Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Foul Bastards

Note to Visitors:  This post is a meditation on an address given by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre following the 2-14-18 mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  There are seven poems by Kenneth Patchen interspersed with text.  All poems are from an earlier era, the early and mid-1940s, and the poems reflect that era.  They could also have been written yesterday.  There is a 12-song playlist.

On Thursday, February 22nd, one week after the Parkland, Florida school shootings, NRA head Wayne LaPierre addressed CPAC, the American Conservative Union's 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference.  Here is an excerpt from "NRA Leader Warns Conservatives of 'Socialist Wave' in Wake of Shooting," an NPR write-up of that speech:

     "As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit
     tragedy for political gain," La Pierre said, adding that 20th
     Century community organizer "Saul Alinsky would have been
     proud of the breakneck speed for gun control laws and the
     breathless national media eager to smear the NRA."

     LaPierre, who was not listed on CPAC's official schedule,
     accused Democrats of making gun control a political issue in
     order to achieve their ultimate goal to "eradicate all individual

     "What they want are more restrictions on the law-abiding —
     think about that," LaPierre said.  "Their solution is to make you,
     all of you less free.  They want to sweep right under the carpet
     the failure of school security, the failure of the family, the failure
     of America's school systems and even the unbelievable failure
     of the FBI."

Wow –– that's strong.  It's hard to collect thoughts in the face of this.
But no worry, I'll draw assistance from an earlier time.  I'll let poet Kenneth Patchen speak for me:

     "What I'd Like to Know Is"

     What I'd like to know is
     With people put on earth
     No more armed with hellish
     Weapons of senseless murder
     Than a tree or a river or a sunrise
     Why do we stand for it!
     Why do we go on letting
     These foul bastards pervert
     And slime over everything
     We're here for!

     "War is evil."  Agreed ––
     Sure, that we all buy.
     But how about their "peace"?
     A little less "evil," eh ––
     When you can tell them apart!

     Why do we let these frauds and fakers
     Get away with this loathsome muddle?
     Is this the way men should live!
     What we need to do is
     Boot the bastards out ––

     All of them!  Every damn one!

     Make life fit for human beings!
     Not fit for what these lousy bastards
     Want it to be!
     Not the way it is ––
     Not the way it's always been,
     And will go on being,
     As long as these filthy lice
     Have the say ––
     My God! whose world is this!

(from Pictures of Life and Death, 1946, in The Collected Poems of 
Kenneth Patchen, New Directions Books, 1967)

This poem is self-sufficient and needs no comment from me –– except to say that in darker times I turn to Kenneth Patchen.  He speaks my feelings.  Wayne LaPierre is an exponent of darkness, the public face and shill of arms companies.  His most familiar pitch is that we're in danger of losing hallowed 2nd Amendment rights to those seeking eradication of our "individual freedoms."  Mr. LaPierre links those "freedoms" with gun ownership and the capacity to defend ourselves in a fearsome world.  In Mr. LaPierre's world, the 2nd Amendment is our bulwark against tyranny; in his world, guns are talismanic objects.

I'll turn again to Kenneth Patchen:

     "And When Freedom Is Achieved ... "

     You have used a word
     Which means nothing.
     You have given a word
     The power to send men to death.
     Men are not free who are sent to die.
     Only those who send them are "free."
     You should have freedom stuffed down your fat throats.

(from Cloth of the Tempest, 1943, Ibid.)

It's possible you have not heard of Kenneth Patchen (1911 – 1972).
He was friends with E.E. Cummings, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but remained under-appreciated by academics and critics.  I would refer those interested in Patchen to the poems themselves, and to Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet In America (2013), a comprehensive and experience-near biography by Larry Smith.

Patchen is remembered as a political poet wed to protest, anti-war, and proletarian themes.  His published poems span the mid-1930s through the 1950s, an era of wars, economic dislocations, and stark social inequality.  But Patchen also had a softer, romantic side and could write uncommonly tender love poems.  While he raged at the social conditions of his time, he also found respite in the transcendence of love and the beauty of nature.

His voice can be oracular and exclamatory, and often quite musical.
Here are three more examples:

     "Christ! Christ! Christ! That the World"

     Christ! Christ! Christ! that the world
     Should be so dark and desolate for so many!
     That there should be hungry and sick and homeless
     In every land on earth!

     Brothers who are without light and hope ––
     For whom Death is a friend, whose hand will save them!

     This should rot the hearts of men!
     Instead –– instead ––
     O you dirty filthy swine!

(from Pictures of Life and Death, 1946, Ibid.)

     All the Roses of the World

     They turn every heart to stone O for the love
             Of God they dirty every damn thing

     But I am saying that along the garden path
             Moves a young girl who is as beautiful
          As a deer standing at the edge of a forest
                          Just as it gets dark

                  Jesus all the roses of the world
          Dance through her hair and on her feet
                  Tiny stars learn to walk in purity

     But I am saying they turn every heart to stone
          O for the love of God! with what nobility
              Does she show her everlasting kinship
                      With every living thing!

             O all the sacred wisdom of the earth
          Rests upon her soft lips and in her eyes
             Is a country where death can never go

(from Pictures of Life and Death, 1946, Ibid.)

     I Feel Drunk All the Time

     Jesus it's beautiful!
     Great mother of big apples it is a pretty

     You're a bastard Mr. Death
     And I wish you didn't have no look-in here.

     I don't know how the rest of you feel,
     But I feel drunk all the time

     And I wish to hell we didn't have to die.

     O you're a lousy bastard Mr. Death
     And I wish you didn't have no hand in this game

     Because it's too damn beautiful for anybody to die.

(from An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, 1945, Ibid.)
The pleasures Patchen found in love and the natural world were almost transcendental; they were soul-filling respites from the gutting effects of greed, exploitation, and hate.  For him exploitation was ever at hand.
He always saw the profit motive behind the drumbeats and imperative slogans of patriotism, always heard the jingle inside of jingoism, always spotted the sales pitch.

But then again there would be those occasions of luminous love and safety.  For yet another example, consider this:

     "As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other"

     As we are so wonderfully done with each other
     We can walk into our separate sleep
     On floors of music where the milkwhite cloak of childhood lies

     O my lady, my fairest dear, my sweetest, loveliest one
     Your lips have splashed my dull house with the speech of flowers
     My hands are hallowed where they touched over your
            soft curving.

     It is good to be weary from that brilliant work
     It is being God to feel your breathing under me

     A water glass on the bureau fills with morning ...
     Don't let anyone in to wake us.

(from The Dark Kingdom, 1942, Ibid.)

An enchanting poem, but I am presenting it now for a pressing, topical reason, a Parkland, Florida reason.  Which is this: we owe our children access to the promise of precisely this kind of wonderfulness.  We owe them a future in which they can move, easily or haltingly, into and through adolescence and sometime, somewhere, fall into giddy God-being love with someone.  They should be able to presume that time is on their side, time enough to live and love, and they should have this presumption as their birthright, as the way things simply ought to be.

We owe them this future "Because it's too damn beautiful for anybody to die" –– especially when death comes, precipitously and prematurely, in a high school mass shooting that was arguably preventable had we a Congress with ethics and a spine.  Children should not have to think about mortality in geometry class.  They should not have to live in the shadow of the NRA and the arms industry, nor the flag-draped chicanery of gun marketing –– a marketing which, like all marketing, is profit driven.

Is this fair to the NRA?  What about those alleged "opportunists" bent on gun control legislation and the rescinding of our "freedoms," and what of their unsavory association with Saul Alinsky?  (I realize some of you may be asking, who is Saul Alinsky?  Please wait.)

First of all, let's strip off the aggrieved, combative shellac from that word "opportunists."  Once we do that we can better distinguish between opportunism and remedial responsiveness.  Second, it's true enough, these remedial responders might indeed share a fellowship with Saul Alinsky (1909 – 1972) were Mr. Alinsky still alive.  But this is not a bad thing.  An ardent 20th century community organizer and advocate for social justice, Alinsky espoused a crafty political theater that ridiculed embedded power structures, and which understood the use of media in doing so.

It is a matter of some irony that Mr. LaPierre's staged and provocative CPAC theatrics actually show a nod to Alinsky.  And there is further irony in the fact that it is Saul Alinsky, tarred through tone and insinuation, who is being smeared by Mr. LaPierre.

But why such smearing of someone gone nearly half a century?
Because for LaPierre and conservatives of a certain hue, the very mention of Alinsky's name is code for socialism.  Alinsky was not in fact a socialist, nor a member of any political organization; he was simply a superb community organizer.  But why fret over facts?  We no longer live in an era (if we ever did) in which facts matter.  Facts have devolved into beliefs.  If you can peddle your misinformation with vigor, consistency, and repetition, and if you can slip in a kernel of actual fact, and if others pick up your lie and digitally pass it on, and if Joe Bonzork in Anywhere USA then hears the lie on Angry White Man radio ... well hey! you've got yourself a new Truth.

David Hogg, an articulate and thoughtful survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shootings, has been libeled as a "crisis actor" by the far right.  That lie contains two scraps of truth: David Hogg's status as a teenager, and the fact that his father is a former FBI agent.  Now if you mix those two scraps together, and insert a paranoid plot line, and then serve it up with strident conviction, why in no time you've got a kid clearly too young to be so articulate, and a kid clearly being coached by his father.

This "crisis actor" lie has become viral via Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and a defamatory YouTube video.  What's more troubling, the Hogg family has been receiving death threats, as has another articulate and thoughtful survivor, Cameron Lasky.  Both David Hogg and Cameron Lasky are 17 year olds.  Kids –– kids under attack for speaking truth to power, kids under attack by people with the moral compass of a jello turd.  I want to hit something.

But instead, one last Patchen poem:

     Sure There Is Food

     There is eating one's self

     There is even truth now and then ––
     Of course a lie can be made to go
     Farther that way

     The trick is to get truth and lies
     To sound just the same

     That way you've got it made
     Everybody is mad after while

     Then you can come up with a world
     Where madness is the normal thing

     Of course those who rig it that way
     End up mad themselves

     But –– who's to know the difference?
     This world's the best example I know

(from Pictures of Life and Death, 1946, Ibid.)

Ah, madness –– a funhouse world of distortions and refractions, a "birther" world where facts blur, blend, and mutate with the occasion, a world where truths may be lies and lies look like truths.  Who is smearing whom?  Who is the victim and who the victimizer?  What is fact and what is propaganda?  What is home-grown and what is Russian?  It all gets fuzzy and unreliable, all the more so when our president is indifferent to the difference between fact and fiction, and when "madness is the normal thing."

Lest I get carried afield by thoughts of national madness, let's return to the area Kenneth Patchen and I have been working.  That area is Wayne LaPierre's unscheduled appearance at CPAC, days after the murders of fourteen teenagers and three adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an appearance in which Mr. LaPierre denounced not assault-rife availability but "opportunists" who would limit that availability.

How fortunate that Mr. LaPierre even presented at CPAC that day.  He was not on the official speaker's list, yet he authoritatively stepped in and reset a wobbly gun narrative to its proper axis –– in the nick of time, really, since mangled children and brave, smart, vocal survivors tend to unmask that frayed NRA stalking horse of imperiled freedoms.
How fortunate also that Mr. LaPierre was preceded on the podium by another unscheduled speaker, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch.

Because of Mr. LaPierre's and Ms. Loesch's appearances we too are fortunate, by being vigorously reminded that the real victim here is the NRA, besieged by opportunistic socialists.

The stakes are high, as Mr. LaPierre elaborated later in his CPAC address:

     "I hear a lot of quiet in this room, and I sense your anxiety,"
     LaPierre said, turning to the political consequences of the
     debate.  "And you should be anxious, and you should be
     frightened.  If they seize power, if these so-called European
     socialists take over the House and the Senate, and God
     forbid they get the White House again, our Americans'
     freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed

Forceful stuff –– whatever else he is Mr. LaPierre can work a room.
He's clear-eyed about the threat of "opportunists" and alert to their machinations to seize our freedoms and render us unsafe.  What's more, when viewed through special refraction-glasses, Mr. LaPierre turns out to be absolutely correct.  We are under siege, only by fervid opportunists who put profit over life, by "frauds and fakers" who traffic in fear, paranoia, and killing-tools.

I have good news, though, for Mr. LaPierre, at least on one score.  As regards his charge that the "breathless national media" is "eager to smear the NRA," he can rest easy.  Because there's an oxymoronic problem with the allegation itself –– how can you smear something inherently polluted?  Any attempt to do so will have a likelihood of success comparable to our chances of finding Kenneth Patchen on Mr. LaPierre's nightstand.

So, again:

     Why do we stand for it!
     Why do we go on letting
     These foul bastards pervert
     And slime over everything
     We're here for!

And at root:

      My God! whose world is this! 


Susan B. said...

Thank you, Kit - for introducing me to Keneth Patchen, for your articulate passion.

Kit said...

Thank you, Susan. I appreciate the feedback.

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