Claire: “Mama, what do you think is the most dangerous part of a lion or a bear? Lemony Snicket says it is the stomach, because by then you are already torn up and eaten. But I say that by the time you get to the stomach you are already dead, and so Lemony Snicket is not reasonable.”
Archive for October, 2011
I expected to hate the place. I expected to lie low and conceal my politics and edge towards the exit. I was pre-alarmed by the non-ironic Stetsons.
I did not expect a city in Texas to make me catch my breath at its beauty. But for all the corporate touristy shit slathered on it, the San Antonio River Walk is bone-beautiful. Arching trees and ducks paddling on the dappled water, and the cafes nestled in cool grottos.
I didn’t expect it to be so Mexican. Or its Mexicanness to make me feel so at home.
But it was Texas. My taxi driver back to the airport, a gorgeous Hispanic grandfather, fielded a call from his wife, who was in tears. Their son’s childhood friend, Frank Garcia, had lost his last-minute appeal. His execution went ahead as scheduled.
Trigger warning for child abuse
My cheery holiday reading included this bleak account of the prosecution of seven Pitcairn Island men (of a population under fifty) for raping children. Amazingly, or not, one of their lines of defense was that they did not consider themselves part of the British Empire (this after decades of hanging the Queen’s portrait everywhere and welcoming the DoE and Lord Mountbatten as their own personal royalty in 1971) and that, consequently, they were unaware that forcing sex on pre-pubescent girls is wrong.
The “We aren’t British” defense was officially put down by Lord Hoffman, president of the Privy Council, in 2006: “I must confess that I have (ha ha), I mean (ha ha), seldom heard a more unrealistic argument (ha ha).” But it is also undermined at every point by the language of the defendants. It’s not only that they spoke English (as well as their own dialect, Pitkern.) It’s the English they used. A disabled man is nicknamed “Mento”. A coward is a “woos.”
That’s the English they speak where I grew up, in the arse-end of the British Empire. Matter of fact nearly everything about Pitcairn seemed familiar to me: the thongs and shorts and t-shirts, the bullying, the wives who invited all the journalists over in order to lecture them for three hours about their husbands’ innocence. And then never socialized with them again.
That’s how things were where I grew up. I got scolded by lots of wives exactly like those wives, for stumbling blindly towards the same kinds of socially unacceptable questions. I was bullied by men like the Pitcairn men. I wasn’t raped, lucky me, but I was groped.
I’ve fallen into the lazy habit of describing that Australia as a “bully culture,” one in which cruelty and meanness and dehumanizing behaviour were routine. Marks herself touches on something like this:
…a sense of inferiority, because they were from such a tiny, faraway place and felt sure that everyone else was better educated than them, and more sophisticated.
Australian exceptionalism is such a neat little just-so story, and it ties Rupert Murdoch up with a pink ribbon like a little gift, how festive! But it’s unfair to all the Australians who aren’t bullies, and don’t partake in that culture. And it conveniently lets me off the hook for all the ways in which I bullied other people.
And nice as it would be to think that I left the bullies behind when I got on a plane, it’s not remotely true. Geek Feminism exists because of the bullying that’s endemic to online culture. Dick Cheney is nothing if not the king of all fat complacent war-profiteering bullies who sleeps dreamlessly each night on impossibly-high-thread-count sheets. Murdoch may have grown up in Australia but his slavering toadies at News and Fox are drawn from the entire Anglosphere. So what am I talking about here? What is bully culture and where does it come from?
Robin Fox, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says “Just because it’s isolated, and people are stuck there, doesn’t mean you get that outcome. If a bunch of Tahitians had settled on Pitcairn voluntarily with their pigs and their women, they would have set up a recognizable Polynesian society, and it would have been a different story.”
But it wasn’t a bunch of Tahitians, it was a bunch of English-speaking Westerners, and so what they set up instead was a recognizable…
To get to Oz Farm you drive for a million years on 101 then turn left and drive for a billion years on the most beautiful twisty turny roads in the world. The good news: in the mumblety years since we first ventured up there, my driving has improved out of sight. The bad news: I have daughters now, who get carsick. When we finally reached the domes, down an unpaved road, along a riverbed, over a log bridge and up through a bit of Middle-earth, it was with armfuls of vomity laundry to wash in the bath.
The good news: Oz Farm is still the loveliest place on the planet. The domes sit above the river, beside a meadow, under a redwood forest. We’ve never had such spectacular weather this late in the year. We could pick apples off the trees and eat them, but it was hot enough to swim in the river. We saw Stellar’s blue jays and frogs and falcons and deer and garter snakes and the bat that lives inside the domes. We climbed the Point Arena lighthouse and saw seals and a kestrel and the exhalations of a whale.
Mostly I lay in the sun and read, or sat by the fire and read. I caught up on any amount of sleep debt. We had ravioli and rack of lamb. Carole made lemon mousse. We drew pictures and played Carcassonne and took a sleeping bag outside so we could lie on the deck and watch the stars. Both Claire and Julia fell asleep in my arms.
Claire: Mama, what is your favourite flavour of sorbet?
Me: I will eat any kind of sorbet.
Jeremy: Even poo-flavoured?
Claire: Even snot-flavoured?
Jan: What if we served you horse-flavoured sorbet? What would you say then?
Me: Ciao, Bella.
Me: I dreamed I was giving birth again and was very annoyed with my substandard care. “Where’s my doula? I can’t work under these conditions!” Then the baby was born and it was a boy and I was ambivalent. We argued about whether to call it William or Gabriel. You said Gabriel would get him teased at school. I said “Of coure he’s going to get teased at school. He’s a snake.” Have you ever breastfed a snake?
Me: I have. He was a colicky little snake too, always writhing if I put him down. And I was all, we’re not going to be celebrating your first steps now are we? Then he tried to slither into the new shelves, and the inevitable happened. My dream actually had captions at this point: “The inevitable happened.” Julia trod on him.
Julia, round-eyed: I did?
Me: And that was the end of our son the snake.
I came across a notebook the other day with this written on the back:
SHE ROTE IT
THIS IS HOW YU RITE MI NEM
Okay, so what no one ever told me about Eichmann in Jerusalem is how funny it is; and not only funny but my favourite kind of funny: angry-funny.
To each count Eichmann pleaded: “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.”
In what sense then did he think he was guilty? In the long cross-examination of the accused, according to him “the longest ever known,” neither the defense nor the prosecution nor, finally, any of the three judges ever bothered to ask him this obvious question.
Not that there is anything funny about what Eichmann did. I came to this book, obviously, by way of Bloodlands and Postwar, both of which regard it as indispensable. And both of those books, good as they are, are hard going. As Ta-Nehisi said in a related context: “History is quite the burden. I am sorry about that. But this is the work before us.”
Arendt’s name is inseparable from her coinage: “the banality of evil.” And somehow I had walked away with the impression that Arendt’s book itself is banal, or that the experience of reading it is unrelievedly negative. And this is not the case. Arendt’s anger is coruscating. Her intelligence illuminates these dark places like lightning bolts.
Throughout the trial, Eichmann tried to clarify, mostly without success, this second point in his plea of “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds. As for the base motives, he was perfectly sure that he was not what he called an innerer Scheweinehund, a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart; and as for his conscience, he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care. This, admittedly, was hard to take.
It is a little hard to take, isn’t it? I have said that the terrible question of the 20th century was “Why do you want me dead?” but there’s a worse question, isn’t there? It is “Why do I want you dead?” Are you perfectly sure that you are not what Eichmann calls an innerer Scheweinehund? I am not at all sure that I am not.
As a clinical diagnostician, Arendt makes Greg House look like Patch Adams.
Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systemic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. “Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to ‘admit’? Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”–a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler, who had expressed it during the last year of the war… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.
Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences.
She examines him under the microscope of her rigor, and finds an ill-educated, failed vacuum-cleaner salesman, temperamentally disinclined to introspection, who rose to the level of his incompetence in a political culture that cynically exploited his particular traits. There were keen minds in the Nazi party, but Eichmann’s was not one of them. He was led into his great sins by his craving for acceptance, his intellectual laziness and his willingness to accept lies at face value.
By that much-abused word “banality” Arendt does not mean boringness. Eichmann’s deeds, if not his character, are too horrible to be boring. She means that Eichmann is inadequate to his place in history. Be angry at him all you want. He cannot even comprehend what you think he did wrong.
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (“Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement, to declare something under oath as a witness. I refuse it, I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience has been that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or any other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony, I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me”) and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might “do so under oath or without an oath,” declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath? Or who, repeatedly and with a great show of feeling, assured the court, as he had assured the police examiner, that the worst thing he could do would be to try to escape his true responsibilities, to fight for his neck, to plead for mercy–and then, upon instruction of his counsel, submitted a handwritten document, containing his plea for mercy?
As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever being aware of anything like “inconsistencies.” As we shall see, this horrible gift for consoling himself with cliches did not leave him in the hour of his death.
Contemporary parallels are left as an exercise for the reader. I am constantly reminded of DW Harding’s phrase about Jane Austen: “regulated hatred.” I suspect that like Austen’s novels, Arendt’s book should be one that I return to every year.
After Claire’s riding lesson on Saturday, she and Julia and Jan and I went to visit Filoli, a highly improbable English country house with acres of formal gardens in the foothills of the California Coast Range. It was a glorious October day, with air like sauvignon blanc and the promise of fresh apples. Jan is evidently a little unused to sightseeing at the kids’ natural pace, a rapid trot, but it did mean we inspected the house and gardens comprehensively, if not in great detail.
My affection for Filoli is part of my swords-into-ploughshares fetish, like my deep love for the former nuclear missile silo that is now the Marine Mammal Center. After sixty years of housing high privilege and absurd balls and drunken dinner parties and so forth, Filoli was donated to the National Trust in 1975 and now any commoner and her kids and her mother-in-law can bounce through it at will.
And not only us. As we came out of the visitor center after returning our pencils (filling out the kids’ scavenger hunt, for the purposes of) I stopped and caught my breath. A doe bounded across the path, not ten feet in front of me, and into the olive groves to my left. She was followed by another doe, a fawn and a third doe. Claire and Julia, crowding behind me, saw them as well: their ballet-dancer bodies arrested for a heartbeat in the golden-hour light, every tawny hair detailed, their graceful heads turned to look at us, the deep orbs of their eyes. Then a weightless leap into the olive trees and away.
“That!” said Julia, “is the coolest thing that has EVER HAPPENED TO ME IN MY LIFE.”
Sure, I oppose the death penalty in the case of Troy Davis. Who doesn’t.
But I also oppose the death penalty in the case of Lawrence Brewer, who was killed in Texas the same night.
I oppose the death penalty in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki.
I oppose the death penalty in the case of Osama bin Laden.
Killing people is the problem. It’s not the answer.