Nursery Rhyme for the Apocalypse

Bill Barr, Bill Barr, you’ve gone too far.
You find the peasants revolting.
The CIA in your day
was grounds for fascist training.

No care at all, for the Rule of Law.
Democracy is fleeting.
Just shock and awe from secret police
as the jackboots go out beating.

Bill Barr, Bill Barr keep it up
pushing autocracy.
We‘ll stand, we’ll fight, we’ll even die
to save our democracy.   

You’ve made it clear that some lives
Really should not matter.
We’re here to say we have rights,
And we’re done with passive chatter.

We came in peace but stood our ground
And now your army can’t persist.
We’ll stand up tall, win or lose,
And we will always resist.

Bill Barr, Bill Barr keep it up
pushing autocracy.
We‘ll stand, we’ll fight, we’ll even die
to save our democracy.   

No final win and no final loss
Will cause the struggle to cease.
You think you’ve won, but you’ll soon find out
without justice, you’ll never have peace. 

Bill Barr, Bill Barr keep it up
pushing autocracy.
We‘ll stand, we’ll fight, we’ll even die
to save our democracy.   

Poem: The Pogrom Approaches

It’s just because we used to see all these moronic looking jerks just strolling around through town trying to look tough with their AR-15s and Sig Sauers for no real reason, and we just laughed at them, because what were they even doing? I mean, they were like cartoons in these stupid trucks with big tires and all these stupid flags waving all over the place and everything. I mean, you know what I’m talking about, right? They were just these fringe idiots trying to get a little attention, and then, you know, these people start showing up dressed the same way and shooting at people and grabbing people off the street, and we don’t know who’s who, anymore. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and no one really knows what’s going on, but everyone knows it isn’t right. I mean, even a little child knows it isn’t right for anyone to just go around grabbing people and terrifying them like that, especially when they done nothing wrong and all, but it ain’t right, anyway, to just take people like that—violating their God given rights and everything. There’s no way to know when they are going to be shooting real bullets or so-called “less lethal” bullets. There’s no way to know if you’re going to jail or the grave. And you sort of just say your prayers, and you say, “God help me now or let me die doing what I know is right.” And you just go and stare them in the face again, because they want to see you run, but you know if you run, no one will ever be free again. 

Poem: Prelude to the Pogrom

In camouflage and unmarked minivans,
brutal anarchists are loose on the streets.
They perpetuate the casual cruelty
of anonymous cops on the beat.

The desperate disappearing of schismatics
realises nightmares of deadly disorientation.
Extraordinary renditions become ordinary
daily habits of these agents of provocation.

While the doves of justice sing of peace,
lawless mobs roam in the darkest hours.
Concealed and agitating the sleeping hive
while gassing the nectar of its flowers.

Many naively thought they were immune
from aggression and unprovoked attacks.
A veteran thought he’d just have a word
before finding himself beaten with bats.

The moms came out in force, surely
no one could mistake them for terrorists.
But gas canisters were lobbed at their feet
as the traitors were more than treacherous.

The dads stepped up with a leaf-blower defence
to give the treasonous well-deserved blowback.
And a nation finally started to see clearly
that democracy had taken another track.

Epiphanies sometimes come too late,
and eternal vigilance is hard to maintain,
But the sleepy multitude shakes to life
to scrub and erase this lawless stain. 

Take heart and raise your heads high.
You have history and justice on your side.
They are no more than a despotic few,
but you are the power of a rising tide. 

Poem: Facebook Permissions

I do not give Facebook permission to share the disinformation of delusional dictators and audacious autocrats. I do not give Facebook permission to sell my digital soul to the arbiters of obedience. I do not give Facebook permission to sow division and destroy democracy on my behalf. I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with it permission to exploit my vulnerabilities in its quest to achieve world domination through manufactured consciousness. I do not give Facebook permission to warp reality to suit the ends of sadistic kleptocrats shrouded in casual pullovers. I do not give Facebook permission to persist. I do not give Facebook permission to exist.

Poem: Very Reasonable People Write The Apocalypse

Very Reasonable People scolded us
For our childish outbursts,
Our irrational fear of the dark.

We could rest in the knowledge
That the adults would see to our
Affairs and avert any apocalypse.

They chuckled at our concern
And assured us they had balanced
Checks in place for stability.

The Very Bad Things we’d heard
Of before didn’t happen in places
Like this to people like us.

People who know better than us
Had built robust systems to ensure
Both our safety and security.

I guess the people in the kitchen
Are the first to smell smoke, first to
Panic, and the first to escape.

The adults were gathered in the den,
Discussing strengths, weaknesses,
Opportunities and threats, even

As the smoke seeped under doors,
And through ventilation systems,
Before seizing their lungs.

Those who remain will mourn The Others,
Of course, and lie about how they
Always served the interests of their neighbors.

fire warm radio flame
Photo by Pixabay on

Democracy Died (#poem)

woman holding protest sign
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on

Democracy died in the Senate chamber
When Supreme Court justice was never heard
Through a guileless force of legal obstruction.
Respect for law fell like old holiday garland.
A complacent nation did not demur,
Thinking true fascism could not recur,
Power transferred to a political poseur.
A complacent nation watched it’s legal destruction
And Democracy died.
They quickly forgot what they once were,
A nation of laws designed to deter
A tyrant seeking freedom’s complete destruction.
As the confident joked about his linguistic aberrations,
They let the unthinkable occur
And Democracy died.

Wittgenstein, Shame, and the Nazi Problem

“Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1945)

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein hated himself. If you described him as a self-loathing ludwig-wittgenstein-2aristocrat, a self-loathing Jew, or a self-loathing homosexual, you would probably be right, but it is anyone’s guess which of the three descriptions is most accurate. He gave his money away, responded ambiguously to race and religion, and necessarily kept his sexual and romantic inclinations as private as possible.

Ludwig was reared in a Roman Catholic home and did not have a strong Jewish identity as a young man despite having three Jewish grandparents. By coincidence, Ludwig and Adolf Hitler attended the same grammar school; although they were about the same age, they were two years apart as Ludwig was advanced a year and Adolf was held back a year in school. Some believe Ludwig is the Jewish boy who first provoked Hitler’s anti-Semitic rage as described in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Others point out that Hitler probably wouldn’t have known Ludwig was Jewish at the time. Either way, it is likely Ludwig would not have thought much of his less accomplished contemporary at the school. If they met, it is doubtful Ludwig would have shown any sort of camaraderie to the young Adolf, and Adolf probably would have resented Ludwig on reflection even if he did not during their time at school together. Throughout his life, Ludwig could be brash, even to his friends, so it is easy to imagine how he may have treated those he saw as his inferiors. Bertrand Russell once wrote that Ludwig could be “destitute of the false politeness that interferes with truth.”

Regardless of whether Ludwig provoked Hitler, we can’t help but wonder the source of Ludwig’s own anti-Semitism. He identified as a Catholic but also deprecated himself in terms of his Jewishness, saying, for example, “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.)” (Culture and Value, 1931). All writers and thinkers are plagued by self-doubt, and sometimes a free-floating anxiety seems to just hover around us waiting for a place to land. Perhaps this was a convenient way for Ludwig to explain his doubts and insecurities to himself, even if his assertion is demonstrably false, but he certainly had a complicated relationship with his own racial identity.

Ludwig similarly seemed to feel guilty for his staggering wealth. Thanks to his father’s ruthless business strategies, Ludwig was one of the richest people in Europe. He seemed to find his wealth problematic. Perhaps he believed money itself is corrupting or maybe he was ashamed of how his wealth was acquired. Whatever the case, he gave his money to his siblings and lived in famously stark accommodations.

His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a wealthy industrialist who amassed much of his wealth through aggressive business dealings during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878 (my info here is largely based on an essay by Jorn K. Brammann and John Moran, which can be found here). He emerged from his war dealings as the leader of the iron and steel industry with one of the greatest fortunes in Austria. Once established as a leader in industry, Karl pursued greater power through vertical integration and control, establishment of cartels, and gaining influence with financial institutions. Karl opposed government protection of consumers but sought government protection of entrepreneurs from foreign competition. His strike busting activities were described in Arbeiter-Zeitung, by declaring that the director evicted workers “with a lot of policemen, and the latter began the expulsion. The head of a family with four children was expelled late at night, when the children were already asleep in their beds. Sergeant Werner, a well-known enemy of the workers, mercilessly dragged them out of their beds, and they were made homeless.” Karl’s only apparent political ideology seemed to be to promote policies that would aid industrialists like himself in the search for wealth and power.

As an ostensibly Catholic family with seemingly limitless wealth and power, the Wittgenstein family might understandably feel insulated from the effects of world affairs. They may have felt that Hitler’s advance was no threat to them personally, but their safety was more precarious than one might expect, and protecting the sisters from Nazism required a significant bribe. In 1939, Ludwig and his only surviving brother, Paul, managed to convince Hitler to grant half-breed status to the daughters of Karl Wittgenstein in exchange for the gold and foreign currency held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust (for more information, see here). At the time, Ludwig and Paul were both safely outside Austria. The amount of money transferred to the Nazis was significant and surely aided the continued advance of the Reich to one degree or another. Ludwig distanced himself from his own race, used his extreme wealth to buy privilege for his family, and likely helped the Reich survive, and perhaps we do not blame him for it.

Ludwig’s brother Rudi committed suicide, it is thought, after fearing he could be identified as a homosexual in a published study.  Rudi left a suicide note that referred to his “perverted disposition.” Ludwig had every reason to hide his own homosexuality. It was illegal, and the punishment could be devastating. Ludwig was a contemporary of Alan Turing, who was subjected to “chemical castration” by the British authorities, and his “treatment” led inexorably to his death by alleged or supposed suicide.  Ludwig’s own sexuality was secret and remains a source of speculation. Depending on who is telling the story, Ludwig falls somewhere on a continuum between being a homosexual who almost never engaged in physical sex to being a promiscuous gay man scouting about for anonymous sex. Each of the most extreme descriptions seems motivated by homophobia, and his sex life was probably much less interesting than either virtual celibacy or promiscuity would suggest. The existential threat to gay men was real, though, so being homosexual robbed one of any sense of safety and security.

Given the circumstances and the fact that he contemplated suicide often, it is amazing that Ludwig did not kill himself. Bertrand Russell wrote of Ludwig: “He used to come to my rooms at midnight, and for hours he would walk backward and forward like a caged tiger. On arrival, he would announce that when he left my rooms he would commit suicide. So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out. On one such evening, after an hour or two of dead silence, I said to him, ‘Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about your sins?’ ‘Both,’ he said, and then reverted to silence.” We might be tempted to say that philosophy saved Wittgenstein, and perhaps it did, but his philosophy offers little comfort, frankly, for his followers who read him with the hope of alleviating their own discomfort. Believe me, I would know.

Wittgenstein’s shame was ambiguous. We can’t fault him for the behavior of his father, his inherited wealth, his desire to save his sisters, his Jewishness, or his homosexuality, but, still, we can understand his shame. Wittgenstein finds expiation in the same evidence that condemns him. He devoted much of his life to trying to overcome ambiguity and paradox and to atone for his stained being, but declared that nothing unambiguous could be said about ethics. In his “Lecture on Ethics,” he said, “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” Ethics could not ameliorate his torment.

Despite his despair regarding both religion and ethics, one of his most trusted, and arguably more accomplished, students was Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and dedicated ethicist who saw ethical rules as both absolute and universal. Wittgenstein named Anscombe as one of the literary executors of his estate. In responding to Oxford University’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary degree, Anscombe wrote an open letter denouncing the honor. After the bombing of Japan, she argued that the intentional killing of innocent people is never justified, even if it results in some good. She asked, “Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do?”

Wittgenstein’s entire life was a kind of penance. He was rich but gave his money away to avoid its corruption. He taught school. He was a gardener. He worked in a hospital. He served in the military. He tried to guide and protect the ones he loved. In the end, he aided the Nazi apparatus, brutalized children, and made those around him miserable. Describing his own life, he said, “I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.” (Culture and Value,  1939-40). He spent his years on earth devoted to determining what can be said precisely or how it can be possible to communicate, but he left us only with the same ambiguity he found so tortuous to begin with. When we study Ludwig’s life and words, we see no way forward. As such, Ludwig’s shame seems to serve no purpose.

Then again, perhaps Ludwig leaves us with some comfort, after all. We all carry our private shame, but that may be exactly what connects us to the rest of humanity. Ludwig wrote, “Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what’s inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow men” (Culture and Value, 1945). We need not be ashamed before our fellow humans because we are all flawed and seeking our own redemption. Some people run from their shame, some try to suppress it, some try to atone for it, and some, like Ludwig, do all three, but everyone has to manage it one way or another.

Hannah Arendt, who infamously had an affair with her Nazi professor, Martin Heidegger, said she was tempted to respond to people who were ashamed to be German by saying it made her ashamed to be human (see “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”). Surely, Arendt had to manage her own shame, but she wasn’t paralyzed by it. She went on to say, “For the idea of humanity, purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus for evil committed by others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight.” In the end, Ludwig’s shame was a political act, even if unconscious.

As human beings, I’m amazed we can live with ourselves at all. For a moment, in the late 20th century, some of us were able to convince ourselves that humans were evolving to a better state. We thought humans were becoming increasingly humane. Ludwig and Arendt both lived in times of terror, and both engaged with evil in one way or another. Against terrifying odds, the holocaust eventually ended, and we slowly came to believe we would not make such mistakes again. However, nothing exists in the world now to remind us of our optimism. We must rely on our old crutch, hope, so that we can do better in the future. Arendt urges us to feel shame for all of humanity because if we feel no shame, we also lose hope. Those who are shameless will seek to destroy our world, and only those of us filled with shame can save it.

Our shame, like Ludwig’s, may be ambiguous, but it serves a purpose. It is the source of our humanity and our only hope for salvation.