Monday, October 05, 2015
Nasreen Mohamedi. From Nasreen's Notes.
Monday, September 28, 2015
Werner Mantz. Detail from Kalkerfeld Settlement, Cologne, 1928.
Gelatin silver print.
Monday, September 21, 2015
The Stateless Europeans
by Justin E. H. Smith
[I have a long essay on the Roma communities of Paris appearing later this year in print. The essay's focus changed radically in the middle of my research for it, in part due to editorial decisions, in part as a result of changes in the world that seemed to demand attention to different issues than those initially conceived. One result of these changes is that I was left with significant amounts of material that have no place in the final version, which I thus thought best to share here at 3 Quarks Daily. This seems particularly urgent at the present moment, as there is inevitably a close connection between the plight of the Syrian refugees seeking to escape from war in Europe, and the plight of the Roma, who, I have come to believe, have very similar experiences of discrimination and social exclusion in Europe, and particularly Eastern Europe. The principal difference is that the Roma are internally displaced, and have been for centuries. --JS]
‘Gypsy’ is a classic misnomer, a deformation of ‘Egyptian’, arising from a long-discredited theory that the people it denotes had wandered from that country into the Levant, Anatolia, the Balkans, and finally Europe proper. It gives us the French gitane, glamorized in a brand of cigarette, and the Italian gitano. There is the alternative generic term tsigane, which yields Zigeuner in German, ţigani in Romanian, and so on, and which likely arises from a Byzantine Greek word for fortune tellers (or, perhaps, for untouchables). These are exonyms, and they are considered derogatory, though as with any insult much depends on who is uttering them, in what tone and for what purpose. When in 2007 the Romanian president Traian Băsescu called a reporter a ţigancă împuţită (a stinking Gypsy), to unexpected outrage, he was plainly only using the adjective to make explicit what he already felt to be packed into the noun.
In recent years, ‘Roma’ (along with ‘Rom’ and ‘Rrom’ and the adjectival ‘Romani’) has gained currency, in part as a way of freeing the people it describes from the history of connotations, mostly negative, that have congealed around ‘Gypsy’, and in part to provide a cohesion at the global scale that is lacking in the various regional designations. ‘Roma’ is the term we are now obliged to use, and the term I shall use here, even though it is far from universally satisfactory. For one thing, it is a masculine plural noun: it means ‘the Romani men’, or, perhaps, ‘the Romani husbands’. Moreover, its resemblance to various other geographical terms from the region --notably the name of the capital of Italy, and of the country of Romania (which, like an ancient road, does lead back to Rome, the city of Romulus)-- is only a coincidence. Yet, like the English ‘niggardly’, ‘Roma’ invites misunderstanding. Grassroots organizations of Romanians have even petitioned the European Parliament to ban it, in the hope of distancing themselves from their fellow citizens who, they believe, are tarnishing their reputation throughout Europe. And indeed many Western Europeans do have trouble grasping the difference in question, and lack the patience to stop and dwell on etymologies.
I have just alluded, obliquely, to what is perhaps the most charged and poisonous word in American racial conflict. I did not do so casually. The comparison to the plight of members of the African diaspora is unavoidable. I once attended the concert of a Romanian Roma violinist in Montreal, at the legendary Café Sarajevo, who interrupted his own performance to invite a Haitian poet onstage to recite some of his work. “We’re both Gypsies!” the violinist declared to great applause when the poem was over. “You were brought by ship and I came by plane, but we’re still brothers.” This assimilation also has purchase among non-Roma throughout South-Eastern Europe, or at least those who have felt the cultural impact of hip-hop music from the US. In 2008 I found myself at a baptism party in Rahova, a poor neighborhood of Bucharest that is home to Roma and non-Roma alike. A charismatic young mechanic opened a bottle of Ciuc beer with his teeth and cued up Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ on his makeshift PC. “Snoop Dogg is a fucking Gypsy!” he declared. Implicit in this judgment was the understanding that to be so is both good and bad at once.
Beyond the Balkans, and in polite circles, ‘Gypsy’, like ‘Black’, continues to function as an insider’s expression of mutual recognition, while ‘Roma’, like ‘African-American’, is the term we others are invited to use. But whatever the terms, the comparison invoked at the Montreal concert and in the Bucharest slum is not a stretch, and is rooted in parallel historical experience. The enslavement of Roma in certain parts of the Balkans continued as a lawful institution into the 1860s, even as the Civil War raged in the US. Unlike the American experience, though, the decline of Roma slavery was not followed by a Reconstruction or a Civil Rights movement. There are today many Roma fighting for the rights of their people, but there are as yet no streets in Bucharest named for the Roma counterpart to Martin Luther King.
Nor are most Europeans aware that there is a wrong here to be righted. This is in large part because, again, for many the Romani people are not a people at all, but only free adopters of a certain lifestyle. Consider Cyprien Iov, a young Frenchman of Romanian origin and the host of what has recently been the most popular YouTube channel in France. In a recent video he complains about the way some French people treat him when they learn his family is from Romania, bemoaning in particular the widespread confusion between ‘Romanian’ and ‘Roma’. “The Romanians are the ones who come from Romania,” he explains, “the Roma are the ones who come to piss you off.” The implication here is that the Roma, even the ones born by accident in Romania, come from nowhere. This prejudice perfectly fits the pattern of European thinking about Eurasian migrations for at least the past millennium. Tartaros has no geography of its own, and is of interest only to the extent that it makes its black-hole-like proximity felt within Europe. As we read in the Novgorodian Chronicles of 1224, not of the Roma but of the Mongols: “In the same year, for our sins, there came unknown tribes… Only God knows who these people are or from whence they came… Here we record them in memory of the misfortunes of the Russian princes that came about at their hands.” This, more or less, remains today the preferred mode of psychical processing of those peoples who appear from the East.
In the romantic imagination of Europe the ‘Gypsy’ is sometimes associated with free-spiritedness and with sexual liberty, though in fact it would be difficult to think of a more sexually conservative culture than many of the more traditional communities of Roma, which place a high premium on female virginity and in which arranged marriage is the norm. The perception of licentiousness seems to arise from an assumption that without fixed addresses, without land, a people can have no properly moral life at all. And thus we see the slide from ‘Bohemian’ as a simple misnomer, like ‘Egyptian’, based on a supposed Czech origin of the Roma people, to the ‘Bohemian’ who first appears in the 1830s as the struggling, tragic artist, contemptuous of bourgeois values and wholly dedicated to the expression of his individual vision. In Romania I once saw a little girl innocently wearing a t-shirt that depicted a free-spirited hippie, with a headband and Lennon glasses, flashing a peace sign. This motif had triggered a reprimand from an old woman who objected to the celebration of what she perceived as markers of encroaching Gypsyhood.
It is in fact widely believed that one can become a Gypsy. Irish Travellers, a generally nomadic group whose origins lie entirely within Europe, and who since the early 2000s have a recognized minority status in the UK, are often called ‘Gypsies’ simply in view of the perceived similarity of their form of life to that of the Roma; the same is true of the nomadic Yeniche people in Germany and Switzerland. Some Roma report that, after explaining to outsiders that they are what some people call ‘Gypsies’, they are met with the enthusiastic response: “I love to travel too!”
What explains this exceptional ignorance? In part, it arises from the extreme closedness of traditional Roma society. Here one may appropriately make a comparison to Orthodox Judaism (indeed, some 17th-century sources considered the possibility that the Balkan Roma simply were Jews), in which strict boundary laws are enforced, and non-members are seen as in important respects inassimilable, even unclean. The prominent Anglo-Romani scholar Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas, tells me of Roma communities in the Austin area, so closed as to go unperceived by most Americans, in which families will keep one glass for the rare Gadjo visitor to drink from, another set of glasses for themselves. “The barrier is held in place on both sides,” Hancock explains. “On the Roma side, it is held in place by the culture.” On the Gadjo side it is held in place by legislation: which is to say culture, backed up by the force of the state.
In their 19th-century incarnation as ‘Bohemians’, and as the supposed inspiration for the elective vie de Bohème adopted by Europeans of many nationalities, the variety of otherness manifested by the Roma in that era’s romantic literature is generally positive. Thus J.-K. Huysmans writes in 1874 of some Roma he has encountered begging, that “the women and children require straw, bread, and beer, not as mendicants asking for alms, but as princes who demand tribute.” Naturally, this sort of idealized image easily crosses over into its opposite, a delicate balance well captured by Alexandre Dumas in 1834, who, after encountering a group of Roma while traveling well armed and in company, remarks: “I admit that, alone and without arms, I would have found the encounter less picturesque and more dangerous.”
Picturesque or dangerous, the Roma remain unassimilated in ways that suggest the perception of a racial difference. While many Roma are indeed dark-skinned, many are not, and in any case the judgment of racial difference is never a straightforward description of another person’s phenotype, but always, precisely, a judgment. Hancock for his part strongly objects to the description of the Irish Travellers and other non-Roma groups as ‘Gypsies’, since, as he puts it to me: “Those are white folks.” Hancock, who himself would easily be deemed white by American standards, and who with his now somewhat faded accent could still be taken for a ‘typical’ Englishman, has declared himself, along with all the Roma of the world, a person of color.
The connection of the Romani language to what used to be called ‘Hindustani’, was proposed by Johann Rüdiger in 1782, and was common knowledge in Europe throughout the 19th century. But today not everyone agrees with Hancock’s understanding of Roma identity, with the self-definition as non-white or with the emphasis on Indian origins. For Henriette Asséo, a professor of history and the director of the Migrom project at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Hancock is a ‘pure product’ of a politicized conception of academic research that conflates activism and scholarship. According to her, “this Indian past [of the Roma] does not exist.” What the French think of as ‘Gypsies’ is, she explains, mostly a product of administrative practices that were imposed on nomadic peoples of various ethnicities, including some from the Balkans, and others from within France. Between 1912 and 1936, she explains, there was an attempt to regulate itinerant work by issuing a special ‘carnet nomade’ or ‘nomad’s booklet’ to individuals who made their living in this way. But this document evolved into a sort of ‘collective passport’ for the entire family of the itinerant worker, which effectively made it impossible for children born into this social category to ever leave it. While some of the people in this category have genetic lineages that can be traced to India, this is for her irrelevant to culture. The ethnogenesis was, rather, a consequence of administrative practices. For Asséo, in contrast with Hancock, the particular genetic lineage of the people who are classified in this way, whether ethnically French or from the Balkans or points further east, whether ‘European’ or ‘Asian’, is of little importance. What matters is their present treatment at the hands of the state, and the shared experience this treatment brings.
Asséo also stresses that much of what seems so out of place and so debased about mendicancy arises from very recent changes in social attitudes toward work and individual responsibility. For millennia, begging was a recognized form of life, practiced not just by perceived social parasites, but also by monks and pilgrims. The distress Parisians feel today when they see a begging Roma woman is a result of transformations in ‘the visual regime’, Asséo explains, of the appearance in the landscape of modern capitalism of a figure belonging to a ‘traditional exchange society’.
On a November morning on the 5 line of the Paris metro just north of Bastille I witness a spontaneous tensing up when the barefoot woman with her baby enters and begins her plaintive cry. The cry is a sort of song, in a sort of French, yet it sounds centuries old, and seems to emerge from a world in which the spiritual concept of mercy had far greater purchase. It is also, one quickly realizes, a performance, like the work of a professional funeral crier. This is not to say the woman is not miserable, or that her infant is not poorly nourished, but only that misery too can generate its own routines. When the children are a bit older, when they are four or five and can run about, they often trail behind their mothers, playing like all children do, sometimes wishing the commuters, with joy and smiles, a sincere bon voyage. Children much older than this instill more anxiety than pity or sympathy, as indeed there are few examples of urban lore more captivating than the warnings about the Gypsy children who will swarm around you like wasps, who will poke at your knees with needles, who will do whatever it takes to get you to hand over your money.
Tartaros has no geography of its own, and so what might otherwise express itself as curiosity in Western Europe is often wedged out by the simple desire that migrants be sent “back where they came from,” even if the details of the place remain vague. Occasionally, of course, human-interest stories cause momentary flickers of interest. The geography of the Balkans, and patterns of migration out of them, came into somewhat clearer focus in France in October, 2013, when the 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani was seized by government officials during a class field trip in the Franche-Comté town of Sochaux, and swiftly expelled along with her family back to Kosovo. The controversy that ensued was both riveting and unexpected. It brought the tough law-and-order tactics of the French interior minster, Manuel Valls, himself of Spanish origin, to the center of public debate, and threatened to compromise his prospects as a successor, within the ruling Socialist Party, to President François Hollande. Valls maintained throughout the controversy that France is a nation of laws, that there are proper procedures for naturalization that the Dibrani family had failed to follow, and that when the family was targeted for expulsion this was not in view of their Roma ethnicity or Kosovar nationality.
The plight of the Dibranis was complicated by the fact that their roots in Kosovo were rather more tenuous than initially thought; in fact the father of the family, Reshat, had presented his family as refugees from Kosovo in their French immigration papers even though they had in fact lived in Italy for many years. The children were not Italian either, and had little prospects of gaining citizenship there-- hence the strategic move to France as ‘refugees’. But in terms of memory and experience, Italy was home, and indeed when the family had left Kosovo that place was not a country at all.
One does not expect to see the problem of statelessness within the boundaries of Europe, but in fact it is fairly common, and indigenous ethnic minorities like the Roma are the ones most susceptible to it. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia there was a widespread sentiment among Czechs that the true home of the Roma was in the other half, Slovakia, as indeed that was the region with historically higher percentages of Roma inhabitants. In 1993 new citizenship requirements were concocted to ensure that the Roma inhabitants of the new Czech Republic would have trouble meeting them. But Slovakia did not recognize them as its own, either, even though in many cases the parents of the Czech Roma had moved from Slovakia, and did so at a time when this was internal migration within Czechoslovakia rather than international emigration. Here, simply in trying to stay put --something that, as the prejudice would have it, Roma do not wish to do-- Czech Roma found their state pulled out from under them.
From a legal point of view, at least, a Roma villager from Bulgaria has, since 2007, exactly the same right to be in Paris as does a banker from Luxembourg. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU was hastened by a concern to secure these countries’ place within the North Atlantic order, and when they acceded, Russia predictably grumbled. The EU is a political and economic union, unlike NATO’s military purpose, but the expansion of either one of them into the former Eastern Bloc sets back the prospect of Russian regional hegemony that much farther. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 and sought to secure the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it did so in a tit-for-tat response to NATO’s action in Kosovo. When Soviet monuments in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia are vandalized, Moscow threatens, vaguely, to do something about it. There are in fact numerous spots where NATO and EU countries bump up directly against the realm that Putin thinks of as the ‘near abroad’, or the part of the world in which Russia believes the North Atlantic empire, often called ‘the West’, has no business.
It is still summery when in late October I arrive in Pristhina, the capital of the newborn Republic of Kosovo, but I am told to expect snow within a few days. I am just in time to attend the Rolling Film Festival, a semi-annual event dedicated to films by and about Roma people now in its fifth year. The festival’s director is Sami Mustafa, a Lyon-based Roma filmmaker who grew up in the Plemetina mahala, or slum, near Prishtina (the precise semantic distinction between ‘mahala’ and ‘platz’ is unclear, though the former seems to denote a settlement that has gained some degree of acceptance, however grudging, from the Gadjé). He is also the founder of an NGO called Romawood, which seeks to promote films by and about Roma around the world. He began his work documenting the life of the people of Plemetina, and ended up shooting so much footage that it took him a decade to finish his first film. He has now made a number of shorts and features, both documentaries and dramas, about the lives of Roma, and says that he worries he is becoming “too patriotic” in his oeuvre. “That will change soon,” he tells me. As an artist Mustafa is interested in universal themes. While his current project focuses on German deportation of Kosovars, he observes that “these things are happening everywhere,” and cites the French deportation of Africans as an example. His is a patriotism tempered by recognition of the shared plight of much of humanity.
There is perhaps nothing more universal than the festival’s opening-night feature: Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Chaplin’s own Anglo-Romani heritage has been the subject of much discussion recently, and the festival’s organizers are proud to have him as one of their own. There are several dozen Roma from villages around Kosovo, who have been featured in the films of the festival and who have been invited to attend the big event at the opulent National Theatre. They are delighted by Chaplin’s pratfalls, and they gasp when he contemplates throwing the titular kid, a baby he has found in an alleyway, down a drainage ditch. They sigh and fawn when Chaplin has a change of heart, takes the kid home, and cuts him some cloth diapers from his own bedsheets. It is as if it were 1921 again, and we were all experiencing the wonder of cinema for the first time. Afterwards there is a reception. There are children rushing around, teenagers smoking, people telling stories and laughing. They have much the same dress and body language as the people who cause the Parisians in the metro to tense up. But there is no tension here. They are Roma people on a special night out, happy to see themselves represented in art and acknowledged in ceremony, happy to watch a good movie.
Prishtina is an epitome of so many of the continent’s hopes and worries: a perfect microcosm, at the level of families and their private struggles for a better life, of the blind macrocosmic march of geopolitics. Kosovo had been an Albanian-majority province within socialist Yugoslavia. Its Serbian minority long complained of unfair treatment, but also felt, and still feels, strongly attached to the territory in view of the presence there of a handful of churches and holy sites of central importance to Serbian Orthodoxy. The rise to power of Slobodan Milošević came at the moment of Yugoslavia’s impending decline, when in 1989 he traveled from Belgrade to the town of Kosovo Pole, site of an unforgotten 1389 battle between Christian Balkan troops and the invading Muslim Turks, to tell the local Serbs that no one would ever push them around again. In the Serbian imagination, the local Albanians had been elided with the medieval Turks, even if in the Battle of Kosovo Pole itself the Albanians, at the time Catholic, had joined forces with the Orthodox Serbs.
I meet Mimoza Gavrani, the local monitor for the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre, at a sunny outdoor café on Camil Hoxha Street in central Prishtina. On the main promenade 100 or so meters away there is a large monument to Mother Theresa, who hailed from Albania, and between us and the monument there are at least three people begging in the street. Gavrani, born in 1986 into a prosperous and educated family, is devoted to her work in defense of the Roma communities of Kosovo. At the same time, she is keen to convey the numerous respects in which her own history and identity are different from those of the people on behalf of whom she works, and also to project an image of her own middle-class background and aspirations.
Gavrani came from a small family, with just one brother, living a ‘regular life’ in a regular home, far from the settlements. She grew up surrounded by ethnic Albanians, going to an Albanian school and learning to draw the Albanian flag. As a child she had been unaware of her own ethnic difference, but would eventually learn the full significance of it when she came to the capital for her studies at the age of nineteen. “If I would grow up in a Roma settlement I would be married at the time [I began my studies], I wouldn't come to the university, and I would have many kids.” She emphasizes however that the early fertility of Roma women in the mahala is not simply an intrinsic feature of Roma society: one must have a child under five years old in order to receive social assistance. No wonder then, that there are so many children four or younger.
Gavrani is hopeful that by working to ‘build up civil society’ someday the members of traditional Roma communities will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that she has had in her own life. At the same time, she worries about the heavy-handed project of relocating Roma from the settlements into private apartments, a process which has accelerated over the past decade. “It was a mistake... those people have not been used to living in a flat.” She tells of families that have brought their cows into city apartment blocs, unwilling to give up this vital source of revenue and wellbeing for the sake of an administratively normalized existence.
1991 is a sort of Year Zero in Gavrani’s telling of her own life, and of the history of Kosovo. “My parents were going in a suit and a tie to work, but after ’91 everything got changed.” It was “like a storm.” “People were kicked out of working-places... and tomorrow you have to move.” Many Kosovar Roma families with the financial means left for Germany; those who stayed were often forced to take sides in the Serbian-Albanian conflict simply in order to survive. Although she identifies in the first instance as a Roma, Gavrani is also a proud Kosovar, and therefore a proud citizen of a principally Albanian country. When I mention that Kosovo is not yet fully recognized by other independent states, she retorts with a laugh that it is “recognized from the main countries.” She says that she has friends who were “really damaged” during the war, that beloved people died. She says she does not wish to revisit those details, but that she hates no one. She has friends who are Serbs, but she thinks that for the future of Kosovo and all its ethnic groups, “the new generation will have to accept the European spirit.”
It was in 1991 that the Kosovo Liberation Army was formed. By mid-decade, it would begin its violent insurrections. The violence reached a peak at the turn of the century, precipitating a large-scale NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, spearheaded by the Clinton administration in the US, from March to June, 1999. Milošević was eventually defeated, and throughout most of the first decade of the 2000s Kosovo was effectively under UN and NATO occupation, until, in 2008, it declared its independence to only partial international recognition. Russia, China, and of course Serbia, acknowledge no republic with a capital at Prishtina. By contrast, the marks of US cultural and economic legitimation are everywhere in that city: plaques acknowledging the financial support of the USAid program, kitsch stars-and-stripes and bald eagle motifs, and a major intersection of two of the city’s renamed thoroughfares, only slightly defamiliarized by their adaptation to the Albanian alphabet: the Boulevards Bill Klinton and Xhorxh Bush.
Kosovar Albanians had felt that their supposedly autonomous province within what remained of Yugoslavia was in fact an occupied territory of Serbia. With their independence, significant measures were taken to ensure that political and cultural hegemony would not just switch sides, but rather that Kosovo would become a model of multicultural coexistence for the Balkans. As a symbol of this, five stars were placed on the new republic’s flag, each recognizing a different ethnic constituency: the Albanians, the Serbs, the Bosniaks, the Turks, and the Roma. This is seldom noted, but nowhere else in the world are the Roma woven into the official story of a country’s identity so explicitly.
The reality of course is rather different. Many Albanians believed that during the war the Roma had collaborated with the Serbs, though for the most part this collaboration was simply an adaptation to the circumstances of daily life for people who happened to live in proximity to one ethnicity’s enclave rather than another’s. In March, 2004, a wave of violence rocked Kosovo, orchestrated by ethnic Albanians and targeting both the Serbian and the Roma communities. In the town of Vushtrii a mob of several hundred people committed a pogrom against the resident Ashkalis (Albanian-speaking Roma), burning down homes with defenseless families inside. KFOR (the international military force in Kosovo) and UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) failed to respond to repeated pleas for help, on the grounds that they were only prepared for military intervention and not police work. One Ashkali leader, Abdush Cizmolli, commented at the time, “Nobody is more to blame than KFOR and UNMIK. If they wanted to, with one tank they could have saved us—it would not have come to all these problems.” The international forces have had trouble dealing with conflict beyond the conventional binary terms of a war between two nations. Introducing the tertium quid of the Roma and Ashkali, who are interspersed among the Serbs and Albanians and who are both victims and agents in the conflict without clear loyalty to either side, creates a cognitive dissonance far beyond what the already overextended and poorly organized foreign forces are able to handle.
In the immediate wake of the Kosovo war at the end of the last century, KFOR sought to avert future violence by placing firm boundaries between Albanians and Serbs who had previously lived side by side. One of the most famous divisions was that of the city of Mitrovica, along the natural barrier of the Ibar River, with Serbs being sent to the north bank and Albanians concentrated in the south. The bridge over the Ibar is still a site of deep tension. One crosses the river to the Serbian north under the lackadaisical watch of Italian Carabinieri, and arrives on the other side amidst the rubble of torn-up streets and graffiti-covered concrete slabs. Finally one comes to an apartment bloc, the first sign of life, adorned with enormous portraits of presidents Milošević, Lukashenko of Belarus, and Putin of Russia. Though this is also a passage from the land of Islam into Christendom, when moving from south to north one has a sharp feeling, as an American, of entering into hostile territory.
The process of resettlement inevitably displaced members of other ethnic groups too, and as a sort of afterthought to this engineered peace many Roma were placed in camps dangerously close to sites that had been used to deposit the toxic trailings of the Trepça industrial mining complex to the north of Mitrovica. This decision was a public health disaster, with extremely high incidence of lead poisoning, particularly among children. UNMIK would come under intense criticism by human rights organizations, not least the European Roma Rights Centre for which Gavrani works as Kosovo monitor, and would slowly seek to rectify the disaster it had facilitated. The UN, attempting to manage one of several crises caused by ethnic animosity and violence, in the end compounded that violence with its own hasty and inadequate response, a response that reflects a relative lack of concern for the value of Roma lives. Ethnic hatred in the Balkans filters up into bureaucratic indifference among the agencies that have stepped in to curb it.
The geopolitical dimensions make themselves known in even the smallest negotiations of life in Kosovo, and particularly into the cautious language international agencies and employees are required to use in their work there. I was told by more than one representative of UNICEF in Kosovo that I must be careful to avoid misquoting them in anything I write, for fear of sparking “an international incident.” Most importantly, I must be sure not to quote UN employees as referring to an entity called “the Republic of Kosovo,” but only to “Kosovo under UN Security Council Resolution 1244.” This admonition is meant to placate the Security Council members, most importantly Russia, who do not recognize the country’s sovereignty. It is coming from people whose principle task it is not to engage in high-level diplomacy, but to improve the condition of children in villages: to facilitate breastfeeding and access to elementary schools. Access to these basic needs, for Roma and non-Roma alike, hinges directly on whether the great powers feel slighted, and how they choose to react to these slights. The numbers and paths of migration, in turn, are the result of how international boundaries and transnational unions take shape, and of how well basic needs are being met at home.
American news reports tend to focus on the perception of Roma migration in Western Europe from the perspective of the majority cultures in the place of destination. A recent example of this is Adam Gopnik's article on the Roma in the February, 2014, issue of the New Yorker, which looked out at the continent from a decidedly Paris-centric perspective. As had already been the case for several months in the French media, the heroine of Gopnik's story was Leonarda. But while Leonarda caused a storm in France, in Kosovo the mention of her name is met with a shrug. Journalists there complain that her father, a born Svengali, now charges for interviews, and activists will predictably emphasize that the girl’s mistreatment at the hands of the French government was mild by comparison to the human-rights abuses that have been going on for years in the deportation of Roma, particularly from Germany. Hil Nrecaj, a human-rights lawyer from Prishtina and the executive director of the NGO Monitor, tells me of midnight raids by the police in German cities, of fathers who are taken away with hoods placed over their heads. “The Dibrani case doesn’t touch me so much,” he says.
Nrecaj spent the Kosovo war as a refugee in Macedonia, and this experience, he says, is what gives him the strength to defend those people who are sent to Kosovo as if they were being repatriated, but who are in fact far less at home there than they were in the countries from which they were expelled. Because Germany and many other European countries do not recognize jus soli, simply being born there is insufficient for gaining citizenship, and in many cases children who are born and raised in Western Europe, and who benefit from the financial investment of the welfare state in their health and education, end up being expelled in their teen years at the end of drawn-out bureaucratic battles for the families’ right to stay. These children do not speak Albanian, and do not think of themselves as Kosovar. They go from solid social support networks in their developed countries of birth, straight to the mahala.
He tells me of a brain-damaged child deported from Norway, against the protests of medical professionals who plead that Kosovo does not have the equipment or specialists needed to treat him. The plea goes unheard. He tells me of a Roma woman who is in fact a citizen of an EU country, but who is deported to Kosovo when she is unable to swiftly produce identification papers. Nrecaj defends Roma and non-Roma deportees alike, but he is clear that the disproportionate targeting of Roma can only be explained by simple racism. “They just want to get rid of these people,” he concludes. “They should take into consideration the right of the child. You cannot send children to a country they’ve never been before, telling them ‘this is your country, stay here’.”
Perhaps no stereotype is more pervasive than the one pertaining to the Roma’s supposedly innate penchant for nomadism. There is arguably no prejudice --not class nor race, nor gender-- deeper than the one human groups living in fixed settlements harbor against those whose form of life takes them continuously from one settlement to the next. Sedentism underlies many of our most basic judgments about what separates the cultural from the natural, the human from the animal, and the right from the wrong. This ideology (for that is what it is) began to take shape with the agricultural revolution, and has hardened into an apparently universal morality over the past few millennia. It is now enshrined in law and architecture and philosophy, from John Locke’s theory of private property, to the spikes installed around London and Paris to prevent homeless people from sleeping in purportedly ‘public’ spaces.
The opening up of the European Union towards the South-East is a complicated, ongoing process, motivated in large measure by geopolitics, and in particular by a protracted stand-off with Russia and its inextinguishable interest in empire. The expansion has been, by most lights, hasty and premature, and has left many Europeans with the impression not of a political union of equals, but of a multi-tiered and fragile house of cards. One of the most vivid illustrations of this expansion's unforeseen consequences might well be provided by the Roma families camped out on the Boulevard Saint-Germain: nomadism, chosen or forced, come to the very heart of the sedentist world, where all the talk is of real estate and its august legitimacy, where people inherit apartments or buy them with ill-gotten fortunes, and do not simply sleep where they choose.
I stop to talk to a Roma family sitting on a mattress outside of the Café Flore. I ask the father where they come from. “Right here,” he says, pointing to the sidewalk and laughing. A little girl is jumping on the mattress, as if it were a bed in a room, clutching a box of someone’s discarded macaroons.
It might seem surprising that families such as this one are unable to turn to more established Roma groups when they arrive in a new city. But there simply is no unified Roma community in Europe, or even in a country as small as Kosovo (which counts at least three branches, not just Roma and Ashkali, but also an Albanian-speaking group that self-identifies as ‘Egyptian’, bringing back the very geographical misnomer ‘Roma’ had been meant to clear up). There is no prospect of a central focus of national identity in some particular territory or leader. Consequently, migrant Roma often have trouble finding mutual recognition in the more established communities in the countries in which they arrive. The members of the established communities, such as the French Manouches or German Sinti, frequently find it in their own interest to emphasize their belonging to the larger Gadjo culture, to underline national citizenship as the primary aspect of their identity.
For obvious reasons, this tendency is exacerbated in periods of heightened xenophobia, and it is certainly not only the Roma who are prone to it. Recently, in France, a certain Éric Zemmour has been generating noise from his thesis that the Vichy government, in facilitating the deportation of non-French Jews, did only what it had to do to protect French citizens, Jewish or Christian, and that this is precisely what a national government ought to do in such trying circumstances. Zemmour, a former journalist for Le Figaro and the author of a recent screedentitled French Suicide, is Jewish of Algerian descent, and appears intent on showing that a person with such a background has a place in the far right wing of France’s swelling nationalism, even going so far as to formulate his own apology for Vichy collaborationism.
A milder version of this dynamic is widespread: established members of minority communities seek to secure this status by denying solidarity with less established co-ethnics, particularly those who do not share the same citizenship. Consider the case of Romani Rose, a prominent member of the Sinti community in Germany, and leader of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. In November, 2012, Sandra Maischberger devoted an episode of her popular talk show to the question of the place of Sinti and Roma in Germany, asking, “are we too intolerant?” As a guest on this show and elsewhere, Rose eloquently defends members of these related groups from crude stereotyping. A key part of his argument, however, is that the Roma have been in Germany for over 500 years, that German Roma and Sinti are sedentary and not migratory, and that they are now just as German as anyone else. Rose opposes the base bigotry of Philipp Gut, a foolish Swiss journalist and editor-in-chief of the weekly Die Weltwoche, who has also been invited as a panelist, to present his case that Balkan peoples, and especially Roma, are dragging Switzerland into a cesspool of crime and poverty, and strongly implying that these features are ineliminable from Roma culture. Rose warns his fellow panelist not to generalize, and not to equate current practices from cultural essence, but his main line returns clearly and often: I, and the people I speak for in the first instance, am not from the Balkans or anywhere else but here.
Hancock says that Rose is “a man alone.” The distinction he wants to make between the Sinti and the Roma, Hancock says, is “nonsense, frankly.” The Sinti have the same history “as the rest of us… they were probably the first and earliest to enter Europe, and went the furthest geographically. But they have pushed a different version of that history,” one that claims deeper or more authentic roots in Europe than those of the Roma, “which has caused endless confusion.” Hancock next makes a surprising claim about Rose: “We have a document in the Romani archives signed by Romani Rose, --and we’re not supposed to have this--, but he supported the German government’s ban and relocating of Romani refugees from the Balkans back in the ‘90s, when they were arresting people and putting them on planes and sending them back. He supported this, and we think this is reprehensible.” (A request to the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma for an interview with Rose did not receive a response.)
It should not be hard to see, by now, that the supposed nomadism of the Roma is really only a consequence of external pressures. It is true, Roma people move around. They move from Kosovo to Germany, for example. But if they do not settle, this may have a good deal less to do with a genetic need to roam, and much more to do with the fact that there are laws in place that explicitly prohibit them from settling, whether by explicitly announcing a ‘No Gypsies’ policy, or by midnight raids and laissez-passer expulsions.
A somewhat more positive stereotype than those of nomadism and thievery has it that the Roma are particularly talented entertainers. There are indeed some fine examples, and it is not insignificant that the person who singlehandedly innovated a distinctively European form of African-American jazz, Django Reinhardt, was a Manouche. The Bosniak Serbian director Emir Kusturica has made delirious and mildly exploitative films depicting the lives of Yugoslav Roma, such as his 1988 masterwork Time of the Gypsies. The French director Tony Gatlif, of Algerian Roma descent, is responsible for the touching 1997 film Gadjo Dilo (The Crazy Gadjo) which depicts the ‘going native’ of a young Frenchman captured by the musical and existential depth of Romanian Roma. But just as it is both good and bad at once to be Snoop Dogg, even the positive stereotypes have a constricting force. Nor do tremendous contributions in the arts, as Billie Holliday and so many other African-American artists of the pre-Civil Rights era well knew, necessarily facilitate social integration.
Moreover, the positive stereotype of creative talent can easily and quickly mutate into a negative one, when the broader society comes to feel that the talent is being used for degenerate ends. Today, in the Balkan countries, the Roma are closely associated with a style of pop music that goes by different names –manele in Romania, tallava in Albania-- but that is everywhere considered a problem: vulgar, excessive, materialistic, and, perhaps most problematically, openly ‘Oriental’: arabesque flairs streaming out of ridiculous synthesizers, with accompanying lyrics about girls and money and revenge. In Romania there have been various campaigns to fight the manele out of public spaces: one such campaign called upon Bucharesters to fight back by turning their speakers out of their homes and cars and playing Beethoven at maximum volume.
At the festival in Prishtina one of the entries was the short film, Mangava Disco Punk (Romani for “I Love Disco Punk”). No masterpiece, it portrays a young Roma named Elvis in the Shutka neighborhood of the Macedonian capital of Skopje, who aspires to stardom in the ‘disco punk’ genre, a category previously unfamiliar to me, but that sounds very cool and worldly, much like Joy Division at the moment of its metamorphosis into New Order. In 18 minutes or so, the film relates Elvis’s challenges in sticking to his punk dreams. He calls his bandmate and tells him he is quitting. He then lapses into a dream, in which, among other things, a vulgar yet beautiful girl threatens to cut off his mohawk, and conceives for him a plan to become a tallava star. He is horrified, as he hates that aesthetic as much as the Bucharest defenders of Beethoven do, and he wakes up more determined than ever to stick with punk. The final scenes show younger Roma boys from Shutka getting mohawks (or, what they call in the movie ‘Cherokee style’ haircuts): the ultimate expression of liberation, as it had been nearly forty years ago for English boys. In the discussion period afterward, the actor who played Elvis, Irfan Nezir, is asked what’s wrong with tallava anyhow? He answers in simple yet clear English: “It’s boring. We need something new.” When asked what he hopes Gadjé will take away from this film, the actor who played his bandmate, Enoh Sait, chooses to cite one of the mottoes of the festival: “Look at me, not at us.”
This is, in fact, the refrain that one hears again and again from Roma in all walks of life: the demand to be seen as individuals, the reclamation of the forgotten human right of individuality. Their language is not bar-bar, but a real language, even if not every Roma speaks it. They come from somewhere real, not Tartaros. And to come from somewhere, ideally, is to be shaped by that place without being fully determined by it, to know, like Sami Mustafa, a patriotism that harmonizes with universalism. Such harmony has widely been held since the 19th century to be the destiny of small European nations— not least the nations of Serbia, Romania, Albania, deriving inspiration in turn from the standard of modern nationhood set by the French Revolution a century earlier. But these Gadjo nationalisms left something out, and the states that were born of them continue to fail to see what is right in their midst: yet another nation, composed, just as they are, of individuals.
Yet the prospects for a future Roma homeland seem slim, and not only because of external obstacles. Roma people tend to identify with very small communities, and the idea of common cause with people in far countries who speak different dialects and have different forms of life seems pointless to most. There is also a certain idea of freedom that is inimical to nationalism. In Prishtina I had asked Mimoza Gavrani if she could envision a Roma nationalist movement in the future. She says she thinks this would be ‘boring’ (a common term, evidently, in Balkan English), as it would generate the expectation that she and other Roma tether themselves to a particular parcel of land.
In this cosmopolitan spirit one hears perhaps a faint echo of the trait that has for so long been stereotyped as ‘nomadism’. It is a spirit that cannot but be at odds with the desire of states and municipalities and administrative systems to normalize every person who comes within their purview: to make them get their papers in order and to link them to a fixed address, and to ensure that all this be done through the normal channels, rather than through homesteading and bricolage. Officials, even the ones whose party ideology purports to defend the interests of the oppressed and marginalized, will always want the people they deal with to come from somewhere precise, to be attached to a place in a way that can be at once confirmed and made real by legal writ.
The tension between this official expectation and the existence of tight-knit, organic communities of self-reliant poor people is likely irresolvable. And so cows will continue to show up in apartment blocs in Prishtina. And in times of crisis, one fears, the officials will, as they always have, declare that such things are grave problems to be eliminated at all costs, rather than curious and even beautiful efflorescences of human determination.
Photographs by Josef Koudelka
Is the Syrian Refugee Crisis the Worst Since World War II?
by Akim Reinhardt
There's a new meme infecting the internet.
The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
It's all over the place. Just google the words "worst refugee crisis." Don't even put "Syria" or "WWII" in the search bar. What follows is a string of mainstream media articles labeling the current Syrian refugee crisis as the worst since the big deuce. It has become conventional wisdom.
But is the flood of humanity currently vacating Syria really the worst refugee crisis of the last 70 years?
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that about 4,000,000 Syrian refugees have now left their homeland. Millions more are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), people who have abandoned their homes but remain in Syria.
This is a formidable number, marking the Syrian exodus as certainly one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. And it may yet get worse. But is it actually the worst?
Probably not. A quick review explains why.
- The 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan led to what is unquestionably the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. As an isolated event, it is perhaps the worst refugee crisis of all time. Some 14 million people were displaced. Yes, I just said 14 million.
- The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spawned well over 6 millions refugees, about half of whom went to Pakistan and half to Iran. Twenty years after the invasion and ten years after the Soviet withdrawal, there were still two and a half million Afghan refugees living outside Afghanistan. Afghans constituted the largest number of world refugees every year for over three decades.
- The war in Darfur created 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons and hundreds of thousands more international refugees just over a decade ago.
- In 1994, 800,000 people (mostly Tutsis) died in the orgy of violence that was the 1994 Rwandan genocide. When a Tutsi rebel group seized control of the country afterwards, 2,000,000 refugees (mostly Hutus) fled the the country for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- It's particularly ironic to find the new meme in the U.S. press given that during the past 30 years, well over 4,000,000 Iraqis have been displaced, about half of them internally and the rest of them fleeing the country. Of course, much (although not all) of this results from the two U.S. invasions of Iraq.
When the meme about Syria began earlier this summer, the number of refugees who had left Syria was closer to 2 million than its current number. Which means the crisis had not yet reached the numbers seen in most of the events listed above. Perhaps the Syrian numbers were already worse than Rwanda (minus the genocide, of course), and on a par with Darfur. That would make it something like tied for fifth-worst since World War II.
Even as the number of Syrian foreign refugees has increased over the past several months, at the moment their total still seems to be less than the number of Afghan refugees. And even if one combines all displaced Syrians, refugees and IDPs alike, the total is still currently far less than the number of people displaced by the India-Pakistan partition.
So why the commonplace assertion that the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst since World War II, when it so clearly is not?
In truth, the above data is not very difficult to find. If I can pull it together while working unpaid for 3QD outside my regular full time job, one would think that many of the professional journalists who have recited the meme of Syria-as-worst could have also found it.
Part of the confusion seems to stem from the misinterpretation of a United Nations report, and that confusion has now transformed into mainstream misinformation.
Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that in 2014, there were over 50 million refugees worldwide. By now, the total combination of foreign refugees and IDPs on planet Earth may exceed 60 million.
Those figures numbers are daunting. In raw volume, 60 million combined foreign refugees and IDPs in 2015 would indeed likely constitute the world's worst displacement crisis since World War II. Although it is important to note that today's global population of more than 7 billion is nearly triple the 1945 world population of about 2.5 billion, so as a percentage, it's nowhere close. Furthermore, the same U.N. report claims the total annual number of displaced persons has been well over 30 million every year since at least 1992. Many years the total has exceeded 40 million. So this represents the worsening of a consistently very bad situation.
Nonetheless, the current global refugee crisis is catastrophic, both in terms of raw numbers and ratio: the report estimates that about 1/122 people around the world are displaced. And so it is quite fair to say, as the U.N. report does, that today's situation, on the whole, is indeed the worst global refugee crisis since World War II.
Somehow, that assertion has morphed into the meme that specifically the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since WWII, which it almost certainly is not.
Syria is hardly the only nation to see vast numbers of its citizens flee. There are still over a million Somalian refugees living outside Somalia; likewise, there are still two and a half million Afghan refugees outside Afghanistan.
Syrian refugees who have fled their nation, based on the 4,000,000 figure, comprise less than 1/12 of the world's current population of displaced people (refugees and IDPs combined). They comprise maybe 1/6 of the world's foreign refugees. All displaced Syrians combined, refugees and IDPs alike (about 9 million people), probably constitute barely 1/7 of the world's displaced people.
Thus, to call the Syrian refugee crisis the worst since WWII is beyond inaccurate. It makes light of the victims, survivors, aid workers, and host countries of past refugee crises, such as those involved in the Afghani crisis or the partition of India.
Furthermore, and perhaps more important, the current meme about Syria does very real damage in the here and now to the other 6/7 of the world's displaced people by effectively erasing them from the conversation. The mainstream Western press' hyper focus on Syrian refugees renders other, ongoing refugee crises nearly invisible.
But if an innocent misreading of a U.N. document possibly explains the origin of the meme of Syria as worst since WWII, then what explains the meme's relentlessness and growth? Blaming lazy internet journalism will only get us so far.
It would seem to me that the runaway growth of this meme has less to do with Syrians, or any other refugee groups past or present, and more to do with Europe.
Indeed, the current situation emanating from Syria might rightly be described as the worst refugee crisis to affect Europe since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. Granted, this is a mere fraction of worldwide refugees, but it is the first time since World War II that Europe has faced a refugee crisis of this scale.
And so in a way, what is most disturbing about the inaccurate meme of of "the worst refugee crisis since WWII" is the subtext underpinning it. It suggests that Westerners are quick to make the claim simply because it is worst refugee crisis that Europe has faced since WWII.
Europeans have to struggle with this particular crisis because people are showing up at their borders. Since rich, (largely) white populations are directly affected, then it must be the worst. And if it substantially affects wealthy, (largely) white European nations, then at the very least it must deserve much, much more attention than any of the other refugee crises.
To the extent that this is the logic at work, it represents a horrific interpretation of the Syrian refugee crisis, precisely because it suggests that Syrian pain and suffering are only relevant insofar as they create problems and misery for Europe.
It suggests that no one suffers like the citizens of rich nations who have to witness the suffering of others.
At the very least, the persistence and growth of this meme in the Western press suggests a degree of navel gazing by the world's wealthy nations that continues to break new boundaries in self-absorption.
The overblown worst-ever claims of the current Syrian crisis allow the mainstream Western media to justify paying little attention on all those other refugee crises that were actually worse or as bad.
I do not mean to sound callous. My heart goes out to the current refugees from Syria and the IDPs who remain behind. I hope the war ends soon and I hope they are able to return home safely, or at the very least, land somewhere else that is safe and welcoming.
However, when we casually issue phrases like "the worst since World War II," as if we're handing out blue ribbons at a county fair dedicated to suffering, the overall effect is not only to magnify the current crisis, but also to justify our blind spots to many others.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Ana Teresa Fernandez. Video still from Borrando La Frontera. 2011.
Robert Frost, Time Traveler: The Road Not Taken
After I’d sat myself down at my computer on Tuesday morning, and after I’d checked in at my blog, New Savanna, and at Facebook, I zoomed here to 3QD, as I often do, and saw a link to an article about a Robert Frost poem. I, being an American citizen in good standing, know a bit about Frost. He’s sort of the Walt Disney of American poetry, him and Carl Sandburg, but apparently Frost had a nasty side as well. He’s not our nation’s kindly uncle. But then who knows what really goes on in the minds of those kindly uncles, eh?
This post had an intriguing title: “The Most Misread Poem in America”. Really? I gotta’ check that out. So I read the posted snippet, which was about “The Road Not Taken” – I’ve read that one, I think, said I to myself, but it’s not the one about miles to do until we eat? pray? love? one of those basic things – and then followed the link the full article, which is in the Paris Review. It’s by David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, and is an excerpt from a book he’s devoted to that one poem.
It'll take a pretty determined individualist to take this road that's not been travelled in a looong time.
The common understanding, Orr tells us, is that the poem is about staunch individualism. Everyone else hightailed it down the popular road but me, individualist that I am, I took the less popular road, and it turned out darn well. That just won’t wash, not when you actually read the words carefully.
According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I’ll buy that. But what if there’s something going on in the poem that isn’t adequately captured by limning its meaning?
About a decade after Frost published “The Road Not Taken” Archibald MacLeish told us “A poem should not mean / But be.” Is there a way to approach a poem’s being rather than its meaning?
I don’t really know. But I’m willing to take a look at the poem and see if I can come up with something that avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of pop individualism and professional knowingness. First, however, read the poem itself. If you know it well, you can skip over the words (though note that I’ve added line numbers to facilitate analysis). Otherwise, read it, slowly, perhaps even out loud.
1 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 2 And sorry I could not travel both 3 And be one traveler, long I stood 4 And looked down one as far as I could 5 To where it bent in the undergrowth;
6 Then took the other, as just as fair, 7 And having perhaps the better claim, 8 Because it was grassy and wanted wear; 9 Though as for that the passing there 10 Had worn them really about the same,
11 And both that morning equally lay 12 In leaves no step had trodden black. 13 Oh, I kept the first for another day! 14 Yet knowing how way leads on to way, 15 I doubted if I should ever come back.
16 I shall be telling this with a sigh 17 Somewhere ages and ages hence: 18 Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 19 I took the one less traveled by, 20 And that has made all the difference.
When I reread this poem, for the first time in decades, I was struck by two things: 1) that odd locution in lines 2 and 3, of being one traveler, and, especially, 2) line 16, “I shall be telling...” But let’s set those aside for a moment.
For I also had a sense that this might be a ring-form poem. What’s ring-form, or ring-composition? Imagine that you leave your place, walk a couple of blocks to the convenience store, purchase a quart of milk, and then return home by the same route. Along the way you take note of landmarks and, on returning, you notice them again. So:
1) Leave home 2) The old sycamore 3) Margie’s house 4) The place where the little yappy schnauzer lives 5) Store 4’) The place where the little yappy schnauzer lives 3’) Margie’s house 2’) The old sycamore 1’) Arrive Home
That kind of list is what’s meant by ring-form or ring-composition. It’s a verbal structure that’s symmetrical about a mid-point. In the small it’s a rhetorical figure called chiasmus. For example, there is the cliché, “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” There the symmetry is obvious as the figure spans such a short stretch of time. But such a scheme can be used to structure much longer stretches, such as President Obama’s eulogy from Clemente Pinckney, where the symmetry is not at all obvious [see my working paper].
At first glance “The Road Not Taken” doesn’t seem promising, as it consists of four stanzas of equal length. There’s no stanza to function as a middle unit (in effect, the convenience store).
However, lets look closely at lines 9-12:
9 Though as for that the passing there 10 Had worn them really about the same,
11 And both that morning equally lay 12 In leaves no step had trodden black.
Lines 11 and 12 say pretty much the same as 9 and 10, but with different words. Each pair asserts that those two divergent roads are pretty much the same. Lines 9 and 10 asserts they are worn about the same while 11 and 12 asserts that both were covered in leaves that hadn’t been stepped on. So, while these four lines stretch across two stanzas, let us nonetheless say that they form our midpoint. In effect, you enter the store in line 9, get the quart of milk in line 10, pay for it in 11, and exit the store in 12.
If they’re the mid-point, then we would expect some symmetry between what’s immediately before and immediately after. Lines 6-8 describe one of the roads (the second), while 13-15 are focused on the other one (the first). That satisfies the formal requirement of symmetry.
Now, is there a way in which the first and last stanzas stand in symmetrical apposition? Notice that line 18, in the middle of the last stanza, is almost the same as the poem’s opening line. Is that the symmetrical apposition we seek? I think it is, but in a way that’s a bit more interesting than mere repetition.
We’ve got to distinguish between the poet, or, more precisely, the poetic voice that utters/writes the poem, and the creature the poem is about, the fellow who’s there in the woods tromping around. Of course they are the same individual, but at different moments in time. Consider the following simple diagram, where we have time’s arrow from left, the past, toward the future, at the right:
At time one (T1) this person is walking in the woods, comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which one to take. At T2 that same person has assumed the mantle of poet and is recalling that decision (the curved arrow pointing back to T1), while the as yet untrod future points off to the right.
So, at T2, in full poetic voice, he recounts the incident: “Two roads diverged […]”. And that flows through the first two stanzas and into the third, where it ends at line 12. If you look closely at the punctuation you’ll see that those twelve lines constitute a single sentence. That’s one unified mental act, set in the past.
The next line, 13, is a single sentence, thus a short one, but is punctuated as an exclamation. We’ve got a heightened emotional tone. But it’s still in the past: “I kept the first…” Now we finish the stanza with a two-line sentence, still in the past, but in a calmer mood. Just as the second sentence open with thoughts of the decision, so the third closes on thoughts of that decision.
So far we are dealing with the temporal situation depicted in our first diagram. The poet, in the present, tells about something that happened in the past. Now, what happens with the beginning of the last stanza?
“I shall be telling this…”–the tense has changed. The verb looks to the future. The question is: now where are we?
This diagram depicts what I will call the rational view:
The poet is still at T2 and is speaking of some future moment, “ages and ages hence”, long in the future, off there to the right. What happens in that future? Why: “Two roads diverged in a wood…”
Let me offer an alternative, and more parsimonious view. Consider this diagram:
The speaking poet is now back at T1, thinking about the decision, and thinking of how, at some point in the future, which is now T2, he’ll tell the tale. And as soon as that poem, now time-travelled into the past, utters those words – “Two roads diverged” – the poem returns to the situation of that first diagram.
This, then, is what I think is going on:
Each of the poem’s four sentences is represented by a colored rectangle, with each rectangle labeled by the appropriate lines at the right. The blue line tracks the poetic voice from one sentence to the next. In the last stanza the voice slips into the past for the first two lines – making that past moment the present in which those lines are uttered – and then the voice slips forward for the last three lines of the poem.
As a list that shows the ring-composition:
1) “Two roads diverged” – ll. 1-5 2) road taken – ll. 6-8 Ω) roads are alike – ll. 9-12 2’) other road – ll. 13-15 1’) “Two roads diverged” – ll. 16-20
The explanation is a bit complex and long-winded, alas, but in practice its quite simple. Just follow the poem, concentrating on the words as they flow. If you do that, you’ll time travel.
Why not? It gets rid of that pesky T3 off there in the future, on the one hand, and there’s really nothing in the poem that prevents this “reading” – though it’s not so much a reading (interpretation) in the conventional sense as an assertion about how the verbal machinery is operating. Line 16 is in the future tense, and the repetition of the opening lines triggers a return to the original temporal situation.
The end of the poem has rejoined the beginning, like a snake swallowing its tail. Ring-form composition.
We’ve got one last problem. If that’s what’s going on, how did Frost get off this poetic merry-go-round? If each time he get’s to line 18, it sends him back to the beginning, how’d he ever manage to make it to line 19, which very obviously is there? Remember that movie, Ground Hog Day, where Bill Murray kept relieving the same day over and over until he finally got it right?
It would seem that Frost split himself in two, stuck a dash between them, and walked across that dash to the end of the poem. That dash I’m talking about is at the end of line 18 and so comes after the final word of that line, “I”, which is also the first word of line 19, “I”.
He’s NOT one traveler. He’s two. One keeps looping through that one moment ¬¬¬– a Wordsworthian spot in time? – while the other puts the pen down, ambles outside, and splits some logs for firewood.
But What About Meaning?
But what, you ask, of those two interpretations we started with, the (superficial) one about rugged individualism and the (more sophisticated) one about ad hoc rationalization of the past? They appear to have vanished, don’t they? Perhaps swallowed by the snake of time?
It’s not that I think both interpretations are wrong, mind you. It’s just that they are both interpretations. The poem itself is something different from its many and various interpretations. It is this marvelous bit of ecstatic mental apparatus that performs tricks with and for us. That’s why we like it.
As my friend (and expert on American poetry) Margaret Freeman suggested to me, quite often we don’t know just why a poem so pleases us. The inner mechanisms are hidden to us. There’s something going on, we keep reading and re-reading. And maybe we even go so far as to read about the poem – there’s a lot to read about this one. And maybe we even formulate our own interpretation. But the interpretation is just a rationalization. It doesn’t capture what the poem does to/through us. It doesn’t capture the poem’s being.
Nothing captures such being but the poems themselves. We can however, as Margaret indicated, attempt to examine and describe the cognitive and affective mechanisms that generate the being.
Understanding how a sprocket chain works won’t get you to the grocery store. Only riding the bicycle will do that. But if the bike breaks down, knowing something about sprocket chains might help you to fix it.
Can a deeper understanding the mechanisms of mind be of use in repairing injured spirits?
Another individualist heard from.
More About the Poem
The web site, Modern American Poetry, has excerpts from several discussions of “The Road Not Taken.” It would seem that the individualist reading has followed the poem almost from its publication in 1916. David Wyatt has a very interesting article about the poem, “Robert Frost and the Work of Retelling”, The Hopkins Review, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 2015 (New Series), pp. 387-404. In particular, he notes that Frost had mentioned Wordsworth in his 1892 high-school valedictory address (p. 401).
Finally, I'd like to thank Margaret Freeman for reading a draft of this essay. I remain solely responsible for deficiencies.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Martin Wehmer. Woman in Green. 2014.
by Jalees Rehman
Some years ago, I was enveloped by the desire to see our children grow up to be poets. I used to talk to them about poetic metaphors, rhymes and read to them excerpts from the biographies of famous poets. When the kids were learning about haikus at school, I took the opportunity to pontificate on the controversies surrounding the 5-7-5 syllable counts and the difficulties of imposing classic Japanese schemes on the English language, which abounds in diphthongs and long syllables.
The feedback from our children was quite mixed, ranging from polite questions such as "Do you know how long this will take?" to less polite snores. I had apparently not yet succeeded in my attempts to awaken their inner poet.
Our younger son was about eight years old, when we found out about a wonderful opportunity to inculcate the love of literature into our children: The Chicago Printers Row Literature Festival! I was especially excited by the fact that they would have a special "Lil' Lit" area, just for children. I convinced the whole family to go - promising to reward each kid with $5 if they accompanied us. I hoped that my poetry monologues had prepared the children for the poetic muses that they would encounter at the festival.
Even though it was early June, Chicago was experiencing one of its rare June Gloom weekends with cloudy, drizzly weather and frosty breezes. After exiting the parking garage, our kids tried to renegotiate the promised $5 reward in light of the unpleasant weather. I brushed off their whining and charged towards the long-awaited beacon of literary pleasure.
Once we arrived at "Lil' Lit", we saw a bunch of near-empty booths and an elderly author reading from a book to a couple of five-year olds, surrounded by fifty empty seats. The few booth owners looked at us with great expectations. They had been staking out the crowd of adults, walking past them and not been able to spot any children, so my children quickly become the center of attention at "Lil' Lit".
The children were not too enthusiastic about sitting down with the author who was reading from her book, perhaps because her sparse audience had the same facial expressions that our kids exhibited when I talked about poetry. We looked around and spotted a giant yellow "Bouncy Book" which caught the kids' attention. But before they could rush over there and begin jumping on it, they saw that the ginormous hollow book had a hole and kept on deflating.
One of the booths was called "Creative Creations". I was puzzling about the title, but relieved when our kids volunteered to participate in the activity. Apparently, this booth was giving children some chalk so that they could unleash their creativity. All three of our children took to the idea and started drawing and writing on the sidewalk in beautiful rainbow colors. For some strange reason, my eight year old son took his "ninja glove" out of his pocket and grabbed a green chalk. I relaxed, and my wife and I strolled around in the area, pleased to live in Chicago, a city that offered such cultural enrichment for children. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that we had left dreary Indiana and recently moved to Chicago.
After about fifteen minutes or so, we returned to the booth of creativity. One of the ladies who operated the booth came up to me and said, "Excuse me sir, your son has …ahem…written a…haiku…"
I couldn't believe it! All my hard work had finally paid off. Even though they had pretended to not to listen, at least one of them had learned how to write a haiku. I was not sure if I was more proud of his accomplishment or my superb teaching.
I smiled and walked to the area of the sidewalk where the haiku was written.
I was first going to count the syllables, but once I started reading it, I stopped counting:
Torture comes to me,
I did not know how to respond to the accusatory glances of the lady. I looked at my son, who was folding away his "ninja glove".
He then calmly asked "Can we go now?"
I saw the deflating bouncy book in the background and I nodded, trying to hide my embarrassment with a half-hearted smile.
His haiku brought about the end of the poetry monologue series in our house.
Shalom and Salaam in Syria (What Some Philosophers Say)
I can't recall now where I originally found this, but several years ago I stumbled on an interesting Japanese translation for the words shalom and salaam.
1) 平和 (対国、対神、対人) ・・・和平、和解 Peace (no conflict; no fighting)
2) 平安 (個人的)・・・平穏、無事、安心、安全 Inner peace and calm; no inner trouble
3) 繁栄 (商業的) Flourishing (business)
4) 健康 (肉体的、精神的) ・・・健全、成熟 Physical health
5) 充足 (生命的) ・・・満足、生きる意欲 Satisfaction, fullness, sufficiency
6) 知恵 (学問的) ・・・悟り、霊的開眼 Enlightenment, wisdom
7) 救い (宗教的) ・・・暗闇から愛の支配へ To be saved (by Love)
8) 勝利 (究極的) ・・・罪と世に対する勝利 Triumph (over evil)
Does shalom and salaam really embody all that the Japanese translator was suggesting above? I have no idea, but the proposed translation really struck me, I felt it captured the wonderfully generous spirit of hospitality that I experienced in the Middle East.
Like the Pax in the Catholic liturgy
Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always)
It is a sign of goodwill for the other. But it is also, I am told, a reminder that we cannot flourish in the eyes of God unless we recognize him in the people around us. This greeting dates to very early times in the Christian church and is an ancient practice informed by the hospitality codes that have such deep roots in the cultures of the Middle East (among other places).
And best of all, it is traditionally delivered with a kiss on the cheek.
Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote here in these pages about what I considered to be the delusional liberal response to the crisis in Syria.
It was at that time that I became utterly fascinated by Derrida and Levinas' "ethic of hospitality."
Derrida's work on this subject is rooted firmly in the work of the Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. But Levinas himself was responding to --who else?-- Heidegger.
(All roads lead to Heidegger).
Ah, herr Heidegger--he was so brilliant and yet how could a philosophical system that great have gone that awry? Levinas, who was Jewish, had a particularly strong complaint on this count.
Where did Heidegger go wrong? It is one of the great problems of modern Continental philosophy.
According to Levinas, Heidegger's philosophy was too rooted in notions of time and place vis-a-vis the caring subject. For Heidegger, this "dwelling" describes the embedded nature of our human existence. It was, however according to Levinas, too much ontology at the expense of ethics. Hence the problems.
Specifically, Levinas, with his grounding in Talmudic scholarship, found Heidegger's focus on particularist traditions and places to be problematic--since, as in Heidegger's case, it easily led to nationalism and tyranny. He, therefore, proposed a different moral imperative which focused on the inter-dependent nature of human existence. Rather than seeing modern human beings as being displaced persons needing of of a return to the homeland, Levinas called for an other-oriented act of "hospitality." Levinas believed that a self can only have an authentic relationship to self and place when it welcomes the other. With a focus on genuine alterity and self-sacrifice (the inter-subjective nature of human existence), Levinas (and Derrida) considered this commitment to the Other to be our ultimate human obligation. And this welcoming must take place not just in the private space of the home but also in the public space of the homeland.
I write a lot in these pages about all the many changes I experienced when I moved back to the U.S. after twenty years overseas. One of the most saddening ones I experienced was the seemingly complete disappearance and collapse of neighborliness and hospitality. The death of social capital? It has been really unnerving to see--compared to Japan or compared to my childhood in California, people here seem to have lost the ability to be hospitable. (I miss Japan every day).
Whether into their homes or into their nation, other-oriented behaviors seem to be on the great decline. Indeed, this is a time of victim narratives and the great blame game---Why?
Right now, I am reading an interesting book by Andrew Shepherd, called The Gift of the Other: Levinas, Derrida and the Theology of Hospitality, in which the author sees the collapse of hospitality and neighborliness as a by-product of global capitalism. I think he would heartily agree with Zizek in his recent article on the refugee crisis, when he says that
The true threat to our communal ways of life are not foreigners but the dynamic of global capitalism: In the United States alone, the economic changes of the last several decades did more to destroy communal life in small cities than all the immigrants together.
Like with any system there are winners and losers. And global capitalism is no different. The system of global inclusion is itself built, Shepherd suggests, on what is a persistent practice of exclusion. This occurs in three ways: by assimilation and elimination (through neo-liberal markets), by domination (through foreign policy) and by abandonment. Being the only economic game in town, you are either with the system or you are against the system and those who are not successfully engaged in production and consumption in the global village can find themselves in the very precarious role of migrant, refugee or what Shepherd describes as abandonment.
Migrants and refugees is much on everyone's mind and the numbers for migrants are rising (230 million in 2013). The other day Teju Cole uploaded a really thought-provoking post about migrants and refugees, in which he quotes later Derrida:
"...because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other comparable inequities, that same 'society' puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts only for a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children…without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the other to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only does such a society participate in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it."
I think it is absolutely undeniable that the stakes have become very high even for those in the privileged centers. And we see people hunkering down behind gates or in their McMansions. In the US, I would argue that we have never been more risk-averse either (and as Derrida points out, hospitality is a very risky business).
Economists and scientists forecast the further shutting down of borders and the building of border fences as the centers of privilege erect barriers of all kinds, living in fortified cities like in the middle ages, economist Jacques Attali predicts.
Last week on the Union of Concerned Scientist's blog, Erika Spanger-Siegfried wrote a really moving post about Syria and climate change here. Comparing her son's relative good fortune to that of the drowned Syrian boy who washed ashore on the beach in Turkey--the picture that broke the world's heart-- she says
About a decade ago, a group of scientists published work on scenarios of our future, and one of them—fortress world—has stuck in my mind, in part because signs of it crop up all the time. In this scenario, as global crises worsen, elites of the world hunker down in comfortable enclaves while the vast global majority suffers. Since then, post-apocalyptic fiction and film has fed versions of this scenario to us repeatedly, perhaps because we see its origins and are morbidly curious about where this ends. It ends badly, that’s where, so someone grab the wheel.
She doesn't draw conclusions ~~except maybe that we must not turn away-- for, when it comes to climate, we are all in this together, she says.
According to Levinas and Derrida's ethic of hospitality, there is an infinite and unconditional obligation to not look away from the Other. And it is this which is our basic moral obligation. While for Kant, this was a universalist claim (his Golden Rule), for Derrida, it was much more personal and particular--but with the focus always on the other (or the relation between the self and other). Derrida liked a story he heard from Maurice Blanchot:
The Messiah was at the gates of Rome unrecognized, dressed in rags. But one man who recognized that this was the Messiah went up to him and asked him, ‘When will you come?’
Derrida did not believe any messiah would ever come. And yet he insisted that this messianic structure was what opened human beings up to ethical goodness.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently writes of CHAINS OF RECIPROCITY:
Someone has done me favors in the past, when I needed them, say got me out of trouble. I naturally feel indebted to *that* person. But the ethical reaction should not be to pay the same person back since his generosity, if genuine, should be unconditional. My debt should be to the system (something called "society"), or, less abstract, someone else, preferably a stranger...
This is similar to the mechanism of bedouin hospitality. And it becomes multiplicative.
Likewise, like anyone who isn't a saint, I have done things in my past for which I have remorse. But, to clear my conscience, I do not have to rectify the *exact* situation. I just need a large action that does not benefit me but helps the largest number of people, say, take risks by going after evil such as Monsanto, debunk BS vendors, prevent Hilary Clinton from getting close to the White House, etc.
Yes, yes and yes!
Two years ago, I wrote that it was unconscionable for the world to turn their collective backs on Syria and that Europe (and in particular the French) should lead an effort to end the war. Now, two years later, Europe is faced with a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. And, there is still no real choice. Hunkering down in a fortress is not an option if one wants to be able to look oneself in the mirror--and anyway the blame game (the new American pastime) can only go so far--since we all share a degree of responsibility. It is just not possible to look away anyway after the pictures.
Zizek in his latest article in the Guardian is spot on that the refugees are the product of the global economy. We simply cannot allow new forms of apartheid and slavery to emerge as large migrations become more and more part of our future. A stress on global cooperation and the creation of new international organizations and systems that are themselves not dependent to the neo-liberal economic system that is wrecking such havoc on our planet will serve us well in the decades to come. And Zizek is interesting because he urges us to do this without abandoning the idea of traditional culture and place. I would say both Heidegger and Derrida would be pleased. In the end, the focus must turn toward other-oriented behaviors and collectivism. After all, a virus that kills its host needs a new host to infect. But being that we have no real plan for outer space habitats (I suggested this last year), I don't think we have any choice but to re-think the current economic model, including the regulation of commons.
And if you don't believe me, why not listen to the Pope?
Also see Obama's Syrian Achievement in the Washington Post
Blob Justice, Part 2
"For the people are all in all."
~ Herodotus III.80.
Last month I reviewed a small but representative selection of instances of Internet vigilantism. Whether we are talking about Cecil the Lion or Justine Sacco, the causes and the consequences may vary, but they share several characteristics, such as the speed with which events unfolded, and their very real-life consequences, such as ruined careers. But I elided the subtler mechanics of why these instances actually occur. Put another way, what gives rise to the mob in the first place? So, in a time-honored essayistic maneuver, I will revert to that quasi-mythical place Where All Things Began, aka ancient Greece.
The scene is ancient Persia, and our chronicler is the inimitable Herodotus. Having taken the throne in a coup, Darius debates the best form of government with the seven Persian nobles who were his co-conspirators. Considering how these things can go, it is a blessedly short discussion, with democracy, oligarchy and monarchy representing the three possibilities. The noble Otanes puts forward a lukewarm endorsement of democracy, but it's very much a straw man. He is more concerned with the shortcomings of monarchy than what might be the virtues of democracy. Another noble, Megabyzus, then speaks in support of oligarchy:
For there is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of wantonness, as the unwieldy rabble. It were folly not to be borne, for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness of a tyrant, to give themselves up to the wantonness of a rude unbridled mob. The tyrant, in all his doings, at least knows what is he about, but a mob is altogether devoid of knowledge; for how should there be any knowledge in a rabble, untaught, and with no natural sense of what is right and fit? It rushes wildly into state affairs with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything. Let the enemies of the Persians be ruled by democracies.
For his part, Darius acknowledges democracy and oligarchy, but it wouldn't be a spoiler to reveal that he ultimately settles on monarchy, with himself as the head of state. Thus Herodotus sets the stage for the war between the Greeks and the Persians. In a sense, the Histories can be viewed as a meandering meditation on the best form of government, whose merits are ultimately determined on the battlefield.
For Herodotus, that preferred form is Athenian democracy, as flawed as it might be, but the fear of the mob – and its placation – remained an obvious and persistent thread throughout history. Not much after Herodotus, Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circensis – bread and circuses – that were required to keep the Roman mobs placated (and from which the Hunger Games' totalitarian state Panem takes its name). Bread and circuses, in Juvenal's opinion, were the bare minimum that the Romans needed, once they had abdicated their ability to participate in political life. Consider also Edmund Burke's hand-wringing over the French revolutionaries who toppled Louis XVI ("They have found their punishment in their success"), or Dostoevsky's broader dictum, that "to begin with unlimited freedom is to end with unlimited despotism". The masses are to be feared and controlled, and it is only under the most propitious and unlikely circumstances that a system like democracy can harness their intrinsically destructive power.
Unfortunately, as satisfying as this all sounds, what makes this sort of analysis only partially relevant for our purposes is the fact that I am theorizing on a grand scale. Any discussion of ‘the best form of government' implies that we are concerned with nation-states; and when we speak of revolutions, or the prevention thereof, we imply a pile-up of discontent so substantial that its consequences become worthy of the historical record. The truth is that mob justice and vigilantism on the Internet don't possess these dramatic qualities. In fact, if revolution is the gold standard, I'm not sure if Internet-based mob justice really has any long-term effects. Instead, it seems to be more of a bit player that seems to merely strut and fret his hour on the stage.
So perhaps we can approach the phenomenon from the opposite direction, and begin with a theory based on individuals. Here is a proposition in that vein: ‘bully' is the singular of ‘mob'. So what, then, does bullying mean, within the context of current technology? Indeed, the Internet has made bullying easier than ever, but to say that the ease with which technology in general and social media in particular has allowed bullying to ‘scale' somewhat misses the point. Like anything else, the generative qualities of bullying are rooted in ourselves.
In a recent essay for The Baffler, anthropologist David Graeber takes a closer look at the social dynamics of bullying. For him, bullying is different from cowardice, and in fact there is a weird conflation of the two that ought to be resisted. That is, bullies are regularly dismissed – unmasked, if you will – as ‘cowards'. A bully engages in bullying because of a lack of self-esteem (and as if calling a bully a coward somehow disempowers him). However, Graeber cites research that reveals this as a just-so story; in fact, bullies usually have levels of self-esteem that are quite high. With typical provocativeness, he notes that "Blowing up a wedding party using an unmanned drone might be considered an act of cowardice. Personally flying an airplane into a skyscraper takes guts."
For Graeber, it's essential to note that any sort of human interaction occurs within a social setting. And the bully thrives precisely because the social – or better yet, institutional – context is an enabler of such cruelty. The schoolyard bully is "refracting" the school's disciplinary authority, and furthermore knows that the victim cannot run away, or will soon enough be forced to return to the same hallways and playgrounds, because there is literally no other place to go. Furthermore, the bully knows that any victim that strikes back, if caught, will likely be punished just as enthusiastically as the bully, all in the name of restoring order. In fact, the closer any specific social setting gets to being a ‘total institution' (a typology first identified by sociologist Erving Goffman that includes prisons, army barracks, psychiatric institutions, etc), the more fertile ground there is for bullying, or more ritualized forms of bullying, such as hazing. Within this context,
…most bullies act like self-satisfied little pricks not because they are tortured by self-doubt, but because they actually are self-satisfied little pricks. Indeed, such is their self-assurance that they create a moral universe in which their swagger and violence becomes the standard by which all others are to be judged; weakness, clumsiness, absentmindedness, or self-righteous whining are not just sins, but provocations that would be wrong to leave unaddressed.
Cynically speaking, bullies are freelance enforcers within an implied social order. But what I really liked about Graeber's discussion is the notion that the bully-victim dynamic is only completed with the presence of an audience. Post-Columbine research shows that proper humiliation only makes sense if it is performed in public – instances of private bullying are relatively rare (unfortunately, Graeber doesn't actually cite the literature so I am taking him at face value here). So there is not just the need for there to be an audience, but an acquiescent one as well, since even a few protesters from a crowd can easily break a bully's spell. Just think of bullying as performance – it is not enough for the victim to become brutally acquainted with his or her weaknesses. It must be reinforced within the context of the social arena. The size of the crowd doesn't matter that much, though, since rumor and innuendo easily take over from there.
What happens if we take Graeber's point about the bully's moral universe and the need to ‘redress' weakness, and cast it into the funhouse mirror of social media? It's actually a good point from which the phenomenon of mob justice arises. Think of it this way: the victim crosses some perceived normative boundary. The bully senses weakness and pounces with some egregious remark. Any response by the victim sets off a further round of bullying, with more and more people joining in. The conversation is augmented, shared, and amplified. This practice, commonly referred to as trolling, may have a single point of origin, such as Justine Sacco's tweet about AIDS in Africa, or it may metastize into a nearly incomprehensible flamewar of apocalyptic proportions, such as GamerGate. Eventually these pile-ons dissipate, but as I documented last month, not without lasting consequences for the victims.
As Graeber notes, "It's not that as a species we're particularly aggressive. It's that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly". The Internet is particularly good at exacerbating this dynamic. Whereas in real life we have the benefit of nonverbal cues, body language and other physical circumstances (eg, at some point, it's just time to go home), on social media we have only language to rely on. This is a tenuous thread, especially when platforms like Twitter make a virtue of brevity, which is enthusiastically achieved at the price of context. As Wittgenstein remarked, "understanding a sentence means understanding a language". It's the stripping away of not just context, but the patience or even tolerance for context, that really makes social media the minefield that it is today. No one is really given the chance to explain themselves, not because they can't, but because the technology is designed in a way that discourages nuance, disinterested argument and respect for one another. Another way of putting it is that no one goes on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit to have their mind changed about anything. Unsurprisingly, this a priori condition makes for rich hunting grounds for bullies.
Furthermore, there is a finely ironic objection to be addressed here, and that is the contention that social media is not, in the classic sense, a total institution. A few years ago this would have been a reasonable counter, but we are currently passing through an inflection point. Our live are increasingly being lived on line, and institutions of all stripes now look to these online personae to help them determine who we ‘really' are. As I noted in the case of Adria Richards, it is sufficient to be the ultimate victim of widespread bullying that can determine one's continued employment.
And if we do not choose to participate? For every troll, there are untold number of lurkers who may follow the altercation but do not participate in it. But frankly, there is no such thing as simply lurking, just as an inert audience is nothing but complicit in the act of bullying. The concept of "interpassivity", coined by philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Robert Pfaller, is another way of interpreting the bully's audience. Superficially, it is the substitution of passivity despite the potential for interaction. More subtly, it is the notion that the object is doing the work that the subject ought to be doing, facilitated by the way that object has been designed.
An example is that of laugh tracks on TV shows: according to Žižek, the purpose of the laugh track is not to soften you up and get you to laugh along. The laugh track is there to do the laughing for you. Thus in the virtual space that is the Internet, interpassivity is collectively generated. This is especially true when we observe the phenomenon of outrage. Even if we do not pile on to the bully's victim, or rush to defend him or her, we experience the voyeuristic pleasures of seeing two people scrap – people who are quite likely strangers to us and perhaps to one another as well. "Look at those two idiots go," we smugly say to ourselves, knowing that we are too good to lower ourselves to that level.
This Schadenfreudegasm is not in the least instructive, but rather functions as our very own panem et circensis. Except that we don't require the government to dole out anyof the state's treasury for this privilege – we generate and administer the placebo ourselves. And while mob justice onthe Internet may not teach us anything or change our minds in the slightest, it certainly has the deleterious effect of making us that much more reluctant to step into the public arena to offer our own opinions. In the meantime, our complicity is recorded in our clicks, which are duly sold off to advertisers and who knows who else. Bully, victim and audience all collapse into the same blob, and at a profit to boot. It almost makes one nostalgic for the simplicity of Megbyzus's mob: "It rushes wildly…with all the fury of a stream swollen in the winter, and confuses everything". Even a swollen stream eventually reaches the sea.
Monday, September 07, 2015
Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown
by Lisa Lieberman
I've read countless analyses of Roman Polanski's neo-noir masterpiece, but I'd never considered the subliminal effect of the film's title until I read an offhand remark of Yunte Huang's in his book about Charlie Chan. "Chinatown serves as the symbol for the crime-ridden, dark side of the city of Angles," he writes. "In Chinatown, the title merely hovers in the background like a black cloud."
Gambling, opium dens, white slavery and perverse sexual acts were long associated with the Chinese quarters of American cities in the popular imagination, fueling the anti-immigration sentiment that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Sinister Chinese characters were staples of pulp fiction in the early twentieth century. The adventures of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu would be filmed repeatedly by Hollywood from the silent era onwards, the villain always played by a white actor in yellowface. Borls Karloff's 1932 incarnation is the most notorious of the lot, and not only on account of the egregious line that provoked a protest from the Chinese government: "Kill the white men and take their women!"
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Made before the Hays Code, The Mask of Fu Manchu packs quite a fetishistic kick. There's a little something for everyone here: scenes of the evil doctor preparing to torture the handsome fiancé of the blonde heroine, stroking his victim's naked chest with his long fingernails before injecting him with a serum that will turn him into a slave. A kinky sequence where the young man is whipped by two semi-naked black minions of Fu Manchu's daughter (played by Myrna Loy in yellowface). Loy's character is clearly enjoying the spectacle, but her heart still belongs to Daddy. "In later decades," Huang comments, "Asian American critics would note the references to incest and other sexual transgressions ascribed to Fu Manchu and often commented on the demeaning depictions of Asian men."
Actually, the sexual fantasies worked both ways in the pre-Code era. An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck's character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of "a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman," as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.
Publicly, audiences may have been outraged by the depiction of interracial romances between whites and Asians, but the frisson of such unions was undeniable. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino's rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). "My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent," Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.
The Shanghai Gesture
Leaving miscegenation aside, adulterous liaisons were common in Hollywood films produced during the Golden Age and set in exotic Asian locales. The frustrated overseer of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (Clark Gable) initiates an affair with his engineer's wife (Mary Astor) in Red Dust(1932). Gable carries on with two ex-lovers in China Seas (1935). Greta Garbo, meanwhile, forgets her saintly husband (Herbert Marshall) and succumbs to the advances of a married diplomatic attaché in cholera-ridden China in The Painted Veil (1934). The plots of such noir classics as The Letter (1940), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Macao (1952) revolve around uncontrolled passion and all three films end in murder, as if the unnatural desires unleashed in "the East" cannot be quenched in any other way. Chinatown, and perhaps the whole of Asia, turns out to be a projection of America's darkest fears and fantasies in Hollywood's eyes.
Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 275-6; 144.
The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, TCM Film Archive.
Daisuke Miyao, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.
Lisa Lieberman's historical noir, All The Wrong Places, was published by Five Star in March.
Sughra Raza. In Solidarity. Botswana, March 2015.
Digital photograph, manipulated.
Elephants may be wiped off the face of the earth in less than fifteen years, unless there is a concerted effort to protect them.
Please do all you can to spread awareness and education to stop poaching for ivory.
Stand-up for Cancer
by Carol A. Westbrook
I'm a big fan of stand-up comedy, and I especially enjoy live performances. I try not to sit too close to the stage, though, because then I'm fair game for the comic. I don't mind being the butt of jokes, but I don't want to embarrass the performer.
You see, I'm a perfect target. I'm easily twice the age of the rest of the audience, and I suppose I do look like a granny with my little spectacles and the grey highlights in my hair.
It usually begins with something only mildly insulting, such as "Did you knit anything interesting today?" or "Are these your grandchildren?"
But woe betide the comic who asks me what I do for a living!
"I'm a doctor."
"What kind of doctor?"
"An oncologist--a cancer specialist."
That usually brings the fun to a screeching halt.
The younger comedians, and the typical comedy club audience-- GenXers and Millennials--hear the word, "cancer" and think "death." Perhaps they remember the funeral of an elderly relative. Or they saw a movie or TV show depicting someone dying of cancer. Or they recall an unenthusiastic visit to a hospital with their parents to visit a dying relative.
It doesn't matter. The mood is gone. The room is suddenly quiet.
I'm always amused to watch the comedian try to recover from this. Usually he will quickly change direction and turn to another, younger, audience member, asking what she does for a living. Or the comic will start to talk about prostate exams, or colonoscopies--which usually causes the show to deteriorate into penis-and-butt jokes of the sort that were popular in 6th grade, from which there is no comedic recovery.
No, there is nothing funny about cancer. What is funny, though, is how awkward it is for most people to talk about death, or to even think about it. It makes us squirm in our seats. Pointing this out to the audience, and having them laugh at their awkwardness, takes a very insightful and experienced comedian, who understands the difficulty that we have in facing our mortality. It takes a mature, seasoned comedian to seize a moment like this--and to turn it into an occasion for laughter.
Take Rich Voss, a really funny guy whom I had the pleasure of hearing a few months ago. When he made the mistake of finding out that I was a cancer doctor, he seized the opportunity to recount another experience that he had with cancer and doctors in his audience a few years ago.
According to Voss, he was hosting an open mike, stand-up comedy session. Open mike attracts any number of amateur wanna-be's, as well as seasoned comics honing their material. Voss recalls that one performer, an amateur, was not funny at all, and the audience was getting bored and restless.
Voss, trying to regain control, asked the amateur why he was even bothering to try stand-up comedy.
"It's on my bucket list," the performer answered.
He went on to say that he was dying of a brain tumor, didn't have any medical insurance, and couldn't afford to pay for his brain surgery. He was going to die in a few months. So he decided to spend his last few months completing his "bucket list," that is, doing the few things he always wanted to try before he died. This included stand up comedy.
Whereupon another audience member jumps to his feet, and says, "I'm a surgeon! I can help you! Come to my office next week and we'll schedule your brain surgery. I will do it for you for free!"
The audience applauds. Voss, however, asks the doctor if he is a brain surgeon.
"No," he admitted. "I'm an orthopedic surgeon. But brain surgery is on my bucket list."
Everyone laughed, the awkward moment was forgotten, and Mr. Voss went on to finish another successful comedy show. Voss is a very talented guy--you should see him if you get the chance. He clearly has had more life experience than the younger folks in the audience. He recognized something that we oncologists learn from caring for patients who are facing a terminal illness--that people come to terms with their diagnosis and with their own mortality. Most of them become very matter-of-fact about facing their own death. Their friends and relatives, on the other hand, generally have a lot more trouble dealing with the concept, and will avoid discussing it, even to the point of avoiding the friend with cancer. The thought makes them squirm, it makes them uncomfortable. They don't know what to say, and it's easier to avoid the subject completely.
That is because in our society, which values good health and longevity, death has a bad name. Many cultures accept death as being a necessary part of life, but we don't -- even though it is as inevitable as taxes. And coming to terms with death is something that every cancer patient will do. In my experience, most patients faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness ask realistic questions, make plans, and try to face it in the best way they can. No longer taboo, death becomes something they can talk about, something they can even laugh about it, something they can look in the eye and poke fun at it.
Take one patient of mine, a jovial man at the VA hospital who was dying of leukemia. He joked about his demise continuously.
"My doctor told me not to buy any long-playing records," he said, "and my insurance agent gave me a new calendar this year that only had 6 months."
Sadly, the old Vet didn't even make it to six months, but I'll be he died laughing.
Doing stand-up comedy is on my bucket list, too. Doing brain surgery is not.
by Maniza Naqvi
One out of every one hundred and nine persons worldwide is a displaced person. Inside or outside their home countries, for a whole host of reasons, displaced. But the idea that the hosts are charitable by allowing refuge is misplaced. Refugees are loot--they are treasure. They are labor. They are the spoils of war.
In Macedonia, it shoud be considered a homecoming of sorts---though the refugees are only passing through on their way further north hoping to reach Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This flush of people into Macedonia are coming from exactly the lands invaded and occupied by Alexander and his armies from 336 BC to 325 BC. The great conquering invader that Generals and occupiers are fond of quoting. Today some of the refugees entering Alexander's home land must surely bear his armies DNA.
Europe is receiving a life prolonging gift, a transfusion of life. Youth. Refugees. It is a historic life saving moment. Able bodied young people. Educated young families made up of skilled workers, including doctors, engineers and teachers of childbearing years—with many young children. Almost every single country in Europe has negligible population growth rates, many have negative rates, including the economic and human rights engine (and major weapons manufacturer and exporter), Germany.
A little structural adjustment in demography? Yes. Going from being in the red and grey to black. What a gift.
But this treasure too is being reaped as a result of wars, these are the loot of war, these able bodied refugees with the promise of bearing more children. Refugees are fleeing to countries which have made war on theirs, which manufacture the weapons used in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eretria and so on. Refugees are fleeing to countries which are headquarters of corporations mining for oil and other minerals in their homeland.
Whether they come from Asia or from Africa-----there is no looking back. Whether into Macedonia or washing onto the shores of Italy in boats perilously laden with human beings---they are all making their way to wealthier countries in Europe—where there is peace. Making their way exactly to those countries where economies are thriving—where there is stability and peace and the rule of law. Exactly to those countries where the weapons are manufactured, where the corporations are headquartered which mine the mineral resources.
Mealy mouthed mumblings for more Aid to ‘conflict zones' won't do anything except obfuscate and pivot away from the real matter at hand it will only keep war and plunder in place. How can countries in Africa which are so resource rich--abundant in oil, gas other minerals have such desperate people that they would risk their lives to get away? What is going on? Who benefits? Who dies, who is rich and who is poor? Which countries have corporations mining the natural resources and supporting dictatorships yet providing 'aid' for poverty reduction? Aid that is meager and meaningless compared to the profits on natural resource wealth being taken out of these countries. Are those countries where there are natural resources also where there are wars going on which are funded and armed to the hilt by exactly those countries to which these migrants and refugees from those wars are fleeing to? What's going on? European citizens, are not doing enough when they offer asylum. They need to do more, they need to stop war.
Sweden, a major manufacturer of weapons and beautiful people, announced in September 2013, as the war in Syria was getting fired up well and good, that it would welcome up to 2 million Syrian refugees. Sweden was the third largest weapons exporter per capita after Israel and Russia at that time. Recently it tried to cancel an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. No dice. It was put on ice. Sweden is also big on human rights. (here and here). I asked a Swede that September in Stockholm, how he felt about this invitation to Syrian refugees. ‘Sweden is a good place, we have enough, we are rich—it is peaceful here and they can have a good life here. But don't believe what the politicians say because they are cynical they know the Syrians can't really come here—in those numbers. We're too far away.'
And now here they come.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Mischka Henner. Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas (2013).
Archival pigment print,150x180cm.
Definitely check at least the first link below to see what horror lies behind Henner's spectacular images.
Monday, August 24, 2015
Cabinets of Wonder: the Shroud of Turin & the Museum of Jurassic Technology
by Leanne Ogasawara
Friends have been talking about Michael J. Lewis' recent article, How Art Became Irrelevant. An art historian at Williams College, Lewis is basically stating what we all have come to suspect: that museums have become the bread and circuses of our day.
Arguing that that there has been a collective disengagement with the fine arts in our society, he says that young people no longer care or have an emotional response to the art works themselves. And that is a worry.
Like many people, I have wondered about the pretty significant changes seen in art museums over the past twenty years. I'm pretty sure that no one passing the mob in the room where the Mona Lisa is hanging in the Louvre could fail to wonder if the picture itself is in any real way relevant to the experience of "seeing the Mona Lisa." Especially fresh in my mind was something that recently happened to me at the Uffizi. Standing in front of Botticelli's Venus on a very crowded summer weekend, an American family of five stepped up right in front of the painting and posed while someone else took multiple versions of their picture. It was a rather long process involving corralling the kids and then the posed shots. It was bizarre.
In LA, it is said that people go to the Getty but they don't look at the art. The Getty is putting on more photography exhibitions and flashy blockbuster shows now, maybe to address the financial implications of this (though you would think of all museums the Getty with its massive budget could do its own thing as directed by its own particular history and the endowment).It's actually not at all clear whether it is the commodification and privatization of museums (museums' disturbing transformation) that has affected these changes in museum-goers that Lewis describes or whether their lack of care is what is driving the transformation of museums into entertainment hubs. I have no idea.
I do, however, think that it takes an almost impossible level of focus to be able to emotionally connect to a work of art seen as part of a blockbuster museum show. And, I have found that more and more I love finding myself in unexpected museums, where the museum has not really caught up with the times, or --better yet-- those museums which consciously aim to exhibit the art in a more old-fashion manner.
Some of my own favorite museums are more low-tech and sleepy places like Brera Museum in Milan (home to one of the most splendid art collections I've seen) or the Saint John Hospital in Bruges (probably my favorite art museum on earth). Like the Groeningemuseum (also in Bruges) and the Sabauda in Turin (which not only lacked audio guides but didn't even have a gift shop!), these museums seem to have more humble aims; that of preserving and exhibiting their collections. In all these places, I found the other museum-goers visiting these galleries to be startlingly enthralled by .... yes, the art.
I wanted to tell a story about the wackiest museum I have ever been to. But before I do I have to ask if anyone has visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. This is a museum that museum people like to talk about-because it pushes most commonly-held ideas about museums on their head.
First of all, the museum is very strangely located in nondescript building in West LA near an auto shop and a little India Sweets and Spice Mart on Venice Blvd. Also, it is not even devoted to Jurassic technology at all! But rather it is a quirky collection that seeks to create a Renaissance "Cabinet of Curiosities"--yes, right in bustling West LA. Here is a great Smithsonian article that describes the eclectic collection, composed basically of anything that ever struck the collector's fancy! With opera arias piped in, one can view holograms and see ant eggs (believed to cure love sickness in the Middle Ages); as well as see a display of stink ants from Cameroon and the Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall (with this latter one you can see that "fact" is less at issue in this place).
In its original sense,” reads a Museum brochure, “The term museum meant a spot dedicated to the muses -- a place where man’s mind could attain a mood of aloofness above everyday affairs.” This museum certainly is that spot. The displays evoke an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, ranging from micro-sculptures in the needle of an eye to “Garden of Eden on Wheels,” a collection devoted to trailer park culture. Many exhibits are confusing, nonsensical, or simply made up, but don’t expect to get answers. Just enjoy the sense of wonder.
Ok, brace yourselves--because some of you are not going to like this next part!
So, here is a story about one of the most moving experiences at a museum I've ever had. It happened very unexpectedly this summer, at a place where I would have never imagined myself becoming so moved: at the Museum of the Shroud, in Turin.
This small museum is run by the Confraternity of the Most Holy Shroud, an order founded in 1598 to promote the devotion and worship of the shroud. It was absolutely grueling to get there, walking across Turin in a blazing heatwave and then having to wait till they finally re-opened the museum after their long afternoon break. It was incredibly hot and from the street, you couldn't see the church (where the famous replica is kept) so we were never sure if we were in the right place.
He: Well, I am just going by that sign over the door
So, we waited drinking warm coke without ice in an airless cafe on the corner. When finally the doors creaked open, we found ourselves in was really the quirkiest museum I have ever been in--so quirky, in fact, that it immediately called to mind the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA! I still can't decide which is quirkier.
Like the "Cabinet of Curiosities" in LA, the Turin Shroud Museum immediately strikes one as a kind of hodgepodge collection of artifacts, blending actual relics of historic significance along with other hard to explain items that must have simply struck the confraternity's collective fancy. Also like the Jurassic Museum, there is a striking combination of science and myth. That is to say, one steps in off the street to find themselves in a Borgesian world. (It could always be worse, right?)
The shroud itself is kept elsewhere and only on view once in a great while (we had missed the last showing by only a few weeks).
Though not home to the shroud, a great wealth of objects relating to the shroud is there on display: from contemporary sculpture on the theme of the Passion to the 16th century cedar chest used to bring the shroud from France to Turin. Also on display was the camera used to take the first photograph of the relic as well as the first photograph. There are also countless folios and books and replicas of the crown of thorns and of the nails used in Crucifixion. Absolutely everything in the museum, as this video explains, is an illumination of the final hours of the man of the shroud. (In all museum literature, they refer to him as the man of the shroud). And then finally, you see the famed replica of the shroud itself, in the confraternity's church next door.
Despite the fact that we were both enormously prone to disbelief--my astronomer, because he thinks of himself as a scientist; and me, because I am a devotee of Umberto Eco and have learned quite a lot about the ins and outs of the medieval relic trade... still, would you believe, I became incredibly moved and broke down and cried after I left the place?
The only experience that even compares to my emotional reaction to the museum was what I felt upon seeing Leonardo's Last Supper, which was another huge surprise to me since I am not a Leonardo fan nor do I care much for that particular last supper theme (the version focusing on the betrayal). But the restoration was startlingly well done and they keep tourist numbers to a small number for a limited time. I was just incredibly moved by this fresco and did feel (as others say) that the painter was somehow right there in the room. My visit to the Holy Shroud Museum was like that--both incredibly moving but also enriching to me. (By the way, some conspiracy theorists believe it was Leonardo who created the shroud)
For me as a visitor of the shroud museum, it didn't matter whether the shroud dated from the Christ's death or whether it is a fabulous Medieval creation (which I think is the case based mainly on the carbon dating results, but I will never know, will I?) It simply didn't matter because the museum was not there to persuade but rather existed to exhibit a centuries-old collection of artifacts related to the holy cloth that was brought from Chambery to Turin in 1578.
As I mentioned, in all the museum literature the image of the man seen in the shroud was always referred to as "the man of the shroud" and what one sees in graphic detail is the absolutely gruesome way this man died. Beaten to a pulp, he was then tortured to death--and it can all be "seen" in the relic. It's all there, from the nail wounds, the blood from his head and swollen cheek to the horrible postmortem injury to the side. Every drop of blood in the fabric speaks of brutality. And walking through the exhibits, contemplating the final hours of a man who was brutally beaten, whipped and then crucified--made to die slowly (maybe in front of his mother) one simply could not help but draw to mind the tremendous suffering going on in the world today--things we know about but turn away from. If it didn't happen to a man called Jesus of Nazareth, we know it happened to others since it was an ancient form of the death penalty practiced across the Roman empire, among other places. And this kind of cruelty continues today.
Anyway, this is, in my opinion, what an art museum should be doing: (to speak in Heideggeresque language) museums should be places where works of art "work." And I think this is very much tied to feelings relating to curiosity and enchantment.
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. I had suggested a few months ago here in a post about the Piero della Francesco trail that perhaps it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. And that is what is so wonderful about seeing frescoes in the churches where they were painted or to see art collections that continue in preserving art within the context of the shared values which informed their creation. This is something maybe that has mainly disappeared in US Museums, where the drive to commodify and privatize is so strong...?
I have a friend who playfully suggested that one of his top reasons for time travel is that he wants to go back in time to see musical performances back when things were not overly "produced" and when sometimes musicians simply flopped! Yes, me too! It is why I wanted to see an opera at La Scala so badly--for I had read that at La Scala, often the audience boos! Art is talked about in Italy, and opera at La Scala is part of the national conversation. Maybe the bottom line is that when you "buy" any experience you come with expectations and a need to check off a list. But the profound and unexpected experience of art comes when you least expect it, when we can have the space to experience a deep emotional connections to things-- whether playful, aesthetic or ethical.
Long live the sleepy, the playful and the quirky!
Highly recommended and fabulous writing (Pulitzer finalist): Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder
Video: Shroud Museum
A White Blackman
The first time I heard the phrase – “white black man” – Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, three-quarters of a life ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit, the joy, the freedom and dignity, I cultivated in the heart of jazz.
When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.
By William Gottlieb, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, April 1947.
My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. For one thing, this was an old recording and the sound quality was thin. I had to hear through that. For another, I’d never heard anything quite like it.
But I listened and listened and, gradually, I learned to hear Armstong’s music. There was his tone – by turns jubilant, plaintive, tightly-coiled, tender – his ability to bend notes, to worry them. And his rhythm, his amazing ability to stretch or compress time, to float phrases over the beat. This rhythmic freedom was quite unlike anything I knew in the military band music which was the staple of my instructional and playing experience, the latter mostly in middle school and high school marching and concert bands. It was exciting.
Above all, there was the blues. Its emotional provenance, grief, resignation, longing. The sound, the particular notes, those so-called “blue notes.” It wasn't until much later that I learned enough about music theory to know which notes these were, and to know that these notes didn't exist in any European musical system. But I could hear these notes, I could grasp their expressive power. I wanted to make them mine.
Fortunately I had found a trumpet teacher who was a jazz musician. Mr. David Dysert was more than willing to teach me the ways of this strange idiom. He taught me jazz rhythm and phrasing – “It don't mean a thing if it don't got that swing”. He also told me that it was almost impossible for musicians with a “legitimate” background to play with a jazz feel. The ways of swing had to be learned when you were young. That was when I first became consciously aware of the cultural distance between my immediate background and the music I loved. But my parents had no reservations about my love of jazz even if they didn’t share it.
But it wasn't until I went to college – to study philosophy – that I began seriously to think about these matters. That was in the late Sixties, with the civil rights and anti-war movements in high gear. I read about the African origins of jazz rhythm and tonality – on my own, not for any courses I was taking – about how the slaves were forbidden to play drums but that didn’t keep them from clapping their hands or from singing those “blue” notes, the tones they brought from Africa. Reading Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), among others, I became aware of how American music in general was tremendously indebted to African-American music and, by implication, African music. I began to understand that when I moved toward jazz, as many other European Americans have done, I was moving toward Africa and away from Europe. Whatever American culture is, in general, in the musical arena it is largely a hybrid of European and African elements.
Late in my college career I joined a local jazz-rock band called the St. Matthew Passion. One particular arrangement began with the horns playing avant-garde free-for-all passionate noise for a short time. Then the rhythm section started the song proper, with a regular beat and melody. At our last gig the sax player and I were alone – the trombone player couldn't make it. We began as usual, and then, something snapped. All of a sudden there was just the music, flowing through me. Through us. And the light, the almost blinding white light. It was wonderful. And frightening. We pulled back. The rest of the band came in on cue. The sax player and I never really talked about what had happened – what could we say? could talk bring it back? – but, with a significant nod, a mumbled “that was nice,” we managed to convey to each other that something special had happened.
Perhaps a year or so later I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a concert at Morgan State ¬– then a state teacher's college, now a university. He played a long solo in “Olinga” and, as the solo began to end, I had a definite sense that, in some way, Dizzy was returning to himself, as though his soul had left his body during the solo and now was returning – from a spiritual Africa, everywhere present, and available, to those who listen but do not seek the present in the future/past. While it is almost impossible to describe this event – perhaps because I must do so in the language of a culture which tries very hard to deny that such things happen, and are important – my sense of it is quite definite. To this day I believe that, if I saw a film of Dizzy playing this solo, I could indicate the precise moment when his soul rejoined his body.
Strange, and moving, as these experiences were, they were yet not unexpected. A child of the Sixties, I had read about ecstasies, about mystical experience, about “altered states of consciousness,” as the psychologists called them. But even before that, when I was first studying the trumpet, I had read Jean-Baptiste Arban's assertion that “There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained.” That statement is from Arban's Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn, a standard pedagogical text which has come down to us from Nineteenth Century France and which I knew as Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet.
The Nineteenth Century in which Arban wrote the book on the trumpet was the same century which saw the United States of America fight its bloodiest war, a Civil War growing from the cruel injustice of slavery. Those enslaved Africans survived to become free men and women in part through the strength of their religion, a vigorous religion in which an African spirit wore European Christian dress. When, back in college, I read that jazz – and the music of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the late B. B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy hisownbadself, and many others – springs from the African-American church, I was astounded. This vibrant, expressive, funky music was unlike anything I had ever heard in church. In my church people had given me puzzled looks when I sang with too much enthusiasm and improvised variations on the hymns.
It was only in late 1980s that I heard this church music live, and it was not even in a church that I heard it. It was in a concert setting on a Sunday afternoon in Albany, New York. First a local ensemble performed, the Wilborn Temple Ensemble. Then the Morgan State University Choir. Spirits were high. People in the audience shouted encouragement to the singers – “I hear you,” "take it slow girl.” Many clapped rhythmically and many were unable to remain seated. The joy and the love were infectious. I clapped, and cried, and felt renewed. This was home.
And then it was over. I returned to my apartment and reflected back on the afternoon. The music was what I had expected it to be. While it wasn’t a church service, the enthusiasm and passion of musicians and audience was what I had expected from all the descriptions I had read. I felt that, if I could have this experience every week, it might be worthwhile to attend a church where this music is sung. But I realized that, for me, it wouldn't work. Most, probably all, of the musicians I had heard that afternoon, and most of the audience, believed the religious doctrine in that music. I do not.
For me, the spirit must live in the world I can see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and share, with others. And work with them to make the world a better one, for us, for our children, and the nieces and nephews of their great-grandchildren. The human spirit was born on the savannas of Africa. It survived slavery, triumphantly so. We must not allow it to die in the ghettos of the Twenty-First Century.
That Zola Kobas saw me as a white black man is a good thing; just as it was a good thing that Ade had a party where Zola and I could meet. But it is not a good thing that we live in a world where such a good things seem remarkable. I would be happy to live in a world where racism is but a distant memory and so would Zola and Ade. That is not our world, not yet. And so we must acknowledge that I am white, they black, and work against the conditions which force that acknowledgment from us. To be a white black man is a good thing. It would be better to be just a man.
* * * * *
I first published this over a decade and a half ago on a long-gone personal website and then on a now-dormant site called Gravity. I’ve made a few slight changes in this version.
David Noonan. White Rabbit, 2013.
Silk screen on linen collage.
The Donald Is Coming! The Donald Is Coming!
by Akim Reinhardt
I've lost track already. During the past month, too many people to keep count of, each with a look of bemused panic in their eye, has asked me if I think Donald Trump has a chance. Knocked back on their heels by the frenzy surrounding Trump's recent surge, they implore me to tell them what I think.
Is it possible that this crude, bombastic display of runaway hair known as The Donald will actually succeed Barack Obama in the White House?
Alas, it's hard to blame these worry warts. Of late, the press marvels at Trump's soaring poll numbers, and ruminates endlessly on his success in spite of his obvious shortcomings and endless string of outrages, and what it says about American society and its broken political system.
From NPR to Ezra Klein, there's no shortage of media mavens trumpeting Trump and theorizing what his success means. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Or if they don't, they're desperate to find one. Confused by it all, The Atlantic went so far as to simply ask people why, oh why, do you support this man? Then, sans analysis, the magazine simply threw up its hands and published the responses.
Why, oh why indeed. Why is this barbarian at the gate? Why is this roaring, fatuous pig of a man on the verge of undressing our republic and claiming its highest office?
In looking for an answer, I believe we should not dig too deep. After all, Donald Trump doesn't seem to over think much, so we probably shouldn't over think him.
Admittedly, that's a bit glib. But if you've followed The Donald's career, it's hard to come away with any other conclusion than: What you see is what you get.
And what I see right now is the same thing I always see when I look at Donald Trump: a garish, abusive, womanizing snake oil salesman. A huckster pushing his product.
It just so happens that Donald Trump's flagship product is Donald Trump.
So if you want to understand the temporary whirlwind surrounding Trump's most recent bid for the presidency, then you have to recognize the thing Trump is best at: selling himself.
For more than three decades now, Donald Trump has been selling himself, and doing a bang up job of it. Like any other athlete or celeburante seeking endorsements, Trump has made a successful career of branding himself. That's why he keeps writing books about how great he is. That's why he purchased The Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty pageants, which represent his twisted and dated version of "glamour." That's why he constantly scrambles to keep himself in the limelight.
Donald Trump: Real Estate Tycoon? No, Donald Trump: Celebrity Asshole Pitchman.
Why? Because it turns out that Trump is more successful at building up his self-image than he is at building skyscrapers, casinos, or resorts.
The son of a successful New York real estate developer, Donald Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But when he went into the family business, he botched it. His own career as a real estate developer has floated upon a wave of massive inheritance, loans, and bailouts. By the early 1990s, he'd gone belly up, begging his siblings for loans just to keep his office running. His appearances in divorce courts are likely outnumbered only by his appearances in bankruptcy courts. By 2011, The Donald's reputation in financial circles was that of a "deadbeat," according to a Deutsche Bank big wig quoted in The Atlantic.
It's easy enough to point out all the financial blunders and bankruptcies. But if you really want wrap your head around The Donald, then you have to understand how and why he turned himself into a Thanksgiving Day Parade hot air balloon.
As it turns out, while Trump might be, at best, a mediocre real estate developer, he's actually a crackerjack pitchman. And while he wants to sell you anything he can, selling you anything at all is largely predicated on Trump's impressive ability to sell himself.
That's why, for example, Trump spent years badgering Forbes Magazine to overstate his wealth on their annual rundown of insanely rich people. During the 1990s, when his situation was most dire, it was an annual rite for Trump to harangue Forbes writers and editors. He would insist they acknowledge his supposedly fabulous fortune by publicly listing his net worth at up to five times what the good people at Forbes thought he was actually worth. Year after year, the same routine. Forbes would estimate his value. Trump would throw a fit and bully some writer or list editor to publish a vastly higher and totally unreasonable figure. They would decline, and then the haggling would ensue.
But why was a fantastical public accounting of his wealth so important to Trump? Because calling yourself Billionaire Donald Trump, instead of just plain old Donald Trump Whose Business Practices Invite Scrutiny, is a way to brand oneself. Polish up your name, get it out there, and then use it to attract buyers.
A cornerstone of that branding process has been Trump's relentless effort to continue defining himself as a real estate mogul, despite all the bankruptcies on his ledger. He's accomplished that by attaching himself to various building projects where he doesn't actually building anything. According the The Wall Street Journal, instead of building, owning, and then selling real estate, Trump simply sells his name to other real estate developers, who then slap TRUMP on their various projects.
So the Trump-this or Trump-that, which you see on skyscrapers and resorts, was probably not made or ever owned by Donald Trump. You know. The same way some star athlete isn't really back there flipping burgers at whatever shitty, overpriced, yuppie bar-n-grill has his name on it.
But it has worked, and from there The Donald has spread his wings. Transitioning from stumbling real estate developer to successful real estate pitchman and sponsor, Trump also whores himself out to all sorts of ventures unrelated to real estate.
Such as a failed, unaccredited, for-profit "school" called Trump University. Or one particularly shady business venture that some have reasonably classified as a pyramid scheme.
And while an array of "Trump" ventures have gone belly up, Donald Trump's public image as the über successful celebrity-businessman has never been stronger. Hell, Trump has branded himself so well over the years that he even got a long running TV show out of it, right down to the recognizable "You're fired!" catch line, which comes across as just a meaner, stupider version of Gary Coleman squinting and demanding to know "What'chu talkin' about Willis?" or the flustered Skipper turning beet red and shouting "Gilligan!"
No wonder then that Forbes lists Trump's primary source of wealth as "television."
And it's all worked out magnificently for him. Two decades after all the unseemly wrangling about his wealth, Forbes now lists Donald Trump as the 405th richest person in the world. Although there are two other Donalds on the list ahead of him, much to his chagrin, no doubt.
But it is within this context, of Donald Trump as the man who has become fabulously wealthy by selling himself, that we must examine his supposedly serious presidential bid. This is not Carly Fiorina, Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, Herbert Hoover, or some other incredibly successful business person who genuinely thinks they can be a great political leader because they've been a great business leader, and is willing to spend tens of millions of personal wealth to make it happen. This is a showman looking to drum up business by pushing his brand in the biggest spotlight he can find.
Lest you forget, this is hardly the first time Trump has made a show of pretending to run for president. He first publicly speculated about a run for the Oval Office way back in 1988, when he was doing well and his ego was in full bloom. Then he didn't bother with such superficial activities during the 1990s, when he was putting his Trumpty Humpty Dumpty image back together again. By 2000, however, the new and improved Donald Trump had re-emerged as a modern public spectacle, and he took a shot at the presidential nomination for Perot's Reform Party. He even won the California primary, which is kind of like winning a junior high school science fair by paying to have actual lava dumped on that one kid's baking soda-vinegar volcano. But despite claiming the Golden State in the name of fruitcake schismatics, in the end Trump failed to earn the Reform Party's nod. That special honor went to a more committed political lunatic: Pat Buchanan. In 2004, Trump once more made waves about running for president, and then again recently as 2012, in case you'd already forgotten. Along the way, he talked loud and long about running for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014.
In each case, all of these electoral bids went no where, precisely because they weren't designed to go anywhere. The point is not to become president or governor. Rather, the point is to run your name up a flagpole, see how many slightly confused and very excited people salute it, and then capitalize on the notoriety by continuing to brand yourself. Afterwards, you're not just Dubious Billionaire Donald Trump, but also Dubious Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
And that's exactly why, yet again, Donald Trump has tossed his hat into the presidential ring. Not to become president, but merely so he can get free publicity of the highest order and burnish his brand, thereby continuing his reign as the nation's most insidious, insulting and, sadly, successful pitchman.
Okay, okay, you say, so all those other half-assed, go-nowhere political dalliances were just part of his relentless self-branding operation. But this time it's different. He's leading in the goddamn GOP polls!
It's a perfectly reasonable concern, especially given what a truly horrible person Trump has been at least since 1978, when The Village Voice first ran an exposé of him.
Thus looms the important question: What in the hell is going on here?
My short answer is: Not much, and it'll be over soon.
But that may not be enough to satiate you, so let's tackle the more in depth questions. In the media, public discourse, and personal communications, the following queries keep cropping up:
-Why are so many voters attracted to Trump?
-How do you explain his current success?
-What does that success say about our political system and society?
-Will he win the GOP nomination?
My brief answers are, in order:
-It's not actually that many
-Freud + Bugs Bunny
-Not in this fucking lifetime
Now let me flesh that out a little bit.
Let's start with the supposedly massive popular support Donald Trump is garnering. Yes, it's true that as of Friday, August 21, he's ahead in the polls for the GOP nomination. His percentage is in the high teens or low twenties, depending on which polls you go by. And in a field of 15 candidates, that works out to a substantial lead. He's currently lapping second place contender Jeb Bush.
But hold on just a minute. First off, it's important to remember that these polls don't reflect the general pubic or even the general voting public. These are polls of only Republicans. So how many registered Republican are there exactly?
According to Gallup, as of this past July, it's only 23% of registered voters. Democrats claim another 28%. And by far the largest group of Americans registered to vote are Independents, who comprise 46% of the electorate. So among a polling group that constitutes fewer than one-quarter of the nation's registered voters, Trump is currently the preferred candidate among roughly one-fifth of them.
In other words, among all of the registered voters in the United States, fewer than 5% currently think Donald Trump is the bee's knees.
Now contemplate that for a moment. Is one out of every twenty people you know a bit of a numnutz? Yeah? That about fair? Right then, so before you get yourself into a tizzy about how half the nation wants this whackadoo hair pie to be our next president, keep the numbers in perspective.
Let's see if Trump can actually win a primary before we start buying gaudy new drapes and gimcrack china for the White House. Let's see if he's still standing when the Republican field winnows from 15 to 5 before we assume all of this will end up as anything other than a quaint jolt of nostalgia 10 years from now.
That being said, Trump is certainly enjoying a surprising degree of popularity at the moment, not to mention some seriously outsized media coverage. His poll numbers are at least double each of the next two contenders in the field, Bush and Ben Carson, and everyone else is in single digits. So while reasonably recognizing his current success without getting carried away, it's fair to ask: What explains it?
Simply put, it's the Donald Trump brand, and what that brand represents to a very narrow slice of a frustrated electorate.
The image that Donald Trump has fostered lo these many years is that of the successful, brash, no-nonsense businessman who offers up a loud, New York City version of being aggressively plainspoken with nary a care of what you or anyone else thinks about it.
Yes, I and a lot of other people, probably you included, think he's a tiresome blowhard. But whether you buy it or not, the popular public image of Donald Trump, which springs from his relentless branding efforts, is the guy who says what's on his mind, who does what he wants, and who, along the way, cuts through all of society's insincere and misguided niceties.
In other words, he's a little id monster in the Freudian sense. He does and says whatever he wants when and wherever he wants. You know. A complete and utter fucking asshole.
But the charismatic version of a little id monster is someone people will love, rally behind, and make excuses for. A charismatic id monster is the person you wish you could be. A desperado among martyrs and imbeciles.
Think Bugs Bunny.
Everyone loves to root for that rascally rabbit. Constantly confronting stupid and mean people in an uncaring world, he outfoxes them at nearly every turn, and that make you happy. That there bunny's making the world right for the rest of us. You know, even if he is a bit of a handful.
And that's why a relatively small group of Americans is supporting Trump right now. They don't care what he's saying. They just like the way he says things. Because like everyone else, they too wish they could say whatever they want where and whenever you want.
The actual content of Trump's statements? Almost entirely irrelevant. Seriously. Let me give you an example.
In mid-July, I was visiting the friend of a friend in Omaha, Nebraska. This person is a native of the state and fairly conservative. The kind of person who in 2015 thinks allowing gays to marry is an infringement of her rights as a Catholic.
This person was very excited about Trump. When questioned about why, she said: "He's just saying out loud what everyone else believes."
And what had Donald Trump most recently said out loud? That John McCain was essentially a loser because he'd been a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam.
"He's not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."
If anyone else had said it, it might have ended their campaign on the spot. It certainly would have required a retraction and heartfelt apology. But Trump said it, didn't backdown, and then emerged from the subsequent controversy with higher poll numbers than when he started. Among hawkish Republicans!
Now think about this for a second. We're talking about a woman who might as well be flying one of those MIA/Never Forget flags atop her garage. And she's lauding Trump for "saying what everyone else believes," just as he was making headlines for saying something that's the exact opposite of what she actually believes.
On one hand, the cognitive disconnect at work here is absolutely stunning. But it's the other hand that sheds light on the Trump phenomenon. And that hand opens to reveal a person who isn't supporting Donald Trump because she's lockstep with his policy agendas, which beyond "Send back the immigrants and build wall!" range between the vague and the unspoken. She's supporting Trump because she's buying the Trump brand.
It's not that Trump is saying what she thinks, other than on the topic of immigration. For example, Trump is pro-abortion rights. She thinks abortion is murder. So it's not what Trump is saying. It's that he's saying whatever the hell he wants. Wherever the hell he wants. Whenever the hell he wants. Including on the campaign trail while there are microphones in his face and the cameras are rolling. And that devil-may-care hubris has attracted her.
Donald Trump is her Bugs Bunny.
This woman also wants to say whatever the hell she wants. As do I. As do you. But like most sensible people, we're all afraid of the consequences should we publicly voice some of the things we think. So we keep certain things to ourselves or our close confidants. And we cheer or laugh when a charismatic character, like Bugs or maybe some clever comedian, crosses a certain line. We get a thrill from it. We root for them, and salute their courage and honesty. That person becomes a reflection of your id.
If you have really bad taste, that person is Donald Trump.
So what then does Trump's current standing atop the Republican field say about our political system? Not much. It certainly doesn't say a lot about the electorate's views on specific political issues, because Trump says almost nothing about specific political issues. He's not tapping into some deep political vein in America. He's just being Trump.
That's why the rest of the GOP field is so confused about what to do. Trump is not a serious candidate making serious statements. He's just mouthing off, and a small segment of Americans are clapping and shouting Yay! It just happens to be a small segment of Americans that are very important to those other 14 GOP candidates. So the other candidates stand there, a bit dazed and confused, some of them criticizing Trump, some of them mimicking him, and all of them waiting for Trump mania to blow over. Which it will.
Because there is absolutely no way in hell Donald Trump is going to win the Republican presidential nomination, much less the 2016 election.
And if I'm wrong, I'll sell my row home, max out my credit cards, and buy all of you aggrieved readers plane tickets to Canada, while I remain behind and endure the unimaginably surreal ravages of a Trump presidency.
But it won't come to that. So just settle down. It's still August. Of 2015. The actual election more than 14 months away. The Republican convention is nearly a year away. The very first primaries and caucuses aren't until the dead of winter, and I'm still sweating like a pig here in Baltimore.
Towards the end of the year, as the leaves turn and fall, and things begin to get more serious, the spotlight will get brighter. And then all of Trump's countless faults will be harder and harder to avoid. That small group of Americans currently drawn to his id monster persona will decide that, as much as they wish they could be like him, they really don't want an unfunny Bugs Bunny with a comb over for president.
Furthermore, as other candidates fade from the field during the first two or three months of 2015, their erstwhile supporters will not flock to Donald Trump. Why? Because the ones who currently support serious candidates will move on to other serious candidates who remain. I mean honestly now. Can you envision current supporters of Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Paul Kasich, or Rand Paul shrugging and just moving on to Trump instead of one of the other candidates who's not a walking punch line?
It's not happening. Most of those voters want someone serious. Most of them also want someone who can win the general election, which Trump cannot.
And as for those people currently throwing their support behind other loony toon characters like Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, or Foghorn Leghorn? Who knows. But their numbers are too small to matter. Carson and Santorum combined are polling about 10%. I like Leghorn as a write-in candidate, although I'm not sure he'll do well outside the South. We'll see.
In the end, however, despite what will undoubtedly be his rapid political unraveling in the weeks or months to come, Donald Trump really will win, in a way.
After his ramshackle campaign finally winds down, after the sideshow packs up and goes home, after the smoke clears and the lights dim, in the United States and around the world, the Trump brand will be more recognizable than ever before. And then he can continue to pimp himself to anyone out there who's willing to trade big bags of money for his punny name or his endless bluster.
Donald Trump will never be president of the United States, I assure you that. But he will always be The Donald, a pied piper for people with bubbling frustrations and runaway dreams. And you can buy him whenever you like.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com. There, among other things, you can find his prior writings on Donald Trump, including his dissection of The Donald's failed presidential bid four years ago.
Ashley Madison hack reveals nothing surprising at all
by Sarah Firisen
Big news: millions of married people, mainly men, are using the Internet to try to cheat on their spouses. The Ashley Madison hack scandal, the data dump of records of 32 million would-be adulterers, is apparently a surprise to some people. Not to me. Ever since I started online dating after my divorce, I’ve been blown away by the realization of just how many people, not all men, but probably primarily men, are in some way or another looking to cheat on a spouse. Based on the interactions I had over a few years, I’d break down these men (and I was only interacting with men) into a few categories:
- Saying they’re in open marriages – maybe they are, maybe they’re not.
- Feeling out the waters, maybe indulging in some online flirtation for titillation but probably wouldn’t go through with anything in person – probably
- Making their status as married men looking for an affair very clear upfront – not many of these
- Pretending to be single and actively cheating on spouses
I was a big Googler of men I was considering dating. Call me paranoid, suspicious, closed minded, whatever you want. The fact is, what I used to find by pretty simple Google searches of these men was pretty horrifying. There was the guy whose Tinder profile photo turned out to be his wedding photo up on Facebook, except with his wife cropped out for his dating profile. When I called him on his marital status, he of course initially tried to pretend otherwise. When I told him his wife’s name and where she lived (people, secure your Facebook pages for heaven’s sake), he finally spiraled through a bunch of lies: they were separated – I pointed out that in a Facebook post the week before she called him the love of her life and said that these 3 months of marriage – yes, they were newlyweds – had been the happiest of her life. Then he told me that he was planning on leaving her, she just didn’t know yet. Then, he told me she was pregnant.
I do think that, as this opinion piece points out, one of the more troubling revelations of this hacking scandal is that it’s shown how many people are stupid enough to use real email addresses, and in many cases work email addresses, often government emails, to sign up for a site like Ashley Madison. Or in fact any dating website. Given how trivially easy it is to sign up for a Gmail account, I believe that the women who discover that their husbands didn’t bother to do that before signing up to cheat, should divorce them for stupidity if nothing else. A friend of a friend’s email turned up in this data dump and he is a professional IT security consultant! All his clients should immediately fire him for this faux pas.
I’m thrilled that all Americans straight and gay now have the right to marry. I’m just not sure why anyone is bothering anymore. Is anyone really happily married? Okay, past the first 5 years, is anyone happily married? Let’s take out people who never had children, they may still be happy. Everyone else? Another friend had dated a guy for a few months. Things fell apart. She found his name in the Ashley Madison list. He’d admitted to her that when he was married he had an affair when he'd been married, but he claimed that it was a one-time fling with someone he knew, clearly not true given the existence of his name in this data dump. Said friend and I both agreed that she’d dodged a bullet there; we both felt that there’s all the difference in the world between something that just sort of happens between two people who know each other. Drinking too much at the Christmas party, traveling a lot for work together, a lot of us can imagine how something might start with a colleague or friend. Maybe we haven’t cheated, but the opportunity and the temptation has presented itself. But signing up for an online dating site in order to cheat, that’s really in a different league in my opinion. And maybe that’s the problem these days, it’s just so easy to do that.
The old fashioned way of cheating took effort. It took opportunity. There was risk and the real danger of exposure. Nowadays, the barrier to entry is so damned low. Of course, if you’re an idiot and use your Facebook photos for your dating profile, or use your real email address, or any of the things that are so easy to search on and expose, then the risk and danger can be even greater than it used to be; I often knew who these men’s wives were from Facebook and could have easily contacted them. But if you employ even a modicum of common sense, it’s possible to cheat away to your heart’s content.
So the question is, how many people do? This article does a back of the envelope calculation “Let’s guess that 10 million accounts are real and from the United States, and nearly all are men. That still seems high, actually, as there are only 65 million married men in the United States, so that would put 15 percent of them on Ashley Madison.” And that doesn’t include men not using this site but using Tinder or OK Cupid or something else. That is a hell of a lot of men trying to cheat. And that number doesn’t include people who are cheating and not using online tools to meet their hookups. I read one number that claims that 30-60% of all married people in the USA will engage in infidelity at some point in their married lives. I could imagine it being higher actually. And given the number of divorces, I’m probably right.
The wedding industry is a juggernaut in this country and we’re still bombarded with treacle sweet goo about romance, love and marriage from all sides. I try to not be too jaundiced, but these days, when someone gleefully tells me they’re getting married, I start to calculate how many good years the marriage likely has. It’s so easy to get caught up in the stuff, the bridal showers, engagement parties, wedding dresses, gift registries, all the things that make weddings so desirable for so many people, honestly, particularly women. I know a disturbingly large number of smart, educated, professionally successful women in their late 30s early 40s who will willingly admit that they consider themselves failures for not being married yet. Why is this? Why do they so long to throw themselves into an institution that, by any standards, isn’t a success. Will the hard facts of this Ashley Madison hack bring a cold shower of reality to these women?
Monday, August 17, 2015
Making a Case
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Textbook discussions of logic often proceed as if reasoning were a relatively simple, albeit challenging, process. One simply begins from one's evidence, articulates one's premises, and then, by means of the application of rules of induction or deduction, one draws one's conclusion. On this common picture, the assessment of reasoning fixes on two main elements: (1) the quality of one's premises given one's evidence; and (2) the quality of the inference by which one's conclusion is drawn. From this perspective, there has emerged a wealth of important theorizing about the various logical properties that reasoning can embody, including validity, soundness, cogency, and supportiveness.
Yet we all know that in real-time contexts, reasoning is a far more complicated affair. For one thing, real-time reasoning occurs under conditions where one must draw one's conclusion on the basis of partial or conflicted evidence. We often must reason while relevant evidence is still being gathered and evaluated. Reasoning, under these conditions, inevitably involves the drawing of provisional conclusions based on premises rooted in incomplete evidence. Consequently, reasoning in real-time is largely a matter of coordinating and calibrating one's conclusion with an unsteady and still-developing evidential environment. Moreover, much of the reasoning we do as issues develop is reason in light of the fact that we often already have a view on the matter. We've drawn a conclusion earlier, and now we are revisiting the question of whether we must revise it. That is, we must not only reason critically before we form beliefs, but we also must reason critically after we form them, too. To employ a philosopher's distinction: textbook treatments emphasize the role reasoning plays in the acquisition and justification of beliefs, whereas in real-world contexts reasoning has mainly to do with the maintenance and revision of beliefs.
Of course, in real-world contexts, even modest changes of belief can be practically costly, and sometimes psychologically taxing. Unsurprisingly, then, a lot of real-world reasoning aims at preserving one's belief in the light of new and unanticipated evidence. In confronting new data, we understandably try to hold on to the belief we formed previously. One sure-fire way of accomplishing this is to show how the new evidence lends further support to what we already believe. Failing that, we can also attempt to establish that the new data poses no challenge to the existing belief. To be sure, there are methods of belief-preservation that are intellectually vicious and dishonest; what is called rationalization is one case in point. Nonetheless, holding one's belief steady in the face of new data is not intrinsically degenerate, and, again, a lot of important work has been done in argumentation theory and epistemology that attempts to give an account of intellectually virtuous belief-preservation in the face of new evidence. Of course, we cannot survey this work here. But there is one important feature of virtuous belief-preservation that we want to highlight.
We can capture the points just made about real-world reasoning by saying that much of our reasoning is aimed at making a case. Again, we often must draw provisional conclusions from incomplete data, and, given the costliness of belief-revision, we must attempt to preserve insofar as we can our preliminary conclusions in the face of new and unanticipated evidence. We might say, then, that in contexts where evidence is still being gathered, once we reason our way to a conclusion from our initial evidence, we then must reason back from the conclusion to accommodate the new data. In other words, we draw from the various considerations available to us at the time in building support for our antecedently-drawn conclusion.
The important thing to notice is that when one is making a case for a conclusion, one is engaged in a comparative enterprise. Unlike the demonstrations and proofs of formal logic, making a case involves showing how newly-collected data either contributes to the existing support for one's conclusion, or at least does not detract from it. However, the degree of support that is enjoyed by one's conclusion is partially a matter of the degree to which opposing conclusions are supported by the available data. A new piece of evidence lends no real support to one's own conclusion unless it either speaks against or does not affect its competitors. Making a case, then, must have a two-steps. First, one must show how new data lends support to (or does not detract from the existing support of) one's conclusion. Second, one must show, at the very least, that the new data does not provide an equal degree of support for opposing conclusions.
This second comparative dimension of making a case is frequently overlooked in real-world argumentation. Often in these contexts one finds reasoners simply showing that new data support or can be accommodated by their antecedent view. Rarely do they take up the task of comparing the degree of support the new data lends to their own view to the impact of that very data on their opponents' views. And this failure to compare is a mark of the intellectually vicious kind of belief-preservation. Until the comparative force of new data is reckoned, one engages only in rationalization, cherry-picking, or casuistry on behalf of one's conclusion; one fails to make a case for it.
A few lessons arise from these observations. First, we can see why a kind of intellectual conservatism arises from the procedural tasks of cognitive rationality – if one is allowed to form beliefs in medias res, then one will be inclined to reason in light of those beliefs going forward. Second, we can see why a certain vice of conservatism arises, too – if one is looking only at the rational considerations on the maintenance of the belief, one misses the comparative work of assessing how the new evidence affects the status of other commitments. Third, and finally, we can see the importance of John Stuart Mill's requirement that one know the views of one's critics and opponents well, too. Without that knowledge and comparative work, what looks from the inside as manifest rationality is actually an exercise in rationalization.
Our point can be summarized like this. Much real-world reasoning is devoted to making a case for an antecedently-drawn conclusion in the light of new evidence. If they are to avoid the intellectual vices associated with rationalization and other failures when making a case, reasoners must consider the ways in which new data impact the support not only of their antecedent view, but also of the opposing views.
Blob Justice, Part 1
"Dear Cecil! I have no secrets from you."
~ Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost
Remember Cecil the Lion? It wasn't that long ago, but given the half-life of outrage on the Internet, I will forgive you a moment of head-scratching. Let me summarize that Cecil was lured from his protected home in Zimbabwe to an adjoining game reserve only to be shot, tracked for 40 hours, finished off, and finally decapitated by a dentist from Minnesota and his co-conspirators, all of whom, the Internet has resoundingly agreed, are cowards. Said dentist, a certain Walter Palmer, has since seen his business vandalized, and has gone into hiding after receiving death threats against himself and his family. He has generally been subjected to enough unpleasantries that would rival the most botched root canal. Such is the nature of Internet justice today.
You may cry, He deserves it! Killing such a magnificent beast, etc etc. I don't dispute the obviously reprehensible barbarism of this act. But the anachronistic nature of big game hunting has been followed up by the equally anachronistic resurgence of public shaming and mob justice. So let's take a closer look at how – or better yet, why – the citizenry of the Internet fearlessly takes up the mantle of vigilantism, and to what effect. I've decided to divide this post into two parts: this first part will discuss a few concrete examples of public shaming, and the second will look at some theoretical frameworks that may help us make sense of it all.
Before Cecil the Lion, there was Justine Sacco. For those of you with exceptionally long Internet memories – and to be clear, I'm not sure why having a long memory for things Internet-related is that useful, as it's just depressing to see the same things repeated in ever-quickening cycles – Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications for IAC, a billion-dollar media corporation. Jetting off to South Africa for family holidays in winter 2013, she tweeted a few poorly considered thoughts to her 170 followers but struck outrage gold with the one that said "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
We could try to parse what she actually meant by that. For example, a generous interpretation would be that she was sarcastically musing on the conditions of white privilege. It's more likely that she wasn't thinking very much at all. What is certain is that, by the time her plane landed, her career was effectively over.
As Jon Ronson wrote in an excellent article in the New York Times Magazine on Internet shaming, "The furor over Sacco's tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc." Although it took IAC a few weeks to fire her, the furor was so instantly incandescent that the company had to tweet that she was "unreachable" as she was still in the air. After her demise, Sacco opted for the classic redemption narrative, by volunteering for an NGO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, she has not so much redeemed herself in the eyes of the public (as she wasn't a public figure to begin with) as simply sunk beneath the digital waves.
Let's also not delude ourselves that it's only the allegedly guilty parties that get their comeuppance. A few months before Justine Sacco's demise, software "developer evangelist" Adria Richards was attending a programmer conference on behalf of her startup SendGrid when she overheard two male attendees making crude sexual jokes. She tweeted the jokes and photos of the jokers, and within hours the two had been identified and reported to the conference organizers. Not long afterwards – and by ‘not long' I mean 24 hours – one of them had lost his job. As for Richards, she was subjected to a depressingly predictable barrage of online harassment, but the real corker came when her own employer fired her. In a blog post oh-so-delicately titled "A Difficult Situation" the CEO explained:
A SendGrid developer evangelist's responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.
What's really noteworthy here is not simply the weight of the consequences – people losing their jobs left and right – but the swiftness of it all. There is also the unsurprising fact that any corporation, even if it is a startup, has little to no tolerance for controversy of any sort. An employee who is in the news for anything other than rescuing kittens from a burning building is a liability, their own track record and talents notwithstanding. Further to their misfortune, both Richards and Sacco were communications professionals: Richards did community development, while Sacco held a fairly senior position in public relations for a much larger firm. Of course, the first lesson in communications/PR is to always be ahead of the story, but both Richards and Sacco never had a chance. Once their respective tweets had gone supernova, the narrative was permanently out of their hands. As communications professionals, I'm somewhat surprised that they were not more circumspect about their decisions in the first place; on the other hand, the fact that two communications professionals made such catastrophic errors holds out very little hope for the rest of us. We find social media attractive because, at first blush, it is liquid, dynamic and impermanent, but the presences that we have created over the years are ossifying into a permanent, easily searchable record. With the way that things are going, about half of the US population will be considered unemployable by the conflict-avoidant firms of tomorrow.
It is astonishing how the Internet, once its sights are set on an individual, incinerates immediately and without recourse. It's as if social media is a magnifying glass, concentrating the rays of righteous outrage, and we are ants, randomly selected to fry for some original sin committed 15 minutes earlier. Who could possibly survive in such a noxious environment, let alone thrive? I'm glad you asked, since this question brings us to the latest and greatest Internet outrage generator: Donald Trump. I would like to dub Trump the apotheosis of this phenomenon, but it's doubtful that anything can ever be considered apotheotic when it comes to the Internet.
Trump's great innovation has been to unapologetically, even gleefully ride the bucking bronco of Internet outrage. Every prediction of his demise has been premature, from his initial campaign salvo that Mexicans send us their rapists, to the dissing of John McCain's years as a Vietnam POW, to the most recent tussle with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly. Professional wrestlers have leveraged the same formula for decades: trash talk the competition and never back down, even if or when you get thrashed by reality. But since we are playing in the political arena, the consequences have been wholly unintended, even by Internet standards: as Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone, "The [other GOP] candidates have had to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics in order to win press attention. …So much for the cautious feeling-out period: For the candidates, it [is] toss grenades or die."
It's as yet unclear how this will play out. Some would like to argue that Trump is outing the GOP for what it is: a morally bankrupt ideology flush out of not just ideas but also support, outside of an increasingly irrelevant fringe. Others, especially on the left, are glorying in Trump's candid admission that he buys favors and that's how the political system works (although I'll point out that he didn't really say that, if elected, he would fix it). Taibbi looks at it very differently. For him, Trump's harnessing of the outrage machine has pulled the GOP even further to the right, with all the foreseeable consequences for bipartisan dialogue and general political sanity. Of course, the longevity of Trump's candidacy will be the ultimate measure of his influence, but I think that even at this early stage in the election cycle, the impetus of the race has decidedly shifted to grabbing media attention much sooner than otherwise would have been the case.
It's clear that the four individuals whose cases I have lightly sketched here occupy varying positions on the spectrum of verdict-by-Internet, and as such it's equally clear that social media vigilantism is, among other things, blind. Justine Sacco blew up her career with a thoughtless tweet. Did her message reveal a callow disregard for Africans, or was it indicative of the hopelessly pervasive casual racism that it feels like we will never resolve? I don't know. Adria Richards lost her own job after blowing the whistle on what she considered to be unconscionable sexism. Were the jokers in fact hard-boiled misogynists or just maladroit computer nerds? I don't know the answer to that, either. You may maintain that the answer is in fact irrelevant, but if so, I would ask, did anyone deserve to lose their jobs over these incidents? Another way of putting it is, Were the punishments commensurate to the crimes, which weren't even crimes, at least so far as I understand the law? As for Donald Trump, he really doesn't care what you think, and there's no one to fire him anyway, unless enough voters get together to shoo him away, which remains to be seen (Exhibit A: Silvio Berlusconi).
As for poor Cecil, what lessons can we draw from his untimely demise? If Walter Palmer is to be believed, it would seem that, however reprehensible the act itself may have been, he acted in good faith and within the law. The people who broke the law – by luring Cecil out of the park and into a game reserve – were his guides, or perhaps people hired by those guides. I am sure that the story is much murkier than that, of course, but I am reserving judgment for the moment. Social media has come down hard on the side of lion conservation, and the idea that paid-for hunting has any role to play in conservation has been ridiculed. For those of us who sit in front of our computer screens and not in Land Rovers on the savannah, it is all too easy to discount the presence of complex and stressed societies that live in proximity to these wild animals. How can this not be a factor? So I was interested to hear the BBC interview one of the scientists whose organization was tracking Cecil. When asked about the issue, he flatly said that, if it wasn't for hunting license fees that went into the local economy, the entire park would be poached out of existence within a few months. Not just lions, but anything that had market value. But you go tell the mob that – I'm not going to risk it.
Next month, I'll examine some more theoretical approaches to why Internet vigilantism happens. With the help of Herodotus, David Graeber and even Slavoj Žižek, I'll try to propose a more satisfying framework; I suspect it will begin with the concept of bullying. But in the intervening few weeks, I look forward to more excellent examples of outrage surfacing.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Photograph, part of the series Ultradistancia: Monsters.
"... a sub serie from the acclaimed ULTRADISTANCIA series. From the precise eye of google earth imaginary emerges geographic shapes and geometries that transform cities, peninsulas, neighborhoods and ports into animals and monsters."
The Watchman's Tale
Why Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is more profound and important than her first
Even before its publication, Go Set a Watchman had become controversial, acquiring a whiff of conspiracy, inauthenticity, and foul play. It seemed unbelievable that Harper Lee would publish again after more than half a century of quiescence—and that too a novel written long ago and thematically near to her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, Mockingbird has become an American classic and standard reading in every American high school. It is revered for its poignant telling of a thoughtful and courageous white man who does his best to hold up the candle of racial justice in the Jim Crow South. How could anything new live up to that? Why would Lee imperil her own legacy?
Since the release of Watchman, many readers have indeed announced their heartbreak over the revelations and struggles contained within. This new story takes place in the same small Alabama town we came to know in Mockingbird, where the endearingly wild little Scout grew up learning from her father, Atticus Finch, to recognize the humanity of those who seemed different from herself. But it’s now twenty years later and we meet the young woman Scout has grown into. On a visit from New York to her hometown in the mid-50s, the twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch—who no longer goes by her childhood nickname—finds it transformed by time, the postwar economy, and the emergent Civil Rights movement. Much of the story centers around Jean Louise’s sense of unbelonging in the place where her roots remain yet deeply felt, and the cognitive dissonance she suffers as she discovers the people she most loved and trusted to be unapologetic racists:
Many readers feel betrayed because our good man, Atticus Finch, has now crossed over to the wrong side of history and become a committed segregationist. Some readers have dismissed the book altogether, proclaiming it a fraud, not really written by Harper Lee. Others hold that the existence of the manuscript was meant to remain Lee’s unmentionable secret, a horrible failure of an aborted novel that was made public without her consent. Lee is imagined to be the hapless victim of greedy publishers and lawyers, whom she might have trusted to let her fade into the sunset with quiet dignity; instead, the dear old lady has been used.
Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? … Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.
They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes… but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out of the window any time, now.
For how is it that Lee’s Atticus is now heard to declaim racist, eugenicist platitudes? How could she abide this unforgivable flaw in her beloved story, undermining the whole of it, ripping away the sweet sadness we remember of Mockingbird—and with it, our complacency with its story? For did we not all identify with Atticus, the flawless patriarch who would, in time, with untiring patience and unfaltering compassion, set the world right? Were we not to learn from him and hope to follow in his footsteps? Like his own daughter, Jean Louise, we are personally injured to see what he has become in his old age.
But to dismiss the story as an error or a betrayal misses the point. What makes Watchman worth reading is not that it should further reassure us of our heroic intentions against racism, nor feed our sepia fantasies for those days when quiet heroes fought righteous lonely battles. Rather, it’s worth reading because of its raw honesty, because it shows us how pervasive and insidious racism is and lays bare how racism actually works among us. Watchman reflects back upon its predecessor the shattering light of a more adult awareness, banishing the darkness of innocence in which we had wished to hide. Whatever its flaws in novelistic structure, Watchman is a more profound and important novel than its prelude. In the way of so many first novels of youth, this one reads like an attempt at catharsis, a fire coming up raw from the gut; one can see that Lee had trouble taming it, trimming it, shaping it into something her editors would accept as a publishable work. It is not a work of great maturity, which should be no surprise from a writer so young as Lee was when she wrote this, but it’s a tellingly sharp portrait of America as it was, with implications for what it has become.
Watchman is the sprawling, angsty stream-of-consciousness of an independent-minded young woman who is finally forced to confront the knotted and deeply rooted racism and sexism of her hometown, once obscured from her view in part by her naive and privileged childhood and in part by the conventions of Jim Crow. But now the blinders have fallen from her eyes and she must wrestle with her instinctive revulsion of the odious segregationist ideas espoused by the people whom she holds most dear in the world. Jean Louise does not by any means have her ideas on race, class, civil rights, or feminism neatly sorted into politically correct semantics or ideologies: little Scout has hardly grown up to be a civil rights activist or a fan of the NAACP—nor does she seem to have had much exposure to au courant conversations on these matters. She is merely feeling her way through the issues, as most people do. We read her howling struggle, as she tries—not always successfully—to break through the surfaces of her social world in search of what her conscience tells her is true, the same conscience that those who now offend her had once nurtured in her. In the most heartbreaking scene of the book, Jean Louise confronts Calpurnia, the black woman who raised her, to discover that buried iniquities may have lain beneath even the relationship that had most intimately sustained and guided her as a child.
Jean Louise also struggles against the conventional limitations on the lives of women in her orbit, uncertain how to reconcile the independence and liberty she craves with the life she’s supposed to want. Indeed, it seems a significant omission in most of the commentary on the book that Jean Louise’s agony and alienation from her world are grounded as much in its sexism as in its racism. However, her real confrontation on this front takes place only within the sphere of her relationship with her childhood friend and adulthood beau, Hank, and her fight with him never achieves the invective she reserves for the matter of racial segregation. This is in part because Jean Louise is less confident in her convictions about how an independent woman might properly or happily live; she verges on readiness to capitulate to marriage and the diminutions it will entail for her. And for his part, Hank never seriously believes that Jean Louise might ultimately refuse him, so that their banter about the future of their relationship always remains a kind of tease. When Jean Louise finally does repudiate Hank, she tells us it’s because he’s a segregationist, not because he would ask her to subsume her life to his.
Watchman is filled with childhood reminiscences that are of a piece with its predecessor. But while the events of Mockingbird occur before Scout is ten, the memories in Watchman focus more upon her adolescence, her first menstruation, her first date, her sense of foreboding and loneliness as she approaches womanhood. It’s possible that the episodes of her earlier childhood memories were culled from this volume to be fashioned into what would become Mockingbird, expanded, shaped, and given an ending of sorts. Watchman makes only passing reference to the courtroom trial around which the central drama of Mockingbird is based, beginning with this revelation:
Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.
Atticus had two weighty advantages: although the white girl was fourteen years of age the defendant was not indicted for statutory rape, therefore Atticus could and did prove consent. Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.
Of course, this isn’t what happened in Mockingbird. In fact the defendant, Tom Robbins, was found guilty and sent to jail, where he was killed. And while in Mockingbird Scout understands Atticus’s unpopular defense of a black man to be in service to a fight for racial equality, in Watchman, Lee underscores that though Atticus was indeed a man of integrity trying to do the right thing—that is, to defend an innocent man—racial inequity was not his fight. Atticus, we come to understand, is a peaceable man who wishes to treat all people with fairness and kindness, but at base his best intentions towards blacks have always been merely paternalistic. And as the fight for civil rights has heated up in Maycomb County, enabling racial confrontations that Jim Crow had once kept submerged and threatening the de facto privilege of his people, Atticus—with the same integrity, the same softness—openly aligns himself with those who wish to defend their town from actual racial equality, to defend it as a space where whites will remain socially and economically dominant.
Considering Lee’s two books as a set will be edifying for those who admit that, even when we read Mockingbird as a teenager, we had found Atticus’s occasional and subtle moral evasions unsettling, Scout’s neatly sorted world of good folks and “white trash” not fully baked, and the cloying sexism that dogs Scout to the last word distressing. For we no longer have a simple tale of unqualified heroism, but we have something more true: a story with ambiguity and dissonance, a story about a young woman trying to make sense of a difficult and disappointing world. As an adult, Jean Louise finds herself fighting both for and against the urge to break away from her people and the presumptions of her childhood in order to learn to trust her individual conscience—the titular watchman. She begins to understand the danger of casting even her father, even a man like Atticus Finch, as an unblemished hero in the way that she did as a child. And as she verges on the realization that there must come a time to put away the things of childhood and find one’s own way in the world, this book, like the one before it, ends not with a flourish of triumph, but with the sense that the struggle will continue.
Usha Alexander is a writer living in Gurgaon, India. Only the Eyes Are Mine is the title of her first novel.