Saturday, August 27, 2016

To a Spider

I’m sorry, long-limbed, orange-limbed, tangle-limbed thing
You are too great big spotted scrunchy-eyed, multi-eyed
  Talon-armed to live
It’s worse that I found you so late in the day
After hours of reading with the brightening sky– how long were you dangling back there
  Behind my chair?
I could have been killed!
Have you no respect?

Je Suis Burkini

Oui, c’est vrai, we all marched for expression libre,
But one draws a line someplace -- ours stops at long sleeves.
What? Do you oppose, too, our jailings and mosque closures
Or only our moral campaign against this most indecent under-exposure?
Your comparison to the Hebdo affair – Non! ce n’est pas le même,
That was ignorant bigotry – but this is a true blasphême.
And keep in mind, mon petit, it’s nothing to do with their religion
It’s more – Croyez-moi! – about race and immigration and orchestrated derision
Peut-être, you will say, in a truly free societé,
One should be allowed to wear what one pleases and draw Mahomet
Mais non! There must be limits, if there’s one thing we’ve learned
One has to tread carefully where public sentiments are concerned
Violating rights, mocking people in public – that's just a minor social quarrel
And more than a fair price for defending public morals
After all, sur la plage, there are innocent prêtes and enfants, and such petites choses --
Their eyes must be shielded from such shamelessly modest clothes.

Friday, August 26, 2016

American Innocence

A country in its historical course behaves something like a rubber band: under pressure it can occasionally be stretched into a new shape, but it will usually spring back, almost with relief, as soon as it is allowed to do so. We -- as countries and as individuals -- tend to keep to our familiar ruts, and our efforts at social reform often have all the strength of a New Year's Resolution. We talk about them, we flirt with them, we maybe even manage to adopt them for a season or two-- but next year often finds us fully ensconced in our old habits again.

The pattern (or one of the patterns) that our American democracy keeps on replicating, under however different guises and circumstances -- the pastime we can't seem to live without -- is that of the moral crusade, the quest for purgation. So many of our country's most immoral acts have been perpetrated under the banner of the defense of morals. These used to end in stake-burnings and public murders; now, they result in mass incarceration and mass deportation, or the monitoring of individuals indefinitely by means of felony records, sex offender registries, various national security watch lists and more. Such responses differ in their degree of brutality and lawlessness, but behind them all is a similar impulse -- the political mobilization of disgust, and the desire to remove the source of this disgust permanently from the community -- if not through execution, then through stigmatization, incarceration, and social exclusion.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is that All Concrete, Comrade?

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I spent most of the last winter and spring, when I could steal a few hours from work to shed tears of desperate outrage on this blog, warning the Left that Trump was a much bigger problem than they realized, or than they seemed prepared to handle -- that a full-on xenophobic, racially-scapegoating demagogue standing as a major party candidate would make John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and everyone else they'd spent the last twenty years fearing and despising look like child's play (and boy, remember the days when Paul Ryan seemed further to the right than the rest of the party? That takes me back). We have to get ready to surrender some of our ideological purity, I said. We have to prepare ourselves to cross the aisle and shake hands with the former enemy, because a worse foe is in town. It is time for Léon Blum to embrace the chairman of the C.P. beneath the Tricolour and the band to strike up the "Internationale." Time to look for allies in unlikely places. "On this one we need all the forces of bourgeois democracy to pull together," I wrote in February, "plus the forces of Old Europe and Metternich and Guizot to boot-- and Lindsay Graham and whoever else we can get. Come one, come all! This is Popular Front time."

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Season 6 of You Know What

Isn't it incredible how you think you've outgrown it -- that it was something you read as a 21-year-old when, for whatever reason, it seemed psychologically necessary -- when time was something like pain and very much needed killing, instead of being the most precious and scarce and impossible to secure thing on Earth -- something that you had since then put behind you; how you had convinced yourself that 1) your sensibilities had become far too refined over the past few years to be able to stomach so much grotesquery, when the most raucous form of entertainment you ever willingly exposed yourself to now was the non-threatening ribaldry of Wait... Wait... Don't Tell Me!, when the devastating wit of David Rakoff was the sharpest barb you could stand to see pierce anyone in the flesh; and 2) you had become so politically aware, your consciousness so raised, so charged with knowledge of the world's true terrors and atrocities, that you could not possibly stand to lose yourself in some escapist TV fantasy realm at a time like this (the Brechtian reminder that pricks the conscience of every leftist whenever she or he is caught enjoying themselves: "To talk about trees is almost a crime/ Because it implies silence about so many horrors" as he put it); until all of a sudden your sister sits you down in front of Season Six, Episode One and it all comes roaring back to you like the cheesy motto of House Lannister? Yes, it's all there, all of Westeros, exactly as you left it! Unexpectedly, you remember who all these people are, who are still there. You even remember all the people who aren't there. (Zombie Catelyn, anyone? What happened to her?) And you see that you still care, and recall how desperately you once cared, about knowing what happens next.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Judicial Discretion and the Left

The story of mandatory sentencing in this country -- both how it came into being and the disastrous impact it has had in the years since -- should be familiar to us all by now. As Richard Beck aptly summarizes it, in a book I recently reviewed on this blog:
"Beginning in the 1970s [...] the series of policy reforms comprising what is known today as the War on Crime permanently altered judges' position within the legal system. Where the public had previously tended to see judges as impartial arbiters of the law, many -- especially conservatives -- now saw a group of unelected, unaccountable officials who frequently used their powers of discretion to let dangerous criminals off the hook. And if those powers of discretion were now a problem, the solution was to take them away from judges and hand them over to prosecutors. [...] The introduction of mandatory minimum sentences of those convicted in court [...] eroded the judiciary's discretionary powers, making the prosecutor's decision to bring charges -- rather than the judge's assessment of the circumstances surrounding the case -- the key factor in determining the length of a convict's prison term. These incremental shifts were soon reflected [...] in the country's incarceration rates, which increased dramatically[.]"

Monday, August 8, 2016

Constructive Criticism

There is absolutely nothing worse
Than someone else’s highly intelligent friend
“He’s very well read, and he
Has a lot of thoughts to share on what you said.”
He never is; and I never want to hear
His thoughts on this or any other subject, is that clear?
“He’s critical of some aspects of it, but you’d like him, he
Knows a lot about this subject too, being an engineer or such, like you" (like who?
No, friend, this is a fence 
I will not mend with you, an ear I will not lend
Lord save me now and always from the highly intelligent friend

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Two Poems

Conservative Intellectuals

Oh dear, just thinking about them,
It almost makes me cry!
Old Podhoretz –
What’s it for-etz?
Bill Kristol (a real pistol)
Bill’s father?
  Why do they bother?
David Brooks (he’s got the looks)
Wieseltier…
… Kill me now please-eltier
Oh I just want to grab them up in my arms and weep!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

On Flying for the First Time in Four Years

In the summer of my twenty-second year on this planet, when I had finished college and had probably taken by that point a hundred or more airline flights across all parts of the world, I suddenly developed a categorical and basically unexpected fear of flying. Getting on a plane became not only a thing I found hard to do, but a physical impossibility. Whenever the possibility of flying presented itself, I entertained almost no possibility in my mind that I might actually board the plane, because I knew I couldn't. The internal debate was solely about how to avoid having to do so, how to find some alternative means -- any at all -- of getting my protesting flesh from one end of the country to the other. Thus began a string of Therouvian trips across America's great highways and on endless Amtrak rail lines through the Sierras. I looked into how hard it would be to hop a cargo ship, should the need arise -- perhaps taking passage through the Great Lakes-- until I started reading about "Monster Waves" and other freak oceanic events and quickly added maritime navigation to my list of impossibles as well. I found I envied those chronologically privileged souls who were born decades or centuries before Kitty Hawk and to whom the possibility of human flight would not even have occurred.