Sunday, August 31, 2014

blog post.

Neoxabea bipunctata

My landlord is out of town. This is a significant fact: it accounts for why I can sit out on the front porch and smoke cigarettes at 3:30 in the morning.

These things are going to kill me someday.

I wonder if they precipitated my father's condition?

Some months after becoming a Polish citizen in 2009, my old man gave me a call one afternoon to tell me about his introduction to Poland's healthcare system. One moment he's talking about doctors and waiting lists, and then with the nonchalance of a by the way he's telling me he has congestive heart failure.

"WHAT?" was all I could say.

"Oh, relax," he told me. "It's not as bad as it sounds."

The last time I spoke to him he told me the good news he received during his most recent visit to the clinic. "My heart has deteriorated by six percent!"

"WHAT?" I said. (This is pretty much all I ever say when my father describes his ongoing experience with the aging process.)

"Calm down," he said. "It's great news! Six percent in about as many years! That's only one percent a year! It's really good!"

I guess it's not like the rest of him isn't deteriorating either.

The day before my father called I paid my maternal grandfather a visit in the inpatient rehabilitation clinic. He recently suffered a stroke. The stroke came on the heels of a surgical procedure in which a malignant tumor was pulled out of his brain.

My grandfather has been old for as long as I can remember—if not always old, then never young. But I never imagined seeing him infirm. I literally didn't recognize him: I actually glanced into his room, looked him over, and then asked the nurse in the hall if Mr. R. White had been moved elsewhere.

I brought him a copy of the Washington Post. He read the sports page and mumbled about the Redskins. I sat in a chair beside his bed and stared at, tried to understand the gauntness of his limbs. It's so easy to forget our bodies are just bones and meat, and so unsettling to be reminded.

My grandfather was a participant in Operation Overlord in 1944. That first scene from Saving Private Ryan? My grandfather was there. He fought in and survived D-Day. He must have been nineteen, twenty years old.

When I saw him he wore a hospital gown stained with pasta sauce and bits of spaghetti because his arms are too weak and he has too little control over them to bring a fork from a tray on his lap to his mouth without faltering.

My grandfather quit smoking in his sixties, if I recall. My father musty be Two? He stopped smoking this year, but he's planning to pick it up again next summer. He's always scoffed at talk about addiction.

"I am not addicted cigarettes. I just love smoking."

You get one life. Might as well do what you like, right?

She and I moved to a suburb of DC together seven months ago. She'd been living in Maryland since leaving Pennsylvania this time last year. I don't suppose someone prone to seasonal affective disorder can be expected to have an easy time moving to a strange new home in an unfamiliar place and trying to find new friends and a new job in February. It wasn't an easy time. It was only around May or June that I finally began to feel at home here.

She left two weeks ago and she isn't coming back. Now I have to decide if I want to follow her and start the whole thing over again fifteen hundred miles away—only to pack up and move two thousand miles away in June and start the whole thing over again, again.

I feel like an alien here. On this planet, I mean. It doesn't really matter where I am or what people I'm associating with. I'm frequently possessed of a sense of incongruity. This isn't new.

Feeling comfortable somewhere, having a place where I feel more or less at home is a very valuable thing to me. I can't give it up but stubbornly.

I'm not sure I can follow her. I never wanted to live in the tropics. Coming from a place like New Jersey, you can't come to terms with your surroundings without becoming unable to accept paradise, at least without distrust or disdain.

There are things I like about the DC area. There's a lot that I dislike.

I can't see the stars here. That's that worst part. When I can't see the stars, my whole vision is circumscribed. In such circumstances one becomes susceptible to fallacies of misplaced importance. Our good decisions are made only by accident when our apprehension of the facts and their values is muddled.

In that book of his that I read, Albert Whitehead argues that certain intellectual seeds of the scientific flourish came from the commingling of Christian theology and the Greek legacy in the Western European consciousness. There had to be confidence in the existence of an intelligent architect, or at least an assumption that there was a rational order to the universe that could be found if searched for.

Whitehead wrote that the thinkers and artists of that age were striving after a kind of superhuman perfection that most of us today are unable to even conceive. . .

Seeing the stars is one of those things, one of those reminders. If I can't look out at the universe and find intimations of human features or the moldings of some divine anthropism, I can at least look out at the universe and remember what it is I belong to. But when I can't do that—

She tells me the stars are beautiful where she is. I hate when she tells me.

There aren't many katydids in this part of town. But there are crickets.

At the Quaker center in Pennsylvania and in Jersey, there was this hour at dusk—the last of the birds, the catbirds, were settling but not down, and the twilight rang with the sustained stridulations of hundreds, thousands of tree crickets, all singing the same long, sonorant note. As soon as it got dark the katydids started in, and then their restless noise was all you heard until the robins took over at dawn.

But there are no katydids down here. The gardens and bowers ring on and on from twilight till twilight. There's something in this, too. Something I'd call holy if I had the conviction.

The crickets. How many of us, how often do we take them for granted?

Sometimes you don't notice the music until the silence reasserts itself.

One life.

These things will kill me someday.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Capitalism and the Color Line

W.E.B. Du Bois,
lookin' sharp.
So I'm about 1/3 of the way through The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois. I became acquainted with the book in college, but until now have only ever read excerpts pertaining to the double-consciousness concept. I found and bought on a whim a paperback copy a few months ago, and—I'll admit—began reading it rather than Bleak House or The Landmark Thucydides because of the Ferguson eruption and the conversation swelling up around it.

Here's an except from the book's second chapter, which pertains to Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the successes and failures of the Freedmen's Bureau (bolds are mine):

Such was the dawn of Freedom; such was the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which, summed up in brief, may be epitomized thus: For some fifteen million dollars, beside the sums spent before 1865, and the dole of benevolent societies, this Bureau set going a system of free labor, established a beginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the recognition of black freedmen before courts of law, and founded the free common school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to begin the establishment of good-will between ex-masters and freedmen, to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods which discouraged self-reliance, and to carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land. Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its failures were the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect.

Such an institution, from its wide powers, great responsibilities, large control of moneys, and generally conspicuous position, was naturally open to repeated and bitter attack. It sustained a searching Congressional investigation at the instance of Fernando Wood in 1870. Its archives and few remaining functions were with blunt discourtesy transferred from Howard’s control, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary of War Belknap in 1872, on the Secretary’s recommendation. Finally, in consequence of grave intimations of wrong-doing made by the Secretary and his subordinates, General Howard was court-martialed in 1874. In both of these trials the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau was officially exonerated from any wilful misdoing, and his work commended. Nevertheless, many unpleasant things were brought to light,
—the methods of transacting the business of the Bureau were faulty; several cases of defalcation were proved, and other frauds strongly suspected; there were some business transactions which savored of dangerous speculation, if not dishonesty; and around it all lay the smirch of the Freedmen’s Bank.

Morally and practically, the Freedmen’s Bank was part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, although it had no legal connection with it. With the prestige of the government back of it, and a directing board of unusual respectability and national reputation, this banking institution had made a remarkable start in the development of that thrift among black folk which slavery had kept them from knowing. Then in one sad day came the crash,—all the hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but that was the least of the loss,—all the faith in saving went too, and much of the faith in men; and that was a loss that a Nation which to-day sneers at Negro shiftlessness has never yet made good. Not even ten additional years of slavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen as the mismanagement and bankruptcy of the series of savings banks chartered by the Nation for their especial aid.

I have to confess that this whole chapter left me a little distressed by my ignorance of the Reconstruction period apart from its broadest themes. There was a lot of stuff I hadn't read or thought much about since high school history class, and there were a few things mentioned that I don't think were ever covered in my high school curriculum. One such item is the Freedmen's Bank.

Let's read a few snippets from regarding the Freedmen's Bank:

The Freedmen's Bank
The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bank, was incorporated on March 3, 1865. It was created by the United States Congress along with the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid the freedmen in their transition from slavery to freedom.

By late 1861, many black Americans along the border-states experienced a de facto freedom in the presence of occupying Union troops. Some found employment in Union garrisons where they were monetarily compensated for their work. At this time, northern abolitionists called for the creation of a freedmen’s bank to assist the ex-slaves in developing habits of financial responsibility.

John W. Alvord, a Congregational Minister and A. M. Sperry, an abolitionist, launched the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company in 1864 to eliminate individual bank mismanagement and bring all of the black deposits under central control in a single large institution. After Congress passed legislation incorporating the bank on March 3, 1865,  President Lincoln immediately signed the bill into law. Deposits were received only “by or on behalf of persons heretofore held in slavery in the United States, or their descendants.” Up to 7% interest was allowed for deposits, and any unclaimed accounts were to be pooled into a charitable fund that was used to educate the children of ex-slaves.

In 1868 the bank headquarters was moved to Washington, District of Columbia (D.C.), where black staffers were trained to take over its operations. At its peak, the bank operated 37 branches in seventeen states and the District of Columbia making it one of the first multi-state banks in the nation. By 1870 nearly all the local branches were run by African Americans.

By 1874, massive fraud among upper management and among the board of directors had taken its toll on the bank. Moreover, economic instability brought upon by the Panic of 1873 coupled with the bank’s rapid expansion proved disastrous. Hoping to revive the bank, Frederick Douglass, who was elected president in 1874, donated tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to shore up the declining institution. 

Although Douglass pleaded for Congress to intervene, on June 29, 1874, the bank was officially closed. At the date of closing $2,993,790.68 was due to 61,144 depositors. Mistakenly believing that the deposits were insured by the federal government, the bank's collapse left many African Americans cynical about the banking industry.

In various fora today are ongoing arguments about whether racial prejudice or economic inequality is the greater evil in American society and the root cause of the problem of which Ferguson is just another toxic apple. Not to discount the persistence of the color line in various areas of our national life, but I'm usually more inclined to say that economic inequality is the greater problem. Viewing the Freedmen's Bank episode through my Recession Generation lenses, how can I not be struck or fail to be surprised by the fact that the same kind of corruption and moneyed rapacity that push the acid up to my palate today were tentacle-fucking some of society's most vulnerable people 140 years ago more or less the same way they still tentacle-fuck them now?

But it is a powerful reminder that the problems of capitalism and the color line are too often and too profoundly intertwined to be treated independently in discussions about social injustice.

Friday, August 15, 2014

About Ferguson

Around five o'clock this morning I had a long conversation with my friend James—an indefatigable proponent of civil liberty and civil disobedience, an Occupy Wall Street ally, and a documenter of street protests in NYC and beyond—about the rumblings in Ferguson. I had rather hoped to post the bulk of the conversation here, but James is also preoccupied with the encroachment of domestic surveillance, and so he scrupulously makes sure that all of his Gchat conversations are off the record.

I remember showing him one of the photographs that most troubled me as I checked the news links on Twitter and elsewhere:

If I had scrolled down a news page and found this picture with a caption like "a US marine on routine patrol outside of Kabul" or something along those lines, I wouldn't have batted an eye. But to see this image with the caption "a police officer watches over demonstrators" is fucking terrifying.

But what I really wanted to talk to James about was the buzzing hive regarding the riots. Expressing support for the protesters and their cause is something I'm absolutely behind. Michael Brown shouldn't have been shot. The cop who pulled the trigger must be brought to justice. The police culture in this country needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt immediately, if not sooner. But seeing the people lobbing molotov cocktails and torching stores celebrated on Tumblr, Twitter, and even by some journalists, is something that doesn't sit well with me.

For two of the last three years I lived in a Quaker community whose history is twined with the lives of Bayard Rustin, Ham Sok-Hon, and Richard Gregg. Having spent so much time among religious pacifists, I had to wonder if my moral compass hasn't been overmagnetized in that direction. I wanted to get James's thoughts on the matter as a kind of calibration test.

So I asked him: are these riots justified? Are they helpful?

Depends on how angry you are, he answered. When you've been the victim of institutionalized oppression long enough, and asking please be considerate of us has accomplished nothing, you have to start throwing bricks.

Have to. He's right, you know.

There is a comparison to be made between the behavior of human beings and the behavior of molecules—in this instance, let's say water molecules.

The actions of the individual human being can be so varied and so difficult to guess in advance that you might begin to think what their behavior is borne of something called "free will." The movements of the individual H2O molecule can be so rapid and unpredictable that you might suspect that water was a substance that acted randomly.

It's when taken en masse, humans and molecules, that certain necessities to which each are beholden come into focus. You can't guess where a single H2O molecule is headed as the pot is heated on the stovetop, but you can be very nearly 100% certain that the pot is going to come to a boil at 100° C, and steam will rise from its surface. Similarly, when you turn up the heat on a large group of human beings, they're going to start hurling rocks at cops and setting buildings on fire when they get hot enough.

Under such circumstances, and without some kind of intervention, it's just bound to happen. It's probably as useless talking about the morality of rioters and looters as it is to blame steam for bursting its pipe when the pressure gets too high.

So I told James all of this. Sometimes, he said, it's worth it to just lie down and take a beating if you're looking to win hearts and minds.

I remember there was an implied "but" to this, and I remember that I interrupted him as he typed it. Isn't it almost always about winning hearts and minds? I asked him. We're social animals. We're ultimately controlled by who or what has won our hearts and minds.

If it were that simple, James began.

I wish I could recall (or had a record of) the rest of the conversation, in which we each took turns pointing out some other cord in the awful snarl. An ingrained history of racism in law enforcement. The militarization of the police force. The executive minds who won't be able to help but see these protests as a reason to continue handing assault rifles and tanks to local police. The political entrenchment of these executives. The Patriot Act, the fucking Patriot Act. The grooved mind of the police department with an annual budget: "we have X dollars to spend on weapons and equipment, but we really only need half of that. But if we don't spend the money, exactly that much will be cut from next year's budget; so let's look through the catalog and pick some cellphone jammers and LRADs!" For-profit prisons. The sad fact that incensed people tend to throw their bricks without realizing they're aiming at the wrong targets.

What are the correct targets?

I don't know. And I don't know if throwing bricks is right way of fighting back against injustice. I'd like to imagine I understand twentieth-century history well enough to assert that standing your ground and taking a beating in an act of civil disobedience is the braver and ultimately more efficacious method of getting results than tossing Molotov cocktails at cops and looting stores. (See footnotes.) But this isn't the twentieth century anymore; what really works best is anyone's guess at this point.

Footnote #1: Of course it is easier to advise someone, from a safe distance, that they'd be better off getting gassed and beaten and tossed in jail instead of acting on their anger—their absolutely, unquestionably valid anger—in the most expedient way available to them. We can't deny the anger, and we can't deny the injustice.

But do I feel powerfully that there are right and wrong ways to act on anger, however righteous or justified it might be. The easiest and most immediately satisfying means of giving voice and action to anger is usually counterproductive towards achieving whatever solution we're hoping to arrive at. (Go on, ask me about how my temper has been fucking up my personal relationships lately.)

As I type this I'm reminded of the Ecclesiasticus quote that always accompanied the snapshot of the Twin Towers that David Rees used to post on the front page of Get Your War On on the anniversary of 9/11:

A fire is kept hot by stoking and a quarrel by persistence.
A man's rage is in proportion to his strength,
and his anger in proportion to his wealth.
A hasty argument kindles a fire, and a hasty quarrel leads to bloodshed.
Blow on a spark to make it glow, or spit on it to put it out;
both results come from the one mouth.

The most salient problems in this situation are a stubbornly entrenched institutional racism and the cultural brutality and decades-long militarization of the police in this country. Violent protests probably won't be very useful in allaying the first problem, and will likely exacerbate the second. I'm betting that every Molotov cocktail hurled in the aftermath of a tear-gassed demonstration becomes another reason the piglords (they know who they are) will cite as a justification for importing the weapons and tactics once reserved for use against enemy combatants and handing them to local police in the name of civil protection. There are better ways of going about this.

Footnote #2: I hope I won't be accused of parroting Obama's remarks earlier today: "there is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting." While I do agree with him on this point, I also think he has even less right to make such a claim than I do. He is, after all, at the very top of the law enforcement org chart. Instead of making some vague declaration about an investigation and justice being done, he should have promised to take action on demilitarizing the police and then faithfully carried out that promise. But I'm hoping for too much from him, as always.

James kept making a joke. I forget, he'd say; are we talking about Missouri or Palestine?

The instruments are different, but the score is the same. It's awful to listen to and exhausting to consider.

James and I talked for nearly an hour. We could agree on what was wrong, and a whole lot was wrong. But I'm sorry to admit that we came to no conclusions as to what was best, what was right, what would really make a substantive difference in all of this.

Later in the day I listened to a radio interview with Reverend Willis Johnson, a Ferguson pastor. More than Obama, more than the Twitterati or journalists, this is the observer I think most deserves to be listened to.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Requisites for Social Progress

From Paleofuture.
Finally, finally, finally finished Science and the Modern World. I'm still a little hung up on the chapter on abstraction—which is the cipher to the more esoteric components of the other chapters—but I think I can put this one back on the shelf . . . for now. Next up on the list will either be The Souls of Black Folk, Bleak House, or The Landmark Thucydides (meaty, delicious, annotated!). I don't know where to start! It all looks so good—and none of it can possibly take as long to digest as Whitehead.

I'd like to share the final chapter of Science and the Modern World, "Requisites for Social Progress." (The text was taken from here, so I'm not responsible for any typos this time.) Bear in mind that this was written in 1925; a few points may seem a little questionable or even quaint to the twenty-first-century mind, but it still contains a wealth of good (and very relevant) advice.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Revisions and a Review

Item #1: My second novel is going to be called All the Lonely People. Some months ago I said it would be coming out this month if I couldn't bring it to a legitimate avenue for publication. It didn't come out this month, and I haven't found any agents interested in shopping it or small presses interested in publishing it.

Right now I'm revising it. Again. Afterwards I will give it one last chance against a list of ten small presses. Having put so much work into it since the beginning of the year, it would be silly not to try again. If that doesn't work out (and I guess I don't expect it to), it will be self published. And life will go on.

Item #2: I recently watched Batman: Assault on Arkham, the new DC Comics direct-to-video animated movie. It's only a Batman movie by name, and only due to the arithmetic of the market. Although the Caped Crusader makes a few appearances, his role is largely relegated to that of a supporting character. Assault on Arkham is really about the Suicide Squad (with a focus on Deadshot), one of the greatest super-teams in all of comics (and the precursor to my favorite, the Secret Six).

The result was . . . well, nothing that really warrants a detailed review. There's a lot of blood, a lot of PG-13 partial nudity, and a lot of dubstep. The whole production seems designed by people who were once the teenage Dragonball Z fans who proclaimed the superiority of anime to Western cartoons entirely on the basis of its license to depict graphic violence and bare breasts. Now that they've grown up and can make cartoons for today's teenagers, what they're reaching for is maximum gratuity.

I had thought that the dark, ultra-violent (and actually pretty damn decent) Flashpoint Paradox owed its grimness to its pseudo-Age of Apocalypse setting, until Justice League: War demonstrated that no, actually, this was how all of the direct-to-video DC movies were going to be from now on. Assault on Arkham is par for this new course—which isn't surprising, given that Deadshot, Killer Frost, and King Shark are at the center of the action—but what left a bad taste in my mouth was who gets killed.

Maybe I'm becoming an insufferable moralist in my old age, but it bugged me that most of the Suicide Squad's collateral damage consists of Arkham Asylum staffers. These are working stiffs, not enemy combatants. The story is that the Riddler stole information about the Task Force X program from Amanda Waller, so The Wall sends the Squad out to infiltrate Arkham and get it back. (It might have made more sense for Waller to simply walk into Arkham's front door with her government spook credentials and ask for what she's looking for, but then we wouldn't have a movie.) Her team covertly breaks into Arkham, killing a bunch of totally innocent hospital staff in the process. When the operation hits a snag and the facility goes on a security alert, the team starts killing security guards instead.

In John Ostrander's Suicide Squad comics, Waller sends her team of co-opted supervillains on missions against terror cells, enemy states (which were the U.S.S.R. and Iran when Ostrander was writing in the 1980s), and drug cartels in the name of protecting American civilians and interests. Permitting her squad to carelessly murder uninvolved civilians to protect her program's secrets is absolutely against her character. She's ruthless, yes, and she plays rough. Her team is expendable—there was never any question about that, that was always the deal, and that's how it has to be where high-stakes covert operations are concerned—but Ostrander's Waller doesn't carelessly sacrifice lives, and her first priority is the safety of American citizens. The Amanda Waller we meet in Assault on Arkham is a petty, corrupt government thug, and it makes me a little sad to see this version voiced by C.C.H. Pounder, who voiced the brilliant and true-to-form depiction of the character in Justice League Unlimited.

If nothing else, Assault on Arkham compelled me to revisit the old Suicide Squad comics. Reading it again, I'm still really tickled by this meeting between Waller and Deadshot. (Context: Deadshot has been off the team and on the loose for a while, and his new client has sent him on a mission to kill Waller. Right-click + View Image to read in full size.)