“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The White Man’s Burden

When I was small, movies were black and white.  That is to say, serious movies, movies that purported to be realistic and to address adult themes, were black and white.  Comedy, romance, fantasy, and especially musicals, might be in Technicolor, but not thoughtful movies, movies that aspired to be art.  In fact, color images were considered to be, and actually felt, unrealistic compared the black and white images, more like dreams than like recordings of actual events.  Serious, adult stories about war, for example, or about heroic accomplishments appeared in black and white.

Perhaps the generation that had fought World War Two did see the real world as a place divided clearly into black and white; perhaps for them to see things realistically was to see them as black and white.  I remember that people who wanted to affirm the veracity of a statement pointed to an authority such as a newspaper or a book and said, “It’s all right there in black and white!”  And, of course, there was that other way in which the world really was sharply divided into black and white.

By the time I was born, in 1953, the world was beginning to change or was at least preparing psychologically for change.  For example, one still heard the phrase “the white man’s burden”, but its use was always ironic.  One recognized its imperial arrogance but continued to use it as short-hand for a colonial ideology, for the belief that European conquerors were spreading progress and enlightenment to a backward, primitive world.  (Compare to G.W. Bush spreading democracy through the Middle East by invading Iraq.  See also my description of the Spaniards moving into the neighborhood where I now live.)

As I approached puberty, David Lean made an epic film in Technicolor:  “Lawrence of Arabia.”  It is interesting to note that while the film dealt with serious geo-political themes, it was also highly romanticized, much of it either inaccurate or wholly fictional.  Even so, if the portrait of T.E. Lawrence was not objectively accurate, it was probably very close to the way in which Lawrence saw himself:  as the man who, in the years between World War One and World War Two, showed the Arab tribes that they could become fully modern, independent nations.

The British Empire’s victory in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War One ended with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire:  France got Lebanon and Syria, and Britain got Mesopotamia and Palestine.  (The British already had India to the east of Mesopotamia, and they had Egypt, including the Sinai, to the west of Palestine.)  In the decade following the war, European colonial rule ended.  The departing powers created of the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria in ’46, Israel in ‘48, and Jordan in ’49.  These countries were all carved out of parts of a sprawling region called since Roman times “the Levant”, which comes from the Latin word that means “the rising”, i.e., the east, where the sun rises.  The Levant was roughly equivalent to the area we call the Middle East.

I suspect that most Americans, if they think of it at all, think that Iraq and Syria are the modern names for ancient kingdoms, perhaps Babylon and Mesopotamia, and that Iran is just the modern name for Persia.  I suspect that they think the same of Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.  And I suspect that the tribal affiliations that cross all of these national borders, Sunni and Shia and Kurd, just confuse the hell out of them.

Americans know little about the Middle East because we are not – or were not when I went to school – taught the history of World War One in any detail.  What we are taught is an entirely self-absorbed view of events.  We learn that the Constitution forbids “foreign entanglements” and that therefore the country paid no attention to European and global affairs before World War One.  We know only that we entered the war in its final year and having won it for the tired old Europeans, we came home.  As for the origins and results of that war, we know only the puzzling fact that the assassination of some Grand Duke in a little town in Serbia started it all and that it did not really end but just took a break for twenty years until World War Two, which we know a little more about, namely that the United States then had to go in full force and end all that European bickering for good.

It seems that instead of knowing the history of the two World Wars, their causes and their results, we know the history of how Americans viewed events and how they felt about them at the time.  While this history of the mind of the nation may tell you why certain politicians were elected, it tells you nothing about the government’s actual policies and the real reasons for its actions.  It is as if what the general public does, i.e., vote, is what matters.  Thus the educational system has kept American’s eyes on themselves and diverted their attention from what they think is their government.


The nattering nabobs on both the left and the right have been saying that we ought to have a national debate about entering our latest war, the one against the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”.  But how can we when we have no idea what our enemy remembers and is trying to undo? The other day I heard Terry Gross ask her interviewee on “Fresh Air” why the Administration keeps referring to our new enemy as “ISIL” when the rest of the world calls it “ISIS” or “Islamic State.”  He, Dexter Filkins, who writes for the New Yorker, said that he had no idea.

I have long thought that every newly elected President, immediately upon leaving the inauguration ceremony, is led into a small room in some government building, told to take a seat, and then told what is really going on, what the United States really is and really does, and what that new President will and will not do.  “All that stuff you said during the campaign was fine,” the instructor says, “and it sounded just fine, but forget it:  this is the way things really are.”  How else to explain the changes which take place immediately in the President’s apparent principles and plans?  How else, in Obama’s case, to explain the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison? Or the continuation of the Bush policies of domestic surveillance and unconstitutional renderings, and murder by drone or by Special Forces units?

So in my novel, a piece of speculative fiction, of fantasy really, in which (get this!) a black man is actually elected President of the United States, he insists on having everyone in his Administration refer to the enemy group as “ISIL” because he wants that word, “Levant”, before the people’s eyes.  That word is the only way he has to signal from behind the mask that Power has affixed to his skull, covering his face, that this enemy is the avatar of ancient peoples native to that land and is ranged against us not because of anything we the people consciously did but because we are the heirs to the colonial European powers, just as we were heirs to the French in Viet Nam (formerly French Indochina) and to the Spanish in Central America.  Our corporations have taken over trade with these lands from entities like the British Levant Company, formed in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire and it is against their actions, supported by our military and by the regimes we prop up in these countries, that the insurgents fight.


We have no idea what has been done and is being done to people all over the world in our name.  We benefit from the appropriation of their natural resources and even their labor for which we pay a mere pittance.  We are kept ignorant of the day to day oppression that people suffer at the hands of the institutions that nurture our consumption of resources and manufactures all over the world.  Our ignorance convinces us that we are innocent and that the violence directed at us is unreasonable, sheer madness and barbarism.  We fear what we do not understand and that fear makes us lash out in further aggression which we consider “defense of Americans and American interests.”  Next time you hear that phrase demand to know what those “interests” are and what they are and have been doing abroad for decades.

Friday, September 26, 2014


In those days, the State would not allow gay people to marry, nor did it recognize “Domestic Partnerships.”  We did not care about those facts.  Most young people who were straight did not want to marry either.  We all regarded marriage as a patriarchal institution in which a father sold his daughter to another man who thereby became her husband.  “Husband,” after all, means “manager,” as in “animal husbandry” or in “to husband nature’s riches from expense.”  Why would anyone want to enter into that kind of relationship?  We wanted to be neither “husband” nor “wife.”

We called each other “Lover” or, while still beginning and not yet ready for that commitment, “Boyfriend.”  Later we shied away from such the more emotional terminology, finding “Lover” perhaps too dramatic, and we chose “Partner” instead.  This latter term implied something more objective, more durable, and more socially – even legally – recognizable.  Besides, “Lover” still had some associations with the world of marriage – a Lover or a Mistress was an extra-marital consort with whom one committed adultery.

My first lover (for it was that long ago) studied Medieval Latin poetry.  He discovered a body of love poems written by monks to other men and to boys.  For centuries these works had lain hidden among manuscripts kept in monasteries and university libraries in England, France, and North America.  He translated and published them, and his work was important in the development of a new field of gay studies.  John Boswell, in his book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe cited my first lover’s work and acknowledged its importance.

But the thing that my lover taught me about Medieval Latin poetry that struck me most powerfully was the fact that poetry of that period was almost always (these love poems being some of the very few exceptions) written in the first person plural.  We can hardly imagine such a thing:  the first person singular, “I” being probably the single most reliable hallmark of modern poetry, that is, of poetry since at least Dickinson and Whitman, and probably before that.  Yet for the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, poetry spoke in the voice of “we.”

What would a discourse or a poetics that speaks in the first person plural look like today?  Over the past few decades a form of political discourse called “Identity Politics” has emerged.  Identity Politics suggests that people vote for (and otherwise ally themselves with) politicians and movements which they feel reinforce themselves personally and their ways of living, so that the political landscape has come to be seen as consisting of racial politics, feminist or gender politics, gay politics, Hispanic politics, etc.

Similarly, politicians, pundits, and organizers talk all the time about “the community” of one kind or another.  Even businesses, especially internet businesses, speak of their clientele as this or that “community” – Apple customers, Facebook members, and Uber riders are all “communities.”

But Identity Politics and Consumer Communities are only awkward attempts to characterize a position on issues that might obtain for a group.  Because those who use this terminology have not consciously embraced the validity of speaking as “we,” they remain mired in the individualist world-view and attempt to mediate the limitations of that view with complex verbal and conceptual frameworks.  Like Ptolemaic astronomers, they are stuck explaining that various planets stop in their orbits around the earth and then go backward (or “retrograde) for a while before stopping again and then proceeding in their usual direction.  Where is the new Copernicus who can show that viewing things from the point of view that all the planets, even the Earth, revolve around the sun makes everything in the Heavens easy to understand?  When will the collective view, rather than the view of atomized individuals, begin to address the nation’s problems – and the world’s – and to find solutions?


Historical note:

The Declaration of Independence justified the rebellion against the British throne by asserting certain “truths” as axiomatic.  The ability to make these fundamental and undeniable claims came not by referring to Biblical or to any other authority.  Jefferson simply wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  And this “we” was not merely a “we the undersigned” – it was not shorthand for the individuals who signed the document.  It was with the voice of “the People” that Jefferson wrote, specifically “in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies.”
When will we hear the voice of the People speak for itself again?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Whose Neighborhood?

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods.  The neighborhood in which I currently dwell is called “The Mission” or, sometimes, “the Mission District.”  I have heard it said that a year or two ago The New York Times called it “the hippest neighborhood in the country.”  No doubt that would have been around the time I happened to look through the front window of a taqueria I was passing and saw Quentin Tarantino eating chimichangas.  Or a few months later when I suddenly came upon Woody Allen – whom I had previously seen in person only on a street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then walking in the company of Mia Farrow – talking with a crew member while working on “Blue Jasmine.”

Much of the allure of the Mission is the complexity of its social fabric.  It has been home over the past century and a half to successive waves of immigrants, each bringing the cuisine, the music, the traditions, and the folk culture of its homeland.  One sees everywhere remnants of each epoch, like strata in the rock containing fossils of the forms that life has taken through the ages:  German, Irish, Italian, Mexican, and Central American influences can be seen in architecture, restaurants, street names, art (including the ubiquitous murals), and music that thrive in this neighborhood.

Such are the relics of the past.  Now, quite suddenly, a wholly new and entirely unexpected wave of immigrants has hit the shore and is flooding the streets and alleyways of the Mission.  Like every one of the past waves of immigrants, this one is viewed with suspicion, its manners and mores are decried as uncivil and disruptive, and its displacement – or replacement – of the previously existing social structure is giving rise to anger, resentment, and occasional violence.  Yet also like each previous wave, these immigrants see themselves as innocents who have happily discovered a new home that is to them so exciting and so inviting that they feel only pride and joy at taking up their residence here.

The new immigrants are – well, what shall I call them?  The first epithet that came to my mind earlier this afternoon was “privileged white kids,” but that is not at all accurate.  Yes, they are young, but their ethnic backgrounds are Asian, African, and Latin, as much as “white.”  Indeed, I would say that their tribe, as it were, is determined not by any shared biological traits but by shared biographical ones.  These are well-educated, highly paid, and adventurous people.  One of them rode in my cab a couple of weeks ago.  He was born in Nigeria, and after graduating from MIT had gone home to visit his family.  Now he had returned to the United States and come to San Francisco to make his career in internet enterprises.  He told me that San Francisco is for young people today what New York was for my generation when we were in our twenties and thirties:  this is the place to come if you want to make your mark on the world.

And within San Francisco, these young people gravitate to the Mission and, to a lesser extent, to the Tenderloin.


I walked through the Tenderloin tonight and saw – or, more accurately, felt – a disquieting change in the short nine months since I moved to the Mission.  The neighborly feeling of comradery, of sharing a relaxed and occasionally messy communal life, seems to have evaporated.  In its place is a loud, rough, and sharp-tongued hostility.  Last autumn I felt that people seeing me walk down the block would wonder where that crazy white boy was going and how he got so lost that he was walking through here.  I felt tonight that they were eyeing me as an enemy.  At the Lafayette Coffee Shop, where I ate my dinner, the usual crowd of regulars was augmented by a dozen or so young men of that new tribe I described above.  Usually the Lafayette is filled with a general conversation among the regulars who discuss sports and their neighbors, gossip and kid one another, and anyone so moved is free to add their two cents worth.  But last night that inclusive conversation was not to be heard, and the young men carried on one of their own.

When I left the restaurant, I passed three or four small groups, some of women and some of men, who were walking home from work and were chatting with one another oblivious to the long-time residents they passed along the way.  The old-timers sauntered along the sidewalk or stood in clusters along the blocks of Hyde from McAllister to Eddy.  I saw, though the young bourgeoisie did not, the looks and the posture, the attitudes, of the folks in the shadows through which the kids passed.  The friction between these two entities, the heat generated by their passing so closely to one another, a heat unnoticed by one party and inciting the other, intimated to me a future that I do not care to name.  Let us pray that the heat does not burn, that it does not burst into flame.


Let me return to the Mission, literally and figuratively, for it is this neighborhood that I make my subject tonight.  The neighborhood takes its name from the Spanish Mission, which still stands on Dolores Street near 16th Street.  A low, thick-walled adobe building, Mission San Francisco de Asis (La Mision de Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asis) was founded June 29, 1776, five days before the Declaration of Independence was published, on land claimed by the Spaniards in the name of their King Phillip.  This land was, at the time, known as Chutchui to the Bay Miwok, the Coast Miwok, and the Patwin peoples who had considered the area to be their neighborhood for at least a thousand years before the Europeans registered their own title to it.

The common name for the Mission, Mission Dolores, comes from the name of the creek that flowed by it:  Arroyo de Nuestra Signora de los Dolores, or The Creek of Our Lady of the Sorrows.  It is here that Europeans first settled.  An historical marker at the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets records the basic facts.  (Camp Street takes its name from the fact that the Spanish made their camp on the site.)  That marker stands just a block and a half from the room in which I now write.  I have long wondered why the Spaniards chose such a name.  Was their journey to this spot so harrowing that they believed that they camped in Her quiet, grieving company?  Or was the spot itself so inhospitable (I have read that ferocious swarms of mosquitoes plagued anyone who was here in those days) that they felt themselves to be encamped among sorrows?  Had many of their party succumbed to sickness or even death here?  I have searched many sources, and I have found no answer.

Certainly for the Miwok and the Patwin, as well as the other tribes of Ohlones living in the bay region, the arrival of the whites, with their murderous warriors and their strange religion, not to mention their foreign diseases, meant unrelenting, disastrous, and ultimately genocidal sorrows.  I do not know what the Ohlone might have thought of the new immigrants in their neighborhood, but I have read many of the accounts written by the Europeans regarding the inhabitants of their “New World.”  The Europeans found the First Peoples to be indolent, unproductive, ignorant, and child-like.  They thought their own right to take the land and its resources for their own purposes was obvious in the fact that, as they saw it, the Ohlone had failed utterly to make any use of the bounty that surrounded them.

I have found this view of the prehistoric residents of San Francisco (and of the rest of Northern California) to have been held consistently into the early twentieth century.  The first prominent voice that I have found raised in defense of and respect for the Native Americans was that of Theodora Kroeber, the wife of the University of California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.  Her book “Ishi in Two Worlds” tells the story of the last surviving Native Californian, a man who wandered into the white man’s world in the town of Oroville, almost dead with sickness and hunger, in 1911.  

Now, another hundred years later we are beginning to understand the wisdom of the people who lived within the nexus of the ecosystem of which they were part rather than seeing their habitat only as “wealth” to be extracted.  We Europeans have by now so altered that ecosystem that we may find that “making use” of all that wealth has cost us our lives.  If we survive, we may well lament the 200 years during which we looked down on the First Peoples as lazy, ignorant, and unproductive and judged them unworthy of the wealth that their land held.  That world view excused our wholesale appropriation of the land, and at its extreme that view justified slaughter.

Just short of that extreme this same language of judgment justified the oppression of Africans and African-Americans both during the period when slavery was practiced and on through the time after its abolition.  To this day the same terms are used to devalue the poor and to justify the refusal to help them.  The unemployed are called lazy.  The drug-addicted, the alcoholics, and the mentally ill are described as spoiled children who just want to play and have fun instead of being responsible and productive.  The judgments passed against these people are not drawn from any investigation or evidence:  they are the shadow side of Capitalism’s supposed virtues and of its attendant bourgeois morality, and they are indiscriminately thrown at anyone the ruling class wishes to push aside.


The language of the conquerors, first the Spanish and then the Americans, defined the vanquished and marginalized them as individuals.  In the Mission, as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, this language of oppression continued in force but in a sense reversed direction.  Now it was the immigrant who was viewed as lazy, ignorant, and child-like.  And each wave of immigrants, as it moved up the social hierarchy on the backs of a new wave of immigrants from a different land, adopted the same terms to denigrate the newcomers.  So Germans who had been judged in this way condemned the Irish who followed them in the same terms; the Irish then condemned the Italians; and so on to today when these terms are used to denounce the poor in general, since the taboo against racism keeps that part of the oppressor’s world view unspoken.

In December of last year, Greg Gopman, the CEO at the time of AngelHack, a Silicon Valley tech company, posted the following on his Facebook page:

“Just got back to SF. I've traveled around the world and I gotta say there is nothing more grotesque than walking down market st in San Francisco. Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue. Each time I pass it my love affair with SF dies a little.

“The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that's okay. 

“In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path. 

“You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I'd consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn't made anyone's life better in a while.”

Again and again in the course of its history, San Francisco has been said to be in the throes of “another Gold Rush.”  The same thing is being said today.  But seldom does anyone examine the conflicts that arise when each wave of fortune hunters floods in.  We have had two kinds of immigration crisis in this city:  one kind is the influx of poor and displaced people fleeing disasters in their homelands and the other is the influx of middle and upper-class fortune hunters.  The two have at times alternated and at times come in tandem, as they do today, when hysteria about illegal border crossings is combined with the kind of rancor toward the existing lower-class population that I just quoted.

This afternoon, while walking first in the Mission and later in the Tenderloin, I saw and felt that the great tear ripping open in this city’s social fabric is not so much the result of the pressures of a growing population from Central and South America but is rather the result of the pressures exerted by the influx of a wealthy and privileged elite.  I do not doubt that the rich and powerful interlopers will win and drive the lower classes out of the two neighborhoods that have been, until recent months, affordable for them.  But with them will go the rich cultural mélange that has been the Mission’s charm.  They will find themselves conquerors of a barren field, rulers of an emptiness whose lack of interest and of cultural value will leave them wondering why they came here at all.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


If you read no more than this first sentence, go to http://kalw.org/ and click on “Listen Now.”

In late 2001, I listened anxiously to radio and television broadcasts, eager to hear someone articulate the thoughts swimming around in my head.  Like a full moon, the advent of war addles the brain of a nation, exciting its animal spirits, and at the end of 2001 not a word of dissent or argument against the brilliant rising orb of battle could be heard on any major news source, including PBS and NPR, both of which seem in ordinary times to be critical of the established consensus.  I was appalled by the American response to Al Qaeda’s attack: rather than dignify the killers by treating them as a political force, we should have branded them as common criminals, as mass murderers, and begun a global police action to bring them to trial.  By deciding instead to treat them as “enemy combatants”, we gave them legitimacy and in a sense created an enemy when we could have shown them to be nothing more than blood-thirsty thugs.

I was also appalled, and not only that but deeply ashamed, by the hypocrisy of the position America took.  The primary reason that the United States has never signed any international agreements to combat terrorism and has refused to join the World Court is that we ourselves are a terrorist state.  No definition of terrorism can be drafted that does not include activities in which the United States in involved every day.  Before we carry on about the evil of ending thousands of “innocent lives”, we should remember Hiroshima and Dresden, we should see in our minds the flash of light over Nagasaki and smell the Napalm as it settles on the jungle canopy in Laos and Viet Nam.

If we had hunted down bin-Laden and the rest to bring them before a court of law (rather than to murder them in cold blood), we would have restored the high moral ground that we staked out at the end of World War Two, when the United States had conquered the world and chose not to crucify its enemies, as Rome had done, but to establish a court of law in Nuremberg, to provide those enemies with defense counsel, and to try each on the merits of his or her case.  We sought not to eradicate those who had fought against us but to reconcile them to a place in a new world society ordered by laws.  

It can be argued that the first President Bush, the last president who had been part of the generation that fought World War Two, was also the last who believed in and lived under the laws of that social and political order.  That war was fought because Saddam Hussein had violated the sovereignty of Kuwait and had to be forced back within the boundaries of the Iraqi state as internationally defined.  It was no mistake that the first President Bush ended the war at that moment.  He should not, as his son believed, have continued into Iraq to eliminate Hussein because to do so would make us guilty of the same crime that he had committed.  

When his son decided on going to war in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, the fascist control of the public debate in this country shut out any who would argue against going to war.  Almost any, that is, because in Congress there was one voice raised in opposition.  Out of 535 members of congress, only the Representative from Oakland and Berkeley, California, Barbara Lee, cast a vote against war.  (Can you imagine the courage it took to stand alone at that moment, when the lycanthropic nation sat baying at the moon for raw, bloody meat?)  And it was at that time that I found at last one voice amongst all the broadcast media which had not fallen into goose-step with the march toward war:  That one voice was KALW, “your local radio station.”

This afternoon I awoke to a musical piece consisting of the voices of homeless women over 50, sampled and mixed with a female choir singing one woman’s statement “It’s hard to leave your stuff.”  I learned that what I was hearing is part of the soundtrack for a dance piece to be premiered tomorrow night on the wall of Hastings Law School in the Tenderloin.  The dancers will be suspended by harness and rope from the top of the 30-storey building and will dance in the air on the side of the building.  I saw the dance company perform a piece about Niagra Falls on the wall of the Renoir Hotel over a year ago, while homeless myself, and I will be at the premier tomorrow night.  I will also be at the reception preceding the performance to hear a discussion by homeless people, their advocates, and service providers, and to listen to a performance by a choir made up of people affected by homelessness.

The dance piece concerns the lives of older homeless women and is entitled “Multiple Marys and Invisible Jane.”

Thank you, KALW.