Uncle Johnny and me

My uncle Johnny would say to me on more than one occasion when I was young, “Sammy or Webb, stay sober and keep the faith.” I think he had heard through one or more of the grapevines that tie together extended families and small towns that my youthful escapades were a bit outside the bounds of what was considered proper and acceptable behavior for a teenage (Catholic) boy. I always acknowledged what he said and loved him for giving me his advice. But then I promptly ignored it, both then and to this day. No regrets! We have to make the journey fun as well as noble.

A reply

Below is my reply to a comment on a facebook thread that claimed that the anti-Chinese propaganda today is much like the Cold War hype against the Soviet Union. In other words, pure invention and not to be believed:

Some of the anti-Soviet rhetoric wasn’t BS, but our ideological blinders and political commitments didn’t allow us (in the Communist Party) to make a distinction between Cold War hype and the democratic distortions and crimes of the Soviet Union. And not just in the Stalin period.

We acted as if (and said that) the Soviet state was free of authoritarian practices and constituted a new type of democracy in which workers ruled. In effect, we mistook proclamation and form for essence and practice. Or to put it differently, we assumed that the formal and proclaimed relations of democracy and democratic governance were a more or less exact representation of the real, actual relations. How naive (or opportunistic) we were.

One would hope that the communist movement have learned from this experience, which reflected negatively on it then. But the uncritical embrace of current Chinese political practices and rhetoric makes me wonder if the thinking of some has shifted at all.

Politically constructed

The great cultural theorist Stuart Hall once wrote, “interests are not given but always have to be politically and ideologically constructed.” Or, to put it differently, they aren’t belched out of the bowels of economic and class structures. This observation of Hall’s strikes me as pretty much on the mark, finding fresh confirmation in the formation of the working class in recent years.

Ability to shape

Socialist democracy includes not only the provision of economic and social goods, but also the ability of the governed to actively and democratically intervene and shape their lives in every social setting. The socialist states provided a full basket of public goods, albeit not quite as full to the brim as the communist movement suggested, but largely foreclosed the substantive involvement of ordinary citizens in matters of governance. At first glance this may not seem to be the case, but comes into sharper focus when account for the contradiction between the formal structures and mechanisms of socialist democracy and the actual practice and content of that democracy.


I’m listening this morning to Lucinda Williams whose songs are seldom light and cheerful. Never, or nearly never, do they suggest that life’s an unalloyed blessing, free of nagging sadness, disappointments, screw ups. And yet, I find still them comforting. On a similar, but different register, I just finished reading, “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” written by Katherine May.
Wintering, in May’s personal memoir, is both a season and metaphor, signaling a transition – a liminal period – from sunny and frenetic to slower and darker days during which we can, if we so choose, slow down, withdraw, and explore our sadness, sometimes depression and defeat. On its face, not much fun. But, thankfully, wintering can be more than retreat, despair and pain. It is also a time, May writes, probably the most propitious time, if seized, for sober personal reflection and renewal.
That resonates with me. My life from an early age looks nothing like an ascending line, moving from one success to another, from one great time to another. I have wintered more than once, either out of choice or dire necessity, and am better for it. All of which has made me suspicious of people who, when I ask, “How are you” unfailingly reply “Life couldn’t be better. Everything is great!” On such occasions, I can’t help but think to myself – really?
This pressure to present oneself as occupying at all times the “sunny side of the street” is, in my experience, unhealthy. It closes up the mental space that allows us to confront and absorb life’s inevitable heartaches and disappointments. And, in doing so, forecloses the possibility of coming out of our “wintering” on new, healthier, and higher ground.


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