Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Monuments

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included this grievance against George III.

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

This is not the private Jefferson, the man who raped the mother of his children and kept both she and them in servitude.  This is the public Jefferson.  His neighbors had been the subject of intermittent bouts of genocide since the early 17th century.  They would continue to be the subject of genocide for more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words.  I could also quote his weird pre-eugenicist eugenics that appear in "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he suggests that freed slaves should be colonized in areas far from the white races.  Such racism has evolved into various forms and still exists today in the form of redlining and the fact that Charles Murray is still published by respectable houses in New York.  There's an eerie line about the inability of the black man to experience physical pain to the same degree as the white man.  That line resonates in Darren Wilson's testimony on the killing of Michael Brown.

Thomas Jefferson appears on the two-dollar bill, which no one uses and the nickel, whose reverse side includes a picture of his beautiful neoclassical home, which was built on the backs of slave labor.  A major monument to him stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of a minority of people based entirely on their ethnic background.  His New Deal policies, the major achievement of 20th-century American liberalism, required the accommodation of Southern segregationists.  His face is on the dime.  A monument to him also stands on the National Mall.

Andrew Jackson was a genocidal maniac.  His face appears on the 20-dollar bill.

It's easy to look back and declare that these men were all just products of their time and that their crimes are just details within lifetimes of accomplishments, but consider this, liberal friends: If in another 50-100 years, someone decides to place Barack Obama's face on our currency - in commemoration of health care or gay rights - he will be commemorating the president who fathered drone warfare.

The keepers of monuments don't want to start conversations.  They want to end them.  They don't want to tell you that most major leaders in world history combine, to various degrees, god and the devil.  They want to tell you that they all walk with the angels.  They want to set their narratives in stone not for generations, but for eternity.  I have mixed feelings about the campus protests, but the recent flare-up at Princeton about the name of Woodrow Wilson, white supremacist extraordinaire, and president of a university that has long been a byword for Wasp power, has my respect.

The easy way out of the issue is to replace commemorations to national pride based on political figures for commemorations of artists.  Put Walt Whitman on the nickel, Ray Charles on the dime, Philip Roth, when the time comes, on the 20-dollar bill.  Another way out, the more popular way out, is to build monuments to the underdog freedom fighters, Martin Luther King, Jr. (which we did already), Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth.  A third way out is to tweak the monuments that already stand.  Put the face of a Cherokee on the reverse side of Jackson's 20-dollar bill.  Add statues of a slave and an Indian to the Jefferson Memorial, so both can stare at the Third President of the United States for eternity.

The final way out, the least satisfactory way out, would be to let these monuments stand and then reinvent them in our own minds, not as monuments to our greatness but as monuments to our shame.  Allow your own imagination to turn Jackson's face on the 20-dollar bill into a constant reminder of America's Holocaust.  Add a picture of a slave to the Jefferson Memorial on your own.  That would take some work but that work might be more effective than any of the previous three options.  Don't ask the powers-that-be to make you a better student of history and a better citizen.  Read the history on your own, ignore the heritage, and make yourself a better citizen.      

Friday, November 20, 2015

On Come From Away

Last night I saw Come From Away, a musical about the 7000 airline passengers whose flights were diverted to the tiny village of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001.  It's a whimsical Irish-rock musical, a celebration of small-town decency amid historic tragedy.  The simple folk of Newfoundland welcome one and all.  The black New Yorker, the gay couple and the African family's fears of these backwoods cod fisherman all prove to be misplaced.  A woman from the ASPCA spends the days after September 11 caring for the animal cargo on one of the planes.  A British oil man and a divorced Texas woman strike up an unlikely romance.  A polite Egyptian man who excites the fears of all turns out to be a top-notch chef.  An old man, the son of Polish Jews who was forbidden by his parents to show his background, confesses his roots to a young Orthodox rabbi.  The mother of a firefighter in New York waits anxiously to hear news of her son, relying on the counsel of a local. The musical is an Irish wake.  The world was going to hell, but in a tiny village of Newfoundland, on the eve of what would be a decade of war, empire-crumbling and a near-debilitating financial crisis, a diverse group of people created, as the British oil man describes it, "a diversion."

You either let yourself laugh and be moved by this sort of thing or you don't and I happen to believe that life is too short not to surrender to sentimentality every now and then.  I maintain that the behavior of New Yorkers in the days following the tragedy reveals a profound wish for community.  I don't think many people want to admit it, but there was a great joy in lining up at blood banks and discovering a small-town relationship to the big city in which you live.  Pretty much all of us wouldn't mind living in a socialist utopia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Refugees and Recognizing Hard Questions

In the midst of the first wave of articles on the refugee crisis in Europe, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

"My attitude towards the refugee crisis in Europe is pre-intellectual. When a starving child asks you for food, you feed him. When a person is drowning and you have a lifeboat, you provide it for him. It's not the time to weigh pros and cons. I don't care about the near- or long-term ramifications to the continent's culture or economy. I don't care about the complaints that refugees might prefer to live in richer countries and not in poor countries. I don't care that Malta and Italy might be disproportionately affected under EU laws. I don't care that the natural path of immigrants lays an extra burden on Hungary's security. I don't care about the integrity of a country's borders. I don't care if any of the statements above suggest a misreading of the controversy. I don't need you to correct me. I...DO...NOT...FUCKING...CARE. 
"I am not going to mention any of my personal experiences of Hungary, where I spent a year of my life, to shed any light on this situation. I am not going to discuss how any of my travels through the rest of Europe may shed light on the situation. My personal experiences are irrelevant. 
Does this video make you angry? If the answer is yes, congratulations, you're officially a member of 99% of the human race. Let me ask you these questions: What is the difference between this woman, and the people of Europe, North America and the rest of the Middle East, who are unsure of exactly what they're supposed to do in this situation? How is their inability to make a decision any less destructive than this sociopath's behavior? Are the answers to these questions easy? If so, you're a very different person than I am."

An old friend from Eastern Europe took this personally and responded with a string of attacks that struck me as ad hominem, mostly about how I was writing this from my comfortable living room in America while Bulgaria had to take in 2000 refugees.  Bulgaria, for what it's worth, has a population of 7.1 million people.  Two thousand refugees did not strike me as a terrible burden, particularly for a country that had enjoyed the largesse of the European Union, and which contained several abandoned hotels constructed amid a climate of corruption and greed.  I believed those hotels could easily house refugees.  The discussion was heated.  She de-friended me.  I moved on with my life.
My attitude was the attitude of many, the kind of thought process that is triggered by photographs of dead children.  Even the staunchest logician shuts himself down when faced with arguments that may be legitimate.  I have never taken defenses of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombings with any seriousness.  Many people far smarter than me have made those arguments, but there's very little you can say that will make me support the instant incineration of thousands and the creation of a cancer zone.  
Even now, after a horrific attack against a culture not all that different from my own by what one of the world's most evil organizations (there's a lot of competition), I stand by my initial response.  When a child is hungry, you feed him.  When a man is drowning, you save him.  When I stop and try to be an intellectual, I apply my cold, hard, utilitarian logic and I estimate that 99.99 percent of these refugees are not trying to kill anyone in Europe or North America.  The chances of any of that .01 percent getting through and killing a few thousand people is higher than I would like it to be, but it seems a small price to pay for the lives of hundreds of thousands.  And anyway, that .01 percent of refugees seems less dangerous to me than the homegrown terrorists, the middle-class nihilists who get into ISIS the way other teenagers get into Dungeons and Dragons.
Still, my liberal friends and I may be wrong.  And even if we're not, we live in a political system that has to accommodate the fears of small-minded bigots as well as decent people who have every right to fear for their own families and communities, and who are just as pre-intellectual in their assumptions as I am in mine.  You come to accept a political reality in which you have to bargain with those neighbors. You agree to accept a few thousand refugees here, another few thousand there, and as you bargain, you cringe at the thought of how long it takes and of the children languishing in hellish camps, some of whom you'll be able to save and some of whom you won't.  
If you demand that we feed all the children and that we save all the drowning men, you won't save any.  If you agree not to feed all the children and you let some men drown, you may save a few.  You won't be the first person in history to make such compromises.  You won't be the first to hate yourself for doing so.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On Terror in France and Respectable Opinions

There was a run on American flags.  One hundred US senators most of whom still had bitter thoughts about an impeachment proceeding that was less than three years old and a recent presidential election decided by the judicial branch, convened and sang a popular ode to their nation.  It was not the time to condemn a single fact of American life.  It was a time to celebrate our values, values that were so clearly under attack.

In the next few months, years, opinions that should have earned the respect of no one, earned a comfortable place in the mainstream: racial profiling, government surveillance, torture.  When in 2002, Steven Spielberg, a bellwether of American centrist liberalism, promoted Minority Report, a science-ficition thriller about the perils of government surveillance, he made it a point to defend the Bush Administrations's stances on civil liberties.  

Everyone was shocked by the first photos from Abu Ghraib.  This was not us.  This is not what those American flags stood for.  Where the hell did this come from?

We are now raising French flags.  My Facebook friends are covering their photos in the blue, white and red.  We speak of solidarity, and I'm sure in France, on this day, there is much talk of solidarity as well, and of all the wonderful things France stands for that the terrorists hate.  It may be rude, mean to issue a warning at this moment of mourning.  But I will say this: Dear France, dear Europe, dear US, and dear world: now is not the time to make the indefensible defensible, now is not the time to deny basic decency to refugees from genocide or to talk of racism's good points.  If you let such opinions become respectable, you let the terrorists win.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Protesters

Two protests.  The first involves black football players at a state university.  The other involves people of color at one of the world's most elite universities.  The first has achieved its main goal and has earned the goodwill, more or less, of the media.  The second has not achieved its main goal and has been eviscerated by almost all.

I don't enjoy protesting.  I don't enjoy listening to other protesters.  I don't like shouting in unison.  I don't like showing up at rallies and cheering for people I may disagree with.  The University of Washington had a Black Lives Matter march back in the winter.  One of the protesters complained that the school didn't postpone exams in the wake of the Michael Brown verdict.  I thought this was a stupid complaint.  I still think this was a stupid complaint.  I left the protest.

I often agree with the protesters' general objectives but disagree with the specificities.  I have sympathies with those who protest sexual harassment on campus, but the policies they demand may create problems concerning the rights of defendants.  So I don't join the protest.  Some may consider me a member of the white male patriarchal system for taking this stance.  They can believe what they want, but if that's all they have in response then they aren't going to convince me or anyone else.

Protesting is an anti-intellectual exercise.  Slogans don't have nuance.  Protesters aren't interested in discussion or debates in which there can be fair disagreements.  There are times when they are right to take this stance.  There are times when they are not.  The consensus is growing that the Missouri football students were right to not discuss.  The consensus is growing that the Yale students were not only wrong to avoid discussion, but that they were actively demanding a miserable, anti-intellectual atmosphere, a world without discussions.

Intellectuals can be protesters.  An intellectual can take part in a protest, but in the moment of protest, in the moment of shouting and sloganeering, he ceases to be an intellectual.

When students protest, we have a knee jerk reaction to refer to them as "juvenile," "immature."  "Hopefully, they'll grow out of it." "Don't they realize that they're going to have to argue in the real world." "There's no safe space where they're going."  The truth is that most adults are no different from these students.  They get angry if you disagree with one of their fundamental political beliefs.  They are susceptible to the outrage machine.  They find common cause with fellow adults based on predetermined beliefs.  You couldn't find a single person in my circle who defended Sarah Palin back in 2008.  I and they may have been right, but we didn't come to our conclusions with any discussion.  We just knew the story.

There are many victims in this world.  Protests deny the real existence of victims who complicate the most familiar narratives of victimhood: the white straight male rape victim, the Brown University graduate who is now homeless because of an addiction to heroin, the Jewish student who suffers slurs because she holds conservative views on Middle East politics.  I sympathize with all three, the victim of sexual violence, the victim of a criminal justice and health care system that misunderstands drug addiction, the victim of bigotry.

Poor victims are more sympathetic than rich victims.  This is as it should be.

Many protesters are narcissists.  A narcissist can be a good protester.  More often than not, narcissists are unsympathetic and thus ineffective protesters.

The world needs protesters.  The world needs non-protesters just as much.      

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On the Superhero Movies I Like

In the climax of Tim Burton's first Batman movie, Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale seduces Jack Nicholson's Joker.  She runs her lips up and down his clothes, declares her love for the color purple.  The camera settles on a medium close-up of Nicholson, as Basinger slowly drops to her knees below his waist and below the bottom of the screen.  Nicholson's permanent rictus smile almost breaks into an "O".

In Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman seduces Michael Keaton's Batman.  Her hand lovingly runs along his suit's articulated abs down to his articulated genitals.

In X-Men 2, Ian McKellen's Magneto suggests that Rebecca Romijn's Mystique entertains him by morphing into young good-looking men.  He purrs at a protege of Xavier's, letting him know that he's a god among insects, essentially that he has a wonderful body he should be proud of.

These are just plot points.  I would also say that Burton's camera makes love to Pfeiffer, stuck in a beautiful, shiny S&M suit.  The soundtrack captures every bend and stretch of the latex.  Bryan Singer's camera studies Lady Deathstrike's contortions as adamantium lead destroys her body from inside.

The scripts in Iron Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 make clear that, respectively, Tony Stark, and Peter Parker are not virgins, and yet you would be forgiven if you believed that Robert Downey, Jr. just wasn't that into it or that Andrew Garfield didn't get past first base with Emma Stone.  Chris Evans's muscled body in The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier is no more alluring than Leni Riefenstahl's athletes.

Nicholson's Joker is a sexed-up madman.  Heath Ledger's Joker is an evil soldier in warpaint, and though he likes to kill, you can't really imagine him raping anyone.  Christopher Reeve couldn't hide an erection.  Henry Cavill is a eunuch.

Good superhero movies are carnivals.  Good superhero movies are orgies.