. This is a profound sickness.

12. This is still the single best commercial on the topic.

13. You know the commercials with first-hand testimony to what cigarette addiction can do to the human body? Start making commercials with statistics of kids shooting each other. And find some brave people willing to go on the record about what unintentional gun violence has done to their family. Or people whose loved ones have been victimized. Tasteless? Too personal? Well, the possibility that any of us could be killed by an accidental (or, in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, intentional) gunshot couldn’t possibly be more personal. And the fact that, thus far, the will of a clear and overwhelming majority is thwarted by a relatively tiny faction with unconscionably deep pockets is about as tasteless as anything imaginable.

14. Be clear: it’s not that nothing can be done, it’s because so much can be done. Sensible and overdue gun control is a slippery slope, as it should be. The people with nothing to lose, except money (and, presumably, those with minuscule and/or impotent penises), are very aware of this.

15. Whether it’s a drive-by, a road rage incident or a calculated assault, guns are the refuge of sissies who wouldn’t last three seconds in a fist fight.

16. Good guys beat bad guys with the benefit of bigger guns. This is the America we have manufactured, via movies and the marketing of war.

17. Speaking of marketing: lobbyists and the political machines they’re paid to pimp have made a sick science of selling unreality to a nation of terrified suckers.

18. Speaking of terror, how many different variations of the same formulation will it require? gun photo

19. If the only time you pay attention to gun violence is to grandstand on your Facebook feed (or worse, send “thoughts and prayers”), you are not merely a coward, you’re acting entirely within the pre-approved script.

20. Imagine if we felt “hopes and prayers” were sufficient, or all we could do every time a drunk driver killed someone.

21. If you’re still alive, you’re not Orlando. Do something.

22. We have made airport travel into the most inconvenient, obnoxious ordeal conceivable, yet it’s many times easier for anyone to bring a gun into any public place than it is to board a plane, even without luggage*. (*White males, that is.)

23. Guess what demographic (hint: not Muslims) is responsible for the majority of gun massacres on American soil?

24. Start showing the dead bodies on the news.

25. Ditto for returning soldiers. As T.S. Eliot once observed, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Americans, of course, can bear very much reality TV.

26. “Hate will never win.” Hate isn’t trying to win. It’s trying to kill.

27. “Well, if he didn’t have a gun, he would have had a bomb!” No, he wouldn’t. Because, for starters, you can’t buy a bomb at Walmart.

28. Although we have a specific cultural malady, mental illness is, of course, experienced by all ages of all people in all countries. Without guns, you can’t easily enact slaughter. Full stop.

29. Any time anyone walks into an establishment with a gun and body bags are required in the aftermath, it’s an act of terror.

30. All it would take is one shooting spree in the United States Capitol to ensure extreme action was immediately taken.

31. Anyone in congress expressing condolences without mentioning the word “guns” should be shamed from office. Anyone in congress expressing condolences who has accepted money from the NRA should be shamed from American citizenship.

32. In America, the only thing more powerful and effective than money is shaming. Call on any and all elected officials to return their soiled money, or send it to the families of victims.

33. Guess what? Here’s a list of GOP senators who voted against ensuring people on terror watch lists can’t buy firearms. (Props to journalist Ivor Volsky for doing heavy lifting in the service of exposing this illimitable hypocristy.)

34. It takes considerably more time and effort to adopt a dog that’s facing being euthanized than it is to purchase a firearm in America.

35. Seriously, America is the only place this happens.

36. This is the single best (and hilarious, to boot) take on America’s unique gun psychosis.

37. I’d rather have a limb hacked off than be censored in any way. That said, Hollywood has a lot more blood on its hands than anyone acknowledges.

38. Video game manufacturers too.

39. Enough with the accommodations and equivocations, let’s treat—for a start—gun manufacturers the way we treat cigarette companies.

40. Start taxing the shit out of organized religions. Why? Because the same type of illogic and—be clear—highly organized, orchestrated and effective propaganda keeps these institutions unregulated and unaccountable.

41. In our society, police forces have become more martial and intimidating in direct proportion with our dread of potential danger posed by anything “Other”—inexorably people who aren’t white. This is not coincidental.

42. An average of seven children under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.

43. Read this.

44. Just like actually speaking to issues of economic inequality and the dissipation of a healthy American working class (and commensurate wages) is politically viable, action on gun violence will attract, not repel voters.

45. Seriously, Democrats have been paralyzed for the last half-century by the ludicrous trepidation to offend a constituency that wouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway.

46. Whatever you want to say about Obama, this is what he had to say on June 1.

47. This is what the presumptive nominee for the Republican party had to say in the wake of the single biggest gun-related massacre in American history: dt48. At one point in our nation’s history, women’s suffrage, civil rights—first for women, then racial minorities, then gays and lesbians—were all considered insurmountable obstacles, politically suicidal, and, a special bonus, “endorsed” by biblical scripture. Progress is inevitable, so long as people clamor (and are willing to work) for it.

49. If we can’t set the bar at the embarrassingly low level of getting the AR-15 banned from civilian ownership, we are officially the Roman Empire, super-sized and on Soma.

50. William Carlos wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what’s found there.” That’s always worth remembering.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 6/14/16.

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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Sorry, Charlie: On Art and Extremism (Revisited)

451

OF COURSE RELIGION IS the problem.

For anyone who, understandably, would say it’s a political issue and not a religious issue, I aver that so many of our political difficulties exist because of and not in spite of religion. And we muddle the matter if drawn into a debate about whether Religion-with-a-capital-R is ultimately a force of Good or Evil. I know how I feel and you know how you feel. More importantly, religion isn’t going anywhere, so we heretics must remain skeptical, and vigilant. And if there’s one thing that unites East and West it’s the chasm between those convinced more religion is the answer and those for whom the less the better.

It has become a tad too fashionable these days to pit believers vs. non-believers (and there are few things more exasperating than proselytizers playing the victim card). Let me stand up and be counted as someone who respects—in theory and practice—anyone’s right to believe anything they choose. Indeed, I’m relieved we have a handful of commandments, however randomly obeyed, to keep would-be-sociopaths in check, their eyes on an eternal prize. The problem, as always, involves those amongst us who would initiate mayhem, compelled by the imperatives of their faith.

We do ourselves a great disservice by failing to acknowledge the role religion has ceaselessly played as either an instigator of, or cover for, violence. In this regard, a similar impulse connects what happened in Paris and what happened during the Crusades and that disaster porn saturating the Old Testament: perceived righteousness in the name of divinity. Yes, clever commentators can point out that, at least in some instances, religion is a cynical shield for atrocity. It has always been thus.

We have, at least, advanced culturally (one might say we’ve evolved) to the extent where no one can be taken seriously for condoning massacre of innocents. That, in any event, is not the crux of the matter before us. What we see, and what has been polluting the discourse these last two weeks, is a refusal to denounce, without reservation, the religious rationalization signaling—then seeking to explain—such acts.

A single quote resurfaced in several news stories last week, and it crystallizes the cause and effect so many are struggling to see with clarity. Nasser Lajil, a Muslim city councilor in France, had this to say regarding the slaughter of 11 journalists: “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Emphasis mine.)

Two simple points need to be made. One, any sane argument begins and ends with a declaration that under no faith-related circumstances is murder of human beings ever acceptable. Two, if your faith is capable of being threatened by a cartoon, your faith is a cartoon.

 

ii.

Which brings us to Charlie Hebdo. Our collective reaction requires more J’Accuse and less Je ne sais quoi. Anything other than a full-throated and unequivocal denunciation of such carnage renders one a coward. When it comes to free speech and matters of life and death, you are either an advocate or an accomplice; there can be no middle ground. Satire is not possible without someone’s sacred bovine being savaged; the complication is that so many of us are equal opportunity instigators until it’s our cow getting cudgeled. Free speech, in short, is not an à la carte arrangement.

It is, therefore, dispiriting to see anyone, especially (if predictably) the liberal intelligentsia, so cavalier about throwing down what’s typically a trump card. Is Charlie Hebdo racist? It’s an interesting question for curious minds to ponder, but irrelevant in this context of assassination and presumptive self-censorship. Even if, however hysterical the argument, we concede that this magazine exists only to offend, does that in any way legitimize the act of murder?

More, it’s precisely because so many of these cartoons are juvenile that we must defend their right to exist. It’s generally painless to rally around literature we consider sacrosanct, and feel smug doing so, but if we don’t allow the claptrap to function as an aesthetic caboose, we risk being elitists as well as defeatists. How revolting, then, to read pundit after political analyst after Op-Ed arbitrator stroking their chins and opining that the images were, after all, in questionable taste. Or, if you provoke certain groups often enough you have to expect some type of reaction. Really?

Any form of suppression, especially as it pertains to someone else’s faith, is an act of accommodation. Full stop. These intellectually bankrupt rationalizations, in effect blaming the victim, smack of our rape-enabling semantics. Some of the self-righteous comments sullying our newspapers and blogs call to mind the familiar formulation: “Yes, she was brutally raped but should she really have worn that skirt?” Translation: Rape is awful, but maybe next time she’ll think twice about the decisions she makes.

It’s situations like this that help me understand what pushed Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile socialist, over the edge. It was occasionally perplexing to see him stand alongside (figuratively and sometimes literally) the architects of Iraq and unrepentant exploiters of America’s underwear-wetting sensibility concerning all-things-terror post 9/11. But even then, while I couldn’t forgive it, I could fathom it. Here was a dude who talked the belligerent talk, but also walked the uncompromised walk: he spent considerable time in the very hot zones he wrote about, and bore witness to the atrocities we excoriate in editorials.

And while many lamented his ostensible act of betrayal and/or expedience in the years before his death, he had political and creative skin in the game. Also, and this is important: it quite clearly wasn’t a game for him; whatever else one can say about The Hitch, he had the courage of his convictions and they were not easily earned. His good friend Salman Rushdie, one might recall, was targeted for the infamous fatwa—a price on the author’s head equal parts medieval and postmodern—and, it’s quite worth noting, this occurred several years before the first Iraq war. As such, he saw the reaction of the literary community, which ranged from muted to craven. Everyone, it seems, is all for artists’ rights until it’s their ass in the crosshairs.

It obviously galled him, over a decade later, to see the usual suspects, secure in their tenured offices and café latte circle jerks, sniffing about imperialism and why our Big Bad Empire had come to bring all this grief upon ourselves. Nevermind the fact that these internecine quarrels predate the founding of America by several centuries. (Look it up, it’s in the Bible.)

And that is the real (dark) heart of this matter: of course it’s about religion. Invariably, it’s always about religion. (It’s always about money, too, but the two are not mutually exclusive; indeed, it’s arguably the lack of money—and resources, education and democracy or at least unregulated thought—that makes one susceptible, if not ravenous for what religion promises to those who can’t find heaven or even a hint of transcendence here on earth.)

 

iii.

Let’s be clear: our collective hands, in the West, are far from clean as it pertains to policies and actions antithetical to our own beliefs (due process, drones, etc.), and certainly there are myriad dots that must be connected before we can hope to comprehend the resentment we’ve allowed—if not enabled—to fester. In so many ways, we have so much to answer for. Nevertheless, the underlying symptom, religion, was alive and unwell long before our current, clichéd clash of civilizations.

We can respect, or at least tolerate the existence of, cultural mores (see: subjugation of women; lack of walls between church and state, and so on) that seem odious or at least antiquated to our Western eyes. We can also acknowledge that perhaps it’s not our place to interfere, particularly when we have our own complicated quandaries of race, class and sexuality in the states. But we can, and must, judge. If we abdicate our obligation to denounce such archaic attitudes we are derelict, rationally and morally.

Here is an affair, at long last, that should serve to unite the Left and Right: a genuine atrocity that’s at once easy to understand, and revile. It has done so, to an extent, but for the wrong reasons. The only thing more hypocritical than conservative Christians becoming convenient allies of Muslims only because they can’t stomach denigrations of their own faith is the faction of liberals who disparage All Things America even as they bask in the very freedoms their country provides them. (Want a laugh? Contemplate how long any of our textbook radicals would linger in the offices of Charlie Hebdo after the first death threat.)

A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition. Where are we, as Americans, if we agree the KKK must be allowed to legally march, but draw the line at religious satire?

Are we actually in a place, circa 2015, where we unthinkingly submit to X-ray scans at airports but confiscate cartoonist’s pens? We soil ourselves if a color-coded terror alert goes into effect but don’t see that “Terror” really is winning if we let extremists dictate the terms of engagement—artistic or otherwise? If we are at war, even metaphorically, what is the fight about if we can’t agree that unfettered expression is inviolable?

This debate can—and should—continue, but on the topic of faith-based violence, the concern should be plain and pure: free speech is a non-negotiable precept. It has everything to do with everything we talk about when we talk, often speciously, about American exceptionalism. Ironically, or not, it was free speech that enabled early Americans to practice the religion of their choice (!); it is the guarantee of free speech that underpins our Great Experiment and gives Americans the freedom to not believe. It is, ultimately, free speech that ensures the pen is mightier than the sword, and that no one has to die proving otherwise.

*This piece originally appeared on 1/23/15 in The Weeklings.

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