A rambling piece of mine on winter, depression, literature, religion, and my grandmother—how are those subjects linked?—appears as a guest post on the Superstition Review blog:


It talks about books by Lauren Grodstein and Joan Didion, among many other topics. Thanks to Superstition Review for inviting me to contribute.

Howard Zinn speaking in 2009

I’ve been reading a book my daughter lent me, Howard Zinn’s The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, which consists of the latter parts of his well-known A People’s History of the United States with additional chapters extending the story into the 1990s.

Because the People’s History has been on my reading list ever since it first came out—a mere 34 years, so I can be excused for not getting to it yet—I’ve been eager to open this more condensed version, and thus it’s sat on my dresser for half a decade at most. It’s not, in fact, what I expected—not an overall history from a populist point of view but essentially a summary of protest and resistance movements over the ages. That’s interesting enough in itself, but Zinn’s bias annoys me at times. For instance, there’s a running implication that, when piecemeal reforms were implemented, the business and political classes, including liberals and progressives, saw these primarily not as extensions of human rights, justice and compassion but as ways of easing the pressure for more radical change.

Throughout the book, there’s a tendency to refer to “the government” or “the system” as a unified entity that acts in a concerted and deliberate way to preserve class privilege. Here are some passages (with boldface added by me) from Chapter 6, which focuses on what liberals call the civil rights movement and Zinn calls “the black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s”:

[re the shooting of Black Panther leaders by Chicago police] “Was the government turning to murder and terror because concessions—the legislation, the speeches, the intonation of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” by President Lyndon Johnson—were not working?” [This use of a question to propose a radical conclusion without quite advocating it is another characteristic of the book.]

The system was working hard, by the late sixties and early seventies, to contain the frightening explosiveness of the black upsurge.”

“The use of busing to integrate schools—sponsored by the government and the courts in response to the black movement—was an ingenious concession to protest. It had the effect of pushing poor whites and poor blacks into competition for the miserable inadequate schools which the system provided for all the poor.”

If “the government” and “the system” were really so cohesive and purposeful, we might have fixed them by now—or at least our protests would be a hell of a lot more focused.

Zinn is highly selective, too, in the facts he chooses to present. Here’s an early passage about expansionist nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century, featuring Teddy Roosevelt:

“Roosevelt was contemptuous of races and nations he considered inferior. When a mob in New Orleans lynched a number of Italian immigrants, Roosevelt thought the United States should offer the Italian government some remuneration, but privately he wrote his sister that he thought the lynching was ‘rather a good thing’ and told her he had said as much at dinner with ‘various dago diplomats … all wrought up by the lynching.’” (Chap. 1)

I wouldn’t defend the bully Roosevelt or his offensive speech, but to understand his reaction, the reader should be told that the New Orleans affair began with the assassination of the city’s police chief in 1890, and the perpetrators were assumed to be members of a well-known Italian criminal gang. This was the era when the word “Mafia” surged into public consciousness, and the jurors who acquitted the accused were popularly thought to have been bribed with Mafia money. None of this background excuses the lynching, of course, or Roosevelt’s ethnic disdain, but when we take the context into account, he becomes less of a caricature. Maybe he believed that all eleven men lynched were hardened criminals; I don’t know, but I wish Zinn had taken the time to fill in some gray shadings on his black-and-white sketch.

In spite of these reservations, I’ve been enjoying the book a lot, and learning from it. We tend to forget how persistently, throughout American history, citizens have resisted the governing elite, even in times we imagine as quiescent. “The memory of oppressed people,” Zinn writes, “is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface” (Chap. 6).

Some of the historical descriptions sound like they could have been written about the past few years:

“There was a deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure. But no major party candidates proposed such changes. The political tradition’ held fast.” (Chap. 10)

That passage describes the period right after the Vietnam War, 40 years ago now. Here’s another timeless passage, characterizing the “double line of defense of the American Establishment”:

“The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.” (Chap. 10)

All too true—though not, I think, uniquely American.

Again and again Zinn makes his essential point that “endless ‘reforms’ [have] changed little” (Chap. 8). And some of his passages hit home with a visceral punch:

“given the nature of modern warfare, the victims, by a ratio of 10:1, have been civilians. To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.” (Chapter 12)

Defenders of our clumsy foreign wars might dispute the ratio, but the point is inescapable.

Those are the depressing aspects of the book. The positive? Zinn’s conviction, expressed in the final chapter, that more substantial change may be on the horizon:

“With the Establishment’s inability either to solve severe economic problems at home or to manufacture abroad a safety valve for domestic discontent, Americans might be ready to demand not just more tinkering, more reform laws, another reshuffling of the same deck, another New Deal, but radical change.”

That passage was written in the 1990s, and it rings even truer today. Yet my pessimism argues that we’ll never progress beyond the “might be ready” stage.

It’s difficult, as a contemporary American, to have faith in either “the system” or “the people”—and most of us belong to both. Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A Seasonal Post

December 28, 2013

Courtesy of the December concert of Piffaro: The Renaissance Band, a verse from an old carol, 16th–17th century, with jaunty internal rhymes:

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights with double delights,
As well for the poor as the peer.
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that we may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

On Facebook recently, I saw that a friend had linked to an article on homelessness with an image of a destitute person wrapped in an American flag. Inspired by that, and by the latest figures on poverty, I’m reposting a little essay that appeared in the online magazine Satire (now apparently defunct) in 1999. Today the piece strikes me as snarky rather than funny, and yet, in the current political climate, I doubt that I could write even this politely—I’m much more angry and depressed now. That in itself says something, I guess.

Public Art and the Homeless: A Civic Improvement Project

My city, Philadelphia, is blessed with a multitude of public art. Our downtown alone boasts dozens of outdoor sculptures, many by internationally famous artists. We have 1,800 community murals—more than any other American city by last count. We possess fountains with water-spouting turtles; a bridge in the shape of a human finger; a public toilet with aluminum acrobats on the roof; a 45-foot steel clothespin opposite City Hall. And each time a new work is unveiled, my wife grumbles.

“Why couldn’t they spend that million dollars on something useful?” she mutters. “What about the homeless people wandering the streets, for instance? What good is another stupid sculpture?”

Now, my wife is not a Philistine, or even a Phyllis. She appreciates art as much as the next harried middle-middle-classer. At every major museum show she wedges dutifully into the crowds, straining for a glimpse of the framed objects on the wall. She believes, nevertheless, that items like food, clothing and shelter are somewhat more important, and that they should be distributed with a greater measure of equity.

I can’t argue with her priorities, but I have tried to dispute her connection between art and social causes. The donors, I say, the ones who contributed for the latest sculpture—they weren’t offering the same funds to the poor. If they hadn’t ponied up for public art, they might have put their spare cash into the latest coquillage bracelet or Galápagos expedition featured in the margins of the New Yorker. Besides, think of it from a philanthropist’s point of view: Donate money to a social program and it basically disappears, right? No matter how much you give, the poor people are still around, as Jesus himself observed. But if you contribute to a sculpture, at least you can go see what your money bought.

My wife merely sneers, classing me with the affluent and ignorant, which is manifestly unjust, at least on the first count.

Our arguments will get more pointed, I’m sure, as homelessness rises again. Already three casualties of welfare reform are bedding down on benches in the little park across from our house. Neighborhood dogs sometimes pee on them, and they in turn occasionally pee on the park’s dignified bronze sculpture of a fawn, wreaking havoc with the patina. A block away, at the corner of an apartment building inhabited by tiny white-haired ladies with tinier white-haired poodles, another fellow sleeps on a sidewalk steam vent. Though he has become a regular there, the poodles and their owners tend to suffer cardiac difficulties whenever they encounter him.

It’s a problem that calls for creative thinking. And creativity, I believe, often involves the joining of familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. Hence I’m going to take the unfamiliar position of admitting that my wife may be right—there can be a direct connection between the homeless and public art. The homeless, in fact, can become public art.

It’s a simple but grand idea. At the basic level, and for little expense, we could supply the citizens who live on our sidewalks with artistic clothing rather than their traditional scummy rags. As an example, for the Republican National Convention to be held in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000, I’m proposing that the city outfit the mobile homeless with shirts bearing the American flag on the front and a large, smiling elephant’s face on the back. (No, not an elephant’s posterior, as some wags may suggest.) As they shuffle around Center City on their usual rounds, our Homeless Folk will automatically proclaim our municipal patriotism as well as our appreciation for the lavish outlays of GOP conventioneers.

As for the immobile poor, who already tend to resemble outdoor sculptures, we could decorate them with small flags or pennants, red-white-and-blue booties, streamers, etc. Installation artists could construct multiperson arrangements at strategic sites near the convention center.

In the long run, as this idea takes hold, seasonal ornamentation would be appropriate. The Homeless Folk could wear Pilgrim hats for Thanksgiving, red bows for Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Patrick’s. Or they could be adapted to each city’s unique history and character. Our city has approximately 287 statues of Ben Franklin, so why not 287 walking, talking replicas in period costume? And these people are far more trainable than the cynics believe. Surely many of them could be taught to ask for change in an eighteenth-century accent.

The aesthetic potential is enormous. As for the Homeless Folk themselves, the benefits are equally obvious. Nicer clothes, for one thing. Public respect instead of denigration. A chance to feel they have a true role in civic culture.

The best part of the plan is the ease of its funding. Not a coin need come from public coffers. The same philanthropists and institutions that donate to a city’s conventional artistic endeavors—the ones whose names appear on bronze plaques in museums and theaters—can be engaged as sponsors. They will flock to the program because of its immediate, visible results—they’ll be able to see with their own eyes the benefits of their contributions on street corners and grates throughout their city.

I invite all Americans to begin such a program in their own communities. In this proudly diversified nation there is no reason for Homeless Folk to remain a despised minority when they could offer so much to our civic ambience.

One Reason I Like Fiction

December 18, 2013

My wife recently read Blue Nights by Joan Didion, a moving memoir about the author’s loss of her 39-year-old daughter. Like many other readers, Peggy admired the book but remained puzzled about what exactly killed the still-youngish woman. The memoir is “a little less than clear on the events that took place.”

I haven’t read the book myself and have little right to comment on it. The link on the quotation above leads to an article that discusses the possible diseases involved and reasons why Didion may have dodged the issue—if indeed “dodged” is an appropriate word for a deliberate decision by a well-respected writer whose recent work has courageously been “turning the scalpel on herself.”

My point here is that, in a novel, the author would not have been able to conceal or evade such a basic fact. If the daughter were a fictional character, readers would demand to know what was going on, and editors would demand that readers be satisfied. Perhaps one could structure a novel so that the mystery itself, the unknowability, became a central theme, but that’s a different question.

ExplanationCover-revI’ve been pondering this matter in connection with two Philadelphia-area authors who will be reading at Musehouse in January: Lauren Grodstein and Susan Barr-Toman. Both tackle difficult subjects without flinching from the details. Grodstein’s 2009 novel A Friend of the Family centers on a suburban doctor who has clear and reasonable ideas about right and wrong and who gets into deep trouble, personal and moral, when he tries to act on those notions. Her latest novel, The Explanation for Everything, features a widowed biologist whose trust in science is challenged by a student who believes in God. Not the usual pattern of religious faith undermined by science, but the reverse—and though there’s plenty of humor in the situation, the novel takes the challenge by faith quite seriously. The protagonist’s science begins to fail him; his experiments go wrong, and his Darwinist convictions bring him little solace for the death of his wife. Enter a Christian student—a nubile female, no less—who offers both personal and spiritual comfort…

WhenLove_cover2Susan Barr-Toman’s novel When Love Was Clean Underwear, winner of the Many Voices Project award, was published by New Rivers Press in 2009. It begins with an elderly, terminally ill woman demanding that her live-at-home daughter help her commit suicide. The mother prepares a series of index cards with detailed instructions for each step: “Number One: Place pillow over my face and apply firm but gentle pressure for a minimum of five minutes.” After the suicide/murder in the first chapter, the introverted and now-culpable daughter has to make a life for herself—and that’s the story for the rest of the book.

Most fiction writers choose easier topics, of course. But the genre allows us—indeed, challenges us—to explore the hardest truths in depth, without flinching. And that’s why I think fiction is often truer than memoir, truer perhaps than what we call real life, which for many of us teems with artificialities.

A History of Accidents

September 24, 2013

In an early draft of a novel about a klutzy historian, I used the subtitle “A History of Accidents,” appropriate for the silly coincidences that bedeviled the protagonist. Recently, though, my wife and I witnessed a series of circumstances far weirder than I could have invented. It’s a long story with many dull bits of trivia and a big POW at the end.

In an apartment tower downtown, an air conditioning water line sprang a leak. The water dripped down for ten stories, ruining carpets, furniture and hardwood floors. Weeks of repairs ensued. A friend who lives in the building had to pack up her belongings in order to have her floors refinished. To do so, she stopped at a liquor store for cardboard boxes, and luckily she found eight or ten there.

When the floors were done, she reassembled her living space and prepared to throw out the empty boxes. But my wife was packing up old books and papers in the back room of our office, so the boxes came to us. They went into the garage next to the office until she could get around to using them.

Soon after, in a house our daughter owns, the tenants moved out and a new pair of tenants was set to move in. With only one day to clean the place, there was no way to dispose of half a dozen huge bags of trash the departing tenants had left behind. Being accommodating parents, we said they could be stored in our garage until trash day.

Meanwhile, the little old car that we usually kept in the garage had died, out on the street, where it remains until we can donate it to charity. Thus we decided to park our remaining car, a bit larger, in the garage, but space was now cramped with the empty boxes and the trash bags. So my wife carried the boxes into the office, where she eventually intended to use them.

Where she first dropped them, they got in the way. One day about 2 p.m., therefore, she shoved them into an empty cubicle in the back room, where she could pile them up without interfering with anything. The ceilings there are about 20 feet high.

At about 4 p.m. the same day, the tenant in the apartment over the office went out onto the roof deck to water her plants. She stepped beyond the fence around the deck in order to reach some pots that she’d set on the roof itself. Somehow she lost her balance and fell—POW, CRASH, THUMP—directly through a skylight into our office below.

A 20-foot tumble could easily have killed her. In fact, when we heard the crash and found her unconscious, we thought at first she was dead. But she had landed on those empty boxes, which helped cushion her fall. She’s alive and intact—and very sore.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what this string of coincidences means. Here are some options:

  1. The old saw: Truth is stranger than fiction.
  2. Life consists of many dull bits of trivia with big POWs and THUMPs every now and then.
  3. Leaks may be a message from God, if we could only read the language of dripping water.
  4. Liquor stores serve more important social functions than most people realize.
  5. It is good karma when an old car dies, even if you’re mad because it leaves you stranded.
  6. Never throw out empty boxes. If you keep them around, some use will turn up—or just, you know, drop from the sky.
  7. “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe. It don’t matter, anyhow.” (Bob Dylan)

A recent article by Tom Purdom, “The Tribalizing of America” (Broad Street Review, 7/23/13), talks about the way Americans are increasingly “sorting themselves into like-minded communities in which no one ever encounters anyone who disagrees with them about a public issue.” Summarizing a 2008 book on this topic—The Big Sort by Bill Bishop—Purdom surveys various symptoms of the phenomenon, not just the obvious example of politics but also the manifestations in living arrangements (“Liberal Democrats … prefer denser, more urban communities”) and religion (“Democrats go to one church on Sunday morning, Republicans to another”).

Why is this pattern so dangerous? We know from sociological studies that “Like-minded groups tend to move toward the extremes.” As time passes, the groups will have less and less in common and be more inclined to mutual distrust—not that they will often encounter each other except on the TV news, but on the rare occasions when they do cross paths, they’re more likely to have a Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman kind of confrontation, unhealthy for society at large as well as for the individual participants.

Purdom cites technology as one factor in our increasing tribal isolation. “Like has always attracted like, but modern technology has made it easier to form tribes. Church shoppers can sample churches scattered through an entire metropolitan area, thanks to the automobile. The Internet and cable TV offer access to a kaleidoscope of information and opinion, but they make it easier to filter out sources that make us uncomfortable.”

I began to muse about the origins of this trend. Though I haven‘t read Bishop‘s book, I did check out his website, where he traces the changes to about 1965. Sometime around then, statistics suggest, broad-based, “mainline” institutions (such as traditional churches and Elks lodges) began to decline as people migrated to more specific, “targeted” groups (evangelical churches, Common Cause). Was that really the beginning, though? The John Birch Society was founded in 1958, the Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951—organizations that seem to fit Bishop’s model.

In looking for social origins, I’d go back even further than the 1950s, as Purdom does in mentioning the automobile as a contributing technology. And I’d go beyond America’s borders. After all, the violent 20th century was dominated by clashing far-right and far-left ideologies like fascism and communism, and the reaction to them. We’ve been tending toward extreme groupings for a long while now, perhaps ever since industrialization gave the working classes cause to get angry.

What’s new, definitely, is the efficiency with which we can sort ourselves. With cheap assault weapons, militias can ethnically “cleanse” entire regions. In suburban environs, gated communities can keep the neighborhood pure. The Internet allows new meeting points for those who detest Republicans, Obamacare, Israel, Hezbollah, or the new royal baby, His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. (Actually, I don’t know of an anti–Prince George site, but I’m sure one will pop up soon.)

What’s also new, or old, is our reliance on religion for much of our sorting and other-hatred: Islamism (itself splintered into mutually intolerant sects), the fervent Zionism of the Israeli settler movement, the rise of radical Buddhism in Burma, etc. When Yeats asked in 1919,

         what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

it seemed he was imagining a new theology that might arise with the turn of the millennium. Instead, lacking imagination, we’ve returned to the ancient faiths to animate our divisions. We could create a novel creed, but that would terrify most of us, especially if it implied we should let others in instead of keeping them out.


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