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All my life I’ve avoided funerals like they were catching. I never got much solace from them, and I didn’t think my absence disrespected the principal, the dead being rather indifferent on the subject.

I never realized the power of publicly contemplating a life well-lived until the lesson was forced on me by the death of an extraordinary woman.

It was a sunny Saturday last May; I drove out busy Geary St. to a funeral home in the Richmond. I was there to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Barbara Griffith: founder, teacher, critic and cajoler of the Sunset Writer’s Group, my writer’s group for the past few years.

Barbara had the gift of attracting and inspiring people, as much by her presence as by her words. From the barrens of post-war Levittown to the artistic ferment of San Francisco she gathered acolytes in a long an useful life. I gladly counted myself among them.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one. The funeral hall was large and overflowing with mourners, almost all strangers to me; I felt very alone. Among the people I was introduced to, there was one who really got me feeling sorry for myself, a guy by the name of Joel, the best friend of Barbara’s son, Bill.

I’d never met Joel before, and yet it turned out that not only is he my 2-doors-down neighbor in Glen Park, but he also shares my last name.

Now, I will cop to being something of a hermit, but what kind of a life am I living when I can sleep 75 feet from another guy named Goldstein for seven years and never know it, never even (and take this, all you critics of the US Postal Service) get a piece of his mail by mistake? Has life in the big city become so isolating that we no longer bother to know one another anymore?

And whose fault is that? I never knocked on Joel’s door, never brought over a cold one, never even thought about it. Now here I am at the funeral of this great woman, surrounded by people who loved her, and I know virtually nobody in the room.

And yet … not quite nobody. There sits Jack, the retired hospital administrator from our group who is writing a novel about a wise-cracking merchant sailor coming of age in the post-war Philippines.

He is consoling our brilliant Penny, a legal secretary who hates her job, and who is writing a dark comedy about a woman who so hates her job she brains her boss with a plaster fish.

And next to her is Bob, our computer whiz who writes equally well about young gay men searching for love, and cats who play the piano. And Eleanor, our tiny, sardonic holocaust survivor who writes with such painful beauty that when she reads, we all hang on every heavily-accented word. And Jean, our Tenderloin security guard and comic playwright, who lives out of town and sleeps in her van when she works swing-shift so she can make our meetings. And beautiful, elegant Jo, our British-colonial expatriate, whose book on love and war in Rhodesia is so good she is already agented and on the road to publication.

I knew all these people because a magnet named Barbara Griffith had drawn us together, because a 79 year old woman had posted an Internet listing years before they became fashionable. I had a community because she took the trouble to make one. Now it was up to us to keep it alive.

When I left that dark room and stepped into the sun I was feeling better. And when I got to my car I beheld a minor miracle. Out on Geary the meter maids had done their worst. Every car on the block was flagged with a ticket. Every car but mine. My meter still showed 60 minutes, just like two hours ago.

A couple of weeks later I ran into my neighbor Joel. I was on my way to the first post-Barbara meeting of the Sunset Writer’s Group. It was another beautiful day and I had the top down. Goldstein spotted me as I backed out of my driveway.

“Hey Allan, where you heading?” he asked.

“I have a writing group meeting tonight.”

“That’s great,” he grinned, giving me the high sign. “You guys keep it up.”

Ideology Has Had Its Day

Ideology Has Had Its Day

Ideology has had its day

Ring down the curtains, pack up the props and shutter the theater. Ideology, that grand stage upon which the great and bloody dramas of the last century were played, is played out.

Ideology was just another fad, a mostly 20th century diversion in the flow of history. We still talk about communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism but that’s all it is, talk. Some form of market economics—and those forms are far too diverse to constitute a cohesive ideology—prevails nearly everywhere.

But that doesn’t mean that history is over. What we have now isn’t the end of history, but rather a return of history. The history of the world since Mesopotamia, the endless struggles between and among states and empires, and now global networks and corporations, for conquest, in their neighborhood, their continent, and the world.

We can’t shake the habit of calling states by their putative ideologies, but that’s antiquated thinking. In what sense is Communist China communistic anymore? Newly crowned dictator for life, Xi Jinping, leads a party that has “communist” in its name, but China is state capitalism and personal power personified. China has no more ideology than the Mafia and less socialism than Denmark. If Marx were alive he’d sue them for slander.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, China has never been a wildly expansionist empire. Historically they’ve seen themselves as the center of the world, the so-called “middle kingdom” and they’ve expected tribute from nations in their neighborhood, but they’ve produced no Caesars. When Zheng He’s Grand Fleet raided the South Pacific and Indian oceans eighty years before Columbus floated across the Atlantic in three dinghies, the Ming Emperors took the treasure, burned the fleet and stayed home.

Russia doesn’t even pretend to be communist anymore, but their history is nothing but Caesars, all the way back to Grand Duchy of Moscow. Even their word for leader, Tsar, is nothing but Caesar with a lisp. That tiny Duchy expanded until it covered a continent and a half, from Murmansk to Vladivostok. The communist interlude in Russian history saw the Russian Empire at its greatest extent, but communism didn’t cause it. Russian expansionism did. And now they have a Tsar again.

A couple of decades ago we were supposed to be entering an ideological clash of civilizations, between the Islamic and non-Islamic world. Well, that obsolescent idea is still around, but it’s Muslim bombs pounding Muslims in Syria, Yemen and beyond. It’s about power, not the Prophet.

Between the Kurds and the Turks, the Iranians and the Saudis, the Chinese and the Japanese, there’s not enough ideological conflict to fill a postcard. It’s all about power.

It always has been. We just got distracted with ideology for a while.
Ideologies arose, mostly in the last century, when a dizzying rate of scientific and technological progress made anything seem possible.

Why, we could even remake human nature! We can turn people into socialist heroes! Fascist supermen! Objectivist demi-gods!

A hundred years and a couple hundred million deaths later, we found out what happens when we act on those impulses. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot: Ideology is an express lane to genocide and national self-immolation.

Power is the real game. The struggle of the nation state against the homogenization of globalization, the spheres of interest of the Great Powers, that’s where the action is. That’s where the action always was.
They just slapped some tail fins on it, called it ideology, and got the peons to go to their deaths with a gun in their hands and a slogan on their lips.

In the good old USA we’ve never done ideology very well. Oh, we fight like roosters over minor political differences but that’s more about party branding then any deeply rooted philosophical ideals.

My conservative and liberal friends won’t buy that, but if the poor can switch from the Democrats to the Republicans in a single generation, while, at the same time, the rich and privileged make the exact opposite move, how important is ideology in politics? It’s all about who’s up, who’s down, and who’s out for the count.

The fight of good against evil, and raw power against raw power will never end. I’m not saying there isn’t a wrong side and a right side in some, even most, human conflicts.

I’m just saying ideology isn’t the way to find it. Never was, never will be. Ideology had its day. I think we’re all better off that its day was yesterday.