Unlucky Days

by | Jan 3, 2018

TAA 0001 – On the inaugural episode of The American Age podcast, C. Travis Webb and Seph Rodney discuss “unlucky days.” Taking inspiration from the Mayan tradition of the haab (i.e. the five “unnamed” days that fall between the end of the old sun calendar and the start of the new) Travis and Seph discuss the days between Christmas and New Year, and the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

C.T. WEBB 00:32 Good afternoon, and welcome to the inaugural edition of The American Age podcast. My name is C. Travis Webb, and I’m speaking with:
S. RODNEY 00:39 Seph Rodney.
C.T. WEBB 00:40 And today, we’re going to be talking about unlucky days. We’re going to situate that first with a brief discussion kind of putting us in the place of Mesoamerican calendrical systems. And then we’ll take it from there. To begin with, I’d like to read from The Flayed God, which is a book by Roberta and Peter Markman. In this section, they’re talking briefly about the Mesoamerican calendar, which is pretty famously the Circular Calendar. If anyone’s been to the National Museum in Mexico – or there are plenty of other museums that have examples, as well – these really involved, kind of baroque calendars with all these various iconography on it. This circular calendrical system had a couple different manifestations, and we’re going to talk about one of them right now. “While the daily cycle of the sun provided one view of this order, the annual cycle of the sun, observed through the movement on the horizon of its rising and setting points, led them,” and by ‘them’ they mean the Mesoamericans, “to an understanding of a different sort of order. The order embodied in the cycle of the solar year with its repeating pattern of the seasons. An order mysteriously involved with the provision of their sustenance.”
C.T. WEBB 02:01 They’re talking about crops here. So crops grow in certain seasons and that comes back around over and over again. “From this cycle, they derived one of the two fundamental calendars in use throughout Mesoamerica from the times of the earliest civilizations. That was the solar calendar of 360 days divided into 18 months of 20 days and 5 unlucky days added to complete a 365-day cycle. A calendar called the xihuitl in central Mexico and the Haab by the Maya.” And then it goes on to attest the calendar in various other Mesoamerican civilizations.
C.T. WEBB 02:42 This idea of unlucky days was first introduced to me by a professor many years ago. He talked about in these unlucky days people wouldn’t shower and they would avoid [laughter]– Right? Yeah. Probably not the time to go visit your neighbors [laughter]. But they wouldn’t trim their nails. It was considered a very inauspicious time to begin something. And the professor pointed out that– One of the things he liked to do in that seminar was sort of take down the idea of Western progress a peg or two. Now, not to say that there isn’t Western progress, that wasn’t his shtick. But simply that there are more remainders from our past in the current world than we at first take– that are at first-blush apparent to us. And these unlucky days was one of these examples. And he mentioned the parallel between the days after Christmas and the New Year. And not that days are unlucky, but that they’re in this kind of weird limbo. Right? So you’re not really– Maybe you have to go to work still, but it doesn’t really feel– Everything’s just kind of out of sorts. You know what I mean, Seph?
S. RODNEY 04:07 I do. I do. And just for the record, because I don’t think I was recording this earlier, Seph Rodney. Yes, you are correct. I feel– and I don’t think that I have enough of a sense of last year or the year before to be sure of this, but I mean, it feels vaguely reminiscent to have that sense of, “Yeah, I’m between, sort of. I’m neither,” as an old high school teacher used to say to me, “I’m neither here nor there.” In this week, it feels like I am working, because I am. I actually plan to go into work to edit at Hyperallergic tomorrow, but the rest of week is sort of off. But I’m still going to be working. I’m still going to be writing in the evening hours especially. I mean, I plan to see stuff with people during the day; maybe go to a museum or two.
C.T. WEBB 05:20 Right. Right.
S. RODNEY 05:20 I think this always happens because it’s sort of after Christmas, and Christmas always sort of makes me think of overstuffed people on couches [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 05:41 I was an overstuffed person on a couch just yesterday, so.
S. RODNEY 05:43 Right. Right. Just kind of having eaten your fill and kind of not knowing what to do with yourself besides watched organized sports i.e., football, basketball, whatever.
C.T. WEBB 05:56 Probably not football much longer [laughter], but–
S. RODNEY 06:00 You mean that we’re not going to survive? Is that what you’re getting at?
C.T. WEBB 06:02 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 06:04 Yeah, right.
C.T. WEBB 06:04 I mean, if they make it. They have some problems they need to address.
S. RODNEY 06:10 And then the New Year celebration when people seem, if for no other reason than the excuse of the calendar shifting over, they seem rejuvenated. They seem to find promise again. And I think things like New Year’s resolutions have everything to do with this arbitrary demarcation. Right? That says, “Okay. This old stuff is done.” Like what happened in 2017, which for some of us was a horror show–
C.T. WEBB 06:38 Right.
S. RODNEY 06:39 –is sort of encapsulated in those 12 months, and somehow the next 12 are going to be different.
C.T. WEBB 06:46 Yeah. Yeah, I mean, the thing you touched on there is one of these kind of– What gets to the root of why I thought it might something interesting to talk about is we are very enamored with ourselves in the West, with the idea of progress, and the future, and–
S. RODNEY 07:08 Newness.
C.T. WEBB 07:09 Yeah. But in reality, how much our sense of time – leaving aside kind of the biological markers of time and old age and all the other things that go along with that– But leaving that aside for a moment, how much the world that we live inside of is actually cyclical. The time that we live inside of is cyclical time. We come back to Christmas the same time every year. We come back to New Year, or Kwanzaa, or whatever, Ramadan – I mean, Ramadan’s not equivalent to Christmas. But these calendrical markers that we use to orient our lives are actually very potent, and very present, and not at all dissimilar to how people would have lived 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago. One of the things we always like to do is sort of think about how shiny, and new, and bright, and wise, and brilliant we are in the 21st Century.
S. RODNEY 08:20 The city on the hill.
C.T. WEBB 08:21 That’s right, yeah, absolutely, Cotton Mathers’ City on the Hill. But in reality, how we move through a day, how you moved through your life this past year, right– So when you situate yourself in that life, when you’re moving through your life – I know you and I have talked before about how winters can be tough for you, the long winters in New York, coming from Jamaica in particular– But how do you go about mustering the strength to move through though? It’s by marking a calendar; by what comes back around. And how do you prepare yourself? How do you gird yourself for it? Like, “Okay, these months are coming.” We very much live in cycles still I believe.
S. RODNEY 09:12 In fact, today is kind of a perfect day to talk about this because you make me think of what I just did two hours ago–
C.T. WEBB 09:22 Please, yeah, go ahead.
S. RODNEY 09:23 –which is work out. I went to the gym and now I have this workout routine which I started, actually, this year. This year was the first year I started running regularly.
C.T. WEBB 09:37 Oh, okay.
S. RODNEY 09:38 I fenced for a long time, for I think it was 14 years, 17 years, something like that. And I stopped a few years ago. And I’ve had–
C.T. WEBB 09:49 Because you can’t just pick up and go fence on an impromptu–
S. RODNEY 09:53 No. No, it doesn’t work like that.
C.T. WEBB 09:53 –like, Tuesday afteroon. That’s called murder. You really can’t do that [laughter].
S. RODNEY 10:00 Well, at this stage of the game – I’m 47 – I can’t just do that anymore. And I’ve had these conversations with my doctor, and he’s like, “Oh, well, you need to do this, that, and the other.” And essentially, the best way to get a great cardiovascular exercise is swimming or running. So, I started running.
C.T. WEBB 10:24 Sure. And low impact on the body too.
S. RODNEY 10:26 Right. So what I find myself constantly doing to make those minutes pass on the treadmill– Because I like running on the treadmill because I can pretty much control my environment. It’s not like being in the street and being cold, or having to deal with rain, or having to deal with the stoplight, la, la, la. So I run on a treadmill and what I find is that I’m constantly counting to myself. Like, I’m telling myself, “Okay, I just need to get to 8 minutes. Okay, I can get to 8. I can get to 16. Okay, I can get to 28. It’s just 10 minutes more and then I can get to 36.” So I run to 36 minutes. I do like three and a half miles. And I know that I’m good. But it’s the constant counting, and it’s the constant sort of going back over the ground. I mean, literally, I am on a treadmill, in my head and on a physical treadmill in the actual space at the gym. What occurs to me is that doing that kind of mental exercise of saying, “Okay, I’m just going to get to 10. I just need to get to 10,” is that it’s a ritual. It’s just a ritual to make it there. I know how much it’s going to cost. I know how much it’s going to take out of me. I know I can do it, but I know it’s going to– Either way, I’m going to get there, but I need to count. I need to count the time; somehow makes it manageable.
C.T. WEBB 11:49 Yeah, what you just described is a survival strategy. I remember watching – it was some documentary on, I don’t know, one of these guys that– You may know what I’m talking about. But they went climbing on K2 or some famous mountain, or maybe it was in the Andes. And his partner fell. And he thought that his partner was dead so he had to cut the rope.
S. RODNEY 12:20 Oh, that movie. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 12:22 Yeah, yeah, and the guy had like broken both of his legs, or whatever. So, anyway, the guy in the movie was recounting – the documentary, I guess – how he made it back to the camp. And it was some obviously much more awful and terrible version of how you get to 28 minutes on the treadmill, which was that, “Okay, I’m going to get to that rock. All right, I’m going to get to that. Okay, I’m going to get to that stick. All right, I’m going to crawl, I’m going to get to–” You know, just sort of setting these manageable goals that help you kind of get ahead. I wonder– I don’t know if I would call that ritual though. But I mean, there is something– I do see why you would use that term though because I mean, there is something anchoring about it. Right? I mean, there’s something that you’re holding onto, some kind of scaffolding that helps you deal with the reality of the situation, whatever that may be.
S. RODNEY 13:27 But I think what you said is actually more to the point, which is as a kind of survival technique. And that makes me think, “Right. Each of us – not all of us, but a good number of us – are born with a kind of yawning chasm in front of us. Right? We literally have 70 years, 70 or 80 years to fill, to do something with.” And–
C.T. WEBB 13:51 If you’re lucky.
S. RODNEY 13:53 Yeah, if you’re lucky. But a lot of us, the numbers have been going up significantly for the past couple of centuries. We have all that time to fill. I think if each of us was presented at like, let’s say at 10 years old– I’m just picking an arbitrary number. You’re not yet old enough to really know what you’re getting yourself into, but you’re old enough to appreciate something like what time means. Okay, 10. And someone takes you aside and says, “Okay, look, you have about 60 years left. Do you know what you want to do with that time?”
C.T. WEBB 14:33 You mean just sort of the overwhelming nature of something like that?
S. RODNEY 14:35 Exactly. Exactly.
C.T. WEBB 14:36 Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point actually. Yeah. I mean, it is a kind of scaffolding, right, in there? And so that recommends the cyclicity of it, right? And so it’s familiar. It’s known. You come back to the same spot over and over again. It’s like–
S. RODNEY 14:51 You get to try it again. You get a kind of do-over. You’re like, “Oh, I screwed that up. I screwed up my freshman year. But, ah, sophomore year, I’m going to nail it.”
C.T. WEBB 15:02 Right. Right, right. It’s funny, obviously, I’m sure we both know a lot of academics – and neither one of us are really consistently in academia, at least – but I know they really do work on an academic calendar. There’s a way in which they sort of match the rhythms of their year. And that’s the space that they live in. Whereas for the rest of us that don’t live inside of institutions in that same way, you still feel that even if you are not afforded the kind of life that allows you to repose in a consistent way in between the fall and winter quarters, or fall and spring semesters, or something like that– But you yourself, I mean, you had to go to work yesterday. You worked out earlier today. But there’s still a way in which the day is – to get back to what we were talking about earlier – this sort of no-man’s-land of days in between. Part of the reason I wanted to start the podcast on an inauspicious set of days was in order to sort of embrace what Stuart Hall called the contingency of failure. And so this, obviously, it’s a new podcast, it’s a new endeavor. We’re just starting The American Age, and we’re doing all this stuff. But you really have to embrace the reality that failure is the most likely outcome for any new endeavor [laughter]. That’s not me being a pessimist.
S. RODNEY 16:58 No. No, not at all.
C.T. WEBB 17:01 I wanted to fully embrace [laughter] the contingency of failure by beginning our podcast in this no-man’s-land between these two days. I mean, well, between the two days of Christmas and New Year.
S. RODNEY 17:18 Right. And that is reminiscent or makes me think of a lot of the conversations we’ve had over the years. Which kind of gets into – what’s the word I want to use? – this state that I’m kind of constantly in, which is a mild to major antagonism [laughter] with the US. Because part of what I don’t like about the culture here is that it encourages precisely the opposite of what you just did. What you just did is you said something that is just true. It’s just plain truth. And in truth, I mean it’s typical for the majority of us; this is where we find ourselves. We constantly fail. We constantly fail.
C.T. WEBB 18:10 Yeah, right.
S. RODNEY 18:11 But the ethos of the nation – the sort of story that it tells itself through popular culture mechanisms like movies, and novels, and TV shows – is that we’re winners. That we’re just going to win. We’re just on the verge of winning. In fact, your last failure only means that you’re closer to winning. Which is ridiculous.
C.T. WEBB 18:39 Okay. So on this note, can I share something with you that’s very, it was really crushing to me and I think it will probably be crushing to you too? So you know the end of The Great Gatsby, and he says, “We’ll stretch out our hands,” the green light at the end of the dock, and then, “Maybe one fine day.” That’s the last line, “Maybe one fine day.” So I had always read that as just kind of this poignant, poignant irony; sort of Fitzgerald’s ultimate commentary on the ultimate, I’m sorry, the ultimate commentary on the improbability of the American dream. Apparently, that was not his intention. Apparently, he intended that to be an optimistic ending. That one fine day the past that plagues us will be overcome. That makes Fitzgerald even more American than I thought that he was. I didn’t mean to interrupt, but it goes along with what you were saying.
S. RODNEY 19:46 No, no, no, no, no. I love that. But I’m also jealous because, frankly, among us, I thought I was the one who really loved Fitzgerald. I read pretty much everything, even the unfinished stuff. You know, I probably stopped reading him, probably, I don’t know, 10, 12, 15 years ago. But I think I read everything. I mean, I think I read all the short stories, and all the novels, and all that. And I don’t recall that. And now it makes me think I need to go back and reread The Great Gatsby. But, also following on that–
C.T. WEBB 20:25 You were saying you felt like saying true things is somehow sometimes difficult in American public discourse.
S. RODNEY 20:33 Yeah. Yeah, well, what happens is, and I want to say Americans here, but that’s not actually accurate, it tends to make people who – and this is what we’re getting at I think – have bought into the American dream really uncomfortable. And I recall, actually, a conversation you and I had at a bar when I was in California. That’s right, when I was in California for your wedding. We had all gone out, and Molly’s friend who went to law school, who’s Asian, what is her name?
C.T. WEBB 21:10 Susan Hu.
S. RODNEY 21:11 Right. You and she had a conversation – you told me about this later – about you really–
C.T. WEBB 21:19 She’s, by the way, a partner at a big law firm, so definitely don’t say anything uncomplimentary of her [laughter].
S. RODNEY 21:25 No, no, no, I don’t plan–
C.T. WEBB 21:26 That was a joke.
S. RODNEY 21:26 No I don’t plan to.
C.T. WEBB 21:26 That was a joke, I was kidding.
S. RODNEY 21:28 Oh, okay, okay [laughter]. Well, no, I certainly wasn’t going to say anything libelous [laughter]. You had said to her, to Susan, at some point, “My relationship with Molly is great, and I love her, but you know, la, la, something, something, something. But I don’t need to see her every day. I know there will be times when I will be like ‘Oh, I really, I’m not into seeing you right now.'”
C.T. WEBB 21:59 Right.
S. RODNEY 22:00 And her sort of, oh God, her sort of Disneyfied version of romantic life just resisted that. She said something like, “No, no, no, no, no. With my boyfriend, there’s no time we don’t want to see each other. We’re completely in love.” And you looked at her and in that Travis way that you have– And God bless you because you do it differently than I do. I do it with a kind of fat dollop of scorn. But you don’t. You actually do it from this– You make these kind of statements from this position of, “Now, philosophically, that doesn’t hold water.” You said, “No, really, think about it. There are times, as much as you love someone, you don’t want to see them. And you just are not interested.” And you said it in that way. And I remember you said something like what you got from her was cognitive dissonance, was like a shake of the head, a kind of, it just didn’t compute. She kept smiling but she clearly didn’t have a way to take that on board. And there’s a way in which – maybe getting back to this thing about these lost days – that this something about the American spirit that doesn’t want to be in those days, that doesn’t want to spend time in that space where how they’re supposed to respond to something isn’t clearly defined. Right? I mean, if I were in grad school I’d want to call it a liminal space.
C.T. WEBB 23:44 Right.
S. RODNEY 23:45 But it’s just a space of – to be more clear to myself about it – it’s a space where you kind of have to find the truth of the day for yourself.
C.T. WEBB 24:01 Yeah, so I don’t disagree with anything you just said as far as, I mean, there is clearly– there is an adolescent strain in the American psyche. For good and ill, right? I mean, really for good and ill. You and I had this discussion in 2008 when I think you were still living in London, and we took a lot of flack – you know American’s take a lot of flack if you have European friends – about kind of our retrograde notions of race, etc., which I agree with wholeheartedly.
S. RODNEY 24:43 You mean you cosigned them giving us flack for that.
C.T. WEBB 24:48 Yes. Yeah, yeah. But we elected Barack Obama in 2008. There’s not ever been a non-white European leader. And so–
S. RODNEY 25:01 Ouch.
C.T. WEBB 25:03 Now, I know in 2016, or 2017, that looks quite different. I understand that that casts that in a less flattering light. But the American ability to reinvent itself is, I almost want to say is unique on the world’s stage. I hesitate to say unique because, you know, of course, there’s going to be– I’m sure someone that studies this will point out to me that there are other examples. But part of what I wanted to do with The American Age and with our podcast is try and inflect that differently, and distill what I would consider the best parts of America. You know what Leonard Cohen said, “The cradle of the best and of the worst.” And labor under the assumption that our adolescence is a stage, but not a state. And that yes, we have been an adolescent culture for many years, and petulant in many ways. And in all of the things you said earlier about the unwillingness to deal with reality, I mean, very much characteristic of America in history. But I am unwilling to concede that that’s the way it has to be. I am unwilling to concede that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness necessarily involves that sort of adolescent, willful, cognitive dissonance that you described. I think that can be turned. At least I hope that can be turned.
S. RODNEY 27:07 Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 27:08 Grow the fuck up, basically, is probably what I want to do. It’s like, grow the fuck up. And across the board– I guess we didn’t decide whether we could swear on the podcast or not, but what eight-year-old’s going to be listening to us anyway, so. But grow the fuck up across the board. Grow the fuck up. The nut-job conservatives need to grow the fuck up, and so do nut-job academics too. Like, across the board, we need some adults, all hands on deck. We need some adults up here. So, anyway.
S. RODNEY 27:44 Yeah. That reminds me of something I read the other day. I think I was on Twitter and I was following some comment that I liked, following a thread I suppose. And someone responded by saying – I think by tweeting, I should say – something about ending policing and ending incarceration. Mind you, not ending mass incarceration–
C.T. WEBB 28:18 Oh, my [laughter].
S. RODNEY 28:19 –which I would want to sign on to, because I think that system is, and I think it has been, accurately described as a kind of slavery.
C.T. WEBB 28:26 Of course it has.
S. RODNEY 28:31 Like a kind of, like the tail end of cattle slavery, right?
C.T. WEBB 28:33 Yeah. For sure. Yeah.
S. RODNEY 28:38 Right, fair enough. But she said, “End policing and incarceration.”
C.T. WEBB 28:42 I feel like this person didn’t grow up in the neighborhoods you and I grew up in.
S. RODNEY 28:47 Right? [laughter] And part of what I want–
C.T. WEBB 28:49 That’s definitely not–
S. RODNEY 28:50 Right. Part of what I want to say to her is well, in that way that I tend to say these things with this kind of staggered disbelief, “Are you serious? I don’t know what version of humanity exists in your head that you would imagine that that would work. To not ever police and to not ever incarcerate anyone.” Because I’ve met people – and my life isn’t particularly gruesome or awful – but I’ve met people who I know are killers. And–
C.T. WEBB 29:38 Have you really?
S. RODNEY 29:39 So I don’t know what you do with that.
C.T. WEBB 29:42 Wait. Really?
S. RODNEY 29:43 Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 29:44 Like you know– Oh.
S. RODNEY 29:46 Oh, I should tell you– Well, I can retell the story. I’m sure I’ve told you. There was a time when I was working at Hugo Boss. This was actually– I can be specific about this. I think it was 2003, 2004, because it was 2004 when I left. I was working at Hugo Boss at the Los Angeles Beverly Center Mall.
C.T. WEBB 30:09 I remember that job. I remember when you had that.
S. RODNEY 30:11 And these guys come in, and there was a leader. There was clearly a leader. And some of the guys were clearly like henchmen. I mean, I think that’s the best way to describe them. These guys were– they had that sort of prison physique like it’s all upper body.
C.T. WEBB 30:31 Right.
S. RODNEY 30:33 And I think there were like– I think I met like four or five of them. I want to say the leader guy came in, and of course, he paid with all cash. And he just wanted a bunch of– He wanted outfits that were upscale, that were like suits but not exactly suits. He kind of wanted a suit without the jacket.
C.T. WEBB 30:53 He wanted something that blood could be washed out of easily. Was that one of his criteria?
S. RODNEY 30:57 What?
C.T. WEBB 30:59 I said, “Was one of the criteria was something that blood could be washed out of easily.” Did that tip you off that–
S. RODNEY 31:03 That’s funny. That’s funny. No, no, no, no. Here’s what tipped me off, was that he had a bunch of guys– There was one guy I served, and he bought some stuff from me. And I want to say I was happy with the sale because it was like over $1000. Then he sent in, I want to say his second-in-command, but I’m guessing at that. And he was a guy who actually gave me a lot of grief. He would ask me the price for something. He’d say, “So how much is this?” And I’d say, “Well, the jacket’s 560.” He’d say, “No, really, Seph, how much is it?” I’m like, “You can see it here. It’s written here. The price is 560.” And he’s like, “Really? Really?” And he’d talk about something else. He’s like, “Okay, how much is the jacket?” And I said, “Okay. It’s five hundred and sixty dollars.” And I think what he was doing is he was–
C.T. WEBB 31:54 Like bartering or something?
S. RODNEY 31:55 Well, he was trying to push me.
C.T. WEBB 31:57 Haggling. Haggling is what I mean to say.
S. RODNEY 31:58 Yeah, no, haggling. But he was trying to push me to see if I would give in. If I would say, “Oh, for you it’ll be only 500.” But of course, I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. I think there were sales people who would, but whatever. No, what scared me was that I was fine with those guys. The second guy was annoying but he eventually bought stuff. But he had another guy come in. This guy was a redhead. Again, prison physique. Actually, he was the muscleman. The other guys had their sort of regular, sort of normal physiques for their height and weight. But this guy was a muscleman. He was their muscle. And he–
C.T. WEBB 32:42 The redhead was?
S. RODNEY 32:43 Uh-huh. And he came in and he was looking in between a case at some accessory stuff and he asked me something. And I remember I answered him, and he was still looking at the thing. He answered then. And I remember he responded to me as if I didn’t speak, as if what I said did not matter. And there was something cold in that moment; like I felt the temperature drop. And I said, “Oh, this guy’s used to listening to people and not caring what they say.”
C.T. WEBB 33:17 Right.
S. RODNEY 33:18 And Beatrice, who was my manager at the time, very tall, leggy, very pretty woman from oh, it was Eastern Europe somewhere – I want to say, oh, Romania; yeah, she was Romanian – came over at one point. And Beatrice would sort of do that to flirt with customers, but to also see if she could help with a sale, la, la, la. And she came over. And after they left, she came up to me and she said, “You know, those guys made me feel like I just wasn’t safe around them. Like they’ve raped people. They’ve killed people.”
C.T. WEBB 33:53 Right. Right.
S. RODNEY 33:54 And I felt that. I don’t feel like I’m telling this story with enough intensity. There was just something about the way he responded to me that made me know to my core that what I said didn’t matter to him.
C.T. WEBB 34:12 Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. Yeah, I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone like that. But to circle it back around to what we were talking about before and this idea of we don’t need police or something inane like that.
S. RODNEY 34:31 Oh my God.
C.T. WEBB 34:32 I mean, thank God for the authorities where I grew up. I was a skinny, white kid in a bad area of Long Beach. This is not a picnic for me. And it’s not like I didn’t stand up for myself, but such as it was. But authority and sort of what was sanctioned or not sanctioned by reliable authority figures was a real comfort to me growing up. And I mean, I completely understand that the black American experience is in many instances the exact opposite of that.
S. RODNEY 35:15 Precisely.
C.T. WEBB 35:15 Yeah, I mean, I get that. It’s just like their experience of the police doesn’t look anything like mine looked like, and I get that. And I understand that they’re mad [laughter]. It makes people mad. But the idea – and then you just go too far with it – just stupid ideas that like you don’t need the police or incarceration. It’s just, you know–
S. RODNEY 35:39 And that’s where I end up. I end up using words precisely like that. I end up saying to myself, “That’s just stupid.” And, of course, when I do that, I’m mindful of the fact that if I were saying this in mixed company, or even if it were a kind of formalized conversation, a kind of round table, and someone said that to me, I would be very hard pressed not to use that word stupid. And in fact, in some ways the older I get the more I feel like that’s actually the appropriate term to use because as much as it lends itself to that game of juvenile name-calling, it also speaks to how it fails intellectually. It doesn’t even measure up to the point where– I mean, I think when you call something stupid, you’re saying it doesn’t even measure up to the standard where it’s worth arguing about.
C.T. WEBB 36:38 I agree. Yeah. I mean, I suppose. So I agree, except that I wonder if you could nudge someone like that back into a more reasonable frame of mind.
S. RODNEY 36:49 I wonder. I wonder that too. I don’t know. I mean, if somebody’s come to that position, right, if they’ve done the sort of mental and emotional process to get to a point where they’re willing to say out loud, “I don’t think we need policing anymore or incarceration [laughter].”
C.T. WEBB 37:14 Right, right right. Right.
S. RODNEY 37:16 I [laughter] end up thinking, “Oh, well maybe you are not redeemable by logical argumentation; like, maybe that’s just not going to have any effect on you.” Know what I mean?
C.T. WEBB 37:34 Yeah. Yeah, I hope that’s not the case. I mean, not for her – I don’t know who she is – but I mean I hope that for her too. But I mean, if we can’t redeem people infected with bad ideas, we have an insurmountable task. I think that there must be a way to push people off of patently false, really just cancerous ideas, about the world, about our neighbors, about America. I mean, you’ve gotta find– Yeah, I mean, obviously I understand your – and probably share your – despair in having a reasonable conversation with someone like that. But I wonder if you could sit them down at a coffee shop or over beers, or something like that, like maybe that’s not what that person even really thinks. I mean, there’s something about social media and about the performative aspect of social media that really pushes us to extremes, or encourages extremes, maybe, or encourages sort of shallow thinking on the issues. What is it 240 characters now? I know they increased it or doubled it or something like that.
S. RODNEY 39:15 Yeah, yeah. I think it’s 240 now. That’s correct.
C.T. WEBB 39:18 But, yeah. I mean, I guess I could say this too, I hope that what you see pundits – and I should put air quotes around that for all the people listening – pundits spouting off whatever ideas that they have about Republicans or Democrats, or whites or blacks, or women or men, I hope that their positions are more nuanced in private. I hope that. Because if they’re not, yeah, we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble.
S. RODNEY 40:02 Well, what if they’re worse? What if they’re worse in private? I mean, what if the things that they are saying on these social media platforms that actually in some way is mitigated by the platforms of them, by the sense they are having a semi-public conversation with people. That’s the scary thought.
C.T. WEBB 40:22 Yes, that is scary. Do you think that’s true?
S. RODNEY 40:24 I can not tell. I can’t. And I think I’m actually right in taking this attitude which is that I don’t know enough. I’m not a pollster. I think someone like, oh, who’s the guy who runs the FiveSixtyFive–
C.T. WEBB 40:45 Oh, FiveThirtyEight.
S. RODNEY 40:47 FiveThirtyEight.
S. RODNEY 40:47 FiveThirtyEight poll.
C.T. WEBB 40:48 Nate Silver.
S. RODNEY 40:49 Nate. That’s it. Right. I think someone like him is someone who you can ask those types of questions to. Say guys sitting down over coffee or beers, like say, “Hey, Nate, what do you think people, in general, are thinking about this thing?” And I think he has the kind of statistical data – at least if these questions have been posed by the service he runs – I think he would have a sense of how to answers these. But me, I know that I have a very limited group of people. And no, not even– that’s not the way to say it. I have a very limited sphere of conversation that I participate in. So, I don’t know.
C.T. WEBB 41:50 Yeah. I grabbed from my bookshelf, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz Everybody Lies book. And he’s someone that actually uses Google to do big data analytics. And he’ll analyze searches. And one of the anecdotes that he tells when he’s talking about his book is after the San Bernadino shooting happened. You know, the two radicalized people that shot up their work?
S. RODNEY 42:27 The Muslim couple. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 42:30 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 42:30 Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 42:31 Obama gave a speech in which he sort of said it’s – and there was kind of a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric that went on right after that– Obama gave this kind of admonishing speech about how these things were un-American, and kind of chastising people. Davidowitz did track these searches. And what he saw was that it drove people’s opinions in the other direction. So people became more resentful. They became more suspicious of Muslims. However, at one point in the speech, President Obama said that Muslims were war heroes, and athletes, and kind of everyday people that you see every day in America. And the other thing, the other search term that went up right after that was Muslim athletes and Muslim war heroes. And so one of his conclusions that he draws is that if you provoke people’s curiosities, that you have much better success at moving them off an ideological dime.
S. RODNEY 44:02 Right.
C.T. WEBB 44:02 Right? So if you can make them curious about something– And I have to say in my own experience something like that is true. So take your sort of the straw man Twitter-user that we were talking about before. If you could have an interaction with her in which you discussed maybe – going back to your example of Hugo Boss, maybe how unsafe, let’s be really strategic and savvy about it – how unsafe your female boss felt. Because, you know, you probably aren’t going to get much traction with talking about how unsafe you felt. But talk about how unsafe your female boss felt. Or talk about protecting women from predators.
S. RODNEY 44:55 Right.
C.T. WEBB 44:56 And that these crimes or these injustices are something that armed police officers help prevent. If you could connect with this person with that personal story, I am very encouraged that for most people, I feel like you can move them. Now it’s slow work. It’s really slow, slow, slow, slow work.
S. RODNEY 45:31 Well, it’s the much-vaunted, much-respected Socratic method, right? Where you ask questions, “Well, do you think that this would work in this instance? And what about this instance? And then what would happen if she were to be unarmed and be by herself on a lonely, or rather alone on a dark street at 2 o’clock in the morning?” And I think that there is something worthwhile to that. And maybe this is a way to circle back to what we started with, because in back of my mind, I have to admit there’s a way in which I want to be loyal to the theme.
C.T. WEBB 46:25 Oh, for sure. I was actually going to try and segue back to it, so you’re welcome to do it. Go [laughter].
S. RODNEY 46:29 Well, just that I think in terms of time. I think in terms of how much time it now takes to do something so that when I have a conversation with someone – especially if I’m going to be very, well, let’s face it, really teleological about it, really goal-oriented, I want to get to this place of clarity with this person – I do think in terms of time. And you and I have talked about this a lot in the last year, I mean, really it’s been in this past year. My time has become super compressed, and super precious to me because I don’t have a lot of it. And I suppose if I could just manipulate reality in such a way as – in that sort of Twilight Zone way – to just create this zone of maybe just those five nameless days. Those five nameless days to have these conversations with people where we would say, “Okay. We all actually are steeped in superstition. We are. We come from that. We believe in these things that have no sort of logical or rational–
C.T. WEBB 47:50 Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 47:51 –basis. And we all are steeped in these sort of larger family stories of who we are supposed to be because of our families. And who we are supposed to be because of the family’s ideologies, whether they are religious or philosophical, or sociopolitical, whatever.” If we had those five days, what kind of program could I devise to essentially do a sort of group deprogramming? To say, “Okay, all right, we all come from these places, from these ideologies.”
C.T. WEBB 48:40 Right.
S. RODNEY 48:44 Maybe we can figure out how to not be so bound up by them. But then I think when I have this sort of Utopian fantasy of pulling all the people I can see and touch into rationality, I have this fantasy that that’s exactly what a lot of the self-help field is about. Isn’t it? Someone comes along who sees a little bit sharper, maybe, or a little bit further than other people see, and it sounds like they really have their act together. Like they really– purposeful, and they’re knowledgeable, and they are generous of spirit in a way that a lot of us want to be. And they say, “Okay, okay. I got it, I got you. Here’s the plan.” What was it, it’s Marianne Williamson – what is it called? – oh, oh, her famous Course in Miracles. Course in Miracles.
C.T. WEBB 49:51 Oh, okay. Yes.
S. RODNEY 49:53 Right? So it’s that. Or it’s Tony Robbins, Tony Robbins, like–
C.T. WEBB 50:01 Tony Robbins with the big teeth.
S. RODNEY 50:02 Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 50:03 That’s the [crosstalk].
S. RODNEY 50:04 And he’s like, walk on coals and stuff, and I don’t know, like learn to fly. I don’t know what he does exactly.
C.T. WEBB 50:11 I think he’s moving on to flying next [laughter].
S. RODNEY 50:14 Right. But that’s the thing, right? There is no sort of way out that we haven’t already tried to take. Right? And it seems like we just talk about circular time. It seems like we just end up in a cycle again of some charlatan with some great story taking advantage of a bunch of people who really actually don’t end up in a very different place than where they started.
C.T. WEBB 50:48 Yeah, you actually– that was a very adeptly done. It was going to end up in the same place you did, but a slightly different tack, which is that one of the things that I think hamstrings us in public discourse, or really kind of interference that gets in the way of us seeing and hearing one another – and by seeing one another I mean kind of in the community of strangers that is America – is that we think that all this shit’s new.
S. RODNEY 51:24 Right.
C.T. WEBB 51:25 We think it’s all new. And that’s in relation to provoking curiosity, and sort of trying to tease a point of view into the public square slowly, carefully, is that do we really think–? And, you know, all appropriate qualifications, let me just kind of, I’ll set them all up. They’re all here in front of me. Like I’m not saying I don’t think Harvey Weinstein is a monster. I’m not saying that I don’t think that women should be championed and advocated for and that we don’t need more women in positions of power. I’m not saying any of that. I’m not saying any of that. But do we really– Rape didn’t just show up. Coercion didn’t just show up. Do we really think that in all the other eras of entitled, sort of middle-class America, that rape was just okay? Or that women were always blamed for rape? I mean, how disdainful do we see our forebearers? Now there are ways in which we– I mean, actually, I was going to qualify this but I won’t, actually. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so dangerous and pernicious to think about moral progress in an unqualified way. Kind of a bringing out the big guns of the American history of slavery – it is not as if, I mean, we really– One of the things that the right likes to do like, “Those were different times. There’s this blah, blah, blah, blah.” Everyone fucking knew it was wrong to own people. They all knew it. They all knew. When you go to the – I don’t know if you’ve been – but to the African American History Museum in DC, or whatever, so. I mean–
S. RODNEY 53:35 I have. I have.
C.T. WEBB 53:36 –it’s gut-wrenching. But some of those quotations– And one that wasn’t there but I remember Denise Diderot, the famous French, kind of Salon philosopher, he wrote about slavery. He just called it for what it was. He’s like, “You people just like your sugar.”
S. RODNEY 54:00 Right.
C.T. WEBB 54:00 “You like your sugar and your tobacco.” That’s what it was. All this other shit got made up afterwards. All the metaphysics, and the science, and all this other stuff that got made up afterwards.
S. RODNEY 54:11 Post-facto justifications.
C.T. WEBB 54:13 Absolutely. They all knew it was wrong to own people.
S. RODNEY 54:18 Right.
C.T. WEBB 54:18 Right? We have not suddenly figured out in the year 2017, “Oh, wait, you mean I can’t expose myself and masturbate on women?” Like, no! We all knew that wasn’t acceptable behavior. And I’m all for people being exposed and apologizing and excoriated and all that kind of stuff. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be tried in the court of public opinion. I have no issue with that. But it’s just not new. It’s just not new. We had, you know, just like the Mesoamericans had unlucky, superstitious days, we have these weird, kind of vestigial days between the 25th and the 1st that we don’t really know what to do with. Now, I should say in full qualification it’d be nice if we had someone in here that was maybe a devout Muslim and also an American, and whether they feel the same discombobulation between those days. I’d be curious to know. Like someone that keeps a rigorous liturgical calendar but that is also American, I wonder if they feel the same. So, I mean, we’d have to leave that as an open question mark, right? I mean, I wouldn’t want to assume that our experience of it is everyone’s experience in America.
S. RODNEY 55:40 But now that you ask the question, I’m forced to think about how I actually feel about these days. And it feels like I’m actually in a space where I feel, to be honest, a bit more free. You know?
C.T. WEBB 55:54 Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 55:54 And I find it’s very strange, and it’s got to be completely sort of made up. It has to be invented. But the days do feel different to me. And what I mean by that, I mean in days of the week. So Sunday does feel different.
C.T. WEBB 56:12 Absolutely. Absolutely.
S. RODNEY 56:12 Right. It just feels different from Thursday. And there’s something about this week that stands out from other weeks where I feel slightly more like I have a bit more agency. Like I can kind of move around differently. And I think it is partly because I do actually have one day off this week, which was today. But partly it’s also this feeling of I guess being between the sort of demands of the calendar. Right? Like I don’t have to buy any more Christmas presents. That’s done. And I don’t have to gear up for all the responsibilities that are going to land square on my plate come mid-January. It feels like there’s a little bit of promise. But I think actually where we’ve ended up in this conversation is the sense that maybe that promise really is a super-contingent. Or maybe it’s just not real. Because what’s going to happen is we’re going to have another year. And we’re kind of going to go through the cycle. And we’re going to pretend that we didn’t do this shit before, but we’re going to just do it again.
C.T. WEBB 57:30 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 57:31 Right.
C.T. WEBB 57:32 Yeah. Yeah, I mean, we get stuck in these patterns. And I wouldn’t want to go– You can get kind of kooky and new-agey with it, and sort of cyclicity of history, and rise and fall of civilizations and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily go that far with it, but– All right, not necessarily. I don’t go that far with it. But as far as I think you had captured the necessity of it early on in the conversation, which is that we need hooks to make our way through life. We need structures to make our way through life. We even–
S. RODNEY 58:08 And may–
C.T. WEBB 58:10 No, no, no, go ahead.
S. RODNEY 58:12 Well, just, I’m thinking of the anecdote, or no, rather the story you were telling earlier. I mean, maybe one of the structures by which we actually sort of deal with the horror – the horror, it is a kind of horror, actually – kind of horror of sort of systematic coercion of women by men who have power over them, one of the ways that we deal with that is we say, “Oh, this is new.” Like, “Oh, yeah, this is weird.” Like, “We’re finally confronting this and we’re changing rape culture.” You’re probably right, Travis. Was it Cortez who conquered the Mayans, who enslaved the Mayans?
C.T. WEBB 58:56 Aztecs.
S. RODNEY 58:58 Aztecs.
C.T. WEBB 58:58 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 59:00 I’m sure rape culture was in full bloom at that moment.
C.T. WEBB 59:03 Oh, yeah, absolutely.
S. RODNEY 59:05 I’m sure. Right?
C.T. WEBB 59:07 Yes.
S. RODNEY 59:08 Rape culture is not new, but one of the ways maybe we sort of accommodate ourselves to the awful nature of it is to say, “Oh, now we’re awake. Okay, now we see it.”
C.T. WEBB 59:24 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 59:24 Yeah, now–
C.T. WEBB 59:25 “Now we know rape is wrong.”
S. RODNEY 59:27 Right.
C.T. WEBB 59:27 I just didn’t know before.
S. RODNEY 59:27 Right. “No more of that.” Right.
C.T. WEBB 59:29 “I didn’t know. No one told me. Someone should have told me. I wish someone would have said that – this person is crying and has now passed out – because I thought they were having fun.” Like, come on. Yeah, it’s just– I mean the other piece of that is, of course – and then this kind of take it a little too far afield, probably something we could do for another week – but, there is a kind of complicity. I’m thinking of the Matt Lauer stuff. When you hear some of these stories about these affairs; that wasn’t rape. It was inappropriate and his ass should have been fired, but his attentions were sought out in some of those instances. I know one of the stories was he had told some woman to take her blouse off, and she did. And then he had sex with her on his desk. And then she passed out, supposedly. Well, her husband didn’t buy that story because he divorced her ass too, [laughter] so. Of course, of course, there is a complicity amongst women of being enticed by power. That just makes them human. I mean, I don’t think that– We don’t need to go in some kind of misogynist, or we don’t need to bring in misogyny, because I honestly, that just makes them human. Right?
S. RODNEY 60:56 Right.
C.T. WEBB 60:56 I mean, these women that are drawn to power are humans. Like men that are also drawn to power. Yeah, it’s not– I don’t mean to say that we can’t– I mean, honestly I think the best we can do is work on institutional structural change. And that’s why I think we all need our structures and our scaffolds, even with our five days, kind of the ugly remainder. And this might provoke you a little bit, and we’ll probably have to leave it there. Maybe we can pick it up next time. But we need America too. We can’t have been shaped by the things that we were shaped by, and love the things that we love, and move in a world that looks the way this world looks, with aircraft carriers, and international flights, and 195 different languages [inaudible] and [inaudible] fact that we are [inaudible] and that our responsibility to [inaudible] aspects [inaudible] history [inaudible].
S. RODNEY 62:20 Okay, so for next time. [crosstalk].
C.T. WEBB 62:24 Okay. All right. Thank you for joining us.
S. RODNEY 62:26 Yeah. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 62:27 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 62:27 [inaudible].


First referenced at 00:40

The Flayed God

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First referenced at 08:20

Cotton Mather / “City on the Hill”


  1. Hj

    You mentioned City on the Hill – is that a book? Will you please spell out the author’s name, as I’m not sure I heard it clearly?

    • ctwebb

      Thanks very much for the question, and sorry for the slow response. We’re still getting things rolling on our end, and just saw your comment in the queue.

      “City on the hill” is actually “City on a hill,” which references the idea of American exceptionalism. I mentioned Cotton Mather, puritan minister and author (1663-1728), who believed that the founding of America was akin to the establishment of a new Jerusalem, and that America was a light unto the world. Really, though, I should have referenced John Winthrop, who originally used the phrase in this context. In his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (c.1630) he wrote, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us…”

      Both U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan used the phrase in defense (and praise) of the idea of American exceptionalism. It’s been used by other U.S. presidents too.

      Hope that answers your question. My reference should have been clearer (and more accurate!).


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