Playing Punk

I had a great and turbulent time in New York, from the moment my mother kissed me goodbye in front of a Bowery hotel when I was 20 to my last meal eight years later in a Flatbush Chinese restaurant. I rented eight apartments, held three jobs, spent seven months on the dole, fought two court cases (I won both), and survived two relationships. You can only live like that in your twenties, and I did.

My first week in the city I wandered up to the East Village and browsed the used record shops. In those days, music came before books. I nursed the dream of fronting a band, playing CBGB and living on refried beans until I was famous enough to buy a flat on Central Park West. I even bid for and got a job at the Strand, the infamous bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street, because I’d read somewhere that Patti Smith had worked there before she became, well, Patti Smith. If I’d read that she’d worked at Balducci’s I probably would’ve pestered them. Such was the power of punk lore over my neophyte imagination.

While at the Strand I embraced a progressively more degenerate lifestyle. It was a heady place to work, despite the fact that they treated their employees like garbage. The Strand myth was that they would hire anyone: “struggling artists,” squatters, junkies. And they did. In fact, the place was crawling with vice. In the employee lounge — where rats scurried across the concrete floor from time to time — the refrigerator was always chock-full of malt liquor and beer. The management either drank as heavily as we did or looked the other way.

We’d go out and get hammered at the bars on First Avenue for lunch, then as soon as six o’clock rolled around we were back at our favorite watering hole on Avenue B for more. Far eastside bars still had sawdust on the floor and killer jukeboxes. We drank pitchers of McSoreley’s Ale, an East Village specialty, and bopped our sodden heads to Iggy and the Stooges. We’d stumble home to Greenpoint, stopping off at the all-night bodega for a few tall cans of Ballantine and cigarettes.

Around that time I began having severe bowel trouble. My steady diet of ephedrine, Twinkies and Yoo-hoo probably didn’t help. I recall squatting in the public toilet at the Strand munching on alfalfa sprouts, hoping for the best. It certainly didn’t occur to me at the time that ephedrine — which was my over-the-counter answer to shooting speed, something I wouldn’t have had the guts to do anyway — was calcifying my innards. My bad diet did the rest.

A couple of times a year my mom and step-dad would drive up from Maryland to visit. They’d bring me things like old furniture from our basement, crates of used albums and boxes packed with macaroni and cheese and canned salmon (why not tuna, I always wondered?). Then they’d take me, their emaciated son, out for a decent meal at Katz’s or the Second Avenue Deli. Hungry as I was, I’d crunch away at the bowl of sour pickles, slurp down the matzo ball soup and take the uneaten half of my corned beef sandwich home in a napkin. Once my mother even made me try kishke, which was delicious.

With my sister, we visited the Tenement Museum together on Orchard Street. There we found a photo of an original tenants who looked exactly like our mother. I’d take them on rollicking subway rides. I once even took them to the bar where I hung out. I think I wanted to show them my world, let them in on some deep secret about who I had become. Instead, all I managed to do was alienate them. After that, they visited less and less frequently.

On Monday nights I’d schlep down to the Ludlow St. Cafe with my guitar for open mic night. I’d order a pitcher of beer, put my name on the list, and slump down over a barstool to work up my courage. When they called my name I’d stagger up to the stage, plug in my faux-Rickenbacker hollow body to the amp, and start in on Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” The changes were simple and I knew all the words; besides, it was my favorite song. How could the public not love it?

Maybe it was my tendency to end every performance in a loud feedback roar a là Sonic Youth, or just the fact that I couldn’t sing and had absolutely no interest in my audience, but on my final night they pulled the plug on me. I kept playing before I realized no sound was coming out of the amplifiers. When it dawned on me, I slunk back to my barstool and ordered another pitcher.

And there died the first of my great New York dreams.

Making Friends, Making Enemies

Andrew Sullivan’s response to Wieseltier is here (It’s already old news; the world has moved on.) I haven’t read it all through, partially because I’m not getting paid by anyone to read and write, unlike the folks at the heart of this dispute. That I can find time to read or write anything amazes me to no end.

Andrew is punching with big fluffy gloves on this time. The vitriol is gone. It’s time to make amends, if they can be made. The rest is commentary. But, like I said, it’s yesterday’s news.

Their tiff reminds me so much of what happens whenever Israel is at the center of some public dispute. Like a global civil war, it tears friendships and families apart. There are people who no longer speak to me on account of my views on the Israeli-Arab conflict (perhaps they weren’t friends to begin with, one must conclude), and I’ve even been called a “Nazi”. Which is exactly what happened to Jeffrey Goldberg the other day, only he was called a “Goebbels” – but by a Zionist! Which goes to show you can’t please all the people all the time.

I wish only to point out that, for whatever reason, passions run amok when Israel is in the question. I don’t think even religion (the other half of the Sullivan-Wieseltier debate) comes close to being this volatile. It makes me wonder what stake most people have in this debate, myself included. Or is it just an overgrown meme gone crazy?

The Trouble with God

When I wrote my post on Wieseltier-Sullivan, I wasn’t cognizant that I had entered into battle in this year’s Dershowitz-Phillips debate. Silly me. In fact, I wasn’t even cognizant of the fact that the world was paying attention to Wieseltier-on-Sullivan-on-Wieseltier-on-Sullivan (-on-Kristal?).

This is a debate I’ve been trying to get away from, but which keeps following me. Blogging is for hotheads, which was pointed out at least twice by Leon Wieseltier and once by Andrew Sullivan himself. Somehow a debate over criticism of Israel has turned into a debate over religiosity, which I find a bit infantile.  When calling Catholicism “polytheistic crudity” compared to the Judaic concept of divine unity, Wieseltier opened the door wide to the new atheists. At that point my impulse is to kick it in and say, “But, Leon, don’t you realize even your Judaic conception of God is vulnerable to the scrutiny of reason and skepticism? I mean, can it really be defended from the likes of Sam Harris? Or even Julia Sweeney?”

No, Wieseltier holds on to his God as if it were the irrefutable result of a life of pure reason. Which makes me wonder what the subtle difference is between him and Andrew Sullivan, who apparently believes all sorts of stuff shared by a billion other people worldwide which to an atheist sounds much like hoodoo.

Or: can we have a serious political discussion while invoking arguments for God? Are the underlying tensions of Wieseltier-Sullivan just a rehash of good old medieval debates about the trinity? And, if so, who cares?

Some of the primary links in the above discussion have been gathered here. Go nuts.

A Review of Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson

Clarence Darrow in action

Edward J. Larson has written a brilliant, judicious account of the trial of John Scopes, a schoolteacher prosecuted by the state of Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution in a public school. The trial was dubbed the “trial of the century” (it wasn’t the first) for its illustrious protagonists. The prosecution was led by the anti-evolution politician William Jennings Bryan, who argued that Darwin’s theory directly attacked religious belief in the divine origins of man. He claimed such teaching would provoke the disintegration of social values and the ruin of morality. He saw his mission on the witness stand as a crusade. The people of Tennessee are Christians, he stressed, and they — not high-falutin’ experts — should decide what was fit or unfit to be taught in their schools.

Clarence Darrow, the iconoclastic defense lawyer and self-declared agnostic, led the defense. Darrow’s position was that what was at stake was a return to medievalism and the bludgeoning of the human intellect in the name of orthodoxy. It was, in his view, a question not of religious truth but of human rights.

The centerpiece of the trial was the joust between Darrow and Bryan. Darrow grilled Bryan on his literalist reading of the Bible, laying bare the flimsy intellectual foundations of such blind faith. Bryan, for his part, held to his position that it didn’t matter if what the Bible said seemed incomprehensible to us; it was the word of God. He did, however, concede that the six “days” of creation were best interpreted as geologic “ages,” a concession that later fundamentalists would never forgive him.

Bryan died a week after the trial. Some of his supporters blamed Darrow. H.L. Mencken, who reported on the trial for the Baltimore Sun, gave a brief eulogy: “If the village barber saved any of [Bryan's] hair, then it is curing gallstones down there today.”

The Scopes Trial has echoed across America’s cultural battlefields for over eighty years, most recently in the Katzmiller vs. Dover ruling of 2005 that the teaching of Intelligent Design “violated the constitutional bar against religious instruction.” In light of such recent attempts to dress up creationism in sheep’s clothing, we might be grateful to William Jennings Bryan for his honesty; at the very least, he felt his religion was strong enough to survive the assault from science and reason on its own merits — or die fighting.

From The American

Leon Wieseltier Blasts Andrew Sullivan

It was a long time coming. If you’re in the mood for a nice long article (well, not so nice), put your boxing mittens on:

Criticism of Israeli policy, and sympathy for the Palestinians, and support for a two-state solution, do not require, as their condition or their corollary, this intellectual shabbiness, this venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews. I have striven for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and territorial compromise, and two states, for many decades now, but Sullivan’s variety of such right thinking is completely repugnant to me. There are decent and indecent ways to advocate change. About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.

And don’t be put off by the initial discussion of Auden’s theology. My question for Wieseltier would be: if the Christian doctrine of the trinity is so ridiculous, “a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God,” then isn’t “thinking about God” in itself equally a retraction of the more logical position of non-theism? After all, to hold up even an ethereal, invisible, incomprehensible God to the universe only complicates matters unnecessarily. It’s no wonder religious thinkers like Augustine, Auden and Sullivan make such a mess of things.

Or is Wieseltier just another de facto atheist begging to be let out of the closet?

The BBC Gets it Wrong, as Usual

In their report on the Crete synagogue arsonists, the BBC snuck in a tiny slap on the wrist to Israel. While rhapsodizing over the multi-culti worshippers – “Muslims, Christians, Catholics and Orthodox believers” (wait, aren’t Catholics Christians??) – at the Etz Chayyim synagogue, they stress that “many of the Jews who worship there are opposed to Israel’s settler program and frequent incursions into Gaza.”

What this has to do with arson is anyone’s guess, especially in light of the fact that in the next breath our BBC journalist claims, “according to police sources, the arson attacks have no connection to right-wing or Muslim political movements.”

So WTF, BBC?  Are we to suppose that, had all those worshipping Jews – which were no more than a dozen people at any time back in 2008 when I myself asked that question at the synagogue – been fervent supporters of Israeli settlers, they deserved to have their synagogue burned to the ground? That is the implication, after all. Otherwise, why bother mentioning it?

This is the latest in a seemingly endless campaign of British and European snobbery, which assumes hatred of Jews is somehow tied to Israel’s actions (or inactions) with regard to its neighbors. Even when this is explicitly not the case. But even if it were – anyway – somehow - they deserved it.

This is morally obtuse reportage, which insists on drawing parallels where there are none for the sake of  moralistic punditry.

Crete Synagogue Burned Down

We visited this synagogue, Etz Chayyim, on our trip to Crete in 2008. It was a beautiful, tranquil, unpretentious place open to the public. Apparently, they used to boast that it was one of the last Jewish buildings in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter) without 24/7 surveillance. This will change, of course, once they get the synagogue up and running again.

There aren’t many Jews in Crete. Most Greek Jews live in Athens. And there aren’t many of them there, either. Why anyone feels threatened by Jews is a mystery to me; why anyone feels threatened by a reconstructed synagogue (it had been used as a pigsty until the 1990s) is an equal mystery. The BBC reports.

History as a Conspiracy Theory

Here is an excellent interview with David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories, in Salon.

What makes us susceptible to conspiracy theories?

We want to believe theories that contradict the idea that young, iconic people died senselessly. If a story takes away the accidental from their death, it gives them agency. After the JFK assassination, it was unbearable to many people that they could live in a country where a lone gunman could kill a president. In those circumstances, it’s not surprising that an overarching conspiracy theory emerges. It suggests that somebody is in control, rather than that we’re at the mercy of our neighbors and to some extent of ourselves (as was the case with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana). It’s the urge to make sense of a particularly traumatic moment.

In some ways, it’s not that different from the impulse to believe in God.

It is deep down a leap of faith, but it doesn’t present itself as a leap of faith. It presents itself as not only rational but a better kind of rationality. It’s incredibly important that a conspiracy theory has the appearance of science. The literature on Kennedy is beyond voluminous. It’s absolutely enormous. There are vast tomes to suggest that the CIA did it, or other people did. [Conspiracy theorist] David Ray Griffin has come out with a half dozen 9/11 books, and all of them have hundreds of footnotes. They’re either to instant news reports that have since been contradicted, or to other conspiracy theories — but the work nevertheless takes on the appearance of scholarliness.

Aaronovitch also has a blog called AaronovitchWatch, a nod to all the paranoids out there. How long until AaronovitchWatch Watch pops up in a search?