The Finality of Death and Sapiens Beliefs


My father died on April 29, 2005.  My mother died on May 21, 2010.  My father knew he was dying and told me, in a struggling voice from his deathbed in a Florida hospital, that I was the only one who knew what was going on.  He told me the last night of his life that he knew my sister and I would take good care of our mother when he was gone, and we did our best to do that.  My mother, as she was fighting death, kept saying she couldn’t understand why she felt so shitty all the time and I understood I was not to say “you’re dying, mom, of a ravaging fucking cancer that’s been devouring you, on and off, for thirty years.”

What remains of each of them are memories and dreams.  My mother might have corrected my grammar here for me, if needed.  Such things have never been my forte.  We play it mostly by ear down here, in this land of the largely tone deaf, and up there, in heaven, there is, it seemed to both of my parents as they were heading out, only a dream for those left alive.

I had one dream after my father died in which Russ Savakus, my father’s good friend and a man long dead, was spinning a record of a song I knew well. I don’t recall the song, but it was about peace and friendship, I think.  It may have been the Youngblood’s “Get Together.” (actually it was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, a song I hardly know, outside of the name).  Russ was sitting cross legged on the floor of my childhood bedroom.  He told me not to forget that my father was loved.  It seemed like an important dream to me.

I had one dream shortly after my mother died during which she told me she was dying.  Her face was smooth, and she was clean, she’d just had a shower.  She was serene-looking.  She said “I’m dying.”  I told her I knew (she was already dead in the real world).  I guess this dream was some kind of closure.  In real life we almost never get closure.  When Death comes for us we must dance off like Woody Allen at the end of Love and Death, screwed or relieved of terrible pain, whatever else we might be in the middle of.  Nobody gets to make sense of our death, unless perhaps if we die heroically saving some child’s life.

“Well, all true, but kind of grim, isn’t it?” says the skeleton.  

I don’t answer today because, while you can imagine any number of things, the real world has other plans.  It might have been nice to have had any number of meaningful chats with an otherwise intelligent father who treated you like an enemy from the time you accusingly stared at him as a five day-old, but nice has far less real-world kick than a good “why don’t you go fuck yourself, kid?”  

I wish I’d been able to discuss “Dream Boogie”, Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of our favorite singer, Sam Cooke, with my father, but Irv was dead before it was published.  I know he would have loved it.  More than that, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”  I remember he spoke highly of it when I mentioned I’d bought a copy.  I like to think it is the kind of history he might have written, given the chance. But most of all, the book I regret not being able to discuss with him is Yuval Noah Harari’s masterpiece “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” 

The great organizing insight of that massive graduate course of a book is that Homo Sapiens are unique in our ability to collaborate en masse based on the often completely contradictory fictions we imagine to be true.  The followers of a murdered rabbi who preached peace, and turning the other cheek if an enemy struck you, and loving thy neighbor as thyself, have somehow also believed they were doing their all-merciful God’s work when they slew, by uncountable millions, non-believers, heretics and heathens.    The sickening fact that for hundreds of years followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace, their Messiah and God’s only son, have been also killing each other has been an inexplicable thing to me.  

Harari provides a way to understand it: large groups of Christians have become convinced of, and fervently believe, the idea that God wants them to kill other large groups of Christians whose worship they now believe offends the Lord, in say, the Hundred Years War, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses or war of any other flower you can think of. Good Christians are ready to put Christian babies to the sword over this belief.  These outbreaks of mass insanity come complete with heroes, martyrs, saints and villains.  

Bogdan Chmelnitsky, who I remember as the guy who organized angry Ukrainians to slaughter Jews back in his day, is on Ukrainian currency, there is a city named after him, not very far from where my grandparents grew up and where their families’ bones are strewn in a ravine.  Only the fucking touchy Jews seem to have any big problem with the Ukrainian national hero Chmelnitsky, typically reducing the guy to the sum of his supposed faults, that he hated fucking Jews, or at least used the masses’ hatred of the fucking Jew for his political ends.

What Harari does not really touch, except fleetingly, and it’s not in his purview, really, is how, if we all die, and live here a short time, and know we must die, we spend so much time committing atrocities, or shrugging off those done in our names.  I have loving friends who shrug when I express horror that our idealistic, brilliant, Nobel Peace Prize winning president launches missiles to kill unknown people in unknown places around the world several days a week.  Some of these people we target for death “hate our freedom”, no doubt, and would be deliriously happy to do the same to us, but many of them, perhaps most, are just trying to live.  

We are being kept safe, bad shit happens, people die every day, I guess the logic goes.  We live in a dangerous world.  There are plenty of Yemeni orphans, who can cry about one more, even a beautiful, inconsolable little girl, just because our drone launched a missile that killed everyone she ever loved?  The genius of Homo Sapiens is that we can rationalize this kind of thing easily, merely by imagining there is nothing particularly immoral about it.

Morality itself, kind of squishy, no?  You know the argument: who are you to impose your morality on someone else?  You think you know what is right and wrong, even though you don’t always refrain from doing what is wrong, but isn’t my right and wrong my own business?    

“That’s it in a nutshell, the argument of the righteous moron,” said the skeleton. “The other side of that is that they reserve the right to impose their morality on you, because they are superior in their beliefs, their God is the true god. Gods save us from the righteousness of righteous morons.”

What did I tell you about staying out of it today?

It has always been this way, if we are to be honest about it.  The Civil War to preserve the genteel Southern Way of Life?  Zinn points out that The Confederacy fought to preserve the vast wealth of the thousand wealthy “planter” families of the South and their God-given and Constitutionally protected right to the possession and unrestricted use of millions of human slaves.   The sixty thousand other southern white farming families, who had far less combined than that less than two percent of rich whites, were pretty much, and I know how my father hated the word, niggers.  Cannon fodder.  These heroic rebel soldiers died believing they were fighting for something worth believing in: the right of the white man to rule the black man.  All I can say is, more of the same true believing Sapiens idiocy.

We buy the name brand, everybody knows you don’t want Brand X when you can have the real thing.  What makes it the real thing?  Dumb fucking question.  It says so right on the box, same familiar box we see on TV, same box everybody else wants, because we know it’s the best.  That’s why it costs a little more, because it’s the name brand, it’s the best.  Worth every penny extra, too.

“Treat potato chips, Elie,” says the skeleton, who clearly cannot keep his jaws shut.  

Treat was a big brand in potato chips when I was a kid.  They were delicious, lightly colored and superior, to my eight year-old palate, to Wise, Lays and the other big brands, which were sometimes pretty much burnt.  I loved Treat potato chips, they really were aptly named.  (As much so as the aptly named Dick Cheney, in fact.)  

One summer when we were living in that cabin on the beach at Wading River our parents took us to the Treat potato chip factory, which was not a long drive from that little house on the north shore of Long Island.  We took the tour, munching the delicious sample Treat potato chips.   In one vast room with an impossibly high ceiling, the last one they showed us, my little sister and I had an eye-opening moment.  Rivers of Treat potato chips fell down chutes into a series of bags marked Treat.  Other chutes filled bags marked “Waldbaums” and “Daitch Shopwell” and “Hills”.  These were the names of supermarket chains.  The store brand was exactly the same as the name brand.  What?

As long as we have a story to believe in, we are capable of anything.  “He died a hero valiantly defending his country’s honor and freedom,” politicians said of Pat Tillman.  Tillman was a hero, no question, a smart man with integrity and a great sense of loyalty, who gave up millions of dollars to re-sign with the only team that had shown faith in him when he was first looking for a job in professional football.  He took millions less to remain on his original team.  At the time I’m sure he was mocked for it, a sucker for taking so much less than he was worth.  

When America was attacked by fanatics on September 11, 2001, Pat Tillman and his brother immediately enlisted in the military to hunt for the people responsible.  Tillman would be quickly disillusioned, seeing at once that the whole thing was a staged manipulation of the public for cynical purposes.  The whole story, or as much as I’ve learned of it (mostly from the great Jon Krakauer), is here

Tillman was killed on a hill in Afghanistan, after an ambush of his split platoon, an avoidable disaster that he and everyone else he knew predicted (Rumsfeld’s standing orders didn’t make these kinds of distinctions) waving his arms to signal his guys that it was him, Pat Tillman. “Don’t shoot, guys, it’s me, it’s Tillman!” he was yelling over the noise as the bullets from an adrenalized American gunner splattered his brains on the rocks behind him from forty yards away. It was necessary, of course, to burn his diaries, which would only tarnish the administration’s narrative of an American hero who did not hesitate to give him life for his fellow soldiers, and his great nation, when they needed him most.

We say he died in “friendly fire.” Some cunt was paid a lot of money to come up with that skillfully benign phrase. Same guy probably coined “collateral damage” to sanitize, and make palatable, the mass-murder of innocent, faceless civilians who die horrible deaths so we can kill those who “hate our freedom.” Ca-ching!

“You’re talking about the nature of the human world, Elie, it has always been well-paid, cynical assholes who frame the story for the gullible, blood-thirsty, self-interested masses,” said the irrepressible skeleton.  

“Look, you might as well let me have my say, this is my story after all.  Plus, me talking after I’m dead is no bigger a fiction than American representative democracy, if you know what I’m sayin’.”  

I hear you, dad.  

“When you pick it up next time, tell them about Cousin Dave, the multi-millionaire Communist of the family… and also about Harari’s insight about the changed relation between humans and animals with the dawn of agriculture,” said the skeleton, with either a big smile or a huge yawn.




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