There’s so much bald-faced lying going on among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that the media needs to stop accepting this condition as normal and “to penetrate that lie.” That’s the view of Lawrence O’Donnell, a self-proclaimed mainstream socialist who isn’t afraid of controversy, a man who has worked in a number of roles …
Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control.
– David Whyte
The afternoon of August 15, my wife Lou Ann got a call from her sister that their cousin Clara Lee had died in a freak accident with her car. We had just visited Clara Lee in early July in Raleigh. Her husband Tony died two years earlier; they were both academics with PhDs. This July was my fourth visit with Clara Lee and it was the one in which, in retrospect, I realize I fell in love with my 76-year-old cousin-in-law. Aretha Franklin died the day after Clara Lee’s death, adding a national mourning spin that seeped into our states-of-mind. Death was close. I was already feeling rather mortal due to a diagnosis for prostate cancer. I liked to joke: “None of us get out alive.” It wasn’t funny now. Clara Lee wasn’t a celebrity, but with her energy and empathetic heart, she was one of the best of us, an authentic peace- and joy-loving spirit. Her love of life was contagious, and I had caught it just on the cusp of her death.
Lou Ann and I drove down to Raleigh on Saturday August 25. It was a moving funeral ceremony, full of loving stories and tears; Clara Lee was affectionately eulogized as an Energizer Bunny known for an openness and warmth of heart that matched the headlong way she moved. She died, no doubt, in a characteristic flurry of things to do and to be done. That night, she was to lead a meeting of the neighborhood association that had voted her its president. That morning, she was headed to baby-sit for her two wonderful granddaughters. She started her car, a heavy old Mercury SUV, and began to back out of the driveway. She forgot something and ran to get it, leaving the car in gear. The heavy car rolled downward, gaining momentum as it dropped off the driveway toward the trees that surrounded her home. Somehow, attempting to stop it, she got caught between the door and a large tree. One can only hope the massive crushing of her birdlike chest was quick enough she did not suffer; those who saw her body said there was not a mark on her and she seemed peaceful.
John McCain died August 25, the day of Clara Lee’s funeral. Occupied with our personal mourning, we missed the initial McCain coverage. Lou Ann and I got the first dose of McCain funeral-drama Sunday night in a Raleigh motel, a worshipping bio complete with McCain’s “last words” taped especially for the American people. This led inexorably to the highly theatrical National Funeral on the following Saturday.
The fact is I’ve never liked John McCain. He was always too much the National Security State’s darling war-child. That would be the National Security State created in 1947 by law following the US victory in World War Two. I was born in 1947, an early pop in the baby boom and a bit of a “war child” myself. My father wasn’t an admiral, but he was a very proud Navy man who had skippered a PT boat around some of the worst battles in the South Pacific. He told his kids of pulling his PT boat into the mangrove to hide from the Japanese and being very scared; he told of torpedoing Japanese fishing boats and other small craft. The Solomon Islands and Peleliu were a long way from suburban New Jersey, where his wife and my then infant older brother held down the hearth.
I have nothing against The Green Party. I have friends who swear by it and work for it and its candidates. During the 2012 election, I struggled with Philly cops to photograph Jill Stein getting arrested for civil disobedience at a bank in Philadelphia. She’s an honorable person with good intentions. But I never voted for her. In national elections like the one in 2016, I was a hold-your-nose, strategic voter for the Democrat; I saw a vote for Stein as a wasted vote — or worse. As it turned out the election was incredibly close, creating questions, such as whether a vote for Jill Stein was Quixotic and whether it had greater strategic power as a spoiler vote for Donald Trump.
This question really stands out in the special congressional election this week in the Ohio 12th District. “That district has been Republican in 48 out of 50 years,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz about the closeness of the race. “That’s a hit in the head with a baseball bat.” There was a less than 1% difference in votes between the two candidates; and with over 3000 provisional and absentee ballots still to be counted, the Democrat could still win the election in the end. The Green Party reportedly got about 1% of the vote. Do the math. Because the election was so very close, the Green Party seems to have been a key factor in putting the congressional Republican over the top.
I wonder whether the Green Party is a self-inflicted wound on the part of a greater Left, which one might see as a volatile coalition of moderate, centrist liberals and more radical, angrier leftists. Green Party people, of course, disdain moderate, liberal Democrats like the plague. This has little to do with personalities or ideologies or utopian visions. It has to do with pragmatic electoral politics in a nation at a profound crossroad. (We could debate this stuff all night.) There’s intense polarization and a growing sense of tribalism. Everything that was once common ground is now shaky. There’s all the old government crimes to deal with and, suddenly, there’s a new sense of encroaching authoritarianism that may be in synch with unsavory events and personalities around the world. Great gobs of dark money are obviously fueling it all. More and more normally-centric people are realizing it could happen here. There’s the old metaphor of the frog in the water who does not jump out because the temperature is raised very slowly a half a degree at a time. Presumably, at some point the frog will recognize it’s damn hot — but by that point the little fellow’s energy may be so tapped-out by the rising heat that he can’t move and is doomed. But that’s just a silly metaphor.
Cruelty is the expression of hate and of the will to power. … The sadistic traits, the tendency to barbarousness, the impulse to destroy, manifest themselves in a manner that is senseless, brutal, scornful of every cultural achievement. … The sadist revels in the fear, the anger, the humiliation of his victim. … The sadist pictures to himself what is happening in the mind of his object, whose resistance he calls forth and breaks. Only this feeling of himself into the affective life of the object brings him the expected pleasure.
- Wilhelm Stekel, Sadism and Masochism: The Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (1929)
[T]he powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment. . . . Once torture begins, it seems to spread uncontrollably, particularly during times of crisis, in a downward spiral of fear and self-empowerment.
- Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War On Terror (2006)
The way the Trump administration has gotten tough with immigrant families and children from Central America and Mexico shares something with psychological studies of sadism and the United States government’s own research on torture tapped by the George W. Bush administration to justify its cruelty in a moment of perceived crisis. Cruelty and torture are like pornography; as a famous Supreme Court justice put it: “I know it when I see it.” Cruelty as policy — ie. the inducing of suffering among the powerless by the powerful — is an ancient reality that hinges, as Dr. Stekel put it in 1929, on “the expression of hatred and of the will to power.” Stekel was an Austrian and a student of Freud’s; it’s noteworthy he wrote his 430-page work on sadism synonymous with the rise of European fascism. Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign can be seen in such a psychological and mythic light as a return to the “greatness” that presided over this land during the days of slavery, Jim Crow and Manifest Destiny, an expansive period when the politics of cruelty prevailed as a necessary tool for the capture and control of a wild land. As McCoy suggests, above, the politics of cruelty appears in times of crisis. For the atavistic populist, there’s no need to articulate this clearly; since it’s all there buried deep in the loam of US history and myth, dog-whistling will do.
In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.
- NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman upon resigning
I’m not going to sit here, with the benefit of hindsight, and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances.
- Gina Haspel, before the Senate Intelligence Committee
Life and politics are getting weirder and weirder. Now we have a powerful political figure — the New York state attorney general — who publicly advocated for, and allied with, the #MeToo Movement, who fought for the physical safety of women vis-à-vis men in the criminal justice system, who is, out-of-the-blue, outed by four women who accuse him of choking and beating them. His immediate explanation is that, whatever he did, he was participating in “consensual sexual … role-playing.”
It’s becoming so weird it’s now trite to say: “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Thanks to Mr. Schneiderman’s predicament I learned a new acronym: BDSM, Bondage, Domination, Sado-Masochism. I also learned about the notion of “safe words.” That is, if Mr. Scheiderman is truthful in his claim that he has “never engaged in non-consensual sex” and the four women are truthful in their accusations of being on the receiving end of violent acts they apparently did not accede to, then the issue seems to be a kinky legal, contractual one. Law school Contracts 101. Did the attorney general get a bit over-enthusiastic and break his contractual agreement? Did the woman in question contractually agree to being choked as long as the attorney general agreed to stop when she said her safe word — or when she gasped, “I can’t breathe!” That is, was it play-acting akin to the plot of bestselling female romance novels and movies like 50 Shades of Gray or was it play-acting NYPD bad cop? There are so many questions looming in a bizarre case like this, thanks to the fact such apparently kinky behavior is naturally kept secret.
I have learned one thing. As Woody says, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.
- Marshall Brickman, co-screenwriter with Woody Allen of Annie Hall
WASHINGTON DC – The political situation in Washington and around the country is so rotten and demoralizing, so hopelessly polarized, that an outspoken group of high school kids who survived a shooting incident by an alienated lunatic with an AR15 have filled a leadership gap. For this reason, the March For Our Lives in Washington DC on March 24th was like a fresh ocean breeze in a smog event. We’re told 800,000 people took time off and made it to the capital city in political solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff members were gunned down in just over six minutes on February 14th beginning at 2:20 in the afternoon. In some 800 other cities around the country, similar outbreaks of support occurred on the 24th. And there hopefully will be more to come.
NOTE: The mechanics of this long essay have, temporarily, gotten screwed up and the last third may be inaccessible. The solution is easy: Go below and click on the PRINT-FRIENDLY VERSION. It’s all there. Sorry for any inconvenience.]
Gender isn’t what it used to be. The French remark vive la difference is on the mat and the referee is counting. I see the #MeToo movement in this context. Gender differences are disappearing in importance. Young people are insisting on new variations of gender identification that are perplexing to older people. Power is what counts, and power transcends gender identification. I was raised by a physiologist who taught the alimentary canal to incoming medical students, and he was not delicate about crude references to bodily functions, something his students came to enjoy. Some of that rubbed off on me. As a baby boomer, my mind is very much rooted in the sixties and the sexual revolution when I came of age in the sub-tropics of south Florida and, later, in the mountains west of Pleiku, where I served my country’s imperial fantasies locating Vietnamese for targeting purposes. A half-dozen of my veteran friends just participated in the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre — in My Lai — at times crying together with Vietnamese survivors of the massacre. That year of my young life is forever fresh in my mind. Sex and war. I never put the two together as complementary parts of my life. Currently, sexual relations as revealed in the #MeToo movement makes it feel like we’re playing out the bitter final chapter of the sixties sexual revolution. Make love not war is quaint history; and apocalyptic war is again looming over us.
The idea of collateral damage from the #MeToo movement interests me. Maybe it’s because I was once raked over the coals mercilessly on Facebook by a feminist over a photograph I put up from Rio de Janeiro — one among maybe a hundred — of a woman’s beautiful buttocks; she was dancing in public, being filmed as B-roll for coverage of the upcoming World Cup from Rio. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it feels that at least some of the problem was in that adjective beautiful attached to an intimate part of a woman’s body. We’re told beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I begin to wonder whether my sin was that I beheld that buttocks as beautiful in my man’s mind; the culprit was the “male gaze” itself. A beautiful buttocks is iconic in Brazilian culture. The Greeks used to refer to a well-formed buttocks with the adjective callipygian. It was the first time I had ever put anything up on Facebook, and the response was so righteous and ad-hominem I wondered, where did this come from? I still don’t get it. For me, the image was cultural, not prurient. A web search was undertaken and gold was struck. One of my TCBH essays still apparently appears on the magazine website of a friend of a friend, who is an erotic photographer. As in the Playboy magazine formula, he wanted his online “magazine” to feature political articles. I figured it would be in a separate section. But, no, he placed explicit black-and-white images of women taken in Amsterdam all through my essay on US imperialism in the Mideast. I told him to cease-and-desist. But it apparently still remains; I forgot about it and never got it together to force him to delete the thing. The web never forgets. On my Facebook page, I was indicted, convicted, drawn and quartered before I knew what hit me. As one might say, my balls were royally busted. It was the first and last time I used Facebook seriously. But I can live with it. I offered to respectfully talk it over, but the offer was never taken up.
If President Trump is convicted of a crime or is impeached, will he go gracefully like the experienced politician Richard Nixon — or will he go out like Jimmy Cagney atop a giant gasoline tank in White Heat? “Top O’ the World, Ma!” Think of the institution of the presidency as that gasoline tank that goes up in a huge fireball at the end. Translated into the context of Reality TV, think of the narcissistic star-in-chief playing out the final episode under the delusion he’s still in control with his i-phone — to the bitter end stirring up a pumped and well-armed base. Sensationalistic, for sure. But implausible?
The part of this improbable administration that’s not a reality TV show centered on a narcissistic billionaire and his plutocrat cabinet is the anchor represented by Chief of Staff John Kelly — along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. If this were a Herb Block cartoon from the 1970s, they’d be a very stolid rhinoceros standing in the midst of Oval Office wreckage with words on its flank that read NATIONAL SECURITY STATE.
The National Security Act of 1947 codified the reality of the imperial American military for the baby-boom generation and beyond. The War Department became the Defense Department; the CIA we know today was formed from the Office of Strategic Services. The 1947 NSA document amounted to a formal re-arrangement of the country’s priorities coming out of WWII — when the victorious United States of America became the “leader of the free world.” We forget that before World War Two changed everything, the US military was a shadow of what it was to become.
Over these 70 years, the executive in the White House has ping-ponged back-and-forth between the moderate left and the moderate right, between the Democratic and Republican Parties. (Trump may be the exception in being far right.) Every four years there‘s a national “conversation” of sorts about who’s going to live in the White House and make executive decisions and who’s going to legislate in Congress. You couldn’t come up with a better example to illustrate the idea of a civilian political see-saw than January 20, 2016, the day Barack Obama handed the civilian reins over to Donald Trump. Meanwhile, over those same 70 years, the National Security State (as an institution led by the Pentagon) has existed as a steadily ascending through-line leading to today’s post-9/11 world. Our imperial military has been, and remains, virtually untouchable through the electoral process that chooses civilian leadership. Just like assault weapons on a small scale, the National Security State thrives beyond the reach of American politics. In my mind, White House Chief of Staff and former four-star Marine General John Kelly resides in this protected zone as a power behind the civilian throne — there looking out for Pentagon interests and there in case the gasoline tank goes up in a fireball. It’s also good to remember that Donald Trump was groomed in military school, where he thrived. He clearly didn’t wish to go to Vietnam, but military discipline has been good for his self-aggrandizement. Thus, real combat leaders may hold a unique sway over The Donald.
When Kelly was pulled from Homeland Security into the chaotic Trump White House to replace the ineffectual Reince Priebus, it was like Randolph Scott had ridden in to tame a wild-and-wooly town. Since his arrival, he’s made two things clear: one, he feels the US military is sacrosanct and beyond questioning, and two, he’s in full synch with Trump’s nostalgic sentiments that incorporate white supremacist instincts.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5
He may not be a very honorable man and he may not lead the most efficient or wisely-run White House, but he sure knows how to act and how to play a fascist on TV. I think this would be the conclusion of the great, deceased playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and a brilliant little book titled On Politics and the Art of Acting. Miller’s little gem was published in 2001 and was inspired by the election debacle of 2000, an election that a comedian recently pointed out did not suffer from Russian interference; the thumb-on-the-scale interference in that election was home-based and patriotic, provided by a conservative United States Supreme Court.
I watched the Trump State Of the Union speech on a large cinematic screen at a bar on the Mainline in Philadelphia, part of a “watch party” put on by an environmental activist group my wife works with. With a couple tequilas under my belt, let me tell you, it was total theater of the sort Miller and Shakespeare would appreciate. In this case, it was also a bit like a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with hoots and boos and wisecracks from the assembled audience, all of whom scorned the leading man on the stage. As was often done in the old days of theater, in this case, no one threw rotten tomatoes at the performance. One woman did don earmuffs.
Laughter is a biological imperative, a complex cognitive and physiological response to the human condition that is as necessary for survival as water, air, and freedom.
-Ron Jenkins, Subversive Laughter: The Liberating Power of Comedy
When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.
Recently I wrote about the nature of our more and more regimented society and the expanding social media culture and how it can be liberating in the area of masculinity and femininity, given that “identity” is a complex, significantly artificial thing. The idea of shifting gender as a personal choice is not such a strange idea when you think of the effects i-phone culture and the internet have on human beings, especially the young who are born into a world of i-phone networks as if they were a part of nature. The reality is people can and do choose to be anonymous on social media. Many people regularly don’t use real names and totally control their identity. A telling example might be the 35-year-old cop playing a 14-year-old girl to entrap adult male pedophiles. In the cyber world, one can assume an amazing array of identities broadcasted (Tweeted at 5AM?) to a vast formation of possibly millions of anonymously connected human beings that one might look at metaphorically as a giant swarm of birds or a giant school of minnows subject to chaos theory. As we know, with a long history of disinformation, the Russians are particularly good at this kind of thing.
In this light, consider the latest subversive, post-Pussy Riot cultural phenomenon in Russia. An on-line video of air transport cadets dancing to the song “Satisfaction” went viral. It’s an all-male parody of a rock video by Benni Benassi called “Satisfaction” that featured half-naked, buxom and sweaty women brandishing masculine power tools to a dorky Euro-drone disco beat. The air transport cadets’ parody — kids wearing military-style hats and boots in their BVDs — is unabashedly homoerotic. The rightist, hypermasculine and homophobic gangster government in Russia was not happy. But once the state tried to crack down on the parody, solidarity videos from school dorms and other places broke out all over the internet like an aggressive rash. And they keep on coming. The state backed away. There’s a lot with males, one of guys in the snow, one of bare-chested young men in riding pants “horsing around” in a horse stable grooming the horses, etc, some feature girls, even one with two humping old babushkas in a spartan apartment kitchen. All to the same drone beat with the lyrics: “Push me. And then just touch me.”