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.
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.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public. Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.
Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.” Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote. But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.
Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.
All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades. Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider. More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.
In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine. I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time. Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.
The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same. Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.
Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.
Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.
- Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind
The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’ new collection, Arias, chuckled me up some: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you naughtily thinking about all the people out there hiding behind masks. (I saw a girl the other day and wondered whether all those Broadway layers of foundation, BB cream, highlighter and mascara were necessary to serve me up an Italian spuckie at Subway.) Olds’ engaging humor always leads you toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?
Olds, former winner of the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prizes for poetry (and short-listed for the 2019 T.S. Eliot prize for Arias), is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, that often exist somewhere between the concrete and abstract, are thoroughly enthralling, and often movingly accessible.
Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent East to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoesis. She has lived in New York City for decades.
Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, in the mold of Sylvia Plath or even Emily Dickinson, but it’s not like that: confessional poets are often stuck in a personal past that can strain an empathetic read; Plath, for instance, had a Nazi Daddy thing to resolve — which she did, in the end, with gas. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.
She’s also too hip to be darkly backward: she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem, “My Godlessness,” fits right in with the virtueless times we live in. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:
My mother beating me was not the source
of my godlessness. The source was not
the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes
and murders of our fellow citizens.
It was not earth, or water, or air.
Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the DC circus forever intown, she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”
Arias contains six parts: Meeting A Stranger, Arias, Run Away Up, The New Knowing, Elegies, and First Child. This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias — 38 of them to be exact — and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), finely executed music, sexual tension (and colorful release), and it’s a collection that features beginnings, middles and ends. An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto. And Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.
There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’ work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness. Where to begin an appreciation …
Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of the WTC towers coming down. Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover. In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:
…if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language.
She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers — at you, me. The in-your-face failure of humanity.
But there is humor, too (sorta), in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:
I bustled off—
so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.
Spoken like a true hell-fired up Calvanist on a comical mission from God.
And stepping back, as the poet must, she observes in “8 Moons,” the human condition, its continued dissociation (One thinks: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot), even into the 21st century, she considers:
We can’t imagine the length of time
it took to make the universe.
And the death of the earth—for most of us,
unimaginable, and therefore
A failure of vision so deep it represents a black hole in consciousness where even the brightest lights of our species must inevitably perish.
Sharon Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread — like the joy of sexuality — as if it only belonged on TV in, say, Sex and the City, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form. Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by / cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks /
harder than he has ever fucked—” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.
In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs with her over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time:
—my body which had hardly been touched,
even through my clothes—to be that passive
verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding
laughing man who seemed to not love
anyone, like a god.
Her erotic mythopoesis at work. Her caesuras opening like orchidal maneuvers in the dark.
Some of my favorite sections of her work in Arias comes in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being: “What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother / would leave the room, and I knew she still /existed! I was connected to that giant /flower on legs, that huge human / bee, even when the evidence of her / was invisible to me.” In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly ‘recalls’ “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!
But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by her songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. Her many arias in the collection provide a leitmotif that provide a dramatic tension, as it were, a sense that the trauma is unresolved. You read a few poems after a beating, and move on to readings that delve into depths elsewhere and then — bam! — there she is again, in “Waist Aria,” this ghost-child being told,
Young lady—go up and wait for me
with your clothes off, below the waist—
Over and over again, these words cry out from the page unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.
Because of Olds’ ardent love for her mother, she keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain. In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,” the poet introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:
My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,
Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up
the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly
On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers—
and she got to give pain, maybe the same
pain her mother had given her
and her mother’s mother had given her mother
The violent hairbrush passed on like an heirloomed musical instrument for use on her behind.
She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places: “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world—” because there “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”
Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies. She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words, “And I want to say, to my / mother, my journeying laborer /who wandered here, with me in her hobo /sack—I want to put her to sleep / like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby, / Sleep.”
My favorite poems from this collection have to do with Olds’ keen sense of existence seen not merely as anthropocentric, but as pantheistic: there is a sense of identifiable godliness in everything around us. Spinoza’s Ethics came to mind at first. But Olds’ is a pantheism that is devoid of moral authority; there is no guiding god; ours is a teleology of our own making. Nevertheless, there is a divine force identifiable in everything — right down to the molecular level. We interpenetrate each other, breath in each other’s dust, and ripple the fabric of creation when we exhale gases. Carl Sagan once said we are “star stuff,” composed literally of the same stuff as stars, and that opens up a whole new way of seeing existence.
These phenomenological poems include “Her Birthday As Ashes In Seawater,”
where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving “ —her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of — at least one of the universes. A reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.
“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier Manhattan poem, written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the Bay. Her evocation produces:
Maybe a molecule of her
has lain beside a molecule
of him, or interpenetrated
it, an element of her matter
bonding to an element of his
the currents carry them
back and forth under the Golden Gate.
Olds’ caesuras move back and forth with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery, stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine. Returning to a place of object impermanence.
For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation:
I ate Christ, and the bunny,
I want a Levine matzoh, I want
Dickinson by her own recipe,
and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.
Pagan cannibalism; ingesting the other; incorporating the power. Or, as the philosopher Lennon said, I am You as You are Me and We are all Together-er-er.
Like most poets, especially of Olds’ calibre, intertextuality has significant influences — she’s read everybody; it can be difficult to discern her responses to other poets’ language. There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; I sense Dickinson somehow in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extraversion; but, in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:
When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws
and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if
the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped
open at the same instant as the glug!
at the core of my body
We almost knew this, at five, four,
three—when we saw the truth of beauty,
our body, abashed, gulped.
I’d give her Pulitzer Prize, too, for that.
“Cervix Aria” is a poem that could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection. We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking — through education, socialization — and we talk each other out of wisdom, our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being. And that we do through the poetry of love.
Poetry should be heard, they say, and not just be a product of textuality, of you performing in your own mind, but listening to the actual voice of an Other, hearing the tiny resin-driven flaws as the bow creates music out of friction. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a rage of flaws driven to perfection. Olds can be heard reading her from ouvre at Poets.Org, site of the Academy of American Poets, where Olds has previously held the Chancellorship.
It’s always a wise thing for an avid reader, especially of politics these days, to take a break, step away from keyboard, hands in the air, and reconnect with metaphorical language, preferably away from the madding crowd, wandering lonely as a cloud somewhere. Go and listen. To your thoughts. And sing.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Neil Young, “Ohio”
It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?
I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.
And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.
These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,
In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and
government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston
marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown
of a family.
The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.
Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.
Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”
Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”
Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.
Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.
Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”
“Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:
What greater Joy Can New England see
Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.
Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.
But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.
It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.
Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”
Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.
But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.
Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,
[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.
A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.
Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.
After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”
The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.
The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,
In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms,
McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery
were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.
The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.
By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that
In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.
After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.
Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.
TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.
I don’t know if I like them apples or not.
Sung to the tune of Bobby Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina”
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
Donkeys, poultry, camel, foxes
Just left in nine assorted boxes
Flown round the world
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
Hazmat badgers, hedgehogs and rats
Mice so squirr’ly, they were chasing cats
Flown round the world
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
You’ve cancelled ball games, travel’n too
Now just please cancel the Election
That’d be something (ooh)
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
Just can’t believe the data
Corona, might just lose my mind
(repeat, extended bluesy mouth harp riff)
By John Kendall Hawkins
By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden. The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along. Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.
As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.
Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911. He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released film, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address. Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:
Dispatcher: Zone 5.
911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?
Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.
911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.
Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?
911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?
Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?
911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.
Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.
At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park. Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously. He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.
Theres been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay. The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting. Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.
In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:
The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”
To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.
Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray. In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:
I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source. That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom. You’re about to burst.
She leans in — that open blouse. He’s hard as an anvil.
First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.
Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:
The Bureau’s looking at the security guard. Jewell.
WHOA. Kathy freezes. Did I hear that wrong? Nope. Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.
The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy. But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect. Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality? While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).
But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism. Her lede reads:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Well, says who? Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”
Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.” Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.
The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves. Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.
The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling. It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know’. Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”
Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed. In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence. Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.
Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment. Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat. NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”
In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics. In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing. Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing. He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen: media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.
Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
I remember fondly now the early days of my anthropology studies as an undergrad, talking bones in class, smoking bones after. Studying cultures, living it. Talking with my professor about Julian Jaynes’s crazy theory that human consciousness originated in “the breakdown of the bicameral mind.” And philosophy classes. Foucault, Sanity and Madness, the Narrenschiffen seaside asylums. Dancing in a tie-dyed tee after Mandela’s release from the apart-hate system. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness (talk about mind fucks). Global Marley, white blues Dylan, we were changing the world one tune at a time, in our minds.
Two of the most-enduring cultural scenarios offered up in my studies prior to changing my major to philosophy, anthropology’s old stomping ground, were the matriarchal community at Catal Huyuk and the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest. The former offered up a vision of a benign matriarchal world that was said to have existed long before, as Lennon put it, women became “the nigger of the world,” and the latter seemed to depict a human world among the elephants that was truly communistic, without Marx, and the need for imported white intellectuals to translate ‘dialectical materialism’ to the jungle hoi polloi. It just worked.
But that was long ago, before the Internet came along, and made writers of us all, with sometimes out-of-control avatar egos requiring management by unknown moderators who, for all we know, are trolls in their full time day jobs. (Or work for intelligence hunters-and-gatherers who find such behavior valuable and ‘play’able.) Everybody’s clickety-clacketing; each of us knows how to solve the World puzzle. Everybody’s talking at me — and you — and we can’t understand what anyone is saying over our typing.
Out of all the din of such being, it brings to mind the ‘father’ of American anthropology (a German named Franz Boas) who wrote an essay, “On Alternating Sounds,” which describes our inability to understand the tones of others; we have sound-blindnesses we need to overcome. Mark Twain expressed the problem best: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Tone-deafness abounds today, blind-sounds leading blind-sounds. Why, it’s almost a postmodern Tower of Babel.
Not hearing, seeing, or understanding each other properly is the major concern of Charles King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. The main title comes from a line out of Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks On A Road. And the book describes the career of Franz Boas, who, as a migrant from Germany, became the founder of the American anthropological movement, based at Columbia University. There he attracted the minds and likes of such intrepid spirits as Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria, who spread out, social scientists intent on letting living data drive them to the reality of Man.
The conclusions these American anthropologists came to believe and disseminate, alone and together as a Circle, are now well-known, though then radical, and can be summed up in an expression: Cultural Relativism. Instead of mocking the perceived differences between cultures from a ‘privileged’ position, we should be celebrating the variety of Man and revelling in our e pluribus unum. The more steps you took in another culture’s moccasins the more the sweat of their soles seeped into your blood until, with enough mileage, you came to an understanding of two cultures — the foot’s and the moccasin’s — by osmosis.
At the time, this conclusion flew in the face of the prevailing conceit summed up in the popular book, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916). Grant expounds on the need for a eugenics (weeding the DNA) that would return us to the glory days of Nordic superiority. Hitler called this stuff his “Bible,” and married it to his Kampf, Wagner’s Siegfried, and the weak-minded gullibility of the Good German. This “scientific racism” (which showed how racist science could be, if given half a chance) eventually got adopted and incorporated as the modus o. of American Exceptionalism.
Charles King’s strategy throughout the book is to show how the adventures and expeditions of these anthropologists are entangled with the personal puzzles each explorer is trying to resolve. It’s a quest not only for the answers to the nature of humankind, but a method of psychodramatically playing-out the kinks and knots of their own private foibles and flaws — including questions of race, sexuality and gender. It all makes for rich characterization as you, the reader, play it out on the stage of your mind.
King begins by bringing us through the museum of Boas’s memories, past stuffed archetypes, reified racial postures, and cobwebs of neural connections past their prime. We come to understand how his early experiences, education and family background led him, almost inevitably, toward a life devoted to finding out what made People tick — How are we different from each other, and the same? Is the observer superior to the observed? Do we live lives of one-way mirrors on each other? King describes Boas’s upbringing in a fully assimilated Jewish family comfortable in German culture – “being Bürgerlich—urban, educated, freethinking, bourgeois—was as much a defining feature of life as being members of a minority faith.” Boas could afford to explore — and he did.
Franz Boas, writes King, was a product of Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment, a reader of noisy newspapers, knockin’ on Heaven’s door by way of Luther, a believer in the categorical imperative of Kant (the rich man’s golden rule). He was influenced by the vision of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed, “Human civilization was a jigsaw puzzle of these distinct ways of being, each adding its own piece, some more rough edged than others, to the grand picture of human achievement.” Boas got his first serious taste of jigsaw pie, when he went as a young man to frozen Boffin Island, fifth largest island in the world, where he lived among the Inuits, observing, laying down data-driven Krackelfüsse (chicken scratches) in his journal.
Just as personal contradictions would torment members of his Circle later, Boas, too, had ritualistic hang-ups he couldn’t deny. For instance, he had the need to posture, early on, demonstrating his mensch-hood by engaging in glove-slap fisticuffs. Boas was at home playing piano once when a neighbor shouted to keep it down, and Boas got out there, “escalated the confrontation into … a duel,” during which each received a sword tick or two, they proudly called, Schmiss, or duelling scars.
Looking at Boas later in life, you would have drawn the conclusion that he had a lot of need, as the scars left him “scrimshawed like an old walrus tusk, with Schmisse on his forehead, nose, and cheek, a jagged line running from mouth to ear.” Anthropologists have gone to dark and exotic places to note and analyze the schmisses of others. Maybe that occurred to him as chair of the anthropology department at Columbia.
Early in his tenure at Columbia he 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. But as King notes, “The deeper concern was how to distinguish advanced, healthy, and vigorous northern Europeans from the lesser subraces now stumbling over one another on the streets and alleyways of the Lower East Side.” Nibelungen everywhere.
Inspired by the “scientific racism” found in such popular reads as The Passing of the Great Races, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy, the government was looking to avoid a cultural dilution to America’s Way of Life. But Boas and his anthropologists had some bad news for the blue bloods. These groups easily assimilated. And may, in fact, have displayed all the virtues of the American Way — especially multiculturalism. Boas’s data disputed government assumptions; it revealed fascistic prejudices simmering just beneath the surface of public policy. The reader can imagine how a different set of data might have led to purges. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America comes to mind. No wonder Hitler winked.
For Boas, notes King, “No one should be creating broad theories of human difference until more data had been collected.” Franz Boas’s most famous anthropologist was Margaret Mead. Intellectually informed by von Herder’s Sturm und Drang literary movement (itself a Goethe-Werther nod), Boas had put Mead to work on the Cause by suggesting that she complete her doctoral dissertation by considering the question: “Was the transition from childhood to adulthood, with young women and men rebelling against their stultifying parents, the product of a purely biological change, the onset of puberty?”
He arranged for her to go to America Samoa to find an answer. When she got there — Pago Pago — she found “the largest naval deployment since Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet around the world as a display of American sea power.” Her thoughts were constantly plagued by some ship in the fleet playing “ragtime.” She wrote to Boas, “The only sizable villages were ‘over-run with missionaries, stores, and various intrusive influences,’ … and were much corrupted by the influence of the Americans.” Writes King, “This was no way to study primitive tribes [and] she vowed to get as far away from Pago Pago as possible.”
She sailed from Pago Pago to T’ua, hundreds of miles away, where she lived with an American couple. Even there, she was unsure of how she would proceed, when a fortuitous hurricane suddenly changed the course of her study. King paraphrases her thinking,
What if the real way to understand people wasn’t to gawk at their ceremonies or even to share in their most important work, as Malinowski had done, but to be beside them in their most unguarded moments—sweeping up debris, rebuilding a house, reweaving a damaged mat, comforting a wailing child?
She went to work, fitting in and taking copious notes.
In her Samoan field work, and later working with children on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, she came to some startling data-driven conclusions about the transition from childhood to adult. Unlike in America or Germany, or any other number of Western countries, the children didn’t carry their ‘magical thinking’ over into adulthood, and there was no real ‘sturm und drang.’
The Western presumption was that the transition, for boys and girls, was a natural by-product of growing up – “rebellion against authority, philosophical perplexities, the flowering of idealism, conflict and struggle – [were] ascribed to a period of physical development,” Mead found. At the end, as at the beginning, she asked herself the Question: “Were these difficulties due to being adolescent or due to being adolescents in America?” She went with the latter. It’s all culturally relative.
Out of all this came Coming of Age in Samoa, which became very popular in academia and helped give wings to the growth in the Humanities, which saw its heyday in the late 60s and 70s. Mead’s book quickly found itself listed by conservatives “10 Books That Screwed Up the World,” joining favorite hates like, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, and Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. It was a badge of honor for Mead.
King also explores and describes in some detail all the sexual tension implicit (and sometimes explicit) in Mead’s many love entanglements. She was a kind of proto-feminist. She wouldn’t marry the linguist, Edward Sapir, who, feeling somehow ‘betrayed’, turned on her later and was a harsh critic of her work. She married three other men — Luther Cressman, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, who she referred to as “a William Blake in safari cottons.” And she left Ruth Benedict unrequited and standing at the altar of love. Naturally, this all informed her anthropology somehow.
Another free spirit attracted to Boas’s world was the novelist — and anthropologist — Zora Neale Hurston, the so-called Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, and tightly connected to Langston Hughes. The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the first novel written that made Black vernacular the star of the show and inspired writers like Toni Morrison later. Urged on by Boas, she sought to develop an ethnographic history of residents of Eatonville, the first self-governing all-black municipality in the United States, and of South Florida in general. King explains, “Between 1890 and 1930, Florida had, per capita, more public lynchings than any other state in the country, almost exclusively of African Americans—twice the number in Mississippi and Georgia, three times that in Alabama.”
Out of her field experience she produced Mules and Men. Rich in folktales, it delved into the Black experience like never before, and revealed previously unknown secret pagan doings. Hurston wrote, “Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has thousands of secret adherents…The way we tell it, hoodoo started way back before everything.” (Suddenly, I had a new understanding of the CCR song “Born on the Bayou,” wherein hoodoos are chased by hound dogs.)
With a Guggenheim scholarship, Hurston continued here explorations of Black living by trekking to the Caribbean for “a study of magic practices among Negroes of the West Indies,” focussing on the ex-slave colonies Jamaica and Haiti. As King describes her experience there, King writes that Hurston saw that “Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals…It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”
To get a better feel for the living Black spirit in Jamaica, Hurston drove to St. Mary’s parish in the Blue Mountains and came across “a country wedding” with music, dancing and cake (think: “Sweet and Dandy”). From there she joined the Maroons in “a boar hunt that stretched over several days, traipsing up and down the mountain slopes, slogging along in her riding boots, the hunters’ dogs yelping when they got too close to the boar’s razor-sharp tusks.” From there she went to another parish where she attended a nine-day “wake” at which the corpse was “nailed tight to the interior of the coffin” so that its “duppy” spirit, “the dark matter inside any person” couldn’t “take flight” and fuck with the community.
From Jamaica, Hurston sailed to Haiti, where she uncovered the Home of Hoodoo-Voodoo and was introduced to a zombie by the name of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a product of local voodoo practices. Dumped by her husband, and suffering ‘a total eclipse of the heart’, King describes Hurston’s situation: “[M]edical records showed that [Felicia] had died in 1907…[Hurston’s account] remains the first known depiction of a person whom her Haitian neighbors knew as a zombie.
As Hurston poignantly adds though,
That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
(Eventually, we got around to creating a Netflix series, The Walking Dead.) Hurston wrote a whole book on the subject, Tell My Horse. She describes ceremonies involving bocors (dark magicians) and instances where loa inhabit the body of local believers and “ride” them. An enactment of such a ritual involving such horse-riding is depicted in the Papa Legba scene of David Byrnes’s film True Stories.
Like Mead, Hurston, too, showed signs of free-lovin’. While she was still at graduate school, and married, she fell in love with a fellow student there by the name of Percival Punter. With him she “sputtered and sizzled” and had to be with him. She said of this affair, writes King, “I did not just fall in love,” she recalled. “I made a parachute jump.”
One final member of the Boas Circle who King provides details for is Ella Cara Deloria, who grew up on a Sioux reservation on South Dakota. Enrolled at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, she was “summoned” one day to meet with Franz Boas, who wanted to use her a translator for Native American projects he had going. She was a highly regarded liaison and ethnologist.
In the Preface to her novel, Waterlily, which tried to bring to life in fiction the Dakota people, as Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had done for Blacks, the publisher writes, “Deloria was an ideal intermediary between the predominant American traditional Dakota cultures, and she took that role seriously.” In the Boas tradition, Deloria believed that “To write properly about Indians, you had to stop using the past tense.” She lived with her people, while she wrote about them, and made sure her accounts came from authentic voices.
Early in Gods of the Upper Air, King identified its purpose: “This book is about the women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing.” They were up against social Darwinists and scientific racism. The Boas Circle, with their studies in Cultural Relativism, celebrated the diversity of multiculturalism and its consequent public policies, which over the years have resulted in a righteous vilification of racism, sexism, and gender-bound roles.
As for the greater realization of a common humanity, it’s a tough sell these days in an era of catastrophic Climate Change, rising global authoritarianism, and looming pandemics of body and mind.
But at least they tried.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“The glitter is in everything.”
-An old friend from way back when
Who’s to say what consciousness is? Nobody knows. Only a few good wo/men seem to give a shit at any given moment. The poet T.S. Eliot famously noted that humankind cannot stand too much reality and that we are distracted from distraction by distraction. As Jack Nicholson once growled at us, like a Gitmo poster boy, tortured souls sandwiched between our knocking knees, “You can’t handle the truth.” And now with the glaring prospect of four more years of Trump ahead of us — violence guaranteed — understanding consciousness seems to be the last thing on most people’s minds. We long ago lost our sense of conscience; consciousness could not be far behind. And yet.
In Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff invites the reader along on a dialectical journey from the first constellations of science toward a future of interpenetrating consciousnesses, from the ‘discovery’ of gravity to the still-mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. It’s not an exhaustive journey, either in method or intention, but it’s an enjoyable day trip through philosophical jungle — a tour down the Amazon that includes the oohs-and-ahhs of piranha-baiting, views of well-fed boas, ‘happy-shiny’ shamans waving from a deforested shore. Goff’s examples are exemplary: We creep up on Susan from behind; we meet Mary black-and-white; we see things done with Okham’s razor; we see the shit scared out of Philosophical Zombies (but not really), and, glimpse the creepy mind-computer merge ahead.
Ultimately, as the book title suggests (and cutting to the chase), Phillip Goff wants us to consider how Galileo, “the father of modern science,” created The Consciousness Problem when he separated quantitative information from qualitative, leaving the latter out of scientific inquiry, and resulting in a mind-body dualism we are still wrestling with today. Panpsychism is Goff’s proposed scientific solution.
Goff begins Galileo’s Error by asking the reader to go on a guided meditation with him. “As you read this page, you are having a visual experience of black letters against a white background,” he writes, “You can probably hear background noises: traffic, distant conversation, or the faint hum of a computer….” You could be Descartes meditating on his Cogito. In fact, your guide informs you as you listen to your environs, “[T]here is one thing I know for certain: I exist as a conscious being.” But Goff is leading us not to René, but to Galileo Galilei, “the father of modern science.”
According to Goff, looking up at the stars, Galileo had an epiphany — not about what he saw, but how he understood: “[T]he universe, which stands continually open to our gaze…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.” Galileo thought that there was a mathematical language embedded in the cosmos that could only be seen once qualitative phenomena were removed from the quantitative. Thus, in his observations, he removed sensory data derived from the five senses, and was left with a set of quantitative data — Size, Shape, Location, Motion — that became the basis for a new paradigm called science, which went beyond the limits of philosophical reasoning to the development of the scientific method.
The subjective world of sensory experience that makes up the mental phenomena of mind could not be accounted for in an objective fashion, and are “forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding,” writes Goff, and he adds that this lock-out is how “Galileo created the problem of consciousness.” This mind-body dualism, which has been with us now for hundreds of years, accepts that “reality is made up of two very different kinds of thing: immaterial minds on the one hand and physical things on the other.”
To understand this, Goff asks us to creep up behind Susan, sitting in a chair, with the top of her skull sawed off, for our scientific convenience. We’re looking at her brain. Can we see her consciousness, her experiences at work, her sensory conjurings? No, we can’t, but somewhere, somehow in that brain, consciousness is at work. Goff writes,
For the dualist, the relationship between Susan and her physical body is a bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. Just as the drone pilot controls the drone and receives information about the world from it, so Susan controls (to an extent) her body and receives information from its eyes and ears.
Raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable with the drone pilot analogy.
As opposed to a reality composed of separate physical and “immaterial” properties, these days we’re inclined to see everything included under the rubric of physical causes and effects only — including mental phenomena. In fact, if you go insane you’ll discover that the psychiatrist has no interest in your sob story at all — it’s all seen as symptoms and chemical imbalance, and you won’t leave the doctor’s office without a mandated prescription. (All those years of medical school down the drain, you’ll “think,” when they could’ve just brought in an astrologer and handed them a script pad.) De-institutionalization: a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Goff rages against the machinery of materialism throughout Galileo’s Error. But after he’s cooled down some, he offers up another female volunteer in his narrative — this time it’s Mary Black-and-White — to explain the limitations of materialism. Picture Mary, he says, locked away in a black-and-white room her entire life, no peeky-boo windows looking out onto external reality. Everything she knows about color is from something read, and she’s well-read. “If materialism is true and neuroscience is able to give us a complete theory of the nature of color experience, then what pre-liberation Mary has learned is the complete and final theory of color experience.”
One thinks of the Allegory of Plato’s Cave; and Chance the gardener from Being There. Goff writes, that no matter how much theory Mary’s been imbued with, she’s missing one thing that doesn’t happen until she leaves her room: experience, the experience of color. Consequently, Goff asserts,
It follows that a neuroscientific theory of color experience is necessarily incomplete. It leaves out the subjective qualities involved in color experience, those qualities we are directly aware of when we see colors.
Consciousness involves the subjective experience of phenomena — a kind of epiphenomena, or je ne sais quoi experience you can’t measure. He adds, “Neuroscience cannot teach the blind/color-blind what it’s like to have color experience.” Which reminds me of one of my favorite blind-leading-the-blind enlightenment stories: Raymond Carver’s, “Cathedral.”
In his further furtive assault on the human body (ostensibly in defense of the mind), Goff introduces the concept of the Philosophical Zombie. He writes, “If you stick a knife in a philosophical zombie, it’ll scream and try to get away, but it doesn’t actually feel pain” because “A philosophical zombie is just a complicated mechanism set up to behave like an ordinary human being.” But his essential point is a logical one. Goff writes, “It can be logically demonstrated that if zombies are even possible—not actual, merely logically possible—then materialism cannot possibly be true.” Goff even proposes a six-step, if-then, Zombie Argument.
He’s not done there though. Goff conjures up a barroom scene where he has a shitfaced materialist feeling the blues and staggered by a thought,
I pushed my way out of the bar and stood in the cold rain with my eyes closed. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I’d already accepted that if materialism was true, then I was a zombie. But I knew I wasn’t a zombie; I was a thinking, feeling human being. I could no longer live in denial of my consciousness. I became something of a closet dualist.
The reader cringes to see a philosopher lean towards the politically incorrect.
All that loving on the legacies of Descartes, Newton and Galileo that takes place early in the journey, followed by jumping the materialist behind the tavern and beating the living snot out of him and unbalancing his chemicals, is all meant to lead us to the Shangri-La of panpsychism. And for Goff it seems almost akin to a religious experience. Goff riffs, “I can’t help being excited by the possibility that, in a panpsychist worldview, the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony…Panpsychism offers a way of ‘re-enchanting’ the universe….” It turns out that Goff was in the closet too. He comes clean: “In panpsychism I found intellectual peace; I could live comfortably in my own skin.”
For Goff consciousness goes to the core of the meaning of life — literally. Citing Thomas Nagel’s 1972 article, “Panpsychism,” Goff calls it the “third way” between dualism and materialism. On the surface, it smells of rancid pantheism, but with a privileged consciousness taking the place of a murdered God in the cathedral.
But, Goff, however enthusiastically he waxes, like a reborn sinner, about the joy of panpsychism and the many rivers in one to cross, wants to bring in the authority of science. First he cites Stephen Hawking, who has insisted that humans will one day come up with a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything — even he seems to have doubted that it would be fully “satisfying,” as Goff puts it. Hawking noted: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” For Goff, consciousness is the heavy breather.
Goff pushes quantum mechanics. In it he sees an integral place for consciousness. But more specifically a pilot seat for observation. Explaining the concept of superpositioning, Goff cites the example Schrödinger’s cat, put in a box, with a vial of poison and radioactive material. If the material decays, the vial will smash, and the cat will die. But, notes Goff,
If the radioactive substance doesn’t decay, the cat will be saved. While the box is closed and the system unobserved, Schrödinger’s equation rules the roost, with the result that the radioactive substance exists in a superposition of both decaying and not decaying, from which it follows that the cat is in a superposition of being both alive and dead.
But when the box is opened, and the cat’s observed, it will be either dead or living.
This is conceptually weird, this on-and-off at the same time stuff, but it’s the promise that quantum computing holds, and it is, says Goff, scientifically sound, and goes to the heart of particle physics. Picture the famous rabbitduck illusion, where both the duck and rabbit are present together before you, but only one of them can be seen at any given moment. Imagine a computing system that could be on and off like that at the same time. But it’s the observational aspect of this phenomenon that Goff is keened to.
However, the more you delve into this, the stranger it gets — even in Freud’s Uncanny sense — as though, extrapolated to Reality, you could come to believe you were in two places at once. While some of this thinking leads toward multiverses, and the like, there’s an area Goff concentrates on that is most eerie of all: Integrated Information Theory (IIT). According to Goff, “The theory tells us that, in any physical system, consciousness is present at the level at which there is the most integrated information.” The system needn’t be human. At the same time, Goff is not articulating that everything in the universe has a form of consciousness. It depends on the level of integration.
There are levels, leading to a ‘maximum of integration’. Goff explains that a single neuron is highly integrated, but not as integrated as the brain it belongs to, which contains a forest of neurons. Further, and from a different perspective,
A human society has a great deal of integrated information, due to its complex social connections. However, a society is not a maximum of integration, as it is surpassed from below: people make up societies, and their brains have significantly more integrated information than does the society as a whole.
That’s all fine and dandy, that leaves room for people to go all shape-shifting Shangri-La when they discover the beam-me-up-Scotty joys of panpsychic integration — “consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter” — but then the other shoe drops on a phenomenological turd.
Goff considers the current human-machine trajectory of the Internet, and it can get scary in a hurry, depending on whether or not you welcome the coming Singularity or regard its arrival as akin to having Freddie Krueger over for a dinner of pulled pork, the pig not happy in the sty. Goff anticipates:
IIT 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.
And you thought today’s Internet activity was out of control, full of fakery, dark web secrets, overcommercialization. Imagine absorption in that unenlightened Mind-set. Maybe it wouldn’t be so ducky down the rabbit hole after all.
But that worry aside, Goff suggests several times in his book that we are on the verge of something, a new paradigm, that we are waiting for a “Newton of consciousness” to come along to affirm the scientific validity of panpsychism, and the age-old mind-body problem will be resolved once and for all. But more than that, maybe we should be invoking Copernicus, rather than Newton, coming to terms, spiritually and scientifically, that as Earth is not the center of the solar system, human consciousness is not the center of the universe: consciousness abounds. The universe is not all about me.
Let us now return to trashing Trump: The Shitter is in everything.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? [sinister laugh] The Shadow knows.”
– from The Shadow, a radio drama from the ‘30s
What a difference a week makes, the kind where you feel more certain than ever that signs are mounting that we are historically placed somewhere between the profligate days of Caligula and a postmodern Apocalypse where God is taking no prisoners. An Iceberg-looking submarine smacking at the Titanic — like a taunt. The Burger King ad featuring Thanatopsis, making a time-elapsed burger look like a picture of what smoking does — you wondering, if the burgers are better at Burger King, then what next? Joe Biden speaking in tongues. King Trump grinning, threatening Romney like a crime boss, while contradictorily claiming to be the nation’s top law enforcement agent. Buttery margarine, human-y AIs: It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.
Things finally got back to what passes as normal when the Ukraine government recently announced through their local press that they had begun work on turning their government itself into a “service-sector” function of their young democracy. They call it Diia, “the state in the smartphone.” All government services would be available through an app on a smartphone, including, the most important function for a modern democracy, voting for politicians.
The Idea means well. Many countries have super-apps like this that feature aspects of Ukraine’s proposed system, including Australia, but voting on-line makes the proposition iffy. Ukraine is drawing on the experiences of Lithuania and Estonia, two former Soviet-bloc nations that have gone digital, and include e-residencies and tax havens, and voting, for citizens, tossed in. According to a New York Times piece, most Estonians seem to agree that a paperless bureaucracy is vast improvement over the officious inefficiencies of the Soviet past. According to Wired, “Estonia is the world’s most digitally advanced society” and there is shared euphoria, maybe gone too far (“a digital Estonia would never cease to exist”), as it flaunts its Brand of freedom.
But Ukraine is no puckish Estonia. Her corruption is world-renowned. And if you had half a brain, you probably would have to worry when your government flat out wants to crow about your service-sector future. One pictures mattresses and a nation on its back. Mikhail Fedorov, the ‘mastermind’ of the system, both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, envisions a ‘fast-track rollout’, from the late 2019 unveiling of the project to February’s introduction of a working device. (The original unveiling was scheduled for January, but had to be moved back to accommodate Federov’s “illness.”)
Ukraine has many problems, other than corruption, to overcome to make such an enterprise even conceivable — let alone do-able. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, a political researcher and media specialist for the region, cites the national decline after Ukraine refused an IMF offer in 2014 leading to a CIA-influenced coup, an “oligarch democracy,” and a “historical brain drain” that leaves the impression that a nation of Borats was left behind. But also, not many people in Ukraine have smartphones. So there’ll have to be a massive gifting of such mobiles by the government or industry (no doubt, with backdoors installed) before the benefits of e-government can kick in and Ukraine can be a successful brand™ like Estonia. Five months from concept to rollout. Unh-huh. That’s funny.
There’s also the problem that the Ukraine government has not budgeted any funds for the DIIA project. Money has been obtained through a “private-public partnerships,” says Federov, who further explains, “”I rely on an effective team and international technical assistance, public-private partnerships, volunteering.” Volunteering? One of the “private” funders is old friend USAID, coming along with its easy-to-obtain high interest rate loans. Curious citizens were directed to a YouTube explanation and were (are) met with hunh?
If anyone can do it, maybe Federov is the man. President Zelinsky came to power in 2019 through the prowess of Federov’s machinations and Facebook manipulations. The ex-actor and comedian won in a landslide, with Federov behind him, fighting heroically against “disinformation,” pressuring Facebook to take down ‘fake ads’ and ‘news’ from Russia meant to futz with the election. If true. But Federov seems far more interested in making a long term buck. When asked during the campaign Why Zelensky? What can he offer? It wasn’t a democratically satisfying response: he can monetize stuff. Oh, Fredonia, don’t you cry for me.
One claim that NYT seemed to let stand, without critical appraisal ,was that Russians were approaching everyday Ukrainians and offering to pay cash-money to “rent” their Facebook accounts for disinformation purposes. Again, suggesting a Borat-like nation nimcompoopery. The NYT piece inexplicably referred to this as “an evolution in tactics.” What, are we evolving to a clown species?
As if such absurdity weren’t sufficient, the Times went on to blatherscheiss — “Facebook Tackles Rising Threat: Americans Aping Russian Schemes to Deceive” — that Americans were emulating the Russkies by way of pressuring tactics. Still, signing up for Facebook with multiple (perhaps paid) troll accounts is different than having to picture some swarthy stranger coming up to you and pssssting that you could make a buck airbnbing your Facebook account. Wouldn’t you run?
Strange news comes out of Ukraine that nobody really pays much attention to. For instance, last week a Ukrainian publication reported that Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor Joe Biden had successfully got fired for, ostensibly, failing to aggressively pursue corruption allegations at Burisma Holdings, had himself, on February 7, appealed to the National Police to prosecute Biden for the “commission of a criminal offence by Biden both in the territory of Ukraine and abroad…In particular, Biden was accused of interference in the work of a law enforcement body under Section 2 of Article 343 of the Penal Code of Ukraine.”
Shokin Gun? Did Trump push him to appeal? (More impeachableness.) Funny stuff, out of Ukraine.
Of course, DIIA, the smartphone government for stupid people, got me thinking about high tech in America. Gadgets and gizmos, smartphones and apps, seems to be the way we’re going, and not necessarily in a benign way. For instance, the Diebold machines that helped fuck up the 2000 Florida election, along with Gore not winning his home state and Nader offering an alternative with integrity, just sold to another company, which reportedly has the same problems with hackability. Jeesh.
But also, and finally, when one thinks of Ukraine’s new infatuation with service-sector politics, Iowa comes to mind. One problem with Shadow, the app meant to calculate the caucus vote, was that it was fanfared with much promise and too few people to roll it out properly. Brand recognition was the game. Now, Acronym, the non-profit agency that used the device at the caucus is ducking from the fallout after the app’s catastrophic failure. It makes the Dems look techo dumb.
Perhaps the real worry, though, should be what the names evoke. When I think of Acronym, I think of FBI, CIA, NSA, and all the funny ones that Edward Snowden describes in Permanent Record that don’t mean anything in themselves and cover something else up. Shadow we know, or don’t, thinking along a Jungian strain. When the acronyms and the shadows merge you just know some SHIT is going to hit the FAN.