Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Laura Miller reviews the above-entitled book – by Ariela J. Gross – on Salon.

Ms. Miller does her usual fine job and I’m not going to repeat it. Two points, however, come to me.

She characterizes the book as “largely a catalog of delusions and the strategies by which Americans tries to prop up those delusions in courts of law”. It is of course perfectly ‘appropriate’ and not at all ‘insensitive’ to join in the debunking of the noxious myths deployed – consciously or otherwise – to justify the stigmatization of some ‘designated other’ race. As well it should be – race slavery as practiced in the South (and profited upon by the North) was abominable even by the standards of the time except to its practitioners and those who profited by it. As is ever the case.

The Founders did not so much approve of it as they accepted that this monstrous thing – which long predated their own births – was too deeply entrenched to be rooted out quickly. And if they insisted that slavery’s abolition be the price of entrance of a former British colony into the new United States, then the country would never be formed. Their toleration of slavery was thus the lesser of two evils, or ‘acceptable losses’, sort of like those natives and locals killed in a ‘humanitarian intervention’ or an Invasion of Liberation, that recent contribution to the annals of military strategy by the combined wit and wisdom of the nationalist-rightist Neocons and the radical-‘liberal’ victim-rescuers. Between them, if their dreams be fulfilled, they should eradicate sin, suffering, and perhaps death from the ‘oppressions’ belaboring humankind. Taxes, not so much. God not being necessary to the aforesaid ministry.

It seems phantasmagorical, moving through this and that era of American history in Gross’s widely-researched tour, watching what one would consider ‘normal’ people approving of, enforcing, or even further-developing, such vicious and blatantly deceitful whackery as was soberly or screamingly put forth to justify indignities small and large. You wind up thanking God that you were not born in such a repulsively and viciously lunatic era.

And yet you also find yourself squirming uncomfortably, as if the monster were far closer to this world than the crisp pages of a new history of a long-gone time. For there is another book waiting for a safer time to be written, of more recent – indeed current – delusions by which new forms of stigmatization are being maintained.

The internment of almost the entire Japanese-American population of the West Coast in early 1942 comes to mind. No such internment was made of German or Italian natives or immigrants or former immigrants or descendants of immigrants on the East Coast, though Hitler and Mussolini were half-again as close to Our shores as the legions of Nippon.

Worse, the government knew it was all a sham, like the Brits collecting most of the cooking pots and wrought-iron fencing in England in order to ‘make airplanes’. Great PR. But George Marshall himself, in now declassified memos on general military strategic matters, had proposed that the great bulk of newly raised troops be sent East (i.e. to the Atlantic Coast) since the chances of a Japanese ‘invasion’ over six-thousand miles of open ocean were negligible. And so it was done, and the West Coast saw no sudden huge garrisons of newly-raised Army units sent to ‘defend the beaches’ of Santa Monica or Big Sur or Washington State. Yet the camps stayed in business out there in the high deserts, while meanwhile, back ‘in town’, numerous not-Japanese Californians feasted on their former neighbors’ property and businesses – much, it has to be said - as numerous German and Austrian folks were doing with the property of their own now-interned former neighbors. What a species we are, truly.

Where does ‘delusion’ and ‘lunacy’ end and outright collaboration with or acquiescence in clear evil begin? When does one stop being ‘duped’ and become a ‘collaborator’? Some might consider this a moot question, since it is highly improbable that any Americans today will ever have to answer to a French postwar tribunal about supporting the Nazis. But there are other tribunals, other courts on the planet or … Elsewhere, where lists (Lists, even) are being compiled and updated and kept.

Surely the Fundamentalists know that, even if they cannot imagine – the poverty of their moral imagination is indeed stunning – that they themselves might be liable for some of the evils now wreathing this unhappy planet in Tolkien’s dark and noxious fumes of Mordor.

The ‘radical liberals’ less so, since as far as they are concerned ‘God’ has been let go like that dwarf-king of the House of Savoy. Alas for them, having been ‘let go’ it is yet not altogether evident that He has actually gone and went; for while it is clear to all but the utterly fatuous that Elvis has indeed left the building, God’s departure is – ominously – unconfirmed; perhaps surfing the fruits of the recent election, they plan to continue the deployment of the now formidable domestic surveillance apparatus in the ‘good’ cause of seeing if they can detect anything suspicious in emails or faxes or phone conversations. He seems to be among Us still, though perhaps like DeGaulle, a not-present yet not-absent voice, promising and planning a Liberation with a capital ‘L’. Which will cause great wailing and the gnashing of whitened teeth among those who had – they ‘totally’ presumed – abolished ‘capital letter words’. Life continues to be high drama, but comedy as well.

While there are many among Us who are under the fixed impression that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth not long before the First Dynasty, there are also many who are and have long been convinced that ‘God’ is the prime terrorist, and all the lesser forms of terrorist now extant merely His (mostly male) minions and lackeys. Lenin, their ideological great-uncle, was equally convinced that God was an even greater threat than the Tsar; that gentleman’s wife and children were merely ‘necessary murders’, eggs to be broken if the Great Omelet was to be made.

It is curious – and yes, I bring it up again (it’s too ‘classic’ to avoid) – that in all the talk of baaad things done not only in the past eight years but in the past sixteen, no commentary yet has touched upon the sex-offense mania that finally took wing full-blown in that queasily shiny decade of the 1990s. Though even the government’s own experts say that recidivism is lower than almost any other crime-group, though experts and even ‘advocates’ assert that the far greater danger is posed by persons in the victim’s immediate ken – who are mostly unreached by any legislation or restrictions , though the main professional psychiatric organizations refuse to acknowledge it as a specific mental illness, though there is no known ‘cure’ (hardly surprising since it is not even considered a disease) that would justify ‘civil commitment’, yet it continues.

Most recently, municipalities – whether or not their voters believe in Egyptian dinosaurs or God – sought to keep ‘sex offenders’ from walking the streets or answering their doorbell on Halloween. Although what conceivable connection a man convicted – rightly or wrongly, it has to be noted – of sex with an adult has with being prohibited from passing out candy to neighborhood kids on Halloween is anybody’s guess. No doubt there is a ‘clear’ connection in the minds of many, the same sort of connection that could easily imagine hordes of toothy little yellow men wading ashore at Venice Beach and wrecking the Ferris wheel and then hauling down the Stars and Stripes on Capitol Hill shortly thereafter. It’s the way of these things, it appears.

Surely, if the assumptions of its advocates are to be credited, sex-offending has been going on for a long time, and rarely noticed. We can only imagine what effect it had on the Continental Congress or any of the Founders – for surely among such a large ‘pool’ of men, at least a few in their childhoods must have encountered one of these monsters (the sex offender, not the Pharaonic dinosaur). It’s perhaps a credit to Our still-surviving public sanity or integrity that the Bill of Rights has not been dismissively ascribed to the lasting trauma of being a victim of sex-offense on the part of several of the Founders. Like Scrooge’s “undigested bit of beef”.

Secondly, Gross wades into the miasmic swamps of deploying the criminal law against thoughts and attitudes. It’s a decidedly un-Western – indeed anti-Western – approach to the criminal law. The West had wisely curbed the ever-dangerous and vampiric police power of government by requiring it to limit prosecution only to actions that could be seen and judged by others on the basis of observation and examination. Any actions might be criminalized, but the only way that the criminal law was going to have an effect on an individual’s attitudes and beliefs was through the gradual impressions formed by citizens in their own good time.

Gross has been dipped far too deeply in ‘another’ approach to things. Miller quotes her to the effect that “we should formulate anti-discrimination law to encompass discrimination law to encompass discrimination not only on the basis of race understood as ‘skin color’ but on the basis of racial performance as well”. Before anything else, you have to ask yourself if this is the type of ‘thinking’ that is impressing the ‘lawmakers’ on Capitol Hill and in the State legislatures. And for that matter, is this the type of stuff they have to wade through in law school these days?

One can only imagine what most of Our present crop of lawmakers think when language like this is laid before them for incorporation under the mantle of the awefull police power of the government (which perhaps now qualifies for that long-standing descriptor “Leviathan”). Can they even understand it?

Miller goes on to note that in effect Gross is recommending that courts – which can barely determine with certainty what ‘race’ a person ‘is’ (and even then only after disconcertingly Nazi-type inquiries and calculations) - “rule on which race behaviors and appearances belong to”.

Can it be much of a surprise that Our criminal and Constitutional law and jurisprudence has reached the point it has, given that in the formerly smoke-filled back-rooms of Capitol Hill this is the type of stuff that is taking up the time and energies and skills (such as they may be) of the legislators? Perhaps they truly did pass the Patriot Act and a host of other monstrosities in a fit of absence of mind: they were plumb wore out from having to figure out how to make Gross’s sort of stuff into any semblance of decent legislation and figured that something as clear-cut as the usurpation of Constitutional rights by a forthright Unitary Executive deserved to be passed just because it was ‘clear’ and ‘forthright’ and easy to understand (how they got themselves to accept it, however, is another question altogether).

It’s “pie-in-the-sky social engineering”, Miller observes. And that is too too true. It’s also far more lethal than ‘pie’. It’s a toxic hash that will poison Constitutional practice. But We know that now, perhaps.

But it's also a clear indicator that the Left seeks as anti-American a 'police state' as the Right's National Security State. A government that - even in a 'good' cause - is giong to be investigating and prosecuting thoughts and attitudes, on top of already having invaded the intimacies of the bedroom (although, alas, at the insistence of feminist advocacies), is hardly any different in effect from one that conducts such invasions in search of 'communists' or 'traitors'. And it explains why no matter whether We elect Democrats or Republicans, things Constitutional never seems to get any better. Indeed, they got worse steadily throughout the Clinton and Bush administrations.

And in one of those marvelously revealing by-the-by’s that repays the soul-searing process of reading this sort of ‘thought’, Gross asserts in lamentation that the courts are moving away from the ‘goal of affirmative action’, which is “to restructure society in a nonhierarchical way”.

What the frak, over? Had We not been assured, and gotten the official Memos, to the effect that ‘affirmative action’ (formerly ‘affirmative racism’ but never ever again to be thus referred to) was to somehow address that mysterious unique debility that LBJ alluded to without explaining in his June ’65 speech at Howard University, and that after a few years such admittedly government-enforced racial discriminating would not be necessary; the ‘Negroes’ would have been ‘caught up’ with everybody else. On the basis of that assurance the citizenry of the era (yes, it was that long ago) intoned under their breath ‘OK, maybe, and then we can get back to normal and concentrate on keeping the country going’.

That never happened and – as is now evident – the country was not ‘kept going’ in any actual sense of the word. And now – and it is an irony – the actual catastrophic failure of much of the country’s economic structure has proven the last-minute factor that squeaked a black man (and that’s the last time I’m going to refer to the President-elect in racial terms) into the White House. But it was a damned close-run thing, as either Wellington or Nelson said of either Waterloo or one of those great Royal Navy victories.

Now comes Gross and affides that ‘affirmative action’ has a new strategic justification (shades of the Iraq War): ‘they’ (as yet undefined, un-named, and – for my money – unindicted) want to create a non-hierarchical society. Lovely. They want to attempt what has never been achieved in any human society in recorded history, and in a democracy they want to do this without telling people because – oy – The People can’t be trusted to go along with it, because The People ‘just don’t get it’.

Oy, Ach, und Frak.

Perhaps when the chardonnay runs out in Georgetown this madness will pass. But as they say in the Navy, you never –ever – get rid of the admiral’s barge; you may have to jettison food, water, even ammo, but that barge is going to stay right there on the davits because an admiral doesn’t feel like an admiral without it. The chardonnay and single-malt will not run out in the new Beltway, regardless of what has to go overboard to ‘lighten ship’. The Moon Pies, perhaps, will get tossed over the side, there in the Beltway – after a sixteen year run, and perhaps the Fundamentalist chaplainry who call them sacred, but that’s about all.

Miller nicely observes that “for better or worse, human societies are hierarchical”. Yes. And it now becomes a little clearer that wayyyy too much of what’s been going on these past forty years has been some variation on King (or Queen) Canute trying to command the tides. And We have gotten so used to it that We can now believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Hence the state of Constitutional civil rights, the wars in the Middle East – present and projected, and the economy with its foundations rooted solely in paper and ‘perceptions’.

We got Us a mess of ‘perceiving’ to do. Or re-perceiving. And We’d best get to it. Obama is going to need all the encouragement We can give him; or he might just find himself alone in the Augean Stable and figure that there’s nothing for it but to feed the animals and pretend it doesn’t smell so bad after all.

That’s not the spirit that built the West.

ADDENDUM: I recently read a book of essays by the author Marilynn Robinson, entitled “The Death of Adam”. It was published in 1998, yet much of what bethumps Us today she saw a decade ago.

I couldn’t quite figure out how to incorporate her into the Post here, but I wanted to put it out there: this is a passage in which she describes the life of ‘families’ during the Industrial Revolution in Britain:

“The family as we know it in the modern West has been largely willed and reformed into existence. European culture was long distinguished by the thoroughness with which it coerced labor out of its population – slavery and industrialization equally indifferent to such inconveniences as considerations of family, were natual extensions of feudalism, only more ingenious and ambitious in their exactions. The case has been made that childhood was invented, which it was, at least in the sense that certain societies began to feel that young children should be excluded from the workforce, women with them, to some extent at least.

Working conditions in trades and factories were brutal into the present [20th] century. We tend to forget that women of working age were often pregnant or nursing and often obliged to leave infants and small children unattended. Sometimes they gave birth on the factory floor.

Children of working age, that is, as young as five, were spared no hardships … children driven through morning darkness to factories; children lying down to sleep in the roads because they were too exhausted to walk home at night; children dismembered by machines they were obliged to repair while the machines ran; children in factory dormitories sleeping by hundreds … until some epidemic swept through and emptied them, and brought hundreds of new children, orphans or so-called child-paupers, to work away their brief lives. There is nothing to wonder at, that the ideal of mother and children at home, and father adequately paid to keep them from need, was a thing warmly desired, and that for generations reform was intended to secure this object.”

In light of the agitations around this whole cluster of topics since the mid-1960s in this country, and in light of what We have now seen in consequence – planned or unplanned, unforeseeable or foreseeable – this passage strikes me with a power even beyond that evoked by the scenes and events it actually describes.

Within forty or so years after the generations-long struggle to ensure a safe, stable, and secure basis upon which children might be raised and families anchored, the entire arrangement was demonized and denounced as ‘oppressive’ in ways too familiar to need recounting here. And We are seeing the old monstrous demons return again, figuring that it is safe to do so.

I’d also add that in the medieval era, as opposed to later ages, there was a sufficiently ‘palpable’ sense of God’s presence in the world – and not simply ‘on Sundays’ or ‘in church’, and a sufficiently personal bonding between the master/mistress and the serfs or tenants, that a modicum of decency could be maintained in these hierarchical relationships. Of course, when the Industrial Age so wildly increased the profitability of ‘labor’ if harnessed to the task with sufficient ‘rigor’, the presence of ‘God’ became too intolerable to be borne except ‘on Sunday’ and ‘in church’.

But even in the Victorian Age, especially in the Victorian Age, at the height of the Industrial Revolution and the imperial dominance that for a time it enabled, the Victorians managed to maintain a strong, genuine, and truly human reforming sensibility, and their insistence on propriety might well have stemmed in large part from their desire and need to preserve some sort of ‘order’ and ‘focus’ in a world changing so fast and in too many ways so brutally.

We have much to learn from the Victorians, I think. Even though the American age of Imperial Dominance is coming to its end far ahead of any imagining.

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Blogger David said...

How do we confer retrospective meaning on the destroyed lives of uprooted Japanese-American citizens, factory girls and abused child laborers of the 19th & 20th centuries, slaves, murdered and dispossessed native Americans etc.? Their lives were denied any meaning while they lived - apart from their utility to their oppressors.

Is it indeed within our power to confer meaning retrospectively when it was so brusquely denied by contemporary collaborators in evil at the scene of the crime?

This task of conferring retrospective meaning (when it was so definitively denied in the event) is so huge that every culture has devised supernatural expressions to assure us that we live in a moral universe where all debts will be repaid whether through the operation of some last judgment however baroque, the convolutions of karma, future establishment of a noospheric workers' paradise in which all dead slaves somehow participate vicariously...whatever.

From a materialist viewpoint, no dead body has any inherent meaning. This is the strongest argument for some resolution of the problem of evil which perforce must occur off-stage and out of sight because it is nowhere apparent in finite space/time.

Sectarian quibbles about the mechanics of the meaning-conferring event are utterly beside the point.

The true act of faith occurs prior to any creedal confession however apocalyptic. It is action on behalf of social justice as if it were meaningful in the face of lack of any evidence that it is. Such action points beyond itself and is 'irrational' from most standpoints known to science. It is sacramental, however, in a way that no other gesture can be.

7:41 AM  

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