Pregnant People

October 11, 2021 at 10:13 am (By Amba) (, , , )

I have two reactions to an article about COVID and “pregnant people.” (It was funny to see that article slip back into “pregnant women,” only to yank itself out of that lapse of attention and get the right words in the display window again. Editorial regression.)

1.) Are there really a lot of non-women “pregnant people,” or are we just scanning the horizon anxiously for offense we might give, inadvertently wounding or excluding a few? White, straight people belling themselves like cats, to walk jangling with warnings, “Here comes a predator”? Of course, probably more than there are pregnant trans men (is that common? what effect do male hormones have on a fetus?), there are people we might call “women” who would call themselves nonbinary “they”s out of “solidarity” (what a solemn, stilted language we speak with a Twitter gun to our heads) with “obligatory” nonbinary people and out of a desire to revolutionize what’s regarded by conservatives as “human nature,” but what is really a jumble of nature, habit, history, custom, prejudice, and inertia. With the latter I have some sympathy, but utopian projects always run up against . . . something. The aforementioned jumble, like the barriers of debris left by a receding flood. Don’t underestimate the power of inertia—thousands of years of it, propelled by no-longer-existent survival conditions—or confuse it with nature. It was a selective shaping of nature to begin with.

“Human nature” is code for “the way we used to do things” when we had much smaller populations under very different threats. There are differences—maybe greater between individuals than between sexes—but we don’t really know what they are, because they’re obscured by what we’ve made out of them. It’s like trying to learn about ore by studying an airplane.

So while I’m turned off by the goose-stepping enforcement and the absolute humorlessness of self-appointed victim-advocate-bullies, the gender revolution has a point—a point which as usual, we’re turning into an intolerant caricature and a new conformity, when it was supposed to increase freedom.

My other reaction is much simpler:

2) Thanks for finally admitting that women are people!

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Drugs and me

September 23, 2021 at 11:27 am (By Amba) (, , )

Comments I wrote on this Freddie de Boer post about falling out with marijuana. It’s worth reading the post and the comments, where all sorts of varied insights are shared.


Interesting. I never got into the regular or frequent marijuana smoking habit the way it seems the vast majority of my peers did (I’m an old, VERY old baby boomer). I actually never bought any (true, though it sounds even to me like Bill Clinton saying “I didn’t inhale”). I was the mooch who smoked it when it was passed around at parties or when friends or siblings had some, and I had fantastic, fascinating, strange and pleasurable experiences, which were few enough so I still remember most of them in detail. I didn’t WANT to smoke it more often precisely because these experiences were so special and different. I would ponder each one for days or weeks afterward. I’m still pondering them!Recently I’ve occasionally accepted hits (vape or smoke) without much effect, despite the fabled strength of cultivated strains. (Whereas one or two hits of a joint at a new year’s party around 1980 sent me through the roof.) I also recently had my first tiny edible, a little iridescent gel cube, and enjoyed it a lot—it was a laughing strain. I’ve never done shrooms (synthetic mesc was as far as I got into psychedelics before I met Mr. Clean, who literally made me flush the remaining caps down the toilet—but that’s another story; I found the mesc fairytale magical, and I still ponder that too, but not mystical or ego-annihilating). I fully intend to do some when my responsibilities lighten, and I look forward to it.
I still have the rare mesc flashback, 50 years later, when I’m in some altered state like from being hungry or sleep-deprived, or for reasons unknown. I’ll be riding the New York subway, and adults will begin looking to me like borderline monsters, their faces twisted from within by trauma and avidity. If there is a small child in sight, I’ll look at the child for relief. They are perfect, pure as candles, like angels in hell.
I most definitely do not need the self-critical thing. I have more than enough of that sober.

I know two people who may well have been tipped into schizophrenia by [marijuana]. Apparently it’s known that multiple genes are involved in the susceptibility. There almost should be a “don’t smoke [lots of] weed” genetic test.

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Privilege and Sacrifice

September 15, 2021 at 7:09 pm (By Amba) (, )

Much of my time in Chicago has been spent rereading the journal and letters of my uncle,* Alan Gottlieb, who died in a Naval Air Force training accident in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1943, two months to the day before his 23rd birthday. (I had read them decades ago, but remembered only highlights.) My mom wants to include his voice in an appendix to her memoir, the very purpose of which is to gather the lost—including two suicides, whose names were never spoken again per Jewish tradition—back into the ongoing family.

Alan’s death has been handed down as a tragic accident and a noble, if wasteful, sacrifice. To my surprise, as I read his thoughts and his voice danced to life in me, I came to see it, instead, as both a totally routine budget item of war and a kind of heroic, quixotic suicide. I wrote in my journal about his.

I went through Alan’s journals almost word for word, inhabiting his lively voice and immersing myself in his living presence to the extent that I began to struggle in protest as I was pulled toward the inexorable falls of his fate, No! No! Don’t extinguish this light! but it already happened almost 80 years ago! Mom grieving it again as if it was something I accompanied and comforted her in rather than something I instigated (at her behest, to get Alan’s voice into the memoir). I typed out passages into the new computer, and there were things missing that I remembered: a kinesthetic description of standing on the pedals of a dive bomber during a run; a paradox about the “constructively destructive” use of his new skills in war. I rummaged in the disorganized files (so like mine) and found both, one among letters a girl friend (not girlfriend) had given his mother, the other on file cards typed out by Dad, perhaps the best saved of faded or damaged letters. (How did he do it?)

Two things became clear. One was that if Alan hadn’t died as and when he did, there’s a high chance he would’ve died as a dive bomber pilot working off a carrier, the role he was training for. Those guys were the next thing to kamikazes. Even dying in training as he did was commonplace; he’d lost several friends in crashes before his. I told David it was as if they (the masters of war) were just throwing handfuls of flesh into a spinning fan blade. . . . The second is that Alan chose this self-sacrificial role. If his death was in part the Navy’s fault, it was also his own. He was being groomed for leadership and could have saved himself for that role. Should he have? He would have been a liberal leading light, a Jewish Kennedy, surely a senator, maybe even the first Jewish president—he was WASPy-looking enough. 😜And, in the supremest of ironies, he might well have been assassinated. His loss was anyway an early falling spark in that arc that led us to this dark place.

It’s easy to fall into fantasies of “the best and the brightest,” to flatter oneself that the loss of a sensibility so gently reared, so cultivated and self-cultivated, was a bigger loss than the closing of any anonymous consciousness that never was incubated in the Ivy League or singled out by the spotlight of Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. But that was exactly what Alan felt obliged to escape. He had an early sense of the injustice and also of the emasculation of “privilege.” He felt he had to put himself at physical risk both to purge himself of that and to stretch himself, to break out of that coddling and self-congratulatory confinement.

I can relate.

The biggest paradox of all for me is that *he could only be my uncle dead. If he had lived for however much longer, the world would have been shifted the millimeter or more it took for a different sperm to meet a different egg at a different time and place, and someone else would exist in my place—in all our places.

It might have been better that way. But this is what we’ve got.

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You don’t have to be Jewish: Don’t miss

September 10, 2021 at 9:33 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

the ultimate Yom Kippur story.

There’s an old Hasidic story, attributed to the great master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk.

It’s the day before Yom Kippur, and the hassidim come to Rabbi Elimelech and ask him how he prepares for the most holy of days. “Tell you the truth,” says the old rabbi, “I don’t know how to do it. But Moishele? The shoemaker? He knows how to do it. Go ask him.”

So the hassidim walk over to Moishele’s house, and they peek in through the window, and they see this simple man sitting around his simple wooden table eating dinner. And when he’s done, he calls out to his children, “The great moment is here! Bring out the books.” And the children return with two books, one very small and the other very large and bound in expensive leather.

Moishele, looking up, begins to speak. “Dear God, master of the world,” he says. “It’s me, Moishele, the shoemaker. God, I want to read you something.” And Moishele takes the small book and opens it up. “God,” he continues, “I want to read you a list of my sins.” And he reads on from the book: “I’ve yelled at my wife. I’ve been impatient with my children. I’ve charged a bit too much for shoes sometimes. I kept a scrap of material for myself instead of giving it to the customer who paid for it.

“I think you’ll agree, God, these are all pretty petty sins.” Moishele closes the small book and picks up the large one. “And now, God,” he says, “now, let me read to you a list of your sins:

“A mother of nine dies and leaves all of her small children orphans? A famine forces entire families to forage for their food like animals? A war takes thousands of innocent lives? These are major crimes, God, very major crimes.” And with that, Moishele looks solemnly to the heavens.

“But I’ll tell you what, God,” he says. “This year, if you forgive me my sins, I’ll forgive you yours.”

The hassidim are elated! They run back to Rabbi Elimelech and tell him all about Moishele’s wisdom. But hearing the story, Elimelech starts to cry.

“What’s the matter?” the hassidim ask.

The rebbe looks at them with his eyes all swollen. “Don’t you get it?” he says. “Moishele had God in the palm of his hand! He should’ve said, ‘No, God, I won’t forgive you! I won’t forgive you until you redeem the entire world.’”  

From “The Scroll,” Tablet Magazine’s newsletter:

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I contradict myself

July 12, 2021 at 12:15 pm (By Amba) ()

Do my views and posts seem ideologically contradictory? They are.

I have an allergy to “ism.” That little suffix is like the spike protein—the mechanism by which a mental virus pries its way into your brain. Anything with an “ism” tacked onto it already has designs on you.

I hate prefabricated sets of positions that come all glued together. There’s no space to think in between the parts. The parts don’t move.

I love a good argument. I’ll take one in even if I end up spitting most of it out. I’m pretty sure there’s a little bit of truth in there and I want it. My mind can be changed, or at least complicated.

No mind can come anywhere near the serenely self-contradicting complicatedness of reality.

Add another curlicue

to my convoluted worldview!

Please do!

Thinking is just doodling, anyway.

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21st century religious wars?

April 4, 2021 at 2:04 pm (By Amba) (, )

I’m hiding this here because some of it will be rude to say in public on Easter morning.

These Daily Beast headlines (I’m not bothering to link, they will be paywalled) . . .

. . . together with much recent commentary on how the tribal, zealous, and transporting aspects of religion seem to have migrated over to politics, coalesced in my mind into the realization that we are actually fighting a religious war, just like those that have racked the West throughout so many other centuries.

For the right, “socialism” IS Satan. For the left, science IS gospel. The right has specialized in the crusade of conquest. The left has a lock on penitence. Both practice conversion and excommunication. Each is sure they hold the truth and the other is demonic.

This in turn brought me (by a winding path, admittedly) to the thought that the world would be unimaginably different if the Abrahamic religions had never arisen. And that they may have been the single most toxic and warping factor in human history.

They have certainly been a key to our species’ “success” in the short term—the whole globe having been dragged into this juggernaut by “the West”—but success down a wrong path is mega-failure waiting to happen.

Polytheism, pantheism, nature worship—are they more live-and-let-live, or am I romanticizing them? The impulse to conquest (as opposed to just tribal rivalry and territorial skirmishing) comes with civilization (and its nomadic pastoral predators), which arises from agriculture. But somehow Abrahamic monotheism supercharged it.

It’s fascinating to see how ideas mutate and hybridize, taking on new power and sometimes monstrosity in the process. Neither communism nor democracy would likely exist if not for Christianity. Western Communism x Eastern Confucianism spawned particularly deadly strains.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

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“Retrospective inevitability”

April 1, 2021 at 9:43 am (By Amba)

from 2017

It only just struck me that “Que sera sera” needs a counterpart for later in life. “Que fue fue?” How would you say “What was, was” or “What has been, has been”?

It’s the sense in which the events of your life were, not by any means inevitable, but … the dominoes fell as they did. If you could go back and change any one thing, it would change everything downstream. The meeting of a particular sperm and egg being as contingent as it is, the same people wouldn’t even be here. Dependent co-arising leads to something like “retrospective inevitability.” “It has to have been that way.” If you could erase the bad it would also erase the good. Regrets rot the harvest.

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Creative destruction?

March 30, 2021 at 10:15 am (By Amba)

(Cross-posted to A Cold Eye)

I was thinking about how anything that escapes regulation, coöpts its environment, and grows unchecked, heedless of its place in a whole, is cancer-like. Wealth in late capitalism. The human population.

But there’s no escaping a larger whole. Even cancer plays its part. It creates opportunities for worms. And funeral directors. And pharma companies and cancer centers. Wealth creates opportunities for merchants and crafters of luxury goods, for services and servants, and for thieves and revolutionaries. The growing human population creates opportunities for pigeons and sparrows, parasites and viruses, inventors of ways to extract more, and now maybe even to extract more while destroying less.

It’s a free-for-all. Everything’s eating and competing, hijacking and hitchhiking on everything else. Don’t be so moralistic. Join the party.

As if you had a choice.

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No Map to the Post-Enlightenment

February 22, 2021 at 9:09 am (By Amba) (, )

A friend who lives in Israel (though US-born) wrote to me worried about how the ultra-Orthodox may be taking over Israel, even as some Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics here seem to be angling to turn the US into a theocracy. I wrote back to him that they seem to be “out to repeal the Enlightenment.” He asked if I had any thoughts about how to counter that. These were the thoughts that came up in response to that question. Some of them surprised me.

I don’t have any very good ideas about what to do about the fundies of all stripes. I suspect we’re at a fork in our evolution where the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the next step, and we may not take it. We’re a very fearful animal, and we’ve learned just enough to begin to realize how tiny we are, how little we really understand, and how little control we have carved out, though it is much more than we’ve ever had before (to our own detriment as well as benefit). The solution, for a sizable chunk of the human population, is to just junk the whole enterprise and go back to absolute authorities and simple stories. The solution for another chunk is to put a quasi-religious faith in science and scientists—in both cases, driven by the longing for authority to keep us safe. The idea that we have to take our fate into our own hands at precisely the moment when we realize we don’t know shit is pretty overwhelming, but it’s the next step and if we refuse it, as we well may, we won’t survive. I guess it’s Existentialism as well as the Enlightenment, except the Existentialists thought life and the universe were meaningless. It’s probably saturated with meaning and potential meaning, and we have allies, one of whom you would call God—not an authority but the guarantor that this isn’t Hell and that it can be navigated and is brimming with promise, not just pain. The part of us that is made in this Great Spirit’s or Holy Ghost’s image is intuition. Although intuition may be more easily fooled by our hopes and fears than reason (or maybe not—reason can easily be pressed into service as rationalization), it’s also a direct way of knowing the score without knowing how you know. Trust is involved, and not the trust of a child who needs the illusion of being safe.

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A sweeping vision

January 8, 2021 at 11:34 pm (Uncategorized)

is what I’m being inundated with, of European domination of the world through its various empires, of which the U.S. is just the latest extension, and its massive twin engines (picture those two suckers on the back of a mother of a motor yacht): technology, which equipped it to dominate and exploit both other humans and nature; and religion, which gave it the justification and the sense of superiority and entitlement to do so.

Domination is not a European impulse, it’s a human impulse. Think of Genghis Khan and Moctezuma and the Aryans who rode down into India from the steppes, etc. What has been uniquely successful and destructive about the European version is those twin engines. It’s because of them that there are too many of us humans (I myself am spun from petroleum and nitrogen fertilizer) and that a minority of us live lives of comfort and safety and plenty and diversion our ancestors could never have dreamed of, to which the majority aspires, all at staggering cost to the rest of the biosphere.

I’m not saying this is bad or good—it’s too big for that, too done a deal. It is not even possible to imagine other ways the world might have gone. This is it, what we’ve got. Other cultures with different or even similar aspirations and priorities were invaded, conquered, colonized, enslaved, or allied and traded with, and became hybridized with European culture by force, or to survive; in self-defense, or out of curiosity and envy and opportunism. Some of these hybrids are more malignant than either parent, the way the monster of alcoholism isn’t lurking in the bottle or in the subconscious but is the product of a chemical reaction between the two. Pol Pot (“Politque Potentielle”) and Al-Wahhab studied in Paris. And from where did China get communism?

I can’t go all the way into this in one blog post. What I’ve been thinking about tonight is the role of one of Europe’s twin engines, Christianity, with its presumption of having the only right, real ,and powerful god, and therefore the right and the duty and the power to convert others or, failing that, kill them.

And Christianity’s peculiar relationship with the Jews.

How Christianity morphed from a universal and redemptive religion of the humble to a chauvinistic and warlike religion of the conqueror is another fascinating story. Maybe it had to do with its merger with Rome, the early prototype European empire. But it has its roots in the Hebrew bible, whose early chapters are horrifically bloody. Basically, there was believed to be a contest among gods, and Jahweh, the new god, and (a new claim) the only real god, sought to defeat the other gods by empowering his people, the offspring of Abraham, to defeat the peoples who believed in those gods, seize their lands, and slaughter their children. This may have provided the template for the Crusades, and for the conquest of the “New World.”

So jump ahead a millennium or five, and I’m thinking about Israel, which leftists call an outpost of the American empire. But really, Israel, settled by so many European Jews (who still dominate it culturally if not numerically) both before and after the Holocaust, is an outpost of Europe in the Middle East, culturally and militarily a promontory of the long European empire. And I thought further about the Jews’ uneasy status as Europeans, but not; serving the empire as financiers (not so exclusively now as at the end of the Middle Ages, when Jewish bankers financed the exploration and colonization of the New World because Christians were not allowed to charge interest), but also as scapegoats. If you entertain Freud’s equation of money with shit, then the Jews were a little like the Dalits of India, who traditionally handled sewage and garbage (though the Dalits were and are much more numerous, and poorer, because finally, money ain’t shit). The Jews were, and still are, cousins yet heathens, prodigal sons of the same god, necessary but mistrusted, dealers with the dark side so Christians didn’t have to, and subject to periodic exorcismic spasms of “convert, expel, or kill.” A semi-disowned, secret part of Europe that it has never been able to absorb or excise, a sort of parasitic twin. And suspected of being not quite white.

Ugh, I feel like I’ve just coughed up a parasitic twin myself. Enough for now.

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