During Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of 1845-52, one out of every eight people in Ireland died of starvation or disease. The famine resulted in more than a million deaths. Because potatoes were the nation’s staple food, untold numbers were reduced to eating grass or nothing at all when every year’s potato crops failed. Those who ate the rotted potatoes pulled from the ground became ill. And yet, British landlords made peasant farmers gather their wheat crops and send them to Britain while the Irish became walking skeletons, or ceased to walk at all.
Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.
Back in Ireland, British landlords evicted the starving Irish farmers and sharecroppers from their modest huts and houses when they couldn’t supply the promised number of bushels of produce from blighted land. Landlords kicked starving children, disabled elderly people and everyone in between out of their homes. They took every grain away from dying Irish babies and threw families out into the harsh elements, where hundreds of thousands of children died.
Why? Because rich landowners convinced themselves that vulnerable people were worthless people, that affluence is next to godliness, that some people are just born dirty and disgusting and disposable.
We have recently seen men kidnap tiny victims of war, call their parents murderers and rapists, and send them back to the countries that killed their family members and threatened their lives. Powerful Americans prey on victims of war, legal asylum seekers. Poor, battered, sick and exhausted people offer themselves up to our mercy, thinking the great and powerful United States will keep them from dying. They think we will shelter them from the gangs that torture and murder their loved ones in their home countries. They hope to get jobs and work hard and have a chance to be safe and stop their nightmares. Because they thought we meant it when we said that our nation reveres liberty and justice for all.
Treating the Irish like nonentities was made easier by the prevalence of stereotypes of the Irish people as stupid, lazy, filthy, obscene, drunken, vulgar and subhuman. They were said not to care about their children the way good Christian English people did, not to mind eating rot, to be too drunk to be aware of their misery, to be innately drawn to sin. Many English (and Americans) were taught that the Irish had earned their state because they were depraved and unloved by God. Their Catholicism was considered vulgar, and was held up as one more reason to despise them. This anti-Irish sentiment followed the Irish to America, so even though many found opportunity here, acceptance was hard-won.
Now we hear so many of those same epithets and slanderous words flung at Mexicans and Central Americans and South Americans who are struggling just to stay alive. The Irish immigrants who flocked to American in the 1840s and 1850s would certainly recognize the degrading and dehumanizing words that spill out of our president’s mouth, and the rough and degrading treatment given to those who drag themselves here asking only to be given a chance to stay alive.
This is how evil spreads—by determining that those who suffer must deserve their suffering, and that those in hard circumstances don’t feel or care or love as much as the affluent do. By turning away from our responsibility to help the most vulnerable among us, we stomp out compassion. By labeling the destitute and distraught as vermin, as innately criminal, as dirty, dangerous and bad for society, we propagate the rot.
We are spreading a new plague. We are setting our own destruction in motion.
Many currently in power preach that the poor are bad and undeserving, and that the foreign-born poor are even more depraved—dangerous, too. This is one of the roots of evil—this determination of the worth of human beings based on homelands or ethnicity.
For a few decades, we seemed to have gotten better about this. Most in the U.S. who still held filthy, bigoted thoughts (and there were many) knew to hide them in public. But the demons of prejudice and hate walk more openly among us now. They continue to spread the lies that some people are innately unworthy of concern, of help, even of life.
Yesterday Boston was 90 degrees and the air was thick with humidity. This crowd-hating introvert was deeply sleep-deprived and had a long list of chores to accomplish. I dreaded the idea of rallying and marching in that heat with a bunch of strangers for hours. But none of that mattered as much as the fact that my federal government is kidnapping children and torturing families, and I had a chance to register outrage and encourage others to notice and react to the evil being done in our names.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are waging war on vulnerable families who have lost everything. These families have dragged themselves to our doors begging for asylum, the most urgent and elemental assistance that a noncitizen can ask for. The U.S. is using terrorist tactics against children to destroy families who have marched through Hell, and is doing it as a political ploy. This is so shocking, so evil, so much like the Hitlerian tactics of World War II that I am left dumbstruck and sick to know that monsters are terrorizing babies in my name.
The people who come to our borders asking for asylum have lost friends and family members to gangs or war at home. They’ve given up their whole lives and made their dangerous, difficult ways across hundreds, even thousands of miles to pull themselves to our border crossings. All they ask is to keep themselves and their children from being murdered in their home countries. They seek refuge from violence and terror, and a chance to live and work and contribute to a society that doesn’t treat them like insects to be maligned, crushed and destroyed. Their children have already seen and experienced terrors I cannot even imagine; they are fragile, vulnerable, sick and exhausted.
And now Trump and Sessions are quite literally ripping nursing babies from mothers’ breasts, telling parents their babies are being taken away to be bathed (which is just what Nazis told Jews as they were about to be lethally gassed in concentration camps) and then sending the most vulnerable people in the world far away to live with strangers—all while failing to keep track of the locations of the parents or their children.
My government is caging children like animals, giving some of them sheets of Mylar instead of soft blankets and instructing them to lie on floors instead of beds, the cries of other children ringing in their ears as they try to sleep in their cages surrounded by strangers.
Those guarding the children are told not to hug them. At least one recording was made and played on MSNBC of a woman warning children in Spanish not to talk to those who visit the camps (including reporters) about what happened to them, implying that they might not be reunited if the children speak the truth to reporters or doctors.
Children have been seen changing babies’ diapers at detention centers. Reports say that some children are being drugged. Central and South American refugees and migrants are raped at very high rates, so chances are great that some of these children were assaulted or knew of (or witnessed) their mothers’ assaults during their escape from their home countries. Stories circulate of children being abused and assaulted at detention centers. Imagine the horror of being stripped naked, washed and examined by strangers after being taken from your family. Think of the terror of knowing that your parents cannot protect you after you’ve seen what happens to vulnerable people. And think of how many kids are being denied necessary medical care because their medical histories are unknown.
This is kidnapping. This is torture. And Trump and Sessions are engaging in this terrorism in our name.
Those who don’t care about the lives of these children and their families should turn their selfish, contemptuous, compassion-free hearts to this thought: Trump and Sessions are breeding hatred against the U.S. in the hearts of millions around the world. They are stoking a desire for vengeance against the U.S. in the minds of many who have been ripped apart from their families, and millions more who are watching this debacle from other countries.
This state-sponsored terrorism will have dangerous reverberations against America for decades to come. It will leave permanent wounds in the hearts and minds of thousands of family members personally affected by these actions, and will turn millions more witnesses to these atrocities against us. Our leaders are sowing the seeds of future terrorist acts against the U.S. by these actions. Terrorism breeds terrorism.
So yes, I managed to get up off the sofa and take half a day away from my privileged life to send lawmakers a message of support for basic human decency when children’s lives are at stake. I left my comfortable apartment to walk with friendly strangers who believe in what America officially stood for not long ago: appreciation for the strength, work ethic and inventiveness of immigrants; a better life for the descendants of enslaved and oppressed people; appreciation and sorrow for the losses Native North and South American people suffered at the hands of white conquerors; revulsion at the thought of racism, terrorism and xenophobia; and compassion for children of all colors and origins.
This last point is so basic to people of all cultures that I can’t believe it even has to be expressed. A just, good nation does not rip children away from loving, caring parents in order to torture families into giving up their only hope of staying alive after fleeing danger at home. Compassionate lovers of liberty do not defy their own established asylum laws to suddenly turn on the people we have for so many years encouraged to come to us for help.
Good people do not choose to harm children.
If you can attend a Families Belong Together march, rally or other event and be counted among those who oppose the use of federal forces to kidnap and torture children and their parents, I encourage you to do so. If that’s too difficult, phone calls or emails to your members of Congress are very important and can be accomplished in under three minutes. Donations to organizations like RAICES, the ACLU and MoveOn who are working to reunite kidnapped children with their parents are wonderful, too—even $5 helps.
Speak to your family members and friends. Let your voice be heard. You have more power than you realize to do good and make a change—so please use it to help vulnerable children avoid a lifetime of pain, fear and resentment toward an America that let this happen and has not done enough to try to limit the damage.
Friends, please stand with me against U.S. government-sponsored terrorism of children and refugee families.
Bless you. May your family be safe, intact, well and free.
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
The Killers have been around for 17 years in multiple forms, always headed by singer Brandon Flowers, but their sound has morphed many times along the way from the bouncy, 1980’s New Wave-revival sound of “Mr. Brightside” to their latest driving hit, “The Man.”
“Mr. Brightside” was all about the angst and agony of a jealous guy imagining his ex with her new lover, lightly papered over with assurances that he’s doing “just fine” followed by admissions that “it’s killing me.” It’s all set to a poppy beat overlaid with shimmering guitar. The song’s video featured the then-young, fresh, innocent-looking Flowers contrasted with a louche, dissipated character played by sleazily handsome actor Eric Roberts (Julia’s elder brother). As the Boston Globe’s Franklin Soults puts it, “Mr. Brightside” is “a song about destructive jealousy so uplifting it [makes] the pursuit of contradiction feel like a life calling.”
All these years later, “The Man” features a taut, lean-faced Flowers playing a strutting, macho Las Vegas performer in Rhinestone Cowboy garb assuring us lyrically that he’s “first in command.” He tells us, “I got skin in the game / I got a household name / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.” With a dark bass line and insistent drum driving his message forward, and supported by disco-era synth and backup singers, the sound of “The Man” is pure cockiness. When set to the brilliant video, however, the story of The Man in question follows another path altogether. It’s a very satisfying display of hubris with all the trappings of success on view, then falling away in under five minutes, a miniature movie that even ends with a film credit screen.
Flowers says “The Man” was inspired by an honest look back at The Killers’ arrogance during their “Mr. Brightside” years. Last summer he said that he regrets the negativity and arrogance he displayed to the public when the band first started out. “Around about the time that The Killers started I guess—that’s where ‘The Man’ harkens back to, and years after as well,” Flowers told NME. “I can live with it, you know. It was nice to sort of go in and inhabit that character, and that figure, and that version of myself for much longer. … I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.” The mild, articulate affability of the man in this CBC interview is a pleasant contrast to the entitled, arrogant picture of a youthful Flowers that he paints of himself.
The version of Flowers on offer at The Killers’ concert at Boston’s TD Garden this week was that of a consummate showman, joyfully, confidently swaggering at the helm of a tight band moving smoothly through a perfectly timed set. The arena rock show had the busy laser displays, giant video screens, smoke and bright visual extravagance one expects. But Flowers, slight, a little stiff but poised and dramatic in his spangly western-cut suits, exuded command, control and pleasure. His talent is such that he could have held the crowd comfortably in his hand with much less visual drama, but who am I to turn down an over-the-top feast for the eyes? And though early Killers hits like “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young” have a Brit-pop feel far from Flowers’ Vegas roots, somehow seeing Flowers perform those songs in his crystal-covered, western-cut suits bopping purposefully around the stage still feels right.
Flowers was born in Las Vegas and has spent most of his life there, and the influence is evident in his Vegas showmanship, his dress and the tour’s set design. Interestingly, the other band members didn’t share in his aesthetic but wore the usual indie-band attire and haircuts, setting Flowers into more dramatic relief. While Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. are touring the world in support of their latest album, two of the band’s longtime members, guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, are sitting out this tour. The recent addition of Ted Sablay on guitar and Jake Blanton for this road show made for a strong, cohesive sound, but the band’s emotional dynamics didn’t feel integrated. While the band played well and sounded tight, the event felt very much like The Brandon Flowers Show with little attention shown to other members of the band, as so often happens in bands with especially charismatic singers. The resulting event was highly entertaining but not very emotionally accessible, even though Flowers clearly reveled in the attention and gave his utmost. The Vegas-bright shine made for a fun spectacle appropriate for the giant venue, but a touch of intimacy wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.
The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.
All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heckcurrently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.
His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.
Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.
Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.
It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.
The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.
Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later see him barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.
I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.
While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.
The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.
This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.
David Fear ofRolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.
Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.
Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.
In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.
The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.
From Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes”
“At least” is a mitigating phrase used to begin a response to another person’s expression of difficulty, distress or dissatisfaction. The phrase is often followed by a statement that minimizes the extent, importance or validity of another person’s unpleasant feelings: “At least you weren’t hurt when the hit-and-run driver totaled your car.” “At least you have insurance to pay for the things stolen from your apartment.” “At least you’ve got enough savings until you can find another job.” This is a phrase a listener uses when trying to discount the seriousness of another person’s concerns.
The phrase “at least” may also be used to try to lighten the tone when a listener is uncomfortable dealing with someone else’s difficulty. It may introduce a sentence about how someone else has had worse problems, or may lead to a joke about how much more awful the outcome could have been, both of which undercut the validity and depth of feeling held by the person who expressed dismay.
When a listener stays with the discomfort of the speaker for just a few more seconds and responds with an empathetic phrase like “Wow, that must have hurt!” or “That’s so frustrating,” or just “I’m sorry that happened to you,” the speaker feels respected and acknowledged. Allowing a person to sit with his or her discomfort for a few seconds and responding not by shutting the speaker down but by letting that person know that you wish things were different provides comfort, a sense of support and a validation that yeah, this is a cruddy thing and we all have a right to feel disappointment when things go badly. This fosters camaraderie and feelings of having been understood. This simple shift in response to another person’s difficulty can help those who express dismay to move forward feeling supported instead of thwarted or ignored.
People who use “at least” as a way to discount others’ feelings may believe they are lightening the load of others by being funny or by looking on the bright side. However, their unwillingness to acknowledge others’ pain without immediately providing a distraction acts as a distancing maneuver. Some feel that people who complain are weak or self-indulgent for expressing pain or disappointment. Those who find such honest expressions discomforting justify shutting down others’ expressions of difficulty or upset by telling them they’re lucky things weren’t worse. Those who are uncomfortable with honest expressions of disappointment say they’re just trying to get others to buck up and find their inner strength and move on instead of “wallowing,” by which they mean acknowledging and expressing true feelings. Some people who use “at least” to respond to bad situations with comic rejoinders may feel that providing comic relief will make others see that their problems aren’t as bad as they thought.
Either of these responses is inherently unsympathetic.
Sometimes those who rely on “at least” do so because they find sticking with their own discomfort too great, and they feel immediate awkwardness when others are suffering. Others’ complaints or hurts look to them like weakness, or remind them of their own vulnerability. Many people are terrified of looking weak, and they look down on those who embrace and acknowledge vulnerability in any form. Those who have difficulty showing empathy for others may feel scared of showing vulnerability, since for them empathy is a form of shared pain and thus shared weakness.
Instead of seeing that showing empathy is an essential element of diplomacy and building healthy relationships, and is something that leads to tolerance and peaceful negotiation in both private and public spheres, some believe that life is a zero-sum game and one can never let down one’s guard without risking defeat. They don’t understand that when we lend others our strength by being willing to help them shoulder their load, we build bonds and make others feel safer with and more trusting of us.
Those who lack empathy see vulnerability as a failing and sharing others’ pain as weakness. But true and lasting connection, whether between human beings or nations, comes from refusing to diminish the importance of others’ feelings, beliefs and experiences. And that means not belittling others by dismissing their concerns, whether on a national level or when speaking one-on-one. So please, no more “at least.”
Above is the beginning of the letter that civil rights leader (and widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) Coretta Scott King wrote to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond about Jeff Sessions in 1986 when she was protesting his nomination for a position as a federal judge. On the cover page of her nine-page letter, Mrs. King wrote, ‘“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Thurmond was supposed to make the letter a part of the Senate record, but he failed to do his duty in an attempt to the hide the filthy history of a fellow believer in white supremacy. Thurmond’s action hid the fact of the letter from the public for 30 years. It was recently rediscovered and shared by the Washington Post.
Tonight Senator Elizabeth Warren was reading it aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell shut her down, saying she was breaking Senate rules against impugning the name of a fellow member of the Senate by sharing historical facts about his long history of racism, facts necessary to properly assess his worthiness for one of the most powerful posts in the nation.
Jeff Sessions has spoken on behalf of segregationists and white supremacists. He has gone out of his way to stand by bigots and against racial equality in his public as well as his private life. Now Donald Trump wants him to be our Attorney General.
Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.