Shame Can Do What Guilt Cannot

I learned something about people this week: When you call someone a fascist or a Nazi or a racist, they shrug it off. When you tell them they are bad and should be better people, they take offense. The labels as guilt don’t carry much weight to people who are skeptical of them. Failing as a human being, though, needing to be better, that gets through.

Shame can do what guilt cannot.

Donald Jr. and Eric on SNL: The Smothers Brothers of Our Time?

This sketch is funnier every time I watch it:

It reminds me of an even more exaggerated version of the Smothers Brothers, as though Dick Smothers were playing Donald Jr. and Tommy Smothers were playing Eric. Except that Eric is innocent where Tommy was petulant. Except Donald Jr. cares more about his brother, is more patient with him, than Dick is with his brother.

It’s an odd, oddly sweet dynamic. This sort of probably shouldn’t work at any level but pointed, mean-spirited satire. I’m not much in the mood lately for seeing the human side of the inhumane. But this is still very funny and just a little touching–but mostly funny, especially the physical comedy Alex Moffatt brings to Eric halfway through the sketch. Mikey Day is very good as Donald Jr., slick and a little sleazy but still trying with his brother, but watching Moffatt do his thing while Day tries to talk, that there is paydirt.

I Predict: Tomorrow’s “Wave” of Fascist Demonstrations Will Fail

Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s my strong hunch and this is why.

Earlier this summer, in Harrison, Arkansas, there was a far right demonstration called in response to a supposed left-wing demonstration that never materialized. The rightists got about fifty people there, many from out of state. (No word on representation by Illinois Nazis.)

Does that sound like a lot? It might at first, until you remember that there is an actual Klan compound not far from Harrison. They’ve got a fair number of people there and they’ve got ties into the local community. And yet, these people had to bring in out-of-staters to make their crowd.

I think we’re seeing what we’re being shown: A lot of rightist propaganda spread through social media to give a falsely inflated impression of their size and strength. This is what happened today in Durham:

11:25 a.m.: In a recorded message to employees, Durham County closed office buildings and sent workers home early on Friday. All employees were instructed to leave for the day, take their belongings and avoid downtown.

11:40 a.m.: Police have blocked the road in front of the old Durham County Courthouse at 201 E. Main St. ahead of a rumored white supremacist protest.

12:07 p.m.: Crowds of people could be seen holding signs on Main Street in downtown Durham. A banner read “We will no longer be intimidated,” and people were seen holding “Black Lives Matter” signs.

12:23 p.m.: So far, there is no evidence of a white supremacist demonstration

12:50 p.m.: A man said he was attending the protest to stand up against “another round of Jim Crow (laws).” He said it was a good place to be today.

12:54 p.m.: A group was seen burning a Confederate flag

12:56 p.m.: A UNC professor said she was attending the demonstration to stand up against bigotry

1:08 p.m.: A group of protesters defaced what remains of a confederate monument in downtown Durham. “Death to the Klan” was written on the monument.

1:12 p.m.: A “party-like” atmosphere was described in downtown Durham as people danced to drumbeats and others could be heard chanting

1:23 p.m.: No hate groups, white supremacists, or KKK members have been seen in or around Durham.

Multiple people were taking part in a dance party. They said they were “dancing the hate away.”

Sounds like a great time! Especially since the guests of dishonor didn’t show up.

I bet that’s what almost every counter-protest looks like. We’ll see, but that’s my bet–it’ll mostly be counter-protest-dance-parties.

Same thing we do every day. Try and change the world.

If you tell a Nazi with a knife, “Tut-tut! That’s not acceptable!” he will cordially invite you to accept that knife in your throat.

When did that stop being obvious? How did that become some profound truth? Slate Magazine tells us The profound and damaging lesson of the Portland attack is “Two brave men saw something. They said something. They died for it. What will we all do next time?”

Is that “The tragic lesson of Portland”? That you can get hurt when Evil People run wild with weapons? That’s not profound. That’s trivial. When did that even become a thing to doubt?

Someone somewhere always pays the bill for social change. When you put off that bill, it costs more to pay it later. That’s not profound. That’s trivial. How did people blind themselves to that?

The artificial world in which we live

  • in which you take your complaints to HR and let them handle it;
  • in which you call the police and forget about what you see happening in front of you;
  • in which you block someone on Facebook and pretend that answered their argument;
  • in which you appeal to the Supreme Court and assume justice will be served;
  • in which you decide freedom is free and believe nothing is risked for it;
  • in which you talk about the arc of the universe bending toward justice and put away your own tools for bending that damn arc yourself;

That artificial world is a lie.

We build such a world for our babies

  • to show them the world as it should be;
  • to allow them to grow into youth who can then experience the world as it is and stand that experience;
  • to send them in out into that world which must might kill them if they try to make it into the world they want it to be;

We build such a world as a truth we plan to make real.

Making that world risks our lives. It risks our lives and it risks the lives of our babies. It kills some of us and it kills some of them and that kills us even if we aren’t the ones who died.

We die inside a little every time we risk them by sending them out into that world. We rot inside a lot every time we fail to risk ourselves to bring that world into being.

I ride the bus to work. Last December, a man at my bus stop tried to prey on a woman. I’m not a fool. I didn’t just jump into it. I bided my time to see if the encounter would end without my intervention. I planned to intervene when I could do so with the least risk.

When the time came, I tried to engage the bus driver’s help. I stayed between the man and the woman. I did my best to separate them. I gave her the invoice he’d discarded from the stolen property he was carrying so she’d have legal leverage on him if the police came.

I didn’t worry about his threats toward me until later. I failed to completely separate them, but maybe I did some good, and maybe I risked my life without doing any good at all. I knew when he tried to follow me off the bus he might hurt me, might even kill me.

It wasn’t even a choice. Neither is

  • breaking down from it later;
  • knowing you would never know if you’d succeeded in helping that woman;
  • despairing when well-meaning friends and not-so-well-meaning cops tell you that you shouldn’t have intervened;

It’s still what you do if you want a better world.

What now?
Same thing we do every day. Try and change the world.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I finally saw this movie under interesting circumstances a few days ago, on the Friday of Mother’s Day weekend, with my kid and my kid’s mom. We’ve been separated, mostly cordially and affectionately, for going on eight years now, and I made some effort to get there to see it with them.

The specific circumstance we saw it in was a strangely dissonant Star Wars fortieth anniversary event at the public library near where they live. It ran from six till the movie, which started at seven-thirty was over, and began with crafts and cupcakes and kid stuff. Little kid stuff which my kid, who was one of the two teenagers there, enjoyed helping the really little kids with. The announcement on the library’s website noted that this was a PG-13 movie and yet I think most of those parents didn’t quite understand what movie they were going to see.

As my kid’s mom pointed out later, the little kids were either too young to quite get the action or just old enough to get the stuff going splodey, so that was probably okay, but I wonder how many of the parents got the same feels that I got from it.

Seeing all those little kids there, playing unspoiled and innocent, with this movie going on above their heads.

I, too, was completely unspoiled going into the movie.*

It was totally convincing. I had no idea there was any CGI trickery or casting wizardry going on. I was sold, beginning to end.

Seeing Wla naq ure cneragf trg gur punapr gb eha gung Yhxr naq uvf nhag naq hapyr qvq abg trg**, that just killed me.

Realizing after the movie that strange encounter played out exactly as they’d planned, all the way down to gur zbz xabjvatyl trggvat xvyyrq gb ohl n yvggyr zber gvzr sbe gur xvq gb trg njnl, univat n qrnq fubg ba Xeraavp gung fur oyrj ba checbfr va beqre gb xrrc uvz va cynpr nf n hfrshy gbby jub unqa’g svtherq bhg gur sngure jnfa’g gehyl arprffnel, nyy fb gur sngure pbhyq fcraq svsgrra lrnef qbvat jebat va gur ubcr bs bar evtug npg ng gur raq, bar ur unq yvggyr ernfba gb oryvrir jbhyq fhpprrq**, that resonated with me.

I mean, gurl unq lrnef gb cyna vg bhg, naq zbzragf gb znxr vg ybbx tbbq, naq gurl qvq vg**, and I should have known how the movie would end right then. This was so much like the original, Episode 4: A New Hope, in so many ways, except for rirelbar qlvat**, that it rang loud and true for me.

All I could see in that movie was myself and what family I have and the world we currently inhabit.

You know that scene in John Barnes’ The Armies of Memory where Shan’s father buys him an ice cream cone? It’s the kid’s mom who turned me on to Barnes and bought me that book. I’m buying as many ice cream cones as often as I can right now.

I don’t think that was necessarily the movie I wanted to see, and I know it’s not the movie I thought I was going to see, but I think it was the movie I needed to see and the movie people need to have at this time. Every now and then an artist reaches into the zeitgeist and pulls out something weird and strange and richly timed, and I think this movie is as perfectly strange as Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft coming out on 9/11 and saying “I came ashore in the dead of night/A lot of things can get in the way when you’re trying to do what’s right”.

On the way to the kid’s and the kid’s mom’s home after the movie, we were talking about something, I forget exactly what, something current, and I had occasion to say to the kid, “Rebellions are built on hope,” neither ironically or sarcastically but with a catch in my throat.

One of the things before the movie was buttons with various symbols on them. All three of us had picked buttons with the rebel insignia.

When we got to their home and I settled into the guest room, I looked for the bag of buttons I’d taken from my folks’ house.

I already had my #IllGoWithYou button and my Love Each Other Motherfuckers button on my hat. I put the rebellion button on it. Then I put on my Rock Against Racism 1979 Militant Entertainment Tour button, and my Elvis Costello making a fist button, and my Martin Luther King button from 1984, back before he was okay to like in polite company, and my old IWW button with the guy behind bars saying We’re In Here For You/You’re Out There For Us. I later added my Cooley/Hood 2016 button. I think I’m ready as I can be.***

All that is probably a little too much, and of course it isn’t nearly enough, but it feels just about right to me.

*Something I cannot say about The Force Awakens, which I still have not seen.

**There’s a convention of using the rot-13 code to mask spoilers. You can cut and paste those passages into any translator on line and see what I said. There’s probably a plugin I could use to make it easier for you. When I have time to find it, I’ll install it and patch this post.

***Or so I thought. A few days later, a guy on the bus as we rode back from Wal-Mart, read my hat and offered me his little Fuck Fear button. It’s on there now, too.

How To Be Good: Forgiving and Unforgiving

I’m becoming less forgiving and less tolerant.

It’s not a pleasant development, but this is a time of injury. No matter how skilled the healer, some wounds fester.

I would love to tell you that we can forgive all those who wrong us. I would love to tell myself that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. A comforting lie is a lie nonetheless, so instead I bring a not-entirely-bitter truth.

Every day, unforgivable things happen all around us. Every day, people forgive them or unforgive them. Sometimes they forgive the unforgivable. Sometimes they are right to do so, sometimes not. Sometimes people break each other over trivia.

This election has been particularly bitter. The stakes were higher than in recent memory. One of the candidates ran as a strongman rather than a politician and that candidate won. History teaches us to avoid what we now have rubbed in our faces.

Many people helped cause this problem.

Some of them couldn’t have known any better. Some of them should have. Some of them knew better but should have done better. Some of them were careless. Some of them didn’t care. Some of them are bad people doing bad things on purpose.

Who do we forgive? There’s no question there’ll have to be forgiveness going on. Too many decent people made bad choices for us to just cut them off. Even if it were practical, it would be wrong.

This is going to be a hard question for people to face. I have my own lines drawn, but I wouldn’t recommend copying my work. My life has been too particular for my pattern to fit your equally particular life. But I do have one thought.

So many people I know have separated themselves from their families of birth. One would hope that would be an unbreakable bond. A bond one would not want to break. And yet for so many people, the bondage of such intimate ties is unbearable. Something has gone wrong where things are supposed to be right. Sometimes it’s abuse, whether physical or mental. Sometimes it’s lack of acceptance. It’s always someone’s human folly or flaw, nestled like a knife against your most personal, tenderest places.

So people choose to break such bonds. It’s not a choice to wish on someone. Neither is it a choice to second-guess.

As it is in miniature in the family, so it is in the large in society. The fundamental human bonds that make it possible for us to live together and sometimes find a little comfort and joy in doing so, those same bonds can be turned toxic and demand to be destroyed. From a trusted loved one or a dear friend to a total stranger in your face on Facebook, sometimes the only decent and humane thing to do is to cut a tie and walk away and not look back.

So this is the one thing I have to guide you in forgiving and unforgiving:

If a total stranger takes a political action which will endanger your life, restrict your freedom, does something so vile, so awful, so unbearable that you do not find forgiveness in your heart for it,

Think of your dearest relative, your closest friend, your sweetest partner. Think of that person doing the thing you cannot decide whether to forgive. Think of that person doing to you what you cannot bear forgiving,

And if you would forgive your dearest for such a sin, then I say you should forgive a casual acquaintance, a total stranger, an annoying co-worker, whoever else might commit that sin against you, for that particular sin.

That works both ways. If someone otherwise unknown to you says or does a thing you find unforgivable, that is a thing you must find unforgivable in your loved ones.

I didn’t promise much. What I do have for you, I will stand on.

There is certainly power to be found in just, righteous anger. You should seize that power when it comes to you. You should wield it for good. Seeking it out, though, is asking for trouble, a fool’s game at best and the road to hell at worst.

I assure you, even if things go relatively well the next few years, you will have endless reasons to be angry, crimes and cowardices not to forgive. You may have reason soon enough to hate. There’s no reason to hurry and every reason to wait.

There’s a certain symmetry in anger, an almost balance that instead escalates anger and conflict. If you can’t control your anger, if it uses you instead of you using it, then it stops being helpful and starts becoming its own problem. The chances are good that it will be through with you before you are through with it.

If we are to care at least somewhat for every human being, then we have to consider doing so fairly, then in matters concerning society or humanity or any necessary complete idea made flesh, we have to think of all people simply as fellow human beings first.

So forgive the forgivable things and hope the unforgivable people can redeem themselves. That’s generous enough to everyone.

How To Be Good: An Introduction

In troubled times, it’s often good to get back to the basics.

These are the sorts of troubled times which I dreamed of, as a foolish and romantic child. Times in history when things were uncertain and exciting and up in the air and one well-timed move might bring the whole circus down.

That’s an easy dream to get behind until you learn intimately just how hard it is to build anything, any damn thing at all.

But we learn things, even in the playgrounds of our dreams, about how to live, and the fantasies of my youth might have taught me a bit after all, especially since I fed them as much history as I could cram in with the stories and songs.

So I’ve been reading various stories, each one true in at least some senses, about people in difficult times and hearing what they are telling us, over the distance of culture and time, over the border of myth and fiction and even history.

“The problem is always how to live in a decadent society.” Not entirely true, because sometimes the decadent society can’t be lived in. Then what? Now, surviving a decadent society is a different matter. That’s a thing to learn.

So I have just a few thoughts worth sharing about how to be good in a bad time.