The “R” Party Putting the “D” in Dysfunctional (And Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and –of course– George Orwell)

In honor (dishonor?) of our dysfunctional government not doing what it doesn’t do best, I think it’s timely and appropriate to revisit a blast from the past (a blog post that was written in February, 2011). But first, if you want to get up to speed about what is going on and what is driving it (i.e., how it happened and why it’s happening), do yourself a favor and read THIS and THIS.

While the piece, below, ostensibly focuses on a movie and unions (then, now), it is also an interrogation of why those who claim to despise government are incentivized (in every sense of the word) to do so, and why, not-so-ironically, making government fail proves government does not work and hence, their work at preventing work works.

***

 

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell (Revisited)

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Just Say No or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction): Revisited

Lying in bed, thinking about geometry.

Like: how my arm next to her ass makes a right angle, or how her legs in either direction form an isosceles triangle (or is it scalene?), scaling the perimeter from her belly button to below is heaven, or how the distance from my rectangle to her Pi is infinity; or: A cup plus B-cup equals See. Proof: if her panties come off, then I will be pleased. Two shapes under the sheets are congruent to each other. She turns 180 degrees. I check my work. Pass/fail, graded on the curves. Obtuse, an open book exam, I ask for extra credit.

***

Writing about sex is like engaging in sex: it’s hard. (Or, it should be.)

It’s that time of year again: the annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” conducted by the Literary Review (London). (This year’s winner: Nancy Huston; story and runner-ups here.) Last year I noted that Laura Miller at Salon made much or at least some ado about nuttin’ (sorry) while discussing this dubious honor that gets distributed with snark aforethought. My .02: She takes exception to the glee with which these awards are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the Puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. Her position asserts that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she is (wisely? cynically?) using the occasion of the Bad Sex award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have –or should have– no qualms about moments of lust (and the moments those moments lead to) in literature.

I think the issue is not so much the fact that these scenes exist, but that they are invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers are most likely not saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and not include scenes that make a mockery of the act so many people hold sacred –at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the act (the thought of it, the desire for it, the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps readers are merely admonishing those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must. Is that too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How –or why– do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the cliched rite of passage, so often rendered, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. (And those scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional, and more than a little embarrassing for all involved).

So how do you do it? Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human endeavor: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it –whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

Show, don’t tell. That is the sacrosanct rule for any type of written endeavor. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can –and should– be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate this depiction. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes than I did from our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed literary porn like Updike and Roth (both of whom have been celebrated and savaged for the arrested sexual development they so gratuitously struggle with in the cringe-inducing excerpts from their oeuvres).

Besides, experts have informed me that this is what the Internet is for. Forget books and even movies. If music and conversation (that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm), and a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover.

***

Take off all your clothes, I say.

No, she laughs.

So: sober, there are no easy excuses. Excuses make it easier, and the easier it is, the easier it is to make excuses. Conversation can kill everything: access, intimacy (which is ironic), and mostly it can provide a good enough excuse. Stuck between a rock and a not-hard-enough place.

“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”

“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.

“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring. Mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, and envious.

“Why don’t you join us?”

Put on all your clothes, I do not say.

“Are you drunk,” she says.

“Never,” I lie.

“Am I drunk?” she asks.

“Not enough,” I sigh.

“What did you say?” she whispers.

“Nothing,” I lie.

Take off all your clothes, she laughs.

Okay, I say.

***

You ask: What happened next?

See for yourself, I say.

If you can, that is.

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Rebellion*

i.

Question: What are you rebelling against?

Answer: Whaddya got?

The thing most adjusted adults eventually understand is that everyone who marches to that proverbial different beat does so not necessarily out of abandon or indifference; it is usually a calculated, even cultivated design for defiance. Of course, when you’re young you have your youth to burn, like Marlon Brando on a motorcycle. Or perhaps you long to improve upon the petulance of previous generations: you hear the different drummer and then refuse to march even to that music. It isn’t that you’re going nowhere; you are content to not even go there—to keep one step ahead of oblivion, and achieve it by any means necessary so long as you’re still inside the cyclone. Or something.

 

ii.

You think: Sometimes it’s better not to think.

Ignorance, after all, is bliss and a little ignorance goes a long way, especially in this hyperspace, computer-chip information overload moment in time. A moment that is in perpetual fast-forward. Time, it seems, can scarcely keep up with itself.

On occasion (every day, more or less), you find yourself overwhelmed by a compulsion to comprehend the things you cannot control that have complete control over you. Things like aging and illness and quantum space and the mysteries of compassion. For starters. The things that only poets understand, and who understands poets? Each person, it seems, must ultimately develop a progressive inability to understand this world in which they suffer and survive. And maybe this is a good thing, all things considered. Maybe this is for the best. If the necessary miracles of evolution unfolded in ways we could readily fathom, anarchy would likely ensue. If people understood how Nature really worked and the ways in which the game is rigged, think of all the would-be Robinson Crusoes, setting sail for the deserted islands that no longer exist. They simply aren’t there.

The future, as it always seems to be, remains at once exciting and intimidating to consider. And yet: thinking about the reality, the inevitability of the 21st century, it doesn’t seem altogether possible. Can’t we just slow things down a bit and grapple with the century that we let get away from us sometime back in the mid-to-late 1800’s? The Pony Express, the phone, the phonograph, pasteurization, planes, product assembly lines, atomic bombs, Apartheid, All The President’s Men, politics as usual. Prosperity. Privation. Privacy. The Internet. Enough.

After a century of explosions—overpopulation, death, wealth, squalor, apathy, ethnic cleansing, e-mail—is there anything left to establish or invent? Haven’t we already outdone ourselves? What does the new century, the future, have to dole out that we have not already discovered? What do we have to fear that doesn’t already stare us dead in the face? Aside from the fact that we are still unable to cure ancient diseases, we can’t feed everyone, superstitious tribes are ceaselessly quarreling, and every single one of us will eventually, inevitably die.

To be continued.

You think.

 

iii.

Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a chapter entitled “Rebellion” wherein the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being that created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell but what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation were secured; even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the calculus is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.

Taking this scenario one step further, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, synthesizes elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky are describing. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their back and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.

In Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

What they said.

 

iv.

Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I was not running away from anything so much as I felt compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra.

My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses and even intentions. I was still not certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell (Revisited)

 

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Just Say No or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction): Revisited

Lying in bed, thinking about geometry.

Like: how my arm next to her ass makes a right angle, or how her legs in either direction form an isosceles triangle (or is it scalene?), scaling the perimeter from her belly button to below is heaven, or how the distance from my rectangle to her Pi is infinity; or: A cup plus B-cup equals See. Proof: if her panties come off, then I will be pleased. Two shapes under the sheets are congruent to each other. She turns 180 degrees. I check my work. Pass/fail, graded on the curves. Obtuse, an open book exam, I ask for extra credit.

***

Writing about sex is like engaging in sex: it’s hard. (Or, it should be.)

It’s that time of year again: the annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” conducted by the Literary Review (London). (This year’s winner: David Guterson; story and runner-ups here). Last year I noted that Laura Miller at Salon made much or at least some ado about nuttin’ (sorry) while discussing this dubious honor that gets distributed with snark aforethought. My .02: She takes exception to the glee with which these awards are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the Puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. Her position asserts that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she is (wisely? cynically?) using the occasion of the Bad Sex award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have –or should have– no qualms about moments of lust (and the moments those moments lead to) in literature.

I think the issue is not so much the fact that these scenes exist, but that they are invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers are most likely not saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and not include scenes that make a mockery of the act so many people hold sacred –at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the act (the thought of it, the desire for it, the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps readers are merely admonishing those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must. Is that too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How –or why– do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the cliched rite of passage, so often rendered, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. (And those scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional, and more than a little embarrassing for all involved).

So how do you do it? Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human endeavor: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it –whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

Show, don’t tell. That is the sacrosanct rule for any type of written endeavor. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can –and should– be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate this depiction. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes than I did from our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed literary porn like Updike and Roth (both of whom have been celebrated and savaged for the arrested sexual development they so gratuitously struggle with in the cringe-inducing excerpts from their oeuvres).

Besides, experts have informed me that this is what the Internet is for. Forget books and even movies. If music and conversation (that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm), and a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover.

***

Take off all your clothes, I say.

No, she laughs.

So: sober, there are no easy excuses. Excuses make it easier, and the easier it is, the easier it is to make excuses. Conversation can kill everything: access, intimacy (which is ironic), and mostly it can provide a good enough excuse. Stuck between a rock and a not-hard-enough place.

“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”

“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.

“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring. Mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, and envious.

“Why don’t you join us?”

Put on all your clothes, I do not say.

“Are you drunk,” she says.

“Never,” I lie.

“Am I drunk?” she asks.

“Not enough,” I sigh.

“What did you say?” she whispers.

“Nothing,” I lie.

Take off all your clothes, she laughs.

Okay, I say.

***

You ask: What happened next?

See for yourself, I say.

If you can, that is.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.  –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

Share

Just Say No or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

Lying in bed, thinking about geometry.

Like: how my arm next to her ass makes a right angle, or how her legs in either direction form an isosceles triangle (or is it scalene?), scaling the perimeter from her belly button to below is heaven, or how the distance from my rectangle to her Pi is infinity; or: A cup plus B-cup equals See. Proof: if her panties come off, then I will be pleased. Two shapes under the sheets are congruent to each other. She turns 180 degrees. I check my work. Pass/fail, graded on the curves. Obtuse, an open book exam, I ask for extra credit.

                                        ***

Writing about sex is like engaging in sex: it’s hard. (Or, it should be.)

Laura Miller, over on Salon.com, has an article about the annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” conducted by the Literary Review (London). She takes exception to the glee with which these awards are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the Puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. Her position asserts that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she is (wisely? cynically?) using the occasion of the Bad Sex award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have –or should have– no qualms about moments of lust (and the moments those moments lead to) in literature.

I think the issue is not so much the fact that these scenes exist, but that they are invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers are most likely not saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and not include scenes that make a mockery of the act so many people hold sacred –at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the act (the thought of it, the desire for it, the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps readers are merely admonishing those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must. Is that too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How –or why– do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the cliched rite of passage, so often rendered, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. (And those scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional, and more than a little embarrassing for all involved).

So how do you do it? Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human endeavor: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it –whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

Show, don’t tell. That is the sacrosanct rule for any type of written endeavor. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can –and should– be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate this depiction. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes than I did from our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed literary porn like Updike and Roth (both of whom have been celebrated and savaged for the arrested sexual development they so gratuitously struggle with in the cringe-inducing excerpts from their oeuvres).

Besides, experts have informed me that this is what the Internet is for. Forget books and even movies. If music and conversation (that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm), and a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover.

***

Take off all your clothes, I say.

No, she laughs.

So: sober, there are no easy excuses. Excuses make it easier, and the easier it is, the easier it is to make excuses. Conversation can kill everything: access, intimacy (which is ironic), and mostly it can provide a good enough excuse. Stuck between a rock and a not-hard-enough place.

“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”

“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.

“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring. Mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, and envious.

“Why don’t you join us?”

Put on all your clothes, I do not say.

“Are you drunk,” she says.

“Never,” I lie.

“Am I drunk?” she asks.

“Not enough,” I sigh.

“What did you say?” she whispers.

“Nothing,” I lie.

Take off all your clothes, she laughs.

Okay, I say.

***

You ask: What happened next?

See for yourself, I say.

If you can, that is.

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Hey Woody, Irony rhymes with Soon-Yi (and other thoughts on L’affaire Polanski)

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I can’t possibly improve upon the excellent commentaries being made all around the papers and blogs regarding L’affaire Polanski. My take on the matter is rather simple: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Polanski did the crime and admitted as much. End of fucking story.

Anyone (then or now) who has deluded themselves into thinking he actually fled the U.S.A. (and stayed gone) because he was afraid of a vindictive judge, as opposed to the more primal fear of going to jail (as he would –and should have done), needs a swift knife to the nose.

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Good to see that the insular Hollywood country club has circled the wagons to support their fugitive friend. Have you seen this shit? A petition to release Polanski? Don’t you sign petitions for, you know, innocent people being oppressed by malevolent governments? Only assclowns from L.A. could confuse Polanski’s (self-imposed) plight with a situation that actually warrants mass protest. Like, say, health care reform. That Woody Allen went anywhere near this particular issue reveals him to be both beneath contempt and incapable of understanding irony (hint: it rhymes with Soon-Yi). What a shameless piece of shit. The only thing more embarrassing than his signature on that petition is the sum of his career the last two decades. How about Whoopi Goldberg’s quote? Wow. It’s almost impossible to resist making offensive rebuttals to her offensive and illogical peregrinations regarding the concept of “rape-rape”, so I’ll simply suggest it would be nice to offer her the “rape test” the same way Liz Cheney should get the “torture test” to see if reality easily squares with their blithe declarations about other peoples’ pain. Anne Applebaum has one of the most starkly offensive attempts to equivocate, while this idiot publicly soils herself at Huffington Post. Indeed, while Salon.com has demonstrated a mostly sane editorial stance, Huffington’s orchestra of elite idiots are ardently displaying how insulated and utterly out of touch they are. Look at this bozo (and look at that list of signatures. If Scorsese stings –and it does– seeing the great Milan Kundera is downright depressing, although it does put his undeniable misogynistic streak in better perspective).

This is neither tough nor complicated. Any of these well-paid pukes rallying around their weasel are just as odious as the politicians (ironically, the types most of these artists correctly skewer) who admonish us to look forward and not ruffle feathers by investigating war crimes committed in all of our names. For instance. (That some of them are invoking Polanski’s history as a Holocaust survivor is disingenuous as it is cynical. And sickening.)

The fact that Polanski is a brilliant director (indeed, I’m on record endorsing Chinatown as the most perfect American movie ever made) really has nothing to do with justice. If you believe in that not-so-complicated concept, this is a no brainer. The problem is, we’re seeing the lack of brain power and the darkended hearts that work together to keeps the cash registers ringing in Hollywood.

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