Privilege and Sacrifice

September 15, 2021 at 7:09 pm (By Amba) (, )

Much of my time in Chicago has been spent rereading the journal and letters of my uncle,* Alan Gottlieb, who died in a Naval Air Force training accident in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1943, two months to the day before his 23rd birthday. (I had read them decades ago, but remembered only highlights.) My mom wants to include his voice in an appendix to her memoir, the very purpose of which is to gather the lost—including two suicides, whose names were never spoken again per Jewish tradition—back into the ongoing family.

Alan’s death has been handed down as a tragic accident and a noble, if wasteful, sacrifice. To my surprise, as I read his thoughts and his voice danced to life in me, I came to see it, instead, as both a totally routine budget item of war and a kind of heroic, quixotic suicide. I wrote in my journal about his.

I went through Alan’s journals almost word for word, inhabiting his lively voice and immersing myself in his living presence to the extent that I began to struggle in protest as I was pulled toward the inexorable falls of his fate, No! No! Don’t extinguish this light! but it already happened almost 80 years ago! Mom grieving it again as if it was something I accompanied and comforted her in rather than something I instigated (at her behest, to get Alan’s voice into the memoir). I typed out passages into the new computer, and there were things missing that I remembered: a kinesthetic description of standing on the pedals of a dive bomber during a run; a paradox about the “constructively destructive” use of his new skills in war. I rummaged in the disorganized files (so like mine) and found both, one among letters a girl friend (not girlfriend) had given his mother, the other on file cards typed out by Dad, perhaps the best saved of faded or damaged letters. (How did he do it?)

Two things became clear. One was that if Alan hadn’t died as and when he did, there’s a high chance he would’ve died as a dive bomber pilot working off a carrier, the role he was training for. Those guys were the next thing to kamikazes. Even dying in training as he did was commonplace; he’d lost several friends in crashes before his. I told David it was as if they (the masters of war) were just throwing handfuls of flesh into a spinning fan blade. . . . The second is that Alan chose this self-sacrificial role. If his death was in part the Navy’s fault, it was also his own. He was being groomed for leadership and could have saved himself for that role. Should he have? He would have been a liberal leading light, a Jewish Kennedy, surely a senator, maybe even the first Jewish president—he was WASPy-looking enough. 😜And, in the supremest of ironies, he might well have been assassinated. His loss was anyway an early falling spark in that arc that led us to this dark place.

It’s easy to fall into fantasies of “the best and the brightest,” to flatter oneself that the loss of a sensibility so gently reared, so cultivated and self-cultivated, was a bigger loss than the closing of any anonymous consciousness that never was incubated in the Ivy League or singled out by the spotlight of Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. But that was exactly what Alan felt obliged to escape. He had an early sense of the injustice and also of the emasculation of “privilege.” He felt he had to put himself at physical risk both to purge himself of that and to stretch himself, to break out of that coddling and self-congratulatory confinement.

I can relate.

The biggest paradox of all for me is that *he could only be my uncle dead. If he had lived for however much longer, the world would have been shifted the millimeter or more it took for a different sperm to meet a different egg at a different time and place, and someone else would exist in my place—in all our places.

It might have been better that way. But this is what we’ve got.

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I contradict myself

July 12, 2021 at 12:15 pm (By Amba) ()

Do my views and posts seem ideologically contradictory? They are.

I have an allergy to “ism.” That little suffix is like the spike protein—the mechanism by which a mental virus pries its way into your brain. Anything with an “ism” tacked onto it already has designs on you.

I hate prefabricated sets of positions that come all glued together. There’s no space to think in between the parts. The parts don’t move.

I love a good argument. I’ll take one in even if I end up spitting most of it out. I’m pretty sure there’s a little bit of truth in there and I want it. My mind can be changed, or at least complicated.

No mind can come anywhere near the serenely self-contradicting complicatedness of reality.

Add another curlicue

to my convoluted worldview!

Please do!

Thinking is just doodling, anyway.

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21st century religious wars?

April 4, 2021 at 2:04 pm (By Amba) (, )

I’m hiding this here because some of it will be rude to say in public on Easter morning.

These Daily Beast headlines (I’m not bothering to link, they will be paywalled) . . .

. . . together with much recent commentary on how the tribal, zealous, and transporting aspects of religion seem to have migrated over to politics, coalesced in my mind into the realization that we are actually fighting a religious war, just like those that have racked the West throughout so many other centuries.

For the right, “socialism” IS Satan. For the left, science IS gospel. The right has specialized in the crusade of conquest. The left has a lock on penitence. Both practice conversion and excommunication. Each is sure they hold the truth and the other is demonic.

This in turn brought me (by a winding path, admittedly) to the thought that the world would be unimaginably different if the Abrahamic religions had never arisen. And that they may have been the single most toxic and warping factor in human history.

They have certainly been a key to our species’ “success” in the short term—the whole globe having been dragged into this juggernaut by “the West”—but success down a wrong path is mega-failure waiting to happen.

Polytheism, pantheism, nature worship—are they more live-and-let-live, or am I romanticizing them? The impulse to conquest (as opposed to just tribal rivalry and territorial skirmishing) comes with civilization (and its nomadic pastoral predators), which arises from agriculture. But somehow Abrahamic monotheism supercharged it.

It’s fascinating to see how ideas mutate and hybridize, taking on new power and sometimes monstrosity in the process. Neither communism nor democracy would likely exist if not for Christianity. Western Communism x Eastern Confucianism spawned particularly deadly strains.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

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“Retrospective inevitability”

April 1, 2021 at 9:43 am (By Amba)

from 2017

It only just struck me that “Que sera sera” needs a counterpart for later in life. “Que fue fue?” How would you say “What was, was” or “What has been, has been”?

It’s the sense in which the events of your life were, not by any means inevitable, but … the dominoes fell as they did. If you could go back and change any one thing, it would change everything downstream. The meeting of a particular sperm and egg being as contingent as it is, the same people wouldn’t even be here. Dependent co-arising leads to something like “retrospective inevitability.” “It has to have been that way.” If you could erase the bad it would also erase the good. Regrets rot the harvest.

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Creative destruction?

March 30, 2021 at 10:15 am (By Amba)

(Cross-posted to A Cold Eye)

I was thinking about how anything that escapes regulation, coöpts its environment, and grows unchecked, heedless of its place in a whole, is cancer-like. Wealth in late capitalism. The human population.

But there’s no escaping a larger whole. Even cancer plays its part. It creates opportunities for worms. And funeral directors. And pharma companies and cancer centers. Wealth creates opportunities for merchants and crafters of luxury goods, for services and servants, and for thieves and revolutionaries. The growing human population creates opportunities for pigeons and sparrows, parasites and viruses, inventors of ways to extract more, and now maybe even to extract more while destroying less.

It’s a free-for-all. Everything’s eating and competing, hijacking and hitchhiking on everything else. Don’t be so moralistic. Join the party.

As if you had a choice.

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No Map to the Post-Enlightenment

February 22, 2021 at 9:09 am (By Amba) (, )

A friend who lives in Israel (though US-born) wrote to me worried about how the ultra-Orthodox may be taking over Israel, even as some Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics here seem to be angling to turn the US into a theocracy. I wrote back to him that they seem to be “out to repeal the Enlightenment.” He asked if I had any thoughts about how to counter that. These were the thoughts that came up in response to that question. Some of them surprised me.

I don’t have any very good ideas about what to do about the fundies of all stripes. I suspect we’re at a fork in our evolution where the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the next step, and we may not take it. We’re a very fearful animal, and we’ve learned just enough to begin to realize how tiny we are, how little we really understand, and how little control we have carved out, though it is much more than we’ve ever had before (to our own detriment as well as benefit). The solution, for a sizable chunk of the human population, is to just junk the whole enterprise and go back to absolute authorities and simple stories. The solution for another chunk is to put a quasi-religious faith in science and scientists—in both cases, driven by the longing for authority to keep us safe. The idea that we have to take our fate into our own hands at precisely the moment when we realize we don’t know shit is pretty overwhelming, but it’s the next step and if we refuse it, as we well may, we won’t survive. I guess it’s Existentialism as well as the Enlightenment, except the Existentialists thought life and the universe were meaningless. It’s probably saturated with meaning and potential meaning, and we have allies, one of whom you would call God—not an authority but the guarantor that this isn’t Hell and that it can be navigated and is brimming with promise, not just pain. The part of us that is made in this Great Spirit’s or Holy Ghost’s image is intuition. Although intuition may be more easily fooled by our hopes and fears than reason (or maybe not—reason can easily be pressed into service as rationalization), it’s also a direct way of knowing the score without knowing how you know. Trust is involved, and not the trust of a child who needs the illusion of being safe.

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Why capitalize “white”?

November 2, 2020 at 5:01 pm (By Amba) (, )

The Washington Post does it, and it drives me crazy.

Why? Why kowtow to the belief of white nationalists such as VDARE that “White” is an identity, a people?

Suppose it were an identity, what would define it? World domination?

European culture, you say? That’s pretty funny considering that European peoples fought each other tooth and nail from prehistory up through 1945 (and didn’t stop then). Here’s a list of European wars, starting only in 1112 BC. I literally don’t have the time to count them. You’ll be amazed.

You may argue, with reason, that Black people too descend from many diverse peoples and cultures—some of whom unquestionably fought each other as well. African people would have been harder to enslave had local enemies not captured and sold one another. Where there is a buyer, sellers appear. Europeans exploited traditional rivalries among Native Americans in similar ways.

Conflict and bids for dominance are a proud and shameful part of our common “human potential” (“one in 200 men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan“), but it’s a part that Europeans magnified to an unprecedented global scale, with a fevered drive to expand and exploit, more-advanced technologies for doing so, and a conviction of entitlement based on divinely bestowed superiority. In 2020, you still wanna base an identity on that? Basically, on “might makes right”?

Technology is only one field of achievement, the one that confers material power and enables its possessors, if so inclined, to overwhelm, expropriate, and even obliterate other peoples’ achievements. It’s far from Europeans’ only achievement, but technology of one kind—the technology of extraction, manufacture, and domination—is the only one in which they were inarguably superior. Technology has its wonders, but it’s a two-edged sword that eventually wounds its wielder. It makes life both better and worse. The balance sheet is a work in progress.

Ironically, “Black” is an identity Black people didn’t ask for. It was welded together out of diverse materials—genetic, linguistic, cultural—by slavery, discrimination, and a disdainful lack of discrimination in the other sense. Just as white police and passersby often can’t tell Black people apart, slave traders and owners couldn’t tell Black peoples apart—didn’t bother to.

But that capital letter is earned. It’s recognition and reparation. It’s Black Lives Matter in one letter. White people, meanwhile, need to retire from their implicit capital letter. What bad timing to make it explicit just as growing numbers are growing sick, really sick, of having the world on their shoulders and their knee on its neck. White people need to explore the freedom of being generic, of losing themselves in the crowd, of being among, not above. Capitalizing their name, meanwhile, is not placing Black people above white people. It’s shining a light.

Maybe a day will come when we can see and speak to each other as individuals with a whole palette of skin tones and a whole panoply of ancestries and influences. We’re just not there yet, but it’s a good place to be going.

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The case that COVID-19 was lab-created …

September 27, 2020 at 11:52 am (By Amba) ()

. . . has moved from the fringe to the center of the argument. It’s getting stronger, and harder to suppress, by the day. Here is the latest analysis.

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To be as objective as possible…

September 27, 2020 at 11:24 am (By Amba) ()

  • Amy Coney Barrett is a good judge, as was Robert Bork, if you take ideological wish lists out of it.
  • If you believe that there needs to be a balance between right and left, between business and government, between striving and caring, etc., etc. (and that too much imbalance opens the Pandora’s box of corruption and cruelty), this is the WRONG time to tilt the balance further to the right.*
  • What Democrats are experiencing is the incredible frustration of watching Trump make a good move at a bad time for an evil purpose.

*The pendulum is never in more danger of swinging to one extreme than when it is at the other extreme. Those of you who dread violent revolution above all—you are guaranteeing it.

UPDATE

  • Barrett is GOING TO be confirmed.
  • For Trump to set up a Supreme Court that could then stop vote counting and reinstall him as president is using the US Government for criminal self-dealing. The confirmation MUST NOT take place until after the election. This should be the laser focus of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.
  • The best outcome that’s possible at this point: The Republicans decisively lose the presidency and the Senate. The lame duck Senate confirms Barrett. Conservatives get the Justice they most wanted; the two other branches are in Democratic hands. Some balance is restored.

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Rooting It Out

August 23, 2020 at 3:35 am (By Amba) ()

Even white people who recoil from white supremacy often harbor unexamined, reflexive assumptions of white superiority.

While less noxious on the surface, this assumption is far more pervasive and insidious. It’s the vast, nearly immortal underground mycelium from which the scattered poison mushrooms of white supremacy sprout. (The mycelium of the 2,384-acre fungus described at that link also secretes root-destroying enzymes and “kills swaths of conifers,” for an even better metaphor.)

This struck me while talking to a Trump supporter friend (yes, I have some) who told me she has Black friends, even one guy she was sweet on when she was young (he brought her to his church once; she got a side-eye from his mother that would have blistered the paint off a battleship), but—”their values are different from ours.” Although she must encounter scores of Black working people and professionals every day, she seemed to take inner-city gang, drug, and gun culture as the prototype of Black culture and to attribute it to nature or character rather than to poverty and futility. (Never mind that it took working-class white people less than two generations of unemployment and disrespect to fall into opioid addiction, spousal abuse, and family breakdown.)

She’s a bit of a straw woman because she’s been soaking up right-wing talk radio for twenty years. (If you need to know why we’re friends, ask me in the comments.) But a subtler, patronizing version of the same attitudes pervaded the liberal world I grew up in. A lot of white people kinda believe Charles Murray’s insinuations about genetics and I.Q. (Of course, white people wrote the I.Q. tests; let them try and pass the speed I.Q. test of the average rap song.) They feel that the warm dialect Black people speak among themselves is defective, inferior English. The great majority of their interactions with Black and Latino people are those of employers and “help.” Take it from an insider. The separation and hierarchy Isabel Wilkerson identifies as “caste” perpetuate these assumptions and are perpetuated by them, in a vicious cycle.

What is this “white superiority” and where does it come from? It’s a belief in the superiority of European culture, and it’s founded in dominance. In what, exactly, is euroid culture, as I’ve taken to calling it (because then we can say “roid rage” and get a twofer) truly superior? In the technologies of coercion, extraction, and machine fabrication. The firepower to commandeer other lands’ natural resources and the power to wrest and reshape, roughshod, the material world. The miracle of being able to mass-produce cheap, attractive kitchenware for millions while wiping out time-intensive, one-of-a-kind handcrafts. To make expropriated subsistence farmers work for slave wages (or as actual slaves) on coffee plantations built on what was their land, and create a global commodity market coextensive with empire.

What about our art, literature, and music? You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s, and you don’t have to be euroid to love and play Beethoven, or Shakespeare. They are insanely great. But the “Western canon” is narrow and provincial. Saul Bellow once notoriously asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” To which my retort would be, “Dizzy Gillespie.” Shamefully imprecise: it’s unlikely that Dizzy’s ancestors were Zulu. But jazz, a syncretistic art form springing from a mighty African root that people of all origins love and play, has a genius that equals Tolstoy and Beethoven, and in at least one respect surpasses them: it’s created on the spot, in front of demanding witnesses, not polished before being published, or practiced, practiced, practiced, perfected, and finally performed.

I remember going through the Metropolitan Museum once, through a gallery of exquisite, finely detailed Asian embroidered silk garments, porcelain vessels, and painted screens . . . and coming out into a gallery of European art contemporary with it: dark, crudely hewn wooden Christs and Madonnas and angels. Gulp . . . we ARE the barbarians.

After that, when my friend Sachiko meticulously peeled her apple, or segmented her clementine after removing every fiber of the white pith, while I just tore into mine and made a mess, I would tell her I was invoking my barbarian privilege. (Also that I had been raised by wolves.)

Not to put down euroid culture . . . just to point out that it is not superior in anything but domination. Its arts and sciences don’t have to go under. They just have to move over. And disarm.

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