Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Flivver King (1937)

flivver

Flivver is 1930s slang for “cheap car.” Above is a Flivver.

My father, who restored classic automobiles in his spare time, was a Ford guy. To buy a Chrysler, Dodge, or Pontiac was to waste your money. To buy a Japanese car was treason. To buy a German or Swedish car, well I don’t think that ever even entered his head, and if you asked him about Italian cars, I’m pretty sure he would have said something like “I didn’t know the guineas made cars. I thought they only made pizza.”

Abner Shutt, the “hero” of Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King reminds me a bit of my father. Schutt is not only a patriotic 100% White Anglo Saxon Protestant American, he’s a true believer in American capitalism. It never occurs to him to doubt the essential benevolence of the Ford Motor Company, for which he has worked ever since its inception, even when its founder when Henry Ford becomes an and out of the closet Nazi.  Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s was not a democracy, or even a modern capitalist republic. It was a feudal domain ruled by King Henry Ford. When George W. Bush proclaimed that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and that Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to the American way of life, men like my father never questioned him. That would have made him “French” just like John Kerry. Similarly, when Henry Ford reveals himself in the 1920s to be a vicious antisemite, Abner Schutt simply joins the Ku Klux Klan and starts bashing Jews and foreigners like everybody else. What King Henry believed is what the people of Detroit believed. Even during the Great Depression, when Ford cut hours and fired workers en masse, Schutt never really questions the essential goodness of the King.

The ironic thing is that it’s men like Abner Schutt and my father who “make America great.” They may be apolitical suckers who refuse to confront reality, even when the rich grow ever richer at the expense of the poor and it costs them personally, but they remain good soldiers dedicated to American power and thus, to the American ruling class. Americans, like Germans, are a hardy, disciplined people, unlikely to break and run from the war for oligarchic capitalism simply because of a Great Depression or two. The worst things get the more they deny reality, dig in their heels and fight. At some point you do have to ask “how is America great.” We have the biggest, most powerful military the world has ever seen. We can destroy whole economies with a few “crippling sanctions.” When the American government gives an order,  nations like the British click their heels and do as they’re told. Do you actually think the British government is going to refuse to extradite Julian Assange? If you do, I can get you a good price on a bridge in Brooklyn. For all our wealth and power, it remains in the hands of the Henry Fords and rarely trickles down to the Abner Schutts. Finland has a better system of education. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate. The French and Canadians have far better health care systems. The Danes are happier. But the Abner Schutts of the world don’t care. They will remain loyal to the king until the end.

Needless to say, the Abner Schutts of America didn’t become good, corporate peasants on their own. They had to be carefully taught, and, as Sinclair makes clear in The Flivver King, Henry Ford was as much the inventor of American corporate feudalism as he was the inventor of mass produced automobiles. There’s a reason Italian communist Antonio Gramsci titled his book “American and Fordism” and not “Americanism and Rockefellerism” or “Americanism and JP Morganism.” Henry Ford was not only a powerful member of the American ruling class. He designed the American way of life in the 20th Century. As Sinclair makes clear, it didn’t come cheap. At its height, the Ford Motor Company had an army of industrial spies, anti-union muscle, and company propagandists that rivaled many small countries, or even large countries. To get a job at Henry Ford’s auto company in the 1920s was to sign onto a whole way of life, and to believe a whole set of very familiar lies. Work hard and you’ll advance. Watch out for reds, subversives, and other threats to good, clean, sober White Anglo Saxon Protestant values. Police your fellow workers. “If you see something, say something.” Eventually of course, you will catch on to the fact that you’re being hustled, but in the end it won’t matter. You’ll work harder because the boss controls whether or not you’re going to eat the next day, and he knows it.

In the end, Abner Schutt never admits to himself the reality of his life, but his son Tom, a University of Michigan football star, does. Stung by the Great Depression, Tom becomes an organizer with the United Auto Workers of America, a fact that his brothers and sisters have to conceal from their father, lest Tom be disowned for, I don’t know, “talking about politics and religion.” The ending of The Flivver King is both masterful and derivative of the fugue like narrative pioneered by American cinema earlier in the century. Upton Sinclair flips the script on the fascist American filmmaker D.W. Griffith. As Henry Ford and his wife settle down to a lavish dinner party, Tom is kidnapped by Ford Motor Company detectives and beaten to death while his wife looks on. With every kick and every punch, one of Ford’s guests gives another speech praising the great man. With each step Tom takes closer to death, the great man sings the praises of the American way of life. Finally, Ford’s guests get into the cars and drive home, right past Tom’s now lifeless corpse, ignoring the screams of his young wife to stop and help. Unlike the Klan in Birth of a Nation, Henry Ford’s guests do not ride to the rescue in their Ford built Flivvers. They simply drive on by. A more vivid depiction of the indifference of the American ruling class to the poverty of their fellow Americans during the Great Depression cannot be imagined.

It must also have been sweet revenge for the way Hollywood helped destroy Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California earlier in the 1930s.

100% – The Story of a Patriot (1920)

sinclair

If anybody still remembers Upton Sinclair, it’s probably because they learned in an American history class that his novel The Jungle was partly responsible for government regulations on the meat packing industry. Sinclair also ran for governor of California in the 1930s on a socialist platform called EPIC (End Poverty in California) and is the real source of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” To further explore Upton Sinclair’s career is to discover the massive, buried history of American socialism.  Karl Marx may have been German and the first communist revolution may have happened in Russia but socialism is as American as apple pie.

100% – The Story of a Patriot goes a long way to explaining why the history of American socialism has been so completely forgotten. If you listen to Democracy Now you’ve probably heard Noam Chomsky’s description of how pivotal Woodrow Wilson’s pro-war propaganda in 1917 was to American history. In 1914, there was a vibrant, broad American left, which ranged from native born American populists in the South and on the Great Plains to German immigrant socialists in the Midwest to Jewish labor leaders and Italian anarchists in the Northeast to the IWW in the far West. By 1920 it was all gone, never to return. Many people also know about Wilson’s persecution of socialist leader Eugene Debs, how Debs was stripped of his American citizenship and jailed for life simply for making an antiwar speech. But until I read 100% – The Story of a Patriot I had never imagined what a sheer hell scape those years were, how violent the repression was, how completely the American left had been infiltrated by agent provocateurs hired the business interests.

This is not to say that 100% – The Story of a Patriot is a well-written novel.It has none of the poetry or narrative focus of Joseph Conrad’s masterful, and very similar novel The Secret Agent. 100% – The Story of a Patriot is more of a series of vignettes than a fully developed novel, or to be more accurate, a thinly fictionalized journalistic account of Woodrow Wilson’s reign of terror, something no newspaper at the time would have dared publish, but a story Sinclair himself was able to get into the public debate by sheer force of will. But while no Joseph Conrad, Upton Sinclair was a literary innovator. Many of the techniques he pioneered, the alienated little man with no ideas or will of his own who commits crimes he doesn’t entirely understand, later surfaced in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. George Orwell would later portray all pervading sense of paranoia, the idea that a malevolent power was always watching, the fear that you could trust nobody, for much different uses in his anti-communist novel 1984. In fact, one impression I had reading 100% – The Story of a Patriot, an impression I often get when reading turn of the century writers like Sinclair and Jack London is that a lot of the novels we are taught in schools are gentrified, and socially acceptable knockoffs of the great buried tradition of American socialist literature.

But what is 100% – The Story of a Patriot about? Peter Gudge is a homeless drifter, somewhere in his early 20s, who has recently been fired from his job as a gopher for the type of evangelical Christian grifter so familiar today. Desperate, broke and hungry he casually pockets a leaflet given to him by an leftist agitator, then continues walking aimlessly through “American City” (probably Chicago) looking for something to do. To his initial misfortune, and ultimate good fortune, for his background as an evangelical well prepares him to be an anent provocateur and a police spy, he walks right into a terrorist attack, a loosely fictionalized version of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago or the anarchist attack on Wall Street in 1920.  Gudge is “arrested” by a gang of private detectives, who take the leaflet in his pocket as proof of his guilt, tortured into making a confession, and forced to participate in framing a prominent labor leader for the crime. Sinclair never tells us exactly who carried out the bombing, although its strongly implied it was done by the business interests themselves.

A better stylist than Sinclair would have focused the whole novel on the initial terrorist attack and frame up but in 100% – The Story of a Patriot it’s simply the first episode in Gudge’s long career as an agent provocateur. A long, almost tedious litany of betrayals and frame ups follows, one after another, each the same as the one before, and the alienated, empty headed Gudge, who initially has no political opinions at all, eventually begins to consider himself as a “100 Percent American” patriot, a hero protecting White Anglo Saxon Protestant America from reds, Jews, anarchists, German spies and immigrants. The more of a patriot Gudge becomes, the more Sinclair reveals the rot underlying not only American society, but the radical movement that would provide an alternative. Everything, the police, the courts, the media, the military, the leadership of the antiwar movement, marriage, free love, sex, idealism, religion, is compromised and infiltrated by the business interests. Everything is corrupt. There is no alternative to self-interest and betrayal. Who can you trust? Nobody. Who rises to the top? Peter Gudge, the very worst self-interested and soulless little creep, the truest “100 Percent American” in what I might call Upton Sinclair’s dystopia were it not the world we live in today.

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)

WALK

In 1867, a 29-year-old Scottish immigrant and University of Wisconsin at Madison dropout named John Muir, an employee at a wagon wheel factory in Indianapolis, had an accident that almost blinded him. Struck in the eye by a tool that slipped out of his hand and nicked his cornea, he was confined to a dark room for over six weeks, unsure if he would ever again see the light of day. Recovering, he hit upon a plan that a lot of people in their 20s dream about, but few carry out. He would walk 1000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, board a steamer in New Orleans for South American, then hike to the top of the Andes.

Muir’s plan was daring in more ways than one. He had little money or support. What’s more the United States in 1867, especially that part of the United States between Indianapolis and New Orleans was a dangerous place. The country had just been through a brutal Civil War that not only killed a million Americans, but left over 3 million veterans, all trained killers, very much alive, and more often than not, heavily armed. Food was scarce. Jobs were in short supply. Federal troops still occupied most of the south.  But John Muir had a secret weapon that made him almost invulnerable. He was poor. He had nothing worth stealing.

I had climbed but a short distance when I was overtaken by a young man on horse-back, who soon showed that he intended to rob me if he should find the job worth while. After he had inquired where I came from, and where I was going, he offered to carry my bag. I told him that it was so light that I did not feel it at all a burden; but he insisted and coaxed until I allowed him to carry it. As soon as he had gained possession I noticed that he gradually increased his speed, evidently trying to get far enough ahead of me to examine the contents without being observed. But I was too good a walker and runner for him to get far. At a turn of the road, after trotting his horse for about half an hour, and when he thought he was out of sight, I caught him rummaging my poor bag. Finding there only a comb, brush, towel, soap, a change of underclothing, a copy of Burns’s poems, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a small New Testament, he waited for me, handed back my bag, and returned down the hill, saying that he had forgotten something.

https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/a_thousand_mile_walk_to_the_gulf/chapter_2.aspx

This morning, as I read the news on Yahoo, I thought about John Muir’s vignette. There is a group called Extinction Rebellion, an organization led by a 16-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg. While they made a good first impression, propaganda from the corporate media and the  fossil fuel industry reversed it in a matter of weeks. These days pretty much everybody, both on the right and the left, hates them. Social media cheers on attacks against climate change protesters.  On the left, they’re widely regarded as a ruling class plot to impoverish the global south for the benefit of the rich global north. On the right they’re seen as a conspiracy by the “new world order” to enrich China at the expense of the United States.  Unlike John Muir, Americans these days not only have something to steal. They live their lives in constant terror of someone taking what’s rightfully theirs. Yes, my fellow Americans in the Bible Belt. Greta Thunberg is coming for your Ford F-150s and your gun racks.

Unlike our inbred cousins in the Bible Belt, we liberal Americans in the “blue states” don’t come right out and deny global warming. In fact, we pay it a good deal of lip service. Yet the way we live our lives it might as well be a “new world order” conspiracy cooked up by the Illuminati on Al Gore’s private jet. Like our inbred cousins in the Bible Belt, it’s not high on our list of priorities, probably not even in the top ten. “Climate change, oh yeah. It’s bad. Sorry. I have to take the kids to soccer practice.” Liberal Americans care about their children’s future. They will spend no end of money on SAT preparation courses to get them into the right colleges. They will spare no expense to hire the right lawyers to set up the right kinds of trust funds, but in the end they will not act to insure that in 50 years their grandchildren still have a livable planet. That’s someone else’s problem. All Americans are part of the same capitalist death cult. Some of us drive Ford F-150s with gun racks. Some of us drive hybrids. Some of us take New Jersey Transit and the New York City subway, but we’re all enthusiastically running the same rat race, and woe be it to anybody who gets in the way, especially one of those damned hippies from Extinction Rebellion.

So I thought back to John Muir and the young man in Kentucky who tried to rob him.  I suppose he had hoped to find a few gold coins or a roll of good Union currency, but unlike Muir, he had no idea what he had right in front of him, the opportunity to chat about John Milton, Robert Burns, and the Gospels with one of the greatest environmentalists and romantic poets who ever lived. Imagine if someone in Silicon Valley gave a TED Talk in front of a group of tech billionaires and announced the one time only opportunity to climb aboard a time machine, and go back to 1867 to hike with the young John Muir through Kentucky. How much money would that fetch in an auction? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Similarly, Americans today have no idea of the value of what they’re currently in the process of destroying. While there may be life on other planets, there may not be. The earth we live on may be the only place in the galaxy capable of sustaining intelligent life, and this little experiment in human consciousness may well be only a brief few moments in the history of the universe before it’s all snuffed out.

Isn’t it worth taking genuinely radical action to preserve?

The Killer Angels (1974)

(Thomas Henry Harrison, a hero of The Killer Angels, a Confederate spy who survived Pickett’s charge and died in 1923 at the age of 91. Note: In 1923, William Faulkner was already 26.)

Back in the 1990s, Ted Turner produced a 4 hour long film about the Battle of Gettysburg called, appropriately enough, Gettysburg. Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer angels, it wasn’t exactly a bad movie. It had good performances by Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain and Sam Elliot as John Buford, but it fell far short of an adequate dramatization of the blood bath that took place in Pennsylvania early in July 1863. Politically, it was the usual watered down, “brother against brother” pablum that masquerades as the history of the United States Civil War. To quote Donald Trump, “there were fine people on both sides.”

Michael Shaara, an Italian American from Jersey City, New Jersey, and a graduate of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, was not exactly an aristocrat from “Old Virginia.” But that’s clearly where his sympathies lie. Shaara can’t quite help himself. Like Confederate General James Longstreet, the ultimate hero of The Killer Angels, a South Carolinian of Dutch, not English, descent, a man who ultimately regretted fighting for Lee and the Confederacy, Shaara watches the destruction of the elite of old Virginia’s chivalry with barely muted horror. Nothing that Shaara does to remind us that he’s a Yankee and a liberal, his narrative parallel between the brilliant Union cavalry officer John Buford, and his incompetent southern counterpart J.E.B Stuart, the heroic stand of the largely working-class, 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top, or Longstreet’s hard headed realism about the South’s chances for a victory in Pennsylvania matter, matters. His heart’s not in it. Like the novel’s moronic English military observer Arthur Freemantle, we came out of the novel infatuated with the Army of Northern Virginia. We want nothing more than to die for Robert E. Lee, to preserve the aristocratic, Protestant, Anglo Saxon way of life. That in and of itself makes the Killer Angels a good novel, almost in spite of itself.

The most important question about the United States Civil War is not whether Lee or Grant was the better general, or if the South could had won had Stonewall Jackson not been killed a few months before Gettysburg at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It’s this. Why did so many poor white Southerners fight for their oppressors, for aristocrats like Robert E. Lee who kept them in a state of poverty almost as bad as their slaves?

The Union soldiers at Gettysburg, all those German and Irish immigrants right off the boat from old Europe, were always well-fed, well-clothed, and well-provisioned. They also had a rational cause to fight for. They might have been as racist as their southern counterparts, but ending slavery, destroying the system that made them compete unpaid labor, benefitted them materially. That land stolen in the west stolen from Mexico would ultimately be divided up and parceled out to them under the Homestead Act to create hundreds of thousands of small capitalists. The typical Confederate private fought hungry and barefoot, and yet he fought magnificently. As Shaara points out, Gettysburg, the first great Union victory in the Eastern theater of the war, was the first time most of the Union soldiers had seen confederate soldiers run. Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was one of the greatest armies in history. They lost at Gettysburg only because they were massively outgunned, out supplied, and because the Union Army held the high ground. Even so, they almost won.

Robert E. Lee, like Donald Trump or George W. Bush, was a magnetic, almost cult-life figure for conservative white Americans. John Longstreet, on the other hand, was an intelligent, rational man who knew how to manage an army of 100,000 men, but did not know how to inspire. Thus, he finds himself in the position of watching Lee lead the men he loved into a suicidal charge against hopeless odds. What Longstreet, or even Lee, doesn’t quite understand, is that many of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia wanted to commit suicide at Gettysburg, to die a romantic death in the prime of their youth against the Yankee invader. Many of them knew that what the United States would inevitably become, even if the South won, an industrial capitalist oligarchy that reduced everything to its vulgar exchange value, was not a world they wanted to live in. So, to quote Union General John Buford about the Union defeat that never came, “they charged valiantly, and were butchered valiantly.”

The problem is the American working class, at least in the South and Midwest, still has the same suicidal romanticism, the same desire to die a meaningless death for the ruling class. That the American ruling class no longer looks like Robert E. Lee, a courtly gentleman with exquisite manners, but instead looks like Donald Trump, a vulgar creep who jokes about grabbing women by the pussy, reflects the transformation of American capitalism over the past 150 years. Our aristocrats no longer have to put on a show. They know we’ll follow them anyway, however awful they become. Novelists like Michael Shaara, therefore, unwilling to embrace a revolutionary alternative to capitalism, can only look at the past with wistful nostalgia. They forever remain Faulkner’s 14-year-old Southern boy waiting for George Pickett to wave his hat and say “forward boys for old Virginia.”

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2013/07/03/william-faulkner-gettysburg

Bernie Sanders in Queens

bernie-1

Even with a bad cold and a toothache, I wasn’t about to miss Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorse Bernie Sanders across the street from the public housing project she saved from Jeff Bezos and Amazon back in 2018. So I got on New Jersey Transit in Westfield, New Jersey, then the 7-Train at Times Square, and road out to Queensboro Plaza in Long Island City.  I’m no stranger to Long Island City. My very first apartment away from home was in Sunnyside Gardens a few stops east on the 7-Train, but  I was shocked by the number of new glass towers that have gone up in the past 10 years.  Was I in Queens? Or was I in Dubai or Singapore. It was then that I realized that the Amazon headquarters wouldn’t have been the beginning of the gentrification of western Queens. It would have been the final nail in the coffin.

bernie-2

After walking the 6 or 7 blocks from the 7-Train to Queensboro Park, I joined the line. To be more accurate, I tried to find the end of the line, which went on for so long that I finally despaired of ever seeing it this side of Greenpoint, so I did a very unsocialist thing and discretely cut. The wait wasn’t too bad, only about 20 minutes. Bernie’s security people seemed to know how to keep things moving. Just about the only thing not allowed into the event were water bottles. I’m not exactly sure why. In any event, I made it into Queensboro Park by one oclock and waited for the event to begin. To my disappointment, I also realized that the park was already three quarters full, and there was no way I’d ever get close enough to the stage to actually see any of the speakers. Oh well, I decided, I’ll at least get to hear them.

bernie-3

First up was Jane Sanders. Her speech was short, and to the point. She did, however, make an interesting connection between her own ancestors (who fled poverty and the English genocide of the Irish) and her husband’s (who fled poverty and antisemitism). To me, it’s important to make the connection between what happened to Irish Catholic peasants in 1847 and what happened to Polish Jews in 1942. The Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of the long history of European capitalism and imperialism, of using people as objects and discarding them when they were no longer of any use. The Irish were sitting on land English capitalists wanted. Polish Jews were sitting on land German Ayran supermen wanted. In any event, I’m drawing it out far more than Jane Sanders did. She merely remarked that her ancestors fled poverty and famine and Bernie’s fled poverty and antisemitism.

Next up was Michael Moore. Even with his famous girth, I was still too far away from the stage to make him out. His connection with Bernie goes back to 1990 when Bernie asked him to speak at a rally for his campaign to become Vermont’s only Congressman. “Couldn’t you have gotten any of the big stars,” Moore remembered having said, pointing out the shallow and ultimately disposable nature of celebrity, “like Crocodile Dundee, Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice?” It was the standard leftist stump speech Moore has been giving for years, but it was effective, and centered on Sanders’s being 78-years-old. “I’m glad he’s 78,” Moore said. “He can remember things the rest of us can’t, like pay raises, and pensions.”

Moore was followed by Tiffany Caban, who recently lost a bid to become the Queens District Attorney, and long-time Sanders’s spokesperson Nina Turner. Turner is a polished, and effective speaker, Caban a bit less so, but it was Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who really connected with her audience. Well, at least she connected with me. By the time she took the stage, my toothache, a molar with a gigantic old filling that finally came out and, was knocking on the inside of my skull like a sledge hammer. As she recounted her old job as waitress, I remembered having had a similar, low paying customer service job when I was exactly her age. I also remembered having a toothache I couldn’t afford to get fixed, a molar that finally abscessed and put me through days of torture before I was finally able to find a dentist willing to do a root canal and wait for payment.

I wondered why I had put off going to the dentist for so long for the current toothache, even though I have the money to pay for another root canal out of pocket and I realized that it comes from the same kind of paranoia that leads people with broken legs to refuse an ambulance. There is always the fear that a simple medical procedure will become an endless sinkhole that swallows your savings, that it won’t be a few thousand dollars to get a tooth fixed, but twenty or thirty thousand dollars. I realized why Bernie’s call for Medicare for has become so popular, even with people who do technically have “good” insurance. The health care, or to be more specific, the health insurance industry is not about healthcare. It’s about wealth extraction. My mother, fortunately, and yes I use the word “fortunately” tongue in cheek back in 2017. Had she lingered on for years physically and mentally disabled, long term nursing home care would have destroyed several generations of family savings. That’s the cruelty of the current American health care system, a wealth extraction monster that leaves you feeling relieved your mother died now rather than later.

bernie-4

As far as Bernie’s health is concerned, don’t listen to the media. He spoke for over an hour with a great deal of force and passion, a man old enough to be my father wearing out my ability to stand in one place with my tooth pounding away inside my skull. I don’t know if it was a great speech, but it was a necessary speech. Everything Bernie proposes would, in any kind of sane country, be considered common sense. End cash bail, stop police from killing innocent people, forgive usurious student loans, bring our health care system up to the same level as Canada’s or the UK’s, bring back the kind of free public higher education we had at the University of California or City College back in the 1950s, tax Wall Street at the same rate we tax Main Street, all Bernie is really proposing is to bring back New Deal America, the kind of society we had when American wealth and power was at its height. Trump may say the words “Make America Great Again” but Bernie has an actual plan for us to get there.

Will we listen?

The Watchung Mountains on a Brompton

brompton

Nobody would ever mistake the Watchung  Mountains for the Alps or the Himalayas. Nevertheless, they were an obstacle formidable enough in 1781 to guard the Continental Army against the British, who were defeated in the decisive Battle of Springfield when they tried to march on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown. At almost 1000 feet at their height, they are a nightmare to drive over when the road is covered with ice in the Winter. They are a challenge to ride over on a full sized, 700c road bike. So what is it like riding through the Watchung Mountains on a folding bicycle?

It’s actually much easier than I thought it would be.

Last year, I purchased a Brompton folding bike for the not inconsiderable sum of $1525. It’s by far the most I’ve ever spent for a bike, but that finely designed, hand made British engineering doesn’t come cheap. Spending less on a folding bicycle is not only dangerous but a waste. You’d wind up spending more on repairs anyway. I wouldn’t spend any more than $1525. The more expensive models are pretty much just the base model with a nicer paint job, but $1525 is the folding bike’s equivalent of a $1000 dollar entry level aluminum road bike. In fact, since you get an internally geared hub, it’s probably a bargain. You don’t have to worry about your derailleur getting all gunked up with salt in the Winter.

The Brompton has 16 inch wheels. It’s a bit tricky to fold at first, but you get used to it soon enough, and the base model fits anybody from 4’10” to 5’10”. Technically if you’re over 5’10” you need to buy an extended seat post, but at 5’11” I found that the base seat post fits me just fine, so why spend the money or add the extra weight. The front rack and touring bag are excellent. Unlike a normal touring bike, which locates the extra weight in the back, this distributes it to the front wheel, away from your body weight. The Brompton has 6 gears, ranging from a very forgiving 64mm to a much faster 98mm for going downhill. You can get the gearing adjusted down 18% for steeper hills but I found I didn’t need that either.

unami

I started off in Unami Park in Cranford, about 3 miles from the entrance to the Watchung Reservation. It’s a pleasant little park set in the middle of gentrified working class suburbia (those little 3 bedroom bungalows built out of the Sears Catalogue now go for $500,000 dollars, but that’s another blog post). I dodged the various Labradoodles, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds out in the park and road through downtown Westfield and across Route 22. I noticed that there’s a deer hunt going on. Hey, if you’re in the area of Mountainside or Berkeley Heights, New Jersey and own a bow and arrows, here’s your chance.

deer

In any event, the steep hills began just at about this point, and I downshifted into first gear. I began to mentally prepare myself to swallow my pride just in case I’d have to get off and walk. Then I shifted back up into second gear. The approach to the Watchung Mountains, while steep, wasn’t as bad as I thought. I could save the first gear for later. The biggest challenge riding a folding bike with 16-inch wheels isn’t so much the steep hills, but the amount of debris on the road. There was a major rain storm a few days ago, and the road is littered with twigs, acorns and even larger branches that haven’t been cleaned up yet. There’s also the traffic. Not only do drivers seem more openly hostile on a Brompton, as compared to a full size bike, you can’t accelerate quite as fast. On the other hand, my guess is that drivers are just as hostile to cyclists on full-sized bikes, and if you’re noticing their hostility, it means they’re noticing you, which is always good.

Once I hit the serious incline of WR Tracy Road, the hostility ended. Motorists making their way up the 800 foot incline not only seemed to recognize that they need to share a big park like Watchung Reservation with cyclists, but also curious about this man riding a bike with wheels half the size of a normal bike. Cyclists on the way down the hill gave me the thumbs up. A fox and a herd of deer rushed across the street ahead of me across the road. I finally shifted down into first gear. I suddenly regretted eating so much before I left the house, but that was a minor issue. I’m also sick — I have a mild case of bronchitis, a cold, and a toothache — and chronically sleep deprived. I began to sweat. I didn’t really need the Carhartt hoodie the way I did in yesterday’s wind storm. But nothing was decisive. I made it to the top with barely any more effort than I take on my full sized road bike.

I also got a good look at the NYC skyline. If Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house. I can see the Freedom Tower at the midpoint of my normal bike ride.

nyc

I tried to get the Brompton and the Freedom Tower in the same frame but there was too much brush and too many trees. I also road around the (very wealthy neighborhood) to find the right angle. I walked up on a few porches and road up into a few driveways but none of them let me get the perfect shot. I suppose I made the footage on a few security cameras. “Who is this weird looking guy with this weird looking little bike.”

map

In any event, the final mileage was about 15 steep miles and it was all pretty easy. If you live in a city like San Francisco or Seattle, a place that has a lot of hills, you can manage it easily on a folding bike. The Brompton is also the perfect bike for touring. Just throw it in the baggage check of a Greyhound or an Amtrak and take public transportation in between rides. It’s not as much fun riding a Brompton as it is riding a full sized 700c road bike with drop bars and clip in pedals, but there’s nothing really stopping you using it as your main or only bike.

The Yosemite (1912): The Beautiful Landscape of Genocide

10419720

The Yosemite  is a late work by the Scottish American environmentalist John Muir. Published two years before his death in 1912, it is a celebration of the act signed into law 22-years-earlier protecting the now iconic valley from capitalist development. Thanks to men like Galen Clark and John Muir, the Yosemite Valley will never see superhighways or mixed use condos.

Muir, who’s a romantic poet and natural scientist, in equal measure, is also a great literary stylist, a first rate landscape painter in words. Decades before Ansel Adams brought his 8 x 10 view camera to Half Dome, Americans who had never been west of the Mississippi could get a pretty good idea what the Sierra Nevada, the “range of light” looked like.

Reading The Yosemite is a bit like walking though the Met or the Louvre. It’s a bit too much to take in all in one visit, but, as Muir describes each type of tree that grows in the Yosemite Valley, you vow to study it in more detail the next time you visit the museum. There’s so much beauty, so lovingly preserved, it’s all a bit overwhelming. You also realize the horrifying truth.

Yosemite is a museum. It’s a dead bit of wilderness, looted from its rightful inhabitants like a painting Napoleon’s Grande Armée brought back to Paris from Italy, a portrait of a beautiful aristocrat the capitalist pig Henry Clay Frick bought cheap from impoverished Europeans and stuck inside his mansion on 5th Avenue. If 5 million people visited Yosemite in 2016, it’s not because the great national park holds any promise for the future, but because it provides a glimpse of the past that we have lost forever. America is not Yosemite. It is central New Jersey.

As much of a genius as John Muir was, he a fatal mistake. He assumed that if something was beautiful, Americans would preserve it. Muir, like any romantic poet, assumed that beauty was not only truth, it was life. He never understood that American civilization is basically a death cult. It never quite occurred to him that when Americans see something beautiful they can’t  exploit or possess, their first urge isn’t to protect it, but to destroy it.

GRETA

But there was no excuse for Muir’s failure to understand America as a death cult. The evidence was right there in the Yosemite Valley, right in front of his eyes, in the form of those native Americans he was partly responsible for expelling. Muir would later change his views. In The Yosemite, a late work, he writes eloquently from the Native American point of view. After 100 pages vividly portraying the valley as the most beautiful place on earth, he quotes a Native American chief, a man anguished that he and his people were about to be “relocated” –ethnically cleansed — to some hellhole in Oklahoma or Nebraska.

“Kill me, Sir Captain, yes, kill me as you killed my son, as you would kill my people if they were to come to you. You would kill all my tribe if you had the power. Yes, Sir America, you can now tell your warriors to kill the old chief. You have made my life dark with sorrow. You killed the child of my heart. Why not kill the father? But wait a little and when I am dead I will call my people to come and they shall hear me in their sleep and come to avenge the death of their chief and his son. Yes, Sir America, my spirit will make trouble for you and your people, as you have made trouble to me and my people. With the wizards I will follow the white people and make them fear me. You may kill me, Sir Captain, but you shall not live in peace. I will follow in your footsteps. I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the winds; wherever you go I will be with you. You will not see me but you will fear the spirit of the old chief and grow cold.

https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/the_yosemite/chapter_13.aspx

To his credit, John Muir makes the anguish of the Native American chief over the death of his son, and over the idea that he will never again see Yosemite Valley, come alive. But I think what Muir failed to understand was that any successful campaign to preserve Yosemite, and his beloved Hetch Hetchy, which was eventually lost to development, had to include a campaign for the rights of the Native Americans, who had lived there for centuries, and had, effectively, preserved it for centuries. Muir sees the plight of the Native Americans in Yosemite as a sad, but isolated, local issue, one that simply wasn’t as important as the establishment of Yosemite as a National Park. So Yosemite lives on, but only as a place we go to visit, not as the world we live in every day.

Sarah, Lady Innes

innes

You were older than I was when we first met,

twenty seven, a lady, a merchant’s daughter

married into the British aristocracy.

I was sixteen, a high school kid from New Jersey,

brought to Henry Clay Frick’s grand mansion on 5th Avenue

by my English teacher Mrs. Bradley (nee Polanski),

who not only wanted us to see European high culture up close,

but who carefully explained that Henry Clay Frick

was a millionaire who once boasted

that he could hire half the American working class

to kill the other half.

( Frick was too generous.

Americans will kill their fellow peasants for free,

not because they hope someday to be rich,

but because they believe deep in their hearts

that the rich deserve their deference

simply for being rich.)

I stared at your portrait not because you were pretty

but because you were real, someone I could have known,

someone who would live forever,

someone who would never grow old.

Now I am well into middle age

and you are still twenty seven.

You still have the confident smile

of a rich bourgeoisie,

who flirted your way into a title,

a Jane Austen heroine yet to be a character

in a novel, but forever young, and yes beautiful,

immortalized by Thomas Gainsborough,

a master of light, color and shadow.

And I am old and ugly

and bitter

slouching towards the grave.

The Immense Nothingness of Central New Jersey

Until you’ve seen it from a bike, you haven’t really seen it. Take my home state of New Jersey. If you drive through the very sizeable towns of Edison, Woodbridge, and Piscataway sealed up in a metal death box — otherwise known as a car — you are not observing the landscape. You are part of the landscape. You are a passive receptacle, a blank space written upon by American capitalism. Why do you think you are rushing frantically to get to nowhere to do nothing? It’s only when you ride 20 miles out in the open, under your own power, that you really begin to understand the “civilization” around you, that you become a subject rather than an object. It is only then that the immense loneliness, the immense emptiness, the immense nothingness of the United States of America begins to reveal itself.

Is there any place more truly American than the state of New Jersey?

Forget the inbred Bible thumpers and gun humpers in the South and the Midwest. There’s nothing very American about those people. They’re still ignorant serfs waiting for orders from their masters, the slave owners of 1861, or the corporate oligarchs of 2019.  “I got my gun in my hand and I’ll shoot any nigra or any Mexican that man on Fox TV tells me to.”  Forget Boston or New York. That’s old Europe with a few modifications. Forget Seattle or San Francisco. Those are gated communities for the rich, the future neoliberal utopia where the poor have been bred out of existence by their inability to pay the rent or find a place to go to the bathroom. Southern California I guess comes close, but it’s still basically a temporary outpost built on top of a desert, a shimmering mirage destined to disappear when the water runs out or the power gets turned off for good. Chicago perhaps qualifies but I’ve never been there so I really can’t say. Vermont is also in contention. After all, the beautiful lakeside city of Burlington transformed an Eastern Europe Jew from Brooklyn named Bernie into an iconic American rebel known as “the Bern,” a man hated by upper class white feminists and feared by the health insurance industry. But Vermont has too many French people and too little environmental devastation to be genuinely American. Nope, I’m afraid there’s only one place in North America that truly represents the nation founded in 1776 and that’s my very own home state of New Jersey.

This is not a compliment.

Let’s get back to Woodbridge, population 99,000, Edison, population 99,999, and Piscatway, population 56,000. Any one of them could be the largest city in Vermont, Wyoming, or either of the Dakotas, and yet none of them has anything resembling a walkable downtown. I mean literally nothing. You can stand anywhere in Woodbridge and it could just as easily be Edison. You can stand anywhere in Edison and it can just as easily be Woodbridge, and you can stand anywhere in Piscataway and the only way you can even tell you’re in Piscataway is that eventually someone will ask you how to get to the campus of Rutgers University, which is somewhere across the Raritan River and gigantic in size but impossible to find unless you not only have a GPS but have lived in Middlesex County for at least the past 10 years. Woodbridge, Piscataway and Edison are wealthy, educated, multicultural cities and yet there’s nothing there, at least nothing you could call “civilization.” Civilization in Central New Jersey is an ugly 5 bedroom McMansion and a pair of SUVs, and that’s about it. There’s no art. There’s no culture. There’s no beauty, no eccentricity, no identity, nothing to mark it off as someplace people valued and cherished as their home. Oh, human beings have certainly made their mark in Woodbridge, Edison, and Piscataway but nothing about the mark they’ve made is particularly human. It’s business, emptiness, empty business, identical to any one of hundreds of towns all over the United States. It’s prefabricated desolation.

I have no idea why Donald Trump’s moronic followers care so much about immigration. Immigrants don’t change America, at least in Woodbridge, Piscatway and Edison. Conversely, America doesn’t really change immigrants, at least in Woodbridge, Piscataway and Edison. Everybody who comes to central New Jersey from any place in the world, Poles, WASPS, Italians, Indians, Muslims, Asians, Hispanics, Hungarians, Jews, Catholics, Russians, Laplanders and Pacific Islanders, pretty much does the same thing. First you completely repress yourself. You warn your kids “not to talk about politics.” You go to whatever place of worship you go to on whatever day of the way you find holy and you go through the motions but your heart really isn’t in it. What you really want is for your kids to go to the right schools and get onto the right corporate ladder, to have a bigger McMansion and a bigger SUV than your neighbor, to have a bigger bank account, and a bigger dick than your father did. What you really want is to construct your own little world on your own personal little cul de sac, and worship your own household gods, at least when you’re not too busy working to build the altar for those household gods, which of course costs money.

It is a wealthy, prosperous, bleak, empty landscape. Riding 20 miles from downtown New Brunswick, a hideous old city that dates back to the 17th Century and preserved slavery well into the 19th century, back to my house in Cranford — a racist little suburb in Union County hopelessly trying to convince itself that it’s small town America and not part of the New York metropolitan area — is to get lost every three or four blocks, to stop, check Google Maps on my iPhone, and wonder how everything can look so relentlessly the same for so long. That’s really the most exhausting thing about long distance cycling. It’s not the physical toll. My fat, middle-aged body can pedal 100 miles with ease. It’s the sheer exhaustion of riding 10 blocks that feel like 10 miles, feel 10 miles because you don’t know where you are and there’s no variation to let you know you’ve made any progress. It’s easy to ride through a suburban landscape you know by heart. You can simply tune it out and lose yourself in your own thoughts. But riding through 20 miles of nothingness focused on nothingness in order to find your way through nothingness is worse than the labor of Sisyphus. It’s like being in hell.

In fact, in some ways, I’m not afraid of death for hell, if there’s a hell, is probably a lot like central New Jersey. After I die and they put me in my coffin, I’ll simply lift up the lid and get back on my bike. Then I’ll spend the next 100,000 years trying to figure out if I’m truly in the realm of the damned or simply riding through Woodbridge, Edison, and Piscataway, forever.

The Robbers (1781)

If France gave us the greatest revolution, then Germany has given us the greatest revolutionaries, not only Luther, but Karl Marx and Ludwig Von Beethoven. In 1771, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a short epistolary novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther. The revised edition would come out in 1787, only two years before the storming of the Bastille.  A few years later, in 1792, the French Revolution would enter its most radical phase, culminating in the first, and hopefully not the last, red terror.

Ten years earlier, a 19-year-old cadet at the Karlsschule military academy in Stuttgart named Friedrich Schiller was deeply immersed in the plays of William Shakespeare. At some point, probably after reading Richard III, he thought to himself “hey I bet I can write something like this.” Then he sat down and did just that. It was a lot like a similar 19-year-old in the 1980s or 1990s picking up a guitar, playing Stairway to Heaven and saying “hey maybe I can be a rock star” but with one important difference. Schiller was not only a genius, he was a genius open to the collective passions of the age. Over the next few years, he would not only write one of the greatest works of German Romanticism, playing Eddie Vedder to Goethe’s Kurt Cobain, he would predict Robespierre and Marat, Georges Danton and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, for if ever a work of literature could be called “revolutionary” it is The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller. But don’t take my word for it. In 1792, the French National Convention had written a letter making Schiller an honorary citizen of the French republic.

Interestingly enough, Schiller had also written the National Convention a letter asking that they spare the life of King Louis XVI. While that may at first seem a bit surprising, it’s well in keeping with his exploration of revolution, and of its consequences, in The Robbers.

Karl Moor, the plays hero, and his brother, Francis Moor, its villain, represent two sides of modern man, the duality of the human soul under capitalism. Karl, good looking, moody, rebellious, the romantic outcast, embodies a lot of the same qualities that the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg attributes to herself for being on the autism spectrum. He cares little about convention. He dreams of a more heroic past. He detests “the law,” rank and hierarchy.

Francis, on the other hand, is rational, calculating, diplomatic, the perfect capitalist. “He is a fool,” he thinks while rationalizing to himself his plan to steal his brother’s inheritance, and his girl, “who takes any view that is contrary to his own interest.” The result of this unresolved contradiction, of their father’s inability to mediate between his two very different sons, is disaster, violent revolution, fire, brimstone, death and damnation, the French Revolutionary Terror in a five act play.

But what made the young Schiller a genius was not so much his ability to express the passionate rebellion of youth, but the regrets of middle age. Karl, returning to his family estate, from which he had been banned by his gullible father at the urging of his treacherous brother, looks upon the landscape of his childhood and suddenly realizes the happy future he’s lost. He’ll never get married or have a family with his beloved Amelia. He’ll never grow old watching his children and then his grandchildren take his place. He will live the rest of his life as an outcast and a rebel, a damned soul wandering the earth, never knowing peace or contentment, a son rejected by his father.

The golden age of boyhood lives again in the soul of the outcast. I was then so happy, so wholly, so cloudlessly happy—and now—behold all my prospects a wreck! Here should I have presided, a great, a noble, an honored man—here have—lived over again the years of boyhood in the blooming—children of my Amelia—here!—

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers (p. 81). Kindle Edition.

As we near the end of the human species, extinction by global warming, it’s worth meditating on what we’ve lost. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment opened up the possibility of a world transformed through human reason, a society free of hierarchy, exploitation, superstition and ignorance, but it was not to be. Over the course of history, Francis Moor prevailed over Karl Moor, self-interest over the urge for a better, more noble, more poetic world. The Industrial Revolution, which began at about the same time as Schiller sat down to write The Robbers, could have freed us from poverty and back breaking labor. Instead it gave us environmental devastation. The French Revolution and the industrial Revolution could have given us democracy. Instead it gave us capitalism. There’s nothing much to do at this point — for we will not rebel against our own extinction — but mourn what could have been.