Home at Last

I am an American and I dwell comfortably, without a shred of guilt, within the rotting carcass of capitalism. Unlike other decaying bodies, there is no odorous stench, but an aroma, sweet and cloying.

I arise on a cool, autumn weekend morning. I decide to begin my day with a long quiet soak in the hot tub. The sky is gray and a mild breeze rustles the tops of the tall trees around me. I reflect on the luxury of actually having a weekend. For some, time is little more than a string of days whose beginning they can barely remember, and the end of which they can hardly imagine. They squat with their mothers and fathers and children in refugee camps bounded by soldiers and razor wire, sitting on the borders between countries who either cannot support them or will not accept them.

I cup my hands and bring steaming hot water over my head, again and again. I contemplate my breakfast. I’ll fry up some eggs, I think. I’ll leave the yolks runny, and top them off with a couple of thin slices of turkey and two thick slices of cheddar cheese, melted beforehand in the microwave. I cup my hands, but this time I stretch out my arms and slowly bring them together and pull them apart, slicing the surface of the water like a swimmer.

It begins to rain, but at first I think its just wind in the trees. The sound gets louder and louder, but I remain dry, because the tub is surrounded by a canopied gazebo. The rain is thin and hard to make out. Later I realize it was a mix of snow and sleet. I live in the middle of the country, so I don’t have to worry about mudslides, or flash flooding, or forest fires. Not yet at least. So for me the weather is comforting, a sign of the same change of seasons I’ve lived with all my life. The weather isn’t my enemy. No, instead it’s directed its wrath onto the thousands of Syrian farmers who fled their drought-ravaged farms into urban centers, where the combined weight of their hunger and desperation led to the riots that Bashar al-Assad so violently and mercilessly quashed.

It’s directing its wrath at the dozens of island nations doomed to be underwater within the next fifty years. The capitalist model demands that growth proceed unabated, that fossil fuels continue to be extracted, for no better reason than demand continues unabated as well. The snake is swallowing its tail. The snowball Senator Jim Inhofe carried into the Senate chamber has long ago melted, and by the time the whole sorry edifice comes down, he’ll be gone too, unrepentant and unsanctioned.

The rain has stopped. I climb out of the tub and pull the top to cover it until I return. In the kitchen I pull out all my breakfast ingredients and lay them out on the counter. As I heat up the olive oil inside the stainless steel pan, my two dogs sit on either side of me, looking up, tails wagging. I’ve already fed them, so I assume their full bellies will offset the fact that if they get any part of this meal, it’ll be a spoon or maybe a plate to lick, nothing more.

Suddenly, they’re snarling and snapping at each other, tangled up in my feet, a blur of teeth and lunging. Even after I grab their respective scruffs, they continue to go after each other. Finally, I separate them into different rooms, where they immediately become calm. This is normal. They’ve already forgotten the encounter. They won’t hold a grudge, and so neither will I. It was all just a matter of proximity, and desire. They wanted what I had, and they didn’t want to share, even though they had nothing in their possession to share to begin with.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe we just don’t want to share. Maybe it’s just that simple. After all, there’s nothing within the capitalist model that says we have to share. It smiles upon those who do, I’ll grant you. It bestows upon them all sorts of awards and accolades. But the contributions of all the charities in the world add up to barely a drop in the ocean. That suggests there’s very little incentive built into the system for any real largess. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could divest themselves of most of their fortunes, and through targeted and judicious spending, end fossil fuel extraction, subsidize green energy, and alleviate world hunger. The money would eclipse all the contributions of Jimmy Carter and Bill Gates, bless their hearts, and still leave more than enough to allow Jeff and Elon to live like Croesus for the rest of their lives.

But the problem was never spending the money. The problem always was and continues to be, what we spend it on. And poor people just don’t make the grade. Warlords in Afghanistan were the recipients of unlimited and unexamined American largess for years, money that was meant for schools and hospitals, but never made it quite that far. Oil companies continue to receive government subsidies that began when the industry was embryonic, designed to help fledgling companies just getting onto their feet. Very few people want to extend the green economy the same courtesy. Close to a trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy doesn’t seem to be a problem. Neither does unlimited defense contracts for weapons the military doesn’t need or doesn’t want, or both. How often do you hear these names in the news: Lockheed Martin? Raytheon? General Dynamics? That’s where the money’s going. And just you try to stop it.

Well, I’ve finished my breakfast. I think, no, I know, I ate a little too much. That extra egg, because I didn’t want it sitting in the fridge all by itself. Or the muffins. I could’ve done without those. But I’d bought them on a whim, and now I just can’t let them go to waste. My refrigerator’s a wonderland of exotic foods from all sorts of places. Whole Foods. Trader Joes. The local farmer’s market. The catered affair that insisted we take home all the uneaten meals and desserts, else they’d just be tossed.

It’s nice to live in a first-world country. To have the luxury of overeating, or more ironically, to go on a diet if I so choose. By the same token, it’s probably presumptuous, maybe even dangerous, to pretend the third-world doesn’t exist. Especially since it’s where we get most of the raw materials and cheap labor for our creature comforts. And especially since its going to be the first to go when the oceans swallow its islands, when its fields go fallow from drought, and when the refugee hordes come swarming at the gates. I think the one luxury I can’t afford, is to be surprised when it all comes to pass.

I Was Just Wondering . . .

Regarding the recent spate of rabid right-wingers screaming at and threatening school board members, Jason Johnson, voicing a question I’ve heard posed before, confessed he couldn’t understand why those aggrieved and agitated parents continue to insist that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is being taught in public schools, since it categorically and demonstrably is not. Since I wasn’t able to answer him directly, I propose to do so here. Leaving aside the dubious assumption that these are all parents, and not very often instigators deliberately planted to make a volatile situation even worse, let’s get straight to it.

An outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, CRT describes a consensus among legal scholars that an understanding of American history and racial issues might profit from seeing that history and those issues through the lens of systemic racism and white supremacy. Until about two years ago it remained a relatively unknown body of thought, certainly outside academic circles.

Meanwhile, the right-wing’s been stewing more and more about their weakening grip on the myth of American exceptionalism and probity and blah-blah-blah. Hand-in-hand with the growth of minority populations in places like Texas and Georgia and the political heft that goes with it, impatience among them is growing with the war-of-northern-aggression-type propaganda infesting the history books purchased en masse by southern public schools from right-wing publishing houses. A desire to honestly confront slavery and the history of racism both in our schools and the public square has led to a growing shift in sensibilities among school boards. Authors like Toni Morrison are beginning to find more and more acceptance in school libraries. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” had been read by enough people in high school and college that it began to inform the changing curricula of the 90’s and 2000’s.

Luckily for the right, CRT hung like ripe fruit for anyone with political rat-fucking on their mind to pluck. From Christopher Rufo’s initial brainchild (see Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ 6/18/21 New Yorker article), to Rufo’s subsequent interview with Tucker Carlson, to his phone call from then White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, to his lionization by the Manhattan Institute, the idea of Critical Race Theory was redefined during that time, in the minds of the right-wing, to negatively describe any mention of race in any government or school setting whatsoever. I can’t imagine Jason Johnson wasn’t aware of all this, so perhaps his question was rhetorical, in which case he could have done us all a favor by immediately answering it himself.

It was a brilliant piece of propagandizing by the Right, and once again, the Left was ill-prepared to confront or rebut or contradict it. Once again the Left has underestimated the importance and effectiveness of narrative-shaping, both in practice, and perhaps more significantly, in recognizing it when it’s used as a weapon against them.

FOUND IN THE WILD; RARELY DOMESTICATED

Those of us tracking the behavior and movements of the Karen, that naturally occurring pest whose prevalence and destructive impact on the environment has only recently been exposed to a wider audience, might be interested in the existence of a related species. A member of the same family, the same genus in fact, it is no less harmful than its better known cousin, perhaps more so. It prefers to be known as the Kevin, and we are more than happy to oblige the creature this small concession.

Identifying the Kevin might prove more difficult than spotting the Karen, mainly because his powers of camouflage are more highly developed. While the Karen is easily provoked, and prone to excitability and inappropriate utterances, the Kevin lays low, presenting a docile affect, while at the same time offering himself up as proficient in any number of fields, more than willing to share his helpful expertise to anyone who inadvertently stumbles into one of his many realms.

While the Karen is usually married, the Kevin tends to be single. More often than not he fancies himself a musician, and wants you to listen to the songs he’s written. He’s an avid student of pop culture, and given half a chance, he’ll launch into an impassioned soliloquy on one of his many interests (films for example), often offering to supplement his lecture with ancillary materials. Whatever topic you find yourself discussing with him, you’ll find he has firm viewpoints regarding it, whether they’re informed or not.

When pressed, he’ll concede there are certain neighborhoods he’d never be caught dead in, because, well, you know. And he’s not particularly happy the direction society seems to be moving in because, well, aren’t they ever satisfied? I mean, what more do they want? Although he rarely reads past the headlines, he’s sure he has a firm grasp on the state of national and world affairs. Our advice when confronted with his unsolicited opinions is to nod sagely, and attempt to nudge the subject in a different direction.

His wide range of interests suggests a cosmopolitan inclination. He loves ethnic food, and can tell you where to go if you want it made they way they make it where they come from. And cheap too. He even dated someone from there once, and she cooked it for him just the way he likes it. He lives alone now, but only because he’s decided that’s for the best. Besides, now there’s room for his new guitar, or his new MIDI, or whatever it is he’s set up in the spare room, where he writes and records his songs, and uploads them to his Soundcloud account.

But don’t be fooled. His eclecticism is impressive, but it masks a limited, even stunted worldview. The more time you spend with him, endeavoring under the impression that his varied interests represent some sort of broad acceptance, the more likely you are to be infected with his low-grade toxicity. Beware. He’s part of a silent herd. They roam the plains and swell the spaces of the numberless suburban and exurban apartment complexes that cluster around the endless strip malls and burger joints that are the true measure of this country.

The Karen shrieks, while the Kevin creeps. She’s trapped in the clutches of panic. He’s just waiting to collect his inheritance. When he finally realizes it isn’t forthcoming, what then?

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.”

note to a former friend

If your children see fit to invite me to your funeral, I shall be happy to join all the other souls who’ve made that ritual passage to gather around your freshly dug repository; and while they hang their heads and murmur their lugubrious prayers, and secretly celebrate your passing, I shall, in full and unapologetic view of all and sundry, of those in black collars as well as those in black veils, slowly and somberly, unzip my unwitting fly and with unfettered solemnity, piss upon your gaping and expectant grave.