Thursday, October 31, 2013

800 Words: Lincoln Giving Back

I stayed up very late Tuesday Night when I realized that Chinatown was playing on TCM. I’d seen it at least twice before, and for years, it’s held up in my mind as as great and devastating a movie as has ever been made. To be sure, the movie’s still a virtuoso miracle of craftsmanship, plotting, pacing, acting, and relevance. In our era of The Great Recession, few movies have more to teach us about the evil which makes our world a worse place to live. But as it is with Rosemary’s Baby before it, and The Pianist afterwards, Roman Polanski shows a mastery of locking you into a plot, and slumping you further and further into your seat as you feel claustrophobically trapped by the disgust of the situation he exposes. He doesn’t entertain you, he brutalizes you - he puts your sensations on edge and lets you feel every raw nerve in your body. This is not a movie to be experienced lightly; if you watch it too often, you could go mad.

The Wednesday before, I watched Lincoln. I saw it last year, and while I liked it, the movie seemed trapped in its own staginess. It seemed far too dialogue heavy and far too enamored of its subject matter to truly branch out into real vibrancy. But during this viewing, tears welled up in my eyes five separate times. It is not a movie with anything approaching Chinatown’s perfection, but it does make you feel hope. Like Chinatown, it has no illusions about the evil which men do, but it does offer us the possibility that by engaging in acts which resemble evil without yielding evil’s most potent temptations, evil can be surmounted and virtue win out. Is it a more truthful portrayal of humanity than Chinatown? I have no idea, and I’m inclined to believe that humanity usually acts  closer to the manner which Chinatown portrays. But even if Lincoln is based on a lie, then it’s based on the lie which we all need to believe if we’re to keep on plugging away at life.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Lincoln as an earnest, inspirational movie which should provoke us all to greater action because of its message. But that’s much too easy a write-off for a movie which is so cynical about the political process it nevertheless espouses. In this movie, Abraham Lincoln is so powerfully charismatic because he is very much a cynical, wheeler-dealer politician who always puts his Machiavellian machinations at the service of higher ideals. The hope which Lincoln offers is that moral compromise need not automatically mean the triumph of corruption. In our lifetimes, we will all make hundreds of thousands of moral compromises, and we all need to believe that we can still be good people who retain our humanity in spite of often acting badly. The only alternative is to believe that fanaticism is our only weapon to triumph over evil, and once we believe in fanaticism we allow ourselves far greater acts of evil in good’s name.

The compromised, crooked timber of humanity is what shines through in Lincoln. Like all of us, this hero is deeply flawed, but it’s by using his flaws that he makes the world better. Perhaps what Lincoln shows us is not a true glimpse of humanity, but if the straight-and-narrow pessimism of Chinatown is humanity’s accurate portrayal, then what is served by our knowing it?  

Just as it does with people, the humanity of artworks shines through. Some people give back, and you feel better, more consoled, more supported, more uplifted in their presence than you would if they weren’t there. But some people are airless, they sap you of energy, they make you less your best self in your presence, and you hate yourself a little more by the time you leave them. Just as with people, without that human quality, the work in question is in some sense spoiled and corrupted - less great, perhaps far less, than it would otherwise be. Too much compassion and the work seems overly full of shit, too much contempt and the work feels abusive. It is in that middle ground between compassion and contempt in which a peaceful person exists. If human nature is ever to be better than that of Noah Cross’s, then we need more things - people, art, religions, philosophies, sciences, tools, moral maps - to show us the way.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

By Bread Alone - Another Mediocre Poem

The sixtieth burp of the hour,
The thirtieth sneeze of the day,
The tenth diarrhea of the week,
The first dehydration of the month.

Grapes never seemed wrathful to me,
Apples not that erudite,
Yet how many carbs of affliction have I brought upon myself?
The drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty,
and their drowsiness has clothed me with nothing but fat.

I am weak in the flesh, and growing weaker.
I am a king of infinite space and an emperor of ice cream.
Do I dare to eat a peach?
If only I could go on eating words.

Penny Dreadful of Station North - A Mediocre Poem

Red from two minute-old sobs,
held over by circles of sallow yellow flesh,
the deadness of those coal-black Michael Myers eyes,
shielded from view by the fleshy smile in windup she flashes to which she neither attributes nor expects belief.
Here stands, soon to lie, the pigeon-grey-and-green woman,
who makes an ever-duller xerox from that moment in the private school bathroom stall.
And after the cock crows,
she’ll have brought forth yet another
of the numberless dreams conjured from time’s pale fire .
She is Penny Dreadful of Station North, and she will fuck on.

....I enjoyed that, I may write more of these.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Family Season - Part I (will there be a part 2?...)

Winter is the season of Solitude - it’s too cold to leave the house much, and more than any other time of year, you spend more days entertaining yourself than any other. Spring is the season of Romance - everybody’s emerging from their houses and ready to meet new people and make new experiences. Summer is the season of Friendship - there’s vacation time and most people use it to spend quality time with friends whom they otherwise wouldn’t see much. But what is Fall the season of?

Family. Whatever your religion, there are more holidays and weddings in Fall than any other time of year - there's simply more time in the summer to plan for them. It is the season of institutions - school resumes and the workload gets heavier. It is a time of year when we all proclaim our allegiance to forces much greater than ourselves. But I wonder if there isn’t a more primeval reason as well.

The concept of the seasons being tied to history and literature goes back at least to Northup Frye and perhaps to even Spengler, though I can’t help thinking that they tapped into something far more ancient. Frye is particularly noted for his observation that each season has its own particular story. Spring is, of course, the season of romance - with its new beginnings and resumption of natural life. Summer is the season of comedy - when the world overheats and the natural world’s frustrations are grounded in the fact that there is too much vitality rather than too little. Fall is the season of tragedy - when we watch helplessly as everything that is vigorous begins to darken, wilt, and die. Winter is the season of irony - when the natural world is already covered in death, and the point of existence begins to seem less tragic than absurd.

The reasons that solitude, romance, and friendship, might be bonded to Winter, Spring, and Summer, seem rather obvious. But it’s probably a little harder to see why tragedy would necessarily be tied to family. But the answer to that question is probably the most necessary bond of them all. When the world around us is dying, family is the only bond solid enough to give us a fighting chance to get through life. The fall harvest comes in, and with the fall crop comes its harvest of human beings. As the body struggles to cope with the change in weather, contagious and congenital diseases become ever more prevalent as winter approaches. Wars inevitably intensify in the fall as every fighter presses for the greatest possible gains before roads freeze and mass transportation becomes virtually impossible. Both of the World Wars began in Autumn (WWI technically started in August, but the real fighting didn’t begin until September), so did Stalin’s Great Purge, the Battle of Stalingrad was fundamentally an autumn battle, as were Antietam and Somme. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in late Autumn, so did Mao take over China. It was in fall that the Berlin Conference took place which ceded Congo to the control of Leopold II’s Belgium, and in fall that Auschwitz began to exterminate its prisoners.

There is something about Fall which seems intimately bound with dying - not with death, that remains winter’s prerogative. But in the face of imminent mortality, we need to believe with especial passion in a greater purpose to our suffering. Only institutions larger than us can provide us with the continuity we need to believe that we have greater a chance of survival, and if survival proves impossible, then of being remembered, and of finding meaning and strength through life’s difficulty. No man is an island, and were he so, how could he ever stand tall in the fall winds? Our impending deaths give us our reason for family, for God, for employment, for government, even for war.

And yet there’s a terrible irony which is perhaps the inevitable cause of fall’s solidarity to lead us into winter’s solitude. No man is an island, but every deceased man is. Not even family can protect us from death, and we all arrive to knock at our makers’ doorstep alone. When an honest man is dying, how can he not look back on his life and not think - what was it all for? When viewed from a distance, how much of life seems unnecessary? Trite? Overblown? How much needless frustration? How many absurd delusions? How many wasted years on matters he cared not at all? From fall’s familiar solidarity comes the realization after the harvest that we are surrounded by dying nature, waning sky, the gradual decay of middle age. The dying of fall is the decline in store for us all - for dusk, for the seasons, for animals, for people, for family bonds, for nations (and especially ours right now), for planets and solar systems and galaxies. It is the realization that you’ve lived more time that you’re going to live. It is the realization that the parameters of what your life will be have already been set, and even if better fortune soon comes your way, it is just a mere afterword to the struggle you underwent to acquire it.   

It’s all terribly bleak, yet also bleakly funny. All those things which seem significant when possibility was rife become incredibly stupid when life’s limitations encroach on us. All those burdens which seem so onerous in middle age become absurd in one’s dotage. When we enter the winter of our lives and are surrounded by so much which is already dead, what point is there in striving for more life when life as we always understood it no longer exists? All that remains is to accept that the end is coming, await it patiently, and content oneself with the pleasures a person can acquire in the time that is left. But for those of us lucky enough to see out another winter, it is that acceptance which leads us back to Spring’s renewal.

Family giveth, family taketh away. The solidarity of family is the force that births us, raises us, keeps us alive, and forms us into individuals capable of experiencing the springtime romance that permits us to start our own families. Only in a family, whether biological or surrogate, can we feel part of something greater than who we are. It is the ultimate institution of human endeavor, and therefore more prone to lethal error than any other. Like all worthy human striving, it is also a battlefield of staggering collateral damage - but because family is the most common of all human efforts, the collateral damage of family is larger than that provided by any other institution. All the family love in the world cannot save a family from its helplessness to heal the wounds which childhood, siblinghood, parenthood, and marriage inflict upon us, wounds which people who love each other inevitably cause - usually in the very name of love. Even in families where everyone loves each other and would do anything to help one another, the odds that family members will unwittingly influence one another into lethal activities which severely curtail one another’s quality of life - be they smoking, or alcohol, or dangerous driving, or debilitating mental illness, or obesity, or promiscuity, or drugs, or violence - are positively unavoidable. There is no such thing as a fully functional family.  If a family appears perfect, then either the parent or the child is a serial killer.

The reason for this should be pretty obvious. To draw from a realm which I bloviate about rather more often - Family is not a democracy; it is, in every sense, a dictatorship of the older against the younger. Sometimes, authoritarianism, or at least things which resemble it, is necessary, but just as there’s no such thing as an incorruptible dictator, there is not a single parent in the world who is will not at some moments exploit their privilege and authority against their subjects. There is no heavier burden in the world than to be solely responsible for the welfare of others, and such heavy responsibility will inevitably lead to parents shirking some part of their responsibility and feeling entitled to do so - perhaps occasionally they’re even right to feel entitled. Nevertheless, no matter how hard they try, there is not a single parent in the world who did not screw their children up royally - sometimes simply by how hard they tried to be good parents.

And like all dictatorships, the rulers ossify and grow out of touch with their subjects. The struggle for survival and dominance, the overthrowing of one generation by the next, is the basic shape of the life cycle. One generation commends its works to another and declares its mighty acts, only for the next generation not to give a fuck. The amnesia is what propels them to their own mighty acts, only to find themselves eventually becoming the tyrants they once swore they'd do better than.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My Favorite Album - Der Kaurich

Album: Love is Hell Artist: Ryan Adams Release: May 3, 2004

Track Listing:

1."Political Scientist" 4:33

2."Afraid Not Scared" 4:13

3."This House Is Not for Sale" 3:53

4."Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" 5:31

5."Love Is Hell" 3:19

6."Wonderwall" Noel Gallagher 4:09

7."The Shadowlands" 5:18

8."World War 24" 4:17

9."Avalanche" 5:09

10."My Blue Manhattan" 2:23

11."Please Do Not Let Me Go" 3:37

12."City Rain, City Streets" 3:49

13."I See Monsters" 3:57

14."English Girls Approximately" 5:42

15."Thank You Louise" 2:52

16."Hotel Chelsea Nights" 5:10

“An utterly gloomungous affair with barely a crack of light piercing the lowering clouds of misery.” - Uncut 2004. 

This is a pretty apt description of the album, which is part of the reason I love it so.

It is almost Love is Hell season. Music, for me, is tied to a time and place. Love is Hell is a winter album saved for the first big snow in Michigan. Still to this day I can remember listening to Political Scientist while walking to the bus stop. Sight lines are barely 3 feet in front of you as the swirling greyish white that is Michigan winter surrounds you. The sun is barely breaking through the clouds. The wind is blowing just enough to remind you it is bone chilling cold. The album meets the weather realities of winter with tales of how love does not work out. It meets harsh weather with the one of the harsh realities of life, that relationships do not typically work. So give the album a spin as the temperature drops and your heart starts to cool on love.

Der Kaurich is a political activist, music lover, and Tigers fan living in Baltimore.

Click here for La Magram's Contribution
Click here for Die Myhre's Contribution
Click here for Der Mazur's Contribution
Click here for La Cohen's Contribution
Click here for Il Greenwood's Contribution
Click here for Der Thobaben's Contribution
Click here for Doundou Tchil's Contribution
Click here for Eta Boris's Contribution
Click here for HaWinograd's Contribution
Click here for Le Malon's Contribution
Click here for Atomic Sam's Contribution
Click here for La Swaynos's Contribution
Click here for Boulezian's Contribution
Click here for HaZmora's Contribution
Click here for The McBee's Contribution
Click here for Le Drgon's Contribution
Click here for The Brannock's Contribution
Click here for The Danny's Contribution
Click here for The Drioux's contribution
Click here for El Reyes's contribution
Click here for My contribtuion

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Favorite Album - La Magram's Contribution

Chopin: Complete Edition.  Who but Chopin can sound deliriously happy in a minor key?  Don't answer that--probably lots of other composers I've never heard of. (editor's note: not that many actually...)

Click here for Die Myhre's Contribution
Click here for Der Mazur's Contribution
Click here for La Cohen's Contribution
Click here for Il Greenwood's Contribution
Click here for Der Thobaben's Contribution
Click here for Doundou Tchil's Contribution
Click here for Eta Boris's Contribution
Click here for HaWinograd's Contribution
Click here for Le Malon's Contribution
Click here for Atomic Sam's Contribution
Click here for La Swaynos's Contribution
Click here for Boulezian's Contribution
Click here for HaZmora's Contribution
Click here for The McBee's Contribution
Click here for Le Drgon's Contribution
Click here for The Brannock's Contribution
Click here for The Danny's Contribution
Click here for The Drioux's contribution
Click here for El Reyes's contribution
Click here for My contribtuion

La Magram is an economist, pianist, and violist living in New York City

Thursday, October 17, 2013

800 Words: Ideology and Government

In an ideal world, ideology and government would have nothing to do with each other, and like an ideal world of scholarship and law, politics would be value-free - with no agenda but the most effective possible governance for the greatest number of people. But ideology exists, and political considerations are the reason the field of governance is called ‘politics’, not ‘policy.’ At the turn of the last century, the Republican party was the party of value-free governance. Process mattered more than result, policy more than politics, and ‘good government’ was an end in itself. The Republican party of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, and the Anglo-Saxon establishment, stood above all for the ideal world’s honest governance, the best possible policies, and a transparent process. If the policies didn’t work, then there was no end of other options to consider with all due deliberation. Opposed to them was a very different Democratic Party from today’s, the party of Boss Tweed, James Pendergast, and poor immigrants. If the Republicans of that era believed in process, the Democrats believed in results. The process to obtaining such results did not matter; whatever corruption and whatever authoritarianism was necessary to enable the best possible lives for their constituents as quickly as possible, they would do so without hesitation, because the ends inevitably justified the means.

But gradually, everything America knew about the two-party system changed to something unrecognizable. Franklin Roosevelt, still the most eminent Democrat of them all, was so entrenched in the Republicans’ WASP establishment that he brought ‘good government’ principles to the Democratic side as a means to care for those impoverished immigrants which Republicans didn’t care enough about to compromise their ideal government. For a few decades thereafter, some Republicans were even more enthusiastic about using Government leverage to solve civic problems than Democrats, and the result was the the Warren Court. But as the party of Lyndon Johnson grew ever less process-oriented, the Republican party became ever more opposed to government in itself, and it ironically used the mechanisms of ‘bad government’ to enact its agenda of limiting government.

In a sense, the roles of the two parties have now reversed completely from where they were 100 years ago. Today’s Democratic Party is not only the party of “Good Government” but of ‘Government’ in itself, because today’s Democrats take it for granted that Government is good and should be used for the common good. The Republican Party is the party of “No Government”, believing that government is so evil that they must use any means necessary to limit its interference.

But the world is the world, and America is America - other countries try to slow down the speed of the world, America tries to speed it up. It’s one of the great ironies of this government shutdown that after twenty years of painstaking Republican gerrymandering, vetting candidates for ideological correctness, focus tests for media propaganda, cultivation of ironclad relationships with big business donors and credulous constituents, it all broke down in a fit of chaos. Politics is chaos theory, and as President Ian Malcolm once declared in the Jurassic Park Proclamation, Mother Nature always finds a way. We should have known, even in the heyday of Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney, that there is no such thing as a monolithic coalition. Too many members have too many agendas to hold it together for more than a small amount of time.

But in some ways, what’s happened next is still scarier. The logical outgrowth of a coalition of so many conservatives is that a faction would emerge from it still more conservative, which looks at the ideological libertarianism of Grover Norquist and the Koch Brothers as an entrenched establishment - too complacent to effect the necessary change. In twenty years of ‘total war’, Republicans still have not managed to shrink the size of government, nor have they managed to keep their hold on congress - which ten years ago looked unbreakable for an entire generation. The Republicans wanted a line-item congress which rubber-stamped every ideologically conservative bill introduced. Instead, they got something like a parliamentary coalition which includes a sub-party which demands a still more conservative agenda than even they can offer. To Tea Party members, even big business is too much of an imposition on their freedom. For reasons both eerily similar and different, the far right and the far left of America share the goal with getting rid of corporate dominance of American government. The far left sees corporate lobbying as the source of government corruption, the far right sees corporate lobbying as the source of government’s growth. But since the far left ultimately wants the government to function, the far right is willing to use far more extreme measures.

It’s 2013, but many people still view the world as though Robert Bork just lost his Supreme Court nomination. There was an era, stretching approximately from Earl Warren’s recess appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until the ‘Borking’ when Democrats and Republicans vied for who could most politicize the most basic functions of government (and not so ironically, book-ended by Supreme Court nominations). But after Newt Gingrich’s assumption of the House Speakership in 1995, Republicans clearly won that battle. Under Democratic control, yearly earmarks in spending bills were in the hundreds, under Republicans, yearly earmarks were in the thousands. Democrats played politics with Richard Nixon’s Watergate break-in, but they never backed Nixon into breaking the law in the manner Republicans forced Bill Clinton to commit perjury.

Every person who cares about American Politics should read Cycles of American History by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger posits that American voters vacillate between reformation and restoration as naturally as the cycles of the moon. He correctly notes the prevailing winds of 20th century government in America: periods of American liberalism followed by periods of American conservatism, each redefined for the zeitgeist of every generation.

But towards the end of the book’s first chapter, he makes an off-handed observation which has haunted me ever since I first read it. Around the time that he wrote the book in the mid-80’s, Schlesinger noted with alarm that we’ve had a period of democratic liberalism followed by a period of of democratic conservatism, and neither convinced the American public thoroughly of its long-term functionality. He then speculated that since democratic conservatism was being proven not to work, and so had the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union, a period may soon approach of authoritarian conservatism.

We are beginning to live in good times again. Barack Obama has brought the economy from the brink of super-depression, he’s enacted universal healthcare, and even corporations are beginning to see that their profits grow when they do not cut corners in their cost structure. We are entering another, direly needed, period of American liberalism. But Mother Nature always finds a way, and when Obama's modernized liberalism eventually fails to live up to what it promised, what’s next?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

800 Words: The True Villains of Columbus Day

On the internet, you’re either an Oatmeal reader or you’re not on the internet. Even someone as luddite as I can’t escape The Oatmeal. On every social media reader there are people who are constantly sharing it. Apparently it gets four-million unique visits every month. I’m not usually one of them, but I’m nevertheless astounded by how much passion he inspires in his readers. Would that I had any friends who were half as passionate about this blog as they are about The Oatmeal.

I find The Oatmeal mildly amusing and mildly intelligent. I’ve never liked it enough that I go out of my way to read it - and the truth is, I never have to - but I find it an amusing diversion, even if it’s not something I find anything but a diversion. But then again, I’m not your typical internet person. I can barely use this blog, let alone figure out how to use the various functions that don’t involve typing and linking to Youtube. Clearly, I’m not The Oatmeal’s audience, and I’d rather use the internet for the things which luddites inevitably use it for - magazine articles, Spotify music, youtube, facebook, and free porn.

But it would seem to me that The Oatmeal had a comic this week which made the internet rounds more quickly than perhaps any web-comic ever has in my experience. It certainly elicited a stronger reaction in me than any I’ve ever had to that webcomic, and it was about Christopher Columbus. I can understand why the internet took to this so well - it is anti-established wisdom, it gives a self-flattering sense of outrage, it shows that an entertaining website can have gravitas, and it has just enough scholarship within it to be incredibly wrong.

Christopher Columbus should not have a holiday. That much is clear to anyone whose brain isn’t askew. Even if he’s not one of history’s most terrible villains, he probably was a villain of history, and he should not be commemorated as anything other than that. But what passes for opinions on Christopher Columbus is a crime against history, and a crime against scholarship. Columbus Day is yet another stupid, meaningless holiday in the American calendar among the dozens of them which should not be holidays in America - why is Columbus Day the arbitrary day which we assign culpability for the genocide of American Indians and not Thanksgiving? Why do we assign Columbus the blame for the initiation of mass democide when there is far less verifiable proof of his culpability in the senseless murder of millions than there even is of Franklin Roosevelt’s?

The disproportionate amount of time, the disproportionate ink, and the vicious temporary insanity which this holiday engenders, is reason enough to scrap this holiday forever. But that does not excuse the vicious, vacuous, dishonest, willfully naive techniques utilized by both those who argue for its scrapping, and those who argue for its upholding. For the second time on this blog, and much more explicitly, I submit to you, dear (not four-million) reader(s), that for all the pettiness and stupidity which this holiday engenders, that there is no more accurate dividing line in American politics between the rational, liberal, a-ideological pragmatists and illiberal, monist, dogmatic leftists and rightists, who resemble nothing so much as each other, than an American’s reaction to Columbus Day. 

It is a source of great fortune in America (currently perhaps the only one) that the country is not beholden to dogmatic leftism in the same manner that it is beholden to dogmatic conservatism. The ultimate triumph of the Tea Party will be when socialist/leftists defeat liberal pragmatists, a happening which may easily come to be as soon as in a mere generation. Right now, the liberal pragmatism of Obama is all that holds this country together. When he is gone from office and can’t protect us anymore from the demons this country holds, will all left of the left be people who fight conservative hellfire with hellfire? The country as we know it, everything we know within it, will no longer have protection from people who insist on seeing nothing but the demons within one another. The country, perhaps the world, will be driven mad by people who firstly insist upon driving themselves mad with cheap outrage at perceived injustices. Ask yourself, do you believe that the upholdance or destruction of Columbus Day is an important issue? If you do and are not Native American yourself, then I would venture something infinite on the fact that you harbor toxically corrosive beliefs about issues a lot more pressing than Columbus Day.

Lest this all seem like exaggerated hyperbole, let’s take a few paragraphs to examine some points a bit deeper. In the blogpost I wrote at this time two years ago, my main point was to merely elucidate as best I could the facts about Christopher Columbus while merely stating that people talk about this issue as though they have any idea what they’re talking about. But now I’m going to talk about how people don’t know what they talk about, why they don’t, and for what reason they refuse to accept the corrections they so richly deserve. And it fundamentally comes down to two issues, sadly, perhaps the two issues of the gravest importance to all of human history.

Firstly, there is the issue of genocide - allegedly instituted by Columbus and then continued on a larger scale by Cortes and other conquistadors. The diseases incurred were truly cataclysmic, but the idea that Columbus was in any way responsible, as The Oatmeal alleges, for the death of 3-5 million people due to germs he did not know how to transmit on such a massive scale is risible. We do not hold defendants culpable for murder because they wanted the person who was dead to die, and even if such a defendant accidentally caused a death he desperately wanted to happen, we can only hold the defendant culpable in civil court for wrongful death.

There is no reliable record of how many Native Americans existed on the American continents before Columbus’s arrival. Estimates range anywhere from 8 million to 145 million. The most reliable estimate we have is to guess that 55 million Native Americans lived in the Americas during the years before Columbus arrived. The ultimate total of fallen Native Americans from western domination was truly horrific, probably 60 to 80 million. But it was tallied over a period of 400 years, and therefore it has to be considered that still faster genocides and democides existed at virtually any given time during its history. Nevertheless, population totals display that the actual number of Native Americans dropped by 95 percent, a total so horrific as to defy description. In at least one sense, the genocide of Native Americans must be counted the most successful in history. Nevertheless, the genocide was mostly an accident - an accident welcomed by many if not most white people of its time and place, but an accident nevertheless. The actual number of truly murdered Native Americans ranges from 2 million to 15 million, a total still horrific enough to beggar belief, but not one that can likely be counted a ‘successful’ genocide in any manner which was deliberate.

Secondly, there is the issue of the Slave Trade. It’s absolutely true that Atlanticist Europe was brutal with regard to the degree in which they dealt in slave trade, but not at all special. In fact, the Atlantic Slave Trade was dwarved by the Arab Slave Trade and the trade of the Roman Empire. It is generally supposed that the Atlantic Slave Trade involved somewhere between 12 and 15 million Africans over a period of 300 years, 10 to 20% of those died upon the ships, untold millions more were born and died enslaved within the Western Hemisphere. And yet the totals become still more miserable when one realizes that the total enslavement upon other continents and eras was in some ways quite a bit worse. In raw numbers, it is highly possible that the Arab Slave Trade exceeded the Atlantic by an exponential factor - in the 1300 years from the Mohammedan Caliphate to the end of the Ottoman Empire, it is generally supposed that the Arab empires enslaved anywhere from 10 to 18 million people, but some estimates alledge that no less than 25 million Africans alone were subject to the Arab slave trade - and remember, none of these figures necessarily include a traded slave's descendents who were kept within family ownership, a line of descent which could potentially go from the 6th century all the way to the beginning of the 20th without interruption. It would be a fool who denies the possibility that the sheer number of slaves in the Arab world dwarves the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. In fact, in the last 300 years of the Arab Slave Trade, Arab powers enslaved anywhere from one to one-and-a-quarter million Europeans -  a tally which can only bring to mind Auden’s famous line that those unto whom evil is done do evil in return.

During the Roman millenium, it is generally supposed that, at very least, 100 million slaves were bought and sold throughout the Empire, and perhaps many, many more descendants were kept as slaves. And yet, somehow, the slave trade to the Americas is considered a unique evil to bare far more comment than the evils of slavery which happened on a still far more pernicious level, and to far more deleterious effect to world history. Thankfully, a plurality of African-Americans are finally ascending to the middle class and may freely pursue their own destiny. But how many billions of mainland Africans throughout history have been denied their opportunity, and are denied it still?  Indeed, it’s absolutely true many in the world lionize Columbus as a great hero in spite of the fact that he can be said (with not much proof) to have caused the slave trade. But many, many more people in the world worship Mohammed as a prophet, in spite of the fact that the proof of Mohammed’s role in initiating an even larger slave trade is a far more definitive stain on human history. Where is the equivalent, or greater, level of outrage?

The scale of horror in human history seems infinite, and those born to mere misery must count themselves lucky that they never endured what others did. But I have ulterior, sadly selfish reasons for rehashing all this. I believe there is something truly ugly about the anti-Columbus movement, something which obscures the true premeditated evil of this era in history; an evil that barely notes mention in general knowledge anymore, yet it’s just another chapter in a tragedy which has every right to claim special provenance over all other tragedies in recorded human history. Yes, every one of them.

As King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella saw Jews as threats to Spanish security and expendable sources of revenue, their court expelled Jews in a document called the Alhambra Decree of 1492 which accused Jews of subverting the Holy Catholic Faith and trying to draw Christians away from their beliefs. They were given four months to convert or leave the country - those who did neither would be burned to death without trial. Any non-Jew discovered to hide Jews would be punished by the liquidation of all their assets. Jews were told that they could keep all their possessions, except any gold, silver, or minted money. Estimates on the number of Jews who were forced to uproot themselves vary from 130,000 to 800,000. In an historical moment quite akin to the Trail of Tears, tens of thousands of Jews died upon their journey. Rumors spread throughout the Spanish lands that Jews would swallow their gold and diamonds to smuggle them into their new homes, and as such, many Jews were disemboweled by greedy speculators looking for treasure. They were also charged exorbitant fees by ship captains who tried to extort them because of their situation, and many of those who could not pay were simply tossed overboard mid-voyage. It was only one of 15 expulsions which the Jews underwent between the 13th and 16th centuries, but it's probable that Spain was the most painful. Spain was the great land of Jewish tolerance and prosperity for seven-hundred years.

In the aftermath of the Alhambra Decree, somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 Jews chose to convert. As converts to Catholicism, they were subject to the harassment of Tomas de Torquemada - agreed upon by virtually all pre-20th century historians as a principal villain in European history. Torquemada, The Grand Inquisitor, was a figure responsible for the burning of 2,000 heretics at the stake. Untold tens of thousands more were tortured, exiled, or imprisoned for life - chief among these heretics were, of course, Jews. Those Jews suspected of retaining their faith (aka. virtually all of them) were termed ‘conversos’ by the Inquisition, and in the streets they were called ‘marranos’, a term which literally means ‘pigs.’ The implied humiliation for a Jew is obvious, and one might compare it to the use of ‘n*gger’ for an African-American. But the result of such terminology is at very least as veritably lethal in its implications for Jews of that period and for many centuries of their descendants.

In such a climate, how can we take any testimony with regard to Columbus’s actions seriously in an era when torture and execution were so profligate and rendition without trial substituted for rule-of-law? Within the terror, chaos, and desperation of those years in Spain, how can we take seriously any claim that mass genocide in the New World was a controllable phenomenon among mercenaries who could collude and coordinate wiping out an entire race with pre-meditation? How can we even hold Columbus responsible for initiating a mass genocide he didn’t know how to create during a period when so much evidence exists that the intentions of men like Torquemada were clearly far more genocidal? Whatever Christopher Columbus did, he was no monolithically evil monster and deserves to be seen within the bounds of his time. The real villains of this era were the King and Queen and especially their Grand Inquisitor. Columbus has usurped Torquemada in the public imagination as the hated face of Spain, and such a replacement can only be bad news for 'us.' Torquemada, if known at all, is known for his starring role in a Mel Brooks song-and-dance number.

All told, this was still a high-end-of-medium level catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people - a cataclysm for sure, but no apocalypse. The tragedy of the Native American destruction perpetrated by Spain, however accidental, was far greater than the Alhambra Decree, but the cumulative, premeditated evil perpetrated against Jews throughout their history easily trumps that which was perpetrated against Native Americans, and trumps the premeditated evil against Native Americans even within the 1490’s.

I make no claim for unrecorded history, but I do claim a unique provenance for the suffering of the Jews in the recorded history of the human race, and I also believe, without reservation, that anyone who refuses to acknowledge this fact that no recorded evil has been done upon this earth as great as the cumulative evil perpetrated over the millennia upon this tribe of wanderers, is, whether they realize it or not, a transparent harborer of a belief for which the only phrase yet invented is anti-semitic. Not only have Jews been subject to the Shoah, the single greatest evil of the Modern Era, but also to the greatest willfully planned evils of other epochs as well. To compare Columbus’s exploitation of Native Americans, or Cortes’s, or Andrew Jackson’s, to the systematic murder of nearly six-hundred thousand Jews by the sword over three years in the Second Century (more than 1% of the Empire's population), or the industrialized murder of six million Jews in an area of the world where only seven million Jews lived, is the lowest form of barbaric double standard. But to say that what happened to Native Americans was still more evil, well... that is a minor act of evil in itself. One genocide was mostly accidental, and had as much to do with giving some plague-ridden blankets to tribal villages with no knowledge of how far and wide it would spread as with any amount of cold-blooded murder; the other was systematic murder with complete knowledge and record of exactly what was being done to whom. One was accidental horror on an unimaginable scale, the other was imagined, premeditated, and willfully executed in every possible detail. Within the span of less than six years, the only verifiably successful genocide in history was committed - no other recorded genocide has managed to kill the majority of the population the murderers set out to kill, let alone an overwhelming majority. Over a period of 400 years, American settlers could not kill Native Americans in numbers great enough to prove beyond doubt that they carried out a willful intention to slaughter every last Native American. And yet in six years, Germany slaughtered two thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe - and the only reason they didn’t slaughter the vast majority of another two million Jews was because those Jews were ‘protected’ by Stalin’s Soviet Union, a place of mass starvation, show trials, disappearances, and war dead on a scale the world had never seen before or since; a place where had Stalin lived a few years longer, he had every intention of finishing what Hitler started. Even if Columbus or Cortes or Pizarro or any other Conquistador would have been delighted by the extent of their accidental crimes, to invite comparison from the Conquistadors to the Nazis is beyond merely disgusting, it is a stain and a sinister disregard to the memory of the most evil act perpetrated in all of human history - all the more evil because of the civility with which it was perpetrated.

To be sure, there are worse anti-semitic beliefs than that, perhaps much worse - at least liberalism has gotten us that far. But for all the apparent civilization and liberal-mindedness of our time, Jews are demanded to pretend as though what happened to them was just another evil among many that were perpetrated upon all manner of ethnic groups. This is not the space to document the nature, the consistency, and yet also the manifold variation, of Jewish suffering, though I have no doubt that day will come. In the meantime, it would suffice to say that it would have spared my people so much senseless suffering had we simply been eradicated from the face of the Earth in response to the Bar Kochba Rebellion in the Second Century.

We should always commemorate Native Americans, perhaps we should even give them a holiday with equivalent pomp and circumstance to Columbus Day. But I envy Native Americans, because most of them aren’t around to suffer anymore. Yet somehow, Jews always have just enough population left to keep clawing at survival in a world where so many hundreds of millions clearly want us all dead, and billions couldn’t care less whether we survive. The suffering of the Jewish people, the senselessness of living in a world which demanded mere survival to be our greatest triumph, has continued unabated for two thousand years - and today, yet another horrific genocide of millions upon millions of Jews in Israel is a mere nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon away from occurring. Century after century, death chooses the Jews, and still the world claims we’re not The Chosen People...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

20th Century Visual American Art Playlist

(I suppose this represents a 'like this most to least' sort of order, or at least artists I want to learn the most about... Albeit any artist I actively dislike won't be on this list. I'm not going to say what sorts of art they do, or what I like about their art. That's not the point of this post. The point is to show their art... and namedropping....)

Joseph Stella

Philip Pearlstein