Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On "Confrontation"

I just read Noam Chomsky's latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (Haymarket Books, 2014), a bemusingly short collection of pieces that span over forty years.  It might be a good introduction to his political writings for someone who's new to them, and of course there are always plenty of such people.  It's also a reminder of how little has changed in US politics these past several decades.

For example, I very much liked what Chomsky had to say about "confrontation" in the 1969 essay, "Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State."  (Once again I'm quoting from an e-book with no page numbers, so I can't cite this passage any more closely than that.)
It has always been taken for granted by radical thinkers, and quite rightly so, that effective political action that threatens entrenched social interests will lead to "confrontation" and repression.  It is, correspondingly, a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for the left to seek to construct "confrontations"; it is a clear indication that the efforts to organize significant social action have failed.  Impatience, horror at evident atrocities, may impel one to seek an immediate confrontation with authority.  This can be extremely valuable in one of two ways: by posing a threat to the interests of those who are implementing specific policies; or by bringing to the consciousness of others a reality that is much too easy to forget.  But the search for confrontations can also be a kind of self-indulgence that may abort a movement for social change and condemn it to irrelevance and disaster.  A confrontation that grows out of effective policies may be unavoidable, but one who takes his own rhetoric seriously will seek to delay a confrontation until he can hope to emerge successful, either in the the narrower senses noted above or to the far more important sense of bringing about, through this success, some substantive change in institutions.  Particularly objectionable is the idea of designing confrontations so as to manipulate the unwitting participants into accepting a point of view that does not grow out of meaningful experience, out of real understanding.  This is not only a testimony to political irrelevance, but also, precisely because it is manipulative and coercive, a proper tactic only for a movement that aims to maintain an elitist and authoritarian organization.
This remains a relevant point, I think, as shown by certain self-styled anarchists who tried to divert actions of the Occupy Movement into vandalism that would provoke police violence -- even more police violence than there already was.  I'm not opposed in principle to the use of violence in demonstrations, but I do think that Chomsky's remarks on confrontation are just as relevant to violent action.  The US left traditionally has been and still is male-dominated and often macho, which probably has something to do with its past and present failures.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon Style

Things have been hectic lately, and they don't promise to be any less so.  I hope to have some more time to write this week while I'm traveling.

Right now I'm rereading May Sarton's Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (Norton, 1993).  Sarton's later journals have a certain amount of intrinsic interest insofar as they describe her struggle with bad health and her reflections on aging.  She had a relatively easy time of it nevertheless, with a large and faithful support network, who enabled her to live at home and by herself (more or less, if you overlook the many people passing through with food and entertainment, assisting with cleaning and gardening and transcribing the journals (after her stroke she began dictating them): most never-married old people don't have that.  And even so, the later journals often read like thank-you notes to her friends and helpers and caretakers and other people she interacted with, as if she unconsciously feared that failing to name every benefactor and helper would result in a loss of their support.  But maybe I'm just imagining that.

She also discusses art, politics, and culture, and as often as not I disagree with her.  One of her correspondents
had the kindness to copy out, from a book by Piero Ferrucci called Inevitable Grace, something which goes right to the state of myself, my health and my life, in a marvelous way.  The beginning of the quotation from Ferrucci is "Empathy, however, is no solitary event.  On the contrary, it is that which permits artists to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains and dreams  of a whole society.  The aim of the poet, says Pablo Neruda, is to embody hope for the people, to be one leaf in the great tree of humanity."  Then Ferrucci quotes from Neruda: "'My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of a coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight and the fiery nitrate field as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his work, his eyes inflamed by the dust and, stretching his rough hands out to me, a hand whose callouses and lines traced the map of the pampas.  He said to me, his eyes shining, "I have known you for a long time, my brother!" That is the laurel crown of my poetry, that opening in the bleak pampas from which a worker emerges, who has been told often by the wind in the night and the stars of Chile: you are not alone, there is a poet whose thoughts are with you in your suffering.'"  And back to Ferrucci: "Empathy then is an expansion of consciousness.  Through the faculty we are able to become one with trees and ants and elephants, birds, rivers and seas, children and old people, men and women, suffering and joyful people, rainbows and galaxies.  Thus we become able to breathe and live in other things or to find them within ourselves, as in a living microcosm in the most unlikely face, in the strangest of situations, in the remotest places, we discover ourselves and once we reach this point there need never again be the feeling that we are strangers in a strange land."  It is a good Sunday sermon, isn't it?  [24-25]
It's a sermon, all right, but I don't think it's a good one.  I suspect the trouble may lie partly in the translation, as I presume Ferrucci writes in Italian.  (He's a philosopher and psychotherapist who's evidently lived all his life in Italy.)  So it might be that "Empathy, however, is no solitary event" should be something like "no isolated event", in the sense of being a process rather than a one-time event.  Whatever.  Of course empathy is a relation between two or more people, so it could hardly be solitary.

I don't believe that writers are necessarily particularly empathetic as writers -- many of us are ferociously egoistic, which is necessary to find the time to be solitary and construct our faery castles of words.  (Sarton herself doesn't seem very empathetic.)  Nor do I believe that the response of their readers has much to do with empathy, from either end.  When a reader feels directly addressed by a work, is that because the author empathized with him or her?  Or did the writer dig into him or herself, and find feelings and traits that he or she turns out to have in common with others?  I vote for the latter.  I'm no Neruda, but my experience is that when I've written most personally and idiosyncratically, that's when other people tell me they felt addressed by my work.  For that reason I don't suppose that when I feel that something could have been written about me, the author must have been thinking about me.  That experience has improved my own capacity for empathy, I think, when it took the next step and realized that feelings that I thought were unique to me, that isolated me, were really feelings I share with much or most of humanity.

Did that miner really know Neruda?  I doubt it.  Is that conviction that a stranger (maybe a long-dead stranger, or one in another country writing in another language) knows you, really about empathy?  Sarton and other writers have had reason to complain about readers who showed up at their doorstep without advance notice, demanding personal attention and mothering, because they felt that the work was about and for them, commanding them to make an appearance.  (A recurring theme in Sarton's journals is her guilt at not being able to answer all the letters she receives from fans.)  Sometimes these fans were indignant when the writer had a schedule of his or her own, needs of his or her own, and couldn't give them what they thought they were entitled to.  Is that knowing?  Is it empathy?  I don't believe so.  It looks like self-absorption to me, and like a child's insistence that his mother give him all her attention.  That's understandable in children, not in adults.  Sarton also complained that many of her readers misunderstand her journals as celebrations of her own strength, self-sufficiency, and tranquility, even though she worked hard to describe her anger, depression, loneliness, and anguish when the Muse failed her.

Can I, as a writer or as a reader, really empathize with rainbows and galaxies?  Not, it seems to me, without doing violence to the word empathy.  A rainbow can't empathize with us; it has no mind.  We have enough to be getting on with just empathizing with other human beings.

Sarton said in her journals and in her interviews that she thought her work had value because it had affected the lives of her readers, and I'll go along with that.  I read her myself, after all, for insights into aging, the single life, and other topics that matter to me personally; not for her prose style or her formal brilliance.  That's true for other writers I'm fond of too.  But I look for other things in art as well.  One of Marge Piercy's characters says in Woman on the Edge of Time that no single work can tell all truth -- that's for the whole culture to try to do.  Some writers I read for the beauty of their sentences, for example, though I'm also glad when those beautiful sentences move me and seem to speak about my life.  As a writer I hope to convey something to my readers, but I don't know what it will be; sometimes they find something in what I've written that I didn't intend, or didn't know I was putting into it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Therefore Do the Virgins Love Thee

So, I'm reading this rather charming book, Sixpence House: Life in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins, a Pennsylvanian-American writer who moved with his wife Jennifer and toddler son Morgan to live in Hay, a Welsh town full of bookstores.  It has its longeurs, but on the whole I'm enjoying it.  Collins won me over by telling how,
Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people.  This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1.  It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for [7*].
As Collins recognizes, "Readers always seem scarce."  I'm pleased that he's not one of those people who claim that Americans used to be big readers but were de-booked by the movies, TV, rock'n'roll, rap, whatever.

On the other hand, I have my disagreements with him, as when he contrasts postal delivery in Britain with its American counterpart.  Britons, he says, don't have the kind of mailboxes you'll find in rural areas in the US, the shoebox-sized container with a door on the end and a flag on the side, set on a post at the right height for a carrier to reach through a car window.
But it is indeed true that in America you can go months without seeing anything more of your postman than a bronzed arm reaching out of a white Jeep, stuffing a ration of advertising circulars into your box. Here people have a rather more personal relation with postal carriers.  You see them; they see you ... In the deepest rural areas, hitching rides with the local postman is not altogether unknown; his may be the only public vehicle for the area.  In America, trying to climb into any mailman's car will get you zapped with a Taser [155].
Some of this is probably true in rural America, that three-thousand-mile swath that has no real counterpart in Britain.  I wouldn't be surprised if people do sometimes hitch rides with carriers in rural areas where everyone knows each other, but given American hostility to freeloaders I wouldn't be surprised if the Postal Service has strong regulations against it.  I live in a mid-sized city, however, and I see my postal carriers, they see me.  Before moving to Wales, Collins and his family lived in the Haight, in San Francisco, so he must have seen his postal carriers there.

An enjoyable aspect of Sixpence House for me is Collins's enthusiasm for forgotten old books, such as Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Mercy Philbrick's Choice, based on Jackson's friendship with Emily Dicksinson and "published while the poet was still alive, and still unknown" (44).  I frequently interrupted my reading to look these up on Project Gutenberg.

Collins also recounts seeing his first book through the press, fretting over the dust-jacket design and the title.
Every part of every nursery rhyme is now accounted for: there is a book called Row Row Row Your Boat, another called Gently Down the Stream, one called Merrily Merrily Merrily, and several laying claim to Life Is But a Dream ... [T]he Bible was gutted long ago, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Do not even think about using anything from the Song of Solomon.  Nor, for that matter, can you use Song of Solomon itself as a title [158-9].
Gee, really?  True, that was thirty-seven years ago; maybe you just can't use it anymore.

These quibbles don't keep from recommending Sixpence House, though.  I'm glad I happened on it.

*I'm reading an e-book copy of Sixpence House, so I don't know how well the page numbers correspond to those in the print edition.  If you refer to the latter, I hope they'll at least be in the ballpark.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Illegal Looks Like

I was leaving a Latin dance party last night when a young Latina grabbed me and asked me why I was wearing that shirt.  Though I was sober, it was 3 a.m. and I wasn't at my sharpest.  On top of that, I had never really thought through why I wear this t-shirt: I just thought it was funny.  I'd seen a photo of a Latino-but-native-born-American baseball player wearing such a shirt, so I looked online, found a source, and ordered myself one.  So I told her that, and that I wear it out of solidarity with the undocumented, which is true enough, but not the whole story.

Why it's funny is obvious enough: I'm an old gabacho, so not many people would say I "look illegal."  From what I see and hear, I'd guess that if you asked most people what it means to "look illegal," they'd come up with a stereotyped Mexican: brown-skinned, black hair, brown eyes, maybe a mustache and a gold tooth, speaking little English and that with an accent.  But that would describe many legal immigrants.  (I've accompanied a few friends to immigration court over the past few years, and noticed that quite a few people who've run afoul of our immigration laws are not only not from Latin America, they could pass for white Americans on the street.  So, though not many people would agree that I "look illegal," there are probably undocumented immigrants who look like me, and many (most?) people who fit the stereotype I just sketched are not only legal, but citizens.

It's likely, I suppose, given the proximity of Mexico and the US, that the majority of undocumented immigrants in America today come from Latin America, and a good many of them "look Mexican" according to various stereotypes.  But as I've pointed out before, the real problem is that many American racists don't consider any immigrants to be legal.  They assume that anyone with brown skin, black hair, brown eyes, a Mayan nose, and so on is undocumented, which is not the case.  (Often the targets of their hysteria turn out to be native-born US citizens.)  I doubt that anyone has tried to find out just how many immigrants from Latin America have that indio look, but remember how the policy analyst Jason Richwine, possessor of a Ph.D. from Harvard, simply assumed that "Hispanics" are a distinct race.  In the US, Hispanics -- that is, Spanish-speakers -- include not only "Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid)," as Jon Wiener put it, but black people from the Dominican Republican and elsewhere.  In Latin America, there are native Spanish and Portuguese speakers of East and South Asian descent.  The Nation published Wiener's article asking how Harvard could have granted a doctorate based on such "a discredited approach to race and IQ," but I think that question answers itself. Scientific racism is alive and well, and survives all attempts to discredit it. 

So that's why I think it's not only funny and cool for me to wear this t-shirt, it's also useful.  It challenges stereotypes of what illegal immigrants look like, stereotypes which are most malign when held by white American racists, but aren't limited to them -- as witness the young woman who buttonholed me last night.  Funny, cool, and useful: works for me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Quick One While I'm Here

Roy Edroso quoted "this choice tantrum-fragment" from a rightblogger in his latest post at alicublog:
Leftist players sacrifice their egos for the larger messianic call of destroying Republicans, obliterating conservatives, and ultimately gutting the Constitution.
I thought this was pretty funny, because it's the exact mirror image of what a lot of leftists complain: we keep losing because the left is riven by sectarian squabbling!  The right hangs together, and that's why they're so successful at gutting the Constitution!

When I notice that opposing sides are both saying basically the same thing, I get suspicious.  It usually means that what they're saying is a prepackaged slogan whose relation to the real world is at best tenuous.  In this case, I must bear in mind that by "leftist players" the rightblogger in question means everyone to the left of Sarah Palin, because by any halfway realistic standard the political right in the US and elsewhere is doing just fine.  They only get into trouble when they actually get to run things for a while, as witness the Bush and Obama administrations, but good luck dislodging them from power.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pay No Attention to the Racist Under the Bedsheet

Last week sometime I saw something odd somewhere on the Intertoobz.  I thought I remembered which blog it was, but now I can't find it.  At any rate, the topic was prejudice, and someone wrote: "Nobody wants to be a racist, but" ... and blah blah blah.

I did a search for that phrase, and found that it doesn't occur very often.  Usually someone says that nobody wants to be thought of as a racist, or called a racist.  It's a significant difference, but it's not really that important, because if there's one thing that should be obvious, it's that many people want to be racists -- they just don't want to think of themselves as racists, or be called racists, or thought of as racists.

I wonder why that is.  A lot of men have been, and as far as I can tell still are, perversely proud to call themselves Male Chauvinist Pigs, or Sexists.  A lot of people are perversely proud of being Politically Incorrect.  (If anything, not many people will admit to being Politically Correct: it's an accusation to be leveled at someone else, not a position many seem to want to claim.)  Yet a lot of people, no matter how blatantly racist their public pronouncements or behavior, insist that they aren't racist.  If someone calls them racist, they freak out.  (The same is true of accusations of homophobia or antigay bigotry.)  It's especially odd to me that, in a ferociously racist country like the United States, racists should claim that being called a racist is too horrible to contemplate.  Maybe it makes some kind of sense that because white racism is prevalent, white people would want to pretend it's not there -- but again, why, since they are so attached to and invested in white supremacy?

Part of it may be the enduring legacy of American anti-intellectualism: we're attached to certain principles or fantasies about principles, of treating everyone the same, of judging every man by his merits and not by his birth, etc., and the cognitive dissonance of recognizing that we're violating those principles is painful.  If so, gee, that's too bad.  But it cuts no ice.

Anyway, it's quite clear, given the pleasure white racists take in being racist, saying racist things, when they think no potential critics are listening, that the cognitive dissonance isn't really that strong for them.  Evidently it's being recognized publicly as racists that bothers them, but again, why?  Americans are also prone to pretend to be no-nonsense, forthright, outspoken individualists, unafraid of standing alone against the crowd, ready to say the unpopular thing if they think it's right.  This is also a fantasy, of course.  I guess I'm just surprised that they are such cowards, so willing to cry "unfair!" at the slightest criticism -- though not willing to change their views.  If racism is wrong, then don't be racist.  But they've got a lot of defenses against admitting that they are racist.

In saying that racists ought to own their racism, I'm not taking the line one sometimes encounters, that I'd prefer bigots declare themselves honestly, because honesty is better than hypocrisy, etc.  To the extent I agree with this, it's not because I don't intend to attack openly declared bigots.  I do intend to attack them.  Given American anti-intellectualism and hostility to critical thinking all over the political spectrum, it's not surprising that they can't defend themselves very well.  But they are perfectly happy to attack the defenseless themselves, so too bad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today I Am Saying "Yes!" to Life


By the way, my Facebook meme project, Kim Jong Un Affirms You, finally petered out this weekend as I ran out of ideas.  It was fun while it lasted, and I got a lot of positive responses to it, so I'm happy.  And to add to the fun, one person posted this "poem shared by a Facebook acquaintance," who apparently had missed my irony and satirical intent:
Doubting the trustworthiness
Of Nth Korea's Kim Jung In
He claimed to be "affirming us"
Which is a form of mind control
And warlockery and has not been doing America and her allies any good
The outbreak of wars and pessimism and economic crisis at this time
May be caused by Americas
Adversaries
Be cautious of that man
And good luck to all of us!
God bless us all!
But then, maybe this poem was meant ironically too.  Satire is always a tricky business, so I never expected that everyone would get the joke.  An old friend of mine didn't think the memes were funny at all, but she has an admitted blind spot where satire is concerned.  Another told me they reliably made her laugh aloud.  Satire is as subjective as any other kind of entertainment, and it's actually meant to be ambiguous: Is he (or she) serious or not?  But I must say I'm flattered by that poem.  Should I submit it to Literally Unbelievable, I wonder?