Thursday, April 14, 2016

America

"Make America Be Great America Again":

A Donald Trump Pastiche on Langston Hughes's great poem.

In this version, Trump rewrites the first few stanzas, then begins inserting his own language in capitals.

Make America be America again.
Make it be the tremendous business model it used to be.
Make it be the deal-maker on the plane
Seeking a deal where he himself owns the plane.

(America still isn’t America enough for me.)

Make America be the dream I’m going to tell you about —
It’s a strong dream, a great dream, you will love it,
Believe me, you will feel like a king,
And there will no room at the inn for losers.

(It isn’t America enough for me yet.)

O, make my land be a land where Liberty
Doesn’t have to listen to embarrassing, incompetent so-called leaders,
Or anyone, really, and opportunity is real, and life is free,
Or not free, but let me tell you, you get what you pay for.

(There’s never been a price or subsidy big enough for me,
And, can you believe, it some people still want stuff for free?)

[Switch to Hughes's original in lower case, Trump interjections in caps.]

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
(I MEAN, NOT LITERALLY, BUT THE NEGROES LOVE ME, YOU KNOW. THEY LET THEIR FRIENDS CALL THEM THAT.)
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
PSYCHE!
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

THAT’S RIGHT, SUCKER.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
NOW WE’RE GETTING SOMEWHERE.

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

AND I’VE GOT YOUR BACK, AND WE ARE GOING TO GET OURS.
I MEAN, WE ARE GOING TO RIP THEM.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
(ACTUALLY, WE WERE NEVER SERFS.
I COME FROM A VERY SUPERIOR FAMILY, VERY HIGH-TALENTED,
PROBABLY KINGS, OR MADE SOME GREAT DEALS WITH KINGS.)

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
BUILDING STUFF, THAT’S RIGHT.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
The free?

I’VE ALREADY SAID, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.
Who said the free? Not me?

THAT’S RIGHT.

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
THAT’S RIGHT.

The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

I’M STARTING TO FEEL A LITTLE CONFUSED.
THAT DREAM ISN’T EVEN SLEEPING.
WE ARE GOING TO MOW THEM DOWN.
WE ARE GOING TO WIN SO MUCH,
YOU WILL WANT TO LIE DOWN BESIDE THE DREAM AND TAKE A NAP.
BUT I WON’T LET YOU. I’LL KICK YOU AND SAY

O, MAKE America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s (CASINOS! NOW I GET IT. THEY ARE ACTUALLY VERY GOOD BUSINESSPEOPLE, VERY SAVVY. LET ME JUST SAY, I KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT CASINOS. Negro’s, ME— [capitalized in Hughes’s original]

THAT’S RIGHT, ME. LANGSTON HUGHES HAD THAT RIGHT.

Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.


PRETTY FANCY, THERE, A LITTLE TOO FANCY FOR ME.
I AM VERY CLASSY BUT NOT FANCY, YOU KNOW, NOT LIKE THOSE BOYS.
BUT A MIGHTY DREAM IS RIGHT,
A DREAM THAT WE WON’T EVEN LET SLEEP, IT IS SO MIGHTY,
AND HAS WINNING TO DO.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

ISN’T THAT WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING?

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America ENOUGH FOR me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
AND WE KNOW WHO WE’RE TALKING ABOUT, DON’T WE?
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
THAT’S RIGHT, THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
AND I KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT THAT,
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
AND WHAT’S THE COLOR OF MONEY, FRIENDS, WHAT’S THE COLOR OF MONEY?
And make America GREAT again!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Five Theses on North Carolina's HB2


            1. LQBTQ & LABOR: HB 2 may be the most objectively radicalizing thing the North Carolina legislature has done.  By explicitly tying together anti-labor provisions forbidding local governments to set minimum wages or working conditions, it strikes at the Fight for Fifteen movement and other living wage campaigns in the same gesture as its attack on LGBTQ people.  The commonality of the many groups and agendas at North Carolina’s progressive Moral Mondays rallies – from the NAACP to the states’ scant unions to queer folk to immigrants and environmentalists – has always struck me as moving but also somewhat thin and aspirational.  With this law, the NC Legislature explicitly names the progressive movements around both labor and sexuality as a common enemy, which is to say, as objective allies.

            2. UNCONSTITUTIONAL: HB 2 is very probably unconstitutional by plain-vanilla doctrinal analysis.  Supreme Court decisions in 1996, 2003, 2013, and 2015 have established a principle that laws aimed at picking out and burdening a particular identity group – especially sexual minorities – are invalid, basically because dislike is not a legitimate motive for lawmaking.  These are the most humane and admirable opinions the Court has issued in the last two decades.

            3. SPELLINGS & UNC: Because the law is probably unconstitutional, and because its unconstitutionality is rooted in its picking out – and picking on – a group of North Carolinians that includes many students – it would have been appropriate and admirable for Margaret Spellings, the head of the UNC system, to direct her campuses to disregard it.  The decision would have exercised the schools’ responsibilities as champions and in loco parentis of their students and as bastions of independent thought about questions of public principle.

            4.  FEAR AND DISGUST: HB 2 shows that the oldest hateful motive – sexual fear – is still very much in play.  The bid to suggest that “women and children” need to be “safe” in bathrooms picks up directly on demagogic warnings about molestation (gay teachers and scoutmasters), rape by black men, and interracial marriage.  (In “Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 cinematic valentine to the Ku Klux Klan, one of the radicals holds up a sign reading “Equal Marriage.”)  Bigotry mingles disgust and fear, and these images of intimate assault seem to be the trigger.  It’s awful, but let’s hope it’s also a sign that the resistance is driven back to its dregs.

            5. BOYCOTTS AND BANKS: The boycotts are great, and they show that, while LQBTQ people are distinctively vulnerable in a bunch of very important ways, they also have a special level of political support right now.  (Of course these two are linked: the acute vulnerability makes the call to boycott stronger.)  As far as possible, it’s important to take the corporate boycotts, in particular, as merely tactical alliances.  Paypal and the big banks would not be boycotting over the attack on Fight for Fifteen, and they won’t be here – or they’ll on the other side – for many progressive issues.  So welcome them, but know that they’re in it partly for the moral and political credibility, and give them back what they’ve earned from you and no more.

            Forward together.  Let this be one of the last steps back.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Durham Height

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This is a found poem made up of reports on Durham from Booker T Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray, and the (red-lining) Home Owners' Loan Corporation, as well as Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge (praising American expansion in 1898, the year North Carolina reactionaries broke Reconstruction). Washington and Du Bois visited in the decade afterward, when African Americans had been effectively disenfranchised.

The Durham Height

[Booker T]
I found here the sanest attitude of the white people toward the black.
Disabused long ago of the “social equality” bugbear, the white people,
and the best ones, too, never feared
to go among the Negroes at their gatherings and never feared to aid them
in securing an education, or any kind of improvement.

Major Guthrie said to the other members of the board,
“I think it is better to buy land and build a schoolhouse for the Negroes
than to shoot them down.”
Thirty years of experience
has proved that he was correct.

Mr. Fitzgerald has supplied the material for many of the largest brick
structures in the city.  I cannot refrain from emphasizing
once more the absence of color discrimination
in a work of this sort.
Fitzgerald owes his success almost entirely to Southern white men.
One man in particular, Mr. Blackwell,
the great tobacco manufacturer, said to him,
“Fitzgerald, get all the Negroes and mules you can, and make brick.
I will take all that you can make.”

[PM]
Uncle Richard Fitzgerald was known as the town’s leading brick manufacturer
and was considered wealthy.
When my aunts went to town men of good breeding tipped their hats
and used courtesy titles in transactions.  They went
where they pleased with little restraint and were all
grown women before the first law requiring separation on trains and streetcars
appeared in North Carolina.

The Fitzgeralds had downed roots in North Carolina
at the very moment the Ku-Klux Klan was rising over the state.
Grandfather’s school had only eight scholars at first.
In the mornings they found the ground almost cut to pieces from horses’
hoofs where the Ku-Kluxers had ridden round and round
the empty little cottage and the schoolhouse.

He killed pigs, cured hams, and traded the hams at Brown’s store
in Hillsboro for stockings, cloth, and groceries.
He mended shoes and even tried making a pair.
His price was $3.50 and he took payment in flour
at five cents a pound.

Then he went down to Raleigh to see if he could not get more contracts.
“The morning was dark and rainy and there being no station or platform
we had to make a fire along the road in the darkness & rain, &
when the train came in sight to stand on the track and wave
a light to and fro across the track.”  The first trip
yielded no returns but on the second he got a contract
“to make the 4,000,000 brick for the penitentiary.”

Grandfather was almost delirious with joy.

It was as if the town had swallowed more than it could hold
and had regurgitated, for the Bottoms,
was a odorous conglomeration of trash piles, garbage dumps, cow
stalls, pigpens and crowded humanity.
You could tell it at night
by the straggling lights from oil lamps glimmering along
the hollows and smell
of putrefaction, pig swill, cow dung and frying food.

Of course, my family would never admit
we lived in the Bottoms.
They always said we lived
“Behind Maplewood Cemetery.”

People whose kin were buried close to our house
often came to the fence to borrow scissors, a jar or hoe
to fix up their graves.
We never refused them and often they would stand at the fence
for a while talking of their dead
as if it eased them to have a listener so close by the grave.

“Aint—ee,” she said, kin you lin me a hoe?”
Grandmother walked to the back door.
“Don’t you ‘aint’ee’ me, you pore white trash.  I’m
none of your kinfolks!”

[WEB]
Many honest Southerners fear to encourage the pushing, enterprising Negro.
Durham has not feared.  It has distinctly encouraged
the best kind of black man by active aid
and passive tolerance.

The rise of a group of black people to the Durham height
and higher, means not a disappearance, but, in some respects,
an accentuation of the race problem.

But let the future lay its own ghosts; to-day there is
a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up
in the morning from a mattress made by black men,
in a house which black men built out of lumber
which black men cut and planed.
He may earn his living working for colored men, be sick
in a colored hospital, and buried from
a colored church, and the Negro insurance society
will pay his widow enough
to keep his children in a colored school.
This is surely progress.

[HOLC]
First Grade (A): Almost synonymous with the areas where
good mortgage lenders with available funds are willing.
They are homogeneous; in demand as residential locations
in “good” times or “bad.”

Third Grade: Yellow areas are characterized by age and obsolescence
and change of style; expiring restrictions
or lack of them, infiltration of
lower grade population.
“Jerry” built areas are included, as well as
neighborhoods lacking homogeneity.
Good mortgage lenders are more
conservative in the Third grade.

During the depression years the tobacco and cigarette factories
did not seem to suffer, but on the contrary
their business increased, which offset
the decline in knitting mills and cotton mills.  This apparently
was the chief reason for continued activity in
lower-priced properties.

While there are many desirable homes in area B-4,
it is a very old part of the city,
adjoins part of the main business district on the south,
a section largely populated by Negroes joins it on the east.
It is almost in the “C” classification.

[AB]
We do need what we have taken in 1898,
and we need it now.
Fellow citizens – it is a noble land that God has given us,
a greater England with a nobler destiny.
It is a mighty people He has planted on this soil;
a people imperial by virtue of their power,
by right of their institutions,
by authority of their Heaven-directed purposes –
the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.

Shall the American people continue their resistless march
toward the commercial supremacy of the world?

The Opposition tells us that we ought not to govern people
without their consent.
I answer, the rule of liberty that all government
derives its authority from the consent of the governed,
applies only to those who are capable of self-government.

Shall we turn these peoples back to the reeking
hands from which we have taken them?

The march of the flag!
The infidels to the gospel of liberty raved,
but the flag swept on!

[PM]
It is little wonder, then, perhaps, that I
was strongly anti-American at six, that I
hated George Washington, mumbled the oath
of allegiance to the American flag.

I do not know how long this lack of patriotism might have kept up
if Grandfather Fitzgerald had not died.
As a Union veteran, Grandfather
was entitled to a United States flag for his grave
so every May I walked proudly
through a field of Confederate flags.

There was little identity in my mind between
the Union flag which waved over my grandfather’s grave
and the United States flag on which I looked
with so much skepticism at West End School.
It would be a while yet before I realized
that the two were the same.

I spent many hours digging up weeds, cutting grass, and
tending the family plot.
It was only a few feet from the main highway
between Durham and Chapel Hill.  I wanted
the white people who drove by to see this banner
and me standing by it.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jim Webb & Generalissimo Trump

I found it weirdly poignant when, late this last week, former Virginia Democratic senator Jim Webb said that he could imagine voting for Donald Trump, but not for Hillary Clinton. Maybe Webb, who lasted about 10 minutes in the primary with a resenting-affirmative-action populist deal, and used to be a Republican (as a military official in the Reagan administration), is just an opportunist hoping for a VP slot. But there was a time when his victories in Appalachian Virginia, where other Democrats lose and Trump dominated last week, were seen as a hopeful front for the party.

It also got me thinking. One of the provocative but under-developed claims in Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me is that "white" people, if they want a heritage, should look to what their families were before they were "white." It's attractive, but, unlike much of what Coates writes, simplistic. 

I think of this because Webb is a literary practitioner of a certain kind of white-ethnic identity politics. He wrote a book about the Scots-Irish called "Born Fighting." These descendants of lowland Scots and northern English folk were settled in Ulster to displace the Catholic Irish after the colonial wars of the late c16, then moved to the colonies, where they fought in Washington's armies and settled the frontier. (My four-greats grandfather was one: he wintered with Washington at Valley Force.) They have always been the foot soldiers for blue-blood wars, right down through Vietnam, and they have always been reliably, even belligerently patriotic. As an ethnicity, they were formed by serving as the bleeding edge of two colonial projects - the Anglo-Ulster and the American.

Given the bloody and racially hierarchical history of this country, there are a lot of "white" people whose inherited cultural identity basically comes out of the violent crucible that made "whiteness," without a lot more left back there to recover. In a time when many of those people are economically abandoned and feel culturally displaced, it's not surprising that they are reasserting what they've got. Which, as a matter of culture and (as they like to say in the South) "heritage," is pretty much restricted to fighting for the winning side and getting some spoils (material and symbolic) of victory.

I think this is a reason to want politics to be about principles and programs - including programs of economic fairness and inclusion. I'm a Sanders voter. I know Coates agrees, and I think Webb once did, too. But the identity politics of whiteness, intensified by a time when there have been no economical alternatives on the table, may have closed that door for tens of millions. Whether you can bring yourself to care about them or not, that is a bad end to a bad story. Washington's troops are fighting for Generalissimo Trump.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Second Coming

The Second Coming (W.B. Yeats), adapted for 2016
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The drone cannot hear the operator;
Things fall apart; the center has been sold;
Some dick-pic talk is loosed upon the world,
The Twitter feed is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of democracy is drowned;
The best run out of sick burns, while the rest
Convict them with passionate intensity. 


Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely Hamilton will save us now?
His Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Dealio
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of upscale Queens
A shape with lion body (corpulent, zoo-kept) and the head of a man (lion-maned),
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its small hands, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant Romney tweets.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That demagoguery’s stoned sleep
Was vexed to nightmare by a country it did not care to recognize
Or feel itself recognized by.
And what rough beast, its hour come round again,
Slouches towards Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Center to be born?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Tragedy of Antonin Scalia


Much of the dislike of Scalia (whom I disagreed with and saw as a force for harm on many many questions) is also a side-effect of how our undemocratic Supreme Court works. Partisan disagreements get played out in the weird lexicon and theoretical debates of legal elites, and views fading from influence and acceptability hang on there as long as life tenure lasts. It's the flip side of the adoration of RBG: we treat the Justices half like titled aristocrats authorized to rule us, half like maddening older family members whom we can't escape and can't stop resenting.

But within that weird elite world, Scalia started with a perfectly cogent view: as the least democratic branch of government, the courts should interpret their authority narrowly to leave more room for legislatures and the executive to make and revisit political judgments. This, not ancestor worship, was the basis of his originalism and his "textualist" way of reading statutes. (His motives for developing this view must have had plenty of conservatism in them, but general theories of legal interpretation tend to grow from, or alongside, other commitments - another weird feature of this whole institution.)
Yet Scalia's vanity undid him. That's not a slur on him. People are vain, the culture is vain, and life tenure being addressed as "your honor" must foster it. As time went on, he wrote more and more in a voice intended for the papers, the blogs, and the conservative presses that republished his dissents. He appealed half-nakedly to the biases of the GOP's conservative constituents. He mercilessly mocked writers of majority opinions, who were not always as smart as he and certainly wrote less engagingly (but also less floridly). He helped to make the Supreme Court, in the public's eye, not just a political body, but THE SAME KIND OF POLITICAL BODY as every other. That is just what he would not have wanted, had he been able to reflect on it in advance, and had he meant what he said about the Court's role.

His opinions as time went on also lost some of their quality of principle. I believe a genuine conservative would not have reached for the desperate and novel theory that almost knocked out the Affordable Care Act in 2012. I would like to think he would have been much less certain about the lessons of history that aligned conveniently with NRA propaganda in creating a personal right to bear arms in 2008. Scalia joined the aggrandizement of an increasingly conservative court. Perhaps he was growing more cynical about the possibility of doing anything else. If so, he was not alone, and the particular quality of that cynicism was something he had helped to cultivate, quite against his own better intentions.

May he find more peace than he offered to most of the vulnerable who came before his Court. Like most of us, he meant well once.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Poems of the Climate, I


(After Eliot's Waste Land, of course)

December is the weird-ass month, raising
Daffodils from dozing land, mixing
Hallmark cards and bafflement, mudding
Up our seasons with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, no joke there,
Earth in forgetful grey, not even
Bothering to freeze the ticks.
I read, the long evenings, drive north and it stays warm.

What is the tropic here, what equinox
orders this unfrozen scene?  Son, hey son,
You’re quick to say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, affixed to tweets,
And the almond gives no shelter, the Gulf Stream no relief,
And the Arctic the sound of water.…

I will show you fear in a season of rain.