Teaching in a Troubled Time

Our present turmoils have brought me to remember how violent the Vietnam years were, how frequent and widespread the disruptions were, and how we protested and coped. We will likely be in for a lot more of the same now. Have we learned anything from those disruptive Vietnam times? I gave up teaching years ago but my students taught me some lessons.

I was teaching literature at City College in New York in the early ‘70s when the Vietnam disaster was at its height. I had been protesting against the war for years, but now many schools were shutting down, and I remember feeling disdain for the kids who would take over Columbia but without any kind of program. They had to have an agenda if they wanted to accomplish anything, or so I thought. It took a while for me to learn that protests don’t work that way.

It was a very heady and disconcerting time. Columbia was in the throes of protests and takeovers, and they spread to City College. When most of our classes were cancelled, my students still asked to meet in my apartment and other places. They wanted to discuss and learn about literature. So we carried on, for maybe four or five sessions, and finally classes resumed.

Discussing 19th century French poetry while the war was raging and anger in the streets was rising just seemed futile and absurd. Yet there was a sense that doing this provided us a modicum of sanity and substance. I was still trying to be the voice of rationality: when my students began denouncing Nixon, I said (rather smugly), “The nation gets the president it deserves.” Than we all took a break to listen to jazz.

The Vietnam war gave liberals a focus for action. It’s clear that the protests (and the losses) finally did have their effect, changing the political will of those in power. The situation today is much more complex and grievously more dire. There are literally too many fires to put out:

All these calamities (and which did I forget?) are on the cusp of plaguing us for years to come. There are no clear-cut, nicely defined ways to deal with any of them. The plague of Vietnam, we thought then, could be addressed with focused political action. That effort drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Now we have daunting polarization, shifting targets and much-reduced political firepower.

Somehow, I take from my teaching years a faith in the generations to come and their eagerness to learn about literature in the face of a world that they thought was collapsing. I was about ten years older than most of my students—not too old to learn from them. Among other things, they taught me that political order is never fixed, that protests finally can work, and that we ignore the humanities at our peril.

Send in the Clowns

The circus was actually under a tent when I was a kid. It featured wild animals jumping through fiery hoops, high-wire acrobats a hundred feet or more in the air, and of course the clown car. I loved watching a dozen or so people emerge from a small red coupe, and the crowd roared in delight.

You know where this is going, right? In the Select Committee hearings the Trump lackeys are bailing out, repudiating for the world the Big Lie they all formerly endorsed, emerging en masse from Trump’s red coupe. How they all could manage to fit in that car, with such doubts about their boss’s sanity, is the mystery. Yet finally it is no mystery that they are trying to save their skins.

Like so much of what passes for politics now, I find this full of comic overtones—like something Kafka could have written. Our late-night comedians have big problems getting laughs from Trumpian politics. So many clowns have jumped out of the car that the gag just isn’t funny anymore. “But there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could. Even the professionals seem disillusioned.”

Satire works best as a dark form of irony that makes its object look ridiculous. The audience must be in on the joke, or the attempt falls flat. One can cite Jonathan Swift, as I did regarding guns, and most people either don’t know who Swift was or they find the comparison bogus. Such are the perils of irony. If you mock Trump with humor you’re up against some sixty percent of Republicans who continue to believe the Big Lie.

But I still like the metaphor of the circus. For those who pay any attention to it, politics has become entertainment for the masses. The media could not survive without it. The poet Juvenal said this in Roman times: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Are the Select Committee hearings merely a distraction or a diversion for most people? They aren’t “blood sport” for most people, as in ancient Rome, though they might lead to that.

Folks like Rudy Giuliani can also be expected to provide comic relief, as when the old drunk urged Trump to contest the results on election night. Or the wonderful press conference he hosted at the Four Seasons Landscaping Service. John Eastman, chief clown to the president, kept pushing for a plan to kick the election back to the states, even while he acknowledged its illegality.

For many, the very gravity of the hearings indicates that real dangers are lurking. So do the words of the witnesses. Yet a strong sense of artificiality often pervades. We hope the acrobats don’t slip and fall, even as we expect that they might. That tension is part of the circus appeal. Here we hope the clowns will go to jail though we know they may not.

Beyond Words

Fox News Offices this morning

I’ve just reviewed a ton of reactions to the January 6 Committee’s first hearing last night. If the hearings could change one person’s mind, that would be a positive. Other than repeating what the many opinionists have been saying, I don’t know what to add that would shed any great light or express how utterly awful the state of the United States union is.

Nor can I bring myself to write something that would be clever or penetrating. Taking that kind of approach now seems flippant and self-serving. We need fewer of these pronouncements, of which Jonathan Chait provides a good example. Writers seem to be captivated by others’ opinions, whether it be about guns, race, Trump or January 6. Yet one who tries for original thoughts on such subjects is not heeded, he’s just ignored.

The problems confronting the U.S. seem intractable. So, despite all the noise they make, the voters en masse basically ignore their solutions. I’m at the stage where I still keep devouring products of the multi-headed media, only finally to disregard much of what is said. The media is too much with us.

So I’m going to beg off blog writing for a while—until and unless I get my voice back. Let’s all take a break and go to the beach.

Watergate Fifty Years On

Many of us might wish we had Dick Nixon back instead of Trump. Until, that is, they remember Watergate which set the pattern for corruption and deceit in government. If you need an update on that, here’s a good one by Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story.

 My friend Jack and I, in our mid-thirties and drinking a lot, were writing a book about our authoritarian fathers. The subject led naturally into the manifestations of authoritarian government and the recent scandals of Watergate. Here’s some of the conversation I recorded. How little has changed in fifty years.

JOHN: So this justice for the Supreme Court is asking [Alexander] Bickel, the attorney for the New York Times, “You know there has to be a clear and immediate danger to the security of the United States.”

The Justice: “Well, suppose it’s gonna kill 100 soldiers in Vietnam. Would you say 100 is a clear and present danger? Is it 90?”

The whole prosecution had such a specious argument. And John Mitchell, you know, he is just so ripe, the ripest fucking old Dad. What is he now, Nixon’s campaign manager? So he gets up and says—he and Nixon both said it—that the Washington police did such a great job with the Mayday arrests: 15,000 people were detained and arrested, for not doing a goddamn thing!

JACK: Wait a minute, they did a good job! I don’t know any other police department that could get so many arrested that fast. That’s law and order, get ‘em out of there. Like the army, dig ‘em up, move ‘em out. It’s like police call, arrest ‘em all [laughter]. I think they did a great job.

JOHN: Did you read the story that the White House was hosting a Finch College reunion since Tricia had gone there? And Grace Slick, another Finchie, was coming with Abbie Hoffman. The thing that wasn’t in the Times but was in Rolling Stone from an interview with Grace, was that they had all kinds of acid that they were going to dump in the tea, turn on the whole fucking crew, dump it in the samovar or whatever. Their great hope was that Dad might come down and share a cup with them. Greatest idea I ever heard of. But they wouldn’t let them in: husbands and boyfriends were not invited, it was Finch graduates only, so they got turned away.

JACK: Best line of the whole testimony before the Supreme Court: The government made the case that one thing of grave and immediate danger to the security of the U.S. was that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen some of the contingency plans for carrying out the war in Vietnam. And apparently Bickel, the defense lawyer, had seen the Pentagon Papers, and he said, “Mr. Justice, everybody knows what these plans are. Any reasonably intelligent high-school boy could probably draft them in about fifteen minutes. Either we’re gonna bomb the shit out of North Vietnam, A-bomb them into oblivion, or get out. What’s the big secret?”

JOHN: As it turns out of course it’s not saving the face of the U.S., but saving the face of all those assholes who made the policy.

In [Nixon’s] eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed the existence of a radical, left-wing conspiracy throughout the government and media, whose purpose was to delegitimize him and topple his administration. Nixon resolved to fight back with every tool at his disposal, making the fateful decision to break the law to achieve his ends.”

A Modest Proposal for the Gun Predicament

Some of you may remember Jonathan Swift’s grand satire on how to deal with the Irish potato famine. He proposed selling babies of the starving poor as food for the greedy rich. Present-day Republicans have gone Swift one better, allowing children to be killed so they can have their guns. And they do this with none of Swift’s irony.

As one of a few who realize how far gone we are, Michelle Goldberg writes:

Guns are now the leading cause of death for American children. Many conservatives consider this a price worth paying for their version of freedom. Our institutions give these conservatives disproportionate power whether or not they win elections. The filibuster renders the Senate largely impotent.

Others express “an overwhelming sentiment” too that nothing is going to change. McConnell’s proposal to look for compromise with the Democrats is just smoke that will dissipate in testy negotiations. Far-right Republicans have proven they prefer violence over compromise. Goldberg  again:

the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened. Gun sales tend to rise after mass shootings. Republicans responded to the massacre in Uvalde by doubling down on calls to arm teachers and “harden” schools.

The history of gun control attempts in this country is a pathetic tale of one failed attempt after another. When I worked in Washington, I recall meeting with the people who worked so hard to get the Brady Bill passed. It did pass in 1994 and the NRA mobilized to kill it four years later. Despite the carnage in Uvalde and Buffalo, I can’t imagine any serious gun control legislation making it through Congress.

Efforts by Republicans in Congress have a long history of universally shooting down every legislative attempt to attack the problem. Every sensible person knows this, yet even now they talk about fig-leaf proposals that cannot properly address the problem. Background checks and red flags will never begin to eliminate the deep culture of gun violence in the U.S. The sorry history of all this is well documented here, and the Supreme Court has long thrown up major impediments and will continue to do so.

And yet, as many of you know, most Americans want very much to “do something” about gun violence—now more than ever. But Republicans are overwhelmingly captive to their conservative, mostly rural, constituents who could conceivably vote them out of office for waffling on guns. Toadies like John Barrasso of Wyoming say things like, “We don’t want to take away the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

So the many people like him, who have been obstructionists to gun reform for as long as I can remember, are the problem. And they will never vote to reform the filibuster, which keeps their minority in power.

So my modest proposal is: just throw the Republicans out. Vote them all out. What else is there to do? They will not change their goal of holding up any and all attempts at gun control, and they have proven that you’ll get no realistic gun reforms while they hold the legislature at bay.

To accomplish this and win back at least the Senate, Democrats will have to make gun reform the absolute centerpiece of their campaigns in the midterms and beyond. Joe Biden and others with any clout will have to speak out in every kind of forum and at every opportunity. For once, they will have to get nasty and loud, and stop playing games of reconciliation with the enemy.

Who knows if this long-shot strategy would work? There is no more real collegiality left anyway. Maybe the voters would finally appreciate some straight talk about how one corrupt party would sacrifice their kids for more guns.

How to Beat the Inflation

“Buy less” is the most obvious answer. Yet often this isn’t possible. In Mexico, one quart of Haagen-Dazs vanilla at my supermarket now costs $15.00 US, almost what it costs in the USA. That outrageous price certainly won’t keep me from buying it. Only if the price goes to $20 would I perhaps reconsider.

I’ll bet most of you are like this with items you lust after. You cut back on things like socks and underwear, making do with holey old stuff. Beer, for some, is another non-negotiable. What do people do in rural red states, forced to buy gas to commute to their uninspiring jobs? Hard to figure that one, when there ain’t much budget left to cut.

Maybe that’s why the hard right is making such headway. If Biden does manage to get through Congress his billions to help these folks, they will piss it away on gasoline or beer, and then what? You bite the hand that feeds you.

I am just as bad. The pickup cartridge on my lovely vinyl-playing setup is going south after many years of usage. It is of course an essential link in getting the music to my ear, and a new one of equal quality will cost about $500, plus shipping here (maybe another $100). Not buying it renders my whole collection mere wall decoration. Buying a cheaper one is cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. How many quarts of Haagen-Dazs is that worth?

These kinds of quandaries are of little concern to people with real money. Instead they complain about the stock market dropping and worry about what they should do—as if there were any choice but to just hang on. Suzie Orman was interviewed on CNN the other night. Actually she looked pretty good for a 70-year-old dispensing commonplace advice. Her counsel on the stock market? Just do nothing and hang on; the market will come back; it always does (like it did in the 1930s?).

For the rest of us, my uncalled-for advice is like Suzie’s: just hang on. Or you could try one of the four tips from a popular Google site: “ask for a raise.”

After Watching Another Wretched Survivor Interview

We complain regularly that the news is so negative, yet we continue like lemmings to follow it. The war in Ukraine makes us captive to the horrors journalists regularly present to us. Are news purveyors basically exploiting such people? Or are viewers all condemned to negativity bias, the condition in which negative events and statements impact our brains more powerfully than positive ones? Mainstream news surely caters to this bias.

A couple of years ago, Time magazine wrote this:

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Well, you may say, the negative response has always been part of being human. As Mel Brooks the 2000-year-old cave dweller would say, “Grab that stone and kill the lion.” Journalists are not lion killers, but writing about the Ukraine horrors—and showing us graphic images—makes them feel in control of events that are beyond control. They seem to think that they are giving us a handle on the indescribable.

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted much of one show to interviewing bereaved Ukrainian mothers and family of those who had been tortured or killed. One after the other we heard their tales of woe and worse. I got very upset watching this and finally turned it off. It was another of the many cases of tear-jerking emotional overkill that too often are part of the news now.

As a one-time literature professor, I call this sentimentalism. Which I take to mean emotion called up by manipulation, emotion provoked in excess of the situation. Too much of our news dwells on these poor grief-stricken people and their stories at the expense of generating a true response, which should be sympathy. Their pain is obvious yet news people keep dwelling on it.

What they should be showing—and generating in us—is compassion. Reporters like CNN’s Clarissa Ward are better at that than cold fish like Anderson Cooper or the platitudes of Wolf Blitzer. CNN’s news format is partly to blame, as it makes these horror stories part of almost every troubling evening news report.

Online media often take a similar approach. The Washington Post today ran a story “remembering one person for each week of the pandemic: what brought them joy and what they wanted to do next. And how that was cut short.” A lengthy series of headlines follows about each person, like “Dick burst into song when least expected and liked to watch boxing matches.” One wonders if this approach gives solace to the families, or anyone reading it. It seems like the bland leading the bland just to elicit a response.

Media like Aljazeera and BBC have quite different approaches to covering the war: fewer sentimental heart-rending stories and more educated commentaries, overviews, and reporters who show compassion over the exploitation. More and more I rely on alternatives like them to CNN or Fox or MSNBC. Major media has too many motivations to stay negative.

Drinking Heavily and Watching Out for Cockroaches

For some, expat life means socializing and keeping up. The latter activity includes hanging out with friends, gossiping, volunteering for good causes, eating out frequently. Many women I know in Oaxaca spend a lot of time doing these things. I applaud them for it.

Others, both men and women, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking. It’s not just loneliness and cultural disruption, as the common opinion has it. There are two main causes for expat boozIng: one is boredom; the other is disgust with the U.S. political/cultural scene. One more article on Elon Musk and Twitter and I’m ready for a martini.

I don’t socialize a lot, but friends and I have a weekly poker game, which always includes an open bar. Reading, writing, cursing out CNN and the news, and listening to music are activities I pursue to recover my sanity. I’m less addicted to booze than in years past, a good thing.

Oaxaca is in the tropics, after all, and that means cockroaches are always lurking or present. (Don’t believe people who say they never see them.) My compañera in our new house brought her cat here, and that seems to have eliminated most of the problem—but not entirely.

So I conduct roach patrol every morning and stomp on the bastards when I find them. They are not that numerous now, but we older white males seem to have a particular aversion to them. Why is that?

Expats who have adjusted here learn to live with bugs, along with the everyday difficulties of dealing with Mexican bureaucracies, AMLO’s idiotic pronouncements and decisions, the killing of journalists, and the still-horrific numbers of drug murders. To live a life without depending on booze, one must push these things to the background.

It’s pretty much the same with roaches. They are wily creatures who will be here long after humans are gone. Unless you have a bad infestation, just whack ‘em when you see ‘em and, if it’s cocktail hour, pour yourself a short drink.

The pleasures and joys of living here as an expat require one to acquire a certain calmness in the face of mostly unsolvable problems. If you don’t develop that, the booze could take over.

You Think We Got Troubles Now?

Here’s Hunter S. Thompson, one of my favorites, on the situation in 2003:

The U.S. Treasury is empty, we are losing that stupid, fraudulent chickenshit War in Iraq, and every country in the world except a handful of Corrupt Brits despises us. We are losers, and that is the one unforgiveable sin in America. . . .

The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world.

 . . . . We are like pygmies lost in a maze of haze. We are not at war, we are having a nervous breakdown, again.” (2004)

Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing Friday about the Alito opinion in National Review:

Alito’s drafted opinion manages to do what so few essays and treatises taking up this subject can do: be truthful and shrewd. The publication of this opinion was a sin. But O felix culpa, this opinion should be anthologized with all the greatest writing on the topic of abortion in the United States.

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times on Alito:

Samuel Alito’s antediluvian draft opinion is the Puritans’ greatest victory since they expelled Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Alito is a familiar type in American literature: the holier-than-thou preacher, so overzealous in his attempts to rein in female sexuality and slap on a scarlet letter that one suspects he must be hiding some dark yearnings of his own.