The Least We Can Do 

From the War Diary of the Canadian Cyclists Battalion: Thursday, August 8th, 1918 (near Gentelles, France) “…After resting in the Quarry for about 20 minutes, a verbal order was passed along that everybody was to go over the top and rush the enemy machine guns.”

 Every so often I read a news story that just sticks in my craw. It keeps rising up in my mind for days and sitting there in front of me. It might not be the most earth shattering event, but generally it stinks of bullying and injustice.

 This was a story in the New Yorker by the writer Mary Karr. It has a simple plot. She was walking down the street in New York City on a sunny day, minding her own business, as the cliché goes. Two thirtyish men came walking the other way, chatting. Suddenly one lunged at her, grabbed her crotch with a large hand, called her a cunt, and then casually walked into a nearby sandwich shop as if nothing had happened. She pulled herself together, called the cops, and with them managed to chase him down and have him arrested. He was booked, but never tried.

The story is appalling and mundane at the same time. That’s why it stuck with me, I guess. Now, knowing of the tape of Donald Trump boasting about doing exactly this, it has even more immediacy.

Every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about such things has told me stories like this. The offenses ranged from insults and filthy come-ons, through fondling and unwanted physical contact, to penetrative rape. Sexual assault, to one degree or another, and being treated like a thing, is a universal experience for women. I have known this for years.

The thing about the New Yorker story that gets me is the casual, public nature of the assault. He wasn’t furtive, worried about being seen. There were people walking by when he did it. He hadn’t planned it or thought about what might happen after he did it. Apparently it was like scratching an itch. From Karr’s description he was surprised that she had any reaction at all.

This leads me to Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he proposed a concept he called the categorical imperative. I’ll spare you the philosophical verbiage and deliver it in common speech: Live by rules that could be universal, without contradiction. Even more simply: What if everyone did what you did?

I’d like to introduce a categorical imperative of sorts for dealing with the widespread sexual harassment of women. What if everyone said “No”? Look back at the story of Mary Karr. There were people walking by. Some of them must have seen what happened. I have heard plenty of stories from women who were molested in public places. Sadly, people have a habit of thinking “Not my job” and looking the other way.

But what if, what if, when a woman gets grabbed on the subway or the street, everyone nearby turned on the perpetrator and just said “No!”? I’m not suggesting that anyone get into a fight, or even call the cops. I’m suggesting that people pull their faces out of their phones for five seconds, stare hard at the perv in question, and firmly say no. Riff on it if you like. “Not okay!” “Stop that!” and “Get away from her!” will also do.

I’m also suggesting that when we, meaning men, hear the kind of degrading talk that Trump engaged in, we should do more than just go quiet and look away. It’s easy to think to yourself, “I don’t have the time for this”, or “I just need this guy to do X about Y so I can get out of here.” I have been guilty of this myself. The guy doing the trash talking then gets the idea that the concepts he is proposing are acceptable.

A friend of mine earned my eternal respect in this category. He worked with a bunch of certified rednecks, on the road doing industrial work. One night, in some far away city, a group of them invited him to go out to a strip club with them. Most of us, me included, would have begged off with some vague excuse. My friend said, “No, I think that strip clubs are demeaning to women.” That is social courage. As history has shown, men would rather charge machine guns than look bad in front of their friends.

I’m not asking anybody to charge machine guns. I’m asking people to do the very least they can do. Say one word, or a few, in the right place and time. If a habitual molester found himself always faced down by a crowd, he’d get out of the habit. A habitual trash talker would rethink things in the face of constant disapproval. Human beings are utterly susceptible to social pressure. If even one in ten of us resolved to do this we could make it happen.


Two Inflection Points 

It’s perplexing.

The Republican Party candidate for president was just exposed as having boasted about his habit of sexual assault.

As a nation, we just witnessed a televised debate between, on the one hand, a former Senator and Secretary of State, and on the other, a former reality television star and four time bankrupted businessman. The Secretary delivered a reasonably standard political debate performance. The businessman blustered out a series of word salads, showing no understanding of foreign policy, economics, or even basic ethics. The fact checkers totted up 34 outright lies from his lips in 45 minutes of speech. This particular embarrassment followed endless months of his racist, sexist, bigoted, ill-informed blathering over the public airwaves.

The latest in a series of revelations is that he violated the U.S. embargo on Cuba while touting that same embargo in front of prospective Cuban-American voters in Florida. He also has a charity named after him that he hasn’t donated to, but that he has used to pay off lawsuits and buy a portrait of himself.

And yet, and yet, a significant portion of the electorate still intends to vote for him. What few policies he has outlined would strip them of their rights, endanger their lives, and probably bankrupt them, but there they are.

To understand the prominence and success of the short-fingered vulgarian, the talking yam, He, Trump, we have to understand that we are at an inflection point in our development as a society. It’s a shallow, rounded place in the arc of history, more of a plateau than a pinpoint, even in hindsight. It’s a change, nevertheless.

Nothing really bad ever happens for just one reason, so I’ll have to assemble a few different things, not necessarily in order of importance, because my omniscience is at the mechanic’s (for my entire life). It will be, for reasons of brevity, a 30,000 foot overhead view.

There is the civil rights movement, to start with. It was a very good thing that went against the worldview and self-image of a large number of people in this country. You know the story. Desegregation (mostly on paper) and the Voting Rights Act (somewhat on paper and somewhat on the ground) changed a significant percentage of our population from second class to full citizens (at least on paper). This gave American politics a new voting block and a shift in party alliances. It also fueled a thermonuclear resentment among white people for whom their own supremacy was as assumed as the air. From this came Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the cultivation of the racist mob by Republicans ever since.

Add in the women’s movement. During the 1970s and onward women entered the workforce in greater numbers, entered higher education in greater numbers, and demanded first class citizenship as well. (Cue sound of heads exploding, stage right.) Women exceeded men in the number of bachelor’s degrees in 1996 and in higher degrees in 2011. Male behavior that was once unremarkable in the workplace and the world in general is now frowned upon and in some cases grounds for prosecution. As with civil rights we are far from utopia, but the social landscape would be bizarre to a time traveler from sixty years ago. Of course, many people today are essentially time travelers from sixty years ago.

There was what I call the psychological revolution of the 1970s. Examining one’s psychohistory with the help of a therapist became less and less stigmatized. Mindlessly following the emotional patterns of the previous generation became just one option. This followed the challenges of the 1960s, when many young people stopped taking the authority of political, social, and religious leaders for granted.

There has been a spiritual change as well. Mainline religions are losing ground to non-believers. “No religion” has become the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. At around 22% it exceeds even Catholicism.

In short, white, male, Christians with conservative social views are losing their dominant status that has been an unexamined assumption for centuries. They are angry. At least part of each subset of that white, male, socially conservative, and Christian demographic is feeling threatened on its own individual terms as well.

Enter the disgruntled Cheeto. He makes no logical sense, but he doesn’t have to. He is the blustering id of people who once had unchallenged social status and now are trying and failing to justify themselves. Trump’s pushback against “political correctness” is a reflection of the anger of those who now have to treat non-white/male/Christians like equal human beings. Donald Trump’s campaign is the death throes of an obsolete worldview.

I mentioned two inflection points. The latest revelation about Trump is the “hot mic” tapes of him bragging about sexually molesting women with impunity because of his wealth and fame. The question arises, why this? Why this, and not his previous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, tactical use of nuclear weapons, punishing women who obtain abortions, or any of the other absurdities, stupidities, and examples of his staggering ignorance?

This incident reminds me of the phone hacking scandals in the U.K. For a long time it was an open secret that Rupert Murdoch’s News International publishing conglomerate was engaged in phone hacking and bribery of the police. The victims of this hacking had been celebrities and politicians. Then, in 2011, it came out that News International employees had hacked the phone of a recently murdered schoolgirl, as well as those of deceased soldiers and bombing victims. A government inquiry followed, along with criminal prosecution. Nobody really gave a damn about pop stars and politicians, but a dead child is sacred, as are soldiers and victims of terrorism.

Trump bragged about groping white women. Sad to say, this is our cultural inflection point, and not all the preceding racism, bigotry or reckless talk about starting a nuclear apocalypse. I’ll wager that if he had talked specifically about groping Muslim women or Mexican women the incident wouldn’t be so politically toxic for him.

It’s partly about the perceived purity of the victim, white women being a symbol of purity among social conservatives. It’s partly about the universality of the experience. Almost every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about these things has told me about being sexually mistreated at some point in her life, and often many times in her life. There’s a thread on Twitter that is exploding right now, where author Kelly Oxford asked her followers to post necessarily brief accounts of their first experience of sexual predation. She averaged 50 responses per minute for the first 14 hours. Over 9 million people have responded. Read it until you weep.

Trump has hacked the phone of the dead schoolgirl. It’s all over for him but the blustering.

But that’s not really the end. We are in a socially and politically volatile time. There has been an inflection in racial justice that started with the Rodney King videotape. In a long ago discussion a Hispanic man from Los Angeles said to me, “The only difference between Rodney King and anybody else is that he happened to have a camera aimed at him.” The universal minority experience of police abuse has been made real for the rest of America by the advent of cell phone cameras. The tug of war between entrenched racism and reform is in its most intense back and forth since the 1960s. The casual abuse of women in our society is having its Rodney King moment as well. The moral hollowness and corruption of conservative religions is eroding their legitimacy. The reactionary forces in this country are fighting for power and losing, but they are still fighting.

Addendum: I was thinking that some things don’t need to be said, but I have reconsidered. Trump most recently came to prominence on a wave of birtherism, the proposition that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and therefore was ineligible for the presidency. The prospect of a black man in the highest position of social prestige and power in the nation was too much for some. Their only recourse was to delegitimize him. His presence in the Oval Office rebutted the basis of their self-image and worldview.

Likewise, the prospect of a woman taking the reins of power, and a successful and authoritative woman at that, is unacceptable to this same demographic group. If the Democratic candidate today was a white man, almost any white man, Trump wouldn’t have half the support he has now. Double that notion if we had just had a white man as president for the last eight years.


The Barrel of a Gun 

“Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations, as witness the powerful Party organizations which the Eighth Route Army has created in northern China. We can also create cadres, create schools, create culture, create mass movements. Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun. According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.” MaoTse-tung, 1938

Mao was wrong. Political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. More specifically, he was reasoning backwards, even as he offered up the real answer in his speech. Guns don’t shoot all by themselves. They need to be picked up by people willing to use them. These people also must be willing to face other people who also have guns. Just as important, these people must be motivated to keep those guns pointed in the “correct” direction. That is, away from those who wish to be in power.

Mao notes that his party created schools, culture, and mass movements. There is the key to his rise to power.

Power comes from the strength of a story. Mao and his followers spread an extremely compelling story about reversing a social order. The massive peasant underclass of China, trodden upon for centuries by a small elite, was ripe for a story that put them above the landlords and aristocrats. Mao put them at the moral apex of his story, virtuous by their humble birth, virtuous by their struggle, and virtuous by their fight against the elite. He offered them a vision of a world where they would have self-determination, equality, prosperity, and justice. As we know in hindsight, it didn’t quite work out that way. After a string of social and economic disasters China embraced oligarchic capitalism, creating political and financial elites to replace the old aristocratic one. And yet the Chinese government persists, albeit with modified economic policies. The story has been modified to be more western, the bait has been dangled again, and so far the combination of carrot and stick has kept the masses in line.

 To repeat, for emphasis, political power comes from telling people a compelling story, a story that orders the world in a way that makes people want to do your bidding. The story has to take into account the existing mindset of the people in question. The Taliban and IS (ISIS, ISIL Daesh) have compelling stories, whether we like them or not. They are straightforward stories about belonging, good, evil, rules of conduct, action, and reward. They key into the existing religious and social beliefs of the population. The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have muddled, nuanced, essentially false stories based on a mode of thinking alien to the inhabitants of those areas. Of course Iraqi troops folded in the face of inferior ISIS forces. They had no compelling reason to risk their lives.

One of the (many) reasons the American Civil War was so bloody is that both sides had stories that were convincing to their participants. Men walked upright into hailstorms of lead because they were convinced of the righteousness of their respective causes.

Today, members of the Taliban and IS take suicidal risks, and sometimes commit deliberate suicide, in pursuit of victory. They treat opponents and their fellow travelers with unflinching brutality. They tolerate harsh conditions. This implacability is both militarily effective and demoralizing to their opponents. They have the group cohesion vital to winning a political and military victory.

Any attempt to “win” in the Middle East should have started with the question of the beliefs and motivation of the people who live there. But of course, this approach doesn’t set up the hog trough for military contractors or resource extraction companies. A strategically half-assed, decade-plus military slog doesn’t do anything for American, Afghan, or Iraqi security, but it increases the profitability of a set of military and “security” firms.

To be absolutely pragmatic about it, we should look at the self-image of the countries we deal with in the Middle East and ally with those that have at least some potential for long term cohesion. This requires us to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is reaching the end of its lifespan.

Sykes-Picot was the initial agreement between the winning powers in the First World War on how to carve up the then prostrate Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot and the other agreements that followed it allowed the U.S., the U.K., and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire into convenient sections for the extraction of oil. Of course, most of these boundaries had no connection with how the people who lived there understood their world. Iraq is a mishmash of religions and ethnicities, as is Syria. Under stress, the citizens of these countries tend to revert to loyalties other than the nation state.

Iran is one example of a nation state with good cohesion. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, which is more than a pedantic distinction to Iranians themselves. The Persian culture has a long and continuous history and the present boundaries of Iran are roughly in line with long historical precedent. The Iranians are overwhelmingly Shiite, and governed by Shiites. This is no small thing. One of the major political flaws in both Syria and Iraq has been the governance of a religious majority by a religious minority. From what I have observed, Iranians identify as Iranians, even when they have internal conflicts.

I would contend that Iran is no more politically and culturally estranged from us than Saudi Arabia, and probably somewhat less. I mean, at least Iranian women can drive and walk around in public without a male family member. Their elections differ from ours in that mullahs rather than millionaires decide who can run for office. They and the Saudis support different groups of terrorists.

When I look at trends, I see Saudi Arabia becoming less stable and less careful of our interests over time. Iran seems to be inching towards civil reform and détente with the west. I’d like to see a slow, careful pivot towards Iran. Even if we didn’t follow all the way through, it would give our Sunni sometime-allies a signal that we are looking for fewer empty declarations of friendship and more real on the ground action.

Which are the cohesive states in the Central Asia and the Middle East? I’d put my money on Iran, but also the nascent de-facto state of Kurdistan. For all their recent turmoil, Egyptians still identify as Egyptians. Hey, they’ve been around for a little while. The Turks identify as Turks. And then there’s our problem child, Israel. Perhaps Israelis identify as Israelis a little too much. The semi-state of Palestine has the cohesion of shared misery, despite the PLO/Hamas split in leadership.

What about the petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates? Their histories vary, with Oman self-governing since the mid-18th century and Qatar only gaining independence from the U.K. in 1971. The real problem with the smaller states, tribalism and monarchy aside, is that large percentages of the populations are non-citizen foreign workers. Out of a population of 1.8 million, Qatar has only 278,000 citizens. The UAE has 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million foreign workers. Oman does better with 2.2 million citizens and 1.76 million expats. Kuwait has 1.2 million citizens out of 4.1 million people. That’s working for the moment (at least for the citizens), but I don’t see these nations as stable in tough times.

This is magic wand waving, given our present government, but I’d like to see a “team of rivals” approach. Doris Kearns Goodwin explored Abraham Lincoln’s canny political strategy in a book of that name. Faced with political forces that threatened to confound his intentions Lincoln appointed a cabinet of politicos who distrusted and competed with each other. That allowed him to play them off against each other.

Under this admittedly improbable plan, the U.S. would have a sit-down with each of the cohesive states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Israel) and announce two things. First, that our support was now conditional (and possible, in the case of Iran). Second, that we now had a fixed budget of military, financial, and political support for this region, and that they would all be competing for their share. We’d be giving bonus points for human rights, non-intervention, not financing armed groups, and generally behaving well. We’d take away points for treating women like cattle and treating minority ethnic groups like insect pests. Fighting corruption and promoting transparency would be a big plus.

For example, Kurdistan and Turkey are at each other’s throats. We would tell Kurdistan to cut the crap with supporting PKK attacks on Turkey and to be satisfied with their present territory in northern Iraq. We would tell Turkey to start treating Kurds within their country with some consideration and to stop their double game – publicly opposing and privately enabling ISIS. Their internal policies are theirs to set, but don’t expect smiles, cash, and cooperation from us without some significant movement on these issues.

Likewise with the Saudis and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Iran, Egypt and its own people, and so on. The main thing is to let each one know that it isn’t indispensable and that we are willing to favor its rival. Then watch the fun begin. It would probably take some experimental misbehavior and consequences before things settled down. I imagine that the Kurds and Palestinians, being in the most tenuous positions, would show the fastest learning curve.

I don’t see Iraq or Syria ever returning to the status quo ante. They were political fictions held together by despotism. The minor oil states are political fictions held together by despotism and government subsidy. We should concentrate on working with the nations that have a strong story.


A Review: Trump Tales of Terror 

Movie monsters don’t scare me. Jason, Freddie Kruger, Dracula in all his forms, rubber lizards, whatever. I’m a scientist at heart, no, at mind, and those things are fake.

However, years ago I saw a film by David Lynch called Blue Velvet and it kept me up at night. The villain was a character called Frank Booth, played well by Dennis Hopper. The character was a bit over the top, but not by much. The thing that got to me was that he was so plausible. He wasn’t superhuman in any way, just amoral, antic, sadistic, and ruthless. I know there are people like him out there. We hear about them in the news periodically. (I met one once, but luckily he was shackled and surrounded by state troopers at the time.)

Paul Bibeau, the mind behind Goblinbooks and The Black Book of Children’s Bible Stories has just e-published a collection of nine short stories about Donald Trump and the people who support him. It’s full of horrific plausibility.

It does stray into the supernatural. However, it only strays into that hazy, dimly-lit area between the truly magical and the truly mentally ill. The narrators are unreliable by definition, so it is hard to tell between demonic possession and dissociative identity disorder.

We get to spend some time inside the minds of Trump himself, a beauty queen obsessed with murder, a paranoid loner, an artificial intelligence entity, and a bored suburban family man who joins the local right wing militia. There is the rise of the surveillance state and the slow fall of empire. All the stories are full of the ordinary, or what passes for ordinary in our era.

Bibeau has clear prose, good dialogue, and an eye for subtle description. His horror isn’t the horror of the beast crashing down the center of the street. His is the horror of the slight movement in the corner of your eye, or the realization that the mistake you just made has more momentum than you have strength.

H.P. Lovecraft and George Saunders adopted a baby boy, named him Paul, and brought him up right.

I recommend Trump Tales of Terror for your late night reading pleasure. It costs a dollar at Amazon, which is an absurdly good entertainment value proposition.


Potatoes and Family 

My business buys insurance through a local agent who happens to be a Bosnian Muslim immigrant. He grew up during the Balkans war in the 1990s. He just sent around Thanksgiving greetings to his clients which included a couple of stories from his childhood. With all the bigoted idiocy about Syrian immigrants being spewed by national political figures I thought that his missive would be a fine antidote. With his permission, here it is:


    Hope you have a lot to be thankful for.  I am thankful for many things, including discovering crossfit, but far beyond anything else I am thankful for joys of being a dad to my son William!  But when I stop and think about having a son I often think of my dad who passed when I was 21.  And I get choked up, and I am getting choked up typing this, so I wanted to share what the spirit of thanksgiving and family love means to me.

    When I was 10 or 11 I noticed how huge my dad's legs were.  One day we were just laying around and I remember making a big deal about it, I bugged him, asked why/how are his legs that big... (this is not because I was small, my dad genuinely had big legs) he just smiled and moved on...  Later on, we packed a loaf of bread, some meat, little water and we went to forest.

    We walked for a long time, and eventually sat down to eat.  We started a small fire and grilled the meat.  We ate nothing that day and I don't know if the meat was that delicious or if I was just really hungry, but I couldn't stop eating.  I remember commenting on how great meat was, and how hungry I was.  My dad ate nothing, I ate everything.  I wanted him to eat too, but he said that he wasn't hungry and wanted me to have it all.

    I enjoyed that meal, I enjoyed that day with my dad.  Maybe it was that same day, maybe little there after I thought how big his legs are, one leg the size of me, and he isn't hungry?  I knew he was starving, but he wanted me to eat everything because I was enjoying it so much.  I also knew I would not give away food, but he did.  I knew how much I loved him, but that day it was so clear to me how much he loved me, and it was the type of love I couldn't understand.  My dad stayed hungry so I could eat and to me when I think about ultimate love this is what comes to mind.

    I grew up during civil war and there were times when food was scarce.  One winter, I think I was in 8th grade, so technically after the war but life after the war was just as hard as during war.  That winter all we ate was just one meal a day and it was potatoes of some sort.    I went to school hungry, did not eat at school, and as I am walking up from school to our house I am just praying.  I just thought if I pray hard enough, God will hear me and bring food to the table.  I come home and my mom is setting up a table for us to eat.  As I am waiting at a table for mom to bring food, praying intensifies.  Please have her bring something other than potatoes.  I start thinking of reasons why I deserve more than potatoes, please just today I want more than potatoes.  I close my eyes, silently stuffing as many prayers as possible before she brings food out to the table.  I open my eyes to the sight of baked potatoes, not enough to fill me in.  Defeated, I put my head down and start crying, but I didn't want to cry, so what got out of me were groans, and a few tears.  My dad asked if I was OK, and I say yes, hiding my face.  I look up to see my sister laughing, mom and dad content.  Feeling of gratitude slowly overpowered everything I was thinking earlier because I realized how blessed we were for being together.  So what if I was hungry, we had each other and we love each other and nothing else mattered, and I became grateful to have potatoes, some people were not lucky to have that, some people lost their family.

    My father-in-law celebrates every holiday, every birthday, makes a big deal out of every occasion.  I don't believe in birthday celebrations so I asked him why are you celebrating your birthday man, why do you care so much?  "Why do I care so much?  Do you really want to know?  Do you really think I care about birthdays and all these celebrations?  What do you think this is all about?  This is all about having family together, when would we get together all at once and share this joy, we are lucky that we can do this, and I find every opportunity to have us together."  My father-in-law also stayed hungry so his kids could eat, and he understands the power of family.

    I think this deserves an ending that will bring all of it together, but at the risk of being cheesy it's best I stop here.  I think you get the point, plus William is banging on the door, it's time for my break.

Happy Thanksgiving!