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?”

Advertisements

Protest vs Violence vs Terrorism: “What’s Left?” February 2018, MRR #417

“Today on the Galloping Gourmet we will be preparing smoke bomb flambeau.”

Scott stood over the grimy stove in the shotgun shack off Ventura Avenue holding a beer in one hand and a saucepan in the other. He had that rakish, Graham Kerr attitude down, although his hippy hair and attire belied his bon vivant pose. Tom and I stood over a tiny formica table piled with a large sack of granulated sugar, an equally large smoked glass bottle of sodium nitrate, several boxes of “strike anywhere” matches, more pots, pans, and bowls, and a copy of Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book open to the section on “People’s Chemistry.” Scott directed our work with a wave of the pan and a swig of beer.

“First, thoroughly mix together six parts saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate, with four parts sugar. Sodium nitrate may be used in a pinch. Then pour the mixture into a medium pan and place it over a very low flame. Heat it slowly and carefully until it starts to melt and blend into a plastic like substance.”

Scott was gay, although that word wasn’t in common use in January, 1971. He’d walked around one of Jake and Connie’s raging parties wearing a colorful paisley cravat. When people commented “nice ascot” to him, he’d smile, wink, swivel his hips, and reply “why, thank you.” Scott had been the one to suggest lining the pan with aluminum foil so the concoction could be removed intact. And as the materials for our smoke bomb liquified and turned brown under my attention, Scott said over my shoulder: “Subtle, a little bittersweet, not blowsy and extrovert. Perfect.”

Tom had been breaking the tops off wooden matches which we intended to embed into the substance once it gelled but was still pliable. That way our smoke bomb wouldn’t require a fuse but could be set off simply by striking it against some hard surface. We intended to detonate the device inside a public meeting of the Ventura City Council as they feinted discussing whether to ratify the People’s Peace Treaty. Negotiated between the North Vietnamese and representatives of the American peace movement, the People’s Peace Treaty didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified, let alone acted upon by either the city of Ventura or the United States government. It was a propaganda instrument and a device for mobilizing anti-war support. Our smoke bomb was intended to protest the farce of disingenuously discussing peace while bombing the hell out of the Vietnamese people. However, as Tom and I wedged match heads into the hardening mass, our efforts were a little too close set. One match scraped another, a spark flew, and the whole thing ignited. Scott grabbed the exploding pan, ran into the backyard, and held the fireworks at arms length as a mushroom smoke cloud roared skyward.

We were greatly impressed by the volume of smoke from our inadvertent test run, and we had enough ingredients left to whip up another batch. But we never got a chance to use our second bomb because the city council meeting was guarded by police who frisked everyone as they entered. Our plans had been leaked, perhaps because we’d done our planning out in the open, in the office of the local Unitarian Church with the minister typing out the church newsletter in the same room. When a member of the congregation entered, heard what we were talking about, and asked the minister what the hell we were planning, the minister said, without looking up from his typing: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!”

I’ve told this story a couple of times before in this column. But unlike a former columnist who was fired in part because he kept repeating his columns almost verbatim, I’ve taken pains to make this retelling original, lively, and interesting. I’m trying to make two points with it, the first being the difference between truth and fact. This story is entirely true but only partially factual, and to illustrate that issue, consider the story of Charles Drew. A black American physician and surgeon before the second World War who isolated plasma from blood, he was involved in a fatal automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. The myth is that Drew died as a result of having been refused a blood transfusion due to the color of his skin when, in fact, the accident was so severe he didn’t survive. The myth about Drew’s death was not factual, but it was true with respect to race relations in the South during that time.

My story above was not factual in that Scott was not in my original telling. I substituted him because I recently learned that the person upon whom the character Scott is based died. The story however is true, and so the problematic relationship between truth and fact remains. Despite the common meaning of a fact as logic itself, we never have a fact, only evidence for a fact, and that evidence implies a truth. And truth is never self-evident, but can lead via suggestion and inspiration to the facts. Yet facts, like data or statistics, can lie much as the truth, as myth or story, can lie. So, it’s complicated, much more so in this post-truth era.

Second, my story is meant to illustrate the relationship between protest, violence, and terrorism. One of my favorite quotes is from pacifist Marianne Williamson who said: “Birth is violent, whether it be the birth of a child or the birth of an idea.” I’m tempted to say that all life involves violence, beginning with one form of life devouring another form of life in order to survive. Non-violent crime is a misnomer because it usually involves some form of “property crime” resulting in damage to another person’s property, often in addition to emotional harm to the family and loved ones of the non-violent criminal. And the practice of non-violence, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, has invariably resulted in extreme violence visited by the part of the powers-that-be and sometimes the general public against those same non-violent protesters.

We certainly believed in the ’60s that while harming living beings was violence, property destruction was not. Yet back when we were planning to smoke bomb our city council as a form of protest we realized that we were engaged in a certain low level of violence, and that violent protest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first smoke bomb went off with a huge chemical discharge of heat and flame, so our tiny group was rightly concerned that anyone sitting near the device when we set it off might be injured, even as we thought nothing of the panic our bomb might cause in the meeting attendees. Many in the Ventura police and city council would have considered what we wanted to do not just violence, but terrorism. The tendency to treat all protest, not just violent protest, as a form of terrorism has only grown since. From the Right’s misplaced efforts to have antifa—which is an organizing strategy against fascism—declared a domestic terrorist organization, to the government’s heavy handed efforts to prosecute the J20 anti-inauguration protesters with multiple felonies involving decades in prison if convicted speaks to the rightwing effort to see all forms of protest and violence, especially on the Left, as political terrorism.

Political terrorism, whether domestic or international, is the use of violence to achieve certain political results, whether frightening a population or cowing a leadership into doing the terrorists’ bidding, softening up the terrorized for a takeover. Terrorism is never terror for terror’s sake. Despite not considering our protest overtly violent, let alone terrorist, we were trying to make a political point, no matter how misguided. And politics has everything to do with how protest, violence, and terrorism are defined as well as acted upon. I wrote last column that the “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple. So is what is considered protest, violence, and terrorism, and how we deal with them. Right now the government and the Right are trying to criminalize most protest and call it domestic terrorism. We need to make our protests against the government and the Right as widespread and creative as possible.

And we’re itching for that fight.

Voting and rioting: “What’s Left?” May 2015, MRR #384

Was it a millionaire who said “Imagine no possessions?”

Elvis Costello, “The Other Side Of Summer”

I vote.

In admitting this, I always feel like someone undead confessing my vampiric tendencies, only to be met by torch-wielding mobs waving silver crucifixes, er, circle a’s, hoping to ward off evil, um, political incorrectness. That’s how many in the anarcho/ultra milieu view any admission of electoral participation, as if merely by punching a ballot for five minutes I actively affirm the entire bourgeois edifice of capitalism and the state and all that is heinous about our society today. Those who employ this reductio ad absurdum argument would brand me a class traitor for simply casting a vote every two years.

As a détourned bumper sticker I once saw expressed it, I riot and I vote. I do less and less rioting the older I get, but that’s a different matter. More precisely I organize, I protest, I act, I demonstrate, I resist, I give money, I rebel, I back unions, I riot, and I vote. Way too long for your average bumper sticker message. I engage in, support, and appreciate a wide variety of political activity in the course of any given day. I don’t consider all political activity equal, either in commission or experience. I rank direct action above voting as I would favor social revolution over streetfighting. But I prefer doing something over doing nothing.

Last column, I made the case for critical support for the military advances of Rojava in western Kurdistan and for the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece. Last June, I talked about stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embracing the idea of “see something, leak something.” All of these issues are decidedly reformist, but I haven’t suddenly forsaken revolution for reformism. “Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms?” Rosa Luxemburg once famously asked in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution. “Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.”

I offer up Luxemburg’s quote to short-circuit the usual bullshit political runaround about the relationship between reform and revolution. We’re told either to accept the “lesser of two evils” or to demand “all or nothing at all.” We’re told either to be reasonable in our demands, or to demand nothing and seize everything. The full social dialectic between reform and revolution is belittled by such simplicities. A few days before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Alabama, and spoke in secret with Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job more difficult,” Malcolm is supposed to have said to Coretta about Martin. “But I thought that if the White people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.” The dynamic relationship between reform and revolution cuts both ways.

This discussion of reform and revolution flows easily into the related discussion of tactics and strategy. Occupy Wall Street introduced issues that Occupy Oakland brought to a crescendo with respect to the debate between nonviolence and what has been called a “diversity of tactics.” Unlike the tactical rigidity of traditional nonviolence however, the anarcho/ultra milieu’s effusive embrace of a “diversity of tactics” is not for tactical flexibility, but rather a glorification of tactics without strategy, a justification of fucking shit up for the sake of fucking shit up. Again, I don’t fuck shit up nearly as much as I used to, but that’s not the point. The absolutism embedded in the latter’s insurrectionism and communization, no less than the moralism inherent in the former’s pacifism, are inimical to forging winning strategies for social change. And frankly, I find it as tiresome arguing in the abstract against the supposed counterrevolutionary reformism of electoral participation or union involvement as I do in countering the histrionic, emotional outrage over the wrongs and evils of coercive violence. I mean, isn’t it middle-class, suburban white kids with everything who are always talking about “Demand nothing?”

People forget that the point is to win. Not by any means necessary, but by means sufficient to achieve victory and by means commensurate with the ends desired. No more “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” as is ubiquitous in the anarcho/ultra milieu, and no more “destroying the village in order to save the village” as is the practice of the authoritarian Leninist Left. No more beautiful losers, and no more one-party totalitarian states disingenuously called socialism. As much as I want principles to align with pragmatism, I’d rather be pragmatic over being principled, if I had to choose.

Plus, I like focusing on the practical every now and again as a welcome addition to my usual mashup of theory, history, news, reviews, commentary, and tirade. After twenty-four years and some two hundred and fifty odd columns, I frequently repeat myself. Too often, I struggle to say the same old shit in slightly different ways. I still manage to raise some controversy and an occasional stink. Unfortunately, it’s rarely in the letters-to-the-editor pages of this magazine, and almost entirely on the intrawebz.

This month, another old-time columnist bites the dust. I’m the only OG columnist left who got my benediction direct from Tim Yo himself. Without going into details (and since no one asked my opinion) all I’ll say is that there’s a difference between being an asshole punk rocker and being an asshole to your fellow punk rockers. I’ll leave it at that.

Next column, fifty shades of anarchy.

  • MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL

  • "Lefty" Hooligan-"What's Left?"
    My monthly column for Maximum Rocknroll.

  • MY BOOKS FOR SALE:

  • Free excerpts from 1% FREE

  • 1% FREE on sale now


    Copies of 1% FREE can be purchased from Barnes & Noble POD, and the ebook can be had at Barnes & Noble ebook. The physical book is $18.95 and the ebook is $4.99.

  • END TIME reprinted


    Downloads of END TIME can be purchased from SMASHWORDS.
  • CALENDAR

    December 2018
    M T W T F S S
    « Nov    
     12
    3456789
    10111213141516
    17181920212223
    24252627282930
    31  
  • META