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Morality, Preference, and Other People

February 19, 2014

In this week’s Sunday NYT column on parenting, Ross Douthat speaking of himself says that “a Catholic columnist should presumably be trying to talk his acquaintances into having as many kids as possible.” There are two weasels here, a small and a big. The small one is “presumably,” a throwaway hesitation to acknowledge the contradictory narrative, which is that he sometimes complains about how much work it is to raise children. He doesn’t mean it.

The big one is the “wait, what?” of manipulating one’s acquaintances—not friends, which seems intentional—into having more or fewer children. His tongue may be in his cheek, but this only works if the enthymeme is that the right thing to do is have more children. It’s pretty clear from Douthat’s oeuvre, including this column, that this is, in fact, what he believes.

As a Catholic columnist this makes sense and the logic that takes one from “I believe that it’s right to have many children” to “I will try to persuade others to have many children” is clear. Matthew 28:19 (“go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) makes Christianity a noxious spirochete of imposition. Without this nifty turn, surely central to the ideology’s global success, there is no underlying logic that takes one from belief to persuasion beyond a sick will to power, which is common enough. I find the religions without the evangelizing gene—thinking in particular of Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism—far less offensive, and more congenial to a civil society.

But religious folks are far from the only ones executing this move, and in fact my experience is that it’s endemic to contemporary discourse, perhaps as a function of the internet. I recently engaged in an argument on Twitter not about whether it was right to continue to love the molester Woody Allen’s movies but about the perspicacity of calling “wrong” those who would go the other way. My interlocutor beat a hasty retreat when I pointed out the clear insanity of what she was saying, that it was wrong, with all that word’s freighted moralism, for someone to be so squicked out by the fact (or likelihood, take your pick) that he molested his daughter so as to no longer enjoy what he made.

In rhetorical situations like these, the most that one can reasonably express is a preference: I want it to be this way. I want to ignore Allen’s crimes when I watch Crimes and Misdemeanors; I want others to do the same, or don’t understand it when they don’t. The language of morality is almost always a superfluous appendage, and even if it’s not its primary function is almost always to cloud. Few positions are furthered buttressed by right and wrong.

The effect of this state of affairs on civil discourse, in my opinion, is profound. In the context of healthcare, for example, ready access to moral language licenses a broad spectrum of Republican condemnations of the Affordable Care Act, from hysterical (and demonstrably false) declamations of socialized medicine (=wrong ipso facto) to expressions of the belief that it is wrong to take money from the healthy to subsidize insurance for the sick. It is demonstrably true that the ACA does this. It is also demonstrably true that our current financing mechanism—indeed, any insurance-based financing mechanism—does this. But the insertion of “wrong,” rather than “not my preference” or “inadvisable” or “a bad idea” makes this conversation well-nigh impossible to hold.

The reality is that the Republican position is simply a preference not to have the government much involved in providing healthcare for its citizens. Whether supported by economic analysis, instinct, or blind ideology, this is a perfectly respectable preference, in my opinion. It’s not my preference—I prefer that everyone in my society have access to affordable healthcare—but it’s reasonable and could serve as the launching pad for a civil conversation wherein it is explained, evidence is brought in, and alternatives are explored, including the alternative of doing nothing. The resort to the language of right and wrong leaves none of these options open.

All this is a species of a long tension in Western thought, of the Enlightenment hedge against Platonism. The privileging of process over content has always been as ambiguous as Kantian noumena as to whether the mechanism was the end or merely the best means we had to a greater (Platonic, formal) truth. But Platonism, the belief in immaterial objects, is as infectious a belief as has been promulgated, with a deadly tendency to destroy all it touches. We are better off following the early Wittgenstein and cutting the cord.

READ MORE BY AND ABOUT B. D. FISCHER–INCLUDING EXCERPTS FROM HIS RECENTLY PUBLISHED NOVEL, SLOWLY BUT THOROUGHLY–ON HIS WEBSITE “THREE STRANGE THINGS.”

Everyone a Busker

May 30, 2013

Recently on the Red Line heading north I shared a car with a young rapper busker. Not fully aware what was going on, possibly a scotch or three deep into my evening, I sat down at the opposite end of the car. I couldn’t really hear him, but I dug his flow in my half-situated way. When he came to the end and passed his hat I waved him over and handed him a dollar, which he took with a winning customer service smile and handed me this:

I guess since the mainstream media consistently provides the lies,
for all of our ears and eyes,
while ensuring that the Revolution is not televised,
and that anyone who attempts to spread Truth just “magically” dies …
And we’re so busy Facebookin’ and tweeting and Twitterin’.
Plus our telephone text and talk plan allows us to text and talk unlimited;
so we can talk about nothing ALL DAY!
(but they, that’s okay, because we like it that way) …
These psychological shackles and chains; it’s almost like we need ’em.
Because we’ll fight amongst each other trying to win whatever’s left, and we’re losing more rights and freedoms …
Our children are eating this stuff up and since they’ll grow based on what we feed ’em,
I guess it’s understandable why young Black men act like animals; because that’s how we breed ’em.

A delightful surprise from young Rah’Leif, and it put me in a mind of Deltron 3030, the classic 2000 collaboration between Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala. Further in mind, I should say, for the lone Deltron 3030 album (a second has been forthcoming for years) was a point of light in my undistinguished university teaching career, recommended as it was in my crackhouse apartment on Rio Grande Avenue by one of my stoner students in the context of a discussion of Gary Snyder. The central thrust of Deltron 3030 is a prescient comparison between the circumstances of black people today and those of everyone ca. a millenium hence once the coporatization of society is complete. The album’s invocation is delivered, oddly, by an exhausted, elderly British voice that lays the foundation for a longitudinal understanding:

It’s the year 3030
And here at the Corporate Institution Bank of Time
We find ourselves reflecting
Finding out
That in fact
We came back
We were always coming back

Del connects the narrative of Deltron Zero, a lone doomed warrior battling the totalitarianism of the corporate overlords (track 15: “The News: A Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Microsoft Inc.”), to a historical superstructure:

It’s the eternal evil
Concerned with thievery
Medieval prehistoric
Rhetoric
Well we ahead of that
Laying down with soundwaves
That pound pavement
Original minstrels
My central processing unit
Makes it hard to miss you

To the gloomy destabilizing epistemologies of late-stage capitalism:

Global controls will have to be imposed
And a world governing body
Will be created to enforce them
Crises precipitate change

To the capacity of technology for the Rah’leif-ian destruction of the soul (remember that this was all prior to the proliferation of smart phones and social media):

Plus entertainment
Where many are brainless
We cultivate the lost of art of studying
I brought a buddy
Automator
Defy the laws of nature
Electronic monolith
Throw a jam upon a disc

To political implications that are painful to acknowledge in the present:

Cyber warlords
Aggravating abominations
Harm the nation
With hatred
We ain’t with that
We high-tech archeologists
Searching for knicknacks

To an explicit critique of current socioeconomics:

Enterprising wise men
Looked at the horizon
Thinking more capitalism
Is the wisdom
And imprison
All citizens
Empowered with rhythm
We keep the funk alive
By talking with idiom

To a future that most of us, I think (me, at least), are afraid of:

My afterworld’s a desert
Cannibals eat human brains for dessert
Buried in the deep dirt
Mobility inert
I insert these codes for the cataclysm
Ever since I had the vision
Use my magnetism
In this modern metropolis
That tries to lock us up
Under preposterous laws
That’s not for us

To the redemptive possibility of rhythm, flow, and rhyme:

For the pure verbal
They said my sentence was equivalent to murder
Just another hurdle
I bounced through a portal
I knew they had the mindstate of mere mortals
My ears morphed to receptors
That catch your
Every word about gravity control
And the families they hold for handsome ransoms
On the run
With a handgun
Blast bioforms
I am warned
That a planetwide manhunt
With cannons
Will make me abandon
My foolish plan of
Uprising
Fuck dying
I hijack a mech
Control it with my magical chants
So battle advance
Through centuries of hiphop legacy

(Here Del has always seemed to me to share something spiritual with another of my bêtes noire from that period, the minimalist sonnets of the late Mona Van Duyn, the enjambment of the tiny lines and the simultaneously hidden and exaggerated rhymes a dulce et decorum est stand against postmodern despair.)

All of it defined in an irreducibly black context:

If I had to describe
The way I survive
Is like vise squeezing
The reason I’m black and still breathing
Heathens will breed heathens, so everybody suspect
I must check
Your ID
 because you looking sheisty
You might be
Intelligence
Someone that delves against
Opposite a positive
When I drop the laws against the nature, be faithful
Why should I hate you?
We ain’t that different
We may act different in some ways
But we still grouped together like a fucking survey
“Suffering and fuck ’em all”’s the motto
I’m trapped in a bottle
My music’s getting hollow
And that’s what happens when humanity you follow
Where every leak or info is hard to swallow
Sell your Marlboros and car insurance
Put niggas on the moon and can’t pay for your burdens
I smoke herb and rock a turban
Meditate on the world and what’s occurring
A lot of white boys like to style and copy
They think it’s something deeper
And repeat that we’re not free
It’s not about separation
It’s about the population

The sheer power and charisma of linguistic virtuosity is the through line from Olaudah Equiano to Childish Gambino; the ubiquity of oppression is the black light to Deltron 3030’s predicted future. Why this album has not taken its place in the pantheon with NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet is beyond my ken.

One of the great unwritten papers of my graduate school career was on “The Significance of Space Rap,” in which Deltron 3030 would understandably have played a central role. But compare Del’s strategy to Outkast’s on “Rosa Parks” from 1998’s Aquemini, the genre’s (“Let’s talk about time travelin’ / Rhyme javelin / Somethin’ / Mind unravelin’”) most successful exemplar to date:

Hush that fuss
Everybody move to the back of the bus
Do you want to bump and strut with us?
We the type of people make the club get crunk

These are some of the most famous lines in the history of hiphop, but the context and meaning of the historical personage are undercut straightaway by a retreat to archetypal claims of party prowess; Del and Rah’Leif remain focused on material and psychological conditions. This is what accounts for Outkast’s reverence in contradistinction to Del’s minor label status (I shudder to call it cult) and Rah’Leif’s presence on a train. The greatest trick capitalism ever played was denying authenticity to those who would speak against it most forcefully.

The argument of Del and Rah’Leif receives narrative expression in B, Martial Martin’s recent memoir of busking. Martin is black, and I see him regularly with his guitar at the State and Lake subway. In his remarkably de-racialized and un-self-pitying (“Misfortune is the result of constantly looking around for something better”) account, an unremarkable middle-class existence in graphic design is destroyed by the corporately engineered Great Recession. Eager to distinguish himself as a busker from beggars, Martin turns to music to supplement the meager income he cobbles together in the destroyed economy, necessary to support his daughter. But the dehumanizing effects are apparent, and everything that Del warned us about a decade ago, and what Rah’Leif took to the trains to protest.

The Loneliness of Lomita

April 3, 2013

Some years ago I argued in print that Lomita’s Stress Echo debut was “one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.” Actually this isn’t so much an argument as it is a claim; it’s not as if anyone could reasonably dispute what I’d heard. The argument was that “Austin’s cultural elite are or ought to be in full search mode for our next It Band” and that Lomita (by virtue of their apocalyptic tint on an emerging psychedelic country aesthetic in the genetic line of the 13th Floor Elevators and Willie Nelson) was Candidate El Numero Uno:

Shine my shoes, Delilah,
I leave you my love
and I leave you my name.
And you can pour my ashes on the apple tree
where we used to pray.
Jesus, come take my ghost
Jesus, come and take my ghost away

This argument had multiple virtues but sincerity was least among them. No, its primary virtue was that I might be right.

I say that because in 2006 there was no faster expressway to Austin street cred than climbing aboard an empty bandwagon. I had complete confidence and spent years telling people about Lomita, long past 2007’s uneven and disappointing Downtown Mystic and their subsequent breakup. I was confident because I was sincere. These were the same thing.

I don’t know if a prediction like mine, had it been successful, still occupies pride of place among contemporary indie youth. I’m using “indie” in the broadest possible sense here. On the one hand it seems as though, in the timeworn way of culture, affectation has hardened to reflex, but on the other that little two-step is inherently unstable, to be validated by the thing you despise like that. I’ll never know, though, because the astringent pleasures of middle-aged indie culture makes its youth version a comparative delight. I had planned some kind of cheap metaphor to describe this phenomenon (like something lush but cheap to the late-stage desert) but the whole situation is so constructed that no natural-seeming metaphor could be appropriate. No, the appropriate comparison is of contemporary, middle-aged indie culture to a luxury apartment building in the early stages of a Walking Dead-type outbreak:

Mr. Execution
We all know what you did
Break your mama’s back
Tell it like it is
I don’t know
What she means
But I want it

The video for that song has only 560 views and is one of only three Lomita videos I can find easily on the internet. The weird thing is that I still think Stress Echo is one of the best albums I’ve heard, that (iTunes keeps close track of these things) I’ve listened to those songs 26 and 12 times respectively in the last four years (at 37 track two, “History of Leaving”–“I was caught up in the wreckage of love before I found you / With a history of leaving what’s the worst she could do?”–is the 11th most listened to song in my library), and that I’m now as certain as it is possible to be that Lomita will never be big even in some minimal way. They were never that big even in Austin. And I’m never going to meet another Lomita fan, which is a little scary to me and I suppose the main reason I find myself on the defensive today.

But really the even weirder thing to me is there’s nothing literally stopping the thing I am certain won’t happen, and in comparison to the recent and distant past in fact many facilitators to a rediscovery. This isn’t Sixto Rodriguez, the Sugar Man lost to the world. We don’t have to move mountains. Anyone reading could go to Amazon and download the album or the songs I’ve quoted today for a few bucks and a few minutes. And then maybe it gets on a blog, or the Twitter. Or the Facebooks. And “goes viral.” And go ahead and try not to use quotation marks around that term.

So Lomita could be Emily Dickinson, but I am surprisingly unconcerned with this possibility.

I got your message taped on my backdoor
You took my breath and laid me out on the floor
It just takes some ink on a page
To even out the score

The Long Game

February 14, 2013

I’m lying here waiting for the State of the Union to start, expecting (less than eagerly) to hear about guns. I don’t know whether to be surprised or not that guns are threatening to become a signature issue of Obama’s second term. On the one hand, Obama’s on record as believing that guns are something hopeless people cling to, and he’s even more on record as being a man rather expressly without hopelessness. (As a sidenote, how did that not hurt him more in 2008? It was really an offensive thing to say, even though I agree with him.) But on the other, he gave no indication, none at all, that guns were central to his plans until Newtown.

No overt indication, that is, for the gun nuts have been seeing indications all over the place for years. In highlighting the issue now, Obama plays into their demonizations. You can’t fault him, though, the demonizations are so total that he’s never had a shot at avoiding them. But this one is fairer than most. People who own and love guns do more than own and love them; they internalize them, and make them part of their conceptual selves. That so many fellow citizens do so is meaningful of itself. Personally, I’d like to see them all banned, but, unfortunately, other people matter, too.

But the extended slow crank of the president’s dance with gun control is an example of another phenomenon I find more disturbing. Despite all the flak for his political obtuseness, much of it deserved (these are complicated times), Obama is proving himself an expert, or at least enthusiastic, practitioner of the long game. By this I mean that he says and does things not only or primarily for an intended short-term effect, but rather for the last domino in a causal chain months or years down the line. It’s hardly a novel strategy–every politician and thinking living person deploys it–but Obama’s style manifests a deviousness that make me uncomfortable, and makes him other than he’s anxious to have us believe of him. In the case of guns, it’s turned him into a meaning-of-the-word-is liar: He never said that he would never sign gun control legislation, but he certainly led us to believe that the issue would never breathe State of the Union air.

The most famous example, this one more salutary, is the fiscal cliff. In these very pages among them, liberals bemoaned the extension of the previous administration’s tax cuts, but as others pointed out at the time, the fiscal cliff born of that deal put the president in a very strong future position, indeed. Two years later, that proved to be the case. This strikes me as very clever, and perhaps helpful, but still troubling. When the referential object is always beyond the edge of the horizon, it becomes difficult for political speech to have any meaning, as meaning is commonly understood.

In fact, in this context, political speech engenders a paranoia. Just when his chances were at their apex, the president turned in a debate performance so abysmal that the race was perceived to have been thrown back to a coin toss. It seemed impossible that a man so famously methodical and conscientious could flub so badly, and I became as worried as everyone else in the days after as his poll numbers cratered. But, then, when they began their steady climb, I wondered if perhaps he had done badly on purpose. Everything had been going so well, it came to seem to me reasonable to believe that they couldn’t continue forever and that he’d be better off controlling the decline, as a boxer’s corner will cut the cheek to relieve swelling. I believe this now, a transmogrification of my paranoia of the president into a paranoia of my own mind.

The Clinton comparison is implicit but unavoidable. His central argument against Clinton uxor was that she acted and spoke out of political expedience, rather than core belief. It was a good argument because it was undeniable; it turned the strength of the Clintons into a liability. But Obama’s long game is different. Clintonian triangulation has an endearing transparency, but the temporal removes of Obama’s speech, action, and policies are something else. They are obfuscations of obfuscations. They make rational Jeffersonianism impossible. And they are the corrosive bad faith we see in all of the worst that surrounds us.

R. Kelly and the Reasonable Man

February 3, 2013

I brought in the new year in a Hyde Park walkup with some close friends, a fine 2009 Chateauneuf du Pape, a nice braised lamb, a nosy neighbor named Rosie, a mysterious package, a pimp named Lucius (who has the odd tic, even for a pimp, of insisting on the apostrophic use of the honorific “Pimp”), a black man in blackface, and the lesbians Tina and Roxanne. This is only strange if you are not familiar with R. Kelly’s masterpiece (which I refuse to call a “hip hopera”), “Trapped in the Closet.”

Like a Pollock painting or Nabokov novel, “Trapped in the Closet” makes the vertiginous cycle between genius, insanity, and retardation. The first 23 chapters were released in 2005, but mainly owing to certain micturitional legal problems you may have heard about the next eleven did not come out until Thanksgiving of the year just past, which is probably not what the Pilgrims had in mind. Another 30 will supposedly film in 2013, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up. There have been too many disappointments already.

One of the great tropes of “Trapped” is that of the Reasonable Man. Sylvester, Kelly’s doppelganger (“Sylvester” is Kelly’s middle name and he refers to Sylvester as “me” in interviews), will go to any length (when he isn’t firing a Beretta into the ceiling) to find reasonable, discursive solutions to seemingly intractable problems, as in chapter two:

She yells, Honey, let me explain.
He says, You don’t have to go no further
I can clearly see what’s going on
Behind my back, in my bed, in my home.
Then I said, Wait a minute, now hold on.
I said, Mister we can work this out.
She said, Honey don’t lose control.
I tried to get him to calm down.
He said, Ho, I should have known
That you would go and do some bogus shit up in my house,
But the Christian in me gave you the benefit of the doubt.
I said, We need to resolve this.

(It’s a little difficult to render typographically because all the lyrics are voiced by Kelly, with the supporting actors engaged in some truly astounding lip-syncing. It is also, I realize now, probably incomprehensible without the context that Sylvester had a one-night stand with the woman the night before. She is also Sylvester’s wife’s best friend and the other man is her husband, a pastor who will turn out to be gay and having an affair with Chuck, who carries the package that may or may not be AIDS. Needless to say, there is very little to “work out” or “resolve” here.)

Or chapter fifteen, on the occasion of the restaurant confrontation between Sylvester’s brother-in-law (whom Sylvester accidentally shot upon Twan’s release from prison in chapter six in a struggle over a gun with James, the policeman who is sleeping with Sylvester’s wife and is played by Michael K. Williams, far more famous now for another role previously discussed–James’ own wife is pregnant by Big Man, a male stripper who is also a midget) and Tina, the mother of his child but now a practicing lesbian with Roxanne:

Tina says, Hey Twan.
Twan says, Bitch, don’t “Hey, Twan” me.
Sylvester* says, “Calm down, T.”
He says, Fuck that;
I just did three years for these hos.
Roxanne says, Who you callin’ a ho?
He says, You, bitch!
She lost control and said, Motherfucker, I’ll kill yo ass!
[Sylvester says,]** Stop!
[Twan says {overlapping},] What!?
[Sylvester says {overlapping},] Wait a minute!
[Roxanne says {overlapping},] Come on!
[Twan says {overlapping},] With a skillet?
[Sylvester says {overlapping},] Let’s talk about it.
[Roxanne says {overlapping},] Damn right!
[Twan says {overlapping},] Bitch, I …
[Syvlester says {overlapping},] Before some motherfucking body gets hurt!
[Roxanne says {overlapping},] Jump, nigga!

*Totally unclear why he begins referring to himself in the third person here. The third third person, actually, to the extent that Kelly and Sylvester are identified.
**At moments of high intensity the narrative scaffolding breaks down.

Sylvester explains to Twan that assaulting one or both of the lesbians will likely send him back to prison, and for more than three years. When he reminds Twan that “I did five years in the pen, myself,” a dynamic that is all over black male culture emerges (for the female version, see housewives, real, Atlanta): Sylvester dresses impeccably, drives a Cadillac XLR (my dream car), lives in an expansive home in an upper middle class neighborhood, and carries with him the Enlightenment conviction that no problem resists sufficient discussion, even if at high volume. At the same time, in the manner of an NBA player who dresses like Urkel and acts like New Jack City, he carries a pistol he’s unshy about brandishing and plays his time in prison as the ultimate trump.

Which brings us to our president. For much of his administration, Obama has allowed both aspects of the archetype–not a thug so much as a tough guy indelibly sketched against his blackness–to compete in the foreground, negotiating with and playing himself for a fool. Maybe I am too optimistic to see the anti-climactic (albeit temporary) end to the debt ceiling fatuity as the new year’s and new term’s reversal of course. There is as little to talk about with con men and extortionists as there is between Sylvester, Cathy, and Pastor Rufus. This time, Obama drew a line and did not cross it before the sand was dry. Even better, he got what he wanted, which is also what any rational, informed citizen wants. I’m hoping it’s a sign that he’s no longer trapped in a closet of his own making.

The Only Real Game

December 29, 2012

When it comes to the National Pastime’s farewell speeches the first baseman gets all the pub, but Babe Ruth’s Attic goodbye is every bit as powerful as Lou Gehrig’s Asiatic elegy. Like Gehrig, Ruth is dying, of throat cancer (“Ladies and gentleman, you know how bad my voice sounds? Well it feels just as bad”), and the slovenly Sultan’s delivery is as clumsy as the Iron Horse’s is suave. In this, it seems to me, Ruth’s delivery is more apposite to the game most accurately reflective of the sprawling tedious drama of being alive.

I have the good fortune to be teaching our great game to a Chinese woman with no background in it–the NBA is more popular in China than it is here, but baseball has almost no imprint–and it doesn’t come easily. Global sports like soccer and basketball lend themselves to an intuitive understanding–make the ball go here–but with baseball, as Ruth says, “You’ve got to start way down at the bottom, when you’re six or seven years of age.” R.A. Dickey’s recent memoir, Wherever I Wind Up, exemplifies this maxim.

Dickey, for the unobsessed, is still pitching for the loathéd Mets, well enough to win the 2012 Denton True Young Award. At 37, it is his first outstanding season, and the preposterousness of this outcome makes Wherever’s bones from the athletic perspective: Dickey, flamethrowing English major at the University of Tennessee, stars on the 1996 Olympic team, is drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers; Rangers offer $800,000 bonus, revoke it upon discovering the absence of an apparently crucial ligament in his elbow; Dickey bounces between half-dozen major- and minor-league teams for a decade before re-inventing self as soft-tossing knuckleballer. That he is doing so now as his career approaches its ninth inning (although maybe not–throwing a knuckleball has been compared to playing catch with your sister, and he may well have another ten years in front of him) gives the story that irresistible underdog sheen.

But it’s not the athletic side that’s getting Dickey the pub. It’s this:

“[The babysitter] tells me to take off my shorts. Everything is going so fast. She tells me to take off her top and shorts, and I watch them fall on the floor, pink flowers on the shag carpet. Her skin feels like porcelain but touching it isn’t pleasurable.Touching it is terrifying. Now the orders start coming faster, in the same robotic cadence. . . . I do nothing except follow her orders of how and where to touch her. . . . Beneath the covers, she presses herself into my face.
Finally, she is done with me.”

And then later:

“He’s sixteen or seventeen years old, tall and wiry. … I struggle to get away, but it is no contest. He is rough and strong, and he forces himself upon me, overpowers me. This time there are no words . . . . There is just submission and so much sadness. I can’t do anything. I close my eyes and wait for it to be over.”

Dickey hits all the beats of the trauma narrative, the troubled and half-neglected kid from a chaotic, alcoholic-soaked home, the victimizers (surely victims themselves before they got to Dickey) and their terrible sonar for vulnerability, and the disastrous rippling consequences. He describes in absolutely paradigmatic detail the shame, self-loathing, and aversion to intimacy that nearly destroyed his marriage two decades after the rapes. It took a thinly veiled suicide attempt in the Missouri River for him to seek the professional help that saved his career, his marriage, and likely his life.

Dickey is the only knuckleballer left in the major leagues, and it becomes both method and emblem of his recovery. Unique among baseball pitches, it is thrown neither hard nor with knowledge aforethought of where it will end up. Rather, thrown with the fingertips (not the knuckles), the aim is to release it without spin, allowing the seams to effect an erratic interaction with the atmosphere that makes its final destination impossible to know:

“[N]obody starts out planning to be a knuckleball[er]. . . . You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end, when your arm gets hurt or your hard stuff isn’t getting the job done. . . . You have to keep your faith in yourself and your pitch, even if everybody else loses faith. . . . [O]ne of the first things you have to accept as a knuckleballer [is that] the pitch has a mind of its own. You either embrace it for what it is—a pitch that is reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen—or you allow it to drive you half out of your mind. . . . You get the best results not when you apply superhuman effort but when you just are—when you let the game flow organically and allow yourself to be fully present. . . . This is what is happening to me, post-Missouri. Without conscious thought or concentrated effort, I am completely present with my knuckleball. . . . I’m just pitching knuckleball by knuckleball and surrendering to the results.”

(Interestingly, Dickey pays homage to the knuckleball tradition from Phil Niekro to Charlie Hough to Tim Wakefield but makes no mention of the one whose story most closely mirrors his own, another flamethrower turned knuckleballer-cum-literarian, one James Alan Bouton. Most likely this is because the aggressive atheism of Ball Four–“It was my muscles, not God,” Bouton imagines telling reporters–sits ill with the devotion to which Dickey attributes his healing. And yet Bouton describes the crushing lifelong conviction that he is a piece of shit in terms eerily similar to Dickey, and one cannot help but wonder.)

In this, there is a lesson: There is treatment. Victims can be helped. Life can be better, but the necessity of therapeutic (or, even better, pre-emptive) intervention is hardly an individual concern: prisons are holding pens for victims of childhood trauma and no education reform, no charter schools or high-stakes testing, will help poor kids whose basic facts of life trigger post-traumatic stress disorder . . . and yet the numbers will always lie because on this topic above all others we lie to ourselves before we lie to the social scientists. Think about the dysfunctional people in your life, the alcoholics, the chronically unhappy, the people who can’t keep a job or relationship together—the odds that they were abused as children are staggering.

It is difficult for those us who were not abused, I think, to conceive the totality of the effects of childhood trauma and molestation. For at least a generation–I think mine was the first to have its early years filled with good touch/bad touch admonitions–we have been easing into public acknowledgment and discussion of the broad reach of child abuse, but I submit that it does not scratch the surface. The problem undergirds a broad swatch of our pathologies but carries with it so much shame, even in conversation–note the lengths I traversed to assure you that I was not among the ranks of the abused–that our political leaders and influential social commentators rarely add it to the laundry list that begins and ends with traditional marriage and the deficit. This fact raises Dickey’s honesty, and more recently Barry Lopez’s, not just to the level of bravery, but to the level of a public service.

Of Priuses, Privilege, and the Plight of Progressive Politics; or, This is your Brain on Altruism

July 26, 2012

I found myself driving behind a Prius the other day. After a while, I noticed that it sported the familiar bumper stickers: Obama-Biden 2012; End the War on Women; Fox News: The More You Watch the Less You Know. In truth, I can only vouch for the literal presence of the first message; the other two may be stand-ins for comparable variations on their themes.

But my exact thought, on emerging momentarily from my traffic trance to find the words tattooed on my cruising lane mate’s high, plump, yet self-respectfully toned rear end swimming into focus, was: I’d like to be the ethnographer at the next Prius Owners for Romney rally.

I’ll invoke the ethnographer’s prerogative here to exempt his own curious behaviors from the ethnographic gaze. The point is that I’m pretty sure–based on data collection from at least two of my stray thoughts this election season–that Prius Owners for Romney is one demographic that no one will be watching closely in the coming weeks and months. (D’jever notice how all the serious, self-important political commentators end their reports about nothing by assuring their viewers that they’ll be watching it closely in the coming weeks and months?) My private and spontaneous–now public (well, semi-private) and prefabricated–mental gag about the Priuses for Romney PAC was a way of asking myself why.

Actually, a late night joke I remembered hearing (I think on Late Night) had already pointed me in the direction of an answer. “Some automotive news today,” Letterman began his set-up: “High gas prices have led to a big spike in Prius sales. Lotta people buying Priuses because of the high price of gas. . . . Which is odd, because if you’re a Prius owner, you’re one of the few people who can afford the price of gas to begin with.”

You see, this post isn’t about Priuses at all, really, let alone about Romney. It’s about the conjunction of privilege and progressivism, especially but not exclusively with regard to the environment. And it’s there that the rub(ber) of the Letterman joke meets my roadway reverie.

An op-ed in last Sunday’s Times, entitled “We’re All Climate Change Idiots,” brings cognitive neurological hardwiring into play here and, indirectly, the evolutionary maladaptation of altruism that might be supposed to afflict upscale progressives did not our privilege insulate us from its disadvantages or even render it a kind of “costly” or “handicap signaling.” So now all my post’s cards are on the table and it only remains for me to play the hand.

The argument of the Times piece, long familiar to many of my stray thoughts and probably to yours as well, is that one reason we’re doing jack about climate change, though its facticity, its causes, and its dangers are staring us in the face, is “rooted in the very ways our brains work.” In short, we’re wired to respond to threats that are concrete, immediate, congenial to our commonplace sense of the world we’re living in, and susceptible to direct confrontation that may produce prompt and tangible benefits–everything, that is to say, that the threat of climate change is not. So how did Prius owners–I’m using the term metonymically here–miss the evolutionary message? (And what does it mean for Obama and progressivism–yes, I know the conjunction’s a stretch, but indulge me–that we did?)

There are lot of things you can call people who drive fuel-efficient cars though they could pinchlessly guzzle premium gas till the last flatulent cow comes home. Or people who will never see the inside of a police station, let alone a prison, who are sick at heart about the country’s criminal justice system and incarceration rates. Or people ashamed of a tax code that places so historically paltry a burden on people like them. If you want to be etymologically correct, however, one thing you can’t call them is idiots. Because “idiot” derives from a Greek word that the Athenians used to designate (and derogate) a private person, as opposed to one who takes part in public affairs.

On the one hand, private interest; on the other (well waddayaknow), public disinterest. And betwixt the twain: the matter with Kansas. Perhaps it’s not that the beleaguered “middle class” (and by that, unlike the politicians of both parties, I don’t mean the 1.7% of the population that makes $250K a year) can’t see or think clearly enough to vote their actual interests. Perhaps it’s that, in a time of widespread economic and existential insecurity, the elites who disinterestedly articulate and come closer to representing those interests seem to such “ordinary folks” (as the President faux-folksily calls them) more repugnant than the elites who nakedly, or clothed in the barest rhetorical fig leaves, serve wealth and power.

Why? Because disinterest affronts and shames necessary self-interestedness more than another’s most venal and antithetical pursuit of self-interest does. Evolutionarily speaking (I’m aware of the broadness of these brush strokes, but, as Ratso Rizzo might have put it, I’m blogging here), disinterest says that the game of survival is won, and that’s a luxury more unforgivable to those who worry that they might not exactly be natural selection material than any number of Cayman Islands tax havens, which by definition confirm the judgment of ordinary folks that you can never be too safe or too sure–even if you’ve got a cool quarter billion and the Angel Moroni in your pocket.

Romney will never feel the common man’s pain, but that’s not a significant political liability. What may be one is the implication that a life defined by the struggle to minimize pain and maximize pleasure–let’s call it the life of the self–is that of an idiot, etymologically speaking. The beauty of Republican doctrine at a time of psychological and communal retrenchment is that it can (it most likely will) cast you as a loser but never as an idiot, because there is, for it, no horizon beyond private interest. Private interest is America’s interest. All the rest is socialism.

Whereas Obama talks about shared sacrifice and, even when he does the wrong thing, often says and doubtless believes that some things–investing in clean energy, for example, or providing health care to those (mostly politically cloutless) Americans who can’t afford it–are “just the right thing to do.” It’s the public disinterest. It’s the categorical imperative. It’s the ecology–idiot.

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