Politics

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.

 

 

 

What is the Basic Unit of Society?

There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.

It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.

Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.

Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.

In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.

Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.

There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion.  In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place.  Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)

Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.

This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.

Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

Almost four years ago now, I wrote a post about a response I received in my twitter feed from a success coach who believed one should not say you “can’t afford” something but should frame it in terms of personal choice saying “it’s not in my budget now.” I haven’t thought about it in quite a while.

One of the things that bothered me in the success coach’s response (beyond the general annoyance at the idea of coaching for “success” without the specifics of “at what?”) as I think about it now, was that when there are things that you would really like to do, but you are thwarted because you don’t have money, it is annoying to have someone else tell you that you are actually just making a choice. It minimizes your experience.

Let’s say all your money is gone the day your paycheck arrives, spent on rent and groceries. Then the furnace breaks down and you have to wait two weeks, wrapping yourself in blankets and warming yourself over the stove, because you can’t pay a repair man. Well, I suppose “not in my budget right now” is true, but it doesn’t really describe the difficulty of not being able to get what you need or want.

I was reminded of this old experience when I was watching Meet The Press Daily this evening. The subject was the new GOP health care legislation. Rep. Kevin Brady was not concerned that thousands of people would lose health insurance because, he explained, it would be their choice. “This is health care they can’t afford,” he said, “so they are choosing [to]… wash their hands and say no thank you.”

Think about that. Because they cannot afford it, they choose not to have it. This logic can apply to almost anything. There is no reason to be concerned that 1.5 million people or so are homeless. You see, the reason they are homeless is that they have chosen not to have a home because they can’t afford one.

If you have only enough income that you can either pay your rent or pay for your health insurance premium, I suppose you can look at that as a choice. If you don’t have health insurance in that situation, you’ve chosen housing over health insurance You have, as Kevin Brady calls it “freedom.”

 

Fear

“You can’t commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia.”-Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid

The original manuscript of my forthcoming book Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as my publisher wanted. In order to make it an acceptable length, I had to cut 100,000 words from it, a book’s worth of material. In places, I am sure the tightening was an improvement, but there was also a great deal of material that I regret losing. Much of this fell into the category of cultural and social context. One aspect of the story of that time period was a growing anxiety about the loss of national identities and a fear of enemies within– those who lived as citizens but who could not, or were not allowed to, fully assimilate. The discourse these anxieties produced colored the worldviews and attitudes of everyone who lived through the era and thus are important to understand if you want to contextualize some of the behavior of the book’s main characters.

Oscar Wilde spent his last years in France, and while he was there the nation was gripped in a controversy that was tearing society apart. Everyone had an opinion on The Dreyfus Affair. It created what we might now call “a hyper-partisan environment.”

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attache in Paris. The only physical evidence in the case was a memorandum, in French bordereau, found by a woman who emptied the wastebaskets of the German embassy.

Dreyfus was found guilty on the evidence of a handwriting expert and, before a howling mob shouting anti-semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Emile Zola took up his cause in 1898, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak. But he was not guilty.

In the wake of Zola’s article, J’Accuse, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word “intellectual” was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

The underlying philosophical question had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, and much more to do with whether to be one nation a people needed to be culturally and socially similar. What was a “real Frenchman?” Religious and sexual difference both threatened social cohesion. In France this meant protestants were suspect. In Anglican England it was Catholics. In both nations Jews and homosexuals were “other.”

Oscar Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, did not take up the Dreyfus cause and instead befriended the real culprit Esterhazy. There were a number of reasons for this, which go beyond the scope of this article. My point is, that this era we are now in, in which fear and “othering” play such prominent roles is not unique.

Panics erupt from time to time like a virus. Societies come down with a kind of sickness, fear of outsiders bubbles to the surface and good people get swept up. Dark impulses, stereotyping, dehumanizing language, separating the superior from the inferior become part of polite discourse.

The fear and anger may be stoked by political actors with something to gain, but what I find more disturbing is not the evil actor. There are surprisingly few of them. It is that so many good, ordinary people go along. They try to associate themselves with the in-group and blame all of the problems of the world on the out-group.

One of my Facebook friends, a nice church-going lady, posted this meme on her wall.

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Before I get to the overall message: that white Christians are superior to others, there are a number of facts that need to be dispensed with. To claim that “European Christians built America” you need to overlook a great many things.

Let’s begin with the first European settlers. I am quoting from my book Blame it on the Rain:

The New World was not the vast, sparsely populated wilderness that some history texts would have you believe. In fact, historian William McNeil estimates the indigenous population of the land we now call America was 100 million in 1492– when Columbus sailed the ocean blue– while the European population numbered only 70 million.

The natives of what is now New England were not nomads. They lived in towns and villages. They were farmers and skilled craftspersons and had technology that many historians believe rivaled that of the English. So how were the Europeans able to colonize this “new” continent so rapidly and completely?…

Although the Europeans had a slight technological advantage in the form of steel weapons and guns, it was a secret weapon that allowed them to dominate the Americas, a weapon the Europeans did not even know they possessed—germs.

In the 1600s, before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, British and French fishermen started fishing the New England coast. Occasionally they would come to shore and interact with the natives. These unremarkable encounters would prove deadly. Within three years, a plague had wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of costal New England. By comparison, the Black Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe. Whole cities lay in waste. There were so many dead that there was no way to bury them all. The disease-ravaged mourners were in no position to fight off European invaders. In fact, one of the reasons the Wampanoags were so warm to the Pilgrims at Plymouth was that their tribe was so weakened by illness that they were afraid of being attacked by neighboring tribes to the West and they sought allies to protect them. European colonization was swift because the settlers, in many cases, simply moved into abandoned Native American villages and farms.

The Mexicans speak Spanish today largely due to this same effect. When the Spanish marched into what is now Mexico City, they found an Aztec population ravaged by smallpox. There were so many bodies that the soldiers had to walk on them. The Spanish were largely immune to the disease…

As the Europeans settled in, they brought even more disease. They settled their farms with domesticated animals that were not native to the region—sheep, goats, cows, pigs. The animals carried streptococcis, ringworm, anthrax and tuberculosis, all of which could be passed on to humans.

Between 1520 and 1918, historians have recorded as many as 93 epidemics among native populations including bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera and small pox.

The first Europeans on the continent did not need to build anything. They moved into already constructed cities which had been abandoned.

To say that the Europeans “built” America is also to ignore the labor of slaves. The plantation owner may have overseen the operation but the actual hands-on creation of value was done by the laborers, the slaves.

It ignores the fact that Jews are disproportionately prominent in American society. They have built so much of America that even though they represent only 2% of our population, in polls people consistently rank their presence much higher– around 30%.

It ignores the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s. If you didn’t learn about this in school (I did not), I recommend Ken Burns excellent documentary The West. In episode seven it tells the story of this group of non-European, non-Christian settlers. People like Chung Sun, who arrived here “with $600 and dreams of becoming a wealthy tea planter in Southern California.” What the Chinese encountered instead was racism. Although most of the white settlers and prospectors were also recent immigrants they accused the Chinese of taking “their” jobs. There was no such thing as “illegal immigration” in those days. There were no passports, no quotas, and if you could get here you could settle here. This began to change when non-Europeans started to arrive.

“For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race,” said Ronald Takaki in The West, “And it set a precedent … because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced … We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.”

It also ignores the fact that large swaths of what are now the U.S. were built and inhabited by Hispanic people before Europeans got there.

As for the Christian European settlers, they did not all come to participate in the “American Dream.” There were also those who were forced out of their own countries. Quite a few of my European ancestors, for example, were victims of religious persecution, considered heretics at home. They were refugees.

Some of the Europeans were also convicts. According to The American Historical Review:

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”

And did they not bitch? Consider what historian Stephen Budiansky has to say about the first Thanksgiving:

…the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as “Gentleman,” which was defined at the time as, “Whosoever can live without manual labor.” John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: “When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have.” Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, “One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England.”

The “report in England” had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme…So here’s an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:

A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren’t simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.

 

Did they come to practice sharia law? No, of course not. But the Puritans did not sail to the New World to uphold the Constitution or to keep a separation of church and state. They were at odds with the Church of England and wanted their own land where they could set up their own official religion. They established religious law. Early on in Massachusetts the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Only members of the Congregational Church were allowed to vote. It was illegal to question church doctrine and church attendance was mandatory.

Christian Europeans came to America for various reasons. They built some things, appropriated others, took credit for still others and dominated other groups with military force. That’s how this nation was built.

Lets go back and talk about the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s for a moment. One of the insidious things about defining groups of our neighbors as “not us” is that we become blind to the harm that is done to them. There was no logical reason to call a recent Italian immigrant to California “American” and a recent Chinese immigrant “not American.” If we think of them as our fellow citizens, then any harm to them is harm to the body of our nation. The violence against Chinese immigrants was violence to our residents, even though the violence came at the hands of others of our residents. If we do not count them as us, then we are blinded to their pain, including the harm we do to them in the name of our fear. We recoil from guilt, and look for justifications.

 

51Gyz4dtWxL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I have been reading Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. Sansal is an Algerian author and the novel is billed as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.” It is the story of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. They have lived most of their lives in the projects in France. After their parents are killed in an Islamist massacre, the older brother, now an educated professional goes home and discovers his father’s secret past as an officer in the death camps in Nazi Germany. The older brother Rachel is so overwhelmed by what he learns that he commits suicide and leaves his diary, with the story of his attempts to make sense of it all, to his teenaged brother Malrich. Malrich finds parallels between the Nazi regime and the Islamists who run things in the projects. He becomes determined to find a way to break the cycle. Sansal said he wrote the novel, “to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated.”

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Rachel is haunted by the question of where responsibility for the crime ends. Is he guilty of his father’s sins? Are we blameless if we accept the benefits of our ancestor’s misdeeds? Do we, for example, look at the fortune inherited from a large plantation once run on slave labor and say, “Europeans built that.”

 

It is not the question of guilt or blame that haunts me as much as another. Once these forces of fear are unleashed, where do they go?

“Compassion”

Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.

Poets’ Protest

Exist Beautifully

Even were it not for my forthcoming book, I believe I would be thinking of Oscar Wilde now more than ever. We live in an era, especially in the United States, in which the only politically valid argument for anything is an economic one. We are forced to argue that it is good to have public parks, and that attractive architecture is better than ugly not because it is nice to have a place to relax or because it is better not to have to live in an unattractive environment but because these things will attract the right kind of people and promote economic growth. F.S. Michaels calls this the “Monoculture.” I call it “Yucky Framing.”

The Monoculture, the requirement to use this yucky frame, makes it difficult to argue that anything has value that does not “promote growth,” “make us more competitive” or create jobs in the private sector– or indeed in certain limited parts of the private sector. (See Film Jobs are Jobs, and Job Creators for more on this.

So why shouldn’t art have to pay its own way? The danger in a world where only the most commercial survives is that the culture feeds upon itself. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference…

Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter… Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.

The reason to create art is that art is created. Business exists to allow human beings to prosper, human beings don’t exist to allow business to prosper.
Tonight poets will be protesting the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Many will shrug and say “what’s the big deal?” The budget for the NEA is miniscule, and, as The Hill reported:
No artists will go broke without the NEA; at its demise, the agency offered direct support only to a handful of the nation’s writers.  All other artists had been federal grant-free since the mid-1990s.  Many artists of all disciplines, though, had been paid by organizations through NEA-funded projects, often the least commercial venture in a company’s annual season.  It is likely that the work of artists, already governed almost entirely by the marketplace, might have to veer even more toward the commercial.
This last observation is important. The reason to support the existence of art that does not naturally flourish in the free market is because we need some voices that challenge the Monoculture.
Yesterday I was reading Vaclav Havel’s letters. His 1975 letter, addressed to the general secretary of the Czechslovak Communist Party, Dr. Gustav Husak, argued that those who wish “total control over society” try to suppress culture in order to suppress its “differentiated inner development.” In it, I heard echoes of The Hill’s lament on the potential loss of the NEA.
The wheels of society continue to go round even without all those literary, artistic, theatrical, philosophical, historical and other magazines whose number, even while they existed, may never have filled the latent need of society… How many people today still miss those publications? Only the few tens of thousands of people who subscribed to them–a very small fraction of society. Yet this loss is infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved…It is simultaneously, and above all the liquidation of a particular organ through which society becomes aware of itself…For we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge, struck within range of the few brain cells, as it were, specially adapted for the organism’s self-awareness, may suddenly light up the road for the whole of society, without society ever realizing, perhaps, how it came to see the road…they fulfilled a certain range of society’s potentialities…
But of course, those at the top of the social pyramid, regardless of the social structure, are invested in the social balance remaining as it is and in people continuing to think in ways that support the status quo.
There is little I can think of at the moment that is more subversive than the notion that one does not have to be anything but only to exist beautifully.
For additional articles on this theme, see:

 

Doomed to Repeat It?


If you noticed that the frequency of my blog posts has gone down substantially this past year, it is because I was working on a labor-intensive bit of historical research for a forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost.  (The photos above show only a small portion of the books and notes I used. These are the ones I lugged on “vacation.”) Oscar’s Ghost tells the story of a bitter posthumous feud over Oscar Wilde’s legacy between two of his closest friends. It covers a period from the late 19th Century, leading up to Oscar Wilde’s arrest and death in 1900 and the inter-war years. (Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the two main characters lived from 1870 to 1945.)

When you delve into another era like that you inevitably find resonances between their time and our own. In the 1890s when Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s eventual literary executor Robert Ross were young men London was at the center of the world. The British Empire was nearly at its peak when it would span 14 million square miles of the globe and include more than a quarter of the planet’s population. It’s absolute peak came in 1914. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen. It so dominated commerce that it could effectively control the economies of countries that were not officially colonies. Young British aristocrats had the world for a playground. They commonly set out on adventures seeking their fortunes in South African and Australian mining colonies or in the timberlands of Canada. They set out to India and North Africa for exotic vacations. London was also becoming a hub of activity for the working class as industrialization moved many young men from farms to the city. The prosperity also attracted immigrants. From 1800 to 1890 the population of London soared from less than a million to more than four million.

It was in this very period, when they should have been celebrating their unprecedented power and prestige, that England began to experience an undercurrent of anxiety and a sense that they were losing ground. “Decay” became a buzzword. There was a fear that old values were eroding, that unchecked effeminancy was dissipating the soldiers, that England was losing its cultural treasures and its cohesive sense of Britishness. (Robert Ross, in the early 20th century wrote an essay with the title “There is No Decay” arguing against the notion.)

In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Human beings are more motivated by the fear of loss than by dreams of gain. When they were the masters of all they could see, there were few more worlds to conquer and nothing to do but look back with nostalgia and to worry about all they now had to lose.

Thus I am repeatedly struck by the off-hand remarks we see regularly in the news about how awful things are in America at this moment in history. As Klaus Brinkbaumer wrote in Der Spiegel, “The fact that the United States, a nuclear superpower that has dominated the world economically, militarily and culturally for decades, is now presenting itself as the victim, calling in all seriousness for ‘America first’ and trying to force the rest of the world into humiliating concessions is absurd. But precisely because this nonsense is coming from the world’s most powerful man, it is getting trapped by him.”

In England, a Century ago, the rhetoric of “decay” was driven by those with the most to lose; the very people who had been granted the most– the aristocracy. Industrialization had changed the economy, the landed estates were no longer supporting the Lords and Ladies as they used to. The middle class was ascendant. The upper classes, however, still had a big microphone and the ability to shape public discourse. They were some of the loudest voices promoting the notion of “decay.”

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, “in a scrap heap instead of a social class.” They knew they were not to blame for this state of affairs. So they sought scapegoats and embraced extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also sometimes to the far left.

The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by Oscar Wilde’s old friend Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. (See Holms, Colin. Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939. New York: Holms & Meier Publishers, 1979.) A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice. The period of history I examined is rife with anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe. In France there was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer became a convenient scapegoat in an espionage scandal. (Oscar Wilde was then living in France and he and a number of members of his circle got caught up in the hysteria. Wilde befriended the real spy Esterhazy.)

Lord Alfred Douglas’s good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton (the 5th Viscount of Canterbury) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Lord Alfred Douglas’s social circle and were increasingly shaping his worldview to the point that he eventually became editor of a journal known more for its anti-semitism than its poetry. This would forever tarnish his legacy. He had been convinced there was a broad Jewish banking conspiracy by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of fabricated anti-Jewish propaganda that was widely disseminated prior to the Second World War. It was the early 20th Century version of “fake news.” (A good book on this subject is Paranoid Apocalypse by Steven Katz.)

Homosexuals were another convenient scapegoat. One of the last volleys in the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was a bizarre libel trial in which a conservative MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing, used the courts to promote conspiracy theories about British soldiers losing the Great War because they were being seduced by German Jewish men and women on the homefront were becoming lesbians. He claimed he knew of a“Black Book” in which the Germans kept a list of 47,000 sex perverts so they could blackmail prominent English politicians and generals into committing espionage and treason.

Billing was a curious purity crusader. Tall and handsome with strong cheekbones and a confident charisma, he was “an archetypal playboy” and womanizer. He was wealthy and flashy, doing his political campaigning from an impressive yellow Rolls-Royce. The trial had a circus-like atmosphere. It played like a modern reality TV drama and included such sideshows as Lord Alfred Douglas calling his former lover, Oscar Wilde, “the greatest force for evil in the last 350 years.” The ridiculous spectacle distracted many people from the dangerous undercurrent of homophobia, xenophobia, and racism that Billing was peddling.

Today I read George Takei’s excellent article on Japanese Internment Remembrance Day. The actor, who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp because of his ethnicity, writes:

I cannot help but hear in these words terrible echoes from the past. The internment happened because of three things: fear, prejudice and a failure of political leadership… The false narrative — that there are those who belong here and those who do not — is designed precisely to divorce us from the truth that we are all here and in this together. We are an interdependent people, sharing a common bond of humanity…

The question before us, then, on Remembrance Day is a simple one: Will America remember? The internment is not a “precedent,” it is a stark and painful lesson. We will only learn from the past if we know, understand and remember it. For if we fail, we most assuredly are doomed to repeat it.