It must have been sometime in the early 1970s that they appeared, buzzing around the parks and gardens, alighting on the green leaves, their translucent wings quivering, shiny greenish heads at a quizzical angle. One mistook them at first for dragonflies or cicadas. But the new insects that had arrived from somewhere, nobody knew where, were called hyphenates. Hyphenate. Sounds like the Linnaean-derived name of a largish, not unattractive, flying insect of summer. Actually it means people whose identity is defined, not by an audible word, but by a soundless hyphen separating two words: Italian-American, Irish-American, Armenian-American, Arab-American, Polish-American. A punctuation mark instead of a name should have been a warning about where this was going to go.
“I don’t like these hyphenates,” growled my Grandpa in an irate letter that was published in The New York Times, which was a newspaper back then. The reason Grandpa didn’t like them was that he was a Communist. In fact he was a sort of Mayflower Communist, if one can imagine such an animal: he was in on the foundation of the CPUSA back when his pal (excuse me, comrade) John Reed went to snowy revolutionary Moscow to obtain accreditation. Grandpa knew Leon Trotsky, yes sir, back when Trotsky was in the editorial office of a Russian paper on the Bowery, drinking a glass of tea, maybe with a lump of sugar and a nice slice of lemon please, thank you, making fun of the feckless American Socialists as a party for lawyers and dentists.
The American Socialists were to vote to support this country’s entry in 1917 into the meaningless slaughter of World War I. Trotsky was to go home and help Russia extricate itself from said meat grinder, also in 1917, by storming the Winter Palace in the company of his good friend V.I. Lenin. (That Most Human of Men, as Soviet hagiography fondly dubbed him, was also according to Jewish law a Jew, as the writer Marietta Shaginyan once discovered in perusal of the Simbirsk archives, to the great disappointment, shall we say, of the secret police, whom Americans of those days called by its Russian acronym the Gay-Pay-Oo, whose genealogical experts paid her a social call preternaturally quickly and recommended in the collegial tones of fellow Russian intellectuals that she forget the whole thing if you don’t want your bullet-riddled carcass floating down the fucking river, you fat Armenian cunt.) He founded the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army shortly thereafter.
By way of thanks, the Soviet Union exiled Trotsky, Mexico took him in, and one of Stalin’s secret police agents then murdered him with an ice pick. (Russia is now a civilized member of the community of nations and its new, improved secret police smear a nerve poison on the undergarments of enemies of the people.) The Communists do not believe people have a race, nationality, or even ethnicity. They are all changing actors on a shifting stage, enlightened or obscurantist, bourgeois or proletarian. But those are economic roles, and as Papa Marx reminds us in the Manifesto they are inherently unstable: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life.”
Trotsky’s surname, before he took his Slavic nom de guerre, was just plain Bronstein. He was, as noted above– see the pleasant aside about Lenin’s ancestry– a Jew. The Revolution was supposed to emancipate the Russian Jews. But that did not last long. Trotsky became the heretic, the Spinoza of Marxism. The theoreticians of the new Marxist church, Stalinism, made clear in the wake of World War II that the Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans”. To a Communist that’s a good thing to be, as I hope to have proven, also above– but Stalin had replaced all that headache-inducing Marxist theory with good old pogromist Great Russian chauvinism. Koba– as Stalin was affectionately nicknamed in his native Georgian, for just as Hitler was an Austrian, not a German, so Stalin, too, was not a Russian– didn’t have time to reintroduce the Patriarch of Moscow into the state apparatus. In the late 1940s he went after the rootless cosmopolitan kike physicians of the Kremlin clinic and their Jew families and distant Odessa relatives, any of those sheenies, at least, who had survived the recent Nazi adventures in critical race theory. And when Koba, non-Russian Russian Nationalist and Best Friend of All Progressive Curers of Marxist-Leninist Dialectical Headaches took ill in early 1953, his GP smothered him with a pillow. All it then took, after a somnolent interregnum culminating in the son et lumière of Chernobyl, was for Putin to return the Orthodox Church with its pretty domes and sonorous bells to its time-honored role as an auxiliary of the police. Cossacks with knouts. Double-headed eagles. Ding-dong. Soviet Communism was supposed to cure mankind of its identity crisis. But it became an ideological camouflage of lies in the service of Russian nationalism. And what is worse, in its wake all the infected little captive peoples and states of the shattered empire have inherited poisonous local chauvinisms of their own.
But the loyal comrades far from the USSR who had pinned all their emotions and religious fervor on what they saw as humanity’s last great hope, were loath to part with their dream. Grandpa did his level best to adhere to the rapidly-changing, lunatic dogmas of the Party: in 1937, all old Bolsheviks turned out to have been counter-revolutionaries; in 1939, the devil Hitler became an ally of the USSR and therefore Nazi Germany was not to be criticized; in 1941 Hitler became a devil again; in the postwar years Lysenko’s lunacy was “science”, etc. Once, the Brooklyn Heights cell of the CPUSA decided to drum out the famous writer Howard Fast. You know, take the initiative. Just cause. Right after the hanging party was adjourned for the evening, a telegram arrived from Moscow congratulating the comrades: Howard Fast had just been awarded the coveted Stalin Prize! The cell was instantly reconvened, in the small hours of a Sunday night, to reinstate Comrade Fast.
Grandpa throughout this madness was more your closet Trotskyite (in the presence of Trotskyites, make that Trotskyist, please): revolution is supposed to be universal and egalitarian, not the special province, heritage, and tool of colonial conquest of one paranoid, self-congratulatory superpower. Human beings are not supposed to be black, white, yellow, red, Russian, Chinese, Karakalpak, or Karelian. Our identity is human, period. In this respect, Grandpa thought the American idea of the melting-pot progressive and full of latent promise. Even though his teacher Thorstein Veblen, of whom he spoke often and fondly, had cautioned us that American capitalism co-opts every new idea, saps it of content, and then sells it back to you, E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”) had somehow escaped the process of commercialization and remained intact, alive. Until, that is, the hyphenates came along.
The metaphor of the American melting pot, the delicious, bubbling stew, gave way with hyphenization and identity politics to the flat, inert, aroma-less, inedible metaphor of the mosaic. The pieces, or sections, of a mosaic form a picture but they are separated by cement and don’t touch each other. They are unchangingly monochromatic. That stew never becomes a mush, rather, I, carrot, contribute some of my flavor to you, mushroom. We have a relationship. They’re alone. Melting pot is the messy, unwieldy, creative community of free individuals, with all the tension and contradiction inherent in a forged, viable, political and social togetherness meeting the shattering, existential truth of human alone-ness.
This is important. After all, did not Marx decry the loneliness of the human condition, the alienation of labor? Ah, say the mosaicists (not followers of Moses), but there is intersectionality. That means you are not a lonely Irish-American gay male looking for another Irish-American, athletic, 20s, in the lonely hearts section of the Village Voice. You are an LGBTQ-POC-Irish-American, and there must be other factors coming into play right now of still greater moment, but you get the idea. You are not alone. No indeed. You intersect with other LGBTQs and POCs, and provided you are woke enough, maybe you can even quaff a beer on St. Patrick’s Day, though you must do so in realization of the inherently hegemonic and character of the Catholic Church and its toxically male saint. But the IRA did blow up innocent men, women, and children— that is, it was anti-colonialist till the Good Friday agreement so everything’s okay, and bring on the Guinness. But in the evening, after the parade, you look into the eyes of your fellow he/she/zi/it Gael of color and there comes the uncanny revelatory moment of love, and it’s a person you’re seeing, the only one in the world, and all the left-fascist terms fall down and flutter away down Fifth Avenue like used Kleenex.
None of it works, you see. As any Buddhist worth his Milindapanha salt will tell you, you are not the sum of your parts. Disassemble the queer, Latinx, Eireann, Yankee, and there’s no there, there (as someone said of Oakland, but they were wrong). Put them back together again. There is something about your you-ness that is indefinable and intangible. It takes an individual, a mystical entity irreducible to parts (the Greek for individual is atoma, something you can’t break down any further), to enter into a love affair or social contract. There is something very lonely about being an individual, but something free and true as well. The Americans were not supposed to be hyphenates, or members of a race, or adherents of a religion. The idea was to be free individual beings interacting with each other in the process of living, which involves both creating individually and participating collectively, of both sharing and owning.
People in normal countries lead lives, said a dissident in the USSR. Soviet citizens are subjects of an experiment. Do you ever have the feeling you are a lab rat in the basement of the social justice department? More and more, I do. When I filled out a questionnaire to get a jab— finally, after weeks of the governor stalling on Fresno because we hadn’t voted for him, and so what that we’re the Golden State’s poorest county— of Moderna’s vaccine for Covid 19, the California Republic was not interested only in my age, but also in my “race” and “ethnicity”. Ethnicity? My Dad’s native language is English, but one of his parents remembered her native Yiddish. (Grandpa, who was born on the Lower East Side, insisted he had forgotten all his Yiddish. Except that he understood and spoke it perfectly.) Mom’s a native Ladino speaker. There’s always “Jew”, but we do not use that word in polite company, darling. Wasn’t there a problem with it once? Whatever. I tick “Hispanic” to piss off Torquemada.
There’s the box for “race”. It says “white” on my birth certificate. Shall I tick “white”, then? I creep anxiously down the drizzly, foggy bricks of memory lane, skirting the cemetery, and see a light in a window. My wistful ghost looks from above at the living room floor of my little apartment in leafy northern Manhattan, where a bunch of white gentile male heterosexual undergrad Columbia kids and a much younger me are whiling away a convivial Friday evening talking about Plato, Plotinus, and Guns & Roses, in the company of our good friend Jack Daniels. One of the scholars is about to tell a racist joke. Looking around, the young man reassures us: “We’re all white here.” His classmate, a lanky Texan who played guitar in his parochial school days for a forgettable band called “Pontius Pilate and the Nail-Bangin’ Five”, whose blond tresses cascade down to his skinny ass, and who plows through girls like a hot knife through butter or, to stick with the Biblical flavor of the band, like Moses parting the legs of the Red Sea and plunging in, begs to differ and points a lily white index finger at yours truly. “Professor X ain’t white. He’s a JEW!”
White, then? How about “mottled olive with pinkish highlights, too much body hair, and too little on top”? I tick the box “Prefer not to answer” and proceed to get my injection. It’s a lovely day. The college kids running the clinic, most of them cheerful girls whose parents or grandparents must have come from Mexico, like so many of the likeable people in this friendly town.
Identity? Hyphenates? Ethnicity? Intersectionality? Race? Grandpa farsightedly decried hyphenates before they had a chance to lay their eggs. I think he must have read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle back when it was published: it is a shocking expose of the horrific conditions at the Chicago stockyards and factories around 1900. My grandfather once declaimed volubly, forcefully, irritably, and quite out of the blue about cervelat salami, when somebody mentioned a sandwich, “I don’t cotton to that prepared meat stuff!” Me neither, Grandpa.
I would have preferred it if there were a box saying “This question presupposes a categorization that I do not understand but would still not accept even if I did understand it, particularly since Jews are or aren’t ‘white’ depending when and where, and ‘white’ is a stupid way to define somebody, and, back to the Israelites, they aren’t even hyphenate either since ‘Jewish-American’ is an expression that sounds forced in English, while American Jew, the natural way everybody says it, clearly sets the Jews apart from all other hyphenable nations and maybe apart even from America itself in the long term, which is what I think pessimistically even in much better times than these; but I’m not an Israeli citizen and though I go to a synagogue I’m often at odds with it also, which is natural, and what nobody in the synagogue knows is that I have my own alphabet, which is extremely complex and which no one else can read, which I keep my voluminous diaries in and which I’ve been developing continuously since inventing it in June 1967, and it goes together with an invented country and solar system with a history that may not be as complex as Tolkien’s but is also not as prissily pretentious and anyhow I’m a stranger here and maybe an alien in some larger planetary sense and I moved to California because Philip K. Dick wrote Radio Free Albemuth here and because Allen Ginsberg wrote ‘A Supermarket in California’, and then there are The Doors, and I can’t surf and haven’t seen the beach in years and miss New York knishes with lots of mustard and also I’m gay but then that was a big deal only during the AIDS crisis, when America’s public health system failed its people just as miserably as it is failing them now, and I feel native to the Brooklyn Bridge, which connects and doesn’t hyphenate and has living water below it, but still how are you native to a road and the mystique of the Bridge is a sort of literary time travel because Hart Crane, Sergei Yesenin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky loved it and they all killed themselves and it’s now 3000 miles away so am I in exile without any identity at all save as a poor forked creature but that’s not right either since I’m the descendant of prophets, Ginsberg was a prophet in ‘The Sunflower Sutra’ and he followed Blake who wasn’t a Jew and back to Morrison, the west is the best, just get here and we’ll do the rest but God knows what they have done, whoever ‘they’ are, so I’m just me, whom you’ll probably never meet again except for when it’s time for the second dose of the vaccine next month, so fuck it.”
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events
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