A few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.” She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.
And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.
In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.
The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.
Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.
The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.
When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.
Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?
Germany, February 1945
After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.
In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.
The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism. Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”
What did he mean by this? Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary. It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.
When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people – without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality. We deny fundamental humanity.
This is violence.
Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess. Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger. The urban bourgeois become enemies. People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”
Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.
Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements. It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.
This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy. Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German. He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.
After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate. A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.
What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?
We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.
To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.
Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo. It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria. The world exists as a being that has wronged him. And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.
In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.
Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.
It is straw caked in black tar. It is burnt feces. Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.
The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames. Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.
And here, at last, we return to our raven.
In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.
Is the Raven mean?
He offers a bleak promise of regeneration; of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.
After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done. Nothing will bring back the dead.
The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando. In his poem Todefuge, he would later write
Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.
Yes, we can and should try to stop it. I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs. And in a sense they do. They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen. Bad things are afoot. Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”
And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.
In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.
We find ourselves descending into hell.
“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark? Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”
Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.
A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.
To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened. How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt? What did they fear? What did they have to gain? How did they not see it coming? How did they come to believe the propaganda?
Where do you find yourself in the picture?
When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl? And what does she have to offer?
Beck’s answer? She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy. As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl? If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?
Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.
Today I turn 52.
History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.
Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.
This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.
The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.
In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.
He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.
On this day I turn 52.
I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.
A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.
As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.
But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.
It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.
It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?
It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.
In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.
It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.
The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.
Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.
Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.
Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.
Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.
Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.
Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.
Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.
Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.
Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.
Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.
Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.
Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.
Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.
The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.
You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.
And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better. You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous. And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.
I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.
Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.
And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.
Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.
Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.
Not on my watch.
In their recent report on global wealth distribution, OXFAM International revealed that in 2016, eight individuals held the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.
What does that look like on an a properly scaled graph?
It turns out that chart is actually impossible to find. And for good reason.
Not only does it not even fit on a sheet of paper, it doesn’t even fit on the planet Earth.
But lets try and imagine. Grab yourself a pencil and make a pencil point dot. The width of that dot represents one person. The height: one US dollar.
Now imagine a line that basically stretches all the way from San Francisco to Lincoln, Nebraska. That 1500 mile line contains the number of pencil dots that would represent all of the 4.8 billion adults on the planet.
For the first 180 miles of dots – all the way to the Sierra Mountains, the line basically doesn’t exist. These dots have nothing. For the next 600 miles, the line is a couple inches wide and eventually a couple feet thick. Most of those folks in the first half of humanity are worth less than a thousand bucks a piece.
In case you’re wondering, if you’re a newly minted millionaire, you’re way near the end, somewhere in the burbs, about eight miles outside of downtown Lincoln. And your line of dollars? It’s somewhat less then the height of the Worlds Trade Center.
The line continues at about that height essentially until we get to the last 3/8ths of an inch of the 1500 miles. That last little itsy bitsy bit is the width of pencil. These folks, keep in mind are eight miles away from the new millionaire, and (keep in mind, he’s just a dot) way out of sight. That 3/8ths of an inch consists of just 8 people.
Now. As for the very last two pencil points, how high are their lines?
This is where it gets really crazy.
Mount Everest? 5 1/2 miles high. The highest jump from space? Twenty-six miles by Google VP, Dr. Alan Eustace. The orbit of the space station? 248 miles above the surface of the earth.
But the wealth of the two richest men on earth? Get this. Those pencil dots representing each of their dollars side by side would extend 22,059 miles into space.
As for the eight guys? Their amount of pencil lead in the last 3/8ths of an inch would equal all the pencil lead representing all the wealth owned by all the dots in the line stretching from San Francisco to the border of Wyoming.
And now, whoever’s reading, pretty much all of you, you can basically stop. Because at this point it might make sense to narrow this audience to just the last eight guys (and they are all guys). They’re all pretty smart and, as far as I know, pretty good folks.
Bill, Amancio, Warren, Carlos, Jeff, Mark, Larry, and Michael, here are four questions:
1. Is this necessary?
2. Is it moral and just?
3. Is it effective and efficient?
4. Is it stable and safe?
And now a fifth question. Based on your answers to the first four, does the disparity matter, and what would you each propose we do about it?
As broadcast on KQED.
On Saturday, Market Street overflowed with more than a hundred thousand undaunted people. That night, one thing above all became abundantly clear.
Both civil and profane, the sound encompassed both the lady’s diction and the withering honesty of the nasty woman. Yet it was far more than that. Around the country the air carried the voice of a manifold population gathered from all manner of lived experience.
This was not the voice of me above you. Nor was it the voice of “I”. Nor “Them” against “Those”. It was the voice of “Us” demarcated neither by gender, nor age, nor geography. It spoke to what America truly is. We are strong not because we are this thing or that thing. We are strong because we are Every Thing.
In 1883 the poet Emma Lazarus wrote the words now inscribed in New York Harbor, describing that New Colossus. She towers not like a brazen giant, but “a mighty woman whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name, the Mother of Exiles.”
We also know her as Liberty.
She shrinks neither from fear nor the immensity of her challenge.
Send these, the tempest-tost to me, she asks. And she embraces them with a mother’s arm. This act that might speak of weakness becomes our greatest strength and reveals a moral wealth that casts shame on any gilded tower.
It rests in the belief that there can exist a nation able to accommodate all manner of creed and idea. In this way, the many, so different, can become a resolute and indivisible One.
On a recent rainy morning, I was decorating a particular tree — the one that represents that great Tree of Life — and I paused to consider how many presents my true love gave to me.
It’s a simple problem, really. One partridge, plus two turtle doves, plus three French hens: It’s basically the summation of an arithmetic series and there’s a simple formula for it.
That formula is sometimes tied to the great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. One day when he was a young boy, his school master was feeling particularly cruel and he asked the class to total all the numbers from 1 to 100. So the class set to scribbling, 1+2+3 etc.
But Gauss noticed something. He saw that you can break the one hundred numbers into fifty pairs: 1+100, 2+99 and so on. Basically you have fifty 101s. Fifty times 101 is 5050.
Gauss walked up to the teacher and lay down the sum.
“There it lies,” he said.
So what’s this story really about? It’s not so much about math but about tyranny, about an insecure schoolmaster working in a subject that may have far exceeded his reach. In reaction, he bullied those around him.
But by using his powers of thought, Gauss was able to resist.
There are perhaps two ways to vanquish tyranny or the threat there of. The first may be the generosity of Christ, that very thing that we celebrate in the Christmastide; the power to give and love in the face of selfishness and greed.
And if that fails? Well, on the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me 78 presents, the last of which was a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The Lord on High, in concert with one of his lesser Angels, gave us life and within that life the power to reason. With that gift may joy prevail, and may all manner of ignorance be defeated.
These are the things for which I am grateful today.
I am grateful that I have a home and that I am warm.
I am grateful that I have Facebook friends who could laugh at me and cheer me on yesterday as I crawled home with an injured back.
I am grateful for a long suffering partner who brought me a cup of hot chocolate this afternoon.
I am separately grateful for the milk and for the chocolate.
I am grateful for my daughter who hung a Santa Rosa marathon medallion around my neck as I lay immobile on the floor.
I am grateful to have two pillows to tuck between my knees and one behind my head.
I am grateful to have windows that allow me to see the fog and the sunlight and tonight’s epic moon.
I am grateful to Kaiser Permanente for their excellent back care videos.
I am grateful to have hot water and to have a shower with walls so that I can stand and brace myself.
I am grateful to have high speed internet so that while I’ve lay prone, I’ve been able watch no small number of documentaries about the European theatre in World War II.
I am grateful to the persons who perhaps without any foresight of the future shot film and took pictures and wrote words so that three quarters of a century later we have evidence of all the things great and terrible that occurred.
I am grateful to have guidance for what may come.
I am grateful to the mathematicians of Bletchley Park who broke and broke again the Enigma code so that we could keep open the American maritime supply lines to Britain.
I’m grateful to Alan Turing for imagining the impossible.
I am grateful to the ruthless Germans who invaded my mother’s country. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful to the ruthless Soviet troops who brought an end to the Third Reich and in the process chased my family all the way to the Elbe. If it were not for them I would not be here today.
I am grateful to each and every one of the boys who fell from the sky on the dawn of June 6th, 1944 across the hedgerows of the Cotentin Penninsula. If it were not for them, I would not be here today.
I am grateful for my thrown out back that gives me cause to be. And the aching back that affords a moment to be grateful.