November 28, 2020

Crossing the Rectal Divide (Part I)

It's a recurring dream, and it refuses to go away. I have it every three or four weeks. In the dream, I'm dining alone in some fancy restaurant, and suddenly begin to beat on a plate with a soup spoon, while chanting, "Americans are degraded and debased!" As I get louder and louder, the waiter, who happens to be Indian, comes over to me.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you are disturbing the other customers. I actually agree with you: Americans are a sorry lot. But I have to ask you to keep it down, and not use a spoon." To which I reply: "The dregs of humanity!" This comes out as a shriek. "Can I offer you a bowl of cheddies?" he asks me.

"Why do you Indians always say 'cheddies'? It's cherries, for heaven's sake."

"Yes sir, I know," he replies. "We can't help it; it just comes out that way. Even Gandhi said 'cheddies'. 'Life is not a bowl of cheddies', he always used to say. Anyway, I think you'll find them veddy soothing."

Meanwhile, the owner of the place calls the local mental institution; the medics arrive in a white van, put me in a straight jacket, and cart me off to the Happy Valley Lunatic Asylum. I continue screaming; they put me in a rubber-lined room, so I can't hurt myself. The door opens, and the resident psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig von Schmaltzkopf, comes in and sits down. I'm lying on the floor, exhausted.

"Mr. Lokshen Kugel," he says; "I agree with you: the country consists of 330 million putzes. 'Dolts' is too mild a word for them. But you cannot go around yelling this in upscale restaurants. The putzes will get annoyed. Do you understand me?"

"But who will tell them?" I counter.

"Not you, Mr. Kugel. Try writing a letter to the Times instead, OK?"

"But the Times consists of putzes," I reply. At this point I wake up, sweating and breathing heavily. My wife stirs in her sleep.

"Lokshen, honey," she says; "did you have your America dream again?" I nod.

"Lokshen, you can't go on being a one-man anti-asshole crusade. Time you went to see a shrink."

"They'll just give me pills," I tell her. "That won't solve anything."

"It might stop you from having this ridiculous dream," she suggests. "Why don't you just confine yourself to writing your study of Kim Kardashian's buttocks, Crossing the Rectal Divide?"

"I've hit a brick wall with that. I can't cross the divide, so to speak, until I actually examine Kim's anus, see what's going on in there. I wrote her, explaining the project, and asking if we could set up an appointment, but she never wrote back. Meanwhile, my dream is the only thing keeping me going, the only inspiration I have left."

"It's also making you ill," says Sophie. "Why not just fly to LA, and pay Kim a visit. Who knows? Maybe she'll drop her pants. Then you might solve the problem of Americans being assholes by examining an actual American asshole."

My eyebrows go up. "Who's crazy now?" I ask her.

"I'm just trying to get you to lighten up. It's either that or the loony bin, for real." She sighs. "You could also drop in on Meghan Markle, ask her why she thinks Americans are preoccupied with her and her stupid hats. I mean, beyond the fact that they are morons. Americans, I mean, not the hats," she adds.

"A hat can't be a moron," I tell her.

"No, but it can be moronic, which means that Meghan hat-worshippers are morons."

"Why would people worship a hat?" I ask.

"Oh, they think that if they wear a Meghan hat, the hat energy will rub off on them, and they'll be like British royalty. By the same token, if you publish your book and include photos of Kim's anus, you'll sell millions of copies. We'll be rich, and we can relocate to the French Riviera."

"But what if people start to fetishize me, chase me down the street hoping to tear off my T-shirt, or even my pants?"

"Lokshen, I think we may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves. For now, concentrate on your book, and have Dr. Flanksteak give you a pill." Always so helpful, my Sophie.

I booked a flight to LA, also bought a speculum, a flashlight, and a large tube of KY jelly. I'm going to get to the bottom of this, I told myself.

I knocked on the door of Kim's mansion. Kanye West opened it. "Hey dude, wassup?"

"I just want to say how sorry I am that you weren't elected president," I tell him, squelching the desire to add that he looked like a complete buffoon. This is an American idol? I thought to myself. No wonder the country is going down the drain.

"No sweat, amigo; el Señor Trump just made me his homie."

"Wow, that's great!" I reply. "Exactly what does that entail?"

"Oh, I just hafta tell everyone that Biden stole the election. No big deal. But why are you carrying a speculum, a flashlight, and a tube of KY?"

"I'm here to inspect your wife's anus," I tell him, smiling rather dementedly.

"Far out! Hey Kimmie, get that big booty of yours over here. There's some white boy here, wants to have a look at the Royal Asshole." She comes to the door.

"Kanye," she says, "once and for all: you're the Royal Asshole. Unless maybe it's Meghan Markle."

"Ms. Kardashian," I interject, "I'm honored. Could we repair to your bedroom?"

"'Repair'?" she exclaims. "Jesus, you white boys sure talk funny."

"True," I reply, "but then we voted for Trump, and Kanye is now his homie. So let me play that funky music."

"All right," she says; "let me drop my pants so we can get this over with. What are you looking for, anyway?"

"America," I tell her.

"Well, Kugel-face, you've definitely come to the right place. You won't hafta dig very deep, either."

(To be continued)

November 12, 2020



Well, that last thread had a lot of good discussion in it. Now, we can continue our analysis of the theater of the absurd, i.e. American politics. The nation is broken in two, and each part refuses to recognize the presidency of the other part. More than 70 million people, apparently, regarded Obama as illegitimate--the whole "birther" business fomented by Trumpaloni. So when the latter squeaked through on razor-edge margins in 2016, he was never given a chance by the other 70+ million Americans. Granted, he is an awful human being--perhaps one of the most awful in the history of humanity--but he was legitimately elected, and from Day 1 the Dems went to work to discredit that election: impeachment, plus daily attacks in the press (items normally reserved for the editorial page were now on the front page--opinion as "news"). Of course, Trumpi did himself in with his botching of the covid crisis, and his callousness toward George Floyd and black people in general; but nevertheless, the Dems took their gloves off and went for the jugular. In that sense, although his claims of voter fraud this election are completely farcical, I can sympathize with the poor douche bag: of course he wants to instil in the public mind, his base in particular, that this election got stolen. Joe Biden's call for unity sounds heartwarming, but the reality is that again, 70 million Americans will regard his presidency as illegitimate. Sure, it would be great if he can get a handle on the virus, on climate change, and on racism; but the bottom line is that the country is a broken political entity, like Humpty Dumpty, and I can't see the king's horses or men being able to put it together again.

Of course, from a declinist point of view, it's just as well. I've suggested before that the American empire can collapse via a number of different scenarios, and fascism was certainly one route. If we have now averted that, there is a more likely scenario on deck: we just tear ourselves apart, and continue to do so until secession becomes the obvious solution. Whether that will generate a better world than the one we have now is anyone's guess, but what I do predict is that the world will regard America with pity--as politically irrelevant. I think it was David Susskind who once remarked (rather unkindly) that Canada was "a large, snow-covered land limping toward anonymity." Leaving the snow aside, that might be more our fate than Canada's.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to this new thread.


November 05, 2020

Of Size and Scale


While we're waiting for Schmiden to win and Trumpi's absurd lawsuits to crash and burn, I thought I might provide a bit of intellectual diversion. As follows:

Beyond right and wrong there is a field; I'll meet you there. --Yalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

A short while ago, someone sent a message to this blog, in which he voiced his concern that communism was threatening to take over America and the West. For me, it was like listening to Rip Van Winkle, who had fallen asleep for 30+ years and woke up thinking that Ronald Reagan was president. But it got me reflecting on the danger--not of communism or capitalism per se--but of size. It could be that the real problem with the Russian empire, or the American one, was the word "empire." In other words, it was not about ideology as much as the scale of the enterprise. After all, if we are talking about modern industrial societies, the most successful ones on the planet would appear to be the Scandanavian countries, which keep both socialism and capitalism in check by means of a mixed economy.

Another way of saying this was posed many years ago by the American anthropologist Richard Schweder, who suggested that most ideologies were functional or viable within limits. There is, however (he went on to say), a perverse tendency to always go overboard; to go to extremes. One thinks, for example, of the political correctness movement, which has become intolerant of any dissenting opinions to the point that it has acquired some of the characteristics of the fascist groups it opposes. Or as I wrote in the wake of 8 November 2016 (see Essay #15 of Are We There Yet?), how its extremism finally provoked the backlash that put Donald Trump into office.

As far as socialism goes, it does, as noted above, seem to work in controlled contexts, such as the Scandanavian countries. Modified socialism, as it were. But apply it on a vast scale, as in the case of the former Soviet Union, and you wind up with totalitarianism--Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. (Of course, Russia has been autocratic for something like a thousand years, long before the Bolshevik revolution; but that's a whole other discussion.) As for capitalism, a similar argument was made by Richard Powers in his brilliant novel Gain, which is a condemnation of the scope of hustling, not of hustling per se (we all have to make a living). In the novel, in the late eighteenth century, two brothers open a soap-and-candle shop on the Boston docks. It proves to be very successful, so much so that 200 years later it has evolved into a huge pharmaceutical conglomerate, poisoning rivers and giving the folks who live near them cancer. The point is obvious.

It's also about religion, in the broad sense of the term. Whether Left or Right, it is easy for people to get caught up in abstractions, and lay waste to everything around them as a result. We see this clearly in that remarkable TV series, The Americans, in which two Soviet agents living in the United States (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) so blindly follow orders from Moscow that they murder one "enemy" after another (most of them innocent) for the sake of The Cause, until at the end, with Gorbachev emerging as a challenge to the Kremlin's old guard, they have to confront the fact that their lives have been meaningless, a gigantic illusion. On the capitalist side, we have millions slavishly pursuing the supposedly endless expansion of the American Dream, which, after a certain point, also issues out in meaninglessness. (I recall David Brooks, a few years back, writing about how, despite having a $4-million apartment in Manhattan and celebrity status as a New York Times columnist, he was depressed. Gee, what a surprise!)

The sad fact is that the number of political writers who realized the crucial importance of not getting seduced by an ideology--not going "whole hog," as it were--is pitifully small: Koestler, Camus, Orwell, Eric Hoffer (The True Believer), and the American monk Thomas Merton, among others. Koestler's word for this fanaticism or fundamentalism was "devotion," a word with obvious religious overtones; and toward the end of his life he suggested that the only hope for the human race was that scientists develop a pill to combat it. Which does raise the question of the psychological dimensions of the phenomenon. (More on this in a moment)

The Scandanavian example does point to an important post-imperial possibility (although China has certainly failed to get the message): decentralization. Alternative politics can emerge with the breakup of empires, although the post-Soviet collapse led to a great deal of regional brutality. America, too, will (I believe) have its own secessionist breakup, probably within two or three decades, or even less; yet it is not likely that these new independent states will be able to shed the narcissism and competitive individualism that seems to be woven into the American DNA. E.F. Schumacher notwithstanding, small is not in and of itself necessarily beautiful.

I go beyond the issue of decentralization in the second story of my recent short story collection, The Heart of the Matter, which is also called by the same name. Whom might we look to for sensible political alternatives? In that story, I suggest John Ruskin, William Morris, Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, and Ernest Callenbach as guides to a reasonable future, although, as we might expect, they have to date been dismissed as "quaint" or utopian. All of these writers were in favor of decentralization, but they saw something equally important, in addition: the necessity of inner peace, of balance, of a human consciousnss that was not endlessly self-aggrandizing. "The spirit of our days," wrote William Morris, "has to be delight in the life of the world." Hard to disagree.

This brings us to the psychological aspect of the problem. There is, in fact, a sixth writer we need to consider, namly the much-maligned Italian thinker, Niccolò Machiavelli. As I argue in Genio: The Sources of Italian Genius, Machiavelli has been badly misunderstood. Beneath the level of political opportunism--which he certainly did advocate for princes--there is a deeper level that transcends Left and Right, and that is the opposition of ego vs. decency. I do believe that if we are to have any future at all, as a human race, it is going to have to be green, sustainable, and decentralized, containing elements of both capitalism and socialism, and free of the ideology of "growth." But these are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones. For enlisted in the service of ego, these things can also turn into "religions." (If you've ever met a Green fundamentalist, you know what I'm talking about.) Machiavelli understood that in the real world--the world of rulers and their subjects--it was ego that prevailed; but what kind of world was that, finally? The man was no buddhist, but he did see that in order to evolve toward decency, the ego had to become aware of what it was doing, and why; to acquire self-transparency, in a word. As James Joyce famously put it, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Waking up: this is the long road ahead.

(c)Morris Berman, 2020

October 27, 2020

Down to the Wire


The election is one week away. The battle of the 'titans': a sociopathic buffoon vs. a lame goofball. Democracy in action. 8 swing states still up in the air. Wafers, of course, understand that the real choice is between rapid collapse of the US vs. a slightly slower one. Viva Zapata!


October 11, 2020

Sitcom Nation

Some time ago, on this blog, I mentioned the fact that a second screening of the popular sitcom Friendsrevealed to me something I had not noticed the first time around: a good bit of the humor is derived from the characters ridiculing or poking fun at one another. The “Chandler” character (played by Matthew Perry), for example, delivers a running stream of banter along these lines; he in turn is the butt of endless gay or homophobic jokes. A similar pattern can be seen in Seinfeld, and I have to admit that, notwithstanding all this, I enjoyed both of these sitcoms very much. Indeed, on first take the two of them struck me as being hysterically funny. Second time around, I realized that both of them had an “undertow” or shadow, and that it was actually rather ugly.

Possibly the worst example of this underlies the enormously popular series,The Big Bang Theory, about a group of nerdy physicists and their convoluted relations with the gorgeous blond who lives across the hall (played by Kaley Cuoco), as well as with two other women. This too is a hilarious portrayal of the ups and downs of their lives together, but once again, the shadow is pretty dark. In this case, the ridicule often amounts to brutal verbal attacks on each other, to the point of cruel humiliation. “Howard Wolowitz” (played by Simon Helberg) is a frequent target here, singled out for his height (short), his overattachment to his mother, the fact that he lost his virginity to his (second) cousin, and the fact that he never obtained a Ph.D., but is “only” an engineer from MIT. All of this is very wounding to him; the other boys find it amusing. Howard, for his part, spends a lot of time making fun of the Indian member of the group, “Raj” (Kunal Nayyar). And this pattern is operative with all of the characters, as the episodes progress. As I watched the show the second time around, I was filled with pain and anger on behalf of the victims, and I finally realized why: this was my experience of elementary school, high school, and even university and beyond.

What chance did I have, in an American context, really? At age 7 I was playing chess and reading poetry. As a teenager, I thought the concerns of my peer group—e.g., cars and their “groovy” tail fins—were pretty stupid, light years from anything I regarded as meaningful or worthwhile. As for university, Cornell was once characterized by an icon of a shoe stepping on someone’s face, with the prevailing ethos identified as “one-upsmanship.” In all 3 contexts, nasty put-downs were the order of the day. Nor am I proud of the fact that on occasion, I was the aggressor, being caught up in the soup of sadism we all floated in. Things were not much different when it came to the various jobs I held over the years, both academic and non. (I recall, when I was an Assistant Professor at Rutgers, one of the graduate students remarking, “Around here, they go for the jugular.” Where don’t they? one might reply.)

What my own experience—and probably yours as well—demonstrates, along with these 3 sitcoms, is the deep pathology of daily American life, which Americans barely notice and take for granted. It’s part of the air we breathe. This vicious treatment of other people is pretty much the norm in America, some version of Lord of the Flies. You can read the ultimate outcome of our early child, teen, and young adult cultural indoctrination in the daily papers: we hate each other, and we kill each other, often over nothing at all. Massacres occur now practically on a daily basis. One article I referred to in the last post tells of policemen beating porcupines to death with their night sticks, and finding it hilarious. Why would they do such a depraved, awful thing? Because such behavior is practically in our DNA; it’s how we relate to each other, the world (the torture of innocents, for example, or dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations), and even the animal kingdom. Time to stop blaming the top 1% for our problems, I would think, let alone China or Russia or Islam or god knows who else (as Jimmy Carter declared in his 1979 Annapolis speech, to which Americans turned a deaf ear). The truth is that the entire culture is sick beyond description, and really, beyond redemption. There is a deep poison in the American soul, and no conceivable way to remove it. Think of the many countries that will be happy (openly or in secret) when the nation finally self-destructs. Which event, given who we are, would seem to be inevitable.


October 02, 2020


Well, Wafers: Trumpi has the virus, and is revealed to all and sundry to be a colossal shmuck. Except for his base: they'll find a way to spin this in his favor. And then that absurd "debate," which revealed to the world the complete dysfunction of the American empire (if other countries didn't know this already). Gore Vidal once remarked: "Stupidity excites me." Jesus, I dunno when I've been more excited. And now the election is a month away, which Trumpi may or may not win. Either way, Alexander Pope's words capture our situation now:

"Thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored/Light dies before thy uncreating word/Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall/And universal darkness buries all.”

We have no future, amigos. How many times can we say it?