Category Archives: Motherland

Shards of a Once-Thunderous Testimony

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Dr. Elsa Schneider

Just fuck me

Make me believe that you’re desperate for my touch and I’ll do anything

Drive my broken soul to a cubicle farm, cart dead bodies out of trailer parks

Wait tables, develop commercial estimates

Provide consistently excellent customer service

We’re given this fleeting breath of life in order to give testimony to the angels

to the gears of eternity

and stymied and chastised and beaten that we might preserve a last glimmer of defiance

I wanted to be a soldier, a stevedore, a shepherd, a coulda-been-a-contender

to give my gaze to Istanbul

and the source of the mighty river

But I gave myself—

a gargoyle, a shattered Jerusalem, a promise of silks—

to you

To lay my dreams upon your sacrificial alter

and bind your flaxen sheaf

and love you just a little longer

 

 

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Dear Father X

Uncouth reflections

Dear Father X,

I feel that in matters of the heart, of which faith surely is one, we must be unfailingly honest. Yet I’m afraid there is nothing I could say to you with perfect honesty, because to do so would be to malign your faith, and faith of any kind is sacred, and what is sacred must be honored, even if it is only sacred to others.

Does Christianity prescribe such respect for other faiths? On the contrary, it demands their obliteration. To the extent this renders frankness only on my part uncouth and fruitless, I regard you warily. Yet because your life’s enterprise also involves the promulgation of beauty and compassion in this world, and the transmission of ancient wisdom, I believe it must be defended.

My wife would like you to baptize our son. She cannot comprehend what this means for a Jew, and our common scriptures forbid me from putting a stumbling block in front of the blind. Then there is the matter of the Golden Rule: how can I deny a sacrament to a believer, even if it’s a sacrilege for me? I suppose you don’t need me to tell you that ethics sometimes trump confessional fidelity, and love sometimes trumps law. Christianity talks a big game on both counts, yet I wouldn’t expect a serious Christian to take my feelings seriously in this matter, and my only consolation is to remind myself that in any case, no man can know the mind of God.

It isn’t that I regard my particular faith as realer than yours or anyone’s. What if we all err in roughly equal proportion, and need one other to make up the difference? I’ve heard tales of miracles from adherents of every faith tradition, and it would be as easy for a man of no faith to dismiss them utterly as it is difficult for a man of true faith to dismiss any of them.

When I was a child, some antediluvian spirit drew me to the Hebrew scriptures, which spoke to me directly: Jacob and the Angel, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Burning Bush, Joshua at Jericho, Samuel’s visit to Jesse, David’s flight from Saul, Solomon asking for wisdom, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones. These legends seemed to contain a lost key—an inkling of eternity.

So I’m not concerned here with historicity, nor to pit revelation against revelation. Rather, my concern is to salvage something from the death of god. In this, I do not deny but rather affirm that the Christian dispensation has its place. Yet you ask me, essentially, to forsake my fathers, to compromise my most fundamental integrity at the spearhead of their accumulated wisdom and experience, and extinguish the flickering entrée to eternity they handed down to me. Even if Christian theology is correct in every respect and Judaism is entirely in error—can it be possible to respect a doctrine that demands such things of others? Even if this doesn’t violate the letter of the First Commandment, it violates its spirit, and strikes me as perfectly analogous to Ivan Karamazov’s suggestion that the edifice of human happiness be build upon the foundation of the torture and unrequited tears of a single, innocent creature. But I think more of Christianity—like Judaism, it forbids flexibility of conscience.

Your scriptures claim there is neither Jew nor Greek, but if not for the distinction of family and tribe, where would we derive the very experience of solidarity that might then be applied to the stranger? It seems to me Rabbi Hillel’s resolution for that paradox represents the limit of our capacity to deal with it. Both Christianity’s promises and its expectations seem to me outlandish. But again, supposing I’m in error somehow, so what? Who isn’t? The journey is more important than the destination, and Jewish dialectic tension and intellectual agonizing cannot be salved but only extinguished by Christian grace.

There have long been many who believe this would be for the best, but they’re rarely forthright about it—they euphemize, prevaricate, and always seem to drag a vaguely afflicted conscience around behind their intellectual levity. Perhaps it’s better to extinguish a candle than curse the darkness. But desecration is the essence of crime, and crime is not a matter of degrees, but of intent. So please don’t pretend that I’m missing something, or presume to suggest how easy it would be for me to overlook this or that, and rely on elided interpretations. What kind of belief would that be, anyhow? It’s unprincipled.

But enough of ontology. Regrettably, the politics here simply cannot be avoided. When has Christianity not been implicated in politics, in the most sordid affairs of this world? The pharisees of Gospel fame are classic figments of Freudian projection. And while the Tanakh does hold that “By Me kings reign, and rulers decree justice,” it also says He removes them, presumably not by airbrushing. So it doesn’t follow that “consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place.” Incidentally, when Jesus tells Pilate that “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin,” it is curiously sycophantic. Love thine enemy, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar. This isn’t morality, it’s a civics lesson. Is it any wonder that for eighteen centuries this creed unified and palliated in precisely the same proportion as it endeared coachman to duke, reduced the slave before his driver, and blessed the condemned with his executioner in the same breath? Because much of the message of the Gospels’ Jesus to the Jews is to cease resisting Rome. Certainly this is the only way that Luke 19 can be given a coherent reading.

But what good is it to wrestle with spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12) if only Jesus is not required to ask nicely? No Christian people smarting under an infidel yoke has or ever will be condemned from any pulpit as graspers and sensualists simply for taking up arms in defense of their freedom to worship. Christianity has never enjoined anyone but the Jews to lay down their arms in such a predicament. Back when the Church intended to vanquish or at least defend itself the Muslims, at least it accepted the necessity of fighting them.

Growing up Jewish, they beat you over the head so much with tales of persecution that in modern times, it all takes on an allegorical quality, or that of a horror story. Until I was an adult, anti-semitism—vehement, full-hilt anti-semitism—was something I understood only dryly. But once I’d encountered enough of it, I had to wonder what it would mean if such sentiments were pervasive, and when I asked myself that question I realized, viscerally, all of a sudden, what sheer intransigent execration—its precipitous depth—my ancestors endured, in spite of how easy it would have been for them to break and be done with it as you now enjoin me to do.

Though he was more of a christian—that is to say, a railing, outlandish perfectionist—than he supposed, Nietzsche said it more strikingly:

Every Jew possesses in the history of his fathers and grandfathers a great fund of examples of the coldest self-possession and endurance in fearful situations, of the subtlest outwitting and exploitation of chance and misfortune; their courage beneath the cloak of miserable submission, their heroism in spernere si sperni surpasses the virtues of all the saints…. and the virtues which pertain to all who suffer have likewise never ceased to adorn them. (Dawn of Day, 205)

The irony of this—that it is the Jew in history who most conforms to the Christ archetype, even as he resembles Judas—ought to produce a wincing mortification in any introspective Christian. You say you wish to see the Jews perfected, but isn’t it you who seek to be perfected through us?

Can it be a coincidence that the Church has seen its sharpest decline in public prestige and moral legitimacy only since the emancipation of the Jews? So thoroughly is the faith predicated on the negation of Judaism that any Jew’s conversion represents its ultimate legitimation. No penitent drunk or gap-toothed Papuan’s baptism could ever serve to vindicate Christianity like the chastened, exhausted collapse of a Hebrew before the smug mercy of his ancestors’ tormentors. Yet without recourse to project inner foreboding upon we recalcitrants—as if into a spittoon—St. Augustine’s advice to “seek not abroad” had finally to be taken, and we don’t much like when the abyss gazes back into us now, do we?

Anyone can see how few self-supposed Christians are keen to really take up the Great Commission now that it threatens to cost them just a fraction of what it once did at Rome. More of the redeemed gave up their lives in those days than are willing to give up Instagram and a matching 401(k) in ours. But you are someone who has taken it up, and if I thought I could tell you any of what I’m writing down now, I have no doubt we would relate to one another preternaturally, you as spurned priest and I as execrated Jew, locked in antagonistic yet mutual, ascetical love and fear of the Almighty. My ultimate enemy, like yours, is Mammon and his priests, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and my own corollary impulses. Of course, a true friend will be the enemy of our enemy. So while I’m not holding out for your blessing, neither would I refuse it.

Sincerely,

O

Love’s Iron Curtain

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Don’t stop believing

What becomes of a Russian girl?

We shall have to learn how to smile

Through strip malls and leasing offices

and uncomprehending inquests of a new colossus

Through syphalitic massage parlors and purgatory’s own vinyl siding

Through weekly coupons’ deadly barrios and indifferent correspondence courses

She longs for an abandoned pensioner and dies by a thousand cuts of anonymity and disdain

arranging clearance racks and perfume samples with the red shameless handmark upon her throat of a fat, impotent generation’s inchoate hatred of mother

Who flitted, frolicked, recited simplicity and diligence

Whose defiant gaze passed recorded history’s last glimmer of innocence

and the future’s city swarmed blind and tumult

Never knowing what grave depravities await

to make the overeager dashing of brains against the gears of heaven’s ever-turning barricade appear quaint

a love story

....same old, same old....

….decisions, decisions….

Let us dispense with all things superfluous and suffice it to say that in the bitter wake of mutual recrimination and hopelessly consternated tears they make the magnetized love of absolute acceptance and limitless forgiveness, headily giving off their most concentrated warmth, climaxing in rapid succession and then, repose.

Each met the other in the same place they met each other. It doesn’t matter anymore; it never did. His forlorn family’s low estimation of his admittedly deficient judgement led them, in their bottomless prudence, to conclude he had succumbed to the wiles of a conniving single mother who would clip his wings and harness him to her petty neediness. Meanwhile, her harried mother bitterly conveyed to her ex-husband the sub-optimal news that once more their hapless baby girl had entangled herself with a loser. Familiar stories, each.

They weren’t much more certain of each other. Like a typical student he cut that woefully disheveled figure that mistakes puerility for charm. Because of this, she suspected his standards bordered on canine and that his broad-mindedness would precipitate mischief. Indeed, her unmistakable allure offered him precious little occasion to impute charm to blemishes, a habit he had cultivated over a series of relationships with brooding types as self-esteem deficient as himself. In contrast, her every gesture evinced that carefree femininity he had always taken as a signal to suppress his expectations and keep his distance.

Of course they couldn’t be constrained to use contraception. (What other criteria is there?) He often joked, nervously, that if she were to conceive, he would marry her and join the service. And when it happened he sat at her flabbergasted mother’s table with her hand in his and declared without even the minutest betrayal of equivocation that to his way of thinking abortion was not an option. Her mother, like his own parents, had not been prevented by the advent of the pill from snuffing her fair share back when peace and love were in vogue, but each family’s dismay at his obduracy only solidified his brittle sanctimoniousness.

A mere week thence, as he sat late at night in sweatpants and a tanktop in the driver’s seat of his chewed-up car in the skeevie parking lot of a 24-hour coin-op, that threadbare confidence came undone as an exponentially magnified inventory of every selfish luxury of the solitary life he stood to lose struck him suddenly with the overwhelming force of a bullet train splattering the viscera of a lowdown dog. In his late twenties, he was still plodding through college on his father’s support. Insufficient for his own upkeep, he wondered how he would ever support a family. He estimated his chances of ever saving enough to have a life, alone or otherwise, as exceedingly low. Suddenly, these constraints took on the appearance of mitigating factors, and a weight seemed to float from his shoulders. No, this pregnancy just wasn’t possible, he thought. In a sense, it wasn’t even happening, because it couldn’t. There was only one option.

The following afternoon she dropped by his ratty one-room after work, as usual, and as they lay spooning she mentioned that the night before she had the most unsettling dream. “We were together, and it was you I saw in front of me, and we talked like normal, but somehow, it wasn’t really you, and I woke up really scared.” He grunted and shrugged but was too preoccupied to consider what she had said even just long enough to dismiss it.

“I’ve been thinking,” he rejoined, deciding to rip the proverbial band-aid right off, “We should probably just abort this one and decide how and whether we want to proceed together without the unnecessary pressure of a pregnancy.”

In an infinite nanosecond she had gone through all the stages of grief but acceptance. It had all seemed so simple to him the night before, and in his solipsism her reaction came as a genuine shock. She streaked out the door and across the parking lot, howling, blubbering, shrieking, beet-red, radiating tear-steam and nearly choking on drool, while he sat up in the bed, enveloped in a surreal, otherbodily numbness. Icy resolve to disregard the unanticipated obstacle her feelings presented gave way eerily to a sense of having penetrated the membrane of a metaphysical continuum devoid of all human warmth and future hope. In a tingly storm of nervous electricity he told himself that she had no right to demand of him everything her pregnancy necessitated, that anyway there could be no backing down because things couldn’t possibly be worse nor get better than he had just made them. On the phone his parents concurred, as they had the night before.

Her mother, meanwhile, now had all the proof she needed that no one gets very far through life contented and entirely sane, that this right of passage would therefore be necessary, and that it was all his fault. He hadn’t disappointed her there. His only distinction was his amplified despicability, that he’d sprinkled his false assurances so liberally with the righteously empty platitudes her daughter had been taken in by.

His name would have been Michael. Perhaps it always was and always will be.

He would have been born petite and handsome, and not cried at all but given his parents a contemplative look when he was placed on his mother’s chest, as if to say, “Ah yes, you two again.” As if the spark with which he’d been entrusted was as old as time and space. He’d have been thoughtful, discerning and vigorous, with saucerbrown eyes and dimples, a guileful smile and a tender disposition. He would have been adored by his parents and lonely older brother.

He is crying out to them.

The Magikal World of Womyn

Who are you going to be sleeping with?

Who are you going to be sleeping with?

After my wife’s home-pregnancy test came up positive, we made an appointment at our university’s student clinic to get professional confirmation. Eager for the news, when the receptionist showed us to the exam room I accompanied my wife inside. I thought this was a supportive gesture, so you can imagine my surprise when, after a wait of several minutes, the door reopened and a graying female PA in scrubs entered, only to stop dead in her tracks and icily flash me a look of profound perturbation, as if she identified my features as those of a hitchhiker who once brutally violated her in a Mulholland Drive shaggin’ wagon.

Thus, I found myself a barbarian interloper in the Magikal World of Womyn.

She greeted and introduced herself to my wife, ignoring me completely and avoiding so much as casting a second glance in my direction throughout the appointment. When I asked a question undeterred, she was less than curt.

Though I was never affronted with quite that level of naked hostility at subsequent checkups, over the next nine months I   encountered a remarkably similar approach toward expectant fathers at nearly all of our appointments—apparently a scripted protocol.

We were assigned to an obstetrician who saw us periodically, but because we were being seen at affiliated clinics of a public university hospital (and, later on, at the hospital itself), we mostly saw a cross-section of residents, interns, medical students, nurses, PAs and ultrasound techs, the kinds of personnel bound most tightly by protocol.

The script went like this: the practitioner enters the exam room, greets only the patient, addresses only the patient and entirely ignores the expectant father, answering him only very tersely should he venture a question and avoiding looking in his direction at all. This was the treatment I received from about two-thirds of the practitioners we were seen by. The other 1/3 were low-ranking nurse-assistants and phlebotomists who apparently had not gotten the memo, and green intern MDs who lacked the self-confidence to enforce the protocol when they found themselves nudged by a gregarious enough father.

Even our main obstetrician, a med school emeritus and chief of the OB department, got in on the act. I’m no Ward Cleaver and I never harbored a preference for a doc with a firm handshake who would examine my wife lackadaisically while tapping ash off a Winston and chatting me up about the local college football team. But this guy palpably resented the prospect of conferring in any manner with a white male of lower formal educational attainment than himself, even about so pertinent a matter as the progress of that man’s wife’s pregnancy. It became difficult to escape the impression that he regarded my presence in the exam room as a kind of impudent pressure to confer with me, and that he therefore intended to make me feel like a fly on the wall, because he never once asked me whether I had any questions or concerns and never once shook my hand nor looked me in the eye, sticking as much as possible to the protocol I’ve described.

Of course, among doctors of every speciality, the human touch is rarer than ever, but this peculiar routine felt eerily political. If I am correct in assuming that it is, then at the largest and most lavishly funded public hospital in a state with one of the highest rates of endemic poverty and single motherhood in the country, the official approach to a father’s involvement in a woman’s pregnancy is to discourage it. It’s unclear to me what this approach restores to a woman’s care that would otherwise be lacking, but by denying a supportive father the most elementary courtesy as a matter of policy, this ostensibly woman-first regime deliberately obscures the greatest resource an expectant mother has other than the majesty of her own physiology and the advanced techniques of modern medicine.

Perhaps because we were being seen at a public university hospital attached to a medical school where government-subsidized research that precipitates public policy is conducted, there was a nagging emphasis throughout the system on access to free services and other condescending ministration to the hapless peasantry—Spanish-language pamphlets on nutrition and parenting, informational handouts on how to apply for benefits available only to select minorities, and other such expressions of a top-down, managerial impulse in si se puede guise. Of course, when a sober, hygienic and articulate white couple arrived fully capable of discerning and advocating for our own interests without such coaching, something gave us the feeling that, despite our pitiably low income, we were disrupting the regularly scheduled power dynamic and its humanitarian pretenses. A lot of little health decisions about our baby seemed to get taken without prior consultation by doctors who would then be genuinely taken aback when we declined or asked for further information.

In the eyes of a lawyer, an academic or a successful entrepreneur, a doctor cuts only negligibly more powerful a figure than a traffic cop. But for most people, a hospital, like public school, jail, the civil service or the military, is just another labyrinthine holding tank of retrograde humanity staffed by apathetic functionaries and run by self-important middle-managers who had better be avoided, or treated with obsequiousness. Indeed, the discretion society awards a single doctor over an innocent prenate, it grants no fewer than twelve citizens to snuff a guilty adult. (I realize that analogy is inexact, because in the case of abortion the choice is ostensibly the mother’s, not the doctor’s, but an expectant mother can no more have her offspring prenatally exterminated without a doctor’s approval than twelve citizens can elect to have a convict snuffed without the oversight of a judge.)

Now, if the public health system is moving toward the deputization of doctors in a decreasingly circuitous population control regime, I won’t argue that there aren’t good reasons. But of the reasons we can deduce that an individual physician would accept that role, I suspect a lot of them are obscured by some shitty little combination of altruistic rationalizing and punting of moral responsibility, which is what you always see from people who want power in a democracy. And I can accept that, almost exactly to the point where such power tries to extend itself over my cock and balls. But from the third trimester on, including every post-natal checkup of our son, my wife and I were affronted with the same question in identical wording from each new clinician we encountered: “What birth control are you two going to be using?” Uh…. get your public policy rosaries off my ovaries?

Considering the alternatives (throughout the animal kingdom as well as human history), the passivity of this aggression is not unappreciated. It’s the motives that creeped us out. The query succinctly delineated the choices the system condones from those it disapproves of, implied authoritative judgment in matters of the utmost private conscience and bodily exigency, and was phrased to compel information that ought to be volunteered only, because replying without providing it would’ve been tricky to do without coming across as acrimonious. The clear implication was that our private lives merit unsolicited concern from those who know better than us how to manage them. This invasiveness struck me as rather like a divorce lawyer asking a new client, “Who are you going to be sleeping with?”

When finally I summoned the gall to very gingerly confront one of the residents who performed a post-natal checkup on our son about the impropriety of the question, she replied, “Yeah, we’re required to ask that. But you guys look reliable.” Although I can’t be entirely certain, I understood “reliable” to mean: white; past our early-twenties; irreligious (or at least not Catholic); hygienic; literate; untattooed. Not like the wretched refuse we typically see here, whose reproductive prerogatives our high station requires us to usurp.

Meanwhile—in case you haven’t noticed—more and more affluent couples who’ve spent decades willfully forgoing parenthood for material and status reasons are availing themselves—relatively late in life—of frankenfertility processes that often entail selective destruction of embryos(=human beings), as well as outsized risk of birth defects and lethal complications of pregnancy—lethal, that is, to the prenate alone (in most cases). Destitute third-worlders and broke college students are paid cut-rates to risk horrendous reproductive health maladies so that wealthy, infertile couples can harvest their eggs or rent out their wombs while perfectly lovable children languish and are abused in cold, indifferent foster homes and orphanages at home and abroad. Every time I see a silverback New Yorker subscriber with a Thule rack picking up a kindergartner from my son’s elementary school, I’m reminded of Elmyra from Tiny Toons.

Although there’s no place for the hand of the downtrodden on this coin-op lever of life, murder is cut-rate, publicly subsidized and easier to arrange than an EBT card. As is well known, the vast majority of abortions in this country are performed on poor and minority women, while the uncomprehending Thule rack owners at Slate and the Atlantic scratch their heads and do more mental gymnastics. The 21st-century variant of noblesse oblige is the initiation of the teeming unsophisticated into infanticide by their educated betters, most of whom support these coercive practices in trance-like self-deception about the socioeconomic self-interest that guides them, at least as paternalistically self-assured as any priest or patriarch that they know what’s best for the ignorant, downtrodden and unexpectedly pregnant young woman, “staring terrified and alone into the abyss of mother nature’s unknowable prerogatives for her body.” Their remorseless approach to her dilemma proceeds as much from the impulse to control female sexuality, from our species’ irrational revulsion for the slimy imperfection of our origins, as any religion ever has. The ethos of the age proclaims, “To thine own self be true!”, but its best exponent is not Hester Prynne. It’s Reverend Dimmesdale.

Update, April 2016:
The baby is now two-years old, happy and healthy, thank God. About six weeks ago my wife and I discovered that we are pregnant again. Our financial outlook not much better than it was before, we went to see an obstetrician at the poor clinic. She’s a late-middle aged hippy with a student from the med school shadowing her. A week later, my wife began bleeding. She was miscarrying. We went to the ER, from the ER to OB Triage. An OB resident wheels in the GE ultrasound machine and finds the embryo is not developed to the size it should be at this juncture. The blood tests results show a dramatic drop in the pregnancy hormone.
Later, at home, she passes what there is of the baby. From the time she began experiencing symptoms until we arrived home from the ER, she has put in eight calls to the obstetrician at the clinic, left messages with updates about what’s going on. Precise information.
Finally, around six PM we get a call back. “Hi, it’s Dr. So-and-so. What’s up? Are you gonna be interested in any birth control?”

Punk’s Undead

Forgive them, mother

Forgive them, Mother

The Pussy Riot case proves nothing more clearly than the opposite of what it’s deployed to suggest: that Putin’s gravest failing is not his tough guise but its inverse, i.e., his enfeebled effort to play the democrat, which is nearly as half-assed as his much decried tyranny. To the considerable extent his regime concerns itself with domestic public opinion, this is really just an effort to keep one step ahead of America’s diffuse, variegated but—in toto—formidable techniques on that front.

Though glossier and holier-than-thou, the United States’ own forward march of dependent lividity employs all the same time-tested techniques that Putin does. But if recent media exertions designed to turn public anxiety over these into a race issue are any indication, stateside, mind-control commands the very heights of sublimity. It’s just that, in Pussy Riot’s case, Putin’s bumblefucking big-bad-wolfery was practically begging to be pressed into service.

Like Sheena, Heroin Bob and the distressed damsels of Pussy Riot, I was a young punker. I still am (an old one)—all my pottymouth training took place in that aesthetic and olfactory milieu.

Here’s a fun example: as a fourteen year-old, I watched the bass player of the Dropkick Murphys unstrap his guitar in the middle of a set, grip it by the fretboard like a Louisville Slugger and send a guy who had just jumped onstage and given a Hitler salute to the neurosurgery ward…. and get away with it (the guy was actively seizing as security dragged him off).

I’ll be the last to decry the violence of such an act. But the irony of the incident was that, at least aesthetically speaking, Dropkick is no more punk than the IRA is dissimilar to the Black-n-Tans for methodology. To wit, after conking the hapless ruffian, the bassist stepped over him, grabbed the mic and, to the approving roar of the crowd, declared in stentorian fashion that “This is nobody’s private political forum”—easily the most blasé condemnation of fascism I’ve ever heard.

But if Saturday night’s alright for fighting, try donning a sickle-and-hammer T-shirt to a Leftover Crack show and see if you can elicit one-tenth of one percent of that reaction from a human rights-conscientious schtarker. Just don’t overthink it—in punk-rock as in Komsomol, rules are rules.

The obvious criticism of Pussy Riot-hype is that no artist who enjoys the explicit sympathy of the Euro-Atlantic ruling class’ frontman (however melanotic a hipster he may be) retains a shred of punk credibility. But while (say,) Jello Biafra may not view Hillary Clinton’s Department of State as a moral improvement over Alexander Haig’s, any sanctimonious rabble that leaves an appreciable legacy will have its Bolsheviks and its Mensheviks. Before a bearded lady joins the circus, she’s just a freak—afterwards, she’s a commodity, but that doesn’t make her any less of a bearded lady (see also: Billie Joe’s return to the Gilman).

So Jello’s great claim to political correctness is that he’s a cut-rate bearded lady. In contrast, not only did the basically apolitical GG Allin not have a retirement portfolio, he was perceptive enough to croak rather than sticking around to appear on This American Life with Ira Glass. We can only imagine what Jello wouldn’t say if GG had lived and was out touring for car payments and being blasted as a misogynist on Gawker.

Another fine example: the other day I was driving along, listening to Born Against on my car stereo. If they were still around, they’d be #Ban[ning]Bossy, whereas circa 1993—the last year there was a substantive subset of unshorn college womyn—this band was raging against pro-lifers, John Wayne’s body, evangelicals, &c.; basically, avulsing a flux of creepy-crawlies with their gnawed-down fingernails. And thank God they did: are we, in 2015, living in a world forged by VFW Dole voters? By the Moral Majority? Then again, were we then (in 1993)? Sure, G-Dub did a lot of pandering to pro-lifers, but did he (as in: he himself, not some Iowa state senator) restrict baby-murder even just a little, i.e., did Planned Parenthood get one less federal dollar from January ’01 through January ’09? How likely is it that dead babies are anathema to the Bush clan, anyway? They’ve done a lot of pandering to the NRA, too, but after two terms of Texas, the number of rounds in my magazine is still subject to the Clinton-era limit. If you think Ricky Bobby wants the full body scan any more than Ed Snowden, I’ve got a 1911 with a 12-round magazine I wanna sell you, in Brooklyn. (I also thought I heard Matt Taibbi telling Amy Goodman that the Holder DoJ has not prosecuted a single banker, though I may just be off my Abilify.)

But if your entire sense of gall is predicated on the fear that Tony Perkins, Grover Norquist and Bill O’Reilly will one day lead columns of tanks down the Capitol Mall, Tiennamen-style, put Bernie Sanders, Lena Dunham and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on show-trial, then recommission the Enola Gay to frack Yellowstone with, you may be having a hard time following. I’m not saying they wouldn’t do it—I’m saying that such power exists somewhere, and that your Daily Show cast of villains will never even warm their hands in its toasty glow. “So you mean The System, the one that shredded Glass-Steagal and invaded Iraq for sport, is progressive?” Not exactly. I’m asking you to consider the purposes progressivism serves.

As komsomolka Nadyezhda Tolikonnikova informed one man post-sentience sleep apnea awareness campaign Slavoj Zizek in the Guardian, “Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side…” (Does anyone put their criminal history on a résumé?) “…in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.” That must be what she was doing on House of Cards and The Colbert Report—but then, would Lenin have gotten anywhere without the Kaiser?

Notice how unfiltered her big-girl thesis statement is. Taking a piss demands more mental energy, one at least needs to aim (well, maybe not Pussy Riot). What in the hell does Putin have to do with the enslaved millions? A cheese-fond knee-capper with a badass dojo is all he is. Are they his sweatshops, or Black Friday’s? For chrissake, Flava Flav bears more responsibility for the predations of global capitalism than Vladimir Putin does.

The norm of production is manic, not normative; precarious, not stable. What’s normative and fantastically stable is consumption, from pickled daikon right on down to Dinty Moore (TM) beef stew, yet these two beacons of post-retro moralism are blind to what any Dinty Moore consumer can garble if not exactly articulate, which is that Soilent Green is The People. So thoroughly is Anthony Bourdain to the reigning racket what Lazar Kaganovich was to Stalin’s that you’re even liable to find a can of Dinty Moore wet food in your Chopped basket. Do you reckon a ground-down Shenjien assembly-line tech would rather organize his colleagues, string up the foreman and issue a list of demands from behind a makeshift barricade, or indenture himself to the Triads for passage to the States—or Peru—on the off chance his kids’ll ever be in a position to afford the kinds of products he and his ilk manufacture?

Remember the mid-90s? I seem to recall a lot of fulminating over sweatshop labor. There were stories all over NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, 60 MinutesTime and Newsweek. Nike was on a PR defensive. A bunch of brace-faced bar mitzvah kids from my synagogue organized a downtown candlelight vigil with their counterparts from the local Catholic school. Being anti-sweatshop was all the rage. Now? More sweatshops, more Whole Foods, more free range, fair trade, more low impact, more farm-to-table…… more contrived moral distance, but if you want a piece you’re gonna have to be paying a lower tax rate than somebody’s secretary.

In 2015 Nike is on the right side of history, and more evil than ever. The System picks its battles; these are what we call progressivism. Those skinny jeans aren’t going to stitch themselves, so moral qualms are outsourced to identity politics and presto!, everyone’s a Twitter activist, and no one’s a revolutionary. Thus the stability of the “norm of production”. Give it thirty years and see how you like the alternative.

Ever wonder why, since the early-90s—that pitiful last outburst of rock-n-roll ardor and petulance—there hasn’t been any superseding groundswell of teen spirit? The iconoclasts of that period are all now bloated icons. Meanwhile, weed is literally five-hundred times stronger, psych meds have become party drugs, the great satirists of the day are a pair of regime spokesmen, actors and actresses shamelessly model cosmetics and haute couture well into their sixties and seventies, Hollywood is cannibalizing itself with remakes and biopics of dead celebs before they’ve gone cold and the country’s number-one public intellectual is a food tourist. And they’re all red-diaper babies.

Menachem Begin (Yasser Arafat’s and my personal favorite fascist) once hypothesized, based on his experience of NKVD interrogation, that the publicized confessions of disgraced Soviet leading figures were almost never procured by direct physical coercion, but by gradually giving the prisoner to understand that if he were to persist in maintaining his innocence, his obstinacy would go unacknowledged and unremembered by the cognitively manicured society beyond the prison gates. How much more is this the case where the tap yields potable water, Payless is having a perpetual two-for-one sale and anyone can become a YouTube sensation? People protested sweatshops, and they got gay marriage, and if Kennedy sides with Ginsburg a whole lot of bar tabs will become wedding registries, and a whole lot of rent checks will become mortgage payments. “Endless development and diversity”, anyone? I’m afraid slave labor’s here to stay. I don’t much like it either, but if it really bothered me, I wouldn’t be in college, learning progressivism.

If you’re so disturbed by consumerism, no one’s stopping you from donning a bear skin and going foraging on BLM land, or dumpster diving, or cashing in your chips and homesteading. In Russia, they’ve got the whole of Siberia. There’s a well-known Old Believer named Agafia who has been subsisting off the taiga, single-handed, for upwards of five (count ’em) decades. Pussy Riot, on the other hand, was living in the heart of Moscow. I don’t think they hand-stitched those balaclavas.

(Updated 09/2015)

Van Dammed

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If looks could kill

I’m not going to deny that there are some tough motherfuckers in the Israeli army. But once inside the institution itself, you’d have to look real hard to find them. Maybe this is the result of an elaborate ruse intended to inspire gross underestimation, though it probably has more to do with the fact most teenaged Israeli conscripts are pretty well cowed compared with American kids, who by the age of eighteen have (on average) done way more fucking, fighting, shoplifting, drug ingesting and all-around troublemaking than their middle eastern counterparts despite being (on average) a good fifty pounds heavier. Whereas stateside, stealing a car or beating a classmate to a bloody pulp can (in ever rarer instances, it is true) be a ticket to Fort Benning, in Israel, getting caught with a swiped laptop or a vile of ecstasy is taken as a sign not of potentially useful daring-do but of dangerous non-conformity, and those with juvenile rap-sheets are actually denied the option of military service. Ain’t that bass-friggin’-ackward?

On the day in 2006 when I officially became army property, a family friend drove me in his late-model Peugot and dropped me off outside the grounds of a 1967 Six-Day War battle site, Givat Hatakhmoshet (Ammunition Hill) that is now the location of a military museum. A group of fellow twenty-something male English-speakers and several Russians was milling around the entrance in the orbit of a middle-aged Tennessean and her distractingly pretty teenaged daughter, both of whom were handing out shiny new electric razors, tins of shoe polish, bags of Cheetos, candy bars and little squeeze-it juice boxes. These were hard-core Christian Zionists, permanent residents of Jerusalem and members of a far-right evangelical organization that doesn’t even expend its resources proselytizing, so eager are its members to hand out squeeze-it juice boxes to Israeli soldiers without the potential constraint of theological controversy. I guess they figure we can sort ourselves out when Jesus comes.

By and by, several female corporals, armed with clipboards, emerged from inside the gate and led us through a series of metal detectors and into a building where we were briefly interviewed one by one and each made to sign a sheaf of papers; then around back to a row of bleachers where we sat for an hour or so. The Russians, most of whom had recently graduated from high schools in Israel, talked amongst themselves in Russian. The Anglos, all recent arrivals in the nineteen-to-twenty seven year-old age range and mostly American but including a few Canadians and South Africans, introduced ourselves. Soon the corporals returned and led us into a movie theatre in the museum building, where we were treated to grainy footage of the 1967 Battle of Ammunition Hill. The gist of the piece’s narration (in Hebrew, Russian and English) seemed to be that it is good to die for one’s country. The whole angle of appeal seemed rather low-literacy, and I wondered, where was the more nuanced propaganda geared toward well-read bourgeois malcontents? I wasn’t sure I would be able to subsist in this army if my emotional needs weren’t going to be taken into more careful consideration.

Eventually we were herded onto a bus and taken to an army base where we spent the day in endless lines as we were processed: shorn, vaccinated, fingerprinted, made to sign more papers and issued dog-tags, military ID cards, boots, berets, class-A uniforms, C-bags and squeeze-it juice boxes.

Now, Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and although it often fails to behave like one when convenience trumps adherence, we were nonetheless issued little pocket-sized tagboard documents, to be kept on our persons at all times, enumerating the rights of POWs under those very agreements—–in French, for the apparently singular edification, amusement and rolling-paper needs of possible Hezbullah captors, who obviously are not a party to any covenant on the laws of war. Maybe the logic was that if we could get them laughing uncontrollably, this would buy us enough time to escape back over the Israeli border before they could slather the insides of our rectums with gasoline using soldering irons.

Every single new conscript on base that day was a recent arrival, either from a French or English speaking country, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia or South America. The vaccination line alone contained an incredible spectrum of backgrounds and experienecs. Among the former Soviets it ranged from Mikhael, a hale and hearty, ethnic Russian former Uzbek-army sergeant from Tashkent, who wore a massive gold crucifix burrowed neatly among his many chest hairs at the apex of his V-neck tee, to Valerie, a spindly, doe-eyed Ukranian waif who looked as though conscription was the only thing standing between him and continuing to be breast-fed at home. At the behest of Mikhail he was being kicked around by some rough looking and very nearly toothless fellows whose body odor suggested they’d never been fed out of anything but tin-cans. In outhouses. Next to toxic waste dumps.

Among the Americans the spectrum ranged from Josh, a four-foot-seven east-coast bus-station rat runaway from a Nassau County trailer park whose regular intravenous heroin consumption went unnoticed by army authorities until many months later—after he had passed the physically grueling tryout and a significant portion of the training for a top-tier infantry commando—to Daniel, a half-Jewish Nicaraguan jeweler’s kid from Miami, who recited sentimental rap lyrics in Cholo drawl.

In short order a Russian had dubbed me “Van Damme” in self-satisfied obeisance to my apparently strong resemblance to the Belgian movie star. Indeed, a summer’s worth of construction work in the Tel Aviv suburbs had rendered me lean and chiseled. The word soon spread like wildfire and before we even boarded the buses for training camp I had become the object of intense scrutiny, with French, Russian and assorted other Doubting Thomases making the pilgrimage from all over the base to crowd around me and behold with their own eyes the Van Damme lookalike in their very midst, whose legend they’d heard imparted in myriad languages. Given that the preponderance of bootleg DVDs on offer in the open-air markets of Eastern Europe are in fact movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme, I was in no position to challenge my fellow conscripts’ expertise.

By that evening we found ourselves, after a three-hour bus ride, at the training base of the Israeli Army Education Corps for a three-month basic training regimen designed to improve our Hebrew. As boot camps go, this one was pretty light, basically the same minimal program that non-combat soldiers endure, with an added six-hours per-day of classroom instruction in Hebrew-as-a-second-language, taught by female corporals (and several male ones, all of whom either sported orthodontic headgear or evinced an ostentatious level of femininity). Despite the low physical intensity and my impending admission to the training program of a hardcore combat unit, this Hebrew language program would be the toughest three months of my service, because unlike elsewhere in the Israeli army the age range was mid-to-late twenties; because not most, but a good proportion of the former Soviets had seen either homelessness, prison time (relatively few of those, I have to admit), military service or assorted other hard knocks in their countries of origin; and because the base itself was a converted former prison. In short, I found myself in an actual prison with the dregs of the former Soviet Union—toughened petty criminals, urchins and proverbial red-headed step children, some of them sub-literate even in their own languages, all (ostensibly) being supervised by nineteen-year old female corporals (one of whom we nicknamed “sexual chipmunk” for her small stature, ample posterior, overbite, apple cheeks and big, sultry eyes) and orthopedically challenged male ones, selected not for toughness but because at home they spoke one of their charges’ first languages.

Wild shit quickly transpired.

Several of the former Soviets had been involved back home, whether formally or by proximity and mere diffusion, with the post-communist extreme right. Upon arrival, a couple of these guys quickly took to cheekily decorating the bathroom stalls with swastikas. The dozen-strong French/Belgian contingent, all of them dweebs from dunderheaded, religious Zionist households, soon caught one of them red-handed, cornered him in the very stall they’d caught him defacing and kicked the crap out of him.

The poor guy had to be airlifted to the hospital, but before the bird touched down word had gotten around to the Russians, a dozen of whom decided not to stand idly by while the honor of a fellow Ruski was violated with such brazenness by an incautious bunch of effete Frogs, who quickly found themselves on the receiving end of their own poorly-considered tactics in a battle royale straight out of Mortal Combat.

The following morning, two dozen of our fellows were either in the brig or the hospital and the rest of us were subjected to a stern lecture by a pot-bellied major who admonished us to never permit abuse of the memory of the Holocaust, and to never lift a hand against a fellow Israeli soldier—which sounded like a catch-22 considering the chain of events that aroused the officer’s concern.