Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I.L. Peretz and the 53%

A couple of years ago, trying to track down an old grad school classmate online, I found that he had written a dismaying manifesto about why he’d recently become a hardcore conservative. He had realized that The Left was motivated solely by a vile irrational hatred of President Bush that by 2005 had become almost irresistibly sublime. Sure, the fact that Bush’d won the presidency illegitimately and justified war with Iraq dishonestly were initially causes for concern, but he’d turned out to be a fine leader, and conversations with Iraq war veterans had persuaded my classmate that liberating the Iraqis had been worth it. But the breaking point had been the reaction of the Left to Hurricane Katrina: how, the newly conservative professor asked, could they have gone so ‘round the bend as to blame Bush for a hurricane?

I lost a lot of sleep over that. How much does one have to ignore in order to say that about Katrina? “Heckuva job,” FEMA trailers, the very existence of disaster relief, the air guitar, disaster policy in other countries and in previous years, wow. This professor’s position is well to the right of Bush’s own: Bush and his ghostwriters in Decision Points take for granted that Katrina was dealt with very badly, for all that they blame the governor of Louisiana. But I’ve heard the same “hurricanes happen” argument elsewhere, once from a guy who did not leave the Democratic Party.

In 2004, I had a little apartment in Chestnut Hill, an affluent neighborhood in the far northwest corner of Philadelphia, more Republican than the areas to its south. Lunching on the eleven-dollar bluefish special at a nice restaurant at the top of the hill, I heard loud conversation nearby. I saw a party of five or six at a round table, most of them in late middle age or older; but there was a younger guy dominating the conversation. Looking again, I saw that he was a white man with curly dark red hair and a head, wow, a head that was a dead ringer for the type that Confederate phrenologist Josiah Nott (still a hero among white supremacists) called the “Apollo Belvedere”: it was almost completely flat in the back and inclined inward as it rose, rather than being visibly convex like the skull beneath it. Nott thought this shape indicated the highest of civilized life, but if that’s so, the highest of civilized life doesn’t communicate very well. “And who is Howard Stern?” asked the older relatives. “He’s a shock jock,” said Apollo without elaboration, as if someone who hadn’t heard of Stern could know what that meant. But what Apollo and his family all agreed on was that it was disgraceful that the 9/11 commission was quizzing Condoleezza Rice as if she, or anything she knew, could suggest that the 9/11 attacks represented a failure on the Bush Administration’s part. “People keep looking for blame, or asking for explanations,” he said, “but sometimes things like that just happen.” 

Last year, in response to the Occupy-inspired tumblr “We are the 99%,” on which people describe the desperate circumstances they live in thanks to the precipitous rise in inequality in this country, conservative propagandist Eric Erickson founded a site called “We are the 53%.” The name alludes to the fact that 47% of Americans are freeloaders, too poor to owe any federal income tax. And people living under desperate circumstances sent in pictures, talking about how their lives are hard, but they don’t complain like the 99% people: they just suck it up and take pride in what they do, without any of this nonsense about blaming Wall Street, ‘cause that’s just the way things are. Here is one liberal’s attempt to rebut a 53%er, "Open Letter to that 53% Guy." Even more striking is the one described here by E.D. Kain of Forbes:

My father came to NY from Croatia in 1971, with KNOWLEDGE in his head, LOVE in his heart & the clothes on his back. 
He built up a small construction business and put me & my 4 siblings through Catholic school and college, while my mother raised us and put home-cooked meals on the table. 
Business has been steadily declining and my family (still honestly abiding by the regulations, TAXES & fees imposed by the gov’t) now lives paycheck-to-(hopefully!) paycheck. 
We found out he has thyroid cancer — had a 10-hour operation this past summer. 
He was back to work FULL-TIME (12 hrs/day, 6 days/wk) within a month, even though the doctors told him to take it easy (he works manual labor). 
The cancer still grows. 
THAT is the American dream. 
WE are the 53%.

In 1894, the great socialist Yiddish fantasist I.L. [Yud Lamed] Peretz published “Bontshe Shvayg” — the title is not quite translatable because English lacks an active verb for “to be silent” like “shvaygn”: say, “Bontshe the Silent” or “Bontshe Stayed Silent” or “Bontshe Said Nothing.” Here is a description of how two characters see it in Sarah Schulman’s second novel, Girls, Visions, and Everything.
Isabel read it then and there while Lila watched her react. It was about a guy named Bonche who never had a good moment in his whole life. People would shit all over him and he consistently took it . . . When he died, he had to be judged in the heavenly court. The defense attorney proved that no matter how much he suffered, Bonche had never cursed God . . . Bonche won the trial and could have anything he wanted in all imagination.  That was his reward. God would give him whatever he asked for.

“What I want,” said Bonche, “is, every day, a hot roll with some fresh butter.”

Then, said Peretz, the prosecutor broke out laughing . . .

“You get it Isabel?” Lila was hysterical with enthusiasm. “In the end, the prosecutor really won. Bonche was turned into such a schmuck from never tasting anger or desire or revenge that when his moment finally came, his spirit was too dead to be able to do anything . . . “

By contrast, look at what Alfred Kazin, a revered figure in literary criticism, had to say about Bontshe in 1960:  
But in his technique of ambiguity [Isaac Bashevis] Singer speaks for our generation far more usefully than the old ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness. While Bontsha and Tevye are entirely folk images, cherished symbols of a tradition, Gimpel . . . significantly has to win back his faith . . . 
Doubtless Peretz and Sholem Aleichem liked folk images, but I look in vain for “ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness” in their stories. The 1950s U.S., as I learned from Delany’s “Midcentury,” had forgotten a lot of turn-of-the century radicalism; but it still seems bizarre to me that Kazin thought Peretz was praising Bontshe’s humility. The old Yiddish writers were not running a Sunday School.  

The late Harvey Pekar seems to have thought that one of them was. In his and Paul Buhle’s 2011 Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land, he argues that Peretz is overrated:   
. . . some of his stories seem based on folk tales and are excessively sentimental [true, but what does Pekar use as an example?] I refer to such pieces as “Buntcheh the Silent” . . . When he gets to Heaven . . . He is offered everything he sees. Is he greedy? No! He only wants a roll with butter for breakfast daily. There’s irony here, but it’s overwhelmed by schmaltz.  
The Peretz of Pekar’s imagination is a 53%-er: Bontshe has suffered immeasurably, been unpaid and sick and humiliated and trampled in the gutter, but he doesn’t blame Wall Street! He is happy with simple things! In fact, it is Bontshe’s own vitiated imagination that recalls the pathos of the 53%-ers; and Peretz isn’t commending that.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a presentation called “Continuities: from World War 3 Illustrated to Occupy Comics,” hosted by Seth Tobocman and featuring artists from both journals. And the Occupy Comics creators gave an impassioned talk about how we have to create new myths and offer different narratives to people in order to fight the power and attain more social justice; and I thought of how Aqueduct Press and most radical SF has that among its goals as well. And I know that Occupy did change the discourse, and millions of Americans do regard Katrina as a failure on the part of the Bush Administration, and scores of Sunday Schools actually have taught “Bontshe Shvayg” as a story of protest. But the task of offering alternative narratives sometimes seems overwhelming in the face of mindsets that see explanations as paranoid or resentful acts ‘cause sometimes things just happen, that resist the idea of causal connections between societal events, or that sees the highest virtue in slogging along and accepting Things As They Are.
How hopeful can one be when otherwise-astute writers see a celebratory or sentimental ending in a scene where the angels hang their heads in shame and the only sound in Heaven is the laughter of the Adversary? 

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