Banter M Issue 55

In this issue of Banter M:

Now, I Am Ashamed To Be British - Ben Cohen writes about watching his home country succumb to terrifying racism and xenophobia in the wake of Britain's vote to exit the European Union.

Bernie is Killing His Political Revolution - By refusing to play by the rules and traditions of presidential politics and still not conceding to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is only harming his own reputation and the future of his revolution, argues Bob Cesca

Losing My Religion, Again - After his drift away from Christianity, Tommy Christopher found a spiritual substitute, and lost that as well.

Now, I Am Ashamed To Be British

by Ben Cohen

I will be getting married in a couple of months and my wedding will take place in Cornwall, a beautiful region in the the English countryside. I have been living in the states for over a decade now but am deeply attached to my country, and want to let my new Latin American family see where I am from and expose them to my culture. I was born and bred in England, and feel as much at home there as a fish does water. The earthy dampness of the air, the drizzle, the grey skies and the green pastures are as much a part of me as my own name is. 

And yet to some I am not fully British -- a thought that has never really crossed my mind until recently.

While my mother's ancestry is British (English to be specific), my father's is Ashkenazi Jewish and his family arrived in the UK from Poland and Russia during the latter part of the 1800's and early 1900's. My last name is Cohen -- a Hebrew name, and combined with my first, Benjamin, my ethnic heritage is fairly obvious. To me, this means very little given I was born in the UK and have always known it as my country. But as the British public voted to exit the European Union, physical and verbally racist attacks have risen dramatically, and much of it directed at Polish people. Reported Al Jazeera:

The Polish Embassy in London earlier said it was "shocked and deeply concerned" by incidents of abuse directed at Poles and other Eastern Europeans living in England.

They include the posting of laminated cards reading "Leave the EU - no more Polish vermin" to members of the Polish community in Huntingdon, near the eastern city of Cambridge, on Saturday.

There were also reports of racist graffiti scrawled on a Polish community centre in Hammersmith, west London.

Distressing videos have also surfaced of Black, Asian and Muslim people being abused in public -- a worrying sign that the isolationist rhetoric of the political classes is encouraging racism and xenophobia from Britain's white working classes. 

The videos and images of this vile racist abuse have hit many of my British friends, including myself, pretty hard. The friends I grew up with are a mixed bunch with few having totally pure British ancestry. They are of Ghanaian, Jamaican and Jewish descent, yet all proud Brits who know nowhere else as home. But almost overnight, our status is no longer quite as secure as we once thought it was. It is now a country I don't recognize -- one my grandparents told me of and one they fought tooth and nail to change. 

My Grandfather on my Jewish side fought British fascists in the streets of London and served in the Royal Air Force during World War II to help repel the attempted Nazi invasion. Post war, my grandparents rented apartments to minorities in London, many of whom came to Britain to fill major job vacancies and rebuild the economy. They were a part of building the new, more tolerant Britain and made it a better place for following generations -- including myself -- who have benefitted from their sacrifices. 

The resurgence of the fascism and xenophobia my grandparents tried to eliminate is terrifying, and today it makes me ashamed to be British. 

While the racists responsible for the attacks on minorities in Britain should be prosecuted and thrown in prison, the real blame lies with the political classes who have spectacularly failed to address the concerns of the working classes for far, far too long. And now it has manifested itself in accordance with sadly familiar historical patterns. Widening wealth inequality breeds resentment, and with corporate media outlets and politicians pointing the finger at immigrants, working class rage gets misdirected and aimed at those least able to defend themselves. 

Perhaps I have been blinded by much of the progress Britain has made in the past few years -- from the legalization of gay marriage to the prospect of a black prime minister, I had thought my country was turning into a true beacon of racial equality and progress. But Britain's history of racism and xenophobia runs deep, and it apparently does not take much to re-awaken it. 

I am white, so there is relatively little for me to fear given my ethnic heritage is not immediately apparent. But I do fear for my friends who are not -- British citizens who could be targeted for their ethnicity and told to "go home". Should the economic situation in Britain deteriorate further, history has shown leftist movements rarely do well. As the public succumbed to fear of other during the E.U. referendum, they will no doubt follow leaders who point to minorities and the vulnerable as the source of all their problems. And as a Jew, I know full well where this can lead.

"Attitudes change and harden, new scapegoats can always be flung into the public realm," writes the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty. "Britain has been through six years of austerity and nastiness, in which disabled people have had their benefits cut and been labelled by ministers as skivers. The result has been a rise in hate crimes against people with disabilities"

"And as for eastern Europeans and Muslims, while researching this article, a university lecturer told me quite casually: “I’m now scared to tell a taxi driver that I’m Polish.” At Tell Mama, the organisation that monitors hate crimes against Muslims, director Fiyaz Mughal recounted how the “chatter” from small violent far-right extremist groups had risen and risen during the campaign."

The European ideal was built in part to help stop toxic political movements taking root, basing its principles on tolerance, cooperation and freedom of movement. It was a historic union that aimed to thwart the catastrophes of the early 20th century by interlinking members' economies and creating a sense of stability and safety. While imperfect, it has brought decades of peace and prosperity -- all of which are being eroded by far right nationalism across the continent. Of course the E.U. shares some responsibility in this as there are real problems within the organization, but dismantling it is most certainly not the answer. Britain is at a crossroad right now, and it must make the right decision in moving forward. History has shown that a divided Europe is a deadly one, so Britain has to play its part in preventing it falling to pieces. 

I am still looking forward to showing my country off to my in-laws this summer, but I cannot help but feel I am returning to a place I do not quite recognize.

Because to me, Britain is still Great, but only when we celebrate our differences and refuse exacerbate them. 

Next: Bernie is Killing His Political Revolution - by Bob Cesca

Bernie is Killing His Political Revolution

by Bob Cesca

Obviously, Bernie Sanders isn't going to concede until the Democratic convention. By refusing to play by the rules and traditions of presidential politics, he's not really harming anyone, at this point, other than his own reputation and the future of his revolution.

One of the items on the very short list of reasons why I couldn't, in the end, bring myself to support Bernie is because of his stubborn insistence upon being a spoiler -- a perpetual fly in the ointment. An irritant. He's always marched to hit own beat, which is often a positive quality until the marcher refuses to stop and eventually travels outside the lines and into the margins of the debate. In the process, he annoys more than a few formerly willing supporters and legislative co-sponsors who eventually move on in search of an alternate route.

There was a window of time in which Bernie owned the party. He might not have been the nominee, but with a gargantuan cache of activated supporters, he held the leverage to become a kingmaker inside the Democratic establishment -- changing the establishment in the process. Instead, he frittered it away by letting his ego and his ego-driven tenacity guide his decisions, rather than acting from a place of strength. Simply put: Bernie has not only lost whatever bargaining power his delegates could've bought, but he's also lost a not insignificant chunk of his activated supporters.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie discussed Bernie's growing political impotence at length in his Wednesday column this week, titled "Bernie Blew It." (For what it's worth, I made similar observations, both on my podcast with Chez Pazienza as well as to a close writer friend who happens to be a Bernie supporter, both of which occurred prior to Jamelle's article.)

Among other things, Bouie pointed out hard evidence that Bernie lost his leverage -- specifically, Hillary Clinton's growing poll margin over Donald Trump.

In May, 20 percent of Sanders supporters said they would back Trump over Clinton in the general election. In June, that number is down to 8 percent. Overall, 81 percent of Sanders backers have rallied to Clinton, surpassing the 74 percent of Clinton supporters in 2008 who fell in behind Barack Obama. By any measure, the Democratic Party is unified.  

81 percent of Bernie's people refused to take a long walk with Bernie to Philadelphia. Put another way, only 19 percent of Berners are "Bernie-or-Bust" zealots, and we can expect more to go AWOL in the coming weeks.

Metaphorically, Bernie has gone from kingmaker to Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea. His supporters, like chunks of the marlin "Santiago," the old man, was trying haul to shore, were picked off one-by-one until, arriving at the shore, there's nothing left. Likewise, Bernie's power dwindled. 

Conversely, if Bernie had done what every second-place finisher has done for eons -- conceding and then endorsing -- his fortunes would be less pathetic today. As Bouie noted, when Hillary's numbers inevitably improved with the addition of Bernie's former supporters, Bernie could've claimed direct credit for lending his support after explicitly leading his people to Hillary's camp.

Instead, he dillydallied instead of leading. It's Politics 101, and, yes, Bernie blew it. He could've partnered with Hillary, rather than poking her from the sidelines.

And he continues to dillydally, occasionally popping up on TV to draw undesirable attention to his unnecessary stubbornness. By the way, his stubbornness is being joined by the sad desperation of an old man clinging to his fading late-in-life rock star status. When he's not on television or in the news with yet another irritatingly coy "I'm Not Leaving" appearance somewhere, he's relegated to yesterday's news. The world has moved on, leaving Bernie to inadvertently characterize himself as a has-been rather than a participant in the machinery that will both remake the party and crush Donald Trump. There's something especially heartbreaking (and not in a good way) about a rock star who stays too long at the show, thinking he's still a big deal but who's laboring through his overplayed greatest hits rather than taking the vanguard -- helping to lead the revolution he fought for as a serious candidate.

While Bernie dawdled, Hillary was surely endeavoring to make up the votes elsewhere, realizing that there was a decent chance Bernie might continue to hold onto his Bernie-or-Busters. As time wore on, Hillary's motivation to chase Bernie's voters declined as they either signed on with her anyway, or she sidestepped Bernie's people entirely to pick up votes from undecideds who are being rapidly ostracized by Trump's shenanigans.

Yes, Bernie managed to shoehorn a few new issues into the platform, including the expansion of Social Security and the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which made it illegal for federal funds to be used for healthcare plans that include abortion services. This shouldn't be overlooked. But Bernie's reputation as a leader, had he played the game according to the traditions of the process, could have gained him a lot more. It remains to be seen how Bernie's post 2016 reputation might suss out in the Senate, but it's fair to assume that he's pissed off enough Democrats by both demonizing the establishment and refusing to concede, consequently making it even more difficult for him to form coalitions in support of his legislative agenda. No one likes to do business with a spoiler who overplays his hand. Once again, he could wind up taking a lonely stroll rather than marching his agenda into law. 

It's no one's fault except his own. Incidentally, losing the nomination was no one's fault except Bernie's, too. Berners definitely have a point about our corrupt voting system, and a long menu of reforms are definitely mandatory. That said, Bernie simply didn't prepare to win, and once he gained momentum, he didn't have the infrastructure in place to parlay it into more victories. He started too late and ran out of time. Coincidentally, he made the same fatal error by not conceding last month. He's dillydallying yet again -- this time with the Philadelphia cityscape growing larger in the windshield. 

If the revolution is going to succeed, I wouldn't wait around for Bernie to lead it. He was the wrong messenger for the right message. In the end, the system wasn't rigged against Bernie. Indeed, he's plunked himself into a tight spot of his own doing. Sadder still is the fact that he continues to believe he holds course-altering power within the party. 

Add "delusional" to the list of pejoratives.

Next: Losing My Religion, Again - by Tommy Christopher

Losing My Religion, Again

by Tommy Christopher

There's never a real ending to the sad story of losing a faith I never really had, because it's human nature to replace the things we lose, even unintentionally. For me, that replacement became something that gave me the closest thing I would ever have to spirituality.

One of the key elements to my big break-up with Jesus was my discovery of the baseball book Ball Four. Prior to that, my relationship to baseball was mostly abstract. There were no ballfields in the neighborhood I grew up in, the streets were far too busy for stickball, and the vacant lots too strewn with rubble. 

My earliest memory about baseball, aside from watching it on TV as a toddler and trying to figure out what was going on outside the narrow frame around the pitcher and catcher, was a story my mom told me. When I was little, hanging out and talking to my mom was my very favorite thing to do, and really had an impact on me. Until I was about five or six, she was a single mom caring for two kids, and as the youngest, I spent the most time with her.

When my mom was a kid, she was a huge New York Yankees fan, and her favorite player was Yogi Berra. One of the things kids did back then was to flip baseball cards, a barbaric practice by which priceless treasures were flicked at the wall and dog-eared, and whoever's player's card landed closest to the wall won the other player's now-worthless card. 

My mom's story involved one such contest in which she won a Yogi Berra card from a neighborhood bully, who then pushed her down and skinned her knee. I wish I could remember all the details, because the way my mom told it, it was like being there, and even though I knew nothing about baseball at the time, I used to make her tell it to me over and over again.

Part of the reason was that Yogi Berra sounded a lot like Yogi Bear, which immediately piqued my interest. If her story had centered around Don Larsen, who knows if I would have hung in there?

But I think the reason it stuck with me was that my mom was the winner in the story, the moral of which was that even though she got pushed down, she still came away with that Yogi Berra card. Not as satisfying as if she had beat his ass, but the emotion she conveyed in the telling made an impression on me.

It was from that seed that my love of baseball grew, because when my mom would tell me the story, she packed it full of baseball lore from her childhood, so that I got to know names like Duke Snider and Whitey Ford and Pee Wee Reese long before I knew the first thing about the sport they played.

As I've said before, one of my favorite things to do as a child was to run errands with my mom, and my favorite destination was the PM Bookstore in Plainfield. They sold used books and magazines, and if I was well-behaved through all our other errands, I'd get to load up on all the out-of-date reading material I could get my hands on. I loved old magazines and comic books, but old baseball books soon became a favorite of mine. 

At first it was because I recognized those names from my mom's story, but I quickly became obsessed with the game, particularly its stats and history. I read everything I could get my hands on, which was mostly really old. That little quirk led to a pretty comical bit of trouble later in life.

See, where I grew up, black people were just called either "people" or "black people," but when we moved out to the suburbs, if the subject came up, it was usually with considerably less polite nomenclature. So, when I decided to do a report for school that essentially described the "Jackie Robinson Effect" before it had a name, I didn't really know what the polite term white people used was, other than what I'd read in my books. My mom got called down to the principal's office with me to explain why I had entitled my report "The Role of the Negro Player in Major League Baseball."

One of those books, of course, was "Ball Four," former Yankees ace Jim Bouton's baseball diary that was a revelation to me, combining everything I loved about baseball with heavy doses of philosophy, politics, and sex, which were all fairly new concepts to me.

The book became my "Catcher in the Rye." I read and re-read it, underlined and marked my favorite passages by folding the corner of the page, and obsessively bought more copies of it like the Mel Gibson character in "Conspiracy Theory." I probably still have five or six of them in my attic right now.

It was this book that set me adrift away from the illusions I had held as a child, and it was the sport it brought to life that filled in the spiritual void it helped create.

My obsession with baseball stats manifested itself in a growing collection of baseball cards that was aided greatly by a discount sale at the Great Eastern supermarket. Toward the end of the 1978 season, they were selling three-pack trays of Topps cards for 15 cents, and so I loaded up, and traded a mess of them to fill in my collection with older cards. Pretty quickly, I had amassed thousands of cards dating back to the late sixties.

My collecting incentives were all wrong, though, because my favorite thing to do was to pore over the statistics on the backs of the cards, so I had little use for rookie cards. The more over-the-hill the player, the better. I also loved to count and organize the cards. For no good reason at all, I'd suddenly decide that instead of organizing them alphabetically by team, I'd switch the whole thing to the numbers on the backs, then back to alphabetical by team, but with all the different years merged.

Unfortunately, all the trivia knowledge and historical acumen in the world couldn't make me a decent baseball player. Part of the problem was a late start to the game, part of it was my poor eyesight, and a lot of it was my totally useless form of ambidextrousness. I write with my left hand, but do almost everything else right-handed, so when I finally did try to play baseball, I wound up instinctively trying to catch with my throwing hand, and never really got the hang of catching with my gloved hand. When I was ten, I took a hardball right in the teeth, and was never the same in the batter's box after that.

None of this dampened my love of the game, which came to represent everything you could want from a religion, and more. Back in those days, baseball was the one thing in American life that was universal in a way that's hard to convey now. No matter who you were or where you were, you could always talk about baseball. There as many sects as there were teams, and doctrinal differences like the Designated Hitter rule and free agency, but instead of dividing people, they brought them together.

The game itself was poetry in motion. I defy any pastor to come up with a sermon more inspiring or miraculous than an Ozzie Smith highlight reel narrated by Mel Allen, or a scriptural reference as simple yet instantly-recognizable as "The Catch." 

In a word, baseball was perfect. In practice, it mirrored real life in that its only flaws were in the men who played it, but the game itself was everything you would want in a spiritual milieu, eternal and flawless. A baseball game lasts as long as it has to, not a second more or less. There are technically no limits on how many hits, runs, or even strikeouts you can accumulate in a single inning, no limit to how far you can hit the ball. Conversely, perfection is possible, and rare. 

All those possibilities, and all the flawed and fascinating history of baseball, are present between the foul poles of every game. Watching a baseball game, to me, was like watching a living dream. 

Even as bitterness and cynicism overtook everything else, baseball remained a source of serenity and joy over the years that couldn't be crushed by Pete Rose's disgrace, or the periodic strikes and lockouts that soured fair-weather fans, or even the idiotic worship of baseball's least-inspiring play, the Home Run Derby.

I can't remember when it happened, but suddenly, people started paying attention to this All-Star Game exhibition that epitomized everything I hated about the modern baseball fan. To be fair, everyone hates the baseball fans that come after them, but these were people of my generation giving a crap about a glorified batting practice session. To start with, it's a stupid fucking name, because hitting a "home run" in batting practice is like telling someone you seduced your Fleshlight. Sure, it's possible to fail at that, but success is really nothing to brag about.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a good home run as much as the next guy, but context is everything. A solo shot into the short porch can be earth-shattering if it happens in the bottom of the ninth during a tie game, just as a monster shot can be a blip in the seventh inning of a blowout. But as for the magic that suffuses the spirit of the game, the home run is a poor example.

Everything that was ruining baseball for me came to a head in one moment in 1999. All the greed and brutish dipshittery snowballed during the 1998 home run chase between 'roidheads Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, compounded by every infielder who could suddenly hit 30 homers a year, but it was at the 1999 World Series that they all combined in a supernova of disgust.

Before game two of the series in Atlanta, they introduced the members of the "All-Century Team," which I already knew included Pete Rose. As greats like Willie Mays and Ted Williams and Hank Aaron took the stage, the crowd applauded, but those cheers were eclipsed by those for Mark McGwire, who showed up in jeans and an elbow-patch jacket like he wasn't a multi-millionaire whore who had shit all over the gods who flanked him, but just some down-to-earth regular Joe who couldn't be bothered with fancified duds. 

That probably would have been enough, but then Pete Rose came out to sully that stage, and he got the biggest ovation by far. It was at that moment that I realized things had been done to my game that could never be undone, and even if they could, no one else seemed to want them to be undone. 

It wasn't until I lost it that I realized what a source of spiritual comfort the game had been for me, and maybe in a few more years, I'll figure out what it is that replaced it, and what I'll lose next.