Saturday, November 25, 2017


photo: Frank Rumpenhurst



We rest on a mound of white quartz
inlaid with black lichen.
Sunset's russet glow 

kindles your beard and hair.
Suddenly you step
onto a thick pine branch
and stand, Superman Angel, 

in the vertical sky.

I watch your flight-
ready body, knowing I’d be afraid
to jump back to the rocks.
But you turn, tense up
like a cat, then fly
in one long leap.
The huge pine barely sways,
in velvet shroud of last light.

So again I can plan
to die in your arms.
You will live to be a wild
still straying, swaying to watch
sunset and moonrise —
unless, breakable angel,
you fall and die in my arms.

Strange: when we are happy
we are most ready to depart,
dissolve into the blue 

haze of ridges.
The valleys smoke with mist,
but now you’re safe beside me.
The sky is a flood of rose,
and I love you, I love everything.

~ Oriana

My poems tend to have a strange history. Sometimes I’d write one and instantly know it was an important piece. I’d keep polishing it (sometimes to the point of learning it by heart without trying to) and send it out to magazines or enter them in contests. Some of them did win awards, which made me remember them all the more. But perhaps just as often I’d write a poem and then forget I ever wrote it. Most of those pieces are lost forever, even if they happen to be on my hard drive — there is simply no time to sift through the old files, much less ancient 3-ring notebooks. But now and then I rediscover such a poem, decide it’s quite good, and can hardly understand why it fell into oblivion.

The saddest case is a few poems I remember having written, but can no longer find. Those haunt me: they had enough magic and meaning to be memorable, but I wrote them so long ago that they got lost like those children that just disappear. That sadness is offset by the joy of an occasional rediscovery of a forgotten poem that deserves to be remembered after all.

“Thanksgiving, Mt. Abel” was restored to me by my long-term partner, who fortunately kept a copy — along with many other poems whose copies I gave to him over the years. I wrote it soon after the hike, handed a copy to the risk-taker who inspired it, and — I forgot all about it. But re-reading it brought it all back to me: the thick curved pine branch like the outer arm of a giant candelabra; the leap; the approaching dusk.

He, on the other hand, could no longer remember climbing onto that branch or his daring leap back to the rock. But he remembered something that only his prompting made me remember it as well: there were a dozen or so amateur star-gazers setting up their bigger-than-yours telescopes on a meadow near the top of Mt. Abel because a lunar eclipse was supposed to take place that night. Fascinating, the different ways people remember the same event.

(In case you’re wondering, there is no Mt. Cain nearby. I often wondered about the name — was it perhaps because the open area near the peak made someone think of a sacrificial altar?)

Regaining this poem is not merely a minor literary matter. It meant regaining a happy memory. “You must learn some of my philosophy,” Elizabeth Bennet says in Pride and Prejudice. “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” It’s taken me a lifetime of brooding on unhappiness before I understood what treasure happy memories are, what beauty.

The thanksgiving in the title does not refer to the holiday, but to my gratitude for having love in my life. It’s a love poem, with mortality in it because it’s a rare poem that isn’t, in some manner, a meditation on mortality. Love and death, the two great subjects of poetry.

Love in poetry is most often love lost — that’s one reason so many poems are dark. Here it’s love gained. The lovers are no longer young; knowing that this love will last, at least one of them is beginning to wonder which of them is going to die first — because of the romantic desire to die in the arms of the one you love (at least until you realize that the loving thing — not that there is any choice about it — would be to wish for the partner to die in your arms, to dissolve into your love, so to speak).

The last stanza comments on what I found out already some years before: that being deeply in love can so transform the world that we both love it as never before and are nevertheless ready to depart without resentment, since we don’t feel that life has cheated us out of anything. It’s a calm knowing that itself adds to the happiness.

This poem has a special angle: arguably, it’s not just love and death, but death and happiness:

Strange: when we are happy
we are most ready to depart,
dissolve into the bluing haze of ridges.

Keats felt it would be “rich to die” when listening to a nightingale; I knew someone who wanted to die listening to the Ode to Joy. I’d like to be looking at the mountains, and to have “I love you” be my last words. Never mind that these are just fantasies. Fantasies are a vital part of life — even the paradoxical fantasies of a “happy death.”  


The kind of happiness you describe in your poem, that sense of completion, seems indeed to pull the sting of death — it becomes a transition you can consider without fear. On my recent plane flight I suddenly realized I was not afraid — I haven't flown much, and was always afraid when I did. When you come to the point where you are satisfied, where you have found love, and have done all the forgiving you need to do, when you have let go of bitterness, resentment, and anger, a space opens up around you, and there is no fear. You don't stop loving life; in fact, it seems more full, more exciting, more glorious than ever, and though you don't want to lose it, you are not afraid of losing it. You have experienced the best, and it will forever be enough.


You’ve put it perfectly. I only want to repeat after you:

“You don't stop loving life; in fact, it seems more full, more exciting, more glorious than ever, and though you don't want to lose it, you are not afraid of losing it. You have experienced the best, and it will forever be enough.”


The longer I live, the more I love life — in spite of the aches and pains that flesh is heir to, especially as the repair process gets less and less efficient due to aging. Now I especially enjoy the so-called little pleasures — even food tastes better, though it’s perhaps that I pay more attention to the taste. I spend time looking at clouds, trees, flowers — I glory in any beauty around me.

On further thought, there’s always some this or that you wish you’d experienced — but that’s where the wisdom of proverbs comes in: YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL. And when it comes to Prince Charming or that Great Teacher I was expecting to come, since I was ready (LOL): NOBODY’S PERFECT. Fortunately it’s enough to know that you’ve experienced plenty of wonderful things. If I can’t readily summon gratitude, I remember the Pacific Ocean: it’s the largest in the world, a first-rate ocean — and it’s within “easy commute” of where I live. A first-rate ocean! How could I complain of bad luck when this holds true . . .

The first, happy year with M (not the person in the Mt. Abel poem), he said to me, “If I had to die right now, I wouldn't mind. I could just go anytime. “ I knew what he meant: life had finally granted him the fulfillment he wanted. He was so sated with happiness that he felt calm and accepting — and, if need be, willing to let go of life with gratitude.

I knew, because even at a very unhappy time in my youth I experienced a similar serenity and a similar perception of being ready to die, even though I was only 28. Just before my most serious surgery, I realized (an unforgettable minute when it all flowed to me) that, for all the misery I’d also experienced, life had given me great gifts and blessings. I had known great love; I didn’t know motherhood, but I didn’t resent it because now I didn’t have to worry about leaving an orphan. I had had the best of literature, art, and music; I’d seen gorgeous scenery; my Polish summers were a paradise of nature, even the time I got chased by hissing geese that nipped my shins.

I felt reconciled to the possibility of dying, even though I hadn’t yet “done” anything to speak of. That was irrelevant somehow. I felt peaceful and accepting: life had been generous to me; I didn’t feel cheated.

Occasionally this theme appears in poetry: in Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” Sexton’s “Starry Night,” Hölderlin’s “To the Fates.” Hölderlin says he’ll enter the world of shadows content after he’s had his fill of singing: “Once I lived as the gods; more is not needed.” Keats and Sexton want to die sated with beauty: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”; “Oh starry, starry night! This is how I want to die.”

And there is Jack Gilbert’s wonderful title: “We Have Already Lived In the Real Paradise.” It’s all in the title; more is not needed.

It’s not dying we dread, but not having lived.

Francis Picabia: I see again in memory my dear Udnie, 1914 (allegedly inspired by a Polish dancer). The title is very important, I think. It moves us. Ultimately, that's what remains: the memory of love, of tenderness, of being accepted and valued in that incredible way.

The amateur star gazers on Mt. Abel were quite a sight, each with a “bigger-than-yours” telescope. But moon eclipses and meteor showers are minor things compared to the overwhelming discovery that the universe is expanding.


~ “The Hubble Space Telescope is named for this astronomer. Why? It’s because Hubble’s work was pivotal in changing our cosmology: our idea of the universe as a whole.

Most astronomers 100 years ago believed that the whole universe consisted of just one galaxy, our own Milky Way. In the 1920s, Hubble was among the first to recognize that there is a universe of galaxies located beyond the boundaries of our Milky Way.

He also showed that our universe of galaxies is expanding.

During the 1920s, Edwin Hubble observed stars that vary in brightness in a patch of light known at the time as the Andromeda nebula. He knew that these stars changed in brightness in a way that depended on their true brightness. He then saw how bright they looked to find the distance to the Andromeda nebula.

At the time, many astronomers believed that the Andromeda nebula was a forming solar system, located within the Milky Way’s boundaries. Hubble showed that this patch of light was really a separate galaxy – what we know today as the Andromeda Galaxy – the nearest large spiral galaxy beyond our Milky Way.

As soon as other nebulae were revealed as separate galaxies, the known universe got much bigger!

But was this huge universe stationary? Or was it expanding, or contracting?

The answer involved the light of galaxies as a whole. Astronomers observed that the light of distant galaxies was shifted toward the red end of the light spectrum. This red shift was interpreted as a sign that the galaxies are moving away from us. Hubble and his colleagues compared the distance estimates to galaxies with their red shifts. And – on March 15, 1929 – Hubble published his observation that the farthest galaxies are moving away faster than the closest ones.

This insight became known as Hubble’s Law. It was the first recognition that the galaxies are moving away from each other – that our universe is expanding.
It’s said that Albert Einstein was elated to hear of Hubble’s work. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity implied that the universe must either be expanding or contracting. But Einstein himself rejected this notion in favor of the accepted idea that the universe was stationary and had always existed. When Hubble presented his evidence of the expansion of the universe, Einstein embraced the idea. He called his adherence to the old idea “my greatest blunder.”

But the story of Hubble’s great insights begins earlier. In 1908, an astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt had discovered a relationship between the period and luminosity of a class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables. By timing its period, astronomers could work out the true luminosity of a Cepheid – and by comparing the true luminosity with the observed brightness, they could work out its distance.

This worked fine for judging distances inside the Milky Way, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that telescopes existed that were powerful enough to observe Cepheids in other galaxies. Hubble spotted his first Cepheid in the Andromeda ‘spiral nebula’ in 1924.

The pulsation of the Cepheid variables let them estimate true distances to these objects. That’s how they showed that the objects are really separate galaxies, located extremely far away.

The nearest galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, is 2.2 million light-years beyond our Milky Way. But other galaxies extend around us in space for many billions of light-years.” ~


The last time I browsed in a New Age bookstore (which already seems like a lifetime ago, the bookstore closed now, like so many bookstores), I happened on a book that announced that the whole UNIVERSE is supposed to be consumed by fire, not just the earth. Those billions of galaxies, who needs them? Well, some time by 2050 they will all be blotted from existence.

Stars, if you remember, are to fall down to the earth as the trumpets sound and the moon turns to blood — but for some reason I was oblivious to the fact that the belief in the end times includes the whole universe, scheduled for an imminent extinction. The Horsehead Nebula in Orion that people love so much? Blow a good-bye kiss toward Orion, the celestial hunter. No more Sirius, his bright dog star, or Capella, the little she-goat near Polaris. In fact kiss the whole universe goodbye, since the end could come anytime. Haven't you seen the bumper sticker that says, “In the event of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned?”

The book made no reference to astrophysics and the expanding universe, the galaxies speeding away from one another — a different kind of apocalypse, a vanishing that perhaps will be constrained by dark matter and dark energy — perhaps. With so many immediate problems, it’s a bit difficult to ponder the universe a billion years from now. No, the book was “spiritual.”

New Age is mainly crypto-Christianity, I’ve decided. Instead of Jesus, they talk about the Holy Spirit. And New Age is in decline these days. No one seems interested in Lemuria anymore, or in how “two entities of light” appeared in anyone’s living room. Empires rise and fall, Yahweh is dead, Jesus has grown pale and blond to look like a Norwegian; the Holy Spirit still keeps hovering, but in fewer and fewer bookstores and “centers for creative living.” Yes, this is the end of the old world order, but isn’t it always the case?

Strange, those Lemurian warriors don't appear so ferocious. So why has the Vatican been suppressing the evidence of their existence?


End of the world? What we do have is events that change the world forever. Even if The Economist can say, “As the world marks the centenary of the October revolution, Russia is once again under the rule of a tsar,” it’s not as before. The revolution raised questions to which we are still seeking answers.


~ “In Russia, Putin’s state knows that the revolution matters, which puts it in an odd position. Committed to capitalism (gangster capitalism is still capitalism), it can hardly pitch itself as an inheritor of an uprising against that system: at the same time, official and semi-official nostalgia for the symbolic bric-a-brac of Great Russia, including that of Stalinist vintage, precludes banishing the memory. It risks being, as historian Boris Kolonitsky has put it, “a very unpredictable past”.

In one sense it’s uncontroversial that 1917 matters. After all, it is recent history, and there’s no arena of the modern world not touched by its shadow. Not only in the social democratic parties, shaped in opposition to revolutionary approaches, and their opponents of course, but at the grand scale of geopolitics, where the world’s patterns of allegiance and rivalry and the states that make up the system bear the clear traces of the revolution, its degeneration and decades of standoff. Equally, a long way from the austere realms of statecraft, the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and others remain inextricable from the revolution that so many of them embraced.

Their influence is incalculable: the cultural critic Owen Hatherley calls constructivism “probably the most intensive and creative art and architectural movement of the 20th century”, which influenced or anticipated “abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk … brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism”. We can trace the revolution in cinema and sociology, theatre and theology, realpolitik and fashion. So of course the revolution matters. As Lenin may or may not have said: “Everything is related to everything else.”

. . . So to go back to the question: why does the revolution matter? Because of what was right about it, and what went wrong. It matters because it shows the necessity not only of hope but of appropriate pessimism, and the interrelation of the two. Without hope, that millennial drive, there’s no drive to overturn an ugly world. Without pessimism, a frank evaluation of the scale of difficulties, necessities can all too easily be recast as virtues.

Thus after Lenin’s death the party’s adoption of Stalin’s 1924 theory of “socialism in one country”. This overturned a long commitment to internationalism, the certainty that the Russian revolution could not survive in isolation. The failure of the European revolutions provoked this – it was a shift born of despair. But announcing, ultimately celebrating an autarchic socialism was a catastrophe. A hard-headed pessimism would have been less damaging than this bad hope.

Almost 60 years before the revolution, the radical writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky published What Is to Be Done?, a long political novel with an immense impact on the socialist movement, especially on Lenin, who, in 1902, named his own seminal tract on organization after the book. Chernyshevsky’s depiction of the hinge point, a fulcrum from history to future possibility, comprises in its entirety two rows of dots. Informed readers would understand that behind the extended ellipsis was revolution. Thus Chernyshevsky evaded the censor, but there’s something religious, too, eschatological, in this unwriting, from this atheist son of a priest. Apophatic theology is that which focuses on what cannot be said of God: an apophatic revolutionism, unashamed to go beyond words.” ~


For me, the most important sentence here is: “ultimately celebrating an autarchic socialism was a catastrophe.” Autarchic means autocratic, dictatorial — not allowing any questioning or dissent. When Lenin tried to dismiss the importance of freedom by asking, “Freedom for whom? To do what?” Rosa Luxembourg replied, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” 


from the Guardian review of Mieville’s October:

~ “The worst aspect of Stalinism – the unpredictability and arbitrariness of terror – ended after the dictator’s death. There followed 35 years of what western analysts disparage as stagnation but which for most Russian families was their first experience of economic sufficiency and political stability. This massive post-Stalinist change was deliberately obscured in the west during the cold war so as to provide one more justification for the argument that communism cannot be reformed but must be destroyed. As a result, most western analysts and politicians treated and still treat the historiography of the Soviet Union as a single block of time rather than dividing it into two periods, equal in their number of years but with radically different contents, one of turbulence, war and invasion, the other of order, peace and security. Because of this misinterpretation, outsiders fail to understand why many middle-aged and elderly Russians look back on the USSR with nostalgia. Its collapse was followed by a new wave of upheaval, which Putin is thanked for ending.

China Miéville’s contribution in October is to get away from ideological battles and go back to the dazzling reality of events. There is no schadenfreude here about the revolution’s bloody aftermath, nor patronizing talk of experiments that failed because they were doomed to fail. Known as a left-wing activist and author of fantasy or what he himself calls weird fiction, Miéville writes with the brio and excitement of an enthusiast who would have wanted the revolution to succeed. But he is primarily interested in the dramatic narrative — the weird facts — of the most turbulent year in Russia’s history: strikes, protests, riots, looting, mass desertions from the army, land occupations by hungry peasants and pitched battles between workers and Cossacks, not just in Petrograd but along the length and breadth of a vast country.

He is equally fascinated by the verbal fisticuffs, the debates and arguments at the epicenter between Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Kadets, Kerenskyites and Bolsheviks. Miéville brings to life the democratic practices that continued to be observed to an astonishing degree even as law and order crumbled – struggles over the wording of Pravda editorials, votes (for, against, abstentions) taken at meetings of the Duma and the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a rash of municipal elections. This was not a contest of warlords like those that mark many other revolutionary struggles but a battle of pamphlets and verbal jousting between men in suits endowed with huge oratorical talent.

There is wonderful detail on small points too. On the sealed train that brought him and his comrades from Switzerland back to Russia, Lenin was the man who organized the queuing system for the loo. In July, Trotsky acted as a moderate, telling the hard-left advocates of “all power to the Soviets” to stay calm and stick to sentry duty even as Cossack forces in Petrograd were killing workers on the streets. In August, as general Kornilov mounted his counter-revolutionary putsch, prime minister Kerensky bellowed operatic arias in his bedroom to try to steady his nerves.

Miéville does not neglect the Muslim issue, overlooked until recently – some contemporary scholars such as Jonathan Smele now see the anti-Russian uprisings in central Asia in the summer of 1916 as the true start of what turned out to be several overlapping civil wars – but records how the All-Russian Muslim Conference in May 1917 passed 10 principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes and the non-compulsory nature of hijab.” ~


There is no question that the Revolution matters. It has raised questions to which we are still seeking answers — about an optimal economic system for various part of the world, about the feasibility and fragility of democracy given the growing influence of the very rich. I’ve always had the feeling that “someone had to do it” — someone had to perform the huge experiment of trying to revamp the fundamentals, or else it would be dreamed of forever and ever. I also think that the abolition of democracy and the suppression of dissent doomed that experiment.

Regulated capitalism with a strong social security net seems to work. Of course nothing is ideal, without drawbacks. But non-violent solutions seem best.

One of the many bad things about a violent revolution is that in order to perpetuate its non-democratic rule it has to rely on heavy propaganda, i.e. lies. 


This week's blog has a theme running through it, exploring the dynamic in history, culture, and thought, of the relationship between change and resistance to change, revolution and its transformation into repressive autocracy, the ever expanding universe and the solid state, static, unchanging universe we believed in until less than 100 years ago. Violent revolution, the overthrow of a stagnant and oppressive system, seems a daring, new revelation in thinking and action, followed by the formation of yet another monolithic repressive system, disallowing further change, new thoughts, any challenge to the new powers that be. France, Russia, China. Not to mention Christianity, another bit of radical thinking quickly subsumed by stultifying orthodoxy.

Perhaps we simply can't tolerate perpetual revolution, endless change. Maybe that's why tribalism is so prevalent, so difficult to challenge or abandon. Perhaps thinking 'outside the group' is just too terrifying, feels too much like apocalypse,  like losing everything, all safety, all meaning, all connection. Nothing rational in any of this, so of course, rational argument, careful exposition, changes no one's mind in these circumstances. The whole idea here is 'no thinking allowed’ — No exegesis,  no argument, no shaking the boat. Memorize the party line, and recite it. Loudly. So in times of change some grow nostalgic, longing for that old, narrow, predictable world, that has somehow become a Paradise lost.


Part of it is the way our brain works. Whatever we grow up with becomes “normal,” and the deeper brain structure abhor the “loss of the familiar.” That’s one reason immigrants almost invariably suffer from homesickness (and that’s a real sickness, with crying fits and what feels like tightness around your heart — the first two years are the worst), and it doesn’t matter that change has been mostly for the better. Their homeland now becomes paradise lost.

Tzarist Russia became paradise lost to many, and not just to those who managed to leave the country and thus experienced the common variety of immigrant trauma. Now the Soviet era is a source of nostalgia for millions. To many of those who grew up during that time, those were the glory days. Presenting statistics is useless.

It’s only human to hate sudden big change — but small incremental changes generally don’t provoke vehement emotions. Of course it all depends — sometimes there can be no half-way measures. You either abolish slavery, or you don’t.

In the US there is a special roadblock to change — the Evangelical voters. Since they expect the End of the World any time now, but certainly by 2050, it’s obviously pointless to go to college or to try to protect the environment. Religion has typically been an obstacle to progress, but in this country the reactionary nature of religion is particularly acute.

Still, that’s an excellent insight about early Christianity and how soon it fossilized into a reactionary, dissent-suppressing orthodoxy. For one thing, it allied itself with the rich and powerful — as religion usual does. 


~ “Manson ordered Atkins, Krenwinkel, Watson, and Linda Kasabian to begin “Helter Skelter,” his term for an end-of-days battle he hoped to start between whites and blacks (loosely inspired by The Beatles song of the same name). They would murder whites and frame blacks to start the race war, which blacks would win at first. After black people took over the world, Manson believed, his family would hide out in the desert and eventually overtake them to rule the Earth.

The first killings took place at Polanski’s home in the Los Angeles neighborhood Benedict Canyon while he was away on the evening of Aug. 9, 1969.

The first victim was teenager Steven Parent, who was killed in his car while trying to leave the property. Parent was stabbed and also shot in the face.

The assassins then made their way into the rented home, where they repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed the guests inside. Victims included hairstylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski and his girlfriend Abigail Folger (an heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune).

The most gruesome slaying was that of Tate, who was in the third trimester of her pregnancy. According to a Family member’s testimony, Tate begged the killers to spare her unborn child.

“Look, bitch, I have no mercy for you. You’re going to die, and you’d better get used to it,” Susan Atkins barked to Tate, before she and Watson repeatedly stabbed her to death. They then scrawled “pig” on the front door with Tate’s blood.

The next evening, around midnight, Manson led the same four killers plus Van Houten and Grogan to the home of grocery-store executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, to “show them how to do it.” Manson tied up the LaBiancas before leaving his minions to finish them off.

Leslie Van Houten held Rosemary Labianca down and covered her face with a pillowcase while another Family member carved “War” into her husband’s stomach after stabbing him in the couple’s home. (Then they helped themselves to chocolate milk in the fridge.) Van Houten was also the one who scribbled missives on the house walls using their victims’ blood. 

In a 1971 trial, Manson was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1969 murders of Donald “Shorty” Shea and Gary Hinman. When Shea, who was a ranch hand and stuntman on Wild Western films returned to Spahn Ranch with a black wife, it allegedly set Manson off.

The murders failed to incite the prophesied race war Manson predicted, but they signified a violent end to the ’60s dreams of the hippies that the Family seemed to emerge out of.

“[Manson] has no redeeming values,” Kay said. “And wanting to commit these murders and blame them on blacks to start a race war, I mean, that’s one of the worst motives that I ever came across in all my 37 years as an L.A. prosecutor.”

At 73, and now retired, Kay said he can still hear the sinister threats on his life made by Manson and his disciples.

“Squeaky [Fromme] and Sandy Good snuck up behind me and said they’re going to do to my house what was done at the Tate house,” Kay said. Fromme and Good faithfully appeared at court every day to support the Manson Family.

All of the Family members who were sentenced to death, including Manson, were spared when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty back in 1972 and commuted their sentences to life in prison. The state would later bring back the death penalty, but the life sentences for Manson and his killer kin stuck.

Kay isn’t blind to the irony that had the sentence gone forward Manson wouldn’t have become quite the diabolical deity that has haunted popular culture for decades.” ~


I don't think much was made of the swastika on the foreheads of the members of the “Family.” I don't remember anyone mentioning that it was meant as a symbol of white supremacy. The racist angle, if mentioned at all, was buried and lost amidst all the lurid details. Manson was written off as a psychopathic cult leader. He certainly was that, and deluded enough to think he and his Family would be the only white survivors of the race war, during which he’d hide underground in Death Valley.

Delusional, yes. A charismatic psychopath, yes — a phenomenon familiar to criminologists. But the racist aspect, the swastika tattoo — only now it all seems to cohere. Only now we see that Manson was not a product of the hippie counterculture — he merely learned how to exploit it to manipulate his followers. He was instead a blatant white supremacist and a forerunner of today’s alt-right.

from an earlier article in Newsweek:

~ “He referred to African Americans as “blackies” and was petrified of black Muslims and Black Panthers. He reportedly refused to associate with black inmates during his time in prison.

“Charles Manson was one of the most virulent racists that ever walked the planet,” Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, told Newsweek.

Manson grew up in the 1940s in West Virginia, where racism was rife. After moving to California and serving two stints in prison, he started “The Family,” indoctrinating its members with the idea that blacks would rise up and start a war with whites, an idea known as “Helter Skelter.” He believed that blacks would eventually win because they were essentially savages.

He regularly spewed racist remarks to the bikers who were supplying his cult with drugs, but told his hippie apostles he just said those things because that’s what they wanted to hear, his followers told Guinn when he interviewed them in prison.

To incite a race war, Manson ordered his devotees to carry out gruesome murders that they would try to pin on blacks by leaving behind clues, such as words used by black power groups like the Black Panthers scrawled in victims’ blood.

The charismatic leader got his followers to go along with him by threatening that they would be either butchered or enslaved by the remaining blacks if they didn’t do what he said.

“I keep being reminded of Charlie Manson when we see white supremacist groups. It’s almost like they’re copying the Charles Manson playbook,” Guinn said. “He’s certainly acting as a role model for people today.”

And while his name will forever be associated with a cult of LSD-fueled hippies and gruesome murders, some have started to recognize him for what he really is.” ~


~ “I can think of no better way to keep a culture from changing too much, or too fast, than ascribing divine authority to it. When you think about it this way, a whole lot more things start to make sense. For starters, here are three things we learn from thinking this way.

1) Suddenly it makes sense why it’s so hard to change a religious person’s mind.

The direct approach—critiquing the beliefs themselves—often produces little change in the thinking of the believer because the real strength of the belief system comes from something external to the beliefs themselves. The real strength of our beliefs lies in their ability to hold together the tribal identity.

Have you ever tried changing the mind of someone who believes things that are irrational or lacking in evidential support? The mental gymnastics they perform in front of you will leave you dizzy, especially if they are relatively intelligent (and yes, intelligent people believe irrational things, too). If they are less articulate, they will just dig their heels in and keep restating their belief, now in ALL CAPS, as if you didn’t just expertly disassemble the entire narrative undergirding their belief. It’s like talking to a brick wall.

But why? Why the backfire effect? Why is it so hard to change their minds about things that are so easily deconstructed?

I recall an article a few months back wondering aloud why Trump supporters seem convinced of everything the man ever says even after showing them he contradicts his own positions three times in a single week. They will defend anything he says or does, not because the actions or words themselves are rationally defensible, but because at some point the mantle for a particular group identity was placed on him and from that point forward it became about the tribal identity, not the man himself.

Would you go back and reread that last sentence? The reason Trump remains popular with his base no matter how dangerous or irresponsible (or demonstrably false) his tweets and off-script public statements become is that he’s become a symbol for a group identity, like a team mascot strutting the sidelines during a football game. People will root for their team no matter how consistently poor their performance because it’s not about the performance. It’s about the group identity.

2) This also helps to explain why people take it so personally when they learn you no longer believe the same things they believe.

How many of you had to break it to your parents that you no longer believe the central tenets of their religion? Did they react charitably, with sympathy, understanding, and grace? Or did they explode in anger, remorse, attempts at coercion, or possibly even a verbal assault because “How could you do this to us?!”

Wait, what? What do you mean “do this to us?” From your perspective, this wasn’t some kind of personal slight to them. It was an individual matter, an unavoidable consequence of following your own thought processes, your own search for truth, wherever it leads you. But that’s not how they experience it at all. To them, this was a personal slap in the face.

That doesn’t make any sense until you realize that religious beliefs are social constructs — they are the scaffolding around which communities organize themselves such that your departure from their belief system means you are undermining the social fabric through which their entire identity is woven. What will everyone think of them now?

There is virtually no unoffensive way to tell friends and family you no longer believe in their religion. To do so automatically takes something out from under their social edifice and makes the whole thing feel like it’s wobbling a little. That’s why they get so angry. That’s why they take it so personally. In their moments of greatest insecurity the nicest people in the world will say the meanest, most careless things because your departure fundamentally threatens their tribal identity. They almost can’t help it.

3) It also explains how positions on issues that are non-essential to a religion (like same-sex attraction) can become the hill they are ready to die on.

This one keeps surprising me. I’ve personally taken part in quite a number of discussions through the years about which beliefs are truly essential to the historic Christian faith — what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” — and yet I cannot recall a single one of those discussions including “fighting the gays” as a key component to the gospel.

And yet. Disapproving of same-sex attraction has become a litmus test for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians the world over. Scrolling through your newsfeed, you could be forgiven for concluding that this is why Jesus came to earth—to rid the world of homosexuality—despite the fact that the man never said a single word about the subject. I guess it never came up. But still, you would think someone with a direct line to Heaven would have included at least one quick mention for future reference.

For the life of me, I cannot explain theologically how disagreeing on this single issue could equal a betrayal of the entire Christian faith. It doesn’t really add up in my mind. Except that it does once you realize that at some point in the recent past it was decided that this would be an identity marker for the tribe itself, and that was the end of the discussion. Once that association was made, the battle lines were drawn and now they’re willing to go down fighting over this.

One could argue that the key issue with this particular point is really family structure itself. Modern American churches are built around meeting the needs of the traditional American family, which means one man married to one woman with at least two or three kids needing entertainment, character formation, and good friends to play with. That’s the target audience for the evangelical and fundamentalist church (too bad if you’re single and way worse if you’re gay). That is the family structure they will fight to the death in order to preserve. Their survival depends on it.

Incidentally this would also explain the church’s over-the-top obsession with sex in general, or rather controlling how people do it. If you let people have sex outside of wedlock they may never get around to marrying and having those kids you need them to have so that they’ll start coming to church again (because who will teach the children morals?). If you allow the family to start looking like something other than the template around which their subculture is built, what will happen to the tribe as a whole? It would likely dissolve into the surrounding world and the identity would be lost forever.” ~

~ “In deep-red white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe.” ~ Forsetti’s Justice

As the caption in Esquire said, “Wake up and smell the white supremacist theocracy.”


Another aspect of rural fundamentalism is practically no knowledge of the larger world. In rare instances of foreign travel, those are religious-theme tours, e.g. In the Footsteps of Paul. Fundamentalists travel in a bubble, carefully insulated from any contact with non-Christians and the riches of non-Christian cultures. It’s amazing how it's possible to live in the modern world but not in true contact with it.

But the basic problem is absolutism. God is assumed to be unchanging, so the very idea of change is heresy. That religions and other systems of belief evolve is a horrible, inadmissible idea to anyone in the absolutist-eternalist camp. Even clothes should be those of a previous era — especially of course women’s clothes should harken back to the “purity” of an unreal, idealized past. (What does the future hold? The end of the world.)

For me the critical factor in outgrowing religion was learning about other mythologies. This came before I later learned, for instance, that Elohim was a plural, “the gods,” implying an evolution from polytheism to monotheism. And before I learned how freely made-up the stories were, e.g. according to historical record, there was no “slaughter of the innocents” — the story was made up to create a motive for the escape to Egypt so that there could be a return from Egypt, a parallel with Exodus (the slaughter of the Egyptian first-born being another parallel); the gospel writers were concerned with aligning Jesus with the great events and figures of the Hebrew tradition. His bad fit as the Messiah required much distortion and outright fictional support.

But, first of all, at a certain age I could not but help thinking for myself, in spite of trying for two years to suppress my thinking. One day, and literally in one instant, the dam burst; thinking happened and could not be reversed. But I realize that this is far from universal experience (nevertheless, it may be more common than we are aware of: according to a Catholic source, 80% of Catholics leave the church by the age of 23).

Forsetti states that evangelical safeguards against thinking are formidable indeed. This reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s statement about the refusal to be a person and preference for “following orders” that stem from the refusal to think for yourself. But is this refusal a conscious choice? There is the early-childhood indoctrination and the threat of hell for incorrect belief. Any spark of independent thinking (“the whisper of Satan”) is quickly extinguished with punishment, whether external or (more likely) internalized.

Somewhat on a tangent, I love the folk etymology that “Israel” supposedly means “struggling with god.” While scholars think the name is probably pre-Semitic and only the “El” part is clear, the chief Canaanite god, I love the notion of the kind of deity you can argue with. This leaves room for dissent and wildly contradictory interpretations — rather the opposite of “submission.”

(I realize that reality is no idyll of free inquiry. Any orthodoxy finds ways to suppress real thinking, real questioning. Spinoza got excommunicated from the Jewish community because he dared to think too differently, along the lines of pantheism. Today’s liberal Judaism is much more tolerant — and some say that’s exactly why it’s doomed; once you start thinking, you become an agnostic or maybe a pantheist; in any case, you’re no longer scared and obedient.)

(A shameless digression, thanks to Neil Carter: here is Jesus kicking away the whole notion of kosher food. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing which enters a person from the outside can defile them? It doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”
[In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.] ~ Mark 7:18-19)

I distinctly remember a part of this from my church-going years. The gospels were read over and over, so it was easy to memorize certain sayings without even trying. I do remember the part that says, “What goes into your mouth cannot defile you.” But at the time I had no real understanding of kosher versus non-kosher food, even though the catechism-teaching nun did explain about hooves and how animals with divided hooves were regarded as “unclean.” It sounded bizarre and it made no sense to us to children.

What was never discussed was the terrific courage that Jesus had to say that no food defiled us. It was a heresy for which he could have been stoned! Maybe the apostles were strong working-class men because they had to function as body guards — that wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Imagine if all people were familiar with other cultures, other traditions, other mythologies?

ending on beauty

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise

~ Ezra Pound, Notes for Canto CXXX

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