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Saturday, August 26, 2017

"Behind the Wall"/"Inside Update"


behind the wall

I woke up this morning terrified. I now live in a country I no longer know, run by a man with no humility, boundless ego, utterly no experience and, evidently disinterested in learning anything about the job.

     Our President is not only a bully, but a demagogue who would, so he claimed several times, send millions now living in this country away from it and would bar people based on their religion and ethnicity. Our new President is a compulsive liar, who has refused to be transparent about his own international dealings and his personal taxes.

      He is a man who has proudly proclaimed that he will get rid of many of the checks and balances by selecting only conservative Supreme Court justices. He and his followers have repeatedly demanded that he arrest his presidential opponent. He and his followers have loudly insisted on constructing a costly and unbuildable wall between my country and another, Mexico. He is opposed to most international trade deals, and wants to undo many of our military and political alliances with other countries. This man highly admires, so it appears, one of the world’s most dangerous dictators, Vladimir Putin, and has even jocularly praised the most brutal leader of all, Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

      Our new president jokes loudly and openly about having groped women and getting away with it because of his celebrity. He and his Vice-President have spoken out against gay marriage and a woman’s right to abortion. Although he has boasted about giving many a woman a chance to serve in his operations, it is also has become clear that he sees them as objects incapable to truly competing in the male-controlled world.

      Our new—my new president—would take away affordable health care and “reconsider” social security. He is a man who, apparently, believes that if we have nuclear weapons we should use them, that only he can solve world crises such as the rise of ISIS and other international terrorist groups. He wants to return us to water-boarding terrorist suspects and restore other inhumane methods of torture. He knows more than the generals, he proclaims—although it’s been clear all along that he knows very little about international politics, and that, in fact, he knows very little about American politics except for his great displays of bluster. It may be that this president has never read a book—except, perhaps, for his own, written by others.

      Several newspaper journalists have repeatedly described this new President as the least self-reflective person they have ever encountered. In his hate of the media he has banned journalists and entire newspapers criticizing him from attending his conferences and even public gatherings.

      Trump is a man who truly does not believe in global warming, and we can surely fear that he will not support further attempts at working against environmental problems in our country or elsewhere.  

      He has denigrated nearly all his Republican opponents, and continually mocked others for illness or any other disability. In his business affairs he has shown that he is racially bigoted, and has, in this campaign, attracted—without rejecting—the worst of racists, including members of the Klu Klux Klan. It is important to recall that he, personally, led the “birther” movement in an attempt to disqualify the black President, Obama, and then, tried to pin that viewpoint on Hillary Clinton. Many of his statements have given evidence of strong anti-Semitic sentiments. His own religious convictions are scanty at best, relating primarily to the “Power of Positive Thinking” tenants of The Reformed Church in America touted by Norman Vincent Peale.

       Although he claims to be a wildly successful business man, it is also apparent that numerous of his business endeavors have been poorly managed and fell into bankruptcy. He is currently facing charges, in fact, for having defrauded mostly poor people in connection with his “Trump College,” a made-up institution that was neither a true educational system nor actually disseminated any knowledge to the so-called students Trump might have been able to provide. (Shortly after the election, he settled, for several million dollars, on this issue so that he did not have to face the trail.) He has sued and been sued by more people than any President in our history.

       As Harry Belafonte astutely wrote in yesterday’s The New York Times, Mr. Trump argues for “making America great again,” without really even trying to comprehend what America is, or what he might truly make greater, “reducing all the complexity of the American experience to a vague greatness…a promise that we will return to ‘winning’ without ever spelling out what we will win.”

       Mr. Trump has shown time and again that, in his self-centric world view, he is a borderline sociopath, if not worse. Esteemed commentator, Fareed Zakaria, has described our new President as a “cancer on democracy.”

       Today, I now live in a country where basically the uneducated decided for and against the better educated citizenry. Certainly the very fact that they have been left uneducated and are permanently angry about their denigrated conditions ought to have been taken into better account by the left and even the more moderate of our voters. Historically, we know that it was precisely such rich-poor, educated-uneducated, urban-rural dichotomies that helped contribute to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s fascism in the mid-20th century. And it is sad that we never remembered that fact. But now, I am terrified by what lies ahead.

      Yesterday, many journalists spoke of healing, but now the wounds have been so completely revealed. As Dana Bash reported on CNN soon after I finished this piece, Trump has ripped off the Band-Aid of American politics. Now we must face the fact that the infection may possibly kill us.

Los Angeles, November 9, 2016


inside update

After more than eight months of the Trump presidency, I thought it might be a good idea to reevaluate my comments above. 
      If anything, I now believe, the issues I worried about have been even worse that I might have previously have imagined. Trump has not only lied thousands of times to the American public, he has divided the country in racial terms, harshly chided important members of his own party, continued to hold deep grudges against former President Obama and the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, gone to verbal war with the country’s journalists, who has declared are all vile beings who falsify news, and continued to demonstrate petty gripes against all those who do not admire him. As David Resnick, writing in The New Yorker on August 28, 2017 summarized “our President”:

              This is the inescapable fact: on November 9th, the United States
              elected a dishonest, inept, unbalanced, and immoral human being
              as its President and Commander-in-Chief. Trump as daily proven
              unyielding to appeals of decency, unity, moderation, or fact. He is
              willing to imperil the civil peace and the social fabric of his
              country simply to satisfy his narcissism and to excite the
              worst inclinations of his core followers.

      As Frank Bruni, writing in The New York Times (August 18), a few days earlier, argued:

                    It’s arguable that Trump’s presidency never really began. By
               those measures, it’s indisputable that his presidency ended in the
               lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, when he chose —
               yes, chose — to litigate rather than lead, to attend to his
               wounded pride instead of his wounded nation and to debate the 
               supposed fine points of white supremacy.
                      He abdicated his responsibilities so thoroughly and recklessly
               that it amounted to a letter of resignation. Then he whored for his
               Virginia winery on the way out the door. Trump knew full well
               what he should have done, because he’d done it — grudgingly and
               badly — only a day earlier. But it left him feeling countermanded,
               corrected, submissive and weak, and those emotions just won’t do
               for an ego as needy and skin as thin as his. So he put id before country
               and lashed out, in a manner so patently wrong and transcendently
               ruinous that TV news shows had to go begging for Republican law-
               makers to defend or even try to explain what he’d said.

     Despite his inability to get hardly anything done in congress except the selection of one of the most conservative of Supreme Court judges, Neil M. Gorsuch—none of the major promises (and I might add, “fortunately”) having come to pass, even though the Republicans have the majority in both houses—Trump baldly insists that he has signed more bills that any president to date. Possibly he is confusing, within that clearly muddled mind of his, the many proclamations and pronunciamentos he has issued; he has actually signed only two legislative bills.

     What Trump and his cabinet members have accomplished is to “undo” dozens of important presidential and governmental decisions, as outlined recently by The Washington Post:

 

The economy

Withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The trade deal would have established a trade partnership between the United States and countries on the Pacific Rim.

Reversal of a rule that would mandate that oil and gas companies report payments to foreign governments. The Securities and Exchange Commission will no longer receive this information.

Ended limits on the ability of states to drug test those seeking unemployment benefits.

Repeal of a rule allowing states to create retirement savings plans for private-sector workers.

Repeal of a bill that mandated that employers maintain records of workplace injuries.

Killed a rule mandating that government contractors disclose past violations of labor law.

 

The justice system

Rescinded an Obama effort to reduce mandatory sentences. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that prosecutors seek the most stringent penalties possible in criminal cases.

Reversed the government’s position on a voter ID law in Texas. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department argued that the law had discriminatory intent. Under Sessions, Justice withdrew that complaint. On Wednesday, a federal court threw out the law.

Reviewed Justice Department efforts to address problematic police departments. An effort to address concerns in the Baltimore Police Department was delayed.

 

The environment

Withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

Blocked the Clean Power Plan. The plan implemented under Obama focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Ended a study on the health effects of mountaintop-removal mining. The process involves blasting away the tops of hills and mountains to get at coal seams under the surface.

Rescinded a rule mandating that rising sea levels be considered when building public infrastructure in flood-prone areas.

Reversed an Obama ban on drilling for oil in the Arctic.

Reviewed the status of national monuments for possible reversal. In April, Trump signed an executive order ordering a review of monuments added in the past 20 years, opening up the possibility that some areas previously set aside would have that status revoked.

Withdrew a rule regulating fracking on public land.

Reversed a ban on plastic bottles at national parks.

Rescinded a limit on the number of sea animals that can be trapped or killed in fishing nets.

Delayed and potentially rolled back automotive fuel efficiency standards.

Repealed the Waters of the United States rule. This rule expanded the definition of water bodies that were protected by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ended a rule banning dumping waste from mining into streams.

Reversed a rule banning hunting bears and wolves. The ban applied to federal refuges in Alaska and prohibited hunting predators using certain methods.

Repealed a rule that would have centralized federal land management.

Removed a bike-sharing station at the White House.

 

Foreign policy and immigration

Cut the number of migrants and refugees allowed from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Repealed a rule allowing transgender individuals to serve in the military.

Rolled back of Obama’s outreach to the Cuban government.

Ended the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program. DAPA extended protections for some immigrant parents whose children were citizens of or residents in the United States.

 

Education

Withdrew federal protections for transgender students in schools. Under the rule approved by Obama, transgender students could use school bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identities.

Reversed a rule that mandated how achievement is measured in schools.

Repealed a rule mandating certain requirements for teacher-preparation programs.

 

Other policy areas

Revoked a ban on denying funding for Planned Parenthood at the state level.

Repealed a rule mandating that Internet service providers seek permission before selling personal information.

Reversed a rule that would ban gun sales to those deemed “mentally defective” by the government.


Slow or nonexistent staffing at the Senate-confirmed and management level across administration agencies.

 

       The other day Trump threatened to hold up the national budget if he did not get money to build his beloved wall between Mexico and the US, thereby threatening all government actions, including all functioning payments to individuals, many of whose lives depend upon government subsidies and payments, including Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc.

      Last evening, in the midst of a destructive hurricane attacking south Texas, this president pardoned the racist former Sherriff of Maricopa Country, Arizona, Joe Arpaio, who, after a federal court injunction banning him from his commonplace “immigration roundups,” ignored that injunction and, according to the court, gathered "persons for further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed.” The pardon not only reiterated Trump’s continued prejudice against Mexican immigrants and even Mexican-Americans legally in the country, but underlined his continued attacks on the country’s laws and judges.

     Even if the country were able to quickly rid itself of this monstrously failed “leader,” it will take years to untangle itself from the damage he and his cohorts have already done.

     Finally, this president has been able to alienate numerous of the world’s major leaders, including some of closest allies, has recommitted again to involve us an endless war in Afghanistan, and dangerously challenged the equally unhinged North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to a nuclear war.

     In the end, the world is looking upon the USA with horror, fear and trembling, and significant laughter. Instead of being the leader we so long proclaimed ourselves to be, in only a few months we have become a weakened, reckless, and likely dangerous rogue nation. Thank you supposedly “loyal and god-loving” white Americans who voted for this man! But my patience, if I ever had any, has not run out.

Los Angeles, September 1, 2017

 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Peeking Out" (occasioned by Jon Mooallem's New York Times Magazine essay, "Us and Them"


peeking out

Jon Mooallem, “Us and Them,” published in The New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2017

Last Sunday, January 16, 2017 The New York Times Magazine carried an article by Jon Mooallem titled “Us and Them,” a work about the differences and similarities between the Eurasia-living Neanderthals and the “out of Africa” Homo sapiens which we represent.

      Summarizing the first discovery of the now-dead species in valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, where the 17th-century Calvinist theologist Joachim Neander often took walks, and was later named after him, Mooallem reiterates  many of the hundreds of mistaken theories about the Neanderthals, and how long scientists and other theorists felt the Homo sapiens to be far superior. 
     In fact, he shows us, through a trip to Gibraltar caves where Neanderthal artifacts have been and continue to be unearthed, the two simply represented side-by-side evolutionary versions of human species, who like the “out of Africa” branch, lived in families and communities, fashioned weapons and eating utensils, wore feathers, painted on and carved in rock, and buried their dead. As Mooallem reports, we should perhaps stop imagining “separate species of human evolution altogether: not an Us and a Them, but one enormous ‘metapopulation’ composed of shifting clusters of essentially human-ish things that periodically coincided in time and space.”
      Still, until very recently, many if not most paleontologists presumed the superiority of our kind and argued that it was because of that superiority that we killed off them. Although others had long debated that both versions of humans were in most ways equivalent, it was not until 2010, when a group of evolutionary anthropologists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig finished sequencing a Neanderthal genome, that it became apparent that before the Neanderthals disappeared, the two groups had often mated, and most human beings still carry up to 1 to 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA. Suddenly the “us and them” paradigm became quite meaningless. 
       The Neanderthal’s died out not because we killed them off or won out on the available resources, but because from the very beginning there were simply fewer of them, and, like vanishing animal species, today, they simply could not keep a high enough birthrate to survive. At their highest density, some scientists estimate, their population might not have filled a NFL stadium. The last Neanderthals, some of them living in the milder climate of Gibraltar, were already a ghost race, a species on the brink.
        The importance of this article, it seems to me, is not simply its fascinating story of who the Neanderthals were, but its expression of how the “us and them” battle delimits our logical thinking. If there are always barbarians at the gate, frightful beings that we feel are inferior to us, we will have difficulty not only in perceiving and reacting to what is inside the gate, but will lose touch with any new possibilities of understanding and comprehension that might lie outside the gate. A wall, symbolic or real, locks “us” up as much as much it might keep “them” out. And a prison, we should recall, does not always provide the best opportunities to learn and grow. 
      Yet, not only in the US, but all over the world, countries and communities seem to be separating the us from the them, refusing to allow the others to cross borders, to come live beside us like some Neanderthals did with Homo sapiens.
      Russia, Poland, China, Turkey, The Philippines, Hungary, and other countries are increasingly being controlled by dictatorial autocrats, who are determined to separate from others and close borders. Even France, Germany, and other forward looking democracies have large populations that would like to close off their borders and pull away from European cooperation. England, as we know, has already voted for such a “pulling out,” which our President-elect Trump openly supports. 
     Compassion and understanding for others, even slightly different for ourselves seems to be fast disappearing. For me, empathy, attempting to feel what another being feels, is a necessary tool in discovering that compassion and comprehension of the “other.” But for some, such as Paul Bloom, whose book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion was recently published, along with an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, argues against that. He represents empathy as a kind of “spotlight” that insufficiently illuminates only those upon whom we focus, and, accordingly, often delimits compassion for larger communities outside of our tribal limitations.   
     Frankly, I think this is a narrow definition of what empathy truly is. If nothing else, practicing empathy, even with close friends, certainly helps us to turn a localized spotlight into a far larger searchlight on those outside our community or tribe. And, yes, it often feels good to empathize and just as often really hurts; but, more importantly, it opens one up to the feelings for and compression of the existence of others—and not just of our kind, but of others “out there,” beyond the wall, beyond that next valley who don’t even look like us or speak another language, worship other visions of god, eat other foods, and participate in different cultural rituals. Empathy helps us to comprehend not just how other Homo sapiens might feel but how animals who, like the Neanderthals, are now dying out, might be saved, how our environment is a planetary not just a local concern. 
       Someday, having built such walls, whether real or symbolic, when we dare to again peek out, might we discover another human type of species, thinking it too is far superior to us, has already taken our place? 
       Near the end of Mooallem’s beautiful essay, he travels to the Netherlands to meet identical twin brothers, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, whose major activity is creating sculptural representations of Neanderthal men, women, and children for worldwide museums. He presents them as almost comical enthusiasts of difference, men, who from childhood on, impulsively drew pictures of Neanderthals, trying to out-do one another. They are also utterly fascinated by all the differences of human types. Observing their computer-saved archives of anthropological films, stills, and photographs of different Homo sapien types, he observes that the brothers cannot pull their eyes away from them, that the two twins—who have lived a life of “self-evident sameness” and who almost finish one another’s sentences—are utterly awed by the vast variety of differences that exist and have existed on this planet throughout the ages: “’All this variation! It’s beautiful!’ shouted Adrie.” 
       “Us and them,” worlds of separation and exclusion, don’t necessarily make for a better or safer society; they merely create a more meager and unimaginative one.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2017

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"The Eccentricities of Great Booksellers"


the eccentricities of great booksellers

The other day, The New York Times reported that bookseller, Robert A. Wilson, owner of the Village-based poetry store, the Phoenix Book Shop, died in Baltimore at the age of 94.
      The bookstore was popular with numerous New York poets and writers, including Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, Edward Albee and William S. Burroughs. Patti Smith, as she grew interested in the Beat authors, visited often.
     I too visited the store several times over the years, purchasing a great many poetry books, many of them signed by the authors themselves (like the Ted Berrigan poems I purchased there), sold back to the store by unappreciative (or possibly simply impoverished) recipients. It always seemed slightly embarrassing to me to read the names of poet friends to whom Berrigan and others had written personal dedications, but those names also made the books more interesting to me.
      Wilson, who purchased the bookstore far before my New York visits, in 1959, went on the acquire W. H. Auden’s library, when the British poet left New York, and over the years had acquired a wide range of important archival literary books and manuscripts, all of which delighted me on my visits there.
       But it is my very first visit to Phoenix that I remember most. Although clearly something is missing from my memory, as I recall it, I had been simply purveying the book stacks when the somewhat imperious Wilson (and yes, he was somewhat imperious and eccentric) called out, “Hey you, your Djuna Barnes bibliography ought to have provided for numbers that would have allowed new discoveries to be entered into the system; you did it all wrong!” I was stunned: first, how could have he known who I was, and second, whatever did he mean? “I stuttered back, “that was the way my professor told me to do it. But perhaps you are right, there should have been a different numbering system to allow for additions, but I still don’t know how I might have properly allowed for that.”
      Of course, it’s very doubtful that the all-knowing Wilson had immediately recognized me. When I told this story recently to my friend Thérèse Bachand, she replied “I think you’re describing one of your nightmares.”
       No, I thought to myself, it was not truly a nightmare. I was rather amazed and impressed that he suddenly knew who I was. And perhaps he was right. But then, as I had to admit, it is most unlikely that the event I remember truly happened in that way. I must have proffered him my credit card for my book purchases, or maybe even mentioned my name. But I truly do not remember it that way. In my memory I simply recall him just calling out to me with a kind of surreal recognition of my being and failures. But memories are often like that; we forget what we desire to.
       And despite that initial meeting, we got on quite nicely in several later meetings, Wilson often pointing out to me, on later visits, new finds and intimating new manuscripts he had just acquired. After that original visit, I returned to The Phoenix almost every time I visited New York, along with the famous used book store The Strand and the wonderful, if even more argumentative-plagued Gotham Book Mart. Phoenix and Gotham are now long gone, while The Strand continues to offer up piles of literary texts each year. 
      In The Strand, where I purchased dozens of books over the years, I never encountered anyone who might have even seemed slightly negative, but in the other two stores, you had to endure the “eccentricities of the nightingale” personalities of both owners and staff. That is what made The Phoenix and Gotham Book Mart so absolutely remarkable. These people absolutely cared about the titles they sold! 
      I still have dreams of being lured into the basement of the Gotham Book Mart, where the owner, Andreas Brown would show me treasures not yet available to other customers. Yes, perhaps I did dream my first encounter with Robert A. Wilson. But I still cannot imagine that I truly perceive it as a terrible denunciation of my hard work. I truly enjoyed it, and never thought about it as anything but a gentle scolding by a great bibliophile.

Los Angeles, December 12, 2016