So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.
When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.
There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.
According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.
We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…
One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.
Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.
What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.
What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.
I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.
I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.
We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.
What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”
If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.
But (yet again…) wait!
Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?
However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.
Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).
Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.
Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.
Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.
We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.
And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.
By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.
What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.
By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.
My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.
These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.
The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.
The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.
…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.
The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”
In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.
“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.
“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.
We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.
As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.
Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.
It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.
I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.
I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.
This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.
Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.
What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.
Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.
Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.
Our government, representing us as a nation, is quick to chastise, sometimes menacingly, other countries against some strict moral standard. Occasionally the merest hint of an encroachment on the civil rights of citizens in some far-flung place and we speak out (though usually it’s not just a hint, but the latest in several rounds of continual flagrant violation—sometimes it takes us awhile to decide to rise up on our hind legs) expressing, often in sanctified tones, our indignation and disgruntlement. We are particularly disposed to do this with countries outside the sphere of de facto white majority nations and the ecosystem models of Western democracies. Moreover we are not timid about threatening or actually applying the sanctions of throttling the economies of these miscreant countries, quizzically, at times, our own trading partners or, more critically, the chief resource of cheap manufacturing labor for American branded goods. We exploit the citizenry while threatening that country’s government with measures that will, in fact, mainly cause harm to the same individuals whose labors we are exploiting to our profit. Leaders, except for their reputations internationally, go unscathed. Tyrants persist, not only staying in power, but often acquiring more. With an exquisite sense of where it will be most judiciously applied, as measured in self-interested vectors on the axes of geopolitical hegemony and financial leverage, we actually impose those sanctions, especially if we can inveigle our equally sanctimonious partners—the usual suspects, numbering seven very rich and powerful countries or, in a different grouping, 20, a mixed bag of very rich and not so much, depending on which economic cabal we call upon—in an exercise of the powers of democratic rectitude. Usually the worst sufferers of such economic strangulation—choking, but never quite killing, the victim—are the citizens of the miscreant nations. Yet these rogue governments stay in place, the world spins, and we move on to monitoring for the next outrage. And in the meantime, people die, one by one, or en masse, by degrees, or, in the language of Gilbert & Sullivan describing (comically) a beheading, with a “short sharp shock.”
As is typical of a world view borne of over three centuries of military and political domination of the entire planet, we white nations are contemptuous of the culture and mores of these countries we throttle—some of them far larger than us in geographic size, and certainly far more numerous. Some of them, of course, are the contemporary manifestation of civilizations that predate ours by millennia. We browbeat, lambaste, or outright bully countries as diverse and geographically widespread as Egypt, China, or Sudan, though the list is far longer. China is never far from being astray, by our measure, in navigating a world defined by our superior moral compass.
In the extreme we withdraw diplomatic representation to these countries, rendering any opportunity for diplomatic leverage impossible, while forcing continuing (and conveniently deniable) negotiations into the backrooms of clandestine contexts and venues. One other consequence often is to drive the offending individuals and their governments that represent threats to the moral stature of mankind further into the arms of opposing groups—alliances of the perverse—truly renegade and often stateless: our redoubtable enemies, upon whom we are disposed to anoint whole peoples with the morally charged titles of opprobrium speechwriters delight in fabricating, like Axis of Evil, who immediately demonstrate they are far less scrupulous than we in putting stakes in the ground of civilized nations. Indeed, if anything, there is a greater consistency in the behavior of those nations we brand as outcasts, or threaten to so brand, than in the company of the league of morally righteous countries we represent.
Far better to adhere to the tenets of our code, spelled out emphatically at the first sign of transgression, when the civil rights of a potentially rogue nation’s citizens are in peril. It matters not to us, smug in our uplifting prosperity, that theirs is a way of life—good or bad, by whatever standard—and their struggle often merely a recapitulation of a process that history has shown is not only repeated, over and over, as mankind seeks painfully to acquire the virtue of the imposition of civilization on its savage heart, but recursive. Sometimes nations now in the grip of misrule, chaos and violence were, in the past, the model of some now ancient world order of how civil societies should behave.
The United States is now the preeminent avatar of that elusive concept: the world’s best hope for imposing peace, order, tranquility, civility, and fairness (above all) as a doctrine the entire world can embrace. The land of the free and home of the brave being the rhetorical touchstones to which even well-meaning immigrants, or first- and second-generation children of immigrants, invoke, just before casting aspersions on the real life on the American streets that belie this shining dream: yes, on the one hand America is great, because it’s the land of the free, but, let me tell me how I’m actually treated in my (job, town, college…).
We are careful in broadcast messages—sometimes merely stern, sometimes homiletic—however, in holding up as a standard our own moral codes, not to draw any attention to the ways in which, almost on a daily basis, anyone following the news in what remnant there is of an organized free press, assisted by the growing ranks of ad hoc witnesses and reporters of injustice in our own country’s streets and byways and broadcast on a still free Internet of communications and information outlets, can see reported transgressions equal to, if not exceeding, the guidelines for behavior informed by such codes. It’s like a parade where huge banners with inspiring slogans are carried by platoons of authentic defenders of our principles, whether in uniform in the obscure and dangerous mountain passes and wadis of the unsettled Middle East, or on the streets of our major cities, in honest civil protests, while at the back of the march anti-protestors are beleaguering the ordinary common citizens demonstrating their sense of common cause, with hate speech, or possibly even bringing down fists and hard blunt instruments on their heads.
The metaphor does not address the alternative, and prevailing reality that it is as likely that a different uniformed, increasingly militarized force, I mean the police of our fair cities and towns of course, are dispatched to quell civil protest, which is otherwise perfectly lawful, but represents a menace to the larger order, the real world order of the tiny set of corporate interests and uber-rich individuals whose hegemony is in some inchoate way threatened. That the threat never gathers force in a concentrated way, or never confronts the powers that be with violence (unlike criminals, terrorists, and society’s alienated emotionally disturbed youth, who actually do act, and are barely contained) represents the anguished reality that any veteran of an Occupied action, as one example of many, can attest.
Other countries, after whatever form of what we call due process, indict, try, and convict perpetrators of crimes under their codes of justice. They often do so, even in this universally troubled world, in an entirely orderly way, holding court, swearing witnesses, prosecuting guilt, and dispensing justice, not by our lights, but theirs, for sure. Nevertheless they do it with order, and not in some summary way.
We don’t like the usually swift meting out of justice, sometimes Biblical in its severity, mercilessness, and inhumanity: worse than beheadings (which are the current benchmark for barbarism and perverse justice, the justice of evil intent; yet, a fact easily forgotten, the state means of ending a life in France until all forms of capital punishment were ended, as recently as 1981), worse than hanging, which, after all, was still the standard of execution in the United Kingdom, only 50 or 60 years ago, there is stoning, which horrifies even devout Christians, who daily read the manual, I speak of the Bible, for such a mode of punishment appropriate to the class of transgression congruent to its application.
We prefer to prolong the agony of prisoners—including growing numbers proving to have been wrongfully indicted, prosecuted and convicted—by drawing out the appeals process or delaying parole as we debate the moral niceties of the differences between punishment and rehabilitation (with no regard whatsoever for analyzing the incongruent nature of policies and methodologies, never mind facilities, for carrying out the one vs. the other) or allowing the lopsidedness of American justice (blind in theory, including the tenet of that particular form known as color-blind vs. the de facto condition that finds six times the number of African-Americans imprisoned against the number of whites, even though, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, whites outnumber African-Americans in the U.S. general population nearly by the inverse of that ratio). In plain language, there are just shy of six times as many whites as African-Americans, yet there are six times as many African-American men incarcerated in this country as there are whites incarcerated.
Clearly grand juries and juries are busy with the grim business of finding African-American men guilty of crimes calling for imprisonment, i.e., the most serious crimes in our criminal code of justice. They certainly are not, and never have been busy holding the police, from the precinct to the state level, accountable for their violence against civilians not actively engaged in criminal behavior, never mind already in custody, unarmed, or behaving obediently and in a civil and non-violent manner. Like our penal system, there is a lop-sided ratio of victims of police violence in terms of skin color. Rarely is a white-skinned individual murdered, or even merely injured, though there is no differentiation by skin color, ethnicity or race when it comes to quelling non-violent protests, especially those conducted en masse.
There is no apparent line of connection between the actions of our Federal executive branches and state or local law enforcement, between the Departments of State and Justice, and the lower echelon jurisdictions of prosecution and jurisprudence. Never mind conscious and interactive lines of communication between these entities; nor would I call for them. The lofty posturing of the one, like the dignity always accorded high office, whether in the Senate or the White House, is in marked contrast with some grittier reality. The police no doubt are the first to say, along with the demonstrators, their hands bound in temporary nylon ties that cut into their wrists, “you have no idea what it’s really like.” And surely, those who espouse, surely those who merely mouth, the pious platitudes that invoke, over and over, the high principles on which our country was founded, as the words condemn the actions of those far away and from another country, about whom we truly have no idea what it’s really like, are unconscious of the active hypocrisy of their words when weighed against the preponderant, no, the overwhelming, and mounting evidence of the injustices and disparities of actual life in our own streets, as it belies every syllable, every phrase and even the merest, most insignificant, mark of punctuation.
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