I had a random thought just now, listening to the president’s bold new plan to meet his stable genius counterpart in North Korea (something the U.S. Secretary of State himself didn’t know about as recently as yesterday) that when I was growing up we knew virtually everybody on our block.
I thought of Sam Gerwitz, across the street, who my father told me was very rich. He must have been, he and his wife had a little statuette of a jockey, a small white fellow (his face and hands may have been painted pink during my early childhood), on their front lawn. He held a lantern illuminating the path from the sidewalk, a path to their front door with a large white column on each side. He was exactly the kind of little jockey Frank Zappa sang about knocking off the rich people’s lawns in his gospel-tinged Uncle Remus.
I thought of the Meltons down the street, their daughter Joy, and Pierre, their dog. My father came in angry one day after work, carrying his battered brief case. Pierre had apparently loped on to our front lawn and left a pile of steaming cannon ball-sized turds. I don’t remember what kind of dog Pierre was, possibly a standard poodle, but my father was outraged that the Meltons let him run wild to gleefully defecate on the neighbors’ lawns. Melton might have smiled, observing his dog taking the Arnold Palmer putting stance and letting nature take its course. I just remember how outraged my father was, and who could blame him?
The point of these quaint recollections is that I could go down the block, certainly our end of the street, and name every family, and family member, in every house, the Bengles, the Ticks, the Weissmans. Such is not the case for most children growing up today.
The Good Humor man knew our dog Patches and would front her a cup of vanilla ice cream (which he dutifully opened for her and placed within reach of her tongue) until a human came out of our house to give him the ten cents. “Patches would come running, along with all the neighborhood children, when the music from that truck started,” my mother reminded us.
In those quaint days on the leafy streets of Queens, New York, we led what seemed an idyllic childhood. My best friend Michael Siegel and I built a series of forts (in peoples’ back yards), formed the Waterbugs– a secret society dedicated to running through every sprinkler they passed– made an intricate system of dams in the street when the sprinklers sent water in rivulets down the hill to Union Turnpike, played baseball in the street. Nobody feared the Good Humor man, or any local shop owner, as far as any of them being a child molester. It emerged, years later, that my best friend’s father was a pedophile, but apparently such a gracious host, so gentle and loved by the boys on the block that several stood crying as the cops led him away.
Not to imply by these sentimental little vignettes that life in those days was like the Great America our imbecilic president claims he’s trying to bring back. Yes, I grew up in a stable neighborhood of well-tended lawns, on a quiet street where I knew everybody’s name. But, as Woody Allen’s slippery character evasively answered in The Front, when asked under oath if he knew a certain suspected Communist screenwriter: when do you really know somebody? Did the neighbors hear our screaming fights at the dinner table every night?
The public school I attended was segregated, a decade after the Supreme Court ordered an end to the racist practice. I remember the first black children arriving at our school, on the E, F and G buses, at the end of a bitter war I also remember, during which my mother’s friend and pro-integration comrade Mildred Rose received a vicious letter with COMMIE scrawled across the envelope. I recall Mildred’s horror as she told my mother, gasped the word COMMIE, the look of concern that crossed my mother’s face. The word itself was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. My friend Robbie and I began using it daily, calling each other and everyone else Commie and laughing at how it was always so fucking funny.
Meanwhile, largely unknown to us, our government was engaged in an existential war on Commies everywhere, in the name of freedom, had been since a decade before our births. In the name of freedom charismatic John F. Kennedy quietly sent military advisors and tons of weapons to help a corrupt Vietnamese regime fight the Commies led by Vietnamese nationalist hero Ho Chi Minh. An invented pretext allowed Kennedy’s successor to escalate the war, a war to prevent all the countries of Southeast Asia from falling like dominos to Communism if Vietnam was lost to the godless Commies. The “Domino Theory,” like “Manifest Destiny” before it, was good enough to sustain an unimaginably gigantic campaign of organized violence and mass murder for years.
Here is what I am getting to about accepting reality. The reality then for me, as I became a teenager, was if the Vietnam war had continued another year or so, I would have had to figure out how to get out of the draft, like war-loving Dick Cheney, Dubya Bush and Donald Trump had, or be sent over there to fight for American freedom by burning the villages of Vietnamese Commie sympathizers on “our” side of the arbitrary line drawn on a map when the northern part was ceded to the Commies after the expulsion of the French colonialists not long before I was born.
Much of my childhood had been spent watching atrocities on TV, exciting war news about a war no more sensible, or justifiable, really, than the First World War. The scores ran like obscene basketball scores across the bottom of the screen. Yesterday we won 1,396 to 55. We killed 1,396 Commies, they’d only gotten 55 of us. Later we learned how the scores were arrived at: kill any Vietnamese guy between 12 and 60, score one for us. All presumed fucking Commies.
I remember seeing a marijuana-related piece on the nightly war news, which we sometimes watched during dinner on a small black and white TV with rabbit ears. The piece was a brief aside about the rampant drug use by American soldiers in Vietnam (thousands came back addicted to heroin). A couple of smiling grunts demonstrated the ingenious technique of using a gun barrel as a pipe for smoking inhumanly large lungfuls of ganga. They’d create a burning pile of the weed at the top of the gun barrel and one soldier would blow the smoke forcefully through the gun barrel into another soldier’s mouth. They called it shotgunning. I remember the poor bastard who’d been on the receiving end of the shotgun, an American kid caught in an endless jungle war in toxic quicksand, falling over backwards laughing, expelling vast, thick plumes of smoke. The news correspondent mentioned the name of the god-forsaken place they were sitting and signed off.
There was a massive anti-war movement, and I attended many mass protests as did most people I knew, but the war machine raged on for years. Many of us marched out of outrage against what was going on, the horrors being committed in our names, and fear for our fate if this insane war was not ended. Our leaders spoke high-mindedly about ending the war on our terms, Peace with Honor. One slogan the anti-war folks had was “Killing for Peace is like Fucking for Chastity.” After the American attack on Vietnam (which included vast quantities of chemical weapons like Dow Chemical’s Napalm , a flammable flesh burning weapon from hell) finally ended our leaders realized an all volunteer army was better for morale, and public support of any war. The end of the draft had the great benefit of depriving millions of a personal stake for protesting American military adventures to wipe out godless Commies (today the enemy is “terror”) wherever they might be hiding.
Accepting reality means, on one level, accepting that there is really nothing we can do about the irresistibly obscene profits of those who make weapons. Can’t sell the goddamned things and have ’em sit in a fucking warehouse, governments ain’t going to go for that on the gigantic scale we need to make it worth keeping the factories going full-time, keeping everyone employed in the munitions industry. Got to have wars, constantly, everywhere we can. It’s a sad reality, but military force is the only thing these evil motherfuckers understand. When Trump dropped “the mother of all bombs,” devastating a square mile of Afghanistan, he got a standing ovation from the spokesmen for a nation grateful that he was finally acting “presidential”.
Talking piece of shit and chief apologist for our culture of gun violence Wayne LaPierre reminded me the other day, with his snide dismissal of godless left-wing attempts to cynically exploit tragedy and manipulate the public after every single isolated and unfortunate high-profile mass shooting of school children, of a long dead activist whose name has become a snarling point for patriotic right wing pundits: Saul Alinsky. I reserved Alinsky’s 1971 Rules for Radicals from the public library and a few days later picked it up at the branch that is scheduled for demolition, as soon as all the ULURPs are signed off on and the checks are all cut to interested parties.
The book is a guide for practical actions to steadfastly but nonviolently change hearts, minds, practices and laws. During his prologue Alinsky states emphatically that the revolution he advocates has nothing to do with Communist revolution, although Communists have written virtually all of the manuals for revolution in the past century. He states several times that violence is not a sensible option for affecting positive social change in a democracy. He points out the failures of every revolution by force, how quickly the new oppressors entrench themselves in self-perpetuating power. He makes the point that social change, imagining and creating a better world, requires overturning many core beliefs of the status quo.
The U.S., at the time he was writing, had produced 1,600 tons of nerve gas. We weren’t going to use it, of course, but we needed 1,600 tons of it since the Commies were intent on converting every American to a slave. Follow that logic, if you can. That deadly shit, the kind of stuff that, if his forces employed it, would justify a righteous attack on the murderous Mr. Assad in Syria, is now at the bottom of the oceans, waiting harmlessly for God knows what. Nerve gas is an inhuman, universally condemned chemical weapon, although, it must be said, the U.S. still produces and sells White Phosphorous, which burns unstoppably through flesh and bone and the use of which is considered, by many, to be a war crime.
How does the world get better? By people of conscience organizing, imagining a better future, creating effective nonviolent battle plans, improvising smartly, using the mass media to further our narrative of how the world should be. I have not read very far into Alinsky’s book, but it invites me to imagine the world and the kind of principled action he is talking about. You can’t kill your way to peace anymore than you can fuck your way to chastity.
When I was eight racist police chiefs were turning high powered hoses on blacks who were intent on voting, using public bathrooms, walking on the sidewalk instead of the street, not being lynched for the crime of making eye contact with their white superiors. I am now sixty-one and racist government officials still fight the idea that just because significant numbers of unarmed blacks are killed by the police every year, in numbers grotesquely disproportionate to the percentage of blacks in America, that we have a systemic problem here. The problem is not widespread racist injustice, according to these officials, it’s fucking agitators, lawlessness, troublemakers, whistleblowers, goddamned ‘citizen journalists’ with their video phones, malcontents, racist black terrorists, Commies.
Homo sapiens, the descendants of apes who now rule the planet, calls itself “wise man,” sapiens apparently meaning wise. We are wise enough to combine in huge numbers, animated by abstract beliefs, and do amazing things. Sadly, one of the most common and consistent of these things is organized mass violence against other groups of humans, against any species or ecosystem we choose. We were wise enough to rise up, from an insignificant prey animal, and organize ourselves, collectively, during the geological blink of an eye, into the apex predator on the planet.
When President Obama vastly expanded the drone killing program his people came up with something called the Signature Strike. It might have been Cheney’s people with that innovative idea, I’d have to ask Jeremy Scahill [the program apparently started in 2008 at the end of the Bush administration– ed.] . The theory is fairly straightforward: certain actions in certain areas are the signatures of terrorists and militants. When we detect a pattern of such things we send a drone to kill the unknown persons who are engaging in things terrorists tend to do. When we count the dead bodies, any male body between certain ages is counted as an enemy combatant. As simple, and effective, as the body counts in Vietnam. You hardly need a scorecard to know that if we kill more of them than they kill of us, we are winning.
We homo sapiens are capable of amazing things, creating transcendent beauty. We can move each other to cry using words, sounds, sights, tastes. We can laugh, and make each other laugh, by these same devices. We are also the most violent, insane, unbending motherfuckers on the planet. Can you imagine a better future? We must get busy finding others who share this vision, organizing, successfully spinning our vision of a better future correctly in the mass media, influencing the perceptions, confirming the most decent innate beliefs of our fellow citizens.
Failing this, we’re all fucking dead, my friends. The New York Times may put a nice spin on much of this, you know, how freedom and progress are on the march, and the world is a pretty good place, never better, really, if you can afford to buy the things that make it worthwhile, of course, but none of their bodies are on the line, until every human body on the planet is on the line. Which, one could argue, is now.
 Here’s a surprise for you, gentle reader:
In the 1960s, the Dow Chemical Company re-partnered with Badische, the German company that had produced Zyklon-B, the gas used to execute people in Nazi death camps, and formed Dow-Badische. Dow-Badische created and produced Napalm-B, an updated napalm consisting of “25 percent gasoline, 25 percent benzene, and 50 percent polystyrene”. After news reports of napalm B’s deadly and disfiguring effects were published, Dow Chemical experienced boycotts of its products, and its recruiters for new chemists, chemical engineers, etc., graduating from college were subject to campus boycotts. The management of the company decided that its “first obligation was the government.” Meanwhile, napalm B became a symbol for the Vietnam War.
 Signature strikes began during the Bush years, in January 2008, as the US intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. When Obama entered office in 2009, his administration picked up where Bush left off and exponentially increased the number of drone strikes. During his eight years in office, Bush launched 51 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed between 410 and 595 people. Obama, so far, has launched 419 drone strikes in Pakistan, alone, and killed over 4,500 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009. (this was as of August 4, 2015)