“Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong?”
–Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
“Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong?”
–Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
My September reading was not quite as strenuous as last month, given that I read Middlemarch in August, from which I am still feeling the glow of accomplishment and the sense of its infinite depths.
Here you’ll see just one masterpiece–Austerlitz–and two books I didn’t quite finish, that I skimmed and eventually put down. Those are How to Disappear and Torpor. I had enjoyed the quirky, downbeat, emphatically loserly style of Kraus’s other books, I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia, but maybe the grimness of the times we’re living through made it impossible for me to make it through this one, which included a tour through Romania to adopt an orphan, and an accounting of the horrific abuse and neglect so many babies and children suffered under the Ceausescu regime. But though A Girl Returned was also the story of an abandoned child–in this case an adopted child “returned” to her birth family, which also had its horrific moments, it was redeemed by the love she found with her birth sister Adriana, and a childhood friend, Patrizia, and a reconciliation of sorts with her adoptive mother. And the girl’s insistence on taking her own life back after she had been thrown among strangers.
Austerlitz is a book I read often. Sometimes I linger in bookstores, browsing the “S” section, wishing a new Sebald book would magically appear, though it never will. So I read the existing ones over and over and over, each time they seem as if I had never read them before, except maybe The Emigrants, my favorite, which I almost have memorized.
Weather, much lauded, much recommended, seemed like it had been partly derived from other people’s work. I recognized some of the (unattributed) podcasts and articles she’d gotten the material from. As such, I couldn’t ally myself with the book; I was already allied with the original material. But I liked the paragraph – paragraph – paragraph style. And the rest–art criticism and Jungian psychology. Now, I am reading myths.
“If a rock falls on your head it does positive harm, but shame, disgrace, reproaches and insults are damaging only insofar as you’re conscious of them. If you’re not, you feel no hurt at all. What’s the harm in the whole audience hissing at you if you clap for yourself? And Folly alone makes this possible.”
–Erasmus, In Praise of Folly
It doesn’t make sense. But it’s filling the God-shaped hole. And it’s got all the features of a religion: irrefutability, Good and Evil, Crooked Hillary.
Many years ago I read one of those short interviews they have at the back of the New York Times magazine. I don’t remember who they interviewed, but he was asked what he thought was the most dangerous idea. And he responded the most dangerous idea is monotheism.
Monotheism claims to have in their possession the truth in the form of the word of God, which no one can disprove. Since their god is the One True God, allowing for no others, its word is final. And if one is a devotee and defender of the One True God one is entitled to do anything in God’s name, slaughter, massacre and genocide for example. People aren’t reasonable about their beliefs as the Pastafarians have demonstrated.
Today we live in an ostensibly unreligious culture which evinces nevertheless religion-like beliefs and behaviors. Since God was declared dead, the question has been: What will fill the God-shaped hole? Unhappy people need something to believe in, a solution and salvation. God died, Zealotry did not. The Cult of Science prevails in my part of the world. And some of the masses have found opiate-like relief in the belief of their victimization.
The High Priest of Total Victimization, the wounded and witch-hunted Donald Trump, fans the flames. His cries of victimization are constant, and he is the heir of a long tradition of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, an essay it is worth reading now, if you haven’t read it already, and if you’ve read it already, it’s time to read it again.
Whenever actual victims are identified–women in the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter—there is the outcry, the men’s movement twists its panties into bunches, the abuse against women and POC increases, there is a cry of “White Lives Matter! WE are the victims!” Classic Tu Quoque. You can take almost any statement by Donald Trump and see it clear as the day is long. What you give to others, takes something away from his Us, the particular Us that excludes Them. His core. Here’s a quote from a random article in this week’s New York Times:
“Westchester was ground zero, OK, for what they were trying to do,” he said on Monday, in an interview on Fox News with Laura Ingraham, referring to Mr. Biden and his fellow Democrats. “They were trying to destroy the suburban, beautiful place. The American dream, really. They want low-income housing, and with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime.”
Westchester! That cesspool of Jacobins, thieves and demons!
In America we have an idea of justice that we hold up as a thing, our thing, THE thing–that we stand for and love: Liberty and Justice for all. But when people point out that there is not justice for all but justice for some, injustice for most–existing powers move to silence them.
You’ve got to have a code says Omar Little in The Wire. And indeed there is a code among criminals–and the justice system!–determining who is and isn’t deserving of justice, which crimes are acceptable and which are not. It turns out it’s not the crime itself that decides if a crime is ‘acceptable’. Like, say, murder is always wrong. It’s who it was done to: the victim. John J. Lennon, a prison journalist convicted of murder, writing from prison, defends his killing of another man by writing, in his “apology”:
I killed a criminal, not an innocent, and in prison that was respected. Walled off from society, we create our own social hierarchies here. Those of us at the top of the pecking order — gangsters, drug dealers, stick-up kids (all of whom also may be killers) — rationalized that our crimes were merely the predictable result of “the life.” The predators and sexual deviants who preyed on women and children were the miscreants at the bottom.
So. To convince people that your enemy is a criminal, you have to say it over and over and over and over and over until other people believe it: Crooked Hillary. And to convince people that she is not just criminal but evil, go to extremes. It’s hard to convince others your enemy is evil by pointing out that they support national healthcare, oppose privatizing social security, and are in favor of increasing the minimum wage. But child-raping satanists? Obviously, obviously evil.
Next, to ensure that the perpetrator you’ve chosen will be punished, you need a perfect victim. ￼You yourself are a victim, but flawed. So you need a proxy victim, a perfect victim, to stand in for you. You look around.
Whenever a woman steps forward to accuse a man of some violation￼, her past is mined for things she may have done to show her to be undeserving of justice. Whenever a black man is shot, any bad thing he ever did or said is written about, and his mug shot–not his graduation photo–is published in the newspaper. Justice isn’t about what you’ve done, it’s about who you are.
There are no saints, there is not a single person who has reached adulthood in unalloyed virtue, who has not done something wrong, who has not been mean, or drunk, or stupid, who has not lied, said something offensive, slept with the wrong person, forgot to sign the permission slip, fell asleep while driving, neglected his kids.
Except one group of people, who haven’t lived enough yet–and that is children.
Which is why QAnon is the perfect belief system. It’s like monotheism: Q is unknown, invisible, nameless, and but is telling the truth. And no one who protects children can be wrong, nor can they be bad.
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, went to the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong, carrying an AR-15 rifle, went to the back of the restaurant, attempted to open a door, which he attempted to open using his gun, firing three shots. He thought the door went to a basement where Democrats were operating a pedophile ring, and he expected to rescue children. Instead, the door opened into a utility closet. He surrendered without resistance or incident, and was quoted as saying, “The intel was not 100%.”
For some reason, this quote of his has always stuck with me. It’s in the passive voice, like the famous George Bush Sr. quote “Mistakes were made.” It left the door open for there to be a real conspiracy. He admitted his actions were wrong, but only because they were misinformed. And he stuck to the position that there were Democrats (celebrities, billionaires, politicians) operating a pedophile ring, which he was heroically trying to destroy. And he held that door open.
He’d found a closet, but the door to the basement was somewhere else if not at Comet Ping Pong. You could feel the rush of air coming up from that basement. The door would open and from the basement emerged QAnon.
In a nutshell, its Wikipedia entry:
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump, who is battling them, leading to a ‘day of reckoning’ involving the mass arrest of journalists and politicians. No part of the theory is based on fact.
I mean, really, reasonable people, come ON. This QAnon thing has been so exasperating to me. But–it’s a religion, based not on reason, but belief. It’s got all the hallmarks. It’s bulletproof, waterproof, irrefutable, insuperable, inarguable, unattackable, unassailable, undeniably true. AND it has a perfect victim.
We appeal to people’s reason to try to convince them their beliefs are wrong using Snopes, the New York Times, reputable journalism, or Wikipedia articles to back us up. This never works! So, if you’re managing a QAnon situation, what do you do? Maybe have a look at the How Stuff Works Getting out of a Cult page. And if the usual methods don’t work, you might need Deprogramming.
And meanwhile, what the hell, what the hell, what the hell.
The stand out here, was of course, Middlemarch. I had read it in college and remember thinking to myself, “am I really going to expend my youth reading about agricultural practices in 19th century rural England?”￼￼ But of course, it is so much more. Many people have called it the greatest English novel, and, to disprove this opinion, I would have to read a whole lot more English novels. So I provisionally agree. ￼￼
Last month’s reading of Faulkner required the antidote of Morrison, and I read her essays, and her first novel The Bluest Eye. ￼￼ Also of undisputed greatness–though censors the world over have been trying to suppress it for years. I doubt they’ve read it. ￼
The book that left me straddling the fence, wavering in opinion, and wondering about its suitability for prize-winning￼, ￼was the International Booker Prize winner, The Discomfort of Evening–which announcement and ￼ceremony I accidentally happened upon as it was taking place live￼ online. Prizes invite dispute, which enlivens book reading in general, so I welcome them.￼￼ The book was great, but green. ￼￼I was amazed to learn that the distinguished judges read all the contenders, starting with 128 books.
And if you haven’t already read Signs Preceding the End of the World, run don’t walk to your local bookstore, and pick it up curbside. ￼
Occasionally, in literature, good men appear. I am thinking of Martin Cunningham, in Ulysses, who always had something kind to say on behalf of Leopold Bloom. And here in Middlemarch I encountered another one.
The good Caleb Garth, whose kind nature was exploited by the n’er-do-well spendthrift and gambler Fred Vincy, who impoverished his family and expunged their savings–Garth is offered his old job back, as the manager of the farmland for the local gentry, and he has this to say:
“…it’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is. … it’s a great gift of God, Susan. “￼
“That It is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: the father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”
It is because criminals are occupying the highest offices in the nation, because the gangrene of corruption has spread to the furthest corners of America, ￼because we are so endlessly subjected to the most repugnant appalling and reprehensible behavior￼–that this stood out so much for me￼￼: the modest but deep satisfaction that comes from honest work, giving much and leaving things better than they were found. ￼￼
￼Middlemarch is the story of a town, a community, a civil society, and its various personalities, their struggles with each other and themselves, ￼and their eventual fates. Their responses to cultural change, the introduction of new technologies and scientific discoveries. The perspectives of both maids and Lords. And one of the terrible things I realized as I read this book is that, in America, we no longer seem to be￼ living in a civil society. We’re being told that we don’t have it, and can’t.
In a civil society, there’s a sense of trust, fellowship, and solidarity. Even with deep disagreement, and political conflict–which are unfolding in Middlemarch in these chapters–all townspeople and members of the civil society, from the snobbiest Baron, to the filthiest farmhand, grant dignity, humanity and self worth to one another. ￼Discussion, irritation and exasperation results from differing points of view–but not hatred, contempt, violence or dismissal. The book shows arguments between opposed parties that are not inflammatory. Respect prevails. Any position counter to that of another, any dispute, any selfishness is superseded by that person’s membership in this community, town and society.
Which is still mostly the case in the United States, and in spite of our differences, we mostly agree. So why don’t we bring public conversations back around to the temper and mood of conversations the people are having in Middlemarch? Where has our civil society gone? ￼How do we get to a Middlemarch of our own?￼
Nice White Parents. I listened to the first three episodes of this new podcast about how a Brooklyn school serving mostly black and brown students was harmed by the arrival of the titular Nice White Parents, who flexed their privilege, proceeded to fundraise $50,000 (compared to a prior raise by the PTA of $2,000) and whose kids provided some truly squirmworthy comments. About how school integration may not be so desirable after all, how schools keep failing to support nonwhite kids, and how entrenched inequalities persist, and might be eradicated. This will be a five part series, and has already met with some dissension and controversy, but I am curious to hear the next episodes and see where it goes. Whether or not you agree with the portrayal of the issues or the conclusions, it’s a fascinating listen.
Point Omega. When reading Don DeLillo novels, I often feel as if I have entered a cold, white, vast, fluorescent-lit space, like a data center, interstellar terminal, or morgue. Point Omega was no different. Beautifully structured though it was, a brief 5 chapters, it was set in both the desert and the mind–unforgiving, spare places beyond time’s horizon. We were promised a glimpse of a bighorn ram, which never materialized, and though there were sunsets and occasional glimpses of earthly loveliness, human connection was absent and human relations were reduced to voyeurism, stalking, staring, predation and self-absorption. Who is and who is not a DeLillo Fan? I try, repeatedly, but am not.
Reading continues to get done! These are July’s books. The stack looks higher than usual because there are three books in there that have pictures: Blind Spot, writer and photographer Teju Cole’s book of photography from all over the world; Yoshiharu Tsuge’s comic book, The Man without Talent, paragon of the unsuccessful man genre, a genre which actually has a name that I’ve forgotten, or failed to remember, because in this genre it is always appropriate to note failure; and Nanotecture, a book of photos of very small buildings. I grew up sleeping in a large room in a large house, but moved into my closet when I was 10 or 12, so I really appreciate being cramped. Better for thinking. And also reading. There’s a lot of poetry in this stack too, most of it good. And even some missing from the picture (Dark Matter by Aase Berg, Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney) But I found Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost absolutely stunning, indispensable, potent. Absalom Absalom was the perfect book for the era of Black Lives Matter, which I mentioned before, and is not my favorite being long-winded, racist and repetitive. I do prefer Light in August and As I Lay Dying, but I felt it had to be reread.
My blog posts get a “D” for readability as graded by this web site, because my sentences are too long and the vocabulary I use is too advanced. Turns out I am writing at a college level, and that is, according to this article, a cause for alarm. According to the site, I’m limiting my readership.
I ran my blog posts through this analysis after ending up on an article about how the most successful writers–by successful they mean getting on a best-seller list–write for an audience reading at an elementary or middle school level. The author claims that Cormac McCarthy–Cormac McCarthy!–writes at an 8th grade level. If you’ve read McCarthy–a great favorite of mine–you’ll know that he demands a lot from his readers. He writes long, complex sentences, employing odd structures, repetitions, sentence fragments, and a strange, almost Biblical language. He uses a rarefied vocabulary, pushing words to the limits of their sense. I don’t think I’d’ve had an easy time reading him in 8th grade. I didn’t believe this result, so I grabbed this passage from Blood Meridian I had laying around and ran it through the same test.
“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are ever given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”
Have you ever heard the word “endarkenment” before? Me neither. Looks invented. Far from being at an 8th grade level, the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level analysis put Blood Meridian–at least this passage–at grade level 14.6, requiring around 2.5 years of college to be easily understood. Here are the scores:
I felt vindicated. Would you rather write like the article was suggesting? In order to “succeed” should we dumb down our blog posts? We should not.
I had been raised with the idea that having an extensive vocabulary meant expanding your understanding of yourself, other people and the world, an idea similar to this exhortation from Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, which I read in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason:
“Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”
“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”
The desperate state of public discourse today is partly due to the lack of words, the poverty of expression, the limited vocabulary that keeps us from understanding and communicating with one another.
In this time of Black Lives Matter, and after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, I wanted to go back and find this post I wrote in 2012 about how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights contribute to the discrimination and abuse of black men and women, so entrenched in America history, with no signs of abating.
I had been reading about the work of the late William J. Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, who dedicated his life to studying the roots of racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system. He was a conservative. Upon his death an obituary in the Nation said: “Widely acknowledged as the leading criminal procedure scholar of his era, Stuntz defied easy labeling. He was a conservative and an evangelical Christian whose preoccupation with race and mercy allied him with liberals, and whose insights were contrarian and often quite radical.” His solutions to the inequities of the criminal justice system had two parts: making trials local, and basing justice on principles rather than procedure.
“The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Stunt’s book) asks what went wrong and how it can be put to rights. Stuntz covers much ground and floats many reforms, but his answer is two-pronged. The first part of it is structural: “local democracy” must be restored to the criminal justice system by reducing plea bargaining and holding more jury trials—and the jurors must live in the same communities as the victims and the accused.
The second part of Stuntz’s answer is technical: he argues that we must turn away from the law of criminal procedure—broadly speaking, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights like the right to counsel and the freedom from unlawful search and seizure—and toward the substantive law of equal protection, which the Supreme Court left for dead during Reconstruction. The former proposal is an arresting insight that seems broadly correct and broadly unobjectionable (except to prosecutors). The latter is as provocative as anything you will read from a serious legal commentator, and raises many problems. Both proposals will be probed and tested by scholars for years.”
Stuntz looked for the underlying reasons why we arrived at this impasse in America, how we are still, in 2011 when he wrote his book, seeing the unending injustice towards black people, finding it, ultimately, in the Constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights. I was hard struck by how right he was in what was wrong. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Bill of Rights is about process and procedure, rather than principles. Compare, he says, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with our Bill of Rights—Bills 4-8 establish our judicial system, and are how we end up with more black men in prison than were slaves in 1850, and more than six million people under “correctional supervision”. It’s appalling.
The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice…You can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong.
I’d always been uneasy with the over-valorization of the Constitution, and felt there was something off about the Bill of Rights, and certainly have always felt that the justice system rarely dispenses justice, but more often perpetuates the prejudices and privileges already existing in society rather than overcoming them–but I didn’t have the least idea why it was so bad. This is why.
Also from Stuntz: The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law