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Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category

“The Watcher,” A Story by Yasser Y. El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story on July 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. Has has a forthcoming short story collection with Red Dirt Press, The Alexandria You Are Losing. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

Highway 280 was Sara’s preferred route to the community college whenever Wissam, like today, was able to drive her. Otherwise, she rode the bus which took a different route through the inner streets of Redwood City. Except with the bus she didn’t get to glide past the panorama of green mountains. An imposing terrain of Northern California foothills separating the peninsula from the ocean. Nor could she soak in the golden haze of morning sunlight flooding those very same foothills, illuminating the sullen density of verdant terrain into something brighter and more welcoming. That’s how she always perceived the morning sunlight against the face of the foothills—a welcome of sorts.

She asked about those foothills the day she first arrived in the Bay Area of San Francisco, peering at the mountains through the car window before they pulled off the highway onto Farm Hill Boulevard.

“What are they called?” She asked Wissam.

Wissam shrugged and said, “they’re not called anything.”

But she knew they had to have a name. What beautiful mountains like these don’t have a name she thought? Even the hills of the Red Sea had a name—the Red Sea Mountains. Unremarkable but still something. Not wanting to argue with Wissam after so many months apart, she said only, “What’s behind them?

“The ocean,” Wissam said.

“The Pacific Ocean,” Sara added.

Wissam laughed, reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. “Yes, the Pacific Ocean.” Then added, “Sara, I have missed you so much.”

They lived in a one bedroom apartment on Roosevelt Avenue, a couple of blocks from downtown Redwood City. A quiet street with an off-white stucco front, Mexican palms on either side of a narrow concrete walkway that led to the entrance of the apartment block. Indoors, the building had a stale, tired smell; a thin sheen of air-freshener thickly infused by a percolating aroma of cooking oil and mildew. Sara had emailed her mother in Alexandria her first impression of their home.

I see rooftops from our bedroom window,” she wrote. “And imagine their gray against the sky is an ocean. Although that makes me miss our small apartment in Alexandria and the view of our sliver of the Corniche.  But Wissam says the ocean is just a short distance away. He will take me there this weekend. Half Moon Bay. It is peaceful here. And lonely. I wish you could all be here with me.

#

She would have preferred the America of Barack Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. She had lingered on that middle name when she had first heard it in Alexandria. Marveled that this man could be the president of this faraway land. Even felt a connection through that name to this vast and mysterious continent. Her perspective on the country changing, softening. Towards the end of that presidency Wissam had received a grant from the Egyptian government to spend a year at a biotechnology company. She had been excited to join him, although less so now that the new occupant had settled into the White House. No sense of connection there. Rather anxiety and trepidation over what she saw on the television. So much so that she had called Wissam from Egypt worried if it was safe for him to be there, and safe for her to join him. Wissam had teased her on the phone, said that the surveillance cameras around the apartment and even the ankle bracelets were really not so bad. Something he had gotten used to.

“But I wear a hijab,” she had persisted.

“Many of those around here too,” he had said, and then added with a chuckle, “This is San Francisco. They’ve turned it into a fashion item.”

So she had come. Tearfully hugged her mother Fayza and sister Lubna farewell in the darkened lobby of their apartment building, drove with her Uncle Malik, her mother’s brother, through the still empty streets of the city, the dawn light gray and filtering, to the Borg El Arab airport an hour outside Alexandria. She had been on a plane twice before. Once to the Hurghada on the Red Sea for a cousin’s wedding, and once to Istanbul as part of a college course on verse and poetry in Ottoman Turkey. But she knew enough to know she disliked air travel. The utter loss of control. The knowledge that the chances of surviving a technical mishap were virtually nil. So Sara had muttered the fatha on each of those lift-offs and landings, and did the same this time as the plane ascended above Alexandria, then as it landed in Frankfurt, and a few hours later again on another plane to San Francisco.

#

Near the end of Sara’s first week, Halloween, and the incessant knocking on her apartment door. She peered through the eyeglass at the ghouls and angels, bloodied corpses and little girls dressed as butterflies. She wondered what kind of place she had come to. Wissam stayed late at work that night, and she had telephoned him trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. She described to him what she was seeing, and he had started to laugh uproariously before settling down and explaining that this was an American tradition. They were just children who lived in the apartment complex. But, yes, best not open the door because they had no candy to offer.

The Sunday after Halloween, Wissam drove them down Highway 280, merging onto Route 92 over the foothills to Half Moon Bay. Sara knew he was watching her out of the corner of his eyes, and that he was amused by the way she pressed her face against the glass pane of her car window, trying to peer into the lush green valleys and steep canyons formed between the mountain range. The landscape huge and pressing, dream-like in its scope and immediacy, a source of fascination and fear for Sara. One ill-considered turn of the steering wheel could send them both hurling into the darkening abyss below. She pulled back with that thought, head tilted up on the headrest, eyes looking straight ahead.

“Dizzy?” Wissam said gently.

“Keep your eyes on the road, please, Wissam,” Sara muttered.

“We’ll be on the other side before you know it,” Wissam replied reassuringly.

And so they were. Descending into green farmlands, broad swathes of pumpkin patches, quaint wineries and small horse ranches, a business with strange clusters of life-size woodcarvings of animals: bears and dinosaurs and elephants. And across the road from that, a cemetery, ragged, dilapidated, abandoned, except for an old woman, hair pinned up in a bun, dressed in a gray raincoat and black boots, and peering down at a tilting tombstone. Past that into what looked more familiar—a gas station, a small supermarket and fish restaurant—then a right turn onto the Cabrillo Highway and the chalky grey sea in full view.

“Half Moon Bay,” said Wissam, smiling up at her.

Sara reached over and burrowed her hand under Wissam’s thigh. They had made love earlier that morning. He had stirred against her when she first awoke—waiting for her. She had been restrained in lovemaking during the early months of their marriage, but had felt restraint dissipate with time. Then had come the bloody miscarriage in the ragged Shatby Hospital labor ward, and for months after that Sara had refused any physical intimacy.

“Now I’m getting excited again,” he said looking over at her, her hand still nestled under his thigh.

But Sara was looking out beyond the Cabrillo Highway, the dark bodies bobbing in the water on surfboards, wondering who these people were and what they were doing?

“It’s called surfing,” Wissam explained. “They stand up on these boards and let the waves carry them along. But the water is cold here year round, not like back home. So they have to wear these black outfits.”

Wissam pulled off the narrow highway at the dusty entrance to the Miramar Beach Inn. He had told her about the restaurant the night before, relaying a story he’d heard from an acquaintance at work.

“It used to be a house of prostitution and where illegal alcohol was stored years ago.”

“Alcohol was illegal here?” Sara asked, perplexed.

“Apparently so. A long time ago.”

“Hmm,” she mused. “Why would we eat there? A house of prostitution.”

“It’s a restaurant now,” he said laughing.

“Still,” she said with a shrug.

The restaurant was a one story squat structure next to a parking lot and across a gravel path from the ocean. When they had parked the Honda Civic and stepped out of the car, Sara stood facing the open water, the sea breeze whipping up against the edges of her hijab. She tucked a loose strand of hair back in place.

“It’s beautiful Wissam,” she said. She was gazing out at the tapered stretch of sand, the crescentic curve of the bay, billows of fog against the surrounding mountains, the water gray and foamy merging with the pewter tinged sky. But for the mountains, it was Alexandria on a stormy November morning with the Corniche curving along the shore.

“Here,” Wissam said, reaching for her arm, turning her to face him, her back to the sea. “Let me take a picture of you. We can text it home.”

They found a window table. Sara ordered petrale sole on a bed of saffron rice and a coca –cola. Wissam selected the house burger, French fries and a beer.

Sara regarded Wissam, her expression a mix of dismay and alarm.

“I’ve fallen in love with American burgers and fries,” he said evasively.

“A beer Wissam?” She hissed in a low voice leaning into the table.

“Just one,” he said.

“Since when?” She whispered angrily.

“I don’t know Sara,” he sat back in his seat, forcing a distance between them. “It’s different here. It’s not all about heaven and hell and haram all day long from every loudspeaker 5 times a day.”

“It’s our faith, Wissam!” She said, this time her voice louder. She pulled back, turned her face to the window and the bustle outside, a scatter of people ambling down the gravel road, or pausing to take in the view.

She knew she had always been more observant. Had always felt in him a careless attitude about religion. His adherence back home only because it was safer than rebelling. He would never have ordered alcohol in public in Alexandria. But of the two of them it was only Sara who kept regular prayer each day, facing Mecca. If she missed a prayer, she would assiduously make it up by day’s end. “Do you think God really keeps that close a count,” he had teased her once.

When the beer arrived he set it aside. “Truce?” he said with a hopeful expression.

She sighed, said nothing, distractedly spread butter on the open half of a bread roll.

“A truce?” Wissam said again, reaching for her hand.

She nodded, “Yes, Wissam. A truce”

They were quiet on the drive home. It was not until they were descending the last stretch of Route 92 that she said, “We will not be here so long Wissam. We are only visitors here. We will be home again soon enough.”

He nodded but kept his gaze straight ahead. “That’s the plan,” he said.

“A year and we will be back,” she said.

“A year or two at the most,” he said gently.

“A year that will pass very quickly,” she persisted.

#

Sara had studied Arabic literature at the University of Alexandria, and had completed the first year of a master’s program, before taking a year of absence to be with Wissam. Her thesis was on the influence of the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, on the structure of stories and novels of subsequent generations of Arab writers. That in defining the Arab novel to the degree Mahfouz did, he both facilitated and hindered the development of Arabic literature. It was a struggle for younger writers to break out from his influence into new forms. She could tell that her thesis, while still nascent, was not what her advisor, a great admirer of Mahfouz, had wanted to hear. Although, to his credit he had not outright dissuaded her, only challenged the premise, pointing to the flourishing of diverse literary themes among Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi writers.

“Mahfouz put Arabic literature on the world stage,” Professor Khalil had argued. “Without him no one would have heard of it or cared. He opened the door for all of us.”

Sara had planned to spend this year in America developing the arguments around her thesis. She brought with her a suitcase filled with her books. But somehow an inertia had settled on her. An inability to imagine in this foreign place the intricacies of the landscape she was trying to navigate from a distance.

“Perhaps you need to step away from all this a little,” Wissam suggested when she raised her frustration with him. “A different perspective. Something totally new.”

“Such as?” Sara asked doubtfully.

“How about a course in American literature?” Wissam said.

Sara had studied English in high school and college, was fluent enough, could read and write with relative ease. She had read the British authors—the staple of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens. Even some Thomas Hardy—her favorite being Return of the Native, and the character of Eustacia Vye for whom she had always felt an inexplicable kinship. But of American literature she knew next to nothing. Nonetheless, Wissam’s idea intrigued here.

The winter semester was starting soon, and so Sara looked into courses at a community college, a short bus ride from their apartment. It was a hilltop campus, green and sprawling, overlooking the foothills that she loved.

“They are so expensive, Wissam,” she complained as she scrolled through the online course catalogue.

“I’m not sure how it all works here,” he said peering over her shoulder at the screen. “Can’t you just sit-in and listen?”

The course that had caught Sara’s attention was “An Introduction to American Literature.” The instructor was Elizabeth A. Pederson, and her office hours were listed at the end of the course description.

Sara debated whether to call the college and ask to speak with Professor Pederson or stop by and make the request to sit in on the class in person. She decided on the latter. If office hours were anything like in Alexandria, there would be sure to be at least some gaps, and perhaps she could wait and ask for a moment of the professor’s time.

 

Elizabeth Ann Pederson had not expected any drop-in students given that the winter quarter did not start for a few more days. That of course had not curtailed the usual flow of college business emails. And with her husband, James, gone at a board meeting in Vail the last few days, leaving her alone with their young son Brendan, she was already behind. She had just settled at her desk perusing the diarrheal email stream populating her inbox—a repulsively apropos term concocted by her associate Brett Callahan—when Janet King, the department administrative assistant, knocked and stuck her had past the door.

“Young lady asking for a moment of your time,” said Janet.

“A student? Already?”

Janet stepped into the small office and pulled the door shut behind her. “Hmm. Not clear that she is a student here. Wants to talk to you about the American Lit course.”

Elizabeth sighed, nodded, and swiveled away from her computer screen. Janet ushered in a slender woman in a turquoise raincoat and matching hijab. The woman stood silently by the door as Janet closed it behind her.

“Please,” said Elizabeth pointing to the chair across from her desk. And when the woman had settled into it, added, “how is it I can help you?”

Sara cleared her throat. “Professor Elizabeth. I’m sorry for coming like this,” she said hesitantly. “My name is Sara Fahmy. I read about your course. I would like to take it. To listen.”

“Which course is that?” said Elizabeth. It was not the first time an international student would add the professor before her first name rather than her last. It always struck her as peculiar, and a touch too familiar.

“The course on American writers,” answered Sara.

Elizabeth noticed she had beautiful eyes. Almond shaped, black against the dark mascara of her lashes. She had blush on as well and red lipstick. For her part this morning, Elizabeth was comfortably bare faced, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dressed hastily in a Friday administrative day outfit—a simple green sweater and blue jeans.

Elizabeth observed Sara for a moment more. So much effort to stay covered and then all that added make-up. Elizabeth had seen this among some other young women around campus—one half-formed impulse clashing with the other, is how it seemed to her. Except this woman was older, late-twenties at least, and there was a reserve and poise about her that appealed to Elizabeth.

“I think there are still one or two seats available. You can check with the registrar,” she said.

Sara eyes dropped to her lap. Before she could say anything, Elizabeth added, “You are a student here, aren’t you?”

Sara shook her head. “No. I am doing a master’s degree in Arabic literature back home. In Egypt. I am here for a year only with Wissam, my husband. We thought I could learn something about American literature while I’m here.”

Elizabeth nodded her head. “It’s an undergraduate course. You realize that. That’s all we have here are undergraduate courses.”

“Not a problem,” said Sara quickly.

“OK then,” said Elizabeth. She was curious about the woman in front of her, intrigued by her circumstances. But she was also eager to end this meeting and turn to the work needing her attention. “You can stop by the registrar and enroll.” She stood up.

Sara rose too. “Professor Elizabeth. May I just sit and listen to the lectures? It is very expensive for us. I will buy the books, read everything, and not say anything in class. Just listen. Please?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sorry Sara. I misunderstood. That’s not how we usually do things here.”

“It is very expensive for us,” Sara repeated.

Elizabeth thought how straight the woman held herself and how uncomfortable this situation must be for her. Those almond shaped eyes were bright and intelligent. Determined. “I will need to check Sara,” Elizabeth said finally. “Leave your email with Janet at the front desk and I will check and get back to you.”

#

It was not that Sara had never heard of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway or John Updike. She had heard the names, even vaguely recognized the titles of their works, but she had never read them, and until now they had remained as foreign to her as this new country she inhabited.  Granted permission by Professor Pederson to sit in on the class, Sara was struck by the recurrent echoes of dislocation, conflict and turbulence. It was not what she had expected in such a powerful and wealthy nation. But then Sara was not sure what she had expected.

“They are lonely people,” she told Wissam one evening after class. “They have so much but they seem to struggle alone more than anyone else. Rootless in a strange way.”

“It is a big country,” Wissam said. He was half-distracted, lounging on their couch, his eye on the television evening news. “And always in motion.”

Except Sara was thinking of a poem Elizabeth Pederson had given her to read one day during office hours. Sara had expressed to her professor the impression she now shared with Wissam. Elizabeth had nodded as if she understood exactly what Sara was referring to. She had rummaged through a stack of literary journals on her desk, and pulled out one. She leafed through the journal, found what she was looking for, placed a stickie on the top of a page and handed the journal to Sara.

“Read this tonight,” Elizabeth said. “We can discuss it during office hours tomorrow.”

The poem Professor Pederson highlighted for her was Edward Hopper: Hotel Room 1969. Opposite the poem was a painting by the artist Edward Hopper. A woman in a short negligee seated on the edge of a bed holding a piece of paper. The painting was rough edged and stark, something hollow, and gutted out about its presentation. No softness in the contours. Bold edges and a center that faded and then reconstituted itself in the figure of the silent woman. The poem was by a man named Larry Levis and for Sara its stanzas resonated with what she had been struggling to express. So struck was Sara by the way the words captured her thoughts, that she began to write an exuberant late night email to Professor Pederson, before changing her mind and instead settling down at her small desk in her bedroom to pour repeatedly over the painting and the poem. She mouthed lines out loud.

. . . . And outside this room I can imagine only Kansas:

Its wheat, and the blackening silos, and, beyond that,

The plains that will stare back at you until

The day your mother, kneeling in fumes

On a hardwood floor, begins to laugh out loud.

When you visit her, you see the same, faint grass

Around the edge of the asylum, and a few moths,

White and flagrant, against the wet brick there,

Where she has gone to live. She never

Recognizes you again.

 

. . . . You think of curves, of the slow, mild arcs

Of harbors in California: Half Moon Bay,

Malibu, names that seem to undress

When you say them, beaches that stay white

Until you get there.

 

“I have been to Half Moon Bay,” Sara said to Elizabeth as soon as she had stepped into her office the next day. “And the poem. It is so beautiful. It resonates with everything I have felt since coming here. How did you know?”

Elizabeth laughed. “It is a famous painting and a famous poem. I knew you would like it.”

The relationship between the two women had become increasingly warm over the course of the last few weeks. Sara had availed herself of open slots in Elizabeth’s office hours, and as the class composition were mostly undergraduates obliged to take the course on their way to some other career plan, there was always time available. For Elizabeth, she had missed this kind of organic interest in literature amongst the community college students. Here in Sara was someone deeply engaged in the field and pursuing an advanced degree. She found herself looking forward to Sara’s visits. They would at times choose to meet at a small outdoor café on the campus grounds, and over a cup of coffee Sara would describe her university experience in Alexandria.

“There are hundreds of students in each class. Students standing in the doorway, lined up against the back wall. The whole lecture hall overflowing. And this just the students who bother to attend the lectures. Professors barely engage. Everyone just going through the motions. Getting through the day.” Sara paused. “Awful. It is better in graduate school. A little better anyway. But nothing like this,” she added, waving an open hand at the campus.

Beyond them stood the foothills. The sun brilliant in the afternoon sky. The air warm even in January. Elizabeth peered around her. “I lived many years in New York City, Sara. I know crowded classrooms well. What you see here is also not the norm.”

“My husband. Wissam. He loves it here,” said Sara.

“And you?” asked Elizabeth. “Do you love it here?”

Sara shrugged. “I am growing used to it,” she said. “The beauty of the place is unquestioned. But I miss Egypt. My family. Our culture.”

“And your husband?”

Sara shrugged. “It is different for Wissam here,” she said.

“In what way?”

Sara paused a moment then said, “I have known Wissam since we were children. We grew up in the same neighborhood. We fell in love as teenagers. Secretly. He is Christian. Coptic Christian. He converted to Islam for me. He had to convert to marry me. He was ostracized by his family for it. It has not been easy for him. He abided by everything that was expected of him. For me. But I imagine he felt constrained. So it is different for him here.”

Elizabeth nodded. She tried to imagine Sara’s situation, and in her mind contrasted it to her own life.

“My husband, James. He is Jewish. My family is Episcopalian. In fact, my father is a minister back in New York. Upstate. James is from Chicago. His father is a cantor in their temple. Neither side were excited by our relationship.”

“What do you practice at home?” Sara asked.

Elizabeth laughed. “My dear we are not religious at all. Maybe our experience contributed to that. But growing up in religious families, ending up with each other the way we did, religion is not a part of our lives.”

Sara sighed. “Wissam would like that, I think,” she said. “He would want us like that. Like you and your husband. Except I hold him back.” She looked up defiantly at Elizabeth. “I cannot imagine a life without God at its center.”

Elizabeth took in her words and smiled gently back at Sara. “There is nothing wrong with that Sara,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

#

The following week after Elizabeth and Sara had finished their coffee, Sara said, “Wissam is getting off work early today. He will be picking me up shortly. Can you stay for a little?” She paused for a moment noticing Elizabeth glance at her watch, then added. “I would love for you to meet Wissam.”

Elizabeth had an appointment back home, interviewing a new au pair for Brendan. The last young woman from Krakow had completed her 6 months approved stay in the United States and was returning to Poland. This new candidate was referred to her from a friend. She was a U.S. resident and Elizabeth hoped to avoid the rigmarole of immigration and visas.

“Just a few minutes,” she said hesitantly. “I have to get going. We are interviewing nannies for Brendan.”

Elizabeth saw Wissam approach before Sara did. She noticed a man striding towards them from the other side of the small esplanade where they sat at their table. She guessed it was him by the way his eyes were fixed on Sara. He was medium height, slender, dressed in pale blue Levi’s, neatly pressed, a crisp white shirt, a black beard, carefully trimmed against his olive skin.

“Hello,” he said as he came up to them. He put a hand on Sara’s shoulder, kept it there. “I’m Wissam.” He extended his free hand to Elizabeth.

He had a warm smile, and a comfortable way with himself. His easy-going nature in ready contrast to Sara’s more serious demeanor.

Elizabeth reached over and shook his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you Wissam,” she said pleasantly.

“And I about you, Professor,” he replied. He looked down at Sara who was watching both of them with pleasure and interest. “You have gotten my wife fascinated by American literature. I think she is giving up on her thesis entirely!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Elizabeth with a laugh. “I have so enjoyed having Sara in class. It has been a pleasure.” She stood up, smoothed a few wrinkles on her skirt front, adjusted the purse strap over her shoulder. “Unfortunately, I have to leave for an appointment, but it has been wonderful meeting you Wissam.”

“And meeting you,” replied Wissam.

Sara stood quickly and hugged Elizabeth, then she and Wissam settled back down at the table. They watched Elizabeth stride across the esplanade, her figure trim and supple, hair falling loosely at her shoulders, her purse swinging by her side as she moved.

“You like her don’t you?” Sara said.

Wissam chuckled. “Now why would you think that?”

“She is beautiful, intelligent, successful.”

“And you my Sara are all those things and more.”

He was smiling at her, a kindness in his gaze that she loved. Although, she couldn’t help this nagging sense of defeat. It seemed to come to her from nowhere, percolating inside her. Perhaps it was something about Elizabeth’s stride. Its air of confidence. An assertiveness about it that she felt she lacked, especially here, especially now, and in this country. Or maybe it was the mention of Elizabeth’s son.

Wissam was still studying her. A hint of concern in his gray eyes.

“Sara? Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she said with a small laugh. “Of course.”

“What is it, Sara?” Wissam said.

“She has a young child. A boy. It just made me think. He could have been with us now.”

“We will have children, Sara. I promise you. We will have an apartment full of them.”

It had been a year since the miscarriage. But the thought of the loss still stabbed at her core like something raw and new. The bleeding and the pain. The rush in the back of Uncle Malik’s car to the county hospital, the closest facility to them. The dingy corner of the labor ward they had put her in as she pushed out a fully formed baby boy, but too early. Too early. The nurse roughly wiping away at the blood streaks on her legs and at the clots in between. They had given him a name before his burial. Marwan.

“Come on Sara,” Wissam said and reached for her hand, raised it to his lips.

Sara looked awkwardly around her at the milling students on the esplanade. The trickle of traffic in and out of the coffee shop. How did she appear, she wondered, in her conservative dress, sitting in a public space, her hand at a man’s lips, even if it was her husband? How would they know it was her husband? Wissam would not do this back home, she thought as she gently pulled her hand away.

He had seen her fleeting gaze, recognized it for what it was. “Sara,” he said. “We are not in Egypt anymore.”

In the evening Sara emailed her mother—it is a vast country and beautiful in too many ways to recount. I am taking literature courses and have become friendly with my professor. She is bright, lovely, and attractive. She is married and has a little boy named Brendan. And she is a respected professor. She is in so many ways everything I want to be and but am not, or at least not yet. Wissam has met her and I can tell he likes her too. I do not really know what she thinks of Wissam or even of me. I am not sure why that matters so much to me. Maybe it is because I know so few people and it is easy to get lonely here. I miss the way we used to sit together on the balcony that overlooked our small street and watch the people and traffic below, and sip your wonderful mint tea, mama. I miss the light of late afternoon, haze filled and warm. Our call to prayer. I miss the smell of afternoon cooking from Amr Bey’s little falafel shop, the first thing I smell when I walk out of our building and onto the street. Most of all, I miss all of you so much.

#

“I’m curious about something,” Elizabeth said later that week as they were walking together out of the class. It had become Sara’s habit to busy herself at the end of class, rifling through her handbag or flipping through a text, until the students had left and Elizabeth was departing.

“Yes?”

“Would you want to stay here, if you could?”

“Here?” asked Sara. “You mean America?”

“That’s right. The United States generally. Even California.”

Sara was quiet for a few moments. “No Professor Pederson,” she replied finally. “No. I don’t think so. I would miss home too much.”

They passed a group of students idling in the hallway. Young and chatty, their voices raised in laughter.

“Honestly,” Elizabeth said, “I just don’t get it.”

Sara noticed for the first time a tone of exasperation in Elizabeth.

“You are educated and smart and yet I can’t believe you would have close to the freedoms, much less the opportunities, back home as you would here. For a woman, I mean,” said Elizabeth, her voice trailing off.

“It’s not Saudi Arabia,” said Sara. She tried to keep the defensiveness she was feeling out of her voice.

“Yes. Not Saudi Arabia. And maybe I am speaking out of line. God knows this country has so much still to do to level the playing field for women. But it’s just that few places in the world still treat women with such universal disdain and disrespect as so many countries in the Middle East.”

Sara was silent. The words, expressed so directly, jolted her. Although had she been asked in a different circumstance, in a more sympathetic and gentle manner, she would have engaged with the discussion.

“And I just don’t understand why the women of these countries don’t rise up,” continued Elizabeth. “Demand their rights. Insist on them. To be treated as equal to men. Instead generation after generation of creativity and intellect and energy squashed and dissipated under a suffocating patriarchy.”

“It is my country,” Sara said finally. “There are many problems. We have done many things with the limited freedoms legally bestowed on us. But look how much protection you have here. So much legal protections and yet you too struggle, no?

Elizabeth sighed and said, “I am sorry. I really am. I was just reading about a young woman stoned to death in Syria, imprisoned for driving in Saudi Arabia, vilified for dancing in Egypt, and it angered me. Where else in the world do these things happen to women. But yes, as I said, we have much work to do right here at home. Please forgive me Sara. I can only imagine how arrogant I just sounded.”

Sara breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “Your concern is well placed,” she said in a conciliatory tone. “We have fallen behind in Egypt and everywhere in the Middle East when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this is internal to our societies, others imposed or sustained by outside forces and influences not easily in our control. But no matter the cause, we will never reach our full potential until women are free to reach theirs.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “True here and true everywhere. You will go back to Egypt and lead that struggle, I am sure.”

Sara smiled, “I will teach like you teach!” she said emphatically.

Elizabeth laughed aloud. “No,” she said. “You will teach much better and at a higher level than I ever could. At a real university.”

Sara shrugged. “I would be happy teaching no matter where. But we need the money and yes a university salary is better.”

They had reached the academic offices, and Elizabeth stopped and said, “so is money an issue now? Would extra money help?”

Sara nodded, the thought coming to her mind that perhaps her professor could see a role for her as a teaching assistant. “Money could always help,” she said.

“OK, then,” Elizabeth replied. “I’m still interviewing for Brendan’s nanny. But in the meanwhile James and I need to attend an event in San Francisco this Saturday. It’s not something we can miss. It’s James’ company event. Would you mind watching Brendan for just this time? I would pay you well.”

Sara raised her hand in protest. “I would be happy to of course! But you don’t have to pay me.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Of course I do and I will,” she said. “So Saturday, then?”

“Saturday,” said Sara.

“How about you come a little before 6 pm. That way I can introduce you to James and spend some time with you and Brendan before we head out. I will email you the address.”

“Certainly,” said Sara. She was eager to relay the news to Wissam. Excited to be allowed this access to her professor’s personal life.

#

Elizabeth Pederson lived in Los Altos Hills. A lush landscape of pastures and rolling hills and widely spaced estates with high walls and elaborate wrought iron gates and manicured lawns. Sara had never been to this community before, and as Wissam drove her there, she was awestruck by the opulence. That people lived in these surroundings seemed surreal to her. She had seen the mansions dotting the foothills, and had wondered about them. But to be in the midst of it all, traversing the green and gold terrains, was a completely different experience. She was captivated by the glimpses of cobble stone driveways, imposing balconies and Mediterranean style terraces that commanded striking vistas of the foothills.

“I can’t believe Professor Pederson lives here,” murmured Sara.

Wissam kept his eyes on the curving road, but stole a look at Sara. “Well, someone has to,” he said with a smile. Then added, “maybe one day we can too.”

“I don’t think we belong here, Wissam,” Sara said softly.

“And why not, Sara. I can see you on one of those terraces in the morning looking out at everything, coffee cup in hand!” He chuckled and squeezed Sara’s knee.

Sara said nothing. The car slowed as it turned a bend, and descended into a tree lined cul de sac at the far end of which stood two stately homes, separated by exquisitely manicured lawns, an array of queen of palms, fronds shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.

“We have arrived,” said Wissam with a chuckle. “Maybe not quite a mansion, but still who would have thought a professor was paid so well!”

“I think it’s her husband,” replied Sara, eyeing the two cars in the driveway—a golden Lexus sedan she had seen Elizabeth drive out of the college parking lot, and a shiny black Porsche SUV. “He is a successful businessman. Travels a lot.”

Wissam parked in front of a bulky bronze standing mailbox. “Do you want me to come in with you?

Sara shook her head, briefly clasped Wissam’s hand, and then climbed out of the car. “No, that’s alright. Just pick me up around 10:30. I’ll text you if anything changes.”

Wissam nodded, watched as Sara made her way to the front door, her body slim in tan slacks, a pink sweater, the tail of her hijab dipping between her shoulder blades. He watched as she knocked on the door, saw the door open, a glimpse of Professor Pederson and the shadowy interior of the house, huge and airy, then he drove off.

The house was magnificent, high ceilings, crown molding and lacquered mahogany floors, an expansive staircase, white and spiraled, curved elegantly from the large foyer to the second floor. In the center of the foyer hung a massive crystal chandelier, at its base a sculpted ceiling medallion. Late afternoon sunlight danced off the chandelier candle tubes and prisms.

Elizabeth Pederson greeted Sara with a warm embrace before shutting the door behind her.

“I hope you found the place easily enough?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” replied Sara. “Wissam had no trouble at all.” Then added, “I will text him to pick me up later.”

Elizabeth was dressed in a strapless black evening gown, which left her shoulders and upper chest bare. Her hair arranged in a bun, a thick strand of blond hair loose against one side of her face. The gown flowed down to her ankles, her feet ensconced in black high heels. Sara thought how beautiful Elizabeth looked. Although she also felt a certain discomfort with the attire, the degree of public exposure it heralded, the ease in which Elizabeth displayed herself in this way.

A man appeared on the staircase, dressed in a black, double-vested tuxedo. He was around Wissam’s height, but stockier, bigger in the chest. His face was rounder than Wissam’s too. As he approached, Sara noticed pockmarks on his face, partially covered by a trim brown beard. His hair was cut very short, so that Sara could see the white of his scalp beneath the glistening fibers. He held Sara’s gaze with his own as they shook hands.

“My husband, James,” Elizabeth said. “James this is Sara, the student I have been telling you all about.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you Sara,” James said, relinquishing her hand, his eyes steady on hers. “Elizabeth speaks so fondly of you. In all her years at the college, I have never heard her speak with such enthusiasm about any of her students. You have made quite the impression on my wife.”

“It is Professor Pederson who has made such an impression on me!” Sara replied enthusiastically, hardly able to contain her pleasure at this validation. “I am so fortunate to have met her.”

Next to Elizabeth in her high heels, James was noticeably shorter. He slipped an arm low around his wife’s waist, pulling her close and she leaned towards him for a kiss.

“Well, I happen to feel the same way about myself,” he laughed.

A moment of silence passed between them as they stood in the foyer, then James said, “have you met Brendan, yet?”

“No, not yet,” said Elizabeth, adjusting an earring. “We need to do that now.”

Sara followed Elizabeth past the foyer and down a hallway towards the back of the house. The walls on either side of the hallway were lined with family portraits, and Sara caught a quick glimpse of them as she hurried after Elizabeth. A blur of faces, too brief for recognition. Brendan, 6 years old, was sitting on the floor of a playroom in his pajamas pushing a miniature train along a wooden train track. He had his mother’s blond hair and fair skin, his father’s dark eyes.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth called out to the boy. “Honey this is Sara. She’s going to be your babysitter tonight while Mommy and Daddy go out for a little bit.”

Brendan looked at up Sara, his dark eyes uncertain, his little boy gaze resting on her hijab. He looked down at this hands and the toy train he was holding.

Sara fidgeted with her hijab, a forefinger tucking in an imagined loose strand of hair under the scarf.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth said again, her tone laced with a thin edge of sharpness. “Please be polite, stand up and say hello.”

“Hello,” said Brendan, eyeing Sara again.

“Hello Brendan,” said Sara and stepped towards the boy, a hand extended.

Brendan fidgeted with the toy train, switched it to his left hand, and extended his right to Sara for a handshake, still squatting on the floor. “What is that on your head,” he said.

“Young man,” Elizabeth said, and this time there was no missing the irritation in her voice, “I want you to stand up, apologize and say hello properly!”

At that, Brendan stood up. “Hi,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” said Sara, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s hair, but he darted under her arm and ran out the room.

“Dad,” Brendan said, his feet pattering down the hall.

“I’m so sorry for his behavior Sara,” said Elizabeth. “He is usually a very well-behaved boy. I think the loss of our last nanny affected him more than we realized.”

“I can imagine,” said Sara. “I promise you Brendan and I will be best of friends by the time you return.”

Elizabeth laughed and said, “yes. I imagine you will be. Let me show you Brendan’s bedroom upstairs. He can watch a half hour of a children’s show on TV in the family room before bedtime, which is 7 pm sharp.”

Elizabeth led Sara to the bedroom upstairs, then back down the stairs to a spacious kitchen, larger than Sara had ever seen, with a massive black granite counter at its center, stainless steel appliances, everything spotless. The kitchen opened up into a spacious family room where, on a loveseat, Brendan sat on James’s lap leafing through a picture book. Bookshelves lined the room, and a large couch and armchairs were arranged in a semicircle facing a fireplace and above that a widescreen TV.

“Sara, there’s water in the fridge for Brendan if he gets thirsty, and snacks and beverages in the fridge for you, so please help yourself,” said Elizabeth.

“That’s very generous of you, Professor Pederson,” Sara replied. “I will be fine.”

“James,” Elizabeth called to her husband. “We should be heading out.”

James lifted Brendan off his lap and settled the boy back into the loveseat. He turned on the TV with a remote and flipped through some channels until he found the children’s show he was looking for.

“Thirty minutes only Brendan, then bedtime,” Elizabeth said to the boy, leaning down to plant a kiss on his forehead. “Mommy and Daddy will be back in a couple of hours. You behave and listen to what Auntie Sara tells you. I don’t want any bad reports when I get back.”

Sara followed Elizabeth and James to the foyer.

“You have my cell Sara if you need anything at all,” said Elizabeth before stepping out the front door. “I’ll also text you to check in.”

“Please enjoy yourself,” Sara said. “Brendan and I will be just fine.”

Sara watched from the door as Elizabeth and James walked down a gently curving gravel path and climbed into the Porsche. She stayed there until they had pulled onto the street. Elizabeth waved to her one last time before the car sped off and Sara waved back.

Inside Sara could hear the TV playing down the hall. But despite those sounds, she felt a surging emptiness about the house press down her, and so she hurried to the family room to check on Brendan. The boy was still curled up on the loveseat watching TV.

Sara sat down on the edge of the couch. Brendan kept his eyes glued to the TV screen. Three puppets danced across a makeshift stage, and gathered around a miniature bicycle. Their shaggy exteriors gyrated to a musical jingle.

“Hi Brendan,” Sara said. “Are you enjoying the show?”

“Yes,” Brendan said not shifting his gaze.

“Can you tell me a little about the show?” Sara said, doing her best to engage with the little boy.

“Uhmm,” Brendan started, “it’s about who gets to ride the bike to school.”

“Oh,” said Sara. “So who do you think should get to?’

Brendan shrugged and said nothing. A purple haired puppet got on the bike, and the other two puppets, orange and green furry creatures, chased him wildly across the stage. Brendan laughed. Sara laughed too, pressing for a connection, but the boy’s attention stayed on the screen. After a few minutes, Sara stood up and wandered around the family room perusing the bookshelves, which were lined with atlases and encyclopedias, books on World War I and II, the Vietnam War, The Iraq War. There were also self-help books and inspirational books, books on how to be more productive and more efficient. The few novels that Sara saw were from authors she did not recognize—James Michener’s Hawaii. Louis L’Amour’s Showdown at Yellow Butte. Stephen King’s The Shining.

“I want to go to bed,” Brendan said suddenly, flicking off the TV set and climbing out of the loveseat. He stood there in his pajamas, looking uncertain and lonely.

Sara’s heart suddenly ached for the little boy.  “Of course,” she said and held out her hand.

To her surprise and pleasure, Brendan took her hand and she walked him up the stairs to his bedroom.

“Brendan,” Sara said when she had tucked him under the covers, turned off the ceiling light, the bedroom suffused in a soft glow from the bedside lamp. “Would you like me to read you a story?”

Brendan shook his head, but now he held Sara’s gaze, in his eyes something more trusting and peaceful. Inexplicably Sara felt a rush of happiness.

“OK, then,” Sara said. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”

Brendan turned on his side and wordlessly nodded his head against the pillow.

Sara walked out the room, gently closed the bedroom door behind her, but not all the way. She stepped downstairs, passed the photographs in the hallway again, but now took her time looking over them. Elizabeth and James at their wedding, the bride beautiful in white. In the backdrop a lush, green vista. In the foreground the backs of seated guests. Another with Elizabeth holding a newborn Brendan. There were others too, without Brendan. A younger Elizabeth in a pale blue bikini with James and another man, her arms around their shoulders, the sea behind them. A photo at the same location, but this time with Elizabeth scooped up in the arms of the man who was not James, and James looking on laughing. Who was this man, Sara thought? And what could it mean for Elizabeth to let herself be held in this way, the man’s hands pressed into her bare thighs below her bikini bottom? Sara concluded it would have to be Elizabeth’s brother. She must have a brother. Nothing else would make sense.

Done with perusing the pictures on the wall, Sara found herself at the far end of the hall, past the kitchen and family room, outside of a small but cozy office, cluttered with books and papers. She stepped inside with some trepidation as if afraid she was being watched. Books in small piles on the floor and spilling out of the bookshelves. Here is what she had expected to see in the family room. Books on literary criticism, and theory, books on poetry, short story collections and novels, and she knew this was Elizabeth’s office. This was the Elizabeth she had connected with, the one she had been so immediately and intensely drawn towards. There was a stack of papers on the desk, essays from another of Elizabeth’s classes. She would be like this one day, Sara thought. Her own classes, her own students. Maybe even a home office. Although not a home like this. But she and Wissam would be happy in their small apartment off Abou Eir Street in downtown Alexandria.

The thought of Alexandria reminded Sara of the sunset prayer, Salat el Maghrib, and she considered for a moment deferring the three rakat here, and combining them with the night prayer when she got home. But the house was quiet and Brendan asleep, and so she made her way to the family room and an open space in front of the television set. Facing Mecca she began the prayer, head lowered, hands clasped in front of her, murmuring the words to the fatha before genuflecting, standing straight again, then kneeling on the carpet, her forehead lowered to the ground. The words of the prayer murmured between the motions. It was towards the end, still deep in prayer, that Sara sensed a motion, something fleeting out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of Brendan at the far end of the kitchen. But when she looked in that direction, there was no one.

She rushed through the last few seconds of prayer and jumped to her feet. “Brendan?” she said to no response. “Brendan, is that you?”

The hall and foyer were empty. She looked up at the staircase half-expecting Brendan to be peering down at her, but he was not there. As she climbed up the staircase, she wondered if she had imagined things. Brendan would be in bed where she left him. She made her way across the upstairs hall to his bedroom, and gently pushed open the door. The bedside light was still on, the room bathed in its soft light, but the covers had been pulled back and the bed empty. Sara suppressed a wave of panic as she stepped out of the boy’s bedroom.

“Brendan,” she called trying to keep the worry out of her voice. “Brendan, where are you?”

She hurried down the stairs again calling Brendan’s name. No response. She rushed back into the family room, the kitchen, and adjacent to the kitchen, an airy dining room and living room. She strode down the halls calling for Brendan as she peered back into Elizabeth’s study, Brendan’s play room, and into the room next to it –an exercise room with a treadmill and stationary bicycle and a hanging TV monitor. And the room next to that, a tidy guest bedroom and bath, and finally at the end of the hall what she surmised was James’ study, a large oak desk, its surface wiped clean except for the darkened screen of a desktop computer and keypad. Next to the desk a thick revolving leather chair with deep cushions. Along the opposite wall, and running its length, a wood file cabinet and on it a framed photograph of Elizabeth in a hospital gown, a sheen of sweat on her forehead, an exhausted smile, the skin on her upper chest exposed to Brendan who was pink and naked and curled up against her.

Something about the Spartan feel to the room, the picture of Elizabeth and her just delivered son, brought the image of Marwan’s body, lifeless and bloody, flooding into her mind and tipped Sara into a panic.

“Brendan!” she called and she was shouting now as she lurched back up the staircase, her heels clattering on the steps, hands grasping the railing, propelling herself upwards. “Brendan! Please! Where are you?”

Brendan’s bedroom was as empty as it was before. This time Sara got on her knees, looked under the bed. No Brendan. She rushed down the hall, peered into a bathroom, and then to the master bedroom at the far end of the hall, with its king size bed, majestic windows looking out onto the darkened Northern California hillsides, an expansive bathroom with a shower stall, Jacuzzi, a marble counter with a few scattered toiletries below a massive framed mirror. It was there that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her face flushed and stricken, her hijab awry, loose strands of hair falling out from under the hijab, a thin line of perspiration beading along her upper lip.

More rooms down the other end of the hall, but she did not venture there. Rushing back down the stairs to the family room, she reached for her purse on the couch and digging into it pulled out her cellphone. She located Elizabeth’s cell number in her contact list, agonized for a moment over whether she should call now or keep looking. Imagined what Elizabeth would think of her. Without quite intending to, her finger tapped the screen and the call went through. Sara groaned and instinctively ended the call. Elizabeth called back immediately.

“Hi Sara,” said Elizabeth. “Is everything OK?”

Sara could hear laughter and the chatter of voices in the background. She imagined Elizabeth in her strapless evening gown, and behind her other finely dressed men and women in a chandelier-illuminated ballroom. A scene from a movie she thought. A horrible scene from a movie. “I can’t find Brendan,” she blurted.

“What?” said Elizabeth, the swelling anxiety in her tone was unmistakable and only added to Sara’s distress.

“I’ve looked everywhere,” said Sara no longer trying to control the alarm in her own voice. “Nearly everywhere. I can’t find him.”

“OK,” said Elizabeth. “We will be right there. Keep looking OK? Just keep looking?” There was a crack in Elizabeth’s voice, a choked off sound and Sara heard her say to someone, perhaps to James, “she can’t find Brendan,” before she hung up.

Sara’s next thought was to call Wissam. But again she hesitated. She should be able to handle this situation on her own. This had nothing to do with Wissam, and there was no reason to drag him into it. Except she ached for his support and to hear his voice. Sara took a deep breath and made the call.

“I was praying,” she sobbed, her voice failing her. “I think he saw me praying. Maybe it frightened him.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Wissam. “I’m coming over.”

“No please don’t,” said Sara. “They’re coming back now. It’s best that I’m here by myself.”

Alone, Sara stumbled through the house pleading to Brendan and taking Elizabeth’s repeated calls.

“We’ve called the police,” Elizabeth said to her over the phone. “Just keep looking please!”

She kept looking, frantically traversing the same ground over and over, running up and down the beautiful spiral staircase, pausing only when she heard the grind of car wheels on the driveway. Sara ran out the front door and down the long driveway as James pulled the car to a stop and Elizabeth clambered out and rushed towards her.

“Have you found him?” Elizabeth cried.

“No. I’ve looked everywhere,” Sara said, wiping away tears. “I put him to bed and then I went downstairs and I was praying and I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eyes and when I finished my prayer, it was just a minute, even less, he was gone.”

Elizabeth stopped in her tracks and glared at Sara. “Praying?” She said. “You saw my son but you were busy praying?”

“It was less than a minute. Even less. I wasn’t even sure.”

“I did not pay you to pray,” Elizabeth shouted as she and James rushed past her into the house. And then again, “I didn’t pay you to pray. I paid you to take care of my son!”

Sara followed behind hearing them call for Brendan. She had just stepped into the foyer when she saw the boy emerge seemingly from nowhere and throw himself into his mother’s arms.

Sara gasped felt the room spin around her, heard Elizabeth say to her son, “it’s OK. She didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s OK.”

Sara tried to lower herself slowly to the floor, saw James reach out to steady her, heard Wissam shout her name, and everywhere the sounds of police sirens and flashing blue lights.

 

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Abraham Lincoln

In Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Southern History, The South on July 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

Three Poems by Carrie Goertz-Flores

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on July 3, 2019 at 6:45 am

Carrie Goertz-Flores has published work in New Plains Review, and has work forthcoming in Red Dirt Forum: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a poetry collection, Solanaceae, which seeks to bridge the gap between the botanical world and modern human experience. She lives in rural Oklahoma with her husband and four dogs who serve as dedicated editors and muses for her work. 

 

Shrapnel

Dedicated to my father.

His face was worn with trenches while his gaze was guarded by barbed wire fences,
Yet beyond all those lines lay an abandoned field of friends and rusting wheels,
A battle no longer of bullets but shards so small no one would ever think to notice;
How they stuck then sunk so far into the mind even he had almost forgotten for a time.

Scraping and scrapping pieces of his life along with almost every peace of mind,
They lay like the mines lost long ago in wars no one remembers until they detonate.

For some those metal teeth burrow deeper, shell cased in scars of anger and regret,
The tissue too thick for any surgeon and the surgery worse than the first war crime.
Maybe for the lucky few whose draft number they drew, the pieces begin to surface;
Perhaps they even breach with fallen comrades and the white eyes of their enemies…

But memory is a funny bitch of a thing when carried on a shaft, shell, or bomb;
Shrapnel may burrow or it may breach but nothing can ever make it dissolve.

 

The Suitcase

We heard that jeep limpin’ along, over the hills and somehow still not under one.
A custom clunker with age-enhanced leg room where the floorboards had rusted off,
That black and green ride baptized Camo-Mile, how she hacked on her own exhaust –
Or maybe that was just Aunt Sammy with her Category 5 smoker’s cough.

We watched her climb out then sway and swagger down the rocky drive,
A bloated bag swung in one hand and a square suitcase cradled in the other.
I opened the screen door wide and she handed the paper bag to my mother,
Then bumpin’ past and still hugging that cask, she made the table on a winded sigh.

As Sammy insisted, that suitcase was christened the centerpiece over the honey ham,
Towering like a great white behemoth, sporting a spout for a tail and plastic trunk handle,
While its keeper kept us dazzled with stories of her cats and that long planned trip to France;
She was still talking as we cleared, but helped by finger cleanin’ three plates of pumpkin pie.

That evening all but one gathered in the den to claim their turf and surf the cable channels.
Still I heard it over the rattle of rusty memories and reckless booms of political commentary,
A sudden clink from the kitchen and then a long pour that turned into a longer lonely drawl,
Cup in hand, Aunt Sam sat in time to cackle at the news that Paul was now ready to pass on.

With no on left but me, she finally snored into the dreams that only her suitcase could still bring –
Though she still wore that dreamcatcher charm and the golden cross it had tangled and caught on.
Finally, my dad carried in that Wal-mart bag that still remained packed and crumbled without care:
Panties, pills, and toothpaste pokin’ out, we set it by her fetal form with hopes and continued prayers.

But that suitcase now it hardly sloshed – how she’d solo unpacked that box of Franzia Sauvignon.
Still, Dad and I had our doubts that her latest cardboard carry-on had indeed come from Avignon.

 

 

Leaky Faucet

My mind’s a kitchen faucet
All day filling needy cups
But at night not quite off
Drips are my own dreams
Clinging to the cold sink
I must try to remember…
I must try to save from the daily drain.

Three Poems by Bruce Craven

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, liberal arts, Poetry on June 19, 2019 at 6:45 am

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty in New York City. In addition to directing and teaching in a variety of executive programs, he teaches graduate business students his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction.  His book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published in March 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  The book is currently being translated into Russian and Turkish. He wrote the novel Fast Sofa (1993) which was published in Japanese and German. He also co-wrote the script for the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Tilly, Jake Busey and Crispin Glover. His collection of poetry, Buena Suerte in Red Glitter will be published in 2019 by Red Dirt Press. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

 

Gun Crazy

I’m a failure. I fell in love

with the sharpshooting girl

with pearl-handled pistols

in white holsters and the short skirt

trimmed with fringe.

We shot six-shooters together,

then she came

around the corner in a Buick

with running boards and a hood ornament

that shined like God’s right eye in the Kansas sun.

Her patent leather boots were ice-cream white,

same as those dangerous holsters and the yoke

of her midnight blue silk rodeo shirt. White

as her teeth and the fake-pearl snaps.

Her small bosom

unveiled in the carnival noise of sweeping up,

the sound of a generator, voices from a distant poker game.

I’m almost scared.

Her breasts in my hands make me think

of mounds of warm dirt when I was a boy

sitting beside the lake. I leaned

against a big rock out past the drive-in,

took potshots at birds in the sky

with my Crosman Pellgun,

dreaming of coyote, catamount or wolf.

And now

the towns don’t know what hit ‘em.

Bank alarms clang, people wave their arms

or lie down on the sidewalk. And we

count the money and drive.

 

My love can pick a lit cigarette out of my lips from thirty feet, eyes closed.

My love can hold an empty beer can bouncing in the air on bullets

like it was bouncing down from heaven on a string.

My love can talk for hours, then sleep, curled, in the shotgun seat

with her head in my lap, one arm between her legs

and the road never ends and she only complains about the heat

and this engine is a gem, an oiled gun that fires fast and smooth.

You know they’re never going to catch you.

 

We got married on the run.

Like real lovers should, she whispered.

Like criminals, joked the man in Reno who sold us a couple boxes of .38 shells,

a bottle of rye and an extra blanket for the cold desert nights.

Then we reached the ocean…the big blue desert

where the Buick is useless.

During day we hide in our white motel and pay cash.

At night, we walk the sand and don’t talk anymore.

Tonight, the waves spill in moonlight. We made a fire out of driftwood and finished the rye.

I held a cigarette in my lips under the carousel of stars.

Her shot ripped the cherry spark

and I jumped like it was the first time.

My love’s breasts are small and beautiful and she trembles

under me now in the cold sand and cries,

not from our passion, but because she shot a man

in the back in the back of a Saving’s & Loan

back near San Bernardino. Three shots.

He was armed. That’s what the newspaper’s say.

He died. Call us killers. Call us another Bonnie and Clyde.

Shown a big picture of the Buick.

Big pictures of me and my love.

I told you I was bad, she says.

I failed you, I say.

She wipes her tears, lifts her pistol. No, you didn’t.

But she’s wrong.

We got nowhere to drive. We got nowhere to hide.

 

My love points her gun at the sky and fires.

The stars crackle. We got nothing but each other.

We see it before we hear it: the flash of their blue gunfire.

 

 

1966

Fingers against the screen door,

bug-light yellowing the porch beyond

my six-year-old threshold. Burgoyne Drive

glittered with imperforate forms,

neighbors caught in the high-beams

of an idling Ford Falcon. Butcher’s paper

spanned between tentacle streetlights:

a single name in blue paint.

Shadow of rooftops a coal black Monopoly.

Mom and Dad on the lawn, arms linked; their voices hushed.

Bap of moths against the eaves,

one step beyond my cell.

A dense furniture of light radiates from every wall.

 

The world outside in the dark

waits for a neighbor’s son to return from Vietnam.

Everyone waits in that world of hurt.

Horror, a dog-eared pack of playing cards taken home

after the fictional kill-ratios got burned off on the wire.

Skin of some little country bubbling from Napalm,

saturation bombing and the strategy of not losing another domino.

 

The everyday banter as simple as looking up from the dice

to point at the homespun robe stained with blood; the enemy

caught in the coils of razor wire. Black cloth or olive cloth: dead

from exposure or loss of blood or organ failure. Roll

the dice. Oh, the games the leaders play!

 

And a blipping rain of incandescent frogs over Da Nang.

 

But what do I know?

 

Only that I was reading a picture book that night

about a group of children who painted the white walls

of their bedroom into a miraculous jungle

of maroon tigers, thick, green, lustrous fronds

and fierce, flesh-hungry natives. Knives azure.

Teeth tangerine and sharp. The children run

deeper into the jungle, desperate to paint a way

out, an exit strategy. The children scribble their colored brushes:

bridges, rivers, nets, canoes. They draw solutions.

Anything to stay one step ahead. Anything to elude

the nick of time. Until…

They are trapped! No escape.

Lost in the garden of fear. Evil prowls

in the brilliance of vine, petal, flower; hides

waiting in the shadows. Home so far away.

 

And only one can of paint left.

 

The youngest girl grabs a brush, paints the outline

of a door they all remember. A door that will open

into their familiar white bedroom. A door

that will close

and keep the fierce natives locked away.

The danger over by dinner. The jungle as real as TV.

The neighbor’s son returns from Vietnam.

1966.

 

 

 

 

Mud-Flap Girl

You’ve seen her,

against her black curtain backdrop.

She and her sister, silver and shiny,

roar past on the interstate,

bounce behind the gasoline truck

with the brilliant red WARNING

or maybe the yellow and black BIOHAZARD.

In Brooklyn, there’s an ice-cream step-van

covered completely, a friend told me,

with you. O, Mud-Flap Girl,

you’re so much more than a rebel flag, an eagle, the letters N.R.A.

You’re on my Zippo and you’re in my heart.

You go back in time with me.

You teach me and save me. I’ve met you,

in so many disguises, behind the masks

of women with names and wallets and

different driver’s licenses; phone numbers

scribbled on scraps of bar napkin before something

falters and there is hurt and loneliness

and only you, silver outline that became flesh

and warm and sang sentences, then faded

for one reason or another.

 

let me smoke another cigarette.

Let me drink another whiskey.

Let me drive nowhere fast.

Let me run my fingers around your hour-glass hips,

the black curtain your silver legs sculpt as you begin to rise,

icon of slender wrist and ankle. Move to me,

but not like a stripper. I’m out of dollars.

Barbarella of exhaust pipes and road tar

and tasteless fried chicken

I wouldn’t feed a starving cat. Baby,

I don’t care and I forgive you and I do, really,

love you when the red lights of the Highway Patrol

surge past in the fast-lane, siren whining, and I sip

my dead coffee and the dashboard glimmers

and the odometer counts each mile like it matters.

When the bartender fills my glass

with flames of bourbon and screaming ice,

you are there beside my cigarettes, looking good.

Women lean forward, cup fingers

around your red flame, give thanks with their eyes.

Smile when they catch sight of you.

No, I refuse to believe your body is a patriarchal lie,

marketed for profit. Your long hair, parted mouth

and up-thrust breasts are more than pornography, more than

the imposition of an unfair and dangerous standard of femininity.

 

I know this because I have been with you,

have stood beside a white bed, struggling out of my Levi’s

and watched as you pounced onto your knees,

then bounced once on the mattress

like a little girl waiting for a story.

 

I have heard you plead, C’mon! Hurry!

 

And I have crawled to you like a man.

 

The Moral Imagination and the Common Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Philosophy on June 12, 2019 at 6:45 am

I thought I knew a lot until I had kids. One hot Sunday summer afternoon in Alabama, when I was driving my family home from church, my son, Noah, then five, asked about the origin of roads. From a father’s perspective, this curiosity was a sweet, welcome alternative to questions about where babies come from. I explained with resolute immodesty how road construction operated, under what timelines and conditions, and using which tools and implements. I smiled, thinking the matter settled, and turned up the radio.

Then my son, in his little-boy manner and vocabulary, objected that his inquiry was, in effect, less about the technicalities of engineering or labor and more taxonomical or definitional in concern. Why wasn’t the trail near our home, trodden beneath innumerable feet, a road?  Why weren’t the sidewalks in downtown Auburn roads? What made a road a road? How did construction workers know where to build roads? From whom did they take orders and derive their authority? Could he, Noah, build a road if he wanted to? How could anyone build a road from here to there if the property along the way belonged to someone else, even multiple owners?

I turned down the radio.

This perplexing interrogation led Noah—who, again, possessed merely the lexicon and sophistication of a child—to more grating appeals for clarity and qualification. What, he wondered, empowered governments to authorize the creation and maintenance of roads? Were there roads beyond government control? What was the difference between public and private? What was government? Where did it come from? Why did we have it?

The moment I caught myself trying to explain social contract theory to a five-year-old, I realized I had been not only humbled and humiliated but overmatched, not by Noah necessarily but by the impressive sum of human ignorance about everyday experience and activity.

Though not impulsively so, I’m reflectively Hayekian and thus managed to articulate to Noah my abiding belief in the limitations of human knowledge, the selectivity of human memory, and the fallibility of human intuition, and to emphasize the importance of subjecting our most cherished principles to continued testing so they may be corrected or refined as we mature in our understanding. Roads could not be the inevitable product of one man’s awesome imagination working in isolation; rather they were the concrete product of aggregated, uncountable ideas, applied variously depending on local circumstances. This fancy way of saying “I don’t know” seemed to satisfy Noah, who grew quiet about his objections and marvels and turned his attention elsewhere.

I, however, couldn’t quiet my restless urge for the kind of comforting certitude that ultimately cannot be achieved. It wasn’t roads but knowledge itself and its embodiment or expression in the law—in particular in our Anglo-American common-law tradition—that suddenly bothered and intrigued me. Noah’s inquisitiveness had reminded me of the opening lines to a learned book on the common law:

Legal history is a story which cannot be begun at the beginning. However remote the date at which we start, it will always be necessary to admit that much of the still remoter past that lies behind it will have to be considered as directly bearing upon the later history. […] [T]he further back we push our investigations, the scantier become our sources, and the more controversial and doubtful their interpretation.[1]

The common law is not just an historical and governmental system for resolving disputes through courts and case precedents, traceable to eleventh-century England and adopted by the United States and nearly half of the countries on earth, but also a mode of preserving and transmitting knowledge about the human condition that develops out of ascertainable facts rather than abstract speculation. It’s bottom-up, reflecting the embedded norms and values of the community as against executive command or legislative fiat.

To continue reading about the common law and the moral imagination, please download the remaining essay here at SSRN.

 

[1] Theodore F. T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 3 (1956) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).

Philip Levine and Allen Mendenhall on “Meet the Authors”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 29, 2019 at 6:45 am

Click here to purchase

Suzie Wiley and Allen Mendenhall on “Writers on Writing”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 22, 2019 at 6:45 am

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A (Mostly) Misbegotten Attempt to Take Scalia’s Measure

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Humanities, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on May 15, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at Law & Liberty.

On Wednesday [editorial note: this review was published on February 11, 2019] it will be exactly three years since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, yet his towering presence is still felt. Given the extent of his influence on legal education and his popularization of both originalism and textualism, it is no surprise to see a growing number of books and conferences addressing the importance of his legacy. One such book is The Conservative Revolution of Antonin Scalia, a collection of disparate essays edited by the political scientists David A. Schultz of Hamline University and Howard Schweber of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published by Lexington Books.

No consensus view emerges from these wide-ranging essays on everything from Scalia’s contributions to administrative law to his Senate confirmation hearings. Nor are the essays  universally admiring. On the contrary, most of them are critical. “Was Antonin Scalia a sissy when it came to administrative law?” Schultz asks—unprofessionally, in my view. Mary Welek Atwell of Radford University scrutinizes Scalia’s opinions in cases about race and gender, highlighting his apparent “comfort” with the “patriarchal, hierarchical” elements of the Roman Catholic Church, and grandly declaring that Scalia “sympathized more with those who were trying to hold on to their privilege by excluding others than with those who sought to be included.”

Is that so? And is it so that Scalia, in the words of contributor Henry L. Chambers, Jr., of the University of Richmond School of Law, “read statutory text relatively simply”? What a relatively simple claim! Scalia’s Reading Law (2012), coauthored with Bryan Garner, outlines principles or canons for interpreting statutes and legal instruments; it has become a landmark in the field, having been cited in hundreds of cases and over a thousand law review articles in the seven years since its release. While it aims to simplify hermeneutics, providing sound methodological guidance to interpreters of legal texts, it is by no measure simple.

Scalia “might be our most Machiavellian Supreme Court justice,” the University of Wyoming law professor Stephen M. Feldman submits. “Scalia sneered, as was his wont,” he writes in an aside. Less ad hominem but equally breezy assertions by Feldman: that originalism “is most often applied in practice as a subterfuge for conservative conclusions,” and that, in any case, “Scalia’s implementation of originalism failed on multiple grounds.”

Most of the critiques in this book, in contrast to those just cited, are responsibly researched and tonally reserved. No reasonable person expects scholarly assessments of a controversial jurist’s legacy to be an exercise in hagiography. On the other hand, such assessments should avoid coming off like intemperate outbursts.

The 18 contributors come from a range of disciplines. Only three are law professors; two are professors of criminal justice; two are doctoral candidates; and one clerks for a federal judge. Equally diverse are the essays’ methodological approaches. The most distinctive belongs to Timothy R. Johnson, Ryan C. Black, and Ryan J. Owens, who in a coauthored chapter attempt to examine empirically—with graphs and figures—Scalia’s influence on the behavior of his Court colleagues during oral argument. Whether they succeed is a determination better left to experts in quantitative research.

Scalia the Liberal?

Coauthors Christopher E. Smith of Michigan State University and Charles F. Jacobs of St. Norbert College consider Scalia’s conservatism in the context of the criminal law. They do not define what they mean by “conservatism.” Before long one gathers that their understanding of it is woefully limited. They conclude, with apparent surprise, that “in nearly 1 in 6 decisions, Scalia cast his vote in support of criminal rights.” If Scalia’s method involved choosing results and then supplying reasoning to justify them, then perhaps some of his opinions regarding the Fourth Amendment might seem uncharacteristically “liberal.” Of course, Scalia’s originalism and textualism do not presuppose conclusions; they demand, instead, a rigorous process of determining the meaning and semantic context of written laws. This process may lead to “liberal” or “conservative” outcomes that do not align with a judge’s political preferences but that the words of the law necessarily require.

The process is conservative even when it yields “liberal” results.

“One might expect,” the editors say of the Smith-Jacobs chapter, “that as a political conservative Justice Scalia would have authored opinions that gave the greatest possible latitude to agents of government.” Such an obtuse claim is enough to cast doubt on Schultz and Schweber’s understanding of conservatism and, hence, of their ability to critique the claims about conservatism that one comes across throughout the book.

By contrast, the essay by Jesse Merriam of Loyola University Maryland, “Justice Scalia and the Legal Conservative Movement: An Exploration of Nino’s Neoconservatism,” stands out as historically informed on matters of conservatism—including the relationship between Scalia’s jurisprudence and the so-called conservative movement as represented by think tanks, politicos, journalists, and academics.

James Staab of the University of Central Missouri asks in the final chapter whether Antonin Scalia was a great Supreme Court justice. Staab answers no, basing his finding on seven factors:

  1. “length of service, including the production of a large body of respected judicial work”;
  2. “judicial craftsmanship, or the ability to communicate clearly and memorably in writing”;
  3. “influence, or whether the judge left an indelible mark on the law”;
  4. “judicial temperament, or the qualities of being dispassionate and even-tempered”;
  5. “impartiality, or the qualities of disinterestedness and maintaining a strict detachment from partisan activities”;
  6. “vision of the judicial function, or the proper role of judges in a constitutional democracy”; and
  7. “game changers, or whether the judge foreshadowed the future direction of the law and was on the right side of history.”

This factoring raises the expectation of a quantitative methodology, yet the chapter lacks any mathematical analysis. Regarding the first criterion, Staab simply offers several paragraphs about Scalia’s years of service and many opinions, discusses the jurist’s extrajudicial writings, and then declares: “In sum, the body of judicial work produced by Scalia is truly impressive. It is safe to say that he easily satisfies the first criteria [sic] of what constitutes a great judge.”

Regarding the second criterion, Staab mentions Scalia’s oft-celebrated writing skills and then lists some of the many memorable Scalia opinions, deducing from this evidence that “Scalia again receives the highest of remarks.” He adds that the quality of Scalia’s opinions “has sometimes been compared to those of Holmes, Cardozo, and Robert Jackson—a comparison I would agree with.” Why should Staab’s agreement or disagreement have any bearing? Where are the statistical and computational values that back up his personal judgments? Staab sounds like someone unconvincingly pretending to do quantitative research. Are his factors the best measure of greatness?

The Vagaries of Balancing Tests

What of Staab’s negative verdicts? He questions Scalia’s temperament and collegiality, pointing to his “strident dissenting opinions” and “no-holds-barred opinions.” These opinions, says Staab, “struck a partisan tone,” and the jurist’s association with the Federalist Society (gasp!) “compromised his impartiality.” Staab suggests that Scalia should have recused himself in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) and Cheney v. United States District Court (2004). He qualifies as “unprincipled” Scalia’s opinions in the areas of the veto power, state sovereign immunity, the incorporation doctrine, regulatory takings, and affirmative action. He alleges that a “major problem for Justice Scalia’s legacy is that his originalist jurisprudence was on the wrong side of history” in the sense that several of his views did not win out. Scalia was forced to dissent in controversial cases with sweeping results for the country.

Staab’s checklist reminds me of the Scalia line about the utility of balancing tests, or the lack thereof. “The scale analogy is not really appropriate,” he wrote in Bendix Autolite Corporation v. Midwesco Enterprises(1988), “since the interests on both sides are incommensurate. It is more like judging whether a particular line is longer than a particular rock is heavy.”

Whatever criteria you use to evaluate greatness, this edition is unlikely to qualify.

Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, and the Dissemination of Fake News

In Arts & Letters, News and Current Events, Politics, Rhetoric on May 8, 2019 at 6:00 am

We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. Until I was its victim, I was skeptical about the extent of its existence.

Now I understand why trust in the media is so low and why news networks are associated with leftist bias. I have learned, as well, that fake news does not necessarily consist of flagrant, outright lying; it can involve exaggeration, subtle distortion, fabrication, deception, insinuation, innuendo, opinion dressed up as fact, and guilt-by-association.

Here’s my story.

Last November, I gave a lecture about decentralization to the Abbeville Institute, an organization whose stated purpose is “to critically explore what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.” The full text of the lecture, from which I read verbatim, is available here. The lecture was filmed and recorded and is available here. It does not mention secession, race, or the Confederacy. The focus of the conference was political secession and decentralization—controversial topics, to be sure, but important ones in light of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Brexit, and recent separatist movements in Eritrea, Quebec, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Kosovo, Angola, Catalan, Cyprus, China, and elsewhere. Of the speakers at the conference, only Dr. Donald Livingston, the president of the Abbeville Institute and a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, and I were Southerners. The other speakers represented diverse political commitments and came from different geographic backgrounds.

Six days after my talk, ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, ran an article by Mr. Casey Michel titled “Neo-Confederates have failed for the past 150 years. Now, they have a new ally.” The article features my photograph beneath this title, beside the photograph of Mr. Larry Secede Kilgore, a man I have never met, do not know, and had never heard of before reading about him in the article. Displaying my photograph prominently beneath the label “Neo-confederate” gives the impression that I am the face of that movement—or that I am the new ally of the so-called Neo-confederates referred to in the title. The article features two photographs of me but not of four of the other seven speakers at the conference (a separate article that Mr. Michel wrote about the conference, published on November 11, 2018, features a photograph of Mr. Michael Boldin, the executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center). Nor is there a photograph of Mr. Marcus Ruiz Evans, the principal subject of Mr. Michel’s piece and a young Mexican American who touts himself as a progressive advocating California’s secession from the United States of America.

The opening line of Mr. Michel’s article calls the Abbeville Institute conference “a conclave for neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and members of the fringe far right,” and there I am, pictured front and center, standing at the podium, the ostensible leader of the moment if not the movement. Without directly calling me a neo-Confederate or a white nationalist, Mr. Michel and the editors at ThinkProgress portrayed me as one.

I am not a neo-Confederate. In fact, I have written that “Confederate cultural values have been discredited.” Had Mr. Michel researched me, moreover, he would have found my scholarship that both analyzes and condemns white supremacy.  As just two representative examples among many, he might have read “Haunted by History’s Ghostly Gaps: A Literary Critique of the Dred Scott Decision and Its Historical Treatments” (published in 2009 by The Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives) or “From Natural Law to Natural Inferiority: The Construction of Racist Jurisprudence in Early Virginia” (published in 2013 by PEER English: Journal of New Critical Thinking). I have, moreover, been at the forefront of criticisms of the American Bar Association and state bar associations for their regulations that disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and reduce diversity in the legal profession.

My spouse is not white; my children are mixed race. It is deeply offensive and hurtful to me to be misrepresented and mischaracterized as sympathetic to white nationalism, an extremist ideology that would denounce and disparage my own family.

On August 25, 2017, after the tragic events in Charlottesville, I signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today.”  This letter, the terms of which I still affirm in their entirety, states,

Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not.  Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.  And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination.  What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

The letter goes on to state,

Racism should be denounced by religious and civil leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

I continue, as always, to denounce racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy, all of which conflict with my sincerely and deeply held Christian faith.

Mr. Michel states that I once worked as a staff attorney to Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court.  That’s true.  The article fails to note, however, that I left that position when, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Moore issued an administrative order to Alabama’s probate judges directing them not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Mentioning my former employment with Chief Justice Moore is a textbook example of the guilt-by-association, ad hominem fallacy that professional journalists should avoid at all costs, it being a mode of inferior logic and unsophisticated argumentation.

As most journalists are aware, moreover, the political views of law clerks and the judges for whom they clerk are not necessary similar. In many cases they differ drastically. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, reportedly hired at least one law clerk per term who identified as “liberal” because he wished to cover blind spots that his own jurisprudence prevented him from seeing.

Mr. Michel’s article claims that most of the Abbeville Institute conference attendees “were already graying,” and that “almost all of [them] were white.” What to make of this overt ageism? And who were these non-white attendees? Why did Mr. Michel deprive them of a voice? Would they have agreed with his description of the conference as a place where “white supremacy [was] simmering just below the surface” and there was “a lingering presence of neo-Confederacy”? If so, why were they there? Does Mr. Michel’s failure or refusal to interview them unwittingly reflect an inchoate or unconscious racism predicated on an assumed sense of superiority, on a paternalism in which Mr. Michel plays the role of cultural better tasked with analyzing his less sophisticated subordinates who are in need his enlightened assistance? Has Mr. Michel instantiated the “white savior” complex? Wouldn’t an account of the multiethnic nature of this conference have been more interesting, nuanced, and instructive than Mr. Michel’s simplistic depiction of a homogeneous group of likeminded “people preaching tired ideas”?

Mr. Michel’s article violates journalistic ethics and standards, calling into question not only his integrity but also the integrity of his employer, ThinkProgress, and its editors.

I wrote the editors of ThinkProgress to request a retraction or revision of Mr. Michel’s article—if not for me, I stated, then for the sake of ThinkProgress’s credibility as a journalism outlet.  Doing so, I added, might save them from embarrassment. Mr. Michel responded by asking, “Would you like to send a statement for the recording [sic] clarifying your opposition to being associated with white nationalism, or would you prefer that we quote from your email?” But I don’t just oppose being associated with white nationalism; I oppose white nationalism, an odious ideology that I condemn. At least Mr. Michel has acknowledged in writing that he associated me with white nationalism. He might have denied that erroneous association to avoid exposing his dishonesty.

Ms. Kiley Kroh, a senior editor at ThinkProgress, echoed Mr. Michel’s offer to include my perspective or statement in the article, but if I agreed to that, I would have validated the article, which was unworthy of validation. So I did not settle with Mr. Michel’s or Ms. Kroh’s offer, which seemed to me less like a sincere concession and more like a deceptive tactic. Instead, I sent Mr. Michel several questions—for the record.

My questions concerned the journalistic integrity of his article, in particular regarding the verifiability of his sources and the unprofessionalism of his methods.

Anyone can show up at a place and claim to have heard there all kinds of unflattering, objectionable conversations. A journalist can allege that some person or another said this or that if he or she does not document his or her sources. Absent the names of the individuals Mr. Michel quotes, there’s no way to track them down; his readers are left to take him at his word. He identifies only two interviewees by name: Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kurt Burkhalter. (In a separate article about the conference, he also identifies Mr. Tom Glass, whose brief remarks were delivered publically to the entire audience—in other words, who was not interviewed by Mr. Michel, as I confirmed with Mr. Glass by phone.)

I tracked down Mr. Burkhalter, whose name, contrary to Mr. Michel’s reporting, is Karl, not Kurt. We emailed and spoke by phone. He told me that Mr. Michel did not identify himself as a reporter or a member of the press or even introduce himself to Mr. Burkhalter.  He doesn’t remember speaking to Mr. Michel. Nor did Mr. Michel ask Mr. Burkhalter to speak for the record. If Mr. Burkhalter was recorded, it was not to his knowledge.

What if Mr. Michel’s multiple unnamed sources do not exist? What if they aren’t real people? What if their remarks and conversations never occurred? What if Mr. Michel just invented them out of thin air to demean his subjects? Mr. Michel did not respond to my request for information about these people; nor did he state whether he identified himself as a journalist to them (if they exist) or recorded their remarks (if they occurred). And were there “roughly 60 conference attendees,” as Mr. Michel claims here, or “some 75 participants,” as he claims here?

Mr. Michel quotes one unnamed attendee as saying, “I can’t believe we’re in Texas and there’s no grits! …. Y’all been invaded by Yankees.”  I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could track this person down or prove that he or she exists. He has not responded.

He alleges that unnamed attendees “complained that ‘diversity’ was lowering the average IQ of Harvard,” and, at lunch, “swapped stories of supposed ‘Muslim-controlled no-go zones’ in the U.K. and support for British proto-fascist Tommy Robinson.” I was present at this lunch and heard no conversations to this effect. I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that these attendees actually exist. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that an unnamed attendee stated, “You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that this statement was actually made or that this attendee actually exists. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that “one of the organizers” of the conference “hollered that Confederate flags would be referred to as ‘Freedom Flags’ and were available to any interested attendees.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that this conference organizer actually exists. He has not responded. Dr. Livingston, however, has informed me that he, Dr. Livingston, was the only conference organizer, and that he hollered no such thing about Freedom Flags.

Mr. Michel’s interviews, if or to the extent they occurred, were with only attendees, not any of the speakers at the conference. Is that because the speakers had multiple graduate degrees among them, because their responses would have been measured and sophisticated and, thus, incompatible with the narrative that Mr. Michel wanted to tell? Is it because the speakers are real, traceable people who could be reached for comment or rebuttal?

Mr. Michel alleges that attendees at the conference loathed Abraham Lincoln. I asked him, for the record, if he could provide evidence for that claim or whether he interviewed any attendees about Lincoln. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that speakers at the conference “had waxed poetically for Dixie.” I didn’t see any speakers do such a thing; therefore, I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify or document his claim. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel calls nullification “a discredited legal principle supposedly permitting states to disregard federal law.” Because he provides no attribution for this claim, I take it to be his own. When I asked him how he squared this opinion with the fact that certain states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in contravention of federal law, he did not respond.

*

On November 20, 2018, I emailed the other speakers at the conference to forward them my written correspondence with Mr. Michel.  Mr. Evans responded later that day claiming that Mr. Michel had previously written false or misleading information about YesCalifornia, the political action committee with which Mr. Evans is affiliated and which promotes California’s secession from the United States. So I decided to take a closer look at Mr. Michel’s claims about YesCalifornia in the article that I felt had targeted me.

This article claims, without providing or citing evidence, that YesCalifornia is “a Kremlin-backed group” that “has acted as one of the most obvious fronts for Russian interference efforts over the past few years.” I asked Mr. Michel whether he could verify or substantiate this claim. He has not responded. Curiously, however, he has written elsewhere that “[n]o evidence has emerged of direct Kremlin funding for the Calexit initiative, or similar endeavors in the United States.”

Mr. Michel also states that YesCalifornia was “reportedly helped by the architects of Russia’s social media interference efforts—one of the few American organizations directly linked to the types of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that meddled in U.S. politics the past few years.” The words “linked directly” hyperlink to a BBC News article (“‘Russian trolls’ promoted California independence,” November 4, 2017) that does not claim a direct link between Russian social media accounts and YesCalifornia. Rather, the article states that social media accounts banned by Twitter due to ties to the Internet Research Agency—“a St. Petersburg-based ‘troll factory”—were pushing #Calexit hashtags and linking “to other social media accounts advocating the secession of California from the United States.”

I asked Mr. Evans about this BBC article. He wrote back that Mr. Michel “fails to point out that the article he links to directly contradicts the narrative that he is pushing, which is that Calexit is mostly, or nothing but a Russian backed social movement.” He clarified that, “although the FBI was instructing all technology companies to shut down all social media counts linked to the Russian government, the YesCalifornia Twitter and Facebook page have been untouched and are still active at this time, proving that the FBI itself confirms that YesCalifornia is an actual organic group.”

Mr. Michel is quoted in the BBC article as saying that the Anti-Globalisation Movement “received funding from the Kremlin to organize this conference to pay for the travel and lodging of American and European secession movements,” and that Louis Marinelli (a cofounder of YesCalifornia) spoke at an Anti-Globalisation conference. Mr. Michel provides no citation or evidence to back up his claim that the Kremlin helped to subsidize this conference. The fact that Mr. Marinelli spoke at a conference hosted by an organization with which he is not affiliated, moreover, hardly qualifies as a “direct link” between YesCalifornia and Russian interference in U.S. politics. In fact, Mr. Michel told a reporter for Playboy that “there’s no indication Marinelli himself has received funding from the Russian government,” adding, however, that “Yes California received rent-free space for its ‘Embassy’…provided by the Kremlin funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.”

I know little about YesCalifornia or California secession movements, and even less about Russian meddling in U.S. politics. I cannot affirm or deny Mr. Michel’s claims about them. That, however, is precisely the problem: an educated reader ought to be able to evaluate the truthfulness of claims in articles that are published for a mass readership. Such claims should be fact-checked and scrutinized before they reach print. Journalists must be careful to distinguish fact from opinion, and possibility from actuality. They must clarify when they are speculating and when they are registering uncontroverted data. It isn’t fair to the general public for the media to convey vague or unsubstantiated allegations, placing the burden on skeptical readers to affirm or deny reported claims. Most readers are not lawyers or journalists trained and equipped for such rigorous undertakings. They don’t have time systematically to discredit every journalist who raises suspicions.

*

As a lawyer, I could be reprimanded, maybe even disbarred, for the kind of professional misconduct that Mr. Michel has demonstrated in his intemperate reporting about the Abbeville Institute’s conference. Shouldn’t journalists be held equally accountable?  Arguably, at least in certain circumstances, their capacity to harm society is greater than lawyers’, given that their writings are immediately available worldwide whereas the actions of most lawyers most of the time are confined to their jurisdiction and the parties to a case. If I could be removed from my profession or disciplined for actions similar to those of Mr. Michel in this instance, why shouldn’t he be removed from his?  Will media companies, including those that employ him, care about the flaws in his reporting?  Will they continue to feature his writings or air his opinions on television? Will his other work be scrutinized to ensure that it has truthfully conveyed verifiable facts to the general public? And what will happen to him if concerned readers discover a pattern of professional misconduct in his work, or that he has misled the public?

Mr. Michel’s coverage of the Abbeville Institute is hardly bold. It’s not an example of the little guy standing up to some big, bad, powerful corporation. The Abbeville Institute has comparatively little money and resources.  According to 990s available online, the Abbeville Institute reported year-end net assets or fund balances of $360,854 in 2015, $213,060 in 2014, and 178,760 in 2013. Its reported total revenue was $138,041 in 2015, $97,873 in 2014, and $56,291 in 2013. By contrast, in 2016, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported net assets or fund balances of $4,225,946 and total revenue of $7,751,090. (According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) may, unlike a 501(c)(3), “further its [tax] exempt purposes through lobbying as its primary activity without jeopardizing its exempt status.”) The Abbeville Institute is tiny by comparison.

Nor have I found anything published by the Abbeville Institute that could be described as “white nationalist,” which is defined as “the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.” The Abbeville Institute’s archives include favorable portraits of Jimmy Carter and civil rights, and its authors have characterized white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan as anti-Southern or as breaches of the Southern tradition. Vietnamese, Jewish, and an African-American authors have contributed to its blog. Mr. Michel cites this Abbeville Institute blog post as evidence of thinly veiled racism, but fails to note its celebration of ethnic diversity in the South.

No doubt scholars associated with the Abbeville Institute have expressed views with which I disagree. That would be the case with nearly any organization, given that my idiosyncratic opinions make me difficult to categorize along a simplistic left-right spectrum or within conventional political taxonomies. Because I believe in the merits and benefits of decentralization, I agreed enthusiastically to discuss this topic before a captive Abbeville Institute audience. Because I believe, moreover, that the American South is not a categorically bad place, that its history is, among other things, complex and worthy of serious study, I have been an associated scholar of the Abbeville Institute for many years. That fact alone should not disqualify my views, which deserve to be heard on their merits.

I remain friendly with academics, writers, and journalists on the left.  I take their ideas and writing seriously and engage them in constructive, civil, and good-faith dialogue so that I may better understand their views while refining and revising my own.  We have mutual respect for one another.  For many years, I myself was a man of the left. I still hold certain views with which self-identifying progressives would agree.

When progressives who know me read Mr. Michel’s article, they will, I suspect, immediately question his credibility and sincerity, even if they also question my judgment for speaking to the Abbeville Institute, a group with which they would not align themselves. It would seem to me that ThinkProgress would wish to attract a wider readership in states like Alabama, where progressives are few in number.  By associating me with white nationalists and neo-Confederates, however, ThinkProgress may drive away reasonable, level-headed moderates in Alabama whose vast presence here revealed itself with the election of Doug Jones to the United States Senate. In short, ThinkProgress risks, with the publication of Mr. Michel’s article, mainstreaming what it seeks to depict as extreme and alienating the very audience it seeks to attract—all because one reporter did not do his homework or adhere to professional standards of reporting.

I am not familiar with Mr. Michel’s larger body of work, but I wonder whether his publishers should revisit his writings to ensure that they contain verifiable facts, identifiable sources, proper attribution, and appropriate context. Mr. Michel has demonstrated, with his coverage of the Abbeville Institute conference, that he’s capable of distortion and unprofessionalism. Might he have been unprofessional in his previous writings?

Journalism as a profession depends upon the public trust, its chief function being to disseminate reliable information for public knowledge. People should make informed decisions whenever possible; the accurate and extensive communication of uncontroverted facts enables them to do so. The consequences of unprofessional reporting are potentially far-reaching and wide-ranging: What would it mean if the public, en masse, lost faith in the media, if there were no reliable fora for information gathering and transmission, if the definition of “information” was itself subverted beyond recognition?  How would we make informed decisions?  How could we knowledgeably mobilize ourselves into purposeful communities with shared values and commitments?

I believe that a diversity of thought and opinion is essential to the flourishing of society, and I admire ThinkProgress for standing up for ideas that fulfill and promote its core mission. I believe strongly in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and worry daily that they are under threat. That is why I cannot tolerate journalistic error and mischaracterization that cause harm to me and my family—and to honest journalists everywhere. Because the freedom of speech and the press is vital, it must not be cheapened or undermined by lies, fraud, or unprofessionalism.

This is not the story of some hack scribbler dashing off a dubious hit-job or smear piece. It’s bigger than that; it’s an illustrative example of the more general decline in journalistic standards, ethics, and accountability that contributes to widespread distrust of the media.

I am a human being, not some online robot or avatar.  My wife, my two children (aged seven and five), my mother and father, my elderly grandmother, my siblings—they are all living, breathing human beings who know me and love me, and who have been demoralized, disturbed, and disheartened by Mr. Michel’s article.

And guess what? If any of them trusted the media before, they don’t now. And they’ll applaud President Trump every time he attacks the media for “fake news.” And if there are others like them across America who are likewise victims of bad or unethical reporting, who do not believe that the media fairly informs the public about matters of general concern, then anger at the media will spread; trust in journalists will diminish; “news” will no longer be considered news.

Claas Relotius’s fabrications over several years validated growing skepticism about an impartial news media, as did numerous media statements about the Covington Catholic High School students that video footage later contradicted. I can add Mr. Michel’s reporting of me to the list of reasons I am skeptical about the truth of many stories the news media disseminates.

It is incumbent upon journalists to avoid unethical reporting and unprincipled methods that demean their profession and undercut the good-faith work of responsible reporters who strive to provide accurate information and verifiable data. The stakes are high in this “Information Age” in which we do not yet fully understand the effects and potential consequences of our new technologies on society. When in doubt, it’s best to bear in mind the ancient proverb: “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” For we’ve had enough troubles in these troublesome times.

Journalists should stick to facts and not seek to destroy their ideological opponents with reckless words. And we, all of us, left and right, should unite to hold them accountable if they don’t.

El marxismo cultural es real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, The Academy, Western Philosophy on May 1, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Mises Institute. 

Samuel Moyn, un profesor de derecho de Yale, preguntórecientemente: “¿Qué es el “marxismo cultural?””. Su respuesta: “Nada de eso existe en realidad”. Moyn atribuye el término marxismo cultural a la “imaginación desenfrenada de la derecha”, afirmando que implica locas teorías de conspiración y se ha estado “filtrando durante años a través de las alcantarillas globales del odio”.

Alexander Zubatov, un abogado que escribió en Tabletrespondió que el marxismo cultural, “algo confuso y controvertido”, “ha estado en circulación durante más de cuarenta años”. Tiene, además, “usos perfectamente respetables fuera de la oscuridad, silos húmedos de la lejana derecha”. Concluyó que el marxismo cultural no es ni una “conspiración” ni una “fantasmagoría” de la mera derecha, sino un “programa intelectual coherente, una constelación de ideas peligrosas”.

En este debate, me pongo del lado de Zubatov. Este es el por qué.

A pesar de la desconcertante gama de controversias y significados que se le atribuyen, el marxismo cultural (el término y el movimiento) tiene una historia profunda y compleja en la teoría. La palabra “Teoría” (con una T mayúscula) es el encabezado general de la investigación dentro de las ramas interpretativas de las humanidades conocidas como estudios culturales y críticos, crítica literaria y teoría literaria, cada una de las cuales incluye una variedad de enfoques desde lo fenomenológico hasta el psicoanalítico. En los Estados Unidos, la Teoría se enseña y aplica comúnmente en los departamentos de inglés, aunque su influencia es perceptible en todas las humanidades.

Una breve genealogía de diferentes escuelas de Teoría, que se originó fuera de los departamentos de inglés, entre filósofos y sociólogos, por ejemplo, pero que se convirtió en parte del plan de estudios básico de los departamentos de inglés, muestra no solo que el marxismo cultural es un fenómeno identificable, sino que prolifera más allá de la academia.

Los estudiosos versados ​​en Teoría son razonablemente desconfiados de las representaciones crudas y tendenciosas de su campo. Sin embargo, estos campos conservan elementos del marxismo que, en mi opinión, requieren un mayor y sostenido escrutinio. Dadas las estimaciones de que el comunismo mató a más de 100 millones de personas, debemos discutir abierta y honestamente las corrientes del marxismo que atraviesan diferentes modos de interpretación y escuelas de pensamiento. Además, para evitar la complicidad, debemos preguntarnos si y por qué las ideas marxistas, aunque sean atenuadas, siguen motivando a los principales académicos y difundiéndose en la cultura más amplia.

Los departamentos ingleses surgieron en los Estados Unidos a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX, lo que dio paso a estudios cada vez más profesionalizados de literatura y otras formas de expresión estética. A medida que el inglés se convirtió en una disciplina universitaria distinta con su propio plan de estudios, se alejó del estudio de la literatura británica y de las obras canónicas de la tradición occidental en la traducción, y hacia las filosofías que guían la interpretación textual.

Aunque una breve encuesta general de lo que se sigue puede no satisfacer a los que están en el campo, proporciona a los demás los antecedentes pertinentes.

La nueva crítica

La primera escuela importante que se estableció en los departamentos ingleses fue la Nueva Crítica. Su contraparte fue el formalismo ruso, caracterizado por figuras como Victor Shklovsky y Roman Jakobson, que intentaron distinguir los textos literarios de otros textos, examinando qué cualidades hacían que las representaciones escritas fueran poéticas, convincentes, originales o conmovedoras en lugar de meramente prácticas o utilitarias.

Una de esas cualidades fue la familiarización. La literatura, en otras palabras, desfamiliariza el lenguaje mediante el uso de sonido, sintaxis, metáfora, aliteración, asonancia y otros dispositivos retóricos.

La Nueva Crítica, que era principalmente pedagógica, enfatizaba la lectura atenta, manteniendo que los lectores que buscan un significado deben aislar el texto que se está considerando de las externalidades como la intención del autor, la biografía o el contexto histórico. Este método es similar al textualismo legal mediante el cual los jueces examinan estrictamente el lenguaje de un estatuto, no el historial o la intención legislativa, para interpretar la importancia o el significado de ese estatuto. Los “Nuevos Críticos” acuñaron el término “falacia intencional” para referirse a la búsqueda del significado de un texto en cualquier parte, excepto en el texto mismo. La Nueva Crítica está asociada con John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards y T. S. Eliot. En cierto modo, todas las escuelas de teoría posteriores son respuestas o reacciones a la Nueva Crítica.

Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo

El estructuralismo impregnó los círculos intelectuales franceses en los años sesenta. A través del estructuralismo, pensadores como Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva y Louis Althusser importaron la política izquierdista en el estudio de los textos literarios. El estructuralismo está arraigado en la lingüística de Ferdinand de Saussure, un lingüista suizo que observó cómo los signos lingüísticos se diferencian dentro de un sistema de lenguaje. Cuando decimos o escribimos algo, lo hacemos de acuerdo con las reglas y convenciones en las que también opera nuestra audiencia anticipada. El orden implícito que utilizamos y comunicamos es la “estructura” a la que se hace referencia en el estructuralismo.

El antropólogo francés Claude Levi-Strauss extendió las ideas de Saussure sobre el signo lingüístico a la cultura, argumentando que las creencias, los valores y los rasgos característicos de un grupo social funcionan de acuerdo con un conjunto de reglas tácitamente conocidas. Estas estructuras son el “discurso”, un término que abarca las normas culturales y no solo las prácticas lingüísticas.

Del estructuralismo y el postestructuralismo surgió el marxismo estructural, una escuela de pensamiento vinculada a Althusser que analiza el papel del estado para perpetuar el dominio de la clase dominante, los capitalistas.

El marxismo y el neomarxismo

En las décadas de 1930 y 1940, la Escuela de Frankfurt popularizó el tipo de trabajo generalmente etiquetado como “marxismo cultural”. Las figuras involucradas o asociadas con esta escuela incluyen a Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse y Walter Benjamin. Estos hombres revisaron, replantearon y extendieron el marxismo clásico al enfatizar la cultura y la ideología, incorporando ideas de campos emergentes como el psicoanálisis e investigando el auge de los medios de comunicación y la cultura de masas.

Insatisfechos con el determinismo económico y la coherencia ilusoria del materialismo histórico, y hartados por los fracasos de los gobiernos socialistas y comunistas, estos pensadores reformularon las tácticas y las premisas marxistas a su manera, sin repudiar por completo los diseños o ambiciones marxistas.

A partir de los años sesenta y setenta, académicos como Terry Eagleton y Fredric Jameson fueron explícitos al abrazar el marxismo. Rechazaron los enfoques de la Nueva Crítica que separaban la literatura de la cultura, enfatizando que la literatura reflejaba los intereses económicos y de clase, las estructuras políticas y sociales y el poder. En consecuencia, consideraron cómo los textos literarios reproducían (o socavaban) las estructuras y condiciones culturales o económicas.

Slavoj Žižek podría decirse que ha hecho más que cualquier miembro de la Escuela de Frankfurt para integrar el psicoanálisis en las variantes marxistas. “La erudición de Žižek ocupa un lugar particularmente alto dentro de la crítica cultural que busca explicar las intersecciones entre el psicoanálisis y el marxismo”, escribió la erudita Erin Labbie.1 Agregó que “los escritos prolíficos de Žižek sobre ideología, que revelan las relaciones entre psicoanálisis y marxismo, han modificó la forma en que se aborda y se logra la crítica literaria y cultural en la medida en que la mayoría de los estudiosos ya no pueden mantener firmemente la idea anterior de que los dos campos están en desacuerdo”.2 Žižek es solo uno entre muchos filósofos continentales cuyos pronósticos de marxistas y marxistas flexionados llaman la atención de los académicos estadounidenses.

Deconstrucción

Jacques Derrida es reconocido como el fundador de la deconstrucción. Tomó prestado de la teoría de Saussure que el significado de un signo lingüístico depende de su relación con su opuesto, o de las cosas de las que se diferencia. Por ejemplo, el significado de hombre depende del significado de mujer; el significado de feliz depende del significado de triste; etcétera. Así, la diferencia teórica entre dos términos opuestos, o binarios, los une en nuestra conciencia. Y un binario es privilegiado mientras que el otro es devaluado. Por ejemplo, “hermoso” es privilegiado sobre “feo” y “bueno” sobre “malo”.

El resultado es una jerarquía de binarios que son dependientes del contexto o arbitrariamente, según Derrida, y no pueden ser fijos o definidos en el tiempo y el espacio. Esto se debe a que el significado existe en un estado de flujo, y nunca se convierte en parte de un objeto o idea.

El mismo Derrida, habiendo releído el Manifiesto comunista, reconoció el avance “espectral” de un “espíritu” de Marx y el marxismo.3 Aunque la llamada “hauntología” de Derrida excluye las meta-narrativas mesiánicas del marxismo no cumplido, los comentaristas han salvado Derrida es un marxismo modificado para el clima del “capitalismo tardío” actual.

Derrida usó el término diffèrance para describir el proceso difícil de alcanzar que usan los humanos para asignar significado a signos arbitrarios, incluso si los signos (los códigos y las estructuras gramaticales de la comunicación) no pueden representar adecuadamente un objeto o idea real en la realidad. Las teorías de Derrida tuvieron un amplio impacto que le permitió a él y sus seguidores considerar los signos lingüísticos y los conceptos creados por esos signos, muchos de los cuales eran fundamentales para la tradición occidental y la cultura occidental. Por ejemplo, la crítica de Derrida al logocentrismo cuestiona casi todos los fundamentos filosóficos que se derivan de Atenas y Jerusalén.

Nuevo historicismo

El Nuevo historicismo, una empresa multifacética, está asociado con el erudito de Shakespeare Stephen Greenblatt. Observa las fuerzas y condiciones históricas con un ojo estructuralista y postestructuralista, y trata los textos literarios como productos y contribuyentes al discurso y las comunidades discursivas. Se basa en la idea de que la literatura y el arte circulan a través del discurso e informan y desestabilizan las normas e instituciones culturales.

Los nuevos historicistas exploran cómo las representaciones literarias refuerzan las estructuras de poder o trabajan contra el privilegio arraigado, extrapolando la paradoja de Foucault de que el poder crece cuando se subvierte porque es capaz de reafirmarse sobre la persona subversiva o actuar en una demostración de poder. El marxismo y el materialismo a menudo surgen cuando los nuevos historicistas buscan resaltar textos y autores (o escenas y personajes literarios) en términos de sus efectos sobre la cultura, la clase y el poder. Los nuevos historicistas se centran en figuras de clase baja o marginadas, dándoles voz o agencia y prestándoles atención atrasada. Este reclamo político, aunque pretende proporcionar un contexto, sin embargo, se arriesga a proyectar inquietudes contemporáneas en obras situadas en una cultura y momento histórico particulares.

En palabras del crítico literario Paul Cantor, “existe una diferencia entre los enfoques políticos de la literatura y los enfoques politizados, es decir, entre los que tienen en cuenta la centralidad de las preocupaciones políticas en muchos clásicos literarios y los que intentan intencionalmente reinterpretar y recrear virtualmente las obras de clase a la luz de las agendas políticas contemporáneas.”4

El marxismo cultural es real

Gran parte de la protesta sobre el marxismo cultural es indignante, desinformada y conspirativa. Parte de esto simplifica, ignora o minimiza las fisuras y tensiones entre los grupos e ideas de izquierda. El marxismo cultural no se puede reducir, por ejemplo, a “corrección política” o “política identitaria”. (Recomiendo el breve artículo de Andrew Lynn “Marxismo cultural” en la edición de otoño de 2018 de The Hedgehog Review para una crítica concisa de los tratamientos descuidados y paranoicos de marxismo cultural)

Sin embargo, el marxismo impregna la Teoría, a pesar de la competencia entre las varias ideas bajo esa etiqueta amplia. A veces este marxismo es evidente por sí mismo; en otras ocasiones, es residual e implícito. En cualquier caso, ha alcanzado un carácter distinto pero en evolución, ya que los estudiosos literarios han reelaborado el marxismo clásico para dar cuenta de la relación de la literatura y la cultura con la clase, el poder y el discurso.

El feminismo, los estudios de género, la teoría crítica de la raza, el poscolonialismo, los estudios sobre la discapacidad, estas y otras disciplinas se pasan por alto uno o más de los paradigmas teóricos que he descrito. Sin embargo, el hecho de que se guíen por el marxismo o adopte términos y conceptos marxistas no los hace prohibidos o indignos de atención.

Lo que me lleva a una advertencia: condenar estas ideas como prohibidas, ya que los peligros que corrompen a las mentes jóvenes pueden tener consecuencias imprevistas. Las derivaciones marxistas deben estudiarse para ser comprendidas de manera integral. No los elimines del currículum: contextualízalos, desafíalos y pregúntalos. No reifiques su poder ignorándolos o descuidándolos.

Las iteraciones populares del marxismo cultural se revelan en el uso casual de términos como “privilegio”, “alienación”, “mercantilización”, “fetichismo”, “materialismo”, “hegemonía” o “superestructura”. Como escribió Zubatov para Tablet, “Es un paso corto desde la “hegemonía” de Gramsci hasta los memes tóxicos ahora ubicuos de “patriarcado”, “heteronormatividad”, “supremacía blanca”, “privilegio blanco”, “fragilidad blanca” y “blancura”“. Añade “Es un paso corto de la premisa marxista y marxista cultural de que las ideas son, en su esencia, expresiones de poder para una política de identidad desenfrenada y divisoria y el juicio rutinario de las personas y sus contribuciones culturales basadas en su raza, género, sexualidad y religión.”

Mi breve resumen es simplemente la versión simplificada y aproximada de una historia mucho más grande y compleja, pero orienta a los lectores curiosos que desean aprender más sobre el marxismo cultural en los estudios literarios. Hoy en día, los departamentos de inglés sufren la falta de una misión, propósito e identidad claramente definidos. Al haber perdido el rigor en favor de la política de izquierda como su principal objetivo de estudio, los departamentos de inglés en muchas universidades están en peligro por el énfasis renovado en las habilidades prácticas y la capacitación laboral. Así como los departamentos de inglés reemplazaron a los departamentos de religión y clásicos como los principales lugares para estudiar cultura, también los departamentos o escuelas del futuro podrían reemplazar a los departamentos de inglés.

Y esos lugares pueden no tolerar las agitaciones políticas que se plantean como técnica pedagógica.

El punto, sin embargo, es que el marxismo cultural existe. Tiene una historia, seguidores, adeptos y dejó una marca perceptible en temas académicos y líneas de investigación. Moyn puede desear que desaparezca, o descartarlo como un fantasma, pero es real. Debemos conocer sus efectos en la sociedad, y en qué formas se materializa en nuestra cultura. La polémica intemperada de Moyn demuestra, de hecho, la urgencia y la importancia de examinar el marxismo cultural, en lugar de cerrar los ojos a su significado, propiedades y significado.

Nota del editor: la reciente entrevista en video de Allen Mendenhall con el Centro Martin incluye temas de este artículo.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente por el Centro Martin.

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