Wilfred Owen

My favorite poet of World War One – The Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’ – was Wilfred Owen, who died a week before armistice day, November 11, 1918.



He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.


About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.


There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why . . .
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.


That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.


Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

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I Like Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky is one of the few Atlantic bloggers whose writing about sex and gender doesn’t make me cringe.  It’s ironic that the only real feminist employed by the Atlantic is a man, but I’ll take what I can get.  Why do I still read the Atlantic?  Because of Ta Nehisi Coates.  And so sometimes I click through to other articles, usually cringeworthy, but sometimes surprisingly good, like this recent takedown of the unbearably smug Joss Whedon (there, I said it).  Noah Berlatsky writes: 

Whedon, then, delivers a speech on the term “feminist” without any reference to feminist history, without any apparent awareness of feminist theory, and without even any demonstrated knowledge of the most important objections or conflicts around the term “feminist,” the use of which he is purportedly discussing. Instead, from his position as celebrity and writer, and, one fears, from his position as white man, he takes it upon himself to simply define feminism himself so that he can discard it. The result is what Tania Modleski acidly referred to as “feminism without women”—equality as erasure.


Go read the whole thing: What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong About Feminism

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Question of the Day:

Is there a useful way to use the idea of evil when writing about politics and the ethics of living as a citizen?

Specifically, is the term ‘evil’ more accurate and more descriptive that merely ‘bad’ or ‘unethical’ when describing certain actions, ways of being, or ways of organizing a state?

I ask this because I have been thinking quite a bit about prison reform, long-term solitary confinement, the war on drugs, and prison overcrowding in California, where I live.  I can think of few terms more descriptive than “evil” for the practice of locking men away for decades without sight of the sun or the touch of a loved one.  But I am worried about gaining emotional force at the cost of emotional distance and the ability to distinguish clearly. 

I want to be able to use the word ‘evil’ to describe a political state which permits its agents, tacitly or explicitly, to be deliberately cruel; I think the war on drugs and long-term solitary confinement are cruel.

Also, ask me what I think of the mental hospital to homelessness to prison triangle.

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Goodnight Dune

Absurdity of the day.

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The Amazing Tressie MC

Americans hate the undeserving poor.  We hate poor people on welfare who drive nice cars; we hate poor people who don’t scrimp, save, and hustle their way into wealth, Horatio Alger style (does anyone still read Horatio Alger novels?).  Unless you’ve pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, you’re not supposed to talk about your poverty, because it is clearly shameful and a sign of a personal failing.

One of the best blogs I’ve stumbled upon in the last six months is written by Tressie MC, over at some of us are brave.  This week, she’s written about the rational reasons for poor people buying expensive consumer goods like clothes, phones, and cars:

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

Everybody go read: The Logic of Stupid Poor People.

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The People We Walk Past

I live in California.  Sometimes I drive down to the beautiful tourist town that gives this part of the Central Coast its name, and I walk through the downtown, look into shop windows, perhaps grab a cup of coffee at a café or stop in to a movie theater to catch an evening showing.  I enjoy my solitary outings, but because I usually do not carry much beyond car keys, license, and debit card, I’m faced with the fact that I will have to walk past numerous beggars and street people who will ask me for spare cash which I do not have, and really could not spare even if I did carry money on me.

I always feel guilty when I have to tell a person down on their luck that I cannot give them anything, and then go on to treat myself to coffee, a meal, or a movie.  Sometimes, when I do have money, I will give it to a beggar; sometimes I will buy a person a meal if the night is cold or I am lonely enough (I am often lonely).  I try to acknowledge every person I walk past, at least enough to say “Sorry, not today,” if someone approaches me.  I try not to avoid the gaze of those who stare up at me from door wells or benches.  But it is hard: it is hard to be faced, day after day, with my own impotence and my own unwillingness to give.

In particular, I am troubled because there is often no good reason for me to give money to one beggar but not another: I might like the look of one person, or not another, and that is enough to trigger generosity toward one human being and indifference toward another.  I have little enough to give that I must choose, but I have no rational basis upon which to make a rational choice, so I choose impulsively, emotionally, and often almost at random.

I see other people faced with this problem also; in this small town with a large population of underserved homeless people, there are a lot of buskers, perpetual travelers, beggars, and other street people, and thus anyone local will face a gauntlet of need every time they walk down the street.  Some respond by doling out aid in a miserly but deliberate fashion, hoping to be able to give a dime to every person they pass.  Some simply ignore all the needy people around, avoiding eye contact and even vocal calls for help.  Some decide that all beggars must deserve their poverty, and that any money given will necessarily go toward the evils of drugs and booze.  Some develop a “system” of neediness – the Vietnam Vet gets a little change, but not the young man; the woman in a wheelchair gets a dollar, but not the dirty girl playing the guitar; the man with the dog gets some change (because everyone loves dogs!) but not the woman missing her two front teeth.

This dilemma – the dilemma of whom to walk past and whom to help – is a fundamental dilemma in all areas of charity and social justice work.  All over the world, countless people cry out for help and are not helped; a small number of people work tirelessly to help as many as they can, and a larger number give aid or money occasionally.  Why do we choose to support some people or causes, and not others?  And how ought we behave toward those whom we choose not to help, toward those causes which we cannot support, because of our own finite resources?

Probably the most crucial finite resource for the activist is time.  Because our time is limited, so too is our attention; our empathy is limited because our attention is limited.  The most powerful activism tends to be narrow in focus, but narrowly focused activism is limited in scope and thus leaves behind many people.  Money, too, is limited; when limited funds are dispersed too widely, the effects may be indistinguishable; concentrating aid among a few, however, seems unjust: why should some people receive help, but not others?  How on earth can you choose?

This dilemma is agonizing.  The personality type attracted to social justice or aid work shrinks from unfairness and cruelty, particularly the feeling that one is committing or perpetuating unfairness and cruelty.  So we develop the same emotional ticks as those who must walk past beggars every day: we learn to ignore those whom we have decided we cannot help, or else we decide that some people simply do not deserve help because they will waste aid given to them or because they are unpleasant people.  These little rationalizations and lies help us feel better about ourselves, but are not useful.  In fact, they can often be so pernicious they outweigh the good we might do in our regular work.

Yet what other response to infinite need can there be?  I propose honesty: we must be honest with ourselves about our own motives in giving aid (are we falling into the altruism trap, in which we expect gratitude as payment?) and about our motives for with-holding aid.  We also must be honest to the people whose needs we are not meeting about why we cannot meet their needs.  If we see a beggar on the street and cannot spare a dime, we ought to meet their eyes and say, “I’m sorry.  I don’t have the money today.”  We need to stop walking past people as if they were invisible, and we need to stop ignoring causes and people in our activist work which are inconvenient, for instance anti-sex trafficking feminists who support legislation criminalizing all prostitution ought to be honest about the harm they will do to women voluntarily doing sex work, and marriage equality activists who want inconveniently off-message trans and undocumented activists to disappear ought to question their motives for doing activist work in the first place.

Honesty does not require that one devote all of one’s energy to all causes; this remains impossible.  But it does constrain us in two ways.  First, it requires that we spend at least some of our time and energy paying attention to people and causes which may be unfamiliar and which may intersect with our own core mission in inconvenient ways.  Second, it requires that we either modify our own work in response to criticism, or state why we cannot.  It is not enough to pretend that voluntary sex work does not exist, or tell trans activists “Some other time.”  It is certainly not right to slander those people whose very existence makes our own work more difficult.  If we can only do our own activist work on the backs of other people, we should stop working!

But honesty is painful: at least as painful as meeting the eyes of every beggar we see on the street, and saying: “Sorry.  Not today.  Be well, and better luck next time.”  Honesty is a radical form of kindness; only through honesty can we recognize the true humanity of those we cannot help.

At the same time, we ought not err in the opposite direction: the activist who worries too much about perfectly acknowledging the needs of all comers will never do anything at all.  Paralysis is not useful.  Once again, avoid the altruism trap: if you want to work so you can feel good about yourself, stop!  You are toxic – you will hurt people – if all you care about is your own emotional payoff.  Usually, the best work in any cause is done by people who are not working for altruistic reasons, but who are working to help themselves or their loved ones.  Because the cause is personal, it is the end result, and not the process, that is the payoff; the opinions of others are secondary to getting the work done.  People who are working for a cause because they need the cause to succeed in order to live do not care about their image in the community nearly as much as the altruistic allies.

None of us are ever going to be morally pure.  Just as we cannot help everyone all the time, we cannot avoid doing the wrong thing all the time, either.  We must develop some resilience in order to work, and we ought not choose to devote our energy to work where we are constantly wrong-footed and worried about how we will be received.  Work as best you can for a cause close to your own heart, and stop waiting for gratitude as your own reward: find your reward in the success or failure of the cause.

And next time you see a beggar on the street – don’t ignore him.  If you don’t have money or don’t want to give your money away, meet that person’s eyes and say, “Sorry.  Not today.  Be well, and better luck next time.”

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The Altruism Trap

About a year ago I was in a melancholy mood and I went downtown.  I think I was supposed to be on a first date, and I got stood up; for whatever reason, I was very nicely dressed and I was sad.  I saw a traveling street person busking outside of a drug store, and I stopped: his sign made me laugh, perhaps.  I think it said, “Smile with me!” or something like that.  He had the same first name as me, but in the masculine form, it turned out; and his hometown had the same name as my hometown, except a few hundred miles away in New England.  We started talking, and eventually I bought him dinner; a few of his friends came over and I spent the evening talking with them.

Alexander – the first man I met – told me a story that’s stuck with me ever since: he was talking with a Christian missionary one day, and she offered him twenty dollars.  He reached to take the money, and she snatched the money away and proffered a Bible instead.  She said he could have the money if he took Jesus into his heart as Lord and Savior.  She tried to use cash in order to buy love.  Missionaries are always doing this: building schools in order to rebuild communities in their own image; giving away food and Bible verses to captive audiences.  I am surprised that anyone can think of this as altruism, but then, for a certain species of Evangelical, the good work of aiding the poor or helping the afflicted pales in comparison to the good work of saving souls from damnation.  How anyone can believe in a torturer God is beyond me, but there it is.

This form of altruism is not uncommon among secular donors, volunteers, activists, and aid workers, however.  Just as the missionary believes their good work – helping the needy and saving souls – will buy them a place in heaven, the secular volunteer believes that their good work should buy them the gratitude of the recipients of their generosity.  I saw this at animal shelters, where there were always dozens of volunteers eager to walk the puppies, and no one interested in washing the cat pans, and I see a more pernicious version among those who try to help their fellow humans.

There is a personality type common among the altruistic.  Altruistic people want to help others, both because they want those they help to be better off, and because the altruistic person wants to feel better about themself.  Many altruistic people need the emotional payoff that comes from doing good deeds, and many cannot that their work had meaning unless their good work is loudly acknowledged, preferably by the recipient of their aid.

This is toxic.  I occasionally make announcements for a free clinic during the lunch hour at a soup kitchen where the food is prepared and served by a rotating group of local churches.  Each day, a different set of people from a different church come in to cook lunch and serve hundreds of people.   Many of the volunteers are there hungry for acknowledgement of their staggering generosity; and the people hungry for a meal are under pressure to sate those altruistic volunteers with a display of gratitude.  Yet gratitude, when compelled, becomes a poison in the soul; it wears at a person to constantly be reminded of their dependency.
There is a beautiful scene in one of my favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which illustrates this phenomenon.  Francie Nolan, the child protagonist, has gone to a Christmas party organized for the poor children of her neighborhood.  A lady in the Protestant organization hosting the party introduces a rich girl, named Mary, to the other children.  Mary is dressed beautifully, and she is carrying a beautiful doll.

“ ‘Now,’ said the lady.  ‘This little doll is named Mary after the kind little girl who is living her away.’  Again the little girl smiled graciously.  ‘Mary wants to give the doll to some poor little girl in the audience who is named Mary.’  Like wind on growing corn, a rippling murmur came from all the little girls in the audience.  ‘Is there any poor little girl in the audience named Mary?’
“There was a great hush.  There were at least a hundred Marys in that audience.  It was the adjective ‘poor’ that struck them dumb.  No Mary would stand up, no matter how much she wanted the doll, and be a symbol of all the poor little girls in the audience.  They began whispering to each other that they weren’t poor and had better dolls at home and better clothes than that girl, too, only they didn’t feel like wearing them.  Francie sat numb, longing for that doll with all her soul.
“‘What?’ said the lady.  ‘No Marys?’  She waited and made her announcement again.  No response.  She spoke regretfully.  ‘Too bad there are no Marys.  Little Mary will have to take the doll home again.’  The little girl smiled and bowed and turned to leave the stage with the doll.
“Francie couldn’t stand it, she couldn’t stand it.  It was like when the teacher was going to throw the pumpkin pie in the wastebasket.  She stood up and held her hand high in the air.  The lady saw it and stopped the little girl from leaving the stage.
“‘Ah!  We do have a Mary, a very bashful Mary but a Mary just the same.  Come right up on the stage, Mary.’
“Feverish with embarrassment, Francie walked up the long aisle and onto the stage.  She stumbled on the steps and all the girls snickered and the boys guffawed.
“‘What is your name?’ asked the lady.
“‘Mary Francis Nolan,’ whispered Francie.
“‘Louder.  And look at the audience.’
“Miserably, Francie faced the audience and said loudly, ‘Mary Frances Nolan.’  All the faces looked like bloated balloons on thick strings.  She thought that if she kept on looking, the faces would float away up to the ceiling.
“The beautiful girl came forward and put the doll in Francie’s arms.  Francie’s arms took a natural curve around it….
“The lady talked as Francie backed awkwardly to her seat.  She said: ‘You have all seen an example of the true Christmas spirit.  Little Mary is a very rich little girl and received many beautiful dolls for Christmas.  But she was not selfish: she wanted to make some poor little Mary, who is not as fortunate as herself, happy.  So she gave the doll to that poor little girl who is named Mary, too.’
“Francie’s eyes smarted with hot tears.  ‘Why can’t they,’ she thought bitterly, ‘just give the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich?  Why couldn’t they just give it away without all the talking about it?’
”That was not all of Francie’s shame.  As she walked down the aisle, the girls leaned toward her and whispered hissingly, ‘Beggar, beggar, beggar.’
“It was beggar, beggar, beggar, all the way down the aisle.  Those girls felt richer than Francie.  They were as poor as she but they had something she lacked – pride.  And Francie knew it.  She had no compunctions about the lie and getting the doll under false pretenses.  She was paying for the lie and the doll by giving up her pride.”

This passage is instructive.  The apparently altruistic Mary (and the lady, and the whole Protestant organization throwing the charity Christmas party) need an audience for their generosity.  Their audience is made up of the recipients of their charity.  These recipients must either choose not to accept charity, or else pay for the charity they receive by giving up their pride.
Thus, the apparent altruism of charity and generosity becomes a kind of emotional exploitation.  What solution can there be for this?  People still need to eat, still need warm beds and clean clothes; children still need toys at Christmas and the means to celebrate other holidays.

Part of the reason I, like many others on the left, support an increased role for the government in social welfare is that it will cut down on charity.  I do not see charity as a positive good; I think it is good for the souls neither of recipients nor of the apparently altruistic.  True generosity and true gratitude, when freely given and received, are beautiful.  But the theater of altruism, where the recipients of poverty must make a spectacle of their gratitude for a succession of volunteers and donors and aid workers, impoverishes the soul.

I encourage those who would like to be involved in charity work to think about their motives, and to consider supporting social justice efforts aimed at political reform to the problems of poverty, homelessness, universal health care access, and others.  It’s not that I don’t believe that true generosity and gratitude are possible – it’s that I have no faith in a system built on an exchange of goods for gratitude.  I don’t want more people to fall into the trap of altruism, and I don’t want to see more people harmed by those who think they’re helping.

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