Saturday, December 17, 2016

Line-Cutters Revisited

At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday, my family and I were sitting around being wounded liberals -- a common pastime these days -- when my brother-in-law (he's an entrepreneur and hails from the side of our clan who knows something about economics -- which is most of us except me) wondered aloud, "Why is it that people keep trying to implement these Republican economic proposals when they don't work, they just don't work?" It is a variant of a question that must have been asked around ten million fireplaces in ten million Clinton-voting homes at least that weekend. Why do they think these things? we ask. Why do they do these things? We have all been trying a great deal these past months to figure out what makes "them" tick. This is the season of quasi-anthropological studies of the red-blooded American conservative, conducted by safely and sagely liberal academics squatting in their midst and trying to discern the arcane mythologies that inform their utterances. This is the year of quasi-Marxist efforts to ferret out the "base" of cold, hard material fact and economic self-interest that is presumed to underlie the staggering eyesore of a "superstructure" with which we are now faced in the form of Trumpist ideology.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Psychic Resistance Log, Star-Date 12.9.16

I fear that this blog for the next four to eight years is going to be little more than an account of the constant internal psychic struggle that it will take not to accept the idea of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States as simply one more fact of life, as ordinary as anything else. It is an absorbing pursuit; one that requires constant effort. Any situation, however abysmal, starts to seem normal if it is protracted enough. Even during campaign season last Spring, I would hear floating over the airwaves of NPR phrases like, "Mr. Trump's proposed Muslim ban," and would think -- "oh yeah, that thing." As if that's perfectly normal. As if that's just one more policy idea, among many. (Those on both the left and the right who would urge us to just "give him a chance," meanwhile, are also heard to bid us: "Don't take him so literally when he says stuff like that." That's a new one! If supporters of former presidents were always urging their political opponents to "believe what the President says," and not in some nefarious hidden program; we now have a president of whom we are actively urged by his most loyal apologists not to believe anything he says. Indeed, do conjure up a factitious hidden program, we are told, and place your faith in that!)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Greenwald, Trump, and Normalization

Shortly after the election news broke, I navigated over to The Intercept to hunt for signs of mea culpa or -- I briefly dreamed -- perhaps even of an olive branch extended to the rest of the Left, after the devastating result. I was curious to see if Greenwald would show any flickers of self-doubt or second-guessing, now that all that vituperation he had penned against Clinton and the establishment Democrats had proven to be directed against an increasingly irrelevant target. I was wondering what Greenwald would find to do with himself, what he would write about, now that the Democrats were in abject defeat across the board, and he might actually have to devote some energy to criticizing the Trumpists who are now in power. Greenwald, I thought, was one of many people that this election had essentially put out of a job.

Friday, November 11, 2016

La Lucha Continúa

One is constantly "grieving" public events in the circles in which I move, but this time it's for real. "Grief" is one of those many words -- like "demagogue," like "fascist," like "racist" -- of which one suddenly finds oneself having to recover the original and literal meaning this election year. Over the past few days, I really have had to carry myself through an expedited version of that mourning process that people somewhat pseudo-scientifically like to describe in the Kübler-Ross vein, with its neatly unfolding five stages. In its fast-tracked way, this week has felt how I imagine the sudden loss of a loved one would feel. Not because I "love" Hillary Clinton. But because I had plans for the next four years. I had an idea of what the immediate future was going to look like; the same way -- when you envision the years to come -- you assume that all the people you love will be there too. Not only that, I had mentally closed the door on this election weeks ago -- even to the point that on the night of the election itself, I was still making dumb jokes -- ones that I now monumentally regret -- to the effect: "Oh, you all know you're going to be just a little bit disappointed when it's all over tonight and boring ol' mainstream Hillary is elected." I voted early. I had forked over dinero to the Clinton campaign on a semi-regular basis. There were the Trump tapes. Clinton was ahead in the polls. It was over.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The God of the Line-Cutters

When This American Life aired an episode this past weekend about the woes of the "moderate" Republican, the "conventional" Republican (and just how conventional were they ever, really?) in the face of the white nationalist eruption that now controls the GOP, you might have thought you had already heard that story done from every possible angle. But no. Instead of yet another news item about Trumpism at the national level, the figure of the Donald faded pretty far into the background of this one, if he was mentioned at all. Instead, the focus was on what might be called the substructure of Trumpism -- the years of organizing that has taken place at the state and local level of terrifying groups like "Act for America," which have now gone on to furnish the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim shock troops of the alt-right movement in this country. Evidently, Islamophobia has what every campaign is being tiresomely urged to acquire this election season: "ground game."

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Two Poems


I Met Elizabeth Bishop's Moose

I met that moose! Or one of its kind, 
Though hers came wreathed in dignity, whereas mine
   -- though it too emerged
 From the New England woods --
was otherwise quite different
 it bolted out of
Someplace in New Hampshire and I
Was in a small blue car and talking
With a friend spilling
Half a remaining coffee cup and I had to
Spin the wheel and the tires and go
Into the oncoming lane when I

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The Media"

Trump appears to be singing his final aria at the moment, before the curtain swings shut, and, unsurprisingly, it is a song full of petulance and whinging. "The Media" is pouncing on some tiny little thing he once said, a long time ago, in order to smear him, he tells us -- it's so unjust! Of course, it was not actually long ago at all (2005 is not quite ancient history, especially not to a man of Trump's years), and Trump was already well into middle age when it happened. Nor were these some uncharacteristic, off-the-record remarks from an otherwise reputable public servant. The only really surprising thing about the notorious Trump "lewd comments," in fact, is that anyone bothered to dredge them up from some hidden mic footage from ten years back, when they could have just played any number of recordings of the Donald's public utterances from his decades of high-profile obscenity and alighted upon something just as outrageous.

So too, the only real injustice here is not that Trump's reprehensible banner-men are deserting him in droves (except for those who already signed over their souls too completely to ever demand them back -- Christie, Gingrich, Giuliani, et al.), but that it took them so long to do so. The true outrage is not that everyone is at last joining the chorus to heap odium on Trump, but that they didn't do it long before.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Haiti: The New Comedians

While the world's attention was diverted by the gaudy spectacle of Haitian affairs this weekend, a humanitarian disaster was quietly unfolding on the presidential debate stage... Sorry, bad joke. I guess there is just something about the awful precision with which patterns in U.S.-Haiti relations repeat themselves, time and again, year after year, that invites a mordant satire -- though it is a satire without laughter, a sarcasm without mirth. Even Haiti's deadly natural disasters (a poorly chosen term for them, for their consequences are always most unnatural), of which Hurricane Matthew is only the most recent instance, tend to inspire ridicule-- not, to be sure, of the island or its people or the victims of catastrophe -- but of the pretensions of the false friends who always descend upon Haiti after the fact, from the ranks of both native political and military cadres and former colonial occupiers, bearing empty ameliorative promises and in the end thieving as much as they bestow. The protagonist, Brown, of Graham Greene's The Comedians, provides an example of such gallows humor in the face of environmental catastrophe. He observes, apropos a new literacy campaign announced by the brutal Duvalier regime in Haiti, under which the novel is set, that "No details [of the campaign] were given. Perhaps he was depending on a satisfactory hurricane. Hurricane Hazel in '54 had eliminated a great deal of illiteracy[.]"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


*Sigh*... You must have felt it too -- that twinge of nostalgia in watching the VP debate last night, when you saw Kaine and Pence up there, two chrome-plated monosyllabically-named bland middle-aged dudes with their matching ties (with the red for the Democrat and blue for the Republican, in a playful reversal that probably took some planning). I shed a silent tear, in regarding them, for the derisive left-wing blog post I might once have written, under different circumstances-- in a world, that is, in which these two and Hillary Clinton were our only candidates, and a certain hard-up real estate investor I could name did not exist -- or was safely confined to reality TV.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Once to Every Soul and Nation (Sermon)

First preached this past Sunday, 9/2/16. Names and places redacted. Trinitarian friends will have to forgive my somewhat polemical (and hence, perhaps not 100% fair) rendering of intellectual history toward the end of this -- sometimes you're just trying to make a point, you know?

Class Stories (Sermon)

This was first preached this past August. Names and places redacted.

Close Calls and Second Chances (Sermon)

I haven't generally been posting my sermons to this blog, but I suppose I could start. Some of them, of course, simply don't translate very well outside the Sunday morning setting, but I think this one stands on its own. This was first preached on January 31, 2016 and was considerably revised this past summer. Names and places redacted.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Iron Law

It occurred to me, some time after writing up the latest iteration of the Daniel Everett vs. professional linguistics controversy, that this was a prime opportunity for me to finally commit to print something I've long been noticing about the way the popular press relates to the academic disciplines, and that I once -- in a rather over-hasty generalization -- dubbed the Iron Law of Academic/Popular Press Relations. It goes like this: the specialists in any given field whose works are most celebrated in the popular press, who are lauded as the greatest and most revolutionary practitioners of their speciality, will always be those who are taken least seriously and have the slightest impact among their peer experts.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Feelings They Don't Have Words For

I can recall at least one instance as a child -- and I think the point can shed some light on educational theories, or at least on debates as to whether or not there is such a thing as an unmediated experience, or whether having an "experience" at all already involves passing a sensation through some sort of conceptual apparatus -- as I say, there is at least one instance I can recall as a child, when I had a feeling first -- an emotional experience -- and only learned the word for it after the fact. Admittedly, I managed to describe the feeling at the time, by the use of other feeling words that I put together to build up to it, in a sort of Piaget-esque construction. It was sort of like I had been taught the primary colors of emotions, as it were, and was combining them to create the rest of the palette. But I know that I felt the thing first, and only afterward found a name for it that allowed me to say, "Ah... so that's what it was."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech" (2016): A Review

When I learned that Tom Wolfe -- yes, the Tom Wolfe, of "Radical Chic" and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame -- had resurfaced in 2016, of all improbable years, with the even more improbable claim that he had managed to upend all of modern linguistics and -- as if incidentally -- the Darwinian theory of evolution to boot (others have tried, Tom, others have tried) -- and all in a squib of only about 170 generously large font-ed pages, I knew that this was something I had to see. Plainly, this was an "episode" of literary history in the making -- a minor one, to be sure, a curiosity -- but a curious one for all that. Wolfe, after all -- while he may not be everyone's idea of America's greatest writer -- has played no small or unnoticeable part in American letters over the last half-century, first as exponent and practitioner of the "New Journalism" -- indeed, he christened the thing -- later as the attempted reviver of the long, Zolaesque naturalistic novel, and finally as the "literary intellectual" (if that is still the right term for him) who was always most keen on sticking his finger in the eye of the left-wing pieties of the other "literary intellectuals."

To hear that he had emerged now from the mists of all those remote cultural touchstones of yesteryear that one associated with him (Panthers! Ken Kesey! LSD! Vietnam! Astronauts!), and with a new crank scientific theory in tow, was sort of like finding out that Norman Mailer wasn't dead after all and instead was busy as we speak on an effort to finally synthesize the theories of particle physics and General Relativity. This was plainly to be an act of authorial chutzpah and genre-defying (and odds-defying) intellectual bravado that we don't see much of these days, now that so many of Wolfe's contemporaries have departed for the pure lands. It was to be a last hurrah of the stylistically-gifted but mathematically-challenged non-specialists-- the revenge of the literary journalists and generalists -- who insist on believing that verbal talent confers on them the right to wade into highly esoteric domains of thought in the same way that a press pass gets you behind the scenes at a convention.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


As one who works broadly in the field of religion, I'm usually nervous about admitting my profession to total strangers. While the response that follows can range from the grating to the ingratiating, it is almost certain to be colorful, and to require a response. There is the instant smirk of the default secularist, for one, who doesn't realize that many Unitarians were disbelieving in God before it became fashionable. They will typically start in with a question about a higher power (and people really do just gun straight for this, you'd be amazed, five minutes after meeting you), and if I am feeling playful, I may warm to the role for a little bit in response, perhaps pulling some infuriating liberal divinity school maneuver along the lines of well, it depends; what is your definition of.... If I just want to be myself for the day, however, I will try on them the line "Actually, I'm an atheist." And in response I usually get, after a stretch of blankness: "Oh, are you one of those 'spiritual but not religious' people?" -- this being the last remaining conceptual category in which to fit me. Nope! Try again! (My dad, a fellow practitioner, suggested when I told him this story that I could perhaps better be described as "religious but not spiritual.")

Saturday, August 27, 2016

To a Spider

I’m sorry, long-limbed, orange-limbed, tangle-limbed thing
You are too great big spotted scrunchy-eyed, multi-eyed
  Talon-armed to live
It’s worse that I found you so late in the day
After hours of reading with the brightening sky– how long were you dangling back there
  Behind my chair?
I could have been killed!
Have you no respect?

Je Suis Burkini

Oui, c’est vrai, we all marched for expression libre,
But one draws a line someplace -- ours stops at long sleeves.
What? Do you oppose, too, our jailings and mosque closures
Or only our moral campaign against this most indecent under-exposure?
Your comparison to the Hebdo affair – Non! ce n’est pas le même,
That was ignorant bigotry – but this is a true blasphême.
And keep in mind, mon petit, it’s nothing to do with their religion
It’s more – Croyez-moi! – about race and immigration and orchestrated derision
Peut-être, you will say, in a truly free societé,
One should be allowed to wear what one pleases and draw Mahomet
Mais non! There must be limits, if there’s one thing we’ve learned
One has to tread carefully where public sentiments are concerned
Violating rights, mocking people in public – that's just a minor social quarrel
And more than a fair price for defending public morals
After all, sur la plage, there are innocent prêtes and enfants, and such petites choses --
Their eyes must be shielded from such shamelessly modest clothes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

American Innocence

A country in its historical course behaves something like a rubber band: under pressure it can occasionally be stretched into a new shape, but it will usually spring back, almost with relief, as soon as it is allowed to do so. We -- as countries and as individuals -- tend to keep to our familiar ruts, and our efforts at social reform often have all the strength of a New Year's Resolution. We talk about them, we flirt with them, we maybe even manage to adopt them for a season or two-- but next year often finds us fully ensconced in our old habits again.

The pattern (or one of the patterns) that our American democracy keeps on replicating, under however different guises and circumstances -- the pastime we can't seem to live without -- is that of the moral crusade, the quest for purgation. So many of our country's most immoral acts have been perpetrated under the banner of the defense of morals. These used to end in stake-burnings and public murders; now, they result in mass incarceration and mass deportation, or the monitoring of individuals indefinitely by means of felony records, sex offender registries, various national security watch lists and more. Such responses differ in their degree of brutality and lawlessness, but behind them all is a similar impulse -- the political mobilization of disgust, and the desire to remove the source of this disgust permanently from the community -- if not through execution, then through stigmatization, incarceration, and social exclusion.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is that All Concrete, Comrade?

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I spent most of the last winter and spring, when I could steal a few hours from work to shed tears of desperate outrage on this blog, warning the Left that Trump was a much bigger problem than they realized, or than they seemed prepared to handle -- that a full-on xenophobic, racially-scapegoating demagogue standing as a major party candidate would make John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and everyone else they'd spent the last twenty years fearing and despising look like child's play (and boy, remember the days when Paul Ryan seemed further to the right than the rest of the party? That takes me back). We have to get ready to surrender some of our ideological purity, I said. We have to prepare ourselves to cross the aisle and shake hands with the former enemy, because a worse foe is in town. It is time for Léon Blum to embrace the chairman of the C.P. beneath the Tricolour and the band to strike up the "Internationale." Time to look for allies in unlikely places. "On this one we need all the forces of bourgeois democracy to pull together," I wrote in February, "plus the forces of Old Europe and Metternich and Guizot to boot-- and Lindsay Graham and whoever else we can get. Come one, come all! This is Popular Front time."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Season 6 of You Know What

Isn't it incredible how you think you've outgrown it -- that it was something you read as a 21-year-old when, for whatever reason, it seemed psychologically necessary -- when time was something like pain and very much needed killing, instead of being the most precious and scarce and impossible to secure thing on Earth -- something that you had since then put behind you; how you had convinced yourself that 1) your sensibilities had become far too refined over the past few years to be able to stomach so much grotesquery, when the most raucous form of entertainment you ever willingly exposed yourself to now was the non-threatening ribaldry of Wait... Wait... Don't Tell Me!, when the devastating wit of David Rakoff was the sharpest barb you could stand to see pierce anyone in the flesh; and 2) you had become so politically aware, your consciousness so raised, so charged with knowledge of the world's true terrors and atrocities, that you could not possibly stand to lose yourself in some escapist TV fantasy realm at a time like this (the Brechtian reminder that pricks the conscience of every leftist whenever she or he is caught enjoying themselves: "To talk about trees is almost a crime/ Because it implies silence about so many horrors" as he put it); until all of a sudden your sister sits you down in front of Season Six, Episode One and it all comes roaring back to you like the cheesy motto of House Lannister? Yes, it's all there, all of Westeros, exactly as you left it! Unexpectedly, you remember who all these people are, who are still there. You even remember all the people who aren't there. (Zombie Catelyn, anyone? What happened to her?) And you see that you still care, and recall how desperately you once cared, about knowing what happens next.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Judicial Discretion and the Left

The story of mandatory sentencing in this country -- both how it came into being and the disastrous impact it has had in the years since -- should be familiar to us all by now. As Richard Beck aptly summarizes it, in a book I recently reviewed on this blog:
"Beginning in the 1970s [...] the series of policy reforms comprising what is known today as the War on Crime permanently altered judges' position within the legal system. Where the public had previously tended to see judges as impartial arbiters of the law, many -- especially conservatives -- now saw a group of unelected, unaccountable officials who frequently used their powers of discretion to let dangerous criminals off the hook. And if those powers of discretion were now a problem, the solution was to take them away from judges and hand them over to prosecutors. [...] The introduction of mandatory minimum sentences of those convicted in court [...] eroded the judiciary's discretionary powers, making the prosecutor's decision to bring charges -- rather than the judge's assessment of the circumstances surrounding the case -- the key factor in determining the length of a convict's prison term. These incremental shifts were soon reflected [...] in the country's incarceration rates, which increased dramatically[.]"

Monday, August 8, 2016

Constructive Criticism

There is absolutely nothing worse
Than someone else’s highly intelligent friend
“He’s very well read, and he
Has a lot of thoughts to share on what you said.”
He never is; and I never want to hear
His thoughts on this or any other subject, is that clear?
“He’s critical of some aspects of it, but you’d like him, he
Knows a lot about this subject too, being an engineer or such, like you" (like who?
No, friend, this is a fence 
I will not mend with you, an ear I will not lend
Lord save me now and always from the highly intelligent friend

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Two Poems

Conservative Intellectuals

Oh dear, just thinking about them,
It almost makes me cry!
Old Podhoretz –
What’s it for-etz?
Bill Kristol (a real pistol)
Bill’s father?
  Why do they bother?
David Brooks (he’s got the looks)
… Kill me now please-eltier
Oh I just want to grab them up in my arms and weep!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

On Flying for the First Time in Four Years

In the summer of my twenty-second year on this planet, when I had finished college and had probably taken by that point a hundred or more airline flights across all parts of the world, I suddenly developed a categorical and basically unexpected fear of flying. Getting on a plane became not only a thing I found hard to do, but a physical impossibility. Whenever the possibility of flying presented itself, I entertained almost no possibility in my mind that I might actually board the plane, because I knew I couldn't. The internal debate was solely about how to avoid having to do so, how to find some alternative means -- any at all -- of getting my protesting flesh from one end of the country to the other. Thus began a string of Therouvian trips across America's great highways and on endless Amtrak rail lines through the Sierras. I looked into how hard it would be to hop a cargo ship, should the need arise -- perhaps taking passage through the Great Lakes-- until I started reading about "Monster Waves" and other freak oceanic events and quickly added maritime navigation to my list of impossibles as well. I found I envied those chronologically privileged souls who were born decades or centuries before Kitty Hawk and to whom the possibility of human flight would not even have occurred.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Future generations (assuming there are any, after a nuclear code-bearing Trump hits the scene) will surely ask of our era: when was the final threshold moment? When would it still have been possible for someone to stop it, before it was too late? There is a plausible case to be made that by the time the G.O.P. delegates arrived on the convention floor in Cleveland, that point had already long since passed.  Still, one feels that even last week, even at the final hour, Ryan, McConnell, Priebus or someone could have done something -- could have resigned, could have renounced the party, could have founded a splinter outfit.

Instead, they chose the Hindenburg solution. In outright cravenness, in defense of their own measly slice of power, they signed over the deed of their own party to someone who openly and unapologetically mines the darkest seams of American history -- anti-Semitism, racism, isolationism, xenophobia. Last week's convention thus had the operatic feel of a Don Juan's finale, with the party of Lincoln being dragged off to the underworld at the closing curtain. A friend with whom I was watching Thursday's performance could only breathe an "Oh my god" at the sight of Donald Trump's red and crumpled face on the jumbo-tron flanked by rows of flags. This was the dystopian satire of one or two years ago -- the hyperbolic prediction people once laughingly might have made as a way to riff on America's perilous obsessions with celebrity and national chauvinism -- except now animated into life. In fact, there is an episode of This American Life from 2014 in which host Jonathan Goldstein actually jokes, when speaking of time travel: 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Richard Beck's "We Believe the Children" (2015): A Review

You who give to the outlaw that calm and graceful look
That damns the crowd around the scaffold
-- Baudelaire, "The Litanies of Satan"

For a large portion of the 1980s and into the early '90s, large segments of the American public, the mass media, educated opinion, law enforcement, the federal government, and the psychiatric and social work professional communities became convinced -- or at least very actively entertained the suspicion -- that there was a vast network of Satanic cults and sexual exploitation rings engaging in the systematic and nationwide ritual abuse of children. This abuse was supposed to take such extreme forms as child pornography, rape, murder, and cannibalism, and all of it was ostensibly transpiring behind the innocuous-seeming parti-colored doors of America's preschools and day care centers. 

The idea seems laughable and distant to us now -- as unrecognizable a way of viewing the world as the tales of capitalist spies and saboteurs who haunt the court reports of Moscow's show trials (Though it is not in fact ancient history, even for the relatively young -- the notorious McMartin preschool trial wrapped up a few days after I was born). One could only expect a book on the subject appearing in 2015, therefore, to be a sort of updated "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" -- a satisfying narrative of the eventual triumph of reason, which leaves us peering down from the safety of our modern moment with the assurance that, whatever horrors we are reading about in the past, cooler heads did eventually prevail.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Questions about Köln

The utterly ghastly events last night in Nice are now the fourth or fifth mass killing to dominate the headlines in as many weeks or fewer. They join a growing backlog in one's mind of things about which one should feel as a human being, but which one does not have time to get ahold of before the next atrocity overwhelms it -- Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota last week; the "forgotten" -- not to Iraqis -- bombings in Baghdad, Istanbul the week before; Orlando just before that -- each event in fact having its own miserable etiology and narrative, yet cumulatively adding up to a single inward chasm of panic. "This changes everything," we think. "This is now the world we live in." One feels these things partly out of empathic pain with the victims for whom this really has changed everything. One feels them too because they illustrate the fact so horrifically that the only real "security" one has to rely on is trust in one's fellow human beings. The only thing that stops truck drivers from mounting the pavement on a daily basis to deliberately crush crowds of parents and children is that every day, these drivers choose not to do so. And it is profoundly frightening to be reminded that this trust is never perfect, that it is always partly taken on faith.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Brexit, Part II

More than once on this blog it has taken me until near the end of writing some particularly long-winded and cantankerous diatribe before I stumbled upon the one thing that I actually wanted to say at the start. And then there I am, dismayed to find that I have already reached the limits of my time and energy for the day and have only just got to the heart of it. Typically this happens because, through the cataloguing of what begin as largely unbidden thoughts, I discern through the passing forms some underlying unity of thought. It is a process so disconcertingly like grappling with the products of another mind that I cheer: ah, so that's what I was trying to say! -- which rather makes one wonder, with Hopkins, "Cheer whom though? […] Me? […] O which one? is it each one?"

To come to the point, it seems that in regard to my Brexit post earlier this week, I was really contending throughout with a single sub-genre of the growing literature of post-Brexit shock and awe reaction -- perhaps we can call it, following Joan Didion in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem"-- and at the risk of sounding derisive -- the "they're-trying-to-tell-us-something approach." What she had in mind in context was the typical journalistic response of well-meaning East Coast periodicals to the "hippie" phenomenon of Haight-Ashberry -- the kind which insisted upon seeing in this San Fransico drug and party scene, with its minimal-to-vanishing political content, a great collective disavowal of the "consumer culture," post-war "conformity" and "alienation," and the like buzzwords of then-modish discourse. We may perhaps expand the term, however, to take in that whole genre of social criticism in which writers and journalists -- who are in fact utterly remote from the phenomena they describe -- insist upon reading their own anxieties and beliefs into cultural and political movements that in fact articulate very different concerns. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pity the Brexiteers?

June 23rd. What a day. What a bloody day. I awoke with a knot of fear and excitement over the coming night's Brexit vote -- fear that they might vote Leave; excitement over the anticipated flood of relief I would experience once they almost certainly decided to vote Remain. And at some point in the shower, the thought crossed my mind again  -- as it had for much of the last month -- that we still didn't know the result of the Supreme Court's DAPA/DACA+ case, U.S. v. Texas, that would decide whether or not to grant some form of relief from deportation (however temporary and insecure) to 5 million undocumented immigrants. Oh well, I thought, they probably won't release the decision today. It occurred to me that the SCOTUS most likely released its opinions with an eye toward the news-cycle, and that they'd let us get Brexit over with before making any headlines of their own.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cross-Posting V

Below is my latest column for the church newsletter, served up for your loving consumption. I have been meaning to write something along these lines ever since news of Brexit, the SCOTUS decision, etc. broke -- except that it would be about fifteen times as long while containing precisely the same number of ideas -- and I still intend to do so next time I have a spare day (ha!), but in the meantime, here is the essence of the thing, as hacked down to the size of its Procrustean newsletter bed, and rest assured that I will later reassemble the severed limbs and appendages -- diatribes, lists, run-ons, tangents, extraneous quotations and all -- and stitch them back together again, Frankenstein-like, to be exhibited on this page.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Gun Control: Beware the Low-Hanging Fruit

Democrats! Liberals! Friends! You're so close to being right on this, don't screw it up now! I know as well as you do that a person has no more of a "constitutional right" to an AK-47 than he does to a tactical missile or a chemical weapon; I know that America's ghastly pattern of mass shootings cannot be accounted for by the N.R.A.'s division of the world into black hats and white hats (the so-called "bad guy with a gun," in Wayne LaPierre's world-picture, against whom must be matched, presumably, the man who shot Liberty Valence), but rather by our society's total failure to adopt any affordable mental health system, coupled with the ubiquitous access to guns and other deadly weapons that our society allows. And I too know what has to be done about it -- a ban on military-grade hardware, and further restrictions on the sale and possession of other kinds of guns as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Crocodile Tears

We have learned that there is something even more to be feared than Trump's hatred, and that is his sympathy. Read the speech in full if you do not yet believe me. It is a masterful work of manipulation; an artisan's performance of creeping insinuation. If you spent last Saturday night in a gay club, or had friends who did, and awoke the next morning with the thought: "that could have been me"; or, "that could have been them" -- see at first if Trump's speech doesn't actually move you in places, with its simulacrum of concern, its crocodile tears of compassion:
"Our nation stands together in solidarity with the members of Orlando’s LGBT community. They have been through something that nobody could ever experience. This is a very dark moment in America’s history. [...] It’s an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want, and express their identity."
Are these words you'd ever expect to hear from the GOP candidate for office? Could you have imagined such admirable words ten years ago? Then observe what inevitably follows:
"We have to address these issues head-on. I called for a ban after San Bernardino […] They’re pouring in and we don’t know what we’re doing. The immigration laws of the United States give the president powers to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons. Now, any class — it really is determined and to be determined by the president for the interests of the United States."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Urban Legends, and Out-Groups

Browsing through Jan Brunvand's eminently salacious and digestible compendia of "urban legends" -- a series of books by a respected folklorist that progressively (or regressively?) shed their academic trappings with each volume and announce themselves ever more unapologetically as the guilty pleasures they are -- one is likely to encounter at least a few stories that are half-remembered from one's own childhood, if one grew up in this society. You've almost certainly heard the "call coming from inside the house" one, to pick the most obvious; or the one about the axe murderer in the backseat of the car (maybe you got it from Otto on The Simpsons, if you didn't hear it first from sadistic babysitters or older cousins or siblings, or from the big kids at school). And surely, at least, you encountered "the hook man" at some epoch of your youth. (Although I have to say, that last one never worked on me as a kid. The "punchline" (Brunvand's apt term), in which the bloodied hook is found clasping the door-handle of the car, always elicited from me a totally blank stare. "How did it get there?" Don't you get it? The guy was trying to open the car door when they pulled away and his hook-hand was ripped off. "... So?" Perhaps when I first heard it, I was too young to intuit the underlying sexual warning of the story. I didn't have the slightest idea what the couple was doing in the car -- or about to do -- before it peeled away.)

Monday, June 6, 2016

While Rome Berns

When I made my transition from Bernie supporter to Hillary grassroots donor, sending my first 11 dollars via online portal, the thank-you email I received in reply was not particularly auspicious. "Thanks for supporting Hillary," it said, or something to that effect -- and then, "The first few primaries are coming up. We hope we can count on you to have her back." ... The first few primaries? I made this donation about a month ago -- in other words, very well after the first few primaries had long since taken place. With all her campaign staff, and all her power, she was not able to update a simple auto-response email!

And in this is to be found a parable of Bernie and Hillary more generally. Hillary is not, and will never be, the cool candidate. She is not the exciting candidate. She is not the young person's candidate. She is, rather, the business as usual candidate. The living embodiment of the status quo. She is the muddling-through-as-we-usually-do candidate. And that is precisely why she has my support. As bad as the status quo may be, my friends, there is always room to get worse from here. Yes, ours is a cadaverous and bloated imperial democracy, with all its hypocrisy, and its cant, and its terrible callousness abroad. And by God, I would defend this rotten hulk of defeated aspirations against those who would try to burn it down and rear something incomparably uglier in its place.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Five Poems

Anno Trumpus

Dear God, you know how you have this way of not granting prayers
That are delivered by fervent words
And imploring cries,
With tearful eyes
And fretful fire?—
But you do have a way
Of making true
Those thoughts that speak
To shameful, meek and
Hastily withdrawn desires?—
Well, I must request I be permitted to formally retract
Any lark, thought, wish, fantasy, or act
That may, however fleetingly,
However lyingly, have implied
That the country should go to hell just
To enjoy the ride
Please this one time don’t make
That one come true
Make that job offer or marriage proposal instead
Fall through

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Not Porcellian!

Word is that Harvard is shutting down its final clubs. Do I have that term right? Or is it "finals" clubs? I don't even know what they are, exactly, but for some reason their demise is making national headlines. It's the sort of story that, in a rational world, you and I would never have heard of, or formed an opinion about; but seeing that we are not in such a world, chances are we did, and have. So what are the thoughts and feelings that come to mind at this news? First -- a kind of awe. One can't help but be impressed with the university for actually being willing to épater some its most well-heeled alumni by shuttering their old stomping grounds. With this, however, comes a sting of bitterness, derived from the very grandeur of the university's self-sacrifice. One of the few salves one has at one's disposal, after all, for the sting of sour grapes that inevitably accompanies mention of the word "Harvard," is the assurance of one's own superior virtue -- sure, they may be rich and powerful, we tell ourselves, but at least they're also evil. It therefore smarts to see the administration do anything that might challenge this assumption.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Scolding -- and Whiteness

I have mentioned before on this blog that the email "polls" from my Florida Congressman, Vern Buchanan, remain one of the few channels in my life through which I receive communiqués from the land of frothy right-wing scare-mongering. I believe I told you about the "Sanctuary for Illegals?" one. Well, the other emails are headlined in equally unsubtle ways. This is the sort of reverberating echo-chamber by which Vern takes the pulse of his constituents.

Given the tenor of the typical Buchanan "Instapoll," therefore -- I have in front of me now a couple of the choicest subject lines: "Amnesty for Illegals?"; "Support Syrian Refugee 'Surge'?"-- you can imagine my surprise at finding the far more benign-sounding "Confronting Addiction" in my inbox this weekend. And benign it was too! Vern was proposing additional funds for treating drug addiction. Sure, there were lines in there about increased enforcement as well, but the mood of the thing overall was one of compassion. I was reminded of the remarks we've been hearing on the campaign trail from the GOP candidates, of all people, about the need for drug rehabilitation; about how addiction is a public health issue, not a problem of law enforcement.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It Can Happen Here

So that's it. It happened so much sooner than we had expected. Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican party. Those of us who used to imagine the possibility of one day writing that sentence and laugh are now running through the streets in terror. "It's really not funny anymore," is a sentence you've probably heard a lot this week, if your friends and acquaintances are anything like mine. I was having dinner with my Dad last night when the news came down that Cruz had formally withdrawn and the GOP nomination race was now all but over. It felt as if we were huddled at the edge of an abyss. The image that came to mind was one of Robert Lowell's, about another very real prospect of armageddon:
A father's no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bard- and other -olatries

Those others of you who spend long hours each day trapped alone in the car with National Public Radio will not have failed to have heard by now that last weekend marked the 400th death-iverssary of William Shakespeare,  i.e., the man from Stratford -- a fairly arbitrary date to celebrate, but one that has given reporters and pundits a much-relished chance to dust off old lines and controversies about the bard -- the "second-best bed," whether Hamlet and Hamnet had anything to do with one another, and, of course, the conspiracy theory that won't die, that great "birther" and "truther" phenomenon of the literary cranks -- the "Shakespearean authorship question."

But take heart, gentle reader. If you are feeling the need for some thin shred of hope to cling to this political season, to prove that facts and reason and documentary evidence do still matter to some people, some of the time-- that, as someone once said, the "truth will out" (wait a minute! ...will! It must be an encoded plea for help from the true Shakespeare, warning of the impending conspiracy to deny his authorship of the plays two centuries hence!) -- as I say, if you are looking for a life-vest of sanity -- you can do no better than look to the changing receptivity of American public media over the past few decades to the Shakespeare-deniers and their theories. Compare, for instance, the delightful "Our Shakespeare, Ourselves" that aired this past weekend on On the Media, which takes it for granted that the persistent rumors that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays have nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with the theories' promoters -- to the lamentable 1992 episode of Frontline, "The Shakespeare Mystery."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cross-Posting IV

My two most recent columns from the church newsletter are attached. Taken together, they form a documentary display of the inadequacy of language in the face of evil -- the first being a kind of involutionary spiral, leading into the near-breakdown of the final paragraph; the second, a tribute to the new hope kindled in the realization that action is sometimes possible when words fail. Joan Didion speaks in Slouching Toward Bethlehem of being "paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed." Well boo hoo. Try doing it in a world that contains presidential candidate Donald Trump. Of course, even that sounds like a joke, like a twinkle -- as any mention of Trump still does. But let me try doing this once more with a straight face, because Trump really is doing works of evil. Why, is anyone's guess. Whatever failure of family structure or loving kindness or neural chemistry pointed him in this direction, I do not know. But the result is evil. His long-anticipated "pivot" this week to the "presidential" Trump, the "serious" Trump -- signified by the candlelit dinners with party apparatchiks, the tele-prompted "foreign policy address," the secret assurances from his campaign staff that the whole thing has been an act, that Trump is playing a "part" -- just cinches the matter, to my mind, because now we know that Trump has not been shooting his wad at random this election season; he has known exactly what he is doing. He has been following a plan. He has acted with malice aforethought. And every dictator whose people once comfortingly told themselves "It can't happen here" went through a similar phase of proving himself to be "a man with whom one could do business."

Monday, April 18, 2016

An Update to the Previous Post

Okay, so this is now the second major news story in one week-- actually, in three days -- about a politician and would-be world leader trying to use the law to crush an artistic work primarily because (among other things) it alleges he has a small penis. Of all the utterly damning things that could be and have been said of Erdogan and Trump, the penis thing, it turns out, is the one that does it. The systematic documentation of Erdogan's violations of civil liberties and human rights, the apt comparisons of Trump to various fascist dictators and Third World strong men -- these seem not to phase either men-- perhaps, indeed, in their impoverished imaginations, they see both as a sign of "strength." Yet to suggest that either one is a little short in the dingaling department is to bring down the full force of their wrath and that of the law on the accuser.

It must be said that the dictators of the past, who exiled or assassinated Pablo Neruda or Roque Dalton, displayed what might be called (to borrow a phrase from Richard Hofstadter) a "higher standard of hating."

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Merkel's Teufelspakt Comes Home to Roost

Boy, that didn't last long, did it?  Usually Faust gets at least a few decades of grand living before the devil comes to collect his wages. In this case, the EU and NATO's refugee deal with Turkey-- which has converted open asylum reception centers into detention camps and interdicted and returned asylum seekers without a fair hearing -- is scarcely a month old, and already Erdogan has convinced Merkel to prosecute a German satirist for making fun of him in a mildly ribald way. Erdogan, whose feelings were genuinely hurt, I am sure, has criminalized opposition journalism in his own country -- a practice he means to export to Europe, it would seem -- mounted military campaigns that led to widespread civilian casualties in the Kurdish region, and shuttered Turkey's borders to Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives from the civil war (the only thing open about Turkey's current borders, in fact, is open fire; in the characteristically laconic opening injunction of a recent Human Rights Watch article: "Turkey should stop shooting at Syrian civilians fleeing fighting[.]" I'll say!) Yet it was not one of these actions, but rather a poem on a Daily Show-esque German comedy channel that accused Erdogan of, among other things, performing sex acts on a goat, that the Turkish deputy prime minister recently deemed a "serious crime against humanity" that demanded retribution. One assumes that Donald Trump is pricking up two porcine ears in interest somewhere. The man who has stated his intention to "open up American libel laws" must really be digging Erdogan's style.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

New England Rituals

New England towns still carry out their little rituals, still
March and fife their martial airs
Unbeknownst to the rest of the us (not because they're secret but because -- you know,
 who cares?) –
in this respect they are like
The Quebecois, Acadians, and the Confederátes --
In ways that I will presently enumerate.

To join one by accident—a displaced non-native
At the age of 26 –
is suddenly to enter a pageant of one’s grade school history books
Where familiar lines (“The shot heard round the world!”) take on a different hue
Like a child’s toy seen silhouetted at night
  so that it gives a kind of grue.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Question

I hate the feeling that this blog has become as much a slave to the Trump-centric news cycle as everywhere else, but this seems to be the case. It's a game that Trump has designed in such a way that he cannot lose-- even the complaining about the attention Trump receives is a kind of attention.  But his comments about abortion that made headlines last week have once again posed some questions about our political culture that I find it difficult to get off my mind.

First, it must be said that there are times when Trump's appalling remarks plainly obtain an order of magnitude of toxicity beyond what other people are saying. But there are also times when the media seems to draw this line in ways I find hard to predict. It's clear enough why a "total ban" on Muslim immigration is a more extreme stance than halting the refugee program, say, but it can well be said that both play to the same base elements of human nature. And I'll never understand why Marco Rubio can entertain a question about "closing mosques" in a GOP debate that is broadcast nationwide and no one seems to blink. With such precedents as these, it's hard to escape the feeling at times that Trump is penalized less for his outrageous views than for the failure of political deftness with which he expresses them.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Poem


One of those ideas from
The engines of progress and opportunity where
Kids come from the inner city and share
Their answers to a pre-selected prompt –
This one, though (I mean, its 2016)
Did seem to invite some spark,
  Some ember of the individual spirit:
“Tell us about U.S. foreign policy and how
  It has affected Latin America
    And many of the countries near it.”

Friday, April 1, 2016

Know Your Rights

Those who have seen their Buffy will know
That while the undead don’t obey every minor legal resolution
(Least of all the U.S. Constitution)
They do have, of their own,
A certain set of rules.
  So don't get fooled.
If a vampire comes to your door,
No matter how much he implores,

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Confirmed Bachelor (CB) Hall of Fame

To those ambiguous people of all genders and all
Sexual orientations
Who plainly exist, and just as plainly do not
Appear in any sitcoms
Who are not necessarily wholly opposed to the idea
Of sexual or romantic partnership
But for whom it has always just ranked... well,
Rather low on their list of priorities -- But wait, you ask --

Friday, March 11, 2016


At last night's GOP debate, Marco Rubio let slip a phrase about something called "human rights." What are those again? They certainly sound incongruous in this setting. This was, so far as I can recall, the first reference anywhere in any of these debates to the idea that human rights a) exist at all; and b) are a good thing. The phrase in context reads: "There has not been a single democratic opening; not a single change on the island in human rights. In fact, things are worse than they were before this opening." The island in question is Cuba -- this is the Miami debate the Thursday before the March 15th primaries, after all.

The remark appears in the debate transcript not long after another, quite different reference to Cuba. This one shows up in Rubio's sanguinary meditation on "the way you defeat terrorists.":
"[I]f we capture any of these terrorists alive, they're not going to have the right to remain silent. And they're not going to go to a courtroom in Manhattan. They're going to go to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and we will find out everything they know and we'll do so legally." 

Monday, February 29, 2016

You get that it's Popular Front time, right people?

The Intercept has a banner headline today that represents everything I find unsettling about that site's occasional queasy flirtation with a vaguely pro-Trump angle in its political coverage. I get that Glenn Greenwald and the other leftists at Intercept are not going to end up endorsing Trump for president-- which I think would actually cause a tear in the fabric of space and time. I assume the spirit behind all this is simply something like: "Listen up, you self-righteous mainstream liberals, we get that Trump is awful and xenophobic and Islamophobic and all the rest of it, but so are most of the U.S.'s policies with regard to the civil liberties and human rights of Muslim people and the border, and we never seem to hear from you when the Establishment people are doing it -- and weirdly enough Trump actually seems better on a couple points than Hilary Clinton or the mainline GOP candidates do." 

That's the idea, I think. I'm here today to remind us, though, that there have got to be limits to how much one toys with contrarian positions in the interests of unmasking hypocrisy. Doing so can lead to some scary places. As we are now a matter of hours away from a potential massive wave of Trump wins on Super Tuesday, and living in the wake of a raft of fresh obscenities from Trump-- including his recent refusal to condemn the KKK and white supremacist leader David Duke when asked to do so and his promise to change the nation's libel laws in order to be able to sue journalists who depict him negatively -- the time has long since passed for this kind of contrarian provocation. We are entering a world in which the possibility of Trump becoming an actual fascist dictator is less of a colorful journalistic point, less of a joke, less of a piece of alarmist rhetoric than it ever was before. What we need now is to circle the wagons, to form ranks. On this one we need all the forces of bourgeois democracy to pull together, plus the forces of Old Europe and Metternich and Guizot to boot-- and Lindsay Graham and whoever else we can get. Come one, come all! This is Popular Front time.

Monday, February 22, 2016

U.S. in Haiti: Old Bottles, Old Wine

Let’s take a break today from our own farcical national politics to look at those of another country in the Western Hemisphere whose fate, like ours, has been determined to a statistically anomalous degree over the past thirty years by people with the last name of Bush and Clinton. I am referring to Haiti, our long-suffering Caribbean neighbor, who over the past few months has dealt with a fraudulent election, public unrest, a temporary power vacuum, and now a caretaker interim government whose future is uncertain—all of these in part the consequences of yet another U.S. attempt to influence (that's a nice word for it) Haiti’s elections and deny power to any candidate who comes within six degrees of separation of the popular left-of-center former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hawks Coming Home to Roost

Between the current GOP frontrunner trumpeting from the debate stage his early opposition to the Iraq War (however factitiously) and the only Bush on stage consistently sagging in the polls, this election cycle can leave the feeling at times that it spells the decisive end of Neoconservatism as a force in Republican politics. And the really strange part is what a sinking feeling it is. For those of us who forged our political identities through waging ceaseless “mental fight” against the Bush-Cheney dragon, you’d think that the spectacle of major GOP candidates falling over themselves to heighten the contrast between them and the Bush legacy would be a welcome sight. And yes, so it would be, were it not for the fact that the contrast so often shows to the advantage of the Neocons.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Not That the Consensus is So Great Either

Perhaps it is a little early to write the post mortem on Cruz and Trump and a bit premature to declare Marco Rubio the Republican nominee, given that there’s been only a single caucus at this point and anyways Rubio lost it-- besides, I am not any good at picking stocks or election results and don’t pretend to be. Still, though, my heart and conventional wisdom are telling me the following: that Cruz’ Iowa victory is in exactly the same category as Huckabee’s and Santorum’s wins in that state in the previous two elections—i.e., a predictable plumping for the most evangelical candidate that means almost nothing for the general election; that Trump’s loss and subsequent whinging have cost him the sheen of terrible invincibility and inevitability (“I could go out onto Fifth Avenue and shoot someone at this point,” or whatever it was) that made the large minority of voters with psychological issues related to authority fall in line behind him; and that Rubio is perfectly nuts enough to satisfy the base and already has the “establishment” behind him, so he’ll probably be the candidate. All of this means that the rest of the election will be less interesting to watch -- and, infuriatingly, that David Brooks was right (minus the part where Rubio now suddenly repositions himself as a great champion of reasonable and middle of the road Brooksian ideals)-- but also that the nation will be spared an election year in which there is a very real possibility that the candidate for the world’s most powerful single political office is someone who has threatened to violate wholesale the civil and human rights of every member of the world’s second largest religion. This is a trade-off that we should all be willing—nay, pleased and grateful – to make.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Trump L'Oeil II

I was, after all then, as forewarned
A kind of trick of the eye, a smudge
In one corner of the frame, a lash
That made you blink, a lie, a Mephistophelean
Game, a name (monumentally monosyllabic) and now
Seeing as I must soon vanish
Into a puff of smoke
I suppose I can let you in on
the joke: I (you may have noticed)

Friday, January 15, 2016

That GOP Debate

Did you see that? Have they all been like this and I just wasn’t paying attention? I’m sorry for my surprise, but it was all so new to me. My only link to word of the great world lately has been through NPR and news articles—the internet has regressed me so much technologically that I now abide in a per-Eisenhower era of fireside chats and guessing at what public figures actually look like. It’s been years, I now realize, since I saw a moving image of Donald Trump; and this was the first time ever that I witnessed the physical bearing and mien of Ben Carson, who, like a lumbering narcoleptic panda bear, seemed to resent being roused from a comfortable patch of sunlight and spent the whole debate in danger of nodding off between every sentence.