Sunday, March 31, 2013

800 Words: What Inspires You - My Answer - Part 1

As I begin my attempt to ignite a creative self somewhere inside of me that exists in more than a blogpost, it’s pretty easy to see that my greatest weakness is a failure of nerve. I know perfectly well that I can write music or fiction that is on the competent side of thoroughly mediocre. But I lack ability to believe that I can write anything of quality. Creative friends tell me not to worry about the actual quality of my output, but I can’t help that. I’ve sat through too much awful music and theater and fiction and poetry to not think about whether I’m contributing to the boredom of audiences. At least with a blog, the audience isn’t captive and you can x out of the blogpost any time you like. In a musical or theatrical performance, you can’t do that. And in both of those and/or fiction and poetry, people pay to read and hear what you write. The thought that I’d be the kind of creative person I’d laugh at were I not myself is a concern that plagues me with every word or note I write.

I don’t know what I want to write. I know what I’m good at: I’m good at music and writing, and I’m a world champion couch potato who loves movies and TV at least as much as he loves reading and listening to music. Like many underconfident people, a messianic sense of self exists ever so slightly just beneath the surface that it’s readily visible to anyone who spends more than fifteen minutes in my company. Some people are egotistical due to insecurity, others are insecure due to their truly low opinion of themsevles. I’m simply torn between my unconquerable egotism and my insatiable self-loathing. I’m fairly certain that no amount of success would ever satisfy my ego or satiate my insecurity, but fortunately I don’t have to worry too much about that just yet.

If I could guess as to what creative endeavor I’d be best at, it would be writing an opera. I often think to myself, as Benjamin Britten and Richard Wagner once did, that I not only know I can write a great opera with no evidence, but that I could make my living writing them. But I have far less ample evidence to bear out such godlike self-belief than these former two examples. All I know is that I know the genre, I know music, I know literature, I know art itself, I know how to hold an audience’s attention, and I know how to go about making an audience feel what I want them to feel. What I don’t know is how to produce it. I hate, truly hate, working in theater. I often tell myself that I’d have been the greatest conductor or theater director of all time if the results didn’t involve working with other human beings. I’m still amazed I have so many singers in the chorus I conduct who appear to like me and enjoy our working together. Maybe opera written for film would be better. God knows it can’t be much more of an ulcer waiting to happen than writing for theater.

Opera written especially for film?... That’s an idea. Network television tried that in its early days without overwhelming success. But maybe in the era of youtube...

Regardless of the result, I have to find a way to inspire myself. So I’ve begun to think of the various people, forces, and thoughts which have influenced me to want to be more creative. So in a supreme act of putting the cart before the horse, I’m making a list of what inspires me to create the things I still haven’t created. Furthermore, I think it would be very inspiring to ask other creative people what inspires them. So very soon, I’m going to start asking most people I know - those involved in the arts at least, professional and amateur - to contribute their list. And if they don’t contribute, I’m going to start pestering them until they do.

Those contributions can be as long or as short as you like. I’ll be grateful for whatever you contribute, would not dream of refusing a submission regardless of content, and would only edit for grammar. I encourage all of you whom I pester to make a list as different in style from my list as you can possibly make it - a mere five words to explain each choice will do very nicely. Please feel no need to make your list as self-revealing as mine will be. In fact, I actively discourage yourself from revealing a mere percentage point of the negativity and self-abegnation I’m about to unleash to the internet.


10 Things Which Inspire Me Through Hate (#'s 10-2)

10. Taking Dressup Seriously: As I compose these words around two in the morning on Easter Sunday, it occurs to me that a new Game of Thrones will be airing tonight for the first time in a year. I will watch GoT with all the same hathos as ever before, relishing its trashiness at the same time that it would never occur to me to take its artistic aspirations particularly seriously. Game of Thrones is a dressup game disguised as a high myth, the same as Wagner and Tolkien, the same as Milton, the same as Ray Bradbury and Jules Verne, the same as ... it’s mythology, a regression to a stage of human philosophy from which our species evolved by the time a human discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun and composed the complete works of Shakespeare. I dread the inevitable moment when I offend yet another person with this oft-repeated sentiment of mine. It’s bad enough that people take Wagner and Milton more seriously than they do Journey and Queen, but now we’re building yet another dull alternative literature of giants for which our great-grandchildren will look at us with all the same mystified incomprehension that so many of us give to so much art from the 19th century. Wagner is what happens when dressup games get taken seriously - people who find the complexities of real life too unsatisfying want a return to the supposed glories of a past that never existed, and some of them take that so seriously that they try to establish a new glorious kingdom on Earth and end up murdering 50 million people in the process. And while there are many types of wonderful people who take the Tolkeins and LeGuins of the world seriously, it is but a short step from there to taking Ayn Rand seriously. And once enough Americans are taking Ayn Rand seriously, it is but a short step away from implementing Ayn Rand’s ideas to create a perfect American kingdom of the self-involved on Earth, with the potential for consequences no less disastrous than those of the Third Reich. Take it from me, I’ve read more ‘respectable’ literature than most of the people who read this post. Respectability sucks. Why do genre fiction lovers crave critical approbation? It’s the most poisoned chalice there is. Dress up all you like, but don’t take the ideas from these dressup games seriously, it will only lead us to ruin.

9. Poet as Seer - Poetry is one of the most cursed artforms in the world - perhaps more prone to imposterdom than any art which the world has ever seen. There are so many poets which are neither funny nor moving nor inspire any other real emotion in us. The most recommendable quality of such poetry is that it’s vaguely clever, but because it’s not clever enough to be clever, it’s alleged to be profound. I could fart out a Bob Dylan song that would be hailed as a song of genius if Dylan wrote it. In fact, so could most of you... But it’s not just Dylan, who is at least a decent songwriter who’s unfortunately accumulated a reputation far beyond his abilities. He’s part of a long tradition of poets whose reputations are completely outsize to their abilities. Before Dylan, there was Lord Byron, a decent poet who had the foresight to fuck the wives of his critics, who then had to make a show of not taking it personally. Before Byron, there was John Milton. Milton was an unquestionable genius, but he put that genius in the service of the most disgustingly dull, self-serious, fanatically puritanical aesthetic imaginable. He is literature’s answer to Richard Wagner - hugely exciting at times, but with barely a human emotion to be found, and a whiff of evil about him in what he inspires in his audience. But at least the reputations of Byron and Milton reputation are not a scandal. But unfortunately we also have to deal with the reputations of Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Poe, Maya Angelou, Whitman,Charles Bukowski, TS Eliot, Jim Morrison, Ezra Pound, Lou Reed, Wallace Stevens, Robert Plant,  and probably two dozen others I’ll think of later. Inevitably, poetry is the true language of romance. Every civilization and every epoch has its great poets which everybody recognizes as expressing the era of its newness: Shakespeare and Donne, Wordsworth and Shelley, Goethe and Heine, Dante and Boccaccio, Neruda and Vallejo, Dickinson and (ech!) Whitman. But as civilizations wear on and too much self-knowledge for romance becomes inevitable, poets become like three-legged chairs. What purpose have they in a society too knowledgeable and corrupt for new self-discovery? The answer is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, as with Baudelaire and Verlaine, or Leonard Cohen and (yes...shut up) Randy Newman, the decadence of later generations can contain some of the most amazing aesthetic splendors. But sometimes, as with Pound and Eliot, or Ginsberg and Korso, there’s a surfeit of boredom or banality. There’s more creative originality in Shel Silverstein’s little finger than in the entirety of Ezra Pound.

8. Ersatz Highbrow - Yesterday evening I got into a discussion of books at a bar with a truly gorgeous bar owner who kept a bookshelf of masochistically highbrow reading in her bar and professed some extraordinarily highbrow reading tastes to me (seriously, who says Tonio Kroger and Doctor Faustus are favorite books and means it?!?). She wrote down the names I gave her (Stefan Zweig and Nadezhda Mandelstam... for those who care...isn’t it odd she’d never heard of them?...), wrote their names down, and seemed quite interested in what I had to say. When I left, she flashed me one of those million-watt smiles that waitresses have used for millennia to melt their customers into a good tip and told me how thankful she was for the book recommendations and that she’s looking forward to following up on them. As I turned around after we said goodbye and left for the front door, I’m 94% sure I heard her say to someone else “I’m probably going to rip them up in a minute.” We’d said nothing to one another that was not book-related, and our conversation was basically two minutes long, but nevertheless I felt like a spurned lover thrown out after a one-night stand. How could I have been so dumb to believe anyone who tells you she loves books whom no one in their right mind could ever love in a million years? There are certain writers, certain painters, certain musicians, certain filmmakers, whose entire existence is due to their being able to dress up vulgarity and sensation under the guise of profundity and importance. Bob Dylan and Thomas Mann are obviously examples of this, so were Milton and Wagner, but so also was Stanley Kubrick and so is Terrence Malick, so were Antonioni and Godard, so were Sartre and Foucault, so were Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and Heidegger, so were Hegel and Rousseau.... These are but a few among many exemplars of a particularly noxious kind of allegedly lofty thought: they are not examples of intelligence, they are examplars of a vulgar person’s conception of intelligence - a world in which human affection is banished, and so are humor and sadness and empathy, and all that’s left is a queasy digestion of banal and dangerous platitudes dressed in the guise of profundity which tells you that compassion and the extension of humanitarian impulses should have restrictive limits - and therefore we should allow ourselves contempt for some in place of compassion. True masters allow you to feel compassion and contempt simultaneously, and present you characters like a balance sheet in which you may judge them harshly for their sins even as you sympathize with them for why they acted as they did. But without that empathy, you've created a poisoned art: you might as well pour Drano onto a vegetable and tell children that it’s still good for them.

7. Nihlism - I know that Nihlism is the wrong word for this, but I don’t think the right word exists. A few weeks ago, I had a very memorable conversation with Jordan about my attitude towards counterculture. He didn’t understand how I defended everything about something for which I clearly have such contempt. But what’s the alternative?” I asked. The alternative is to enforce a regression to a culture that once was, an enforcement that plots to move history and evolution backward and work against nature itself. The alternative to letting culture procede as it must is the fanaticism that goes with trying to repress people’s expression. I might not like what people express: I might think 99% of the music I hear is stupid and not worth people’s time to make or listen, I might think tattoos are generally a waste of skin, I might think that a person who needs clothes to express themselves is too superficial to express anything deep, I might think a person who thinks that no critical judgement matters is a person with whom I never want to be in the same gallery or performance space, I might think that a society which negates learning about other cultures is a society that willingly makes itself dumber; but such stupidities are precisely what America was invented to shelter, because European history makes abundantly clear what happens when people are forced to turn their eyes towards profundity. As it was at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, nihlism is the curse of our time - a curse not of eras which lack no values, rather one of eras which lack shared values. The people within our society can no longer explain the things they value to one another and convince each other to value the same things, and thus nihlistic eras are inevitably followed by eras with far worse curses. In a long period of peacetime (and this period is as peaceful as our crazy world gets), shared values bifurcate as quickly as mitotic cells, and no two groups of people can agree on a set of values because they have too much time to debate values and not enough pressure upon them to realize life’s true essentials. In many ways, we live in a Cultural Golden Age as fine as the late 19th century, and yet like the 1890’s-1900’s it’s a Golden Age precisely because culture’s grown so decadent that it sows the very seeds of its own destruction. A public spoiled by luxury to whom concerns of the spirit don’t matter enough to want to share their spiritual lives with their community is a public which will eventually lose its luxury as carelessly as they dispatched their community life. A public which values individualism to the point that community no longer matters is a public that will lose its individuality quite suddenly and without warning. I can’t blame others for choosing to believe in apathy: everything - the Modern World, God, government, art, philosophy, science, family, and other people (make your own list) - has failed us to some degree. While even the lower-middle-class among us live in the kind of luxury which would turn Baroque monarchs green with envy, we also live with the knowledge that in an instant, we can all be obliterated by a simple nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon - and if we’re not killed instantly, we will die a death painful past the dreams of a Medieval Inquisitor. We all drink water, eat food, and breathe air poisoned with toxins can cause the longest, most painful fatal illnesses yet known to man. Anyone subject to all these disappointments and anxieties would go crazier day by day. But the end result of this nihilism can only be a conservative resurgence. The end result of the 1960’s was not a revolution for a greater spirit, the end result was George W. Bush and the Tea Party. Even among the kingdom of the human species, Mother Nature always finds a way to balance herself, and if a society values the individual more than community and if one era cares about the concerns of the individual at the expense of the community, the next will invariably care about the concerns of the community at the expense of the individual. I’ll defend your right to negate communities to the ends of the time, but I’ll never forgive you for making me defend that right.

6. Unrequited Love - Like most balding, portly neurotics under 5’6, I have far more experience in this life with unrequited love than with the requited kind. Unrequited love is a bore, and I’ve had it bad. No matter how different the girls, there is a mindnumbing sameness to every experience. And yet, like the future Alzheimer’s patient I no doubt am, one gets it into one’s head every time that this time will be the different one. The thought that this girl somehow understands you when no other ever could is what gets you through the day. And you simply like the person you are more when you’re in love. And yet, the disappointment, the humiliation, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all catches up with you every time, for the ugly and under confident among us anyway... And yet all that frustration, all that suffering, finds its way into other endeavors. Those of us too odd for long-term relationships usually find ourselves doing things which people in long-term relationships would never countenance. Those of you unlucky enough to spend your lives feeling loved follow the stock of an assembly line, and the sheer predictability of your routine is enough to suffocate all that’s good and unique in every one of you. And you all know it. And God... what I’d have given up for just a little of your insipidness... So all you women who could never keep up with me in a long-term relationship or any relationship at all, nuts to you. I was too nice and too mean, too boring and too interesting, too underconfident and too arrogant, too smart and too dumb, too underwhelming and too accomplished. But whatever I was, you were all dumb enough to throw me away. My consolation, and a surprisingly fulfilling one, is that I can attack you for the idiots you were in posts like these :).

5. Segregation - Any kind of segregation is bad, except perhaps of the segregation of viruses from other organisms (though perhaps that's only because we haven't listened to the narrative of the virus closely enough) but in this case I mean a very specific kind of segregation. I grew up in Pikesville, Maryland. It is, in its way, one of the most segregated, inbred towns on earth. I did not know a single non-Jew who was not a musician or cleaning lady until I was 16. The idea of the world being a large place was a mere postulate. The diversity of the world overwhelms me, how can it not when I realize that I can identify nearly every breed of Jew almost down to which Old Country a Jewish acquaintance’s family hailed from before they tell me, and yet only know other cultures through what I can read about in books and see on television. To this day, I can’t help looking at the non-Jewish world with anxiety. I’ve never much cared for the idea of living mostly among Jews, but it’s the devil I know. I do not hate Judaism, but I do feel entitled to dislike some of the effects Judaism has had upon me, and I think I’d have been a (slightly) less irascible adult had I grown up with somewhat less of it. Like Philip Roth, I’m a proud self-hating Jew, and I’d like to think that I’ve earned the right.

4. Sadness - I know, you might as well say you hate murder. But sadness is an omnipresent state for many of us. Some days, you wake up and eat breakfast with the worst memories of a lifetime. You spend time alone in your house and the foul terror of your worst thoughts gangs up on you like a second person locked in your body who knows your most shameful secrets and exploits them shamelessly for the sole purpose of confirming your worst fears. Which leads us to:

3. The Enoblement of Sadness - There is nothing noble about sadness. Let me say that again. There is nothing noble about sadness. There is only the suffering it engenders, and the overwhelming feat of will it takes to be joyful in spite of it. People should celebrate those who’ve summoned that will to joy in the face of suffering, and feel lots of sympathy for suffering people who seem to lack that willpower. But it is disgusting to glorify suffering as an end in itself. The idea that suffering somehow purifies us and makes us morally more upright is not only incorrect, it is an excuse for letting suffering people suffer more - an excuse which religion exploits to keep so many of its adherents in the basest squalor - and in no religion moreso than Christianity. The glorification of suffering is scrawled through Christian literature like a virus from Dostoevsky to Hebrews with instructions to love God more because he exposes us to the very worst life can offer. Pain is not a badge of honor to be sought, it is the worst experience of a lifetime, and sometimes the most common. It should be avoided and alleviated in every way we know how.  

2. Bland Excellence - Let me put this very simply. I’m a learning disabled adult, and before that I was a learning disabled child. I could solve algebra problems when I was three years old, but could not tie my shoes until I was ten. I have perfect pitch, an encyclopaedic (albeit increasingly faulty) memory, and the ability to digest and retain levels of information that would put most of you into a coma, and yet I could barely pass high school and require months upon months to learn how to perform menial tasks which most of you pick up in a matter of seconds. My brain is a flame which burns on all cylinders every day and never knows a moment’s rest, moving like a horse which knows no exhaustion from one track to another with total abandon of the problem upon which it was ruminating three seconds earlier. It possesses a complete lack of ability to be reigned in by any disciplinary force. I cannot turn this thing off, thus I’ve always had occasion to worry that one day this mind which burns so brightly may simply burn out; and I can only wonder how close that burnout’s already come to happening. I understand  neither how my brain functions, nor why it functions differently from others, but it is to my eternal shame that I’ve been blessed with it. I’ve watched thousands of acquaintances, acquaintances like you, seemingly float from success to success; good school to better school, relationship to marriage, good job to great job - acquaintances who are perfectly nice, if sometimes dull, people who’ve attained success simply by doing what they’re told. I was never good at doing that, and even if I wanted to be obedient, my lopsidedly aligned mind would never let me know how. Were I afforded your opportunities in some world where people are marginally more understanding of faults like mine, I’d have been the best damn student/employee/husband/...maybe even father in the world, but the first third (I can only hope) of my life has passed me by without anybody either willing or able to find the way to get my imperfect functioning in our imperfect world to a level where any of that seems possible in any particularly meaningful way. I work lightly in the family business, the graduate of a third-rate music school and possessing a long (but not particularly) string of relationships that were over before they started. I don’t begrudge any of you your success, I simply begrudge your being more successful than me. And the fact that you’ve all done so much more than I when I’m clearly so much smarter than you drives me insane.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pesach Playlist

(Things really worth listening to will have an asterisk next to it, really worth it will show more asterisks):

Salamone Rossi: Adon Olam **

Salamone Rossi: Al Naharot Bavel (Psalm 137... by the rivers of babylon...) *

Salamone Rossi: Hallelujah (Psalm 146)

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Paraphrase of Super Flumina Babylonis  (Psalm 137)

Alkan: Trois Anciennes  Melodies Juives (or at least the first two)

Alkan: Hallelujah (Psalm 150)

Halevy: La Juive *

Mendelssohn: Elias/Elijah] ****

Joachim: Hebrew Melody #1 for Viola and Piano

Schoenberg: Mose und Aron ***

Schoenberg: De Profundis *

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw *****

Zemlinsky: Psalm 83

Ullmann: 3 Hebrew Boys' Choruses (written in Terezinstadt) ****

Ullmann: A Maydl in di Yorn **

Copland: Vitebsk ***

Milhaud: Trois Psaumes de David

Schnittke: Psalms of Repentence I *, VIII ****, X ****,

Golijov: Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind ***

Golijov: Yiddishbbuk **

Paul Ben-Haim: Sweet Psalmist of Israel: 1, 2, 3, ***

Ben-Haim: Suite 'From Israel': 1, 2, ***

Steve Reich: Daniel Variations *****

Reich: Tehillim  ***

John Zorn's Kristallnacht ****

John Zorn: Kol Nidre

Leonard Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony ****

Bernstein: Kaddish Symphony  (with the better narration) **

Bernstein: Chalil **

Bernstein: Hashkivenu ****

Bernstein: Chichester Psalms *****

Ernest Bloch: Voice in the Wilderness *

Bloch: Israel Symphony - I, II, III **

Bloch: Schelomo ***

Bloch: Ba'al Shem ****

Bloch: Suite Hebraique **

Bloch: Psaume 22 ***

Bloch: Avodat Hakodesh *****

Kurt Weill: The Eternal Road **

Hugo Weisgall: Esther (only a preview...)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

800 Words: 10 Years Ago... (Part 3)

(The Barbarian Invasions. One of the few perfect movies in existence. When I first saw this movie, I thought this scene overly glib and cruel. Eight years later, it strikes me as exactly right in every respect.)

It was only on 9/11 that the world awoke to the reality of America. It is a country like any other country, potentially as unstable and dangerous as anywhere in the world. And like all people who awaken to their vulnerability, America overreacted. When a teenager first realizes the precariousness of his existence, his first instinct is to prove his invulnerability - thereby endangering his future all the more.

For hundreds of years, historians will debate the reasons for the Iraq War’s occurance. Many will claim it was about oil money. Many claim it was for the delusion of ridding the world of dictatorship. Many will claim that it was to prove that America was so invulnerable that it could patrol the world with minimal force. But the truth is both simpler and more complex. It was all three. But it was also just 9/11. Thomas Friedman spoke for most Americans when he said that the main reason we went into Iraq was because “We need to go into the Middle East and smash something.”

Perhaps this childish but deadly temper tantrum might have gone a little better. George W Bush was a President in thrall to supply-side economic policy, conservative Christian social policy, and neoconservative foreign policy. All three ideologies believe in the same magic laid upon different fields. Supply-siders believe that lower taxes will raise people’s incentive to work and therefore raise government revenues. Conservative Christians believe that the coercive policing of citizens’ private lives will result in more virtuous behavior. Neoconservatives believe that the forcible and preemptive removal of dictators will further the cause of World Peace. There are already too many statistics in this post, but it should be self-evident that all three of these beliefs are completely self-contradictory. But George W. Bush’s policy was the natural combination of all three, combined into an unholy trinity of ridiculous contradiction.

But in some senses, thank God George W. Bush was our president when it happened. If George Bush had Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle whispering paranoia into his wind tunnel ears, Al Gore would have Joe Lieberman and R. James Woolsey doing the same. Had Al Gore been our 9/11 President and Joe Lieberman his Vice-President, it’s quite possible that they’d have heeded  the liberal hawk equivalent of the same. We’d have been embroiled in Iraq with a (slightly) more multi-national force of 500,000 rather than 135,000. The casualty total would be correspondingly larger, more rogue massacres would probably occur, but Iraq would have been better patrolled and more stable. The State Department and Middle East experts would oversee the process of rebuilding rather than hawkish Generals and movement conservatives. Accountability for war crimes would be in place, oil contracts would be handed to the best-qualified Iraqi engineers, UN humanitarian aid would be plentiful, and Iraqi would qualify for loans to build infrastructure and business. Perhaps Al Gore’s and Tony Blair’s foresight would even be vindicated; ready by the Arab Spring to hand over Iraq to the control of a stable federal democracy in which western-educated liberals, Kurds, and reform-minded Imams (they do exist) can keep the forces political Islam and military absolutism at bay. The world would learn that the Bush (Gore) Doctrine works, and pre-emptive military intervention is the way to maintain law and order throughout the world. Once Iraq is done, President Lieberman and Prime Minister Brown use the moral capital to take our crusade onto Sudan, then Libya, then Syria, then North Korea. And by the end of that process we’d have killed a few million people so we may prevent the potential deaths of tens of millions.

This is the logical fallacy of liberal hawkdom, a fallacy which a Scoop Jackson presidency might have been as privy to as any conservative president and a policy whose temptations Harry Truman always resisted. A doctrine of preemptive war is the doctrine of containment turned on its head. Rather than patiently waiting until a morally bankrupt regime destroys itself, an enemy country destroys the regime. And in the process, makes a martyr of the destroyed leader, kills people the destroyed leader would have eventually killed, and in doing so makes enemies of future friends and vindicates the old leader’s worst propaganda about the enemy regime.

This doctrine of preemption was the doctrine which led imperial Japan to attack the US at Pearl Harbor. Had we preemptively attacked a strong country with a bright future like China rather than Iraq, would it take any more time for China to dismantle the US as we know it than it took our country to dismantle imperial Japan?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And had America proven that pre-emptive nation building can be successful (as we well might have), we would not have been able to resist the next easy step - a temptation to invade countries everywhere and rebuild them in our image whenever we disapprove of their actions. The United States is not an imperial power, and I’m willing to argue with anyone who says we are. But we came perilously close to becoming one, and had the Iraqi reconstruction been successful, that is precisely what the George W. Bushes of the world have become. Resentment would build, corruption would fester, and eventually we’d be invading countries for minor human rights infractions and allowing our biggest businessmen to plunder the countries with slave labor. There are always vultures who will attach themselves to powerful people with good intentions. However good the intentions at imperial rule’s beginning, history demonstrates that vultures are what such rulers inevitably become. In 1821, John Quincy Adams, considered by many still our country’s greatest diplomat, stated that “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But She (America) does not go in search of monsters to destroy... She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

800 Words: 10 Years Ago... (Part 2)

With the Republican party’s late sixties resurgence, the Democratic party lost not only the vote of Dixiecrat bigots and religious fanatics, they also lost organized labor and defense hawks. These are four demographics that were by no means the same. However tenuously, from Truman to Johnson the Democratic party stood for civil rights at home and civil rights abroad, and did everything they could to drag the more backward elements of their party into helping them build a better world. In the process, they ditched party elements that could not acclimate to a better world, but they also ditched many who could. But without a belief that America was a force for good that could help institute civil rights abroad, America lost its zeal to grant civil rights at home. The end result was two entire generations who surrendered American progress to a conservative rule that became ever more conservativeas the decades advanced.

The Vietnam War was a tragic disaster beyond reckoning, but so were the lessons learned from it. By the 1970’s, the majority of Democratic party activists saw little difference between America’s moral credibility and the Soviet Union’s. So sclerotic and unsure was the Democratic party that even Hubert Humphrey, the greatest Civil Rights hero and champion the Democratic establishment ever had, could not galvanize liberals and progressives into uniting against Richard Nixon’s potential election in 1968. All it would have taken to beat Nixon was 500,000 votes more.

The Civil Rights movement, America’s moral conscience of the early 60’s, fragmented and radicalized beyond recognition. By 1965, the brotherly love of Martin Luther King and the political intelligence of Bayard Rustin were replaced by the bellicose provocation of Stokely Carmichael, who declared that “The liberal democrats are just as racist as (Barry) Goldwater,” and the righteous anger of Malcolm X, who declared “the day of turning the other cheek to the brute beasts is over.”

Just when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs seemed set to bring about the long-needed change - to give black people the education they needed to compete with whites and to integrate blacks into the American labor movement - the black community grew impatient with the rate of change, and all too many listened to their most incensing leaders. Had they held on to Dr. King’s dream just two years longer, The Great Society may have been achieved. But just as they fell prey to demagoguery, so could White America. Many blacks believed that Civil Rights moved too slowly, but by 1966, two-thirds of whites believed that Civil Rights were moving too quickly. The end result of Black Separatism was the Republican congress of 1967, which slashed Great Society programs to levels unrecognizable – programs that would have helped white laborers enormously as well as black ones.

The involvement in Vietnam did not help matters. Harry Truman instituted containment, and should be credited with implementing the policy that ultimately defeated the Soviet Union. But Truman went too far. The Truman Doctrine committed America to the assistance of all democratic movements in the face of Communist threat – as attractive in theory as so many progressive axioms, but just as difficult in practice. George Kennan’s original proposition of containment warned that assistance in a place where communism combines with nationalism is doomed to failure – a warning that the United States often did not heed, and with risible results. Nevertheless, it was still possible to oppose the Vietnam War with every fiber of one’s being, and still believe in the export of liberal democracy, to see the Soviet Union as a totalitarian threat to the whole world, and to believe that America’s presence in the world was still a on the whole a much greater force for good than evil.

But to a new generation of the American left, American liberalism was the problem itself. To the New Left, the very existence of The Vietnam War displayed the corruption at liberalism’s heart. The very belief in the moral superiority of America’s government to others and the belief in America’s fundamental benevolence on the world stage showed the older generation’s liberal sham for what it was. For many on the New Left, America was exhibiting all the same signs of totalitarian rule as could be found in the Soviet Union and even Nazi Germany. Many of them looked at The Vietnam War and the South, and they saw Munich and Kronstadt.  

Liberals wanted reform, The New Left wanted revolution. And because they agitated for revolution in a society that had reformed so much in so little time, they alienated the rest of America and drove two generations of voters into the arms of Conservative Republicans.

But The New Left did not agitate for Communist revolution. They agitated for a revolution of the educated. Their main organ, Students for a Democratic Society, saw organized labor as a stale remnant of the old liberal order which barred blacks and built the machinery of war. Both Richard Nixon and George Wallace seized the opportunity like vultures in a slaughterhouse. During the 1968 election, George Wallace claimed he was campaigning not only for segregation, but for the “average man in the street, the man in the textile mill, the man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, this policeman on his beat.”. In his convention speech, Richard Nixon declared that “Working Americans have become the forgotten Americans. In a time when national rostrums and forums are given over to shouters and protesters and demonstrators, they have become the silent Americans."

In 1972 and ‘76, the Democratic primary candidate Republicans truly feared was Henry “Scoop” Jackson, from Washington. The “Senator from Boeing” never met a defense budget increase he didn’t approve and repeatedly criticized President Eisenhower for not spending enough on the military, he supported the Vietnam War with a fervor that most Republicans could not equal, he supported the Japanese internment camps as a beginner congressman during World War II, and after the camps were disbanded, he opposed allowing Japanese Americans to return to the Pacific Coast. Scoop Jackson was also, next to Hubert Humphrey, perhaps the staunchest advocate of civil rights in the mid-century Senate. He helped create Medicare, anti-poverty spending, and environmental protections. He was at the forefront of the fight to allow Soviet Citizens to emigrate from the USSR, and few if any senators were as supportive of organized labor. Lastly, he was one of the few senators to vocally oppose Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Red Scare.

Scoop Jackson’s contradictions made him the ultimate embodiment of America’s mid-century folly. He was a tax-and-spend liberal who was equally brutal when fighting enemy combatants abroad and poverty at home. Like Truman, he was too idealistic about war to be a truly great president, but he’d have been miles better than either Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter – and he was more likely than any other Democrat to win two terms.

Jackson’s presidential campaigns were positively bathed in patriotism’s rhetoric. It was a last-ditch attempt to reclaim an unabashedly pro-America worldview for Democrats. When he declared his candidacy, he said that he was “fed up with people running down America. This is not a guilty, imperialistic, and oppressive society. This is not a sick society. This is a great country… that is conscious of its wrongs and is capable of correcting them.” The contradictions continued throughout the campaign, he was unabashedly pro-labor, he believed in national health care. He also voiced vehement opposition to using busing as a means to desegregate schools, and was the only Democratic candidate of his time who brought up escalating crime rates as an issue. By the end of the ‘72 campaign, Scoop Jackson, the civil rights lion, was denounced as a racist.

Scoop Jackson’s campaign assistant was a young Democrat named Richard Perle. Other young Democrats who worked for him included Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, Charles Horner, and Ben Wattenberg. The politicians who’ve cited Senator Jackson as an influence include Joe Lieberman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jane Harman, and R. James Woolsey.

Scoop Jackson is the patron saint of neo-conservatism. And because the Democratic party chose defeat rather than the victory of an ideologically compromised candidate, the neoconservatives of Scoop Jackson’s office decamped to the Republican side. These ‘Scoop Jackson Democrats’ learned a foully wrong lesson. Because of the Democratic party’s insistence on ideological purity, the Jackson Democrats saw their party as weak and mendacious. And because their hero was spurned for being too strong, they decamped to the American party which made a religion of strength. Their philosophy was mid-twentieth century American liberalism perverted into a tool to aid the goals of the delusional  and corrupt. By decamping, most of these neoconservatives demonstrated neither Jackson’s commitment to social progress nor his realism when it came to dealing with true conservatives.  When Ronald Reagan approached Jackson for a presidential endorsement in exchange for a cabinet post, Jackson refused: “My mind is still with The New Deal.”

800 Words: 10 Years Ago... (Part 1)

On March 9th, 2003, I’d turned 21 years old, and my parents surprised me in my Czech hotel room with a bottle of champagne and a Happy Birthday note. Rather than spend the big 2-1 as Americans are supposed to - getting shikkored at an American bar (there’d be plenty of opportunities for that later...), I spent my birthday jetlagged from a flight to Prague. I went on a Spring Break trip sponsored by the American University Honors Program, a program to which I’d been accepted by the skin of my teeth. Just six months before I'd been in the Learning Disabled program, and the Honors Program had already rejected me once before. 

That week in Prague was one of the most bizarre weeks of my life. It began with the Honors Program director insisting on buying me six Czech beers on my birthday when I was already too jetlagged to walk. It ended with my refusal to go with the rest of the program to the Terezinstadt concentration camp - to this day, I’ve never been to a Nazi camp. Nevertheless,I spent that week in what might be the most beautiful city I’ve ever encountered (Jerusalem, Odessa, Florence, Nice, Sienna, Avignon, Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, Boston, London, and yes... DC, are other candidates). For all that week's bizarreness, I heard performances of Mozart’s Requiem, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte in a single week, I encountered the joys of Becherovka (and the agonies of Slivovitz), I tasted the deliciousness of goulash and dumplings, drank what’s still the best beer I’ve ever had, and had my first awakening that Europe was a living, breathing place and not the entombed monument of my dreams. There were lots of frustrations on that trip, but in my memory, it will always be the first taste of my adult life at feeling successful.  

One day after our return, the US went into Iraq. It was a red-letter day in American history for everybody, but I didn't just experience this at just any place. This was a day to be experienced at AU.

American University. The most political school in America, perhaps in the entire world. Not a school where ultra privileged children went to grandstand before they ran for office, but a university for students who were obsessively passionate about politics. The university, the best of the university anyway, comprised itself of men and women who lived and breathed the subject as others do sports or music.

And on that day ten years ago, a knife could slice the tension into a million, zillion parts. I remember walking on the quad in the early afternoon. Hardly a single person could be seen from its center. Everybody was glued to the television, everybody was uneasy, everybody was anticipating the explosion of demonstrations guaranteed to occur from both sides. The campus was rife with the tension that everybody knew would shortly arrive. But our anxieties were far more global. We also knew that for better or worse, we were entering an entirely new chapter in American History.

Never had the ordeal of change felt so palpably like what it is. Was America about show the world it was truly invincible - able to win a war and a peace with minimal forces and minimal backing from allies? Or did America just let slip the dogs of World War III? 

The answer, of course, was neither. Yes, the Iraq War was a disaster, but it was a minor disaster compared to the apocalypse we’d been warned about from both sides. There were no nuclear weapons and only minimal chemical weapons. Far less chemical weapons were found than were used in either the Iran-Iraq War or against the Kurds. 

But nor was Iraq the violent deluge of progressive imaginings. Billions of lives were not lost, and the United States is still a country. It wasn’t even half as bad a disaster as Vietnam. The Vietnam War created a refugee crisis roughly 3 million strong, and it cost approximately 2 million lives - or nearly 4 million if you count the war’s ramifications in neighboring countries. I can’t find reliable totals for the wounded among the North Vietnamese, but 1.5 million South Vietnamese were wounded. Around 58,000 Americans were killed, 2,000 went missing, 300,000 Americans were wounded, and at least 610 Vietnamese were killed in what can only be termed American massacres. 

The only way the Iraq War compares to Vietnam is in the number of refugees, for which the UN estimates there are 2.2 million. Reliable estimates put the deaths of the Iraq War at the still horrific total of somewhere between 110-160,000, and I can find no record of the total Iraqi wounded. Roughly 4,500 of those deaths were American, and at least 32,000 American soldiers were wounded. Iraq is not as bad as Vietnam, but it was most certainly a disaster; and unlike Vietnam, a disaster which we caused.

There is no way of knowing how many Iraqis would have died had Saddam Hussein maintained power. Had the Arab Spring spread to a Saddam-controlled Iraq, perhaps he’d have gone the way of Bashar al-Assad and begun massacring whole towns indiscriminately - though knowing Saddam, it would be whole provinces. Or perhaps he might have been another Qaddafi, with comparatively few state sponsored massacres (how weird it feels to write that), and a gargantuan intelligence apparatus ready at the first sign to turn on him. By now, it’s even possible that Iraq without American forces might have become a democracy - perhaps even a relatively functional one considering how much less organized political Islam is in Iraq than in a country like Egypt. It’s also possible that Saddam would have killed another 3 million Iraqis. Or maybe Saddam would have died a natural death, and with his death might come a wholesale collapse of his regime. Perhaps the entire Iraqi military would divide up into factions which cause a civil war that killed half the country.

The Iraq War was grounded in such counterfactuals. It was based upon a the fevered musings of a country grown fat with over-privilege and too little experience of the world’s cruelties. War was not a present reality for us, it was (and is) an abstract. For nearly 140 years, no war occurred on American soil. However bloody America is for certain people, America itself has been the safest place to live in the whole world since the end of the Civil War.

And yes, I was a war supporter, most Americans were. And I was a rather fervent supporter. Self-described liberals who supported the war were extremely common among older Americans, but on a college campus - especially this college campus - they were rare as diamonds. I was interviewed on AU Radio along with a friend of mine as the only self-described liberal students who supported the Iraq War. For the interview, I did my usual spiel, which by then I’d narrowed down to a party trick. The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1943 as a Hitler solidarity movement. The Iraqi population was roughly 25,000,000, of whom Saddam had killed more than 1.2 million. That would be the equivalent of Hitler killing 25,000,000 Europeans in World War II before anyone took action to depose him. Yes, other mass-murderering dictators need to be deposed too, but if the world will be free of democide, we have to start somewhere, and Iraq is the best place. Saddam’s Ba’ath party is a Sunni minority within a Sunni minority which might have collapsed any day, bringing chaos on a level even this invasion has not yet seen. And had Iraq collapsed without an American presence, Turkey, Iran, and Syria may all invade Iraq and go to war with one another in an effort to claim Iraqi territory as their own.

This was my pennance. My beliefs, such as I had, grew ever more radical through high school. On September 12th, I didn’t rejoice, but I was certainly one of the people who repeated the “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” cliche. I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan, and the very idea of the American ethos being morally superior to even Osama bin-Laden filled me with rage. But as I immersed myself ever more in the world of Washington, the contradictions of my beliefs contorted my mind. For smarter or dumber, I was creature enough of my upbringing to believe in spite of my other beliefs that Israel was a true democracy which repeatedly showed good faith in peace talks; while the Arafat government never let go of their goal - vanquishing the Jewish State. And somehow, I kept this belief even in the face of many other radicals shouting at me that I was a racist for believing so. There was a time in my life when I heard about the Holocaust with glazed eyes, as though invoking Hitler was a mere smokescreen to excuse ignorance for genocides of the present. But by college, those glazed eyes would infuriate me. Try as I might, and I tried very hard, I could not let go of the Jew in me. And that little Jew inside me would pull me further to the right than I ever needed to go. I was never a neoconservative, but I was very much a liberal hawk. And like all liberal hawks, I believed that liberalism was betrayed by liberals.

And even if I was wrong, I had a damned good point. Woodrow Wilson displayed democracy as a legitimate third way against dictatorship and monarchy. Franklin Roosevelt beat The Great Depression and the Nazis. The policies of Harry Truman won the Cold War. Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty and Civil Rights. In the years between Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, liberal causes were a vast wasteland of failure. How did liberalism fail so decisively at the very moment when its greatest goals seemed within reach?

Perhaps the backlash was inevitable. Civil Rights legislation delivered generations of Southerners to Republican hands. Meanwhile, Conservative Christians, a mostly dormant force in American politics since William Jennings Bryan, were alarmed by liberal gains on abortion and the triumph of science over religion.

But liberals didn’t make it easy on themselves. The real story of the 1960’s was not the protests, which were very small, or even the race riots, which accelerated the urban decay that would have happened anyway. The true story of The Sixties is how the Republican party exploited these otherwise marginal events in American History to scare voters into changing their loyalties. And while conservatives stole America, liberals fell asleep.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Have Opinions On The Pope? - A Followup Guest Post from a Reader

Of course it was a quick conclave. Here I was in the midst of a very busy week, assuming that the new Pope would be chosen after approximately 267 ballots on a nice quiet weekend day. But nooooo...they had to be quick. So I haven't had a ton of time to give it the full weight of thought that the matter deserves. 

In order for this post to be worth reading, I will dispense with the mass media cliches now: South America, Pope cooks his own meals and rides the bus, Francis of Asissi, Jesuit, surprise choice, blah blah blah. All are fine points to mention, but they have been beaten to death in short order. Here are my thoughts so far on Pope Francis based on the points I made shortly after Benedict XVI's retirement announcement:

1) Did true self-examination through a collective exercise of the Sacrament of Reconciliation take place? In some ways we will never know. The conclave is the ultimate executive session. In some ways it appears as though the Church wanted the appearance of a change, which at least shows more savvy PR skills than they have displayed since John Paul II was riding high. The pre-selection reports indicated that the Curia's choice was a Brazilian (change!) while the primary Italian contender was the reformers' pick (more change!), and this report indicates that the Italian, Angelo Scola, sent his votes to Cardinal Bergoglio to send the Argentinian to a quick victory. 

If this choice is indeed nothing but a PR move, it is movement, because it indicates that enough of the Cardinals (all of whom appointed by either Benedict or John Paul II) recognized that change was needed, in particular a change to make the leity feel closer to the Vatican. Francis has a great narrative of a humble priest who tends to the poor and forgoes the trappings of power, with a holy name that symbolizes humility and reform. But much remains to be seen in terms of how much change he will actually create.

2) Sexual Abuse: The Greatest Crisis the Church FacesBased on what I have read, Pope Francis does not have much of a record in this regard. Much like many others, victims advocates are slightly optimistic because of the symbolism this selection is sending - hope and change and whatnot. But plenty of social justice-oriented clerics have failed this vital test. Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras is one of the more left-leaning Cardinals there is, but in 2002 he claimed that attention paid to sex abuse was caused by Jews influencing the media to gin up outrage. Yikes. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium (now retired) was the great hope of liberals during the past conclave, and in 2010 he was revealed to have concealed the exposure of a Bishop's guilt in sexual abuse from public view. And most recently, Cardinal Roger Mahony was seen as more moderate, and advocated on behalf of liberal causes like immigration reform. But he also was exposed for having covered up abuse from priests and for that cover-up resulting in ongoing abuse - in other words, as bad as Bernard Law. And now his conservative Opus Dei successor is trying to clean up the mess. 

So the divisions on this matter do not fall according to traditional ideologies. It just came out that Francis was meeting with Cardinal Law (now holding a cushy gig in the Roman Curia). This is his first test on the issue. If he is sincere about addressing abuse head-on, he will strip Law of any power he currently has. And from there, he must subject all inquiries about abuse to civil authorities, with whom priests and any employees of the Church must cooperate with fully. He must declare - as Jesus did on the subject of taxes to Rome - that clergy and lay Catholics are all bound by civil law, and that zero tolerance will be the official policy from here on. 

He is a conservative, so I do not expect him to address the deeper foundations of abuse, such as sexual subjugation and the asinine vow of celibacy. But he can at least stand for the rule of law. 

3) The Benedict PrincipleIn some ways, the biggest hope we can hold out is that he will adhere to the precedent set by Benedict XVI, the radical admission of papal fallibility that led to resignation. Francis is 76, and by all indications is in good health. But if in 10 years he is 86 and in poor control of his mental and physical wherewithal, will he have the courage of character to step aside? If he does, in the spirit of Francis of Asissi, then he will leave behind a more humble Church. 

And that is progress. 

P.S. As an addendum, two points of view from prominent Catholic writers:

First, an optimistic take from Andrew Sullivan. 

Second, a pessimistic take from Garry Wills. 

Both are well worth reading and ring true in their own way.

Friday, March 15, 2013

800 Words: To My 19 and 24 Year Old Political Selves, Part III

At my birthday party a few years ago, a friend from Hyde came to the party whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We came to Hyde at roughly the same time, left with the same graduating class, and ended up going to college for four years in the same city. During college we became pretty firm friends, but during our time at the Hyde Hilton, our attempts at friendship with one another had been extremely ill-tempered. On-and-off friendships at Hyde were an all too common thing as each student tried to ascertain the likelihood of which friend would use the blunt weaponry of the school’s psychological apparatus as a means to turn a personal disagreement into an accusation of a character flaw that needed to be ‘corrected.’

And during all those years of our proximity, he and I clearly developed extremely different feelings about our experiences. There are many people who look back upon Hyde with fondness. I won’t pretend that part of me still wants to view anyone from those years who ever held his opinion as a ‘collaborator’, willing to throw the dignity of peers under the bus to feel better about themselves. But there is one crucial thought which stops me from playing such blame games: to yield to such bitterness would be no different than stooping to the level of that shitty place. The most crucial lesson which every long-term Hyde student must unlearn is that standing firm at all costs for what you believe against those who feel differently is a recipe for the highest possible disaster. Hyde would have had us know that the self-glamorizing feeling one gets from sticking to one’s principles through all trials is life’s highest goal, and that the ability to tell truths at the expense of a harmonious existence is something to which we all should do regardless of cost. But it is precisely that ability to compromise, the ability to adapt, the ability to settle for whatever life endows you, the ability to agree to disagree and to live within a harmonious existence as best we can with one another which enables life to go on. Without that crucial ability to compromise our principles, the world would only be a place of fanaticism, cataclysm, and death.

Like any pre-existing system imposed on other people, the Hyde ‘philosophy’ was not a thought through system, it was a substitute for a thought-through system which was supposed to do our thinking for us. ‘Trust the process’ was another of their favorite maxims, and on a 2-dimensional level, they were exactly right to repeat it. If only their students did everything within their power to submit themselves to their exacting standards - or those of Opus Dei Catholicism, or Orthodox Judaism, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or International Communism - humankind would live a happier, more fulfilling existence. But then, human beings wouldn’t be human, would they? And because humans are human, there are some humans who resent the messiness of being human especially badly. And they invent all sorts of systems which are supposed to correct human nature. But rather than correct it, they contort it.

Furthermore, my own behavior in those years was hardly perfect. Not in terms of the screwups which landed me at Hyde, the imperfections of those go without saying - and those screwups continued long into my stay at Hyde (more on that another time...). In this case, my greater regret is for the behavior of the person I became after those screwups were corrected. After two years at Hyde of... for lack of a better description … suffering and cowering, I joined up and did what I could against panic attacks and revulsion to appear ‘with the program’ and distribute the misery to others which for two full years before before had consistently been distributed to me. And I can’t lie, at times, there was a feeling not unlike pleasure which accompanied the administration of such cruel punishment and the ability to say such cruel things to others. I did what I could to convince myself that I was doing the right thing, but you can’t square a circle. We all have our inner monsters, and should we choose to let them out, the results will, and should, haunt us unto our dying hour.  

I don’t doubt that many people really believed in the virtue of the coercion which they partook in at Hyde, but any impartial witness to the school who saw those things they conceal from everyone who is not on campus would be horrified. Not that they ever would see it: Hyde went to comically great lengths to conceal their real methods from visiting families, from school accreditors, sometimes even from the parents themselves.But we still ought to answer the question: would these impartial observers be right to be horrified?

Well... probably, but we should not be quite so quick to judge. Hyde provided a service which many families desperately require to save their children from addiction, violence, and predators. We should automatically grant that the methods with which the school dispels these terrible influences happen to be at a slight remove from the medieval. But has anyone found a more reliable method?

I did not read George Orwell’s essay: Such, Such Were The Joys, until years after leaving Hyde. And while I certainly saw many parallels between his experience of English boarding school and my experience of American 'character education', I had to admit, in many ways, Orwell got it worse; occasionally a lot worse. At least there was a fig-leaf on Hyde’s corporal punishment in which they’d find loopholes in the law to let charges experience as much physical pain as they could possibly find - no doubt with some grateful parent/lawyer going over the details of their proposed legal and physical contortions with the same fine-tooth comb his son once used to cut cocaine. But so far as I know, no one was ever beaten outright (at least not by the school), we had three daily meals of which were never deprived, and the school never used sleep deprivation as a weapon (though I did stay up three nights in a row from stress many times).  Moreover, Orwell went to St. Cyprian as the reward for being a gifted lower-middle-class scholarship student, whereas most of us went to Hyde because we were upper-middle-class to wealthy children of privilege who found a way to abuse freedom on a level about which the most upper-class children of Orwell’s generation could never dream.

At the very least, this is progress at work. What happens in today’s most disciplined boarding schools is not the torture of Imperial England in which the very acts of savagery were still legalized. Instead, it is the torture of Bush-era Imperious America, in which torture is technically illegal, but the law itself is used to resurrect it in more insidious ways. What happens to the most severely disciplined students in today’s America is torture-ish, but certainly not torture by the standards of Torquemada or Saddam.

In some sense, we all judge from privilege’s vantage. I revile torture as much as any well-meaning liberal should. But were I on the front lines of intelligence gathering, were I subjected to the no doubt unbearable knowledge of what it takes to prevent the proliferation of weapons throughout the world, would I feel the same way? And even if I did, would I feel like I had any ability within my power to convince others of my  belief when they’ve seen all the same terrible things as I have and came to the opposite conclusion?

Thankfully, I’m not the father up all night, waiting to see if my kid survives the drive home after another night of heroin use, or waiting to see if the policeman will call me to post bail after my son was positively ID’d as an accomplice in a gang beating, or waiting helpless as my daughter comes home to reveal another black eye clearly administered by a boyfriend she claims she loves. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were that father. I’m lucky enough that I don’t deal with these people anymore. Am I in a position to judge those people who do deal with them and feel differently from me?