For a variety of reasons, this blog has moved to American Samizdat: Towards a Renaissance of Expectation. I hope to see you there!
I invite you to read Felix Ortiz’ splendid poem about Europe’s—and America’s—lost generation.
Public intellectual Philip Gold has published “Health Care and First Principles” on health care reform. He argues that we need to stop viewing medicine as either socialized or private, and instead understand that the real distinction is citizen medicine or corporate medicine.
America is once again tying itself in knots about immigration reform. In truth, it’s not a difficult problem if you really want to end the practice of importing people while recognizing that their only crime has been to believe in the American dream while being exploited themselves.
Because surplus labor benefits capital.
That’s why America (and many countries) have the immigration problem they do. Both legal and illegal immigrants have little job security and can be exploited by their employers. And the corporations like it that way.
I’ve published an excellent essay on how to resolve the immigration problem—if in fact Americans object to having nearly 10% of the work force in this exploitable position—without creating an endless pool of immigrants.
The title is #Fixing Immigration.
There’s a bumper sticker that says, I knit so I don’t kill people. A more genteel way to put it is, I knit to stay sane. (For knitting, as always, you may substitute any craft you practice, particularly to mastery.)
I once attended a knit night at a yarn shop and asked if there was a connection between knitting and sanity or at least the act of imposing a rational order upon an incoherent mind, and a woman wearing a beautiful sweater (her work, of course), told me, “I think every one of us has a strong streak of the obsessive-compulsive.”
I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I do have a streak of both obsessions and compulsions and I found myself deliberately using knitting to satisfy that streak. When I feel the need to do something over and over again, I pick up my knitting. When I feel my attention wandering from my writing, I pick up my knitting to refocus my mind. The necessity I feel to do things right, perfect, has led to me making garments that look right and fit me well. Something that could have been very damaging to me, especially during very difficult times, has now become a useful skill, a source of beauty and satisfaction.
I am not suggesting that dealing with mental illness is so easy, it’s not: when the organ that is causing the problems is also the organ responsible for resolving those problems, it can be horrendously difficult. People with OCD, for example, often recognize their behaviors and thoughts as irrational and are extremely distressed by them. That does not mean that they can control their obsessions and compulsions, much less expunge them.
Yet much therapy for mental illness involves sufferers learning to change and control their thoughts and emotions, to strengthen their intellects so that they can master the weird and self-destructive thoughts and emotions we all have. This is because most of what is called mental illness is not a genuine illness deeply rooted in brain chemistry and physiology, such as schizophrenia, for whom medication can be a lifeline. Psychoactive medication can also be extremely helpful in stabilizing a person’s emotions so that they can function—and even live. However, much of mental illness, particularly depression, is not an organic problem, per se. It is a problem of living.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 10 American adults suffers from depression, with a higher incidence of major depression in those who are
- persons 45-64 years of age
- blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
- persons with less than a high school education
- those previously married
- individuals unable to work or unemployed
- persons without health insurance coverage
We may be sure that underrepresented in those suffering from major depression are people with a secure and stable life with interesting satisfying work that they know will not vanish when a corporate board somewhere decides that profits—to be swallowed up in the CEO’s salary—are more important than the human beings all profits depend upon. We may be sure that those underrepresented amongst those suffering from major depression are not those who experience racism and not those who experience sexual violence, for which they are also belittled and blamed. The suicides of people like James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense—who was in fact emotionally shattered when President Truman asked for his resignation when it became clear that Forrestal was suffering severe depression caused by the operational fatigue known to be quite common during World War Two—are actually rather rare. Forrestal had the friends and the means to continue to lead a life of extraordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. He apparently lost a long-term battle with his demons and could no longer bear to live with them. This does not apply to the rise in suicide rates that does with recession and economic hardship, the suffering caused by austerity: these suicides are the refusal of human beings to live in the degradation that deemed their lot by the greedy and the cruel.
Freud famously described depression as anger turned inward and it is: the anger of being required to live far too small a life, the anger of feeling your society doesn’t need your energy, your talent, even your spending power, much less for you to live a complete life in which you contribute to your society. Depression is turning inward the absolutely justified anger of our society wanting us to be so much less than we could and should be. And depression is also shame for the state to which we have been reduced. And while there appears to be a strong genetic component to obsessive compulsion and OCD itself, these behaviors are also a horribly perverse, destructive twisting of the human need to control our lives.
Indeed, the misslabelling of tens of millions of Americans as mentally ill when their behavior is an absolutely reasonable response to the conditions under which we are forced to live is reminiscent of Soviet-era psychiatric abuse of dissidents. The singular difference is that dissidents were arrested and forcibly confined and forcibly drugged and otherwise tortured by the KGB. Of course, conditioning help upon ingestion of psychoactive drugs is coercive in itself, and some segments of society, most notably the military, use mental illness to stigmatize, marginalize and eliminate from professional and human consideration, those who are crime victims, particularly sex crime victims. Generally speaking, however, Americans are so unwilling to engage the socio-economic—which is to say the political—roots of much of what they are told is their private, personal mental illness that they accept these definitions. We have been told for so long that America is Number One, the freest and best place in the world to live, and any change in the status quo will put us on a fast track to Soviet-style economic totalitarianism that many of us, especially those terrified of losing what little they have, still believe it. While many more Americans are starting to realize this is a big, fat lie, many of us have lost our ability to create serious, alternative political movements and socio-economic standards: we comfort ourselves with drugs and alcohol, porn and learned helplessness.
Knitting—or any other craft practiced to mastery—is not a cure, per se, for America’s profound social and economic problems and the willful failure of our politics to create a workable future. Knitting, like other crafts practiced to mastery, is, however, a means to that end, just like psychoactive drugs when used appropriately under careful supervision, save people’s lives and help them function while they do the hard work of reasserting control over their own thoughts. It is a means to an end. However, knitting does something no psychoactive drug can do.
At the end of a project, you have something worthy of you. When you produce something beautiful, whether it is an intricate shawl or the simplest pullover, carefully fitted and finished, you are making a statement of your own worth. For the masters of the universe who currently rule us, virtually all of them sociopaths who cannot stop gorging themselves while others go hungry, their net worth is their money. And so they display it by buying and wearing things they do not have the slightest understanding of how to actually make: yachts and bespoke suits, watches whose movements are feats of aesthetic engineering.
For the knitter, too, to wear her work is also to display her net worth. Every well-executed, well-made garment or accessory represents intellect and perseverance and aesthetic sensibilities, as well as—often—the taming of demons in the service of creation.
As for all those who say, this thing is too beautiful for a hefalump like me to wear (a sentiment that is shockingly common), I can only say, Big Food wants you to be fat just as Big Pharma wants you to be drugged. It is time to apply your intellect and rationality, your sense of aesthetics and your discipline—all abundantly displayed in your work—to your body. You deserve to wear with pride your beautiful work, to display it appropriately.
This is not sufficient for a political movement, but being proud of our work, and the minds and bodies that created our work, is a necessary place to start. Until we conceive of ourselves as deserving a politics worthy of us, we cannot begin to create those politics.
In lieu of a coarser term, I knit to anger persons.
By which I do not mean, I knit to annoy real human beings with the click-click-click of my needles. (They don’t click.) Or with the movements of my arms: as a “production” and public-transport knitter, I have taught myself to knit with minimal motion, and if the movements of my fingers and forearm muscles annoy people, that’s their problem. They can play with their smartphones. Nor do I mean that I knit to annoy real human beings by bragging about what I produce, although I love to reply to those who ask me where I bought my top, I made it. (Then there are those who recognize the absolutely outrageous quality of a good hand knit and confront me: You made this! What yarn? What pattern? What needles? What is the gauge, or stitches per centimeter or inch?)
No, I knit to anger the corporations known as persons, who have flooded the world with so much cheap junk we are drowning in it, be it junk food or junk clothing. I knit to make my own clothing (this is what I mean by being a “production knitter”, rather than a real production knitter) because the results are so much better than anything I can buy. My choice of pattern, my choice of colors and material, my measurements, for well under $100 for most garments—for materials. As for the cost of my time, let us just say knitting is entertainment and a channel for OCD as well. Is it cost effective? Not if my competition is Wal-Mart or Target or H&M. In fact, however, I compare my work to Chanel, Dior, Hermes, and Big Pharma. Compared to their prices, my work is incredibly cost-effective. I am, after all, uninterested in producing the cheap and the disposable; I am interested in producing the beautiful and durable.
I knit to also, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, make a political statement. I knit to deny the persons who are actually corporations producing junk, my money. I knit to deny them legitimacy. I knit to say not only, I can do better, but, What do I need you for? I knit to prove to my fellow citizens that we do not need junk.
If every one of us decided to make just some our own clothing, if every man and woman alike—for I am not saying women should do unpaid labor as family knitters and tailors; in fact, I am saying the opposite—made just one beautiful garment each season, what would happen to the corporations that get rich by selling us the cheap and quickly outmoded? What would happen if a man who wanted a sweater decided that he wasn’t going to buy a fleece thing that pilled and looked shabby and instead decided to knit Ronaldsay out of a good, hard, durable wool? This is would be a fun knit: just difficult enough to be interesting, and the wow-to-effort factor is incredible. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours to learn to make, in fact, if you joined a helpful knitting group of enablers and addicts. Cast-on, bind-off, knit, purl, left and right cable crosses (it looks like 8-stitch cables) every few rows. That’s it. Well, you do need to count. Maximilian, Jade Starmore’s rather Landsknecht-y pullover, is also seriously covetable and far easier than it looks. I plan to make that for me.
What happened if we all did this? What happened if each of us chose to master an important craft: sewing, gardening, butchery, preserving, carpentry, pottery, cooking, metalwork?
We would each produce some of the things we need and use every day. If we bought some or all the materials we used from our communities, particularly from local merchants and manufacturers, we would keep our money circulating within our communities. We would also be able to better evaluate so much of what we are sold at places like Wal-Mart and the Gap, Macy’s and Target as what it actually is. Junk, produced at a terrible cost in human lives and dignity, be it of those exploited even unto death, of the unemployed and underemployed here in America and every other country where corporations and their profits are regarded as more important than human beings—including the human beings without whom no corporation can exist, much less be profitable.
Below is approximately a year’s production: I pulled stuff out of my closet, placed it on a white sheet and photographed it. I did not have the time to steam everything, the more so because it will just be folded back up and need to be steamed the next time I wear it.
Annie Modessit’s Corset Top, knit from a blend of cotton, cashmere, wool and viscose. I ought to wear it more often than I do—it is all that. I’ve never been able to photograph this properly; there is a certain sheen to the yarn that I think may not help.
I call this a Klingon Battle Dress Tunic; it’s actually a Vogue Knitting pattern knit from Schaeffer’s Susan, a sport-weight cotton in the colorway Althea Gibson. Handpainted yarns can pool in ways that are dreadful (known as Clown Barf) or delightful. I really ought to edge the arms with crochet; I love to wear this over a tank top and tight trousers or jeans.
This is a free Pierrot pattern knit from a blend of acrylic and cotton. I’ve decided that I really rather dislike soft yarns, like this one, because they pill too much. I’ll probably reknit this out of silk. I love to wear this over a particular green tank top and some really ugly cargo shorts.
A Jade Starmore pattern, Elizabeth the First; I ended up altering the off-the-shoulder neckline to something squarer and more in keeping with contemporary fashions. It’s knit from 50/50 silk/cashmere, which is soft but not that pilly.
These are my first pair of socks and my introduction to Noro, which I hate because of the knots. It’s an arch-shaped pattern that I had to alter to get right the heels, and my feet love because I have high arches; if you don’t, your feet probably won’t. I think there are more hand-knitted socks in my future.
I just finished this homage to Lilly Pulitzer. The pattern is Helga Isager’s Coral, and the body is 50/50 silk/linen; the accent is some nameless handpainted merino cashmere that I have about 40 g of scrap left. It’s a beautiful yarn that pills madly; for that matter, the silk/linen is more hairy than I like, but for a summer top, I can accept it. I thought this would be a tank top; it’s a mid-thigh tunic that I wear over loose culottes because it is very body conscious.
This is Carol Sunday’s Tapestry, modified to be a pullover rather than a cardigan. I knit in the round to the armholes and almost finished the back when my math went wrong, so I set it aside to do my summer knitting. The yarn was a really ugly flesh-colored, 50/50 silk/wool that I bought for $10/pound and overdyed a saffron red that is much deeper and browner than the picture shows.
Missing is a shawl, called Echoflowers, in a lovely orchid mercerized cotton and frosted iridescent amber glass beads that I gave to a friend before I thought to photograph it. Also on my needles is another Vogue pattern in a deep, dirty gold silk that is ribbed lace and cables. For details, I’m Warmare on Ravelry.
I have been pondering the fate of Someone Else’s War—I believe it will be part of a trilogy—and so not posting further chapters while I sort out my thoughts. Instead, I decided to read a book I have wanted to, if you can apply “long wanted to read” about Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I told my husband this and he replied, “Maybe it’s time we got a TV?”
Bloodlands is a history of political mass killing, often but far from always along ethnic lines, in what we now call Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, between 1933-1945. Like any book on a comparable subject, Bloodlands is very tough to read if you have any human feelings at all. It is also a superb work of revisionist history, revising the historical record to take into account what we now know about the killings in Eastern Europe with the collapse of Communism. Finally, the language is extremely accessible.
But there is another reason Bloodlands is an important book that should be far more widely read in American than it is. Bloodlands shows what happens when entire nations go bonkers—as America is doing now, and I write this without once pretending that America is in anything close to the situation of Germany in 1932 or Russia or the Soviet Union in 1924, when Lenin died. The parallels are very far from exact.
America has gone bonkers before, although we usually do it overseas. The last time we really went full-scale, all-out bonkers on our own soil was our Civil War, and the savagery and cruelty of that conflict is something Americans have never really come to grips with. Revised estimates of its toll, from the traditional 620,000 deaths, range from 650,000 to 850,000; 750,000 is now an accepted central figure, out of a pre-war population of 31.4 million. The revised estimate may still be too low: Francis Amisa Walker, superintendent of the 1870 census, estimated male deaths as not lower than 850,000. In modern American terms, those 750,000 deaths approximately equate to 7 million male deaths in 4 years; in the terms of Soviet Russia in 1932, about 2.4 million deaths. (Table “Before WWII.”) This dwarfs the approximately 700,000 Soviets, particularly Poles and Ukrainians, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38 and is more than 70% of the 3.3 million Soviets, mostly Ukrainians, starved in the Collectivization campaign of the Soviet Union of 1932-33. (Figures are Snyder, in “Numbers and Terms.”)
Moreover, the numbers citied for the American Civil War do not include the appalling suffering of African-Americans after the Civil War, suffering that was a direct consequence of slavery. It should also be remembered that Communism, including Stalinism, was a demented attempt to create a workable future for Russia because its Tsarist past was largely garbage. The cause of the American Civil War was the South’s insistence that some human beings be allowed to own other human beings. Yet our understanding of our Civil War is sanitized nearly beyond recognition: we have never really come to terms with the war in the West, the appalling suffering of newly-freed slaves and the near-immediate campaign of Southern whites to reimpose conditions on African-Americans that might best be described as serfdom. Some states still have the Confederate stars and bars, a banner of treason in an evil cause, as part of their state flag and “heritage.” Without mentioning three hundred years of Indian wars, or the horrendous destruction we let loose upon Southeast Asia, we have turned America’s episodes of madness into entertainment and psychobabble.
While there has been some serious historical examination of American insanity, that examination is not part of our canon—more Americans have probably seen and heard of John Wayne’s The Green Berets than have read Loren Baritz’ Backfire. Instead, America’s madness—and the huge number of bodies it, like any other nation, stacks when it goes mad—is nothing more than a cause of non-binding self-flagellation for most of the Americans inclined to attempt to understand these parts of our history, a source of unearned moral superiority. Most American opposition to our disastrous war in Iraq was not about Americans reasserting their citizenship and their right to demand that the Senate, and the Senate alone, could declare and commit the nation to war. The Anti-Iraq War movement was about people feeling good about themselves, nothing more elevated. (My husband was a conservative who lost his job for his kind of adult, serious opposition.)
The result is that not only does America not realize that it is living within sight of an abyss, with tens of millions of people out of work and tens of millions more with no realistic hope for a stable, satisfying career that allows them to live in dignity and comfort while contributing to their own society, American politics are not equal to America’s situation. The right is stuck with its own viciousness, the left a disorganized coalition of activists in search of unearned moral superiority as much as social and economic justice.
I find the greatest flaw in Snyder’s book, which is necessarily limited in time and geographic scope, is that it does not address the coarsening of societies through mass violence. The enormous scope of Russian losses during the First World War that led to the Revolution and the horrendous Civil War that followed coarsened Russians, who had a lower cultural level than Germans—themselves coarsened by World War One and their own nascent civil war that followed. You subject people to enough violence and what was once unthinkable becomes ordinary; people become coarsened and their souls intincted by violence. Some shut down; others, while remaining functional, even superbly competent, are also quite insane. Stalin himself was as insane as any senior (and perhaps not-so-senior) Soviet of his era, but he was considerably more intelligent than most of his comrades. Above all, Stalin understood how to use their common madness better than his peers and near-peers. When your nation’s past has produced nothing but garbage for quite a long time, insanity can look quite rational. Unsere letzte Hoffnung: Hitler.
The United States tolerates far more violence than we like to think, and this violence is not just gun violence. It is our rising suicide rate, our incredible tolerance of homelessness, of prostitution and pornography—all of which vomit out mountains of corpses; the use of nuisance ordinances to evict women attempting to prosecute domestic violence; the military’s tolerance of rape and predilection for retaining rapists and discharging their victims; the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year from preventable causes due to lack of basic medical care. It is the on-going attempts to deny women contraception and access to abortion in order to force them to bear children, and the only adequate term for forced pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood is slavery. And all of this violence has its defenders: those who make money off the porn and the prostitution and the warping of medicine from a profession into a consumer good, from housing as a basic right to a speculative investment by big institutions, to those who prefer women to be a safety valve for absolutely justified male rage and anger and hurt and humiliation—all of which are shared by American women—as well as those who just think that women are there for their sexual usage. There is also the violence of our immigration system: those who come to American, with or without legal documents, seeking a better life, have their hopes and dreams and aspirations used to expand the pool of desperate workers and depress American wages.
In 1986, the group David + David released their Boomtown album with these lyrics from the song “Heroes”:
Fifteen long years on a losing streak
And a lot of bodies unburied
And there comes a time
When you cannot turn the other cheek
The date on that was pretty good, because by 1971 it was clear that America had serious problems: except for 1973 and 1975, the US has run trade deficits every single year since 1971. Our politics have yet to equal our problems, in no small part because Americans do not demand serious politics. Indeed, we are a fundamentally unserious people. We prefer the right-wing politics of national exceptionalism and the left-wing politics of passive-aggressive temper tantrums and ideological purity. We have escaped serious violence until now because of many factors, one of which is that with all their human flaws and failings, Americans are very often the people or the descendants of people who came here to escape the cruelties of their ethnic and national pasts. But eventually time will run out for America: the Devil makes work for idle hands and above all, idle brains. Tens of millions of Americans are being told they are useless and worthless to their society. Eventually, they will take action against that. We are already seeing sparks of action in Europe. America and Europe today do not have to go mad in ways that parallel the madness of other countries, or even their own past, to do horrendous damage when and if they go mad again.
America desperately needs a politics of standards. We don’t need ideology. Ideology—the ideology of free-market capitalism, and a leftist ideology seemingly more interested in doctrinal squabbles than creating a coherent, humane alternative to capitalism—got us here. Besides, ideals have a habit of being transformed into altars upon which sacrifices are offered. Instead, America needs a politics of standards, a single humane standard by which every American can be judged and measured and treated, a standard to which we hold our government, a standard by which all of us have the right to live.
As for Bloodlands, which is a glimpse, no more, certainly not a mirror, of where America’s—and Europe’s—failed politics can lead us, it is a terrific book, an important new way of looking at and a better understanding of the greatest concentrated violence of the 20th Century.