Sunday, July 16, 2017

Frontier Atrocity by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

On 9 July 1809 in Holloway, Maine ( site of what was later to become Augusta) James Purrington, a recent settler in the community) slaughtered his wife and six of his children with an axe and fatally slashed his own throat with a razor. Midwife Martha Ballard was a near neighbor. In her diary she wrote:

My husband went and returned before sunrise when after taking a little food he and In went on to the house there to behold the most shocking scein that was Even seen in this part of the world. May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take a suitable notice of this horrid deed, learn wisdom therefrom.

Later, she described the funeral as

A sollom specttacle to behold. May we all learn a profitable lesson from this dreadful scein and may it please the God that rules to Sanctify this affliction to the surviving relatives . . .

 Martha’s  prayer no doubt echoed Mr. Taylor’s sermon – and hundreds of others she had heard in her seventy-one years- though it wasn’t the sermon but the pageantry of the occasion that impressed her most powerfully, the ritualistic arrangements of the bodies, the funeral march, and the hundreds of people crowded in nearby houses, in the streets, on the tops of buildings. There had not been an event like this in Augusta since the commemoration of George Washington’s death six years before.

The essential point for Martha, however, was that God was in control, that he had the power to “sanctify” as well as to destroy.

For some of her contemporaries, the lessons were more complex. By 1806, religious dissent in the region had increased. New sects were growing surprisingly strong, making the old divisions among Congregationalists seem tame. In 1780, all the churches in Lincoln County, whatever the differences among them, had been Congregational; by 1800, in the by then two counties of Lincoln and Kennebec, sectarian churches – Separate Baptist, Free-will Baptist, Methodist, and Universalist – outnumbered orthodox congregations by almost three to one.

It was inevitable that the Purrington murders should feed into growing anxiety over religious dissent in the region. Congregationalists along the Kennebec continued to squabble among themselves while Methodists, Free-Will Baptists, Universalists and even Shakers took their members. Martha’s neighbors were among those affected. “There were 6 persons Baptised by imertion at Sidney,” she wrote on 4 August 1805. “Mrs. Andrus was one.” James Purrington, it was said, had dabbled in more than one heterodox creed.

In his broadside “Horrid Murders” Peter Edes, editor of the Kennebec Gazette had noted that the murderer was “warm believer in the fatal doctrine of universal salvation, “ but made no effort to exploit the fact. Within days, Edes had accumulated enough additional information to amplify this explanation into a twenty-page pamphlet giving a more detailed account of the murder, a sketch of the life of Captain Purrington, and “Remarks on the fatal tendency of erroneous principles, and Motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel: “Unbelief in the superintending providence of God, and human accountability, is a principle which opens the door to every vice.” Edes quoted “a respectable gentleman in Bowdoinham” who affirmed that

about twenty years ago he (Capt.P.) jopoined the (Calvinistic) Baptist Church in Bowdoinham, and continued in their fellowship several years; till he imbibed the sentiments of the Freewill Baptists; for which he was cut off from the church. He was not a Universalist till some years since. I have conversed with several of his former neighbors, who unanimously testify that he was a Fatalist”

If Edes’s account is correct, Purrington’s life recapitulated the religious history of the region. In towns like Bowdoinham, already split by Baptist and New Light revivals, the heterodox teachings of the Free-Will Baptists and Universalists found fertile soil. Both groups challenged the central Calvinist doctrine that God predestined some souls for salvation, others for damnation. The Free-Will Baptists believed sinners chose to accept or reject Christ’s atonement; the Universalists argued that all od’s children would be saved. The emphasis of both groups on “a benevolent God, human perfectibility, universal non-penal atonement, and free grace for all believers” allied them with liberal  Arminians in New England’s urban centers – Edes pamphlet associated Purrington’s universalism with the “fearless impiety of a Paine and the unrestrained licentiousness of a Godwin” – yet both groups were evangelicals rather than rationalists. They were powerful precisely because they grafted their optimistic doctrines onto the experiential, charismatic religion familiar from earlier revivals. In light of the Free-Will challenge, Bowdoinham’s Calvinist  Baptists described themselves as “ a fold in the midst of wolves, or a defenseless flock surrounded with . . prowling multitudes.”

Of the two groups, the Universalists appeared most threatening because they undermined the socially useful distinction between the saved and the damned. How could society survive once the doctrine of an eternal judgment was destroyed? In a sermon preached at Bowdoinham ten days after the murders, Timothy Merritt argued that the first and moving cause of Purrington’s murders was disbelief inn the Providence of God: “Though he died seized of a large estate, he was under apprehension that his family would come to want.” But second only to his lack of faith in God’s superintending care was his belief in the doctrine of universal salvation.

 You all know, that for some years past, he has professed to believe firmly that all mankind, immediately upon leaving the body, go to a state of the most perfect rest and enjoyment: and to my certain knowledge he denied the doctrine of a day of judgment and retribution. Of course it was no question with him whether his family were regenerate, or born again, or in other words, whether they were prepared for so sudden a remove from this world. It was, therefore, natural, and what anyone would do under the same circumstances, to endeavor to prevent the anticipated trouble in his family, and make them all forever happy. There is every reason to believe that this was his real motive.

As a good Calvinist, Merritt could not let his congregation rest there, however. Purrington’s sins were natural because they mirrored the fundamental errors of humankind. Gently, he led his listeners from comfort to discomfort, from calm reassurance in the face of evil to jolting reminders of their own culpability. The murders forced Purrington’s neighbors to recognize the depravity of human nature, the frailty of life, and the folly of trusting in any earthly thing, including their nearest and dearest relations. “We may bolt our doors at night against thieves and robbers, but bolts are no security to life;- the assassin is within.”

This is not said with a view to excite jealousies and fears between friends and connections; nor to destroy that subordinate confidence which husband and wife, parents and children, reasonably repose in each other; but merely to shew you your real circumstances, and bring you to put your highest trust in God alone, where it ought to be placed.

If given the opportunity to answer Merritt’s accusations, the Universalists surely would have argued that the doctrine of universal salvation nurtured righteousness rather than sin, that their teachings were no more to blame for Purrington’s murders than the Congregationalist doctrine for Henry McCausland’s slaughter of Abigail Warren thirteen years before [ God called him to save Maine for the Congregationalists- he was deemed insane]. Universalists would have distained Calvinist efforts to breed fear in the hearts of their listeners; surely a true knowledge of God’s love was a more powerful motive for good than an erroneous fear of God’s wrath.

Despite differences in emphasis, however, the arguments of both groups began at the same point – predestination – and ended with the same consolation – ultimate trust in God’s goodness.

The oral history of Universalism contains an account of a triumphant sermon preached by Father Barnes of Portland, Maine, when all the Congregationalist ministers in the region refused to officiate at the funeral of a suicide. The theme of Barnes’  sermon – “when all the designs of God inn apparent ills are seen through, and his benevolent purposes understood, all that is now dark will become light” - is ultimately indistinguishable from Merritt’s argument – “When we see that God has suffered these evils, we are to conclude that he has acted upon some wise and benevolent principle, worthy of himself.” God is all powerful and all good. We must submit to his judgments. It is thee theology which underlines the religious sentiments in Martha Ballard’s diary: “May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take sutable notis of this horrid, deed, learn wisdom therefrom.”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Indian Country by Neil Rolde

“ Half convinced, half constrained, the Indians go off to dwell in new wilderness, where the white men will not let him remain in peace for ten years. In this way, the Americans cheaply acquire whole provinces which the richest  sovereigns in Europe could not afford to buy.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

Lewis Cass, secretary of war under Jackson and Democratic candidate in 1848, stated the matter quite baldly. In order for the Indians not to become extinct, “it would be necessary that our frontiers cease to expand and the savages settle beyond them." – a situation he deemed unlikely.

The east-west frontier expanded right up to the Pacific, every child in America knows. That the Indians never did become extinct (  The death of the last ostensible survivor, a  Mrs. Elizabeth George Plouffe, on 6 June 1973 was a signal for that to happen to the Pequots), we also know as a truism. So what was done with them?

The road to the present in the philosophies and programs of the federal government has used in dealing with the “Indian problem” is littered with milestones – more like gravestones – of policies that didn’t work and took a heavy toll on those they were alleged to help – the Indians. Words like “allotment” and “termination” are now but dim memories, dredged up by historians of the zigzags of federal policy towards the tribes. Who remembers the Dawes Act, named for Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who though he was doing the Indians a favor by teaching them the virtues of “selfishness” Carlisle College, if remembered at all, is done so for Jim Thorpe’s football prowess, not as part of a concerted effort to separate Indian children from their parents and drill into them, as if they were juvenile West Pointers, the white man’s superior culture.

John Collier’s name is all but forgotten today, except by sensitive Indians, for he was the BIA director under the New Deal, who strove valiantly to let the Indians be themselves and run their own affairs. Was the Indians Claims Commission, finally established by law in 1946, after many years of trying, really a big step forward in settling Indian land claims, or just an impediment, as it seemed to Tom Tureen in prosecuting the Maine Indians’ claim? Who could believe today that the hated ‘termination’ attempts, started in the Eisenhower administration, of stripping the tribes of their independent status and their link to the federal government would be finally halted by Richard Nixon?

Among the more polemic of current American Indian writers, it is fashionable to accuse white Americans of concerted, deliberate genocide vis-à-vis the native tribes. Certainly, there were those who acted upon the statement that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”   In Maine we had our James Cargill who, when acquitted of murdering peaceable Indian men, women and children, cynically demanded scalp bounties for his victims. [ Passamaquoddy leader Joseph “Cozy” Nicholas  agreed  that “The Indian population inn the U.S. has increased quite a bit – especially since John Wayne died”).  But in defense the argument is offered that no announced, official intent existed, as in Nazi Germany, to wipe out an entire people, and that many “righteous Americans” were friends of the Indians, like Thomas L. McKenney or Helen Hunt Jackson, author of A Century of Dishonor, who blew the whistle on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, or Warren K. Moorehead, the archaeologist who condemned the allotment frauds inn Oklahoma’s and issue A Plea for Justice, his 19124 book detailing his experiences as a conscientious member of the Board of Indian Commissioners.

Even Henry L. Dawes expressed no intent to harm the Indians; he simply believed selfishness was the root of advanced civilization and couldn’t understand why Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors. His belief in the civilizing power of private property was absolute and, to him, to be civilized was to “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.” On the latter score, his “allotment” scheme was guaranteed to do exactly that. The Indian Country West of the Mississippi given to the displaced “civilized tribes” like the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, etc. was to be broken up into individual allotments, so that each Indian would have his or her own homestead. The “surplus” tribal land not needed for this purpose was to be sold to the U.S. government and redistributed to non-Indians.

Senator Henry Teller of Colorado saw Dawes’s bill in a different light. Its real aim, he argued in debate, was “to get at the Indians’ land and open it up for resettlement.” In February 1887 the Dawes Act became law, was not repealed until after the Meriam Report of 1928, and caused Oklahoma Indians, alone, by 1934 to lose almost three-quarters of their land – a reduction from 138 million acres to 47 million acres. Land theft, yes, but genocide?

The use of such emotional language was concurrent with the rise of Indian activism that emerged inn the 1960s as long-simmering Indian grievances began to come to a boil. In the interim a period of passivity had seemingly set in among the tribes, compounded by a steady loss of population and dependency on others once their traditional modes of living were no longer possible.

Maine, itself, was something of a backwater, and the condition of its tribes and bands in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century was close to invisible – a mere curiosity, if noted at all.

Lives of quiet desperation – to use Thoreau’s expression- were being lived among the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy, Maliseets, and Micmacs, and the rest of the state and the world barely noticed.

[The invocation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790- by which no agreement with the Indians could be made without an Act of Congress, which was ignored by Massachusetts and subsequently by the State of Maine from the beginning- in the Land Claims Suit- settled in 1980- changed things but did not solve all the tribes’ problems, e.g. their fight for the environment and the right to open a casino. ]

 The book profiles  Maine Indians, their history  and their leaders in great detail.  He has traveled broadly in the "Fourth World" of indigenous peoples world-wide and has great Bibliography.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Reply to Chomsky by Chris Knight

Letters, LRB 13 July 2017

Much as I  admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathizers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ ( Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favored them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.

Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But  his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as

I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all,. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection to the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

London SE22

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Excerpts from Laurent Binet's Infranovel


Rene Bousquet was a lifelong friend of Francois Mitterand. But that is far from his worst offense.

Bousquet is not a cop like Barbie, or a militiaman like Touvier; nor is he a prefect like Papon in Bordeaux. He is a high-level politician destined for a brilliant career, but who chooses the path of collaboration and gets mixed up in the deportation of Jews. He is the one who ensures that the raid on Vel d’Hiv (code name Spring Wind) is carried out by the French police rather than the Germans. He is thus responsible for what is probably the most infamous deed in the history of the French nation [the raid on the Velodrome d’Hiver took place on July 16-17, 1942, And involved the arrests of 13,152 Jews, including 5,802 women and 4,051 children. They were sent to concentration camps. Only 25 people survived].  That it was committed in the name of the French state obviously changes nothing. How many World Cups will we have to win in order to erase such a stain?

After the war, Bousquet survives the purge of Nazi collaborators that took place in France, but his participation in the Vichy government nevertheless deprives him of the political career that appeared to be his destiny. He doesn’t live on the streets, though, and gets positions on various boards of directors, including that of the newspaper La Depeche du Midi; he is the main force behind its hardline anti-Gaullist stance between 1959 and 1971. So, basically, he benefits from the usual tolerance of the ruling class for its most compromised members. He also enjoys the company – not without malice, I imagine- of Simone Weil, an Auschwitz survivor who knows nothing of Bousquet’s collaborationist activities.

His past finally catches up with him in the 1980s, however, and in 1991 he is charged with crimes against humanity.

The investigation ends two years later when he is shot in his own house by a madman. I vividly remember seeing that guy give a press conference just after killing Bousquet and just before the cops arrested him. I remember how pleased with himself he looked as he calmly explained that he’ done it to make people talk about him. I found that utterly idiotic.

This ridiculous moron deprived us of a trial that would have been ten times more interesting than those of Papon and Barbie [put together, more interesting than those of Petain and Laval .  .  . the trial of the century. As punishment for this outrageous attack on history, this unimaginably  cretinous man was given ten years; he served seven, and is now free. I feel a great repulsion and mistrust for someone like Bousquet, but when I think of his assassin, of the immense historical loss that his act represents, of the revelations the trial would have produced and which he has forever denied us, I feel overwhelmed by hate. He didn’t kill any innocents, that’s true, but he is the destroyer of truth. And all so he could appear on TV for three minutes! What a monstrous, stupid, Warholian piece of shit! The only ones that ought to have a moral right to judge whether this man should live or die are his victims- the living and the dead who fell into the Nazis’ claws because of men like him – but I am sure they wanted him alive. How disappointed they musty have been when the heard about this absurd murder! I can feel openly disgust for a society thjat produces such behavior, such lunatics. Pasternak wrote: “I don’t like people who are indifferent to truth.” And worse still are those bastards who are not only indifferent to it but work actively against it. All the secrets that Bousquet took with him to his grave .  .  . I have to stop thinking about this because its making me ill.

Bousquet’s trial: that would have been the French equivalent of Eichmann in Jerusalem.


Anyway, let’s talk about something else. I have just discovered the testimony of Helmut Knochen, appointed chief of the German police in France by Heydrich. He claims to reveal something that Heydrich told him in confidence and which he never repeated to anyone until now,. His testimony dates from June 2000-. Fifty-eight years later!

Heydrich supposedly told him: “The war can no longer be won. We must reach a negotiated peace and I am afraid that Hitler can’t accept that. We must think about this.” We are meant to believe that Heydrich reached this conclusion in May 1942 – before Stalingrad at a time when the Reich had never looked stronger..

Knochen sees in that an extraordinary clairvoyancy on Heydrich’s part. He considers the Blond Beast much more intelligent than all the other Nazi dignitaries. He also believes that Heydrich was thinking of overthrowing Hitler. And based on this he proposes the following theory: that the assassination of Heydrich would have been a high priority for Churchill, who absolutely refused to be deprived of a total victory over Hitler. In other words, the British would have supported the Czech’s  because they were afraid that  a wise Nazi like Heydrich might remove Hitler and save the regime through a negotiated peace.

I suspect it’s in Knochen’s interest to associate himself with the theory of the plot against Hitler, in order to minimize his own (very real) role in the police machine of the Third Reich. It is even perfectly conceivable  that, sixty years later, he actually believes what he is saying. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. But I report it anyway.


A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue, Jonathan Littell’s protagonist in The Kindly Ones, ‘rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he displays an often critical detachment towards National Socialist doctrine – and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts . . .but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”


I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Caesar by Thomas De Quincey

It is very evident that Dr. Arnold could not have understood the position of politic  in Rome, when he allowed himself to make a favorite of Pompey. The doctor hated aristocrats as he hated the gates of Erebus. Now Pompey was not only the leader of a most selfish aristocracy, but also their tool. Secondly, as if this were not bad enough, that section of the aristocracy to which he had dedicated his services was an odious oligarchy; and to this oligarchy, again, though nominally its head, he was in effect its most submissive tool.

Caesar, on the other hand, if a democrat in the sense of working by democratic agencies, was bending all his efforts to the reconstruction of a new, purer, and enlarged aristocracy, no longer reduced to the necessity of buying and selling the people in mere self-defense. The ever-lasting war of bribery, operating upon universal poverty, the internal disease of Roman society, would have been redressed by Caesar’s measures, and was redressed according to the degree in  which those measures were really brought into action. New judicatures were wanted, new judicial laws, a new aristocracy; by slow degrees a new people, and the right of suffrage exercised within new restrictions – all these things were needed for the cleansing of Rome; and that Caesar would have accomplished this labor of Hercules was the true cause of his assassination. The scoundrels of the  oligarchy felt their doom to be approaching.  It was the just remark of Napoleon, that Brutus (but still more, we may say, Cicero), though falsely accredited as a patriot, was, in fact, the most exclusive and the most selfish of aristocrats.


The graves of the best men, of the noblest martyrs, are, like the graves of the Herrnhuters (the Moravian Brethren), level and indistinguishable from the universal earth:, and, if the earth could give up her secrets, our whole globe would appear a Westminster Abbey laid flat. Ah! What a multitude of tears, what myriads of bloody drops have been shed in secrecy about the three corner trees of earthy – the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the tree of freedom – shed, but never reckoned! It is only great periods of calamity that reveal to us our great men, as comets are revealed by total eclipses of the sun. Not merely on the field of battle, but also upon the consecrated soil of virtue, and on the classic ground of truth, thousands of nameless heroes must fall and struggle to build up the footstool from which history surveys the one hero, whose name is embalmed, bleeding –conquering – and resplendent. The grandest of heroic deeds are those which are performed within four walls and in domestic privacy. And, because history records only the self-sacrifice of the male sex, and because she dips her hands only in blood, therefore is it that in the eyes of the unseen spirit of the world our annals appear doubtless far more beautiful and noble than in our own.

To die for truth – is not to die for one’s country, but to die for the world. Truth like the Venus de Medici, will pass down in thirty fragments to posterity: but posterity will collect and recompose them into a goddess. Then also thy temple, O eternal Truth! That now stands half below the earth, made hollow by the sepulchers of its witnesses, will raise itself in the total majesty of its proportions; and will stand in monumental granite; and every pillar on which it rests, will fixed in the grave of a martyr. [Analects of Richter]

Immunology by Yiyun Li

I came to this country as an aspiring immunologist. I had chosen the field – if one does not count the practical motive of wanting a reason to leave China and of having a skill to make a living – because I had liked the working concept of the immune system.. Its job is to detect and attack non-self; it has memories, some as long lasting as life; its memories can go awry selectively, or worse, indiscriminately, leading the system to mistake self as foreign, as something to eliminate. The word immune (from the Latin immunis, in - + munia, services, obligations) is among my favorites in the English language, the possession of immunity – to illnesses, to follies, to love and loneliness and troubling thoughts and unalleviated pains – a trait I desired for my characters and myself, knowing all the while the futility of such a wish. Only the lifeless can be immune to life.

One’s intuition is to acquire immunity to those who confirm one’s beliefs about life, and to those who turn one’s beliefs into nothing. The latter are the natural predators of our hearts, the former made into enemies because we are, unlike other species, capable of not only enlarging but also diminishing our precarious selves. .  .  .

There was a time I could write well in Chinese. In school my essays were used as models; in the army, our squad leader gave me the choice between drafting a speech for her and cleaning the toilets or the pigsties – I always chose to write. Once in high school, several classmates and I entered an oratory contest. The winner would represent the class in a patriotic event. When I went on stage, for some mischievous reason, I saw to it that many of the listeners were moved to tears by the poetic and insincere lies I had made up; I moved myself to tears, too. That I could become a successful propaganda writer crossed my mind. I was disturbed. A young person wants to be true to herself and to the world. But what did not occur to me then was to ask: Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?

In the ideal, argument is a commitment- both parties, by giving and taking, discover something new. But this belief is as naïve as a young person’s idea about the perfection of love. The possessiveness in human nature turns loving or arguing into something entirely different: winning, conquering, owning, destroying.

The talent of argument becomes about finding the right rivals – those who can be awed or bullied into agreement- and dismissing those who cannot be as irrelevant. That talent needs an audience. The world will always quote Mann on Zweig’s death. Yet the latter’s silence prevails.

There is another way to cope with the  same autoimmune condition. A friend is good at arguing against herself from the perspective of others, even when she sees through the fallacy of their arguments. The mind, to avoid targeting itself, becomes two: one which, by aligning with others, is protected; and one which, by staying quiet, eludes being conquered. A self preserved by restraint is the self that will prevail.

To be more than one, to be several, and to live with the consequences, is inevitable. One can err the opposite way, and the belief in being nothing used to seem to me the most logical way to live. Being nothing is being invisible and replaceable; being nothing to others means remaining everything to oneself.  Being nothing is one way to battle the autoimmune condition of the mind. 

My intention  is not to defend suicide. I might have done so at many other times in my life, but I have arrived at a point where defending and disputing my actions are the same argument. Everything I say is scrutinized by myself; not only the words and their logic but also my motives. As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it created; a self dissecting itself finds little repose.

 Years ago my husband cautioned me  that writing would require more than a scientific career. No real madness, no real art, he quoted the old Chinese saying, but I had refused to consider it an obstacle. If I had writing, what was there to fear?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Second All-Russian Congress by China Mieville

For those who cleave to it, a paradox of actually existing revolution is that in its potential for utter reconfiguration, it is, precisely, beyond words, a messianic interruption – one that emerges from the quotidian. Unsayable, yet the culmination of everyday exhortations. Beyond language and of it, beyond representation and not.

The All – Russian Congress, 27 October, 1917

Martov remained in the Assembly Hall with the mass meeting. He was still desperate for a compromise. Now he tabled a motion criticizing the Bolsheviks for pre-empting Congress’s will, suggesting – again – that negotiations begin for a broad, inclusive socialist government. This was close to his proposal two hours before – which, Lenin’s desire to break with the moderates notwithstanding, the Bolsheviks did not oppose.

But two hours was a long time.

As Martov sat, there was a commotion, and the Bolsheviks Duma faction pushed into the hall, to the delegates delight and surprise. They had come, they said, ‘to triumph or dies with the All-Russian Congress.’

When the cheering subsided, Trotsky himself rose to respond to Martov.

The rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner, and our insurrection was victorious. Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise ?With those wretched groups which have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russian is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, who they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!

The room erupted. Amid the loud sustained applause, Martov stood up. “Then we’ll leave! He shouted.

As he turned, a delegate barred his way. The man stated at him with an expression of sorrow and accusation.

‘And we had thought’, he said, ‘that Martov at least would remain with us.’

“One day you will understand’, said Martov, his voice shaking, ‘the crime in which you are taking part.’

He walked out.

As if to underline the point. The departed moderates were, at that very moment, labeling the meeting only a ‘private gathering of Bolshevik  delegates.’ ‘The Central Executive Committee’, they announced, ‘considers the Second Congress as not having taken place.”

In the hall, the debate about conciliation dragged into the darkest hours. But by now the weight of opinion was with Lunacharsky, and with Trotsky.

 .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .  .

There have been a hundred years of crude, ahistorical, ignorant, bad-faith and opportunist attacks on October. Without echoing such sneers, we must nonetheless interrogate the revolution.

The old regime was vile and violent, while Russian liberalism was weak, and quick to make common cause with reaction. All the same, did October lead inexorably to Stalin? It is an old question, but one still very much alive. Is the gulag the telos of 1917?

That objective strains faced the new regime is clear. There are subjective factors, too, questions we must pose about decisions made.

The left Mensheviks, committed anti-war internationalists, have a case to answer, with their walk-out in October 1917. Coming straight after the congress voted for coalition, this decision shocked and upset even some of those who went along with it. “I was thunderstruck,’ said Sukhanov, of an action he never ceased to regret. ‘No one contested the legality of the congress .  .  .  [This action] meant a formal break with the masses and with the revolution.”

Nothing is given. But had the internationalists of the other groups remained within the Second Congress, Lenin and Trotsky’s intransigence and skepticism about the coalition might have been undercut, given how many other Bolsheviks, at all levels of the party, were advocates of cooperation. A less monolithic and embattled government just might have been the outcome.

This is not to deny the constraints and impact of isolation – nor to exonerate the Bolsheviks for their own mistakes, or worse.

In his short piece “Our Revolution”, written in 1923 in response to Sukhanov’s memoir, Lenin rather startlingly allows as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready’ for revolution. He wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of the situation’ could be blamed for ‘flinging itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual.’

It is not absurd to argue that the ground-down of Russia had no real choice but to act, on the chance that in doing so they might alter the very parameters of the situation. That things might thereby improve.  

The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from the plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One Country, is the baleful result of recasting necessity as a virtue.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Time by Edward Said

.  .  . my sense of time was essentially primitive and constricting. Time seemed forever against me, and except for a brief period in the morning when I sensed the day ahead as a possibility, I was boxed in by schedules, chores, assignments, with not a moment for leisurely enjoyment or reflection. I was given my first watch, an insipid-looking Tissot, at age eleven or twelve; for several days I spent hours staring at it obsessively, mystified by my inability to see its movement, constantly worried whether it had stopped or not. I suspected at first that it was not entirely new, since thee seemed to be something suspiciously worn about it, but was assured by my parents that it was indeed new, and that its slightly yellowed (tinged orange) face was characteristic of the model. There the discussion ended. But the watch obsessed me. I compared it first with what my CSAC schoolmates wore, which, except the Mickey Mouse and Popeye models  that symbolized the America I didn’t belong to, struck me as inferior to mine. There was an early period of experimenting with different ways of wearing it: the face turned inward; on the sleeve; underneath it; fastened tightly; fastened loosely; pushed forward onto my wrist and on the right hand. I ended up with it on my left wrist, where for a long time it gave me the decidedly positive feeling of being dressed up.

But the watch never failed to impress me with its unimpeded forward movement, which ibn nearly every way added to my feeling of being behind and at odds with my duties and commitments. I do not recall ever being much of a sleeper, but I do remember the faultless punctuality of early morning reveille and the immediate sense of anxious urgency I felt the moment I got out of bed. There was never any time to dawdle or loiter, though I was inclined to both,.  I began a life-long habit then of simultaneously experiencing time as wasting, and of resisting it by subjectively trying to prolong the time I had by doing more and more (reading furtively, staring out the window, looking for a superfluous object like a penknife  or yesterday’s shirt) in the few moments left to me before the inexorable deadline. My watch was sometimes a help, when it showed me that there was time left, but most often it guarded my life like a sentinel, on the side of an external order imposed by parents, teachers, and inflexible appointments.

In my early adolescence I was completely in the grip, at once ambiguously pleasant and unpleasant, of time passing as a series of deadlines – an experience that has remained with me ever since. The day’s milestones were set relatively early in that period and have not varied. Six-thirty (or in cases of great pressure six; I still use the phrase “I’ll get up a six to finish this”) was the time to get up; seven-thirty started the meter running, at which point I entered the strict regime of hours and half-hours governed by classes, church, private lessons, homework, piano practice, and sports, until bedtime. This sense of the day divided into periods of appointed labor has never left me, has indeed intensified. Eleven a.m. still imbues me with a guilty awareness that the morning has passed without enough be-ng accomplished – it is eleven- twenty as I write these very words – and nine p.m. still represents “lateness,” that moment which connotes the end of the day, the hastening needs to begin thinking about bed, the time beyond which to do work means to do it at the wrong time, fatigue and a sense of having failed all creeping up on one, time slowly getting past its proper period, lateness in fact in all the word’s senses.

My watch furnished the basic motif underlying all this, a kind of impersonal discipline that somehow kept the system in order. Leisure was unavailable. I recall with stunning clarity my father’s early injunction against remaining in pajamas and dressing gown: the combined feeling of time-wasting guilt and lazy impropriety simply overwhelms me. As a way of getting around the discipline, illness (sometimes feigned, sometimes exaggerated) made life away from school positively acceptable. I became the family joke for being especially gratified by, even soliciting, an unnecessary bandage on my finger, knee, or arm. And now by some devilish irony I find myself with an intransigent, treacherous leukemia, which ostrich-like I try to banish from my mind entirely, attempting with reasonable success to live in my system of time, working, sensing lateness and deadlines and that feeling of insufficient accomplishment I learned fifty years ago and have so remarkably internalized. But, in another odd reversal, I secretly wonder to myself whether the system of duties and deadlines may now save me, although of course I know that my illness creeps invisibly on, more secretly and insidiously than the time announced by my first watch, which I carried with so little awareness then of how it numbered my mortality, divided it up into perfect, unchanging intervals of unfulfilled time forever and ever.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Speech at Maria's Wedding

I want to say the experience of marriage, is a discourse- not only between two people, though mainly that- but including many others :  past, present and future. Sometimes it even seems to include specters or ghosts, but at any rate marriage is a discourse, a conversation in the world, of the world and about the world. 


By the way , how well do we know the world? It's shifting sands  of humanity, changing weather, oceanic  depths, astronomical heights,  frames of finite and infinite time?  A large part of our experience of life is  not knowing and precarious,  Isn't that true in a marriage also?

Well, I say that it is, AND  just being married  doesn't  give anyone some kind of  Bible or  automatic regulatory system that will set the unknown and the precarious right. See, we don't know everything about the world, and there is nothing guaranteed about the world as we like to think of it. Neither the world, nor our partners in marriage.

The real difference  between the discourse of marriage (the conversations which are its life's blood) is that it not like the other discourses/conversations we have, say political, administrative, scientific- it is not undertaken to gain mastery, to ward off the dangers of the unknown, the evade the precarious , to gain power , to put ourselves in the thrall of a certain doctrine. Happily married people do not insist on strict conformity, or common conviction in all things. They do not subjugate or attempt to subjugate one another.  Its not about answering or insisting that every question be answered. Sometimes in marriage its best to say nothing at all, just wait for another time or occasion when a contentious matter can be handled without recrimination or regret, completely differently than you first imagined.

 The marriage discourse is not about power.

The 'secret' method of  the marriage discourse is the loosening, baffling, or at the very least,  lightening and letting go of  power so  that the uncertain character of the world and of the spoken word of this world is aware of itself, comfortable with its uncertainty and incompleteness with  and always ready to learn something new, about the world and each other.

Marriage, and the discourse of marriage helps us redeem ourselves from our only too human desire to control and dominate.

In so far as the letter of democracy arrives in the envelope of radical subjectivity, who could object?


Monday, May 29, 2017

Mercilessness by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson is the director of The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, working on appeals for those condemned to death, juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences, and women jailed under laws that criminalize bad parenting or the murder of abusive husbands  and partners. The book exposes the mercilessness of the judicial system in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and in the U.S. generally. He portrays the sense of helplessness, injustice, dread and plain terror experienced by African American communities when their members are  accused, incarcerated and/or executed without evidence and with few opportunities for appeal. He also describes the courage and resilience of folks suffering  almost unimaginably horrible conditions of poverty and repression; their capacity to maintain hope and to find redemption in understanding, and mercy. He describes the brutal futility of American prisons in the age of mass incarceration.

In perpetuating these injustices politicians, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and guards all seem to be operating in line with public sympathy and the will of the voters. But one aspect of the scenes and events that struck me forcefully was the passivity, unwarranted trust and sense of helpless subordination that characterized southern white society’s relationship to their  superiors. African Americans suffered the most under this hierarchal social system, but all seemed afflicted to one degree or another, to whatever degree they imagined they were free or self-determining. It was “only a pawn in their game” , a situation which Stevenson could have discussed at greater length, or drawn more vividly, in my opinion.

The book didn’t seem to me particularly  well written though what is to be expected from someone with a mainly legal education who life was so massively devoted to  work for thousands of individual clients ensnared in a harsh and insensitive judicial system? If he wants to describe events and his reactions to them over the course of thirty years in ways  that ordinary human memory would seem naturally unable to support, who can justly gainsay him?

Here is the passage where Stevenson gets closest to what might be said to underpin Justice in the best possible sense. See

 Paul Farmer, the renown physician who spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something the writer Thomas Merton said: we are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’s always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are  shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and ,as a result, deny our own humanity . . .there is no wholeness outside our reciprocal humanity.

Is it really a question  of imperfection, of ‘shared’ experience’ or such a stark- one way or the other- choice?  Isn’t ‘brokenness’ a bit of a cop out, short-hand for something more complex and disarming?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Peretz by Ruth R. Wisse

I.L.Peretz (b 1852) dominated Jewish literary life in Warsaw almost from the moment he settled there until his death on the fifth day of Passover, April 3, 1915, his influence radiating outward from the Polish capital to growing centers of Jewish settlement worldwide. . . .

Once the premise of Jewish election was exposed to the beysmedresh, the study house of European culture, many disillusioned youngsters turned their intelligence against the way of life to which it had been consecrated, and tried to liberate themselves simultaneously from an onerous code of behavior and from a despised people. The political handicap of the Jews meant that intellectual realignment with Christian civilization –which was in  any case itself turning secular – also became the key to tangible social and economic temptation.

Peretz  understood the temptation. In his own native city  of Zamosc, along with genuine Jewish reformers, there were converts and highly assimilated Jews, like the well-to do father of Rosa Luxemburg. When Rosa, almost twenty years Peretz’s junior, helped to found the Social Democratic Party of Poland, she advertised her lack of interest in Jews through a Marxist program strenuously opposed to Jewish peoplehood, and to any notion of a Jewish national culture. Peretz was later to write about  ‘the paths that led away from Jewishness,” which attracted those who wanted to revolutionize society as well as those who aspired to rise in it.

Through out the 1890s  Peretz was involved with socialist politics. His stories and publications were credited with bringing many young Jews into the ranks of the emerging socialist movement . . .but, despite his wholehearted sympathy for the oppressed, Peretz was not satisfied by the ideological prescriptions for the reordering of society. No sooner did the Jewish political parties begin to crystallize and to turn their vague protests and aspirations into fixed party platforms than he rebelled against their materialist constraints, and in the dialectical pattern that characterized both his life and work, came to the rescue of the threatened spiritual values. Attracted as he was by some of the egalitarian and liberal aspirations of socialism, he feared that the systematic reapportionment of wealth would stifle individuality and encroach on the freedom of the creative spirit. The rule of the many could become even more oppressive than the rule of the few. He wrote to the movement after the abortive revolution of 1905 had shown the strength of the revolutionary cadres:

I worry that as victors you may become the bureaucracy, apportioning to each his morsel as to inmates in a poor house, allotting work like a sentence of hard labor. You will destroy that creator of new worlds- the human spirit. You will plug up the purest well of human happiness – initiative- the force that is able to pit a single human life against thousands. You will mechanize life .  .  . you will be occupied with regulations . . .no stomach will be empty, yet the mind will be famished.

These fears were sharpened by his concern for the creative vitality of the Jews, because if human needs could be satisfied through the redistribution of wealth alone, why shouldn’t  a  speed up the process by dissolving his particular identity? Peretz was far from persuaded by the necessity of class conflict, and unwilling to assist in the dissolution of the Jews towards any such higher end. In 1899 he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for anti-tsarist activity, but at the very moment when he was enshrined as a political martyr, he used some of his time in prison to write neoromantic tales extolling the glories of the Jewish spirit. And despite the swell of criticism that they aroused among some of the younger revolutionaries, these modern folktales and retold Hasidic stories became his most popular works.

Hasidic tales were nothing new. The inspirational religious leaders of what came to be known as the Hasidic movement had used the miracle tale and the exemplum to inspire faith and piety in their followers, who, in turn, traded stories about the virtues and miracles of their respective rebbes and zaddikim. Thus, as Hasidism swept Poland in the late eighteenth century, it generated a vast fund of legends and music. But a century later these same Hasidim and their charismatic leaders had come to represent for the modernizing Jews the embodiment of everything most corrupt and reactionary in Jewish life. Reformist writers, including  Peretz himself, had mocked the corruption that was known to infect the courts of the rabbis and the attribution to these faith healers of supernatural powers. In fact, in his political essays and news columns Peretz never ceased to criticize the Hasidim for their fundamentalist beliefs and their resistance to change.

Now, however, along with this critical view, Peretz was among the first to recognize in the ideals of the early Hasidic masters, and in the web of legends that had been spun about them, models of spiritual independence that the Jews of his time were otherwise lacking. All around him in Warsaw and in Poland he observed the pace of linguistic adaptation ton Russian and Polish at the expense of Yiddish and Hebrew, the flight of the young to America – or to Palestine or Argentina – and the recklessness with which a new generation was quitting what centuries of Jewish civilization had so painstakingly, and at such sacrifice accumulated. Like an engineer who has tried to stoke a recalcitrant engine, only to see it hurtling down an incline out of control, Peretz tried to retard it, then at least to warn against its runaway abandon.

Despite a superficial similarity to their Hasidic sources, Peretz’s stories present the familiar material from a modern perspective. “If Not Higher,” one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of the neo-Hasidic stories, is told by a skeptical Jew from Lithuania who is so eager to disprove local legends about the rabbi Of Nemirov that he hides under his bed to check things out for himself. The rabbi’s Hasidic followers believe that when he disappears every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, he ascends to heaven  to plead on their behalf with God. The skeptical sleuth discovers that the rabbi is assuming the disguise of a woodcutter in order to perform anonymous acts of charity. He becomes the rabbi’s disciple, and thereafter, if anyone speaks of the holy man’s ascent to heaven, he softly adds, “if not higher.”

If faith in the Jewish God was no longer possible, Peretz expected Jews to continue to honor the exalted moral tradition that derived from faith. Somewhat like the Lithuanian in the story, he tracked the faithful, persuaded that their human values were on the one hand superior to the religious impulse that had shaped them, yet on the other hand superior to values that could be arrived at through reason alone. The pointed conclusion to the story attributes a “higher value” to earthly goodness than to its heavenly inspiration, but without repudiating the power of that inspiration. Peretz had come to the paradoxical conclusion that in order to improve the material lot of the Jews he would have to continue to nurture their spiritual-religious heritage. 

The passion for folklore was already highly developed in Poland, where it also served as a kind of substitute for national autonomy. In addition to nostalgia for folk culture that was characteristic of every industrializing society, subject minorities like the Poles of the Jews could use their folk sources to express the will to national resurgence.  Inspired by the work of Polish ethnographers  (some of whom appreciated the Jewish component of Polish lore), Peretz determined to gather every kind of Jewish folk expression and to instill in his followers an appreciation of their native culture. When aspiring writers came to see him with the first samples of their work, he would question them about their background, ask them to sing the songs and tell the stories of their homes, encourage them to collect all they could. In this way he accumulated material for his own writing and directed them to where Jewish inspiration might be found. .  .  .

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Reach of Our Mercy by James Forman Jr.

Marijuana decriminalization is an important victory. Sandra Dozier, who lost her job at FedEx when she was arrested after a pretext (‘stop and frisk’) traffic stop with $20 worth of marijuana in her glove compartment, can attest to why it matters. So can thousands of others. But the victory is also a cautionary tale about the limits of recent criminal justice reform efforts.

First, as a percentage of our nation’s incarcerated population, those possessing small amounts of marijuana barely register. For every ten thousand people behind bars in America, only six are there because of marijuana possession. A greater concern is that criminal justice reformers increasingly separation “non-violent drug offenders”  including those convicted of marijuana possession- from “violent criminals.”* In this view, nonviolent drug offenders are worthy of compassion and a chance to redeem themselves; violent offenders, by contrast, deserve what they get.

During his second term President Barack Obama became the most prominent proponent of what we might call nonviolent-offenders. In 2015, Obama outlined his final criminal justice reform agenda in a widely anticipated speech to the NAACP’s annual convention. He divided the world of criminal defendants into two groups. First, there are the nonviolent drug offenders, whose incarceration, the president said, is the real reason our prison population is so high.” Obama argued that the current system punishes these offenders too severely: “If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. But you don’t owe twenty years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

Obama contrasted the nonviolent offenders with another group: “violent criminals,” who, he said, “need to be in jail.” Who are these people? “Murders, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins – we need some of those folks behind bars.” In the press conference the next day, explaining why his efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentences was limited to “nonviolent drug offenses,” Obama remarked, “I tend not to have a lot of sympathy when it comes to violent crime.”

Obama’s choice to limit criminal justice reform to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders is a common one among elected officials – including African-American elected officials. At the federal level, black members of the House of Representatives rallied around the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, whose stated goal was to reduce mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenders while “ensuring that serious violent felons do not get out early.” At the state and local level, African American prosecutors such as California’s Kamala Harris, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, and Philadelphia’s Seth Williams all built reform around nonviolent criminals. Defenders of this approach to reform are sometimes silent about who is being left opt. Other times they enlist violent offenders as a bogeyman, suggesting that leniency for nonviolent offenders will create space to lock up the violent ones for longer. As Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio said, “Our current system severely punishes nonviolent offenders while granting violent criminals freedom and unfettered opportunities to menace our communities.” The nonviolent-offenders-only perspective is understandable, and broadly popular. But basing criminal justice reform on leniency for nonviolent drug offenders reinforces a deeply problematic narrative.

First, consider the numbers. America’s incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders are unprecedented and morally outrageous, but they are not “the real reason our prison population is so high.” Roughly 20 percent of America’s  prisoners are in prison on drug charges. As a result, even if we decided today to unlock the prison door of every single American behind bars on a drug offense, tomorrow morning we’d wake up to a country that still had the world’s largest prison population.

And to be clear, when advocates speak of “non-violent drug offenders” they are not talking about all, or even most, of the five hundred thousand incarcerated on drug offenses. As we saw in chapter 5, the drug trade –especially during the crack era- was extraordinarily violent. Some of the people involved had no connection to violence, but it wasn’t easy –pacifists didn’t survive for long. In arguing for mercy and compassion for nonviolent drug offenders, and only for them, advocates are pursuing an approach that excludes not just the majority of offenders, but even a majority of incarcerated drug offenders.

The narrow scope of this style of reform was confirmed b the Department of Justice’s 2014 clemency initiative. Attorney General Eric Holder** made headlines when he announced that the Justice Department would consider recommending that the president commute some of the extraordinary long sentences given to people convicted of drug crimes, mostly from the late 1980s and 1990s. Holder’s initiative was welcome news –the sentences it would target were indeed much too long, and because crack offenses were penalized more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, African Americans suffered the most. But the guidelines were quite restricted. Eligibility was limited to federal prisoners who had already served 10 years, had no significant criminal history, were ‘nonviolent low-level” offenders, and had “no history of violence prior to  or during their current term of imprisonment.” In excluding anybody with a history of violence, the Justice Department rendered most federal prisoners ineligible for clemency.

Defenders of the non-violent-offenders-only approach suggest that it is just a start. Reform must begin with nonviolent offenders, they say, but others might benefit later. President Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarret, suggested as much when, in 2016, she told NPR, “if we can begin with nonviolent  drug offenders, it’s an important first step. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t come back if research indicated that we should tailor other parts of our judicial system. But let’s start with where we have consensus and move forward and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I am sympathetic to this perspective – and not only because of the political realities Jarret cites. I have described mass incarceration as the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors ( and driven by popular demand in white and African-American communities). If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way. So it makes sense for advocates to start with the least culpable or threatening individuals.

But criminal justice reform’s first step could easily become its last. To see how, look no further than the president’s own language. When Obama declared that he has “no sympathy” or “no tolerance”: for those who have committed violent offenses, he effectively marked this larger group of violent offenders as permanently out-of-bounds. Such talk draws no distinction and admits no exceptions. It allows for no individual consideration of the violent offense. The context, the story, the mitigating factors- none of it matters. Any act of violence in your past casts you as undeserving forever.

Obama should have understood the flaw in this approach. He frequently cited The Wire, David Simon’s account of the crack years in Baltimore, as one of his favorite television shows, and in 2015 he invited Simon to the White House to discuss criminal justice issues. But The Wire would seem an odd choice for a president espousing the nonviolent-offenders-only approach to reform. Other than Bubbles the heroin addict, none of the show’s main characters would have been eligible for clemency under the Department of Justices guidelines. Yet despite the show’s rampant violence, most viewers, including apparently Obama himself, don’t think of the show as being primarily about a bunch of ruthless thugs. Why not? Because their violent acts are not the only thing we know about them. We know them fully, as people, not just by their charge sheets or criminal records. Obama said as much, telling Simon, “But part of the challenge of criminal justice reform is going to be making sure, number one, that we humanize what so often on the local news is just a bunch of shadowy characters, and tell their stories. And that’s where you’re the work you’ve done has been so important.”

Just so. And other defenders of the nonviolent-offenders- only approach would do well to remember the point.  People who have committed a violent offense make up 53 percent of the nation’s state prisoners and of those, more are incarcerated for robbery than any other. But the labeling “violent offender,” tossed out to describe a shadowy group for whom we are supposed to have no sympathy, encourages us to overlook their individual stories. It encourages us to separate those other people – the ones who did something violent, the ones who belong in cages – from the rest of us. It leads us, as Bryan Anderson has written , to define people by the worse thing they have ever done. *** And it ensures that we will never get close to resolving the human rights crisis that is 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

* this was a distinction rarely made  during the height of the anti-drug crusade in D.C.  City officials, Police and journalists had similar views, as Juan Williams wrote in the Washington Post, they saw the drug trade’s occupation of public space as a form of violence in itself. Dealers and users were seen as directly responsible for crimes like murder, rape, robbery and felonious assault. Jessie Jackson equated drug dealers with Klansman- “No one has the right to kill our children”- besides calling them traitors to their race. The distinction was practically unthinkable in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

**As  U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Holder initiated Operation Ceasefire which stopped cars, searched cars and seized guns- the motor equivalent of ‘Stop and Frisk.” Any pretext was sufficient to  stop and search cars. About  1 out of twenty to 1 out of 100 hundred stop and searches (not conducted in predominantly white neighborhoods and rarely in affluent black neighborhoods) found guns, but lots of people ended up getting bust for possession of drugs, and other offices.  Operation Ceasefire sent plenty of poor blacks to jail and ruined their chances for work but didn’t reduce gun violence in D.C.

***Byron Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Enlightenment Goes East by Ruth Von Bernuth


Let me begin with a Chelm story I heard from the eminent scholar of Old Yiddish Chava Turniansky. She tells of visiting Communist Poland in 1984 with a number of other Israeli scholars. Their route took them through Chelm, a city of around sixty thousand today. Chelm lies in the far eastern part of the modern Polish State, near the Ukrainian border. The Israeli scholars, like so many other Jews intimately familiar with tales of the “wise men” of Chelm, were excited to find themselves in a place of such Jewish cultural renown. When they spotted a kiosk open for business and selling this and that, they all rushed over to it, hoping to find something identifiably local to bring home.

No sooner had the Israelis lined up in front of the little store than growing numbers of Chelmites began converging on the spot, lining up behind the visitors, certain that some rarely available commodity had become available. This was logical enough, because that is what a long line always means in the Eastern Bloc. The discovery that the visitors were queuing up for nothing more useful than random local objects was likely not just disappointing but bewildering, since in non-Jewish Polish culture, Chelm as a town of fools is unknown. The “wise men” have yet to be celebrated of exploited in postwar Chelm.

This incident symbolizes the vey different meaning that Chelm has for Poles and for Jews. Among Catholic Poles, Chelm is known as a Marian pilgrimage site, while among Jews, it has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.

What accounts for the singular Jewish association of Chelm with folly? The question has been asked before, and answered this way: When God created the world, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls and orders to distribute them evenly all over the world – one fool per town. But the bag tore, and all the foolish souls spilled out on the same spot. These souls built a settlement where they landed, and that settlement became the town known as Chelm.

This version of events may have an age-old appearance, but it is not to be found before 1917. Moreover, there is no documented association between the Jews of Chelm, and foolishness before Ayzik Metyer Dik’s  1972 Yiddish novel  Di orkhim fun Duratshesok (‘The Visitors in Foolstown’). Nor is there any mention of the “Fools of Chelm” before 1873. When that phrase does make its debut it is not in a Jewish source but in Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander’s dictionary of German expressions. However, the culturally and linguistically convoluted roots of the Chelm Yiddish folktale repertoire stretch back far past the nineteenth century to, at least, the late Middle Ages.  Most importantly, the core stories of Chelm are not original to Chelm. They derive from an early modern German source, the famous Schildburgerbuch of 1598. . . .

This book analyzes the connections between the German and Yiddish traditions and, in doing so, challenges previous assumptions that the tales were simply transferred from the German via an Old Yiddish translation to Modern Yiddish. It demonstrates the long process of exchange between German and Yiddish literatures, from late medieval popular novels through Enlightenment texts down to ethnographic  writings of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century It shows  early modern literature exerting a lasting effect on later modern literary production.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

In 1789, the German man of letters Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813) published in his influential literary journal Der Tetsche Merker (The German Mercury) an article containing his contribution to the endlessly discussed question of the moment, “What is  Enlightenment?” According to him, the answer “is known to everyone who, having eyes to see, has learned to recognize the difference between light and dark, day and night.”

Wieland goes on to explain that light is a metaphor for the light of reason, which helps distinguish between “true and false, good and evil.” Thus, the author warns of “anyone who wants to give us black for white, or wants to pay with counterfeit money, or wants to conjure up ghosts, or (though this is very innocent in itself) whoever likes to follow whims, build castles in the air, or takes trips to the land of Cockaigne or the Happy Islands.” His parenthetical concession, that irrationality “is very innocent itself,” contradicts everything else he says here and offers a broad hint of subversive intent. That his answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is meant as a parody of the simplistic and hackneyed answers of the period becomes clear from one word that he uses in his title, or rather from one word that he does not use but decorously represents with an ellipsis ; Ein paar Goldkorner aus-Makulatur oder Sechs Antworten auf sechs Fragen” ( A couple of gold nuggets from the . . . paper, or six answers to six questions). .  . the contents of this article came to him when he spotted ‘six questions about the Enlightenment” on a piece of printer’s waste, a print shop’s discarded wastes or remainders, often repurposed as toilet paper- which his  faux scruples prevent him spelling out. It is as if he were saying, in the roundabout manner of the day, that the outhouse is where many of the far too many pamphlets on the nature of Enlightenment belong. It is also as if he were saying that the thoughts he is about to express on the subject might well belong there as well.

The fiction with which Wieland frames his book does not mean that he is entirely opposed to the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he is among the leading figures of the movement, to which he made a, substantial contributions as author, translator, and editor of a leading journal. But Wieland is a self-critical thinker who, by setting the action of “A couple of Gold Nuggets” in a restroom, transforms it into an ambiguous essay in which the Enlightenment is simultaneously celebrated and criticized. Given this sensibility, it is not surprising that Wieland, like many other writers of the Enlightenment, was interested in the German Schildburgerbuch, another book that is full of ambiguity vis-à-vis wisdom and folly, reason and unreason, seriousness and laughter.

[Folly can only exist in relation to its opposite, or, as Foucault concluded, folly and reason enter a “perpetually reversible relationship which implies that all madness- folie – has its own reason by which it is judged and mastered, and reason has its madness in which it finds its own derisory truth.”]

The German Enlightenment made considerable use of  the Schildburgerbuch. Wieland’s own History of the Abderites  can be understood as a reworked Schildburgerbuch. ‘Abderite’ is a synonym for fool. Abdera was a real place, a city in ancient Thrace, whose inhabitants are single out in some classical Greek and Latin sources for their folly. . .

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites share a similar concept of folly. In both, foolishness is a matter of faulty reasoning leading to wrong conclusions as to how to solve problems. “The Abderites never lacked ideas.” Wieland says, “but rarely were their ideas suited to the situation to which they were applied, a fact that did not occur to them until the occasion was past.” The Schildburgers are the same: if they do finally see sense, it will be too late – although “too late” is a concept they have trouble grasping, as evident in the story of townsfolk who fell some trees on a hill and cart them down in wagons. Told that it would have been easier to roll the logs downhill, they cart them back up the hill so they can properly roll them down.

In addition, the Schildburgers and Wieland’s Abderites share the fallacy that performing well in one field predicts excellent performance in another. Thus, the Schildburgers elect the swineherd as mayor because he, or his wife, can keep a rhyme going longer than any of the other candidates. Almost identically, the Abderites elect the best singer in town as their Nomophylax (guardian of the laws).

The narrators of both the Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites are “unreliable narrators”, providing readers with conflicting information, deceiving them, and sometimes addressing them as if they had a long-standing acquaintance. All this is done with a disorientating effect, so the reader is frequently forced to wonder which parts of the text are meant as true and which as false, which are meant to make sense and which nonsense, who is wise and who foolish.

Both authors also use the narrator to create confusion about their sources. The narrator of the Schildburgerbuch first claims that he is transmitting an oral account, then complains about the wormholes in the manuscript source, while Wieland’s narrator apologizes for being unable to provide all the details of the controversy over Democritus’s disputed insanity “because the records of the entire case were long ago devoured by mice.”

The History of the Abderites not only parallels the account in the Schildburgerbuch of the decline and fall of the city. It also exactly parallels the consequence of the fall of the city  as described in the Schildburgerbuch, with the departure and dispersal of the town’s foolish inhabitants and the resulting spread of folly throughout the world. The Schildburgerbuch ends with the warning that folly can be transmitted by heredity or contagion. Wieland’s “Key to the History of the Abderites” concludes by asserting that “the History of the Abderites  can . . justly be regarded as one of the truest and most reliable mirrors, and, just for that reason, a faithful one, in which moderns can look at their countenance and, if they only wish to be honest with themselves, can discover in what respect they resemble their ancestors” ( i.e., the Abderites)

The mirror, which lets people see who they are, as a first step towards wisdom, is a metaphor that Sebastian Brant famously used in his Ship of Fools, a book that he referred o as a Narrenspiegel, a fool’s mirror. The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites both see folly as a part of human nature. And they see wisdom, therefore, as something “unnatural”,  something to be achieved and something requiring continuous attention to maintain. This sentiment is summed up in the quotation from Horace that concludes the “Key to the History of the Abderites: Sapienta prima est stultitia caruissee, the beginning of wisdom is to have eschewed folly.

The mirror is one of the principal symbols used in the texts and images of early modern foolish culture. It is found, for example, on the façade of the town hall in Nordlingen, held up to the observers in the sculpture of a fool, which bears the caption, “That makes two of us”. As Brant and the author of the Schildburgerbuch and Wieland believe, the boundaries between Schildburghers or Abderites and the inhabitants of “normal “ towns, and between the fools in the text and the reader of the books, is fuzzy.

The Schildburgerbuch and the History of the Abderites agree that wisdom is a treasure that needs careful preservation. Wieland modernizes the discourse on folly, and he also introduces a new type of person in his narrative: the exceptional individual who seems to possess just the right degree of self-awareness, for example, Democritus and Hippocrates. They are characterized as authentic ages, or “cosmopolitans” as Wieland calls them, creating with the History of the Abderites a new concept of cosmopolitanism in European discourse. The cosmopolitans belong to an ancient order to which Wieland devotes an entire chapter in the second book of the History of the Abderites. This invisible society is so secretive that hardly anything is known about it except that, though its members have neither a constitution, nor symbols, nor solemn rites, they maintain a stronger solidarity among themselves than any other order or fraternity in the world. Cosmopolitans are citizens of the world who recognize one another regardless of differing ethnic or religious backgrounds. Their main aim is to promote “the perfection of the whole.” This idea of the cosmopolitan surrounded by a foolish world proves so appealing to the aficionados of the Jewish Enlightenment that they identify with it strongly and adopt Abdera as their model foolish society that, as we shall see, finally evolves into Chelm.

Wieland’s book was read in Germany as a parody of the mentality of small-town Germany in general, but it was widely believed, too, to be a parody of one or another town in particular, despite the author’s denial. The maskilim, however, found it all too easy to identify with the persecuted philosopher Democritus and to identify  the persecuting Abderites  with the narrow-minded small-town Jewish communities of eastern Europe: the dogmatic community rabbis, irrational Hasidic rebbes and their credulous followers, and even differently enlightened maskilic rivals. This is the background against which the first tales of the wise men of Chelm emerge.