A Time For Kicks, A Time For Inspiration

We always knew our country could fall victim to a right-wing coup. It's happening right now, in the form of a stolen election by the repulsive Donald Trump, and everything we cherish is at stake: our freedom, our democracy, our basic human decency, our lives and the lives of those we love.

Well, who ever said freedom came cheap? Many people I know are shocked into silent despair and fear by the specter of a racist sexual predator con-man dictator throwing our Constitution in the garbage with a phony call to "Make America Great Again". I'm refusing to be silent or afraid, and am fortifying myself with an immortal source of strength: the literature of struggle.

Some Americans in both blue and red states may have grown morally soft through pampered living. We're finding out just how soft many Americans are as we observe the reactions to Trump's fascist coup. But literature offers us guideposts for the fight against totalitarianism and brutal power politics. Many of our greatest writers were intimately familiar with the horrors of dystopian violence and oppression.

November 2016: Our Fight Begins

I saw the Trump victory coming. I hoped with all my heart it wouldn't happen, but I've known since the day he was nominated that my beloved country had fallen prey to a sickness that would not be easily cured.

I spent election night in New York City, hoping to celebrate a Hillary Clinton win but dreading the uncertainty, and I wandered Times Square as the shock of Trump's likely victory set in. Trump is not popular in New York City, and before last night I'd never seen Times Square so filled with people and yet so desolate, so quiet, so sad.

A little after 1 am, I saw a small group of people sitting down on the long sidewalks and closed roads around 43rd Street and Broadway, as if holding a vigil or starting a new Occupy movement. Some were talking loudly, mouthing off, looking for arguments — others murmuring quietly to their friends. It made me feel good to sit there with them a few minutes, and to imagine that this was the beginning of a new sit-in, a new nonviolent protest movement. Maybe it called me back to the joyful hopes I felt five years earlier during the early weeks of the Occupy movement, which seems so far away now, though the experiences we shared in that protest uprising will surely inform us in the next protest uprising that must now begin.

A couple of days earlier, I had written an article for Pacifism21 titled "If Trump Wins, Our Fight Begins". Dear friends, dear Litkicks readers, dear good people everywhere in the world ... I don't know how we will fight back now that we have made the dumb mistake of empowering a fascist authoritarian to have control over our own lives.

To Be Trans: Lili Elbe and Me

(April Rose Schneider has written for Litkicks about novelist Richard Farina and Rush lyricist Neil Peart. This is by far her most personal piece. Thanks, April. —Marc)

"Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad." — Euripidies, from "Prometheus"

Einar Wegener—Europe's best known transgender person in the early 20th century—lived a satisfying and perhaps gratifying male life for a very short time. He painted and partied, drank and danced and sailed on the clear calm water of life for his first twenty years. If he caught a glimpse of storm clouds gathering on the horizon he gave no hint. But the storm was coming, and a strange lightning bolt would strike Einar, shattering his egg shell mind, stripping his flesh all the way down to the bone. This is a description of the life of Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe … and about the way my own life resembled theirs. The plural will make sense as we proceed.

I know the transgender journey well. I too suffered the same path of secret despair and self loathing in the grip of gender dysphoria before it was a recognized medical concept. At the age of 12 — a tad earlier than Einar if we are to believe the apocryphal storyline of his autobiography The Danish Girl and the movie based on it — I realized that I was the only person in the world who felt displaced in a body incongruous with my emotional self. When I was not quite ten years old I discovered the life of Christine Jorgensen, America's First Lady of Trans, and a little light went off deep within my awareness. Perhaps, I dared to hope, I was not alone?

What Would Leo Tolstoy Tell Us About Donald Trump?

I look to the greatest pacifists for inspiration when answers are hard to find, and that’s why I recently pondered what Martin Luther King would say to Donald Trump if he could witness the absurd spectacle of the 2016 Republican candidate for President. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that MLK would have counseled us to take the high road against the loudmouth boor.

But this tells us what Martin Luther King would have said to us, not what he would have said directly to Donald Trump, and likewise we can guess that the great Russian novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy would have had more to say about Donald Trump than to Donald Trump. This connects to one of the major themes of Tolstoy’s life’s work, as reflected in the epilogue that closes his masterpiece War and Peace. In these stirring but often misunderstood pages, Tolstoy savaged the idea that we can study politics or history by focusing our attention on individual people, no matter how much “power” these people seem to have amassed.

That kind of power is an illusion, Tolstoy said. Leaders don’t move the masses; the masses move their leaders. Tolstoy thundered at the end of War and Peace about the way intelligent citizens of a progressive society often allow themselves to be dazzled into stupidity by obsessing over the personality quirks or private motivations of individual politicians, generals or public figures. Political analysis that resembles celebrity journalism completely misses the big trends and grand motivations that move nations and masses. Our failure to grasp the actual engine of political action renders us ineffectual and clueless in the face of dramatic societal trends, even as these trends affect or dominate our lives.

But celebrity-based politics is popular — and not only among our dumber fellow citizens. It often occupies our loftier intellects, our most educated minds, our cleverest pundits. But we’re wasting our time when we approach mass psychology with a gaze attuned to individual psychology. We’re gazing at fractured miniature reflections in a room of broken mirrors, seeing fragments that fail to produce a whole. How many articles have you read about the personality of Donald Trump? Or, for that matter, about the personality of Hillary Clinton? But we the American people are suffering for mistakes that have nothing to do with the personality of either public figure. We’re so dazzled and distracted by the endless pointless clues found in the realm of individual psychology that we fail to see the evidence of group psychology that actually dominates our everyday world, and drives the decisions we live by.

To begin to understand the structure of society and the engine of history, Tolstoy said, we must broaden our focus beyond the minds of individual political and military leaders. We need to direct this attention to a more mysterious force: our group mind, our herd mind, our collective self.

Sympathizers and Innocents: New Novels by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Dana Spiotta

I recently enjoyed two new novels, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta, that left me thinking about the shimmering surfaces of everyday life, and the interwoven meshes of secrecy and guilt that ripple beneath. One novel is about a clever and bookish Vietnamese refugee college student in California who is really a Communist spy. The other is about a lifelong friendship between two filmmakers, one of them more commercial than the other. I recommend both for anyone in search of existential summer reading.

Beat Nourishment

" ... Then the weekdays would come again and the parties were over and Japhy and I would sweep out the shack, wee dried bums dusting small temples. I still had a little left of my grant from last fall, in traveler's checks, and I took one and went to the supermarket down on the highway and bought flour, oatmeal, sugar, molasses, honey, salt, pepper, onions, rice, dried milk, bread, beans, black-eyed peas, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, coffee, big wood matches for our woodstove and came staggering back up the hill with all that and a half-gallon of red port. Japhy's near little spare foodshelf was suddenly loaded with too much food. "What we gonna do with all this? We'll have to feed all the bhikkus." In due time we had more bhikkus that we could handle: poor drunken Joe Mahoney, a friend of mine from the year before, would come out and sleep for three days and recuperate for another crack at North Beach and The Place. I'd bring him his breakfast in bed. On weekends sometimes there'd be twelve guys in the shack all arguing and yakking and I'd take some yellow corn meal and mix it with chopped onions and salt and water and pour out little johnnycake tablespoons in the hot frying pan (with oil) and provide the whole gang with delicious hots to go with their tea. In the Chinese Book of Changes a year ago I had tossed a couple of pennies to see what the prediction of my fortune was and it had come out, "You will feed others". In fact I was always standing over a hot stove.
— Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

There have been times in my life when I would read the Beat classics — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso, McClure — in hope of a lightning bolt. There have been times when I found that lightning bolt.

In other phases of my life, I feel distant from that source of inspiration. But I can still grab a chunk of it, a bite, a nibble, not necessarily to change me but to nourish me, to fill me up, to keep me going. I think that'll be the mood I'll be in when I attend a few cool New York City events kicking off this Friday, June 3 and going on till Wednesday, June 8 at new downtown gallery called Howl! Arts. The festival is called Beat & Beyond: A Gathering and it will feature a lot of great writers and happeners: Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Steve Cannon, Peter Stampfel, the Last Poets, Hettie Jones, Ann Charters, Bob Holman, Margaret Randall, David Amram, Ed Sanders and the Fugs.

Phases of Change

A few weeks ago I showed up for a cool poetry reading at a dive called Gunther's in Northport, Long Island, a bar famous for being Jack Kerouac's favorite drinking spot when he'd lived nearby. This reading was significant to me because something was happening for the first time. When I was called to the mic, I was introduced as Marc Eliot Stein.

Marc Eliot Stein? Who the hell is that? It still jars me, three months after announcing my decision to dispose of the pseudonym I had used for over 20 years, to remember what name I'm going by these days. I had been performing spoken word poetry as Levi Asher for over 20 years by now, so I felt a bizarre disassociation as I began to perform. What does Marc Stein know about poetry?

Well, the reading turned out fine: I found my voice inside Gunther's welcoming walls, and by the time I stepped down from the mic I felt like Marc Eliot Stein had made his debut.

And now in two weeks ...

Here I am again, now appearing at an extremely exciting event. The Left Forum has been holding annual gatherings in New York City since Ronald Reagan was President, and this year's event has an absolutely amazing lineup including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and one of my favorite living political philosophers, Slavoj Zizek. So I'm very psyched to be doing a panel discussion at this event, and I plan to hang around all three days and soak in the good spirit. Come by if you can! As befits a leftist forum, the prices are reasonable.

A Time For Kicks, A Time For Inspiration

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November 2016: Our Fight Begins

This article is part of the series Big Thinking. The previous post in the series is Big Thinking: Jung and the Electoral Map.
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What Would Leo Tolstoy Tell Us About Donald Trump?

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Beat Nourishment

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