The Bush White House will be hosting this year's Nobel Laureates, including Al Gore, on Thursday the 26th. This is one of those strange scenes we need a Shakespeare to record, or maybe Hunter Thompson. David Halberstam was good at this sort of fated meeting in our own War of the Roses-- see The Powers That Be for Bill Moyers asking William Paley one last time to do something of greater service to mankind than The Beverly Hillbillies, or the scene when a dying Norman Chandler sends a last message to Richard Nixon. I'm not someone who believes there would have been a golden age of Al Gore if not for Florida, but certainly we might have have been spared George Bush, our American Alcibiades.
Small steps, Master Kung tells us, incremental progress; anything more, and you'll break your heart.
Michigan is seeing some small progressive successes in places like Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Muskegon. A group of liberal-to-moderate church congregations, homeless shelters and community NPOs called the Michigan Organizing Project are networking "to assist in the development of strong, congregation-based, grassroots community organizations committed to democratic principles and values of justice and fairness". They've been careful to define themselves as "non-partisan" while leaning towards social justice projects beloved of the left.
One key element seems to be choosing three (3) specific legislative changes every six months or so, a deliberate decision to avoid the scattershot laundry list of issues I see at other demonstrations. MOP stays tightly focused on small issues: changing local dental care rules for the poor, changing new development projects to include 1/3 low income housing. The member associations then pester hell out of our local politicos, and every three months or so, the congregations get the warm bodies in the seats for a public declaration of intent ("will you vote Yes or No on projects one, two and three?") from our representatives.
This end run is making progressive changes in local politics, while completing ignoring the Democratic party, still trying to get its thumb out of its ass. Michigan Republicans are too busy honking "no taxes! taxes no!" (in a state with an infrastructure already on life support) to pay any attention to MOP; Republicans have a tendency not to show up at MOP rallies, sensing an unsympathetic audience, perhaps. While it's true there's no one there with a purse worth kissing up to, I want to think there's one or two of them willing to go where the people are in pain. The Presbyterians are there; the Catholics are there. The Mayor, the city council, and our state representatives are there. The Kalamazoo Homeless Action Network is there, which allows me to nudge my hipper friends and whisper, "KHAN...!" in an effort to make them snort or giggle during the prayer.
History and a mercurial nature compel me to spend my activism on grandiose, more quixotic projects, chipping away at the obtuse mountain we laughingly call public education-- but that's a fight the gods contend against in vain, gnawing away at the Old Enemy though you know you're going to lose. There is much to be learned from these almost imperceptible notes of grace won by the Michigan Organizing Project. If the next national election is stolen, if it makes no difference who's in charge at the top (though I think ordinary people have it a tiny bit better under the Democrats), this kind of grassroots attention to detail might prove a successful adaptation by the Progressive species to an unfriendly environment.
The most disgusting act of treachery against labor today must be the Brotherhood of Carpenters' practice of hiring homeless people to man picket lines instead of union members. Apparently their members can't be bothered; it's cheaper and more "convenient" to hire a desperate man at $8.00 an hour than ask a $20.00 an hour carpenter to walk his own damn line. And "the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is supposedly the only national union to crawl so low, but you can bet this will used as a canard against unions by every anti-labor lickspittle from here to Canarsie.
Taking advantage of the poor is a job for management, not labor. A dirty little sliver of rationalization tells me that the street people working the picket line could really use the $8.00, and who's to begrudge them any pittance--? But that's the line of sophistry that lets the apologists of capitalism excuse the Mexican border factories, and the hypocritical exploitation of illegal immigrants on this side of the border, and the insult of a $5.85 minimum wage.
They best not come to my neighborhood; our homeless people are organized. It seems to be the American consensus that anyone dumb enough to fall under the wheels of the system probably deserves what happens to them, and geeking for the Carpenters is a better gig for the homeless than scrounging for bottle deposits. Thus shit is transmuted to sugar. But before I concede, and smile and wink at such a crime against the soul, let my bones turn to dust with Joe Hill's, and mix with the sawdust, and choke the sanctimonious throats of the too-proud to picket members of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters.
Carol Emshwiller was one of the Guests of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs last week, and the convention goody bag included a new edition of her comic novel Carmen Dog from Peapod Classics. Peapod is an imprint from the folks who produce Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, a small press specializing in books that blur genre distinctions, the true "literature of the fantastic". I went back to my hotel room for a nap before the evening festivities, pulled Carmen Dog out of the duffel, and instead of napping read the entire book front to back, giggling and smiling most of the way.
Carmen Dog has been called Emshwiller's Candide. It is sweet, short, funny, hard-eyed and true, but its heroine, although a true innocent, is more intelligent, decisive and resourceful than Voltaire's Candide. The villiains are confounded but have a softer landing than those in Voltaire, and although the world is turned upside down, no one has their buttocks eaten by pirates, and there is a happy, uptopian ending.
Pooch (the people she encounters think she's saying "Pucci") is a golden-haired dog who is evolving into a human girl. This phenomenon is happening all over the world, like one of those unexplained sea-changes in J.G. Ballard. Human women are devolving into animals-- Pooch's mistress has turned into a drunken snapping turtle, wallowing in the bathtub-- and female animals are evolving up into humans. On both extremes, their personalities reflect their animal nature: a human socialite with borderline personality disorder becomes a self-destructive, angry wolverine, attacking the Plaza Hotel, while Pickle the amiable guinea-pig has grown into a cozy midwife, puzzled by other's cruelty when there are more important things to be done.
The males, of course, are baffled and blaming the women for the changes-- this has finally proved to some of them that women are, indeed, a separate race-- and although the villains are quite monstrous, Carmen Dog is too forgiving of human foibles to be called an anti-male tract. If you're interested, Peapod Classics has posted a sample chapter here:
.... What the doctor doesn't mention is how many similar cases he's seen and just how far some of them have progressed. He doesn't realize that the husband wouldn't be a bit surprised, that the husband realizes from personal experience that some of the women are already talking in grunts (if at all), while others, who used to speak only in guttural mutterings, are now mouthing long, erudite words such as teleological, hymenopterology, omphalos, and quagmire.
Christine, for instance, red-headed, plump Christine, who had several times been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all.
This is not the case with Pooch, who has had a name from the start and who now finds herself taking over more and more of the housework and baby-sitting, yet continues to be faithful. Her mistress is deteriorating rapidly -- mouth grown wide, eyes suspicious. Her master (the man who visited the doctor, as mentioned a moment ago) has tried all the experts he can afford and they are now, both of them, in psychotherapy, as the doctor recommended, but it looks as though the marriage can't last.
In other homes, similar dramas are playing themselves out in various ways. A guinea pig named Cucumber (because of her shape, and sometimes affectionately referred to as "Pickle"), although not very smart, is taking over several of the easier tasks in the house next door. Cucumber has spoken to Pooch on several occasions, but Pooch finds it hard to be with her because she feels that she, Pooch, needs to hold herself back. Sometimes she feels she'd like to grab hold of Cucumber by the back of the neck and give her a good shake. And for no reason. Phillip, the king snake down the block, has turned out to be female after all, as has Humphrey the iguana. Neither of them, it is clear, has much maternal instinct, though, and they were last seen heading south on Route 95 with not so much as a good-bye kiss to the little ones who had watched over them tenderly, albeit not very consistently.
On the other hand, Pooch is doing the best she can for her foster family. (The mistress has taken to drink and sleeps a good bit of the day, but bites out viciously if provoked. Not that she hasn't done something of the sort to some degree all her life, but before it had usually been a quick slap.) Pooch now does the shopping as well as the laundry, diapering, and much of the cooking, though she is hardly as old as the oldest child she's looking after. Pooch, who had always been smiling and playful, now has become serious and sad, watching over everything with her big, golden-brown, color-blind eyes.
Came back Sunday night from the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, much too over-stimulated and inspired by many meetings to give a coherant account of the experience: I saw this one, heard that one, developed a little crush on another, bumped into this one or saw such-and-so a mighty one from a distance drinking overpriced scotch in the hotel bar. I expect the anecdotes and insights will come dribbling out bit by bit as I have time to process them.
Here is one such: the comic book artist Matthew Dow Smith and I had an informal gripe session about why some "superstar" artists who shall remain nameless turn into shitheels. I compared notes from my own experience watching medieval graduate students evolve into professors and my own brief encounters with the famous (in my experience, famous persons most deserving of reknown have been the least pretentious, and showed the most curiosity about the world around them.) It costs so little-- seconds really-- to show noblesse oblige to someone farther down the ladder than yourself, and pays off down the road by spreading good will. He was interested in my ideas about the "poison mentor", the false friend and father figure who uses the apprentice instead of teaching them, a type who causes at least as much damage in society as the overly-analyzed "devouring mother".
All this is prologue to saying that Cultural Amnesia is a very generous book, by which I mean Mr. James has crammed so much good thought and bonhomie into this collection, you can browse just one or two of the essays and come away with passages that will keep your wheels turning for a week. Cultural Amnesia is a collection of original essays concerning the violence of the past century, a handful of people who did their best to stave off the darkness, and favorite writers off Mr. James' shelves. I plan on giving it to my more thoughtful former students as a friendly introduction to the larger world of humanistic thought and why it matters, as generous a gift as the Durants' Story of Civilization. A long time ago, a casual recommendation by a professor when I was a teen led me to Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and the works of Joseph Campbell, and when I came across them years later, took me miles from where I started. Cultural Amnesia is that kind of resource. This is how we are nutured by those who have gone before, rather than exploited.
Slate magazine has a selection of some of the essays here, enough perhaps to make you buy a copy and keep it on your shelf for reading with your morning coffee. I got mine as a birthday present and read it through the summer, starting with characters I was already familiar with, and then more slowly from A-Z. Someone in the old Whole Earth News recommended this approach when reading new reference books: start by reading the entries on a subject you already know something about, and if it's good, start working your way in deeper.
It's like a really good buffet from a generous host. This morning I dipped into "Hegel" and "Keats" and found enough in there to have me muttering to myself the rest of the day. Here are a few bites from James' essay on Adolf Hitler:
"Some of the last aphorisms written by the great Robert Musil were devoted to summarizing the pathogenic nature of Hitler. Beautifully crafted statements, they had no effect on Hitler whatsoever.... a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture, no matter how widely diffused."
"It may seem unfair to condemn intellectuals who conspire to undermine vulgar democracy in favor of a refined dream for failing to foresee the subsequent nightmare. And Moeller was only one among many. But there were too many: That was the point. Too many well- read men combined to prepare the way for a pitiless hoodlum who despised them, and they even came to value him for being a hoodlum: for lacking their scruples, for being a drum of nature."
If that doesn't take the piss out of the neo-conservative "intellectuals", the Podhoretzs, Kristols and Abrams who have enabled Bush the past several years, who are now foisting Rudolph Guliani on us, nothing will-- their self-love is adamantine.
There once was a time, when the British and Americans were at least pretending to be grown-ups in Afghanistan, when Tony Blair-- that too-clever Greek who thought he could school the bumptious Romans-- advised President Bush to simply buy up the opium crop in Afghanistan. It could be used by legitimate drug companies for needed medicines, and the influx of cash would win some hearts and minds among the farmers. "Are you kidding?" he was told, "We're fighting a war on drugs." The Bush administration had already given millions of dollars to the Taliban for their eradication program. Steve Clemons and his readers, far better educated than I am, have some hard numbers on the subject of opium at the Washington Note.
The Taliban, of course, is making hay while the sun shines and the dope's hitting the streets. Didn't someone-- Shrub's favorite political philosopher-- say something about people who swallow camels but choke on gnats? Not a moment of sleep lost over the thousands of deaths they've caused, and they can tuck themselves in at night with the warm thought that they didn't spend a few pennies to save millions of dollars in grief.
And the Captain Renault Award for Disingenuous Surprise goes this week to anyone over the age of 18 who professes bewilderment at Musharraf's behavior in Pakistan. The omniscent strategists of the Bush dynasty are ineligible, as they now compete amongst themselves in a special category, the exemplary "Again-- It Is the Legend" Prize.
If this level of sophistication can be achieved by a schoolteacher in the hinterlands, whose knowledge of Pakistan consists of:
1) an Oriana Fallaci interview with Ali Bhutto in 1976,
2) a second interview with his daughter Benazir after the Musharraf coup, and
3) that guy with the cigarette holder in the film biography Gandhi,
imagine what the Bush State Department must-- oh, right. Better bring Karen Hughes out of retirement to help Condi with this one. The Taliban can practically taste those nuclear convoys the Pakistanis drive around.
The Captain Renault Award comes with a framed portrait of the good gray Mr. Claude Rains in his most famous role. The "Legend" Prize is given only to professed experts who repeat more blunders than the combined cast of "Cops" in a given year. The "Again-- It Is the Legend" Prize comes with a sculpture showing Arrakis fremen looking on with amazement at a monkey trying to fuck a football.