Could you just give the mustache a little twirl . . . ?

The choice between the Biden-Harris ticket and the Trump-Pence ticket is comically stark, almost as if our cultural psyche had decided the only way to smack itself out of its stupor would be to frame the characters and issues in the elemental terms of a Saturday morning cartoon, pitting the forces of sanity against the machinations of greed, dyeing them with primary colors, and arming them with their customary weapons.

counterintelligence

Advertisements and commercials are capitalism’s secret agents. More than that, they’re moles. From their inception, they’ve insinuated themselves into the fabric of Western culture, burrowing so deeply we’ve forgotten they’re there. We’ve accepted them into our homes, into our cars, our places of work, our lives, until we’ve overlooked the fact that what once were guests are now squatters, and in exchange for their entertainment value, we’ve suspended our usual habit of demanding compensation for occupation.

WHY ASK WHY?

I’M SICK AND GODDAMNED TIRED of listening to cable news hosts asking their guests to explain the reasons why a mass shooter ripped several lives from some innocent community; to divine the thought processes that led to the erasure of life at so profound a level. The time spent listening and watching might be worthwhile if any useful insights were offered. Instead we are fed lists and chronologies and family trees. But any discussion regarding structural and endemic causes is about as easily found as hen’s teeth. Likewise, motives and motivations are sought out to assuage the shock of such outrages as the caging of children, the targeting of a religious faith, or the bungling of a government response to a global pandemic.

What galls then is the hypocrisy inherent in the reflexive, reactionary aversion to hearing someone try to explain why poor people are poor, or why criminals are criminals. People born on the wrong side of the tracks need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we are told. Their failure to do so is their failure to understand the essence of the American ethos, which we are reminded is the frontier spirit, the clear-eyed vision of manifest destiny. Suggest that we spend a fraction of what we spend on empire on education and community investments, and the snorts of derision can be heard for miles and miles. By the same token, conventional conservative wisdom tells us, criminals are by nature thugs, and therefore little better than animals, to which they may be occasionally, unfavorably compared. Moreover, the criminals need not have committed or even been convicted of a crime in order to be described as such. Preferable instead, and so much easier, to lump together the accused and the sentenced alike, the better to tar them all with the same broad brush.

God forbid we seriously consider the suggestion that the application of criminality as a description of a despised demographic is a political weapon that’s been in use at least since the dark days of the loathsome Lee Atwater. Long after Nixon’s death, a member of his administration came forward to admit that they were well aware that by criminalizing cannabis and heroin, they were in effect criminalizing American youth and African-Americans. The calamitous and tragic results were, in today’s parlance, not a bug, but a feature. But no defender of the status quo wants to hear criminals explained; they’re criminals after all, you can tell because that’s what we call them. The very thought of perceiving it any other way would be, for those secure in their comforts, like seeing a looming chasm opening up before them.

We all know the why, or can divine it easily enough from the available evidence, whether or not we care to admit it. It’s just that the prospect of uttering it aloud for some is all-too-terrifying. If the idea of seeing the world from another point of view unnerves you, then that’s your first clue your own worldview is suspect. Understanding the why for too many means seeing the world in a different way. It means relinquishing the habit of seeing the world as the inherited preserve of you and yours. Of the belief that life is a zero-sum game. It means treating the act of sharing not as a duty but embracing it as a joy. Living in the world is hard enough without insisting on plumbing the bottomless well of paranoid fears and sadistic and masochistic addictions we’ve created for ourselves. But the likelihood of seeing the preponderance of my fellow citizens embracing that truth? Well, that’s an evolutionary leap I don’t expect to see anytime soon, or during my lifetime, for that matter.

Although hope, at least for me, continues to spring eternal.

speaking rhetorically . . .

I’m a great fan of the rhetorical question. In fact, it may well be my favorite kind of question. It’s more than a question, you see, but also a kind of dialogue, in miniature. Unlike the typical query, it requests nor requires any response, and yet, paradoxically, suggests and embodies an answer uniquely its own. It is the expression of an idea existing in an indefinite, and suspended, state of self-examination.

Memoir excerpts: Haakim and Festus

Dinosaurs

Haakim and I were sitting at a table at Printers Inc., admiring the rice paper prints on the walls, the intricacies and skilled workmanship of the Chinese and Tibetan symbols. Years ago Haakim had been spirited away from Oakland by a group of Stanford professors recruiting minority whiz kids who might want to transcend their humble origins and play with the big boys. His primary specialty was mathematics. Being Black, and Muslim, and raised without the assumption that pipe-smoking scholars in bow-ties and tweeds knew best, he had been skeptical from the beginning, but had been through and was done with what he called the “corporate trip.”

“What are you working on now?” I asked.

“I’m building a machine that records and enhances psychic energy. I’ve already invested five-thousand dollars, and plan to put in another five. The primary component is a crystal. Hand held, it can act as a conduit for the flow of psychic energy.”

“But the equipment you would need to build something like that must be really expensive and sophisticated. How can you afford all that?”

“Corporations are dinosaurs, and dinosaurs leave huge turds. You’d be surprised at what you can find by scrounging around.”

 

Small Town

The man who had pronounced Pogo dead wore a high-crowned, straw sun-hat indoors, with a holster of tools slung low on his hips, his hands indelibly gray from years of work in oil and grease.

“Where you from, Festus?” I asked.

“Arkansas – you know damn well I weren’t from here – huh.”

“Nice country out there?”

“Yep – and lottsa horses, quarter-horses and such, biggest race track in the world there – Hot Springs, Arkansas – lived there ten years. That was enough, too.”

“ Born there?”

“Nope. Born in Indiana.”

“What town?”

“Hammond.”

“Yeah? I been through Indiana, through Gary. That’s a dirty town. Lotta wild boys in the streets . . .”

“Yep, I know – been through there – ‘cept we didn’t put up with none of it – we go in there with clubs, see? Matter of fact, I got into it with one boy. I told him I’d shoot him, and he knew I would, too. Hell, if I’d shoot my own brother, he knew I’d shoot him.”

Not a flinch from his blue eyes.

“You shot your brother?”

“Yep.”

“Why’d you shoot him?”

“Cause he was messin’ with my wife. Never went to jail for it neither – you know?”

“Why not?”

“Cause my wife, she was a cop. And my brother-in-law was a state policeman, and his father’s a judge. All in the same town!”

“Small town.”

“No, it wasn’t neither.”

“For you it was.”