Monday, November 28, 2016

The Vikings, the Goths, and the whole damn family

The Viking Ship Oseberg, Viking Ship Museum
I have about half a dozen blog entries started that I can’t get off the ground.  They’re all the same, basically.  They range from rage to sorrow, but they all touch on the American decision to turn our backs on the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia, government by oligarchy and destruction of the environment. Complete with illustrations ad nauseam of foxes being assigned to run the new Hen House.  Depressing as shit on wheels.

So I went out to our storage shed this morning and began a reorganization of the clutter.  Just the thing, I thought, to get me away from the computer and the relentless beating of my head against a brick wall of bad news.  Time to move the arms and legs, that little voice said.  Time to fix what you have the power to fix and leave the rest to others for a while.

Perspective.  That’s what’s always missing when you find yourself getting depressed, the voice said.  You need to stretch your attention across something wider, something deeper.  Get some historical perspective, for example.  

So I let my mind wander.  Free associate.  I found a box of Christmas stuff and suddenly the melody to “O wie wohl ist mir am Abend” came to me.   Don’t know why.  It’s not a Christmas song.  It’s a round I sang with my grandmother as a kid.  You may know it as “Oh, how lovely is the evening.”  I found it on YouTube with three young people I take to be Americans singing it for no apparent reason, not particularly well and mispronouncing the German. They are in Thailand, evidently, just to round out the bits of information of no consequence.  Just three people singing.  Just what the doctor ordered.

In this case the doctor would seem to be my grandmother.  She had a thing for singing.  She had gone through the hell of the First World War, losing a husband and having to farm a daughter out to her sister to raise so she (the daughter, my mother) would have enough to eat.  Then she gave up her homeland and lived forever caught between Germany, the land of her birth and America, her chosen home.  When in one of those places, she was usually homesick for the other.  Spent a ton of money visiting the Heimat, back in the day when you had to go by ship.  She was a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line back before the Second World War and jumped ship in New York to be with my mother again.  When the war came, there she was, an illegal German alien in America.  She was arrested for being a spy and taken to Washington for trial, where they soon realized what they had on their hands was a German Hausfrau who loved to cook and sing and knew precious little about politics.  

“Wherever you are in the world,” she told me more than once, “if you’re ever lost and confused, find your way to where people are singing and you will be all right.”

My grandmother anchors me to Germany and the European continent.  In 1960 I went to Germany to study, and found myself digging into the history of the Third Reich as taught by German professors at the University of Munich, and attending lectures by concentration camp survivors.  My cognitive dissonance (how do good people do such bad things?) started early on.

It’s helping, I think, to consider what people have been through and survived.  I know lots of people are saying this is the end of the world, or at least a setback so severe that we will not see the end of it in our lifetimes.  But it’s useful to take note of the marvelous place that Germany is today, and appreciate how it is possible to recover from disaster. 

1945 was hardly the first time they had to pick up the pieces after a disaster.  Religious Wars.  The Bubonic Plague.  The Inquisition.  Times when people probably didn't feel much like singing.

If you are a speaker of English or another Germanic language, it's useful, I think, in searching for perspective, to take a look at what is essentially family history.  Today we sit around the table at Thanksgiving with Trump supporters, some of us.  At some point in the past, though, family included Vikings, Goths (Ostro- and Visi-), Huns, Nazis, Crusaders and a whole bunch of other seriously brutal folk.  (And maybe not all that bad, actually, but that is a subject for another day.) We survived them.  We will survive these guys who are, let’s admit it, pretty mild by comparison.  Throwing the weak among us under the bus isn’t quite as bad as raping and pillaging entire villages, after all. (Unless it's you going under the bus, of course.)

And we know that all the while this pillaging was going on, somewhere people were singing.  We know this because the words the Vikings and the Huns and the rest of the Germanic people used are still here, with their shared grammar (using ablauts to make the past tense and the past participle) and with only minor differences among them:

English: sing/sang/sung
German: singen/sang/gesungen
Icelandic: sing/söng/sungið
Dutch: zing/zong/gezongen
Norwegian: synge/sang/sunget
Danish: sing/sang/sunget
Swedish: sjunga/sjöng/sjungit
Frisian: sing/sang/songen

Things could be a lot worse.  I know, because I have not felt the need to pull out Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the four last songs of Richard Strauss just yet.  That's my go-to when all else fails.  That and macadamia nuts and white chocolate.  And Bratwurst and German-fried potatoes.

Here's the last of the four songs, which is a poem by Josef von Eichendorff.

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.
Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
Through sorrow and joy
we have gone hand in hand;
from our wanderings, we will rest
in this quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow,
the air is now darkening.
Only two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the haze.
Come close, and let them twitter,
soon it will be time for sleep -
so that we don't get lost
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the sunset!
How weary we are of wandering--
Is this perhaps death?

It's in virtually every soprano's repertoire, I imagine.  I'm partial to Schwarzkopf's version, but can't find one to link to that is live, and I hate staring at a record label while listening to music. So here's Kiri Te Kanawa's version, which is available online with her performing it live.  A pretty good second, in my estimation.  And I'm so glad she's wearing the kitchen curtains, like Carol Burnett did ("I saw them in the window and couldn't resist") in my favorite skit of hers, the takeoff on Gone with the Wind.

I can't take this music straight.  Too powerful for me.  So glad she provided this distraction to keep me from spilling over.

It's the music I'd like to go to, eventually.

Fear not.  I'm nowhere near ready to cash in my chips just yet.  Just want to get things lined up for when the time comes.

 picture credits:


Monday, November 14, 2016

Not just a licking

Dear Ms. Garchik:

Your column this morning, entitled "When your side takes a licking," begins:

The task before us is to shed the us-versus-them mind-set.  The election is over, and unification is needed.  When we get down to specifics, political differences are mere skirmishes.  Americans, let us go forth to bridge the divide between ice cream lovers who prefer mint chip and those who prefer Chunky Monkey.

I agree with you on the importance of bridging divides.  But in this case, we're talking not about two divides, but three.   And it's not mint chip, Chunky Monkey and strawberry.

I believe the majority of Americans who need to channel their anger and come together fall into three camps.  In one camp are the serious Trump supporters who carried the day. And by "serious" I mean those with a gripe against "the system," "the elites," "the 1%", or however you characterize them.  I'm not talking about the white supremacists Hillary was referring to when she used the word "deplorables."  Frankly, I don't know how you reach these people.  In the second camp are the Bernie Sanders supporters who were underestimated and shut out by their Democratic Party leaders.  And the third camp consists of the mainstream Democrats who fell in behind Hillary, who tried to sell her as the lesser of two evils, but couldn't pull it off.  Three groups means we need three bridges.  Fine.  Let's get to it.

But your suggestion that the differences are "mere skirmishes" makes me wonder if you've been paying attention to what all sides agree was the dirtiest political campaign in modern American history.  When one side says the the American way is to grant all citizens full rights regardless of race, creed or ethnicity and the other side says a man cannot be a judge because his parents are Mexican, that is not a skirmish.  It's a confrontation between the rule of law and bigotry.

The incoming Vice-President posted on his web page the view that "Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriages," while the majority of Americans rejoiced at the Supreme Court decision to grant same-sex marriages, noting the discrimination against gays in the past.  That too is not a skirmish.  It's a confrontation between a historically oppressed minority of American citizens and a man who would call that oppression justified.  To compare these differences of opinion to ice cream preferences is cruelly insulting, to say the least.  Mint Chip vs. Chunky Monkey?  Respect for the rights of Mexicans and gays?  Really, Ms. Garchik?

Hillary won the support of American voters by something like a million and a half votes, by latest count.  She did not become president because we have to abide by our system of having electors, not voters, have the final say.  

It's not about one side "taking a licking."  Ours is a nation characterized by profound injustice in its political system.  It's about one side losing to a leader who has promised to roll back efforts to stop the destruction of the environment, to shut down solar power research and burn more coal, who pretends that black people have not been treated far worse by police than white people have, and who encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We haven't just "taken a licking."  We have regressed terribly.  We now have to contend with a setback in the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and abuse of the vulnerable.  We may argue over why this happened. But we should not trivialize or minimize what has just happened.

The article in question is from the San Francisco Chronicle, Datebook Section, Monday, November 14, 2016, p. E6.  It was written by Leah Garchik.  Her e-mail is:  Twitter:@leahgarchik

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After

Shocked.  Saddened.  Apprehensive.

Three of the words I am exchanging with friends and correspondents this morning after.

My first thought was that I should follow my instincts and see this as a train wreck.  Not analyze it.  Just live it, let it sink in, go through the stages of shock and grief.  Not manufacture some false hope, look for silver linings, pretend I think everything will work out in the long run.  I am convinced we are living in an age of self-deception.  The last thing I want to do is create more illusions to live by in the coming days.

What I am going to do is part ways with many of the people I’ve been reading and talking with since this meteor hit.  I’m going to try and make a case that this Trump victory was not brought about primarily by racists, sexists, anti-Semites and homophobes.  True, people of this ilk are being swept into power, but they are not at the center of support for Donald Trump; they are the periphery.

Something I heard Robert Reich say some time ago has stuck with me and has had me worried ever since.  We have focused too much on the positives of globalization and too little on the folks without a safety net.  Money, the bottom line, is so important to us that we make the Walton family rich even if it puts local shopkeepers out of business.  We buy our shirts from Bangladesh and sing the praises of Silicon Valley and do little or nothing to help the people who fall through the cracks.  And now the chickens have come home to roost.

All that stuff about Trump lying 80% of the time?  About insulting Mexicans and Muslims and women?  Turns out Americans don’t care, the majority of them.  The majority of Americans are willing to allow this man to lie and insult and misrepresent and vulgarize all he wants.  So long as he promises us he’ll fix what’s wrong.  Doesn’t have to be true.  It just has to be comforting.

That terrifies me, the fact that we have embraced a demagogue, a Pied Piper, a narcissist, an authoritarian populist.  Not because he’s the best man for the job, but because we understood the people running against him were the people who set up the financial infrastructure for the benefit of the few and not the many. We Americans made fixing that Priority One.  Never mind that we're probably dead wrong to think this is the way to do it.  We are not a thinking people, by and large. We are a feeling people.  And we feel he's going to kiss the boo-boo and make it better.

Something had to give.  I was a strong Bernie supporter because I believed, like most Americans, including Trump supporters, that Hillary was at home among the self-serving fat cats, Republicans and Democrats, and would only bring us more of the same.  In the end, like Bernie Sanders himself did, I came around in support of Hillary hoping that once she got in she would then be able to get on with advancing the cause of equity.  I didn’t think she could pull it off, but I wanted to err in the direction of a competent politician and away from a potential fascist.  Not the lesser of two evils; I didn’t think she was evil.  But a person who would put us into a holding pattern, an OK place to be while we worked harder to make sure people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich and all the other voices of compassion and reason got a wider hearing.

But that was not to be.  And now I’m wondering if this isn’t the beginning of a lesson America has to learn the hard way. 

We lost not just the White House; we lost the Congress, as well. The system now in place will bring in a conservative Supreme Court for decades after I am gone.  We may reverse Roe v. Wade. Millions may lose access to health care. Immigrant families will live in fear of being broken apart. We gay people may even lose the right to marry. After all, one of the country’s most outspoken homophobes is now a heartbeat from the Oval Office.  If those things happen – and particularly if people start moving against immigrants and African-Americans, there may well be some serious rioting in the streets.

Maybe that’s the way we have to go.  The way of anarchy. 

How else are we going to learn that you can’t rely on false information.  You can’t make up facts to suit yourself and build on lies.

I leave it for others to talk about unifying behind a Republican administration.  I have no intention of becoming violent.  Won’t add to impulses toward anarchy.  But I also cannot pretend that things will be all right.  I don’t think they will be.

I think we are in for a lot of pain and misery.

Long term, this could lead to positive change.  Maybe this was the best possible outcome.  Maybe it’s best we burn the house down and start over instead of pasting over holes in the wall with pretty wallpaper.

One day at a time. Keep the faith. Keep telling the truth - and grounding it in evidence.

What other choice do we have?

P.S.  Best article so far summing things up, in my opinion, is David Remnick's, from The New Yorker.