Our Enlightenment Legacy On the Ropes

The Politics of Cruelty

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.

The wall separating the two Nogaleses seen from the US; two boys on the Mexican side.The wall separating the two Nogaleses seen from the US; two boys on the Mexican side.

BDSM, #MeToo, Torture and the Drumbeat For War

Welcome to the Apocalypse

 
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.”

Gina Haspel and Eric Schneiderman in public happy-face modeGina Haspel and Eric Schneiderman in public happy-face mode

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.

800,000 Pissed-Off People Get Themselves to Washington

Citizens Show Up to Tell a Do-Nothing Government Enough is Enough

 
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.

Marchers at the Federal Trade CommissionMarchers at the Federal Trade Commission

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THE CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPERFECT AMERICAN MALE

Pussy Grabbers and Ball Busters

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.

An Ironically Patriotic Essay

Are We Living Under a Military Coup?

 
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 loose cannon president and his National Security State minder?
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The loose cannon president and his National Security State minder?

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.

The Oscars Need a New Acting Category

I Nominate Donald Trump For Best Actor in a Reality Drama

 
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,
Signifying nothing.

          - 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.

Playwright Arthur Miller and his 2001 gem on politics and actingPlaywright Arthur Miller and his 2001 gem on politics and acting

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.

Raunchy Russian Cadets Set Off Wave of Political Solidarity

Weaponizing Absurdity

 
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.
            -Hunter Thompson
 
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.

Master clown Ron Jenkins' book and Vladimir Putin showing off his physique and his rodMaster clown Ron Jenkins' book and Vladimir Putin showing off his physique and his rod

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.”

Gender Politics and Political Justice

Identity Politics Gets Into Our Pants

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

[T]he trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh shit!
– Michael Chabon, Manhood For Amateurs

A shaming can be like a distorting mirror at a funfair, taking human nature and making it look monstrous.
– Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
 

God must have a sense of humor in that he gave a man an excitable phallic shaft extending outward from his body that leads him around as if there were a ring in the end of the damn thing and some demon was yanking him into all sorts of dicey predicaments and shame-inducing behaviors. As a kid first getting to know this physiological organ I was blessed or doomed with, I recall an adolescent joke we snickered at: What’s the lightest thing in the world? A dick. You can lift it with a thought.

An ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effectsAn ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effects
 

God, in his ribald wisdom, gave women the key to the future in the form of a vagina and uterus. Women got an in-ee and men got an out-ee. He, then, gave men and woman the exact same brain with the same complex and mysterious circuits extending throughout their bodies, an arrangement that makes the joining of the two aforementioned physiological components an incredible pleasure. He or She (I confess: I was a sexist in the first paragraph) also enabled men and women with their powerful minds to be culture-creating creatures, which handed them a great conundrum that has been the source of conflict and narrative delight since humans first carved images on fire-lit cave walls. Non-humans — ie. animals — of course, tend not to be culture-creating creatures, and therefore they’re not susceptible to identity politics; they rely on simple and direct allure and brute strength to copulate whenever they get the biological signal to do so.

This God — I’m not a believer, so the term is used here to mean The Great Mystery — thus made the enterprise of human sexual intercourse akin to playing chess in a muddy, overcrowded pigpen. Think Last Tango In Paris and the scene where Marlon Brando makes snorting pig sounds while Maria Schneider trills like a bird. Of course, the film is a tragedy, and the male dies in the end from his own aggressive actions, killed by the woman who no longer finds his aggressiveness attractive.

A Case of Imperial Misconduct

Poor, Abused Honduras; Groped Again

 
Mr. Hernández and his allies control the much-protested ballot-counting process, the election oversight commission, the army — which under Honduran law moves the ballots — and all appeals processes.
                                             - U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, (D) Illinois

 
Poor Honduras.

The word honduras means depth or profundity in Spanish. It’s also the name of one of the most abused nations in the Western Hemisphere. Its citizens are largely poor and overwhelmed by a state of corruption historically linked with the much more sophisticated and wealthy network of corruption that overwhelms the citizenry of the United States. The November 26 election for president of Honduras was the latest chapter in this sad historic reality.

Honduras is now embroiled in street protests following an election count that stinks like three-day old fish in the sun. President Juan Orlando Hernandez was running for a second term, despite an apparently un-amendable Constitutional provision that precludes a second term. Former sportscaster and TV game-show host Salvador Nasralla ran against Hernandez, who was favored to win. The Organization of American States says the election count was seriously flawed and it’s pushing for a new vote. Here’s how the count went: The day after the election, it was announced Nasralla led the vote count by five percentage points, which suggested a real upset. A third candidate for president conceded Nasralla was the winner. At that point, the election tribunal suddenly stopped communicating with the public. After a hiatus, the next communication was to declare Hernandez the winner by one-and-a-half percentage points. Immediately, the nation erupted in protests that led to fatalities. Knowing how important the United States is to Honduras, Nasralla flew to the US to consult with friends and the OAS. The OAS publicly called for a new election.

Removed President Manuel Zelaya, the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez and Salvador NasrallaRemoved President Manuel Zelaya, the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez and Salvador Nasralla

Whose Decision Threatened Soldiers' Lives More: President Bush's or Bo Bergdahl's?

"I Made A Horrible Mistake"

 
I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake.
        - Bo Bergdahl’s testimony in his court martial
 
Charging a man with murder in Vietnam is like charging someone for speeding at the Indianapolis 500.
        - From Apocalypse Now

 
Obviously, to ask who endangered soldiers more, President Bush or Bo Bergdahl, is a rhetorical question. The real issue is whether a Dishonorable Discharge, a demotion and a fine is enough punishment for Bo Bergdahl. It’s clear by now it’s out-of-bounds (poor etiquette) to suggest our major leaders should be held accountable for bad military decisions that put soldiers in harms way and cost lives. It’s a variant of the bumper sticker, “Kill one person, it’s murder; kill 100,000, it’s foreign policy.” Accountability is like gravity; it slips and falls and tends to find the most susceptible person or entity that can be turned into a receptacle for the blame. Naturally, you wave the flag like crazy while guiding the blame downward. Unless, of course, you were Japanese at the height of their failed, imperial thrust into the world; then, you made martial sounds as you sliced your guts open and a loyal factotum lopped your head off. There’s a certain honor in that.

Sergeant, now Private, Bo Bergdahl and President George W. BushSergeant, now Private, Bo Bergdahl and President George W. Bush

The question of moral and political accountability is a perennial one. It’s hard to find anyone in either major party who still holds on to the idea the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by George W. Bush — the “war president” and “the decider” — was anything but a terrible foreign policy decision. As the younger President Bush put it: “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” Those of us who cried out in vain from the beginning that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong and could lead nowhere but to even worse disasters now see it as a decision that unleashed a debacle that keeps on paying dangerous dividends. President Bush ducked under the radar after his part in it was over and started doing what he probably should have done from the beginning: He painted not-so-bad, primitive paintings of veterans, dogs and his toes in the bathtub.

The lack of accountability at the top is especially acute right now when nuclear war looms over us vis-a-vis North Korea. Not only does the current commander-in-chief not accept accountability — “the buck” no longer stops in the Oval Office — he’s a master in the cultural realm he flourishes in at finding and flogging scapegoats. His “base” will let him get away with, as he famously put it, shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. In Bergdahl’s case, he wanted the man executed. If he had his way, it would be something produced by Faye Dunaway’s character in the film Network: “The Execution Hour”.