Black Boy

In the past several months I’ve been listening to lectures and reading course materials associated with the Open Yale Courses online program, which is one of the most valuable educational resources I’ve ever come across (and it’s free). The latest course I’ve been following is one on The American Novel Since 1945 taught by Amy Hungerford. Having been perennially behind in my reading of serious contemporary fiction (other than Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo) I thought I’d use this as my guide to the genre. The first book addressed in the course is Black Boy, an autobiographical text by Richard Wright (author of Native Son). 

 

This book is one of the most emotionally powerful documents I’ve ever come across. I would compare it to another book about growing up black in America, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a riveting account of the travails of coming of age and reaching maturity in a hostile social environment. I found Richard Wright’s memoir in it’s eloquence and introspection even more effective in conveying to me the intensely claustrophobic experience of an intelligent black man coming of age in a culture that regards him as somewhat less than human, with a distrust that is amplified by projected guilt. At times the narrative is almost agonizing in its depiction of the maze of obstacles, both concrete and psychological that make it almost incomprehensible that anyone could survive, let alone escape the pre-ordained assumptions establishing a social order based on racial prejudice.

 

The book was written during the first half of the twentieth century, a time after the legal abolition of slavery but when the presumption of white privilege went mostly unquestioned by both parties in the racial equation. Richard Wright in his account, not only relates the circumstances of his environment but offers deep and penetrating analyses of the psychological structures that form the bulwarks supporting the world he describes. 

 

I found the following passage profoundly accurate in its description of the tortured dilemma that lying at the core of the American character and still reverberating through our political culture today. Published in 1944, these words are not only descriptive and relevant in relation to our history, but prophetic in their description of an America torn apart by the arrogant and simplistic assumptions of exceptionalism and denial reinforced by religious bigotry and jingoistic bombast, making it all but impossible for us to deal effectively with even the most obvious situations presented by the real world:

 

“…I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part – though a symbolically significant one – of themoral attitude of the nation. Our too young and too new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists on seeing the real world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! And I really do not think that America, adolescent and cocksure, a stranger to suffering and travail, an enemy of passion and sacrifice, is ready to probe into its most fundamental beliefs.”

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If It Smells Like Religion….

New Rule: ‘If it looks like a religion and acts like a religion and smells like a religion…it’s probably a religion.

Our brave hidalgo mounts the southbound train and proceeds upon adventures that will bring him face to face not with windmills, as they are of an archaic character and are only of service to cows, but with the true adversaries of this day. Although it’s true that the landscapes of this time and place resemble those in which that earlier hero, Quixote wandered, with its broad and brilliantly lit plains ringed by dark mountains and forested thickets, our hero won’t encounter imaginary giants or dark knights in castles. Instead he finds himself in a wilderness of competing doctrines and beliefs that both claim to explain his reality and threaten to freeze his thinking. 

The land is layered in religions and their histories going back even farther than that of ancient Spain. Our train crosses pueblo lands inhabited by clans decked out in turquoise and squash blossoms. There are the cathedrals of the Spanish with their churches of forgiveness and absolution. Then the conquering armies of the Protestant northlands arrive with all of their self-rendered judgements and ever splintering dogmas and styles. Finally the religion of the technocrats arrives, presuming to know with certainty both our past and our future. These are all parts of the soul of New Mexico, for this is a place that exists where many boundaries intersect.  

Our hero knows that the country that stretches desolate and dry on either side of this train will never give up their spirit or their mystery. Being a warrior he choses to place himself at the boundary between what we can know and what we will never know. Although he respects science and rationality as sacred tools, honed through long struggles and only recently released from the shackles of superstition, he senses that in any presumption of absolute purity there are seeds to destroy the world.   

Observe the Richard Dawkins website.  Here are links to many of the carefully constructed arguments denying that atheism is a religion. Surely Richard Dawkins believes that the purpose of his site is only to defend science against the threatening inroads of fundamentalism. And yet, observe, here is a manual for proselytizing the faith that echoes precisely the rhetoric of religion. (Almost like the Tea Party using Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals as an organizing tool.) Articles on science weave among condemnatory commentary against religions. There are blogs where atheists can talk with other atheists and where we can learn that the scientific method is the only valid means for discerning the truth and that religion has caused most of the problems today afflicting the world. Most importantly we will learn about the impregnable boundaries beyond which reason is excluded (this is dogma).

 
Digging deeper one will undoubtedly link to the argument that atheists don’t have to prove the nonexistence of God for there is no way to prove a negative. On the other hand, why would one bother? In this argument we are then told that it’s the burden of religion to prove the existence of things like God and the spirit world, but that only the rules of scientific enquiry will be acceptable. Again, why would one bother? When whatever can’t be measured or replicated within the limits of the laboratory or the statistical survey is discarded as superstition there isn’t much room for things that can only be experienced on a personal level. Whatever our experience, we are asked to remove it to someplace deemed ‘the personal’ with the implication that we should keep it strictly to ourselves. If we let it out that would be considered irrational, even mad, a religious act, and therefore it behooves all people in all cultures to submit to a single system of assumptions or humanity is doomed.  

Submission is the word and the demand. Militant atheists say they are not a religion, but like every fundamentalist faith their goal is absolute submission, with little respect or regard for those who resist. Some atheists entertain us by calling other cultures and other beliefs “stupid” or “inferior.” They claim the right because science has cured disease and made life longer, if not better. Scientific thinking represents progress and is the salvation of the race. Ignored is the fact that it may also contribute to its doom. There’s little or no acknowledgement of the mistakes and abuses and unintended consequences that have afflicted the history of ‘rational’ thought and no recognition that the worship of progress has led to horrors inflicted on people declared to be primitive and thus evolutionarily ‘inferior.’ While many modern advances in tolerance and human freedom have been led by people of faith, scientists have sometimes been guilty of reinforcing the worst prejudices against those who don’t fit the dominant cultural criteria. 

Many atheists complain that they’ve been oppressed by the dominance of superstitious belief, and it is true that they have been, as we all have been. Just about every religion has been oppressed at one time or another and whenever religion is used as a utilitarian tool for governing there are abuses against those who deviate from dogma. On the other hand atheists complain about having to sit and listen to prayers while in effect many are advocating cultural genocide. It is assumed that rule by strict technocracy will be somehow better. One can look perhaps at Communist China to find an answer to that. Militant atheists say that their intention is to advance reason, but beneath the veneer of reason and intolerance of religion one can sometimes detect the stench of cultural bigotry. Atheism, even in its etymology is a belief system defined by other belief systems that it attempts to negate. 

Not all atheists are zealots and not all Christians or Muslims are fundamentalists. All religions have their priests and their zealots. Atheism is no exception. Among atheists there is a tribe of militants who follow the prophets on a mission to stamp out religion. They apparently believe that their way is the only way, and that the world will not find peace until the absolute superiority of scientific thinking is accepted by all. When faced with contradictions or paradox they are as mystified as anyone, but they will deny to the last that there is anything in the universe which can’t be measured or known, there are no miracles and the all that we perceive can be reduced to equations. They are intrigued by mysteries but they will never trust in them.

What’s admirable in the scientific mind is that it proceeds with doubt, always testing and challenging its own hypothesis and never claiming to have achieved more than theory. The scientists’ frustration with those who claim to know the boundaries of everything, be they religious fanatics or conspiracy theorists or New Age charlatans, is quite understandable. However,  every major advance in science has challenged the established boundaries, beliefs and assumptions of a particular era. When it ceases to do this it becomes a religion, just like atheism has become a religion. 

As our hero drifts across the countryside in this very late autumn, looking down into poor backyards and water filled arroyos, with the crowns of churches poking over reservation trees and the train whistle sounding, he settles once more into the knowledge that he will never know the truth of things. Not the whole truth. All of the books he reads and the faces he meets only open up new mysteries. Our brave hidalgo will always battle dragons because he likes a good battle, but I earnestly wish that he will avoid inflexibility, for the universe is fluid and ever changing. Whatever we think is absolutely certain will likely be challenged and then change again and then again and finally drift off like smoke in the wind. Even science in its long history of trial and error has discovered this.    

 
- Ralph E. Melcher

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You Can’t Stop The Signal

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Chomsky Responds To Truthers

I recently made a comment in an online forum that listening to Noam Chomsky for me was an act of self-torture. Not that his contribution to political discourse isn’t incredibly valuable in terms of presenting an alternative point of view than that of the mainstream. Chomsky approaches the world in a relentlessly rational manner that allows for very little in the way of levity or even creativity so that his dry recitation of facts from the perch of academic authority usually leaves me feeling exhausted rather than inspired. In my opinion this approach leads too inevitably into a constraining vice of political correctness and away from the kind of flexible response to events needed in our to approach to the complexities of perception. 

 
That said, after watching the following video of Chomsky responding to a question from a 911 ‘Truther’ I came away with a new appreciation for the disciplined and hard-boiled approach of truly scientific thinking to the evaluation of facts and conclusions. As anyone who knows me soon discovers I have very little patience (none) with so-called “Truthers” and with those who indulge in and promote conspiracy theories of any kind. I believe that their approach to ‘facts’ echoes that of the average Bible thumping evangelist who wants to convince me that dinosaurs lived with human beings six thousand years ago. This stuff should be confined to the shelves of occult bookstores (with the ravings of Alex Jones and David Icke) and is entirely corrosive to true political discourse. Parading in the costumes of intellectual rigor these writers and ranters are only dedicated to making a buck by getting people to substitute their predigested dogma for any effort at real thinking. 
 
 
Thanks to Open Culture for unearthing this video.  
 
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Defending Us From Healthcare

Unlike our Calvinist brethren and most of the members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. I actually believe that the way healthcare is practiced in the United States qualifies almost as a criminal enterprise. Certainly I’m not happy with many of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act as passed, particularly the concessions made to the insurance industry. Yet, I wonder if any bill could have gotten through, given the track record of any effort to advance socially mandated healthcare over the past 40 years, unless attempts were made to indulge conservatives by adopting something like their own successful program enacted in Massachusetts. The ACA isn’t what I would have liked, but the accomplishment of actually having passed a law addressing healthcare as a “right” is a major accomplishment. It goes to the heart of everything dividing Americans into what appears to be irreconcilable factions. In fact it brings about nothing less than the first faint cracks in the walls of prejudice that have been used as tools for control almost as long as we’ve been in existence, and most effectively since the cold war.
 
I would like to have seen a better law, but this is better than no law at all, and it’s a start. As with Social Security and Medicare, it’s inspired resistance from the same political factions using identical rhetoric. Both programs, after all, entail a redistribution of wealth and thus evoke a visceral response in a country that has been programmed by it’s religious leaders, backed conveniently by the rulers of industry, to believe we are all self-sufficient individuals responsible only before God. Both programs continue to be revised and improved over time to address problems and inefficiencies. Obamacare is not only a crack in the dam of the absolute power of the wealthy, it is in fact another challenge to the concept of white Protestant supremacy. Particularly irksome is the fact that it was passed by a black man and even carries his suspiciously Islamic sounding name (ironically it’s the Republicans who made this possible). You may think this an irrelevant diversion, but I believe it’s one of the issues that most effectively fuels the fires of the trained pack of attack dogs that the Right calls it’s ‘base.’ (I also believe that America is still essentially a racist culture that, having built much of its wealth through slavery and genocide, is still mostly in denial of this fact.)
 
Indeed, the Affordable Care Act is certainly subversive to the American Way as we’ve practiced it for far too long, and it’s a form of subversion that I heartily endorse.   
 

The resistance to any sort of publicly mandated healthcare goes back at least as far as president Truman, and before that to the time of Roosevelt and the labor struggles before and during the Great Depression. It’s that ol’ bugaboo socialism, a word that’s been relentlessly programmed into American business culture in order to evoke a Pavlovian response whenever any expansion of government influence threatens to interfere with the ‘orderly’ process of accumulating capital. 

 
Yes, I’ve heard all of the rhetoric about exceptions and fairness and delays. I just listened to a Representative from Tennessee run all of this out on the news. Pretty obscure and pretty desperate I thought. Undoubtedly these talking points get pounded out everyday on the Rupert Murdock Network. What I hear is the game of politics, to erect as many straw men as one can in order to obfuscate the real issues behind sound bites that hopefully confuse the unlearned masses. I don’t think it’ll work this time. The Democrats actually appear to be united around some kind of solid backbone on this, while the Republicans are all over the place. 
 
You may object, “Straw Dogs you say!!” Just like the stuff about the NSA and the military, which are trotted out whenever either side disagrees with those who we’ve elected to defend us from our own screw ups. (Why don’t we defund these instead of making business pay for our healthcare?) Ironically, The very same people who are fighting tooth and claw to prevent the expansion of government are the ones who benefit most from military contracts in their districts. As for our foreign policy, it’s the very same fear of the socialist menace that has gotten us involved in all this hot water in the first place. We are the ones, after all, that overthrew the first democracy in Iran and financed the Taliban, both actions taken in order to stop the spread of socialism. It’s we who’ve reaped the whirlwind that has resulted in an explosion of extremist Islamic factions on a kill spree all over the world. Americans who think we can just wash our hands of all this and take our military forces and just walk away and let ‘them’ work it out, without considerable blowback, are deluding themselves as far as our complicity and responsibility. 
 
So, as the forces of reaction have chosen siege warfare as their tactic, I say let the siege begin… 

 

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Walter Hits the Mirror

Intensely blue skies
seen through sunglasses
high maintenance life
in the desert
diseases of the mind
deep lines in the landscape
of that face
criminal behaviors
lies for the best of reasons
stronger than love
the keys to power
in the reflection
of faces
lines across the desert
wrong movements
sky and earth
too late to retrace
dark trails through the grasses
what is the name
on that face
white man in mirror
mister white
chain maker
living in that house
manufactured out of lies
you can’t undo
you can’t retrace
the power in these chains
come to the edges of death
where you see clearly
on that face
the chains you’ve forged
pulling you on
washing those hands
that brought you here
never to be saved
you are the puppet in the mirror
leaving deep marks
of rage
the blood on your knuckles
the face distorted
only trapped
agent of oppression
servant of the damned
loneliness absolute
going forward.

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Reflections on ‘Blue Jasmine’

Amid all of the vampire flicks and light comedies in the popular sphere a rising vogue in the blockbuster circuit is for movies about class division and conflicts writ large portrayed in mostly epic terms (Hunger Games, Elysium, Les Miserables). Most of these create a comfortable distance from an admittedly uncomfortable subject by placing the narrative in a fanciful past or a speculative future. By contrast one exceptional film that’s totally apart from the realm of high tech spectacle manages to address the subject by painting a sensitive and tragic portrait of a single individual’s descent from the heights of the social register to the depths of alienation and despair. The film is Blue Jasmine, a brilliant collaboration between one of America’s greatest living storytellers and one of the world’s best actresses. All through his career as writer and director, Woody Allen’s subjects have revolved around the delusional nature of middle class life. His main characters wander through their days in bewilderment, somewhat aware of their disconnect from the reality of their situations, trying valiantly to maintain an appearance of normality. Their general failure in this regard is, in a majority of his films the source for comedy. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp these characters navigate a very fine line that divides farce from tragedy. As the Tramp in The Gold Rusis forced to eat his shoes and acts as if he is dining on fine cuisine, Allen’s creatures stumble through their lives amusing us with a seeming obliviousness to the true nature of their condition.
 
In Blue Jasmine Allen teases us repeatedly with the expectations of farce, setting up situations that are ripe for expression as conventional comedy. His character Jasmine, married to a wealthy investment banker (think Bernard Madoff) who has been prosecuted and jailed for fraud, has fallen from the highest levels of New York Society and is now penniless. She moves in with her adopted sister Ginger in San Francisco to find a way to make an honest living. She finds herself in a world that’s entirely foreign to her, one in which people have to struggle with paying the bills and one in which the skills that served her in high society are totally useless and even counter productive. Along the way she’s forced to confront not only the consequences of her own actions on other people’s lives but the ordinary situations faced by working women every day (like sexual harassment and having to learn computer skills). The narrative is interjected with a series of flashbacks that reveal in successive stages, like the peeling of an onion, the depths and the consequences of her self-deception. 
 
Although the situation is ripe for comedy, here Woody Allen chooses to bring us face to face with the ramifications of our own social blindness. Through these characters he shows us the deep gulf between a world of arrogant wealth and the hard edged realities faced by the working class. Along the way he tempts us with the fairytale promise of unrealistic expectations and then he brings us home to the realities of both love and betrayal. With deep familiarity and sensitivity he shows us both sides of the world, and this places Blue Jasmine in a class with some of the most penetrating literature of class and culture. I’m thinking of Tolstoy’s Anna KareninaEdith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Woody Allen’s films are essentially novels and in Blue Jasmine I think he’s achieved the maturity of an enduring classic that fully represents the anxieties and polarities of the time in which we presently live.   
 
Cate Blanchett is cast in the role of Jasmine and displays an extraordinary range of tone and expression as she veers from one state to another in her journey from riches to rags. This is perhaps the most deeply realized and complex characters in a Woody Allen film and few could have carried it off as convincingly and even sympathetically as Ms. Blanchett. In terms of understanding the class and culture divide at the center of the narrative I was reminded of the segment ‘Cousins’ she performs in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, where she plays two characters in an uncomfortable conversation, one a successful actress and socialite, the other an envious underachiever. It could have been an audition for the role either of Jasmine or Ginger. The cast includes Sally Hawkins as Ginger, Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s conman husband, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s first husband and Bobby Cannavale as her current boyfriend Chili. All are excellent foils for the emotional gyrations of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine which deserves recognition as one of cinema’s great performances. 
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Can Fast Food Cure Obesity?

 

The following article is featured in the current issue of The Atlantic. 
 
 
Here’s the summary: Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

 

Since I’m a grocer and one of those whom the author refers to as a “Pollanite” (a fan of the work and point of view put forth by Michael Pollan in books like The Omnivores Dilemma), I felt that I should pass the article on with a few comments of my own.
 
The argument that the author presents is one of expediency, and is directed at what he sees as the number one health problem in the United States, that of obesity. He makes a case that the food ethic presented by the natural food business in trendy upscale stores like Whole Foods is not only unrealistic when applied to the general population but actually counter productive. He goes on to cite several examples comparing the nutritional value of the so called ‘healthy’ snacks offered in the elite markets to common examples of mainstream fast food. In these examples he finds that the ‘healthy’ alternatives often contain considerably more of the ingredients (sugar, fat) that contribute to obesity than the cheaper (by a considerable margin) and fast alternatives. 
 
This argument presents a much deserved ‘shot across the bow’ to an industry that I’ve watched or been a part of since 1973. The ‘Natural Food’ biz has grown from a fringe movement into one of the most profitable growth industries in the nation. In the process it’s thrown overboard a great deal of the ethical ‘baggage’ that provided its original raison d’etre. Once upon a time the idea was to provide an alternative to the heavily processed gunk produced in laboratories and offered in conventional grocery stores. Among other things it represented a return to a deeper engagement with the food we eat (cooking). Nowadays the business offers hundreds of new items every month that respond mostly to media fads and advertising campaigns that cater to the very same ethic of processed ‘convenience’ that has driven the American food business since way before the first tofu burger was ever thought of.
 
Nevertheless, the author’s critique of the industry that supports and hypes ‘healthy’ eating, much of which I agree with, represents a serious misreading of the work of Michael Pollan. If the writer had truly read a book like The Omnivores Dilemma he would have noted that Pollan’s take on the Whole Foods mentality in many ways echoes his own. Pollan notes that the key to profitability in the natural foods industry has for decades been that more money can be made by processing food than by growing it, and this has led the industry down some very questionable trails. 
 
Statistically the problem of obesity is greater in poorer communities where elite foods are simply not available. Even if they were, the author asks, would lower income people want to switch from the kind of food choices they are used to more ‘healthy’ alternatives? Wouldn’t we do much better against the scourge of obesity if the fast food industry actually changed its formulas so that the poor and ignorant masses can still eat at MacDonalds but get less that will make them fat? Since nobody has time to cook anyway, given the rat race involved in mere survival, can’t we just program the whole fast food business for less carbohydrates?
 
These argument make sense only when the focus is on obesity as the number one health problem in America. This extremely simplistic view excludes factors like our attitude toward the land, our over-amped and over-extended lifestyles and our largely dysfunctional relationship toward the systems that keep us alive and breathing. The contention that poor people would prefer MacDonalds over healthy food, even if it were made available to them, I find to be incredibly elitist. The people who raised me were poor and grew up in an era before ‘fast food.’ They made due with the basics and they cooked their own meals and they were healthier for it. To assert that the problem of obesity can be solved technologically with a little bit of progressive laboratory engineering, while a typically American approach, is laughable and a little bit frightening, as it calls up an image of the ultimately perfect lab manufactured food source for the masses: it’s called “Soylent Green.”
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