Monday, June 26, 2017


The fox doesn't care for this beautiful angel of death

I stray into an aspen grove,
among trees like brides —
white trunks with black scars
left by the missing branches.
Some say, if at sixteen

we could see our future life,
none of us would choose
to live. But I would have. 
Because aspen leaves
turn silver in the wind.

Where is he — the other one,
the man I was waiting
for him to become —
seems he wavers behind
each shimmering tree —

Over the eastern peaks,
the sky blackens with storm.
The lightning practices
its writing on the granite wall.
It was the mountains

in him that I loved,
not the man who said,
People will despise you
for having wasted
yourself on me.

And that was youth.
Now the woman
I was waiting to become
walks with thunder,
the delayed echo.

~ Oriana

No one ever overtly expressed contempt for me for having wasted myself on this particular wrong man, but I could sense disapproval at least, and disappointment. Recently I read something by Diana Trilling that neatly summed it up: “another woman who thought she loved a man she deeply hated — a not uncommon phenomenon.”

Being involved with “the wrong person” is in fact closer to being the rule rather than an exception. Call it a learning experience — that forgiving term that’s perhaps the ultimate in what I call the California mentality of learning not to be too hard on yourself. We are slow learners when it comes to life. Not too many of us have the self-confidence to discard partners as soon as we can plainly see we’d be better off without that person. Not while we’re young and struggling, focused on our flaws, unaware that we’re gorgeous simply because we are young and have the kind of fresh beauty and energy we’ll never have again.

Not that it’s ever a 100% black-and-white situation. There are the good times and the bad times, things you can’t even bear to remember and favorite memories in spite of the ultimate tragedy of the suicide. But more important from the general point of view, it’s not that there are wonderful alternate partners lined up to choose from, especially once past the typical age window for first marriages. The typical situation is very much the opposite of that. I was startled at the number of men who were dysfunctional in all kinds of ways: alcoholics, drug addicts, the chronically unemployed, those who can never settle on a single partner, the compulsive day-traders, the borderline mentally ill, and so on. “I just want someone NORMAL,” becomes the woman’ s plaintive chant. Told to lower her standards, she becomes unnerved by having to settle for less and less. Eventually she may see the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “You love whoever is there to be loved.”

Some women give up on men and get a beautiful husky or a German shepherd, and seem a lot happier than those who are “dating.” Yet other women opt for becoming single mothers using a sperm bank, usually with their parents willing to help out, with the grandfather willing to become  the father figure. And those too seem to be happy and loving families.

The beautiful thing is the absence of any moral condemnation, at least in the cities. We pursue happiness as best we can.

But that’s mainly the wisdom of the second half of life. In the “youth” stage — a stage that’s defined by a kind of perpetual waiting for the future more so than age alone — we are still pining for what we thought was going to be the obvious, compatible career and family life — what we were “born for.” Perhaps youth as the immature stage of life ends only when we stop confusing the real and the ideal, accept the shattering of youthful dreams not as a tragedy but as a pretty typical human condition, and dedicate ourselves to making the best of the real.


But this is not a poem about a typical relationship with the wrong person. This particular relationship ended with the shock of a suicide. I was reminded of the poem when I read the following:

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” ~ Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Generally you can’t predict when that instant will happen or how it will change your life — especially the latter. Sure, a pregnant woman knows her “due date.” What a first-time mother can’t predict is how her life will be utterly changed. We can’t help imagining the future — which later turns out to be nothing like our imaginings. In some cases this is adaptive: if we could truly see, we might not have the will to go on.

What I’ve learned through my “instants” is that we need to find a refuge in case of the complete shattering of the future. You can’t necessarily run there right away — you need to recover from the emotional shock first. But after the acute phase, having a refuge is wonderful.

It’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned in life: never rely on a single source of fulfillment, especially not if it’s a relationship. Develop a reliable refuge in work, the love of beauty, friends, animals. Whatever works. Whatever is there for you when a hurricane comes so you don’t get destroyed.

For me, the beauty of nature of nature has been such a refuge. Just looking out of the window stopped suicidal thoughts more times than I care to remember.

The “woman I was waiting to become” has turned out simply a woman who has developed her talents so that she has her work — and other kinds of satisfaction (or call it “refuge”) besides.

What most strikes me about this poem now are these lines — they alone seem to contain some universal wisdom:

Some say, if at sixteen

we could see our future life,
none of us would choose
to live. But I would have. 
Because aspen leaves
turn silver in the wind.

And because the black silhouettes of palm trees against the sunset still awe me every time. 


During World War II, British commandos kidnapped German general Heinrich Kreipe in Crete, followed by a dangerous 18-day march to the coast to rendezvous with a British ship. One day the party saw the snows of Crete’s highest peak. Kreipe mumbled to himself the first line (in Latin) of an ode by Horace about a snowcapped mountain. At which point the British commander, Patrick Leigh Fermor, continued the recitation. The two men realized that they had, in Leigh Fermor’s words, “drunk at the same fountains.” A recategorization. Leigh Fermor had Kreipe’s wounds treated and personally ensured his safety. The two stayed in touch after the war and were reunited decades later on Greek television. “No hard feelings,” said Kreipe, praising their “daring operation.”


This reminds me of the unforgettable scene in the movie The Pianist, when the German officer dramatically shifts from contempt to admiration when the Jewish pianist demonstrates that he is indeed a piano virtuoso. Again, the common cultural heritage and the awe of talent of talent and accomplishment take precedence over the shallower ethnic prejudice. 

Mt. Ida, Crete


Rebel barons made King John of England seal the Magna Carta — the Great Charter — on June 15, 1215, in a bid to limit the power of the monarch, who they viewed as cruel and greedy.

The document set out the principle that everybody was subject to the law, even the king, for the first time on written record.

Some of its key principles influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other legal systems.

Due process can be traced to Chapter 39 of Magna Carta and is incorporated into the Fifth Amendment, which includes the provision that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."

"For America's founding fathers, Magna Carta symbol­ized the "rule of law," the precept that a government is bound by the law in deal­ing with its people," Ralph Turner, history professor emeritus at the University of Florida, said in an article titled Magna Carta in the United States.

"This view was set forth first in the Declaration of Indepen­dence, then in the state constitutions of the former 13 colonies, and in the fifth and 14th amendments to the federal Constitution," he wrote.

"It's England's greatest export," he said. "It affects the lives of nearly 2 billion people in over 100 countries throughout the world. It's the foundation of liberty, it's the foundation of human rights, it's the foundation of democracy.”

King John


~ “The steep decline in homicides in Europe continued from 1300 to 1950 without any reversal of trend, constitutes one of the longest, strongest, and most poorly understood trends in the social sciences. It is probably no accident that declining violence accompanied increasing wealth in Europe. As daily life was organized more and more around monetary transactions, homicides declined.

“Historical research on homicides in European countries found that rates were very much higher in the agricultural past than the urban present. Homicide rates in Amsterdam fell from 47 (per 100,000) in the mid-15th-century to around 1.5 in the early 19th century (1). Similar patterns applied to England, France, Italy, and Netherlands, as well as Australia, and the U.S. in a shorter time frame.

Scholars were stunned by the prevalence of violent crime in agricultural societies because it went against so much of the conventional wisdom in sociology that cities were dangerous because they fostered alienation with their anonymity and crowding.

Historian Barbara A. Hannawalt of the University of Minnesota analyzed violence in Medieval England and concluded that most of the homicides began as disputes amongst farmers as they toiled in the fields.

Insults to honor were taken seriously and such disputes frequently culminated in violence. Weapons of choice were the shepherd's staff, and the knife. Everyone carried knives, even women, because they were used for eating and guests were expected to bring their own. In a world of poor sanitation, even a minor knife cut could become infected, turning an assault into a homicide.

These disputes over honor in medieval English fields are reminiscent of the trivial altercation homicides in Detroit bars that accounted for most of the killings there. Opponents were not really fighting over some superficial insult but rather to maintain face, or social status. Measuring up in such disputes was critical to how they were perceived by peers, and thus affected their sexual attractiveness to women.

As to why the Age of Chaucer was so much more violent than anything that came after, one plausible candidate is a scarcity of men in the population, thanks to prolonged wars and disease epidemics such as the Black Death to which men were more exposed due to activity patterns outside the home.

A scarcity of men forces women to be more sexually assertive so that premarital sexuality rises. With more to fight over, young men become more violent and crime rates increase despite the fact that men commit far more violent crimes than women and there are fewer of them. So the increase in aggressiveness of men overwhelms their decline in numbers.
These ideas could explain why crime rates in the medieval period were higher than subsequent centuries, but they cannot explain the ten-fold decline playing out subsequently as countries became more economically developed.

Physical domination of rivals is one way that men achieve reproductive success that was more important in hunter gatherer societies than in medieval England, and more important in medieval England than after the Industrial Revolution.

Direct physical competition is getting supplanted by economic competition where women select as mates men who are financially qualified to support children. In recent decades, men also did a great deal more child care and housework, selecting for a mild and nurturant disposition incompatible with violent confrontation. So violent crime gets concentrated in depressed areas where there is little economic opportunity and women are attracted to successful fighters, at least those associated with youth gangs.

In Victorian England, a wealthy man would negotiate with parents for permission to marry a daughter. Once married, he might choose to visit a brothel to add variety to his sex life. In either case, he negotiated new sexual relationships without any danger of physical rivalry with sexual competitors. Indeed, he might conclude either transaction without ever meeting a competitor.

Matters were very different in late medieval England where there was minimal privacy, where sexually active women could be encountered in taverns, and where everyday life was extremely violent.” ~


Reading a bio of Dickens (who was born in 1812), I got the impression of an awful lot of daily violence and sickening conditions in the poorer sections of the city — and yet that was nothing compared to the Middle Ages. We need to take a very unsentimental look at the past and see how far we've come along. In some ways at least, we live in paradise — relatively speaking, but still . . .

The “culture of honor” that demanded you take revenge for being “disrespected” in any manner has slowly yielded to a culture of respect for human rights — at least in the West. No single factor accounts for it, but it's interesting to examine several factors that seem to have been involved. (Also, it’s interesting to note that the “culture of honor” lingers not just in the inner-city gangs, but the American South. Prisons and military academies are also notorious for their “culture of honor.”)

~ “Even after they were brought inside the European home, in the twelfth century, dogs could be a problematic presence, especially in the delicate matters of politics. The rupture between church and state caused by Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was hastened by the misbehavior of one poorly trained dog. When Cardinal Woolsey, Henry VIII’s envoy, arrived in Rome to try and negotiate an annulment for the King with Pope Clement VII, his dog Urian bit Clement’s toe on their first meeting. When, as was customary, Clement extended his leg to Woolsey so that he could kiss it, the dog leapt forward and bit him. The incident apparently drove Clement into a rage, and negotiations got off on the wrong foot.” ~


~ “Swiss bank officials sifting through dormant accounts have made an unexpected discovery. Among those not claimed since the Second World War lies an account in the name of Vladimir Ulyanov, containing the princely sum of 12.90 Swiss Francs.

According to yesterday's Neue Zuricher Zeitung, this Mr Ulyanov is the very same man who was later to rise to world fame as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The revolutionary leader lived in Zurich until April 1917, when German agents worried about the course of the war on the eastern front bundled him onto a train heading for Petrograd. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lenin had opened his savings account with the Zuricher Kantonalbank shortly before that fateful journey. It was from this account that he was to pay his membership dues to the local branch of the Bolshevik party.

In his hasty departure, he took the party with him, but not the account, whose contents have been underpinning Swiss capitalism ever since. One of Lenin's nieces is now claiming the loot, including interest.” ~


~ “Lawrence, as the world now knows, was not Lawrence. The illegitimate child of an illegitimate child, he was the son of Thomas Chapman, later to become Sir Thomas Chapman, the seventh Baronet of his line. The Chapmans were Protestant squires in Ireland, where they had acquired their first lands centuries before through the patronage of their kinsman Sir Walter Raleigh. Chapman, who already had a wife and daughters, ran away with Sarah, the family governess. The offspring out of wedlock of a Norwegian father and an English mother, she was a woman as powerful and almost as fiercely religious as his wife. Thomas and Sarah took the surname “Lawrence” and had five sons together, of whom the second was T.E., born in 1888.

An American delegate to The Paris Peace Conference called Lawrence the “successor of Muhammad.”

Unlike his brothers, who grew up in ignorance of the deception, T.E. learned at some point during his boyhood that his outwardly respectable churchgoing parents, despite all his mother’s puritanical religious sermonizing, were living in sin, using assumed names, and acting out a lie. Aspects of T.E.’s behavior often have been explained as an outgrowth of this: of his knowledge that his parents were frauds, and of his having to play a false role himself by answering to the name Lawrence. Decades later he tried calling himself by other names—Ross and Shaw—but they seemed wrong, too. Writing of himself in the third person, he said: “The friends of his manhood called him ‘T.E.’ for convenience and to show him that they recognized how his adopted surnames—Lawrence, Ross, Shaw, whatever they were—did not belong.”

He was a born double agent. He loved deceptions, puzzles, and disguises. But so did others in the England of his time. It was the age of Frederick Rolfe, who passed himself off as Baron Corvo and wrote an autobiographical fantasy in which he became Pope Hadrian the Seventh. When Lawrence was a child, impersonation took its timelessly bestselling form in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894).

All his life, Lawrence told tales, passing off his inventions or exaggerations as the truth. But so did a surprising number of his noted contemporaries. It is notoriously difficult to find a completely true sentence in the multi-volume memoirs of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister under whom Lawrence served. Ford Madox Ford, who was central to London’s literary set when Lawrence tried his hand at writing, bragged of friendships with people he did not know, and described encounters that never took place. Harold J. Laski, theoretician of the Socialist Left, friend and correspondent of Justice Holmes, did the same thing.

In fabricating stories, Lawrence cheated as a child cheats, with no essential dishonesty, meaning no harm, but passionately desiring the attention and recognition that the achievements bragged of will bring. He sought the approval of adults. As a boy, he was the perfect Scout (though the Scout movement had not yet started), disciplining himself to learn stealth, craft, and all sorts of survival skills that he was unlikely to be called upon to use in his home town of Oxford. He taught himself self-denial and endurance, gave up eating meat for years, practiced going without sleep, built muscles, and rode a bicycle one hundred miles a day. Later he learned to be a crack shot.

With a head disproportionately large, he looked shorter than his five feet four inches. With his puckish grin, his impish love of teasing, and his irreverence, the shortness made him look like a boy who never grew up. Indeed he was in some ways a case of arrested development. Emotionally he never reached puberty; typically, his lifelong attitude toward the opposite sex was that of a twelve-year-old who thinks that including girls in activities spoils the fun.

Perpetual boyhood was a theme that ran strongly through the British imagination in his time (and afterward). It found its full expression in Barrie’s Peter Pan, which appeared in 1904, when Lawrence was in his teens. Adult Britons lingered, in continuing fascination, in the world of their childhood, as witness the enormous hold on public attention exercised by Kipling’s tale of school days, Stalky & Co., and by Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Lawrence’s contemporaries P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie-the-Pooh) were like him in refusing to become adults; and like him, too, in creating imaginary worlds—for the Arabian desert portrayed by Lawrence is a work of art—into which the schoolboy in every reader can escape. So T.E. Lawrence’s strong appeal to the imagination of Englishmen, at least in part, may well have been due—may still be due—to his having tapped this powerful vein of sentiment buried beneath the surface of British life.

Lawrence skirted the question of why Allenby’s campaigns rather than his own had won the Middle Eastern war. He wrote that Allenby’s “too-greatness deprived the Arab revolt of the opportunity” of defeating Turkey. In fact, Aqaba aside, the bedouins with whom Lawrence rode were never able to defeat the Turks at all; it took a million-man British army to deliver a knockout blow to the Ottoman Empire—a blow the hit-and-run bedouins were not remotely capable of delivering themselves.

Lawrence skirted the question of why Allenby’s campaigns rather than his own had won the Middle Eastern war. He wrote that Allenby’s “too-greatness deprived the Arab revolt of the opportunity” of defeating Turkey. In fact, Aqaba aside, the bedouins with whom Lawrence rode were never able to defeat the Turks at all; it took a million-man British army to deliver a knockout blow to the Ottoman Empire—a blow the hit-and-run bedouins were not remotely capable of delivering themselves.

It was an ambitious young American showman and jack-of-all-trades, Lowell Thomas, who invented “Lawrence of Arabia” and made him into one of the world’s first film stars. Thomas was about twenty-five at the end of 1917, when he raised enough money to send himself and a cameraman to the Middle East in search of a story with romance and local color that he could sell. He had been pointed toward the Middle East by Britain’s information director, John Buchan, author of the novel Greenmantle (1916), in which a young Oxford scholar in native turban leads a Moslem uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Almost immediately on arriving in the Middle East, Thomas found his man. At first even Thomas questioned the far-fetched tales that Lawrence told him, but (according to Thomas) T.E. “would laugh with glee and reply: ‘History isn’t made up of truth, anyhow, so why worry?’” Later, Lawrence was to remark: “On the whole I prefer lies to truth, particularly where they concern me.” Lawrence claimed that the fictions he passed off as accounts of his adventures satisfied his “craving for self-expression in some imaginative form”; and when a friend objected, he countered with “What does it matter? History is but a series ofaccepted lies.”

Lawrence, with his romantic fantasies, and Lowell Thomas, with his hyperbole and ballyhoo, together concocted a story that took the world by storm. Using the photos as lantern slides as he narrated, Thomas created a show that toured the globe and broke entertainment-business records. In London alone, a million people came to see it.

To an audience sickened for years by the sordid grime and hopeless slaughter of trench warfare on the western front, Lowell Thomas brought a hero in gleaming white robes who rode to victory. Thomas’s story of a young Oxonian in native garb becoming a warrior-prince of the desert, to some extent prefigured in Greenmantle and A.E.W. Mason’s Four Feathers, struck a deeply responsive chord, much like that struck by Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan. It was as though the story had been there all along, waiting to be told; and the role of Oxford’s desert prince was there, too, waiting for Lawrence to play it.

. . . But the story [of Lawrence’s adventures] was false fundamentally. Neither T.E. nor any of his colleagues could have passed for Arab in the Middle East. As Lawrence admitted in 1927 to his biographer, the poet Robert Graves, “I’ve never heard an Englishman speak Arabic well enough to be taken for a native of any part of the Arabic-speaking world, for five minutes.”

Mrs. George Bernard Shaw, a confidante of Lawrence’s, to whom he confessed much that was false, once exclaimed in exasperation that “he is such an infernal liar!”; but her husband disagreed. T.E. “was a born and incorrigible actor,” wrote Bernard Shaw. “He was not a liar. He was an actor.”

In the one meeting he claimed to have had with T.E.—but which it now seems Malraux invented—Malraux provides a clue as to Lawrence’s enduring interest and appeal. “He was extraordinarily elegant. With an elegance of today, not of his own time. A roll- neck sweater, for example, a kind of nonchalance and distance.”

It was his special quality: he does not age or date. He belongs to today. Even his theory of strategy is as current as this morning’s headlines. He had a genius for taking the road we would want to follow. His attitudes and interests anticipated those of the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s; and so did his style. He was casual. He was cool. He never stopped being young. He shared the modern crazes: motorbikes; speed; celebrity.

Like public figures of today, he was launched by the news media and the entertainment industry, now so intertwined and pervasive. In writing fiction in which real characters make an appearance, he looked ahead to the popularity in our time of novels, television series, and films that are situated on the frontier between fact and fiction; in some ways Seven Pillars is like a Costa-Gavras movie—a setting of apparent historical truth into which untruths are inserted without being labeled as such.

Bernard Shaw wrote that “through an accident in his teens Lawrence never grew up. He looked like a boy. His great abilities and interests were those of a highly gifted boy. He died, not as a great thinker, but as a boy tearing along on a motorcycle at miles an hour.” Only a fine line separates an existentialist hero from what the London press has taken to calling “a crazy, mixed-up kid”; and T.E. was so much of his century that he could be said to be on either side of the line.

Lawrence was haunted by the knowledge that life is ephemeral. Insofar as anything endures, he believed, it is the art of a Dostoevsky or the fame of an Alexander, and he aspired to both; indeed he wanted them so much that he cheated to get them. Seven Pillars is a cheat either as a novel—for a novelist’s job is to decide what he wants to say, but T.E. would not run the risk of doing that—or as history, for it does not tell the truth; and the campaigns of Lawrence of Arabia were a cheat because T.E. fabricated them. So it may not be for his works or deeds, considerable though their influence has been, that he will be known in distant ages.

It is as a voice of our time that he is certain to be heard. As other men lust for power or wealth or women, he craved to be noticed and to be remembered—and he was and he is, and he will be.


"Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is a novel, yet we widely assume that it's non-fiction. It raises an interesting question: just how important is the historical truth? Or would we rather have an inspiring story?

Most notably, his account of being captured by the Turks has been shown to be pure invention.

That's not to say that all of the book is invention — just some of it. “Lawrence himself made tribal leader Sharif Hussein and his sons, Abdullah and Faisal, into the real stars of his epic tale. It was Faisal, Fromkin says, who thought of taking the key port of Akaba in Jordan by land, storming the Turks with an army riding camels. “But it was typical of Lawrence to play down and be modest about the things that he actually did — while telling whoppers, lies of all sorts, about things he claimed he had done,” Fromkin says."

I think we’d all agree that even if the self is real and reasonably stable — let’s keep Buddhism out of this — even if the self is real, it is not a thing. It is not an entity, a little ghost that lives inside the head, or folded inside the body like an internal shadow. We’d all agree that such images are absurd.

More and more people would be willing to say that the self, or call it a soul, is a process. It’s a sum of complex brain functions. From there it should be an easy step to the perception that the self or soul is mortal and dies when the body dies. But that goes against our wishful thinking — who wouldn’t prefer to continue to exist, especially if bliss is promised — and against practically all religious traditions except for pure Buddhism.

Yet any survival of consciousness after death is extremely unlikely. Being a complex brain process rather than a thing, the “soul” doesn’t go anywhere; it ceases when the brain ceases working, just as the candle flame goes out when the fuel (the candle wax) is exhausted. Something of us may remain, e.g. an author’s books may be read after his death — but that’s legacy, and not the continuation of a unique consciousness.

But for the sake of a thought experiment, let’s consider the impossible. What would it be like if an individual consciousness did continue?

First, we’d have to consider the limitations of historical context. Imagines that Queen Victoria dies — but her “soul” (for the sake of argument let’s imagine that the soul is a thing) survives. So the queen “wakes up” as if from anesthesia — an experience she did actually have, since ether was beginning to be used during childbirth. She “wakes up” — only to discover that she’s no longer the queen of England. There are no servants, there is no palace. Her maids of honor aren’t hovering around her. Her crown, her jewels, her embroidered cushions, books . . .  her many favorite things? There is no courtly dress, or any other kind, for that matter. Tea is not being served. Where is the Prime Minister? Why isn’t he here, giving her a briefing? It’s irrelevant now. Nothing earthly is relevant anymore — not the Parliament, nor the whole British Empire.

There is, perhaps, a non-stop religious service going on. Maybe there are clouds to perch on, and other disembodied souls to talk with — though their English may sound strange to Victoria, just as hers sounds peculiar to those from other times and locations . . . Nor do they have anything interesting to say. Ah, yes, here comes Albert . . . But after decades, he too doesn’t seem to have anything to say — anything that might be of current interest, that is, like recent court gossip. What’s the poor former queen to do? What is there to give her the will to continue to exist? Like everyone, she belonged to her moment in history. Taken out of that context, she’s no longer Queen Victoria.

It makes far more sense to assume no self/soul and no afterlife. To quote Peter Watson in his discussion of the pragmatist John Dewey:

~ But the most important element of the anti-essentialist argument is the notion there there is no such thing as a fixed human nature, either generally or as applied to individual people. This view,  of the self-contained individual self, what Dewey called the “belief in the fixity and simplicity of the self,” he put down to “the theologians’ . . . dogma of the unity and ready-made completeness of the soul.” His insight was to see that, on the contrary, any self may include within it a number of inconsistent selves which do not necessarily act in harmony. This is an idea that ran throughout the twentieth century in all manner of disciplines. It is, for many, a most liberating doctrine. ~

To use a different language, the brain constantly forms and re-forms many different neural pathways that struggle for dominance (that’s why choices can be so stressful). There isn’t a single self; there are many.

At the same time, we experience a sense of the continuity of the self. When we wake up in the morning, we know who we are (most definitely not Queen Victoria). But that’s an experience created by the brain stem, the most archaic of the our brain structures. And the current neurological opinion is that this sense of continuity comes from having a body. I have a body, therefore I am. Too bad for Decartes. Too bad for the theologians. 


~ need I say how revolutionary this is to me? It goes against all my childhood indoctrination and “socialization” (it would be unfair to see it as exclusively religious indoctrination; the overall culture was harsh). Unfortunately it takes a very long time to heal from the idea that you’re fundamentally a pretty terrible, totally flawed person. That’s why Heidegger’s statement that simply our being is a gift to others is so moving to me.

I was thinking of this once more after a Facebook friend again berated himself for being a terrible son, husband, and father. I happen to know his mother, who speaks of him and his kindness to her in the highest terms. He’s in fact a wonderful son and a generous, kind person. But he happened to have an emotionally abusive father who put him down. It was startling to see the son continue to verbally beat himself up even after the father’s death. I quickly spoke up against it. Nor would I buy the excuse about the alleged need to keep himself humble.

I don’t think it can be denied that we’re getting farther and farther away from the culture of shame and guilt that has been in dominance for centuries (consider that the first tenet of Calvinism is “total depravity”). And while much alarm has been raised over “permissiveness” and the alleged narcissism of our times, I think we are finally becoming aware that just acquiring self-control over childish impulses is only the first step toward adulthood. An equally important step is liberating oneself from the punitive superego (the Freudian lingo fits here best). The internalized critical voice that always berates you, persecutes you, never finds you adequate — are we ever “improved” by listening to it?

Sure, it didn’t help to be raised in a religion that told an 8-year-old that he or she were a wretched sinner deserving eternal damnation except for the unmerited mercy of god and the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins. But I don’t want to single out religion as the sole emotional abuser. Parental figures, teachers in particular, contributed a lot of shame and ridicule. And what about peers? Their bullying could be the most cruel of all. Some of us can point to a single dominant figure who did most of the criticizing and berating; for others, it was “in general.”

And some of us have to become middle-aged and beyond to realize that we are not being watched 24/7 by some “eye in the sky” and can make our decisions without having to please the deity and/or our parents (often dead for many years at this point). Sometimes we need to get a little silly to realize this. If we want to each ice-cream for breakfast, it can be amazingly liberating to realize that yes, we can — there is no supervision about it. Or rather, being adult, we are our own supervisor; at this point we have learned that actions have consequences, so we have to pause and think if we want to risk gaining weight. But the decision is ours, and it’s not in the moral realm — and it has nothing to do with being either a terrible person or a saintly one.

Is it a big deal, this being so hard on yourself? In my experience, those who judge themselves too harshly will also judge others harshly. The supposed Christian ideal of being gentle to others while being “stern” with yourself doesn’t work . . .  those who internalize emotional abuse tend to pass it on to others. Not knowing how to be gentle to themselves, they will not be gentle to others, especially not their own children. Self-loathing is not confined to the self. (As Dostoyevski noted in Brothers Karamazov, “Above all, don’t be so ashamed of yourself. A lot of evil comes from that.”)

As a friend pointed out, the best therapy is simply to ask, “What told you you were a terrible person?” A young child does not conclude this on his own. There is typically someone with parental authority who poisons the young mind. Now, the step that follows is to remember that “we are the victims of victims.” Our persecutor was himself relentlessly shamed by someone else while growing up. Is forgiveness next? In my experience, understanding alone is enough — you simply can’t hate your critic the same way as before once you understand what made them harm you. So it doesn’t matter if you consciously “forgive.” Understanding alone rewires the brain circuits (or, if you prefer a different lingo, it changes both the consciousness and the unconscious) and does the work. 

Dali: Shame

~ “News and people traveled faster than anyone had ever experienced. The cost of moving products and services plummeted in the same way Amazon or cloud-based apps have driven down distribution costs. Such forces made it easier for big companies in one place to serve customers everywhere. The technology “made possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets,” wrote James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, his epic Civil War history. So by 1850, factories were making certain types of craftsmen obsolete, department stores were driving local shops to close, and people found themselves losing jobs to someone far away.

Much like today, money in the early 1800s flowed to the new economy and away from the old economy. Capitalists who owned production got richer, and laborers lost power. The gap between rich and poor widened.

Cue the kind of anger Donald Trump has tapped into.

Slavery turned into a flashpoint issue, but the real unrest boiled up from this giant economic rift. Technology transformed the North into an industrial economy while the South was anchored in an agricultural economy, one that couldn't operate without slavery. The North had a population that saw the advantage in embracing technology and progressive ideas (including that slavery was bad) and moving forward. The South's way of life and economic fortunes rested on keeping things as they'd been. The South viewed the North as a threat.

Look today at red states vs. blue, or even Trump supporters vs. “establishment” Republicans. Those divisions broadly define where digital-cloud-mobile technology and the modern economy work in favor of the population vs. where they work against them. Trump says “make America great again,” which, to his supporters, means “make America what it used to be.” To people whose livelihoods have suffered because of economic shifts ushered in by technology, moving backward looks better than moving forward—not just in economic issues but in social mores as well.

The big difference between now and then is that instead of that shift from agriculture to industry in 1850, today we’re seeing a shift from industry to software. The more that software can leverage the work of fewer humans, the fewer humans are needed for work, and the more profits flow to owners of the software. One industrial company, United Technologies, provides an example. At 218,300 employees, the company’s workforce hasn’t grown in seven years, even while revenue jumped from $42.7 billion in 2005 to $57.7 billion in 2012. That’s $15 billion not being spent on more employees. Productivity created by technology tends to put more earnings into fewer hands.

The lives of many of the people in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., are going one way. The lives of many people in industrial or rural areas are going another. It may not be a North-South divide, but you can see a break widening between the coasts and the nation’s interior.

Look at what’s coming. Autonomous vehicles will eat driving jobs of every kind. Artificial intelligence will eat rules-based white-collar jobs like accounting. Block-chain technology will result in software-based contracts that eliminate the need for mortgage brokers and lots of lawyers. Factory work will be diminished by 3-D printing. The total disruption of the 20th-century way of life is inevitable and far from over.

Of course, like the tech revolution of 1850, ours should eventually create enormous opportunities we never dreamed possible. It is the path to wealth and comfort for every part of the country and every level of society. The best news is that, like in 1850, the U.S. leads the world in all of the important technologies. If we as a people can get through this, we won’t make America great “again” — we’ll make it into something cooler and better than it’s ever been.” ~


Interesting how this time it's the coasts vs the “heartland” — though I think the South remains a particularly reactionary hub. But hasn’t the split existed for a long time — the progressive coastal belt and the huge conservative land in-between? I’m reminded of the American visitor in Warsaw who astonished us by saying, “In America there is the East Coast and the West Coast, and nothing in between.” And that was the mid-nineteen-sixties.

“God is not dead. He is alive and working on a much less ambitious project.” ~ graffito (only those who’ve aged enough and are settled into the “afternoon of life” will understand this)

a blue-footed booby

ending on beauty:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

eglantine = wild rose

Lithuanian girls dressed as fairies

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Rain, London; Monika Jakubowska. Tears, tears . . .



These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

~ John Ashbery

This is not the absurdist, disjointed Ashbery of his later poems. It’s the title poem of his first book, and it’s among my favorite Ashbery poems — which are few (I can think of only three, in fact).

These are my favorite lines:

you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

The world is a gift to the lovers, an unearned grace. And the lovers too are a gift to each other “merely being there.” We are back to Heidegger’s insight that we don’t have to try so hard, we don’t have to invent beauty or cleverness; already our being is a gift to others.

Alienation and isolation are said to be among the central themes of modern literature. But this poem is about connection. And it starts with the trees, “each / Joining its neighbor.” This is a prelude to “soon / We may touch, love, explain.”

There is also the sense that when you’re in love, the whole world is smiling. And that certain shyness — “reticence” — that’s the sacred shyness of two people who are about to experience the mystery of each other.


“There is no stupider abuse of emotion than the gung-ho, can-do spirit in deciding to go to war.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Powkett Mowse


~ “Beginning with the solid premise that “Russia was neither as unique nor as exotic as either its admirers or its detractors claimed,” Dominic Lieven seeks to explain the origins of the First World War from Russia’s perspective but within an international context. He correctly reminds us that the challenges faced by the Russian Empire—aggressive nationalism, the emergence of an activist civil society, and the unanticipated toll of modern warfare—were shared by all combatants and that Russia’s three immediate neighbors and principal enemies (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) also succumbed to them. His new analysis offers an original explanation of how the tzarist government really worked. Above all, he provides a remarkable vindication of the role of individual personalities, for better or worse, in making history.

To virtually anyone at the highest level of Russian politics in 1914, war with Germany—a fellow authoritarian monarchy with a much larger economy and in many ways both a natural and historical ally—was “suicidal madness.” As a result, an odd paradox at play among the Russian elite was that the more reactionary an official, the less inclined he was to endorse war. Probably the best expression of this entrenched caution was the high-ranking statesman Peter Durnovo’s distillation of numerous internal discussions in a brief but extraordinarily prescient memorandum circulated in February 1914. One of the era’s most revealing documents, it repeated three essential points about Russia’s likely fate in a general European war: that it would probably lose, that victory would only bring more restive ethnic minorities under already unpopular Russian rule, and that the strains of conflict would cause a massive revolution that would destroy Russia’s state and society. Durnovo was no liberal—in the decades before 1914 he had built a career as a nasty secret police chief and Interior Minister devoted to upholding the tzarist order (his early career in high officialdom was nearly undone when it was discovered that he used police spies to steal his mistress’s letters to a rival). But he was absolutely right about what a general European war would do to the Russia he served.

As Russia’s leaders edged toward their reluctant decision to go to war in the wake of the July Crisis, Old Regime reactionaries filed report after report denouncing the idea. Those who eventually accepted war as unavoidable did so against their better judgment. When one minister veered toward favoring war in the days leading up to mobilization, he and the adamantly pacifist yet arch-reactionary Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov nearly fought a duel over it. To add irony to insult, the staunchly anti-war Maklakov was one of the first tzarist ministers to meet his end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Just why did Russia’s leaders end up in a war almost none of them wanted? Lieven presents a much more banal culprit few scholars have ever suspected: civil society. Russia did have one. Particularly after the unrest of Russia’s “first” revolution in 1905, civic activity exploded as legal restrictions on expression and association almost completely vanished.

It may seem surprising that this should have led to a devastating war that claimed millions of Russian lives and ended in an unspeakably violent revolution that claimed millions more. In our relentlessly liberal age, one usually expects that broadening civil society will automatically engender more responsible government. In a mournful irony, Lieven’s study proves that Russia’s war fever was not inflamed by the expected cadre of reactionary lunatic warmongers, but rather by two phenomena that students of modernity are practically inoculated to trust: the independent media and the allied professional meritocracy. Yet at every step in the years leading up to 1914, many of their representatives shamelessly championed war over peace, nationalism over internationalism, and conflict over conciliation.

As the reactionary “amateurs” sought to avoid hostilities, they were brutally assailed at every turn by a newly empowered group—a functional middle class—of journalists, editors, academics, parliamentarians, and even professionalized meritocrats who had risen within government circles, all passionately urging them toward war. In an era of mass media in which public opinion truly started to matter, they found their natural caution and reserve broadsided by opinionated critics happy to indulge their lack of government experience with the absence of any practical limitations on what they could say in the public sphere.

The critics also roamed free of the cosmopolitan sensibilities and “Olympian Majesty” for which they derided their stunned betters in the halls of the Foreign Ministry. As the documentary record unambiguously shows, the beleaguered government officials suddenly had no choice but to devote time and energy to the new and unfamiliar concept of “spin”

—reacting to public opinion, shaping policy to accommodate it, and, very often, simply admitting that it lay beyond their control. The deep irresponsibility of the Russian press, Lieven writes, shattered Europe’s peace more assuredly than any tzarist martinet in court dress. In its final decade Imperial Russia emerges not as a divine-right autocracy but as a disturbingly modern society in which media and information elites arrogated unelected and unaccountable power to themselves.

Once they rounded on Russia’s well-known diplomatic reversals in the years beginning with the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, there could be no going back if they felt the country’s prestige had been bruised. Opposing them promised danger at least as great as going along with them. Thus could Nikolai Hartwig, Russia’s self-made middle-class career minister to Serbia, buck up his host government—to the disgust of his nobly born colleagues—with confident assurances that public opinion alone would force Russia to go to war to defend it in its brewing conflict with Austria-Hungary. Hartwig’s allies in the media even relished their corrosive role: “All your arguments will be to no avail,” one Russian popular journalist mocked a diplomat. “Our purpose now is to destroy the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” In sending Russia into a spiral of crisis that toppled its dynasty, unchecked public opinion was as effective as Bolshevik firing squads. As Vladimir Putin cracks down on freedom of expression and association a century later, we might at least credit him with a sardonic ability to learn from history.” ~

Oriana: This is an eye-opening article. We tend to assume the aristocrats wanted war; in fact they tended to be internationalists rather than nationalists. 

Valentin Serov: The Anointing of Tzar Nicholas II 1896

“There’s no official line from the Kremlin – they can’t identify themselves with Lenin, because he was a revolutionary, and they can’t identify with Nicholas II because he was a weak leader.” ~ Mikhail Zygar.


Now, it’s not as if Tzarist Russia didn’t deserve to fall; it’s that ideally it would have been transformed into a democracy. But Kerensky did not have the courage and wisdom it would have taken to withdraw from WWI, against the tremendous pressure of the Allies; and even if he did, the Bolsheviks had cunningly prepared the ground for a coup, and were probably unbeatable at that point.

And let’s not forget Germany’s part in this: transporting Lenin and thirty-five of his fellow revolutionaries in a sealed railway car “like a dangerous bacillus” from Switzerland to Sweden, from where he made his way into Russia. Denounced as a “German agent” by the provisional government that he openly sought to overthrow, he had to flee to Finland, but his motto of “peace, land, and bread” gained wide support. Ultimately he returned to Russia to lead the October Revolution — which he hoped was the beginning of a wider revolution all across Europe. The anti-war, internationalist Tzarist diplomats were hopelessly irrelevant at that point, a minor footnote to history.


Oriana: When I was in an MFA program that turned out to be a huge mistake (not writing per se, but that particular program), I met a man who told me he gave up trying to be a professional actor and instead became a postal employee. He was perfectly happy with that choice: it provided him with a steady income, which in turn led to marriage and two children instead of a life, as he put it, of “living in Los Angeles and going to auditions.” I could barely conceal my outrage that he gave up on his dream. Only later I realized the man’s happiness said it all.

This article points out several important facts. The two I chose to highlight in the excerpt seem critical: 1) not knowing what your passion is when you are young and 2) the importance of luck

~ “High school and college graduation speeches often revolve around some variant of the advice to “Follow your passion.” The theme has enduring popularity because it sounds so liberating and affirming, and also because it is pretty much guaranteed to meet with audience approval. It is a safe way to sound daring.

Unfortunately, the follow-your-passion plea may actually be poor advice, feeding into some destructive tendencies that new graduates should be trying to overcome.

Inexperience. Whose passion is it? The passion of a new high school graduate hopefully will change with age, experience, and maturity. Why would we want to encourage young people to fixate on childhood dreams that are likely to be unrealistic and, by definition, juvenile? Many new graduates have very restricted life experiences, so what career choices can they imagine? Becoming fashion models? Designing video games? Playing in a rock band? Parlaying their enjoyment of student plays into a career in theater or film?

Cluelessness. Many young people don’t know what their passion is. Yet they believe they are selling out if they choose paths that aren’t their passion. So they wander through college and post-college unwilling to commit, waiting for the moment when their passion will become clear to them. Some of them wait a long time and never have that epiphany. They spend a lost decade in a twilight state, keeping their options open and rejecting one career path after another because they find some reason to doubt that it is their passion.

Magical Thinking. Let’s not ignore the importance of luck. The graduation speakers encouraging young audiences to find their own path tend to be intelligent, persistent, and lucky. Their less fortunate counterparts rarely get invited to give motivational speeches. I am referring to those whose path ran into a brick wall and who persisted anyway because they didn’t want to waste the time and energy they’d already expended. They found their passion, only to get trapped by it.

Job and life satisfaction may depend less on finding one’s passion than on making contributions and being valued members of worthwhile organizations. Too many graduates live in the purgatory of skeptically examining each career path to gauge whether this is their ideal. They might be better off learning to bloom where they are planted.
Learn to find ways to grow and thrive even if the conditions aren’t perfect. A friend of mine described how, late in his career, he was given an assignment typically reserved for those about to be pushed into retirement. He was disappointed — he wasn’t ready to retire, and he had hoped for additional promotions and challenges. But then he remembered his mother’s admonition to bloom where you are planted. He abandoned hopes for further advancement and plunged into his new work. Without having to worry about supervisor evaluations, he found that he could make some sweeping and necessary changes. He did an outstanding job and, to his surprise, he was promoted.

Still, we don’t want to counsel anyone to stay stuck in a terrible situation, so even the advice to bloom where you are planted needs to be tempered. No one-liner is going to fit all situations. Career choices aren’t simple, which is why they shouldn’t be guided by simplistic slogans.” ~

John Singer Sargent: A Street in Venice, c. 1880-1882

~ “Star Wars rejects the ambiguity and moral uncertainty of post-Vietnam America and instead depicts a universe of moral absolutes. It deploys elements of classic western films: characters Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca resonate with frontier archetypes. The dust up in the saloon and the frequent shoot outs play with the conventions of the genre.

References to American wars in which the US held the moral high ground are another recurring motif. The imagery and iconography of World War II is everywhere in Star Wars. Terms like stormtroopers, the evil empire and super weapons are suggestive. The design of the ships, costumes and weaponry are modeled on examples from World War II. The choreography of the space battles are even based on aerial dogfight sequences from other war movies.

Lucas also employs a range of visual cues from Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, most obviously in the closing medal ceremony.

Moral high ground

In the film’s opening moments, Lucas reminds audiences of another war with mythic implications, America’s Revolutionary War. This conflict ideally suited Lucas’s purpose because it is perhaps the most unambiguous war in American history: the Americans were underdogs fighting a well-equipped empire – but they were victorious. For Lucas it is a compelling and attractive alternative to Vietnam’s moral ambiguities, atrocity and defeat.
Looking at the film through the lens of the Revolutionary War, Lucas’s myth building is fascinating. The opening shot of the small blockade runner being chased down by the massive Star Destroyer perfectly articulates the heroic context and asymmetry of the conflict.

This sense of poorly equipped rebels versus a professional military force is further enhanced when the action comes aboard the smaller ship, where a small force of men awaits combat. These are not traditional soldiers, however: they are not young men at the peak of physical and psychological readiness. Rather they are all older, scared, a volunteer militia, and the coming combat, as historian John Hellman has suggested, resonates with the iconic clash of redcoats and minutemen.

Lucas’s efforts were an attempt to repair and rebuild American confidence and the belief that the United States was a force for good by celebrating the simplicity and certainties of mythic narratives. Star Wars reminds audiences of the qualities of innocence, purity and heroism these stories contain. The “return to childhood” that critic Pauline Kael recognized in her famously negative New Yorker review in 1977 is an acknowledgement of Star Wars’ ability to reconnect audiences with a more innocent time.” ~


~ On April 20, 1970, the poet Paul Celan left his home in Paris, walked to a bridge over the River Seine, and jumped to his death. He left a biography of Hölderlin open on his desk, with the following words underlined: ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.’

The sentence does not end there. Celan chose not to underline the rest: ‘but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.’ ~ Maggie Nelson, from The Red Parts

Celan is known mainly for the great poem Todesfuge — The Fugue of Death — an elegy for Holocaust victims (strange how “elegy” seems too shallow a word for that poem).

As for not underlining the positive part of the sentence — possibly not even noticing it, or, even if noticing, not remembering it — anyone who knows from experience how depression distorts perception and memory would not be surprised.

The grave of Paul Celan near Paris


~ "In the vast literature about Stalin and Hitler during World War II, little is said about their being allies for twenty-two months. That is more than an odd chapter in the history of that war, and its meaning deserves more attention than it has received.

Two factors were involved in this neglect. One was that after Hitler chose to conquer Russia he did not succeed; Stalin emerged as one of the supreme victors of World War II. The other was the Western Powers’ relative lack of interest in Eastern Europe. Yet the war broke out in 1939 because of Eastern Europe, as a result of the British (and French) decision to oppose the German conquest of Poland. The political earthquake of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, nine days before the outbreak of war on September 1, did not deter Britain and France from declaring war on Germany upon its invasion of Poland. This is one of the few—very few—decisions in their favor at the time. That they were reluctant in the months that followed to wage war seriously against Germany is another story.

[Before the Nazi-Soviet pact] Nazism and communism were outright enemies. From the very beginning of his political rise Hitler described Judaism and communism as his principal enemies. Stalin, by that time, was less of an ideologue. Like Hitler, he was a nationalist; he had little interest in international communism.

What was more important than the Non-Aggression Pact was its addendum, a Secret Protocol, that called for nothing less than a division of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, part of which was to be taken over by the Soviets. In addition, Germany recognized Russia’s “sphere of interest” in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, some of Lithuania, and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Moscow denied the very existence of this Secret Protocol for a long time, well beyond World War II. But it existed in the German archives; and in 1939 it became a somber and dreadful reality. As late as 1986 the aged Molotov (then over ninety) denied its very existence to a Russian journalist. In fact, many of its conditions survived both the world war and the succeeding conflicts until 1989.

Poland, its army and its people, fought the Germans bravely for a month in 1939 (almost as long as France, with its considerable army, in 1940). But seventeen days after the German invasion Stalin’s armies invaded Poland from the east. A few days later in Brest, a meeting place then just on the Russian side of the new partition of Poland, there was a small joint military parade of Nazi and Soviet soldiers and military vehicles. Just over two months later, less than three months after the outbreak of World War II, the only fighting on land in Europe was between Russians and Finns, who would not accept Russian control of their country. The British were aghast. They (and the French) even considered, briefly, intervening, but this did not come about. Soon Hitler’s armies conquered Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium—and then France. Churchill and Britain stood alone, for more than a year to come.

At the end of September 1939 Ribbentrop flew to Moscow once more to arrange some border deals that would carry out the Secret Protocol. Throughout the war, of all Germany’s high officials, he was the most inclined to seek and keep agreements with the Russians. (His counterpart among the Russians, Molotov, had often reciprocal inclinations.) In this respect we may also notice the reciprocal tendencies of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler thought it necessary to carry out the terms of the alliance with Stalin; Stalin, for his part, was more enthusiastic about it than Hitler. One example is his perhaps unnecessary toast to Hitler after the signing of their pact on August 24, 1939: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer, I should therefore like to drink to his health.” More telling for the historical record and more consequential for the peoples of Eastern Europe were the Soviets’ intentions and their aggressive behavior soon after the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

Two months later the Winter War with Finland began. The small Finnish army fought well and courageously, a fact that even Stalin had to accept; the result was a treaty that gave up pieces of territory to the Soviet Union but for the most part maintained Finnish independence.

Far more ominous and horrible was the situation in Poland. There the Soviet occupation was at least as brutal and murderous—if not more so—than in the parts of Poland subjugated by the Germans. The Russians deported at least one million people—including entire families, without any of their belongings—to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian far north, with very few ever seeing their homelands again. In April and May 1940, some 22,000 Polish officers were shot to death near Katyn. More than a million Polish prisoners and workers were deported to Germany for forced labor during the war.

On June 14, 1940, the very day the German army marched into Paris, Moscow finally decided to implement the Secret Protocol. Within a day or two it declared the total incorporation of Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Their governments were imprisoned or exiled. Many of their former officers were executed, and at least 25,000 of the Baltic peoples were deported to the Soviet Union. Hitler transported the German minorities in the Baltics to Germany on German ships.
Stalin ordered many friendly gestures toward Germany, including speeding up the deliveries of Soviet products there. He did not in the least react to a warning from Churchill about a prospective German attack against the Soviet Union. During the ten days before the Nazi invasion—all kinds of information about the German threat notwithstanding—Stalin did his best or, rather, his worst, to affirm his faith in Hitler and in Germany. I do not know of a single instance of such abject behavior (for that is what it was) by a statesman of a great power.

The German attack shocked Stalin into silence at first. (Molotov’s words after the German declaration of war were also telling: “Did we deserve this?”) Stalin’s first orders for the Soviet army were not to respond at all. It took him hours after the invasion—until noon—before he ordered the army to resist.

There is still a controversy about how shaken he was during the first days of the Nazi onslaught. Eventually he pulled himself together. On July 3, 1941—eleven days after the German invasion—he addressed the peoples of the Soviet Union as a patriot. By that time some Nazi troops were more than one hundred miles inside the western Soviet Union and advancing toward Moscow.

Nazi and Soviet officers at Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939


“Wanna-be tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself…ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.” ~ Bob Altemeyer, 1998

~ “Research indicates that a bed rock 20-25% of the adults in North America is highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. 25% of the American population is always ready to vote for a dictator. These people are constantly waiting for a tough “law and order” “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a person gains prominence, you can expect the authoritarian followers to mate devotedly with the authoritarian leader, because each gives the other something they desperately want: the feeling of safety for the followers, and the tremendous power of the modern state for the leader.

We know a lot about authoritarian followers. Compared with most people:

They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause. They will trust their leaders no matter what they say, and distrust whomever the leader says to distrust.

They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experience stronger fear than people skilled at “keeping their heads while others are losing theirs.”

They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.

They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.

They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.

They will support their authorities, and even help them, persecute almost any identifiable group in the country.

Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs live independent lives in separate boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.

They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent. They especially have trouble realizing a conclusion is invalid.

They are highly dogmatic. Because they have mainly gotten their beliefs from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.

They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know and listen to tells them they are. That happens because they screen out sources that will suggest that they are wrong.

Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.

They believe strongly in group cohesiveness, and being loyal. They are highly energized when surrounded by a crowd of fellow-believers because it makes them feel powerful and supports their belief that “all the good people” agree with them.

They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.

They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do. They are heavily into denial.

I hasten to add that studies find examples of all these things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.


A wannabe dictator is all about dominance. He wants to dominate everyone and he will do whatever he can get away with to become “Number One.” Often the movement he leads becomes a personality clique, because ultimately it is really just about, only about, him. Trump appears every bit as narcissistic as he is aggressive and constantly striving for dominance.

The most remarkable thing about Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader, in my mind, is that he’s so obvious about it. Look at his comments about Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-un. While he has some negative evaluation of each, he praises all three for becoming autocrats and using their power to dominate their countries.

The authoritarian followers’ connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels. That’s why Trump can contradict himself so often, and say so many outrageous things, with no effect on his followers’ support. He is likely more vulnerable to emotional backlash among his followers when he does something horrendous than to intellectual rejection when he lies or says something stupid.” ~ Bob Altemeyer


This stands out for me: authoritarian followers tend to see the reality in terms of their in-group versus everyone else. Their in-group is the “good people”; anyone different is bad. The world is a dangerous, alien place. They are dogmatic and dismiss evidence. If their leader says something is true, it’s true. They severely limit their exposure to different people and different ideas and assume they are the “moral majority.”

Naturally those are the nationalists rather than the internationalists, people who can say “Pittsburgh not Paris” without the slightest inkling that anyone might find it ludicrous. And it’s an easy guess that they aren’t familiar with Casablanca, never mind that it’s an American movie classic — but with an international flavor. 

To some extent the description of authoritarians fits most of us — we all prefer our “in-group.” There is, however, a question of degree. Some people have had much more exposure to other cultures and are more curious about the world — which they don’t see mainly as a bad, dangerous place, populated by evil minorities who worship the wrong god.

This may seem trivial, but I find this clue to be quite useful: a preference for ethnic restaurants usually indicates a less authoritarian person. Having tasted snails, frog’s legs, unusual kinds of seafood, odd Chinese fruit and so forth is an excellent sign of openness to experience. I hope I don’t sound like a hopeless foodie, but this has never failed me.

(By the way, this article was written before the election.)

I find comfort in my perception that Trump doesn’t have the vitality and charisma that Hitler and Stalin had, nor their cunning at playing the game of politics. He’s old and fat and in mental decline. Still, laugh as we may at “covfefe” and other twitter nonsense, there is no denying the damage.

“Trump is always reaching for a stronger and better word . . . and not finding it.” ~ Alec Baldwin

“Turns out that the Trump era isn’t ‘1984.’ It’s ‘King Lear.’ Turns out there is no monolithic power — there is just one man’s erratic personality.” ~ Washington Post
“Every authoritarian follower I know is on an urgent crusade against other authoritarians” ~ Jeremy Sherman (thus the right wing opposes Marxists, for instance)

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” ~ Oscar Wilde


~ “May you live to a ripe old age, and may the only people who come visit you be Mormon missionaries.

May your insurance company decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.

May you find yourself insisting to a roomful of skeptics that your great-grandmother was “legitimately” raped by Cossacks.

May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants” to “anyone who doesn’t hunt.”

May you be reunited in the world to come with your ancestors, who were all socialist garment workers.” ~

“OK, sure, but what's the point, other than venting your personal anger and frustration? Why bother, knowing that your words will change nothing?”

“Not so. Everything changes something in some way. Every spoken or written word does. Silence does, too. Silence is no less interpretable than speech, and no less of a statement.” ~ M. Iossel

  St. Sebastian (note the arrows — apparently even his soul is a permanent pincushion — or, as Charles commented, this is an example of medieval acupuncture) interceding for the plague-stricken at Pavia; Josse Lieferinxe (Netherlandish), ca 1500. Note also the angel and the devil flying above the city. Ah, the good old days.

THE FIRST TIME I STOOD UP TO A PRIEST was just after I turned 14, a month or so after I'd left the church. The beauty of it unfolded when I suddenly realized I didn't have to stand there and listen to him practically yell at me in the street. It was a major, crowded street (Grójecka, in the Ochota district of Warsaw). The priest was having a combined rage and anxiety attack. He was red in the face and shaking. “Have you stopped going to church?” he asked sharply. Then, with unmistakable fear in his voice, “Have you stopped believing in god?”

His fear startled me. I did not answer. My silence was the answer. And this seemingly tiny fact — that a young girl had decided that the invisible god in the sky wasn’t real — seemed to unnerve him to the core, to threaten his whole worldview. It was the first time in my life that I felt I was threatening to someone — a middle-aged man at that!

Yet I was only a teenager, a “girl from a good home” who’d never be impolite to an adult. No need to fear that I’d say some equivalent of “Fuck Jesus” or "Fuck god" or “give the priest a fig” (like “giving him the finger”). That was simply unimaginable. (I say “equivalent” since I was too innocent to even know the f-word in Polish — I am not kidding. In six weeks in Milwaukee I learned all the bad words in English; two-thirds or more I wouldn’t have been able to translate into Polish.)

I merely stood in the middle of the sidewalk, small next to this massive man in his voluminous black “sutanna” (‘soutane, a priestly cassock’), a sparrow against a crow — “little sparrows,” as our literature teacher called me now and then, strangely using the plural, as if I were a collectivity of smallness — a mere girl but suddenly with a mind that had obviously done something other than regurgitate catechism. He, red in the face and screaming; me, cool and silent, just staring at him.

After about seven or eight minutes of listening to his frantic scolding, I suddenly realized that he had no power over me. Other than rant, what could he do? Nothing. It was centuries too late for burning atheists at the stake. So, first the beautiful realization that god had no power to punish me — then the realization that my parish priest had no power to punish me. He continued to speak in a loud voice, getting even redder in his face, gasping. Without a word, I turned my back on him and resumed walking to wherever I was going.

But at that point it was no longer real courage. I wish I'd had courage back when hell was terribly real for me, and oh, how I hated going to confession! But I didn’t rebel as long as I though god actually existed, an invisible man in the sky who was all-powerful and could read everyone’s thoughts.

I might have stayed longer in a liberal Protestant church, the kind where they tell you you don’t have to worry about going to hell because you’re already saved . . . (“You don’t have to worry about your sins. Nothing can separate you from the Lamb,” Martin Luther said — but I learned that only decades later). Or perhaps not as long because who knows at what point reading the bible (forbidden to Catholics) would make me question the more revolting stories . . . I'm pretty sure that even in a supportive “everyone goes to heaven; your dog too will be waiting there for you” congregation, I would sooner or later come to question the truth of the teachings. Even in a church so advanced that it held that Jesus died for everyone, even the extraterrestrials! (this I learned of course only in the U.S.)

It was fascinating, though, to see a priest throw a tantrum in public, pedestrians in a quick staccato walking by us with with barely a glance at the spectacle — the usual human wave of faces lost in their own preoccupations. I threatened his worldview, while he did not threaten my new clarity. He, a suddenly frightened priest of a dead god; I, suddenly filled with courage, my life ahead of me, the future, the new world.

Post-script: In retrospect I'm astonished that he didn’t threaten me with hell, the most prevalent spiritual terrorism the church used. Was his own belief in hell wavering? Or did he by any chance sense that to threaten me with hell would have been even more abusive than hitting me, and that would have been ignoble, a big man hitting a small young girl? Finally, I wonder if he understood that the sole power he used to have over me relied totally on my belief in all kinds of invisible nonsense. A person who doesn’t believe in hell will not be manipulated by being threatened by it. Lack of belief reduces the church to impotence — now that it can’t burn heretics and apostates at the stake.

By the way, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: some people keep saying that god is a good guy; it’s religion that’s bad. Religion is divisive, and at its worst leads to suicide bombings and other atrocities. Let’s get rid of religion, but keep god!

But god is a social construct; without a social structure (e.g childhood indoctrination, places of worship, ritual) to support the idea that god exists, the idea — and a particular god — would vanish. Does anyone believe in Zeus anymore? Yet at one time true believers in Zeus swore that the god guided them and answered their prayers. They even claimed they could sense the god’s presence. Yet as soon as the worship of Zeus ended, it was as if he had never existed — except for the myths, the broken up statues, and the ruins of temples. And for those we are eternally grateful — not only for their beauty, but also for having provided an example of how quickly and totally an unworshiped deity can die.

ending on beauty

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry, To Know the Dark

photo: Connie Peterson