The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
– William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us”
To Hell with the MIddle Class!
Oh, wait. They’re already there. At least that’s what David Roediger argues in his new book The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History. There is no there there worth saving. Fuck it.
What is it even? One minute it’s this, another minute it’s that. Did you ever notice, all couched up on the sofa, watching Titanic that there’s all kinds of talk of the upper classes in the upper berths and the lower classes in the lower earths, blueblood English atop and Derry brogues below, but there’s no sign or mention of the middle class. It’s like there isn’t one on the ship. Unless it was supposed to be hungry artist Leo and slumming romancer Kate coming and coming together, all compromised midship.
Or, maybe the middle class is, like, Dylan sitting at home watching the movie, inspired to write a song about it, that doesn’t mention the 1% or the 99% or any percent of class at all. Fuck, he doesn’t even mention the iceberg. Or maybe the middle class is the viewer, the disappearing act between, a kind of choral commentator on the real action, a buffer between the Haves and Nots, sinking in the Corinthian leather sofa bought on credit at a 22% interest rate, while some generic ship-of-state sinks into the nameless sea.
Roediger has a go at the whole lot. He unpacks history to interrogate the baggage carried. He brings in pollsters and shysters and the Bushes and Clintons and Obamas to make sense of how the term ‘middle class’ is used to con people into voting. He consults surveys, the Fortune in men’s eyes as they view their post-war future lifestyles. He talks about old-timey working class types, the butler and milkmaid and the milkman who ran off with your mother (haben sie liebfraumilch?). He gives us Marx snarks, amorphous masses and shape-shifting shibboleths, anodynes and literary anecdotes, Trump’s deplorables and other basket cases, and hints at the revolution ahead when we let the middle class go fall, fell, fallen. Fuck it, let’s face reality together.
Roediger is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has a long history of critical thinking and compelling articulation about race and class politics in America. His previous studies include Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. What makes Black and White is not so black and white. The Sinking Middle Class is an Introduction on the language of politics and an Afterword on the White Working Class sandwiched around chapters on the political Uses, Pretenses, Problems and Miseries of the Middle Class. As Roediger writes, “Each is meant to be short enough to read in three or four coffee breaks.”
Roediger’s first consideration in The Sinking Middle Class is to consider the language itself. Where did the term come from? What are some of the assumptions that come with its dissemination? Who’s in charge of its meaning and placement within the social narrative of class history. Roediger writes,
The term itself found little use until the last ninety years and not commonly until the Cold War…The strata we might retrospectively call the middle class of the nineteenth century (farmers, free professionals, and shopkeepers) differed utterly from those of twentieth (clerks, salespeople, employed professionals, and managers).
As we become more and more entwined in electricity and speed of light communications it can be difficult to ‘remember’ the slower, black and white ways of the pre-Internet.
We can intuitively recall a stratiated class structure — poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, and rich, with degrees of leaching into the contiguous class. One knew he belonged to the lower middle class (if he thought about it at all consciously) when he couldn’t afford to send his talented kid to Groton School, but wasn’t struggling too much to put a roof over the family and lay out three squares on the table for the family. But, says Roediger,
Over the last thirty years self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding saving the “middle class” has provided the language for rightward political motion finding its way even into unions. Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms.
Somewhere along the line upper middle class on down got grouped as one body — for political purposes, but it’s a fatuous grouping.
You might see it as a way of forcing bloc-voting; a lazy way of approaching the social. economic and moral issues of the day — by trivializing nuance and difference (even as the same old class exclusions applied). And we use the news to deliver these messages, led to believe the ads are objective and balanced bits of information. Roediger lays into this McLuhan effect. Writes Roediger,
The US writer Waldo Frank [writes] in The Re-Discovery of America that “THE NEWS IS A TOY”—that is, a seemingly wonderful novelty and one immediately requiring replacement by a new wonder…the “news item” is overwhelmingly the sound bite of alleged political news, and that “anodyne” must now be in boldface….
I’m reminded of a scene from Boston Legal where the toyfulness of news, and the media in general, is unpacked in the courtroom.
So news, as anodyne, becomes part of the political packaging, part of the show, to be taken, ultimately, as no more serious than the campaign promises. A surreal onslaught, every four years, on the delicate balance between our ears called consciousness, an ecosystem every bit as precious as rainforest. There are laugh tracks, practiced ponderments, tearful moments of William Hurt layer peelings of imagined empathy. But we persist in believing the news, even when they refuse to tell us what we need to know. Roediger writes,
Many of us desire those electoral news items, desperately wanting to be seen as the first to know them, and count that as being engaged in politics … even radicals follow the example of TV pundits in relying on the most quickly available voting data to construct simplistic definitions of class that have little to do with social relations.
Even radicals, and Roediger’s not being snarky or ironical. Shit happens.
Michael Dukakis getting bushwhacked by Bernard Shaw, the latter asking him what he’d do if his wife, Kitty, was raped by Willie “Furlough” Horton becomes laugh track roast material fit for Comedy Central. One recalls this moment of “live” TV (future generations only get this moment and none of the debate, where Dukakis excelled), and Roediger briefly references the moment, a moment racially charged, a Black man asking what a white man of power would do to a Black man If — an impossible question to answer, and we clapped with gleeful little schadenfreude hands as one of the few promising poli’s careers went down the ‘terlit’ (as Archie Bunker would say) and his wife returned to heavy drinking. Maybe that was the silver lining to the moment: Kitty was spared four years of journos clinking her ice cubes (real or imagined).
This cheapening and potentially toxic blend of shallow politics and Madison Avenue massaging was, says Roediger, turned into an art form by consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg working the Clinton campaign in 1992. Greenberg helped turn Macomb County into a Middle Class Melting Pot America by the careful gathering of data points and manipulation of their results. Writes Roediger,
Greenberg theorized a middle class roughly interchangeable with an alleged white working class—their votes available for the mining in countless electoral campaigns. In the process, he made a suburban, almost entirely white Michigan county seem to be the key to all “progressive” possibility.
As Macomb goes, so goes the nation, was the meme and theme. Another ad, with toothpaste.
Roediger writes that Greenberg referred to his own “working class” background, starting out a white Jewish family living in an all-Black D.C. neighborhood and then migrating to “middle class” Silver Spring, as some kind of street cred he gave himself for “understanding” these categories more fluently than others. But, notes Roediger,
Sympathizing with Macomb County’s suburban workers was nominally available as a result of his own suburban upbringing, but his capacity for understanding them owed more to academic study and political experience than acknowledged personal affinity.
One could argue that such ‘owing to’ is also a valid critique of Marxist scholars among the hoi polloi: They don’t always live the misery, like Studs Terkel, say; often, the best they can do, over crullers and coffee, is sympathize with the Plight.
Roediger notes that in his book, Politics and Poverty, Greenber offers up to the “migrating lower class” what Roediger calls three “Goldilock” scenarios of movement, choices with limited and pre-assigned values. He clarifies by saying,
They could have remained “indifferent and uninvolved” where politics was concerned; they could have “become power brokers . . . tinkering and bargaining for their share;” or, they could have refused to “tinker” and instead entered a radical “confrontation with history.”
Most people chose middle course, writes Roediger, between what really amounted to “a pair of Manichean choices.”
Woven into the fabric of this “Macomb-over” was the cheery “progressive” rhetoric of Stanley Greenberg’s 1995 book, Middle Class Dreams, a collection of stories of people’s everyday lives. A book about how every half, half lived, who wasn’t rich, and so was placed somewhere in the continuum of Middle Class struggles. These struggles and tales of weal woe were captured in the film, The War Room (1993). “Greenberg’s stories of Macomb County mix personal triumph and national salvation promiscuously.” writes Roediger. But read critically, he goes on, “They illuminate how issues of race, class, and power came to be effaced even by those most claiming credit for discussing them electorally in the neoliberal United States.” Massaged and manipulated. Still, for all his savvy, Greenberg is at a loss to later explain how Trump happened.
Roediger explains how this magical kabuki show helped Republicans later attract “Reagan Democrats” and he points to Pete Hamill’s late-60s article, “The Revolt Of The White Lower Middle Class,” in New York that “portentously” spoke to the rising unaddressed tension “the working class, trade union, white, beleaguered, ignored, presumptively male figure who turned from New Deal loyalties to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.” These said-samers would later graduate to basket case ‘deplorables.’ A more recent article on this topic is offered up by Joan Williams in a Harvard Business Review article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” that Roediger unpacks.
This mishmash of ‘folk’ became the subject of a new “technique” called, familiarly now, focus groups, “gathering … people associated demographically and often interviewing them collectively for an extended period, an expensive practice that had previously been used more by Republicans (indeed, the Focus group technique became the Hero of the 1996 Russian election when American consultants — and the Clinton administration — were rushed in to rescue Yeltsin’s campaign: at least, that’s what we were told.). But says Roediger, this snapshot of Macomb County, as described by Clinton and Greenberg, was actually “an exaggeration, a caricature of America.” We’ve been caricatures ever since. He adds, “Nothing in the setup of the research and little in MCD reflected the integrated workplaces and unions in which many in Macomb also existed.” And questions of race were not addressed at all. What racism? The Clinton appeal to assuaging white anxiety backfired, and Hillary, argues Roediger, “paid in 2016 for the race-saturated pro-incarceration rhetoric—Black youth as ‘superpredators’—she and her husband had traded on in appealing to Macomb County’s middle-class dreams in the 1990s.”
Barack Obama also got caught up (willingly) in the lampoon of political demographics. He “deftly liquidated the issue of how a country with such astronomical rates of poverty could be almost all middle class. He defined the middle class as “not only folks who are currently [in] the middle class, but also people who aspire to be in the middle class.” Aspire to be. Hope and Change. Bit this begins to get us into Nora Zeale Hurston country. She once explained how ‘folks’ came to be possessed by the sympathetic power of voodoo: If you want to understand voodoo: believe. It really is like the ol’ tush-grabbing Bush once said of Reaganomics — voodoo, and the Press is there to church us. It’s a plutocracy, where the 1% witch doctor gets to stick it to the 99% Middle Class for fun and exercise of power.
Sanders and Clinton weren’t much better than Obama and Romney, Roediger says, in determining what constitutes Middle Class, “ballparking “below $250,000” annual family income as the benchmark of middle-class membership, though limiting its use to details of tax policy.” Ironically, it seems, then, that by the time You-Know-Who became president, quite a few million people were just plain tired of the political-demographic bullshit. He writes,
Trump presented himself as a modern political leader uniquely unmoved by pretending affinity with the middle class. He bragged repeatedly of his 1 percent status. Overemphasizing his self-made success and deemphasizing his debts, he courted being seen as filthy rich.
He didn’t pretend to be ‘one of us’ and it greatly helped his cause.
Later, Roediger contrasts such focus groups with surveys taken by Fortune magazine before, during and after WWII. Of special interest to him is Fortune’s 1942 survey that asks a series of class-bound questions, including identification and expectations. He takes issue with “Fortune’s assertion that a startling four-fifths of a nation barely off the skids claimed to be middle class has meant its survey is still cited even today” and “It exulted that the nation remained impervious to the formation of ;any self-conscious proletariat such as a Marxist would wish for.’” Roediger notes, however, Fortune’s playfulness in suggesting that “one American in four favored socialism, with another 35 percent reporting having ‘an open mind’ on the issue.” It’s an interesting snapshot of our culture, and well worth a perusal. Here.
But for all his linguistic grappling with the definition, trends and usefulness of the term ‘Middle Class,’ and American Exceptionalism (to which it’s linked), Roediger saves his best for demolishing its presumed allure. It’s a miserable place to be. He lets Marx throw a haymaker, warming up with the reminder that
The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated.
But, actually, says Roediger, Marx tells us that the “middle classes” will propogate and that they exist to consume “the surplus bounty produced in the factories by workers,” leading to a Keeping Up with the Joneses, financed by credit debt, leading to a life of “falling and fear of falling,” such as that described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Fear of Falling. Today’s debt slaves. The New Middle Class.
Misery is the picture Roediger paints. He brings in literary figures to illustrate, such as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the law clerk who “prefers not to” do anymore work, who fades in toiling, losing himself, wasting away. (Not mentioned by Roediger, but apropos, is Melville’s own misery as he toiled as a clerk to support his writing and saw his time and energy and talent waste away. This is something Tillie Olsen picks up on in “Ways of Being Silent,” her fine essay in Harper’s October 1965 issue, almost suggesting Moby Dick was an obsession with writing itself.). Roediger emphasizes that “If we see the middle class as a plight as well as a perch, we can understand something of why many workers see themselves simultaneously as middle class, working class, and living impossible lives.”
He sees misery in the cube, “the tomb where a majority of office workers spend much of their lives,” as detailed in Nikil Saval’s Cubed. Willy Loman and The Death of A Salesman are brought in to express the tragedy of a culture consumed with buying and selling, in a transactional existence, an “embourgeoisement” nobody can fathom. “Loman’s fall and death—a suicide after a series of failed attempts—come not at once but over a lifetime of misery,” Roediger tells us. He writes, “Much of the misery of the middle class fits well within narratives of sudden descent in material terms,” and one recalls how the just before the Towers fell into freefall their middles sagged, and suddenly even images of 9/11 takes on the almost taunting, half-baked truths of memes.
The Sinking Middle Class offers few specific solutions (typical of the Left these days), but it is a good read that points to the vacuity of our central premises regarding what it means to be American and, presumably, Middle Class — at least until the next Credit Report comes rolling with the news of our demise, or, much to our delighted surprise, an opportunity to have our credit limit raised. The book was written before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and it would be interesting to know what Roediger’s response would be to its near certain revolutionary impact on American Exceptionalism.
Corona may be a blessing in disguise, bringing about an end to commerce as usual, a freefall of a class designation not worth saving, and a revolution nobody can do anything about in an America beset with so many vectors of turmoil that starting over may be the only viable answer.
With any luck, a solar flare will knock out our grids, so that we can get back to the business of being human, face-to-face.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
A few weeks ago New Yorker magazine published a cartoon titled “Glass Ceiling,” which depicted a father and his little daughter looking out the window of an office high up in a skyscraper. The caption read, “Someday, all of this glass ceiling will be yours.” You chuckle, because it’s funny; but then you go ahead and think about it. Then your smirk drops, and you’re thinking, “Shit, that’s not funny at all.” And then you feel bushwacked, and caught out because you laughed inappropriately, and think again: glass ceiling.
One thinks of that disturbing question psychiatrists ask during an admissions assessment: “Why should women in glass houses not throw stones?” It’s meant to determine a certain level of abstract reasoning. The middle-age little girl might answer bravely, “Because it might break the glass. We mustn’t do that.” He smiles upon her, hands her a benzo, and assigns her to the Open Ward; she won’t run. But if Daddy really loved his little girl, when he points out the glass ceiling to her, he’d hand her a brick and say, “Smash that shit.” Concrete reasoning. She’d get the Closed Ward and chlozapine. But, one day, that brick might get her to the White House. (As long as the MSM doesn’t fink on her previous history of mental illness.)
We wait, NOW, with bated breath as current Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, the surprise front runner and back rubber, paces and stays up at night wondering which woman to use as a running mate to guarantee a fall victory against the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump. He wouldn’t win any other way. He needs the women’s bloc to bring their enormous electoral power to the polls just long enough to chase Trump from office and back to the Reality TV toon world he escaped from — abetted by the basket-case deplorables we thought we left behind in the 70s. And it’s not like folks are coming from miles around to pick Joe’s progressive brains for any other reason. Hmph.
Almost 100 years after the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by a male Congress on August 18, 1920, ‘gifting’ women the right to vote, a number of them are waiting around anxiously, like pageant princesses, for the phone to ring and hear corny Joe pop the question: “Will you be my running mate? You lyin’ dog-faced pony soldier?” The girls are anxious; who will it be? Will it be Tulsi? How about Amy? Might Kammy get the nod? Or will it be Sally, Stacey, Sheeny, or Maggie? What if Lizzy, for the good of the potty, throws away her principles and endorses Ol’ Joe in exchange for the nod? An arsenic and old lace cup of tea away from the presidency. But what if she dies first of old age? Whoa, more glass ceilings.
Such are the images and white noise that invade the mind as I make my way through Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol Dubois. Released during Women’s History Month, the book not only celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but also details the 75 year struggle leading up to the Statute of Liberty. It’s a book about enormous multigenerational courage and the triumph of common sense, from surviving physical domestic abuse to waking men up to their own folly: women, too, are humans, people, citizens, and not just chattel. It’s a book chock full of heroines (and heroes too), and laden with seemingly intractable complexities and obstacles to overcome: race, class, religion, anthropology, politics — and just plain evil.
Dubois describes two waves of women — the fin de siecle pioneers and the Next Generation militants — who through sheer determination and personal sacrifice wear down the lip servants of Liberty to take hold of what was theirs to begin with: autonomous selfhood. The battle begins, in 1848, in upper state New York, when a series of parlor discussions about abolition turns into one of women’s issues and “the long-accumulating discontent” of the second sex, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, evolves into a passionate statement of intended emancipation known as the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentments. Women were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more.
It was, writes Dubois, — a kind of in-your-face revelation of male hypocrisy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Sound familiar? Same same, but now with “women” added. New and improved product. Very effective. (Although one guy is said to have gawped out, “Hey, that’s plagiarism.”) But like every “new” product it took awhile to soak in. Some say, 100 years later, it still hasn’t soaked in. Maybe we need a new washing machine.
With the parlor successes of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reached out to leaders of communities more far flung, to the West and the pioneer states, as well as overseas. But it should be noted that her parlor talks and travelling required money, which brings to the fore the fact that she was well-off, and that, at first, suffrage in the East, was seen as an elitist goal; poor and Black women were too busy or tired to talk and travel. As Dubois writes of Stanton,
When insults and male arrogance became too much to bear, which happened frequently, her self-confidence would turn to arrogance. She would default to a haughty—and infuriating—elitism….
Still, Stanton spread the gospel of emancipation that would free poor women too (even if they didn’t know it at the time).
In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (where women were excluded from participating, although they watched men debate slavery from the gallery), Stanton met Lucretia Mott. the woman who would become her mentor. Mott, a Quaker abolitionist from Massachusetts, was a woman Dubois decribes as “emancipated from all faith in man-made creeds, from all fear of his denunciations.” Fearless women is what the movement needed, and there was no shortage of them back in the day, and they had no desire to be mere copies of men in their political deeds and future votes — but leaders of thought. “It was under [Mott’s] tutelage,” writes Dubois, “that..Stanton grew into a great women’s rights thinker.”
Back home,in Worcester, Mass., another convention served to align the values of abolitionists and the suffragettes. It was attended by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Stephen Foster. Dubois describes the vibe:
“The cause we have met to advocate…bids us remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women,” the convention resolved, “and omit no effort to raise [them] to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”
This fierce resolution, Dubois suggests, was in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. a dickheaded law that allowed Southerners to come to Northern states to repo escaped slaves. But sometimes freemen got taken. Think: 12 Years A Slave.
But probably the most well-known suffrage leader, and future coin head, was Susan B. Anthony, another Quaker from Massachusetts. She was a stout leader of the temperance movement and a committed abolitionist. She and Stanton formed the New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852. Ten years before the Civil War, writes Dunois, “the abolition of slavery and temperance were the two issues most riling American society, shaking up political parties, and—of particular
importance—igniting women’s energies.”
Dubois mentions other early suffragettes, such as Lucy Stone, from Mass., the first American woman to earn a college degree, and Amelia Bloomer, from Seneca Falls, who edited the magazine The Lily, for which Stanton wrote regularly. Bloomer is most remembered for the ‘feminist’ fashion statement she introduced, which like the Turkish pantaloon was a loose-fitting garment that suffragettes adopted as a symbol and called a “freedom dress.” It caused a sensation probably akin to the recent Burqua fashion craze introduced by rich car-driving Saudi women. (However, suffrage in the Kingdom is unnecessary, onnacounta they don’t really have any elections.)
One of the most challenging aspects of Suffrage is Dubois’s weaving and unwinding of the myriad threads of political and social complexity. For instance, most suffragettes were abolitionists who worked hard to see slavery ended; but other suffragettes weren’t particularly bothered by it. Most contemporary Americans are unaware that a majority of Northerners were indifferent to the plight of slaves. On January1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, which some claim the North was losing, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “using his presidential powers to declare all slaves in rebel territory forever free.”
As Dubois explains though,
The resentment of many white northerners of the proclamation, which seemed to them to mean only that they would pay the ultimate price to end slavery, about which they were concerned little, and free the slaves, about whom they cared even less, boiled over.
Riots broke out in New York and many Blacks were killed, when America’s first draft was announced — one in which the rich conscripts could buy their way out of, while working class workers could lose their jobs processing (ironically) sugar and cotton from the South.
Dubois points out some very serious flaws in the legacy of the Emancipation. For one thing, she writes, “Like all executive orders, it could be undone by the next president.” But more stunning, Dubois points out that “Right before his death, Lincoln had laid out a plan for a postwar reconstruction that would readmit seceding states but not enfranchise African Americans.” Susan B. Anthony was appalled and said of his plan at a memorial service shortly after his assasination,
My soul was sad and sick at what seemed his settled purpose—to consign the ex-slaves back to the tender mercies of the disappointed, desperate, sullen, revengeful ex-lords of the lash.
For Lincoln, the Civil War might have been so politically costly that he felt he needed to be conciliatory. For suffragettes, it ended up alienating them from the abolitionist fight.
Another piggy back ride that proved costly for the suffragettes was their hopping on the back of the Temperance Movement in the hopes of driving women together to form one bloc of action that would lead to suffrage for all. Frances Willard, a friend of Anthony’s led the charge through the Women’s College Temperance Union. Writes Dunois, “Drink, she believed, was a new form of enslavement that she was called upon to fight, just as her abolitionist parents had fought chattel slavery.” But the strategy was dubious for one obvious reason — few men to be affected — not just the drunks and louts, who tippled and terrorized families at home — but powerful gentlemen who enjoyed a good glass in a social milieu of politics and sports, wanted to stop drinking. There would be hell to pay.
As we’ve seen over time, a lot of white powerful men in America like drinking, but may like the notion of enslavement even more — take modern debt enslavement and the control it implies over lives. Getting women from various socio-economic-religio backgrounds, with various agendas, organized and mobilized around the concept of universal suffrage — and seeing it as the political key that unlocked all other doors — was a formidable task. A lot of women just didn’t see it that way. For instance, suffragists had difficulty convincing Democratic women who, writes Dubois, “regarded woman suffrage as a wealthy woman’s hobby.” While abolition and temperance alliances severely hampered suffrage for decades, once working class women saw what was in it for them, they embraced the movement.
One of the great moral and political boosts for suffrage was the fact that many states west of the Mississippi –the Go West pioneer states — in the end, some 12 states where women could vote. These acted as a stable reference point and a factual rebuff to those men — and women — back East who proclaimed suffrage could neither be done nor was wanted. Maud Young, a speaker at the National Women’s Party (NWP), reminded her audience that
Four years ago, women voted in six States—today in twelve.…[They] constitute nearly one-fourth of the electoral college, and [cast] more than one-third of the votes necessary to elect a President.” She finished with a ringing call: “The women’s votes may determine the Presidency of the United States.”
And they would, too, if they ever got together as one.
In the 20th century, a second generation of suffragettes, the New Woman, pushed through the usual obstacles, plus the muddle of World War I (where the work women did in armaments factories, in support of soldiers overseas, greatly helped their cause), and strove on through a distracting pandemic known as the Spanish Flu, which took perhaps 50 million lives, to eventually successfully pressure president Woodrow Wilson in backing legislation for the 19th Amendment.
Among the stars of the show in this more active era cited by Dubois were Ellis Meredith, a novelist and journalist who wrote a column for the Rocky Mountain News called A Woman’s World; Carrie Chapman Catt, who played a major role in the international suffrage movement; Anna Howard Shaw, a physician and ordained minister; Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, who helped build a bridge between labor and suffrage; Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the first female civil engineer in America; Milholland Boissevain, “the supreme New Woman, [who] was renowned for her determination and fearlessness.”
But Alice Stokes Paul, was the firebrand the movement needed to bring it all home. In 1913, She worked closely with Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt, as they organized a major suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Paul had witnessed first and the tactics employed by British women in their own fight for suffrage (watch Suffragette here). Writes Dubois, “Paul had learned from the British suffragettes to deploy public demonstrations for maximum popular attention and to hold the political party that was in power responsible for inaction on women’s enfranchisement.” But it could get violent.
In August 1917, DC was covered with picketers demanding the right to vote for women. Paul, and others, decided to get themselves arrested to make a splashier point in the news. Shortly after Alexander Kerensky, who led the Russian provisional government after the 1917 revolution, announced that Russia would be “enfranchise its women,” writes Dubois, “Suffragists wanted to underline the irony of the president’s resistance to women’s enfranchisement.” Their banners ‘announced’ to the people’s revolutionaries that America was not democratic. The Wilson administration was not happy. “A line had been crossed,” writes Dubois. “Peaceful picketing now began to look like treason.” The picketers couldn’t be arrested under the new Espionage Act law, but were arrested for obstruction of traffic and disturbing the peace, tried and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Paul continued to push for her rights,and those of the others, while in prison. Recalling the tactics of British militant suffragettes, Paul and the others set up a hunger strike, which gained them lots of press, but at a significant cost to Paul. Dubois writes,
Paul would be the first suffrage activist in the United States subjected to forced feeding… This was another first: the first documented use of psychiatric diagnosis and confinement as a deliberate form of political repression in the United States, perhaps worldwide.
More recently, one recalls how we wrung our hands in anguish when we discovered that ‘gloves-off’ Enhanced Interrogation Techniques against Gitmo ‘terrorists’ sometimes involved force-feeding (and remember the Zero Dark Thirty scene?), but we were doing it to our own women almost 100 years earlier.
Dubois sums up, “When on August 26, 1920, the secretary of state certified that ratification was completed, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.” Women now had the right to vote and the power to influence legislation with it. But Dubois seems almost wistful in the end, as she notes disappointment in the fact that women never came together afterward to form the kind of formidable voting bloc that could have significantly changed politics in America. Indeed, when all was said and accomplished, newspapers across the country called into question the success of suffrage. Dubois refuses to deny or qualify one fact: “Even so, [as hard as suffragettes had worked] the first election brought out approximately one-third of eligible women voters, about half the rate of men.”
Dubois closes with a few measuring stick paragraphs on how far women have come since 1920 in developing an elusive agenda and bloc of electoral power. She singles out Betty Friedan for her book, The Feminine Mystique,and its influence on getting women to free themselves from a modern day slave mentality. She says the book was received “hostilely by women.” In her Epilogue, she quotes a joke she overheard between two men talking after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — some guy says to the other: “”It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies.” Maybe, but perhaps they should read Gloria Steinem’s account of her undercover days serving Hugh Hefner, “A Bunny’s Tale.”
Sexual harassment (Epstein, Weinstein), domestic abuse, fracturing along all the usual lines — class, race, religion, partisan politics — the struggle forward and upward continues, just as it started out 100 years ago –call it the Myth of Sisterphus. About the only thing men and women don’t fight over much any more is drinking: Everybody loves to get shitfaced on the weekend, EOE.
The only question that remains is the age-old one that goes back to Adam: who owns a woman’s body. We’ve been wondering that since Eve was just a rib in Adam’s eye. But I don’t really want to know the answer. I’m not sure I like the implications.
Don’t have to live like a refugee (Don’t have to live like a refugee)
(I won’t back down) No, I won’t back down
– Tom Petty
The global refugee crisis has been with us for a while. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there’s been a steady flow of displaced humans from their home nations into statelessness and then on to begrudged statefulness among strangers. According to the agency, there are 4.2 million stateless people right now. Some people are stateless within their own natal nation (Yemen). The number of refugees stayed at about 40 million a year until about 2012, when it began an unbroken rise upward to the 80 million mark today.
Why? The usual understated suspects — war, internal failure of governance, economic catastrophe, climate change. But, also, movement coincides with the rise of ISIS and the Levant, a militant Islamic insurgency created in the aftermath of the illegal 2003 Shock And Awe display in Iraq, which saw militant forces gather and claim a caliphate (a global statehood, in the Levant region, for radical Islam) — a claim rejected by the US “without prejuduce,” and leading to a reign of terror and counter-terror in the region, ending abruptly when Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi allegedly blew himself heavenward clutching two virgins. The mess that’s been made in Syria by the post-Cold War exploits of Russia and America has sent hundreds of thousands of people toward an unwelcome Europe. Covid-19 has exacerbated their plight.
You could argue that statelessness includes the Apart-Hate system that saw The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah come into the world illegally — his journey across the birth canal a kind of fence-jumping — that he recounts in his memoir, Born A Crime. It’s a crazy world. More recently, I reviewed a book by Kurdish refugee from Iran, Behrouz Boochani, who tried to enter Australia by boat (illegal, and making him permanently ineligible for entry) and was sent to a detention camp on Manus Island, where he described conditions so foul and horrific to an advocate in Australia — by way of WhatsApp — that it became a best-selling memoir. Rules for a lucrative national award were changed to make the non-Aussie’s book eligible for consideration and — voila! — he won the $125,000 prize.
Today, thanks to more Aussie prizes, book sales, paid interviews, a gig at the Guardian, and his recent movie deal, Boochani nears millionairehood while he waits, in statelessness, in New Zealand, before, ostensibly, heading to America, where he has previously said he wouldn’t go unless he was allowed to sue Australia for its atrocities and abuses. The kicker is, had he been allowed into Australia after Manus, he’d have been abused for his anti-Australian comments (guaranteed) — probably by some of the same Lefties who championed him. Being a refugee can mean crossing the border into Wonderland.
With Ilhan Omar’s memoir (as told to Rebecca Paley), This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee To Congresswoman, the reader returns to a more traditional tale of horrific displacement and resettlement with a happy ending. The book is roughly segmented into three sections corresponding with important phases of her life: early childhood in Somalia, teen to young adult life in Virginia and Minnesota, and the commencement of her political career in Washington, DC. Frankly, the first half of the account is thoroughly engaging, as she provides anecdotes of her trials and tribulations, mostly as a refugee and/or immigrant literally fighting for her physical and psychical liberty; however, her later political doings, despite her unique cultural challenges, drags a bit; and, the closing chapter is essentially a stump speech in sheep’s clothing.
Omar’s tale of growing up in Baidoa, a burb of Mogadishu, where she was born in 1982, only to end up in a burb of Minneapolis, where she was scorned, is compelling, poignant, and frank. As Omar tells Paley, right out of the chute she was a fighter and a social critic. Observing, one day in third-grade class, a boy taunting another aggressively, Omar’s hackles were up, when the bully exclaimed:
“Hooyadawus!” which means “Go fuck your mother” in Somali. I burned in my seat. I always hate it when people use vulgar language, but I get really angry when it involves mothers, who I knew from the beginning were sacred—even if I didn’t have one.
Seven year old Omar told the bully to sit down and shut up, and he replied he’d beat snot out of her after school, and then, later, their battle ended when, “I pulled the boy down and rubbed his face in the sand.” Her brother came along and shouted at her, “Ilhan! What the hell?”
Lesson: You don’t mess with the Ilhan. For letting a girl force his head in the sand, the bully could barely save face and was forever ostrichsized; none of his peers wanted to, um, emulate him after that.
In the mid-80s, growing clan unrest, brought about by aging Somalian president Mohammed Siad Barre’s agitation of the masses and move toward totalitarianism, saw the eruption of a civil war the effects of which continue to this day. Omar recalls, “I remember everything shutting down. School was the first institution to go, but eventually the mosques, the postal service, the television stations, even the market closed down.” Subsistence diets were forced on them:
(To this day, I hate plain rice. It brings back that time when everyone smelled like a bag of rice. It seeped into people’s pores like we had drowned in it.)
Omar relates that her family had to flee the country when she was nine years old, due to its level of violence, much of it aimed at her clan, and ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for four years.
Omar describes her early relationship with her father, Baba, by whom, along with an aunt, she was principally raised (she doesn’t remember her mother, who died when she was in preschool). Her father, she says, suspended Somali tradition in raising her, treating her not as a second class girl, but as a social equal. She says,
Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family…He was extremely close to us and did not adopt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.
As we discover later in the narrative, this is an important point: It helps explain to the still-patriarchal Somali community in Minneapolis her gender-breaking ambition to run for public office, and to lead, rather follow, steps behind the man, any man.
Another important influence early on is Omar’s habaryar (aunt) Fos, who showered her with maternal affection and dignity. “She was a super human, but one who didn’t need her powers to be recognized or celebrated,” relates Omar. “I could get in trouble with just about anybody. But I couldn’t get in trouble with her. ‘This is my sister’s baby,’ she would say.” And, during the flight from Somalia, amidst militia battles, Fos contracted malaria, and she “grew sicker and sicker until she could no longer get out of bed.” This event became not only a devastating personal loss but a key moment in her education:
I don’t think I’ve known greater devastation and sorrow than when Fos died…My aunt’s death meant in very real terms that there was no such thing as escape in this life…Nothing is permanent, and that fact made me really angry.
Omar shows over and over again an ability to channel her anger for constructive purposes.
Once in the refugee camp in Kenya, she describes conditions that would make Boochani blush with overstatement. In Dadaab, temporarily ‘resettled’ in a virtual wasteland under the sun’s tormenting eye, she describes ailments. A lucky refugee, she caught “only” chicken pox,
Without any kind of remedy or medicine, my skin burned under the scorching heat. I could literally hear the blisters popping.
A la Nietzsche’s famous now pop-songed quip, That which does not kill me makes me stronger, she adds, “Despite the physical agony I was experiencing, I knew chicken pox wasn’t going to kill me.” She notes the look of others, “For the first year and a half in the camp, my grandfather and dad walked around like zombies. All the adults were like shells of humans.” It’s a common refugee experience.
She describes long lines:
There were watering stations throughout the camp where people lined up with plastic jugs to fill…The other line known for its battles was the one for the bathroom…I also stood in line for our food, such as rice, beans, flour, or oil.
She observes Kenyan resentment at their numbers — 334,000 — and needs.
After four years in the camp, Omar and her family are relocated to America. They’ve been prepped: pep talks and videos conjure up visions of wealth, good will, and opportunity. She remembers how refugees were dressed on the way to America:
A man handing his boarding pass to a flight attendant wore a suit that was at least two sizes too big for him. Two little girls, testing out the tables that popped out from the seats in front of them, were in Easter Sunday dresses as if they were about to attend a holiday party.
Before the flight, some of them had gone on a spending spree at secondhand clothing shops to arrive in a dignified fashion.
It’s a festive, yet apprehensive atmosphere on the plane, folks all joy-juiced up on the expectations lent them by US refugee agencies:
There was an unspoken fantasy that when we came to America we would be greeted by its citizens, whom we needed to impress in order to fit in, so that we could land a good job, go to the right school, and move into one of those beautiful homes with the white picket fences we had seen in the orientation video.
Woe — even Marquis de Sade would have blushed at such straw-manning.
But, when they arrive at JFK, hop in a cab on their way to a hotel for the night, young Omar sees from her seat homelessness, squalor, and she is dismayed:
Through the window of the taxi I watched the darkened highways become city streets—and I was appalled by what I saw. Trash everywhere…Large pyramids, some even taller than I was, of black trash bags lined the streets—as if New Yorkers were preparing for a levee to break.
The scene is something she will later draw on in her political career to message that there is a considerable difference between what America advertizes about itself and the product you get handed — but that, working together, we can all make the Dream happen, bring the Ad to life.
When the narrative switches to Arlington, Virginia, and then Minneapolis, we are returned to Omar the Streetfighting Girl. Very entertaining bully-bashing, and no doubt true, if my memory of such moments is accurate anymore. She subtly knocks the US educational system by noting that her Somalian fourth grade education placed her in sixth grade in America. She describes middle school years that conjure up the Levant, a school environment she finds herself in, almost daily, that is part barroom fight and part ice hockey brawl. She tells us she got in fights over “looks” and one day,
I stared back, and if they said something, which of course I couldn’t understand, I usually decided to hit them first, assuming they were going to hit me. I wasn’t afraid, and I wanted people to know it.
Uh-oh, is Omar a unilateralist? ( Maybe we could set up a bout between Boochani and Omar, I’m thinking.)
When she gets to the topic of integument she notes bravely that Somalis have no word for Causcasian. And the American idea of white is, well, odd, and maybe even wyrd. She says,
[M]y conception of white was very different from the American construct. There is no Somali translation for the word Caucasian. The word we use describes an actual skin tone, the way you appear.
This cracked me up, as I pictured the Might Whitey as a black-and-white stick figure, in contrast to the colored folk. And I also thought, more seriously, about Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby,” where the mother is seen as white by her Southern community until, one day, while nursing, someone, I forget who, notices the negroid aureoles of her breasts and the shit hits the fan: Now, she’s Black, and on her way to suicide — just like that. Wyrd.
In Minneapolis, she fell in love with Johnny Depp in his Bollywood-like role in Cry Baby. At Edison middle school, she joined up with dozens of other Somali students, relieved, after three years of relative isolation in Arlington, to be “surrounded by people who understood things about my existence without my having to explain.” But, the fights continue, often over her wearing a hijab. She ended up spending long hours in detention, but “given the long hours of studying in detention, I had become a very good student.” Again, Omar and her silver linings.
But there’s more — more fights, and more life lessons leading to activist leanings and development. She describes the crazy chaos of school days filled with endless dysfunction:
Like Minneapolis itself, Edison’s mainstream classes were very diverse. Unfortunately, the differences among the student population proved more divisive than anything else. There were a lot of fights: everyone fought everyone. African Americans and African immigrants fought over who was blacker. Muslim kids and white ones fought over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Latinos against African Americans, Africans against Native Americans, and on and on.
Diversive/Divisive. Omar saw a thing, and corralled some like-minded pals and formed a coalition they called Unity in Diversity. “We recruited everyone with the express purpose of understanding the triggers of our racially charged environment and bridging the harmful divides,” she said.
Like Barack Obama’s political career, she starts out as a community organizer of sorts, and goes from there. It also is a part of the narrative where she and Paley deftly weave in the influences of her private life, marriage/divorce (Ahmed), kids and miscarriage, the patriarchal influences of the large Somali community of Minneapolis, raising kids and running for office, finishing her education, working on local political campaigns. etc. This is all meet and appropriate, routine and reassuring. She’s a normal American girl overcoming any number of obstacles, a ‘rugged individualist’ who won’t be cowed or bullied by the rest of humankine.
She provides an excellent response to the elephantine question in the room: What’s with the hijab? This is America. Omar explains elegantly and cogently,
The hijab wasn’t about a piece of cloth or the battle against objectification. Instead it was really a symbol of the purity of my presence in the world. It makes sense to me that I need to cover pieces of myself to preserve who I am and feel whole. I’m centered by the hijab, because it connects me to a whole set of internally held beliefs.
This most excellent answer pre-rebuffs any notion of seeing her hiding terrorist thoughts behind the head gear. Now that everyone in America has to wear masks, and have even taken to stylin’ them, maybe they can catch the vibe she’s expressing.
The latter part of the book contains some interesting bits and pieces on her irrepressible rise in politics — it almost seems like an inevitability: As her buddies say, “It’s Ilhan Time.” There’s also a nice moment she shares of her time sitting next to Speaker of the House Pelosi on an overseas trip together, the elderly stateswoman giving her some pom-pom tips on keeping her spirits up during the certain attacks on her character (Omar describes the many that have come her way since running for office, including from members of the Somali community angry that a girl would deem to lead).
And after being elected to the House in 2016, there’s the return trip to visit Somalia, and Mogadishu, her birthplace, where she is deeply disappointed:
When I arrived in Mogadishu, it was not the city in which I had lived.
No monument was fully intact. Familiar roads were blockaded. Both my great-grandmother’s house and my childhood home were inaccessible.
Grief-stricken, I went back to the hotel and fell asleep—for sixteen hours!
An elderly restaurant worker she talks with says that her sleep indicates she’s finally cut her “umbilical” connection to Mama Somalia. This leads to a kind of epiphany during which, she says,
I felt obligated to return and speak about my refugee experience for the first time and to advocate for empathetic policies that take into account real human suffering.
She means it. She’s a young politician. And I’ll be sending her campaign a tax-deductible contribution.
In the memoir’s final chapter, “The World Belongs To Those Who Show Up,” the reader is treated with a stump speech; you know, hopey dopey, rah rah rah, Unity Diversity, e pluribus unum. This is all good stuff, rousing really, even for an old cynic; you like to see the kids working off the previous generation’s karma with audacious enthusiasm, rekindling ideals that get muddled in our pre-Alzheimer days (Did I really believe that once? I’m thinking. Good for me.) And it’s nice to hear her going on about the evil influence that led to George Floyd being murdered by cops (let’s not forget that a couple of them watched Chauvin get up to his knee in neck, while Floyd begged for help, and did nothing to stop it, a crime). And it’s good to know, in a way, that Omar’s political ambitions already contain a built-in governor: She will never be running for president.
But with any luck, she and her feminist buddies in The Squad will push some old privileged face into the sand and get some People shit done for a change.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I know what you mean, Steve.”
-Jane Martin sitting in a car at Lover’s Lane, The Blob (1958)
“Hideously plausible suspense… [that] will glue you to your chair.”
-Detroit Free Press review, The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Recently, someone online suggested reading Journal of the Plague Year by Willem Dafoe, I mean Defoe. Daniel. I kept looking at an illustration of the 14th century German Plague Doctor, thinking it looks an awful lot like my imagined picture of Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat,” and Zimmy singing, “He had a face like a mask,” and “People don’t live or die people just float she went with the man in the long black coat.” The Germ Man.
Holed up, but internetted, in my no-panic-but-getting-there-room, wondering what the fuck I’d do if the tubes went down, now that they’re shuttering customer service centers, I’m told, and I had to make my way Out There, gingerly, as if the air between here and there were now all jungly with corona vines hanging everywhere, to sift through my paperback collection in storage, only to find one dega book left — The Foucault Reader. Fuck me.
But back to Herr Doktor Daniel Defoe. There I was self-isolating, like Robinson Crusoe listening to his parrot squawk “Poor Crusoe” for 30 years. Me thinking Dafoe, who played Christ, could have played Crusoe (he has that kind of range) in a kind of combined performance. There’s the why-have-you-forsaken-me self-pity that became the Church. There’s that spooky crossover pagan element that comes out at Easter. In fact, at one point, Crusoe, “flung down by corpse evangelists,” ensmirkled by the love-smiling cannibals of transubstantiation, is saved by good Friday. What I want to know is why Defoe has Crusoe, after he returns to England, abandoning his young family for more crazy adventures (Vol.2), and why Dafoe isn’t starring as Defoe in a post-mod TV movie about all this shit.
Some people think Idle thoughts during times of plague and pestilence. Me, I prefer a good lip-doodling frenzy. Strange things happen to people in these global crises of ours — and I’ve had my share of them, starting with the Cuban Missile crisis, when the organic gardening craze began (wink) — strange ways of thinking that bring strangers together worldwide to contemplate the One Thing. The threat’s to the body, but it’s the psychology that fascinates. We haven’t been down this road since 9/11, but there are no politics here, Corona virus isn’t Islamic (Inshallah), and even as we fall like Sartrian flies it feels like a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, like cover for something else, but then conspiracies and pandemics are French-kissing first cousins, another version of the mind-body problem we can’t solve.
I have idle thoughts, too, and I wonder: What happens to the homeless during Corona? Are they given digs to self-isolate in? A Good Will box each, maybe? And if we’ve found a solution suddenly (by necessity), then where are we on this issue all the other days? Also, while we’re idling, if we can come together on Corona, everyone on the same page, then how come we can’t put out a pandemic — issue a public service virus — that forces us to think together about climate change? And, also, is it me, or is Trump looking these days like he’s got a sibling jealousy of Corona?
Too much self-isolating can lead to self-alienation and you have to wonder if we’re all up to nunnery-getting any more, now that God’s Dead. Corona has me thinking about childhood. With Corona, I just want to know what makes her tick. But like Nietzsche said, ‘Hey stupid, if you fuck with an abyss, the abyss will fuck with you.’ But I went ahead anyway, and re-watched a movie I never would have re-watched, if not for you, Corona: The Blob. 1958. It was the first horror movie I can recall watching on TV and I have to admit the corny blob from outer space had my nerves on the rack for a while in childhood. I would have nightmares — imagining swallowing myself, or maybe I was imagining being swallowed by the blob and was still conscious inside.
The blob is a life force that absorbs other life forces it comes into contact with. There have been many interpretations of the blob over the years. The self-evident Freudian theory. (Right?) And the Red Menace theory: At the beginning of the movie, as Steve McQueen is getting nowhere in Lover’s Lane, his girl loves him but she fears he’s a wolf, a whistling meteor comes to his rescue and hurls to earth (bomb whistles were terror tactics, making the meteor a terrorist). The blob was red, and liked to spread — call it a commie comet and kill it dead.
But then, more germane to our Corona problem, there was the We Are Not Alone theory. The blob as an amoeba, an alien form of life that came out of nowhere and confronted civilisation and our biology. Suddenly you’re staring at cytoplasm, cell walls, osmosis in the face. It absorbed a doctor and mechanic, maybe giving it, symbolically, a kind of auto-immune system. Subliminally, if you looked real quick, the found meteor even looks like Corona. It gimme a chill. The kind of movie that makes you think. Think: there but before the grace of God go I: why, I coulda been that. And if it’s up to the Blob, I will be blob. What if I were Corona, I thought?
It got worse. Stupid me, I went ahead last night and watched the old classic The Andromeda Strain. Not the musical (in case there was one), but the Crichton flick. When I think about it, what an evil fucker Mikey could be: Velociraptors that come at you like riveting gangsters and flank you: you look and see them balooppidiloop before you’re taken by the extra-species sadists; terminal people being harvested for body parts; Coma; West World, and Yul Brenner with no face. But Andromeda was a strain from outer space. A “hideously plausible” depiction of how an alien could make its way to earth and, again, the human species-level danger it represents. It’s a crystal life-and-not-life form that mutates and replicates at the same time, and the scientists see it as intelligent, so naturally they want to blow it up.
But what got under my skin about the movie was the little scientist-to-scientist crack about the human species that didn’t go over well in my self-isolation ill-humor (albeit, mellowed by red wine). One doctor says to the other that “the human body id one of the dirtiest things in the known universe.” What else aren’t they telling us? In the end I was reminded of something Stephen Hawking warned about humans being too eager to contact aliens, given we don’t know what we’d be confronting. Blobs, Strains, Cook Books.
And speaking of evil cracks, who can look the other way at Agent Smith’s snide little commentary in The Matrix. You’d go to cold cock him, but you know you’d miss and miss. He said essentially humans are viruses and he’s the solution. (See the disturbing video evidence for yourself.)
But recently, all those fantasies about alien life forms fucking with us in the cinemas took a sinister turn when I began reading about some seriously inconvenient possibilities. We’ve known for a long time that terrestrial life most likely had its beginnings in outer space. But a few days ago I read an article that began a train of thought that has me worried, and if you’re the worrying type, too, you may want to go do something else now. The headline asks: Could Giant Viruses Be the Origin of Life on Earth? Sweet Jesus.
The National Geographic (multiply-sourced) article goes on to ask: What if viruses predate bacteria, rather than the other way around? Here’s a thought-provoker for your isolation:
[S]ome scientists say the discovery of giant viruses could turn that view of life on its head. They propose that the ancestors of modern viruses, far from being evolutionary laggards, might have provided the raw material for the development of cellular life and helped drive its diversification into the varied organisms that fill every corner of the planet.
The two married virologists from Aix-Marseille University say that their “discovery” of the Giant Virus and its existential priority means it was the essence that human being was waiting for along the evolutionary path.
If you’re at all a Three-Aber oriented you’d better look the other way now, because the news for modern man get worse. Now, we’re also being told that “An Ancient Virus May Be Responsible for Human Consciousness.” Isn’t that a kick in the head. That’s right, the crazy quilt of thoughts you’re having right now might be Old Man Virus just fuckin’ with his host. As the scientists tell us in this piece, “You’ve got an ancient virus in your brain. In fact, you’ve got an ancient virus at the very root of your conscious thought.” And here’s more on it. Deal with it, they seem to be telling us.
Well, I was just starting do deal with the organic paradigm shift in my pants, when — what rock through yon window breaks? — could we moderns and Corona be distant relatives? Now, that’s a mind-fuck, achieved without acid or shrooms. Could viruses be behind civilization; civilization a kind of concentration camp of milling ideas? Could art be viral? That would certainly explain some of the abstract expressionism I’ve seen, if a virus were calling the shots. I pictured a cluster of humans for a giffy moment seeming like a virus and cringed at its hypnotic effect. Are we dealing with a Sam Huntington Clash of Civilizations thing? Who’s to say Corona is not a better class of virus than the one science is saying currently controls our brains? Maybe Corona is the “Ubermensch” we’ve been waiting for and we should kow-tow. That crown must be there for a reason.
I don’t know any more. How come I always felt chuffed when Carl Sagan was explaining how we were all “star stuff,” literally, same material, but I felt good afterwards, teleologically-speaking? Maybe it was the Vangelis soundtrack. But also, I liked the Moody Blues back then and that may have added stained glass windows to what might otherwise have a horror show. All I know is,
I’ve never felt more like a water bag with legs, some carbon, and a jelly fish for a brain than now. How do I measure up? Corona did this to me. Hell, maybe all this self-isolating everywhere is the real virus. We’ll be more dedicated to the central internet brain ‘they’ say is coming than ever now. What if Corona slips a mickey in the works and upgrades our collective consciousness while we’re sleeping (and we always are)?
My friend turned to me and said after watching The Matrix years ago, “Who knows, we may already be in the Matrix.” I replied, “Yeah, and maybe we really are viruses.” And he said, “Shut up, Donnie,” because we liked to quote movie lines at each other.
Two Neo liberals talking. At the end of time.
“…is it, ah, twoo what they say about the way you people are gifted? Oh, it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”
– Lili von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles
It’s been 75 years since the end of WWII and interest in all things Nazi has seen no end; indeed, you could argue cogently that the monster Herr Docktor Deutschenstein brought to life from the parts of dead people and old ideologies has never had more global interest. Innumerable auctions of paraphernalia, books, films, TV series, podcasts, and radio shows have been devoted to the historical phenomena that led to the rise of the Third Reich. You’d like to think it was all in the spirit of Lest We Forget, but you’ll never again be that criminal naive. Evil may be banal, but, mein gott, it’s as popular as ever.
Likewise, 75 years after liberation of Auschwitz, through equally countless media productions and public remembrances, Jews around the globe have spared no effort to remind us of what the rise of such monsterhood has cost civilization. The Holocaust, as represented by the tumbling action of naked human bodies pushed by bulldozers into mass pits, is imagery of such evil and depravity that there remains no adequate way to deal with it emotionally. The Holocaust is, for Jews, what Slavery is for African Americans. — the elephants in the room of western civilization. Sadly, those of us in the room, who are neither Black nor Jewish, no matter how freed from ignorance we believe we are, can’t even promise ourselves that such horror will never happen again. We look around; we know better.
There have been movies made that wonder aloud what would have happened had Hitler escaped the bunker in 1945 with his mentality intact and emerged in some land of magical realism, south of the border, ready to fuck with us again — The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man are like that. But more recently, populist politics and fascism are on the rise and showing their fangs, and mixed with new technologies (from social media to eugenics), the LestWeForgetism required to keep them at heel is more vital than ever. Democracy is down but not out, the eight-count has begun. Two new streaming series — Hunters (Amazon) and The Plot Against America (HBO) — are What If movies that are based on real events that saw America come terrifyingly close to embracing Nazi thinking before, during and after WWII. They’re timely series worth watching.
Hunters is about a CIA (OSS) program called Operation Paperclip that saw the American government secretly ‘import’ thousands of Nazis at the end of WWII, ostensibly to keep them out of the clutches of the Soviets, with whom America was in a Cold War. The series stars Al Pacino, Logan Lerman (Shirley), Lena Olin (The Artist’s Wife), Saul Rubinek (Billions), and Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Imagine you’re a survivor of Auschwitz, brought to America to recoup with democracy’s chicken soup, and you’re in a supermarket in Manhattan, say, and look up to see the Nazi who tattooed you and led your family into the gas showers standing right there with an eggplant in his hand, apparently rescued by Americans, too. Jaw-dropping? You bet.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable Nazi scientists — such as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Blome — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the growing Cold War effort against the Soviets. Of Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Historian Stephen Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals,and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
As for von Braun, he’d led the V2 rocket program that terrorized Britons, and went on to lead NASA’s quest (along with the Black computers) to get to the moon.
In the series, events kick off when a young man, Jonah (Lerman), watches as his grandmother (a death camp survivor) is confronted by a mysterious figure and murdered, while he does nothing to stop it. Anguished and self-questioning, he meets up with and joins Meyer (Pacino), who heads a motley group of Nazi hunters — including a severe British “nun” and a Black woman who gives off Angela Davis vibes — who set out to right the wrong, as vigilantes, of Nazis residing in America. Along the way, they try to understand how the US government could have invited such evil into the country; America risked allowing demon seeds to grow in the homeland. As if to underscore the moral rectitude of their mission, the group uncovers a Nazi plot to set in motion the rise of the Fourth Reich in America. Kick-ass scenes ensue, with lots of ‘entertaining’ twists, especially for Rocket Man von Braun. Industrialists, like Henry Ford, are also given comeuppance as nasty works of Nazi assemblage.
Hunters is a well-acted series, with Pacino especially effective as a slow-moving reflective ‘Jew’ with a penchant for bloody revenge. Jerrika Hinton as Millie Morris, a Black FBI agent caught between the vigilantes and the Nazis being hunted, and, Kate Mulvaney as Sister Harriet, follower of the Olden Rule (an eye-for-an-eye) with mysterious ties to MI6, are also outstanding. The actors playing the evil Nazi villains (Lena Olin, as The Colonel, and Dylan Baker as Biff Simpson) are great, too. And, Jerrika Hinton’s Black FBI agent adds consciousness of the scope of racism, two ex-slave cultures coming together like buff vampire slayers to kill off the egos that explode in history like IEDs, as Erich Fromm accounts for in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
The series is, at times, comic bookish, but has outstanding a-lineal insertions, like the game show, Why Does Everyone Hate Jews?, where seemingly ordinary contestants are asked leading questions about the ‘evil Jews’; the insertion serves as a useful plot device to expose America’s underlying bigotry. It helps us see how ordinary Americans, in their desire to make America great again (or worse), could be hoodwinked by fascist bullshitters. Also, the insertions are surreal. The game show reminded me of a segment in Natural Born Killers when a psychopathic Rodney Dangerfield explodes on a TV screen in an episode of “I Love Mallory” and takes over the film for a minute. It’s a very powerful storytelling device for flashing Marilyn Knox’s dysfunctional childhood that is seen as the implicit motivation for her later evil. And the surrealism speaks to the incapacity of human language, at some point of outrage, to adequately express existential horror. The title of Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” kind of sums up the situational tension.
Moving along a different line of alternate history, equally plausible, given the status of the hero involved, The Plot Against America, based upon the novel by Philip Roth, involves Charles Lindbergh and the imagined cooptation of the American government by the Nazis as a result of Lindbergh’s public avowal of neutrality, but private admiration for Hitler, during WWII. In short, what if he’d run for president in 1940 and won, and then broke bad? The short series stars Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), Ben Cole (Charles Lindbergh), Zoe Kazan (Bess Levin) and John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. It has a far slower pace than Hunters, in keeping with Roth’s intended gradualist rhythm, but delivers the Big Chill at the end. Like Hunters, it has high quality ensemble acting, and is both informative and entertaining.
In 1940, Charles Lindbergh was the spokesperson of the America First movement (think: Trump), which was non-interventionist and strongly critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire to provide military aid to European nations facing Germany’s expansionist aggression. Lindbergh became a national hero in 1927 when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the monoplane dubbed The Spirit of St.Louis. He won a medal of honor and revolutionized commercial flights; he received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan upon his return from Paris. Many Jews regarded him as a Nazi sympathizer (in 1938 Hermann Goering awarded him a medal, Order of the German Eagle, just a couple of weeks before Kristallnacht). But was he evil?
Engaging the masses directly, in a Reader’s Digest article in 1939, just as WWII was getting going, Lindbergh wrote:
We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.
So we put up a wabbit-pwoof fence awound owwa democwacy, as Lili would say. She had to; Lady Liberty was getting exhausted servicing all the money-on-the-barrel requests from foreign riff-raff trying to get in, said Lindbergh, from a spirited honky-tonk in St. Louis.
The Plot Against America is a work of what we call today “creative nonfiction.” The novel tells the story from the Roth family view as Lindbergh rises to fame. Philip himself is the book’s narrator, but in the tv series young Philip is relegated to mere mortal narratee status. It’s as if Roth, in his waning years of creative productivity, worried about the future for his children and the country and penned this allegorical dystopia. The specific inspiration for the story came from Roth’s parsing of an as yet unpublished memoir by Arthur Schlesinger in which he cited Republicans pushing for Lindbergh to run against FDR. This must have chilled Roth, given what he knew about the history of bigotry in America.
In the HBO series, John Turturro’s role as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is central to understanding the dynamics at work in the story. American Jews, in the lead up to the 1940 presidential election, have yet to hear much more than rumors about the Nazis sending people to death camps, but the incendiary rhetoric is there, and Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 had alerted the world of the Rough Blonde Beast slouching toward civilization. The good rabbi is a pacifist who initially celebrates Lindbergh’s call of non-intervention in Europe. Pacifism has deep roots in America, going back even to the Civil War, and more often than not, citizens have had to be conned, duped or drafted into going to war.
In some ways, the series lays out the heartbreak of the well-meaning rabbi and “the broken mirror of innocence,” as Bobby Dylan sings, that reveals the blind spots in his self-reflection that lead him to being an inadvertent and leading moral spokesperson for the Nazi regime. (Lindbergh had been highly criticized by American Jewry for not returning Goering’s medal following Kristallnacht, as it sent a message of appeasement.) Invited to President Lindbergh’s White House dinner in honor of the Nazi ambassador, Lionel ignores the swastika flag draped next to the American flag, the talk of close cooperation (even as Europe is being terrorized), and tolerates Henry Ford’s nasty anti-semitic insults at the shindig. It’s a classical tragedy, in that it leads to the fall of the Bengelsdorf family from power and grace. My hamartia hankies were sopping wet; catharsis was achieved.
When Lindbergh referenced, in his Readers Digest piece, the preservation of our inherited “European blood: and how Americans must guard against its “dilution by foreign races,” it resonated with the tropes and themes expressed in such social darwinistic tomes as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by Madison Grant, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy. Early in his tenure at Columbia University cultural anthropologist Franz Boas was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation by these ‘inferior’ lower cranials to back Grant’s thesis. But, instead, Boas rejected such notions, and cultural relativism was born.
In his rise to power, Hitler expressed admiration for America’s vision of racial segregation and Jim Crow policies, and Nazis were said to have been influenced in their concentration camp designs by the American Indian reservation system. With slavery as a legacy and disenfranchisement as a rule, white Americans were already living high off the Jim Crow hog. It was a feedback loopy thing between American elites and the Nazis.
According to Ira Katznelson in his review of James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, It’s a “stubborn fact that during the 1933–45 period of the Third Reich, roughly half of the Democratic Party’s members in Congress represented Jim Crow states, and neither major party sought to curtail the race laws so admired by German lawyers and judges.” Even if Boas, a German immigrant, disappointed Congressmen in failing to find a scientific basis for racism, politics picked up the slack, and Americans, by and large, are Good Germans in a pinch.
It’s difficult to choose which of the two series is the more effective in getting its message across. Operation Paperclip never should have been allowed to happen; Nazis (war criminals) were invited into America and provided gift-wrapped middle class lifestyles (i.e., the American Dream) without the knowledge or consent of the public. There’s no way an elderly survivor of the Holocaust should experience the trauma of standing in a grocery line one day in Manhattan, only to look up and see the Commandant who tattooed her fondling an eggplant in front of her. We blamed the Russkies; they woulda got ‘em, if we didn’t. But you could argue, instead, for a Tarrantino ending, such as that depicted in Inglorious Basterds, another alternate history. Indeed, the Hunters are just that — inglorious basterds forced by their government’s evil to become vigilantes to right the wrong. Luckily, we have the likes of Simon Wiesenthal to rescue us from our deeper throes of vengeance, and this Good Cop Bad Cop question is handled deftly in the series.
Both series are powerfully presented and timely — especially in a land prone to populist hucksterism and filled with conspiracy theorists (how could it be otherwise in a democracy, amplified by so-called Deep State shenanigans, like unreported Operation Paperclip and almost unreported STELLARWIND?). While both series are entertaining, as a result of fielding top-flight acting ensembles, their real value is placing before the viewer an undeniable plausibility that Hannah Arendt wasn’t just talking shit: Evil really is so banal as to require constant vigilance against the vigilantes that lay in wait deep in the dixie hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike. We don’t call our electoral choices the Lesser of Two Evils for nothing.
As Nietzsche might have said, when we are fighting Golems, we need to be careful that we don’t become Golems ourselves.
All You Need Is Zinc and Copper
by John Kendall Hawkins
We’re already over it
Post-pandemic parties are being planned
Zoom weddings are now needing consommé
Mirepoix, strains, olios
Stacked up like Warhol zoomcampbells
Live stream breakout Dionysian orgies
To eye-pop the poncey Apollonians
And there’s this guy
Down Madagascar way
Selling madcap elixirs
Artemisia annua to deal
With pestilential effluviums
Artemis of Ephesus
Who putschy Germans in beerhalls
Later dubbed Lady Liebfraumilch
Babylon Berlin, right? Many taps open
Juice of wormwood, absinthium
Victoria’s Secret Dreams
Erin go bra-less
And here we are
And speaking of magical elixirs
The hoaxer in the house white now
Who we fear has infectious baboonic plague
Double downs closetrussianqueen
He says, to ward off Elvirus
Calling him morbidly obese
Or was it morbidly obtuse
(Our collective future morbidly, o, bleak)
He might just drop dead
Which would save us all that
Should some Lefty pop him in the head
And he smirks up
Holding the pristine magic lead
And saying the hoax is on you
I was reading the other day
And every day’s the other day for me
That crazy Isaac Newton
Steeped in gravity and alchemy lead
Dropped not just apples, but heads
As Master of the Royal Mint
Drawing and quartering
Folks who metaled with the coin of the realm
(Heads would be a-rolling today)
And once wrote cryptically in his diary
‘Punching my sister’
And longed to beat the snot out of Leibniz
But, then, who didn’t?
All I know is
Where’s Ted Koppel’s nightline
When you need it to dignify
To count the days
We’ve been held hostage
By TV news and Dr. Bright
And Sisyphean dimwits
From Densa, the foothill village at IQ Hill
All as cover for something worse
Than Iran-contra and North’s
Alfred E. Neuman smile?
I’ve had a williams hankering
To dial 9-1-1
Cause everything seems to be falling
Freely all around in its own footprints
And I’m beginning to see sex scenes
Sublime and subliminal
In my G and T ice cubes
Corona morphing into bin Laden
And feeling ostrichsized with no one to emulate
It all makes my head spin actually
Right off its axis
Like The King of the Bingo Game
But the doggone river was dry
Can’t wait for the HBO series
By John Kendall Hawkins
Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (2019)
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
- The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus,” (1967)
Dot-Dash. Here-Gone. Off-On. In-Out/Out-In. One-Zero. 2B or 2B. Being and Nothingness. At the same time. Anal-Digi-Quanthump. The Dot Com lowers the boom. Fuck me, if I can follow; I need help. Is this AA; am I in the right place? It makes me think of what Eddie Snowden said last year in his illegal memoir, Isn’t “journalism about following the bread crumbs and connecting the dots? What else did reporters do all day, besides tweet?” (About the president’s tweets.)
They could start with the dot. A little dot’ll do ya. You, me, her. Them, especially Them. Connect the dots, degrees-of-separation style. Think of us all as synonyms and antonyms (fer me or agin me) and how definitions change, depending on who’s calling the narrative shots. Plug a word into the Visual Thesaurus (try Friend) and see what happens. Like Snowden wrote in Permanent Record,
We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is
true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our
collected records might have an eternal existence.
It’s hard to get your head around — digitals dots of electromagnetic self, jittery particulates of consciousness, arrayed someWhere, forever. And the closer we get to total online hivemindedness (the Internet as a need), the closer we get to the self-conscious extinction of our species.
This all sounds hokey and hoochy and maybe even a little hallucinogenic. But think about it, reader. Recently, I was reading (and reviewing) a book on consciousness by Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, wherein he leads the reader toward a vision not-so-splendid:
[Integrated Information Theory] predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
Scary, true stuff in theory. But here’s the big question, as it approaches: Who’s in charge? Time to re-read your dogma-eared copy of The Portable Marx.
We need sure-footed sherpas for the Himalayas of heaped-up shit ahead. And that’s what Bart Gellman proposes to be in his new book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State. Who’s in charge? The worry is built right into the title. We live now in a world divided by a pane of tinted glass behind which unseeable (but sensed) protectors of our Way of Life (whatever that means this week), without our permission, watch and store all of our activity — Internet and Mobile — as if we were little more than data points requiring constant scrutiny for signs of terrorism, -vertently or in-, and every dot-person we connect to will go into a special database when we visit Counterpunch magazine. (Too late, buy your buds a Bud and sheepishly apologize. They’ll smile, with revelations of their own, raising the ante: Hustler. Douché! now you’re in the Raunch database.)
Another question that comes up while reading Gellman’s book is the question of why the book now? Sad to say, it’s almost nine years since Snowden spilled the beans on what the Bastards are up to, and while his brilliant memoir last year served to plump up a thinking man’s pillow to sleep on, nobody seems to give a shit any more, again — a default position, it seems, in the postmod age. But Gellman seems unquieted by such indifference and is providing a long-overdue, and welcome, account of what makes Snowden run — from the point of view of a self-described mainstream journalist (he’s ‘free’ now, after many years at WaPo, where darkness has fallen on democracy).
I found it quite valuable for him to page-perform the political pressures and legal issues an MSMer was up against as he worked alone, and with journalistic rogues and renegades, such as Laura Poitrast, Glenn Greenwald, and even Julian Assange. Maybe Gellman was inspired by the film, Official Secrets, which features the hand-wringing of journos at the Observer in London as they report on a whistleblower’s leak (Katherine Gunn) proving the NSA’s attempts to get the GCHQ to extract kompromat from members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the vote on going to war with Iraq.
It’s good to know what struggles some newsroom journos go through to report on abuses by our elected political governors. If nothing else, such a struggle is unexpectedly uplifting to witness in an era when reporters are often likened to stenographers. The film played out the dramatic tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy, ostensibly in order to protect its citizens from harm, which is what Gellman is interested in examining when he looks back at his meetings with Edward Snowden in 2013 and thereafter.
A key moment in all this wonderment came in 2004, just before the November presidential election. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote a blockbuster piece on mass surveillance in America for the New York Times that their Editorial Editor, Bill Keller, quashed, expressing, according to Risen later, a desire to avoid being an October Surprise for the upcoming election. Risen knocked back Keller’s argument, writing in the Intercept, “I pointed out that if he decided not to run the story before the election, that would also have an impact, but he seemed to ignore my comment.” Mass surveillance is not the same as some pol’s unwanted hand down a woman’s panties — revealed just before the election — it’s potentially a clear and present danger to democratic values; voters should’ve been allowed to factor in Bush’s surveillance.
In the piece, finally published in the Times more than a year later, in 2005, and only after Risen had informed them that he would be including the story in his upcoming book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Ris and Lichtblau describe how the Bush administration,
Under four collection programs overseen by Vice President Cheney, the NSA and FBI began wide-ranging surveillance of internet and telephone communications within the United States.
It was unknown to the public; they had no idea that a secret program, known as STELLARWIND, existed, and that Bush authorized the comprehensive collection of all American communications without any kind of warrant, and with the full cooperation of telephone and internet providers.
The program raises many questions, among them, “Are citizens equipped to hold their government accountable?” writes Gellman. And, Risen adds that, sadly for democracy, the decision to exclude the piece may have come as a result of the personal friendship between NSA Director Michael Hayden and Philip Taubman, associate editor for national security issues at the Times: “Keller now says that Taubman’s relationship with Hayden played an important role in the decision to not run the story.” The NSA (Michael Hayden) and FBI (Robert Mueller) were in on this illegal activity. Snowden, Risen and Gellman all point out that this information on STELLARWIND would have come nine years before Snowden’s revelations, and, all agree, that the story’s suppression affected his later decision on how to publicize the information.
An unhappy Risen recalls that “the impact of the story was immediate and explosive. George W. Bush was forced to confirm the existence of the program, even as he called the leak of information about it a ‘shameful act.’” Federal agents were unleashed to hunt down the hoodoo everythere. Congress was professionally “outraged” that the Bush administration would have the chutzzies to hide such a program; they called investigations (later, they helped pass legislation that retroactively legalized Bush’s executive order and passed immunity to the telecoms for their role in the extra-constitutional activity). Bush justified his “terrorist surveillance program,” using Unitary Executive theory as his basis.
Turns out, it would have been a critical issue in the presidential campaign. As Snowden put it, “Had that article run when it was originally written, it might well have changed the course of the 2004 election.” (Hurts even more, when you consider that Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, shows that John Kerry was robbed of the presidency by vote manipulation.)
This is a lot of cyber ink spilled on the failings of the New York Times in October 2004 and Snowden’s revelations later — a long time ago — “but Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, or not only that,” writes Gellman. “It is a tour of the surveillance state that rose up after September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government came to believe it could not spy on enemies without turning its gaze on Americans as well.” He adds, “At its core this is a book about power.”
Gellman first heard of Snowden through independent filmmaker Laura Poitrast. He writes that “three days before Christmas 2010, she turned up unannounced at my office, just off Washington Square.” He had admired her film, My Country, My Country, which traced the failed attempt to install democracy under U.S. occupation in Iraq. She would later go on to win an Oscar for the documentary of her 2013 encounter with Snowden in Hong Kong, called CitizenFour.
Beginning in 2013, they began working together to determine whether a contact reaching out to them, and his alleged cache of top secret documents, were legitimate. He went by the name “Verax,” Latin for speaker of truth. Early on Gellman wonders,
Was her source the whistleblower he claimed to be? A fabricator who used public records to feign inside knowledge? A real intelligence analyst peddling fake intrigue? A half-informed official who misread something benign?
Gellman and Snowden didn’t hit it off right away, as Snowden was mistrustful of his MSM credentials, which he felt would lead to journalistic compromise and leave Snowden stranded with his story not properly told to the public (making a return to America impossible without facing Espionage charges.) Snowden wants to work with adversarial “voices.”
Gellman mentions how Snowden had been reaching out to Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald. “Months of effort, however, had failed to elicit a reply from Greenwald,” writes Gellman, “who disregarded emails from Verax and a how-to video on encryption.” Thus begins Gellman’s ambivalence towards the personality that Greenwald is, in his militant advocacy for Constitutional integrity in government and his concomitant commitment to in-your-face spotlighting of congressional and presidential abuses.
It’s an amusing tension returned to several times. Greenwald has been especially effective highlighting the abuse of the pocket-writs called executive orders that Greenwald warned, before Trump arrived, could be catastrophic in the wrong exec’s hands. Uh-oh. But for all his genius, Gellman doesn’t seem to like Greenwald. He seems to be a bit of Luddite, slow to adopt encryption, and, Gellman thinks, a bit of a backstabber and a primadonald. It helps the reader to see such friction between two prize-winning journalists.
Gellman is not especially fond of Snowden when he meets him either. He’s been informed of Snowden’s personality from reading old forum posts Snowden made as TheTrueHOOHA on the Ars Technica website. He reads: “blended show-offy erudition, teenage irony, righteous anger, generous advice, and orthodox libertarian bromides.” And even reading Snowden’s memoir you can feel elements of that sort of vibe coming from Snowden. But there’s more to Snowden than Gellman seems to suggest, perhaps he’s nodding to the need to seem balanced.
For one thing, Snowden has a devilish sense of humor. Gellman misses out on some of the revealing anecdotal information Snowden offers up in his memoir. Snowden comes from Mayflower stock; his forebears fought in the Revolutionary Wars, and afterward “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing
their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” Gellman fails to consider the place of that sale or government “expropriation” (Snowden suggests), and how that legacy might have informed his whistleblowing when he sees the Constitution at risk. Gellman seems to miss the supreme irony of knowing that the headquarters of the NSA was built right there where that slave plantation used to be. Pass the fuckin’ bong.
As egregious a violation of the Bill of Rights that the NSA’s STELLARWIND program was, using sneaky backdoor tactics to get around the limits imposed by their agency mandate (“incidentally” gathering up the data of Americans in their cyber trawls of potential foreign “enemies” numbering in the millions), another program, PRISM, went even further, and gives the lie to alibi that such trawls are anything but criminal and totalitarian in intention. Gellman writes,
In film and fiction, the NSA mostly listened in on telephone calls. PRISM had capabilities far beyond that…NSA analysts could not only review stored account information but also dial in and record live “audio, video, chat, and file transfers.” Analysts could ask for instant notifications when their targets logged on to Hotmail or AOL or Yahoo Messenger.
And with keystroke exploits thrown in, “They can literally watch your thoughts form as you type,” Snowden told Gellman.
Ultimately, as Gellman alluded to earlier, it’s all about the power. In his chompy sit-down interviews with the likes of Michael Hayden and James Clapper, and other apologists for benign totalitarianism, Gellman makes it clear that these men see no room for oversight, and can’t or won’t comprehend the ethical and constitutional limitations to what they are doing. They just want us to trust them and narrow-visioned patriotism. This turned Snowden off to a career of public service (in which he was following in the footsteps of his deep state parents). In his memoir, he describes his in-office participation in LOVEINT —
in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.
If you’re sensitive and thoughtful, and still can’t trust yourself around such technology, then who can you trust?
Well, ultimately, Gellman and Snowden don’t trust and reject the power argument — that because we have such technology at our disposal we must use it, the capability of knowing what everybody’s up to (except the Bastards in power, of course). We see the Brennans, Clappers, Haydens, Bushes, Obamas and Trumps just lie about their excesses. They conjure up a world of enemies — for the sake of using dreadful technology without concern for privacy or democracy. A fascist drift into a world of dystopian psychotronic nightmares ruled by algorithmically-generated tailored gargoyles intent on turning us into things. Dots. And ultimately, Dots. Right inside our heads.
The dream is over
What can I say?
– John Lennon, “God” (1970)
A few decades ago Bob Dylan took Joyce Carol Oates for a ride and she almost never came back, but when she did she dedicated a creepy short story to him, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” A girlygazer past his prime (i.e., over 30) pretends to be of teenage vintage to lure a pretty waywarder into his vehicle, there’s resistance, at first, then one day … see story title.
Recently, I came across a scene from Hearts of Fire, a Dylan vehicle that crashes out in Hank Williams country, where the doggone rivers are dry, and sees him, with guitar, stealing in on a young lass sleeping among hay roostin’ hens in a barn, where he proceeds to serenade her, Milli-Vanilli style, with “Couple More Years” (a line straight from JC’s story!), with a girlygazer-past-his-prime song that lures her into going for a short ride down a long Life. (Spoiler Alert!) They say the director never worked in Hollywood again. And it made you wonder about Dylan’s road experiences, the Endless Tour, the needle in search of new hay. And, I thought, what did JC Oates know, and when did she know it?
It seems like aeons, now, since I turned on the car radio and heard the opening lines of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”: Well, I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again. Joan hearing Bob’s voice on the telephone from “a couple of light years ago.” Ten years, she said. So, a light year back then was 5 years, I’m thinking. (An aeon, if you’re keeping track, is 10 of those Baez light years.) Madonna was laying into Bob for his “obscurity” and “keeping things vague” and being “nostalgic” and something about the time the cufflinks broke. Damn, that was one basted lamb of a song. But Dylan keeps coming back, like Bill Halley’s comet, a shooting star that just won’t burn out. A recurring eternalist. A not-so-leitmotif. A needle in my haystack I stopped looking for ages ago.
I stopped regularly following Dylan’s work after Time Out of Mind (1997), for which I wrote a review, praising his “wizened if not wiser ways” and enjoying Alan Ginsburg’s nomination of Bob for the Nobel prize (he would eventually win in 2016). But I was seriously bummed out by a couple of dangerously depressing lyrics from “Trying To Get To Heaven”:
When you think that you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems.
And, teary-eyed, I listened to Dylan sing in “Highlands,” my favorite song on the album:
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
Well, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.
Even a true, diehard Dylan fan, like moi, can only take so much 12-string homesickness for eternity, and I had to give up Dylan for years to find a way to cope with the picture of the world he painted (and probably plagiarized, too).
Like everyone else, I barely noticed when Love and Theft was released on the day the towers fell in NYC. And Tempest, inexplicably released on 9/11 (2012), left me unimpressed; the picture Dylan himself conjured up of sitting there watching James Cameron’s Titanic and him writing the title song, a limp last waltz with the ship’s band, with no mention of a causal iceberg, the onboard battle between the 1% and the 99, and me wondering why the reference to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Did I miss something?
Now, it’s eight years later, a Baez light-year or so ago, since his last studio album (the ones with the ‘messages’ and themes), and here it is, we’ll be damned, Rough and Rowdy Ways. He baited us for a couple of months, releasing singles off the album, luring us in for a ride. The album comes after the Impeachment failed and Covid-19 muscled in on the culture while everyone was busy watching the Super Bowl (no Bob Lite ads this year). Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has stopped, maybe permanently; it may be years before crowds can gather, masked and anonymous, in significant numbers to enjoy his gloom.
When “Murder Most Foul,” at almost 17 minutes, his longest song since “Highlands,” was released at the end of March, I went apeshit, I thought it was so bad, and had to be sedated with Enya shots. I literally nominated the song for an Ignobel Award (bad forensic science), writing, in part, “Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack,” his worst voice since that one-off falsebasso thing he did with “Lay Lady Lay,” that was incomprehensibly popular, Johnny Cash inviting him to Nashville for some country chart pie, oh, me-oh-my.
The lyrics! “Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” (Was he supposed to get out of the car? Who shoots dogs at all?) “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” (So, he was watching The Irishman when he wrote the song? And only watching it to see how Scorsese portrayed his song “Joey.”) “The day they blew out the brains of the king.” (Yo, heads up, we’ve been a democracy since we told the Royals to stuff their taxes.) And “I’m goin’ to Woodstock.” (No, you’re not, and a lot of hippies were pissed off about it, too.) “Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage.” (What the fuck for? Angry bikers are on the prowl.) Damn.
Well, Rough and Rowdy Ways is with us now, months after the single’s teases, and, frankly, it’s an outstanding album. It seems to start out where Time Out of Mind and “Highlands” left off. It’s dark and bluesy and full of intrigue. The Ghost of Memory, who has “less and less to say,” and who flirts with a Boston waitress on his way to the Highlands is that much further along on his long career’s journey into night. The cover art of Rough and Rowdy Ways resembles the dancing figures of Oh Mercy, but, now, much darker and retro, like the album’s road trip.
Covid-19 has stopped his touring, which may or may not be a good thing for him (and us). I think of him as The Wandering Jew, who snarked at Christ on his way to Calvary and was condemned to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, but then not again maybe Christ misunderstood his obscure meaning. So existentially dissociated, he’s a spook in his own life, without anchor or compass, and where he notes, in “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” that “I’ve traveled a long road of despair / I’ve met no other traveler there.” Dylan’s moving through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, down Blake’s road of excess toward wisdom, and he’s crossed the Rubicon into the Inferno, and “abandoned all hope.” What more does a girl want? Get in the car.
Keeping with the Dante-esque excursion into the licking flames of his private hell he trudges on, picking up Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, “My fleet-footed guides from the underworld,” and moving to a slow baion rhythm past the weigh stations of the double-cross and forever-loss, the album vaguely resembling the 9 plus 1 structure of the Divine Comedy. from the afterwordly consciousness of Others that he wakes to in “I Contain Multitudes,” on through a kind of purgatory where he burns off the accrued effects of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and “Three miles north of purgatory,” he’s crossing the Rubicon, not coming back, one step away from the all-consum(er)ing paradise of Key West — but also, one time home of Ponce de León, who sought the Fountain of Youth — and some semblance of the Ideal Feminine.
“I Contain Multitudes” showers the listener with vintage Dylan lines that are at once playful, evocative and which sometimes resonate with something you can’t quite put your finger on. “Multitudes” contains threats of violence, which becomes a sustained theme throughout the 2-CD set. The poet sings,
Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
The Tell-Tale Heart is about tension that must break at any moment, but, when it does, you wish it hadn’t, for the horror it reveals.
Surprising lyrics in the song that seem to want to fuck with you, reveal that Dylan still has some spunkaneity in him. He sings,
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones
Reader-response theory being what it is, each of us performing paged words differently, when I think of Anne Frank, I think of her recently discovered sex-saucy comments on Wehrmacht women wearing mattresses on their backs (and, also like Dylan, she liked to hide in the attic). Like Indiana Jones, around every corner Dylan faces a tiresome (s)word-wielding critic that he must dispose of with ennui. And like the British Bad Boys, he shares a common musical mentor in Muddy Waters, who wrote “Rollin’ Stone.”
To fend off women (presumably wearing Kill Bill eye-patches) who may come back at him in his dreamy travels, the poet sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives,” and ends the song with the provocative image of a ménage à trois: “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Who’s fucking whom, and in what order, seems to be the only question left.
The early release of “False Prophet” featured cover art that depicts a skeleton, holding an antique syringe filled with pink liquid, staring out at us, as if to ask ‘are you ready?’; the shadow behind him depicts a hanged man, suggesting that the skeleton used to be a crim back in his biology days. His body language seems to mimic the beat of the song, which features a rhythmic riff-off of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” An alert that Dylan means to be playful. It’s a great song.
“False Prophet” seems to suggest (you can’t really be sure with the vague-keeping Dylan) what he’s doing time in the hellish hoosegow for — false prophesying. The poet sings, “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in,” and fucked him over, essentially. Who can’t relate to that sentiment? (In that sense, all of us, including Dante, contain multitudes.) Then he hits us with what might be the quintessential truth of his career:
Enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
At heart, he’s Zimmerman, not Zarathustra, although, when you think about it, he’s Zarathustra, too. Enemy of the unlived meaningless life, Socrates and Dylan in a nutshell, but the latter sans hemlock. Maybe Socrates should have taken up the lyre.
In “My Own Version of You,” continuing the slow blues beat, Dylan goes from a consideration of the passive aggressive social milieu he’s been forced to live amongst, masked and alias-ly, to mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein who sings,
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
Seems like a comment on both the Age we live in, moving toward the Singularity, and a personal reflection on the Feminine Ideal; if he can’t find what he’s looking for in nature, he’ll make do with a composite, a jigsaw of all the women who have ever puzzled him.
The mad poet thinks that if he uses his creative energies he will “be saved by the creature that I create.” But it’s a dicey proposition. He says he’ll take “the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando,” as if he were at a CRISPR machine splicing some roles. It’s an evil place he’s in, where “the enemies of mankind,” Freud and Marx, are engulfed in flames, and he imagines “the raw hide lash rip the skin from their backs.” It’s a nasty place: “Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife / Gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” The music plods on and on, and he wonders, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me, please?” Dark shit, man.
Beginning with the sixth song, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the tone and rhythm starts to change, and things lighten up. Jimmy Reed was an old time guitar and harmonica bluesman from Mississippi known for his accessibility, who spent time as a busker, and ended up on shift work at a meat packing facility, while white men, like Dylan, got rich off his Black-and-blues. You can hear Reed in a lot of early Dylan, and here, in Rough and Rowdy Ways, one can hear the beat of “Bright Lights, Big City” and the now-taboo humor of “I’m Going Upside Your Head.” Dylan’s paying homage; shedding off ‘one more layer of skin,’ striving and shriving on his way to ‘Beatrice’.
In “Mother of Muses,” an appropriate follow-on, he’s almost there. About to cross the last line into the last realm. Echoing sentiments expressed in previous albums, such as “I can’t believe it / I can’t believe I’m alive” from the song “Where Are You Tonight?” off Street Legal, Dylan begins with the final realization many critics have been waiting for: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” In his youth, he was just Watching the River Flow through his mind, Heraclitean, a river of multitudes, where, the poet sings, “I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in.” He’s ready to lie down next to the river now, and have himself a final dream, a door he’ll conjure up, to the other side, the final set of 9 plus 1 circles of paradise (so, maybe he’s got another album in him). Here he comes, Mama: “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home,” leaving behind the material world, like the good Tibetan Book of the Dead says we must.
Then it’s on to the album’s Paradise, the ‘nostalgic’ “Key West,” book now. Artist colony, citywide museum, purveyor of fast foods (you know the ones, you know exactly the ones), and home of the Hemingway Code: grace under pressure. (Except for a couple of albums I needn’t mention.) That’s Dylan, too. And Caribbean Wind. And some Sara’s probably down there, too, in her late stage bikini, waiting to draw him into another disillusion, much to our delight. If you lose your mind, you will find it there, the poet sings. Well, maybe, but I can’t afford the rates there, so I’ll have to take his word for it. In fact, Bob, it’s because I can’t afford the rates that I lost my mind (oops, TMI).
Except for “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded so smooth, polished and uncroakin’ in a long time, maybe the result of precision engineering, or restraint, or both. And, incidentally, when I reconsidered “Murder Most Foul” (briefly), the song evoked, for me, American Graffitti, a film that features DJ Wolfman Jack, and the platters he spun, and recalling an era of contradictions and lies about the American Dream, and serving to remind us all that Dylan has been around since Ike warned us to beware the Military Industrial Complex. My whole life Dylan has been hoarsely whispering in my ear, beware, beware. Except when he was cashing in.
Who knows where Rough and Rowdy Ways fits into his catalogue. It’s his 39th album (his 39th lash?), and probably as good as anything he’s produced in awhile (it depends on how you look at it), but I wouldn’t want to move his albums around in a hierarchy — it would be too much like fucking around with a Rubik’s Cube. Who needs the frustration or self-administered take-down of intelligence? Certainly, the album comes at a time of preoccupation with disease and death that the Pandemic has brought and when the crisis of American democracy smells of collapse. You worry when you read that the Wandering Jew was condemned to do the Johnny Walker until the onset of Christ’s return — i.e., the Apocalypse promised in Revelations — and now he’s stopped wandering.
But as we’ve all learned over the decades, it’s senseless to read too deeply into Dylan’s oeuvre — probably you’re projecting and exposing yourself to well-founded ridicule, like that moron in that famous 1962 interview who seemed to mistake Dylan for Barry McGuire (a Dylan imitator) and asked him to explain the deep meaning of “Eve of Destruction.” It’s an instructive interview, glaringly exposing what the Poor Bastard has been up against all these years, squeezed between the Press that wants to hold him accountable and the People who want him to save them. No wonder he ended up referring to himself as “a song and dance man.” (Check it out: it’s unbelievable.) Next to Lennon, no Pop Icon has ever had to put up with such sustained blatherscheissen.
The poet once sang, “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long / I can’t remember what it’s like.” With Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be one step closer to Beyond. One day, probably soon, we’ll pick up the paper and read the obituary the Times has had on file and ready for many years. Thanks, Bob, for a lifetime of contradictions, insight-ments, and the strange solace, along the way, of emotional validation.
by John Kendall Hawkins
Once a bull hit me across the bridge of my nose and I felt like I was coming apart like a cigarette floating in a urinal. They can hit you on the head and bust your shoes.
- Ralph Ellison, “Hymie’s Bull,” (1938)
On the evening of August 1, 1943, after breaking bread and pulling corks, talking folklore, jazz and blues, with New Yorker critic Stanley Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson in their Queens apartment, up-and-coming writer Ralph Ellison said goodnight to them and took the train home to Harlem. When he emerged at 137th Street, he walked right into a raging race riot. Fires, massive looting, chaos.
It had begun in the lobby of a hotel, when a Black woman “improbably named Polite” got into a violent tiff with a white cop, and, when a Black soldier intervened, the cop shot him. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, “Margie Polite ran into the street screaming that a white cop had killed a black man. Harlem exploded.” Five people died, hundreds were injured, 500 were arrested. The scene inspired artwork, Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son, and was seared indelibly into Ellison’s consciousness. A day later, Ellison was called on by the New York Post to cover the event. He observed, wrote Rampersad, that “it was the poorer element’s way of blowing off steam.” Other surrealist details of dissociation and mayhem followed.
Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had landed a position teaching Folklore at the exclusive womens college there. He quickly became a popular professor (no doubt garnering girly titters as soon he wrote his name on the chalkboard), and hosted many parties at his home. Often while the more taciturn Shirley retired early for the night. Hyman was known for his wit, directness, and honesty. Ellison stayed with the couple for a few months and worked on the story “Flying Home” (Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote that Hyman virtually forced Ellison to write the story on the spot) — and the future classic novel of the Black experience in America, Invisible Man. Folklore and music bound Hyman and Ellison together, as well as the common experience of alienation in WASP America (he was Jewish), and Hyman became his trusted penpal and a valued literary advisor throughout his career.
There’s extraordinary dramatic tension and a guiding truth combusting about in the paragraphs above — clear signs of an intense and productive relationship between powerful personages of letters, Hyman and Ellison, and to a lesser extent Jackson — that would have provided a dynamic beginning to the recently released film, Shirley, the so-called biopic of writer, Shirley Jackson, author of the highly controversial tale, “The Lottery.” The movie might have started with the riot (or the railroad Jew being clubbed by “bulls”), but the film production team, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins chose a well-trod path, and it definitely made a difference. But not in a good way.
Instead, they produced a script from a ‘creative non-fiction’(CNF) book with the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell, which gave the viewer an almost farfetched sex scene in the first two minutes of the film. Merrell’s CNF tale means she gave herself the liberty to expand on factually-inspired information regarding Jackson’s time living in Bennington as a faculty wife to Stanley Hyman. The most important poetic license Merrell takes is the installation of a young married fictional couple, Rose and Fred, on their way to Bennington to begin a faculty career and temporarily reside with Stanley and Shirley, while they seek their own apartment. The book is told from the point-of-view of 19 year old Rose (Odessa Young), a pregnant, seemingly naive and ordinary person who comes under the spell of Shirley, who is largely depicted as an intelligent, empathetic woman struggling with her writing.
But Merrell’s tale, apparently with her consent, was wildly reconfigured, and, the Rose that rides on the train with Fred (Logan Lerman) toward Bennington in the film is radically different than the Rose who begins her narration in the book: A nice anticipatory train ride to a New England town becomes, in the film, crude. Rose is seen reading the New Yorker edition (June 1948) that contains Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and we watch as her expression becomes ever more delighted at what she’s reading, odd in itself. She finishes and commences a brief exchange with Fred about her reading:
Rose: They stone her to death.
Fred: Are you reading the Shirley story?
Rose: The whole town — even her own children — they all stoned her.
Fred: That’s creepy.
Rose: That’s terrific. (smiles)
A moment later, Rose wants to get her rocks off after reading the story and is moving her hand to Fred’s inner thigh, until they both head back-train and join the Mile Long Club (D = R*T). In the first minute of the film?
Then they get off the train, move through town on foot, pass some boys tossing stones in an alley — one of them wearing an eye patch (which I thought funny) — and then arrive at the Hyman house, in party mode, and pass among others — (spoiler alert!!) Ralph Ellison and his attractive partner. Ellison is shown for 4 seconds. In the whole movie. The first thing I wondered is how the actor playing him, Edward O’Blenis, a breakdancer from the Bronx, would want the credit he’s given at IMDB. 4 seconds? Then, poof, he’s the invisible man again.
It gets worse. Aside from putting the climax at the beginning of the movie, Merrell went along (presumably) with Gubbins’s plan to amp up Shirley’s psychological profile. What is a somewhat eccentric, occasionally snobby, struggling writer, with four kids, in the book, is turned into a kind of childless monster or psychopath undergoing some kind of disturbed withdrawal — until Rose arrives. In fact, Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley come across as a Michael Haneke-inspired couple who like to play with their guests — either of them ruining a breezy conversation at the table with an intentionally barbed and poisonous take-down comment, just to see the reaction of the target. Elizabeth Moss’s Shirley expression, afterward, looking like an impression of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (from Killing Eve). Speaking of poetic license. At one point, Shirley enquires of Rose at dinner, in front of Fred, if she’d told him she was pregnant before wedding him.
Fred and Rose arrive at a time when Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington student, has gone missing — posters are on trees, there is talk, and Rose, being drawn closer to the mystery that is Shirley, begins to suspect the couple’s involvement in foul play. In the book, Shirley humorously calls herself a witch (her acerbic ways and fiction about horror have put people off); she’s into Tarot, mushrooms, herbs, folklore.
But in the film, she pulls Rose in. She performs a Tarot reading and slaps down three Hanged Man cards in a row; her eyes chill as she gazes at Rose. The latter freaked out by the ‘reading’, and innocently unaware that Tarot decks have only one Hanged Man card, one of the most potent cards in the deck; Shirley is playing Rose and doesn’t tell her what the array means (Nothing) as she continues to hold her wonder. Is she a psycho or a psychic, or both? Shirley plays bonding games, pretending to eat a ‘poisonous’ mushroom to fuck with Rose. They go on a walk in the woods to where the Welden girl was last seen alive and the director fucks with us — Rose and Shirley standing at a cliff’s edge (Shirley holding Rose’s baby), then Rose is gone, then suddenly Shirley’s waking from a dream. She didn’t kill Rose, but we wonder why she’s dreaming of it.
Shirley is not only dreaming of abduction and murder, but writing about it in a new novel. Her struggle with words over, since Rose arrived, like fresh hot blood not felt coursing through her system since, well, the Welden girl disappeared; she rises from her emotional coffin. More games from the director, as Stanley and Shirley seemingly plot the demise of the young couple, including a reference to Macbeth. Stanley asks, now that Shirley is into full time writing again, what will become of Rose? Shirley replies, “What becomes of all wayward girls; they go mad.” And he, taking her advice for Fred — to “give him enough rope to hang himself” (The Hanged Man) — builds up Fred’s hopes for a tenure hire, praising his dissertation, only to intentionally crush him with a savage dinner table attack on Fred’s total lack of “originality” out of nowhere.
It’s at this stage that I stopped caring about what the film was trying to achieve, and I began to ponder again the whole notion of CNF. Stanley is teaching Bennington students at the cusp of curricular change from Canon Great Man-driven works to the postmodern pluralism and relative values. Turns out, there’s more to time’s events than the Mighty Whitey’s control of the historical narrative would imply. Stanley’s posture represents a defense of the Canon, the Old Guard, rejecting the upstart relativism that would overturn the monied tables of the Ivory Tower. And it’s Freudian to boot. Stanley’s is a brief fury, dishonest, and absolutely signifying nothing more than his pathology. As he teaches something as twee as Folklore — and praises the virtues of jazz at his lectures — it doesn’t make sense that he’d defend the primacy of Originality against Derivation, when the universal application of the latter — archetypes, intertextuality — are what he lectures on.
Shirley director Decker totally threw away an opportunity — to be relevant. CNF is a gift from the postmodern Gauds, but she and the writers fell back on old tropes and worn out storytelling. CNF is supposed to help get you where fiction or fact-ion alone is not always quite adequate for the narration; perhaps a little more Dionysian sizzle sauce needs to be added to the Apollonian stir-fry, such as with Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.
Even given the obvious fact that filmmaking tells the same story differently, Decker and company left so many opportunities by the wayside to make this film a deeper, more intelligent film about deep, intelligent people. Stanley and Shirley, in real life, represented a mature literary lifestyle, including its critical appraisal, but that’s all absent in Shirley. The film’s not really about Jackson at all. Frankly, as a biopic, the story borders on slander. It vaguely reminds me of the so-called “journalistic” promises of Zero Dark Thirty that, nevertheless, felt it necessary to include scenes with superstitious omens.
Consider some simple enhancements of fact that might have made Shirley a better film. How could Gubbins and Decker not make the town a character? Although they include the Welden disappearance in order to implicitly demonize Stanley and Shirley, they leave out the reality that between 1945 and 1950 five people went missing from the Bennington area, and it became known as “The Bennington Triangle.” It was a small town in which the rocky horror show of “The Lottery” is played out. The story that aroused Rose, appalled most people, with its implications of how people can just turn on each other, and led to subscription cancellations and outraged letters to the New Yorker. Why wasn’t this alluded to? And why not mention Shirley’s arch allusion to John 8:7 — “Let he without sin cast the first stone”?
Back to Ralph Ellison. Another enhancement opportunity lost. It would have been fantastic to have included a scene at the dinner table, or in the parlor, where Ralph and Shirley compared and contrasted, over buffalo wings and beer, themes and devices of their similar short stories, “The Lottery” and the “The King of the Bingo Game.” Both involve forms of scapegoating, entranced communities, and beat-down endings, one involving white small town life and the other a sense that Black Lives Don’t Matter, and both horrifically suggesting depravity at the core of humanity. Though Ellison’s piece was published four years before Jackson’s, such a discussion would have been an excellent use of creative non-fiction in the film.
Even feminism was given a miss. Merrell made it an important discussion point in her book, bringing in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to criticize Jackson’s upper crust tips on homemaking in Good Housekeeping articles, but apparently she lacked the cajones to insist on such a discussion in the movie. Again, the era was the late 40s, when feminism was on the cusp, and it would’ve been meet to hear the couples rumble in the jungle of marriage viability after WWII, especially since they placed such value on “honesty.” But also, and perhaps more tenuously, Shirley (“neurosis”) might have been linked to other prominent female suicidal voices at the time — Anne Sexton (“manic-depressive”), Sylvia Plath (“depression”) — the three forming a Suicidal Poets Society.
Similarly, Erich Fromm taught at Bennington when Hyman was there. It might have been enriching to have had had highbrow collegial banter at a Hyman barbecue during which they jovially discussed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and played, say, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. That, too, would have been a fine use of CNF.
Where was the discussion of folklore in more detail and music? All we really get is Stanley Hyman as, according to Rose, a potential monster who may have enabled the disappearance of a Welden girl. In real life, Hyman was a known philanderer who slept with many of his students, according to Ruth Franklin, Shirley’s biographer. Rather than masking him a fake monster, why not, in this age of #MeToo, have played up his actual activities. If it’s good enough to show Harvey Weinstein going through his career with a casting couch on his back, why not show the masks the Folklore instructor wore. Again, great CNF. But Decker and Merrell choose to go with a phony affair with elderly-ing librarian. I don’t think so.
Elizabeth Moss seems to be in the running for an Oscar for her role in the film, and, and as far as that role goes, she did a reasonably good job. But I didn’t come away feeling that I knew the real Shirley Jackson better. I’m reasonably certain she wasn’t a psychopath, for instance. And I don’t believe the tale enhanced her fictional body of work either. I don’t really see it as a biopic, but as a facade, with its biographical innards gutted to make way for riffing. It was like a Halloween mask of Jackson. At times, a silly Americanized version of Igmar Bergman’s Persona.
The bluesy soundtrack wasn’t bad though.
I wouldn’t sleep and I took my mind
Lost all knowledge of time and kind
Been dead ——- 400 years (400 years, 400 years)
Wake up, hey (400 years, 400 years)
– Jimmy Cliff, “I’ve Been Dead 400 Years” (1977)
Peter Tosh has a new re-lease on life. Praise Jah!
It comes in the form of a children’s picture book — of all things! — just laid down next to the apples in the marketplace, simply titled African. The title comes from a Tosh song Equal Rights, his much-listened-to album from the heady ‘70s, rife with rasta music filling our pink Lefty ears with sugar plum fantasies of universal suffrage and equality, presided over, in joy, by His Majesty Haile Selassie, emissary of Jah on this loamy Earth. Pass da spliff, brudda. Forward and fiaca. Menacle and den gosaca.
The colorful book, illustrated by Rachel Moss, is part of the LyricPop series put out by the hip Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. The series includes (or will include) similar translations of songs like Good Vibrations, Respect, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, and my anticipated favorite, Where Is My Mind? the Black Francis cult classic. Recently, they even had Samuel L. Jackson pitch in with some sound quarantine advice in the form of an illustrated poem titled, Stay the F— at Home!
Equal Rights (1977) was a follow-up to Tosh’s debut album the year before, the wildly popular Legalize It, which got him instant fame among the undergraduate activist set in America and into all kinds of legal problems back home. Reportedly he was the “victim” of police brutality, and his title song was banned from Jamaican radio, making it even more popular worldwide. Legalize It is part of the fantastic cornucopia of musical wares teeming from 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Sadly, Tosh died brutally in his own personal 9/11 at home in 1987.
Equal Rights was more in tune with the global vibe at the time to end racism everywhere, arguably, Tosh and Bob Marley leading the way, getting our feet moving to da riddim (sometimes against our will, it seemed). They were engineers on the freedom train that some rastas (and wannabes) argue set in motion, by means of emotion, the collapse of the official Apart-Hate regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.
Marley, Tosh and Jimmy Cliff pulled Jamaicans away from the service sector sounds of calypso (Nudda all-shook-up martini, suh? A Black waiter might have said to a sun-tanning Ian Fleming, who wrote some Bond 007 books there) and invited listeners to reconnect with their African roots. Beginning in 1600, the Spanish conquistadors began enslaving native Arawaks and virtually drove them to extinction with the introduction of European diseases. The Arawaks were replaced by West Africa slaves. And sugar (and rum!) began its sweet rise on the tooth and palate of Empire back in Britain and the American colony to the north, which would see slavery introduced 19 years later. Hello cotton! If not for cotton, there’d a-been no Che t-shirts to resist The Man with in the ‘80s.
Later, because the Mighty Whitey is so festive, and full of deviant ingenuity, the two commodities were combined and we had a go at eating cotton candy at county fairs. (No, just fucking wid ya.) Sugar went on to become the number one hit of all time — just check out the ingredients list of any food product in America today! (No, I’m not fucking wid ya this time.) Sugar was (and is) the oxycontin of the 17th century.
Equal Rights, following on the huge success of the cult film The Harder They Come in indie and university cinemas across America (good luck seeing the film through ganja smoke — fire code, my ass), galvanized and inspired white do-gooders (or wannabes) to fight back against Ronald Reagan’s new Cold War tactics (remember how giddy we got with the Star Wars program?!) and the trickle-down economics that GWH Bush called “voodoo” — incredibly ironical when he lost re-election and Bill Clinton backroom resident evil James Carville taunted him afterward with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And then Carville’s boss proceeded to end welfare as we know it. Anyway, Marley, and Tosh got our feet moving, and that’s half the battle when trying to mobilize the masses. Dylan, song-and-dance man that he is, just can’t get our feet moving.
“African” is a wonderful song, and turning it into an appreciation of the African diaspora, for kids, is a cheeky and spectacular idea. Reinforce the notion early that they are a force to be reckoned with in this often-hallucinatory world. If they hear it enough times in childhood, then they’ll be ready for the attitudes later — Miles Davis: “I’m Black alright, they’ll never let me forget. I’m Black alright, I’ll never let them forget it.” And the cousin track from Sly and the Family Stone: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey. Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” On and on and on we go. We should be hugging each other, after Mandela was let loose on the world. But here we are again, all bebopping in Minneapolis, the Mighty Whitey in the White House with the black-chain-link fence implying the victims are terrorists.
Anyway, it’s a lovely song, fit for kids and adults alike, and goes something like this:
Don’t care where you come from,
as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.
No mind your nationality,
you have got the identity of an African . . .
You will always have integrity, no matter your integument-y. Deep down in my dark white soul, I’d like to think I’m a little African. Rastafari!
Well, it remains to be seen if the song is legitimately effective as a sleeping agent. I guess if you read African as a poem, rather than cheating and playing the rhythm-inducing song off YouTube to the child, s/he may go to sleep — maybe counting Black people jumping fences to escape wolfish officers wearing dark glasses and fascist grins. But, if African is not effective, say your child is cholicy, Akashic Books has another Sam Jackson tale, Go the Fuck to Sleep.
Pass the bong, mon.