I’ve penned an essay about the war in Ukraine for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Please check it out here.
Category Archives: Politics
Let’s reimagine normal
I published a new essay today in Re-Imagining magazine. It’s a response to our collective longing to be able to live our social lives again, though I provoke some questions readers of Liquid Ink will find interesting.
I’m wondering if anyone else is noticing the perception of accelerated time. For me, the days don’t seem to drag, despite me spending almost all of my time in my condo. I sense them barreling forward; it’s almost evening before I’m finished with my late morning chores. Given this, it seems I had inhabited a completely different consciousness when I first submitted that essay to an editor.
How to describe it? When I wrote the essay, I was feeling inquisitive, and I hoped for hope. As the days barrel forward, I’m noticing myself becoming more belligerent. I don’t mean that I argue with people, or that I sense some enemy or assault—I go outside to exercise alone or ride bikes with my children, and I’m hardly active on social media. I also don’t mean that I’ve formed an idea I want to push.
Instead, I feel an alarm going off, and my belligerence is the panic of a man reaching around in a dark room to try to silence it.
But it doesn’t quiet down. It seems to strengthen as my arm reaches and swings more desperately to find it in the dark. Strangely, I’ve longed for this alarm. Sometimes I even feel that I’ve heard it before.
I hope you’ll read my new essay.
Illness and the American Mind
Back in 1996, I was living in Linz, Austria where I had made some British friends. They lived down the street from me in a dorm. One afternoon, I was in their communal kitchen drinking tea and talking.
A group of Erasmus students came in. One was a Swedish woman, 19 years old, terribly worried about something. Her group’s concern drowned out our teatime conversation.
It turned out the woman had a sty. Unsure what it was, she feared the swollen eyelid could get worse or cause blindness. Foreign, she didn’t really know how to go to the doctor, so locals helped her find treatment (a free clinic down the street). They knew a sty was no big deal, but they sincerely wanted to settle her anxiety, and the clinic took her and treated her.
I was 23 years-old, the only American on the scene. I didn’t share my point of view with anyone, though you can predict what it was.
“What a bunch of wusses.”
The American mind, consciously and unconsciously, views sickness in much the same way that it views poverty or tragedy: signals of something flawed, wrong or weak with the individual. If you had not done this, you would not be suffering that. If you weren’t this way, you would not be dealing with these outcomes. You’re sick? Prove your worth. Bear it out and get to work.
In the general American mind, default reality is pleasant and safe. If something’s wrong, it must be someone’s fault…someone must have caused reality to shift. The overlying mythology makes this a requirement: America is the greatest country in the world. We don’t just pursue happiness (er…material gain and demonstrative wealth). No…we achieve it, and if we can’t, we pretend to.
We’re just a competitive interest rate away from a wide, dandelion-free lawn, and a driveway boasting shiny cars.
Here in Chicago, I lived among neighbors who tried to one-up each other after Christmas by throwing out packaging. The more they cast to the landfill, the better their Christmas had been (as a credit card company lit a cigar).
These neighbors believed whoever is happier is superior. The proof of happiness is in the spectacle. Look what I’m capable of!
At least until this point, we have thought of illness this way.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to work sick in America, even when I had the right to call in. I played it off, though sometimes I was miserable. This happened in restaurants, a hotel and a telemarketing center, where I sold subscriptions to Playboy magazine. The workers there sat three feet from each other. Whoever came in after my shift used the phone I had coughed all over.
But I scored points. I was “dedicated.” One manager called me hardcore. A lesser man, the idea went, would not have demonstrated such commitment to a clown show that offered no benefits and could cast me to the dumpster.
Right now, America does not know how sick it is. We’re not testing enough people. Some brag about our “low rate of infection” as compared to other countries, when in truth the best we can do is estimate. Earlier this month, the president kept people on a ship rather than bring them to shore, and admitted he did to keep the numbers low. It was all about the spectacle.
This is our larger, older illness. It’s one of consciousness, and we’re watching mother nature dismantle it before our eyes. Covid-19 is bullshit proof, bravado proof and mythology proof, at least in the moment. Rising stocks won’t save the billionaire who’ll need a ventilator. We’re facing the test of our generation, and what consciousness comes out on the other side will determine our larger future.
Will we accept the obvious, that the sick are not weak, burdensome or disposable, as the poor are not irresponsible or lazy. No individuals will pull themselves out of this by bootstraps, or whatever cliche you want to use. This will take a collective effort. As we sit in fear of illness, suffering or death, we should also fear we’ll fail to learn the lesson of compassion this moment clearly demands. Will we return to our poisonous mythology of the super-powered individual? Will we learn to see that one person’s loss is not another one’s gain, but that all losses belong to the collective?
As the poet wrote, so much depends on the answer to this question.
Image from Wikipedia.
Your right to hate speech
This should only be said once.
Dear Nazis, no one is taking away your right to spew your hatred. You’ve been doing it all along: on the Internet, at dinner parties, on bar stools, during Thanksgiving dinner, and now in Portland, where you were met with opposition.
The reason you believe you’re being oppressed or denied rights is because you conflate your right to spew blather, ignorance and mental sewage with the listeners’ need to believe you or agree with you. This is how freedom of speech works. You stand up and spew your hatred, express your ignorance, make public fools of yourselves, and your peers duly note it. When you stage your protest, the counter-group stages theirs. That’s not a denial of your rights. On the contrary: it’s you expressing your right to stand up in public and say “I’m an imbecile!”
We know, and we’ve known all along.
There’s a reason most people don’t believe you. You’re blatantly and idiotically wrong, and your world view is psychological and sociological pollution. Your loathing is based on a false perception, on constructs you’ve never taken the time to investigate or think over. Your ideas would bore most of us if they didn’t lead to violence and the destruction of lives.
It bothers you to witness those you loathe supported politically or enjoying economic success, larger acceptance into mainstream society, or just greater confidence to walk hum-drum down city streets as everyday people and not “others” or “freaks”. You believe that the success of those you loathe disenfranchises you. That’s to say your power or station in society is not actually the result of anything you yourselves can do or manage. In order for you to feel secure, you need someone else to be struggling or denied their humanity. “How come I’m not wealthier than these people I hate?” Good question. Don’t most of you believe that you get what you deserve, that individuals determine their own fates all on their own?
Your mistake is to think that power and acceptance are ladled out like soup. More soup for “them” means less soup for “you” until the whole pot has been distributed. Forget about the idea for a moment that the difference between “them” and “you” is constructed in your mind. If you woke up to see that your neighbor’s success actually makes your life easier, you’d have no need to raise your right hand in defiance of your society’s democratic values.
But you won’t ever see that. It’s obvious. Every time you speak freely, raise your hands into the air, you make that perfectly clear. It’s clearest when you stand up and wonder why you don’t have the right to speak freely, as if you’re unaware that you’re speaking. That has always been to most baffling part to me. It’s always the loudest and most hateful drunk in the bar screaming “Why isn’t anyone listening to me?”
How to deal with a narcissist
I’ve been reading accounts from the American press written by journalists stunned to find Trump is worse beyond their expectations. I obviously don’t share their sentiments. I’m an abuse survivor, grew up with a (much less wealthy) Donald Trump in the house, and have the misfortune of currently working with a Donald Trump heading my place of employment. Over the years, I’ve seen what sort of madhouse network dances about men like our president.
Get used to it, America. We are now an abusive family.
Abusive families have three primary players: the abusers, the enablers and the victims. If it isn’t clear, the abuser (Trump) dishes it out while the enablers (the establishment) make excuses for it, attempt to rationalize it, sometimes to benefit from it, thereby supporting it, while the victims (citizens) take insults and deal with disorienting confusion, even chaos.
It’s more complicated and shaded-gray in reality. All sorts of professional people have broken these roles down further. Obviously, there’s overlap between them.
Most abusers were once victims, and still perceive themselves, like Trump does, as mistreated or unfairly targeted. Some enablers also abuse, but all enablers are victims of the abuse, at least to some degree, if even by virtue of needing to depend on it to play a role, complete some task or access a resource. From my point of view, victims are enablers until they remove themselves from the system, decompress, gather their bearings and accept, with as much clarity as possible, what the abuse was truly like. This requires admitting it. They have to make a conscious decision that the abuse stops with them or it simply won’t.
Most of us are nowhere close to that point yet. This is new and bizarre; we’ve been dropped into the madhouse and can’t tell where to focus our attention. It explains why so many of our journalists and other professionals are staring ahead wide-eyed, mouths agape, making delusional claims like “this might lead to totalitarianism” when a totalitarian is already in control, when reporters are being arrested for doing their jobs and protests outlawed in the wake of idiotic, distracting tweets and abject falsifications of reality.
It’s important for everyone in a position of influence, from every level of our government to the whole of our press, our institutions of education, social services, our courts and our legal professionals to understand something unequivocally. Our president is an abusive madman, a narcissist with no capacity to change, no ounce of empathy, no motivation beyond his own aggrandizement.
Showing him photographs to contradict his delusional claims is pointless. Narcissists cannot be “managed” or “influenced.” In my experience, there are only a few ways to deal with a narcissist, none easy or comfortable.
The first is a war of attrition, the arsenal merciless, consistent insult. The insults do not have to be exotic, vulgar or vindictive; speaking about reality, consistently and in a sustained effort, is enough. You’re not very well liked. Most people abhor you. They disagree with your values. They think you’re uncivilized, deranged, mentally ill and unable to grasp reality. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Do it in shifts, like an oiled hockey team crashing the net. He makes a false statement, so you dismiss it, call it a lie and immediately set about ridiculing it in every possible channel, making certain he sees it.
A narcissist will try to exhaust you until you give in, until putting up with whatever the narcissist is doing becomes easier than listening to his assault on reality, or hearing the insults. It’s exhausting, obviously, to tell the narcissist, “No. The tablecloth is white, not yellow,” every time you deal with him. But that is what we must expect. When the president speaks, he is fabricating a delusion in an effort to exhaust our imaginations and mental capacities. He wants to shell-shock us into submission.
Trump will not stop lying. In fact, he’s going to need to lie more as his administration unravels, as people begin abandoning him. He will not respond to reason or rational conversation, and he will continue sending his representatives to meet the press and lie that they intend to tell the truth, one second after they lie.
This seems counterproductive, even masochistic. A narcissist does not lie merely because he can or because it provides him attention (narcissistic supply). A narcissist’s lie gives him power over others’ imagination and feelings. The lies become the parameters of the discussion—we argue over the delusion instead of weighing the reality—and anything the narcissist doesn’t like he’ll claim has been invented by his victims. The technique renders reason useless and obliterates the basic agreements among the educated; you cannot argue with someone who makes up numbers, contradicts himself constantly or tells you your information is fake, what you’ve witnessed is false.
This latter point is most important. An abuser will beat you up or molest you but then accuse you of imagining it. He’ll accuse you of being unfair, of trying to make him look bad when you show everyone your bloody nose. What’s true is what he says; he is the center, the ultimate reference point. Everything, including reality, is subject to his power.
Attacks on a narcissist, in the short term, only increase his bluster. Eventually, however, the embarrassment of enabling him becomes a liability. At that point, exile becomes an option, but it requires a critical mass of enablers to stand up and say they’ve had enough.
The press cannot in good faith come to press conferences and ask Trump’s secretary, “What lies have you for us today? What bullshit of yours should we share?” However, our legislative branch can, and rather quickly, exile Trump to someplace outside the White House. Currently, Congress is Trump’s greatest enabler, far worse than the press, and getting worse as this horror show blusters on.
What will it finally take for our leaders to say they’ve had enough? Well…the usual thing. Massive opposition from an intrepid, inexhaustible, furious (but also clever) populace.
Books: a threat to fascists
Two American classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, are again under assault. People have been calling for bans on these books since they were first printed.
Generally, two reasons explain why someone tries to ban a book. The first is the person’s ignorance of the book’s message. The second is that the person understands the message but fears it. In this case, both reasons might apply.
My purpose isn’t to advertise the name of the woman who called for the books’ ban or to draw attention to the school district temporarily and foolishly banning the books when they know exactly what they’re about. Interested readers can easily find this information. I’m here to counterpunch. An assault on any book, from the Bible to The Anarchist’s Cookbook, is an assault on all books. It contributes to America’s ever-growing anti-intellectualism and adulation of ignorance, which is often conflated as concern over someone’s emotions.
The worried mother claims the n-bombs in Twain and Lee disturb her biracial teenage son. Of course, instead of asking her son to be excused from reading, she wants the books removed completely. Her rationale: “I’m not disputing this is great literature. But there is so much (sic) racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”
Claiming offensive language interferes with whatever the books are saying is, in fact, a dispute of the books’ greatness. She either hasn’t read or misunderstands Lee and Twain. Her concern for a divided nation is transparent; because her boy finds the books offensive, she feels the rest of the school should as well.
Ironically, both these books provoke discussion about the nature of equality and unity. Curiously, the woman uses the same critique employed by people who fear what ideas these books might provoke.
These books should be difficult for any boy, biracial or otherwise. Great books slap us silly, shake us up and kick us. If the woman could “get past” the offensive word, one that should offend us in 2016, and battle through what violence children witness in the narratives (Huck’s dad is an abusive drunk, for example, and Scout haphazardly stops a lynch mob from murdering Tom Robinson), she could stumble into seeing that both Twain and Lee littered their books with n-bombs, in 1884 and 1960, respectively, while essentially arguing that black lives matter.
In short, these books agree that the biracial boy should be offended not only by words but by his society. Another lesson is that Twain and Lee are also provoking his Caucasian peers to see the consequences of racism.
That’s among the many reasons these books are part of our canon, and also why people have feared Twain and Lee’s critiques for as long as the books have existed.
* * *
Literature has always been a threat to those fascists who want to bait us into hating each other. They know it’s a remedy to growing inequality and division. I’ve met very few people who consumed it in large quantities but came away hateful, afraid of their fellow man.
Having consumed it in large quantities myself, I’ve learned it radical in 1884 to claim black people were human beings deserving of equal rights, just as it was radical to make the claim in 1960, and it obviously remains radical today. If not, it should offend no one to hear the phrase black lives matter. People should hear it and think, “Yeah, no shit.”
Despite my life in letters, I know far more Americans who see no use for literature. So many believe individual words are more offensive than the act of banning them. These people are everywhere; I’ve found them in HR offices and among the administrators in schools. Our president-elect has no use for literature, just as most of his supporters seem to care little for it. Forget about great books—sketch comedy offends them.
People fear books because they want their flawed ideas and hatred either justified or hidden while they get to control the narrative. That has been the only reason books have ever been hated and burned, the only reason their makers are demonized as unpatriotic and brought out to face firing squads.
Of course, my critics will point out that this woman has the best intentions. She’s a leftist who wants a safe space for her kid, and she’s trying to protect him from racism. That misses the point. Her impulse might be to protect her boy, and she’s right to find the word offensive. But right beside this affront is an impulse to make everyone do as she likes.
It’s exactly the impulse of someone who has either read too few books or failed to gain their most important lessons.
Photo, book burning, from Wikipedia.
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. –Harper Lee
We are all members of our culture
I’m depressed today because I know I’m complicit. Separating myself from the culture—indeed, the cultures—to which I belong is impossible.
I am an American at a terribly low point in our history, and I can’t separate myself from the embarrassing maelstrom in our daily rhetoric, the “leaders” we believe reflect our values, at least in part. I refuse to use their names in this post. Using their names has for a long time been part of the problem, a way of using attention junkies to gain attention.
I’m an educator at a time when education is far less effective than it should be, both yielding and reflecting the maelstrom. I’m in higher education at a time when the whole system—the system that compensates me so that I might pay my student loans—looks at students as streams of revenue, at courses as products, and thinks of itself the way an empire might, at its teachers the way Pharaoh saw captured troops. A contemporary college’s greatest partner is a bank. Its greatest enemies are artists and philosophers.
I’m a man of letters at a time when people argue in comments about clickbait headlines. Despite the headline’s purpose, so many don’t bother to click, yet freely unload their frustrations, ignorance, hatred, fear and anxiety. I have written such headlines in attempts to profit. My refusal to monetize this blog is a cheap and pathetic attempt at integrity, one whose sincerity is questionable. It’s embarrassing to receive a “paycheck” for your “writing” in the amount of $6.00, the result of 12,000 “clicks”. We’ll say, “Hey, better $6.00 than 0!” We justify so many vile acts this way.
I could go on. I think I’ve summarized the situation well enough. No…I’ll go on.
I am a child of migrant refugees who now fear and loathe migrants and refugees, who blame refugees for failing to contain a war that banished them from their homes, migrants for working jobs that, if performed by others, would raise prices. Among us are sons and daughters of those displaced because tyrannical demagogues decided to send their armies into battle, slaughter citizens en masse. These children of the displaced today support a demagogue and tyrant. I am complicit in this irrational fear, in this simultaneous hatred and denial of one’s back story. I have paid money to companies that financed movements and politicians who profit by inflaming the maelstrom. Some of these politicians hold shares of the company that sends me a bill each month.
That bill buys a product that’s bad for me. The company knows, all of its employees know the product is bad for me. How many of us pay our bills from the sales of products we know are bad for the people consuming them, and how many of our bills represent purchases we know are bad for us, bad for our kids, bad for people not yet born? The maelstrom swirls, gaining speed. We all know what we’re doing, and we go about it as if there’s no alternative.
Our national rhetoric is about to achieve a level of profanity we may not be able to imagine. I think it’s important, right now and right here, for all of us to stop using this sentence: “Look at what they’re doing over there.” That’s a dangerous delusion, part and parcel of the problem. The correct sentence is this one: “Look at what we’re doing over here.” If we could wake up to ourselves, to our actual predicament, which is that our conditions are the result of our actions and ideas, we’d see the alternative path.
Dariya Marchenko: Art from Ammunition
Here’s the brilliant Dariya Marchenko making a humanitarian statement on the continued atrocities perpetrated by Vladimir Putin. This Reuters report should leave you provoked and moved. Daria assembles a portrait of Putin from bullet cartridges collected from the front lines of the war in Ukraine, and the art is being presented in conjunction with a novel (which I’d very much like to read).
Please share this report.
Photo by Gleb Garanich/Reuters
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