Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Worst of Times? The Best of Times? What the fuck?!?

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October 26, 2023

The Worst of Times?

The Best of Times?

What the Fuck?!?




Mostly, people want to talk about how many terrible things are happening right now. And it's TRUE. Terrible things are happening. No question about it. There is absolutely no point in me listing terrible things because you can make your own very long list, if you feel like doing that.

But I contend that, besides being The Worst of Times, this is also The Best of Times. I would like to quote something from the not-so-distant past, to remind us all of how far we have come in a relatively short period.


I am an omnivorous reader and therefore a frequent visitor to the Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. Recently I discovered this:

It's a posthumoous collection of Donald Barthelme's non-fiction, "Not-Knowing."

As you can see from the little bio, Barthelme was an accomplished and successful writer. I was not a particular fan or follower. I only read one of his short stories, in The New Yorker, ages ago. The entire story was composed of dialog. People at a party were discussing a new neighbor. They were completely obsessed with how boring their new neighbor was. Boring boring boring. They described in great detail how and why he was boring. But in the process of their conversation, it was revealed to the reader just how boring the people at the party were -- and that the new arrival was quite a fascinating fellow.

It is an extremely clever story. All these years, I have continued to savor the wit of Donald Barthelme.

Barthelme was also a progressive man of the times. He was adamantly against the Vietnam war. He was a public intellectual, a lover of New York City and particularly the West Village, where he lived.

Besides short stories, Barthelme also wrote breezy anecdotal columns about his life for The New Yorker. I am going to quote a chunk from one column titled "Walking Around the Village," written in 1972. The writer tells of amusing encounters with passersby and memories of the infamous Women's House of Detention, which had been replaced with a park. His investigation of the Village continues to unfold:

The next interesting thing that happened was on Friday. I was going to an event at Westbeth in the early afternoon and I was stopped by four kids. They were boys, between twelve and fourteen, I judged, white, middle class, I judged, and two of them were carrying pieces of pipe Dialogue as follows:

KID: Hey, Mister.

ME: Yep?

KID: Are you straight?

ME: You mean straight as opposed to gay?

KID: Yeah.

ME: Straight.

KID: Good man.

And they moved on. And I was later told by my hosts that there are these bands of little kids wandering around that part of the West Village beating up gays. And that it's been going on for about two years. And that nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. I thought that was interesting. (emphasis mine)

And I also thought, Why didn't I tarry and reason with them, point out the error of this way of thinking? (maybe because they were carrying two pieces of pipe?) I don't know. I didn't. And I concluded that it was the natural momentum of New Yorkers, who tend to move past obstaches such as panhandlers, freaks, crazies, and people with big, brutish dogs as fast as they comfortably can. I absolved myself.

And then on Saturday I went to the Jane Street street festival....

Etcetera etcetera.

So, in 1972, three years after the Stonewall Rebellion that initiated the national gay rights movement, a brilliant progressive writer found it ...







... that middle-class white boys were beating up gay men with lead pipes and "nobody seems to be able to do anything about it."

And these beatings were not happening in Birmingham, Alabama or Bismarck, North Dakota. No. They were happening in the West Village of New York City, the heart of the gay community and just a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn, the bar where the repressed rage of gay people exploded into street riots.

According to the Library of Congress, "The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life."

But, as we see in "Walking Around the Village," that change not immediate. Three years later, gay people were still getting beaten up for being gay in their own neighborhood in the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city in the country, and neighborhood progressives found it "interesting."


I am not writing about this to condemn Donald Barthelme for finding the beatings of gay people "interesting" and casually absolving himself of responsibility to do anything.

I am not writing about this to condemn The New Yorker for choosing to publish Barthelme's chatty column.

I am writing about this 52-year-old column to to remind us all that:

  • Today, The New Yorker would never publish such words about violence toward gay people. The people who work at The New Yorker today would not find it "interesting."

  • A man of Donald Barthelme's experience and intellect would not find violence against gays casually "interesting" if he were alive today. And if he did feel that way, he would have the good sense to keep his opinions to himself.

How can I, a lesbian, deny that there has been enormous change for the better in my life because of the change in status of women and of gay people?


There are not one but two women of color on the Supreme Court! An African-American lesbian was elected Mayor of Chicago! Gay people can get married!

You may feel that it took too damn long to achieve victories like these. But I can tell you, in 1969, when I graduated college, none of us believed that this kind of change could happen in our lifetimes.




In other words, one of the reasons that so many terrible things are happening in our country is because so many wonderful things HAVE happened in our country.

Yes, that white male patriarchy, that has loomed over us for so long, appears to have developed some cracks lately. If not yet crashing, it's crumbling at the edges.

That is pretty damn exciting to witness. Every time I open the NY Times or SF Chronicle or read a magazine or explore a website, I see images of people with power, either in the arts or in politics or science or whatever. And, more and more frequently, I see the faces of people of color or women and -- most radical of all -- women of color. These people, along with gay men and lesbians, have been kept in the shadows for centuries. Now we've come into the light. This is a seismic change for the better.

But for many other people, this change is terrifying. If most White men have never really had any political or economic power, they could still look at the top of the ladder and always see themselves reflected there. Now that satisfaction has been taken from them.

Yes, there are millions who want to Make America White Again. Their desperate drive to return to the past is a measure of how much progress we have made toward equality and openness in the last 50 years.

We must keep fighting to keep the changes we have already made and to keep moving forward. Change is not easy to make and it's not easy to keep, as we see most recently in the struggle for abortion rights.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British statesman, once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Burke could not envision a time when women would have political power. But his wisdom still speaks to us today. I say, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good PEOPLE to do nothing.

All for now, Bloggellinis. Terry