Don’t have to live like a refugee (Don’t have to live like a refugee)
(I won’t back down) No, I won’t back down
– Tom Petty
The global refugee crisis has been with us for a while. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there’s been a steady flow of displaced humans from their home nations into statelessness and then on to begrudged statefulness among strangers. According to the agency, there are 4.2 million stateless people right now. Some people are stateless within their own natal nation (Yemen). The number of refugees stayed at about 40 million a year until about 2012, when it began an unbroken rise upward to the 80 million mark today.
Why? The usual understated suspects — war, internal failure of governance, economic catastrophe, climate change. But, also, movement coincides with the rise of ISIS and the Levant, a militant Islamic insurgency created in the aftermath of the illegal 2003 Shock And Awe display in Iraq, which saw militant forces gather and claim a caliphate (a global statehood, in the Levant region, for radical Islam) — a claim rejected by the US “without prejuduce,” and leading to a reign of terror and counter-terror in the region, ending abruptly when Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi allegedly blew himself heavenward clutching two virgins. The mess that’s been made in Syria by the post-Cold War exploits of Russia and America has sent hundreds of thousands of people toward an unwelcome Europe. Covid-19 has exacerbated their plight.
You could argue that statelessness includes the Apart-Hate system that saw The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah come into the world illegally — his journey across the birth canal a kind of fence-jumping — that he recounts in his memoir, Born A Crime. It’s a crazy world. More recently, I reviewed a book by Kurdish refugee from Iran, Behrouz Boochani, who tried to enter Australia by boat (illegal, and making him permanently ineligible for entry) and was sent to a detention camp on Manus Island, where he described conditions so foul and horrific to an advocate in Australia — by way of WhatsApp — that it became a best-selling memoir. Rules for a lucrative national award were changed to make the non-Aussie’s book eligible for consideration and — voila! — he won the $125,000 prize.
Today, thanks to more Aussie prizes, book sales, paid interviews, a gig at the Guardian, and his recent movie deal, Boochani nears millionairehood while he waits, in statelessness, in New Zealand, before, ostensibly, heading to America, where he has previously said he wouldn’t go unless he was allowed to sue Australia for its atrocities and abuses. The kicker is, had he been allowed into Australia after Manus, he’d have been abused for his anti-Australian comments (guaranteed) — probably by some of the same Lefties who championed him. Being a refugee can mean crossing the border into Wonderland.
With Ilhan Omar’s memoir (as told to Rebecca Paley), This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee To Congresswoman, the reader returns to a more traditional tale of horrific displacement and resettlement with a happy ending. The book is roughly segmented into three sections corresponding with important phases of her life: early childhood in Somalia, teen to young adult life in Virginia and Minnesota, and the commencement of her political career in Washington, DC. Frankly, the first half of the account is thoroughly engaging, as she provides anecdotes of her trials and tribulations, mostly as a refugee and/or immigrant literally fighting for her physical and psychical liberty; however, her later political doings, despite her unique cultural challenges, drags a bit; and, the closing chapter is essentially a stump speech in sheep’s clothing.
Omar’s tale of growing up in Baidoa, a burb of Mogadishu, where she was born in 1982, only to end up in a burb of Minneapolis, where she was scorned, is compelling, poignant, and frank. As Omar tells Paley, right out of the chute she was a fighter and a social critic. Observing, one day in third-grade class, a boy taunting another aggressively, Omar’s hackles were up, when the bully exclaimed:
“Hooyadawus!” which means “Go fuck your mother” in Somali. I burned in my seat. I always hate it when people use vulgar language, but I get really angry when it involves mothers, who I knew from the beginning were sacred—even if I didn’t have one.
Seven year old Omar told the bully to sit down and shut up, and he replied he’d beat snot out of her after school, and then, later, their battle ended when, “I pulled the boy down and rubbed his face in the sand.” Her brother came along and shouted at her, “Ilhan! What the hell?”
Lesson: You don’t mess with the Ilhan. For letting a girl force his head in the sand, the bully could barely save face and was forever ostrichsized; none of his peers wanted to, um, emulate him after that.
In the mid-80s, growing clan unrest, brought about by aging Somalian president Mohammed Siad Barre’s agitation of the masses and move toward totalitarianism, saw the eruption of a civil war the effects of which continue to this day. Omar recalls, “I remember everything shutting down. School was the first institution to go, but eventually the mosques, the postal service, the television stations, even the market closed down.” Subsistence diets were forced on them:
(To this day, I hate plain rice. It brings back that time when everyone smelled like a bag of rice. It seeped into people’s pores like we had drowned in it.)
Omar relates that her family had to flee the country when she was nine years old, due to its level of violence, much of it aimed at her clan, and ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for four years.
Omar describes her early relationship with her father, Baba, by whom, along with an aunt, she was principally raised (she doesn’t remember her mother, who died when she was in preschool). Her father, she says, suspended Somali tradition in raising her, treating her not as a second class girl, but as a social equal. She says,
Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family…He was extremely close to us and did not adopt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.
As we discover later in the narrative, this is an important point: It helps explain to the still-patriarchal Somali community in Minneapolis her gender-breaking ambition to run for public office, and to lead, rather follow, steps behind the man, any man.
Another important influence early on is Omar’s habaryar (aunt) Fos, who showered her with maternal affection and dignity. “She was a super human, but one who didn’t need her powers to be recognized or celebrated,” relates Omar. “I could get in trouble with just about anybody. But I couldn’t get in trouble with her. ‘This is my sister’s baby,’ she would say.” And, during the flight from Somalia, amidst militia battles, Fos contracted malaria, and she “grew sicker and sicker until she could no longer get out of bed.” This event became not only a devastating personal loss but a key moment in her education:
I don’t think I’ve known greater devastation and sorrow than when Fos died…My aunt’s death meant in very real terms that there was no such thing as escape in this life…Nothing is permanent, and that fact made me really angry.
Omar shows over and over again an ability to channel her anger for constructive purposes.
Once in the refugee camp in Kenya, she describes conditions that would make Boochani blush with overstatement. In Dadaab, temporarily ‘resettled’ in a virtual wasteland under the sun’s tormenting eye, she describes ailments. A lucky refugee, she caught “only” chicken pox,
Without any kind of remedy or medicine, my skin burned under the scorching heat. I could literally hear the blisters popping.
A la Nietzsche’s famous now pop-songed quip, That which does not kill me makes me stronger, she adds, “Despite the physical agony I was experiencing, I knew chicken pox wasn’t going to kill me.” She notes the look of others, “For the first year and a half in the camp, my grandfather and dad walked around like zombies. All the adults were like shells of humans.” It’s a common refugee experience.
She describes long lines:
There were watering stations throughout the camp where people lined up with plastic jugs to fill…The other line known for its battles was the one for the bathroom…I also stood in line for our food, such as rice, beans, flour, or oil.
She observes Kenyan resentment at their numbers — 334,000 — and needs.
After four years in the camp, Omar and her family are relocated to America. They’ve been prepped: pep talks and videos conjure up visions of wealth, good will, and opportunity. She remembers how refugees were dressed on the way to America:
A man handing his boarding pass to a flight attendant wore a suit that was at least two sizes too big for him. Two little girls, testing out the tables that popped out from the seats in front of them, were in Easter Sunday dresses as if they were about to attend a holiday party.
Before the flight, some of them had gone on a spending spree at secondhand clothing shops to arrive in a dignified fashion.
It’s a festive, yet apprehensive atmosphere on the plane, folks all joy-juiced up on the expectations lent them by US refugee agencies:
There was an unspoken fantasy that when we came to America we would be greeted by its citizens, whom we needed to impress in order to fit in, so that we could land a good job, go to the right school, and move into one of those beautiful homes with the white picket fences we had seen in the orientation video.
Woe — even Marquis de Sade would have blushed at such straw-manning.
But, when they arrive at JFK, hop in a cab on their way to a hotel for the night, young Omar sees from her seat homelessness, squalor, and she is dismayed:
Through the window of the taxi I watched the darkened highways become city streets—and I was appalled by what I saw. Trash everywhere…Large pyramids, some even taller than I was, of black trash bags lined the streets—as if New Yorkers were preparing for a levee to break.
The scene is something she will later draw on in her political career to message that there is a considerable difference between what America advertizes about itself and the product you get handed — but that, working together, we can all make the Dream happen, bring the Ad to life.
When the narrative switches to Arlington, Virginia, and then Minneapolis, we are returned to Omar the Streetfighting Girl. Very entertaining bully-bashing, and no doubt true, if my memory of such moments is accurate anymore. She subtly knocks the US educational system by noting that her Somalian fourth grade education placed her in sixth grade in America. She describes middle school years that conjure up the Levant, a school environment she finds herself in, almost daily, that is part barroom fight and part ice hockey brawl. She tells us she got in fights over “looks” and one day,
I stared back, and if they said something, which of course I couldn’t understand, I usually decided to hit them first, assuming they were going to hit me. I wasn’t afraid, and I wanted people to know it.
Uh-oh, is Omar a unilateralist? ( Maybe we could set up a bout between Boochani and Omar, I’m thinking.)
When she gets to the topic of integument she notes bravely that Somalis have no word for Causcasian. And the American idea of white is, well, odd, and maybe even wyrd. She says,
[M]y conception of white was very different from the American construct. There is no Somali translation for the word Caucasian. The word we use describes an actual skin tone, the way you appear.
This cracked me up, as I pictured the Might Whitey as a black-and-white stick figure, in contrast to the colored folk. And I also thought, more seriously, about Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby,” where the mother is seen as white by her Southern community until, one day, while nursing, someone, I forget who, notices the negroid aureoles of her breasts and the shit hits the fan: Now, she’s Black, and on her way to suicide — just like that. Wyrd.
In Minneapolis, she fell in love with Johnny Depp in his Bollywood-like role in Cry Baby. At Edison middle school, she joined up with dozens of other Somali students, relieved, after three years of relative isolation in Arlington, to be “surrounded by people who understood things about my existence without my having to explain.” But, the fights continue, often over her wearing a hijab. She ended up spending long hours in detention, but “given the long hours of studying in detention, I had become a very good student.” Again, Omar and her silver linings.
But there’s more — more fights, and more life lessons leading to activist leanings and development. She describes the crazy chaos of school days filled with endless dysfunction:
Like Minneapolis itself, Edison’s mainstream classes were very diverse. Unfortunately, the differences among the student population proved more divisive than anything else. There were a lot of fights: everyone fought everyone. African Americans and African immigrants fought over who was blacker. Muslim kids and white ones fought over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Latinos against African Americans, Africans against Native Americans, and on and on.
Diversive/Divisive. Omar saw a thing, and corralled some like-minded pals and formed a coalition they called Unity in Diversity. “We recruited everyone with the express purpose of understanding the triggers of our racially charged environment and bridging the harmful divides,” she said.
Like Barack Obama’s political career, she starts out as a community organizer of sorts, and goes from there. It also is a part of the narrative where she and Paley deftly weave in the influences of her private life, marriage/divorce (Ahmed), kids and miscarriage, the patriarchal influences of the large Somali community of Minneapolis, raising kids and running for office, finishing her education, working on local political campaigns. etc. This is all meet and appropriate, routine and reassuring. She’s a normal American girl overcoming any number of obstacles, a ‘rugged individualist’ who won’t be cowed or bullied by the rest of humankine.
She provides an excellent response to the elephantine question in the room: What’s with the hijab? This is America. Omar explains elegantly and cogently,
The hijab wasn’t about a piece of cloth or the battle against objectification. Instead it was really a symbol of the purity of my presence in the world. It makes sense to me that I need to cover pieces of myself to preserve who I am and feel whole. I’m centered by the hijab, because it connects me to a whole set of internally held beliefs.
This most excellent answer pre-rebuffs any notion of seeing her hiding terrorist thoughts behind the head gear. Now that everyone in America has to wear masks, and have even taken to stylin’ them, maybe they can catch the vibe she’s expressing.
The latter part of the book contains some interesting bits and pieces on her irrepressible rise in politics — it almost seems like an inevitability: As her buddies say, “It’s Ilhan Time.” There’s also a nice moment she shares of her time sitting next to Speaker of the House Pelosi on an overseas trip together, the elderly stateswoman giving her some pom-pom tips on keeping her spirits up during the certain attacks on her character (Omar describes the many that have come her way since running for office, including from members of the Somali community angry that a girl would deem to lead).
And after being elected to the House in 2016, there’s the return trip to visit Somalia, and Mogadishu, her birthplace, where she is deeply disappointed:
When I arrived in Mogadishu, it was not the city in which I had lived.
No monument was fully intact. Familiar roads were blockaded. Both my great-grandmother’s house and my childhood home were inaccessible.
Grief-stricken, I went back to the hotel and fell asleep—for sixteen hours!
An elderly restaurant worker she talks with says that her sleep indicates she’s finally cut her “umbilical” connection to Mama Somalia. This leads to a kind of epiphany during which, she says,
I felt obligated to return and speak about my refugee experience for the first time and to advocate for empathetic policies that take into account real human suffering.
She means it. She’s a young politician. And I’ll be sending her campaign a tax-deductible contribution.
In the memoir’s final chapter, “The World Belongs To Those Who Show Up,” the reader is treated with a stump speech; you know, hopey dopey, rah rah rah, Unity Diversity, e pluribus unum. This is all good stuff, rousing really, even for an old cynic; you like to see the kids working off the previous generation’s karma with audacious enthusiasm, rekindling ideals that get muddled in our pre-Alzheimer days (Did I really believe that once? I’m thinking. Good for me.) And it’s nice to hear her going on about the evil influence that led to George Floyd being murdered by cops (let’s not forget that a couple of them watched Chauvin get up to his knee in neck, while Floyd begged for help, and did nothing to stop it, a crime). And it’s good to know, in a way, that Omar’s political ambitions already contain a built-in governor: She will never be running for president.
But with any luck, she and her feminist buddies in The Squad will push some old privileged face into the sand and get some People shit done for a change.
“…is it, ah, twoo what they say about the way you people are gifted? Oh, it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”
– Lili von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles
It’s been 75 years since the end of WWII and interest in all things Nazi has seen no end; indeed, you could argue cogently that the monster Herr Docktor Deutschenstein brought to life from the parts of dead people and old ideologies has never had more global interest. Innumerable auctions of paraphernalia, books, films, TV series, podcasts, and radio shows have been devoted to the historical phenomena that led to the rise of the Third Reich. You’d like to think it was all in the spirit of Lest We Forget, but you’ll never again be that criminal naive. Evil may be banal, but, mein gott, it’s as popular as ever.
Likewise, 75 years after liberation of Auschwitz, through equally countless media productions and public remembrances, Jews around the globe have spared no effort to remind us of what the rise of such monsterhood has cost civilization. The Holocaust, as represented by the tumbling action of naked human bodies pushed by bulldozers into mass pits, is imagery of such evil and depravity that there remains no adequate way to deal with it emotionally. The Holocaust is, for Jews, what Slavery is for African Americans. — the elephants in the room of western civilization. Sadly, those of us in the room, who are neither Black nor Jewish, no matter how freed from ignorance we believe we are, can’t even promise ourselves that such horror will never happen again. We look around; we know better.
There have been movies made that wonder aloud what would have happened had Hitler escaped the bunker in 1945 with his mentality intact and emerged in some land of magical realism, south of the border, ready to fuck with us again — The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man are like that. But more recently, populist politics and fascism are on the rise and showing their fangs, and mixed with new technologies (from social media to eugenics), the LestWeForgetism required to keep them at heel is more vital than ever. Democracy is down but not out, the eight-count has begun. Two new streaming series — Hunters (Amazon) and The Plot Against America (HBO) — are What If movies that are based on real events that saw America come terrifyingly close to embracing Nazi thinking before, during and after WWII. They’re timely series worth watching.
Hunters is about a CIA (OSS) program called Operation Paperclip that saw the American government secretly ‘import’ thousands of Nazis at the end of WWII, ostensibly to keep them out of the clutches of the Soviets, with whom America was in a Cold War. The series stars Al Pacino, Logan Lerman (Shirley), Lena Olin (The Artist’s Wife), Saul Rubinek (Billions), and Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Imagine you’re a survivor of Auschwitz, brought to America to recoup with democracy’s chicken soup, and you’re in a supermarket in Manhattan, say, and look up to see the Nazi who tattooed you and led your family into the gas showers standing right there with an eggplant in his hand, apparently rescued by Americans, too. Jaw-dropping? You bet.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable Nazi scientists — such as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Blome — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the growing Cold War effort against the Soviets. Of Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Historian Stephen Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals,and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
As for von Braun, he’d led the V2 rocket program that terrorized Britons, and went on to lead NASA’s quest (along with the Black computers) to get to the moon.
In the series, events kick off when a young man, Jonah (Lerman), watches as his grandmother (a death camp survivor) is confronted by a mysterious figure and murdered, while he does nothing to stop it. Anguished and self-questioning, he meets up with and joins Meyer (Pacino), who heads a motley group of Nazi hunters — including a severe British “nun” and a Black woman who gives off Angela Davis vibes — who set out to right the wrong, as vigilantes, of Nazis residing in America. Along the way, they try to understand how the US government could have invited such evil into the country; America risked allowing demon seeds to grow in the homeland. As if to underscore the moral rectitude of their mission, the group uncovers a Nazi plot to set in motion the rise of the Fourth Reich in America. Kick-ass scenes ensue, with lots of ‘entertaining’ twists, especially for Rocket Man von Braun. Industrialists, like Henry Ford, are also given comeuppance as nasty works of Nazi assemblage.
Hunters is a well-acted series, with Pacino especially effective as a slow-moving reflective ‘Jew’ with a penchant for bloody revenge. Jerrika Hinton as Millie Morris, a Black FBI agent caught between the vigilantes and the Nazis being hunted, and, Kate Mulvaney as Sister Harriet, follower of the Olden Rule (an eye-for-an-eye) with mysterious ties to MI6, are also outstanding. The actors playing the evil Nazi villains (Lena Olin, as The Colonel, and Dylan Baker as Biff Simpson) are great, too. And, Jerrika Hinton’s Black FBI agent adds consciousness of the scope of racism, two ex-slave cultures coming together like buff vampire slayers to kill off the egos that explode in history like IEDs, as Erich Fromm accounts for in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
The series is, at times, comic bookish, but has outstanding a-lineal insertions, like the game show, Why Does Everyone Hate Jews?, where seemingly ordinary contestants are asked leading questions about the ‘evil Jews’; the insertion serves as a useful plot device to expose America’s underlying bigotry. It helps us see how ordinary Americans, in their desire to make America great again (or worse), could be hoodwinked by fascist bullshitters. Also, the insertions are surreal. The game show reminded me of a segment in Natural Born Killers when a psychopathic Rodney Dangerfield explodes on a TV screen in an episode of “I Love Mallory” and takes over the film for a minute. It’s a very powerful storytelling device for flashing Marilyn Knox’s dysfunctional childhood that is seen as the implicit motivation for her later evil. And the surrealism speaks to the incapacity of human language, at some point of outrage, to adequately express existential horror. The title of Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” kind of sums up the situational tension.
Moving along a different line of alternate history, equally plausible, given the status of the hero involved, The Plot Against America, based upon the novel by Philip Roth, involves Charles Lindbergh and the imagined cooptation of the American government by the Nazis as a result of Lindbergh’s public avowal of neutrality, but private admiration for Hitler, during WWII. In short, what if he’d run for president in 1940 and won, and then broke bad? The short series stars Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), Ben Cole (Charles Lindbergh), Zoe Kazan (Bess Levin) and John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. It has a far slower pace than Hunters, in keeping with Roth’s intended gradualist rhythm, but delivers the Big Chill at the end. Like Hunters, it has high quality ensemble acting, and is both informative and entertaining.
In 1940, Charles Lindbergh was the spokesperson of the America First movement (think: Trump), which was non-interventionist and strongly critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire to provide military aid to European nations facing Germany’s expansionist aggression. Lindbergh became a national hero in 1927 when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the monoplane dubbed The Spirit of St.Louis. He won a medal of honor and revolutionized commercial flights; he received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan upon his return from Paris. Many Jews regarded him as a Nazi sympathizer (in 1938 Hermann Goering awarded him a medal, Order of the German Eagle, just a couple of weeks before Kristallnacht). But was he evil?
Engaging the masses directly, in a Reader’s Digest article in 1939, just as WWII was getting going, Lindbergh wrote:
We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.
So we put up a wabbit-pwoof fence awound owwa democwacy, as Lili would say. She had to; Lady Liberty was getting exhausted servicing all the money-on-the-barrel requests from foreign riff-raff trying to get in, said Lindbergh, from a spirited honky-tonk in St. Louis.
The Plot Against America is a work of what we call today “creative nonfiction.” The novel tells the story from the Roth family view as Lindbergh rises to fame. Philip himself is the book’s narrator, but in the tv series young Philip is relegated to mere mortal narratee status. It’s as if Roth, in his waning years of creative productivity, worried about the future for his children and the country and penned this allegorical dystopia. The specific inspiration for the story came from Roth’s parsing of an as yet unpublished memoir by Arthur Schlesinger in which he cited Republicans pushing for Lindbergh to run against FDR. This must have chilled Roth, given what he knew about the history of bigotry in America.
In the HBO series, John Turturro’s role as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is central to understanding the dynamics at work in the story. American Jews, in the lead up to the 1940 presidential election, have yet to hear much more than rumors about the Nazis sending people to death camps, but the incendiary rhetoric is there, and Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 had alerted the world of the Rough Blonde Beast slouching toward civilization. The good rabbi is a pacifist who initially celebrates Lindbergh’s call of non-intervention in Europe. Pacifism has deep roots in America, going back even to the Civil War, and more often than not, citizens have had to be conned, duped or drafted into going to war.
In some ways, the series lays out the heartbreak of the well-meaning rabbi and “the broken mirror of innocence,” as Bobby Dylan sings, that reveals the blind spots in his self-reflection that lead him to being an inadvertent and leading moral spokesperson for the Nazi regime. (Lindbergh had been highly criticized by American Jewry for not returning Goering’s medal following Kristallnacht, as it sent a message of appeasement.) Invited to President Lindbergh’s White House dinner in honor of the Nazi ambassador, Lionel ignores the swastika flag draped next to the American flag, the talk of close cooperation (even as Europe is being terrorized), and tolerates Henry Ford’s nasty anti-semitic insults at the shindig. It’s a classical tragedy, in that it leads to the fall of the Bengelsdorf family from power and grace. My hamartia hankies were sopping wet; catharsis was achieved.
When Lindbergh referenced, in his Readers Digest piece, the preservation of our inherited “European blood: and how Americans must guard against its “dilution by foreign races,” it resonated with the tropes and themes expressed in such social darwinistic tomes as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by Madison Grant, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy. Early in his tenure at Columbia University cultural anthropologist Franz Boas was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation by these ‘inferior’ lower cranials to back Grant’s thesis. But, instead, Boas rejected such notions, and cultural relativism was born.
In his rise to power, Hitler expressed admiration for America’s vision of racial segregation and Jim Crow policies, and Nazis were said to have been influenced in their concentration camp designs by the American Indian reservation system. With slavery as a legacy and disenfranchisement as a rule, white Americans were already living high off the Jim Crow hog. It was a feedback loopy thing between American elites and the Nazis.
According to Ira Katznelson in his review of James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, It’s a “stubborn fact that during the 1933–45 period of the Third Reich, roughly half of the Democratic Party’s members in Congress represented Jim Crow states, and neither major party sought to curtail the race laws so admired by German lawyers and judges.” Even if Boas, a German immigrant, disappointed Congressmen in failing to find a scientific basis for racism, politics picked up the slack, and Americans, by and large, are Good Germans in a pinch.
It’s difficult to choose which of the two series is the more effective in getting its message across. Operation Paperclip never should have been allowed to happen; Nazis (war criminals) were invited into America and provided gift-wrapped middle class lifestyles (i.e., the American Dream) without the knowledge or consent of the public. There’s no way an elderly survivor of the Holocaust should experience the trauma of standing in a grocery line one day in Manhattan, only to look up and see the Commandant who tattooed her fondling an eggplant in front of her. We blamed the Russkies; they woulda got ‘em, if we didn’t. But you could argue, instead, for a Tarrantino ending, such as that depicted in Inglorious Basterds, another alternate history. Indeed, the Hunters are just that — inglorious basterds forced by their government’s evil to become vigilantes to right the wrong. Luckily, we have the likes of Simon Wiesenthal to rescue us from our deeper throes of vengeance, and this Good Cop Bad Cop question is handled deftly in the series.
Both series are powerfully presented and timely — especially in a land prone to populist hucksterism and filled with conspiracy theorists (how could it be otherwise in a democracy, amplified by so-called Deep State shenanigans, like unreported Operation Paperclip and almost unreported STELLARWIND?). While both series are entertaining, as a result of fielding top-flight acting ensembles, their real value is placing before the viewer an undeniable plausibility that Hannah Arendt wasn’t just talking shit: Evil really is so banal as to require constant vigilance against the vigilantes that lay in wait deep in the dixie hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike. We don’t call our electoral choices the Lesser of Two Evils for nothing.
As Nietzsche might have said, when we are fighting Golems, we need to be careful that we don’t become Golems ourselves.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (2019)
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
- The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus,” (1967)
Dot-Dash. Here-Gone. Off-On. In-Out/Out-In. One-Zero. 2B or 2B. Being and Nothingness. At the same time. Anal-Digi-Quanthump. The Dot Com lowers the boom. Fuck me, if I can follow; I need help. Is this AA; am I in the right place? It makes me think of what Eddie Snowden said last year in his illegal memoir, Isn’t “journalism about following the bread crumbs and connecting the dots? What else did reporters do all day, besides tweet?” (About the president’s tweets.)
They could start with the dot. A little dot’ll do ya. You, me, her. Them, especially Them. Connect the dots, degrees-of-separation style. Think of us all as synonyms and antonyms (fer me or agin me) and how definitions change, depending on who’s calling the narrative shots. Plug a word into the Visual Thesaurus (try Friend) and see what happens. Like Snowden wrote in Permanent Record,
We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is
true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our
collected records might have an eternal existence.
It’s hard to get your head around — digitals dots of electromagnetic self, jittery particulates of consciousness, arrayed someWhere, forever. And the closer we get to total online hivemindedness (the Internet as a need), the closer we get to the self-conscious extinction of our species.
This all sounds hokey and hoochy and maybe even a little hallucinogenic. But think about it, reader. Recently, I was reading (and reviewing) a book on consciousness by Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, wherein he leads the reader toward a vision not-so-splendid:
[Integrated Information Theory] predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
Scary, true stuff in theory. But here’s the big question, as it approaches: Who’s in charge? Time to re-read your dogma-eared copy of The Portable Marx.
We need sure-footed sherpas for the Himalayas of heaped-up shit ahead. And that’s what Bart Gellman proposes to be in his new book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State. Who’s in charge? The worry is built right into the title. We live now in a world divided by a pane of tinted glass behind which unseeable (but sensed) protectors of our Way of Life (whatever that means this week), without our permission, watch and store all of our activity — Internet and Mobile — as if we were little more than data points requiring constant scrutiny for signs of terrorism, -vertently or in-, and every dot-person we connect to will go into a special database when we visit Counterpunch magazine. (Too late, buy your buds a Bud and sheepishly apologize. They’ll smile, with revelations of their own, raising the ante: Hustler. Douché! now you’re in the Raunch database.)
Another question that comes up while reading Gellman’s book is the question of why the book now? Sad to say, it’s almost nine years since Snowden spilled the beans on what the Bastards are up to, and while his brilliant memoir last year served to plump up a thinking man’s pillow to sleep on, nobody seems to give a shit any more, again — a default position, it seems, in the postmod age. But Gellman seems unquieted by such indifference and is providing a long-overdue, and welcome, account of what makes Snowden run — from the point of view of a self-described mainstream journalist (he’s ‘free’ now, after many years at WaPo, where darkness has fallen on democracy).
I found it quite valuable for him to page-perform the political pressures and legal issues an MSMer was up against as he worked alone, and with journalistic rogues and renegades, such as Laura Poitrast, Glenn Greenwald, and even Julian Assange. Maybe Gellman was inspired by the film, Official Secrets, which features the hand-wringing of journos at the Observer in London as they report on a whistleblower’s leak (Katherine Gunn) proving the NSA’s attempts to get the GCHQ to extract kompromat from members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the vote on going to war with Iraq.
It’s good to know what struggles some newsroom journos go through to report on abuses by our elected political governors. If nothing else, such a struggle is unexpectedly uplifting to witness in an era when reporters are often likened to stenographers. The film played out the dramatic tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy, ostensibly in order to protect its citizens from harm, which is what Gellman is interested in examining when he looks back at his meetings with Edward Snowden in 2013 and thereafter.
A key moment in all this wonderment came in 2004, just before the November presidential election. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote a blockbuster piece on mass surveillance in America for the New York Times that their Editorial Editor, Bill Keller, quashed, expressing, according to Risen later, a desire to avoid being an October Surprise for the upcoming election. Risen knocked back Keller’s argument, writing in the Intercept, “I pointed out that if he decided not to run the story before the election, that would also have an impact, but he seemed to ignore my comment.” Mass surveillance is not the same as some pol’s unwanted hand down a woman’s panties — revealed just before the election — it’s potentially a clear and present danger to democratic values; voters should’ve been allowed to factor in Bush’s surveillance.
In the piece, finally published in the Times more than a year later, in 2005, and only after Risen had informed them that he would be including the story in his upcoming book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Ris and Lichtblau describe how the Bush administration,
Under four collection programs overseen by Vice President Cheney, the NSA and FBI began wide-ranging surveillance of internet and telephone communications within the United States.
It was unknown to the public; they had no idea that a secret program, known as STELLARWIND, existed, and that Bush authorized the comprehensive collection of all American communications without any kind of warrant, and with the full cooperation of telephone and internet providers.
The program raises many questions, among them, “Are citizens equipped to hold their government accountable?” writes Gellman. And, Risen adds that, sadly for democracy, the decision to exclude the piece may have come as a result of the personal friendship between NSA Director Michael Hayden and Philip Taubman, associate editor for national security issues at the Times: “Keller now says that Taubman’s relationship with Hayden played an important role in the decision to not run the story.” The NSA (Michael Hayden) and FBI (Robert Mueller) were in on this illegal activity. Snowden, Risen and Gellman all point out that this information on STELLARWIND would have come nine years before Snowden’s revelations, and, all agree, that the story’s suppression affected his later decision on how to publicize the information.
An unhappy Risen recalls that “the impact of the story was immediate and explosive. George W. Bush was forced to confirm the existence of the program, even as he called the leak of information about it a ‘shameful act.’” Federal agents were unleashed to hunt down the hoodoo everythere. Congress was professionally “outraged” that the Bush administration would have the chutzzies to hide such a program; they called investigations (later, they helped pass legislation that retroactively legalized Bush’s executive order and passed immunity to the telecoms for their role in the extra-constitutional activity). Bush justified his “terrorist surveillance program,” using Unitary Executive theory as his basis.
Turns out, it would have been a critical issue in the presidential campaign. As Snowden put it, “Had that article run when it was originally written, it might well have changed the course of the 2004 election.” (Hurts even more, when you consider that Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, shows that John Kerry was robbed of the presidency by vote manipulation.)
This is a lot of cyber ink spilled on the failings of the New York Times in October 2004 and Snowden’s revelations later — a long time ago — “but Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, or not only that,” writes Gellman. “It is a tour of the surveillance state that rose up after September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government came to believe it could not spy on enemies without turning its gaze on Americans as well.” He adds, “At its core this is a book about power.”
Gellman first heard of Snowden through independent filmmaker Laura Poitrast. He writes that “three days before Christmas 2010, she turned up unannounced at my office, just off Washington Square.” He had admired her film, My Country, My Country, which traced the failed attempt to install democracy under U.S. occupation in Iraq. She would later go on to win an Oscar for the documentary of her 2013 encounter with Snowden in Hong Kong, called CitizenFour.
Beginning in 2013, they began working together to determine whether a contact reaching out to them, and his alleged cache of top secret documents, were legitimate. He went by the name “Verax,” Latin for speaker of truth. Early on Gellman wonders,
Was her source the whistleblower he claimed to be? A fabricator who used public records to feign inside knowledge? A real intelligence analyst peddling fake intrigue? A half-informed official who misread something benign?
Gellman and Snowden didn’t hit it off right away, as Snowden was mistrustful of his MSM credentials, which he felt would lead to journalistic compromise and leave Snowden stranded with his story not properly told to the public (making a return to America impossible without facing Espionage charges.) Snowden wants to work with adversarial “voices.”
Gellman mentions how Snowden had been reaching out to Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald. “Months of effort, however, had failed to elicit a reply from Greenwald,” writes Gellman, “who disregarded emails from Verax and a how-to video on encryption.” Thus begins Gellman’s ambivalence towards the personality that Greenwald is, in his militant advocacy for Constitutional integrity in government and his concomitant commitment to in-your-face spotlighting of congressional and presidential abuses.
It’s an amusing tension returned to several times. Greenwald has been especially effective highlighting the abuse of the pocket-writs called executive orders that Greenwald warned, before Trump arrived, could be catastrophic in the wrong exec’s hands. Uh-oh. But for all his genius, Gellman doesn’t seem to like Greenwald. He seems to be a bit of Luddite, slow to adopt encryption, and, Gellman thinks, a bit of a backstabber and a primadonald. It helps the reader to see such friction between two prize-winning journalists.
Gellman is not especially fond of Snowden when he meets him either. He’s been informed of Snowden’s personality from reading old forum posts Snowden made as TheTrueHOOHA on the Ars Technica website. He reads: “blended show-offy erudition, teenage irony, righteous anger, generous advice, and orthodox libertarian bromides.” And even reading Snowden’s memoir you can feel elements of that sort of vibe coming from Snowden. But there’s more to Snowden than Gellman seems to suggest, perhaps he’s nodding to the need to seem balanced.
For one thing, Snowden has a devilish sense of humor. Gellman misses out on some of the revealing anecdotal information Snowden offers up in his memoir. Snowden comes from Mayflower stock; his forebears fought in the Revolutionary Wars, and afterward “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing
their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” Gellman fails to consider the place of that sale or government “expropriation” (Snowden suggests), and how that legacy might have informed his whistleblowing when he sees the Constitution at risk. Gellman seems to miss the supreme irony of knowing that the headquarters of the NSA was built right there where that slave plantation used to be. Pass the fuckin’ bong.
As egregious a violation of the Bill of Rights that the NSA’s STELLARWIND program was, using sneaky backdoor tactics to get around the limits imposed by their agency mandate (“incidentally” gathering up the data of Americans in their cyber trawls of potential foreign “enemies” numbering in the millions), another program, PRISM, went even further, and gives the lie to alibi that such trawls are anything but criminal and totalitarian in intention. Gellman writes,
In film and fiction, the NSA mostly listened in on telephone calls. PRISM had capabilities far beyond that…NSA analysts could not only review stored account information but also dial in and record live “audio, video, chat, and file transfers.” Analysts could ask for instant notifications when their targets logged on to Hotmail or AOL or Yahoo Messenger.
And with keystroke exploits thrown in, “They can literally watch your thoughts form as you type,” Snowden told Gellman.
Ultimately, as Gellman alluded to earlier, it’s all about the power. In his chompy sit-down interviews with the likes of Michael Hayden and James Clapper, and other apologists for benign totalitarianism, Gellman makes it clear that these men see no room for oversight, and can’t or won’t comprehend the ethical and constitutional limitations to what they are doing. They just want us to trust them and narrow-visioned patriotism. This turned Snowden off to a career of public service (in which he was following in the footsteps of his deep state parents). In his memoir, he describes his in-office participation in LOVEINT —
in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.
If you’re sensitive and thoughtful, and still can’t trust yourself around such technology, then who can you trust?
Well, ultimately, Gellman and Snowden don’t trust and reject the power argument — that because we have such technology at our disposal we must use it, the capability of knowing what everybody’s up to (except the Bastards in power, of course). We see the Brennans, Clappers, Haydens, Bushes, Obamas and Trumps just lie about their excesses. They conjure up a world of enemies — for the sake of using dreadful technology without concern for privacy or democracy. A fascist drift into a world of dystopian psychotronic nightmares ruled by algorithmically-generated tailored gargoyles intent on turning us into things. Dots. And ultimately, Dots. Right inside our heads.
The dream is over
What can I say?
– John Lennon, “God” (1970)
A few decades ago Bob Dylan took Joyce Carol Oates for a ride and she almost never came back, but when she did she dedicated a creepy short story to him, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” A girlygazer past his prime (i.e., over 30) pretends to be of teenage vintage to lure a pretty waywarder into his vehicle, there’s resistance, at first, then one day … see story title.
Recently, I came across a scene from Hearts of Fire, a Dylan vehicle that crashes out in Hank Williams country, where the doggone rivers are dry, and sees him, with guitar, stealing in on a young lass sleeping among hay roostin’ hens in a barn, where he proceeds to serenade her, Milli-Vanilli style, with “Couple More Years” (a line straight from JC’s story!), with a girlygazer-past-his-prime song that lures her into going for a short ride down a long Life. (Spoiler Alert!) They say the director never worked in Hollywood again. And it made you wonder about Dylan’s road experiences, the Endless Tour, the needle in search of new hay. And, I thought, what did JC Oates know, and when did she know it?
It seems like aeons, now, since I turned on the car radio and heard the opening lines of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”: Well, I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again. Joan hearing Bob’s voice on the telephone from “a couple of light years ago.” Ten years, she said. So, a light year back then was 5 years, I’m thinking. (An aeon, if you’re keeping track, is 10 of those Baez light years.) Madonna was laying into Bob for his “obscurity” and “keeping things vague” and being “nostalgic” and something about the time the cufflinks broke. Damn, that was one basted lamb of a song. But Dylan keeps coming back, like Bill Halley’s comet, a shooting star that just won’t burn out. A recurring eternalist. A not-so-leitmotif. A needle in my haystack I stopped looking for ages ago.
I stopped regularly following Dylan’s work after Time Out of Mind (1997), for which I wrote a review, praising his “wizened if not wiser ways” and enjoying Alan Ginsburg’s nomination of Bob for the Nobel prize (he would eventually win in 2016). But I was seriously bummed out by a couple of dangerously depressing lyrics from “Trying To Get To Heaven”:
When you think that you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems.
And, teary-eyed, I listened to Dylan sing in “Highlands,” my favorite song on the album:
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
Well, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.
Even a true, diehard Dylan fan, like moi, can only take so much 12-string homesickness for eternity, and I had to give up Dylan for years to find a way to cope with the picture of the world he painted (and probably plagiarized, too).
Like everyone else, I barely noticed when Love and Theft was released on the day the towers fell in NYC. And Tempest, inexplicably released on 9/11 (2012), left me unimpressed; the picture Dylan himself conjured up of sitting there watching James Cameron’s Titanic and him writing the title song, a limp last waltz with the ship’s band, with no mention of a causal iceberg, the onboard battle between the 1% and the 99, and me wondering why the reference to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Did I miss something?
Now, it’s eight years later, a Baez light-year or so ago, since his last studio album (the ones with the ‘messages’ and themes), and here it is, we’ll be damned, Rough and Rowdy Ways. He baited us for a couple of months, releasing singles off the album, luring us in for a ride. The album comes after the Impeachment failed and Covid-19 muscled in on the culture while everyone was busy watching the Super Bowl (no Bob Lite ads this year). Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has stopped, maybe permanently; it may be years before crowds can gather, masked and anonymous, in significant numbers to enjoy his gloom.
When “Murder Most Foul,” at almost 17 minutes, his longest song since “Highlands,” was released at the end of March, I went apeshit, I thought it was so bad, and had to be sedated with Enya shots. I literally nominated the song for an Ignobel Award (bad forensic science), writing, in part, “Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack,” his worst voice since that one-off falsebasso thing he did with “Lay Lady Lay,” that was incomprehensibly popular, Johnny Cash inviting him to Nashville for some country chart pie, oh, me-oh-my.
The lyrics! “Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” (Was he supposed to get out of the car? Who shoots dogs at all?) “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” (So, he was watching The Irishman when he wrote the song? And only watching it to see how Scorsese portrayed his song “Joey.”) “The day they blew out the brains of the king.” (Yo, heads up, we’ve been a democracy since we told the Royals to stuff their taxes.) And “I’m goin’ to Woodstock.” (No, you’re not, and a lot of hippies were pissed off about it, too.) “Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage.” (What the fuck for? Angry bikers are on the prowl.) Damn.
Well, Rough and Rowdy Ways is with us now, months after the single’s teases, and, frankly, it’s an outstanding album. It seems to start out where Time Out of Mind and “Highlands” left off. It’s dark and bluesy and full of intrigue. The Ghost of Memory, who has “less and less to say,” and who flirts with a Boston waitress on his way to the Highlands is that much further along on his long career’s journey into night. The cover art of Rough and Rowdy Ways resembles the dancing figures of Oh Mercy, but, now, much darker and retro, like the album’s road trip.
Covid-19 has stopped his touring, which may or may not be a good thing for him (and us). I think of him as The Wandering Jew, who snarked at Christ on his way to Calvary and was condemned to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, but then not again maybe Christ misunderstood his obscure meaning. So existentially dissociated, he’s a spook in his own life, without anchor or compass, and where he notes, in “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” that “I’ve traveled a long road of despair / I’ve met no other traveler there.” Dylan’s moving through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, down Blake’s road of excess toward wisdom, and he’s crossed the Rubicon into the Inferno, and “abandoned all hope.” What more does a girl want? Get in the car.
Keeping with the Dante-esque excursion into the licking flames of his private hell he trudges on, picking up Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, “My fleet-footed guides from the underworld,” and moving to a slow baion rhythm past the weigh stations of the double-cross and forever-loss, the album vaguely resembling the 9 plus 1 structure of the Divine Comedy. from the afterwordly consciousness of Others that he wakes to in “I Contain Multitudes,” on through a kind of purgatory where he burns off the accrued effects of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and “Three miles north of purgatory,” he’s crossing the Rubicon, not coming back, one step away from the all-consum(er)ing paradise of Key West — but also, one time home of Ponce de León, who sought the Fountain of Youth — and some semblance of the Ideal Feminine.
“I Contain Multitudes” showers the listener with vintage Dylan lines that are at once playful, evocative and which sometimes resonate with something you can’t quite put your finger on. “Multitudes” contains threats of violence, which becomes a sustained theme throughout the 2-CD set. The poet sings,
Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
The Tell-Tale Heart is about tension that must break at any moment, but, when it does, you wish it hadn’t, for the horror it reveals.
Surprising lyrics in the song that seem to want to fuck with you, reveal that Dylan still has some spunkaneity in him. He sings,
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones
Reader-response theory being what it is, each of us performing paged words differently, when I think of Anne Frank, I think of her recently discovered sex-saucy comments on Wehrmacht women wearing mattresses on their backs (and, also like Dylan, she liked to hide in the attic). Like Indiana Jones, around every corner Dylan faces a tiresome (s)word-wielding critic that he must dispose of with ennui. And like the British Bad Boys, he shares a common musical mentor in Muddy Waters, who wrote “Rollin’ Stone.”
To fend off women (presumably wearing Kill Bill eye-patches) who may come back at him in his dreamy travels, the poet sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives,” and ends the song with the provocative image of a ménage à trois: “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Who’s fucking whom, and in what order, seems to be the only question left.
The early release of “False Prophet” featured cover art that depicts a skeleton, holding an antique syringe filled with pink liquid, staring out at us, as if to ask ‘are you ready?’; the shadow behind him depicts a hanged man, suggesting that the skeleton used to be a crim back in his biology days. His body language seems to mimic the beat of the song, which features a rhythmic riff-off of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” An alert that Dylan means to be playful. It’s a great song.
“False Prophet” seems to suggest (you can’t really be sure with the vague-keeping Dylan) what he’s doing time in the hellish hoosegow for — false prophesying. The poet sings, “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in,” and fucked him over, essentially. Who can’t relate to that sentiment? (In that sense, all of us, including Dante, contain multitudes.) Then he hits us with what might be the quintessential truth of his career:
Enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
At heart, he’s Zimmerman, not Zarathustra, although, when you think about it, he’s Zarathustra, too. Enemy of the unlived meaningless life, Socrates and Dylan in a nutshell, but the latter sans hemlock. Maybe Socrates should have taken up the lyre.
In “My Own Version of You,” continuing the slow blues beat, Dylan goes from a consideration of the passive aggressive social milieu he’s been forced to live amongst, masked and alias-ly, to mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein who sings,
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
Seems like a comment on both the Age we live in, moving toward the Singularity, and a personal reflection on the Feminine Ideal; if he can’t find what he’s looking for in nature, he’ll make do with a composite, a jigsaw of all the women who have ever puzzled him.
The mad poet thinks that if he uses his creative energies he will “be saved by the creature that I create.” But it’s a dicey proposition. He says he’ll take “the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando,” as if he were at a CRISPR machine splicing some roles. It’s an evil place he’s in, where “the enemies of mankind,” Freud and Marx, are engulfed in flames, and he imagines “the raw hide lash rip the skin from their backs.” It’s a nasty place: “Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife / Gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” The music plods on and on, and he wonders, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me, please?” Dark shit, man.
Beginning with the sixth song, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the tone and rhythm starts to change, and things lighten up. Jimmy Reed was an old time guitar and harmonica bluesman from Mississippi known for his accessibility, who spent time as a busker, and ended up on shift work at a meat packing facility, while white men, like Dylan, got rich off his Black-and-blues. You can hear Reed in a lot of early Dylan, and here, in Rough and Rowdy Ways, one can hear the beat of “Bright Lights, Big City” and the now-taboo humor of “I’m Going Upside Your Head.” Dylan’s paying homage; shedding off ‘one more layer of skin,’ striving and shriving on his way to ‘Beatrice’.
In “Mother of Muses,” an appropriate follow-on, he’s almost there. About to cross the last line into the last realm. Echoing sentiments expressed in previous albums, such as “I can’t believe it / I can’t believe I’m alive” from the song “Where Are You Tonight?” off Street Legal, Dylan begins with the final realization many critics have been waiting for: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” In his youth, he was just Watching the River Flow through his mind, Heraclitean, a river of multitudes, where, the poet sings, “I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in.” He’s ready to lie down next to the river now, and have himself a final dream, a door he’ll conjure up, to the other side, the final set of 9 plus 1 circles of paradise (so, maybe he’s got another album in him). Here he comes, Mama: “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home,” leaving behind the material world, like the good Tibetan Book of the Dead says we must.
Then it’s on to the album’s Paradise, the ‘nostalgic’ “Key West,” book now. Artist colony, citywide museum, purveyor of fast foods (you know the ones, you know exactly the ones), and home of the Hemingway Code: grace under pressure. (Except for a couple of albums I needn’t mention.) That’s Dylan, too. And Caribbean Wind. And some Sara’s probably down there, too, in her late stage bikini, waiting to draw him into another disillusion, much to our delight. If you lose your mind, you will find it there, the poet sings. Well, maybe, but I can’t afford the rates there, so I’ll have to take his word for it. In fact, Bob, it’s because I can’t afford the rates that I lost my mind (oops, TMI).
Except for “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded so smooth, polished and uncroakin’ in a long time, maybe the result of precision engineering, or restraint, or both. And, incidentally, when I reconsidered “Murder Most Foul” (briefly), the song evoked, for me, American Graffitti, a film that features DJ Wolfman Jack, and the platters he spun, and recalling an era of contradictions and lies about the American Dream, and serving to remind us all that Dylan has been around since Ike warned us to beware the Military Industrial Complex. My whole life Dylan has been hoarsely whispering in my ear, beware, beware. Except when he was cashing in.
Who knows where Rough and Rowdy Ways fits into his catalogue. It’s his 39th album (his 39th lash?), and probably as good as anything he’s produced in awhile (it depends on how you look at it), but I wouldn’t want to move his albums around in a hierarchy — it would be too much like fucking around with a Rubik’s Cube. Who needs the frustration or self-administered take-down of intelligence? Certainly, the album comes at a time of preoccupation with disease and death that the Pandemic has brought and when the crisis of American democracy smells of collapse. You worry when you read that the Wandering Jew was condemned to do the Johnny Walker until the onset of Christ’s return — i.e., the Apocalypse promised in Revelations — and now he’s stopped wandering.
But as we’ve all learned over the decades, it’s senseless to read too deeply into Dylan’s oeuvre — probably you’re projecting and exposing yourself to well-founded ridicule, like that moron in that famous 1962 interview who seemed to mistake Dylan for Barry McGuire (a Dylan imitator) and asked him to explain the deep meaning of “Eve of Destruction.” It’s an instructive interview, glaringly exposing what the Poor Bastard has been up against all these years, squeezed between the Press that wants to hold him accountable and the People who want him to save them. No wonder he ended up referring to himself as “a song and dance man.” (Check it out: it’s unbelievable.) Next to Lennon, no Pop Icon has ever had to put up with such sustained blatherscheissen.
The poet once sang, “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long / I can’t remember what it’s like.” With Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be one step closer to Beyond. One day, probably soon, we’ll pick up the paper and read the obituary the Times has had on file and ready for many years. Thanks, Bob, for a lifetime of contradictions, insight-ments, and the strange solace, along the way, of emotional validation.
by John Kendall Hawkins
Once a bull hit me across the bridge of my nose and I felt like I was coming apart like a cigarette floating in a urinal. They can hit you on the head and bust your shoes.
- Ralph Ellison, “Hymie’s Bull,” (1938)
On the evening of August 1, 1943, after breaking bread and pulling corks, talking folklore, jazz and blues, with New Yorker critic Stanley Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson in their Queens apartment, up-and-coming writer Ralph Ellison said goodnight to them and took the train home to Harlem. When he emerged at 137th Street, he walked right into a raging race riot. Fires, massive looting, chaos.
It had begun in the lobby of a hotel, when a Black woman “improbably named Polite” got into a violent tiff with a white cop, and, when a Black soldier intervened, the cop shot him. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, “Margie Polite ran into the street screaming that a white cop had killed a black man. Harlem exploded.” Five people died, hundreds were injured, 500 were arrested. The scene inspired artwork, Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son, and was seared indelibly into Ellison’s consciousness. A day later, Ellison was called on by the New York Post to cover the event. He observed, wrote Rampersad, that “it was the poorer element’s way of blowing off steam.” Other surrealist details of dissociation and mayhem followed.
Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had landed a position teaching Folklore at the exclusive womens college there. He quickly became a popular professor (no doubt garnering girly titters as soon he wrote his name on the chalkboard), and hosted many parties at his home. Often while the more taciturn Shirley retired early for the night. Hyman was known for his wit, directness, and honesty. Ellison stayed with the couple for a few months and worked on the story “Flying Home” (Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote that Hyman virtually forced Ellison to write the story on the spot) — and the future classic novel of the Black experience in America, Invisible Man. Folklore and music bound Hyman and Ellison together, as well as the common experience of alienation in WASP America (he was Jewish), and Hyman became his trusted penpal and a valued literary advisor throughout his career.
There’s extraordinary dramatic tension and a guiding truth combusting about in the paragraphs above — clear signs of an intense and productive relationship between powerful personages of letters, Hyman and Ellison, and to a lesser extent Jackson — that would have provided a dynamic beginning to the recently released film, Shirley, the so-called biopic of writer, Shirley Jackson, author of the highly controversial tale, “The Lottery.” The movie might have started with the riot (or the railroad Jew being clubbed by “bulls”), but the film production team, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins chose a well-trod path, and it definitely made a difference. But not in a good way.
Instead, they produced a script from a ‘creative non-fiction’(CNF) book with the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell, which gave the viewer an almost farfetched sex scene in the first two minutes of the film. Merrell’s CNF tale means she gave herself the liberty to expand on factually-inspired information regarding Jackson’s time living in Bennington as a faculty wife to Stanley Hyman. The most important poetic license Merrell takes is the installation of a young married fictional couple, Rose and Fred, on their way to Bennington to begin a faculty career and temporarily reside with Stanley and Shirley, while they seek their own apartment. The book is told from the point-of-view of 19 year old Rose (Odessa Young), a pregnant, seemingly naive and ordinary person who comes under the spell of Shirley, who is largely depicted as an intelligent, empathetic woman struggling with her writing.
But Merrell’s tale, apparently with her consent, was wildly reconfigured, and, the Rose that rides on the train with Fred (Logan Lerman) toward Bennington in the film is radically different than the Rose who begins her narration in the book: A nice anticipatory train ride to a New England town becomes, in the film, crude. Rose is seen reading the New Yorker edition (June 1948) that contains Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and we watch as her expression becomes ever more delighted at what she’s reading, odd in itself. She finishes and commences a brief exchange with Fred about her reading:
Rose: They stone her to death.
Fred: Are you reading the Shirley story?
Rose: The whole town — even her own children — they all stoned her.
Fred: That’s creepy.
Rose: That’s terrific. (smiles)
A moment later, Rose wants to get her rocks off after reading the story and is moving her hand to Fred’s inner thigh, until they both head back-train and join the Mile Long Club (D = R*T). In the first minute of the film?
Then they get off the train, move through town on foot, pass some boys tossing stones in an alley — one of them wearing an eye patch (which I thought funny) — and then arrive at the Hyman house, in party mode, and pass among others — (spoiler alert!!) Ralph Ellison and his attractive partner. Ellison is shown for 4 seconds. In the whole movie. The first thing I wondered is how the actor playing him, Edward O’Blenis, a breakdancer from the Bronx, would want the credit he’s given at IMDB. 4 seconds? Then, poof, he’s the invisible man again.
It gets worse. Aside from putting the climax at the beginning of the movie, Merrell went along (presumably) with Gubbins’s plan to amp up Shirley’s psychological profile. What is a somewhat eccentric, occasionally snobby, struggling writer, with four kids, in the book, is turned into a kind of childless monster or psychopath undergoing some kind of disturbed withdrawal — until Rose arrives. In fact, Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley come across as a Michael Haneke-inspired couple who like to play with their guests — either of them ruining a breezy conversation at the table with an intentionally barbed and poisonous take-down comment, just to see the reaction of the target. Elizabeth Moss’s Shirley expression, afterward, looking like an impression of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (from Killing Eve). Speaking of poetic license. At one point, Shirley enquires of Rose at dinner, in front of Fred, if she’d told him she was pregnant before wedding him.
Fred and Rose arrive at a time when Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington student, has gone missing — posters are on trees, there is talk, and Rose, being drawn closer to the mystery that is Shirley, begins to suspect the couple’s involvement in foul play. In the book, Shirley humorously calls herself a witch (her acerbic ways and fiction about horror have put people off); she’s into Tarot, mushrooms, herbs, folklore.
But in the film, she pulls Rose in. She performs a Tarot reading and slaps down three Hanged Man cards in a row; her eyes chill as she gazes at Rose. The latter freaked out by the ‘reading’, and innocently unaware that Tarot decks have only one Hanged Man card, one of the most potent cards in the deck; Shirley is playing Rose and doesn’t tell her what the array means (Nothing) as she continues to hold her wonder. Is she a psycho or a psychic, or both? Shirley plays bonding games, pretending to eat a ‘poisonous’ mushroom to fuck with Rose. They go on a walk in the woods to where the Welden girl was last seen alive and the director fucks with us — Rose and Shirley standing at a cliff’s edge (Shirley holding Rose’s baby), then Rose is gone, then suddenly Shirley’s waking from a dream. She didn’t kill Rose, but we wonder why she’s dreaming of it.
Shirley is not only dreaming of abduction and murder, but writing about it in a new novel. Her struggle with words over, since Rose arrived, like fresh hot blood not felt coursing through her system since, well, the Welden girl disappeared; she rises from her emotional coffin. More games from the director, as Stanley and Shirley seemingly plot the demise of the young couple, including a reference to Macbeth. Stanley asks, now that Shirley is into full time writing again, what will become of Rose? Shirley replies, “What becomes of all wayward girls; they go mad.” And he, taking her advice for Fred — to “give him enough rope to hang himself” (The Hanged Man) — builds up Fred’s hopes for a tenure hire, praising his dissertation, only to intentionally crush him with a savage dinner table attack on Fred’s total lack of “originality” out of nowhere.
It’s at this stage that I stopped caring about what the film was trying to achieve, and I began to ponder again the whole notion of CNF. Stanley is teaching Bennington students at the cusp of curricular change from Canon Great Man-driven works to the postmodern pluralism and relative values. Turns out, there’s more to time’s events than the Mighty Whitey’s control of the historical narrative would imply. Stanley’s posture represents a defense of the Canon, the Old Guard, rejecting the upstart relativism that would overturn the monied tables of the Ivory Tower. And it’s Freudian to boot. Stanley’s is a brief fury, dishonest, and absolutely signifying nothing more than his pathology. As he teaches something as twee as Folklore — and praises the virtues of jazz at his lectures — it doesn’t make sense that he’d defend the primacy of Originality against Derivation, when the universal application of the latter — archetypes, intertextuality — are what he lectures on.
Shirley director Decker totally threw away an opportunity — to be relevant. CNF is a gift from the postmodern Gauds, but she and the writers fell back on old tropes and worn out storytelling. CNF is supposed to help get you where fiction or fact-ion alone is not always quite adequate for the narration; perhaps a little more Dionysian sizzle sauce needs to be added to the Apollonian stir-fry, such as with Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.
Even given the obvious fact that filmmaking tells the same story differently, Decker and company left so many opportunities by the wayside to make this film a deeper, more intelligent film about deep, intelligent people. Stanley and Shirley, in real life, represented a mature literary lifestyle, including its critical appraisal, but that’s all absent in Shirley. The film’s not really about Jackson at all. Frankly, as a biopic, the story borders on slander. It vaguely reminds me of the so-called “journalistic” promises of Zero Dark Thirty that, nevertheless, felt it necessary to include scenes with superstitious omens.
Consider some simple enhancements of fact that might have made Shirley a better film. How could Gubbins and Decker not make the town a character? Although they include the Welden disappearance in order to implicitly demonize Stanley and Shirley, they leave out the reality that between 1945 and 1950 five people went missing from the Bennington area, and it became known as “The Bennington Triangle.” It was a small town in which the rocky horror show of “The Lottery” is played out. The story that aroused Rose, appalled most people, with its implications of how people can just turn on each other, and led to subscription cancellations and outraged letters to the New Yorker. Why wasn’t this alluded to? And why not mention Shirley’s arch allusion to John 8:7 — “Let he without sin cast the first stone”?
Back to Ralph Ellison. Another enhancement opportunity lost. It would have been fantastic to have included a scene at the dinner table, or in the parlor, where Ralph and Shirley compared and contrasted, over buffalo wings and beer, themes and devices of their similar short stories, “The Lottery” and the “The King of the Bingo Game.” Both involve forms of scapegoating, entranced communities, and beat-down endings, one involving white small town life and the other a sense that Black Lives Don’t Matter, and both horrifically suggesting depravity at the core of humanity. Though Ellison’s piece was published four years before Jackson’s, such a discussion would have been an excellent use of creative non-fiction in the film.
Even feminism was given a miss. Merrell made it an important discussion point in her book, bringing in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to criticize Jackson’s upper crust tips on homemaking in Good Housekeeping articles, but apparently she lacked the cajones to insist on such a discussion in the movie. Again, the era was the late 40s, when feminism was on the cusp, and it would’ve been meet to hear the couples rumble in the jungle of marriage viability after WWII, especially since they placed such value on “honesty.” But also, and perhaps more tenuously, Shirley (“neurosis”) might have been linked to other prominent female suicidal voices at the time — Anne Sexton (“manic-depressive”), Sylvia Plath (“depression”) — the three forming a Suicidal Poets Society.
Similarly, Erich Fromm taught at Bennington when Hyman was there. It might have been enriching to have had had highbrow collegial banter at a Hyman barbecue during which they jovially discussed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and played, say, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. That, too, would have been a fine use of CNF.
Where was the discussion of folklore in more detail and music? All we really get is Stanley Hyman as, according to Rose, a potential monster who may have enabled the disappearance of a Welden girl. In real life, Hyman was a known philanderer who slept with many of his students, according to Ruth Franklin, Shirley’s biographer. Rather than masking him a fake monster, why not, in this age of #MeToo, have played up his actual activities. If it’s good enough to show Harvey Weinstein going through his career with a casting couch on his back, why not show the masks the Folklore instructor wore. Again, great CNF. But Decker and Merrell choose to go with a phony affair with elderly-ing librarian. I don’t think so.
Elizabeth Moss seems to be in the running for an Oscar for her role in the film, and, and as far as that role goes, she did a reasonably good job. But I didn’t come away feeling that I knew the real Shirley Jackson better. I’m reasonably certain she wasn’t a psychopath, for instance. And I don’t believe the tale enhanced her fictional body of work either. I don’t really see it as a biopic, but as a facade, with its biographical innards gutted to make way for riffing. It was like a Halloween mask of Jackson. At times, a silly Americanized version of Igmar Bergman’s Persona.
The bluesy soundtrack wasn’t bad though.
I wouldn’t sleep and I took my mind
Lost all knowledge of time and kind
Been dead ——- 400 years (400 years, 400 years)
Wake up, hey (400 years, 400 years)
– Jimmy Cliff, “I’ve Been Dead 400 Years” (1977)
Peter Tosh has a new re-lease on life. Praise Jah!
It comes in the form of a children’s picture book — of all things! — just laid down next to the apples in the marketplace, simply titled African. The title comes from a Tosh song Equal Rights, his much-listened-to album from the heady ‘70s, rife with rasta music filling our pink Lefty ears with sugar plum fantasies of universal suffrage and equality, presided over, in joy, by His Majesty Haile Selassie, emissary of Jah on this loamy Earth. Pass da spliff, brudda. Forward and fiaca. Menacle and den gosaca.
The colorful book, illustrated by Rachel Moss, is part of the LyricPop series put out by the hip Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. The series includes (or will include) similar translations of songs like Good Vibrations, Respect, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, and my anticipated favorite, Where Is My Mind? the Black Francis cult classic. Recently, they even had Samuel L. Jackson pitch in with some sound quarantine advice in the form of an illustrated poem titled, Stay the F— at Home!
Equal Rights (1977) was a follow-up to Tosh’s debut album the year before, the wildly popular Legalize It, which got him instant fame among the undergraduate activist set in America and into all kinds of legal problems back home. Reportedly he was the “victim” of police brutality, and his title song was banned from Jamaican radio, making it even more popular worldwide. Legalize It is part of the fantastic cornucopia of musical wares teeming from 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Sadly, Tosh died brutally in his own personal 9/11 at home in 1987.
Equal Rights was more in tune with the global vibe at the time to end racism everywhere, arguably, Tosh and Bob Marley leading the way, getting our feet moving to da riddim (sometimes against our will, it seemed). They were engineers on the freedom train that some rastas (and wannabes) argue set in motion, by means of emotion, the collapse of the official Apart-Hate regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.
Marley, Tosh and Jimmy Cliff pulled Jamaicans away from the service sector sounds of calypso (Nudda all-shook-up martini, suh? A Black waiter might have said to a sun-tanning Ian Fleming, who wrote some Bond 007 books there) and invited listeners to reconnect with their African roots. Beginning in 1600, the Spanish conquistadors began enslaving native Arawaks and virtually drove them to extinction with the introduction of European diseases. The Arawaks were replaced by West Africa slaves. And sugar (and rum!) began its sweet rise on the tooth and palate of Empire back in Britain and the American colony to the north, which would see slavery introduced 19 years later. Hello cotton! If not for cotton, there’d a-been no Che t-shirts to resist The Man with in the ‘80s.
Later, because the Mighty Whitey is so festive, and full of deviant ingenuity, the two commodities were combined and we had a go at eating cotton candy at county fairs. (No, just fucking wid ya.) Sugar went on to become the number one hit of all time — just check out the ingredients list of any food product in America today! (No, I’m not fucking wid ya this time.) Sugar was (and is) the oxycontin of the 17th century.
Equal Rights, following on the huge success of the cult film The Harder They Come in indie and university cinemas across America (good luck seeing the film through ganja smoke — fire code, my ass), galvanized and inspired white do-gooders (or wannabes) to fight back against Ronald Reagan’s new Cold War tactics (remember how giddy we got with the Star Wars program?!) and the trickle-down economics that GWH Bush called “voodoo” — incredibly ironical when he lost re-election and Bill Clinton backroom resident evil James Carville taunted him afterward with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And then Carville’s boss proceeded to end welfare as we know it. Anyway, Marley, and Tosh got our feet moving, and that’s half the battle when trying to mobilize the masses. Dylan, song-and-dance man that he is, just can’t get our feet moving.
“African” is a wonderful song, and turning it into an appreciation of the African diaspora, for kids, is a cheeky and spectacular idea. Reinforce the notion early that they are a force to be reckoned with in this often-hallucinatory world. If they hear it enough times in childhood, then they’ll be ready for the attitudes later — Miles Davis: “I’m Black alright, they’ll never let me forget. I’m Black alright, I’ll never let them forget it.” And the cousin track from Sly and the Family Stone: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey. Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” On and on and on we go. We should be hugging each other, after Mandela was let loose on the world. But here we are again, all bebopping in Minneapolis, the Mighty Whitey in the White House with the black-chain-link fence implying the victims are terrorists.
Anyway, it’s a lovely song, fit for kids and adults alike, and goes something like this:
Don’t care where you come from,
as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.
No mind your nationality,
you have got the identity of an African . . .
You will always have integrity, no matter your integument-y. Deep down in my dark white soul, I’d like to think I’m a little African. Rastafari!
Well, it remains to be seen if the song is legitimately effective as a sleeping agent. I guess if you read African as a poem, rather than cheating and playing the rhythm-inducing song off YouTube to the child, s/he may go to sleep — maybe counting Black people jumping fences to escape wolfish officers wearing dark glasses and fascist grins. But, if African is not effective, say your child is cholicy, Akashic Books has another Sam Jackson tale, Go the Fuck to Sleep.
Pass the bong, mon.
“Hell, you can’t get people to vote once, let alone twice.”
– Santiago Juarez, League of United Latin American Citizens
“Your chance of having your vote spoiled is 900% higher if you’re Black than if you’re white.”
– US Civil Rights Commission
We were warned about an imminent threat on Pearl Harbor before the attack. We were certainly warned about an imminent bin Laden-led attack before 9/11. Sadly, we were clearly alerted to the likelihood of a pandemic costing millions of lives, years before Covid-19. We’ve been told to expect a Pearl Harbor attack on the Internet, the global communication system gifted to the world by the Department of Defense. No conspiracy, no paranoia. Just the facts, ma’am, as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet.
But nothing’s been more pearlharbored, especially since 9/11, than the electoral system that is the foundation of our once-exceptional democracy. Time after time, it’s been shown that voters are being disenfranchised on a massive scale; old machines continue to break down; newer machines, incomprehensibly, remain open to easy hacking. In 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2018, our state and national elections have been rigged, according Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished Voters. And Palast shows us the Who, What, Where, Why, and When. Just the facts, ma’am. Then, Palast points to how, despite the disastrous disarray of his presidency, Trump and the Republicans will steal it again, if we let them. Basta! to that, warcries Palast.
Let’s look together: We continue to be plagued by racially-motivated violence; mass shootings in a land where there’s more guns (est. 400 million) than people; a homeless epidemic; dwindling healthcare, when the trend needs to be the opposite; public education that’s totally lost its way as a provider of critical thinking skills for the masses and preparation for autonomous university study; middle class people sliding into food stamp territory; valued jobs on the decline in a gig economy, in which many people need two jobs to survive; mortgages, rents gone unpaid; trillion dollar student debt, enforced by master credit reports that threaten ruin; and a two-party political system little more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. Never mind Covid-19 and climate change to follow.
These are some critical issues. And the only way they can be tackled is by electing genuinely gifted leaders with that vision thang, who can work with other such leaders, to pass the legislation required to tackle these issues. It is literally a matter of life-and-death for the Republic, and maybe even the planet. Without a functioning system in place to elect such leaders, we are doomed.
And Palast makes it clear that the 2020 presidential election is make or break, and while it’s tough enough imagining Joe “Ain’t Black” Biden as president, it’s impossible to see anything standing with four more years of Trump. Let’s not forget that from December 18, 2019 to February 5, 2020, the period when Covid-19 was just making its way around the world (21 nations infected by January 30, according to the CDC), but not yet in America, we were totally absorbed by the inane impeachment hearings — to the point that, by the end, everyone just wanted to chill out and watch the $500 million Super Bowl in Miami, where Covid-19 ejectile may have been as free-flowing as the beer in the stands, and acting as a staging point for its spread, as people returned home all over the country.
Over and over, year after year, Palast returns us to the scene of the electoral crimes. The mother of all of them was Florida 2000. Everything about the Florida election stank. Given that the state was governed by the Republican nominee’s brother, who had just prior to the election publicly “guaranteed” GWB’s victory, a recount should have been automatic, no Supreme Court needed. Then Secretary of State Katherine Harris, writes Palast,
flushed 97,000 voters from registration rolls—most of them Black—tagging them as felons, ex-cons, who can’t vote. In fact, the number of illegal ex-con voters? Zero.
(Not quite true, Greg: CREEP felon Charles Colson was allowed to vote.) Add lynching chads, voter ID laws, “disqualified” votes, uncounted provisionals, and lost mail-ins. What a mess. Then toss in Nader’s presence, and Gore’s inability to win Tennessee, his home state. Yuck. What did we step in?
Then we got totally disoriented by 9/11. By the time 2004 rolled around, we were deked and contused, and nobody seemed to care any more. Palast pointed out that John Kerry had had the presidency stolen from him:
…John Kerry lost the presidency by a few votes in Ohio. Kerry would have been president except that Black voters, some waiting 7 or 8 hours in the rain, found polling station doors closed in their faces at the 7:30 p.m. cut-off.
But with his trademark humor, Palast also points out that in Ohio 2004, exit polls showed that
John Kerry had won Ohio’s female voters 53% to 47%. Among male voters, Kerry won Ohio by 51% to 49%. But CNN’s exit polls of all voters showed Bush the winner in Ohio, and thereby the re-elected President. OK, class, what third sex put Bush over the top?
But that’s not all, in New Mexico, native American votes were ignored. “More ballots are spoiled or disqualified in pueblos and reservations than in any other community,” writes Palast.
In 2012, Fox analyst at the time Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s “brain” and tenderly referred to by the president as “Turd Blossom,” unwilling to accept Fox’s calling of the Ohio election for President Obama, and thus being re-elected, made a phone call, in a last-ditch effort to “disqualify” enough votes to reverse the count.
Rove knew, says Palast, that “early voters were not allowed to vote on regular ballots or on voting machines. Instead, they were handed an absentee mail-in ballot [application],” while they were at the polling station (!), and then handed a number and told to wait, like at a deli counter in supermarket, then took the application for an absentee ballot, filled it in, and posted it in a box, right there, at the polling station. Palast was curious:
I asked the County Clerk why voters were going through this mad rigmarole to get “absentee” ballots when they weren’t absent.
He said, “Because absentee ballots can be disqualified.”
And so it goes, as Linda Ellerbee used to say. Only a Palast-inspired court order averted Rove’s subterfuge. Basta!
Well, in 2016, we know what happened: The Russians stole the election for Donald J. Trump. Whoa, Nellie! “Kris Kobach was more responsible than any other person in America for putting Donald Trump into the White House,” writes Palast. The Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kolbach (KKK?) declared that the electoral system was being over-run by doppelgängers intent on destroying America from within — by voting twice! (see opening quote) Employing a system called Interstate Crosscheck, which was adopted by 27 states, including the so-called swing states, which resulted in the purging of scores of registered voters.
Greg Palast is flabbergasted and angry. He writes of Kris Kobach that
By the time I shook his hand in 2016, one of his schemes—Crosscheck (we’ll get to that)—had already purged 1.1 million from the rolls, too many of them Black, Hispanic and Asian-American, quite silently, in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and 26 other states, a stealth purge crucial to Trump’s victory.
Kobach is still at it with his purge lists and hoping to work with Trump in 2020. Ominously, Palast adds, “ In 2020, Kobach may choose our president for us again.”
But Kobach isn’t the only problem; swing state Wisconsin has had some serious voter issues, too. “In 2016, Trump officially won Wisconsin by a dinky 22,748 votes out of 3 million cast,” writes Palast. Had then-Governor Scott Walker not purged 182,000 student votes from the 2016 election, most of them overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning, then Trump would not be president. Walker has been ousted from office, but racist the Wisconsin Legislature has more than picked up the slack. At the end of 2019, they ended “Soul-To-the-Polls Day when most African-Americans vote.” No more early voting.
Palast said that he knew there was trouble in Milwaukee when he met with Sequanna Taylor, who told him she’d been purged from the voter registration rolls. This despite the inconvenient fact that she was Milwaukee’s County Supervisor. Palast adds, “Her name is on the ballot. Only a tip-off from a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter allowed her to save her right to vote for herself.” In all, the Legislature, so far, has managed to purge “232,597 voters from the rolls in 2020, ten times Trump’s 2016 margin.” Palast contacted Wisconsin’s Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs who explained to him that the reason for the purges was simple:
This massive purge is clearly an attempt to gain an advantage in Wisconsin for the Republicans, particularly for the presidential race that’s coming up.
Apparently, swinging Wisconsin likes the swagger that comes with being the Big Cheese.
Palast puts special emphasis on what happened in Georgia in 2018. As corrupt as the system seems to many, even on the surface, what Brian Kemp did in Georgia breaks new ground. Serving as secretary of state, while running for governor, was entirely unethical and, given what he ended up doing, probably grounds for felony prosecution. As secretary, Kemp got to decide which votes counted, and which didn’t. When Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race to Kemp, she refused to go the route of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton and merely accept the outcome. She started a non-partisan group called Fair Fight, who hired Palast’s investigative team to dig into “the math” of the purges.
They found that Kemp, employing the tactic of declaring people who had “moved” as scrubbable from the rolls, had led to thousands of suddenly disenfranchised people:
Of the half million voters Kemp purged for supposedly moving their residence, 340,134 had never moved an inch. But now, the Lenser team found nearly 100,000 more who had moved within their county—and therefore, they too should never have been purged. The total of wrongfully scrubbed voters was now over 400,000.
Palast is quick, however, to point out that Kemp borrowed this criminal idea (it’s literally a violation of the National Voting Registration Act of 1993) from Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted of Ohio. And so successful has it been that this formula has been adopted by a cabal of Republican secretaries of states. In this way, writes Palast, “millions [have been] blocked from voting . . . and they don’t know it.”
But we needn’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s all about Republicans and their evil will-to-power shenanigans; Democrats can do the ‘ol you-call-that-a-noif routine just as well. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a campaign backer of both Clinton and Joe Biden, went to extraordinary lengths to fuck the 5.3 million young voters (mostly Latino) who chose to vote as independents (NPP) rather join the Democratic party. Why? They didn’t like the “lesser evil” offered up, and, in this instance, writes Palast, they overwhelmingly preferred “Tio Bernie” to Biden this year, “Tio Bernie” to Clinton in 2016.
Using the “disenfranchisement by postcard” method, just before Christmas last year, Padilla sent out cards to NPP voters. The cards were designed to look like “junk mail” and, writes Palast, “91% of voters threw them out.” Those who ‘got it’ had to go to a polling station and literally ask for a “Democratic Crossover” ballot. If they didn’t use that specific language. Poll workers were instructed not to help them. Other poll workers, writes Palast, were themselves confused by the process:
Many confused poll workers gave the NPP voters Democratic ballots, not ones marked “CROSSOVER,” not realizing that, in most counties, those ballots would be tossed out, disqualified.
Other ‘anomalies’ led to Sanders’ primary campaign being sabotaged by Party insiders determined to make sure Biden received California’s huge pot of electoral delegates.
And there are many other players that Palast names and excoriates. There’s Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s reduction of polling stations in Black precincts that led to looooooooooooong lines. There’s Hans “The Fox” von Spakovsky Prove-you-are-a-citizen game (BTW, Why is there a space between Lyons and Spikovsky? See film: Fallen). Kim Strach, North Carolina’s elections board director, favored “Ballot Harvesting”to cull undesired votes. GOP secretary of state Ruth Johnson blocked a hand count of 75000 votes that hadn’t been processed by broken scanning machines — which would have given Michigan to Clinton. Paul “The Vulture” Singer gutted the Voting Rights Act by lobbying with funds earmarked for cholera relief in Africa.
In a trustworthy political world, efficient, well-oiled machines could take the sinful, human factor out of the process that is, after all, the glue of a functioning democracy. But even here, we find failure. We keep using old voting machines (in minority areas) that we know will break down. But even newer machines are suspect. Palast didn’t cover it specifically, but “Voter Village” a September 2018 DefCon voter hacking event (it’s annual), ironically supported by Alex Padilla, found four key vulnerabilities: Supply Chain Insecurity (machine parts manufactured overseas could come pre-hacked; through compromised chips whole classes of machines could be hacked across the U.S., remotely, all at once ), Remote Attacks Proven, Hacking Faster Than Voting (in under 2 minutes), Hacks Don’t Get Fixed. Startling stuff, well worth reviewing.
In addition to all the wise and witty writing in How Trump Stole 2020, Palast pads the otherwise short book with three insertions: An Emergency Alert section (“Coronavirus Causes Outbreak of Mail-in Madness”) which warns readers that, in 2016, “512,696 mail-in ballots—over half a million—were simply rejected, not counted. That’s official, from the EAC.”; the second extra insert is an extended interview with Stacey Abrams regarding the 2018 Georgia debacle; and, my favorite, a 48-page Ted Rall comic book version of Palast’s detailed assertions, which is funny and spot-on — a great add-on to the book.
Palast is a hip guy, and he’s not afraid to let the reader know just how hip he is. He’s got a rip-snorting (at times) sense of humor, without allowing it to degrade his argument or observations. He is a former professor of statistics, which lends authority to his reads of numbers. He’s a former gumshoe. And he’s an award-winning journalist. Palast writes that Republicans have done everything they can since Eisenhower (remember that hilarious MIC warning he gave to the public in his last speech as president) to get in power and stay there — including stealing elections — because they see themselves as champions of the MIC and proud defenders of America’s manifest destiny. While Palast definitely blames Republicans for the current state of electoral disrepair, he boldly notes where Democrats, too, have let American democracy down.
As Palast sees it, the answer is Power; simple as that. The more power you have, the more you crave it, like greed; and as Nobel peace prize winner Henry Kissinger once said, power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” So, we don’t fix the dysfunctional system, and may even make it worse, because it suits the corruption it takes to keep hold of power. We’ve all watched enough West Wing and Veep and House of Cards to get a reinforced sense of how it is. Just Is, rather than justice.
And speaking of Henry Kissinger, it’s also worth remembering his infamous statement at a 1970 meeting of national security wonks, which became known as the Kissinger Doctrine:
I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.
In the end, Greg Palast makes it absolutely clear that Americans don’t need Russians to meddle with their elections and fuck up their democracy. They’re doing a swell job already. He says,
Did the Russians attempt to interfere? Yes, but about as effectively as a mosquito interfering with a Steph Curry three-pointer. A Russian oligarch spent a ginormous $150,000 on Facebook ads, about 1/10,000th of the $1.2 billion spent on pro-Clinton ads.
The Russians did it? Nyet.
The remedy to all of this, writes Palast, is to go after these lawless pols, by shaming them in the press, and show that their treasonous behavior is done without people knowing (it would be a revelation for citizens to understand that the vote they thought they cast was thrown away, behind their backs, by the orders of these slimesters). Don’t give up and stay home. Go out and vote — only once, of course.
Oh, and, Basta!
In Search of the Chosŏn People
by John Kendall Hawkins
When you go away
Sick of seeing me,
I shall let you go gently, no words.
From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn
An armful of azaleas
I shall gather and scatter on your path.
Step by step away
On the flowers lying before you,
Tread softly, deeply, and go.
When you go away,
Sick of seeing me,
though I die; No, I shall not shed a tear.
– Kim Sowol, “Azaleas,” translated by David R. McCann
I can still recall the early morning cab ride I took many years ago in Daegu, South Korea. I was in a hurry, as usual; too much soju and kimchi the night before. On my way to the hagwan for the morning portion of my day-night split shift to teach EFL to busy university-aged students cramming in some English idioms seemingly between classes. It was the loneliest cab ride I’ve ever taken. No English spoken; I pointed to a map. The interior a shrine of talismans lit by a black light, a weird Wurlitzer melody and a voice of sorrow coming from the tape player, like an oriental version of “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Speaking of hung over idioms.
As you do in your travels anywhere, if you’re quiet enough, you let the “strange” culture in osmotically, and get an algorithmic feel for it over time. We’re 60% water from the culture we came from; by the time I left Daegu I was 60% Korean, by that measure. The rest I had to bring on board. People push and shove, masks worn everywhere, neon signs, musical language, sleepy Korean soldiers pouring from yellow buses, the sense of occupation. You remembered you were in a country still at war. And when you got tired of it, you found a way on to the American base, to buy Maxwell House and Gallo at the PX, hit the gym and library, and have brunch before the big screen with American sleepy soldiers. ‘Tired of it’ – the fucking moxie.
It wasn’t until years later, after I was out of Korea, one day poring over photo albums full of snapshots, that I began to more fully appreciate the culture I’d left behind, and thought about all the photo albums, smuggled out, full of our frameworks, our M*A*S*H* up of yet another client culture we don’t understand. I tried to keep this all in mind as I read Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend: A Novel from North Korea. You go at it thinking you’ll be imparted some salving insight into the South’s mean-girl sister to the North, sulky and envious, in lieu of material conspicuity. Some urge to be rescued by the West; a hunger for Micky D’s. The bobbing bait of materialism on the surface of things.
But Korea for 500 years was culturally and socially unified under the Chosŏn Dynasty. Though a so-called client state of China during that time, Korea was politically autonomous; China was laissez-faire. Then in 1910, Japan colonized Korea until 1945, meeting underground resistance. During that Japanese occupation Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was a Soviet-trained guerrilla leader known as “Tiger,” who led a series of effective tactical assaults. Japan had to cough up Korea at end of WW2, in a settlement involving the Soviets and Americans. When it became time to unify Korea, Kim Il-Sung held “free” elections that included no Southern representatives and proceeded to occupy all of the South, except the Pusan region. America/UN pushback ensued (see Korean War) and here we are.
Friend is an old book, first published in 1988 and previously translated into French and English. This edition, translated by Immanuel Kim for Columbia University Press, comes at a peculiar time in North Korean-American relations, and expresses a kind of hope that the Man Who Would Be King, Donald Trump, has counterintuitively created an atmosphere of negation with boy totalitarian Kim Jong-un. What wonderful times for global democracy, but we’ll take what we can get.
Kim tells us that the author, Paek Nam-Nyong, once belonged to the April 15th Literary Production Unit, a central task of which was to produce historical novels – The Year 1932, being one – extolling the heroic virtues Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. By doing so, Nam-Nyong helped prop up the almost-caricaturistic, larger-than-life Kim personality cult that uneasily reminds one of Jimmy Jones and his Kool-Aid gang in Guyana. Also, an important lens to keep handy is that Nam-Nyong’s father was killed in an American bombardment of the North when he was a baby, and, growing up in poverty, he lost his mother to disease when he was 10 years old. He lives in Pyonyang today.
The Friend referred to, by the novel’s title, is one Jeong Jin Wu, a judge who specializes in divorce cases, and the odd off-cut case that gets to the heart of the DPRK’s social contract with astonishing clarity. Nam-Nyong opens the novel by suggesting to the reader that life is so calm and serene in a district of the city Kanggye in the 1970s that nobody really knows where the court is located. “Although the Superior Court handled unsavory civil and criminal cases,” Nam-Nyong’s 3rd person limited omniscient narrator tells us, “the monumental facade of the building gave an impression of both grandeur and quiet dignity.” In this sense, Judge Jeong Jin Wu represents the Court-as-Friend – there to quietly restore a sense of Confucian balance.
It’s a short novel, at about 200 pages, and yet Nam-Nyong manages to “say” the judge’s name some 621 times (I counted). The effect of the three stressed syllables – Jeong Jin Wu – is to reinforce the importance of this protagonist, not only as a subject-in-himself but a central representative of the socialist community. He’s a role player, and by the time we’re done with book, we see a society of role players. It would border on allegorical, if not for the fact that people actually live like this. (Remember our American communes in the ‘60s and the roles we played, rapping and freely sharing our naked love with each other? I do; I was in a poetry commune and coupled often.) Buddhists dig it.
Well, how does a ‘peaceable kingdom’ work? To work at all, it has to be all about works, and trappings of materiality have to be stripped down, desire put on a paleo diet, and consciousness focussed on the old yin and yang – balance for the many; it’s the way the emperor likes it. Sounds crazy and cartoonish, but you should hear what they say about capitalism. This is really a central theme of Friend. We don’t need no Koyaanisqatsi in our community. And the judge is there, a gentle Lefty arbiter, to restore the balance. True, he’s a little too Left, but the promise is that, in the end, like T.S. Eliot said at the end of Four Quartets, “All manner of things shall be well.”
Friend has three parts, Their Love, Two Lives and Family, and works its way through the process of becoming and unbecoming in the lives of Lee Seok Chun and Sun Hee, a couple with a young child, Nam Ho, who are seeking a divorce from each other. The whole of Friend is equal to the sum of these parts. Judge Wu listens patiently when Sun Hee, a leading mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. Meets with him in his court chambers to plead her case for the divorce. Wu tries to surmise the underlying issue:
Why does she want a divorce? Do she and her husband not have a good sex life? Judge Jeong Jin Wu thought. Or perhaps her husband is impotent. No, it can’t be that. She has a son.
Standard stuff everywhere.
It turns out to be a matter of irreconcilable differences. But it’s a society of reconciliation, and such differences, at least as far as Wu is concerned, need to be fleshed out and understood – possibilities other than divorce imagined. Wu is a sensitive soul who loses sleep over the discord of his supplicants. “Much like a fisherman trying to untangle knots in a fishing line, Jeong Jin Wu was upset by the burden of having to deal with another family’s misery,” the narrator tells us. Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we go and self-deceive, he seems to believe, but then what does Wu know, as Nam-Nyong puts the judge through some serious changes of his own, when we discover Wu, too, has marital difficulties. Spicy dramatic tension.
So, not only do we learn that the good judge has grown to resent his wife’s absence from home 20 days per month (following her bliss involves bringing her agricultural expertise to a mountain community far away, and forces the judge to do his own dishes). He also recalls a couple that he did divorce out of pity for the wife, once he discovers that the husband was willing to call her an adulterer (and destroy her reputation) to get a divorce.
This Korean Pilgrim’s Progress through the stages of discord back to balance involves other couples observed, too. And we meet an idealized couple, in the form of Eun Mi and her family. Sun Hee “envies” Eun Mi
because she was also a great singer and dearly loved her husband with the kind of innocence that had not yet seen the harrowing reality of married life. The couple’s intimacy was evident, and harmony dwelled in Eun Mi’s family.
This harmony, to Wu, a man who must weigh things in the great scales of district justice, his humble zone of local influence, is everything. He reinforces the value of these couplings by showing another couple – a nameless coal miner and school teacher, who are shown as hard-working and loving – whom he returns to a few times. In fact, as he does with Seok Chun and Sun Hee, he interferes, after judicial hours, in their marriage dialectics. For instance, with Seok Chun he will go the extra mile to a river and wade knee-deep to dredge up special sand for Seok to make a machine mold for a project that will advance his career – and maybe make Sun Hee happy and willing to drop the divorce. Later, he tries to talk the coal miner out of apparent incipient alcoholism, as he fears it will unbalance his now beautiful marriage.
Like the culture it comes from, the language in Friend is spare and unadorned and refreshingly clear. Like re-reading Hemingway after fucking around with Joyce’s islands in the stream of consciousness called Ulysses. Nam-Nyong’s characters’ thoughts, though complex, are not caught up in decorative expositions of wit, charm and intellectuality – because these are forms of excess subjectivity and materiality (celebrations of desire that lead to problems in a society bent on egalitarianism). So, then.
Nam-Nyong achieves this effect in two instances where he has remembrances of love’s eruption, leading to proposals and a marriage contract. First, we hear some of Seok’s thoughts about his infatuation with Sun Hee as he meanders through the pouring rain:
Seok Chun meandered as though intoxicated and, struggling to keep his balance, proceeded in despair. Suddenly he fell into a ditch, a booby trap set by the neighborhood kids. Seok Chun lifted his head and saw on the path the silhouette of a woman holding an umbrella against the dim dormitory lights.
In the shadow of the umbrella, Seok Chun saw the face of Sun Hee.
Then, in the factory, Seok Chun is so infatuated that he literally tunes into the machine she operates: “Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated.” You can’t manufacture this kind of love.
Not long after reading aloud a legalistic thesis on marriage through history to a group of comrades, he is offered tender, private advice by Eun Ok who admires his intellect, and he, in return, her beauty. Early in his courting days with Eun Ok, he, a well-grounded judge, has his emoceanal waters moved by her lunar persuasion:
Eun Ok walked beside Jeong Jin Wu with an arm wrapped tightly around his. She was jubilant, her face gleaming like majestic snowcapped mountains. Simply gazing at Eun Ok’s radiant face and lustrous eyes [earlier, Nam-Nyong had described Sun Hee exactly the same way] made Jeong Jin Wu ecstatic. The ice crunched under the feet of the two lovers treading on the snowy path. The brisk morning breeze had become calm, and the sky was clear. The silver clouds receded from the snowcapped mountains into the far distance.
They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed.
While it lasts, love is a many splendored thing indeed, but soon, too soon, it seems, the tide goes out on moony love: “Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a harrowing reality.”
Nam-Nyong uses naturalistic, almost animistic descriptors at times. Forces of nature express anthropomorphic interest in the lovers described. This, too, seems to be a cultural phenomenon. “Azaleas,” the poem by Kim Sowol quoted above, was written in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. On one level it suggests a broken love, a woman wanting to move on with her life, with the retired lover strewing azaleas at her feet as she goes, rather than tears. This motif is taken up in Friend, as each of the marriages presented is rattled by independent-minded females. On another level, it seems to speak to what David R. McCann calls “the resigned sadness of the Korean people.” (It’s worth noting that azaleas contain a dangerous psychotropic rhodotoxin, derived from a plant native to Japan.)
One other aspect of Friend that is cleverly achieved is Nam-Nyong’s depiction of children and, consequently, family. The thought that disturbs Judge Jeong Jin Wu most is how broken marriages will affect the children. Nam-Nyong stages these effects by showing how the merged loved of their relationship (the children) are virtually forgotten about as squabbles lead to violent existential outbursts. Thus, one night, Seok Chun and Sun Hee, after a spat, neglect their son: “They had turned off the lights to go to sleep many hours ago, but Ho Nam sat between his parents, between the two rooms, amid the tense atmosphere, completely alone and dejected.” (It also pictured “a lost generation” stuck in a DMZ, longing for reunification.)
Children come across as coddled imps with, if all is in balance, an open future. Children are expressive in Friend. Seok Chun wandering aimlessly, love-smitten, falls into a “boobytrap” set randomly by such imps. Later, as the judge is walking along, kids run into him, and he almost loses his balance. Even Ho Nam tells Chae Rim, Sun Hee’s divorce-supporting cousin, to get lost and throws a bean sandwich at him. This strikes one as humorous – as does a scene with a forklift where a workman with blueprints presumptuously hops on for a ride and is “almost” deposited into a lathe to the female driver’s delight.
One last bit Nam-Nyong plays us with is the witty (well, I laughed) depiction of a very serious crime – a felony that a worker commits at a manufacturing facility that you would not conceive in the West:
The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen, but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.
For those of us steeped in cultures of conspicuous consumption this is numbing news, but pretty well sums up the purported ethic of the North Korean regime and socialism in general.
All in all, Friend is a tight, well-written staging of the so-called Juche political philosophy of independence and self-reliance that wants to be the soul of the North Korean regime. As Immanuel Kim puts it in the Afterword,
Friend is set during the Hidden Hero campaign of the 1980s, which sought to recognize the extraordinary achievements of otherwise ordinary citizens… The trend in fiction of this period was to delineate a new class of intellectual heroes who improved social conditions with their brainpower rather than their brute strength.
It’s a signal of some sort; maybe a booby trap for our trapped booby in the White House. We ain’t all about the missiles, could be one read. Who knows?
It seems that Paek Nam-Nyong, whose fame came with earlier Kim family novels, is being called upon again to burnish Kim Jong-un’s reputation. The question is for what purpose releasing a thirty year old narrative. Unlike other books written by defectors from the regime, Kim points out, “Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime” As usual, time will tell whether there is any other import beyond the narrative’s literary value, of which there is plenty. Kim’s dedication page is a nice way to feel the sentiment expressed in Friend. He writes: “For my wife, my comrade, my friend, Angela Kim.”
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
– Ecclesiastes, 4-5
John Freeman has been busy in the last decade trying to rouse people from their somnambulant lives by means of narrative wake-up calls. “Part of writing, the best part of it,” he tells us in the introduction to his new collection, Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World, “is to wake a reader up into the present, by transporting them into a dream—one vivid enough to reorient how they see things upon waking.”
Such alarms can be startling, such as his inclusion of an account of the ‘mole people’ living like Morlocks beneath Manhattan’s surface in “Near the Edge of Darkness” by Colum McCann, which appeared in Tales of Two Cities, a previous collection (reviewed here) that gave Jacob Riis-like voice and vision to neglected denizens of NYC.
More recently, Freeman tackled the enormous moral morass and economic debacle that the country has become in his Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (2017). His 36 contributors in that collection included lesser-known writers, as well as more established ones, such as Annie Dillard, Roxanne Gay, Joyce Carroll Oates, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, Rebecca Solnit, and Joy Williams. If Two Cities was a redux version of How the Other Half Lives, then Two Americas provides the reader with a stark reminder that 99% of Americans are increasingly at the beck and call of the 1% — the two-jobs poor are teetering on the edge, the middle class buffer zone is eroding, while the rich flaunt their luxurious ‘self-isolation’. Covid-19, eat cake.
If Freeman’s first two collections left the impression that it was just the world’s Exceptional Democracy™ that was in deep shit and needed to address some serious political and economic issues immediately, well, you were wrong; it turns out we’re all in quick shit, sinking by the moment, and Tales of Two Planets, though filled with inspiring, even poignant writing that depicts the morning after we’ve had our filfy MILFy way with Nature, the tales go beyond America’s exceptionally parochial problems and lay out a vision of smelly melting glaciers, rivers of shit, and crazed responses to the Climate Change calamity. In short, we best keep snuggling with our teddy Corona, and waving Brady Bunch-style to each other on Zoom, cuz we in a world of motherfuckin’ trouble.
Two Planets features 36 mostly foreign writers who, with the exception of Anuradha Roy and Margaret Atwood, are unlikely to be known to most readers. Freeman gives us essays, stories, and poetry from Iceland, India, Canada, Lebanon, China, Bangladesh, Denmark, and America — covered in detail below — Argentina (a river as wounded animal), Thailand (spicy soup city), Colombia (a mountain gives way), Pakistan (a language without “terrorism”), Eritrea/Ethiopia/Sudan Britain/Belgium (climate change as refugee), Haiti (toxic algae), Guatemala (sedimental journey), Burundi (dark dead fireflies), Hawai’i (49 inches, 24 hours), Indonesia (angry rain), Kenya (flying toilets), Palestine (the pushy grab), Mexico (we called it maize), and more.
Like grumpy Greta Thunberg, Freeman’s angry. “To turn away from the greatest threat humankind has ever faced has required a staggering dedication to distraction and lack of empathy for the suffering of others,” he writes. And how. Humans may have peaked, like oil and the dinosaurs it came from. Even with our current distraction, Covid-19, we seem incapable of using the opportunity, ostensibly afforded by our current situation, to take stock on the near-future of our species.
When the dinosaurs got hit by meteorites, that probably came at them like coronavirus fireballs, did they just stand around getting giddy over the shit they were in? Everywhere people seem to be taking selfies with Covid-19 — virtual weddings, funerals, sex romps, concerts — instead of leveraging the moment and talking turkey about Climate Change. Has Congress re-convened since the Super Bowl? If the rest of us can hold virtuals, why not Congress?
Frankly, we never even responded to Covid-19 sanely. We were distracted. We were exhausted by the impeachment hearings and the Super Bowl was upon us. By the time people converged on Miami, it was already known that Covid-19 was on its way — according to the NEJM, “As of January 30, 2020, a total of 9976 cases had been reported in at least 21 countries…”– and Florida governor De Santis now admits Covid-19 may have been “circulating” at the Billion Dollar Bash. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as Eliot puts it.
Distracted, but, as Freeman says, also devoid of empathy. He writes, “Climate change is affecting us all, but it’s going to hit the poorest parts of the globe first, and hardest.” Many of the accounts in Two Planets describe a level of destitution and degradation, not just in the Third World but in America, too, that give the lie to the notion of material progress and electoral integrity. Depending on where you are born, you can be locked into poverty all your life, your environment a hazard you must accommodate in order to survive. Climate Change exacerbates the tenuous existence poor people are forced to endure.
There are two excellent essays from Iceland that begin and end the collection. The first bears the title “N64 35.378, W16 44.691,” which represents the GPS coordinates to a glacier described in the article. It’s a glacier out there somewhere in the alien wilds of our planet, hostile and forbidding. But for Andri Snær Magnason, the article’s author, there is (or was) an element of the familiar to this terrain. “In the north,” he writes, “we had an abandoned farm by the ocean, just below the Arctic Circle. It is one of the harshest homesteads in Europe, and you can see the next house only with binoculars.”
It takes a moment to orient yourself to the juxtapositioning of the Arctic with Europe, but before you can get comfortable with the notion, he adds, “It is a place where you can listen to fourteen species of birds singing or quacking at the same time.” Life! But now there are signs of death, “…skeletons everywhere, parts of wings, and the smell in the air was actually rotting seaweed.” Magnason brings us further on our textual trek through his childhood family stomping ground, and sees melting, “Areas that look as if God had only two materials left after she created the earth: black rock and green moss.” We go on, with him, sherpa sure, ahead.
We come to the point he’s trying to make. “In the geothermal areas, our earth reveals what it is actually made of. We are standing on a thin crust on a ball of boiling magma floating around a burning sun,” he writes. This strange place of ice and heat could be another planet — “Solaris” or “Jupiter” — but no, it’s early primordial Earth, now in distress, where “you can feel the power that moves continents… the hostility…muddy, boiling pools like something from Dante’s Inferno.” In short, a place that would give SETI scientists an erection if they saw it out there through a telescope. (I wonder what alien SETI scientists would make of us?)
As if to counter this image, Magnason recalls how his grandma and grandpa got stranded in a snowstorm hereabouts once and “they were stuck inside their tent for three days, until only the tip of the tent could be seen from the glacier’s surface and they had to be dug out. I asked my grandfather, ‘Weren’t you cold?’ ‘Cold?’ he responded. ‘We were just married!’ Two sticks rubbing, just building a fire, trying to keep warm, in a hostile world, creating next of kindle, and here I am, Magnason seemed to say, like a subliminal ice cube in ads of yore.
He guides us through more IcyHot wilderness,until you start to think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein up here somewhere jumping from floe to floe. Magnason (or is it Magmason) writes,
We travel through landscape unlike anything I have seen before, over terrain that looks like miles of turtles’ backs, through a forest of black pyramids, past cracks that moan and gurgle, past streams that fall into bottomless holes that remind me of the lair of some alien, snakelike creature, an ice version of the sarlacc sand monster.
It’s Earth; and then, we reach the mental glacier known by its coordinates N64 35.378, W16 44.691, and this forceful place you would not think could be affected by Man is dying.
Magnason makes us watch, little reader-performers, all self-conscious blue, as: “The glacier vanishes softly, like a silent spring. It just melts, retreats slowly, calmly, but its appearance is strangely dead, almost like a slain fish.” We’ve come to the place we potentially started from and know it for the first time, all bigbang and whimpery in our poopypants. Gosh, did I do that?
A second Icelander, Sjón, makes us similarly suffer in the collection’s closing piece, “On the Organic Diversity of Literature: Notes from My Little Astrophysical Observatory.” Sjón tells us he “spent seven weeks as an artist in residence at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research” and claims scientists there have “begun to question whether mankind possesses the intrinsic ability to respond to its imminent extinction.” As if juicing up for his self-isolating stint amongst the Climate crew, Sjón brought with him a thoughtful collection of books:
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti; In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, by Eugene Thacker; and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Experimental Futures) by Donna J. Haraway—all of which deal explicitly with mankind’s threats to itself and its possible disappearance from the face of the Earth.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye, read all about it. Old Werther’s got syphilis and is now suicidal.
In between these ice bread slices is an enormous tasty turd burger bound to wipe the shit-eating grin off the face of even the most recalcitrant climate deniers. On point, Lina Mounzer gases it up in her piece from and of Lebanon, “The Funniest Shit You Ever Heard.” Lebanon has become renowned for its decline into corruption since its Civil War ended in 1990, when its reconstruction began, contracts for work establishing the New Leb Order, and leading, inevitably, to an upstairs/downstairs economy that never favors the have-nots. As with every state now dealing with the ever-widening income gap, there has been growing tension in Lebanon.
Mounzer tells the story of being stalled one day in a line of cars going up a Tripoli hill: “One of the sewer drains had overflowed, blasting away its manhole cover, and a gleaming brown waterfall cascaded down the hill.” I immediately thought of the Boston Molasses disaster of 1919, when a vat exploded and 2 million gallons of brown stuff down nearby streets, drowning 21 locals. Back in Tripoli, nobody drowned, but lots of people laughed, at first, except for one guy who Mounzer says “got splattered, perhaps with the remnants of the very same meal he had consumed at his dinner table the night before, and then unloaded into his toilet that very morning.”
But the best bit about this article was Mounzer’s wonderful description of how all shit comes together, like the free-flow of ideas, until, ideally, the occasional plumbing is needed. She writes,
Beneath every city, its underground twin… A network of pipes connecting to every shower drain, every kitchen sink, every toilet, disappearing a household’s dirt and grease and vomit and urine and feces down the gullets of small pipes that flow down into the ground, that then feed into bigger pipes, and ever bigger pipes, all our shit merging: the organic, fibrous roughage of the rich, the nutrient-deficient poop of the poor, and all the middle-class crap in between, all democratically flowing together in a single system….
And when it breaks down you’re paying union wages to fix it.
And the near-comedy of the ineptitude of our dealings with our demise continues in Anuradha Roy’s tale, “Drowning In Reverse,” in which an Indian village is flooded to make room for the construction of a novel “high altitude lake.” While a protagonist laments and recalls fond memories, a bubbly government bobblehead, Mr. Negi, sees the bright side:
Midget submarines would take tourists past the underwater wreck of the old town—the palace, the market—all crumbling away, but the state had no doubt that visitors would flock there and pay good money to enjoy this mini Atlantis so far inland, a thrill very different from the region’s standard menu of mountaineering and bird-watching.
Bizarre shit happens. After bin Laden was killed, Abbottabad put up an amusement park.
Roy’s narrative witness to this seemingly thoughtless government whimsicality finally observes, with insight that could include us all,
There is resignation, cynicism, and fury as government after government ravages the country’s forests and waters in a tight embrace with giant companies. Nobody can reverse this or stop it: it has been and will be coitus uninterruptus continuous until there is nothing left to destroy.
Will this mummyfucking never cease? Liebfraumilch all around! Who cares if they’re falsies we nickname Silicon Valley. Proust!
In China, where authorities gagged and threatened a doctor before his warning about the impending Coronavirus could go viral (he’s since died of it), a prize-winning photographer, was arrested and disappeared for sharing environmental photos that portrayed the Red System in an unflattering way. This arrest and burial of Oriental journalism is recounted in “Recording Is His Priority:
On the Photographs of Lu Guang,” and should be a worry in the Occident, where public stories are routinely buried by vested interests who control the Message.
In Bangladesh, it’s the same old story. Tahmima Anam recounts it again in “The Unfortunate Place.” As John Freeman pointed out in the introduction poor people take the brunt of the world’s economic and ecological disasters. Anam’s story begins,
Once upon a time, there was a girl from a terrible country. The country was battered by the worst combination of natural and human-made disasters: floods, cyclones, famine, war. The country was small and the people were poor. Every bad thing that could happen to a place would happen to that country.
Anam remembers how Kissinger called it a “basket case” and George Harrison, Dylan, and others made it a Cause — all those years ago. The Earth abides, but apparently, and inexplicably, so does poverty.
Poetry also features in this collection. Lars Skinnebach, from Denmark, gives us “TEOTWAWKI” (the end of the world as we know it), and proffers up images that evoke siege and desperation:
And when the ants came
I followed them down
underground where they lived
blocked their exits
and plundered their nests
and plundered their stores
This conjured up Derinkuyu, the underground city in Cappadocia (Turkey), which I visited a million years ago (and froze my ass off in a B-and-B cave). Folks went there to escape the onslaught of the Ottomans. Wikipedia tells us the cave cities were still in use into the 20th century.
In another poem, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, lyrically ponders, ala Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, how we might perish and the magic we have lost:
We breathe hot pudding.
We stand on the non-lawn,
arms outstretched, mouths open.
Will it be burn or drown?
Though we’ve forgotten the incantation,
the chant, the dance,
we invoke a vertical ocean,
pure blue, pure water.
Let it come down.
Let it rain. Let it rain. Let it rain.
Towards the end, Freeman brings it all back home with the inclusion of “The Psychopaths” by Joy Williams and “In This Phase In The 58th American Presentiad (United States)” by Lawrence Joseph. Williams’s story condemns the mindless activities of Big Game hunters, psychopaths who think they’re Hemingway, but behave more like the dickheaded hunter (with his trophy wife) in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” than the thoughtful Gregory Peck-driven hunter, Harry Street, of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” who falls in and out of reveries as he lays fading, hyenas, vultures, and gangrene closing in. Williams’s psychopath could be a one-percenter head-hunting for a trophy corporation. Joseph’s poem attempts to tear Trump a new one: “His own hell, he owns it, in his own shit, / feet of lackey weasels clamped / onto his pot-bellied stomach, teeth stuck / in his puffed-up jaw.” There’s a lot of anger out there. Thunberg’s not the only one pissed off at the world.
We’ve had so many warnings for so many years. I can still recall as a teenager ads that came on TV reminding us of our obligation to our environment. Only you can prevent forest fires, Smokey the Bear told us. In 1970, even the diabolical Dick Nixon founded the EPA, perhaps realizing that the environment needed protection from people without empathy and incapable of understanding, or indifferent to, the effects of their money-driven malevolence. In 1971, in a legendary TV ad, Iron Eyes Cody, aka the Crying Indian, wept a single strong man’s tear at the white trash epidemic that was polluting the nation (updated, it would include the information highway). No doubt, had someone seriously suggested at the time that we switch our national anthem from the current martial noise, that no one can sing, to “America the Beautiful” (even the Russkies wanted some of that) it would have passed in Congress with not a dry eye in the House.
But in the end, we preferred the artificial over the natural, meddling with Nature rather than letting her be, and when we got around to having the temerity to tell Hippie Mama, to her face, that we were just fucking with her, she went bonkers, and sent a Republican bouncer to make us pay. We’re paying, loan shark-style, with exorbitant interest.
The List is the origin of culture.
– Umberto Eco
oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and trace elements
– List of elements that compose the human body
Father’s and sons have been at it since the beginning of time — since an outraged God told Adam to get out of Eden and take his side rib (Eve) with him, and go fuck himself, after His Satan-driven brat ate of the iMac tree, and started thinking for himself; and Adam screamed back over his shoulder, “You go Yahweh and I’ll go mine; and, He riposted to Them, “See ya, Totem and Taboo.” They went into Exile, and many many many many many many illicit light thoughts later, to make a long story short, here we are.
When Umberto Eco died of complications from pancreatic cancer in Milan in 2016, many people felt as if they had lost a loveable father figure. With his trademark self-effacing humor, he honored the reader, which is to say he honored and fought for freedom of thought, and took the real value of a text away from what he called ‘the imperial author’ and ceded its interpretation to the reader. He was kinder than Yahweh that way. In a speech before PEN America in 2008, he spoke of his father’s absence in his life. “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than my father,” he begins. There were stories never told, emotions never felt, and his father drifted away, a ghost to him, before ever being fully realized.
Newly translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen, On the Shoulders of Giants is a series of twelve lectures Eco wrote for an annual cultural festival called La Milanesiana that commenced in 2000. It’s deep dive into an array of esoteric, sublime, and sometimes scatological ideas that Eco manages to make accessible to intellectuals, wannabe intellectuals, and people who fucking hate intellectuals but enjoy and playfulness. He’s a semiotician interested in the signs and symbols of ancient Christianity; he’s a linguist interested in how words communicate, identifying a triadic dialectic between the reader, the text, and the writer; and, he’s a responsible relativist. The lectures cover three broad areas: relativism, aesthetics, and the duality of truth.
Eco begins his lecture series with “On the Shoulders of Giants,” which is a much-trodden ground of inquiry, all kinds of homage parties have been thrown over the years: Where would we be if not for Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Copenicus, Darwin, yada yada, and this is all meet and acceptable behavior, so let us carry on. What makes Eco’s talks fun is his humor, penetrating insights and truly eclectic examples of topic points. He manages to make you feel that you’re going on an esoteric adventure into secret spaces, rather than some Adventure World ride into over-structured sentimentality. In this first lecture, Eco reminds us that, postmodern or not, the age-old struggle with Daddy (patriarchy) continues, and we alternate between dwarfs and giants into the uncertain future.
Eco starts biblically. After the Flood, Noah got shit-faced, and took a nap, and, peeking in on Dad, Ham took note of his “nakedness” and tittered, some say like Eddie Murphy in Raw, who invited his brothers, Japheth and Shem, to check it out; instead, they grabbed a sheet and, walking backwards into the tent, they covered Dad and skedaddled, but their brother, still hamming it up, woke Dad from his wet dream, and all hell broke loose. “Imagine opposing one’s father by mocking him,” Eco tells us, “as Ham did when he couldn’t overlook Noah’s having a little wine after all that water…” Noah reacted by dropping the N-bomb and “exiling his disrespectful son…[and] descendants to thousands of years of endemic hunger and slavery.” Poor Noah, said Polly to the cracker, who bequeathed us chain gangs and economic inequality.
After these two major over-reactions (Adam, Noah) to nakedness by father figures, Eco reminds us of how psychopathic old monotheism could be. God terrorizes Abraham to the point he’s willing to cut the throat of his scapegoated kid, Isaac, to please the Old Man. (Actually, the whole vibe of this scene is captured perfectly by Dylan in Highway 61.) Eco tells us, “(Believing the son would die of a slit throat while the father earned the benevolence of Yahweh—you cannot tell me the man was behaving according to our moral canons.) Luckily, Yahweh was joking—but Abraham did not know that.” Fucking Yahweh, right? Maybe he told the serpent to go Eve, just to see what would happen next.
These kinds of estrangements carry a lot of weight with Eco — he traces these battles of fathers and sons, dwarfs and giants, from the Bible through to the rest of history. Copernicus, he says,
referred back to the thinking of Plato and Pythagoras…Kant needs Hume to awaken him from his dogmatic slumbers; the Romantics engage…the Middle Ages; Hegel explicitly sanctions the primacy of the new over the old…Marx, reinterpreting human history …[started with] the Greek atomists…Darwin kills off his biblical parents by making giants of the great anthropomorphic apes, on whose shoulders men came down from the trees to manage, still full of wonder and ferocity, that marvel of evolution that is the opposable thumb.
And later, that marvel of revolution, the middle finger.
In a lecture Eco gave before PEN America in 2008 he tells his audience that “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than I knew my father” and laments his absence, “the ghost lost forever.” We can speculate on what this meant for Eco, whether in the absence of his father he sought solace or understanding in the depths of the past where, as he says in a later lecture in this volume, “To the mystic, God appears as a Great Void.”
Eco sums up the intellectual connective tissue between millenia of generations, giants and dwarfs, as they sort out what to bring to forward from the past and what to pass on through time and space. Nietzsche, the philologist and arguably a proto-semiotician, makes a cameo appearance to guide us on how to treat the past:
Nietzsche names it in the second of his Untimely Meditations…, where he denounces our excess of historical awareness. If the oppressive influence of this awareness cannot be eliminated even by the revolutionary activities of the avant garde, the postmodern stance is that we might as well accept the past, revisit it as a form of apparent tribute, and reconsider it from the distance permitted us by irony.
This is an excellent way of putting it.
Though Eco briefly mentions the Bard in his lectures, he’d probably agree with Harold Bloom’s summary statement in The Anxiety of Influence, of Shakespeare’s outsized cultural value over the last four centuries:
I sometimes suspect that we really do not listen to one another because Shakespeare’s friends and lovers never quite hear what the other is saying, which is part of the ironical truth that Shakespeare largely invented us. The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary.
But even Shakespeare, since the onset postmodernism has begun to crack and crumble like Ozymandias in a desert of mainstream neglect. Billions returned to dust, a handful still discussed.
Another form of the age-old Father-Son struggle, from Eden on, is what Eco addresses in his lecture, “The Absolute and the Relative.” An understanding of this relationship goes to the core of human being, the nature of reality (if there is any), as well as the mind-body problem and the experience of what we call consciousness. Eco cites Dante’s Paradiso in an eloquent encapsulation of the relationship: “Within its depths I saw gathered together, / Bound by love into a single volume, / Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.” In this lecture, he considers the most important question: “Is it possible to believe in an absolute and state that it is unthinkable and undefinable?” This we struggle with.
This uncertainty of what represents absolute value and what is relative carries over into the realm of art. In his lecture, “On Some Forms of Imperfection in Art,” he cites a number of examples of the power flaws to accentuate beauty. He notes how “Montaigne (Essays III, II) hailed the attractions of lame women.” This made me think of the gimpy femme fatale in W. Somerset Maughn’s Of Human Bondage, whose cruel beauty reduces a man to desolation and disillusionment. He sums up how the presence of imperfection can affect an aesthetic object this way: “So two forms of imperfection can be attributed to a work of art: the absence of some parts that the whole would require or the presence of more of them.”
This discussion of aesthetics leads Eco to more specific qualities of the aesthetic, which he has written quite a bit about over the years — beauty and ugliness There are separate lectures for each in the volume, as well as a complementary lecture on the invisible. He humorously notes that, today,
For some youngsters with earrings or maybe pierced noses, a Botticellian beauty may appear attractive because they are delightfully and perversely high on cannabis, but it certainly was not like that for Botticelli’s contemporaries, who admired the face of Venus in the Primavera for other reasons.
Again, a snapshot of generational relativity. Personally, I prefer to see it both ways, old and new, pass the bong.
Eco further stokes the comedy flames by having us “imagine if that traveler coming from outer space to determine our prevailing idea of female beauty had only Picasso’s portraits to go by. With respect to past centuries, we find ourselves in this kind of situation.” This makes sense to most of us intuitively, even within the set of generations we live through: I can barely handle hip-hop, whereas others seem to regard it as the cat’s meow.
Eco brings Thomas Aquinas’s three criteria of beauty, featuring proportionality, into the lecture hall; he briefly considers beauty’s “play of light, or claritas,” which he says was sacred and “valued due to the fact that numerous civilizations have associated God with light, and often with the sun.” He compares baroque painting, “such as Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame,” wherein “everything in the scene is struck by the light of a candle,” with medieval paintings in which, “by contrast, light seems to radiate out from objects in the scene. They, being beautiful, are luminous in themselves.”
Eco also brings in the saintly 12th century intellectual Robert Grosseteste (or Bobby Big Balls, as his more immature friends ranked on him), who “conceived of the universe as formed by a single flux of luminous energy that was at once the source of beauty and being—an image that, for us, summons the notion of a Big Bang.” Well, probably enough said.
His lecture “Ugliness” is essentially a taste of his longer, more famous work, On Ugliness. He asks rhetorically, and to the point, “Are there universal ways in which people react to beauty? No, because beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion.” He adds further clarification, humorously (unless,of course, you’re a neo-Nazi), “There is a judgment of ugliness as a non-correspondence to the ideal of beauty, for example, when we say that a painting of a vase of flowers is ugly. Who painted it? Hitler.” A rose is rose is a rose unless it’s a prick.
In his lecture, “The Invisible,” he almost immediately asks the pointed question, “How can you show what cannot be seen?” He compares the historian’s depiction of personages who end up coming at the reader like ghosts versus characters a fiction writer creates. Eco tells us, “Reading fiction means knowing that the character’s destiny is ineluctable.” He provides as examples the many fictional lives of Madame Bovary, from verisimilitudinous adaptations to parodic (like Woody Allen’s The Kugelmass Episode), which are all anchored in her suicide. Likewise, with depictions of Anna Karenina, Eco says, “Only the fact that Anna Karenina inevitably dies makes her fondly, imperiously, and obsessively present as the melancholy companion of our existence, even though she never physically existed.” The historian can represent facts in ghosts clothing, but novelists can show a kind of relative truth.
Another area of oral exposition that Eco plays around with in his lectures is the duplicity of language, especially in such areas of paradoxes, lies, and conspiracies. Information can seem to mean two things at once; we can be faced with outright lies that may or may not have the desired effect on the target(s); and there is the allure of apparent “secret men’s business” that we sometimes filter public utterances from politicians and even, counterintuitively, the mainstream media.
He provides splendid examples of paradoxes, like “Of course I’m a solipsist, isn’t everybody?” and “God must exist because he wouldn’t be so mean as to make me believe he exists if he really doesn’t.”
Everybody lies, and Eco makes fun of St. Augustine, through Immanuel Kant, when the saint avers that we mustn’t ever lie. Eco passes on the example of a killer ringing Augustine’s doorbell. He says that Augustine “maintained that we should never lie for any reason, not even to save a human life. [He] proposed the extreme example of those who have hidden in their own home someone that a vicious murderer is seeking to kill.” St. Augustine’s coughing up the target. Of this proposition, Immanuel Kant said that it “reveals that the great man was capable of talking nonsense every now and then.”
For secrecy and conspiracies, Eco reaches back into the obscurist mythology. It’s fun. He says, “All mythologies have had a god of secrecy; the figure of Harpocrates, under various names, appears from Egyptian art through the Graeco-Roman world to the Renaissance.” I have new insight into his silence.
“Representations of the Sacred” is his last lecture in the volume. No one who has read The Name of the Rose could doubt that they are dealing with an author and thinker who is deeply suffused in the sacred and its mysteries. How do we know a sign to be sacred or merely a natural phenomenon? He says, “Simply put, a lightning strike that incinerates a tree accompanied by a clap of thunder would in itself be only a frightening accident and sensation were it not seen and justified as a manifestation of some transcendent entity or will….” At the end of the world, we get Noah’s Gof back, and, apparently, Noah’s water, too.
Even if we get through Covid-19 and Climate Change next, we still have AI and the quantum and multiverses ahead to further fuck ourselves with, and we seem a long way off before we return to the Garden, prodigal sons and their families, all in all a little worse off for the wear at journey’s end — maybe one or two of us with an axe to grind with their Eves. But here we are, many father and son quarrels later, after many master and slave tumbles in the mud, still exiles. In my mind’s eye I sometimes see the dome of the Sistine Chapel, Adam and God facing off, not touching fingers, ET-style, but instead, withdrawing from each other, maybe forever, angry middle fingers raised.