Powerful Words: A Confession

This is the first in a series of four posts.

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I was a cop once.

It was only once, and only for a few weeks. Nevertheless, I must confess that once I was a fully-fledged officer of the law—with a blue uniform, a black duck-billed hat, a shiny badge pinned on my chest, a walky-talky hung at my side (this was long before the rise to ubiquity of cell-phones), a bully-stick in a holder on a leather belt studded with bullets, and a holster with a loaded handgun in it. I even bought myself a pair of mirrored sunglasses to complete the outfit.

That was long ago, now—back in the summer of 1971.

The summer I was a cop was just three years after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Bobby Kennedy, as well as the riots those events triggered. That includes the officially labeled “police riot” in the streets of Chicago against the protesters who had assembled there outside that year’s Democratic National Convention, to exercise the freedom of speech supposedly guaranteed them by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Three years later, the summer of 1971 when I was a cop was still during the period of race riots across the country. In fact, one such race riot had taken place the just preceding summer of 1970 in the small town just north of the even smaller New Jersey Shore beach community my wife is from and where I was soon to be, briefly, a cop.

I walked a beat on the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore there. My beat-shift was from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next morning. Given the era at issue, with all the racial and other public tensions that were everywhere so much still in play then (as they still are now, for that matter, however different the visible manifestations may be), it was not at all uncommon as I walked my beat—especially during the opening hours of my shift, when there was still a lot of pedestrian traffic up and down the boardwalk—for me to hear calls of “Oink! Oink!” or “Soo-ee!” or even “Off the pig!” wafted over the boardwalk by the summer breezes.

That never bothered me at all.  In fact, to all intents and purposes I shared the sentiments so expressed. Financial exigency may have forced me to wear a police outfit for a while myself, but I had no respect for “the police” as such.

So such expressions of popular opposition to police power did not offend me in the least. I knew that it had nothing to do with me personally, just with the police as an institution of “law enforcement.”

One time, however, I did take personal offense at something said in my presence as I walked along. One evening, I took sudden offense toward two fourteen year-old boys for what they were saying—or thought they were.

The two teenagers were really not doing anything wrong at all. They were just talking. It was just that what they were saying, or more precisely how they held themselves in saying it, somehow managed to get under my skin. It managed to offend me, all uniformed-up as I was.

That was not because the two boys swore at me. Indeed, they never even said anything at all to me. They were just messing around on the side of the boardwalk, inching themselves along step-by-step outside the metal pipe railing at its edge, and talking about me to one another. I don’t even remember anything they said, but somehow just the fact that they thought they were putting something over on me managed to bother me.

It pissed me off that they thought they could get away with daring to act smart around me, that’s all.

So I busted the little bastards—for going barefoot.

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To be continued.

Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (4)

Individuals or nations who are sure of who they are, rooted deeply in their own native identities, are secure in their own boundaries. That security does not close them off from others. Rather, it first makes possible a true and genuine interchange with others, who are respected in their very difference, for who they are. 

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Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (3)

It is only by sharply closing itself off from whomever it has ejected and projected as its defining “other,” that the political community can en-close itself within its own borders, and thereby first clearly delimit “itself” as a distinct, not only potentially separable but also actually separated, community.

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Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (2)

Politics as Hitler and the Nazis practiced it by no means came to an end with the end of the Nazis, nor did it start with them. It was practiced in nation-states well before the rise of Hitler, and it continues to be all too operative in nation-states down to the present day. Indeed, in one form or another it is actually constitutive of what passes for politics under the dominance of the nation-state in general. 

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Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (1)

Badiou calls for revolution. He sees no possibility that mere reforms within liberal, parliamentary, electoral democracy will ever be able to address the underlying problems raised by such capitalism. To address them, he argues, requires an overthrow of the entire capitalist system—a system with which liberal democracy itself is inextricably linked, by his analysis.

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Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (8)

This is the last in a series of posts.

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To pray is to allow one’s thoughts to rise to God.

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My own first real experiences of prayer occurred when I was still a very young child, not yet old enough to be put in school. At the time, I did not know that what I was experiencing was called “praying.” Nor did I associate what I was experiencing with the word “God” (a word about the meaning of which I really had no ideas at all yet at the time). The combination of those two pieces of ignorance, of “not-knowing,” made my prayer all the more pure.

Thus, long before I ever heard of Heidegger, let alone read him, I heeded his admonition not to let words get between us and things. Just so, in my initial childhood experience without even needing to try, because I did not even know the words yet, I did not let the word “prayer” get between me and praying, or the word “God” between me and God. Instead, my soul just rose up to God like a feather carried aloft by the slightest breeze, as Abba Isaac, the old Christian desert solitary, long ago told John Cassian, who carried the desert tradition to the West, the soul would naturally just do, unless weighed down by its own sins.  Because at the time I am describing I was still too young to have weighed myself down with my sins (or at least any obsessive consciousness of them), my soul did just that—and I just prayed, without even knowing I was doing so.

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My father’s pride and joy during my early childhood years was his 1947 maroon-colored Buick Roadmaster convertible, which he always liked not only to drive fast, but also to drive fast quick, as Faulkner so nicely if ungrammatically put it. I am the youngest of three children. By brother is three years older than I am, and my sister is ten year older.

As a child not yet in school, my favorite place to ride in my father’s Buick, whenever the whole family went somewhere together and the weather was chilly enough that we had to leave the convertible top up, was in the well behind the back seat, where the convertible top would go when we went topless. On those colder weather occasions, I would climb over the backseat and stretch out on my back in the convertible-top well, and just look out the plastic window at whatever passed by overhead, from tall buildings to telephone wires to clouds to the moon and stars. Perhaps my very warmest childhood memory is of just lying there, thinking of nothing, wanting nothing, being content with whatever went by, and feeling the warmth and comfort of being surrounded by the family of which I was a part, without having to take any special part in what the rest of that family was saying to one another. I was just attentive to it all, open for whatever offered itself to me next through the plastic window above me—and I was happy.

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            It was not until many years later, after I’d been sober for more than a decade and was in my fifties, that I realized what I had really been doing as I rode along happily and attentively all those years ago in the well behind the backseat of my dad’s pride and joy, his Buick Roadmaster convertible. I was just lying there as a young child, just letting my mind go where minds naturally go, when not weighed down by sins and self-preoccupations.

            I have never prayed so purely since, nor been so rapt in God.

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Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (7)

Theodor Adorno once famously said that poetry is no longer possible after the Holocaust. Well, if by “poetry” one means some sort of grand and flashy chatter that calls attention to itself by how catchy it is, like some advertising slogan, then certainly after the Holocaust to write such junk is questionable, to say the least.

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