“Murphy!” and Frederick Douglass on American Exceptionalism

Whenever I say something like “well, at least the traffic is mercifully light,” Sekhnet will pipe up with a curt, cautionary “Murphy!”   This is the Murphy of Murphy’s Law:  Anything that can go wrong, will– and usually at the worst possible moment.   Sekhnet is of the school that teaches Murphy was an optimist.  It is uncanny how often this maxim comes into play.

I was riding with a friend in the five borough bike tour in May.  We were on the FDR, a section of the highway closed to cars so that thousands of bicyclists can ride on it in the annual 40 mile five borough bike tour.   I told him it looked like the organizers had finally gotten it right as far as pacing and traffic, we hadn’t experienced a single annoying bicycle traffic jam so far.  I may even have mentioned Sekhnet’s “Murphy!”, a crow caw expressing her deeply held superstitious belief that any mention of good fortune immediately activates Murphy’s Law.   

Not five minutes later, as we entered a tunnel portion of the FDR where riders usually let echoing, joyful whoops out as they come into the tunnel, there was a bicycle traffic jam.   We stopped.  We waited.  In a fucking tunnel.  With thousands of others straddling their bikes.   Nobody moved for several long minutes.  Not a single whoop echoed.  “Murphy!” I heard Sekhnet call.  

I wrote recently to a friend that although I love spending time with friends, I am ordinarily not plagued by loneliness or desperation in the extended periods I spend alone.   I value my own company, I added, and blah blah blah.   No sooner did I send the email than I heard Sekhnet’s “Murphy!” and I was overcome by a painful sense of my isolation.

Why is it that I value my own company?  It is largely for the intelligent conversation, I tell myself.  

“Sure, because everything you say you agree with,” says the skeptical side of me.     

“Not necessarily,” I say, candor mixed with pride.  

“Rattle on, rictus face,” says the skeptical side, in a voice modeled on the Dreaded Unit, my father’s.  “You try to make a joke of this, of course, but who, if not fundamentally lonely, would spend all their time working for free the way you do every day, pounding at the keys like a geriatric cub reporter, trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense, ‘communicating’ your innermost thoughts to imaginary others?” 

Well, I grant you all that, but here’s the thing.  Our world is fundamentally irrational.  Look at the sick relationships all around.  Why do people stay in these destructive arrangements?  I had an insane friend once who married a woman I always think of as Hitler.   She abused him for twenty or more years, they separated, got back together, fought.  It was painful to watch him whine at her, see the way she treated him.   He defended her mightily, and then, eventually broken by her indomitable brutality and his overwhelming desire to have sex, he joined a cult, found a woman to have sex with, and decided his wife was Hitler after all.  I simplify, of course, for the sake of the larger point, but I can vouch for the bones of the story.  

Sarno’s theory about rage converted into chronic bodily agony resonates because virtually everybody I know is subject to outrage, a certain amount of inwardly directed rage, the open river of rage that surges in the increasingly endangered world as climate change flash floods run down the ravines.  The great USA is in the hands of cynical madmen, with the personification of spoiled childish self-regard as its figurehead.   They are crazy as foxes, these motherfuckers who will squeeze every drop of blood from the poor to increase their own wealth by 1%.   It is no small thing, 1% of ten billion dollars is a shit load of money.  If I have to pry it out of the hands of 40,000,000 dying children, so be it.  Those aren’t my kids.  

Not my kids.  That’s the mantra of the Free Market.   We love kids, our kids, our friends’ kids.  We don’t care about strangers’ kids as much as we do the kids we know and love.  We don’t care about the kids of people who live far away and might be enemies.  When those kids are killed we shrug, philosophical, bad shit happens.  When we ourselves kill them we shrug, we didn’t actually kill them, our fucking government did.  It’s not as though we live in a real democracy where we have any say over how our elected government treats far away children.  

“Stop looking for logic, you supine, high-minded motherfucker,” says the skeptical side.  “You will search human affairs in vain if you look for reason, beyond the simple, ubiquitous rationales for all behavior, bad and good.  We’ve long observed that almost nobody acts believing that they are doing wrong.  Action almost always involves the belief that you are doing the right thing, even if this belief is balanced on an insanely slapdash rationale.”

 “Sure, the classic ‘she was begging to be raped, dressed like that’,” I say, I say. 

“That’s right.  That’s a good self-talking baby!  You are the best self-talker.  Look how much fun we are having!,” says the adorable skeptic.  

“Oh, cram it, clown.  I’m going to look at angry Frederick Douglass’s beautiful Independence Day speech, delivered to white people in Rochester NY in 1852, as his countrymen celebrated the miracle of American freedom as millions of his fellows lived in chains, doing backbreaking work for free, for America’s wealthiest and most genteel.  

Here is a famous passage: 

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

You can read the entire speech by a unique, inspiring American genius here.  Our enraged commander-in-chief recently stated that Frederick Douglass’ “amazing work” is “being recognized more and more“.  Most Americans knew about Douglass and his work a hundred and fifty years ago.   Read his words of July 4, 1852 and, like the late speeches of Martin Luther King and El Hadj Malik el Shabbaz (Malcom X), try to picture how many decades have passed with only the tiniest adjustments to the hideous truths these American geniuses plainly set out.  

And have a very fucking happy Fourth of July and try not to blow your hand, or your nuts, off celebrating our freedom.

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