Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.”

The meaning of life is that it stops.
—Franz Kafka

My parents died in their 60s. Having gone through the second World War, their respective families in Poland were decimated. So the death of my uncle, aunt, and niece in Chicago virtually eliminated the American side of my family. My wife’s parents died in their 80s, although her extended family remains quite large. Now that I’m 65, many of my friends and acquaintances are around my age or older and I’m having to attend more and more funerals and memorials. We hosted a memorial in April for a friend of my wife who she knew for over 40 years.

But I’ve been lucky. I wasn’t born and raised in poverty, or with daily domestic violence, or in a war zone, so the death of people close around me wasn’t a regular occurrence. Throughout my schooling I personally knew maybe three individuals my age who died. The last was David Pickett, a UCSD student who was one of the most active members of an independent Leftist student newspaper called “The New Indicator” to which I belonged. He was also a drinking buddy of mine. In researching San Diego politics from 1979 to 1981 for a recent column in various UCSD digital archives (MRR #419), I came across details of his death. He “was injured in a road accident while vacationing in Mexico over the Spring break. It was a long drive to the nearest hospital, but he was still alive when he arrived. The hospital, however, was a private one and David was refused treatment because his ability to pay was in question. En route to a public hospital he died.” The description of David’s death concluded with the comment that his life “just wasn’t as important as the profit column in the hospital ledger.”

The article concluded with an angry rant against capitalism. People die every day in car accidents, factories, wars, and being “turned away from hospitals all the time in the U.S., in Mexico, everywhere in the world where hospitals must yield a profit.” “Our system maximizes profit; and profit and human welfare are two very different things. […] We remember David; we don’t think he had to die. Those who agree with us should help us oppose the system that prefers profit to life.” (https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb0239978w/_1.pdf) Forty years later, I chose to remember David Pickett’s death by crafting his life into a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as a longish short story that I then converted into a prequel to my science fiction novel, 1% Free. Such are the advantages of fiction over fact in capturing truths not immediately evident in reality.

Being alone, reading voraciously, writing this memoir, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I believe the constant, underlying thought of all men who think must be of their own death, no matter what the surface thought might be. When they think of living, they are also thinking of death, for the two are mingled.
And thinking is a curse.
—Edward Bunker, No Beast So Fierce

The three things I’ve been most interested in as an adult—politics, writing, and rocknroll—all have a higher-than-average mortality rate. Practicing politics can lead to an early grave under authoritarian regimes, or in the US if you have the wrong skin color and are a particularly effective leftist activist. Such was the case with Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and scores more. Writers experience a greater incidence of early death thanks to their propensity for substance abuse due either to the mistaken belief it’s a necessary part of the creative process or to overall depression from thinking too much. My list of great alcoholic writers includes Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, but it would almost be easier to enumerate those writers who didn’t drink themselves to death. Unlike my ineffectual political activism or my alcohol abuse however, I’ve never been more than a fan of rocknroll. I was never a musician. I never played an instrument or was part of a band.

The youth lifestyle and culture associated with rocknroll music also kills more people than the wife-two-kids-a-dog-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs middle-class life to which most normies aspire. Jim Carroll made that the subtext of his song “People Who Died;” heavily cribbing its Catholic sensibilities from Ted Berrigan’s poem of the same name with its final line “My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now.” In turn, the band Detention had fun skewering the infamous 27 Club meme in “Dead Rock and Rollers.” It was mere coincidence when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses at 27 years old, but it seemed like a genuine curse when Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse joined their ranks. “And what about you, Jim Carroll?/All your friends have/What are you waiting for?” Detention asked in 1983, with Carroll eventually joining those dead rockers in 2009.

We are ignoring the fact that bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element of mental health . . . Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning.
—Yukio Mishima, The Way of the Samurai

I’ve had a dozen risky close-to-death experiences and a couple of health crisis incidents in my life that made me suddenly aware I was alive, and glad to be alive. But there needs to be some other way to value life than to flirt with death.

Paul Haller, the abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, once advised me in a private consultation to “meditate on death” as a way to appreciate life. By the way, that very same attitude toward death is why Zen was the religion of the Samurai, why Japan’s Zen denominations wholeheartedly supported the Emperor throughout WWII, and why zen mindfulness is used as therapy for PTSD by the US military. Because it’s also part-and-parcel of the Zen attitude toward the military, taking life, war, and the like. That’s a subject for a future column however. I’ll have turned 66 by the publication of this column, and thinking about death has become frequent. I’m by nature an introverted, introspective person who frequently thinks about my life, what I have and haven’t done, and what my dwindling future holds. My loved ones, friends, frenemies, and enemies are all getting old and infirm. Some have already died. So, given that I’m also a little OCD, meditating on death has become a daily occurrence.

Our white, mainly Protestant society doesn’t deal well with death and dying. We have no dominant ceremonial holidays like the festive Mexican Catholic Dia de los Muertos or the somber Jewish Yom Kippur and few personal rituals like my candle lighting practice to comfort us. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” according to that popular country western song lyric. But in not believing in heaven, what I’m left with is not wanting to die. I haven’t made up my mind whether thinking about death helps me feel more alive or that thinking itself is a curse. “And who shall I say is calling?”

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A Fool and His Vote Are Soon Parted: “What’s Left?” October 2016, MRR #401

the-fool
Because of you Bernie is going to have to campaign for Hillary every day until election day and he shouldn’t have to do that. One, because he hates her. It’s just unlike you he’s adult enough to pretend he doesn’t

― Seth Meyers, “Hey,” Late Night Show

I was “Clean for Gene” in 1968 even before I could vote. I canvassed for George McGovern in 1972. In 1996, I voted for Ralph Nader on the Green Party and attended a couple of rallies, but not much else. Same with Bernie Sanders in 2016. I put up his poster and voted for him, but that was about it. Over the decades, I’ve gradually distanced myself from the electoral mania that seems de rigueur for such progressive/third party efforts. This time around I’m definitely feeling my age and getting quite vexed over those Sandernistas for reinventing the wheel of naïveté under the guise of youthful idealism.

By Sandernistas, I’m not referring to those third party stalwarts or vanguardists who jumped onto the Bernie bandwagon, only to return to their respective political folds once Bernie lost. I criticized them and their sectarianism in MRR #397 after tackling the viability of independent third party politics in general in MRR #396. Sandernistas are those young, politically unaffiliated, OWS types who were swept up in the frenzy of Bernie’s “political revolution,” but who now feel bitterly betrayed by his defeat and capitulation to Clinton and the Democratic Party. Those other progressives, social democrats, and Leninists might all be delusional about the importance and promise of their respective third parties, pre-party formations, or social movements, but they cannot be considered naïve by any means in that they fully understand that the electoral system is rigged and that American politics-as-usual are a dead end.

Not so the Sandernistas, who are credulous in three important ways, the first being their belief that genuine revolution can be won electorally through the Democratic Party. Personally, I don’t think significant social change can be had outside of taking to the streets, but I’d be happy if a dual role were possible for electoral politics and street action simultaneously, with a vibrant social movement mediating between the two. The youngsters inspired by Bernie’s call for an electoral revolution are idealistic to a fault, in that they think they can storm the bastion of capitalist power that is the Democratic Party without firing a shot.

Which brings me to the gullibility of Bernie’s followers when they proclaimed they were shocked, shocked they tell us, over the Wikileaks dump of DNC emails revealing that prominent party Democrats had it in for the Sanders campaign. “But they’re not playing fair,” they wailed, as if playing fair has anything to do with politics, or for that matter life. I fully expected the Sandernistas to demand that Debbie Wasserman Schultz be given a “time out” for her anti-Sanders partisanship. I mean, this is the party of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who won election in 1948 by stuffing ballot box 13 with votes from deceased Texans.

Finally, there’s the overwhelming personal sense of betrayal that many Sanders followers expressed when Bernie lost the primary and endorsed Clinton. Seth Meyers commented that “Look, I know you’re ‘Bernie or Bust’ but the results are in. ‘Bust’ won,” but his sarcasm fell on deaf ears. The weeping and gnashing of teeth continues, and it’s as if Hillary or Bernie or the Democratic Party personally slapped them in the face or ran over their dog. I mean, get over yourselves and take Joe Hill’s advice “don’t mourn, organize” to heart. But that would be too much work and way too adult, so I stand by my conclusion that they are naïve beyond belief.

For those of you who felt that a political revolution in the Democratic Party was possible, that you were being treated unfairly by the Democrats, and that Bernie’s primary defeat and subsequent endorsement of Clinton were bitter betrayals, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s a beautiful suspension bridge painted orange, and it even produces its own income. But I really don’t have the time to further disabuse the Sandernistas of all their other misconceptions, which are legion. The idea that all you have to do is occupy a park or a square OWS-style and voilà, instant movement, is ludicrous. Or the Manichaean good-vs-evil notion that the struggle is between political purity and choosing between the lesser of two evils, which is also bullshit. Even contrasting idealism with pragmatism is a false dichotomy in that it ignores the need to think strategically and dialectically. My pet peeve has been the canard that if I vote for Hillary, or for that matter Trump, I’ve completely sold out and legitimized the entire capitalist-statist-racist-patriarchal-fascist-imperialist system under which we live. Part of the simplistic belief that voting is the be-all-and-end-all to all politics, it’s also part of the idiocy that one vote, my vote, changes everything. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a vote is just a vote.

I’ve pointed out before that I live and vote in California, a state that Clinton is sure to win come November. So whether I vote for Hillary or Trump or write in Bernie Sanders is irrelevant. I could write in Mickey Mouse or self-righteously abstain from voting entirely and it will make no difference. Of course, there’s so much more to electoral politics, third parties, movement building, or fomenting revolution. I’m just sick and tired of political naïveté masquerading as youthful idealism or worse, serious revolutionary activity.

Now, get the fuck off my lawn!

***

There is another approach to Bernie’s “political revolution,” aside from the cynical opportunism of third party/vanguardist hacks and the naïve enthusiasm of the youthful Sandernistas. My peeps, the ultraleft, push the political form of the revolutionary organization that does not strive to be either a mass-based, quasi-democratic, parliamentary bourgeois party or a professional, democratic-centralist Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. Ostensibly a cadre party as “hard as steel, clear as glass,” the ultraleft revolutionary organization leads by example, intervening at pivotal historical moments or in crucial social movements to clarify social and political contradictions in order to push the working class into actualizing itself as a class, and eventually into social revolution. Luxemburg, Bordiga and the original Council Communists saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks as fulfilling that role during the Russian 1917 revolution up through at least the October Revolution, although some subsequent ultraleftists have not been as kind to either Communist icon. In my humble analysis, that’s not what Lenin or the Bolshevik party actually did, and no ultraleft cadre party organization has managed to win a successful social revolution using this strategy. Certainly no one intervened in the Sanders campaign to show the Sandernistas the error of their ways. Hence my cantankerousness.

***

For those of you keeping score, it’s 2 to 1. I was correct that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination and that the “Dump Trump/Never Trump” movement would not succeed. Similarly, I was right that Hillary Clinton would get the Democratic nomination and that the “Bernie or Bust” movement would be all bark but not much bite. And that they were, loudly, inside and outside the DNC in Philadelphia. Their activities did help Bernie to negotiate a slightly more leftist party platform while not actually playing much havoc with the convention proper. There was far more raucous protest and disruption at the Democratic convention however than at the Republican one, which brings me to my prediction that Cleveland 2016 would make Chicago 1968 look like a pink tea. I was wrong. Aside from acrimonious behind-the-scenes politicking in the RNC’s rules committee and Ted Cruz’s reviled non-endorsement speech on stage, the convention itself was remarkably disciplined and on-point. The streets of Cleveland were low-key and often empty, with nary a riot in sight. Some of that had to do with so many of us predicting, with a certain amount of glee and bloodlust, just the opposite and thus scaring the bejeesus out of the public. But I think there’s a deeper reason here. The young and the restless realized where the center of action was and gravitated toward where history was being made. Nothing could be done inside or outside the RNC to change things. Not so the DNC where there was at least the perception that protest might change the course of history. That’s why there was more shit happening in Philadelphia where even the Green Party’s Jill Stein hoped to woo disaffected Sandernistas.

***

I finished my second novel. It’s all edited, rewritten, and copy edited. Now, it’s in the hands my book designer, and ultimately, IngramSpark.

It’s called 1% Free, and it’s near-future speculative fiction/science fiction political thriller with a dash of noir. Aside from the genre tropes, it’s also dystopian and utopian fiction, but I’ll let you figure out which is which. It’s 2042, and America’s second civil war rages. Besides the collapse of the United States into racialized warfare, there are revolutionary social movements that combine red, black, and green politics; wild-assed youth countercultures; and meditations on science, cartography, technology, and extinction. There’s also a lot of prognostication via fictionalization, much like my first novel End Time in which I predicted the rise of Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The accuracy and desirability of the future I predict is also up to you to decide.

I have a book launch for 1% Free at 6 pm on Thursday, November 3 at the Book Passage bookstore at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I’m putting together some swag now.

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