Against the Day

Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington D.C., 1942

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2006 novel set in the late nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, paints a picture of the turn of the century and just beyond as a time of technological innovation, rampaging capitalism, and bewilderment at the pace of change and the loss of shared meaning and purpose amid labor unrest and violence, world war, and catastrophe possibly natural, possibly not. Also included prominently are the never-aging and impossibly optimistic boys of the Chums of Chance, who among many, many other exploits encounter time travelers. Learning of a dystopian future and doubting that they could continue to remain untouched by mortality, they are “ready to deal with hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence.”

You can clap your hands, it’s all right

And they do, hopping back in the balloon in which they fly from adventure to adventure, floating above the modernizing earth, escaping from its labor troubles and coming catastrophes. They fly away and continue to pursue improbable missions in their hopeful journey to their official ostensible destination, Shambala, the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, which they and other characters seek as a place of transcendence or as a source of power, depending, among other things, on whether they are well-intentioned pilgrims trying to transcend a world of power struggles or among the “capitalist Christer Republicans” turning the American West and the globe from free to exploited.

From the cover of Against the Day,
a seal that translates “Tibetan
Government Chamber of Commerce”

The Fourth of July is, among other things, both an act of time travel and a search for a mythical place. This is the case in any year but especially this year, when the Constitution is being torn up by elected and unelected employees sworn to defend it and its total destruction just got put on the docket. Especially in these faux originalist times, when specious references to the specifics of the founders’ intentions are used to justify the destruction of what the documents the founders wrote make clear are the larger values they intended the nation to pursue. Following the long tradition of patriotic amnesia, ramped up in an orgy of nationalism after 9/11, we pretend to travel back in time to the nation’s founding (increasingly, in the popular imagination) as a white, Christian nation. The Fourth of July is for this vision a proud celebration of a time when American men commenced kicking ass, a recuperation of a victory culture built even early in Indian massacres that’s been taking serious hits ever since, certainly in our loss in the war in Vietnam but arguably even earlier with our dropping of the bomb, an act that makes it hard to claim we’re the ones in the white hats. Our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of these hits, part of the larger cultural imperative to be innocent and victorious, to, like the Chums of Chance, betray anything to regain innocence.

The culture war battle to keep this past out of schoolchildren’s ears is driven by this same imperative. We are the nation that doesn’t lose. The Big Lie of the 2020 presidential election is driven by this imperative too, this promotion of a Myth America where everything wrong is the fault of those who don’t love it and ought to have left it or, since we’re wishing here, never ought to have come (forgetting for a moment that that’s pretty much all of us). It’s all a wishful time-travel return to a time and place of innocence that never existed.

Anti-CRT Protesters in Virginia, June 2021

Those of us who want this history taught right, who insist on the harmfulness of ignoring the realities of the past and who recognize that the prosperity gospel of the GOP is nothing more than a continuation of the grand resentment-based fleecing of poor whites that gave us racial capitalism–we’re having a different kind of Fourth today. There have been some powerful reflections on what our national exercise in time travel and mythical meaning-making means to them this time around. Some of the people angry about abortion and prayer in schools and gun safety and climate warning–even people who have in the past celebrated–have announced that they will wear black, they will take a knee, they’ll skip the fireworks. Others insist that expressions of patriotism are more important than ever this year, that we can’t let the flag be taken away from us.

I’m not a flag-waver; I’m an anthem-sitter. And I think I sort of understand what it feels like to know that flag’s not waving for you. But I do think there’s something to this argument. As much as we know (because they keep showing us) the dangers of nationalism and as much as patriotism manifests routinely in violations of the flag code and of basic human morality, patriotism doesn’t have to be nationalism, and pride in a country doesn’t have to be invidious or false or inspire violence. One of the things people who read Pynchon read Pynchon for (aside from the puns, the high/low mashups that in Against the Day include appearances by Karl and Groucho Mark and a dog who reads Henry James, and the beauty) is his way of exploding history so that the moments in the past that seem determinative and set in stone can be revealed for what they were and always are–moments of possibility that could have gone a million other ways.

Mason & Dixon is my favorite of his novels for the way it does this, showing that what happened could have not happened that way, that what’s happening now won’t be understood until the unknowable future happens, that the feeling of inevitability we have about history is just a feeling and not in fact the case. Mason & Dixon brought together three such moments–the 1760s, 1860s, and 1960s–moments when lines were drawn and possibilities realized or unrealized, explosions of change that came and went, pointing to future moments of possibility when lines can be redrawn or erased. The line the title characters drew turned “subjunctive to declarative,” in Pynchon’s words, but the future is always subjunctive, and moments will come around again where different possibilities can be realized.

“America One”

One thing I’ve grown tired of hearing (and I’m not alone) is invocations of King’s line about “the arc of the moral universe.” He meant something particular by it, and it’s brought up to express hope, but when quoted it often carries a kind of passivity with it: don’t worry, it ends up saying, eventually we’ll have justice. We won’t–not eventually, inevitably, somewhere down the road. The long-building but sudden-seeming violence done to the legal foundation of the nation over the last two weeks should be our wake-up call. There are no laws of history or essential innocence or goodness or nugget of Declaration-declared, Constitution-constituting truth that will determine our outcome, and we can’t fly off in balloons of wishfulness or denial, refusing to look down and get our hands dirty or waiting for the revolution and pointing out the dirty hands. Maybe a dirty patriotism is what we need. A determination to do the hard, unglamorous work of democracy and compromise and resistance and to save the country for what it could be, from what its descending into becoming. Maybe it’s the only way we have to bend the arc in the right direction.

Plan B

Oath-keeping

Like everyone I know who has been paying attention, I’m fucking terrified of what’s becoming of my country. In the past few days, the Supreme Court has issued decisions that leave no doubt of its illegitimacy or its lack of interest in the integrity of our system or in the right to freedom from religion, bodily autonomy, safety, a livable planet. Yesterday, we learned more jaw-dropping things about our violent, venal former president and the coup he and a small army of bottom feeders attempted. And there’s little reason to think the court wouldn’t help him or one of the many Republicans patterning themselves after him into the highest office next time.

Likewise, like everyone I know in Missouri who has been paying attention, I am terrified by what my state has already become. Because Missouri was one of nine states with trigger laws–the ludicrously named “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act”–as soon as Roe was overturned, the law went into effect, and abortion was banned here.

Yesterday, a major Missouri hospital system announced that it would no longer provide Plan B because it wasn’t yet clear that it was still legal to prescribe emergency contraceptives and it didn’t want its doctors to get arrested. According to a statement made today by the governor’s, it is, though there are some who say an ambitious prosecutor could still test that determination. Regardless, the state house is filled with the kind of people who would name a law the “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act,” and there is no reason to think they will be stopping at abortion or that those who think that women should have control over their own bodies and that religious belief should have no place in public policy will be able to stop them.

And just as democracy in my country has been under attack by coup plotters and election riggers, so it is under attack now in my state. The party simply ignored a popular referendum on Medicaid, refusing to accept federal money that would have helped alleviate an underfunded healthcare system. Gerrymandering has long been common practice in Missouri, and the state GOP is forever on the lookout for more ways to create long skinny, misshapen districts designed to rob Democratic voters of the chance to have the representation they should.

No primary, no registering voters, no problem

Today the governor signed an awful bill into law that contains a number of provisions designed to further chip away at the ability of the opposition to oppose them, from voter ID laws to procedures that make it much harder to register voters. As it is for the national GOP, democracy–elections, lawmaking, constitutions–is an obstacle, something that gets in the way of their hold on power, power that is to be used in profoundly antidemocratic ways.

Our own personal Trump

It all feels hopeless for us here, just as it does for many across the country. We march, we call our elected representatives, we work to get out the vote for candidates who might better represent our interests and the interests of the state as a whole rather than a small, vocal minority. And they sometimes are able to fight back against bad legislation. But more often they aren’t. And we have our own criminal who might make it back into office, just like the country does, with his own people eager to get him there. And it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot we can do about it–if Greitens emerges from the primary, all we can do is hope he flames out. And unless the Department of Justice makes it so Trump can’t run again, unless Biden and others in DC who could make court reform happen do, unless in doing so they make it impossible for SCOTUS to continue to ignore our legal tradition and the separation of powers and to steal the White House for the GOP, we’re going to need a plan B to save us from a future we don’t want and shouldn’t have to have.

White Riots

“White Riot” sleeve, 1977

Sometimes people who don’t know The Clash and don’t listen carefully to song lyrics mistake their “White Riot” for a white supremacist anthem. But when they sing about wanting “a riot of our own,” they don’t want a race riot. Inspired by the riot that erupted in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, a Caribbean cultural festival in West London, the song is about about white people following the example of the black Notting Hill rioters. “All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it,” Joe Strummer sings, “And everybody’s doing/Just what they’re told to.” Instead of docility, Strummer calls for “throwing a brick.” While the song played live unfortunately caused the trashing of a lot of clubs by overexcited fans, the song is about fighting for the rights of those who haven’t had the money to buy the power, white and black and any other color, across the globe.

January 6, 2021

The white riot going on in the U.S. right now isn’t about that. It’s the people who have the money to have bought the power–the Supreme Court, half of congress and state legislatures–who are throwing the bricks in this white riot. And it wouldn’t at all be a misunderstanding to think it’s white supremacist. The Federalist Society takeover of the Supreme Court, the depths of which we still haven’t plumbed (we still don’t know why Kennedy suddenly stepped down), is absolutely about keeping power for white people–men in particular–and wielding it against the bogeymen of the Great Replacement by nonwhites and/or LGBTQ people, non-Christians, socialists, abortionists, whatever latest distraction engineered by the Chris Rufos of the world and rolled out to keep the white men who don’t actually own the power distracted, in the great American tradition of racial capitalism. The decisions coming down from the Court are preparing the way for an authoritarian theocracy, defended by unlimited guns and bigotry and the destruction of the Constitution. And it’s a court that is as much stolen as bought, just like the presidencies that made it, as, without the extraordinary extralegal intervention of the Court itself in Bush v Gore and without the interference that gave Trump his presidency, the Court wouldn’t be what it is today.

Brooks Brothers Riot, Miami, November 22, 2000

And like the Brooks Brothers Riot that gave us Bush II, what’s happening now–the theft of the Court, the overturning of precedent and principles, the attempted stealing of an election–in the end is powered by the outrage of thwarted entitlement, by the rage that comes from feeling like the country you think is yours is being taken away from you by people you think it doesn’t belong to. It’s a top-down riot where the people throwing the bricks already have the power and have recruited a lot of throwers who don’t realize they’re dupes, and they’re going to knock it over and burn it down if they have to. And who’s to say they won’t win? If Bush v Gore worked, what’s going to stop them next time?

After The Clash broke up, Joe Strummer had a band called The Mescaleros, and they had a song, “Yalla Yalla,” that begins, “Well so long, liberty let’s forget you/ Didn’t show, not in my time/ But in our sons’ and daughters’ time/ When you get the feeling, call and you got a room.” This liberty–real liberty, not the adolescent freedom to swing your fist no matter whose nose it hits–has always been imperfectly imagined and never widely enough achieved in the U.S., but there have often also been people in its institutions, from congress to the courts to higher education, who have worked to acknowledge and overcome these structural and historical failures and to try to extend the freedoms to live and work and be to those who haven’t had them. It’s hard these days to imagine that history continuing. As the song goes, after “night falls on the grove,” “you can but dream.” But I’m going to go to sleep tonight with the chorus in my ears, carrying the hope that it won’t be until my children’s time that this latest white riot will be over. According to Strummer, yalla yalla means “come on, let’s go” in Arabic, and it seems to be a call not just to go out and be free but also to work for freedom. Let’s wake up tomorrow (later this morning now), be crushed by the horrible news of the latest decisions and heartened by the latest disclosures from the investigations into January 6, and let’s go.

What’s This Weird Feeling

Doing some work in front of the TV tonight, I watched documentaries on Watergate and Alex Jones. It was something, watching an account of the moment in US history when the system held against a president who abused his power–in part because Americans learned what he’d done and turned against him–and then watching an account of the career of one of the men most responsible for making sure that Americans are unable to point to a shared set of facts about what another president who abused his power did.

It had already been a day. It started to look this morning like the pattern that’s been established for the past too many years of mass shootings failing to lead to the change an outraged nation demands might not be holding. This time, it was two events in close succession, which might have made a difference. It might also have been the state-by-state pressure exerted by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, and other groups advocating for sensible gun policy that has made this time look like it might actually be different.

It also was starting to look like the pattern that long ago emerged with Trump–a nation is horrified to learn of the latest outrage he’s committed, Washington marshals its forces to expose the depth of his abuse of power, and a fully compromised Republican party lets him off the hook–might not hold this time. Instead of impeachments that don’t lead to convictions, we might have actual criminal accountability. The January 6 committee just might have the goods and the Justice Department just might actually live up to its name.

So maybe this is the start of something. Maybe things have gotten so bad that the efforts of the Joneses and the Murdochs to ensure we can’t all be working from the same set of facts are becoming less effective–so much less that Americans’ outrage can reach critical mass and their representatives have to listen to their demands. Maybe the evidence is piling up so high that it’s overwhelming the work of the liars, the conspiracy theorists, and the politicians who might know better but in their own personal calculus have decided that the true and the right are less important than the expedient and the advantageous. It could be that decades of hoping for better gun policy and a long six years of hoping that Trump would finally be treated like the criminal he is might finally be more than exercises in disappointment. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it. But let’s talk about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Why Everything Is So Fucked Up Right Now

If you had to answer the question of why everything is so fucked up in this country right now, you could do worse than pointing at this tweet:

I’m an American in my own home, and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns, Mr. Chairman.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want.

I’ll do whatever I want.

The essence of this tweet is something you expect to hear from toddlers, not members of Congress. One of the most important things we are supposed to learn as we are socialized–by playing with other children, going to school, and learning how our system of government works–is that we can’t do whatever we want, because our actions affect other people. What we do sometimes does things to other people that they don’t want done to them and that we wouldn’t done to us. As we learn what becoming a member of a functioning society entails, we learn not to swing our fist wherever we want because we don’t want it to hit the other fellow’s nose.

So maybe we don’t live in a functioning society anymore. A good portion of us root our identity in the idea that other people and their noses can go fuck themselves, that our freedom to swing our fists wildly with our eyes closed because it makes us feel good is sacred. For those among us who think this way, people who voice complaints about how their noses keep getting smashed are too sensitive, are snowflakes, should be mocked. America doesn’t owe them anything other than the chance to become nose-smashers themselves. Trump is their hero because he could give a rat’s ass about the effects of his actions and just wins wins wins. And Trump, in his red white and blue uniform, is America.

You can’t spell triumphalism without Trump.

America can’t lose, Trumpist, triumphalist thinking goes, unless un-American Americans hold it back, like (this line of thinking goes) in Vietnam, or in business, or in elections, or in defending itself against the immigrant hordes or the enemies within. If real Americans are just allowed to hang onto their guns and their prejudices and do whatever it takes–and not do things they don’t want to that might help others, like wear masks or allow people to do things they think their religion just can’t tolerate–they’ll win.


Along these lines, if you think that tweet isn’t the answer, try this shirt:

America is flag-draped death heads and guns. America is swinging fists and fuck your noses. America is good guys with guns, lots and lots of guns, all the guns you can eat.

I’m sick to death of people thinking it’s American to do whatever you want. We’ve always had this attitude as one part of who we are, as colonizers and enslavers, bosses and con men, but now it seems like all the strains encouraging selfishness and destroying the impulse to work toward the public good have combined in a toxic stew of America firster, neoliberal individualist, love-it-or-leave-it ignorance and bigotry. Aggression, lack of empathy, and narcissism used to be the hallmarks of a sociopath. Now they’re job qualifications to be a Republican member of congress. Or someone who votes for one.


How do we pull out of this neoliberal tailspin? Is there any righting of the plane? Can humanities professors save us? Why are you laughing? Looking at my notes taken yesterday for a talk I’m writing about the humanities, I see this passage from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution: “as increased use of casual academic labor, online instruction, and neoliberal governance erodes research-faculty control over curriculums, degrees, and major requirements, the last force within public universities potentially sustaining the ideal of the well-educated citizen, the liberal arts professoriat itself, will be dramatically diminished in both size and power to assert its vision.” As the state defunds higher ed and the culture devalues it, Brown argues, as people stop believing that democracy depends on educated citizens who put the public good over individual freedom, it is becoming harder for those within universities who understand this to save their institutions from becoming the kind of places that are no longer interested in producing that kind of citizen.

Cold dead hands: Thatcher, Reagan, Heston

The same holds true for institutions and individuals everywhere in America. We are all supposed to be looking for positive ROI, in our workplaces and in our lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to talk or even think about what’s just, about the greater good, about the good at all, when everybody’s competing with everybody else, when everyone and everything is ranked. I’ll argue in my talk for the possibility of working against the economization of everything within higher ed, for the idea that there are things we can do in higher ed that might fight against neoliberal rationality in higher ed and outside of it. I’d be foolish to imagine such efforts could have any effect on people like Greg Steube who think there’s any appropriate response to the mass shootings of May other than finding ways to protect the lives of the people they represent. But if public higher education could be saved as a place where future potential members of Congress and future potential voters could learn alternative ways of thinking, ways that don’t make the very notion of the public good absurd, maybe that could be something. And if others could do whatever they can to affect their own institutions, to show that things don’t have to be this way, that could be something too.

Time Lapse Map

A friend just posted a video from YouTube of a time lapse map of Europe covering 1000 years of its history.

It’s really something, watching the formation of states and empires, the slow and then sudden swallowing up of the former by the latter. It makes you think not only of the flows of people and cultures and foods and riches but of the human costs, of the lives lost every time a border shifted, and of the motivating hatreds and resulting long-lived grudges.

It also made me think of the response I’ve gotten to my last post and especially to the Op Ed that came out of it in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has been gratifying and a little overwhelming, or if that’s too dramatic, certainly eye-opening. Many of the emails and messages I’ve gotten are about how the writer shares my reaction to the war in Ukraine and the curious experience of figuring out how to balance their support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion with the historical memory that comes with being an American Jew.

It is of course a complicated thing, and to hear from so many people I know and so many I don’t, people who have also been struggling with this, strengthens my sense that there are good and bad ways to deal with the complications of historical memory–complications this amazing moving map illustrates well. With the flows of refugees and with borders shifting under people’s feet from generation to generation, it’s no wonder that family histories and national histories in Eastern Europe become confused, roots become tangled or severed, and that some of these lives growing in this soil–individual, familial, ethnic, national–emerge twisted, bearing bitter fruit, not growing toward the light the way they should. And it’s no wonder that others who grow up in different soil far away, transplants, look back bewildered at the land they came from.

Before I get any more Chauncey Gardneresque, I’ll leave you with an invitation to stare some more at this map (embedded below) and think about the history it shows and the history that’s happening now. It’s a good way to deal with it.*


*On dealing with history rather than not dealing with it, thinking about it rather than not, letting it be taught to your children rather than fighting to keep it from them: here’s a long Twitter thread I’ve been keeping for nine or so months, on efforts in this country to make sure our own history is taught and efforts on the other side.

And here’s that video.

Beyond the Pale

Russia has now been attacking Ukraine for five days. Like most of the people I know, I’ve been watching events unfold, I’ve stayed up late surfing cable news and Twitter, I’ve been distracted from my work. As I’ve been following what’s happening over there, I’ve also been noticing how people over here have reacted, and I’ve been uneasy about how quickly the embrace of the innocent Ukraine can be joined by hatred of the attacking Russia without remembering that it’s not a country or a people attacking, it’s an army, ordered by a dictator. I think this will get sorted out, mostly–the pictures of the streets of Moscow filled with protestors ought to do it–but it’s made me think how we connect ourselves to conflicts a world away, how we are happy to pick sides, and also, for some of us with families from over there, a long time ago, how weird it is find ourselves doing it.

The old neighborhood, now

Like many American Jews, I descend from people from a variety of places around central and eastern Europe. There were people from Slutsk, a suburb of Minsk, the capital and largest city in Belarus, who came over in the 1880s; like many people now named Cohen, their name was changed at Castle Garden, the Ellis Island before Ellis Island. In the US, one of them married someone from Kyiv. There were people who came over much earlier, in 1840, from Königsberg, a city then in East Prussia, later (after they left) in the German empire, now in Russia as Kaliningrad. There were people who came over earlier from Prague whose last name indicates they may have been from Schlesien or Silesia, which means they might have been from Königsberg or thereabouts too. There is even one who came over from England but whose family was originally from the West Prussian city of Posen, then in West Prussia, before and after the Polish city of Poznań.

Castle Garden

And that’s just one side of the family. The other I know less about, but it comes from Eastern Europe too, by different routes, as those grandparents met over here too.

The weirdness of my finding myself rooting for Ukraine, which is of course the wronged party and is fighting courageously, comes from that history, one that is, again, common among American Jews. I come from people who came from all over Eastern Europe and who got out, under circumstances I cannot imagine–one of them, my great grandfather, got on a boat with his older brother when he was twelve years old–and leaving behind circumstances and histories I also cannot imagine. But I know that they were marked by ill-treatment inspired by centuries-old anti-Semitism. We don’t know of anyone still left by the late 1930s, but many of the places my people were from were places that didn’t always treat Jews so well well before then.

The old neighborhood, then

Many were from the Pale of Settlement, the part of the growing Russian empire in the 18th century until WWI that included Belarus, most of Ukraine, and Eastern Poland. It was the only region of the expanding Russia where most Jews were allowed to live, other than a few with wealth or advanced education, but there were farm towns and cities within it that didn’t always allow them, such as Kyiv, and an eventual ban on all rural areas. This led to many having to live in impoverished shtetls, subject to quotas, restrictions of the kinds of work they were allowed (of which there was never enough), and brutal pogroms carried out by Cossacks and others.

So you see the problem. When I see a video from Ukraine of children doing athletic training after the style of traditional Cossack training, or a live recreation of a famous painting of Cossacks, the brave resistance to Russian aggression that I’m supposed to see is joined by what I know and imagine of the men who raided Jewish towns on horseback. When I watch live reporting from Kiev and hear the sirens and fear for the fate of the beautiful old churches and the families driven down to the subways, I’m also thinking of the Jews who were driven from those cities, joining the Jews expelled from St. Petersburg and Moscow. When I watch Putin leap back in time past the Cold War and try revive the imperial Russia of two hundred years ago, I see the Tsars, but the scenes of violence get all mixed up with the Cossacks of Ukraine and the Nazis who decimated the Jews, starting in earnest with the last, biggest pogrom, Kristallnacht.

I’m not saying my unease is logical. It’s all mixed up. I know that Putin’s claim that he’s pursuing deNazification in Ukraine is the worst sort of gaslighting. And I know that Zelensky is Jewish, and it’s heartening, though it seems that his election came as a surprise to some, given Ukraine’s past, and that it’s something he seemed to be trying not to mention during his campaign. And it’s heartening to see Ukraine rally around him, and Europe and the world rally around Ukraine. It’s just sometimes hard to know exactly where to stand in relation to this history as it happens, where my families’ uprooted roots allow me to plant myself in it.

This historical rootlessness, or uprootedness, the fact that I had to ask my father to refresh my memory on this family history, the fact that I know so little of the roots on my mother’s side–maybe it’s an effect and a cause. It’s the effect of the endless diaspora and the particular diasporas of Eastern Europe’s Jews, the expulsions, emigrations, name changes and language changes, an Old World that’s happy to see the back of you and a New World that doesn’t want to know where you came from, a partial amnesia and an urge to remember, and maybe even for some of us a disinclination to settle in, to join, to be fully of a place, even a place in history.

I should grow like an onion with my head in the ground. Maybe then I’d have some roots.

In Doctrine Nation

I just missed a planning meeting of my AAUP chapter because I got caught up writing testimony opposing the spate of anti-public education bills in my state legislature. (Actually, just three of many horrible bills. And I’ll be submitting my testimony rather than delivering it because there’s a pandemic raging and my state house currently has no rules on mask wearing.) As befits the times and my near constant rage at the abdication of the responsibilities of their offices by government officials from DC to Jefferson City and of their civic responsibilities by neighbors near and far, what I wrote is kind of angry.

The sixth Missouri capitol building (there’s been a lot of fires)

I’ve tried to write this next sentence five times and every time devolved into summaries of all of the horrible legislation supported over the years by the legislators who are sponsoring these bills. So I’m just going to share my testimony, say something in closing, and take my dog for a walk before it gets dark. The bills I’m opposing are HB 1474, “The Parents’ Bill of Rights Act of 2022,” HB 1747, which appears not to have the usual misleading name but it’s about making it easier to recall school board members, and HB 1995, “The Parents’ Bill of Rights for Student Well-Being,” which is just confusing.

I am under no illusion that anybody in the state house will read this testimony, and that’s fine because it’s inarticulate and breaks most of the rules of effective testimony. I can only hope that it adds a little height to a tall stack of testimony, though I am afraid that people are too overwhelmed–by the attacks coming from the right on so many fronts and by how hard it is to manage not only to get along from day to day but to manage the rage–to find the time and energy to sit down and write these. But we should all be aware and do what we can. And if the Missouri GOP manages to pass any of this awful legislation rather than just let it fade into memory as part of the ongoing campaign to keep Missouri’s culture war fires burning, then they should at least know how many people they don’t speak for.

One more thing: Today I saw that one of the architects of the manufactured Critical Race Theory kerfuffle, Christopher Rufo, is pivoting from his CRT strategy, which he has openly acknowledged as a strategy like the give-it-all-away Bond villain he is, to “transparency.” He has also decided, as my friend Aaron Hanlon pointed out, to plug into the worst of the right’s conspiracy theories.

Teaching is now “grooming,”and teachers are “predators.”

The cynicism of this tactic is breathtaking, and it couldn’t be more dangerous. The danger, and the danger of the bills above and the rest of them in Missouri and around the country (see Indiana’s, for example), isn’t just to public education. It’s to the idea that the people on the other side, whichever side you’re on, aren’t your enemies but members of your community with whom you disagree, and that we have institutions and mechanisms through which to deal with those disagreements. It’s even dangerous to the idea that if the institutions fail you, you can protest, you can publicly criticize, boycott, make your case heard and your power felt. It’s dangerous to these things to paint the people who disagree with you as enemies, as vile taboo-breaking criminals who should be violently cast out of society, put on lists, exposed and removed. That’s what this “transparency” push is about–make a lot of noise about how you’re shining a light on the horrible things happening in the basement under the pizza place, even if there’s nothing happening and the pizza place doesn’t have a basement. Embolden voters to feel like there’s an evil they must vigilantly guard against and you’ll kill two birds with one stone–your voters will be mobilized, enraged, will storm school board meetings and town halls, and the people who disagree with you will be too terrified to speak up or at least to teach your children that something bad happened in their country, and keeps happening.

It’s getting dark and my dog has been patient, so I’m going to take her and my blood pressure for a walk and take a route where I don’t see my neighborhood’s Gadsden flag. And I’ll try not to see the people I don’t agree with as my enemy or as monsters, no matter how deeply wrong they are and no matter how much of a danger what they’re doing poses to the places I live. They’re not my enemy and they’re not monsters, but the things they are trying to do in our state houses and city halls need to be opposed, loudly, by anybody who can take a deep enough breath, in spite of the rage, to yell. There’s nothing heroic or worthy of praise about trying to not see the people on the other side in as negative a light as they’re being told to see you. It couldn’t be more basic. Don’t tread on each other, the flag could read, and everything might be a little better.

Happy Anniversary

Satellite view of New York City on September 12, 2001

I wrote something a few months ago for the Los Angeles Times about the importance of how Americans remember the events of September 11, 2001–on anniversaries and all the other days–for how we acted immediately and long after. Twenty years of war later, there are people waving the flag harder than ever, itching for a fight with whatever nation calls us chicken and whichever American calls us for us to look critically at ourselves. Tonight, a few hours before the anniversary of last year’s riot and attempted coup, I’m thinking that the way we remember January 6, 2021 will be just as important.

Gallows erected near the Capitol on January 6, 2021

My junior senator, who encouraged the big lie and who never wavered in his pandering even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, when even the likes of Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy were shocked into honesty about what had just happened, has been on Fox and Breitbart revising history like the 1619 Projector of his pretend nightmares. In the op-ed he wrote for the Fox Disinformation Network today, Hawley argues, “The most surprising outcome—and the day’s true legacy—was the Left’s attempt to use the Capitol unrest to foster a permanent climate of fear and repression.”

My junior senator

As the House Committee on the attack inches closer to the organizers of the coup, the leading lights of the Grand Old Party have zoomed straight past gaslighting to pissing on the nation’s leg and telling it it’s raining. Not only were the insurrectionists not doing anything wrong, or just overzealous in their pursuit of secure elections, or crypto-Antifa, the real ones to worry about are–surprise!–“the Left.”

From the studio of George W. Bush

There was a lot of talk the last time we had a peaceful transition of power about moving on from blaming the previous administration for lying us into war, under the idea that the nation might better heal if we didn’t try to hold members of the administration accountable. And so the hawks and profiteers got to ride off into the sunset of the Hoover Institution and the mansion studio, we stayed in Afghanistan for twenty years, and the fiscal and psychic space occupied by the military remains far too big.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake again. You can’t heal if you don’t cut out the thing that’s making you sick. If we want to keep our republic, we have to call out the people who tried to destroy it and are trying still. The traditional gift for the first anniversary is paper, and I can’t think of a better gift than a subpoena. Then maybe we’ll get closer to knowing what the true legacy will really be.

December 28, 2021

So today is the 55th anniversary of my birth. (Do a little math and you’ll have my birth year, which is enough to check in at my orthopedist’s office but not much else.) Birthdays are generally weird, out-of-body experiences for me, as I think I do a pretty bad job of what Joan Didion once wrote that we should all do, namely “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” and on my birthday those people tend to pop up whether I want to renew our acquaintance or not.

me a long time ago

It’s been a generally weird year too, if you haven’t noticed, and it’s ending with a bang. The pandemic that we’re supposed to be post- is not going away, even as the people who run our institutions are bowing to political pressure and acting like it is. My high schooler will in a few days return to a school that will no longer have a mask mandate, in large part because my state’s attorney general is bullying school districts into ending mandates. In a society that is as post-racial as it is post-pandemic, books are being banned in schools and hundreds of anti-antiracism (and other kids of bigotry) bills are lining up at state houses across the country. Republican-dominated state houses are also busy finding ways to rig future elections by gerrymander and wholesale replacement of election officials. And the January 6 conspirators are writing books laying out their plans, including the 100 lawmakers they had lined up to help them overturn the election, and as yet none of them seem to be paying any kind of price.

Peter Navarro, author and one of the president’s men

One of the people I used to be who popped up today is pictured up above, and tonight we’re getting reacquainted. I have no memory of that picture being taken, but from the haircut, the shirt, and the furniture, it was taken in the mid-1970s in the Jersey shore house on stilts where my family spent our summers. Seeing it has made me remember the summer of 1973–I’m guessing a year before this picture, but I’m really not sure–when my mother taught me how to draw faces while we watched the Watergate hearings. Lying on my stomach with a drawing pad, I had hours to sketch the faces of the president’s men on the TV screen. I also absorbed Watergate–if not the details of what had happened and was happening, then certainly the feelings of those hearings, the feelings in our beach house. I also learned something of the details about Nixon and company from Doonesbury, as I learned most of my popular culture from Mad magazine.

What I think I learned from the hearings and from Garry Trudeau (and, come to think of it, from Mad), in addition to how to draw a little, was complicated. It was scary to learn that there were men in charge who couldn’t be trusted, who did bad things and could (and should) be mocked for it. But there was something empowering about the second part, learning that there were places, in and outside of Washington, where those men could be called to account, either officially or through the power of words and drawings. So the loss of innocence about the president, about authority, was accompanied by the gaining of faith in the power of institutions and individuals to criticize and try to set things right.

Doonesbury July 5, 1973

I don’t know how much that kid could have articulated about all of this at the time. As I said, we haven’t kept in very good touch. But having him stare out at me tonight and remembering things about those summers down the shore–the games of kick the can in the sand streets, bodysurfing for hours, finding dead sand sharks and those little live crabs that burrow back into the sand when the waves roll back out–hasn’t been so bad. And it’s reminded me of one of the sources of the anger I can’t stop feeling these days at the people in positions of authority who risk our lives and the future of our country to further their careers, to line their pockets, maybe to hasten the apocalypse. But it’s also reminded me of what people were calling, for a little while, resistance.

I can’t help wondering what this particular person I used to be would think of the person I am now. Joan Didion, who died a few days ago, described the reappearance of the people we used to be like this: “they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” I really don’t know. I’ve ended up making a living talking about words and how we use them and sometimes using them to talk about bad actors and structures and about ways to resist them, but at 4 a.m. it sometimes doesn’t feel like much. Did I desert that kid with the wide-open face? My dad was born five months earlier than Didion, in July 1934. At moments like this, on birthdays, a couple of bourbons in, woken up out of our day-to-day half-slumber, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve made our parents proud, whether at the end of our lives we will have made our younger selves proud, even whether our parents, near the end of their lives, are on speaking terms with the people they used to be. We could wonder whether our kids will remember themselves when they get to the middle of their lives, or nearer the end, and whether they will look back and know what the people they used to be would think of the people they’ve become. And we could wonder whether our children will have grown up in a world where it seemed like the bad guys could be fought off by word and deed and the institutions that shape their lives could be saved, so that their older selves might have some hope in the face of the inevitable fuckery of people who want to take advantage of power rather than use it to serve the people who put them in position to do so.

It’s a lot to think about.