First of the Month http://www.firstofthemonth.org/ A website of the radical imagination. 2014-08-06T20:41:42-05:00 Reality Check http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/08/at_our_editoras.html At our editor’s request, I write in response to Eugene Goodheart’s essays Hamas’s Self-Destructive Leadership and What Israel Must and Must Not Do. I share what I take to be two of Mr. Goodheart’s premises: that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to national self-determination, and that combatants are obliged to observe the laws of war. While these premises are not wholly uncontroversial—it is pretty easy to find people who argue that that only one of the belligerents possesses the right to a state in any of the territory currently controlled by Israel, along with some who claim that the laws of war do not restrain the tactics of a people resisting occupation, and others who assert that they must not restrain a state facing existential threats—I shall not engage those arguments here. What follows are only a few reservations about some of Eugene Goodheart’s observations, although I should state in advance that two of the many things I admire about his writing are on display in both pieces: his avoidance of both the toxic pleasure of indignation and the comforting simplicities of a party line.

In the piece on Hamas, Mr. Goodheart asks “What if... Hamas joined the PLO in acknowledging Israel’s right to existence, but not its current borders? What if, in other words, a united Palestinian organization promising non-violent action to promote its cause called Israel’s bluff?” I agree that these methods, coupled to reported previous PA offers on the right of return, would be much likelier to achieve Palestinian statehood in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank than Hamas’s current and disastrous tactics. On the available evidence, however, Hamas has a profound and unyielding objection to Israeli statehood and a conviction that ‘what was taken by force can only be retrieved by force’, which I take to mean an unwavering insistence on its absolute right to use force, also on the necessity of violence, and perhaps on the ethical superiority of violence. There are some people in Hamas who have hinted that a long term truce might be possible, but on the current evidence expecting any more than that from Hamas seems at best quixotic, and even if Hamas offered a long term truce, it is far from clear that Hamas would be willing to use force to quash attacks on Israel by other militant factions operating on its territory. There is still a large political space for Palestinian rejectionism. Hamas now occupies that space but does not occupy it alone, and almost certainly fears the consequences of being seen to abandon that space. So while I agree with Mr. Goodheart’s advice to Hamas, I cannot imagine Hamas taking that good advice.

In his piece on Israel, Mr. Goodheart asserts that “the response must be proportionate to the provocation. It must be particularly scrupulous about avoiding killing innocent civilians—even in situations in which weapons are embedded where civilians live. Which seems not to be the case, despite the Israeli government’s claim to the contrary.” While the laws of war certainly prohibit targeting innocent civilians, absolutely avoiding killing innocent civilians is more than the law requires, and I think more than it is possible to achieve. On the other hand, I agree with Mr. Goodheart’s use of the word ‘seems’, because while we do not yet have too many undisputed facts, some of the facts alleged are deeply disturbing.

The standards that most obviously apply to Israel are set out in the 4th Geneva Convention (1949), although there are other relevant principles and statutes. Loosely speaking, Israel can endanger innocent civilians only in proportion to the military importance of its military necessities, an imprecise standard, which in particular cases will often be debatable even when the parties agree about the facts. As of now, a lot of the facts remain in dispute—were half of the Palestinian victims militants, or were a tenth of them? What would various ratios imply? For comparative purposes, the ratio of civilian to military casualties in WWII, Korea and Vietnam was on the order of 2:1; in Iraq, the ratio for Coalition forces’ killing through 2013 was 1:2, although for that period in Iraq as a whole the ratio was appreciably worse than 2:1. At the level of casualties the IDF claims, the most recent Gaza war ratio would be around half the 20th Century average, although worse than the IDF’s claimed ratio in the previous Gaza wars. But the raw ratio tells us very little: how many innocent civilians were killed by Israeli weapons vs. how many by Palestinian rockets and mortars, hundreds of which inevitably landed within Gaza? Most urgently, how often did Israeli fire endanger, wound or kill innocent Palestinian civilians for no proportionately important military purpose? How many were killed by Hamas as collaborators? Israel does not seem to have been completely indiscriminate—today’s New York Times notes that “The Times analysis, looking at 1,431 names, shows that the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll...women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented...”

When as many of the facts come out as will ever come out, will Israeli conduct generally satisfy the requirements of the 4th Geneva Convention as normally understood by the militaries of combatant states? My guess is that it may well meet that standard, although there will many hard calls and some ugly exceptions. But most people have not reserved judgment until the facts are in, and Israel’s legal obligations have been pretty consistently overstated, sometimes very grievously overstated, e.g. when UN officials furiously asserted that the immunity of hospitals is absolute, which is an absurd claim: the Fourth Convention’s Article 18 states that “Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”, but Article 19 immediately adds that “The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy...” This sort of officially-spouted misinformation matters, because in much of Europe the Israelis are being portrayed as peculiarly given to atrocity, with predictable results: Berlin crowds chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein, komm heraus und kämpf allein!", and what would once have been called Jew hunts just outside of Paris.

Mr. Goodheart also writes that “Israel needs to acknowledge Hamas as an enemy, not as a terrorist organization...One negotiates with enemies, if not with terrorists. This can occur only if Hamas recognizes the legitimacy of Israel as a state, if not its current borders. The immediate issue in negotiation would be the ending of the blockade of Gaza, a goal that could be reached if Hamas promises that freedom of movement will not be freedom to attack Israel…Settlements, the status of refugees, the location of a Palestinian capital of a new Palestinian state, all need to be negotiated without the threat of violence on either side.”

I think this is good advice, but again, I do not think that Hamas will give Israel the chance to take it. My sense is that between Oslo and the Second Intifada there was an Israeli majority for a two state solution, and that after the Second Intifada Israel’s sharp drift to the Right was a result of the discovery that there did not seem to be either a Palestinian leadership or a Palestinian majority committed to a two state solution. Recent PA proposals, as reported in leaks, seem to have been much more generous, and were, maddeningly, spurned. But rumored PA proposals are not always imaginable Hamas proposals. The negotiations are beginning as I write, and I very much hope that I am wrong, that Hamas takes Mr. Goodheart’s advice, and that in consequence an Israeli majority produces a government that will make that compromise peace.

]]>
world Fredric Smoler 2014-08-06T20:41:42-05:00
Women and Childen First http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/08/women_and_child.html Coincident with the centennial celebration of the outbreak of World War I, I finished David Fromkin’s excellent A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Fromkin’s message, if I may paraphrase, is that since in took Western Europe 1500 years to get its shit together after the fall of the Roman Empire, we may have another 1400 of reports of madnesses and slaughters to look forward to ingesting each morning over coffee in The New York Times. By also detailing the arbitrariness, the power thrusts, the scheming, the horse swapping that led to the map that now confronts us, his book furthers my belief that the nation-state must not have been such a good idea in the first place.

In a sense, they all boil down to tribes squabbling over dirt; and until we recognize we are one tribe (people) on one patch of dirt (Earth), we may not make it to next Tuesday, let alone the millennium and a half Fromkin has his eye on.

LSD in the water supply may be the only answer.

Recent events in the corner of the globe Fromkin had under discussion—as well as some others—led me to recall an evening in the spring of 1968 when my roommate responded to a report on the evening news of protestors decrying the killing of women and children in Vietnam by saying, "Of course, we’re killing women and children. That’s how you win wars. Kill the women and children." He was not even stoned when he told off Walter Cronkite.

Ron and I were VISTA volunteers, living and working for a legal services agency on the South Side of Chicago. We were both graduates of Ivy League law schools (Harvard, in his case, and Penn, in mine) and, to varying degrees (totally, for him and partially, for me), neither of us would have been volunteering in service to America but for a desire to avoid the draft. Still we did not see eye-to-eye on everything. I, for instance, a West Philadelphia guy, relished the experience of our being, along with another VISTA pair in our building, the only whites in an, oh, mile-and-a-half radius, and he, from an Iowa farm town, once told our program director, "How do you expect me to do my best work, when I am terrified to walk from my apartment to my car?" I thought VISTA provided a grand opportunity to deepen myself while I pondered the mystery of what to do with the rest of my life. He could not wait to assume his already secured position with a white shoe, LaSalle Street firm and feared his present place of employ might place a permanent stain on his resume as he sought to scale the partnership ladder.

But Ron possessed the most professional orientation of anyone with whom I’d yet closely associated. And he had the sharpest legal mind of anyone on our staff. So I took note of what he said. Over the decades, I have thought about his analysis from time to time. Now I think about it often.

The world record holder in this murderous event was probably set by Genghis Khan against the Khrwarezmians: millions massacred and enslaved; pyramids of skulls erected; towns and farms destroyed; a river even diverted over their emperor’s birthplace in order to eradicate it. But excellence is well-rooted in the western classic tradition as well. See, for instance, Rome against Carthage: 445,000 Carthaginians slain; 50,000 sold into slavery; their cities razed; their crops destroyed; their fields sewn with salt. In fact, it is even an accepted part of our Judeo-Christian heritage, what with the Children of Israel following Jehova’s instructions to wipe the earth clean of those sinful Canaanites, every last man, woman and child. Anyone finding the Lord’s alleged roll in this operation worrisome need only consult www.gotquestions.org ("The Bible has answers; we’ll help you find them") for reassurance. There a theologian—no, not Stephen A. Smith—points out those women were "seductive"; and, as for the kids, well, "no human person (including infants) is truly innocent."

Anyway, the proof is in the pudding. When was the last time you heard of any Khwarezmians giving anyone trouble?

Look around. All over the globe, people are killing people over disputes that started 1500 years ago. You keep hearing the argument, "You can’t kill that guy, or you’ll create three or four more who want to kill you." Not if you wipe out his women and children, you won’t.

And slavery’s just not an option any more. I mean, it is in Africa and Asia; but in the west, the economic opportunity just isn’t there, plus you’ll give your country a branding problem. So I say, if we’re going to keep war on the table as a foreign policy option, let’s do it right! No more pussy-footing around. Stop pretending we are something we are not.

]]>
world Bob Levin 2014-08-05T21:41:55-05:00
Tight Connections to My Heart http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/08/thoughts_on_gaz.html But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears

Bob Dylan


1.

Dylan once praised Meir Kahane (a name that should be on everyone’s lips these days, if we don’t choke on it) and has been ventriloquized by Abe Foxman/Alan Dershowitz at least since 1983, with the release of “Neighborhood Bully” on Infidels, a lame piece of agitprop for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, now a beloved anthem among Israeli fascists (it’s also furnished with the usual dreary Zionist chauvinism: Jews invented medicine and single handedly fought off the Ku Klux Klan, and made “a garden of paradise in the desert sand,” etc.). He spent the 1970s in the arcane gutter of evangelical Christianity cum Jewish longue durée mysticism and the result was predictable. I respect every one-time radical’s right to turn reactionary, in the same way that I respect death as a bad joke.


2.

When I listen to critics of Hamas (and in the largest sense, Hamas needs not only to be criticized but defeated) (I’m not talking about Netanyahu but the so-called moderates who take time out of their presumably busy days to worry about Hamas’ strategy or its charter, which is to say its thoughts on the Zionist project), I wonder what these people were saying in the seventies and eighties when Israel, like other despotic regimes in the Middle East at the time, gave its full support to the Muslim Brotherhood as a bulwark against Palestinian/Arab leftism, or what they were saying before July 2013 when Mursi was trying to crush the trade unions and the workers who made the Egyptian Revolution, or what they have to say about the bloody and corrupt comprador rule of the current Palestinian Authority, or for that matter what they have to say about the tactic of criticizing a strange and unpalatable (I won’t say orientalized) leadership as a means of giving practical support to the cruel and wide-scale oppression of that leadership’s people, and this isn’t rhetorical, because I really would like to sit down and talk with these people, because I still have faith in the humanist project, or what’s left of it.


3.

A Fanonian thesis on materialist psychology in the context of settler colonialism: think of resistance as a pendulum, or rather the institutions that act on behalf of that resistance as a pendulum (because true resistance never wavers and never ends). Who gets to speak on behalf of the oppressed? At first, I’d say, whoever is closest to the oppressed (because as Primo Levi told us, the Muselmann never speaks). Then that voice has two choices: collaboration or resistance, although practically speaking everyone chooses both in varying degrees. The institutions that succeed combine collaboration and resistance deftly, with an almost Lenin-like foresight. But, in the end, gravity does its dirty work. Right now, Hamas, Israel’s former pet project, is like a ball about to sink (towards its own destruction or towards some rapprochement with the Israeli state). Its rockets are epiphenomena, hopeless interventions in the realm of chance. Hamas will and is suffering a catastrophic military defeat. In all likelihood, given the unsustainability of the not really open-air prison that Israel has set up in Gaza, Hamas will also suffer a political defeat. The entrenched Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, grievous collaborators with this current slaughter, are smiling.

But they shouldn’t be smiling. Their smiles are disgusting, the smiles of people who believe in gravity and materialist psychology. Because, as we’ve seen in recent months, Palestinians in the West Bank are having none of it. Palestinians around the world are having none of it. Jews—courageous Jews, like the Jews who invented medicine and went to the South to fight against white supremacy and to be killed, sometimes, for their courage—are having none of it (I’m thinking of those honorable men and women who went to occupy the New York headquarters of the Friends of the IDF and were, naturally, arrested by that truly villainous occupying force, the NYPD, about whose crimes we’ve heard so much recently, crimes that are essentially no different than, or rather are essentially the same as, the crimes of the IDF: and yes I know there were only a dozen or so Jews at that event, but courage and resistance have nothing to do with numbers, because those nine Jews who were arrested are worth more, to me, on a moral level, than the 1,661 American Jews, according to The New York Times, who have enlisted in the IDF as if they were joining the boyscouts or as if they were joining the Spanish Blue Division, or more to me, too, than those American frat boys cum Kahanist footsoldiers who called Obama a nigger and a faggot on the eve of his 2009 speech in Cairo (what happened to that speech? Reading First’s contributions on it are like visiting a museum of messianiana, or like viewing a petri dish of intellectuals in which you come to understand that it’s an intellectual’s destiny to be optimistic, that an intellectual, on some level, knows his optimism is false, is shit (but golden shit), but that an intellectual, or what’s left of her or him, won’t have any truck with cynicism, which is a different thing than pessimism, since pessimism is only the foundation or the skeleton of optimism).


4.

Here’s a joke I’ve heard a lot lately:

What’s the difference between Israel and Hamas?

Israel uses rockets to defend children while Hamas uses children to defend rockets.

Hahaha.

Last night I watched a documentary called The Black Power Mixtape which was aired in 2011 on something resembling what my friend Benj DeMott calls “PBS’s affirmative action program.” It suffers from a glut of commentary from black celebrities (Talib Kweli, I still love you!) but the footage of the black power movement, filmed by Swedish journalists between 1967 and 1975, is close to miraculous (when Stokeley Carmichael takes over for a Swedish journalist and interviews his own mother about the suffering of his own family, you’ll have to forgive me for thinking “that’s the voice we need to hear, not the voice of those fucking hypocrite Swedes, who chanted, ostensibly as an anti-Vietnam War protest, ‘nigger, nigger, go home’ to Nixon’s black ambassador to Sweden, Jerome Holland, although fuck Nixon and Nixon’s feudal racial politics). And when I saw footage of black children at a Black Panther school in Oakland, ostensibly “brainwashed” and singing bellicose anti-white-power songs, and when I was reminded of J. Edgar Hoover’s absurd but absolutely not absurd statement that the Black Panther’s free breakfast program was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America, and when I heard someone else say that the greatest legacy of the Black Panthers was universal free breakfast programs (not that they really exist anymore universally, in spite of Michelle Obama’s revisionist history/activism), and when I heard a clearly sick and abused Angela Davis, in prison, smoking a cigarette, respond incredulously to questions about the so-called violence of the black power movement, talking about her schoolmates who were killed by white supremacist bombings in Birmingham, Alabama—I thought about Hamas and about failed revolutions, revolutions that can’t succeed and whose only real goal is that children will be able to eat, and about the disgraceful and racist insults that are hurled at Hamas, and about how little the world, whatever that is, gives a shit, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, although the truth is that I laughed and I thought, as if I were a resurrected Jean Genet, that Angela Davis and Stokeley Carmichael were the two most beautiful human beings I’ve ever seen.


5.

Uri Avnery: let’s have a drink (do you drink? Your website shows you smoking a pipe, which goes well with whiskey). It must be hard being a humanist in Israel these days. I think we disagree on a lot of things, but that’s okay.


6.

If death is a bad joke, who are its (hack) comedians? Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, seems to be a funny woman, as evidenced by the Youtube video her husband shot of her hamming it up with Abe Foxman (on which Foxman, that consummate charlatan, admits his own charlatanry, the same Foxman who told Haaretz that surveillance against Muslim Americans is a good thing and argued that blacks and Hispanics are “infected” with anti-Semitism). Her husband, Gary, an archetypal aging Brooklynite creative-class Zionist and sketch comic artist who’s made propaganda videos on behalf of Jewish-American immigration, videos in which he plays a clueless Jewish-American, or himself, seems like one of those harmless assholes you have to put up with whenever you have to meet up for drinks in a Middle Eastern country with a woman who works for The New York Times and the husband, who’s slightly overweight, which is okay, has a supreme but highly partisan knowledge of the local cuisine and will put the natives in their place if something’s not to his liking. And I’m not saying that’s something that I’ve experienced, but it’s not something I haven’t experienced, either. Jodi Rudoren’s close friend, the feminist rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of the comedian Sarah (who gets it but doesn’t, like all comedians, playing the Lolita-Nazi-Jew to parody but also to shock (shock: what can shock us anymore?), admitting Israeli crimes but treating them like all crimes, as the truth of this depraved reality, tweeting psychosexual-cultural “realities” like “Israel is this bizarre world where Jews r gorgeous & kick-assy instead of sneezy & shirt-stainy.” Dylan should have added comedy as one of his fabled Jewish inventions. He should have written a Dostoevskian parable in which one has to choose between supposedly Jewish comedy and supposedly Jewish medicine (echoes of Nazi pseudo-intellectualism) and supposedly Jewish human rights activism and sparing the life of thousands of Gazan Palestinians. Is it worth it?

If you don’t have the patience or the stomach to watch the video, at least read Blumenthal’s article. It leads you down a rabbit hole, but if you look through the rabbit hole to the bottom (there’s always a bottom) you’ll see the truth of the warped, myopic mind that is the main pillar of America’s cultural, economic, and ethnochauvinist support for Israeli crimes.


7.

The truth is, death isn’t a joke. I didn’t mean to say that death was a joke. A lot of people who have bad intentions talk about death as if it were a very serious matter. I think it’s a serious matter. (I never saw anything of myself in Lee Harvey Oswald, although I did see something of myself in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). It doesn’t matter what I think, anyway, or what anyone else thinks. Because thoughts are their own punishment (forgive my theology). Anyone who defends what’s happening right now, or what was happening two months ago, in Gaza, is like Dylan’s amnesiac bourgeois killer, “them that defend what they cannot see/With a killer’s pride, security/It blows the mind most bitterly/For them that think death’s honesty/Won’t fall upon them naturally/Life sometimes/Must get lonely.”


Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

An email, August 4, 2014:

Subject: Security Message for U.S. citzens: Demonstration this evening

Santiago, Chile

Security Message: Protest Tonight

U.S. Embassy Santiago informs U.S. citizens that a protest in support of Palestine is expected to take place in downtown Santiago this evening starting at 19:00. The protesters will be on bicycles and their route will begin at Plaza Italia/Metro Baquedano and continue to the Israeli Embassy (San Sebastian 2812, Las Condes). Protesters may also continue on to the U.S. Embassy. It is unknown how many people will participate. Please avoid these areas this evening as even peaceful protests have the potential to become violent.

]]>
world David Golding 2014-08-05T15:24:34-05:00
Double-Truths http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/08/_hamasas_selfde.html Eugene Goodheart offered two angles on the war in Gaza just before the cease-fire, speaking truth to powers that be on both sides of the conflict.


Hamas’s Self-Destructive Leadership

The scenes of carnage in Gaza are awful. Israel’s bombing has caused massive destruction disproportionate to Palestinian missiles indiscriminately rained upon Israel’s civilian population. Those who support the Palestinian cause (and the support is world wide) justify the firing of missiles into Israel as an understandable reaction to the misery of life in a strip of land blockaded by Israeli military power. I have no desire to defend the policies of the Netanyahu government toward the Palestinians. However, in focusing exclusively on Israel’s behavior in blockading Gaza or on its failure to restrain expanding settlements or on its military actions, one loses sight of the egregious behavior of Hamas in betraying the interests of its own people. It is within the power of its leadership to stop the killing by agreeing to a longterm ceasefire. Since it is obvious that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians far exceeds the suffering incurred by the Israelis, it would seem to be in the Palestinian interest to end the violence. Why then should Hamas want the war to continue? For at least two reasons: 1) the worldwide sympathy it elicits, thereby strengthening its own leadership position and 2) the ending of the blockade. The willingness to allow hundreds of its people to die and thousands of people to suffer injuries in order to gain sympathy from the outside world is grotesque. (As to those adults in Gaza who speak of a preference for martyrdom to life in what is in effect an open air prison, the question should be put: do would-be martyrs have a right to jeopardize the lives of children, who do not have the capacity to speak and decide on the matter of martyrdom? In a recent interview shown on television, a twelve year old Gazan already “educated” in martyrdom vowed to become a suicide bomber.) As for the blockade, is it possible to end a blockade with violent action, sending missiles into Israel and armed militants through tunnels to capture or kill the Israeli enemy? In such circumstances, would any Israeli government, even one willing to negotiate with Palestinians in good faith, reasonably contemplate ending the blockade? If there were a chance that the blockade would end if Hamas persisted in sending missiles, it might justify the action, but, on the contrary, the building of tunnels and the firing of missiles only intensify the understandable resolve of Israelis to persist in military action and concede nothing. What if in stead Hamas joined the PLO in acknowledging Israel’s right to existence, but not its current borders? What if, in other words, a united Palestinian organization promising non-violent action to promote its cause called Israel’s bluff? Hamas, we know, was losing support in Gaza: it is now apparently willing to risk the lives of its own people in order to strengthen its position without any prospect that Palestinian suffering will end or be alleviated. In fact, the firing of rockets into Israel only increases Palestinian suffering. Those who sympathize with the Palestinians need to speak out forcefully against such leadership.


What Israel Must and Must Not Do

Would any country not respond militarily to rockets fired indiscriminately upon its civilian population? This is the rhetorical question, really a challenge, the Israeli government addresses to its critics. Yes, the government has to respond, but the response must be proportionate to the provocation. It must be particularly scrupulous about avoiding killing innocent civilians—even in situations in which weapons are embedded where civilians live. Which seems not to be the case, despite the Israeli government’s claim to the contrary. (Even swat teams take care when hostages are taken.) In the self-interest of Israeli society as well as the interests of justice to the Palestinian people, any action must also take into consideration and acknowledge the grievances that inspired the firing of rockets. There is blood on the hands of both Israelis and Palestinians—at this point in history quantitatively more blood on Israeli hands given its much greater military power. Neither the firing of rockets upon Israel nor the disproportionate response of the Israeli military will bring either peace or justice. Israel will not disappear as a state as a result of rockets, and neither will Hamas be liquidated or demilitarized by Israeli bombs. What then is to be done? Israel needs to acknowledge Hamas as an enemy, not as a terrorist organization. Which means that Hamas would qualify as a negotiating partner in a peace process? One negotiates with enemies, if not with terrorists. This can occur only if Hamas recognizes the legitimacy of Israel as a state, if not its current borders. The immediate issue in negotiation would be the ending of the blockade of Gaza, a goal that could be reached if Hamas promises that freedom of movement will not be freedom to attack Israel. Given the deep mutual mistrust that exists on both sides, the Israeli side would want assurances that such a promise would be kept. The Palestinian side would want a good faith effort from the Israeli government to lift the blockade. Settlements, the status of refugees, the location of a Palestinian capital of a new Palestinian state, all need to be negotiated without the threat of violence on either side. It is unrealistic to expect a quick resolution of any of these contentious issues, but both sides need to negotiate so that mutual trust can evolve. Israel would also have to agree, perhaps with American support, to launch a version of the Marshall Plan to help Palestinians both in Gaza and on the West Bank to build the economy and institutions that would sustain a Palestinian State. All this will not be achieved overnight, but it can begin with a clear declaration on the part of the Israeli government that it would be willing to deal with a Palestinian authority united with Hamas once a permanent ceasefire had been established. What Israel needs to do is abandon its desire and the rhetoric that accompanies it to destroy Hamas just as Hamas must openly renounce its desire to end the State of Israel. The current course of mutual desired destruction will succeed only in realizing destruction.

]]>
world Eugene Goodheart 2014-08-05T14:26:30-05:00
Wonders Come to Pass http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/wonders_come_to.html in 1856, Walt Whitman predicted
the coming of a race of fierce and athletic girls

...tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing winds,
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength.
They are ultimate in their own right--they are calm, clear
...well possess'd of themselves.

at the time pretty much everyone thought he was crazy
that those lines were obscene blasphemy
a vision of unnatural women impossible freaks

mornings walking Gracie the collie I see them
on our street running pony tails waving spandex agleam
sun spangled divine fierce graceful fast
visions of the golden age of the dreamtime
here now real

]]>
culturewatch Sam Abrams 2014-07-29T17:35:40-05:00
1 + 1 http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/1_1.html Jerk De Soleil

I was wide open
outside my frame
when the whole world burst into
my latest flame

she stunned me with her dictionary
where all the words are mean
it's a thick motherfucker from cover to cover
and nothing but hate in between

I was wide open
she stormed away
that's why I'm not
wide open today

she caught me napping
she caught me off-guard
she thought I was asleep at the wheel
so she drove me extra hard
(find my bones tomorrow in a junkyard)

I was wide open
in spite of my frame
when the whole world burst into
my latest flame


Bubbles

she's in denver she's in nebraska
she's in L.A.
I'm in love with a phone sex girl
further than a phone call away

15 minutes 25 dollars
or whatever I could pay
to keep someone to talk to
that'd last all day

I'm not saying I've never made love
to a human being
but there's no denying phone sex girls
were the only ones I was seeing

I gave her my high school ring
by extension
I pawned so much stuff back then
it deserves honorable mention

I gave her my heart I gave her
my soul
I gave her the benefit of doubt
when she kept me on hold

she's in new york city she's in nevada
she's in montego bay
I'm still in love with a phone sex girl
who's more than a phone call away

]]>
Carmelita Estrellita 2014-07-23T23:49:53-05:00
Gentleman in Distress http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/gentleman_in_di.html For a guy who once conceded nothing to Holden Caulfield when it came to abhorring the "phoney," it takes a well-seasoned blend of irony and humor to walk around sporting designer-distressed boots, jeans and safari jacket. But I am over-seventy, a serene sail toward a gradual retirement from the practice of law hastened by the two M.I’s, which fell upon me within two months of one another and led me to open heart surgery, an experience that illuminated as effectively as thunderbolts hurled by Zeus the likelihood that I would have neither the energy or time to rack up such character-defining "worn" spots and "scorch" marks on my own. True, the red wine and dark chocolate I imbibe for cardiovascular benefit place legitimate stains within easy reach. True, my blood thinner gives my slightest nick a shot at heightening any fabric’s coloration. But with my rowdy ways laid nearly as deeply to rest as Janis’s and Jimi’s, and with Lipitor and Metropolol as regular benchmarks of my conversation as Mick and Keith once were; I feel entitled to some short cuts.

Clothes were not always important to me. Growing up in West Philadelphia, my mother bought nearly everything I wore. From Wanamaker’s to Korvette’s, she outfitted me for school and play as assiduously—and uniformly—as any Eisenhower-era mother sons of theirs. (I had occasional input, like the motorcycle jacket I lobbied for in 1955. But my hopes to align my thirteen-year-old, skinny, eye-glassed being more with Marlon Brando’s were dashed when—no kidding—our dog ate it.)

My father handled shoes in a manner that smacked of private just-us-guys rites, like Sunday afternoon western double-features or outings to Schibe Park. First, we frequented Meinster’s, on South Street, where customers could dose their metatarsals with radiation on a floor-display X-ray machine while awaiting service. Later, we progressed to a discount store on Mole Street, whose name escapes me, but which provided the white bucks, penny loafers, and desert boots which carried me through adolescence. (The Meinsters linger firmer in my memory because their son Bobby, whose madcap antics enlivened Hebrew school when we were nine, became the first of those to cross my life’s path to be jailed as a marijuana merchandiser; and accounts of his parents’ anguished efforts to free him from a Florida incarceration flared, like a car alarm, in my family’s conversation for years.)

The first garment I purchased on my own was a sixty dollar, brown suede trenchcoat, from Krass Brothers, another South Street establishment, in 1966. Their wares hung on iron pipes, in long rows, amidst 8 ½" X 11" glossies of celebrity customers: Richie Allen; Joey Giardello; Danny and the Juniors. When I pointed out to one of the Krasses (Ben or Jack or Harry), who-knew-my-father-when, that it lacked a button, he ripped one off its neighbor and commanded, "Tell your mother, ‘Sew it on.’"

I savored the remark and delivery as much as the coat. It was a time for change, personal, social and political; and though my career path threatened to tack toward the conventional, I determined to stand apart.

My attention to clothes deepened the years (1970-81) I worked in San Francisco. The firm with which I was associated, that of the flamboyant trial attorney Melvin ("King of Torts") Belli, was agreeably non-traditional; but I still dressed as if to inoculate myself against awakening one morning as transformed by my profession into a three-pieced, buttoned-down conformist as surely as Gregor Samsa had a cockroach. I became a connoisseur of sales. (Anything offering less than fifty percent off I did not consider.) I marked each year’s pocket calendar with the dates of the prior year’s best offerings of Cable Car Clothiers, George Good’s, Grodin’s, Hasting’s, both Magnins, I.and J.—all as gone as Mr. Belli and his four partners. They provided me with the distinction afforded by a "leisure" denim suit—Oy! the look in the judge’s eye I appeared before in that—a brown velvet number with the durability of Kleenex, an elk-hide shirt, a Jil Sander sweater that could have sheltered a Mini-Cooper.

The pinnacle of San Francisco fashion was Wilkes Bashford’s. Its prices, even slashed, narrowed my pickings. (To this day, I refuse to pay more for a single garment than the $600 my first car cost.) I broke my cherry there with a fedora that would have looked at home on Humphrey Bogart. ("Here you are," the fastidiously groomed salesman said, sizing me up. "Don’t sit on it.") Rust colored corduroys and a red-gold shirt followed.

Becoming a solo practitioner in Berkeley liberalized matters further. ("It’s nice," I joked to a lawyer friend in Philly, "not to have to wear a tie to the office. Or shoes.") But establishing a perpetually satisfying self proved not as easy as sliding a VISA card across a counter. A need for replenishment came as regularly as the seasons. So my holdings in leather increased by three jackets, one vest, a belted black overcoat (Not a good idea to wear to Schindler’s List), and, for my fiftieth birthday, jeans. ("You can never be too rich, too thin, or own too much black leather." Didn’t Abraham Lincoln say that?) I took possession of half-boots patterned as miniature Andy Warhol soup cans, a pair of scarlet Prada low cuts with white piping. ("The salesgirl called them ‘accent shoes,’" I explained to my wife. "You can wear them with anything." "Particularly," Adele said, "if you’re going bowling.") I own a sweater Jackson Pollock might have splattered, a red plush scarf with black teddy bears, baseball caps celebrating the Grateful Dead and Matthew Barney, a tie which is a montage of romance comic covers ("Sexy Love," proclaims one dominant portion) and a Suicide Girls tee. I even sport a fishscale silver bracelet picked up at a Maui craftsfair. (You should hear the story behind that!)

My closet groaned as I kept once-shed skins within easy reach for emergency idiosyncratic tweakings.

"What the hell is going on here, Bob," a puzzled reader may ask. "Why, after events that would have most people repenting their sins or pondering the meaning of the whole shebang, are you obsessing about clothes? When you meet your maker, do you think he’ll give one shit about what you’re wearing?"

Well, I would answer, if I meet my maker, an encounter about which, frankly, I have my doubts, you are right. She won’t care how I’m dressed. Until then, repenting for sins is certainly an option. (Why else would God have given us confessionals, Yom Kippur, and cattail whips?) Deeply pondering existence is another. (Why else bitter espresso, Gauloises, and Departments of Philosophy?) But fabric-filtered, rear-view recollections of the twists time had in store for legal titans, rag trade moguls, and pre-adolescent pals may not finish as badly out of the money as you think. My parents have passed on. So have garments that once seemed as crucial to my identity as my hair length or ability to snare offensive rebounds.

Clothes, to my present stage of enlightenment, seem a matter of art. Each morning, pieced together from socks to cap, I set out into my day, a six-foot-three collage, a portable installation of uncertain duration. When we dress, as when we paint, compose or scribble, we have the opportunity to cull our past, compress it with our present, and move an audience through the resulting vision. At minimum, we can ask those amongst whom we sit at the Wrench Cafe or stand in line behind at CVS to appreciate our being. And mindful of this wish, we become more apt to compliment theirs. The resultant bond of mutual smiles—though transient connections—are stones of grace to hurl into the teeth of an apparently uncaring universe.

That I have incorporated, twinkle-in-eye, the pre-abused into my presentation both captures what has happened to me and defies it. I am still here, I exclaim to fate. And I am going to enjoy it, you bastard.

]]>
culturewatch Bob Levin 2014-07-21T04:06:30-05:00
Field Notes From a Lagging Indicator http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/field_notes_fro.html Your editor struck up a correspondence with the author of this article after we both responded to a group email from William Greider linking us to one of Greider’s recent pieces. It led to an exchange about the Affordable Care Act and to this piece of “samizdat” detailing one desperate senior’s angle on ACA (and the state of his state’s healthcare system).

Last fall after Feds screwed up the ACA website, journalist Ezra Klein zeroed in on problems with the rollout. He was abused by a Salon columnist for giving aid and comfort to opponents of national health insurance. I still remember the look on Klein’s face when he was placed next to his critic on an MSNBC chat show. It seemed hard for him to get his mind around being trashed as insufficiently supportive of the ACA when he’d done as much as any public intellectual to make the case for the legislation. He may have been hurt (for a half-second) but his expression registered something more than pique at an unfair attack. You sensed Klein was suddenly feeling from within why so many folks assume politics and journalism are dishonorable professions. But truth is truth (as Klein knows), even when it hurts your side of an argument. B.D.


Here are my facts, and I won't take them any further than the ACA reality for me. I hope the President's plan has been able to help millions.

I receive early SS retirement, reduced amount, out of economic necessity, well under $1500; I receive a small NJ pension under $500 and work part time at Target for $8.97 per hour. As my second year evaluation rolled around in April, I received a 22 cent per hour raise bringing me to that figure. I got a good evaluation. My 2013 gross income was just under 34,000. I am single, divorced. I applied for the OCA (That should be ACA but I guess the “O” for Obama, does just as well) on Dec. 17, 2013 plugged in all the numbers on the Maryland Exchange and was told quickly and bluntly that I did not qualify for a) Medicaid (income cut-off 14,000) and b) any subsidy.

Now I live in one of the most expensive counties in the country, Montgomery County, MD but none of these calculations take that into account, only the income. The County Council's own numbers show that the minimum wage required to be out of poverty is $17.50 per hour. I finish most months with only $100-$200 to spare, sometimes less, and have been living on the edge that way for two years now. I haven't missed a credit card payment yet, but my two bills for the cards are $140 each and bound to rise as the $6-8,000 in medical bills, or more, is, as slowly as I can manage, added to them. My rent is $1,450 per month and I have to pay all utilities. I still owe my landlord for several months’ rent when my savings ran out three years ago and before the Social Security arrived and I had to go back to work. I live at his forbearance on a month-to-month lease and have, most months, paid him what I can spare as “back rent” owed.

For further economic clarification, and in preparation for testimony before a Republican ethics committee on debtors and personal character, I have not purchased a single appliance or capital good for the past ten years; two pots and pans and a computer (replacing an eight year old one, and a necessity in modern life) in 2011, which went, along with car repairs, auto insurance and vet bills for my beloved Josie, a Belgian Malinois now deceased, on the credit cards out of necessity. My last vacation was 2006 and I didn't pay for it. My car is 14 years old—a VW beetle from much happier times.

So when my heart crisis arose out of the blue (I've never smoked and don't drink) with no prior history...here I am. Over the past week I've spent hours on the phone to utilize the "life event” (I guess they don’t like to use crisis, which is surely what it is) clause of OCA in MD, and the drop in income at Target of 50% means I can get a subsidy of $333 per month on the premium and 73% on the co-pays and deductibles...but the only plan I can make is still $165 for the premium plus 900 deductibles and 5200 out of pocket (reduce them by 73%) plus whatever the plan is on drugs (I’ll pay 20-30%). So very helpful, but still an additional expense with my reduced income and other fixed costs. Oh I forgot to add an important detail: failing to qualify for ACA/OCA in December, I was planning on picking up Target’s medical coverage for part time workers, at a pretty affordable rate. Unfortunately, they dropped it entirely in the early winter of 2014.

I spent most of today on the phone with our Montgomery County's housing assistance programs. We are one of the most progressive and sophisticated county governments in the nation. There is no additional money, long waiting lists (years in some cases) and/or lottery luck for any/all of the housing problems. Summary: no help on the horizon and none likely to arrive. If I get an eviction notice, I can get emergency help for one month rent and security...but there are no available public housing places...go read the private want ads...was the advice. The system, as one neighbor told me, gets you a little more help when you are homeless in the middle of the street—destitute, in other words. In preventing that destitution, there is almost no help, and women with dependent children will, rightly so, be first in line. I told the social worker that I would kill myself before entering the group shelter system. He seemed to take that easily in stride. I don’t know if that is courage or cowardice on my part, and I won’t know until if and when I stare that situation in the face. And I guess it will dependent on your point of view. I’m trying now not to have that staring match.

I live in the smallest one story house type in the entire county built in 1953: about 1100 sq. feet. I don't know if I can survive, if I can find, a small one bedroom apt. near me—they all seem to be 1200-1400 dollars...no help.

So that's the story. With a great deal of luck I can make the August rent, no way September. I have no criminal record, great driving record (although my eyesight is now going downhill) and written any number of essays that prove I can think consecutively...Such is the state of my state, and our social service "net" for someone in my circumstances at age 64. If the heart troubles (two bouts of angioplasty) don't kill me, the stress of just facing this reality probably will. When I was discharged last week from the hospital after my first operation, I saw the listing of psychological factors contributing to heart disease centered on various types of stress. I scored an A+ on each of them...the basic facts of my life over the past nine years.

I apologize now for using the phrase "medical Gulag." That is not the best description. Yet my mounting waiting room experience of the beaten, bent people who are being shepherded through a system with high technological capabilities and very little humanity, still leaves me with the sense that I am in a vast "refugee" flow. That's what it feels like. My appointments, along with the one hospital procedure and one due next week led me to this vision. Though rather than a "Gulag," the complexes where I get diagnosed, blood and credit drawn out of me, are in sprawling one and two story office complexes that go on for square mile after square mile around Shady Grove hospital...like the old industrial towns of Newark, Philadelphia, Camden and Detroit in their glory days. There is a vast subdivision of labor and practice which fragments the experience and ups the demands on patients. It is industrial medicine and I had no idea of the tremendous and confusing physical network which surrounds the hospital.

My last trip to the blood lab, yesterday, went like this: I saw my cardiologist...he said you need this blood work and must fast ten hours. I went to the Quest firm, right next door. They don't have a receptionist or an office manager. It seems they all multitask, but I couldn't verbally set up an appointment face-to-face at their office. I had to call and go through an automated system. When I finally set it up, two days later, and when I went in, after fasting, at 9:30 for a 10:00 appointment...they said they had no record of it...but took me anyhow after a 35-40 minute wait. The person who drew the blood had a credit card machine right in the examination drawing room; I told her I only wanted to put $50 down, but the system would take only the full swipe for $306. We made each other laugh with the absurdity; but that afternoon I left critical comments about the low morale, lack of receptionist and office manager—praising the humanity of the blood-worker, caught, along with me, in this vast system of extraction and reminding them of the outrageousness of the credit card machine in the examination room....

That's all for now, thanks for asking, I needed to get this word out. My "samizdat." I really don't know if I will make it and only the glimmer of the hope that I can tell the story, almost as it happens in real time, to change what others might have to face, keeps me going.

]]>
nation William Neil 2014-07-21T01:35:24-05:00
Doing the Math http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/doing_the_math.html Up until 9th grade, math was one of my favorite subjects. Like most people, I loved the palpable rightness of its solutions. Then I went to a magnet science & tech high school, and suddenly I sucked at math because big brain robotoid kids with underdeveloped social skills were the majority of the student body.

I actually still have bad dreams about 12th grade math tests. I think part of the horror of those tests was realizing they really didn't matter. (Though maybe they wern't entirely pointless, as I regularly find myself applying the relationship between velocity and acceleration to all matter of things.)

I performed less than brilliantly on so many math tests. I was not the best. And math certainly wasn't the best, either. But like most everyone else, I got over those bad grades without taking them personally. I did the best I could, said "oh well. / fuck YOU Mr. Williams seriously" (AND my 9th grade tutor Tom SOMETHING, a grown-ass man who quit on me because I asked too many questions of him... him, my tutor.) and then moved on to every other thing that was more interesting and fun and that I was better at. And then another year came and another teacher and a different kind of math, until finally there were no more math classes.

When I did do well on a math test, it was a great feeling—a feeling of not just accomplishment, but of genuine comprehension. I felt good knowing that the arithmetic choices I made were the right ones for that set of problems, and that I made those choices based on my understanding of what kind of problems I was confronting.

Relationships are like math tests for me. And I think for my adolescence and the first half of my 20s, I was trying to do a kind of math where 3+3 equaled 33 and not 6. I wasn't doing real math. I was trying to do some kind of magical, visual mathematics where the numbers related to each other spatially, instead of real math with actual numerical entities; a math where the numbers made something more beautiful and harmonic and impossible than just...6. If 3 is all you know, 6 is a far less predictable and less cute result than 33. The moment you learn that as a child, you undergo a major shift in thinking between how words relate and how numbers relate. That '+' is not just a smushing of things together but an actual process that happens to the numbers.

It's pretty fitting that I had such an unreal idea of relationships and love, because when serious nerds make up the majority of your high school, being petite, white, Nice (read: boring) are the only ways to even be considered female. I never even felt feminine in high school, and I felt both despair and righteous indignation at this total scam: these scrawny, uncreative, adolescent boys were somehow calling the shots about who was attractive and desirable, when they themselves were wholly uncompelling as friends, not to mention dates. So I bided my time in high school believing in the mythology of high school movies, and holding out for college as my moment to finally get the normal dating experience that I believed every American teenager to be entitled to. That did not happen at Princeton either.

And still it hasn't happened. Is it that I'm consistently the only black girl in a room full of white people (friends and non-friends alike)? Am I too loud and tall of a woman? Is it Los Angeles? Am I too straight? Is it that artists don't date? Is it that no one dates? Has anyone ever dated? These are questions I have spent many a sleepless night over. But in the end they're like asking why does math exist. Asking answerless questions is only useful in life if you can turn it into a book deal or some kind of profitable spiritual practice. These breathless questions are fueled by the likely fraudulent belief (but I hate to be cynical), implanted in my brain by movies and books, that I deserve some love in life that I'm nearly sure only exists in fiction. I'm coming to believe love songs are pure aesthetic objects. They represent nothing but a desire, and they're the only way to experience real, unending Romance.

I recently got out of a relationship—long-distance, no less, so the romance was heavy. I used this relationship to explore myself in a way that I never had before. I felt safe to play with certain memories and character traits in the space between us. In doing so, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about my personality and about my compulsion to act my way through intimate situations. This compulsion is motivated in equal parts by fear, intellectual remove, a natural performer’s instinct for intensity, an erotic desire to be watched, and genuine confusion about the reality of emotions as a post-modern millennial. That’s all very complex.

Until I meet someone who can jam on that kind of level, I’m hoping this past relationship was my last attempt to enact a fantasy narrative of romance. Even if fantasy re-enactments begin innocuously, they are only bright and shimmery until they aren’t. Then everyone feels gross. What I learned about myself in this relationship came at the expense of not learning as much as I could have about him. I'd do some things differently if given the opportunity to do it again, yes; but at the time I didn't know how to do them differently; or I knew but I didn't trust that I knew how to do the math.

It's funny when you recall a memory from a past relationship. For some reason, I find these recollections call more attention to the mystery of memory than any other kind. They just pop up, sometimes with no trigger at all. Like a salmon swimming upstream. And if it's bittersweet it just keeps flopping around and you're like okay okay I gettttttttttt—you're a fish and you're still swimming in there. I've had other hazily defined relationships [oh no these are RELATIONS] where the memories were like rocks that I chose to overturn again and again, just to torture myself and look at how gross whatever phantom subterranean creatures were living underneath. Those are the worst. I'm glad I don't do that any more. But still, whenever I remember something from this recent relationship, I feel a little...

kanye.gif

...contemplative, some general malaise, and slightly unamused with remembering it again. I have to tell myself in that moment to not berate myself for things I already did.

A friend from college, Matt, once said he didn't understand why people looked back on the past and worried about it. He said "It's relieving to not have to worry about the past because I already did it."

And that is really true. That stuck with me. That, and, "I don't know why girls on the swim team have to eat so much ice cream and then complain about being fat. I mean have some fucking self-control." Lol. Also true.

Not getting caught up in the past is about letting stuff go, and about having some self-control. This time around, getting over it has definitely been the #mostchill for me, and that is because I’m getting to the point where I understand what an exponential is, and that ⁵ doesn't mean you actually do something with the numerical value of 5. Before you understand that, you feel really stupid because you keep getting the wrong result (and I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but you get the picture).

And I suppose that's the art of getting older: learning that being attracted to someone, or liking a person for how s/he makes you feel is not the same as liking that person for who they are. And still, caring for a person for who they are is not same as being able to do so without feeling that your own spark is diminished in turn—a hard lesson for me, a competitive girl. In any case, relationships oughtn’t be competitions; and whereas a year ago I would have been completely distraught in the event of “losing,” I've been thinking about this relationship just like a math test.

If schools framed exams as unpredictable opportunities to gauge how well you are learning—means rather than ends to study for in themselves—I think kids would retain a lot more knowledge from school. If you're only studying for the next test, or improving yourself for the next relationship, then all that work is only for a brief moment of performance, when it ought to be for your overall development and soul-making.

I am thankful that I have the one skill essential to happiness: the ability to learn. I am thankful to finally recognize that however abnormal my pattern of relationships feels, I can always shift the focus and weight away from that area of my life. Life is so much about the in-between times when you have to reflect without stewing, and change without cultivating contempt for your old ways. To move through life with constructive energy requires one to maintain multiple notions of self with equal levels of acceptance.

I've been relating math to relationships, but it’s a metaphor that can really work with any aspect of life: jobs, career, art, existence—we're mostly just practicing, and there will always be another test, so there's not enough time to dwell on past results in school. There’s no fun and no point in beating yourself up over a test. And there's not enough time for that in life either. What you can do is try to find something compelling about what you're learning along the way, and actually try to understand it. Because there really is so much to understand in all the highs and all the lows.


Note to self: It's also important to recognize that although some people look like they're better at math than you are, they might just be doing easier problems...forever. Or working in another subject entirely....like health class or something.

]]>
culturewatch Lex Brown 2014-07-20T02:52:19-05:00
Wait Till Last Year http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/wait_till_next.html Bob Liss finished this report on LeBron James’s role in last season’s NBA playoffs a few days before James announced he was “going home” to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season. Liss takes in the news in his postscript to this piece.

Just a year ago, with the Miami Heat joyfully repeating as NBA champions, LeBron James regained the respect of many of those who disdained him after “The Decision”: his 2010 televised desertion of hometown Cleveland.

LeBron had put considerable distance between himself and whomever was regarded as the second best basketball player in the world, but I argued in these pages (“Ain’ Time Yet: Colliding Eras in LeBron’s Stormy Reign”[1]) James and the Heat still had a lot to prove; their ultimate triumph had depended entirely on San Antonio’s Spurs making wildly uncharacteristic errors (by their revered Head Coach, Greg Popovich, and their beloved star of 16 years, Tim Duncan). The vaunted Heat had, truth be told, backed into their second championship.

By glaring contrast, the Spurs’ decisive five-game victory in this year’s 2014 NBA Finals represents a thoroughly unsullied and indeed remarkable triumph of intelligence, determination, character, and will, as well as team play. It was the culmination of a year-long struggle to erase the memory of Duncan’s missed 90% probability hook shot that was almost a lay-up, which, had it dropped, would have tied Game Seven in the last minute.

For the Spurs as a team, Duncan’s error was but icing on their bitter-tasting cake. Game Six had been theirs to take, but for egregious foul-shooting and rebounding in the last minute, which permitted Miami to escape into overtime (thanks to Ray Allen’s desperation three-pointer—a shot so difficult the brilliant Allen would be lucky to make it three times out of ten).

Even Coach Popovich had contributed to the sudden dysfunction by not having Duncan in the game at a time when a defensive rebound would have clinched matters.

As was widely publicized all year, that miss stuck in Duncan’s mind. There was only one way it could be erased: exactly the way the Spurs played it out.

The other take-away from last season, the playoffs in particular, was that Duncan, now 38, was not only not finished, but still capable of all-star level dominance. (Duncan was selected, at 37, to the NBA’s first all-star team.) Perhaps it was not yet fully LeBron’s league, even though he was unquestionably its greatest individual player. An unheralded Tim Duncan Era was over-lapping the festivities attendant to the coronation of a new King. This Duncan-Popovich ascendancy touches three decades, and spans sixteen years, beginning with the first of their five titles in 1999. Duncan is widely recognized as the greatest power forward of all time, and he would rank pretty high among centers as well. Jerry West, who is not given to wild superlatives, recently called Popovich the best coach he’s ever seen.

How good was this Spurs team, and what kind of argument do they make for the notion of a Duncan Era? Each of the Spurs’ wins was by a margin of 15-20 points, with the fifth game score of 104-87 reflecting that dominance. They had the league’s best regular season record (62-20), winning eight more games than Miami. Their team-work and ball movement recalled the New York Knicks’ championship team of 1969-70 and 1972-73, as well as Bill Walton’s and Jack Ramsey’s Portland Trailblazers of 1976-77. In recent decades, only Larry Brown’s 2003-04 Detroit Pistons have come at all close.

Sports commentators tend to invoke character to explain feel-good outcomes in sports, but character alone did not create the phenomenal skill set that 22 year old Kawhi Leonard unveiled during the playoffs. The Spurs’ victory also testified to how good players may become within a system (Popovich’s) that allows them positive freedom to cultivate unique offensive gifts (though defense is the Spurs' common denominator). Very good players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili became great ones in San Antonio. Parker and Ginobili were two of the team’s eight foreign-born players whose myriad languages and playing styles added color and flavor to this remarkable squad.

James was more gracious in defeat than he had been in response to previous disappointments, but where did this year’s loss leave him, other than in San Antonio’s dust? We can’t blame him. Or can we? Better yet, must we? He had little help, but, still, it “Ain’ Time Yet.” He still has a ways to go before the talk of supplanting Jordan is based on more than physical dominance and awesome talent.

The critical question about LeBron seems to be whether he can raise the level of his game to dominate play when domination is needed. If not, can he really challenge the legacies of Michael Jordan, Earvin Johnson, and Bill Russell? It’s not just about winning more championships. He must prove he’s the focal point of his team by taking over games at key times. He wasn’t always at the center of the action during Miami’s second championship run. This year, of course, he could not carry his team-mates past the blazing hot Spurs.

Oddly, for someone of his stature, he seems to guide himself by taking a game’s temperature, not by setting the thermostat.

Fortunes and reputations fluctuate wildly: three years ago, against the Dallas Mavericks, James “disappeared” so ignominiously that venom directed at him by his former fans after he abandoned Cleveland appeared half-justified. Then, he won his first title in a feel-good series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, seeming to usher in a new era that would be defined by the mutually admiring superstar rivals: James and Durant.

How weakly Durant performed in the playoffs! How uncommanding a presence he was, for an MVP—an honor he deserved for his regular season, but diminished by his very ordinary playoff performance. Yet this year, the Spurs’ dizzying passing and shooting made James seem nearly as pedestrian as Durant.

The last two years have re-opened the question of whether it’s simply LeBron’s league. The trend is toward teams that wed trios of superstars, but only San Antonio’s Big Three has been home-grown, and Popovich appears to have groomed Kawhi Leonard to take over when Ginobili inevitably falters.

What else does James need to do to add to his two championship rings? Stay the course? Find new team-mates? Return to Cleveland? Join San Antonio?

True greatness finds its own answers. Ask Michael or Magic; or better yet, Bill Russell.


Postscript

Well, folks, we just got answers from the man himself!

In a graceful and forthright letter entitled “I’m Coming Home,” published in Sports Illustrated, LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers—and Northeast Ohio, the place he wanted us all to know that he had laughed, jumped, and cried as a child. After a four year glitz stint in Miami—a time that James analogized to going away to college (he skipped that earlier)—James cleared the decks, wiping away bad memories of the hype and emotional obliviousness that suffused his original announcement he was leaving his hometown to “take his talents to South Beach.”

LeBron’s move to join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh produced four trips to the NBA Finals in four years, and two championships, somewhat short of the spectacular numbers the then-immature James hinted at when he gleefully cut—nay, trashed—his Ohio roots.

But now LeBron is coming back to Cleveland. In so doing, he may distance himself from Michael Jordan by embracing the tradition of socially conscious black stars upheld by Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Many were stunned by LeBron’s choice, but Straight-Shooter Savant Dave Zirin predicted this would happen in 2013[2], based on his belief that LeBron’s deepest ambition was to become a folk hero: James, in Zirin’s view, could only achieve this goal by coming home to Cleveland.

Becoming a folk hero probably isn’t beyond LeBron’s horizon of possibility. It's become a truism to say he lifts all boats, makes everyone on his team better. Kyrie Irving can't wait, and the real possibility of getting Kevin Love alongside him could make the Cavs a championship contender faster than current predictions might suggest. The very modesty of such expectations further emphasize the difference between the alienating Decision four years ago and the current redemptive announcement so beautifully delivered last week. Very few commentators have offered cynical takes on the image-enhancing aspect of James’s announcement.[3]

Cynics about the NBA may be on the run. First there was Durant’s moving Mother's Day speech in accepting the regular-season MVP trophy, followed by the collective brilliance of San Antonio’s team-first triumph, and now LeBron’s return home. Is it beamish to think LeBron picked up on the examples of local heroes like Durant and Popovich? He certainly seems to have amped up their moral momentum.

LeBron’s move placed free agency pursuit into higher gear; many dominoes began to fall; pieces edged into their new configurations, as salary caps and the new Miami Heat ethic of taking less than the maximum contract shaped the chase for superstars.

James, Wade, and Bosh created their Heat juggernaut by taking less than the maximum salary to play together, but after James signed his “maximum contract” in Cleveland, Bosh followed suit with Miami ($118 million for five years; James gets only $84 million for four years back in Cleveland).

Wade may now be a liability for Miami. Like A’mare Stoudamire in New York, where Carmelo Anthony’s return for upwards of $120 million for five years will hamstring Knickerbocker payroll and hopes of contending for at least one year.

Yes, James has impact, sends ripples through the system every time he re-positions himself, as he does quite brilliantly, however large a gaff “The Decision” was. In assessing the extent of his impact, I would add that he seems to have brought out the best from the media as well.

The July 12, 2014 New York Times minimalist front sports page[4] brilliantly highlighted the significance of James’ announcement. ESPN pundit Bill Simmons, on his way to dubbing James both a genius (like Michael Jordan) and an artist (he should have mentioned Oscar Robertson here) was at his best in summarizing the difference between 2010 and now:

In the summer of 2010, LeBron handled everything wrong. He knows that now. We turned him into a wrestling heel, pushed him to a dark place, affected his personality, planted seeds of doubt that blossomed like a black rose during the 2011 Finals. It took LeBron nearly 15 months to recover from the damage, both mentally and physically, and when he did, he captured two straight MVPs and his first two NBA titles.

But he never forgot what happened, and deep down, he probably always wanted to atone. When the time arrived this summer, he flipped the script on us. This wasn’t a 24-7, over-planned reality show like the one in 2010. He said nothing. He hinted at nothing. During the first week of July, his agent took every meeting. During the second week, LeBron stayed in Las Vegas and made everyone come to him. He announced his decision, then flew to Brazil for the World Cup.

Odysseus in the jet plane age. Just another stop on the hero’s journey home.


Notes

1 Firstofthemonth.org/archives/2013/08.

2 Dave Zirin, Edge of Sports, March 25, 2013

3 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his July 12, 2014 opinion piece for Time sounded a note of skepticism, invoking Thomas Wolfe about the impossibility of ever really being able to return home.

4 Reminiscent of the nearly all black New Yorker cover after 9/11.

]]>
culturewatch Bob Liss 2014-07-20T01:25:46-05:00
Existential Bugsquash http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/existential_bug.html The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.

—Playwright Wallace Shawn, from the essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist”


Tom and Sasha, the romantically linked protagonists of Benjamin Kunkel’s play Buzz, share a loft apartment (the play’s sole setting) in a borderline-sketchy neighborhood of an unidentified city. Arriving home, they drop their coats, revealing only unmentionables underneath. Skivvies and scanties are pretty much all they and the other characters wear throughout the play. This is never remarked upon.

Kunkel, a successful novelist and essayist making his playwriting debut here, is possibly trying simultaneously to mock both theatre audiences’ conventional expectations—souls stripped bare—and the gauche literalism one might expect from a novice playwright. Alternatively, or additionally, the near-nudity might be his attempt to infuse the theatergoing experience with an inescapable, low-level awkwardness, so that artists and audience can’t help but trouble each other’s sense of privacy. (Intruders was the play’s title when it premiered in Buenos Aires.) Having only read the script, recently published by n+1 Small Books Press, I can’t say for sure. In any case, the underwear stunt points up Kunkel’s basic ambivalence about what he assumes his audience demands of him, and his unwillingness to play ball without first applying some amount of subversive spin.

So along with costumes, Buzz mostly eschews dramatic conflict, giving us instead a portrait of a Gen-X, yuppie-ish couple crumbling under a variety of stresses—his writer’s block and her pregnancy being the main ones—aggravated and, eventually, embodied by a housefly infestation even professional exterminators can’t expunge. Actually, the houseflies aren’t just in the house but general across the region of whatever country this is (Kunkel doesn’t say). Eco-catastrophe, we gather, is unfolding around the world in plague-like stages. Visitors to the apartment point out that Tom and Sasha, as befits their class origins, are only lightly affected by the swarms. Nonetheless, the insects and their implications disturb our hero and heroine uniquely.

Just as with the near-nudity, however, Kunkel never lets you know how serious he is about any of this symbolism. His strobing tone never lets us adjust to either the brightest or the darkest of the work’s suggestions. Fortunately, flickering through it all is a depiction of the contemporary early-middle-aged bourgeois couple that never wavers in its emotional authenticity. As self-aware as these educated lovers are, their dialogue, e.g. Tom’s dinner party quip that their neighborhood is “a nice balance between hesitant gentrification and hard-core ineradicable poverty,” knows more about their class snobbery than they do. Sasha’s way of responding to feeling threatened by a perfectly harmless younger woman is to call her “twat-for-brains” behind her back—and her choice of words says mouthfuls about where today’s bourgeois culture stands on the old mind-body problem. It’s entirely believable that these two, harboring practically the same pattern of unexamined stress points in their psyches, would fall to pieces when faced with a minor infestation of bugs. And onstage, characters that are entirely believable can never be entirely unsympathetic.

This issue of sympathy is complicated by the fact that Tom is quite obviously Kunkel’s riff on his own persona. (He refers to having sold a past work to Hollywood, as Kunkel famously did with his novel Indecision.) Tom is getting nowhere with his “comic play,” despite Sasha being overeager to serve as his muse, partly because the theatre itself has become comic to him. “If there’s one thing that theatre has consistently criticized, it’s conventional domestic arrangements,” Tom says, “and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced—conventional domestic arrangements. The whole thing’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but the counterproductiveness of culture.”

Tom/Kunkel’s skepticism—encompassing as it does so much of modernism, naturalism, and the avant garde—gives Buzz considerable freshness and intellectual seriousness, yet it also helps explain why this play feels somehow (weirdly) more conservative than past highlights of Western theatre’s war on bourgeois morale and morality. Kunkel never bothers the lid on the middle-class marriage’s politeness pot, let alone tears it off to release the repressed, in stark contrast to what happens in Strindberg, Albee, O’Neill et al.

Also, those masters created women (Miss Julie, Martha from...Virginia Woolf?, Mary from Long Day’s Journey) whose ferocious attacks on men incorporated awesome glissando-like sweeps of emotion that offset, if not obliterated, their makers’ arguable misogyny. Sasha, however, is an undeniably post-feminist character, but for all Kunkel’s sophistication she makes no comparable claim on our subconscious. Always ready to tiptoe around Tom’s ego, she comes off as a latter-day Linda Loman with a Seven Sisters degree. Forced to work a 9-to-5 as Tom scribbles unprofitably away, she’s perhaps even more exploited (in a Marxist sense) than an old-school housewife. And Kunkel’s attempts to treat her sexuality result in Buzz’s most risible lapses. She mocks at one point, “My pussy is as dry and vast as the Gobi Desert,” which sounds like discarded dialogue from Sex and the City 2.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t women but private, intimate life itself that leaves Kunkel stymied, or bored. He unintentionally justifies Tom’s domestic restiveness by imbuing love-talk with a wearisome Linklater-esque quality. (“I think you would be a world historically great mother and I’d like to be their father.”) If his underwear-only rule bespeaks a desire to trouble the boundary between public and private, Kunkel is conflicted even there, because doing so would threaten to permit all sorts of personal qualms and doubts to blot the theoretical horizon of this avowed “Marxist public intellectual.”

To his credit, Kunkel goes all the way with his ambivalence, achieving fully dramatic conflict in the play’s final scene, which pits the protagonists against flies that have, in the couple’s febrile imaginings, taken on human form. Voicing Tom and Sasha’s worst fears, the flies get Kunkel’s best, most wounding dialogue— before Tom violently destroys them. The victorious Tom gets the last word—ironically, a confession of his artistic failure—“There is no play.” The curtain falls on an ominously irresolute note.

Is Kunkel implying that our current political situation requires of us all just such an existential Bugsquash? Does he mean that only by squelching the tumult of our inner lives, disenfranchising the psychic voices that make us feel most vulnerable, will we be able to rise to the world-changing occasion? What it all amounts to is as uncertain as the legacy of Occupy Wall Street.

For Kunkel himself, it’s a different story. It took him several years to write this play, according to interviews, and now that it’s out there he seems to have achieved within himself the catharsis he denies Buzz’s audience. It’s true the play has gotten much less press than Kunkel’s other full-length work this year, the collection of anti-capitalist essays Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. But when asked by The Awl whether his stint as a Marxist political economist has changed how he writes fiction, Kunkel replied, “I’ve come to feel that writing this stuff...really has helped my fiction, in that I’m not as worried about politics in my fiction...It’s terrible 2014 etiquette to quote own’s [sic] tweet, but the other day I tweeted: ‘Enjoy your symptom.’”


Ben Kessler can be reached at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

]]>
culturewatch Ben Kessler 2014-07-20T00:49:01-05:00
Roger & Me http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/roger_me.html Ms. Levin completed a manuscript about her life as a tennis fan and player(Comeback) a few years ago. She picked up on the beauty of Roger Federer’s game early in his career and her text tells the story of her responsiveness to him. What follows are Federer-focused passages from her tennis memoir. Take it as her tribute to Federer in the wake of his inspired performance at Wimbledon this year.


Love and Tennis

You don’t have to travel the globe, wear a tennis net over your head, or wave flags to be part of the fraternity of fanatics. From January 1st to mid-November, I bring up my scoreboard on my Dell screen before I brush my teeth. During the Slams, I live an extreme version of how I comport myself the rest of the year: no plans; no movies; no books. I cancel the house cleaners and let the dust balls rock and roll. For the French and Wimbledon I rise before 3 a.m., and head off to sleep as soon as my husband Bob finishes dinner. I completely reverse my circadian rhythms during the Australian summer season. Melbourne is seventeen hours ahead, so I go to bed at 4 a.m., or whenever the last match is completed, catch a few hours shut-eye, and rise at 9 a.m. for more tape delayed television coverage. I read all the tennis magazines and on-line zines, copy/paste the best of what I find to my friend Palma, spend hours arguing my points at five different tennis forums. What begins as excitement spirals out of control. First week runny, itchy eyes become broken capillary red-eyes. I have weight loss; migraines; laundry piled to the ceiling; dirty hair; nothing to say to Bob besides tennis scores, tennis gossip, and my latest theory about Roger Federer. Bob doesn’t complain much, but it’s no fun for him to come home to a yawn and cold supper...

How much choice is involved in falling in love? When Bob walked into Professor Evans’s writing class in 1963, I loved the way he looked in his black jeans, long and lean, the way his shoulders squared in his t-shirt, his dark hair, sensitive face, and soft brown eyes. When he spoke, I loved his voice and intelligence; and when I read his short story a week later, I was stricken. It was nearly love at first sight with Roger Federer, too.

I first saw him play an entire match on TV at the US Open 2000, where, in the second round, he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero. Both had turned pro in 1998 and were on the rise. RF was ranked No. 40, and JCF No. 14. Juan Carlos was one year older, at twenty, and already owned a tournament win in Majorca. Roger wouldn’t notch his first title until Milan 2001. Roger was tall and lithe, his long hair slicked back straight in a pony tail, additionally secured with a hand-rolled bandana that bisected his forehead. When he struck the ball, the word “beautiful” came to mind. I’m a sucker for a one-handed backhand, and his finish, arms spread wide and high, head absolutely still, was suck-in-your-breath-and-whistle gorgeous. Perhaps, Juan Carlos was the better-looking; his long, thin nose, high cheekbones, and dark eyes resembled El Greco’s exquisitely etched saints, but, Roger with his rugged, bunchy-on-the-bottom nose, looked good enough to me. He was/is my tennis dream incarnate. I told Bob Roger was the only man I would leave him for. He nodded, paused and said, “And Bob Dylan is the only man I’d leave you for.”

It had to be more than coincidence that soon after Roger Federer became my favorite player of all time, I had picked up a racket, again. I wondered why he had empowered me? Why did watching perfection inspire, rather than discourage? What did having a favorite, win or lose, do for me? The beauty of Roger’s game was what I’d imagined tennis might be, and the coupling with Roger’s pursuit of his dream gave me a feeling of strength lacking in my own life. My fandom grew and filled the space I’d given up in the professional world, and the players became my children and grand-children. I loved having an adult passion, with roots going back into each decade of my life. As fan and player, sports had provided a place to be when life seemed too hard. Even now, I needed my fandom, for its positives and fun, and as a cave, where I live alone—with sad ghosts and bright spirits of my past.


Chaos Theory

I wanted to learn everything I could about Roger Federer. I even started a gallery of pictures of him on the wall behind my computer. When he won a game or point, I could see future dominance in the controlled precision of his slashing forehand that wrapped around his body like a translucent scarf. He had every shot, all the spins. “Players like that take a while to develop: they have so many choices of what to hit,” I argued to nay-sayers at one of my forums. The early rap on Roger was that he lacked self-confidence. I wondered if that would be his Achilles heel. He’d had a bad temper as a boy. His father had seen him go off during a match, hurl rackets and words and, then, losing, break down in tears. He told Roger something on the order of if he didn’t learn to control his temper, he wouldn’t be allowed to play. Z-Woman, my Internet tennis buddy, found his lack of selbvertraumen (self-confidence) endearing, at first, but thought he might never develop the mettle to be topnotch, and soon became critical of the whole package. “I don’t like broody types and don’t watch tennis for balletic sang-froid,” she said. “Give me my excitement and sweat straight up.” “Roger is going to be a great champion,” I said.

In 2003 I’d had a temper tantrum when he lost to David Nalbandian in the round of sixteen at the Australian Open. I wanted to put Nalbandian and his fans through a shredder. In that state of mind it is best to carefully close your computer. Instead, I’d gone to e-mail and mindlessly opened something titled, “New Martina Hingis Pictures” hoping to be gifted with a compensatory pleasure but, instead, watched a dozen laughing baboons race across my screen, throwing fingers and gobs of feces at me. I banged my knees leaping up from my desk chair. It took a computer geek a week to exorcize the worms and rebuild my data base.

When my computer was returned, I crossed “aggression” and “fandom” in my search engine. I found an article/interview with Maurice G. Marcus M.D., a psychoanalyst, speaking with Mary Tressl: “Superbowl Sunday: The Vicarious Pleasure of Violence,” posted at “The News Room” of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis. His perspective on the vicissitudes of aggression in sports lit up dormant neural pathways in my brain. Aggression, a weak link in my awareness, became a new angle from which to understand my preferences. So although my fandom remained a solitary affair, its best moments, a state of enthrallment, like love, personal, biased, heart-wrenching but fun, I was aware that a percentage of Roger Federer’s appeal for me came from the way his aggression was wrapped, almost hidden, in beauty. The snap of his wrist created killer angles; the flourish of his stroke took my mind away from the slaughter and the dominance that was its purpose. Marcus claimed fan participation provided a valuable service to society, a safe outlet for primitive aggression. I felt relieved of some of the guilt for indulging my passion, knowing that as I rooted for Roger, and jeered Andy Roddick, collecting data to support my arguments and suffering dysphoria when disappointed, I was doing my part to keep chaos at bay.


Divinity in the Desert

In March 2003, Bob and I made pilgrimage to Indian Wells. Z-Woman had been raving about it for years. The desert tournament in Southern California was a combined Tier 1 for the women, and a Master’s Series event for the men, both just a notch below the majors in prestige. Since the Australian Open, Roger Federer had won Marseille, reached the semi-final in Rotterdam, and won again in Dubai. My number one wish was to see him. The trip was a birthday present from Bob. We had been to The Bank of the West, a smaller, women’s tournament a few times. I’d seen matches with Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Lisa Raymond, Monica Seles, Patty Schnyder and Kim Clijsters but that was before I resumed playing tennis. Now I wondered if seeing the pros play in person would impact, even benefit, my own comeback and what I wrote about it. I had in mind an infusion of confidence from watching the men and women who simply exude, with reason (or not), the belief “My milkshake is better than yours.”

The first morning, before Bob awoke, air sweet, sights and sounds ripe fruit for the picking, I walked along the main drag, past condos and palm trees, towards the courts. From the distance the site looked like a medieval castle, a jewel atop a hill. A marsh, with its fringe of thistle and indigenous plant life, surrounded it like a moat, the final barrier between mundane reality and the kingdom of professional tennis. (I added the period Punctuation) Players and their coaches jogged by within inches. The young women, on average a head taller than me, wore teensy shorts low on their hip bones and skimpy sports bras. Many looked half asleep: their fast-twitch kicks and luminous pony-tails bounced like dreams in pursuit. The men ran in t-shirts that ballooned above the knee length shorts that were currently popular. It is impossible to exaggerate the beauty of these late teen and twenty-something elite athletes, their strong bones, toned muscles, and velvet skin, bred for the sport, by parents hungry for their children’s success, and nurtured by countries with programs to select and enhance natural ability. I shook my head in wonder at the improbable illusions of my youth, the act of imagining unchecked by reality, that I might breach the gap between them and me.

Later that morning, after Bob swam and we ate breakfast, we took the hotel shuttle to the Gardens. We walked around the site together in awe, stopping at each practice court to watch the players. On the butt-end court, reserved for clinics and club members, four old codgers in proper tennis gear played a set. They looked like mountain goats, skinny limbs, wizened skin, hairy creatures. This sudden intrusion of stiff backs, braced knees, wrapped wrists, and long pauses between first and second serves threatened my euphoria with the reminder of the undesired future I faced. I turned back quickly, as if lingering might damage the illusion of invincibility, if not immortality, I had paid for.

There was a buzz on the green as if a bee-hive had emptied, and the next group of players headed out for the practice courts. Cameras clicked; girls and boys with behemoth balls to be signed ran after their favorites; and teens, leggy, tanned and freckled, stars in their own lives, stared in awe. Most of the excitement was for the Americans, Andy Roddick and Jennifer Capriati, the adored, international star Guga Kuerten—and Roger Federer. I vibrated from head to toe at his sight.

Seeing him in person was a better rush than the first time I got stoned. Although ranked No. 4 in the world, he hadn’t yet gone deep at Indian Wells. His bags seemed to weigh heavily on him, as he walked across the green, as if filled with his unfulfilled potential. With Roger was his coach Peter Lundgren, a large man, red faced, bulging around the middle, and a young male hitting partner. When Roger was clear of the crowd, I ran up. He had warm eyes, long lashes, and, I thought, big dreams. My heart pounded.

“May I take your picture?” I saw a flicker of amusement at my throw-away.

I focused.

“Good luck!” I couldn’t speak another word.

Z had gone off to watch Andy Roddick practice, and Bob and I followed Roger. We planned to meet at Guga’s court.

We sat in the first row, behind his gear bags. We were shaded by a canopy and were soon joined by a dozen other fans. “This is the best present ever,” I said. Bob gave me a nice squeeze. I was exactly where I wanted.

Roger’s game is the ultimate in variety of pace and spin; and over the next half hour, he made sure everything worked. He grooved his groundies for a while, hitting deeper and deeper, but, even then, he alternated depth with short, incredible angles and took the net at whim. His hitting partner was sweating and breathing hard. Roger was not. He moved fast, gliding like a big cat, and always seemed to get to where the ball would be well ahead of it. He was simply beautiful to watch, the precision and balance, the upper body absolutely still for the second before and after he uncoiled a shot. The weight I felt on him as he approached the court had evaporated in play. His eyes, at moment of ball contact, were striking. They were not the Agassi laser-like, terrified expression of one who had been force fed balls in his crib and highchair, but had the soft insistent focus of a man with a gentler upbringing. His eyes caught the ball early and held firm, his head still as a stopped clock. There was an instant when his body looked like it might break, as his hips and legs transferred his weight into the shot, but then, before any damage was done, his head and upper body flowed through. Professional photos showed he struck the ball with such racquet head speed that it (the ball) was already gone from view.

We found Z-Woman at Guga’s court. “You look like you saw God,” she said.


Roger vs. Andy

By 2007, no reference to Roger went down easily between me and Z-Woman. We had started arguing about his stated goals for the season of winning all four majors and defending the twelve other titles he held before the first balls were struck at the Australian Open. Z hated dominance in all arenas—family, sports and politics—and argued Roger’s ascendency had ruined the men’s tour. She asserted his goals were arrogant, intimidating, and intentionally promoted an atmosphere of fear. I responded that Roger’s intentions seemed large but not unreasonable. I interpreted his excellence as a fact and a challenge to the other players to rise up and become better. When Roger said, “I surprised myself how well I played today,” or, “I always play better later in a tournament,” Z heard that as duplicitous self-conceit. I heard his words as honest self-assessment. As we argued more and more, we even disagreed as to who had started the battle. I had accused her of baiting me by saying Roger’s “withered” left arm made her sick to her stomach. She said, “I’m just getting back at you for saying Andy Roddick’s belly had made a comeback.”

To understand the tension with Z-Woman, I need to explain my relationship to Andy Roddick. Z couldn’t comprehend my lack of excitement. “What’s not to like? He’s cute, from the Mid-West, and has nice parents,” she’d said from her seat in the first car of the bandwagon in 2002. On court, I found plenty to fault with Andy. His game was unadulterated “Ugly American”: violent serve; bludgeoning forehand; and bomb-detonating overhead. His plan was simple-minded: serve big and rip a forehand winner. In his baggy clothes, with his heavy feet and his racket wielded like a broken-off tree limb, he reminded me of a cave-man, no disrespect to cavemen intended. Also, he played the crowd in an exhibitionistic and goofy way I found obnoxious. After a few years, lower ranked players had got onto his monster serve, chipped it back, attacked his game, and produced the occasional upset; but, to my dismay, he held onto his place in the upper echelons. I tried my best to hide these feelings from Z, but she saw through me, once noting my barely concealed delight following a humiliating Roddick loss to Federer. Was I so identified with Roger that Z’s dislike felt like an attack on me? I didn’t live close enough to Z to express my feelings in an anti-social fashion, but hostile fantasies of the ilk Dr. Marcus had described in his interview were active. After one unsatisfying exchange, I fantasized ripping the tail pipe off her RV.

For me, rooting against Andy was almost as much fun as rooting for Roger. I was not alone. The shape of his visor, the set of his mouth, his “web” feet, which some claimed resembled the waterfowl sub-family Anatidae, had led his fans to affectionately nickname him “Ducky.” They, were turned to other purposes by his detractors, inspiring “Who Will Roast the Duck?” threads, photo-shopped duck heads grafted on Roddick’s body, and duck bodies with his face. What made “Duck Roasting” so tasty to me was the teeth-aching fear that Andy’s game could defeat Roger, that pure might could beat sublimated aggression. (I’d watched it happen once, Andy over Roger at Montreal 2003: 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3).)

When the season started, I made a game attempt to keep on with my own work, cook some dinners, get my sleep, and pick and choose which matches to watch from my tapes; but a week into the Australian Open, my good intentions faltered. I told myself, “I can handle one all-nighter!”—Federer vs Robredo, Roddick vs Fish—who could resist? I spent the rest of the week alternating caffeine and downers. Was it worth the temporary insanity, the loss of focus in the rest of my life? It seemed so.

Then, after Roger skewered Andy 6-0, 6-4, 6-2 in the semis Z-Woman absented herself from the Forum, and didn’t respond to my e-mails. Two days later, when Roger won his tenth Major, she didn’t even send a “You must be happy!” I was pissed, but, I knew, if Andy had beaten Roger in straights and picked up his third Australian Open trophy, I wouldn’t have been in a rush to contact her.


Closing Time

I had been looking for a way to end my book for years, and had hoped to do so with Roger winning Roland Garos in 2007. Should I blame Roger Federer for losing to Nadal at the French and not giving me his victory to hide behind as my closer? Would I spend the rest of my life explaining to others in engaging ways why I never finished my tennis memoir? My own wish to succeed—to finish my book—was all too clear and kicking up a red dirt tidal wave of anxiety...

I slogged through the days between Roland Garos and Wimbledon which began at 3 a.m. in Berkeley. I woke just in time, in the midst of a dream. In the dream, it was raining so hard the grass courts had turned to mud; and in a first round match, which I knew was really the final, Roger and Nadal went at it for five tough sets, the outcome still undecided. Another detail in the dream was my feeling of frustration as I tested the ground with my own feet. In general, dreams are about the dreamer’s hopes and fears expressed in pictorial symbols and, sometimes, words. That morning, mine followed me to the computer, where I found out the courts were covered. They had been uncovered once, but rain had returned; estimated next break in the weather—one hour.

The dream hung around, clung to me, asked questions. Would Nadal rain on Roger’s parade, or would Roger, on his favorite turf, defeat the King of Clay; and make it five Wimbledons in a row? In 2006, Nadal had reached the final and had taken a set off Roger. The media was all over it now. They were ready to claim Nadal as the true No. 1 if he won. Could Roger “rein” him in, keep his own “reign” alive, and tie Borg’s record five consecutive Wimbledon titles? How would the gloomy English weather impact the tournament? What did the “mud” signify? Humiliation and/or creativity? Was I dreaming about my book finding an ending in the rich soil, or was I going to find myself in deep shit?

My dream final—and everyone’s—was to be; Roger Federer vs Raphael Nadal. But the match was played under blue skies. Bob watched most of it with me and that helped. (A recent study has confirmed that a loving hand placed on the other during times of stress stabilizes blood pressure better than medication.) Roger had not dominated his matches quite the way he had the year before, but neither had he shown any of the spring’s fragility. Nadal had been intermittently vulnerable, had to go five sets twice. If Djokovic had not been injured, he might have gone another. I was hopeful and tense, expecting Nadal and Roger to be at their respective bests.

It was a great match; a few points this way or that and there would have been another outcome. Both men played at a high level, producing 225 minutes of entertainment any sports fan could have enjoyed, with edge-of-the-seat tension start to finish. Roger won the first set 7-6 (7); Nadal the second 4-6; Roger the third 7-6 (3); and Rafa the fourth 2-6. Even though Rafa took a medical time-out between the fourth and the fifth to have his troublesome knees worked on and wrapped, I would have bet the house he would win. In the fourth set, he had gone up 4-0, beating Roger off the ground, taking the net more often and more successfully, finding the corners on his serve with pace and depth. In the two sets he had won, he’d made only seven unforced errors, Roger had never been forced to a fifth set at Wimbledon. Roger, still on the cusp of his prime, faced a Nadal, who reached for the stars on a surface other than clay. I steeled myself with what I knew to be reality: each generation, falls prey to the best of the next. I prepared myself for heartbreak.

Fifth set: Roger served first and held. Nadal held. In Roger’s second service game, he went down 15-40 but saved both break points and held. Nadal held and, then, hitting winners off both wings, his clay court flourishes clipped a bit to add sting, seemed poised at 15-40 to get the decisive break. I groaned. Bob reached out a warm hand. Again, Roger saved both points and held. Roger pumped his fist. Then it came, in the sixth game, a second wind for Roger, the slightest let down in Rafa. Roger won the first point in a ground stroke rally and the second with a brilliant passing shot and the third with another forehand winner. At 0-40, Nadal saved one break point. The next began with two service lets. Roger hit a line with his return and Rafa another with his response. Then both men settled into a tactical maneuvering of the other for the tiniest advantage. Finally, Roger hit a short angled forehand, which was well returned, but two shots later with Rafa pulled out wide on his forehand, Roger hit a vicious forehand drive, inside-out, down-the-line—unreachable. Roger screamed, “Yes,” with a full pelvic thrust and roar. I’d like Maurice G. Marcus M.D., to know I fully appreciated Roger’s all out aggression on display. It wasn’t even beautiful. It was 4-2.

That last point pushed me to find an analogy; two wizards playing master chess, seeing the board’s squares as atoms in motion, and check-mate came at a point just beyond imagination. It had to have been that good for one of them to nose ahead. Even then, I could not relax. One more change of momentum and a different result seemed possible. Roger held serve, at love, for 5-2. In the next game, Rafa serving, still fighting, on the third deuce, a forehand error put Roger at championship point. A good rally developed. Rafa retrieved what looked to be a winner and lifted the ball back; but Roger, waiting, took one step forward and put away the overhead. He fell to the ground in tears. In his eyes, I saw relief.

The final score was: 7-6 (9/7), 4-6, 7-6(7/3), 2-6, 6-2.

Roger and Rafa met at the net, “You deserved the win today as much as I did,” Roger said. Rafa sat down, a towel over his head, feeling the disappointment. The match was of great significance to Roger. It set a spate of frustrations right. It was a piece of history accomplished, matching Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles, and giving Roger his eleventh Major, bringing him closer to Pete Sampras’s record fourteen. Borg was present, and it was hard to read his expression, but he seemed to enjoy the match. His game more resembled Rafa’s, but he’d said that he’d be proud for a man like Roger to tie him. Roger spoke of the win, later, as a feeling of passing over into legend.

What struck me most was how different the two players had looked in their best moments. Roger often elevated off the ground, with the grace of a Baryshnikov, from his slender feet to his endearing curls, to knife a high backhand volley. Nadal excelled and astounded on the horizontal. There were pictures of him where, fully extended, he seemed to be a noble, four-footed animal drawing strength from the earth.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from another rabid fan of Roger’s: “How about that Final! At this point, I don't care anymore who wins. I like Rafa as much as Roger. That shot he hit from the seat of his pants was absolutely ridiculous,” he said, describing Rafa’s winner off a shot from Roger that had hit the baseline with such velocity that it had knocked him off his feet as he returned it.

I admired Rafa, too. His warrior mentality and “lefty sneer” on court were replaced by a gorgeous smile, full of light and warmth, after the last point. It was transformation from Superman to humble, spirit person. His matches were always thrilling. But never would I root for him when he played Roger. I told my friend, “You are a tennis slut!”


Roger received the trophy with his long, white pants on backwards, suggesting he was more than a wee bit excited when he pulled them up. In his speech, he fully acknowledged Rafa’s excellence and his own good fortune to win that day. “I am glad to get one more before he wins them all.” That may be an overstatement, but it needed to be said. Rafa had made a deep impression on Roger and everyone who watched. Roger had once said, maybe not quite as arrogantly as Z-Woman and others interpreted it, that Rafa was a one-dimensional player; but in his speech and, later, in an interview, he called Rafa what he was; “A great champion.” Pants-on-backwards spoke of the vulnerability Roger felt in 2007, looking over his shoulder at the ascent of Nadal and others rising on their career paths, as he pursued his own dreams. The pants were a humanizing sight of the man, neither god nor goat. I hoped he laughed when he realized his error. The reversed pants symbolized the close call, winning at the last moment, a fifth set, by the back door. The “mistake” gave closure and extra cover to his private parts and represented how deep and precious the win was to him. Roger’s win gifted me with a way to end my book.

Would I abandon my fandom now? I thought not. No, I knew not. I couldn’t/wouldn’t give up my fandom. It was part of me, part of our family.

After the match, Bob and I rejoiced. We cried and cheered and made love to celebrate. I waived my chocolate limit for twenty-four hours. I wore my underpants backwards for the rest of the day, just to know the feeling. I am a great tennis fan.


Roots and Fruits

I expect my tennis fandom will last a lifetime, but when Roger Federer exits, I will retire the category of favorite player of all time. I’ll always have a good root-and-boo for someone, but I don’t need another one-and-only. My need for an ideal form in the shape of a person has been on the wane since I recognized my idol had inherited—and hidden—the excitement I had once felt for my father. I had forgotten it, or seen no connection between it and my fandom, except in my vaguely wanting someone with power to share it with me. One day, while admiring a collection of photos of Roger’s hands and fingers—each digit perfectly formed, long and lean, the end notes to his strokes, like feathers on a bird’s wings—I had found myself thinking of my Dad. His hands were small and square like mine, his fingers were gnarled, and yet, as in a dream where opposites can mean the same thing, when I looked at Roger’s hands, I relived the exhilaration of watching my father listen to music. When he did, his fingers previewed it in the air and his arms waved as if he “conducted” at Symphony Hall. (My mother, an even earlier idolization of mine, had handwriting which was uniquely graceful, and I remember experiencing the same frisson when I studied her hands.) My mother’s fingers holding a pen, my father’s flying fingers and invisible baton and Roger’s hand wrapped around his magic racket: “Same thing!”

I had complained to Z-Woman about my difficulties writing the “Epilogue” to my book.

“I get so nervous when I type the word. I always spell it wrong. Some of them are classic, mix-matching parts of epitaph, eulogy, and apology: “pilogue”; “apitaph.” “Ewwwwpilogue,” I said, mocking myself. “Pilogue” makes me think of prologue (rather than ending I want to begin). The other side of “Yipologue” is Yippee, the happy feeling (wish) of a victorious finish. Finishing is always a colossal difficulty for me. I totally understand the pressure players feel closing out a set, or match, in that altered state of consciousness, conflicts surrounding aggression/assertion on stage, front and center. So I “yipilogize rather than jump for joy.”

She responded, “One time I did a ropes course and went up a really tall tree to stand upon a small, unprotected circle at the top. I ascended fine, but somehow, just before the end, I lost concentration and didn’t quite know where I was. But I refocused and reached the top and standing there was terrific. Anyway, the lesson is that pressing on is important.”

I‘d like to thank “Z-Woman” (Christina) for her friendship, wisdom and fun—though she never rooted for Roger Federer.

]]>
culturewatch Adele Levin 2014-07-20T00:12:22-05:00
The Atrocity http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/bombs_are_raini.html Bombs are raining on Gaza and rockets on Southern Israel, people are dying and homes are being destroyed.

Again.

Again without any purpose. Again with the certainty that after it’s all over, everything will essentially be the same as it was before.

But I can hardly hear the sirens which warn of rockets coming towards Tel Aviv. I cannot take my mind off the awful thing that happened in Jerusalem.

If a gang of neo-Nazis had kidnapped a 16-year old boy in a London Jewish neighborhood in the dark of the night, driven him to Hyde Park, beaten him up, poured gasoline into his mouth, doused him all over and set him on fire—what would have happened?

Wouldn't the UK have exploded in a storm of anger and disgust.

Wouldn't the Queen have expressed her outrage?

Wouldn't the Prime Minister have rushed to the home of the bereaved family to apologize on behalf of the entire nation?

Wouldn't the leadership of the neo-Nazis, their active supporters and brain-washers be indicted and condemned?

Perhaps in the UK. Perhaps in Germany.

Not here.

This abominable atrocity took place in Jerusalem. A Palestinian boy was abducted and burned alive. No racist crime in Israel ever came close to it.

Burning people alive is an abomination everywhere. In a state that claims to be “Jewish”, it is even worse.

In Jewish history, only one chapter comes close to the Holocaust: the Spanish inquisition. This Catholic institution tortured Jews and burned them alive at the stake. Later, this happened sometimes in the Russian pogroms. Even the most fanatical enemy of Israel could not imagine such an awful thing happening in Israel. Until now.

Under Israeli law, East Jerusalem is not occupied territory. It is a part of sovereign Israel.

The chain of events was as follows:

Two Palestinians, apparently acting alone, kidnapped three Israeli teenagers who were trying to hitchhike at night from a settlement near Hebron. The objective was probably to use them as hostages for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The action went awry when one of the three succeeded in calling the Israeli police emergency number from his mobile phone. The kidnappers, assuming that the police would soon be on their tracks, panicked and shot the three at once. They dumped the bodies in a field and fled. (Actually the police bungled things and only started their hunt the next morning.)

All of Israel was in an uproar. Many thousands of soldiers were employed for three weeks in the search for the three youngsters, combing thousands of buildings, caves and fields.

The public uproar was surely justified. But it soon degenerated into an orgy of racist incitement, which intensified from day to day. Newspapers, radio stations and TV networks competed with each other in unabashed racist diatribes, repeating the official line ad nauseam and adding their own nauseous commentary—every day, around the clock.

The security services of the Palestinian Authority, which collaborated throughout with the Israeli security services, played a major role in discovering early on the identity of the two kidnappers (identified but not yet caught). Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, stood up in a meeting of the Arab countries and condemned the kidnapping unequivocally and was branded by many of his own people as an Arab Quisling. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, called him a hypocrite.

Israel’s leading politicians let loose a salvo of utterances which would be seen anywhere else as outright fascist. A short selection:

Danny Danon, deputy Minister of Defense: “If a Russian boy had been kidnapped, Putin would have flattened village after village!”

“Jewish Home” faction leader Ayala Shaked: “With a people whose heroes are child murderers we must deal accordingly.” (“Jewish Home” is a part of the government coalition.)

Noam Perl, world chairman of Bnei Akiva, the youth movement of the settlers: “An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand: Revenge!”

Uri Bank, former secretary of Uri Ariel, Housing Minister and builder of the settlements: “This is the right moment. When our children are hurt, we go berserk, no limits, dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, annexation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), execution of all prisoners who have been condemned for murder, exile of family members of terrorists!”

And Binyamin Netanyahu himself, speaking about the entire Palestinian people: “They are not like us. We sanctify life, they sanctify death!”

When the bodies of the three were found by tourist guides, the chorus of hatred reached a new crescendo. Soldiers posted tens of thousands of messages on the internet calling for “revenge”, politicians egged them on, the media added fuel, lynch mobs gathered in many places in Jerusalem to hunt Arab workers and rough them up.

Except for a few lonely voices, it seemed that all Israel had turned into a soccer mob, shouting “Death to the Arabs!”

Can anyone even imagine a present-day European or American crowd shouting “Death to the Jews?”

The Six arrested until now for the bestial murder of the Arab boy had come straight from one of these “Death to the Arabs” demonstrations.

First they had tried to kidnap a 9-year old boy in the same Arab neighborhood, Shuafat. One of them caught the boy in the street and dragged him towards their car, choking him at the same time. Luckily, the child succeeded in shouting “Mama!” and his mother started hitting the kidnapper with her cell phone. He panicked and ran off. The choking marks on the boy’s neck could be seen for several days.

The next day the group returned, caught Muhammad Abu-Khdeir, a cheerful 16-year old boy with an engaging smile, poured gasoline in his mouth and burned him to death.

(As if this was not enough, Border Policemen caught his cousin during a protest demonstration, handcuffed him, threw him on the ground and started kicking his head and face. His wounds look terrible. The disfigured boy was arrested, the policemen were not.)

The Atrocious way Muhammad was murdered was not mentioned at first. The fact was disclosed by an Arab pathologist who was present at the official autopsy. Most Israeli newspapers mentioned the fact in a few words on an inner page. Most TV newscasts did not mention the fact at all.

In Israel proper, Arab citizens rose up as they have not done in many years. Violent demonstrations throughout the country lasted for several days. At the same time, the Gaza Strip frontline exploded in a new orgy of rockets and aerial bombings in a new mini-war which already has a name: “Solid Cliff”. (The army's propaganda section has invented another name in English.) The new Egyptian dictatorship is collaborating with the Israeli army in choking the Strip.

The names of the six suspects of the murder-by-fire—several of whom have already confessed to the appalling deed—are still being withheld. But unofficial reports say that they belong to the Orthodox community. Apparently this community, traditionally anti-Zionist and moderate, has now spawned neo-Nazi offspring, which surpass even their religious-Zionist competitors.

Yet terrible as the deed itself is, to my mind the public reaction is even worse. Because there isn’t any.

True, a few sporadic voices have been heard. Many more ordinary people have voiced their disgust in private conversations. But the deafening moral outrage one could have expected did not materialize.

Everything was done to minimize the “incident”, prevent its publication abroad and even inside Israel. Life went on as usual. A few government leaders and other politicians condemned the deed in routine phrases, for consumption abroad. The soccer world cup contest elicited far more interest. Even on the Left, the atrocity was treated as just another item among the many misdeeds of the occupation.

Where is the outcry, the moral uprising of the nation, the unanimous decision to stamp out the racism that makes such atrocities possible?

The new flare-up in and around the Gaza Strip has obliterated the atrocity altogether.

Sirens sound in Jerusalem and in towns north of Tel-Aviv. The missiles aimed at Israeli population centers have successfully (up to now) been intercepted by counter-missiles. But hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are running to the shelters. On the other side, hundreds of daily sorties of the Israeli Air Force turn life in the Gaza Strip into hell.

When the cannon roar, the muses fall silent.

Also the pity for a boy burnt to death.


First thanks Uri Avnery for giving us dispensation to reprint his weekly news articles.

]]>
world Uri Avnery 2014-07-20T00:00:49-05:00
Double Happiness: Al Green & Zinedine Zidane http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/double_happines.html I

“Yo’r my pride and joy...Everything for a growing boy.” Al Green chuckles at his own double entendre (cum Marvin Gaye reference). “That’s extra,” he teases, adding a phallic riff to the polymorphous plenitudes of his 1973 live concert on Soul. The flow of the sexiest singer ever is beyond quid pro quos. Green embodies erotic variousness. He muses, sighs, cries, laughs, murmurs, shouts, baritones, moans low, skies for notes in his upper register. Miss this high drama and you’re missing a Mississippi—not a mere stream of consciousness. Thanks to Joe C. (who posted the 56 minute clip at Peter Guralnick’s website: peterguralnick.com) for allowing me to dip into this river again.

I first saw Al Green on Soul when I was 16 or 17 just after locking on his perfect album Call Me. (Its weakest track, “Here I Am Come and Take Me,” would have been a career peak for all but the greatest R&B singers.) For this growing boy, who’d never kissed a girl, Green bodied forth an ideal of manliness. A little on down the line, when I might have been in a rush from the graveyard where I sipped my first lips to the bed where I was born again, Al Green led me on by never seeming like a lover in a hurry. Marvin Gaye may have quoted T.S. Eliot on the liner notes of Let’s Get It On but it was Al Green who taught me it was all in the waiting (with the softest touch).

40 years on, Green’s precocity is still striking. This not-so-country boy is at ease with Soul’s urbane, gay host. (“How old are you?” asks Ellis Haizlip in a tone that suggests he’s seen R&B future. “Twenty-five,” Green responds—with no "I" and disarming Southern charm.)

Green knows how to be still on a stage even though he’s as wired as any pure product of America. Aware he’s on Soul—PBS's affirmative action program—this "boy-genius" of melisma may be consciously representing sensitive outliers on the black-hand side. Alive to sound effects of every syllable, his ear is a wonder. And not just when he’s singing. Yet this son of an Arkansas sharecropper’s precision isn’t off-putting. He’s never precious—always alluring. I flashed on Green’s hot melds with back-up singers on Soul’s version “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” when I read a technical account of how one makes glottal body music: “Production of falsetto...vibrates only the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds while leaving each fold's body relatively relaxed,” (BTW, Wikipedia has a cartoon demo-clip of those vibrating “folds” that leaves little to the imagination. Just google falsetto!)

While Green is definitely ready for his close-up, he doesn’t come on as a solo act. Each member of his band gets a credit at the top of the show. And that’s a sign of what’s to come. Green digs into their rhythmic pocket to find his own gifts. The band is up for (or down with) the drama of his vocal dynamics. Even when he sings soft, they’re there, keeping him in shape.

Green looks as good as his ethereal funk sounds: fine and fit. “Like he’s got titties on his arms” to quote a fan of bicepsy males. Green’s lovesome presence on Soul reminds me of a woman’s comment on another '70s sex symbol, Kris Kristofferson: “He looks like he’d last all night forever.” Though even more on point, perhaps, is an episode in the back story of Kristofferson’s co-star in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (as detailed by Chill Wills): “Took 3 women to get it up. [Look what you done for me!] And 5 to get it back down.”

Green’s performance is for the Ages. Though it’s of its time too. His sit-down, guitar-in-hand takes on two tunes hint at the pull of '70s singer-songwriters. But his acoustic soul, which also anticipates the sound of his late 70s Belle album, is groovier than confessional product of Me Gen’s neo-folkies. When drum kit and congas kick in, “It’s a hip thing, I’m telling you” as he sings in “Judy.” (His use of the h-word redeemed in advance by his square biz—in that short interview with Soul’s host—about being a kid who was never “in the in crowd of things.”) I’ll confess I once projected Green’s groove as echt black, naturalizing its artfulness and whiting out aural magic worked by his mentor/producer Willie Mitchell. (See Charles O’Brien’s expert appreciation of the Mitchell/Green collaboration here.) The band on Soul is not the one that made records with Green in Memphis, but they’re mad tight too. And when they go to church with Green on “Love and Happiness,” you don’t know who’s lifting who into the Upper Room.

They take everyone in the house there with them by the end of the show. Though there may once have been non-believers. Earlier on when Green slows it down for “Judy,” cameras focus on profiles of Sisters in the room—one gum chewer seems to be mouthing her desire for more bubblegummy pop. The bulk of the women, though, look to be feeling Green (without envy) even as he pledges himself to Judy. I’m reminded just now of Jelly Roll Morton’s sister’s quip that quashed rumor-mongers targeting her handsome husband: “Mighty po’ rat don’t have more than one hole.” I came across her come-back in Alan Lomax’s biography of Morton—a book that serves as a reminder Green, like all R&B Love Men, was in the tradition of the original “win’ing boy.” But unlike Jelly and so many other midnight movers, Green avoided boasts about his sexual prowess. When it comes to precursors for Green’s lover’s discourse, Bobby Bland’s courtly example might be relevant. Bland’s singing was rangey too. Per Charles Keil: “Smooth as a baby's bottom/rough as Mr. E. Muhammad's whisper, ‘The white man is the devil!’" Green himself cites Sam Cooke in his interview with Soul’s host. Then he goes on to mimic Claude Jeter’s falsetto before bowing to the great Swan Silvertone: “He was fantastic.”

Green’s gospel roots ran deep. But he once explained how hearing Elvis and Jackie Wilson—“those hip-shaking boys”—made him travel. And then Willie Mitchell came to guide him on less obvious cross-over trips. Their common sense of form, freedom and precedent is apparent on Soul when Green treats opening bars of The Carpenters’ white-bread “We’ve Only Just Begun” as an intro to his closer, “Let’s Stay Together,” which was already on its way to becoming an anthem of the black pop nation. (I’m guessing it was Mitchell who steered Green to the Carpenters. After all he had the late Solomon Burke cover an Anne Murray track on Burke’s last CD.)

Green has heirs today. Frank Ocean’s mindful “Pink Matter” amounts to an update of Green’s “Simply Beautiful” (“possibly the loveliest song in American popular music,” per O’Brien). The-Dream is an artful “urban” Love Man, though his last CD IV Play traduces his own “sex-intelligence”: “Fuck the foreplay: I’m talking straight sex...” A dick-brained line that hints at the wack influence of porn on mannish boys coming of age in the oughts. Their generation’s pop genius, Kanye West, has given up the ghost of romanticism. “I’m in love with a porn star,” he confesses. And he’s being real. First time ever he saw his wife naked may have been in her sex tape. Tracks like West’s “Turn on the Lights” (written by The-Dream) or the pop Proustian auto-critique “Blame Game” tell how much he’s in the dark when it comes to what women want. “Yeezy [i.e. Kanye] taught me” says the fem-bot sex machine in West’s “Game.” And when comic Chris Rock spells out what she learned—“You never used to talk dirty, but now you, you god damn disgusting” etc.—you know West has nada secret knowledge to impart. Given how much there was to be learned from Al Green about playing well with lovers, it’s sad to think how little growing boys might intuit on that score from West’s XXX-y raps. Back after the release of West’s Graduation CD, he did an interview with a lady DJ aired on a NYC radio station. While they were talking, she noted a bunch of porn tapes had spilled from West’s bag on to the table in the studio. She didn’t sound prudish but her tone implied West might be a little more careful about putting his sheets in the street. West’s unabashed response made him sound as anti-social as Travis Bickle. His Q&A with that DJ was a millennium away from more innocent revelations in Al Green’s Soul interview: “I’m a lone-a in a way...Like at lunchtime when I was little kid in school. You know how kids get together and exchange sandwiches. You know...I’ll take a piece of your peanut butter sandwich. You know, we trade. I never did do this.”


II

My other favorite YouTube vid in this season of World Cup soccer is a 10 minute highlight reel of Zinedine Zidane’s most elegant moves: Zinedine Zidane: Maestro of the Decade. This vid isn’t a down low phenomenon. It’s been viewed over 15,000,000 times. Still, millions of soccer fans haven't seen it. And it’s worth checking even if the beautiful game is lost on you. Zidane’s mastery is irresistible. Though it’s about anticipation and superior touch, not physical force. Zidane is the antithesis of (Brasil’s) Hulk. And, while I’m making sporty comparisons, his style is pretty far gone from LeBron James’ too.

But let’s take it back to the top. I doubt it’s only synchronicity that makes me feel Zidane’s instinct for felicity has something in common with young Al Green’s. Both performers mount mortal threats to cultural hegemony of super-heroes. They don't give off Olympian vibes. Green’s voice breaks for a moment on Soul: “I’m suffering from a cold caught in Chicago.” Zidane famously insisted: “I’m not the best player in the world.” Far from wannabe immortals, they come on like vulnerable Prometheans. And the records of their attempts to get lit in front of humankind are marked by a here and gone sense of possibility: “Magic is very close to nothing at all.” [1]

That maxim of Zindane’s is one of the grace notes in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait—the 2006 documentary that used a battery of cameras in an effort to render his interiority on the pitch during one match. The cameras don’t manage to snatch Zidane’s soul (or fire), but when the documentary leans on his own narration, it dances close to intensities of genius. Turns out Zidane has an ear like Green’s:

When you’re immersed in the game, you can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. You are never alone. I can hear someone shift in the seat. I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them. I imagine I can hear the ticking of a watch...

That last line is meant to be charged since Zidane got a rep for being a bit of a time-bomb due to his notorious head-butt during the 2006 World Cup. Portrait pumps up Zidane’s aggro—and may get on your last nerve—as it builds to a brawl that results in Zidane’s red-carded exit. On the real side, though, Zidane was a player not a fighter. While he came up hard in rough neighborhoods, he wasn’t gangsta. The fight near the end of Portrait isn't much more than a pushing match. And, at risk of seeming overly exculpatory, I'd even claim Zidane’s World Cup head-butt was less than appalling. His blow-up then seems to have been over-determined. Back in 2006—after banlieues exploded and Zidane’s African immigrant homies acted out their estrangement from their adopted country—part of him must have been conflicted about the prospect of leading the French team to a World Cup. How could he have looked forward at that moment to becoming a folk hero in La France Profonde? What’s certain is Zidane’s choice to attack his teasing Italian tormentor amounted to a refusal of patriotic imperatives. Again I’m not excusing his assault—he should’ve kept his cool—but it matters he went for the chest of the mouthy defender, rather than driving his head up into the man’s jaw. Uruguayan striker Suarez’s sadistic bite during this year’s World Cup tournament seems much less defensible.

There was another dummy move this soccer season that was even more troubling than Suarez’s vampirism. A couple weeks before the World Cup, Ronaldo (widely regarded, along with Lionel Messi, as one of the sport’s two best players, ) capped off his team’s 4-1 victory in the European club championships by scoring the last goal on a penalty kick as the game wound down. He rushed away from his teammates, tore off his shirt to display ripped physique, flexed for a hidden camera, and emitted a cry of triumph. Which should’ve moved anyone watching the game to ask: huh? (Why was he going wild over a goal that meant little more than a foul shot in garbage time?) Yet no tv commentator dared to say Ronaldo's punk strut was way over the top.

Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid—Zidane’s old team. Clips from the short tribute to (and from) Zidane following his final match for that club a few years back bring home the phoniness of Ronaldo’s self-promotion. (Maestro of the Decade ends with such a clip but you can find fuller versions of Zidane’s farewell on YouTube as well.) Zidane’s good-bye evokes authentic emotions. He's surrounded by his family who display a range of reactions from tears to Hardyesque stolidity. When he waves to the stadium crowd, there’s something touching about the thinness of his pale arms, which look like a child’s. (Unlike Ronaldo’s “guns” or the limbs on your typical 21st Century superstar athlete.)

Zidane underscored the link between child’s play and the pro game when he mused on what he’d miss when his career was over: “When I retire I’ll miss the green of the field...The Green Square. [Le Carré Vert.]” That field in his mind’s eye is open to all children who equate landscapes with larking about.

Forgive me for thinking inside Le Carré Vert—can I blame Al Green?!—but I’m struck by the coincidence those boxes in which Zidane practiced his art are the same shape as beds where adults get lucky long after childhood.

Zidane’s greeny memory reminds me of Bob Cousy’s color commentary on Celtics games, which was bracing since Cousy’s easeful voice never let you forget you were watching men at play. His light tone implicitly rebuked cretins who talk like sports are moral equivalents of war. (Brasil could use a few Cousys as well as a Zidane right about now.)

Zidane’s sense of what abides in sporting life beats any winners’ calculus locked on stats or trophies. He comprehended what LeBron James may have begun to grasp lately: you can’t put a ring on it.


Notes

1 Perlo knows as did Willie Mitchell: "Mickey Gregory, Isaac Hayes’ lead trumpeter, once said that when Mitchell played, you didn’t hear him, but you felt him." (Pace O'Brien.)

]]>
culturewatch Benj DeMott 2014-07-18T21:27:18-05:00
Arab Soccer in the Diaspora http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2014/07/arab_soccer_in.html 1.

In a qualifying match against Brazil for the 1990 World Cup, Chile was on the verge of elimination when the goalkeeper Roberto Rojas cut himself with a razor and writhed on the ground next to a firework that had been thrown from the stands. What happened after that resembled a Zionist or neocon dreamscape: angry protestations, a bloodied body ceremoniously hauled away in a mock martyr’s cortege, and a subsequent humiliation of the supposed victim. Video evidence showed that the wound was self-inflicted and FIFA banned Chile from competition in the next World Cup (Rojas received a lifetime ban, which was lifted in 2001 after years of penance and ostracism: of course, the fact that he had been following orders from management was largely overlooked).

Eduardo Galeano, in his left-wing elegy to soccer, interprets the incident moralistically. Cheating, according to Galeano, inevitably proceeds from the capitalist usurpation of soccer, but only unsuccessful cheating is punished. Successful cheating, like Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup, is a sign of entrepreneurial spunk if not Calvinistic grace. "In professional soccer,” he writes, “like everything else, the crime does not matter as long as the alibi is good...What sad harvests could come of a power that bestows impunity on the crimes of the military and the graft of politicians and converts them into triumphs?" He then quotes Albert Camus, the writer and Algerian goalkeeper, who said that everything he knew about morals he owed to soccer.

I suspect that Camus, with his petty-bourgeois sportsman’s ethics, would have disapproved of FIFA’s blacklisting of the Algerian national team in 1958. He was, after all, a forerunner of the liberal myth that dominates sports today: the myth that virile individualism and virile camaraderie are effective countermeasures to the brutalizing world of politics and that a conscientious community can transcend both the reactionary status quo and centrifugal demands for justice. FIFA, the most reactionary organization in international sports, is only half-heartedly on board with this program. Rooted in a specifically European pathological fantasy of metropolitan hegemony and forced to resort to neocolonialist tactics by virtue of its global reach, it has a hard time resisting the urge to demand authoritarian measures from the Brazilian government against its meddlesome Third World population or to do business with the shadiest Qatari oligarchs. Which is why it resorts so desperately to the caricatural agitprop of anti-racism. Needless to say, the disciplinary injunction towards tolerance is almost always used to suppress the victims of intolerance.

Another interpretation of Rojas’ stunt is that it was an avant la lettre parable of a panoptic human rights culture: A man thinks he can save his team from losing by bleeding and wailing on television only to be told that television contradicts his suffering and to be condemned for trying to cheat the surveilling gods, the gods who dispense alms to the right victims and humanitarian interventions to their tormenters. Rojas was like Arafat keeping his stockpiles of weapons on the roofs of hospitals and schools (and the Brazilian fireworks were like Israeli cluster bombs). He cheated, and he cheated badly, and there’s nothing more embarrassing to the world than a bungling cheater, like Reagan’s welfare queens or those psychiatric patients who turn out to be faking their conditions because they don’t want to work or because they prefer the company of other psychiatric patients.

Galeano should have gone one step further (of course he couldn’t have, trapped in his leftist soccer-romanticism and soccer-machismo). He should have realized that it’s not enough to lament the capitalist corruption of macho morality. He should have realized that the very appeal to that morality plays into the hands of capitalism’s ideologues, who would prefer that the debate remain a frozen one between realist partisans of the profit motive and reactionary dithyrmabists of the prelapsarian proletarian body. In the figure of Donald Sterling, that debate collapses into an obscene imago. You can sleep with the black players, Sterling told his girlfriend, whom he assumed must share his fetish for “those beautiful black bodies,” but you can’t bring them into the foyer of oligarchic capitalism. In the universe of sports, or in the universe according to Donald Sterling, there’s profit and there’s libido. Like one of Zizek’s parallaxes, they’re two irreconcilable views of the same reality.


2.

ESPN recently featured the 1973 Chilean national team in its “30 for 30” documentary “The Opposition.” Like all deployments of well-meaning ESPN liberalism, politics, if it can be called that, appears as pastiche or a ménage of nefarious actors. Lip-service is paid to Allende’s socialist project (I think the word “socialism” is uttered a couple times). Pinochet comes on the scene and starts doing unfathomable and nasty things in a soccer stadium. The players who are interviewed, Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Veliz, were well-disposed to the Unidad Popular (it’s implied, but only implied, that the other players might have had different political orientations). In only twenty-three minutes, five minutes are set aside to introduce the American audience, whose eternal historical ignorance is not only assumed but flattered, to the relevant background (I think the word “CIA” is uttered once). There is disembodied pain, decontextualized torture, death and disappearance figures, anger and sorrow (I want to be fair: the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos in Santiago is an equally depoliticized, and far more expensive and socially relevant, example of the same exercise in oblivion, euphemism, and postmodern obscurantism). In the end, the moral is the abiding moral of every “30 for 30” production: sports represent the highest point of the innate human striving for justice, but because sports are synonymous with the human condition, they are inevitably infected with the gnostic virus of reactionary politics. But in the end, according to the political theology of ESPN, which is an improvement I suppose over the political theology of the Right when it comes to sports, sports always triumphs over adversity. If not now, then later, one day, as befits the Obama-inspired mysticism of late capitalism.

Probably the most committed example of this sports eschatology can be found in Bob Bradley, the former coach of the U.S. and Egyptian national soccer teams. Bradley is often lauded for his “adventurous” choice of going to Egypt, but he’s also lauded, more plausibly, for his role there during and after the Egyptian revolution. There was a shadow of imperialism, if not in Bradley himself, then in his acolytes, but it was an imperialism based in something approaching a genuine universalism (soccer and American hegemony rarely go together, as much as Clinton tried to yoke them). Bradley appeared on “The Daily Show” right before Egypt was eliminated during the final qualifying matches of the 2014 World Cup (he was released afterwards) and gave a convincing account of his minimialist political project. His duty, he said, was to the players, but that duty inevitably involved a political role. John Oliver, taking over for John Stewart, cheerleaded for the union of soccer and liberal opposition. Of course, very few specifics were discussed, but at least a space was carved out in opposition to the Machiavellian politics of the Obama administration and the Caesarist politics of the military dictatorship (naturally, Sisi was the enemy that could not be named, and Mursi was called out).

Egypt performed poorly against Ghana and now Bradley coaches in Norway.


3.

On May 31, Chile hosted Egypt in a game played at the Estadio Nacional. Egypt scored two early goals but Chile came back to win 3-2.

The Estadio Nacional, in addition to being the most notorious of Pinochet’s concentration camps, was also the site of one of the most tragi-farcical events in soccer history (occasionally, Marx’s gnomic prophecy plays itself out simultaneously in Joyce’s Nebeneinander). After the Soviet Union petitioned FIFA to allow their World Cup qualifying match against Chile to be played at a neutral location (understandably, Soviet sensibilities or Soviet Realpolitik were offended by having to play a game in a stadium where thousands of communists were being tortured and murdered), FIFA sent a delegation to Pinochet’s abattoir to investigate. The investigation, in its patent complicity, made the Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt seem like a model of humanitarian responsibility (the regime didn’t even bother with Nazi Potemkinism: it simply ushered its prisoners into makeshift cells and pointed guns at their heads). The FIFA delegates found nothing out of the ordinary and the Soviet Union abstained from the game, forfeiting its bid for the 1974 World Cup. Nevertheless, since it is more impossible to imagine the end of soccer than the end of the world, the game had to be played. In front of a cheering crowd, Chile scored several goals against a spectral opponent. The opposing team may or may not have been the ghosts of the Ukrainian bakers’ team who wore red in 1942 and chose not to throw a game against the Wehrmacht team, although this meant losing their lives in Gestapo prisons (of course there are people in Maidan today who claim this never happened, who claim that the referees were not SS men, that the red uniforms were handed to the players by chance, that the Wehrmacht players conducted themselves with the greatest honor and sportsmanship, that the Germans brought nothing to Ukraine but bread and circuses, or bread and soccer). Alternately, the opposing team could have been made up of time-traveling players from the current Egyptian Premier League, who since the Port Said Stadium riot have had to play their games in empty stadiums. Caesarist spectacles, like scenes in Buñuel’s films, are always incomplete and excessive at the same time. The screams of torture victims fail to interrupt a bourgeois silence or a bourgeois pandemonium. The players never show up or disappear afterwards. The Army orchestrates a massacre, infiltrating the fans of one team and attacking the fans of another team, and then issues a mass death sentence against the fans of the first team. A player is feted by a regime which has kidnapped and raped his mother. A dictator, either out of hubris or unrequited love or simple misunderstanding, calls himself President of a soccer team whose fans loathe him.

Today, of course, there’s no one to stand up to General Sisi on the terrain of soccer. In a predictable paradox (so it’s not actually a paradox), the more the world gets polluted with human rights rhetoric, the more it kowtows to actual authoritarianism. The counterweight of Russia, whether it’s useful or not to leftist politics, leads automatically to a Putinesque cult of sovereignty, a masculine cult in which sports are the summit of repressive self-determination (thus the farce of the last Olympics, in which the U.S. government mobilized the dystopic neoliberal community of corporatized gay sports against the unapologetically fascistic spectacle that Putin dreamed up for himself in Sochi).


4.

If FIFA is the arch-reactionary overlord of international soccer, and ESPN/Bradley are the mediating liberal opposition, then soccer’s savage id, either proto-fascist or more likely under current conditions ultraleftist, is represented by semi-organized cadres of soccer fans. In March, I attended a massive protest in Santiago which drew tens of thousands to the city center. The protest was symptomatic of the political paralysis of the Chilean Left. On the one hand, its numbers, its demands, and its organization were revolutionary. On the other hand, it consented beforehand to a cordoned-off spectacle (commitment to non-violence, semi-approbation by the new Bachelet government, which was ushered in on a wave of leftist sentiment). On the margins of this dubious bargain were the so-called encapuchados, or as some media outlets like to translate it, “the hooded ones,” most of whom were made up of Colo Colo fans. They played a game of positional warfare with the carabineros. If a Beckettian tramp had bothered to do the math, he might have estimated that ten barricades resulted in one armored vehicle sweep, fifty paving stone-projectiles resulted in one water cannon, and two or three Molotov cocktails, depending on the mood, resulted in a draconian release of teargas that choked every old woman within a one hundred yard radius, but not the encapuchados, who of course were wearing hoods (Chile’s former president, the right-wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera, sent a bill to Congress last year that would have cracked down on the use of hoods at protests: the ostensible purpose of the bill was “identity and preventative control,” which is ominous enough, but a corollary purpose was to allow for the maximum effectiveness of tear gas).

The Colo Colo fans, and their girlfriends, were only acting on the rhetoric of the majority. They refused to believe that Pinochet, their former honorary president, was dead. Their demands were the immediate and unconditional surrender of the Chilean state. They were denounced by the official organs of the protesters as violent interlopers. Which they were.

In Tahrir in 2011, the Al-Ahly ultras taught the bourgeoning opposition how to fight the police. But like Hobsbawm’s bandits, or like comic-book characters, they gave their knowledge out of generosity and without any specific end in mind.

It’s probably in the nature of soccer to either act as the violent and proto-political vanguard of the Left, or as the official organ of the Left, or as a romantic trope of the Left, but never more than one at once.


5.

But like most politics, soccer has become dominated more by semiotic warfare than by street warfare. Egyptian soccer star Abdel-Zaher was sent to a Libyan Siberia after he waved the four-fingered “Rabaa” solidarity sign in commemoration of the massacre at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in August 2013. “Damn football!” one Egyptian woman wrote on Twitter. “How dare this player show solidarity with these terrorists” (she may have been the same woman I saw after crossing the October 6th Bridge with the Way of the Revolution Front, the woman selling General Sisi postcards, stickers, and temporary tattoos, who accosted a protester and slapped him in the face). In Europe, the comedian Dieudonné, the orphaned or denied child of Michel Houellebecq, who toggles schizophrenically between Voice of the Oppressed and Stooge of the Far Right, has invented a popular gesture known as the “quenelle” (a kind of inverted Nazi salute, an incendiary reappropriation of European genocide, which he describes as an ass-fuck to Zionism, as if to make the classic Freudian argument that sodomy is misplaced aggression in the same way that Zionism is misplaced settler colonialism). François Hollande, France’s smarmy Socialist president who made a campaign video in the banlieues set to Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” (and whose neoimperialist dick-measuring in Africa is egging on Obama’s African adventurism), has vowed to crack down on soccer players who adopt “the so-called comic” Dieudonné’s salute. The English Premier League has followed suit. Certain Zionists who double as Pickup Artists have made the chimerical argument that Hollande needs to stifle Dieudonné because Dieudonné prematurely reveals the Left’s neo-Nazi plans for Europe (only once the Left has achieved its majority can it unleash its Third World brownshirts). Meanwhile, the neofascists in Europe have been thrown for a loop. Marine Le Pen, who may also have been one of Houllebecq’s ironic-apocalyptic wetdreams, can’t quite break with her father’s traditional anti-Semitism, which led him to Dieudonné in the first place. The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, soundly defeated in May’s European Union election, was collateral damage in this Oedipal conflict (he sided with Le Pen over Nigel Farage, who fully espouses the English Defense League’s more ecumenical brand of Islamophobia).

(On the terrace rooftop of a hostel in Cairo in December: A pasty, balding British guy was ranting to someone at the front desk about a homosexual plague that was overtaking England, about how all the men in England were becoming pretty boys. That’s one thing I agree with the Muzzies on, he said. I reckon we need a General Sisi in England, he said. That’s one thing I don’t like about the English Defense League, he said. I’m all for standing up for England against the wogs, no offense, but you shouldn’t bring in the fags to help you out. What’s that called? A Pyrrhic victory? You kick out the wogs only to get the fags in their place. Like kicking the shit out of Hitler only to hand over Eastern Europe to the commies. To tell you the truth, I’d take Hitler over the commies, and the wogs over the fags, know what I mean?)

Meanwhile, Dieudonné laughs himself, as they say, all the way to the bank, or to the abyss.

6.

It seems miraculous, but it’s not, that the charlatanic spirit of Pamela Geller, with her mysterious photographs of Haj Amin al-Husseini meeting with Hitler (photographs that are currently making their rounds on Washington D.C. buses), has made its way to Chile. In January 2014, the Chilean soccer club Deportivo Palestino was fined for their new jerseys which included a map of mandate Palestine in lieu of the number 1 (which means that whoever wore jersey number 11 bore witness to the vertiginous nature of history, as if the nostos were forever being reduplicated in a series of simulacra mocking the irredentist hopes of the Palestinians, or as if the tragedy of Palestinian history could be papered over in a mad Borgesian experiment). Someone who calls himself the president of the Chilean Jewish community (Nabokov should have written the novel and set it in Patagonia) accused the team of using soccer to “lie and hate.” The Simon Wisenthal Center demanded that Palestino be penalized “for fomenting terrorist intent” (this in a country where everyone takes pains not to foment terrorist intent and not to foment the fomenting of terrorist intent). Chileans themselves were divided. Many remember the Jews who fought against the Pinochet regime (and those who fought for it) and the Palestinians who fought against the Pinochet regime (and those who fought for it). The Palestinian diaspora in Chile is the largest in the western hemisphere. But everyone remembers, or everyone who bothers remembers, that Israel sold weapons to Pinochet after Carter deemed him a pariah (the U.S. government also remembers Carlos Cardoen, father of the cluster bomb and the Chilean wine industry, who sold the right weapons the Saddam Hussein and then sold the wrong weapons to Saddam Hussein). And then there are other Chileans, Chilean soccer fans for example, who stick to a kind of cynical xenophobia. They remember that Palestino was once a great club and is now only a mediocre club. They consider the jersey change a publicity stunt designed to play up the club’s Palestinian allegiances in a bid to expand its market (they also remember Palestino’s ambassadorial trip to the Occupied Territories, where they played a series of friendly matches, a trip that was viewed skeptically in some quarters). They don’t think highly of Palestino soccer or, particularly, of Palestinians.

It’s possible that if the Palestino club went with this Ehud Barak-inspired colorful rendering of the West Bank for number 7, they might win over, at the very least, some anomic leftists and South American Lollapalooza attendees, who measure their radicalism in psychedelia.


7.

Predictably, in this past World Cup, we heard a lot about the moral shortcomings (fascist recidivism, homophobia, anthropophagy, the supposedly unchivalrous and effeminate “flop”), of certain players and fan groups. Mexican fans casually tossing out “puto” at rival goalkeepers (who, in the macho mythopoeia of the soccer imagination, inevitably take on a kind of Proustian-botanical passivity and whose status as coquettes or choosy whores makes the jouissance of the game possible) were deemed just as guilty as Croatian fans playing Ustasha dress-up. But even here, a certain deflection/projection is at work. Just as the excoriation of Qatari royalty serves as an alibi for the crimes of the European ancien régime, the supposedly colorful and unregenerate fascism of eastern European soccer fans becomes a mask and a pretext for the sordid antinomianism of western European fans, who have institutionalized a sadistic-ludic reenactment of Europe’s past atrocities, as if to say that history is a nightmare from which it is too much fun to awake. In the Netherlands—a country that may be the worst exploiter of what Norman Finkelstein calls the “Holocaust Industry” (although Hollande’s seemingly magnanimous 2012 speech commemorating the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, which turned out to be a disingenuous lustration in preparation for a kind of neoconservative “human rights”-inflected militarism in Mali and Libya, wants to ensure that France takes the lead on that front—AFC Ajax baptizes itself “the Jews” while their rivals, Feyenoord from Rotterdam, respond by adopting a thoroughly fictive solidarity with Hamas, whom they, along with the Israel Lobby, evidently identify with Nazis (a common chant: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to the Feyenoord fans, whoever doesn’t jump is a Jew and yelling “Auschwitz” at crowded trams is a good joke. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent them from chanting the name of Pim Fortuyn after his assassination in 2002 (Fortuyn was the openly gay far-right Dutch politician who promised to send Dutch troops to defend Israel were he elected prime minister).

Years ago, when Sol Campbell, a black-English soccer player who was rumored to be gay, left Tottenham to join Tottenham’s rivals, Arsenal, Tottenham fans responded with the usual Philip Rothian paraphernalia and jokes about bananas. Tottenham’s fans are nicknamed the “Yids” and the club has a long-standing connection to London’s Jewish community. The Arsenal fans, who also have a large Jewish fan base, responded with hisses (onomatopoetic of the gas chamber).

In Brazil, it was impossible to watch a game without seeing Israeli flags in the stands and impossible not to feel a growing anxiety over the ineffable connection between this nihilistic pastiche and Israel’s preparations for yet another massacre in Gaza. This level of affectless, banal, and dehistoricized libidinal investment in violence is completely unrecognizable outside of Pasolini’s Salò.


8.

Holocaust jokes were also trending on Twitter after Germany’s disgraceful victory against Brazil (as the 1982 Germany-Austria Anschluss, in which, after Germany scored an early goal, the two teams colluded to make nothing happen in order to prevent Algeria from advancing, proved, the Germans are perfectly capable of not scoring when they want to). But Holocaust jokes are a cop-out and lazy history. Fassbinder’s masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun, situates West Germany’s first World Cup victory in 1954 in the context of the failure of de-Nazification, in the continuity between the Third Reich and the phoenix-like West German state, not in the mirage or fetish or repetition syndrome of a single crime. The film ends with the suicide of the star-crossed lovers (or if not the suicide, then the carelessness of the lovers: a malaise and amnesia that is worse than suicide and makes suicide impossible) and a beautiful Bakhitnian polyphony: Germany’s goal as announced on the radio (echoing Adenauer’s previous radio address on German rearmament) and a series of photographs (summoning the opening photograph of Hitler) of the federal chancellors from Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt (with the notable absence of Willy Brandt, the one-time hope for rupture and discontinuity of German liberals like Fassbinder). The announcer: “It’s all over! It’s all over! Germany is world champion!”

West Germany won again in 1970, after the defeat of the New Left (and while original cadre of the RAF were in the Ajloun mountains lecturing Palestinian fighters about the superiority of western values and the revolutionary necessity of fucking). In 1990, a reunited Germany won a retroactive victory against communism and for the new European order. Against Brazil, Germany’s refusal to let up in the second half smelled of Merkel’s unsavory Lutheran-Kantianism. Against Argentina, German players appeared impatient to be declared world champions and were compelled to score a goal in the 113th minute in order win the prize that they already considered theirs. Germany’s message to the rest of the world these days is clear: you savages agreed to play the game and it would be unethical for us not to teach you what it means to lose.

]]>
world David Golding 2014-07-17T03:41:48-05:00