Posts Tagged ‘history’

Nationalism

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Watermelon Dreams On A Starry, Starry Night, Nolan WInkler

Watermelon Dreams On A Starry Starry Night by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2013)

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Let me get this straight. The United States government blithely oversees the killing and maiming of women and children and unarmed civilians with missiles fired from drones and helicopters and jets and battleships, invades other countries in the service of multinational corporations and uses artillery shells made with so-called depleted uranium spreading cancerous dust wherever they explode, and incarcerates and tortures people without charge for years and decades, but that same government says we have a moral obligation to bomb Syria and kill untold numbers of Syrians because the Syrian government has killed people using weaponry we don’t like them using, though we did nothing in response to the Syrian government killing tens of thousands of people over the last two years using weapons we do approve of?

John Kerry, who must have had some sort of lobotomy, moral or actual, said of our need to bomb Syria, “It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations.” Huh? Which universal values are those? Slaughtering people who cannot defend themselves against our overwhelming military might? Allowing the huge out-of-control banks to steal trillions of dollars and ruin our economy? Jailing the few people brave enough to blow the whistle on the egregious misuse of power by our government? I’m confused. Which set of values are we talking about here?

“History is all explained by geography.” Robert Penn Warren

Speaking of sets, while Kerry and Obama have been making their disingenuous and downright sickening nationalistic proclamations about our moral obligation to carry out immoral acts of mass destruction, the US Open tennis tournament played out in New York, with the American media anguishing over the lack of American men among those good enough to win the tournament. We did have for a few rounds the very tall white American hope John Isner who, before he was eliminated by someone with the highly suspicious last name of Kohlschreiber, played and won a match against Gael Monfils, a charismatic black man from France, and both Isner and the American media were outraged that here in America the crowd attending that match had the gall to root for the foreigner.

Heaven forbid! Shame on those people for rooting for someone from France, a socialist country with strong labor unions and excellent free healthcare. How dare they? This is America. We have a moral obligation to support all American athletes against all foreign athletes because, well, we’re better than anyone else. Aren’t we? Isn’t that one of our universal values we organize ourselves around? Hey, maybe the reason we don’t have any champion American male tennis players is that our men are being undermined and emasculated by unpatriotic traitors rooting for people from other countries, socialist countries, no less.

“The United States of America is a cross-breeding integration of humans from all nations of the planet earth.” Buckminster Fuller

Nationalism, as Buckminster Fuller points out in his grand opus Critical Path, is a ruse used by supranational corporations to trick people into fighting wars and doing stupid selfish things beneficial to those corporations and the amoral rich people who own and operate those corporations. Nations, as Bucky shows, are blood clots in what otherwise would be the wide open veins and arteries of a global community of egalitarian earthlings dedicated to the regeneration of the earth’s natural systems and the economic liberation of all people through democratic socialism. When I hear our political leaders and media pundits spouting pro-American nonsense, I think of clotting agents at work in our collective veins where we least need clotting.

“Society’s educational system’s conditioned reflexes are half a millennium out of gear with the discovered facts of cosmic operation.” Buckminster Fuller

Nationalism is a psychotic form of racism, and by psychotic I mean delusional. The delusion underpinning the psychosis of nationalism is that the people of one country are essentially different than the people of another country, though one of the discovered facts of cosmic operation is that every human being on earth is directly descended from the same mother of all mothers, a Bushman woman living in southwest Africa 172,000 years ago. We are essentially all brothers and sisters who have developed various skin and hair colors, myriad forms of dance and music and ways of preparing food, and thousands of different ways of speaking to each other. These differences should be sources of fun and fascination, not reasons to kill each other.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

In my youth I worked for a woman who catered private parties, and one of those parties was a lunchtime gathering for about thirty Jewish matrons. At the height of the festivities, a gorgeous young woman named Lisa entered on the arm of a gorgeous young man named Alex who reminded me of the famous movie star heartthrob Omar Sharif, an Egyptian. Beautiful Lisa and handsome Alex made a whirlwind tour of the party, Lisa unable to keep her hands off her handsome beau and vice-versa. They watched each other with smiling eyes as they took turns speaking to their admiring listeners, Alex charming and erudite, his quips and comments eliciting gales of laughter. Then the two lovebirds made their exit and the post-visitation commentaries began.

As I plied the room with a platter of miniature romaine lettuce leaves wrapped around purple basil leaves wrapped around bamboo shoots and shrimp, I heard many of the matrons exclaiming about what a great catch Lisa had made. Then one of the matrons addressed Lisa’s mother. “Alex is so handsome. Is he Israeli? He had just the slightest accent. Very sexy.”

“Actually,” said Lisa’s mother, taking a deep breath, “he’s Mexican.”

“But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new.” Shunryu Suzuki

So now President Obama, who I am convinced is dealing with his personal demons on a global scale through the use of violence against people he doesn’t understand even a little bit, has asked Congress to approve his bombing of Syria, though he is quick to say he doesn’t need their approval. And so the debate is raging, with poll after poll showing the majority of Americans opposed to any sort of military intervention in Syria. But such opposition may not make much of a difference to Obama. You may recall that poll after poll showed a vast majority of Americans wanted Single Payer Healthcare, and Obama gave us Big Pharma Mucho Insurance Healthcare instead.

My biggest fear, that which gives me nightmares and wakes me in the middle of the night, is that if the United States attacks Syria, Syria will fight back, at which point anything might happen, including Israel using one or more of its nuclear weapons.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember—they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Red Cloud

When I was a little boy I played Cowboys & Indians with my brother and friends, imitating the movie scenarios of white men armed with guns doing battle with brown men armed with bows and arrows. Then when I was eight, simultaneous with getting my first real bow and arrows, I was given a little book entitled American Indians, a wide-ranging and sympathetic view of the societies existent in North America prior to and during the European invasion of the so-called New World. I read that wondrous tome dozens of times, studying every detail of every picture, and was inspired to drop the Cowboy part of my game and just play Indian, which entailed spending many a summer’s day and many an afternoon after school roaming barefoot in the woods, tracking imaginary game and communing with nature.

In my early twenties, living as a vagabond, I spent a month in a transient camp on the banks of the Athabasaca River in the Canadian Rockies just outside the town of Jasper. One evening, as I sat with my comrades around the campfire, a very drunk man with long black hair stumbled into our camp, joined our circle and said, “You know where my people come from? Come from those white men long time ago came up here looking for beaver and mink you know and they fuck those Inuit people up here you know. Trappers, you know, come up here and fuck those Inuit girls, you know, and make my people.” He looked around the fire. “Anybody got some hooch?”

Somebody passed him a bottle, he took a swig, and then he handed the bottle to the man sitting next to him. “What you all doing out here?” he asked, the firelight dancing on his beautiful face. “Why you don’t get a fucking motel room? Ground hard here, you know.”

“We love sleeping by the river,” said a young woman. “Love sleeping out under the stars.”

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”

The Death of Literature

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)