Monday, August 22, 2016
I’m in the weeds on my knees pawing dark earth
looking for my squash among prolific opportunist grasses
and broad-leafed virtuosos at finding sustenance
in the garden of a part-time farmer—
finding advantage in his jammed schedule,
in life’s necessary distractions and precious
irrelevancies, his asamprajanya
On knees I sweat under an indifferent sun
to undo the effects of looking the other way
while rooted intruders ensconced themselves
in a life of ease throttling zucchini
under the erratic care of a life-long
junkie of mysteries, dreams and peeks behind scenes,
looking for grails among wild greens
which threaten his squash’s fundamental urge to bear fruit,
who counts angels and grasps at clouds
while many weeds take root
*Asamprajanya (Sanskrit): inattentiveness, non-alertness
Dancing with the Dalai Lama
by Leanne Ogasawara
The other night, I was dancing with the Dalai Lama. We were in a large auditorium that looked like a high school gym-- and in front of a packed audience sitting in the bleachers, we danced, just the two of us--cheek to cheek. I am not actually such a huge fan of his holiness-- so this all was rather unexpected.
As we were floating and twirling ballroom style out on the dance floor, he pressed me very close, and giggled-- and I started to laugh; and then still in my dream, I thought, "Wow, maybe I died and this is heaven..."
I've long wondered, why it is that right from the very start, peopled have preferred Dante's Inferno to his Paradiso?
Am I the only one who-- while utterly unable to imagine hell-- often finds myself lost in dreams of paradise?
It's true, I love to fantasize about paradise.
Often imagining it like a Persian garden, there is the intoxicating fragrance of roses, jasmine and gardenias. There is music and gently perfumed spring breezes. And people picnic, unendingly.
In the garden of paradise, Adonis flies a kite, as a group of philosophers wander nearby discussing Aristotle. As they talk, they are looking for the name of God in the pattern of the rose petals in the garden, like in my favorite story by Borges. They are just close enough to hear-- and just close enough to be able to join in in the conversation too. Averroes and Avicenna are there; as are Izumi Shikibu and Lady Rokujo who are debating with each other in the most charming way. It is all something like the Tale of Genji with banquets and poetry contests.
And in this world of play and beauty, in addition to unending picnics, I imagine there is also an exquisite calendar of ceremonies, feasts and rituals---where just like in the world of Genji; sutras are read, incense is burned and dances performed by little children in wings-- not because anything will come of it, but merely because it is beautiful and therefore Good.
Picnics that never end include Persian yogurts and every type of biryani; the finest oolong tea, like champagne, from the misty mountains of Formosa, or green tea served in heirloom teabowls made by Tea Masters with long lineages. The tea is served with beautiful sweets from my favorite shop in the Province of the Clouds faraway-- everything the verdant color of new grass. There is Japanese chocolates and dimsum from Hongkong so delicious I brush away tears of delight with 豆腐花 so divine-- well, I know that I must be in Paradise....
There are rare Brunello and Burgundy ~~and pizza with a view
And in the distance, a great ziggurat rises toward the shimmering blue sky. Containing every book ever written, it stands as a place of great possibility. My astronomer is there in the ziggurat with Borges writing his books--for paradise is a library, he says. I rarely go there. For I prefer my unending picnicking under the Chinar trees listening to the sound of wind in the trees. A book of poems by Ezra Pound lies there on the blanket-- just within reach.
I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
They say, Cleopatra herself lived in a cloud of incense and in a dream of purple. Perfumed in Frankincense, myrrh, lotus, sandalwood, and rose water... she traveled the Nile on a boat, said Shakespeare, adorned with purple sails so perfumed, that the winds were love-sick with them …
Surely the winds of paradise are like that--perfumed and love-sick.
The Buddhist bird of paradise is known in Sanskrit as Kavalinka (迦陵頻伽). It is the bird whose singing begins before it even hatches from its egg. Little voices of paradise, their song was thought to be so beautiful, they were likened to angels.
Angels, arias and manicured gardens being common to most people's ideas of paradise....mountains loom large, rivers flow purely.
In Dante's Paradise--there is no concept of enlightenment. The soul is not a resource to be improved or utilized and people do not aim for detachment or self-perfection of any kind. All that is required is love and hope.
Faith and Fidelity are just other names for it.
Kant would be displeased, not doubt; but in the realm of souls, reality is nothing but thought and spirit. And this, then, becomes the definition of inner freedom. For in the burning hot Medieval heart; true love, true play, and any true heart's occupation (whether according to Kierkegaard or Proust or even Plato) will --no matter what-- be an end in and of itself. Like a kiss, like love, like everything worthwhile, paradise revolves around beauty and playfulness. Souls being guided by their metaphysical pursuit of the Good/God ---generate a reality that necessarily determines itself (rather than being externally or causally generated). Nothing is instrumental or useful for this is a world of transcendent ends. That was Dante''s world, I think. And there, Kant doesn't have a leg to stand on.
It is the book that the Japanese film, Departures was based on.
I cannot recommend it enough.
A kind of accidental mortician, Shinmon Aoki has much to say about death and dying--and his meditation on the subject is supremely life-affirming. It is just an incredible story about a man who becomes a mortician not by any plan but because he cannot find any other work. But in the process of doing this job, his Buddhist faith blossoms in a very beautiful and perhaps unexpected way. And he becomes much more sensitive to life.
There is a long tradition in Japan of meditating on death.
One of my favorite stories by Tanizaki, Captain Shigemoto's Mother has the father of Captain Shigemoto taking refuge in religion after being left heartbroken at the loss of his (very) young wife. In order to rid himself of his ceaseless desire of her, he takes to visiting exposed grave sites so that he can meditate on rotting corpses.
This is called the Contemplation of Impurity. Arthur C Brooks, in the New York Slimes, wrote a bit about the Contemplation of Impurity in a piece he did earlier this year, called To be happier start thinking more about your death. In the piece, Brooks talks about the Buddhist meditation practice of Asubha bhāvanā, in which practitioners contemplate corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself was said to have meditated in this way--gazing at corpses. It is said to help one move beyond the demands of the body (especially lust).
If a monk sees a corpse dead one, two, or three days—swollen, blue and festering—he should think: “My own body is of the same nature; such it will become, and will not escape it.” His mindfulness is established, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. And if a monk sees a corpse thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms—Or a body reduced to a skeleton, with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons—Or a skeleton, blood-besmeared and without flesh—Or reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions—here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone; the pelvis, spine and skull—He should apply this perception to his own body.
With Buddhism, Christianity shares a love of relics and an abhorrence of corporeality. This was what led Luther to famously refer to his own body as, 'this corpse, this sack of maggots'”
But is this a bad thing?
Charles Taylor says that a life properly lived affirms death and destruction. Indeed, Plato insisted in Phaedo: "For is not philosophy the practice of death?"
I do truly believe that philosophy is and should be just that: a preparation for death. Death is not something that should be hidden away or brushed under the rug, says the accidental mortician. He says in a culture that focuses exclusively on youth, health and the living, we end up somehow less alive.
I will end this with my own favorite meditation on death and heaven, written by journalist Robert Krulwich.
Mourning the loss of his friend the Great Oliver Sacks, he describes the first time Oliver Sacks saw heaven.
I must have read this short essay a dozen times this year because I loved the images of "heaven" so much. For according to Krulwich, Oliver Sacks considered heaven as a color; and not just any color either--for heaven was Giotto's elusive color blue. And Oliver Sacks was hell-bent on experiencing that heavenly color without having to die to do it!!
Krulwich describes it like this--(enjoy!):
The great painter Giotto had tried to paint heaven in indigo. He worked with a number of powders but hadn’t found the right formula. Oliver imagined it to be an “ecstatic blue,” bluer than the lapis lazuli stone favored by the ancient Egyptians, a blue inspired by the seas of the ancient Paleozoic (“How do you know that?” I asked. “I just do,” he said). He wanted, desperately, to see it.
This was a brazen desire. True indigo is the unicorn of colors, maybe hidden from us, Oliver thought, “because the color of heaven was not to be seen on Earth.” But he would try.
He swallowed his cocktail. He waited for 20 minutes. Then he turned to a blank white wall in his kitchen and shouted (“To whom?” I asked. “Eternity,” he said), “I want to see indigo now—now!”
Krulwich imagining Olver Sacks in heaven suggests that maybe he is not floating around with celestial angels "up there" but instead is
up there floating in an indigo-rich Paleozoic sea, surrounded not by angels but by pale blue cuttlefish, his favorite cephalopods. And looking up at him, winking quietly, I see a small crab, very much alive, that may be the only creature on Earth to experience Oliver’s favorite color all the time. I recently made this discovery (that heaven may be hiding here) in a poem by Mark Doty.
Isn't that great? Mark Doty's poem below.
What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,
if we could be opened
if the smallest chambers
revealed some sky.
Jodo Shinshu/ Rennyo's On White Ashes
On Not Having Children
by Akim Reinhardt
During your 20s and 30s, when you don't have any children, it is inevitable that people will periodically ask you: "Do you want to have kids?"
It never mattered who asked. Family, friends, or lesser acquaintances, men or women, married or single, parents themselves or not. I always had the same answer.
Yes, just not now.
As I approached my mid-30s, I began to append a caveat: If I didn't have any children by age 40, I probably never would. I didn't want to be an old dad.
But the realization, that I'd rather not be a middle aged gray beard huffing and puffing while I try to keep up with the little rascals, opened a door. Whereas I'd previously assumed I wanted kids, just not now, the 40 year old expiration date I adopted forced me to question my pat answer and ask myself if I really wanted them at all.
After spending a couple of decades saying Yes, but not now, I finally realized something. There was never a "now" because I never actually wanted them. And I probably never would.
The generations that came of age after World War II made divorce mainstream.
As teens, they were still subject to intense social pressure to marry and have kids, which most of them did. But the Boomers became increasingly resentful of their parents as they matured, or in many cases, at least leery of their elders' mistakes. They and the so-called Silent Generation (Depression and War babies) asked themselves: Must I really spend half-a-century and all of my best years in a bad marriage that I jumped into when I was way too young to know better?
As the 1970s unfolded, more and more of them decided the answer was No.
If the generations after WWII pioneered divorce, I'd like to think my generations, which came of age during the turn-of the century, have pioneered not bothering.
We saw all of it growing up. The trauma of old style shitty marriages. The trauma of new-fangled, no fault divorces. And as we came into our own, more and more of us decided neither option was particularly attractive.
During the 1990s, as Generation X reached prime mating age, marriage rates began a precipitous decline from which they've never recovered. As for cranking out babies, the current American fertility rate (births per one-thousand women aged 15-44) is only about half what it was 50 years ago.
More and more of us are fine with fewer and fewer of us.
I get along famously with children. To be honest, I get along well with a lot of people. I'm pretty easy going. But I get kids. Kinda how I get animals.
It's not that kids are like animals. It's that neither of them are much like adult humans. And in either case, they're certainly not smart enough to really get you. So short of raising them, if you're going to make a deep connection, you have to relate to them on their own terms.
Some people seem to think this means doing a bad impersonation of a child. Talking to them in exaggerated "baby talk" or goofy "kid speak."
I think that's like trying to talk to a French person by speaking English with a French accent.
Relating to a kid on their own terms, so far as I can tell, isn't about style. It's about substance. Just like anyone else of any age, human or otherwise, it's about relating to their interests and, more importantly, to the world as they understand it.
So when hanging out with children, aside from limiting my vocabulary, I talk to them more or less the same way I talk to an adult. I talk about what they're into. And if you're not generally around them much, that requires jogging your memory.
What was it like to be five, or eight, or eleven? What was funny? What was fun? What was annoying? What did you want to do that you didn't usually get the chance to?
It can be refreshing to remember that life. They're so free. It can also be a bit jarring. They're vicious little sociopaths in some ways. Mean little drunks with quick tempers and short memories.
I just take them as they are.
Be physical, but on their terms. Bring them revelations without being condescending. Be silly, but still take them seriously. Share their joys and sorrows. Show genuine interest, which shouldn't be hard, because they are genuinely interesting. Actually, most of them are much more interesting than most adults, to be perfectly honest.
Kids love me. And I really dig them. For a few hours at a time.
You know me. I'm the guy who winds your kids up, the unofficial uncle who puts big smiles on their faces, gives them back to you, and then disappears for a few months.
Over the years, various people have occasionally said to me: You'd make a wonderful father.
I'm always very touched. Of all the crafts one might master, there's nothing more admirable than becoming a good parent.
But that's not enough for me.
When I was younger, wondering about careers, lots of people told me I'd be a good lawyer. I don't want to do that either.
Being good at something is very rewarding on its own terms. But that's not enough reason to do it. Not when it entails spending three years in law school and passing the bar, or spending eighteen years rearing a life form and preparing it to go out into the world on its own.
I've never had any illusions about what parenting entails. I've always suspected that doing it well requires far more time and work than I want to put in. Christ, it's pretty obvious to anyone who's paying attention, that even being a shitty parent requires a mountain of work.
But at no time in my life have I ever wanted to dedicate about twenty years to the full time job of raising a child, even my own precious child. Hell no. I'm fucking lazy, and I know it. I have a good life, and I know it. And while having a kid would make everything so much better in so many ways, it would also make all of it worse in many ways. So screw it.
Of course, given that attitude, I certainly understand why some people are inclined to think that we, the childless, are selfish for not having kids. Maybe we are; not that I really give a shit what other people think about my life choices. And if I'm feeling catty, I can turn it around very quickly.
Nearly seven and a half billion people on a planet that's literally burning up from human activity, but your life's not complete until you produce even more of them? Who's selfish now?
But when I'm feeling generous, I deflect accusation of selfishness with a more thoughtful rejoinder.
Being a parent is the greatest responsibility anyone could ever assume. I know politicians and business leaders like to fancy themselves the world's most important people. And far too often we indulge their conceits.
Oooh, you're so important. You create jobs. You manage the economy. You start and end wars. Oh my. Aren't you special.
Eh. They're just the rich and powerful. Way overrated.
But parents? They create people. And they have a profound influence on the people they create, contributing mightily to making them healthy, happy, productive, kind, thoughtful, and all the other good stuff.
It is years and years of hard work, with an unfathomably intimate impact on other people's lives. But it's also completely optional.
No one has to have a kid.
So the way I see it, if you're going to be a parent, you ought to really want to be a parent. It's too important a job to sign up and then half-ass it once the initial wonderment wears off. There's too much at stake for you to start down that path, then lose interest and do a crappy job.
I don't want to be a parent. I never have. That's why, even when I assumed I wanted kids, my answer was always "not now." Because I didn't want them even when I thought I wanted them.
So the most selfish thing I could do is have children. To sire little human beings so I could feed my ego, or chase näive fantasies about cute babies corralled by white picket fences. To create people and not be deeply in love with the idea of parenting them.
About five years ago at my younger sister's wedding, when I was in my early forties, my uncle made a last ditch effort to encourage me to start a family. Unknown to him, however, his big pitch only confirmed what I already suspected. Having a family, he told me, was both the best thing and the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
I didn't have to think about my response. That's a simple one for me, I told him. I'll gladly pass up the best to avoid the worst.
Deep down in my soul, that's who I am, and I'm happy with that.
A couple of years later, my sister had a baby. Now I'm no longer just an unofficial uncle. I'm bound by blood as well, responsible to my niece for the rest of my life.
The first time I held her, not too long after she was born, I thought to myself: Man, I am so glad I don't have one of these.
I stared at my niece a bit, both of us a little dazed and lost in our own worlds as we faced at each other's unfocused eyes. Then I handed her back.
Later on, when my sister asked me what I thought, I was honest with her. At first she was surprised. But then she smiled, and I with her. We were both happy. We had both made the right choice.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Katharina Grosse. Rockaway. July 2016.
Presented by MoMA PS 1 at Gateway National Recreational Area, Fort Tilden, NY.
Markos Vamvakaris: A Pilgrim on Ancient Byzantine Roads
These songs of mine have to be played. They mustn’t be lost, they have to be out there....They’re Byzantine and their ‘roads’, their tunes are ancient.
To read this book, this as-told-to autobiography of Markos Vamvakaris, is to confront how strange is this thing we call writing, the child of this strange thing in which we live, called civilization. It is not that Markos, as he came to be known, is uncivilized. It is not that. Living at the time and place that he did, Greece during the early and middle twentieth century, he couldn’t avoid it, this civilization.
But he could resist it. And that he did, with wine, women, and song. Hashish too, more than the wine, and the bouzouki, along with the song and more than the women. Civilization didn’t win, neither did Markos. But I wouldn’t call it a draw either. It was a dance.
* * * * *
I knew almost nothing about rebetiko – Greek urban folk music with Asian influence – when I began reading this book, this circle dance between Markos the road warrior, Angeliki Vellou-Keil, scholar and scribe who published the material in Greek in 1972, and Noonie Minogue, who translated and edited this English edition (2015). Yet the story herein set forth, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, that story is a familiar one: poverty, social marginalization, drugs, rubbing shoulder with criminals, womanizing, dedication to craft, and the transformation of a nation’s musical culture. Rebetiko has been likened to the blues, and the stories of major blues musicians have all those elements. It is a story of resistance, survival, and transformation.
Markos Vamvakaris was born in 1905 on the island of Syra in the Cyclades in the South Aegean Sea. That puts it on one of the major crossroads of world travel and trade for three millennia, between mainland Greece to the West and Turkey to the East. Its largest city, Ermopouli, was the major Greek port in the second half of the 19th Century, and a center for commerce and industry. Many different peoples have lived in and passed through Syra, as they do today in these days of destruction and despair in the Middle East. The dance of snivilization, as James Joyce called it, power and domination, freedom and music, pomp and circumcision, the bouzouki vs. bullets. Markos snubbed the law and the songs won. For awhile.
* * * * *
His father was an unskilled laborer, a coal hauler, who played the bagpipes. His mother “made jokes, sang nicely, and was full of life” (2). As a boy Markos liked to dance to the organ grinders, and he was good too. When his father took to weaving baskets and hampers, Markos would help haul the reeds, 50 pounds per load and not yet 10 years old. Then with his mother in the cotton factory packaging thread and threading looms. And then odd jobs with his uncle, more hauling. All day, vegetables, hauling. Next, the cloth mill. More child than man.
Then a break, selling newspapers in Ermoupoli, a port town. And you know what happens in ports, don’t you? People from all walks of life meet and conduct their business. Markos met them all. Now he’s in the fruit business, delivering it, selling it. Then back to the newspaper business, and when he was done for the day, he’d read papers and magzines. Education.
In 1917 he left Syros for Piraeus, a port near Athens on the mainland. He began hauling coal and smoking hashish. Then hauling whatever, as long as it was heavy; Markos was big and strong. In the early 1920s he went to work in a slaughterhouse and worked one job or another until he was 35. How’d you like to dilate a carcas? Put a hole through the skin in a leg, insert a bellows and pump until the hide separated from the muscle. You get the picture. Markos was on intimate terms with physical labor.
* * * * *
And he was on intimate terms with physical joy as well. For that’s what music is. Joy in the flesh. Not only music of course, but yes, music, really. Markos in his own words (as translated into English, p. 94):
In Tabouria I was broken in to the hard life of the Piraeus docker, I fell in love, got married for the first time and got hooked on hashish. But the most important thing by far was that I went crazy over this instrument, the bouzouki. Just before my stint in the army late in 1924 I happened to hear barba Nikos from Aivali playing his bouzouki. I loved it so much I made a vow, if I didn’t learn bouzouki I’d chop my hand off with a meat cleaver, the bone chopper they us in the shop. I considered my oath sacred and binding. It’s such a great thing, such a great instrument this bouzouki. I said to myself, and that was the beginning of misery for my family, my father and mother. I stopped working altogether after that. I had a job as a skinner in the Piraeus slaughterhouse but I didn’t work. No. My work as only bouzouki and hashish. From then on this instrument held me in chains.
For the longest time he played music on the side. Slaughterhouse by day, bouzouki and hashish the rest of the time. For awhile he had a sympathetic boss: “Markos, you play bouzouki, we’ll do the work” (75). He was, after all, a “proper wild beast” of a musician. When he played the hash dens he got paid in drugs. And then there were the cliff-side caves, climb down, go in, get stoned.
It wasn’t until the 1934-35 that he began playing for money, enough so he could make a living. He’d begun recording for Columbia a year or two before that. Columbia, and other American companies, wanted to record rebetiko for expatriate Greeks in America. He was good at it: “There were people who spent ten hours just to record one song. I’d get it done in one or two takes” (130). The way of the beast.
* * * * *
Frankly, I don’t understand his relations with women. And I don’t mean in any deep metaphysical sense, as though women were anymore problematic than (us) men. He had two wives, I think; and how many other other women, mistresses and more casual? I wouldn’t expect a thorough telling of all, as it’s none of my business, but when he does tell, it’s hard to keep them straight.
Let me give you some pointers:
Page 53: Zingoala the tigress, he eventually marries her, but not on page 53.
Page 58: Irini, prostitute, who gave him money and clothes. “Even after my marriage, newlywed and all, we used to go with the floozies. There were so many everywhere at that time in Vourla.” This was before the tigress.
Page 76: “At that time I loved a gypsy girl. A beauty, but they’re filthy women.” She was married with four children. Called her the “Sultry Spaniard.”
Page 87: “I hadn’t had any children so far and that was my wife’s fault.” But his bouzouki above all else. Musicians! What beasts! At this time Markos and his wife were being supported by his father.
Page 132: “But my wife, the bitch was having orgies with that wretched friend of mine I told you about, who took advantage of me being out all night for my work.”
I could go on like this, finding bits and pieces, stitching them together, and eventually figuring out what happened. I think. I’m also wondering what kind of raw material our scribe, Angelika Vellou Keil, and our editor and translator, Noonie Minogue, had to work from. In Markos we have an intelligent man who’s read a lot and lived more, who’s not really broken to the discipline of the written word – but then, dear reader, are you? Have you ever tried to make sense of your life, your whole life, one thing after another, in tidy chronological order?
I’m thinking that Markos was talking from deep within himself, from within a place where emotional resonance overrides chronology, even where one person dissolves into another, and events interpenetrate in promiscuous polymorphic perversity. That is a virtue of this story, this life of Markos the beast, to bring us into the lair of the lizard within.
Zingoala, that tigress he met when he was working as a stevedore, is haunting him on pages 161 and after. On page 176 he meets Vangelio, and marries her on page 178, in 1942. She was his wife at the time he told his story, and they had children.
Then there’s Yorgia (181) and Rita (194). Ten years with Rita, and still married to Vangelio. His kids: “All three of them are great kids. I just pray to God and the Holy Virgin about the women they’re going to marry” (225). The oldest is a sailor; the other two are musicians, one follows the loads of laika, like his dad, the other’s “going for the big guns. He’s going to be a pianist” (224). And maybe he’ll even be invited to play the bouzouki in Vienna with “the big maestros, the big names.” Such are the ambitions of this proud father, this Markos Vamvakaris, that his son should conquer the concert halls of the people who occupied his country during the Second World War. Bygones.
* * * * *
You get the idea. A life richly lived, but not neat and tidy. Does anyone live such a life, neat and tidy, no matter how much they may try? Markos lived through two world wars, and the desert between them. He served in the military in the first one and managed to survive the German occupation during the second one. All the time trying to preserve his dignity as a man, as a mangas. From the appendix by Angeliki Vellou-Keil (278-79):
From amongst the workers emerges a group that perhaps is made up from the most intelligent, most seeking, most irrepressible and maybe most stubborn; include here those individuals with special abilities already developed within traditional styles who refuse to give up these practices. This group in the cities create a style of life that represents an opposition and resistance to the bourgeois way of life. In the history of Greece the manghes were such a group, and maybe before them the koutsavakidhes (with their fashions, worry-beads, canes, and a ‘special walk’). This is not exclusively a Greek phenomenon. […] The mangas, choosing the beautiful things, rejects any compulsive chasing after money. Work is necessary for his own individual independence and sustenance for his family – an obligation he accepts.
And, yes, Markos Vamvakaris accepted the obligation and supported his family.
I’m reminded of a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, set in 14th century Japan. A rural peasant woman is told that one of the characters, a monk, has a charter from the Emperor. “The Emperor,” she asks, “who’s that?” And there’s Terence Malick’s very different The Thin Red Line, about a campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War Two. Malick is at pains to show us both the animal life on the island and the life of aborigines native to the island. For them the war’s just a noisy and somewhat dangerous part of the weather. It’s there, they have to deal with it, but it is not intrinsic to their lives. Sooner or later these foreigners go.
And so it is with Markos, the mangas. The world of the bourgeoisie is not his world. He’d deliver groceries to them, slaughter their meat, sell them newspapers, even serve in the army while they’re fighting over who’s going to run Europe. But they’re not his people. They’re furniture, weather, the socio-cultural landscape in which he traveled his ‘roads,’ the dhromoi or scales and modes, on which the music is based.
It is on those roads that he was able to build a reasonably prosperous middle age. Not wealth, but he could support his family, and he became well-known and respected for his music. A man of existential substance, but also a haunted man.
* * * * *
In his own words (p. 1):
I am driven to tell the story of my life. I want to see it written and to read it from the beginning to end as if it were someone else’s. […] The kind lady who’s acting as my scribe says the first Christians used to confess their sings aloud and then everybody forgave them. That’s how they got if off their chests. But now the world’s a rotten place and I know plenty of people will think I should be ashamed to own up to the things I’m about to tell you. But I’ll find the courage and take no notice of those people. […] The wrongs I’ve suffered and the wrongs I’ve committed are the same.
Think about it. In the fullness of youth he was driven to make music. Now in the fullness of life he’s driven to tell his life’s story. Think about that. What does it mean to be driven? It’s a real question, but you need not answer it now.
And so, in the late 1960s he began to write down his life. That’s when Angeliki Vellou-Keil met him (xxv):
It gave him particular pleasure that we were from America and that in the few days we had in Greece we’d found time to come and see him. He fondly remembered his glory days when he was the great ‘Markos’ and the whole of America wanted to see him. ‘And yet they didn’t let me go and earn money with my bouzouki because my name had a black mark on it from the times when I used to get busted for smoking hashish.
He feared that censorship would keep his story from being pubished in Greece but hoped it could be published in America. And now it has been.
I learnt all these things bit by bit from the old guys in the tekedhes, because I had a great passion and my life was all bouzouki. Like I said, I sacrificed everything for the bouzouki. It took me over – but it also took me up in the world, way up.
Monday, August 15, 2016
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Scarti, 2013.
"Ghetto was published by Trolley Books ten years ago. It documented twelve contemporary gated communities, and was photographed by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin entirely on large format colour negative. The book took three years to produce and is now out of print.
Scarti di avviamento is the technical term at the printers in Italy for the paper that is fed through the printing press to clean the drums of ink between print runs. This by-product is usually destroyed once the book is printed.
But during the printing of Ghetto, the scarti – Italian for scraps – were saved and stored away by publisher Gigi Giannuzzi. Following his untimely death in December 2012 these scarti were discovered.
The twice-printed sheets reveal uncanny and often beautiful combinations.
Yet, in truth, they are nothing but a series of little accidents. ..."
THE PLAGUE UNDERGROUND
by Genese Sodikoff
Recent outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Madagascar offer a glimpse into the dynamics of past outbreaks, the Plague of Justinian (sixth to eighth centuries), the Black Death (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), and current wave of "Third Pandemic" plagues that began in the nineteenth century. Over the past few years, genetic studies of the bacillus, Yersinia pestis, have revealed why the pathogen was so devastating, killing tens of millions over centuries. Yet much about it remains mysterious.
Tracing the plague's dynamics on the ground raises hard-to-solve questions, hard because of the material conditions in countries of Asia and Africa, where most of today's epidemics erupt. Impassible roads, lack of equipment, broken-down communication networks, proximity to rats in homes, and traditional healing and mortuary practices enable the plague to persist and evolve. Antibiotics contain the plague, but these are not always easy to get, nor are the proper dosages always consumed, in poor, remote areas.
I have just returned from a trip to Madagascar, where I visited the site of the August 2015 plague outbreak (14 cases and 10 deaths). I have a lot to learn, but my burning questions concern how long Y. pestis can survive inside a corpse or underground. For medical workers there, answers could help control outbreaks. And if it turns out that the dead are only ephemerally infectious, an overhaul the current policy on burials and funerary rites would be welcome news. The policy is a source of major anxiety for relatives of plague victims, who are prohibited from burying their kin in family tombs for seven years. For most, accumulating enough money to be able to transfer a body over a long distance is an enormous burden, so the seven years may stretch out indefinitely. Those who die of plague in the hospital may not receive the customary funerary rites from their family. All told, plague victims are unable to transform into proper ancestors. They are lost souls.This ethnographic project is new for me. Dr. Christos Lynteris, an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, has been delving into mysteries of the plague for a number of years, working on the visual representations and science of the plague in China and around the world. He heads up a team of scholars in Cambridge and is collaborating with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control on current plague studies. Concerning historical soil plague-infection theories, which are mostly discarded now, Dr. Lynteris tells me that recent studies indicate an ability of soil amoebas to carry the bacillus. Most likely, however, they cannot transmit the plague to higher order species.
Until a few of years ago, scientific accounts of the plague held that the bubonic form, highly deadly but survivable, spread from black rats (and possibly gerbils) to humans through flea bites, and that it was only contagious between people if a person came into contact wit the bacteria-laden pus that oozed from a ruptured lymph node. The bubonic plague infects the lymph system, causing nodes to swell at the groin, neck, and armpits into lumps (buboes) that blacken and sometimes burst. For the patient, the discharge of fluid from the buboes may have been a good thing, setting them on the road to recovery, according to some texts.
Today, antibiotics kill off the infection before it reaches this advanced stage, unless—and this too is a muddled issue—the bacteria breach the respiratory system to become the fast-acting pneumonic plague, long considered rare. In Madagascar, it appears that most of the fatalities of the 2014 and 2015 outbreaks were cases of pneumonic plague, and healthcare workers feared that isolated bubonic plague cases would spread by rats, people, or fleas traveling over roads, and that it would become pneumonic and sweep into the densely-populated capital, Antananarivo.
It confused me to read plague literature that stressed the rarity of airborne plague in light of recent outbreaks in Madagascar, where the pneumonic form manifests quickly. Medievalist historians and scientists had also been hard pressed to reconcile the massive death tolls of the past plagues with what we know of the limited transmissibility of bubonic plague between people. This led some to postulate different diseases at work, such as anthrax or some hemorrhagic fever virus, like Ebola.
In 2011, scientists reconstructed the genome of Y. pestis, the plague bacterium, from remains taken from a fourteenth century plague pit in East Smithfield, London. They proved that Y. pestis was indeed the pathogen responsible for the great plagues.
In 2014, Y. pestis was extracted from a tooth of a fourteenth century skull from Charterhouse Square, north of London. Scientists compared to a sample from Madagascar's 2014 plague outbreak (resulting in 335 cases and 79 deaths). The strains were nearly identical, suggesting that human beings had become the sources of contagion during the past plagues. Rat fleas surely lit the fuse, and bubonic plague did continue to circulate, as evident in the enduring descriptions of black buboes and black patches of skin in victims. But the incidence rate of the plague climbed rapidly due to people infecting one another by coughing up bloody sputum and vomiting. The discovery validates the skepticism of those who doubted the high communicability of bubonic plague.
These revelations about the prevalence of pneumonic plague gibed with what I was hearing in Madagascar by family members of plague victims, some of whom survived after treatment. They did not describe engorged lymph nodes. Rather, the illness began with an intense ache the back of the neck. Then debilitating weakness, fever, and stabbing chest pain, followed by a wrenching cough with bloody sputum. The eyes yellowed, the kidneys hurt, the urine became foamy and bloody, and the stool resembled "ground beef."
What I was hearing sounded so different from bubonic plague, I wondered too whether it some other disease. The plague diagnosis was certain. Doctors at the Moramanga hospital had rapid test kits to confirm, and samples of the patient's sputum or lung fluid (if deceased) were then sent to the Pasteur Institute in the capital for further confirmation.
One couple in the August 2015 plague zone, (I will call them Jules and Botine), lost seven relatives, including their son, to the disease over the course of three days. A curse seemed to have struck their family to have lost so many, and they believed sorcery was at play. Something to do with a bitter ex-husband of one of Jules' relatives intent on harming his whole family by laying cursed charms in a nearby spring. What else troubles them now is the seven-years rule prohibiting the transfer of bodies to the family tomb. If someone dies of plague in the village, and several had in August, people ignore the policy and carry out the usual rites. But if a patient manages to get to the hospital--a herculean effort to go on foot when ill--and succumbs anyway, hospital orderlies handle the burial unceremoniously.
The seven-years policy combines cultural and scientific logic. Throughout the island, Malagasy people bury their kin together in a family tomb on their natal territory. If a person dies far from this place, the family saves up for the day when they can bring the body home. Malagasy are renowned for the famadihana, the ceremony where they exhume deceased kin after several years, unwrap the white funerary cloth and rewrap the skeletons in new cloth. In some regions relatives dance with the bodies held high before returning the remains to the tomb.
The plague has disrupted famadihana plans for families of plague victims. In some plague-hit localities, authorities are establishing separate cemeteries, which I think has less to do with quarantining the bacteria in the soil than making it easier to identify plague victims and prevent kin from exhuming them, implying anyway that the soil or the human remains are infectious.
From region to region, and even from village to village, specific details of funerary rites in Madagascar vary. Within the Betsimisaraka ethnic population of eastern Madagascar (the same population hit by the 2015 outbreak), people believe that the dead can transmit certain diseases or deformities to one another underground. In one village I lived in between 2000 and 2002, individuals who died of leprosy, lameness, or polio were buried in the forest near, but separate from, the stone-covered cave or dugout in which ancestors' bones lay. Why only these but not all infectious diseases? No one could tell me explicitly why, so I interpreted the selection as having to do with impaired mobility. Since walking is essential to subsistence farming in the mountains, the separation in death of weak and strong walkers would protect the able-bodied from immobilizing, postmortem diseases.
At this point, I assume that the seven-year rule against interring plague victims in family tombs expresses the state's concern for the wellbeing of Malagasy ancestors. Scientifically, the rule implies that jostling human remains will loose plague bacteria into the air and possibly infect people. Although seven years is a long time, better safe than sorry.
Dr. Lynteris tells me that during the colonial period in Africa, the French held onto centuries-old theories of soil plague-infection longer than the British or scientists elsewhere, so the current policy may be a colonial holdover. If the bodies and soil could be analyzed and found safe, maybe Jules and Botine could recuperate their dead and make them ancestors. This would ease their conscience.
They saw apparitions at night of Jules' mother and sister, who scolded them for leaving them buried far from home. In Madagascar, if the living fail to properly care for deceased kin, if they leave no gifts of tobacco or rum in the folds of the white cloth, if they exile them from the family tomb, then the deceased grow resentful and haunt the living in dreams. They may seek vengeance, which manifests in a variety of forms, such as the death of a child, the death of a cow, a paltry rice harvest.
Jules and Botine guided me and my collaborator, Dieudonné Rasolonomenjanahary, to the communal pit at the side of a dirt road, where four of their relatives lay: their son, Jules' sister (her husband had died of plague in the village), Jules' nephew, and his brother-in-law, all of whom made it to the Moramanga hospital, but too late. Jules' mother was buried alone at another site near town.
The footpath leading to it was steep and overgrown with bramble. The couple had been present at the burial (the doctor had allowed that much), but no rites were performed and no offerings left. The couple was distraught at the idea of the bodies being covered by only a shallow layer of earth and exposed to the wet and cold. Jules' dead nephew was too tall for the body bag and his feet stuck out. They fretted about that. The couple took it upon themselves to buy a blue plastic tarp. They covered the four bodies and shoveled more dirt on top to weigh down the tarp. As we left the pit that afternoon, Botine spoke softly behind me to her deceased kin, making promises, trying to comfort them.
How it all started, the identity of Patient 0, is still unknown. Did it begin with Arnod, a man who got the bubonic plague and died in a nearby village in April 2016? Was the epidemic four months later instead triggered by Dimilahy, the brother-in-law of Jules, who had attended Arnod's wake and burial in April. Why the four month interval between infection and illness? Had Dimilahy taken a partial course of antibiotics to ease painful symptoms, not suspecting the plague, and did that work to tamp down the bacteria multiplying inside him? These are a few pieces of the puzzle we are trying to find in one family's story, and the bodies of the dead, now underground, may have something to tell us.
Ignatz on Road Trip
by Olivia Zhu
Right now, I'm somewhere in the American Southwest, surrounded by what my high school biology teacher would remind me is called a "desert chaparral." I'm road-tripping from Austin to California, both a far cry away from the cold climes where I first encountered Monica Youn, and her second book Ignatz.
As a child of the 90s, I had no clue that Ignatz referred to the Krazy Kat comic strips, and similarly had no idea who Monica Youn was (CliffNotes version: she's a notable lawyer and poet, and Ignatz is her second book). When I first read "X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz," or "Ignatz Domesticus," or any of the other bits and pieces of her book available online—well, they were a bit inaccessible. I thought it because I didn't know Krazy Kat, didn't know the original Ignatz. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know if Ignatz is meant to be male or female, and I confess I haven't been perfectly diligent in my research here; even now, I read Youn's work in fragments, on the road. But—I hope my argument that poetry is a matter of being at a point in time, at the right moment in time, is no less obscured for that fact.
But, details as where Ignatz comes from or how much of it has been read—they don't matter (at least, not overmuch, and certainly not for now). What is clear, is that to appreciate Youn's Ignatz, one need not know about Krazy Kat, or the red desert it inhabits, or unrequited love—but perhaps, simply, have touched upon just one of these three. (Isn't that the mark of rather special poet—to convey meaning through a small sliver of what one writes?) And what chance, to find myself traversing the I-40 in the right state of mind to think back on her earnest speaker, whose impressions of Ignatz are replete with the language of the heated earth and its decorations (and yes, the I-40 as well).
Maybe it's too simple to say that loving a terrain like that which lies through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona is akin to the love born by Krazy Kat for the cruel, unresponsive, hostile Ignatz. Youn, a Houston native, ought to be familiar with the surrounding environment—and it's clear that she is. The kind of attention she pays to the landscape, whether to the "supersaturated blues" of jeans—or the unending expanse of sky here—or to the "skin / of a tightening fist" on the wheel of a car, well, that attention is delivered with the same gaze that turns toward an object of affection.
She presents the speaker's feeling for Ignatz in a way that's clearly sensual, too. The physicality of where Ignatz is, where he will be, is utterly clear in Youn's head, and in her poetry. There's a "moan deepening the dust / choked fissures in the rock," and so on, in such poems as "Ignatz Invoked" and the aforementioned "X as a Function."
Yet, far more interesting to me is the fact that there is something about the love Youn's Krazy Kat bears for Ignatz that is embedded in the American dream of the West, of pursuing an unfriendly frontier until it bears fruit. Such a dream is evident in the chugging of animals along the highways, like the trains that escort the road until it ends, ultimately, at the sea. In "Ersatz Ignatz," Youn also depicts the object of her speaker's desire as having painted "a door… on the rock," and having been "backlit in orange isinglass." I am, of course, immediately thinking of hobbits going to Isengard—but, distractions aside, ought not one think here about the worlds that Ignatz has opened? He is not only a portal to the mountains, the unfriendly rock—he is also the crystalline, fishy hint of water in a desert.
This is a nice segue back to "Ignatz Oasis," where Ignatz is a cooling, comforting presence, despite the heat of the speaker's passion amidst the furnace of the desert. Yes, Ignatz has left the Krazy Kat speaker, and so the "sky drains of color." The speaker nevertheless finds joy in the remnants, for "Crouching I hide / in the coolness I had stolen / from the brass rods of your bed." Ignatz is loved when there, and Ignatz is loved when not there. The memory of receding chilliness is enough, perhaps just as the memory of her hometown landscapes is enough.
And thinking of Youn, here, not so far where she set Ignatz, tells me how much of love is about timing—about letting yourself be hit by a brick in the head, about thinking back on a read-long-ago piece while on a highway west.
Monday, August 08, 2016
Nalini Malani. My hope is the last breath. My hope is the first battle. 2015.
Current installation "In Search of Vanished Blood" & exhibition at Boston ICA.
Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry: Seven Better Products We Didn't Need But Now Can't Live Without
by Carol Westbrook
"Our house will never have that old people smell!" my husband said when he discovered Febreze. Yes, it's true! Using highly sophisticated chemistry (described below), Febreze truly eliminates odors, not just mask them with scent like air fresher. This was when I realized that the 1960's promise made by DuPont was being fulfilled, "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry!" I've put together seven of my favorite products that chemistry has improved, excluding the obvious true advances in medicine, electronics, energy and so on. Instead, I've highlighted products we probably did not even need, but now can't live without. Who made them, and how do they work?
1. Super Glue ©
Super Glue delivers what its name promises: it can stick almost anything together with a bond so strong that a 1-inch square can hold more than a ton. Besides household projects and repair, it's an effective skin adhesive for cuts, and those nasty dry-skin cracks you get on your hands in the winter. The myth is that Super Glue, or cyanoacrylate (C5H5NO2) was created as surgical adhesive for WWII field hospitals. In reality, it was invented by Goodrich in 1942 as a potential plastic for gunsights; it was rejected because its annoying property of sticking to everything made it impossible to fabricate. Fast forward to 1951, when it was rediscovered by scientists Harry Coover and Fred Joyner at Eastman Kodak, who recognized its potential as a glue. Initially it was used industrially, but in the 1970s it was introduced as a consumer project that rapidly took off.
Cyanoacrylate is a small molecule that binds to itself creating long chains, or polymers, when exposed to water--including water vapor in the air. The polymers are extremely strong acrylic plastics that rapidly bind whatever they contact when polymerizing. Unlike many adhesives, Super Glue cures almost instantly and can stick your fingers together before you can wipe it off. For obvious reasons it is packaged in small, one-use containers.
2. Post-It Notes ©
Post-It-Notes revolutionized the modern office, second only to personal computers. Offices are covered with these little papers, which have become ubiquitous in your home, too. The Windows computer operating system even has digital yellow "post-it" notes to "paste" on your screen.
The story of post-it's invention is a great example of collaboration between industry and the entrepreneur. In 1974, Art Fry, an employee at 3M (maker of Scotch tape), heard about his colleague, Dr. Spencer Silver's, 1968 invention of a low-tack, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive, which so far had no commercial application. Fry developed the idea, under 3M's officially sanctioned "permitted bootlegging policy." He used yellow paper since that was the only scrap paper at the lab next door. After a mediocre launch in 1977, they were re-branded and released in 1979 as Post-It Notes.
These little colored papers use re-adherable, pressure-sensitive glue made with tiny and variably-sized microcapsules of adhesives, 10 to 100 times larger than the glue particles on conventional sticky tape. Each press released only enough adhesive force to hold the paper in the little note, but because of the large number of glue capsules they can be re-used many time before they give up the ghost. Similarly, the USPS also uses pressure-sensitive adhesives on lick-free stamps--another office-changing technology; USPS stamps are designed so they cannot be peeled and re-used, much to the dismay of stamp collectors who cannot easily remove them from envelopes.
Like many game-changing inventions, Teflon was discovered by accident. Dr. Roy Plunkett, a research scientist at DuPont in New Jersey in 1938, was looking for non-toxic alternatives to refrigerants to replace the sulfur dioxide and ammonia then in use. One potential chemical, tetrafluorethylene, TFE was stored as a gas in a small cylinder, but when it was opened later the gas was gone, and instead the cylinder contained a waxy white powder. The TFE had polymerized to polytetrafluorethylene, PFTE.
Tests showed PFTE to be one of the most frictionless substances known to man. It was also non-corrosive, chemically stable, and melted only at very high temperatures. Unlike polymers such as Super Glue, FTE polymer has virtually no Van Der Waals (adhesive) forces, the molecular "pull" that makes things stick together. Three years later PFTE was patented by Du Pont as Teflon©, and sold for industrial use. In 1962 someone invented a method to make this non-sticky stuff adhere to a frying pan, creating a pan so slippery that you could fry an egg without using oil. And our way of cooking changed forever.
4. Febreze© odor remover
Febreze was introduced as a laundry cleaning aid by Proctor and Gamble in 1996. Its invention is attributed to Toan Trinh, a professor of chemistry at the University of Saigon, who was recruited by Procter & Gamble, and relocated to the US just one week before the fall of Saigon in 1975! Initially created as a laundry additive, its odor-removing property was quickly recognized. The active ingredient in Febreze is beta-cyclodextrin, a sugar molecule that is shaped like a donut, shown in the figure at the right. When you spray Febreze into the air or on a garment, the smelly molecules dissolve in the droplets and are quickly drawn into the"donut." The smelly molecule is still present, but the donut-smell mix cannot bind to the receptors in your nose that recognize odors, so you can't smell it. The odiferous molecules are washed out with the laundry, or dry with the droplets, and the smell is gone forever.
5. DEET Mosquito repellant
DEET (N,N-diethyle-m-toluamide) was developed in 1944 by the US Dept. of Agriculture for the Army to use in jungle warfare after several disastrous experiences in WWII. DEET failed as a pesticide, but was noted to keep biting insects away. Used in wartime Vietnam and Southeast Asia, DEET entered civilian life in 1957.
DEET repels mosquitoes, flies, chiggers and ticks more effectively than natural products such as citronella. It was long thought to work by blocking the insect's receptors for a substance that is present in human sweat and breath, 1-octen-3-ol, which is a main attractant for these pesky bugs. Newer research, though, suggests that it may do more than distract mosquitoes, DEET actively drives them away. It is now indispensible for worry-free summers outdoors, keeping us free from Zika, Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, and St. Louis Encephalitis in our own backyards.
6. Press-N-Seal© plastic wrap.
Plastic film for food storage has been around for a long time, but Press-N-Seal is a quantum improvement. Standard kitchen plastic wrap is made of low-density polyethylene. It is a barrier to water and air, but does not stick well to itself or to containers. Press-N-Seal, on the other hand, sticks to everything, including itself, making a watertight seal. I tried covering a glass of ice water with this miraculous film, and sure enough, it held the water even when turned upside down! The more you use it, the more uses you can think of--protecting you computer keyboard while cooking, covering your morning coffee mug when commuting, or wrapping your wet toothbrush for traveling. There are even online user groups that sing its praises!
Peter W Hamilton and Kenneth S McGuire, two scientists at Proctor and Gamble, invented and patented the underlying technology in 1996. The sticky properties of this thin plastic film are due to the fact that its surface is covered by sharp, raised packets that contain a pressure-sensitive adhesive, not unlike Post-It-Notes. The adhesive in Press-N-Seal, though, is edible, similar to chewing gum, which makes it safe for food storage.
7. Hazel Bishop's Lasting Lipstick
Women have painted their lips since the dawn of civilization, luring their hunter-gatherer husbands back home to the farm. Lipstick as we know it, in cylindrical containers, made its appearance in Europe in 1911, and the US in 1915. Made with natural dyes such as carmine red, in a base of beeswax and castor oil, the color didn't last, and it smeared off when kissing. Frequent trips to the powder room were necessary to re-apply it. Lipstick made to last longer would dry out and become irritating on the lips.
Hazel Bishop was an organic chemist who worked for Standard Oil developing wartime bomber fuels. In the evenings, in her own New York kitchen, she created the first long-lasting, no-smear lipstick by
incorporating lanolin into the base so the lips would not dry out. It was a big hit when introduced in 1949. "It stays on YOU... not on HIM" the ads promised. By the 1990s, cosmetic companies introduced 2-step, long-lasting lip color, requiring the application of a transparent acrylate polymer over the colored base, eventually incorporating the acrylate directly into a one-step product. This long-lasting technology is now used in in mascaras, concealers, foundations, eye shadows and even sunscreens, keeping you beautiful longer, in any weather.
The list is endless--these are only a few of my favorites. One common theme stands out, however. Almost all were the result of serious efforts by chemists to create a truly significant advance that failed... only to be given new life by another equally creative genius who recognized the potential to appeal to the average consumer, who is always looking for the next, better thing.
by Maniza Naqvi
The job entitled and wealthy are all set to win the election in November. And keep things exactly the same. Fool us again. Shame on us. The way things are run, it makes no difference who becomes President. It doesn't matter. And, either of them would oil the machinery churning out Gold Star families.
Mr. Trump voices banning Muslims. Mrs. Clinton voted bombing them. Mr. Trump questions why nuclear weapons are built. Mrs. Clinton doesn't. Mr. Trump would build a wall against migrants from Mexico. Mrs. Clinton was part of the Government that deported more migrants than any time before in the history of this country. Mrs. Clinton supports the wall built in Palestine. Mr. Trump opposed the war in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton voted for it. Words are cheap. Deeds mean death. And to think they will be voted in by people who have suffered most by these deeds, in this country.
Makes no difference who becomes President. Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Except that Hillary Clinton has more experience selling weapons and war. And all Trump does is talk about building stuff and he plagiarizes and distills the last fifteen years of State sanctioned and widely shilled hate speech. Yes he does. He simply repeats and champions the narrative and words already out there endorsing hate and selling of those wars. All he does is to shout out loudly all that's already been said, to make the case for endless war. He says it all unvarnished without nuance from podiums for a Presidential campaign. No, neither of these choices are Russia's fault. And yes, Bernie Sanders, by not choosing the path he pointed towards, and heading an Independent party, has missed a historic opportunity. No matter, because he has awakened millions of young people and they will not accept his choice or follow his lead to back away from this path. They will most probably vote for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
This is what matters: This November 8h all 435 Congressional seats will be up for elections. Along with the Congressional elections both Senate and House of Representatives, there will be Gubernatorial elections in a dozen states and with them many of the local elections will also be held for local councils in cities and towns. If Americans want to vote for change, these are the elections to register for, to stand in and contest and to vote in. Here, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporters can make a dramatic difference. These candidates can stop war. Stop Gold Stars being ever to be handed out to any grieving parent.
What does not matter is that on November 8th the United States will elect its next President in the White House. This election does not matter much. As there will be no change. The United States, as it typically does, will elect to this office someone who will serve the war industry well. A salesperson for the weapons manufacturers, who will in the name of foreign policy travel door to door to the Capitals of the World, selling weapons and war. And no matter which candidate it chooses to elect, it will elect a candidate who speaks of change but benefits from keeping things exactly the same. In November as always the United States citizens will elect a hypocrite. The American people will have to choose on the basis of a number of criteria, first, which hypocrite they most identify with on the basis of gender and ethnicity; whether they want to make American history on the basis of gender or in your face, suck my dick candidate; the least unlikeable candidate, and least perceived untrustworthy candidate.
Trump, if nothing else dares to speak from the electoral podium that which has been allowed freely on media news and talk shows, on popular TV series and films, books, in Congress, the Senate, on subway walls and on the sides of buses. In the name of the right to free speech. When Mr. Trump mouths it, this trash talk, sanctioned everywhere else, has been branded as being hate speech. Trump finally makes America feel ashamed of itself. Surely this alone deserves a Gold Star.
I tried to prevent Moms and Dads from becoming Gold Stars. I stood for hours in pouring rain, and in snow and freezing temperatures with hundreds and thousands of Americans to prevent mothers and fathers from earning Gold Stars. I stood shoulder to shoulder, with hundreds of thousands of Americans, feet and hands freezing, throats hurting from shouting No war! No War! To no avail. I tried my very best back in 2001 and 2003 and since then with only words to prevent Mrs. Khan from grieving. From having the ache that will never go away—just like the thousands of other mothers like her. And the millions of mothers in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria and so many other places invaded and bombed and armed by the very people who have turned Mr. and Mrs. Khan into a Gold Star.
Why isn't Mrs. Clinton a Gold Star mom? She voted for all these wars and selling and sending of arms to all the places already reeling and bleeding from violence. Why aren't the women and men whose sons are killed by gun violence every day in this country, Gold Star moms and dads? Instead we have a cynical unchanging political machinery parading out good Muslims—Gold Star Muslims. Mr. Clinton made it clear who was a good Muslim. If you sacrifice for this country, you can stay. Sacrifice, meaning, die for this country. The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.
Appropriating Muslims. Occupying and appropriating their grief to illustrate your goodness. Appropriating even their gestures of greetings to prove your sincerity. For your complexes. War. Endless war and its feeder industries.
Increasingly, alarmingly, all things military and war, are heroic, at the cost of all others, and are being presented as deserving of all of our emotional response, respect and adoration. Our terms of social and cultural engagement and value are increasingly becoming militarized. Gold Stars. Blood and treasure they call it here. The killing. The letting of blood. The political body gives it a report card, a grade as if everyone is a child in Kindergarten. Gold Stars. An A plus. You die for America. You sacrifice your flesh and blood for America and you are an American plus. A-plus for you. A gold star. No one and nothing else matters. Especially not if you die here, in this country, killed at the hands of police or your family or a neighbor or a deranged stranger. Then that's not death. It's a misuse of a product that came with specific instructions: To be used for sports and or only so that you may earn a Gold star. There is no Gold Star for those who struggle each and every day to live and make a living.
Americans, unlike many other countries of the world, haven't ever elected a woman head of Government. Like most of the poorest countries in the world who have elected women leaders way before the US, America is set to elect a dynastic leader. Another Clinton. Who, if elected, would be followed perhaps by her daughter Chelsea, and she in turn as the years of endless war continue, by her son or her daughter.
And then there is: Russia. Russia. Russia is responsible for Trump? Russia is responsible for the content in the DNC's emails which reveal the trash talk against Bernie Sanders? Russia? Russia is responsible for America's total political nervous breakdown? Russia is responsible for America collapsing under the weight of its own history? After decades of a building a system of military and other complexes devoted to the destruction of the Soviet Union, success in doing so happened. Now the Soviet Union is no more and its main component Russia has reformed. But not the United States and its machinery of taking down the Soviet Union. That stays intact. If cracks appear in its politics, it blames Russia. And that system is constantly searching and manufacturing new enemies to perpetuate itself and its pay checks. The Enemy Complex.
No need for introspection—just look for spooks and terrorists. That'll keep us all marinated in fear. Keep us quiet and acquiescing to the opiate fed us of ‘enemies who hate us for our way of life'. Our lives. American lives matter for these Presidential candidates only in so much that Americans vote for one of them. Otherwise, they don't matter at all. Witness, George W. Bush who danced drunkenly at the funeral in Dallas. He was applauded. In 2016. After fifteen years of useless, endless, shameful war, George W. Bush who is responsible for unleashing the countless deaths of millions of non-Americans at the hands of American soldiers and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, is still applauded. In 2016 George W. Bush appears in prime time events. In 2016 prime time events remain a glorification of violence. Promising only endless war.
Lost lives don't matter. Only those that earn Gold stars for their families matter. Only the ones that keep the guns going matter. The bullets ending those lives matter, the prisons crammed full of black lives matter. Black lives were valued. Sure. They were. When they were a commodity. Bought and sold—then they mattered a lot. When they were a commodity and an input in production then they mattered a lot. Those two commodities, land and slaves—both property in need of protection and securing, by all means necessary, that mattered above all else. The industrialization of human beings. The industrialization of the system to protect this right to industrialize human beings. Guns and weapons. Is Russia responsible for that?
The lucrative business of war, the military industrial complex, the food industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, is Russia responsible for that? The need for a permanent enemy so that a permanent state of war to feed the war economy and keep it humming----is Russia responsible for that?
The word hero is reserved for a killed soldier or a war veteran rather than for poets, doctors, scientists, writers and social activists? Heroic deeds seem to be only those associated with the weapons of war—bombs, drones, guns used on civilians. And yes, they are glorified by the idea of Gold Stars. Aren't the mothers and fathers in Baton Rouge, Baghdad, Falluja, San Bernadino, Dallas, St. Paul, Swat, Queens, Aleppo, Orlando, Mogadishu, Herat, Aleppo, Brooklyn, Brussels, Stockholm, Paris, all Goldstars?
War on civilians, by civilians, at civilians. All slaves and victims to war. Slaves to guns. It is endless war when everyone becomes a slave to guns. This is a war when police chiefs wear designer suits and ties, while ordering their policemen to wear military equipment and use weapons of war against civilians. Use drones to kill. This is war when everyone's labor is devoted somehow to the manufacture of guns. This is war when everyone is somehow beholden to the manufacturers of guns. This is war when it is justified if the commander justifying it or calling the shots is the same color, ethnicity or creed as the victims of his commands. This is war when the news you watch is brought to you by the manufacturers of weapons. This is war when Opiates are a necessity to calm the nerves, dull the senses. This is war when drugs are weapons needed to keep the peace. This is war when calling it war is considered an act of war. This is war when people are divided by bullets which rip through all bodies but not equally and the depth of mourning the dead is based on the hue of the epidermis of the target or his faith.
You earn a Gold star when you die for the State. You are an enemy if you reject that death as heroic. This is war when calling it war is considered dancing like the demon over the pain of a wounded nation. Yet, George W. Bush, danced like a demon at the memorial in Dallas.
America is in a critical moment, of its own making, war veterans are coming home, and the Police is fitted with the equipment and weapons and the ammo that the military did not use over there, the army's surplus, sold to the cities. They will use it in America's cities. They are using it here in America cities.
America is at a critical moment of its own making of unmaking and its own unmasking and reckoning. This can only be good for the country. But there are too many guns in this melting pot. The country is melting under the heat of gunfire, crushed under the weight of that steel. I'm not sure that the weapons will ever be melted down and their metal used to steel spines and build the girders for a strong good structure—instead of for killing. As always conversation is always trumped by bullets and now robot drones replace a kind of lynching--an end to any questioning, any need for habeas corpus. And while people clearly see the connection to slavery there is still a hush on the connection to war.
These are the complexities of maintaining and sustaining the industry of war. And American voters are finally mobilizing—instead of seeing red they are seeing Green. They are mobilizing around issues that matter to them: Staying alive. Staying out of prison. Staying healthy. Staying employed. Staying. Changing the system that keeps them locked out and locked in.
Monday, August 01, 2016
Sughra Raza. Self-portrait on Mailbox. March, 2016.
Don't Cry for Me Argentina!
by Leanne Ogasawara
So begins a great article in Politico by Ben Wofford.
So many times over the past several years, I have wondered how America managed to turn into a bonafide banana republic in little over two decades.
How had it happened?
With surging inequality at levels approaching Latin America,infrastructure is no longer obviously first world and the divide between elite and the rest in terms of education, health and overall prospects is simple stunning.... what happened to the American dream, right?
So given this state of affairs, I suppose it shouldn't be so shocking to see a "strongman" rise up. It is the cult of his personality and that of his family, along with the populist promise of "taking on the elite" based on nothing whatsoever than the mere fact that he says, "believe me."
As Wofford writes:
Scholars, writers and public officials across the continent report that Trump is viewed with horror and fascination by many Latin Americans. They emphasized that Trump has caudillo qualities they way Pinochet had medals: Cult of personality, rage against the elite, unbridled machismo, an acerbic disregard for the rules—coupled with an apparent willingness to break them at nearly any cost.
Wow, they even have a word for it down there: caudillo.
And along with unsustainable income inequality, this populist strongman caudillo has a very real elite to "take on." From HRC's hiring of Wasserman-Schultz to her personal wealth, she is someone in need of taking on. Why, fr example, is her foundation and its ties to some seriously nasty people not being more rigoorously questioned? Her ties to Wall Street and her choosing of a VP who wanted to further deregulate banking are problematic to say the least. Despite being heartened by her speech at the convention, I couldn't help but feel utterly unable to trust a word she said (despite liking the words). Her historic ties to corporate and moneyed donors is not something that can be overlooked just because she says she will do something.
So, yeah, the rise of a populist strongman makes sense ~~~and he should therefore not be underestimated. Think Perón, think Fujimori, think Pinochez, think Abdalá Bucaram!!!
Yes, El Loco can win in November!
This all brings me to a documentary I watched this week, which I heartily recommend called, The Brainwashing of My Father. The documentary by Jen Senko began as a Kickstarter campaign. Senko wanted to document the changes to her father as he became increasingly influenced by Fox News. Seeing her Kickstarter campaign , people came flooding out of the woodwork to tell her their own stories about losing family members. Many of thse peple appear in the documentary along with luminaries on the subject including, Noam Chomsky, Steve Rendall, Jeff Cohen, Eric Boehlert, George Lakoff, STOP RUSH, HearYourselfThink, Claire Conner and others.
Of course, again, the documentary is based on the questionable premise that somehow what is known as the "liberal media" is all that much better.
This is a huge question mark... because even if one could make the case that less outright falsehoods are being peddled in the "liberal media," one has to be real and question the huge changes to news media in general in the last, say twenty years in the U.S. We can all agree that gone are the days of non-profit news... remember, not all that long ago, for-profit networks did not make money on news shows. They saw their profits from sit-coms and the news programs were much less conscripted by shareholders and business models.
We also used to have public news.
Having spent my adult life overseas mainly watching government news and news which was not for-profit, I see this as a huge problem and in fact, while Fox strikes me as a nefarious kind of "entertainment" (Senko is brilliant in explaining how watching Fox or listening to Rush can lead to a radical decline in compassion), CNN is like watching an advertising commercial (for arms?)!
If Fox can make you "mean and stupid" then what is CNN and Jon Stewart doing? I would suggest this: it is making you uninformed and smug. By way of a simple example, the "liberal media" seems to think they are doing their part on climate change by turning climate deniers into a big joke. HRC says, "And I believe in science." Fine, but all this is neither here nor there if the media and politicians think that identity politics is going to actually do anything to promote real quantitative change. In Japan, for example, the media is not engaged in endless blame-gaming or demonizing some "other side" so they are able to actually have serious conversations abut environment issues that change practices! Like in Germany, in Japan climate and the environment are taken very seriously these days and that means real people don't just talk the talk but they walk the walk.
How many people watched the primaries and conventions? The majority of people I know either declined to watch at all or only watched what supported their existing beliefs. How can we as a society come together and fix problems of inequality if we can't even talk to each other? Utterly controlled by the media, instead of talking to real people, so many of us simply are being spoon-fed our opinions in a kind of echo chamber.
Hands-down, my favorite moment in either convention was the Rev William Barber's speech below... but I also loved it when President Obama said, 'We Don't Look to Be Ruled:'
We're not a fragile people. We're not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled. (Applause.) Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union.
His words reminded me so much of that moment from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon, when what should have been one of the greatest homecomings in ancient times, instead ended in cold-blooded murder as the King's wife stabbed him to death that evening in the bath.
Why did she do it?
The chorus, too, demands an answer.
And so in a series of stunning speeches that would be the envy of any Washington speech writer, the queen lays out her case. Her husband-- the King-- has killed their beloved daughter, and for that he must die. That he had brought a concubine home with him from Troy and that she and her lover were already happily ruling the Kingdom ensconced in the castle were reasons as well. But Clytemnestra-- make no doubt about it-- is clear about her reasons: he killed their daughter and for that he must die.
So, she sets him up.
Laying out the family's priceless reddish-purple color tapestries, she urges him:
"Walk across, my Lord."
He tells her he will not. It would be as if throwing the family's collection of Monets, Rembrandts and Van Gogh's to the ground to be tread upon. That is the kind of arrogance, he tells her, that Persian kings show-- believing themselves to be as all-mighty as the gods. He won't do it, knowing that to do so would be to send the message to all the people that he believes himself to be above the law.
"We are democrats," he insists.
Like Obama, Agamemnon knows that we don't not want to be ruled. We don't want separate laws for different people. And not needing a strongman to "save" us, we need to save ourselves--especially when both choices are so incredibly bad. But how can we come together and create any real change if we are divided so terribly? Doesn't it seem like we need to listen to one another and try to go back to a time when we could sit down at a table together to break bread with those we disagree with?
In the end, "puffed up with ego,"Agamemnon gave up and treaded upon the "sea of blood." Scholars continue to argue about exactly why he did finally acquiesce and walk across the tapestries--but that simple act of showing himself to be above the law was all his wife needed to bring about his downfall.
That is to say, there is more to citizenship than consumption. And I count identity politics as a form of consumer identity (or personal branding?)
A poet friend of mine said this the other day:
I think Trump's presence now means that our instinct for self preservation via communal cooperation and mutuality has been systematically destroyed. It's like voting for cancer, the ultimate narcissist. Greater minds than mine can explain how this happened and what is to be done to recover. Good wishes one and all.
Until we learn to think for ourselves --instead of being spoon-fed corporate media soundbites that seek to divide and generate emotions (anger or derision and smugness), we will be forever at risk to demagogues and oligarchs.
Both Jen Senko and the Reverend Dr. William Barber II at the convention talk about the problem of meanness in our society--and this is something fueled by for-profit media. Obviously generating hate and anger; as well as supercilious feelings of superiority increase viewers and thereby profits. Compared to whatever you remember from before the days of entertainment news, do you think you are you a better neighbor today? Are you closer to extended family? Are you compassionate? Can you sit down and share a meal with those with whom you politically or morally disagree? These are the places to begin thinking about what exactly happened to bring us to this state of affairs, I think. For as Rev William Barber says:
"To revive the heart of our democracy....We are being called, like our mothers and fathers, to be the moral defibrillators of our time," he said, as the crowd rose with him for the umpteenth time. "We will shock this nation and fight for justice for all." And later: "We will not give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever."
Monday, July 25, 2016
The Two Party System is Officially a Nightmare
by Akim Reinhardt
Much has been made of the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most loathed presidential candidates since the birth of polling. Each of them has managed to alienate roughly half the country. About a quarter of Americans despise both of them. They make Barry Goldwater, Michael Dukakis, and Mitt Romney look beloved.
There has been a lot of focus on why these two candidates are so widely reviled. Simple partisanship doesn't seem to adequately explain it; fewer than a third of American view either of them favorably.
The Washington Post and ABC News tell us that Clinton-haters typically see her as a corrupt, untrustworthy flip-flopper, while Trump-haters hate too many things about him to list here, but it largely boils down to him being perceived as an inexperienced hatemonger.
Fortune magazine dispenses with the specifics and instead points to Clinton's and Trump's long and choppy resumés as repulsing the masses. Despite whatever accomplishments they may have racked up over the years, the thinking goes, voters simply can't get past the many "bad" things each candidate has done.
However, I'm less concerned with why exactly these two candidates are so widely detested. On some level, the why doesn't really matter; what's more pressing, I believe, is the how. In terms of American political mechanics, how could this happen and what does it mean? How did it get here, and what can we learn from it?
The one common mechanical process in almost every aspect of American politics is the two-party system: an extra-constitutional artifice that long ago hijacked government. And it is through those double swinging doors that we have stumbled into our current political purgatory.
This bi-polar orgy of villainy signifies that America's two-party system itself is badly broken; indeed, odds are that such a scenario would not have emerged if there were additional healthy political parties.
Let's start with Donald Trump.
Ronald Reagan's challenge to incumbent Gerald Ford was made possible by the destabilizing aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon's resignation, and Ford's odd appointment to the White House. And even then, Reagan was already a former governor and a leading figure in the party.
As for George W. Bush, he was not seen as "next in line" in 2000 because nobody was. It was a rare open year for GOP presidential wannabes. What Bush did have going for him was his father's name and connections, a formidable war chest, and substantial support from the party establishment, making him a clear favorite from the get-go.
This year, however, there was no one understood to be next in line, or any other strong candidate who might take the lead early like Bush did in 2000. Instead, the field was uncharacteristically wide open, and an unusually large number of ill-equipped Republican candidates joined the fray.
That worked to Trump's advantage in several ways. First, many of the other candidates had poor national name recognition, while Trump was already a global celebrity. Second, it proved to be a rather weak field, as none of them were able to galvanize the party. Finally, a large field meant that no one needed to attract a majority of voters to win primaries. With so many candidates pulling votes, relatively small totals could signify a "win."
Trump won the opening primary in New Hampshire with just over a third of the vote. Eleven days later, he won South Carolina with less than a third of the vote. On Super Tuesday, March 1st, he needed less than a third to win Arkansas and Vermont, and just over a third to capture Virginia and Tennessee. As late as March 8th, with nearly half the states already having voted or still voting, he was able to win Michigan with just 36% because there were still a dozen other people in the race.
Discounting caucuses, which involve a much smaller percentage of voters than primaries do, Trump didn't poll a majority in any state primary until his backyard victory in New York (60%) more than after Michigan. And it wasn't until late April, after three months and thirty-eight states plus D.C. had cast their ballots, that any state other than Trump's home turf awarded him a simple majority of primary votes. Why? Because at that that point, only one other viable candidate, Ted Cruz, still opposed him (John Kasich was still on the ballot, but already angling for a brokered convention as his only option).
Trump's really big wins didn't occur until he had secured enough delegates to ensure that he would be the Republican nominee, at which point the primaries and caucuses functioned as little more than coronations, and those who opposed him typically didn't bother showing up.
It was a simple divide-and-conquer approach, although less a result of Trump's master plan and more through happenstance.
But here's the thing: It never would have happened except for the two-party system.
In a system with more parties, a vituperative, populist clown like Trump would never have been allowed to ascend the hallowed halls of one of the Big Two. If this were, say, Great Britain, Trump would probably be aligned with a smaller party dedicated to nationalism, like United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), instead of the Conservatives (And say what you want about Boris Johnson, but his clownishiness is light years behind Trump's.). If it were France, he'd probably have found a welcoming home with Marie Le Pen's National Front instead of Nicolas Sarkozi's Republicans.
The point being, that in an established, longstanding (as opposed to newer ones like Hungary or Russia), healthy, multi-party system, extremists, even wealthy, supposedly charismatic ones like Donald Trump, are almost always shunted off to the respectable margins. A multi-party system provides outlets for yay-yos like Trump, so they don't directly infect the major parties. Yes, they may occasionally wrangle a cabinet position in a coalition government, but that's a long way from having the nuclear codes.
To the contrary, in a system with only two "real" parties, a duopoly with no respectable margins, an extremist like Trump has nowhere else to go to satisfy his ego. If he wants to seriously indulge his presidential vanity project, he has to go through a major party. And that always leaves open the possibility of catching lightening in a bottle, as he just has.
Compounding this is the legitimation process that a two-party system confers on its candidates. Whereas Trump was initially viewed as an appalling joke by almost everyone except the small number of Republicans voting for him in primaries and caucuses, as The Donald has moved towards the GOP nomination, he has increasingly gained a air of legitimacy in the eyes of the general voting public. Why? Because when only two parties are believed to be legitimate, whoever ascends them is awarded an general air of legitimacy. Even a walking caricature like Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, any party outside the duopoly is ground down a massive delegitimation process, leading someone like Gary Johnson to be deemed an irrelevant extremist because he is running as a Libertarian. Never mind that he's a former two-term state governor, a rational person with top level political experience. Despite this, he and Green presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein can't access publican campaign funding, have only a very longshot chance of appearing in the presidential debates, and are caught on a hamster wheel, desperately running to gain legitimate standing in a political system aligned against them.
While legitimizing its own standard bearers, the two-party system also severely marginalizes and ridicules anyone outside it, no matter how well qualified and experienced they are. Thus, when there are only two parties that the electorate is willing to consider, and one of those parties falls into disarray, a maniacal incompetent like Donald Trump can emerge as a major nominee, and quite possibly as president of the world's most powerful nation.
And then there's Hillary Clinton.
Frankly, the Democrats should be able to nominate a chimp and win this election. But Clinton is so widely disliked that she might actually lose to Donald Trump, who by all rights should be fairly unelectable. And so while many people now see the Republicans as the lunatic side of this Janus-faced system, the Democrats have played their own wretched part in producing a duopolistic fiasco.
It came about in an odd turn, as the Democratic Party flipped roles with the GOP this year. Whereas the Republicans historically have lined up behind the man deemed to be "next," it's the Democrats who have earned a reputation for wide open and raucous presidential primaries that produce surprise, underdog candidates like George McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976), Mike Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1992), and Barack Obama (2008). Hell, the Dems have gotten wild and wooly even when they had an elected presidential incumbent; Ted Kennedy seriously challenged Carter in 1980.
But 2016 has turned out to be the year that the parties got hit by lightening and underwent some type of Freaky Friday role reversal. It was the Republican nominating process that devolved into a rambling mess, open to all comers, while it was the Democrats who mobilized domineering party machinery to anoint the next politician in line.
Ironically, Hillary Clinton established herself as next in line exactly the same way many Republicans have done so in the past: by coming up short for the nomination the last time out. And like the GOP was wont to do once upon a time, the Democratic party machinery now lined up to support its heir apparent in a way it had never done for any other candidate in an open field during the modern primary era.
Clinton's funding and support were so overwhelming, that only three other Democratic candidates even bothered to enter the race (Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, and Martin O'Malley), all of them pie-eyed, not-ready-for-prime-timers who quickly flamed out. It all might have gone according to party plan, except that a serious challenge did finally appear. And it came from an outsider candidate who wasn't even a Democrat until he entered the race.
Bernie Sanders is a lifelong Independent politician. So why did he enter the race as a Democrat? Because as an Independent, Sanders is well aware of the oppressive nature of the two party system. There are no smaller parties that he could use to make a serious run, which in turn might lead to a cabinet position, or even the one thing he seemed to get out of all this, which was finding a platform from which to influence the national conversation.
Thus, Sanders stands as the most recent exception who proves the rule. The rarest of animals, a Congressman who is neither Republican nor Democrat, he built a career beyond the duopoly by climbing up the political ladder in tiny Vermont. And with that experience, he full well knew that he had just about no chance whatsoever to make any meaningful impact on the campaign (much less win) running for president as a Socialist, Green, or Independent. So he proved the rule by making a calculated and exceptional decision: he opted for a Trojan Horse strategy, hoping to invade and conquer the duopoly from within.
And it almost worked. Almost.
Sanders has much higher favorable ratings and lower disapproval ratings than Clinton, and every step of the way he polled much better against Trump than she did. His message resonated with a broad audience, and that in turn enabled him to build a grassroots following and raise a tremendous amount of money from small donors.
Despite this, however, Sanders still could not overcome the Clinton machine. As the establishment candidate, she was bolstered by a disciplined party leadership that not only favored her, but actively worked against his interests. The whole affair is now such a profound embarrassment that DNC Chair/Clinton stooge Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigns.
But even if the Democratic Party leadership had acted impartially, Sanders still had to go one-on-one against an establishment icon. Unlike Trump, who was able to bully his way through a large, chaotic field of nobodies and stumblers, Sanders needed to pull straight, heads up majorities against Clinton, the party scion. It proved to be just a bit too much, as he won many states, but not quite enough.
To be sure, the Republican Party tried very hard to prevent Donald Trump's rise within their ranks. But disorganization, poor choices, and a lack of discipline neutered their ability to stop the widely despised Trump from slithering through the chaos to capture its nomination. Meanwhile, the widely despised Hillary Clinton might very well have lost the Democratic nomination if not for the unflagging support of her better organized party, which worked to preclude any real competition from within, and then helped her outlast her one real opponent, a certified outsider running a more grassroots campaign.
And so here we are in 2016, with two deeply loathed major party candidates running for president. One of them a common example of how the two-party system can ram through a nominee few people are excited about, while the other serves as a three-alarm warning of what can happen when one of the major parties begins to spin off its axis.
Meanwhile, serious and reasonable candidates on the right (Johnson) and left (Stein), both of them much more likeable than these two, are duly ignored, or even abused by people who themselves claim to oppose the two-party system.
Come November then, tens of millions American voters, that one-quarter of the electorate who are utterly repulsed by both Clinton and Trump, will hold their noses and pull the lever for one of them, believing they have nowhere else to turn. And if the right quotient of them stay home, Trump could actually win.
All of it is reveals that America's two-party system is very broken, even as it remains thoroughly entrenched.
It's time for radical change.
Whether that means smaller parties like the Greens and Libertarians must work together to build themselves up, as I first proposed three years ago; that the 42% of voters who identify as Independents must coalesce into a more potent and focused force in opposition to the duopoly; or that honest, brave, and honorable Democrats and Republicans must allow us to banish harmful duopolistic practices like closed primaries and unreasonable barriers to public campaign financing and debate appearances: every effort must be made to mend our broken political system.
The two-party system has brought us to this point, and it must answer for its sins.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Hieronymus Bosch. The Pedlar or The Wayfarer, c.1500.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
"This vagabond or pedlar with mismatched shoes is symbolic of man on his path through life. He is a kind of 'Everyman' a popular late 15th century moral tale. He represents the 'homo viator', the pilgrim who goes through life weighed down by the baggage of his earthly existence. He suffers his lot along a path full of temptations."
And from "Abandon All Hope" by Nat Segnit, Harper's Magazine, August 2016.
"A naked man grabs me by the lapels and bares his teeth in frustration. I say naked, when I mean clad in a skintight nude suit that delineates his six-pack and decorously abstracts his genitals in the manner of a kids’ action figure. I have been assaulted by the personification of Anger. I’m probably being paranoid, but the unshakable sense of foreboding this gives me derives, as far as I can tell, from the suspicion that his little coup de théâtre is so effective because the guy playing Anger has actually taken against me, can discern in me something weak or sinful that he could exploit as grist for his performance. Earlier, a jester wearing a boat around his midriff had sniggered at the way I was holding my press folder. Maybe I’m not being paranoid, and the bad feeling I’ve had since I walked onstage at the Theater aan de Parade — which will increase over the course of my stay — is only an appropriate response."
Peace is Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job
by Bill Benzon and Mary Liebman
On April 27, 2016, Donald Trump opened a foreign policy speech by declaring that he would “develop a new foreign policy direction for our country – one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.” He closed by assuring, “American will continually play the role of peacemaker.” If he is serious, then if elected he should create a Peace Office in the White House, an office specifically charged with developing peaceful solutions to foreign policy problems.
For that matter, why doesn't Hillary Clinton hold Trump's feet to the fire and make a peace office a prominent part of the Democratic Platform? Why doesn't Barack Obama beat them to the punch and earn his Nobel Peace Prize by creating such a White House office while he's got the power to do so? Now's the time!
As you may know, the idea was first proposed by Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers, in 1793. You may not know that legislation proposing a Department of Peace was before Congress through much of the previous century. That history has been told by Frederick L. Schuman in Why a Department of Peace?, originally published by Another Mother for Peace in 1969. Mother’s efforts were complemented and amplified by the Peace Act Advisory Council (PAAC, which then became Council for a Department of Peace, CODEP). Sitting at her kitchen table with a manual typerwriter and smoking countless cigarettes, Mary Liebman wrote PAX, the group’s newsletter, between 1970 and 1976.
Working with Charlie Keil and with Becky Liebman, Mary’s daughter, I have compiled these and other documents into a pamphlet, We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job. In the rest of this post I present section six, “Peace is Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job”(Mary’s mantra), from the pamphlet. All of the quoted passages are from the newsletters that Mary Liebman wrote.
From Rush to the 91st Congress
In 1966 Mary Liebman read Benjamin Rush’s 1793 proposal for a Peace Office in the United States. It made sense. “A peace office might help modern man beat the Last Neanderthal to the switch,” she wrote in one of the newsletters she wrote in the 1970s as part of a considerable effort to have a Department of Peace established in the federal government.
When she and her colleagues began working they didn’t know that the idea had been brought before Congress several times earlier in the century nor that other groups had begun mobilizing support for a Department of Peace. But they soon found out:
The most vigorous effort was directed by a California-based organization, Another Mother for Peace, which in February 1969, brought a large number of well-trained citizen-lobbyists including many Hollywood celebrities, to the Capitol to dramatize the presentation of bills by Senator Vance Hartke and Representative Seymour Halpern. Shortly thereafter, at the suggestion of the sponsors, a Peace Act Advisory Council was formed, to coordinate the activities of groups favoring the bills. Peace people, political scientists and other academicians, and representatives of every religious denomination joined the Council, but as it turned out, the volunteers of the peace brigade had their hands full fighting their own fires [remember, this was the height of the Vietnam War]; campus concern took a totally different direction; and a year later it was still possible for a clergyman in Minnesota to publish an article in The Churchman, calling for a Department of Peace in the Cabinet without either author or editor knowing of the existence of the Hartke-Halpern bills.
On February 7, 1969 Senator Vance Hartke (D-Indiana) and Representative Seymour Halpern (R-New York) had introduced bills into the 91st Congress to create a U.S. Department of Peace – S.953 in the Senate with 14 sponsors and HR.6501 in the House with 67 sponsors respectively. The Peace Act Advisory Council (PAAC) met for the first time in November of that year:
Most members were nominated by voluntary organizations working in programs related to peace, international cooperation, and foreign affairs. The Council is not trying to build a large membership but hopes to reach all associations, large and small, national and regional, which share these concerns, and through these associations, their members.
PAAC alternated meetings in New York and Washington and costs were paid out of pocket. By July 1970 PAAC had attracted the following individual sponsors, most of them with national, if not international, reputations:
• Kenneth Boulding, University of Colorado
• Norman Cousins, President, World Association of World Federalists
• Morton Deutsch, Columbia University
• Jerome Frank, Johns Hopkins University
• Arthur Goldberg, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
• Ernest Gruening, Former U.S. Senator
• Seymour Halpern, U.S. Congressman
• Vance Hartke, U.S. Senator
• Mark Hatfield, U.S. Senator
• Theodore Hesburgh, President, Notre Dame University
• Roger Hilsman, Columbia University
• Townsend Hoopes, Former Undersecretary, U.S. Air Force
• Arthur Larson, Director, Rule of Law, Research Center Duke University
• Harold Lasswell, Yale University
• Paul Moore, Jr., Bishop Coadjutor, New York Diocese
• Hans Morganthau, Director, Center for the Study of American Foreign Policy, University of Chicago
• Henry Reuss, U.S. Congressman
• Frederick Schuman, Portland State University
• Gordan Sherman, President, Midas International Corporation
• David Shoup, Former Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps
• Gloria Steinem, New York Magazine
• Alan Westin, Columbia University
• Jerome Wiesner, Provost, MIT
• Harold Willens, Business Men’s Educational Fund
• Herbert York, University of California
In a Playboy interview in May of 1970 Senator Hartke noted: “When we speak of a Department of Peace we are discussing the means by which the idealism of the United States can be reconciled – not compromised – with the exigencies of political life. […] A nation must defend those interests that are essential to its survival; but the creation of a Department of Peace will symbolize our realization that first among those interests is the preservation of the nation’s sense of moral responsibility.” The effort was fundamentally practical. As Liebman argued:
This is a nation, not of philosophers, but of inventors, engineers, builders: a working people. Through some terrible displacement of energy, a kind of cosmic computer error, a whole generation of Americans has been programmed to work for war, and being the kind of people they are, have produced the biggest and best there is. It would strike de Tocqueville as typically American to perfect a doom machine and refer to it as “hardware.”
What are the chances of harnessing this innovative, pragmatic national genius, and the resources of the richest country in the world on behalf of peace? A lot of doves don’t believe that a government persuaded by its own ideological cant, and convinced of its own military invincibility, will support an office that challenges both. They insist that a federal peace agency would be no more than another storefront behind which the corrupt establishment could do business as usual; private peace efforts would be co-opted; the triumph of double-think would be complete.
What’s the alternative?
We are trying to halt a juggernaut in our spare time, with marginal energy and with our own money; between sales meetings, trips to the orthodontist, weddings, funerals, lectures on drug abuse, balancing the bank statement, coaching Little League, preparing for bar exams and mowing early hay ¬– and while simultaneously serving on the school board and the civil rights committee and saving the environment. Quite a job for even the most dedicated volunteer brigade. It’s discouraging to remember than on Monday morning, after our march disperses, thousands of employees will show up in the Pentagon (decent husbands and fathers all, with their own problems, crab grass, confused kids, etc.) ready to put in another productive week in the service of the juggernaut; paid by us.
Supposing we are able, with our smudgy mimeographed appeals to conscience and our amateur guitar music, to get together politically, the job will still be just begun. We have to dismantle the juggernaut, piece by piece, and then to construct effective new machinery with which to deal with the real hostilities of a real world.
[…] Our commitment is the wedge, the fulcrum, on which the power of government can be deployed for peace.
By that time PAAC had spent about $10,000, most of that in services contributed by less than twenty members. For most peace activists of the time opposing the war in Vietnam was more pressing than establishing an on-going Peace Department.
Back to the Drawing Board: the 92nd Congress and After
Alas, the Peace Act died with the adjournment of the 91st Congress in January 1971:
No hearings were held, and all of us who supported the legislation are disappointed that it did not receive fuller consideration, though few of us were so sanguine as to expect early enactment.
“May you live in interesting times,” says the old Chinese curse, and the months that followed the introduction of the Peace Act were wildly interesting. While millions struggled in the terrestrial mud, four Americans strolled on the mmoon. Proponents of the Act saw the NASA triumph as a spectacular example of what this country can do when it commits its best brains, its superior technology, and its vast wealth to a challenge. […]
Our inability to spread the word far enough, fast enough, is the simple explanation for inattention to the Peace Act. The normal problems of any education-and-promotion program were vastly complicated by the pace of events in these “interesting times”, and with our exertions it’s unlikely that we reached more than one of every thousand Americans.
In the process, of course, criticisms were voiced. Among them was the idea that the Secretary of State could adequately fulfill the functions of a Secretary of Peace. However,
the existence of nations implies the existence of national interests, and in the event of conflicting interests, every nation has a man charged with seeing to it that his people don’t get pushed around […] For the present, and for as far as we can see into the future, there ARE American interests that can and must be protected, honorably promoted, actively pursued, and the State Department is the office to single-mindedly consider those interests. The cynical response to American policy which has been described as “credibility gap” is invoked when we require the Secretary to dissemble, to call national interest by some other name.
It might of course happen that the Secretaries of State and Peace would by opposed in some specific matters. What then? Well, what? There’s nothing new about dissension, even at the Cabinet level. Of course the policy-making importance of the Cabinet varies from one administration to another, but Cabinet posts are always visible. Liebman continues:
Then, say the critics, you want this Department primarily as a rallying symbol for the peace movement? Not primarily, we reply [noting that there is a] cogent case for the administrative aspect, for the clearer planning and more efficient administration of our scattered peace programs. We intend and expect this to be a working office. However, in a country where almost every high school band is costumed as for the Charge of the Light Brigade, where churchgoers sing of Mighty Fortresses and Christian Soldiers, were almost every public festival is celebrated with military display because we have not yet invented another vocabulary for patriotism – in that kind of country, the symbolic value of a Peace Department should not be quickly dismissed.
On a more mundane level, since the Peace Act had expired, the PAAC could no longer call itself the Peace Act Advisory Council. It dissolved in and re-incorporated under a new name: The Council for a Department of Peace (CODEP). PAAC leadership continued with CODEP.
The initial effort had been covered in a wide variety of publications, including, among others, McCall’s, The New York Times, True, The Federalist, The Churchman, Playboy, Washington Post, The New Republic, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Sun Times, Los Angeles Times, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the San Francisco Monitor. Notice how very many of these are mainstream publications.
Further bills were introduced into Congress as follows:
• 92nd Congress, January 3, 1971 to January 3, 1973: HR208, by Rep. Spark Matsunaga (D. Hawaii), January 22, 1971; an identical bill, HR6281 introduced by Rep. Henry Helstoski (D. New Jersey), March 17, 1971; S2621, introduced by Sen. Vance Hartke (D. Indiana), September 30, 1971; and an identical bill HR12600 introduced by Rep. Seymour Halpern (R. New York), with 56 co-sponsors, January 25, 1972.
• 93rd Congress, January 3, 1973 to January 3, 1975: HR 1096, Rep. Edward Roybal of California, January 3, 1973; HR 4824, Rep. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, February 27, 1973; S 1024, Senators Vance Hartke and Jennings Randolph.
• 94th Congress: January 3, 1975 to January 3, 1977: S.1976, June 18, 1975, Senators Vance Hartke and Mark Hatfield introduced a bill for a Peace Academy.
Nothing came of these efforts and CODEP ceased operation late in 1976. The final issue of PAX (Fall 1976), the CODEP newsletter, was devoted to arguing, not for a Peace Department, but for the Peace Academy as proposed in S. 1976 by Senators Vance Hartke and Mark Hatfield on June 18, 1976. This is how Mary Liebman concluded that final issue:
When the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was set up in 1961, it had the support of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, their Secretaries of Defense, Ambassadors to the U.N., the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an illustrious roster of statesmen, scientists, military experts, and legislators who agreed that traditional diplomacy and conventional military strength were not adequate to the challenge of the nuclear age. ACDA was directed to study the “scientific, economic, political, legal, social, psychological, military, and technological factors relating to the prevention of war.”
The momentum of this effort was lost in successive administrations. The failure of the ACDA to fulfill its broad mandate demonstrates several truths about the nation’s peace machinery. ACDA, and other peace agencies scattered through the executive branch, are underfunded, understaffed, underpublicized, and lack forceful advocacy in the White House and Congress – perhaps because they don’t have enough direct access to the White House and Congress. Certainly they lack direct access to the American people, who never knew enough about the ACDA to the give the agency any political base, and never had any opportunity to monitor its performance.
The common-sense case for a Peace Academy starts with our commitment to the vastly complex task of constructing a just and secure world order. Like any other gigantic undertaking, from building a dam to landing on the moon, the job will require knowledge, methods, skills. There is a desperate shortage of dedicated professionals who possess this expertise, but people can be recruited and trained for public peace service as we recruit and train scientists, doctors, and four-star generals. Public service will be obligatory for Academy graduates. Having fulfilled that obligation, they will move on into a variety of careers–many continuing in government, with legislative, administrative, and policy-making responsibilities; others in communications, law, education, labor organizations, business; but all equipped for enlightened decision-making in an increasingly interdependent human society.
War is not a natural disaster. It is a manmade disaster, directed and carried out by ordinary people, who are hired and paid by other ordinary people, to make war. It will stop when ordinary people decide that, whatever satisfactions and rewards war have offered in the past, the risk is now too high and the return too low. Children in Boston live with anxiety; children in Belfast live with terror; children in Beirut live with despair. On their behalf we ask our government to establish a National Peace Academy. Now.
A new organization was established in 1976 to advocate for this proposal, the National Peace Academy Campaign (NPAC). As a result of those efforts the U.S. Institute of Peace finally opened its doors in 1986. It is an open question, however, whether or not the institute is the kind of organization that Mary Liebman and so many others had worked for. In an article originally published in Z Magazine in the July/August 1990 issue Sarah Diamond and Richard Hatch remark “Under scrutiny, the supposed peace research sponsored by the federally funded U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) looks more like the study of new and potential means of aggression, though less in the conventional military realm and more in the vein of trade embargoes, economic austerity programs, and electoral intervention.”
A Proposed Declaration of Purpose for the Peace Act
The following paragraphs summarize the Declarations of Purpose accompanying each of the bills presented to the 91st and 92nd Congresses. Mary Liebman published them in PAX: The Peace Act Exchange, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 1972, p. 2.
* * * * *
“The Government of The United States is empowered by our Constitution to take all measures which will insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare of the people. The Government of the United States is committed by the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929, the Nuremberg Charter of 1945, and the United Nations Charter, to a serious and continuing exertion on behalf of international peace.”
“Recognizing that the security and prosperity of this Nation is endangered by conditions of disorder, threats of violence, and acts of aggression within our own society and among the nations of the world, it is the purpose of this Act to implement the resolve of the Constitution and to fulfill our international obligations by the establishment of a Department to advance the cause of peace and the just resolution of conflict in this Nation and throughout the world. The Department of Peace shall. . .
“– continually advise the President with respect to the prospects for peace in this nation and abroad;
– develop and recommend to the President appropriate plans and programs designed to minimize the use of armed force in the resolution of conflict;
– exercise leadership at the direction of the President in co-ordination of all activities of this government which may advance the cause of peace;
– cooperate with the governments of other nations, and with national and international organizations, public and private, in the creation of institutions which will strengthen the cause of peace;
– devise and direct educational programs which will further among the people an understanding of the true meaning of peace, and support research into the nature, cause, and prevention of conflict; for this purpose an Education and Research Division shall be established;
– facilitate the exchange of ideas, and increase the opportunity for relationships of friendship and respect among our own people, and between the people of this and other countries; for this purpose a Human Encounter Division shall be established;
– encourage and extend programs to secure economic conditions conducive to lasting peace through: the maintenance of a sound peace-based economy in this nation; the expansion of trade and commerce on terms of mutual benefit; responsible stewardship for the natural resources on which human life depends; and the direction of those resources into a better quality of life for all men; for this purpose a Division of Peace Economics shall be established:
– support all efforts on the part of governments and private groups to promulgate concepts of justice and rules of law under which the interests of all men shall be protected and reconciled, and all programs which endeavor to extend to international relationships those ethical and moral principles upon which laws are based; for this purpose a Division of Human Equity shall be established.”
Monday, July 18, 2016
Faster, Pokémon! Kill! Kill!
"The scent, the scent alone is enough for our beasts."
There's that old saying that goes "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro". Certainly, weird times such as these demand weird explanations. Old explanatory frameworks that have been dying long, slow deaths continue to have nails pounded into their coffins. Consider how the post-Cold War triumph of neoliberalism, as promoted by Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History, has had the crap beaten out of it first by 9/11, then by the global financial meltdown, and now by Brexit (the best tweet I saw concerning Brexit was all of three words: "Francis Fukuyama lol").
And no one, least of all Fukuyama, could have predicted the circus slated to begin in Cleveland, with the most unlikely candidate in recent political history about to receive the nomination of the Republican Party for President. Actually, I should amend that: perhaps Upton Sinclair did, 80 years ago. But Sinclair had the dubious benefit of witnessing firsthand the rise of fascism; few people are alive today who remember how wide the Overton Window actually used to be. We need to get much, much weirder.
But it's not just that things are getting weirder. Even more germane is that things are getting weirder, faster. This is nowhere more evident than in the ways in which technologies are insinuating themselves into the social fabric. As I've argued before, each technological development creates the substrate upon which a further, faster and even more unpredictable set of technologies and their circumstances manifests. Perhaps I'm biased, since I've been observing these phenomena for a while, but consider a few recent developments.
Exhibit A: Racially inflected police brutality is an old story. But awareness of it has skyrocketed in the past few years with the prevalence of video cameras. However, this prevalence was only made possible when video recording was bundled into the larger rubric of the smart phone. If video cameras as objects were sufficient unto themselves, we would have seen a very different trajectory following the 1991 Holliday videotape of the Rodney King beating. But it took nearly a full generation for the creation of not only the means of cheap and easy recording, but also its equally cheap and easy distribution. And until recently, even this latter infrastructure was fairly staid: YouTube and perhaps a few other platforms.
More recently we've seen the rise of live streaming of video. First popularized by LiveStream and Ustream (both founded in 2007), these services were still missing what turned out to be a key component: integration into social media. This was remedied in 2015, when Periscope was bought by Twitter before the service had even launched. Not one to let a competitive threat go unadressed, Facebook developed Facebook Live, its own native videostreaming service. It was in fact Facebook Live that was used by Diamond Reynolds ten days ago to document the remainder of Philando Castile's life as he lay in the back of a police cruiser, bleeding to death. And thanks to the tight integration with social media, we can go back to Reynolds' page, not just to relive the footage, but also to bear witness to the comments as they started rolling in: "Don't stop recording" and "We are watching you cop. What's your name?".
It hasn't escaped notice that Reynolds had remarkable presence of mind to livestream this "event", as opposed to merely videotape it, which itself would have been noteworthy (and one can only imagine that this preparedness was inculcated by the constant threat of police harassment, which is itself such a thoroughly damning thought). But consider the risks of simple videotaping: the possibility that the police would find a reason to confiscate the footage, or the phone's memory card, or the phone itself, which might then meet with an "unfortunate accident", therefore eliminating a pesky piece of evidence that would run contrary to police testimony. This is why the ACLU has been rolling out its Mobile Justice app - once installed on a smart phone, it is essentially a one-touch recording device that sends video directly to ACLU servers. It's not the only app for this, either, which is a good thing, since this kind of recording must be able to withstand multiple points of failure: just a few hours after it was streamed on Facebook, the Castile video was temporarily removed, due to a "technical glitch", whatever that might mean. No doubt a helpful algorithm was trying to shield Facbook's users from something awfully violent.
However, things get weirder.
Exhibit B: As a direct result of the above, massive nation-wide demonstrations were mobilized against police brutality. And as we know, the demonstrations in Dallas ended with five police being shot by a sniper. Compounding this unprecedented escalation was how the shooter, once cornered, was brought to heel. A robot, usually used for bomb disposal, was guided via remote control to the part of the parking garage where the suspect was cornered. Jury-rigged with a pound of C4 plastic explosive, it was detonated, decisively ending the standoff.
It was the first known instance that a robot was used by police to kill a suspect. And yet it conforms with the larger trend of the militarization of police, itself a consequence of the demobilization of vast amounts of matériel freshly returned from our most recent Middle Eastern adventures and in need of a good home. But what has mystified me about this incident is the fact that the police went straight to the use of lethal force. In the ensuing coverage, no one has thought to raise the possibility of a non-lethal option, for example strapping a tear gas canister to the robot. Peter Singer, who has written extensively about the use of drones and similar machines within a military context, notedthat "the closest parallel I am aware of was a case in 2011, when police in Tennessee strapped tear gas grenades to a robot that then accidentally started a fire in a mobile home. This doesn't seem a great parallel, as it does not reflect a decision deliberately to use the robot to kill." Indeed.
Unsurprisingly, the things that we thought we should most fear turn out to still be mirages that may or may not manifest themselves in the future. That is, the prospect of the evocatively named LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems) is still hazy and indistinct. But it's much easier to focus one's anxiety on a hypothetical machine gun-wielding robot that independently identifies and then executes its prey. There is something sufficiently self-contained about such an object. It's by virtue of its succinctness that thinking about it seems even possible, whereas the systems that are currently in place are more vague and distributed. As reprehensible as the overuse of drone strikes may be, there is still the lukewarm comfort that there is a human being - or a chain of command that consists of human beings - who ultimately identifies the target and pulls the trigger. Except that a closer look at target selection demonstrates that we are even less in control of that than we thought. So the future reaches into the present, playfully pawing at us in the form of a jury-rigged robot arm and ‘machine-suggested' militant targets.
(This is not the first time that we have committed such a cognitive fallacy. We spend far too much time worrying about the sudden appearance of a malevolent or inscrutable super-intelligent AI that we forego the much greater - and already present - concerns of whether artificial intelligence and algorithmic judgment are being used to gather and act on information that is beyond our power to even notice, let alone seek redress).
The precedent that is set by the actions of the Dallas police is troubling for exactly this reason: it is a precedent. When technology (and its ad hoc deployment) moves as quickly as this, there is no hope for policy, let alone legislation, to keep up. For heaven's sake, we still can't properly legislate copyright law in the digital age, and this has been a fairly clearly delimited issue for the last 20 years. If the courts extend the well-established principle that a police officer may use lethal force if he or she feels threatened to include the idea that a kamikaze version of WALL*E can be used to alleviate such a threat, then we can expect to see a normalization of the use of such force vectors. In turn, manufacturers will all too gladly step up so that the police don't have to go through the ordeal of duct-taping a packet of C4 to a retractable arm. And in short order an industry springs up, with interests and lobbysits to represent those interests: good luck legislating anything in the face of that. I just wonder if a camera livestreaming the proceedings will be part of the basic package, or if that will cost extra.
So we have a situation here where the convergence of video streaming and social media platforms led to protests that in turn led to the targeting of police officers by a shooter who was killed by a robot carrying an improvised explosive device. Can things get any weirder? Let's try.
Exhibit C: With all the weirdness going around, it was almost a relief that the week's news ended on something that people of my generation can understand: a good old-fashioned coup d'état. Except that the attempt in Turkey fell into chaos within a matter of hours; it seems that in the current news cycle not even a mutiny by the military has that much time to prove itself. Furthermore, one would certainly expect the Turkish army, which has been staging coups with some regularity since 1960, to have acquired solid experience in the matter.
All flippancy aside, though, there is still much that is unknown about why the military made its move when it did. One generally waits for the Prime Minister to be out of the country, whereas Erdogan was vacationing in Marmaris, a Turkish coastal town. Be that as it may, the coup began with the requisite deference for tradition: the declaration of martial law, the imposition of curfew and the rapid appearance of tanks on the streets, military jets buzzing Ankara and Istanbul, and all that. In addition, one of the immediate targets of any coup is the TV station, and indeed the plotters fulfilled their mission of getting the national TV to sign off.
But things also began to go very wrong, very quickly. Here is something we do know: very soon after it became clear that a coup was underway, Erdogan phoned into CNN's Turkey bureau, still on-air, and conducted an interview via FaceTime, on the news anchor's iPhone. You can see a bit of the astonishing video here, complete with the moment when the anchor, who is interviewing him by holding up the phone to the camera, has to decline an incoming call from someone else (a treasonous army general, perhaps? Wouldn't that have been the most fantastic use of three-way calling?). Now, Erdogan is savvy enough when it comes to technology - in fact I think it's a reasonable to state that populist tendencies positively correlate with mastery of social media such as Twitter, as well as an equivalent distaste for anyone using the same platform to proffer a different message. So he used his time to appeal to his supporters, that they take to the streets and "protect our democracy".
To its credit, the army planned well enough in advance to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which was likely not difficult, since Turkey has always been keen on regulating its citizens' access to the Internet. However, smaller platforms such as Instagram and Vimeo were still functioning at the time of the coup. More crucially, it seems like Facebook Live and Periscope - the same applications involved in documenting police brutality I cited above - were also functioning. So the plotters found themselves in a position where protestors against the coup hit the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, "swarming tanks and soldiers…and even reportedly performing citizen's arrests. Many of the protests were streamed on Periscope and Facebook Live." To watch a bunch of guys in street clothes swarm a tank like carpenter ants, stripping the soldiers of their weapons and throwing them bodily out of their vehicles, all in defense of an authoritarian regime, has to be one of the more surreal things I have seen recently.
This attitude towards technology as an organizing force is quite an ironic reversal, considering that, during a 2014 meeting with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Erdogan actually said, "I am increasingly against the Internet every day". And it is still premature to maintain that the organizing power of social media played a decisive role, as we are still considering its effects on the Arab Spring of 2011. But one thing that is certain is that the AKP emerges from the coup stronger than ever. As it rounds up its enemies and rivals - at last count already more than 6,000 have been detained - it's reasonable to assume that press and internet freedoms will re-join those ranks, having served their purpose in the "protection of our democracy."
There are no easy patterns to be drawn from the above three cases. If anything, we may have to fall back on the cliché that people will take whatever tools they have at their disposal and bend them to the circumstances. I don't find this satisfying as an explanation, but in a world where total surveillance is being used to hunt terrorists who nevertheless cause tremendous damage by simply driving a truck into a crowd, I'm not sure if any theory can make sense for long enough before the next event comes along and proceeds to make a hash of everything. But this is the nature of an ever-accelerating weirdness. And apologies to anyone who thought this post would be about Pokémon Go. There's only so much weirdness anyone can take.
From: Public, Private, Secret - current exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.
"It’s unsettling, even before you enter. Stenciled on the ground, just outside the entrance to the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) new museum in Manhattan, are words informing visitors that once you enter, you “consent to being photographed, filmed and/or otherwise recorded” and “surrender the right to the use of such material throughout the universe in perpetuity.” ...
Thanks to Ms. Gayil Nalls for telling me about this very interesting show.
Return to a May Swenson Poem
by Olivia Zhu
That poem pulled me to a stop. Through some gravitational mechanism or another, it drew a page to fall exactly right as I rustled through my 700-plus-page poetry textbook; it drew my eye to a blocky section unlike all the rest. I had to write about it. No, really—I had to. My final paper for a Gen Ed poetry class desperately needed starting, and out of laziness or ennui or something else, nothing in those hundreds of pages drew my interest quite like one of May Swenson’s untitled poems.
It’s been a poetic earworm for me ever since, which makes me feel a bit bad that I ended up reading it, learning it, loving it, and returning to it only because I found it by chance, in the middle of self-punishing procrastination. I hadn’t even read her poem in full before deciding to write about it, so drawn I was to how its beating cadence in the first few lines matched the look of the whole work entire.
And what cadence, what structure it has. The piece is devoid of standard punctuation, with great spaces dividing each word from the next. Those spaces imply a pattern, and back when I first wrote about the poem, I really could not figure out what was going on with the meter. That confusion was obscured by my dashing off some quick lines about how everything was mostly monosyllabic, with a “preponderance of iambs.” There’s no need to be so strict with Swenson here, and ever. It’s enough to say that there’s a throbbing beat to her piece, and it’s a beat that begins right away, in the first line: “I will be earth you be the flower”.
And yet somehow, the melody of it all comes through, on top of the semi-regular meter. Because Swenson’s content—her addressee, and their intimacy—is presented up-front, the rest of the piece can be read with the inflection of that relationship. When I hear the poem in my head, it’s at once tender and determined, as if the speaker is making clear to her lover what is so obvious to her. The tenderness comes from the carefully chosen images, and the determination from the steadiness of the underlying rhythm.
The speaker’s attitude is replete with un-contradicting paradoxes. First she is earth, her lover the flower, but then the speaker has a root (like her lover-plant) and her lover becomes the rain—and becomes, later, both rower and sea. Swenson then makes land and sea miscible, with the poem concluding’s attitude being something along the lines of: Who cares, if we’re no longer flowers, or boats? We’ll flood the land. We’ll salt it, and make it a desert. The images don’t matter—we, and no longer you and I inhabiting separate images—we can be elemental, we can be anything, so long as this is the feeling that we have for each other.
The untitled poem is not conveying a new feeling, or a complex one. That kind of emotion between two people is elemental, ought to be elemental. But the layers of interaction on top of the poem that help the speaker place her and the object of her affection where they are in the universe with respect to each other—those interactions and justifications are complex, and they are what interest me. How does a poet pick words when she is trying to capture an elemental feeling? How does anyone?
The aspects of the poem that used to fascinate me are still there: the intensity of it, how the rhyme scheme fuses together the same way the pronouns do. And there are so many other little facets that still twinkle at me. Why does Swenson sometimes use “will be,” and sometimes “are,” or why does “scorpion” show up at the end? They are more details to ponder for next time I think about the poem, the next time I write about it.
What I find most miraculous is that incomplete understanding of why she constructed the poem this way (an understanding that will always be incomplete) doesn’t affect the sentiment—the elemental emotion. The building-block-words, so stark and so separate, have only ever contributed to the frisson of seeing the poem, then reading it. And there’s no word for that feeling. How apt, then, that the work should be left untitled.
Parenting Muslim Children in an Age of Terrorism
by Jalees Rehman
"These terrorists aren't true Muslims" is a phrase that I have often heard being used by American Muslims when talking about terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam. Recently, I encountered another version of this comment. Parents at a suburban Islamic Sunday School were encouraged to use this same approach when talking to their children about the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Arguments for denying the Muslim identity of the perpetrators include the moral incompatibility of the atrocities committed by the terrorists with Islamic law, which does not sanction the extrajudicial killing of civilians or suicide, which is frequent element of the attacks. This is an understandable reaction. The views of the perpetrators and their actions seem so abhorrent that it is impossible to reconcile their perception of Islam with those of the vast majority of American Muslims. However, even though one may sympathize with the desire to distance oneself from the terrorists, declaring terrorists to be non-Muslims or not "true" Muslims is the wrong answer.
The first problem with the arbitrary post-hoc excommunication of terrorists is that it is not really grounded in Islamic law. The process of takfir (excommunication Islam) requires very strong evidence and is difficult to uphold in most Islamic legal traditions if the person in question continues to see himself or herself as a Muslim. Someone may commit a grave sin or terrible crime, but these actions alone do not propel the person outside of the faith.
In fact, many of the terrorists or the organizations that endorse and support them portray themselves as true followers of Islam. Daesh (the so-called "Islamic State") claimed responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (March 2016), Dhaka (July 2016), Baghdad (July 2016) and Nice (July 2016). Members of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram detonated bombs in a mosque in Maiduguri (January 2016), killing 22 worshipers and themselves. American-born Omar Mateen who murdered and injured over 100 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando (June 2016)swore allegiance to the leader of Daesh just minutes before his murderous shooting rampage. A group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban targeted the Christian community celebrating Easter Sunday in a Lahore park (March 2016) with a suicide bombing. Even though the precise nature of the involvement of Daesh in each individual attack is not always clear, the attackers and their handlers routinely invoke Islamic justifications for their actions. One may disagree with their logic and interpretations of Islam but this is not sufficient to warrant their excommunication. In fact, extremist groups are the ones which play fast and loose with takfir when it comes to Muslims with differing views on religion and it is important for the majority to resist the impulse of following their example. The second problem with declaring terrorists who view themselves as faithful followers of Islam to be non-Muslims is that it serves as a form of dangerous absolution. If atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, then Muslims need to carefully scrutinize what elements of their faith or the manner by which the faith is taught could have inspired such violence. Such introspection can serve as a starting point for change in approaching and teaching religion within Muslim communities to prevent the spread of Islamist ideologies that promote hatred and endorse violence. On the other hand, if the acts were committed by people who weren't true Muslims, then the community absolves itself of the responsibility to engage in introspection. They had a completely erroneous view of Islam, which is why we do not need to change.
The importance of avoiding false absolution is especially important when it comes to parenting Muslim children. Engaging the youth in introspective analysis of what aspects of religion (or any ideology) can promote supremacist and violent views may allow them to become active partners in thwarting the rise of extremism. As a parent, I discuss terrorism with our children, covering the broader sociopolitical context as well as the aspects within the Islamic tradition and history that are often used to justify atrocities. I am guided in part by my experience of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany. This German composite word combines Vergangenheit (the past) and Bewältigung (the process of struggling and overcoming) and refers to actively discussing the Nazi past in Germany. It would have been very easy to shrug off the Nazi ideology as not being truly German because it violated many ideals of German culture and absolve Germans of their historic burden but German society instead chose to confront its history. Schoolchildren visit concentration camps, talk to their parents about their grandparents' or great-grandparents' involvement in the Third Reich and are thus sensitized to the re-emergence of supremacist ideologies or fascism.
When I talk to my children about contemporary Islamist terrorist attacks, I try to engage in Gegenwartsbewältigung (Gegenwart = the present). These discussions do not only revolve around terrorism and violence but also involve broader contemporary issues in ethics, religion, decision-making and responsibility. As a family, we routinely sit together and listen to the inspiring Philosophy Bites podcasts by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton which allows us to then segue into the discussions about philosophy and religion.
Terrorist acts perpetuated by co-religionists require Muslim parents to engage in difficult conversations with their children. Hiding behind false absolution is a disservice to their children and to their community. My hope is that Gegenwartsbewältigung will foster open-mindedness and introspective critical thinking which is antithetical to the rise and spread of hatred and violence.
The Aesthetic Value of Simplicity
by Dwight Furrow
However, traditional Western aesthetics apparently demurs on this point since it enshrines complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value. Works of art are considered great if they repay our continued attention. Each new contact with them reveals something new, and this information density and the way it is organized to reveal new dimensions is what brings aesthetic pleasure. Achieving unity in variety is the sine qua non of aesthetic value according to most accounts of our aesthetic tradition. Unity, balance, and clarity are valuable only if they are achieved by organizing complex phenomena. Novelty and the availability of multiple interpretations in part define the kind of interest we take in aesthetic objects. Monroe Beardsley in his influential work Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958, 1981) went so far as to argue that complexity along with unity and intensity provide logically necessary (and perhaps sufficient) conditions of aesthetic value.
It's worth noting that in my own small corner of the world of aesthetics, wine-tasting, complexity is admired and simplicity a sign of inferior quality. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.
Since complexity and simplicity at least superficially appear to be contradictory criteria it would seem that simplicity has no role to play in Beardsley's attempt to codify aesthetics. Of course, as I noted above, there are art works that apparently don't exhibit complexity, and today Beardsley is regarded as over-reaching if he intended his criteria to be logically necessary or sufficient. Such definitions have fallen out of favor in most philosophical circles to be replaced by generalizations that hold only for the most part. Yet, complexity, unity, and intensity are useful reference points for evaluating works of art despite the exceptions.
Perhaps Beardsley is guilty of cultural prejudice in ignoring the role of simplicity that characterize other aesthetic traditions, but the prominence of complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value does raise questions about what role simplicity should play in our aesthetic judgments. No doubt we sometimes enjoy simplicity but the question is whether it is a fundamental value or not and how we are to understand that value.
To be fair to defenders of complexity, they need not deny that simplicity can sometimes enhance aesthetic value. Beardsley's criteria (complexity, unity, and intensity) interact and influence each other and none can be maximized. Too much complexity is just confusing and undermines the unity of a work. Complexity without organization is meaningless and bringing unity to a work often requires that an artist heavily edit, i.e. simplify, initial drafts or sketches. Art and music composition students are constantly enjoined to simplify because simplification can make the focal point of a work stand out. But this demand to simplify treats simplicity as having instrumental value only. Its purpose is to make a work more coherent. The aim is not simplicity itself but rather to utilize simplification as a way of achieving other artistic aims such as unity or intensity.
Similarly, pauses in music or negative space in painting are deployed because they create tension and contrast; both make use of simplification to achieve an effect. But that appears to be a strategy that aims at intensity rather than adopting simplicity as an independent value. Similarly, we often welcome simplicity as a contrast to sensory overload. After viewing several disturbing and difficult paintings in a museum we might welcome a simple landscape; after listening to Wagner or Mars Volta, we might really appreciate Erik Satie or some homespun blues. But again this seems to be an instrumental use of simplicity to achieve balance in one's experience or to relax and prepare the mind to appreciate more complex works. At most simplicity seems to be a secondary value, a useful tool for achieving more fundamental aims.
However, Japanese aesthetics provides insight into how we should understand the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity seems central to the goal of Shizen, which means to be without pretense or artifice--"from itself, thus it does" according to one translation, "what is spontaneously or naturally so". Kenko, the 14th Century Buddhist monk often cited for his authoritative commentary on aesthetics writes:
A house, though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated, will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty -- a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work wooden fence of interesting construction; and a few personal effects left lying about, giving the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the bushes and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place? (From Kenko, Essays in Idleness: he Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, trans. Donald Keene)
Ornamentation and decoration are avoided because the intent is to make the object look as if it arose naturally even when it is obviously an artifact.
In the case of Shizen, is simplicity a tool to achieve naturalness or is it an inherent component of naturalness? Of course a work can be simple and artificial; simplicity does not logically entail naturalness. Perhaps we should understand simplicity in Japanese aesthetics as a symbolic device to signal naturalness in much the way simplicity in Quaker aesthetics symbolizes devotion to God. This would be to view simplicity as having merely instrumental value, a tool to signal an ideology, but I think that would be a misunderstanding. Simplicity does not merely indicate naturalness, it exemplifies it, shows what it is saying, or at least it can in the hands of someone with talent.
To make sense of this in the context of Western aesthetics it is helpful to invoke a concept that seems to have slipped from view in modern aesthetics although it was central in the Renaissance—the concept of sprezzatura. The 16th Century Italian diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione first used this term in The Book of the Courtier. He defines it as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it". The courtier, Castiglione argued, has the ability to display "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them".
What Castiglione is pointing to here is the aesthetic pleasure we get from ease, when effects flow naturally from a source without apparent force or manipulation, a display of what something is without addition. This is likely the source of the aesthetic pleasure mathematicians and scientists report when they witness an elegant proof or theory. It is why we are thrilled by vocalists who hit the high notes without straining or athletes who seem to glide when they run. These examples are of course kinds of human actions but I think aesthetic objects can display ease and naturalness as well displaying their essential character without adornment or obvious effort on the part of the artist who puts it on display.
In these cases, simplicity is not an instrument to achieve ease; simplicity constitutes ease by displaying it. It seems forced to understand the aesthetic aim in these cases as something other than simplicity such as unity or balance. Ease itself is aesthetically satisfying.
As you might have guessed if you have read my other writings, I'm nattering on about this because it has something to do with wine and food.
Simple wines and foods are good because they often have lots of flavor. But they also have appeal because there is an unaffectedness to them. Simple chopped tomatoes macerated in lemon juice and olive oil served over pasta; roast chicken with some aromatics in the cavity and basted with olive oil or butter; a fresh rosé from Provence or Lambrusca from Emilia Romagna—these can be aesthetically pleasing not only as a contrast with excessive complexity or as a means of generating intensity but because there is a naturalness to them, a display of what something is that settles effortlessly into the flow of life around it.
Isn't that why a simple, well sung folk or blues song can be beautiful? Such phenomena may lack the thrill we get from structure and organization finding unity in complexity. The unity is there but it doesn't arise from an active pulling together of diverse elements. The unity exists without addition or amendments and that naturalness is part of the appeal.
Thus it seems simplicity can sometimes have independent aesthetic value. Some simple things are just boring. And sometimes as noted above simplicity is an instrument to achieve intensity. But ease and lack of affectation does seem to be something we enjoy even when we grant the aesthetic value of complexity.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.
Monday, July 11, 2016
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
In last month's column, we introduced a name for what we suppose is a familiar phenomenon. Spitballing is a tactic of deflection, where a speaker repeatedly interjects vague, but self-contained, and overtly provocative statements into a discussion. The aim of the spitballer is to overwhelm his interlocutors and critics by providing them with so many outrageous claims that they are unable to adequately reply to any of them. Spitballing is rampant in public political discussion because, in the forums were such discussion commonly occurs, significant benefits accrue to those who appear to the onlooking audience as having gotten the last word.
Spitballing is closely allied with a companion tactic that is also rampant in contemporary public political discussion. Swamping is a tactic for controlling public discourse. Like the spitballer, the swamper introduces into a discussion multiple pointed, self-contained, and overtly provocative statements. Yet the swamper's aim is not to overload his interlocutors, but to dominate the political conversations conducted by others. The swamper's intention is to say something so overtly bizarre or inflammatory as to force others to discuss what he said. In doing so, the swamper seeks not to deflect criticism, but rather to direct political discussion away from the ideas, proposals, policies, and platform of his political competition. As a consequence, the swamper stays at the center of the conversation, forcing every other topic to the periphery. One important motive for swamping is that, in making oneself the topic of conversation by being overtly either vague or controversial, one crowds out time for critical exchange with others. One swamps the competition.
We claimed in last month's column that Donald Trump is an incorrigible spitballer. It should be obvious that he is also an inveterate swamper. The swamping tactic, after all, is largely responsible for his success in securing the Republican nomination. During the GOP debates, the pattern was recurrent and blatant: Trump would say something disgraceful about one of his competitors (or his critics, or a journalist), and then the political discussion in the days following was nearly entirely devoted to discussion of Trump's ridiculous pronouncement. For example, there have been periods when significant time and bandwith has been devoted to discussion of Trump's disparaging remarks about Carly Fiorina's appearance and Trump's assurances that his hands and other appendages are not small. To be sure, the discussion stimulated by even his silliest remarks contained a good deal of cogent criticism of Trump. But it's important to note that any time devoted to criticizing Trump's idiotic statements is time not spent on discussing the ideas of Trump's competition. As a result, Trump has won the GOP nomination by winning a war of attrition; many of the others who had been seeking the Republican nomination simply could not get their message out to the relevant public. Trump's swamping effectively drowned them out.
Notice a further feature of swamping. In order to be effective, the swamper must have a willing accomplice in the media and onlooking audiences. Trump-coverage gets ratings, and so even if a news outlet or commentator aims to critique or express outrage over his comments, Mr. Trump still drives the news cycles and directs the voices of the commentators. One of the other Republican candidates may have had views on foreign policy or on the economy, but Trump's inane tweets regularly attracted all the media attention. As a consequence, the others who shared the debate stages regularly found themselves with the unfortunate choice of either talking about Trump (thereby contributing to the swamping) or talking about something else (thereby placing themselves out of the conversation).
It is unclear whether the swamping tactic will be effective in a broader political environment, especially given that Trump's national competitor is already well-known to the public at large. Accordingly, we expect (and have already begun to see) the deployment of a tactic that combines spitballing and swamping. This hybrid strategy involves the introduction into political discussion of many self-contained provocations that are intentionally vague, followed by multiple attempts to provide clarification, where each purported clarification is inconsistent with its predecessor. The strategy, then, is to swamp political discourse not with analysis of what Trump has said, but with discussion of what Trump's pronouncements mean. Consider once again Trump's so-called proposal for a ban on Muslims. The past few weeks have seen Trump and his spokespersons offering various clarifications. The trouble is that the clarifications are not consistent with each other. For example, Chris Christie has claimed it's not a Muslim ban (and "never has been"), and Trump recently has said it's a ban on "certain people" coming from "horrible" places, adding later that it's a ban on Muslims coming from "terrorist countries." The result, again, is that a major political candidate has announced as a central policy initiative something prima facie absurd and offensive, and his statements about the precise contours of the policy fail to clarify things; so news outlets are bound to devote considerable ink and breath to attempts to decipher the intended meaning. Meanwhile, other topics are crowded out.
What is to be done in the face of a campaign of swamping and spitballing? At least as an audience, we should try to avoid contributing to the phenomenon. Responding to controversial claims is always appropriate, but our attention must be directed also to detailed and serious policy proposals, ideas about how to stimulate lagging economies, explanations for why domestic and international conflicts persist. Again, we, the onlooking public, contribute to swamping by devoting our attention and time to the swamper and his spitballs. Rewarding those who argue seriously and who try to communicate clearly with our attention is a significant step forward, but it also requires those who direct news stories and political discussions to focus on substantive issues, too.
There is, of course, an irony to our recommendation. We, in pointing out how swamping strategies draw disproportionate attention away from other issues, have been paying close attention to the swamping. This, of course, is testament to the power swamping has over us, but it is an unavoidable inconsistency that is endemic to any attempt to identify what one should spend less time thinking about. After all, the sensible advice, "don't dwell on the past" invites its own violation. In the same way that one can have well-wrought reasons for not liking impressionist painting or sushi only if one has had a good bit of experience with them and has attended to their details, so it is with swamping. We must think about the swamping phenomenon in order to identify that and why it unduly attracts and maintains our attention. There are no perfect ways to break these spells, but seeing them as spells is a good start.
5 White cops fatally shot in Dallas: 7/7/2016
Philando Castile fatally shot in Falcon Heights: 7/6/16
Alston Sterling fatally shot in Baton Rouge: 7/5/16,
David Duke’s back: 2016 … and more.
…………………………….........…… —US News
Jittering on a Rim
with all this shooting going on
it’s hard to tell who’s good
and who’s bad.
it must be one or the other
nuance having no place
in the middle of a race war.
the lid’s been on for many years
which made many glad,
but now it’s jittering on a rim
steam shooting out the sides
clanging like bell
threatening to blow
a locked door
by Jim Culleny
Alicia Garza. One of the founders of BlackLivesMatter, 2013.
Hope, Statistics and Cancer
by Saurabh Jha
When diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare cancer with a blighted future, evolutionary biologist and writer, Stephen Jay Gould, turned his attention to the statistics; specifically, the central tendency of survival with the tumor. The central tendency – mean (average), median and mode – project like skyscrapers in a populated city and are the summary statements of a statistical distribution.
The “average” is both meaningful and meaningless – you could say that the average utility of average is zero. Consider a gamble - fair coin toss where you get $50 if it lands heads and lose $50 if it lands tails. The average (net) gains of this coin toss, if the coin is thrown hundreds of time, is zero. But no one gets nothing – you either get $50 or lose $50. The average is twice wrong – it over estimates for some and under estimates for others. Yet the average of this gamble has important information. It helps you decide if you could profit from making people play this gamble – you wouldn’t profit unless you charged a small fee to play the gamble.
The median is the mid-point of a distribution. Gould’s cancer had a median survival of eight months. This means that half (unlucky half) lived fewer than eight months and half (lucky half) lived more than eight months with this tumor. The mean is affected by outliers but the median is not – billionaires of Mumbai raise the average, not median, income of the city. That is skewness of a distribution affects the mean, not the median. Put another way, the median (Mumbai’s slums) conceals the skewness (Bollywood).
Gould, describing in his classic essay “The median is not the message,” ignored the median but looked at the skewness, which was right-sided - some who lucked out with survival lucked out big. Gould was initially despondent when he saw that the median survival of his cancer was only eight months. Gould was naturally disposed to optimism. He was dealt a rough hand but was not going down without a fight. His optimism, and fight, increased as he unraveled the distribution – first with the hope that he could be in the lucky half of the distribution, then with the hope that he could be one of the outliers in that skewed distribution, then with the hope that the treatment that he was being given, an experimental cocktail, could make him an outlier.
Gould lived twenty years after his diagnosis, perhaps, in part, because of his optimism, although there’s no way of knowing for sure that optimism helped. There’s no way Gould knew for sure that he would be an outlier. He did not choose to be in the long positive tail – he hoped he was. He could, quite easily, have settled his affairs, written his will, and traveled the world believing he had only 8 months to live. For every optimistic Gould who lives twenty years with mesothelioma there may be ten optimistic Goulds who live only two months.
Gould’s story is at the heart of the tension within evidence-based medicine (EBM) and end of life medical costs. EBM is driven by central tendency, the average, amongst others. But it is individuals who vary who build averages. Variation is a fact of life. Gray is the only truth. Variation is our half-truth – half remains concealed because whilst we know that we’re part of the variation we don’t know where exactly we’re placed, we don’t know which shade of gray we belong to.
Cancers vary in prognosis. Cancers vary in their response to treatment. This begs the question: in the absence of perfect information, what should the oncologist tell the patient? Should the oncologist reveal the median survival only? If so, why? What normative ethics say only the central tendencies of a distribution be discussed? Should the oncologist give a whiff of hope that the patient could be an outlier? Should the oncologist mention the short left, not long right, tail, stress the imminence of death, so that the patient can exit the planet with grace? What is the truth – the median, long tail of optimism or short tail of pessimism? If all three are truths which truth should be mentioned first and which truth should be mentioned last?
The easy answer is that it depends on the patient. That answer is simplistic, and a cop out. My friend, an oncologist, tells me that patients seek him for hope. He gives them hope and is unapologetic about doing so. Some might say that he gives his patients false hope – but that accusation assumes a numerical probability of death, a threshold or a range, which neatly separates false from true hope, hype from reality. There is no such number and even if it existed it’d be nearly impossible to give each individual their unique threshold of true vs. false hope, as the question will once again arise – what if I am the lucky outlier?
My friend put it pithily. “I’m not a fucking funeral director. I’m an oncologist.” Patients see him for possibilities, not limitations. Like Gould, his patients wonder if there are outliers (there often are) in the survival distribution of their cancer, and if they could be an outlier. He blasts his patients with chemotherapy and if there are new ones, he tries them out as well. There are no short cuts with hope. When he suspects a complication of cancer, such as a clot in the lungs, he goes after it with hammer and tongs. Because there’s no retreating from hope.
Hope and over treatment are a dialectic – a marriage of inconvenience. Hope is a state of mind, a culture of expectation, will of the people, which can’t be switched off by pressing a button. The most powerful driver of medical costs in the US is not the incentive structure. It is not doctors’ fear of being sued. The most powerful driver of medical costs is hope.