Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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James Baldwin on society and education

To celebrate Black History Month here on Liquid Ink, I’m quoting from black American intellectuals every day until March. These quotes are all deeply meaningful to me.

Yesterday’s was from Frederick Douglass. Today it’s James Baldwin, taken from his Talk to the Teachers, delivered in 1963.

It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child. Man is a social animal. He cannot exist without a society. A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

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Photo of James Baldwin from Wikipedia.


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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.

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Honestly, Europe, now’s not the time

In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten into several conversations with Europeans—British, Dutch, German and Lithuanian—who were having fun at America’s expense. Just today I received an article written by a friend who contemplates American identity as the stuff of hyperbole, superficiality and non-sense. Of course, none of these people could hide their current trepidation, not entirely.

The joy that Europe usually feels poking fun at American idiocy is at once an expression of bewilderment, superiority and self-consciousness. Honestly, I think it’s past time to be poking any fun, and Europeans really do need to start asking themselves some serious questions. What will the continent do in the case of American political, cultural and economic collapse?

People might shrug this question off. European nations are, after all, survivors of calamities. But the current moment is troubling. Europe has looked at the United States, at least since the late 40’s, as a stable global player, and American political and economic interest has been predictable, even dependable, no matter how often it has proven vile. Currently, the threat of chaos is real and I don’t feel Europe is having the necessary conversation.

What’s Europe’s plan if America turns fascist? Make fun of our lack of culture and our poorly educated population all you want, but a fascist America would really put the heat on you. American descent into abjection would strain and risk so many systems. From a bird’s eye view, perhaps a massive teardown of the world’s power structure is exactly what’s necessary for our long-term survival. But it really won’t be any fun to watch the fields getting torched, or to find ourselves standing in the middle of one.

I suppose I’m saying, Europe, that your American friends are ashamed and frightened, and it should embarrass you if at this moment you need to feel better about yourselves by calling us idiots. We know we’re idiots. This thing in America is a mess: we’ve a critical mass of people holding jackhammers to the home’s foundation. If that crew gets to work as it wishes, you might be forced to bunker down in a way you haven’t for many decades. Sure, you’ll survive, as you always have, but I don’t see you laughing on your way to survival, just as I don’t see any global foundation being rebuilt without rational and sensible European leadership.

On an individual level, if you want to be a friend to an American, don’t immediately start pestering or laughing. We know you’re confused, but don’t start an interrogation. Instead, ask us if we could use a cup of tea or coffee. We really, really could, and if you made it for us while we sat forehead-in-palm at the table, we’d only love you. You can spike it with amaretto or brandy while you’re at it. We should have that drink together because, as we both know too well, there’s no place to escape from this planet. No matter what November brings, we’re all going to need each other.

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Photo: late summer light along US 45, East Central Illinois.


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Open letter to Lithuanian-Americans who tend to vote Republican

Dear fellow Lithuanians:

Today I’m asking you to think about one of our mutual interests: the continued independence of Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic States.

No, I’m not a Republican and never have been. So if you’re Lithuanian-American and have heard of me, I get that you’re probably not a fan of my writing or public comments. If this is your first visit to my website, know I’m not posting today to get you to like me or buy my books.

Instead, I’m asking you to think about something I know you take seriously: the sovereignty of  Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I’d like you to weigh what party loyalty you might feel against the possibility of that sovereignty’s breach.

I was among those Lithuanian-Americans who protested wildly for the United States to recognize the Lithuanian declaration of independence in 1990. Many of you were there in places like Daley Plaza in Chicago or before the Church of the Annunciation in Brooklyn.

I’m also aware that many of you, particularly those born prior to 1985, are old enough to have some idea of what Soviet occupation meant following WWII. Many of you know this meaning intimately.

I know not all of you vote along party lines. However, chatter on social media is compelling me to share my point of view. Perhaps some of you will conflate my post as a plea to approach an election based on a single issue. The independence of Lithuania and the Baltic States isn’t really that.

As we all know, the world is interconnected; we have, all of us, always been interdependent, but that is only more readily apparent now in a globalized economy where  commerce and communication are instant. The survival of NATO and the EU affects every global citizen, at least economically and politically. The possibility of an occupation of a country in northeast Europe should concern us morally, intellectually and even spiritually.

I find it paradoxical, at minimum, for those who were either blasted across the planet while fleeing Soviet aggression, or found themselves (like me) born to the displaced, to now enter a ballot box and vote for a candidate who looks at an alliance like NATO as a sacrificial pawn in a geopolitical board game.

It is also curious, for those who migrated during the 3rd wave, to find oneself living between countries, with friends and family in Lithuania, now to face the prospect of electing a candidate flippant to the possibility of a Baltic invasion, of leaving loved ones open to the increased possibility of foreign occupation.

You might find yourself voting for a set of personal reasons, perhaps to return jobs to mining or steel towns, or to punish the politically correct. If you’re that person, fathom waking up one morning to learn little green men are supporting a “separatist uprising” someplace in eastern Latvia. It soon grows and spreads past Daugavpils and into Lithuania, where “liberators” come to rid Zarasai of “fascists”. This is theoretical but hardly hyperbolic. A similar scenario has been taking place in Ukraine.

Our friends and family in Lithuania—indeed, in the rest of the EU and in the rest of the world—do not have a vote. But if they were faced with the choice, to the vast majority it requires not a nanosecond of thought.

Yes, there are plenty of things for Americans to be angry about. We haven’t been all that nice to each other, and it’s a fact that both the government and our bosses at work haven’t listened to the concerns of the middle class. Your gripe is legitimate. But what are you willing to risk in order to voice it? What alliances are you willing to tear down? No one has proposed anything we can prop up to replace the structures currently keeping the world from chaos.

The battle for Baltic independence cost lives. When I was a child, my elders believed it was something I’d never see in my lifetime. After so much progress, here we are, playing with fire as the world holds its breath.

And people who fled Stalinism—or the children and grandchildren of those who survived it—enter the ballot box prepared to vote for a demagogue on record as saying he may not honor American promises to protect the country which remains a cornerstone of our identity.

It begs so many questions, among them this one: if American promises have a price tag, what will the demagogue’s promises cost, and who will pay the price?

Please think about that.

Gint

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Photo: the Vilnius Television Tower, site of Soviet crackdown against Lithuanian independence on January 13, 1991.


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New essay published

The good folks at ReImagining Magazine have published their summer issue. My essay, An American Imposter, finds itself there.

I spent a long time abroad this spring and summer, and got tired of having to “explain” my American identity. It got to the point that I no longer wanted to talk to strangers about where I was from. It became impossible to have conversations about anything besides our loathsome national politics.

The experience inspired this essay. Hope you’ll read and share. 


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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.

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The implausibility of a Great American Wall

I tried posting this article on Facebook, but I felt it did not get the proper traction, so I’m going to share it here on Liquid Ink. Some colleagues and I were discussing this over lunch. Does anyone understand what kind of engineering feat it would be to build a wall between Mexico and the USA? In the damn desert? With this state of political gridlock?

An engineer, Ali Rhuzkan, has chimed in, and his explanation makes obvious just how absurd all this bravado is about a wall between our countries. What do people think, that the Mexico-US border is like a street between Charlottenburg and the rest of Berlin?

Here are some of the article’s highlights:

  • This wall would contain over three times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam.
  • It would be greater in volume than all six pyramids of the Giza Necropolis.
  • The rebar necessary to reinforce the concrete would equal about 5 billions pounds of steel, or more than is contained in 4 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Read the rest of Ali Rhuzukan’s article here.

Here’s a wall for you:

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