Rodney Dangerfield performing in 1972.

What a mess erupts these days when people start talking about what is, and what is not, funny. America’s funny bone has become a raw bone. In some circles, making a comedic faux-pas deserves life without parole and no thought of forgiveness.

Last month, David Weigel, a political reporter for The Washington Post retweeted something he found funny. The original Tweet was: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

The post was made by Cam Harless whose website “” describes him as: “Writer. Husband. Father. Follower of Jesus. Barbarian.” A puzzling farrago.

Never mind finding the joke funny, Felicia Sonmez, a colleague of Weigel at The Post went on Twitter and started to shout: are you kidding! that’s outrageous! NF! [My exclamations; my paraphrase.] When seeing her words in print, I feel the ire.

Then Sonmez started going at The Post in front of the world: She tweeted: what kind of paper allows a reporter to make fun of women like that! [More paraphrase.]

I wondered if anybody in management thought the joke funny.

Weigel saw what was going on; not wanting to get into anything, he went back on Twitter with: “I just removed a retweet of an offensive joke. I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm.”

And I wondered, because so many people make false apologies these days, if Weigel, despite his shared regret, still found the joke funny: he just wanted people off his back.

I see humor in the joke — from a certain cultural comedic frame of mind, it’s funny.

Of course The Post weighed in. The paper’s chief communications officer, Kristine Coratti Kelly, got on the tweeter-horn — the mind-shaping-instant-opinion-forming network — and said, “Editors have made clear to the staff that the tweet was reprehensible and demeaning language or actions like that will not be tolerated.”

Id est, management’s vote was: not funny.

But I haven’t seen where the paper spent time explaining to staff its position on funniness and laying out what it, as a political-economic institution, will not tolerate in its workers.

Those who have studied the nature of sincere apology would say The Post offered a standard by-the-book version, the best a capitalist institution can do, even one with a motto: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Before I accept the Post’s apology I want to see the results of a two-question questionnaire they’ve administered to every employee, the first question being: Did you find the joke funny? The second: Why did you say yes or no to the first question? And, as in math, show all work, your ethical thinking.

Did any boss at any level say to any staff member at the paper that keeping his job required him to espouse a particular comedic frame of mind — pointing out exactly where “the line” is, and what happens to those who cross it?

Here’s the update: Despite his remorse, Weigel was suspended for a month — no pay. [Where does a guy like that come up with next month’s rent?]

Sonmez kept at it, pulling her colleagues into the fray. They started tweeting their views on funniness, whether Weigel was right, and whether a paper is responsible for training its workers properly. For a day or two, Twitter was a Wapo warzone.

I had, and still have, no quibbles with Sonmez’s view. It’s worth discussing. It’s the means she took to deal with the hurt. She went to the world on Twitter to find relief rather than walk down to HR and demand a meeting of all staff — top to bottom — to discuss what is and what is not funny, what people at the paper can and cannot say, and what the paper’s responsibility is for worker deportment — even the guy in the mailroom.

That is, rather than deal with the issue structurally, Sonmetz blazoned her torch on Twitter. That’s not to say her point of view should not be available to everyone, it’s that she went for “the show” and not for policy elucidation and structural change.

And I have not seen anything that says The Post has taken action to delineate what people at the paper can and cannot say.

The other sad part of the story is that on June 9, The Post fired Felicia Sonmez. True. They said it was for, “misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your coworkers online and violating The Post's standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

Violating workplace collegiality means Sonmez, and those of her mind-set, failed the section of the Miss Manners course on “cooperative workplace.”

How will Sonmez come up with the rent for who knows how long? And, according to the book, canceling someone is not a show of collegiality, it’s a failure in leadership.

When she went on Twitter, the paper needed to call her in right away, slow her down, say they were ready to listen but wanted her first to sit down and write out all her thoughts. And because they needed it soon, she had time-off to do it — with pay.

And the paper needed to say it would convene a synod — to which every Post employee was invited — where there would be discussed the difference between a funny that relieves pain and a funny that causes it, at least more pain than it relieves.

Which is the measuring rod of ethical comedy: the relieving of pain versus causing it.

Here’s the joke again: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

Funny or not funny? Why? Show all work.

One of the greatest comedians of all time, Rodney Dangerfield — Comedy Central ranked him seventh best of all time, one behind Steve Martin and right before Chris Rock — was enamored with people’s idiosyncrasies.

Playing the sad sack he kept moaning, “I get no respect.” He was always getting the short end of the stick: with his kids, his doctor, lawyer wife, girlfriends — they all disappointed. He liked fat jokes and ugly jokes.

One night on Carson, he started in on the women he met. One of them, he said, “was no bargain … she was FAT!”

And Rodney’s fans in the audience, taking the bait, came right back: “HOW fat!?”

And he, loving the joust, looked in their direction and fired back: “HOW fat?  [I’ll tell you how fat] When she wears high heels, she strikes oil, OK!”

And you know what? “I met her at the Macy’s Parade, she was wearing ropes!”

HOW fat was she?! “She got on a scale, a card came out and said One at a Time.”

That’s right, “She was standing alone, a cop told her to break it up.”

Funny or not funny?  Pain-relieving or pain-causing?

Rodney went at “ugly” people too. What power does anyone, whose looks have veered far from the hub of beauty, have to tackle such a trope? They were already dismissed.

George Carlin is the best stand-up comedian ever — Dave Chapelle was wrong last month — sure, George berated Americans for being absolutely stupid, unable to wake even when hit with a two-by-four. But he turned the spotlight from the idiosyncratic to the powerful — people and ideas — and, like Jeremiah, began chanting “Converte, Jerusalem.”

He took on religion, God, child-rearing, education, play, drugs, imagination, personal responsibility — the meaning of life — and exposed “the line” of acceptance, letting everybody know what was waiting on the other side.

Indeed, in 1972 the Milwaukee police arrested him at Summerfest for using the English language on stage — seven words — like he was Al Capone.

I can’t figure out if George was brutally funny or funnily brutal.

Would Rodney play today? With the fat, ugly, and loser jokes? I recently realized he was dystopian.

In this next phase of our collective existence, we’ve been called to clarify what language relieves pain and what language causes it: and how much control anyone in the future will have over what he can say about how he truly feels.

— Photo from the Library of Congress

Walt Whitman was photographed by Matthew Benjamin Brady during the Civil War.

For George Carlin

DEAR ABBY: I need advice and I need it now; I’m besieged on all sides.

First of all, every time I turn the TV on, I see Ukrainian families blown to bits, some while sitting in the kitchen drinking tea with friends. Ukraine’s cities are boulevards of sunken ash.

I listen to what pundits say; they say the head of Russia is crazy, that he’s an old-time ideologue lost in a world where he projects himself and Russia as beneficent beings on the world stage when in fact, Abby, he neutralizes people who oppose him and shows little regard for the quality-of-life needs of the average Russian; Russia is close to a failed state.

His black eyes reach down to Dante’s inferno.

Not long after Russia started bombing Ukraine, the senior United States senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, offered a solution. On Twitter he posted, “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a successful Stauffenberg in the Russian army?”

The next day he was back at it: “I’m begging you in Russia … you need to step to the plate and take this guy out.”

He was clearly aping: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Such pleas are acts of treason in that leaders of a sovereign nation are asking citizens of another sovereign nation to intervene in a nation’s future, to transgress the geo-political-cultural boundaries that allow a nation-state to be a sovereign.

How different was Walt Whitman’s America — he called it a “Body Electric” — the converse of the dystopian virus infecting America’s heart today.

In his poem “To Foreign Lands” Whitman does not ask a foreign power to intervene in America’s future but points to her vibrancy as an “athletic democracy.”

In the poem, he tells the leaders of the world, “I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle, the New World,/And to define America, her athletic Democracy;/ Therefore I send you my poems, that you behold in them what you wanted.”

What nerve. Telling the world that his “Leaves of Grass” is the true heart of America, a benevolent sovereign that takes into account the needs of the very least (without resentment).

Nowhere does Whitman encourage the fox to enter the hen house.

And he never called for civil war the way the past president of the United States keeps doing — he was in a civil war, and heartbroken that America was resolving her differences with one side shooting the other down.

And though he was 41 when the war began, Walt signed on as a nurse; he went into hospitals and talked to soldiers who’d lost an arm or a leg; he wrote letters home for them — some to a sweetheart — and gave absolution to those tortured by guilt for having killed a soul from the next county over.

Like a teddy bear, he hugged the men; he gave them kisses on the cheek, he called it manly love. Like a good shepherd, he never sought a nickel in return.

“One Sunday night, in a ward in the South Building,” he tells us, “I spent one of the most agreeable evenings of my life amid such a group of seven convalescent young soldiers of a Maine regiment. We drew around together, on our chairs, in the dimly-lighted room, and after interchanging the few magnetic remarks that show people it is well for them to be together, they told me stories of country life and adventures, &c., away up there in the Northeast.”

Whitman’s America is what Norman Brown means by Love’s Body, a collective soul that burns so bright with kindness that it treats its least as the very best — without resentment.

The Stauffenberg who Lindsey Graham mentioned was Claus von Stauffenberg, an officer in the German army during World War II. On July 20, 1944, he became world-famous after he tried to kill Hitler with a bomb.

While Hitler was meeting with his staff, Stauffenberg slid a suitcase under the table packed with a bomb; it went off and three officers were killed; the thickness of an oak table saved Hitler from demise. His pants were blown to shreds.

Stauffenberg had tried it before but something always happened and Hitler went unscathed. He himself helped with the cause on April 30, 1945.

After the failed assassination, Stauffenberg and three comrades were arrested; they were shot dead before the next day’s sun rose.

In Berlin today, there’s a museum called the German Resistance Memorial Center that celebrates Strauffenberg and every other Nazi resister from 1933 to 1945.

Abby, tell me: Can a person be a hero, be without sin, for killing another for ideological reasons?

The memorial center is located on Stauffenbergstrasse [sic] and opens onto the quadrangle where Stauffenberg and his comrades were shot as enemies of the state.

In 1944, it seems some Germans had a vision of a Germany that resembled Whitman’s America when “Leaves of Grass” appeared on July 4, 1855 — a homeland teeming with largesse.

As soon as I heard Graham mention Stauffenberg, I was brought back to my youth when we played a game called “Would You Assassinate Adolf Hitler?” It was me, my cousins, and a brother — I do not think it was at school — but I remember the “game” as clear as day.

We asked each other: Would you do it? Would you take the Führer out, especially if you could get away with it? I don’t remember what we said but we were Roman Catholics and the Catholic Church said transgressing the sovereignty of another’s person was murder, a mortal sin for which the sinner would spend eternity burning in the fires of hell. The forever-and-ever part was always stressed.

When one of us waffled with an answer, he was asked right away: OK, what if you knew that, by assassinating Hitler, you would save the lives of three million Jews — and never be detected — what does your Catholic Church say about those odds?

It’s a radical means-ends question, and economic in nature because it deals with the worth of one thing/person/community/nation over another. I’m fascinated with the dilemma still: Can a person be a kamikaze pilot for Jesus?

Are these the kinds of questions you’re dealing with these days, Abby? Are you up on the political-economy of nation-state sovereignty? How would you handle a man who calls for civil war?

And what about all those shootings where kids in schools and Black people buying cereal at a supermarket are taken out, desecrating Whitman’s body-electric America? I think it means the civil war has begun.

In my Orwellian moments, Abby, I project that someday there’ll be a museum on Drumpftstrasse [sic] in some southern parish featuring Donald Trump as a Stauffenbergian hero for trying to kill the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, for opposing his fascist regime.

The more America’s Whitmanesque face-to-face communities disappear, the more isolates take up guns to settle differences. It’s a Euclidean axiom: The less face-to-face, the more the gun.

And when you write back, Abby, please tell me if there’s an elixir I can take to heal my despair.

In 1511, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michaelangelo painted his view of the face of God in “Creation of the Sun and Moon.”

I came out with a new book of poems this past Christmas called “Thirty-Two Views of the Face of God.” It was a gift for my friends.

As you might imagine, the title is problematic in that millions of people believe that a person cannot see the face of God, that it’s beyond human ability — their religion says so.

Christian genealogists trace their thinking to John the Evangelist who says in the Prologue to his gospel: No one’s ever seen God. Zero-sum.

And, if you read the New Testament (the Greek Scriptures) you know such thinking exists in Paul. In a letter to a group of young Christians in Corinth, he tells the neophytes right off that happiness is seeing God face-to-face and that we, in our bodily state, see only “through a glass darkly.” A human being is fully happy only after death.

It’s a bold assertion because it sets the parameters of human potential, defines the psychological dimensions of personhood, and maps out a person’s path to happiness.

Thomas Aquinas and theologians of his ilk refer to seeing the face of God as the “beatific vision” and reaffirm John’s assertion that it’s a human being’s raison d’être.

Such thinking is clearly at odds with the work of the great psychotherapist Carl Rogers who spent his life working with people who sought relief from their unhappiness. His “On Becoming a Person” is a collection of essays about people revealing their stories and experiencing a new sense of “divine.”

The odd thing about seeing the face of God is that, if I sat down 10 believers right now and asked each to describe it, they would be perplexed, dumbfounded. And they have to do it in detail: A face has features. What are its physical properties? Or is the face of God an invisible nothingness?

Without some sense of what to look for — as the late comedian Jackie Mason might say — you could wind up with the face of a wrong God.

And — for the conventional believer — dealing with these issues is far beyond the power of the conventional sense of “faith.”

You can see why “Thirty-Two Views” stands in opposition to John, Paul, Thomas Aquinas, and others who set the parameters of human happiness outside the human; without human grounding, happiness could easily be mistaken for smoking crack.

If the gospel writer John were here, he’d say with a snip: “I already told you: No one’s ever seen the face of God! And here you’re telling me you have thirty-two views. Infidel!”

And I would say: “No, John, these poems reflect actual visions or experiences that took place beyond the edge of human consciousness — where poems are born — expressions of what some poets call the voice of God. And because you say, John, no human being can see the face of God, you have no data — while in my little book, I offer 32 graphic captions of what that face looks like in its own language — poetry.”

At the end of the “Poet’s Preface” in my little book there’s a poem I wrote in Spanish called “El Evangelio Según San Yo” which in English is, “The Gospel According to Saint Me,” and saint not like those in Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” but like those evangelists who speak of the divine’s human dimensions.

I started thinking about this in Barcelona when I bought a copy of the “Collected Poems” of the Spanish poet José Ángel Valente. In the back of the book Valente offers his Spanish of the Prologue of the gospel of John: “El Evangelio Según San Juan [Prólogo]” “The Gospel According to Saint John [the Prologue].”

Valente translates John’s dictum as: Nadie jamás ha visto a Dios — nobody’s ever seen God—words I read in Greek 60 years before but never saw their subversive nature, how they turn happiness upside down.

In the middle of my poem I say (my translation of my Spanish):

But what grates me most

Is the pen of the propagandist John

Who Catholics call a saint

Who apostatized saying

No one’s ever seen the face

Of God.

While my heart smiles all day

And at night laughs beyond control

Because the stars never expire

Just like the moon and the sun.

Rogers would like that, the author of his own Upanishads.

And, if a person cannot see the face of God, and it’s central to his religion, he must imagine it. A face is a visage and visages are images that have words: eyes, nose, placidity, contemplative.

I might add that a few people — two to be exact — expressed concern about the first two sentences of my Poet’s Preface which read: “If I told you all I learned in life, it would take a million years. I still surprise myself.”

One of my friends said I was coming across as some kind of Renaissance man. But the words mean that, when a person starts telling the story of how he relieved himself of burdens and entered into the divine, it takes time.

If I asked you: Tell me everything you know, how long would it take? A minute? An hour? Most of the day? Would it take a million years?

My hypothesis is: Detailing one’s transition from one stage of growth to another is a source of happiness, and arranging the narratives of all those transitions into a harmonized whole is a view of the face of God.

Rogers said, when people come in for therapy, they come behind a façade, behind which they hide their face and everything else of value. Thus, my second hypothesis is: Those who cannot see their own face because they keep it hidden behind a façade, are unable to see the face of another, never mind the face of a being they bet their happiness on.

Rogers also said that, when folks begin to feel safe in therapy, they start saying things they never knew were inside them, and their face lights up with the light of another world.

If you were asked right now to tell everything you learned in life and how it’s made you happy, should I pencil you in for an afternoon or will it take a million years?

— Photograph by Camille Ruf (1872–1939)

James Joyce in 1918

For Elizabeth Stack

As I was preparing to become an Irish citizen years ago, I started reading everything I could find on “Ireland,” not just in the 26 counties of the Republic but the six up north as well.

And to supplement my study, seven out of eight years I went to Ireland to see things for myself. As I sat in my grandmother’s house, drinking tea with a cousin, the aged Kerryman told me: The kitchen is an add-on; it’s where we used to tie the pony up.

When asked about my trips there, I said I was going not to see the country but to find out who the Irish were — a much more difficult task as anyone who’s been to Ireland with a keen nose knows.

And those wishing to take the approach I did, I urge: Learn how to listen (well); don’t ask direct personal questions — the Irish bat them away like pesky gnats — and keep in mind that the Irish listen with their eyes. So watch what they see.

As you might imagine, my study of Ireland brought me to “the potato” (práta in Irish) — not only its role during the “The Great Hunger,” as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called the famine, but also how the Irish grow them: for centuries in “drills.” On the Internet an Irish farmer shows how:

As you might imagine as well, the group I was (and am) most taken with are Ireland’s poets and writers. For centuries people have said that, when it comes to putting things down on paper, the Irish do it best. There’s an old expression: “The Irish have a way with words.”

Even the man on the street speaks in a kind of fancy prose. You might hear, “A widow and her money are soon courted” or, “Contentment is greater than a kingdom.” After their first trip to Ireland, travelers come back and say: I love the way those people talk — then try to imitate the lilt (unsuccessfully).

And, as anyone familiar with language knows, the Irish have a special relationship with the subjunctive — the mood of conditionality. I think it comes from being suppressed for so long.

Those familiar with the Irish literary canon know well that this year, 2022, is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It’s the Babe Ruth of books.

Whenever the best-of lists of “greatest stories ever told” come out, “Ulysses” is up there with “Don Quixote,” “War and Peace,” and other epics of that stature. Some Irish say they like “Ulysses” better than the Bible.

In retrospect, these many years later, it seems sad that, when “Ulysses” first came out, it was censored and confiscated like a piece of smut — and chief among the confiscators was not the Roman Catholic Church but the United States Post Office.

The book first appeared in 1918 in serialized form in The Little Review, an artistic, progressive magazine — Emma Goldman wrote for it — out of New York’s Greenwich Village. Its motto was: “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste.”

But a lady from Chicago took issue with that. She wrote a letter to the editor saying “Ulysses” was “Damnable, hellish filth from the gutter of a human mind born and bred in contamination.”

When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got involved, the publisher and editor of The Little Review were hauled into court.

The moral entrepreneurs were especially incensed by Chapter 13 — the famous “Nausicaa” episode — which depicts an encounter between a timid Dublin man, Leopold Bloom, and a beautiful Irish woman, Gerty MacDowell, who’s sitting on the beach of the Sandymount Strand in suburban Dublin. From afar, she’s staring into the eyes of a man whose eyes are penetrating hers.

The two never touch but the eye-exchange gets so hot that Gerty lifts her skirt to the top of the calf and Bloom explodes like a Roman candle.

At trial, Margaret Anderson, the publisher of The Little Review, and Jane Heap, the journal’s editor, were told to explain why the image of a man masturbating while a woman teases him with fantasy, should not be kept from public view. The women did of course but the court disagreed.

The Feb. 22, 1921 edition of The New York Times began its report on the outcome of the case with a four-tier headline: (1) IMPROPER NOVEL COSTS WOMEN $100; (2) Greenwich Village Publisher and Editor Fined for Producing “Ulysses.” (3) WOMAN’S DRESS DESCRIBED; (4) Prosecution, on Anti-Vice Society Complaint, Said Description Was Too Frank.

The original complainant for the case was the Vice Society’s Secretary, John Sumner; he must have preened all the way home that night, recalling the words of Judge James McInerney, one of the three justices on the bench, “I think that this novel is unintelligent and it seems to me like the work of a disordered mind.” “Disordered mind” in legal-speak means crazy.

Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Game: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses” touches on all these points, calling attention to the irony involved. He says that, while the book “was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers … [it] owes its existence to several women. It was inspired, in part, by one woman [Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle], funded by another [Harriet Shaw Weaver], serialized by two more [Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, joint editors of The Little Review] and published by yet another [Sylvia Beach].”

“Ulysses” ran into a problem with the censors in Britain as well so Joyce had to wait 10 years before Random House put the smut-sniffing dogs to sleep. The case was the United State of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. In his decision, Judge John M. Woolsey said while, “in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

In 1948, the Catholic Church got involved in a similar case when Patrick Kavanagh’s “Tarry Flynn” came out, a touching account of rural life in 1930s Ireland. But the Éire Censorship Board declared the book “indecent and obscene,” implying that Tarry had followed Bloom’s lead.

Kavanagh kept saying the book was not about him but it is.

Years ago, I used to hear every St. Patrick’s Day there were, “only two kinds of people in the world, the Irish, and those who wish they were,” which seems so puerile now.

I also heard the Irish Blessing: “May good luck be with you Wherever you go, and your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. May your days be many and your troubles be few, May all God's blessings descend upon you, May peace be within you, May your heart be strong, May you find what you’re seeking wherever you roam.”

Some say the prayer is sentimental but my concern is that it leaves out a blessing: May you go to your nearest library or bookstore and get a copy of Anthony Cronin’s “Dead as Doornails” containing prose as good as Joyce and poetry the equal of Yeats.

Cronin talks about how he met and interacted with and loved three Irish literary giants during 1940s and 1950s Dublin: Brendan Behan, Brian O’Nolan [aka Flann O’Brien aka Myles na Gopaleen], and Kavanagh — all of whom kept striving for self-esteem in a world where recognition was in short supply.

I might add that those three incarnations of Ireland’s literary soul died early from the drink — Behan at 41 — and that Cronin handles the weakness with understanding.

Today, March 17, 2022, I’d like to wish all our Enterprise readers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day and to those afflicted by these troubled times: Slàinte Mhaith.

Poets and friends gathered at Smitty's Tavern. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

For Anthony Cronin

Though I’ve never seen it written in a history book, May 27, 2017 is a day that lives in infamy.

A flotilla of ships was not bombed in a faraway port or the tops of towers cut with the wings of enemy planes. It was the day that Smith’s Tavern in Voorheesville, New York closed its doors forever. A pall came over the town.

Hospitality had been the signature dish served in that building for 117 consecutive years in the form of food, drink, and a place to stay upstairs — sometimes the owner lived there.

During that time, the property changed hands five times. The Smith in Smith’s Tavern came when the Frank Smith family took over the business in 1945. There was a Frank Sr. and a Frank Jr., the son still held in honor today.

When Smitty’s — that’s what the place came to be called — finally shut its doors, I thought it was part of the jinx.

That is, Nick Oliver — who raised the building in 1900 as the West End Hotel — saw his 15-year old daughter die within a year.

And shortly after Ernie Albright bought the place, his baby girl, Coretta May, died. A 1915 edition of The Enterprise said she was “aged 2 years 9 months, 8 days.” And that her “funeral was held Wednesday morning from the West End Hotel, where her parents reside.”

Albright felt the jinx — he changed the name to the Brook View Hotel.

The editor of the paper who reported on the child’s death felt compelled to offer the community a maxim of consolation: “There is no flock however watched and tended, but one dead lamb is there; There is no fireside, howe’er defended, but hath its vacant chair.”

Some of Smitty’s patrons I met over the years would fully understand the meaning of that because they themselves were outside time, like characters in a storybook. I see their faces clear as day as I write this.

The tavern was situated on State Highway 85A diagonally across from the village elementary school and a few hundred feet from the Vly, a beautiful creek that winds through Albany County.

But go there today and all you’ll see is a frame looking like a soufflé ready to fall or a Halloween pumpkin slumped in winter snow.

For 50 years, when Friday night rolled around, friends, neighbors, and especially people with kids, headed to Smitty’s for a night out.

Sometimes there’d be a wait but nobody cared, it was a time to say hello to a neighbor at the bar or a family seated at a table waiting for dinner. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

And, while it can be said there was no such thing as a stranger at Smitty’s, at times one of the regulars got out of hand and had to be talked to. I never saw a fight at the place nor even heard a voice raised in anger — though at times the owners did call for public assistance.

During the tenure of the last owners — business partners Jon and John — the place sported a poets’ corner, which the regulars at the bar knew well. Nailed to the wall by the heated soup tureen was a street sign with block letters that read POETS’ CORNER. It’s in the village archives now.

There are two other great institutions that have a poets’ corner: the famed Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York; and Westminster Abbey in London (where Mr. Chaucer resides).

Nearly always, as you came through the front door at Smitty’s, you’d catch a fluffle of poets in the corner, reciting Keats or debating Miss Emilie’s pedigree. Above the street sign was a plastic holder with copies of the poem of the Poet of the Month. Inquisitive regulars always availed themselves.

Jim Reed — who stood at the end of the bar that curved into the kitchen, a short one in front of him always — read the poems with childish delight. One day he got into a terrible fix over the word “rill.”

And when National Poetry Month rolled around in April, some of the poets put on a confab called the Smith’s Tavern Poet Laureate Contest.

The prizes were underwritten by the owners: $100 for Laureate; $75 for second place; $50 for third. Poets came from Massachusetts and as far west as Utica.

On contest day, you could hear the genial buzz as the poets and their fans packed into the dining room shoulder to shoulder: The owners were reimbursed after the first hour as pizza, whiskey, beer, and esoteric stout filled the tables nonstop.

And while the poets read their work amid the deepest silence, the waitresses served drink and food in the tightest of spaces with ne’ery the clink of a plate. At Smitty’s, the waitresses were impresarios; most were older women with day jobs who came at first to make an extra buck or two but soon became part of Smitty’s family.

Some were there for 30 years. I won’t name any here but their sweet womanly kindness I still feel today — better than anything on TV’s “Cheers.”

From time to time one of the waitresses, while waiting for her orders to come, penned a line or two on the back of a placemat and brought it to the poets for their review: brass duende, but always the best of fun.

And with respect to the pizza itself: Each year, when the region’s “best of” notices came out, Smitty’s was right near the top. In a 1989 interview, Frank said he’d just finished baking his millionth pie — but that quality was always the measure.

At the beginning of the week, he’d head to the butcher to buy the best prime beef for his burgers, served beside the incredible German potato salad of his German-born wife Gert, a force in her own right. They used to refer to themselves as equals.

And some nights after the kitchen closed, Frank would make the rounds and hand out little gifts: one time a frisbee with Smith’s Tavern printed on the side; another time a key ring with nail file and pen blade enclosed — Smith’s Tavern engraved on the side. I always marveled at the quality of his offerings.

And just as sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in New York had names, so did Smitty’s pizzas. A person might walk in one day and say: I’ll have the “John Gray.”

But all that’s gone now and Voorheesville is worse for the wear: a life-giving organ of its collective self sold.

In 1916, Mr. L. J. Hanifan, the State Supervisor of Rural Schools in Charleston in West Virginia, wrote about the disappearance of communal treasures that might be as small as a quilting group — never mind the community bee that brought the stones for Nick Oliver’s foundation in 1900.

In “The Rural Community Center” Hanifan wrote, “When the people of a given community have become acquainted with one another and have formed a habit of coming together upon occasions for entertainment, social intercourse and personal enjoyment, that is, when sufficient social capital has been accumulated, then by skilful leadership this social capital may easily be directed towards the general improvement of the community well-being.”

“Social capital” is not money or real estate but the communal joy people experience living with others in mutual aid and fun and bonding in accord.

Some days I wonder if there’s others who feel the loss as I do. When the place was sold, angry critics said the owners had no right to sell a public trust.

Frank Cramer, who bought the place from Ernie Albright in 1937 and called it the Cramer House, was part of the jinx: He died upstairs, never thinking a place like Smitty’s would suffer a fate like his own.

“Solitude,” an 1809 painting by Frederic Leighton.

Share your reading list with me and I will tell you who you are; a reading list is food and we are what we eat.

And, if you tell me you do not have a reading list, I will tell you who you are as well: why you’re starving, and how to restock your shelves to offset the disease.

Years ago, I was editor-in-chief of an international journal on justice called Contemporary Justice Review. It’s out of the U.K., under the imprint of the esteemed Routledge, a subdivision of Taylor and Francis. It was my brainchild.

For a proposed special issue of the journal, I put out a call for papers to the academic community — as well as the public at large — asking folks to submit an essay on their moral and ethical development, that is, the emotio-socio-cultural foundation stones on which their being rested, a personalist vision of what Nietzsche was talking about in “On the Genealogy of Morality.”

Thus the writer had to reveal his overriding vision of life — concepts like freedom and justice — as well as the spiritual foundations on which his rules of life were based, his system of ethics, and because all rules and ethical systems have to do with happiness, the call for papers was essentially asking the writer to say what made him happy.

Delineating such mental frameworks is not an easy task; it requires naming the persons, places, and events that shift the axis of a person’s being and force him to build his ethical foundation anew — from the bottom up.

Thus, if a writer saw himself as a five-story building, he had to say how (and why) each floor came into being, right down to the rooms. It’s a level of self-analysis the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney championed all her life.

The special issue of the journal never came about; the response was too lukewarm — and I knew why.

First, the process is painful. The writer, explorer, thinker, analyst, must engage in a near-Marxian economic analysis of every aspect of his life — every person, place, and event — and reveal the worth he has assigned to each.

The human personality is a pool, a gestalt, of all such rankings combined. And they might be as basic as: I like pasta over pizza but, on a larger social-structural level, it’s: men are superior to women; whites outshine Blacks; fascist societies surpass those where people have a say.

And the ranking process is not some option, it’s grounded in our DNA: parents do it with their kids. They say they love their every child the same but deep down say one of the kids tugs on their heartstrings in a special way — a hierarchy of worth. A Freudian would say it’s the ego moving the soul toward Nirvana.

When a person’s rankings leak out and I’m there, I always ask how they came to be. Economics are not Marxian but arise with the birth of time and consciousness. The human being prices things like the Antiques Roadshow.

When people get old and lose their inhibitions, they say aloud — often to the embarrassment of their kids — what they think a thing is worth. Life’s clock freed them; saying their piece is a source of peace.

As a country, as a culture, America has long rejected reflective self-analysis — what do the Proud Boys read? — thus splinter groups keep springing up that lionize aggression and violence, nihilists who deny the worth of anything not themselves.

On the other hand, contemplatives — I read their work daily — speak (and write) a poetry of peace. It might not be Yeats or John of the Cross but it’s the language of mystics.

The issue of my journal never came about as well because contemplative self-reflective activity is not rewarded in the academic marketplace; it does not lead to tenure or a full professorship. Who will pay for periods of meditative reading and a space for solitude (could be a room in the public library) and, for some, a pen to log their experience?

But people reject such a life because they view solitude as loneliness, with being disconnected from everything that makes them happy: phone, TV, computer, shopping. And they are partially right because solitude requires time alone.

The irony is: The deeper a person’s solitude, the more he’s connected to others — a paradox of consciousness. It translates into living in accord with “other” at every level: neighborhood, town, village, partner, mate, and family; aggression and violence are rejected as means to deal with “difference.”

The aspirant speaks of such accord with elation and strives to keep that way of life intact. Some Asian mystics say they fear no hardship because they can sever soul from body — elation as inexhaustible.

I love to write. I love to read what I write, I read what I write over and over, it’s a source of meditation: a record of me listening to myself in solitude. It’s not trite to say it’s a gift.

The great psychoanalyst Carl Rogers said that, when people came in for therapy, they came packing a facade behind which they were hiding all the assessments of worth they made of every person and being in their life, including themselves — and the repression was killing them.

The aggressive, violent American we see in the papers and online today — even those in public service — is hiding behind a façade that keeps breaking out into violence: sometimes with a gun; sometimes in denial of reality; sometimes with a flag pole — to which the American flag is attached — beating down on a neighbor the community hired to keep itself safe from flag-pole-beaters like themselves. Communitas non compos mentis.

Seven years before Nietzsche’s morals book came out, his overlooked “Daybreak” appeared in which he called for the “reevaluation of all values.”

He said, “I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many, I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”

Where America is now: in the desert trying to find a way to grow good again.

— From “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” by Selma Lagerlöf.

When he was 16, the writer-thinker extraordinaire, Aldous Huxley, was struck with an eye disease that left him blind for 18 months. Years later he recalled, “I had to depend on Braille for my reading and a guide for my walking with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with enough vision to permit of my detecting the two-hundred foot letter on the Snellen Chart.” That’s the long black and white rectangular chart doctors and government agencies use to measure sightability.

Huxley did regain some sight but had to rely on thick-lensed glasses that wore him down as the day wore on. And this a man whose calling in life was reading and writing books for nearly half a century. (His “The Doors of Perception” is about sight’s relation to mental health.)

In a similar way, the great Irish writer James Joyce had trouble with his eyes. He underwent 12 operations. In his biography of the Dubliner, Gordon Bowker says after those operations Joyce couldn’t, “see lights, suffering continual pain from the operation, weeping oceans of tears, highly nervous, and unable to think straight.”

Like Huxley, he became “dependent on kind people to see him across the road and hail taxis for him. All day, he lay on a couch in a state of complete depression, wanting to work but quite unable to do so.”

In the classic photos of Joyce, the first thing you see are the glasses (maybe the hat) fitted with thick-hazed lenses.

Gradually biographers have come to reveal that Joyce contracted syphilis and that that affected his eyes. In 1931, Joyce said, “I deserve all this on account of my iniquities.”

There are many differences between the two writers but one that stands out is that Huxley wrote a book on sight called “The Art of Seeing.” It came out in 1942, thirty-two years after he was first struck.

To help himself, Huxley adopted a sight-improvement module developed by a certain Doctor William Bates; he adhered to Bates’s regimen and his eyes improved. He became a devotee.

But some doctors raised concerns about Huxley’s claims; one reviewer of the book said Huxley “borders on the ridiculous.”

Pasted on the inside cover of my 1943 Chatto & Windus cloth edition is a small newspaper clipping with a headline that reads, “A council bans Huxley eye book.”

The text says, “Southport [England] libraries committee have refused to purchase Aldous Huxley’s book, ‘The Art of Seeing,’ in which he describes how his sight was restored, on the ground that it is more likely to do harm than good.” Whammo.

It does not say who the committee members are, whether librarians following doctors’ orders or taking a stand on ophthalmological health in accord with the ethics of their profession: a meaningful difference.

Bates deals with the psychological dimensions of sight and Huxley goes a step further. He says a lot of the “mal-functioning and strain” people suffer comes from their psychological make-up; that is, a person’s emotional gestalt affects what he sees.

Sounding like Freud, Huxley avers, “The conscious ‘I’ interferes with instinctively acquired habits of proper use.” That is, constrictive ideologies set up a mental framework that ambushes biology: the cornea, lens, all the parts of the eyeball that allow people to see (straight).

He says people try “too hard to do well … feeling unduly anxious about possible mistakes.” Not at home with themselves, they worry about failing which affects their sight.

The reviewer who criticized Huxley did say the philosopher was “quite right in saying that visual disabilities are often muscular and often psychopathic in origin”; thus people can help themselves by adopting protocols like Bates’ [not an endorsement].

The reviewer concluded “The Art of Seeing” would be good for psychiatrists “as an intimate and revealing self-study in psychology.” Which can be taken two ways: (1) that “The Art of Seeing” is a memoir worthy of attention or (2) that Huxley needs a psychiatrist.

One example Huxley gives of how psychological make-up affects vision is a woman who’s terrified of snakes: Walking along one day, she does a double-take thinking she just saw a snake; she looks again and sees only a piece of rubber tubing.

Huxley said memories of snakes had imprinted themselves on her imagination and were ready to surface when called upon. It’s the psycho-philosophical-biological condition of (1) seeing what is not there or (2) not seeing what is.

A lot of people reject examining these issues because it requires considerable self-analysis, and America hates self-analysis.

It’s such a coincidence that, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the Polish poet-writer Czeslaw Milosz took up the matter of sight.

And he gave as an example the stories of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf in her “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” (She was the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1909).

Nils is 14-year old Nils Holgersson who flies high above the earth on the back of a gander and sees the whole of life in context.

He sees “both distant and … concrete” at once, which Milosz calls “double vision,” seeing from up above and up close simultaneously. He says that’s how poets see, and it is the apex of clarity.

The slovenly neurotic sees up close but has no overview, lacks perspective; the abstractionist on the other hand sees from up above but cannot see what’s in front of him.

Giuseppe Tucci in his classic “The Theory and Practice of the Mandala” (1961) says those forms of neurotic blindness cause “spiritual sterility.” But, when a person sees from up-above and up-close simultaneously, like a poet, a “new consciousness” arises. Simultaneity is key.

The up-above stands for wisdom and the up-close the discipline of daily life. Without the union, the simultaneity, Tucci says, there’s never a “return to the summit of consciousness.”

As America struggles to find the words to regenerate Her self, She’s also having a hard time seeing from up above (like Nils Holgersson) — She lacks perspective — and that is why ideological skirmishes keep flaring up.

Way back in 1938, the two great American songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren, described the eyes of the double-vision-seer. Their song begins:

Jeepers creepers

Where’d you get those peepers?

Jeepers creepers

Where’d you get those eyes?

Gosh all, git up

How’d they get so lit up?

Gosh all, git up

How’d they get that size?

Rubén Darío in 1915, the year before he died at 49.

I started studying Spanish in a university classroom years ago when I needed to converse with people at the Albany County Jail who’d been locked up for coming to the United States without papers.

Early on, I talked to the prisoners with a college student as my translator but, after being stood up twice, I took charge: Español.

I have an advanced degree in Greek and Latin and studied French for years and later Dutch, while writing a book on crime and punishment among the 17th-Century Dutch in Albany (Beverwijck then), and had an interest in language since high school, maybe as an altar boy.

And when I started to study Greek and Latin and French, I took an interest in how language works — its linguistic forms — as well as how people pick words to say what they need to say; there’s also the matter of the range of meanings a word can have without losing its identity — words can stretch only so far.

A problem in the United States today is that a sizable portion of the population turn words upside down at will, using them to mean what they do not, and cannot, mean — causing anxiety in everyone. At one time “that” meant “that” but the schemers say “that” now means “this” or some other text du jour. It’s an upheaval that batters at the walls of sanity. And the greater the battering the greater the loss of consciousness.

French flowing from Greek and Latin is a Roman(ce) language so I was interested in how words went from parent to child — as well as how the child develops a common language. It’s more than Deus becoming Dieu.

And though language constricts the tongue by summing matters up, my long-term interest has been in how language frees. Which always involves the subjunctive — the mood of doubts, possibilities, fears, and wishes — containing the secret of how a society comes to exclude some from a bounty meant for all. As in justice for members-only.

The kids in my first class, 101, were 50 years younger. They all had Spanish in high school — I was surprised to see how well they spoke though sometimes it seemed hollow, as if they were skating on top of the tongue.

And they knew nothing about grammar — society’s agreed-upon rules for saying things economically, being understood with the littlest effort — I cannot recall one of them asking the teacher how a society learns to speak cordially.   

For me, the toughest assignment in 101 was the five-minute presentation each student had to make at the end of the semester, in Spanish, in front of the class, no notes. The speaker had to use nouns and verbs in flowing sentences: no rattling off vocabulary.

We were told we could speak on any topic we liked.

At the end of each chapter in our text there was a short selection in Spanish of the work of a famous writer or artist — a poem, an essay, a biographical sketch.

One of the writers featured was the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, whom the book called the Father of Modernism, El Padre del modernismo.

What stunned me was not that he shaped how poetry was done in “the colonies” but back in Spain as well. He was a revolutionary: a sea flowing back upon itself, the vanquished a conqueror.

I picked Darío for my talk.

Just about every other kid — I hate to say all — picked something like “at the beach” (a la playa) or “drinking cerveza”; a complex topic was “cerveza a la playa.” But maybe somebody did do Frida Kahlo.

On days that presentations were made, I was amazed to see that none of the kids seemed nervous — I think because they had PowerPoint at hand — everyone made a PowerPoint presentation: the playa people showing slide after slide of beautiful white beaches stretched along beautiful blue water — a back-from-vacation travelogue — and the cerveza contingent projecting guys in party gear celebrating cerveza, 20-year-old dorks — excusez moi — skating along the bottom of the tongue.

When the slide was something the kids found funny, a titter ran through the room — they saw themselves. I heard nothing about Spanish-speaking cultures — here, Spain, or anywhere. Maybe someone did do Kahlo?

I grant the age gap between me and my classmates as well as the divide in education and culture — I taught at that university — plus I’m a poet in love with language: but I thought maybe one or two would be interested in someone who changed the way people lived.  

To tell the class about Darío, I did not use PowerPoint — I don’t like it — but came with pieces of poster board — 12-by-30 inches or so — on which I’d pasted pictures of Darío and his environs. Following good pedagogy, I panned the photos left to right across the room, slowly, so everybody could see, holding them high for the mezzanine, while giving my spiel en Español.

I did not see eyes sparkle with Darío, nor faces light up over modernist poetry in Spanish, not even interest in someone who had such an impact on life that people called him Father. There was no titter.

Something about the beach/beer presentations bothered me. They dismissed the treasures of the Spanish-speaking-Spanish-writing art and culture world, the lives of those who shape the common tongue.  

The kids accepted my posters; I think they were saying, let’s give the old guy a break — which I’m not doing here, calling them on their juvenile beer/beach infomercials.

I made my disappointment known to the Spanish Department, asking if there was a way to get the kids to be serious, to submit to a foreign culture, address the Spanish-speaking world in words beyond beach and beer.

The next semester, when it came to choosing topics for our talk, the teacher handed out a sheet with a list of acceptable themes — poets, writers, architects, people of justice — I wondered if I’d had a say in it.  

One thing I liked about my Spanish classes — and language classes in general — is that, when someone makes a mistake, the teacher doesn’t wait till the end of class to correct the error, or write a letter, but corrects the student in the flesh on the spot in front of all — “Willie, it’s not manana it’s mañana” — which I liked — correction and redemption rolled into one.  

There’s more to say, in that the poet who moved into Darío’s house, after his family left, was Alfonso Cortés. I presented him to the class the next semester, pasting photos on placards like I did with Darío, and later I wrote a paper on him that I presented to a local poetry group — translating his poems.  

There was no need to mention Cortés at the jail but at least the prisoners and I could speak as one. In one case ICE got involved — the local agent was a woman of justice — the deported soul was back in a week.

How sad these days that even the guy next door turns words upside down and seems to relish the doubt and confusion he creates, even in the suspicion and hate that follow — a spike in the human heart.   

America is having such a hard time admitting She’s crazy, that She’s split and quartered like a side of beef, begging for therapy. Words fly by with such vehemence and rage that people at Anger Management think they’re in Jurassic Park.

And I went to every class with an open mind.

— Photo by Matt Collamer
A man named Michael holding this sign in a Boston subway station told photographer Matt Collamer that human kindness meant giving without expecting anything in return.

If we use the final days of the Roman Republic as historical precedent, or cultural backdrop cum mirror, to understand what’s taking place in the United States today — politically and socially — honesty forces us to conclude that the Republic of the United States, as happened to Rome, is done for.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news but the similarities between the two Republics are overwhelming, especially when it comes to the violence and deceit associated with elections toward their end. And anyone who dismisses the parallel because Rome was way back in B. C., is a fool. Theodor Mommsen’s five-volume “The History of Rome” says why.

In early summer 2021 A. D., turn on the TV any time of day, listen to the radio, read the papers or what’s posted on social media: There is an endless flood of fearful cries foreboding the end of U. S. democracy, the demise of the Republic, while a violence-driven faction — even inside the government — spews trash-talk against the “collective” and creates legislation and propaganda networks that hack away at the social bonds a republic needs to stay alive.

A republic is not just a type of government, it’s a community where people bind themselves through mutual aid, knowing well that such an ethic is the first step toward preserving collective social life.

And the capitalist economy that runs through America’s veins like plasma in the blood, is hastening the demise of the Republic as its richest people propagandize that to be rich you cannot contribute to the collective; paying taxes is a waste of personal funds.

Indeed a few years ago, a former president of the United States, a billionaire, got on television and told the American people that anyone who contributes to the collective by paying taxes is a damn fool. He said it grinning with satisfaction, calling collectivists suckers. He said he beat the system and that’s how he stays rich.

Indeed, through the support of the rich, a tax code exists that ensures that they — and those of their ilk — remain above socio-political upheaval, untouched by the volatile ups-and-downs that invade the lives of the poloi.

Such engineering masks the connection between the “collective” and repaired roads, collected garbage, van drivers taking old and lonely seniors to the doctor, dog-control officers, and new desks for a rural elementary school that just might spark a child to take his studies seriously.

Part of the deep-seated animosity that exists in American society today arose when a significant number of Americans adopted the anthem of the rich but failed to achieve what it promised — and became infected with a virulent hate. On Jan. 6, 2021, that hate became lethal through an armed insurrection. Of course the country’s Capitol building was overrun but what was stormed as well was the bastille of community, of mutual-aid-based relationships, of a Republic that says the well-being of every citizen deserves equal attention.

By storming the Capitol, therefore, the rioters were also hacking at the life of the municipal minimum-wage van driver who takes old folks to the doctor, helps them out of the van, walks them up the steps to the office, insures that they get logged in, helps them settle in the waiting room, and then goes out to the van to wait until the appointment is over.

He then goes back in and collects his charge, asks the receptionist if there’s anything they need to know, walks the 93-year-old Widow Vanderpool back to the van, eases her into a seat, and chats with her on the way home, the only real conversation she had all week.

Understandably a happy van driver makes all the difference in how a mother is treated when her son can’t get off work to drive her himself. And the people carted in the van might not be old but have mental problems, a leg in a cast, or no one else in life to take them.

The community van-driver — metaphorically and actually — earns “nothing” because he is an expression of the collective, of community life where citizens provide for each other, as in taking the Widow Vanderpool to the doctor because she had no one else to call upon.

I’ve found nothing so far that says Bezos, Buffet, Trump, and others on their rung funnel funds to towns and villages to provide rides and services for people in need. And, as the Republic disintegrates, the number of people falling through the cracks of needs-unmet keeps growing.

A woke person might say disregard for the collective is a form of violence (at a distance), which an economist can make a case for with numbers. And those who war against collectivity are successful because they propagandize with an ideology of scarcity, a gospel of fear, that says there’s not enough to go around — and a horde of dirty Mexicans is hurtling toward the trough. Eat that dog before he eats you.

Because of such thinking and the hate it rewards, the United States is dying not from a heart attack — as was the case in B. C. Rome — but from congestive heart failure; the Tin Man of Oz, who finally found a heart, is watching it die before him.

When I hear the jeremiads on cable news saying the Republic is done for, I hear the voice of Cato the Younger — the Stoic philosopher who became a Roman senator to resist monarchy — and that of Rome’s most famous barrister, Marcus Tullius Cicero, both decrying the power-based hustle and violence that autocrats like Caesar championed. That nation inflicted death upon itself that a modern-day coroner would call suicide.

Look at the texts; in the early Fifties (B. C.) candidates running for office in Rome campaigned with gangs by their side, commanded paramilitary units who engaged the opposition on the street.

Things got so wild in 52 that no consul was elected. In the United States, that’s like saying social upheaval was so severe no president was elected.

The Roman senate called in Pompey the Great — the adulescentulus carnifex, the boy butcher — who got the name because he knew how to handle problems. The senate made him sole consul and provided him with an army to keep things under control.

The Greek-born historian Plutarch says, during elections, candidates presented themselves “not with votes, but with bows and arrows, swords, and slings.” He said they in fact, “would defile the rostra with blood and corpses before they separated, leaving the city to anarchy like a ship drifting about without a steersman.”

After a while, Plutarch says, “such madness and so great a tempest” wore people down so they were ready for a dictator to calm things. Being a political automaton — forget republican citizen — was better than being a billiard ball careening against the cushions of fractured social life.

Is that the ethical choice facing Americans today: political automaton or billiard ball? Years ago Robert Putnam, in his classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” said America’s greatest fear was folks living in isolation; today that isolation has morphed into confused and hate-driven souls spraying the collective with AK-47’s — 247 times in 2021, and the year is hardly half done.

— Photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Heracles slaying the Hydra is depicted on Etruscan pottery.

Psychologically-speaking, when the human creature — a person — has a hard time dealing with some ugliness in himself — and does not have the strength to deal with it directly, that is, absorb it into consciousness — he spits it out. Psychologically-speaking, he projects.

The process is not unfamiliar; people accuse each other of doing it all the time — if not face-to-face, they’re thinking it. A cheating husband starts calling his wife unfaithful; a pathologically-lying politician calls people who challenge him, liars. It’s what sociologists refer to as “labeling theory.”   

Projection is a handy psychological tool because the actor casts his “problem” elsewhere: It’s now outside, in the external world; the projectee is bearer of the ill.

These days, we think of “projection” in terms of people, one person projecting onto another, but, in many traditional anthropological cultures, people projected their ills onto things like sticks and stones. A man who had a fever would rap a stick, toss the stick away, and the fever would be gone. The traditional biblical image of “scapegoat” is the tip of the iceberg.

The maddening paradox about projection is that, regardless of the ailment a person projects, no real transfer — psychologically-speaking — takes place. The problem, the ill, still resides within the projector; the pathological liar is still a liar; the cheater, still cheating.

Projection is hydra-headed in that it includes the ill the projector is trying to get rid of; the act of projection; the reception of the weight by the other; the ill-will created; and the low-level depression it causes.

To force potential projectees to submit, as well as punish those who refuse to accept the lie, the projector develops a vocabulary of “bully-talk.” It reflects a radical shift in the person’s cognition-network and explains why it’s near impossible to get projectors to confess; they refuse to give account.

Projection is economic in the sense that it involves the redistribution of worth; the projector enhances his own worth by getting rid of negativity and the dumped-upon is diminished by the burden imposed.

In his famed “Golden Bough,” the brilliant social anthropologist J. G. Frazer provides endless examples of tribes in all parts of the world getting rid of physical and psychological ills through custom protocols such as rapping a stick or bathing in a river.

In ancient Rome, Frazer says, a sick person cut his nails, rolled the clippings in a ball of wax, then stuck the wax to a neighbor’s door (in the dark of night) — whoever opened the door first got the fever.

Thus projection is a form of the Pontius Pilate Syndrome because the projector refuses to accept the negatives life has assigned him or that he brought upon himself — as when he chose to become a liar for the sake of power. Abdication is a powerful drug.

In the United States today, the projection process has become so rampant that people see evil everywhere. Social resentment is white hot.

The most glaring example is the Jan. 6 extravaganza when a mob of disaffected arch-projectors raided the United States Capitol and beat with a pole — attached to the flag of the country they live in — those the country had hired to protect “them” from people like themselves.

What is most alarming is that the mob of arch-projectors had redefined projection to mean eradication. A simple transfer was no longer effective, the other had to be eliminated; a goodly number of the assailants wore shirts celebrating the Nazi extermination of six million Jews: fascists!

But there is another process — psychologically-speaking — that goes in the opposite direction. Instead of (even while) spitting out unwanted parts, the ailing person takes in, ingests, borrows, something from the outside to enhance his worth; it’s called introjection.

The most brilliant among Freud’s original circle was the Hungarian-born psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi who took great interest in this process. He was not an economist but did pay attention to his patients’ feelings of worth — and why they felt compelled to borrow strength.

Freud said the borrowing is part of human nature in that everyone at some point in life, in some way, feels unequal to what life has set before him, and has to borrow strength. The archetype, Freud said, is when the child “ingests” the father (or some other person in power) to bolster the self; their power is transferred to the borrower.

It’s like Popeye with the spinach; he can’t handle Bluto so he borrows strength from the outer world; the can of spinach is his father.

Every sane being — and that distinction has to be made these days — believes that pain diminishes the value of living and, even when a person has techniques to absorb the pain, he might decide it’s cost-effective to dump it on someone else — there’s a wide spectrum of how people do it.

And though projection connects people, it’s so aggressive that it reinforces the gap between self and other; good and bad; mine and yours; worth and worthless; inner and outer; you and me. It’s where churches develop their sense of hierarchy.

When projection reaches the name-calling stage and then extermination, everywhere the projector looks he sees evil — Paranoia is born.

Alfred Heilbrun, a psychologist at Emory University, et al., had a paper published (in 1985) called “Defensive projection: An investigation of its role in paranoid conditions.”

The last lines of the abstract read, “Process paranoids demonstrated the most idiosyncratic free associations to verbal cues suggesting the autistic (self-preoccupied) quality of their thinking and delusions.”

Which I translate as: Projecting paranoids become so divorced from reality that a password can set them off; “most idiosyncratic free associations” means folks are willing to deny the physics of their being to live psychotically autonomic lives.

Years ago, the sound of “Hillary Clinton” produced, “Lock her up!” On Jan. 6, there was “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Kill Nancy Pelosi.” Psychotically autonomic responses.

Great power-projector-players like Donald Trump are well-schooled in how to shape autonomic Pavlovian responses; they know how to foster a shift in consciousness where the only choice is A or B, the same choice facing those contemplating suicide.

By “the autistic (self-preoccupied) quality of their thinking and delusions” Heilbrun and his colleagues are saying that the cognition network of such people is a form of autism.

Two great 20th-Century French philosophers — Gaston Bachelard and Jean Hyppolite — were interested in the cause of this, Bachelard in his “La Poetique de l’espace” (The Poetics of Space).

Their thinking was: “Le premier mythe” of humankind is “du dehors et du dedans” and our aggression toward each other “se fond sur ces deux termes.”

Which I translate as: When we accept the difference between you and me as unbridgeable — dehors et dedans — alienation is born, and why so many people in the United States go nutso these days with guns; bullets are the only words an A or B option offers. Suicide is homicide inverted; homicide is suicide projected.

The United States of America is a very sick puppy. I wonder if we’ll ever find a couch big enough where we can all lay ourselves down and confess our sins therapeutically.

In two recent columns in The New York Times, Tom Friedman says the War Between the States: II has begun.

He must have been reading about the end of the Roman Republic when, on election days, armies flooded the forum — a very scary time, and very sad — and very much like today.