Category Archives: Social comment

The dumbness of single-bit binary logic: everything that is not this, is not necessarily that

My bro JT, one of the most unconventional thinkers I know, has long commented upon the problems with single-bit binary logic. I understood this, but I’m embarrassed at my failure to process it until very recently.

In binary notation, everything is a 0 or a 1. They is a this or a that, as the old umpire used to say. This is a base two system, and it is the basis for digital electronics. If you don’t know what base two means, that means there are two numbers before you have to start a new column. We count in base ten, logically since we have ten fingers.

Binary notation works fine as the basis for our electronics. In the world of humanity and issues, where things are rarely so clear and exclusive, it is an indicator of feeble-mindedness. Consider: “If you aren’t for us, you are against us.” “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Stop and think, as I believe in doing any time someone trots out a glib saying repeated so many times that people assume it wise. This is dumb. Just because I am not for you does not mean I am against you. If you’re dumb enough to construe me as your enemy because you can’t bully me into signing onto your cause, that’s your problem and mistake. And just because I am not participating in a solution does not automatically signify that I am part of the problem. I may be neither. I might be a little of both. I might be in the process of using my brain to make up my own mind without consulting you. And this attitude isn’t adding luster to your side, I might add.

The fundamental problem with single-bit binary reasoning: it allows only two categories, choices, alignments, what have you. When applied to a human issue, that’s feeble-minded. It oversimplifies the human condition down to a moronic level. It works only for those who yearn to be spared all nuance. Is Bill Gates an evil man or a good man? He made a fortune by monopolizing our computing environment with increasing mediocrity. Then he decided to retire and use his wealth for such good causes Warren Buffett said “here, take mine, too.” He left behind his company still doing all the same things, growing more mediocre by the year, but no less monopolistic. Hate or love? Respect or disrespect? It is not so easy. It confounds feeble thinking. It makes modern America’s brain hurt, so its members just apply selective amnesia. They derided him back when his software company was strangling every possible competitor, and he was an evil guy, but now that’s old hat and he is a good guy. Nuance is hard. Absolutes provide comfort of the shallowest kind.

Look at the United States’ political system, which embeds and defends single-bit binary logic. If you aren’t one of these, you are one of those. This is idiotic. There are lots of things to be other than those two. Single-bit binary logic works fairly well on life and death (it’s very rare to be neither dead nor alive, I’ll concede), sports events on the field (can’t really play for both teams at once, I’ll go along with that), and other such clear-cut situations. Most matters of opinion are not so.

Thus it is with public demonstrations. Not every failure to join in a public demonstration of homage amounts to disrespect. Only single-bit binary logic can conclude that it does. Suppose that my national anthem is on television before a hockey game. I could choose to stand, interrupt my activities, pay attention, even sing the song: that would be respectful. I could choose not to pay attention, but to avoid doing anything overtly self-indulgent or gross. I could talk with someone about the imminent game, look at a magazine article, or simply sit in silent passivity; that would be somewhere in between. Or I could choose to scratch my groin, flip off the TV, use bad language, drink cheap beer, chomp tortilla chips, and/or make a snide remark; that would be disrespectful. It’s feeble-minded to think that all non-respect is disrespect, just as it is feeble-minded to think that all the different forms of respect can be conflated into one term.

(One of these days I will go into depth on that. There is the respect born of fear (s/he can and might hurt me), that born of affectionate regard (s/he has done great deeds I admire), and that stemming from positive regard without affection (s/he may be a bastard, but in some ways I respect him or her). In some situations, more than one may apply in some proportion. Our error occurs when we fail to qualify what we mean by respect.)

Single-bit binary logic works fine for dogs. If you are a dog, I recommend it without reservation. In most cases, a dog not mistreated either likes you (you are best pal for life) or hates you (you are intruder, competitor for scarce affection, etc.). My friend Jim had a rather ratty little dog named Willie. Willie liked everyone. I mostly don’t like dogs, and I didn’t like Willie. Willie didn’t care; he liked me.

(And lest you think Willie had no importance, let me tell you, Willie was an impact player in one of the funniest pizza-related instances in the history of the faux-Italian menu. I think I’ve told that story on here. If I have not, I must. If I haven’t, you are permitted to rag on me until I do.)

Why are so many issues presented to us in single-bit binary logic? Because it’s easy–and because it makes us easier to manipulate.

Who’s a good boy? Good boy!

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The dumbest criticism of writing I ever hear

Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:

“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.

In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.

I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.

People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.

None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.

In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.

In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.

In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”

Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.

Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.

Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.

That is the point.

 

Eclipalypse 2017: Oregon is Doomed, Damned, Sure to be Destroyed by Barbarian Hordes

On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun has been scheduled for the United States. The timing is inconvenient in some ways, pretty nice in others. For us in western Oregon, where the eclipse will make first landfall, there is benefit in that our oft-overcast skies are likeliest to be clear in summer. If the eclipse had been scheduled for January, no one in western Oregon would get excited; the odds of seeing anything but two minutes of darkness would be minimal.

Since we no longer have education to speak of, I suppose I have little choice but to explain what a solar eclipse is. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon (which must necessarily be ‘new’ at this time) gets between Earth and the sun. Since the lunar disc is just a bit larger than the solar disc from our perspective, for about a hundred seconds the spot of totality is plunged into nightfall. As Earth rotates, of course, the current spot of totality rolls eastward. In this case, it will begin off the Oregon coast and pass through southern Idaho, smack across Wyoming and Nebraska and Missouri, then across Tennessee and South Carolina. The totality spot is seventy miles in diameter; the closer you are to its precise center, the better the show. The farther you are from the path, the farther from totality your view will be.

Oregon has a population of four million, and her authorities are in Eclipalypse Panic Mode. They expect a full million people to swarm into the state, mostly in the western part (I live about an hour north of the totality path). To hear them tell it, we are all going to die horribly. Power will fail. Cell phone towers will be overloaded. There are already no places to stay; farmers are renting little pieces of pasture for big money. All roads are to be so gridlocked that you could easily end up running out of gas (which of course will be unavailable) and dying of sunstroke when your A/C goes out while stuck on the I-5 traffic, emergency vehicles completely unable to reach you, the 911 system in collapse. The governor has called out the Oregon National Guard, and I’d bet she’ll summon the State Guard as well. Sensible Oregonians who cannot afford to flee now are committing suicide after a last meal of cruelty-free quinoa salad with a side of suburban guilt. There are quite a few preppers in Oregon, and I’m sure they are all battening down, locking and loading.

I think it’s hilarious, except of course for all the garbage people will throw on the ground (I hope the Oregon State Police catch and prosecute every single litterbug). The traffic may make Portland traffic bearable for once, with so many people drawn an hour south. Yeah, the roads should be busy down toward the totality path, but most people will go away that same day. Would it be smart to fill up one’s car beforehand? I will. Should we prepare to run screaming into the two minutes of misplaced nightfall (beginning around 10:15 AM)? I find the notion amusing. Have you all yet built your sandbag forts? Why not, you fools? We are all going to die, right?

What a fearful society we live in. Ever stop to ask who can profit most from keeping you in constant terror of your fellow humans?

Worth your time, sometime.

I doubt we are all really going to die. But I’ve been through a total eclipse. This is the first one in a long time that passes across the full width of the United States, but it’s not the first one in my lifetime to pass over part of the nation. We had one when and where I was in high school, and based on that experience, I can help prepare you for what it’ll feel like.

  • The occlusion of the sun’s disc takes a couple hours to reach totality, and a couple more for the moon to get completely clear after totality. During the before-and-after, the sun is still pretty bright, but it’s dangerously easier than usual to gaze at. The authorities warning you to be careful of imitation eclipse glasses? Believe them. The problem is that, especially if the disc is just visible through overcast, it’s easy enough to stare at the sun long enough for permanent eye damage. Even when it’s easy to look–most especially when it is–treat it as if this were not an eclipse, taking suitable precautions. It’s not worth going blind over.
  • Because this whole process takes about four hours, a lot of eager beavers will get in position very early, see the full onset of occlusion, and be bored stupid by the time the eclipse is total. See, an eclipse doesn’t have any sudden drama except for the short period of full totality; the rest of it is gradual. Once it’s over, I expect most of their attention spans to be well past exhaustion, and that’s probably when the traffic will really blow. I’d say expect about an hour of pretty slow going after totality, after which it should ease up.
  • No matter where you are in the path–even in a city–you will be amazed how many animals are around you of which you had no idea. As totality approaches, for about half a minute, the daylight will fade very quickly to a dusk. For the animals, this dusk is happening way off schedule, and it rattles the hell out of them. They will all speak up at once, and it’ll amaze you. The sudden nightfall will occur after that, and the animals will truly be freaked. If it’s not overcast, you’ll get a good show in the totality path. We can’t normally see it, but the radiant energy from the sun extends out at least as far as the width of its disc. When totality ends, you get a dusky dawn, then daylight again. With the disc itself covered up, in darkness, you can see the full corona (as we call this radiant energy). I didn’t get to see it due to overcast, but I heard they saw quite a show out at Stonehenge.

And therein lies a tale.

I attended high school at a very small place in south-central Washington. The area is sparsely populated and received minimal overrun from eclipse hunters, which is partly why I think the Eclipalypse Panic is overdone this time. Some thirty miles from where I lived, there stands a tycoon’s full-size concrete conception of what Stonehenge must have looked like before rocks began to fall off one another. Sam Hill built this replica as a World War I memorial, not far from his mansion, and it offers breathtaking overlooks of the Columbia River as well as several other solemn war memorials at which one may pay tribute to locals who lost their lives in American service.

I was raised by a family of religious fanatics whose psychological stranglehold I would not escape until my mid-twenties. When we heard that a bunch of weird hippie pagans were going to go out and have a ritual of some sort at Stonehenge, I accepted the conventional wisdom: they’ll all probably get naked, have an orgy, load up on LSD and likely OD, stare at the sun until they go blind, and not understand what’s wrong with all this, all while clawing their faces off in the throes of bad trips. As we were in the path of totality, we ourselves did not need to travel to Stonehenge or anywhere else. A friend from school came up to our front yard to watch it with me, a good excuse to play hooky for the morning. In our callous teen male manner, intolerant of difference and immune to empathy, we joked how it would serve the doped-up weirdos right. Dumbass hippies.

I did mention, right, that it was a pretty small town?

The eclipse itself was a damp squib, as I mentioned, and we all went about our lives. Now advance the clock a dozen years, give or take, bringing me to the age of perhaps twenty-eight. Not long before, I had broken up with my ex-fiancée (and we all know how that turned out). A few years earlier, I had left Christianity and become a practicing Wiccan. Go ahead and say it, whatever it may be; I have it all coming. I’ll take my due hazing. I was studying Irish with a druid group led by my (then-new acquaintance, today longtime friend) Domi O’Brien. A scholarly lady of legendary hospitality and generosity, Domi hosted (and still hosts) amazing feasts to accompany spiritual events. Her sons have since grown into the wise, compassionate men I expected they would.

At one such event, I met a delightful lady named Cyndie. She was from Oklahoma, with a comforting gentle drawl a bit stronger than my own part-time rural Kansas twang. Her interest in me was obvious if decorous. This adjective is not always the case at pagan events, where there is often a shortage of obviously masculine straight males. There is absolutely zero in Wiccan culture to shame women from taking any initiative they might deem fit. Put another way, any straight, single young man in paganism doesn’t have to take a lot of initiative of his own in the gender relations department. If he’s not a complete jerk or moron, the only reason he’s going to stay by himself is by making an obstinate effort to do so. I wasn’t making an obstinate effort to do so.

Cyndie being a few years my senior, and a somewhat old-fashioned Midwestern daughter, when I mentioned my many times cleaning eave-troughs at the ranch with Grandpa, she saw her opening and played her best card. She told me that her house’s eave-troughs were well past due for a cleaning, but she just could never make time to get up there and do it.

Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a mallet. You all know the drill: the man gallantly offers to come over and do the dirty, unpleasant job. After pro forma protests, the woman agrees with thanks. She would not have invited him anywhere near her home if she didn’t feel pretty good about the whole situation, but the only certain thing is that she’ll make up a nice hearty dinner which they will share. Anything else that may occur depends purely upon how they both feel. This has probably been going on since Homo erectus, when demure young Ugha hinted to testosteroney young Gruk that the rocks in her firepit were misaligned, and perhaps he might find time to come over and straighten them up.

The eave-trough job turned out to be much worse than I expected. The ladder was in poor repair and a couple of rungs broke, once nearly dropping me all the way to the ground. It poured, of course, triggering her gallant duty to offer me absolution from the muddy, chilly task. The script called for me to carry the job through at all hazards and discomforts. (This satisfies the woman that the man is stupid enough, or interested enough in her–or both–to put some pain and broken skin into the game.) But before we even got to that part, I got the first shock of my day when I stepped inside her front door.

On her living room wall was a large painting the size of a modern big screen TV. It depicted a crowd of robed backs and mostly hooded heads gathered inside Stonehenge. Above them was a sun in a state of total eclipse, corona splattered about the black central disc.

Captain Obvious was on point, of course: “Oh. That’s the eclipse in 1979 seen from Stonehenge!”

“Yes,” said Cyndie, pointing in sequence. “That’s me, and over there is Isaac Bonewits, and here is Shadowstar Breakwind, and this is Silver Raven Moontime, and…” (Not actual names, those last two. In Wicca, there seems to be a hard and fast rule that everyone must incorporate into one’s pagan name as many of the words ‘star,’ ‘shadow,’ ‘silver,’ ‘raven,’ and ‘wolf’ as one can arrange. Other words are allowed in the name, provided at least one of those five is in use. Otherwise, it’s a foul.)

How much can shift in a dozen years. Before, I had dismissed a bunch of people I’d never met, all based upon inherited prejudices and juvenile arrogance. Now I was not only one of ‘those people,’ I was on a dinner date with one.

Cyndie and I dated for over a year. We weren’t really fated for the long term due to very divergent ideas on life, but it was a good time; she remains the only former flame with whom I keep in some contact. I can still hear that gentle Oklahoma drawl in my mind; she is a considerate, warm, and wise lady who taught me a lot. And I did do a good job on the eave-troughs.

I’d better, or my grandfather might reincarnate and start critiquing me.

Enjoy Eclipalypse 2017, all hundred and twenty seconds of it.

If we all die horribly, please send me an email informing me, so I can decide how to proceed from there.

The Depression Americans who went to the USSR

Back in the early 1930s, several thousand Americans packed up and went to work in the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Few survived to the Cold War era.

When we look back on an historical decision that might seem nuts to us, we should subtract our hindsight and seek to understand what was known at the time before making judgments. In this case:

  • While there was some information about the large-scale suffering and death of the Holodomor and the liquidation of private agriculture, few Americans understood how bad it truly was, and few cared. We’re ass-ignorant of the world today, even though a network connects us with the news sources of our choice via devices held in our hands. Who would expect us to be less ass-ignorant back when the information was pre-selected by a newspaper publisher?
  • In 1933, the USSR was just sixteen years old. It presented itself as the fiery champion of working-class interests. In those days, working-class people were willing to strike, fight, and die for better conditions. It wasn’t insane for a typical American worker to wonder whether those Russians might not have come up with something good, even if at first they’d had a messy civil war. The more educated Americans realized that, to a large degree, our own revolution was a civil war with foreign intervention as much as it was a revolt against a foreign power. If our independence came with a civil war, why not that of other countries?
  • 1933 could be described as the heart of the Great Depression. Unemployment was the norm. Homelessness was commonplace. Workers with skills, such as laid-off Ford automotive employees, wanted only a place to use what they knew. The USSR was playing industrial catch-up, and that made them very receptive to Ford technology and those who understood it.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had not yet written The Gulag Archipelago. There was no way to foresee the purges of the late 1930s, still less the long-term pathology of penology as an economic and social control mechanism lasting into the 1960s. No one knew, either, that a wildly gesticulating little World War I Austrian corporal would, within six years, launch a war of genocidal conquest, much less who would be on which side. Americans were more concerned about ending Prohibition so that those who could afford to do so could legally escape into alcohol, long a very American habit. Hoover had failed, new leadership was in place, and it was hard to imagine anything worse.
  • There were no nuclear weapons; there was no Cold War; there was only one avowedly communist country in the world; the United States professed non-alignment. Eastern Europe had not been handed off to Stalin, who was relatively new to power. Mao Zedong was holed up in the mountains of northern China figuring out how to get into power against a powerful foe like Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • This country seems always to have had, and even to require, a designated enemy. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s an ideology, sometimes it’s a country–but this country has rarely if ever not had an enemy and I’m not sure it would know what to do without one. (Some of us think that if it doesn’t have one, one is designated for us, just to keep us marching along, but that’s a personal view.) The specter of world communism was an easy demonization, because: it tied into our own social dissent, it promised to run absolutely counter to the ruling interests, and it had already been seen–at least by those in the know–to bring on convulsion, shortage, repression, and state-sponsored murder. (That not everyone believed those tales is also a factor, but in this case the stories were if anything an understatement.)
  • With any designated enemy, there are two sides, usually both about half wrong. One side will always be making that enemy out to be less than human, meritless, the ultimate enemy of all that is decent, unworthy of the least sympathy. The other side will always be looking for mitigating factors, exceptions, reasons to believe otherwise. It’s still with us today. There are still people, for example, who will try to deny or minimize the Holocaust. But there are also still people who will make any excuse necessary for any people or nation that opposed the Holocaust. In 1930s US society, the side demonizing the USSR was obvious enough, though it also went so far as to view the average Russian (or other Soviet citizen; barely half were Russian) as a half-civilized Asiatic. The side mitigating for the USSR was not too ignorant to realize that the side demonizing the USSR and its constituent peoples had a vested economic interest in avoiding state-planned economics, in breaking organized labor, and in continuing to sit on its pile of inherited wealth. Reality: while some of the Soviet government’s actions were barbaric, a people who produce the cultural landmarks of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and many more, are certainly not barbarians. And while a massive slave labor camp system and a period of mass starvation almost defying comprehension may fairly be said to overshadow any social advances, social advances there still were; they just were not sufficient for a balanced mind to consider them worth enduring mass starvation. I’m not sure what could be, since the dead are no longer around to enjoy social advances.

Our view of past times will always be more balanced when we remember what the people of the times did not know.

In this timeframe, in this economic situation, several thousand working-class Americans, mostly out-of-work automotive laborers, accepted the Soviets’ open invitation to come and work. A few were communist ideologues who had bought into one extreme of the pro-Soviet narrative, but most were more interested in a better way to provide for their families. The USSR was buying one of Ford’s old plants, and it would need workers familiar with auto manufacture. (The Soviet weakness in this area would persist for many years. During WWII, they considered our Lend-Lease tanks and fighter planes mostly substandard, but without our humble trucks, the Soviet Army would have had a far harder logistical time.)

The US government and industrial leadership generally did not care if a bunch of laid-off laborers wanted to move overseas. If they didn’t want to be at home, great; they were no longer our problem. If they represented useful propaganda for the USSR, oh well; there weren’t very many, and with or without them, domestic conditions were such that it was best not to draw the competing propaganda sword with a country lacking a free press. (Even into the 1970s, the USSR would use old Depression breadline photos and footage as anti-US propaganda. Then again, in the 1970s, I very well remember that we were still talking of the USSR as if the Stalin purges had never abated.)

What most of those Americans did not realize was that the Soviet government automatically granted most Soviet citizenship upon landing, whether or not they applied for it. According to US law, accepting a foreign citizenship meant renunciation of US citizenship. Ah, but what if they never accepted Soviet citizenship? If they were in prison, and the State Department asked about them, and the USSR said “They have become Soviet citizens and are no longer your concern,” there wasn’t much State could do about it unless permitted into prison to verify the situation.

In order to do that, the State Department–seen from its perspective of the time–would have to care about a bunch of lousy commie sympathizers who actually thought it was better to have a job with the commies than to be at home starving in the land of apple pie and baseball. (The Americans in the USSR in fact missed baseball enough to establish a league.) While the USA has rarely done much to prevent anyone from expatriating, it also rarely continues to care about anyone who does so. That went double for anyone who expatriated to a society whose ideology proclaimed capitalism an evil to be torn down, and most Americans felt likewise. They don’t want to be at home? Hope the door hit them in the ass, and they don’t come back.

Americans have never taken especially well to the notion that anyone would voluntarily choose to be anywhere but the United States, given a choice in the matter, because Americans have never taken too well to the notion that there could ever be any better place. Thus, in a case like that of these American expatriates, there would neither be government interest in their cause, nor any public groundswell to pressure it. Just a few isolated relatives writing to the State Department to beg its intervention on behalf of people it fundamentally did not want to assist, let alone get back.

Stalin’s purges began in 1937. They decapitated the Soviet Army, leaving corporals leading platoons (normally led by junior lieutenants) and majors commanding brigades (normally led by brigadier generals). They ripped through every ethnicity and social class, a concept the USSR had done nothing to eliminate. The pattern was arrest, beatings and torture, confession and implication of others, a show trial, and a sentence either of death or a quarter century at labor intended to cause death. Many were shipped to the Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, where they died by the thousands. A good many were sent to mine uranium, with predictable outcomes. They came in waves, and it continued into World War II and after.

Against a sum of arrests reaching mid-eight figures, and eventual deaths estimated around twenty million, a few thousand Americans didn’t even count as an arrest wave. Many of the arrests were by quota in any case, with people picked up simply because this or that region had been estimated to contain 200 Enemies of the People, thus that many must be arrested. Any NKVD officer declining to do this was guaranteed arrest. Anyone who did comply would probably be arrested in turn later. It wasn’t genocidal in that it wasn’t specific or discriminate enough to target a particular class, ethnicity, faith, or whatever. Just because it doesn’t meet the definition of a genocide does not lessen its enormous brutality.

What of the American embassy? There was no help there. Ambassador Davies, a political appointee who had married into a fortune, said and did nothing to upset Stalin or his Soviet hosts. He did spend a lot of time collecting artworks, but he and his staff generally ignored or dismissed the representations of family members concerned for relatives who had vanished. While the record indicates that Davies was a nest-feathering toady and complete invertebrate, we should remember that there was limited effective pressure at our disposal, as there would always be. Americans have the tendency to think of their country as all-powerful, that if we do not do something, it’s because we choose not to rather than we cannot. Let’s imagine an interview with the shade of Ambassador Davies, in which I come ready to blister his bureaucratic ass and have an accounting:

“Ambassador, the charge is simple. Americans went to the Gulag, most died, and you flitted about collecting art. Every one of those Americans deserved less than you to be in a Gulag.”

“That’s a very harsh charge, young man. Would you have had me go to Stalin and demand the handover of Soviet citizens?”

“They were not Soviet citizens by choice. It had been assigned to them.”

“So you say. You may well be correct. The only way for us to know that would be to interview the captives in a setting where it was safe for them to speak the truth, and you can say all you wish that we should have demanded that, but the demand would have been refused. And angrily; we would have been accused of calling them liars. Again, probably they were–but if they were, what then would you have had us do?”

“You’re telling me we had no economic pressure to bring to bear?”

“Not without harming our own country. Our ability to guide the economy through the late Depression depended in part on our ability to buy gold, and the Soviets were selling.”

“Gold often mined by your countrymen until their deaths from starvation, disease, and protracted abuse.”

“My former countrymen, all of whom on some level chose to live under the Communists rather than stay home. Just to put this in perspective.”

“All right; I’ll accept that you had no practical leverage to verify their changes in citizenship. You were appointed a diplomat. Could you not have made at least some representations on behalf of people?”

“I could have done more of that, at the risk of being expelled and the Russians completely cutting off all communication. They weren’t in a very forthcoming mood. As you may recall, they were killing their own people by the millions. But very well; let’s say we did that, and they told us to butt out of their internal affairs. What then? You cannot seriously be proposing that the United States should have gone to war over it. We had little economic leverage. Furthermore, there was the risk of driving them into Hitler’s camp, and with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 it looked as though that had happened. Do you, my inquisitor from the lands of lumberjacks and cowboys, in your hindsight, believe that US interests would have been well served by forcing a longer and more enduring cooperation between a resource-rich USSR and a resource-poor but technologically advanced Nazi Germany?”

I would not be able to help seeing the old bastard’s points. That is why we put our history in the context of its times, so that we subtract our modern hindsight in the effort to make a reasonably informed evaluation of the past.

Few of the Americans ever saw home again, and those who did typically didn’t get home until the Khrushchyov era (beginning mid-fifties, ending mid-sixties). While the Gulags didn’t go away by magic when Khrushchyov admitted they’d gone way too far, they gradually became less brutal, less prevalent, and less indiscriminate. Make no mistake; a Soviet citizen still had to watch his or her words, and the Lubyanka and Lefortovo would remain dreaded into the 1990s. But there’s no evidence the repression maintained the Stalinist level. As a practical matter, it could not have; lest they run out of people to kill, or to guard those on their way to die.

And what of later inquiries into the fates of Americans, during and after Khrushchyov? In the first place, admitting an embarrassing truth with comfortable ease is not naturally a human trait, and it is especially not a Russian cultural trait. Where records had been kept in full, many had been destroyed by people seeking to cover their own culpability. Many were falsified, as in “died of stomach cancer” could mean “died during gang rape when thrown to criminals” or “starved and fell dead on the spot while mining gold.” Sometimes it helps to ask nicely, rather than make demands; the one making demands may puff up with his or her Great Moral Rightness, but s/he doesn’t get what is desired. A lot of French nationals all went missing, and the evidence indicates that many of their fates were eventually learned. Many of ours’ fates still remain unknown or obscure. It may be that the French weren’t as pushy and rude as our people.

But even then, in the second place, here’s the question that can’t be evaded. Suppose we had become insistent, from the 1950s even to today. Fine; and what if they just said “go to hell”? Would we then move closer to a potential nuclear exchange? Invade? Stop selling them grain (hardly good news for our farming industry)? In the end, if the Soviets or their successors didn’t or don’t want to answer, nothing realistic could compel them. And there’s more, one of the most uncomfortable realities to face, one with implications hard to face even today.

To wit: let’s imagine you are a foreign leader aware of an embarrassing number of carefully sequestered American prisoners your country holds. If proof were released of their survival–that your country had held them all this time just because letting them go would be to release a thousand accounts condemning your country’s deceit and inhumanity–what would you do? At some point, acting in brutal self-interest and national interest, what is there to stop you from doing the most logical but brutal thing? I think it very likely that this occurred in Vietnam, for example, that some of our POWs remained in captivity into the 1980s, and that when it came time for relations to thaw, the Vietnamese government most likely made all traces of them disappear. How much easier would this be in a country whose territory includes the vast expanse of Siberia?

It follows that, if that had occurred, there will never be an admission of it. If proof even exists, it may always be beyond our reach.

So yes: several thousand Americans disappeared into the Gulag system. Most may safely be presumed to have died before Stalin, based upon those fates we do know. A few eventually found their ways home during political thaws. Yes, they were naïve to buy into the bright future offered by Stalin’s USSR, but very few ever renounced US citizenship in a conscious way, nor ever meant harm to the country most still considered theirs. And they were fools indeed if they imagined that FDR would aggravate Stalin by lifting one finger on their behalf, especially (as we now know) with presidential advisor Harry Hopkins either a Soviet agent or near enough to render the difference unimportant. I find it very uncomfortable to face, but some truths are uncomfortable: as much as my evidence about Davies makes me loathe everything the man stood for, I don’t have an answer for the ultimate question in any era: “Okay, smart guy. Tell us how we do that without blowing up the world and screwing our whole country. I’ll wait.”

It doesn’t make Davies a fundamentally decent man who wanted to do the right thing. He wasn’t and didn’t; he didn’t want to do anything for anyone but himself, as it looks to me.

Perhaps you know you are getting near to some historical understanding when you uncover enough nuances to destroy any clear-cut feelgood angels-vs-demons outcome.

Even if you uncover demons, their enemies are not always angels.

There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

Does your center point move?

If it does, congratulations. Your mind works the way most people’s do. Your life is easy because everyone else understands you, and your views don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

If it doesn’t, I feel for you. Welcome to my world.

Many areas of opinion and judgment may be viewed as continuums: number lines, if you will. Do elementary schools still use number lines to help teach arithmetic? Mine all had them stuck to the wall above the chalkboard (we still had chalkboards). A number line, as I recall them, began with -10 on the left and counted up to zero, then counted up to 10. Zero was one’s center. In a subtle way, I believe this contributed to the formation of many of our moral and ethical perceptions.

Turning to application, the assumptive logic is that every issue must have two sides, each with extreme and moderate stances, and there must be a center balance point that hybridizes both sides in a sort of compromise. This is a comforting way of looking at the world. It means the other side of an issue is never a demon, except for its extremist minority, of which one’s own side of the issue also has such a thing. It means giving the other side a fair shake, recognizing that one’s opposition is also decently minded and simply sees things from a different perspective. Doesn’t that sound sweet as cane sugar?

It also means one can arrange never to be an extremist…because most people’s center point moves from zero with current events. As long as one’s center also moves, one can feel comfortably within at least one embracing faction on any issue. One never need feel isolated. So let’s say that two million households normally go bankrupt in a given year; in the next year, the number doubles to four million. Most of the people who felt that two million was way too many will now decide that two million wasn’t so bad and that four million is way too many. Last year, two million was horrible. Now, two million is cool. The center point has shifted. Being bankrupt still hurts two million people just as much; that doesn’t register with the mainstream.

Of course, if one side’s former moderate segment goes crazy extreme, and that side’s lunatic fringe goes apocalyptically extreme, the relative center point shifts to remain in between the two extremes. And if the opposing side shifts in the same direction, both shifts will drive the center that direction. Now what was once the midpoint is the mainstream position of one side. The new midpoint represents its opposition’s former moderate stance.

In my view, this means a floating moral compass, a concept I find abhorrent when not well monitored. I do not have a problem with a moral compass that moves for reasons of principled reflection. I have a great problem with a moral compass that moves simply because there is a “new normal” that the majority of the public now assigns to the center of the number line–because it believes there must always be a center, and that center is always the point between the extremes.

Let’s take college tuition costs. In my college days (1981-86), in-state tuition cost about $6000 for a four-year degree at a public university. At the minimum, with an entry-level job meant for college graduates without technical degrees, one could expect about $22,000 in annual compensation. (Unless you were lazy, an ass, or a geranium, it would improve within a few years. It meant a frugal existence in a studio apartment, but it was independence.) Thirty years on, tuition at that same university would cost about $48,000. However, that does not mean that the typical entry-level job will pay about $176,000. In fact, not even the typical technical/professional starting pay will approach that. A relativistic moral compass looks at this situation as the “new normal”: enormous student loan debts, stupidity to major in any subject that doesn’t produce a near-certain high-paying job, actual education as a waste of time for most people.

My “normal” has not moved. My normal is that it’s reasonable for college tuition, managed economically, to work out to about a third of what one can expect to earn in one’s first year of an entry-level position requiring some form of bachelor’s degree. Improvement would be for it to work out to about a fourth or a fifth of what one could earn, though if we took it much farther, a lot of people would be in college who truly have no business there. (This in fact is kind of what has happened, with a whole lot of dim bulbs pressured to attend college–another of my generation’s Great Leaps Forward.) Worse would be for it to bloat up to half of one’s beginning earnings, or unthinkably bad, to cost as much as a full year’s beginning gross earnings.

Most people’s “normal” has moved. Think not? Let’s say tuition were cut in half, to $24,000. Would the typical poli sci major be able to earn about $88,000? She wishes. She is more likely to be working at Chipotle for minimum wage or a little better, living to pay student loans, tutoring in Spanish on the side, living with her parents because in no way can she afford student loan payments and independent life. Even if the cost were cut in half, it still produces untenable economics.

My “normal” is still where it was. Most people’s “normal” has shifted so that tuition is still too expensive, but a cut in half would suddenly make it seem cheap. Their “normal” would shift. Mine has not and will not. Current tuition costs are an obscenity, and even if cut in half, will still be an obscenity. The professors have not gotten sixfold raises. Neither have the custodians, the librarians, or the RAs (shoutout to all of my old colleagues, and others who have done that job). Yet universities still demand that much money, and it goes somewhere. To someone. For something.

Either the cost of education is screwed up, the wage scale and job market are, or perhaps both are.

My “normal” will not simply reset to the current situation, or to a point slightly to the more balanced direction of the current situation. This situation is obscene. This is unpardonable. It is unsustainable. My generation let it happen, and it is one reason I consider my generation the worst in American history. We were the last who got to adventure in childhood before full bubblewrap set in, we were the last who could afford financially sane college education, and we turned around and allowed those things to be taken away from our children. Even those of us who did not have kids, like myself, whose number line centers just kept moving as the trees were cut down and the monkey bars were turned to plastic, as CPS was called for unsupervised play and a third of our kids were drugged into not being childish, as wages stagnated and tuition spiraled out of control, as student loan costs began to look like home loan costs and the purpose of college ceased to be education and simply devolved into job training to produce for a corporatist state, who did not scream bloody murder about it and who came to accept a new normal, were complicit by silence and rationalization.

Rationalization is pernicious. It sneaks up on us. Keep rationalizing away increasingly greater evils, and we will one day wake up with moderate evil as one’s “normal.”

One may apply the number line model to many situations, not all of them measured in economic terms. There are just and sensible reasons for one’s “normal” to shift; let’s take race relations. If our “normal” had not shifted from 1950, we would still be a nation of open Archie Bunkers. A few annual lynchings would be expected, as would segregated separate-and-unequal schools (and cans, and drinking fountains, and neighborhoods, etc.). Stereotypical and denigrating overt depictions of minorities would be the norm. Over time, we came to realize that for the majority to mock, denigrate, and lynch minorities was an unacceptable way for a majority to treat our fellow equally human beings (as which, speaking of that, we ought to recognize said minorities). Did we, the privileged majority, become saints? Not even close; but our “normal” shifted. Some, like me, will argue that it didn’t shift far enough, that the compensating efforts are not adequate. When you can still die for your skin color in a traffic stop, I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. But where a “new normal” is born of the gradual rationalization of progressively greater obscenity, I refuse to shift mine.

If two hundred million people do/accept/tolerate/rationalize a wrong or stupid thing, it will still be a wrong or stupid thing. Majority status does not confer rightness or wisdom. Often it means that a whole bunch of people rationalized their way down the number line, taking their center with them, feeding themselves the comforting porridge of a balanced world with two neatly arranged sides, each possessing more or less equal moral and intellectual merit.

I won’t shift my center. I haven’t yet, and it’s too late to start now even if I suddenly decided I needed the comfort of group approval.

That, I find, is a thing I not only do not expect, but do not even desire.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.

==

*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.