Monday, September 19, 2016
An Open Letter to Trump Supporters
by Akim Reinhardt
Let’s be honest. 3 Quarks Daily isn’t the type of website that attracts many Trump supporters.
But that’s not just a 3QD thing. It turns out that online or off, most Clinton supporters have minimal contact with Trump supporters and visa versa. It’s a national phenomenon that speaks to the profound geographic and social segregation of partisan America.
Indeed, it’s probably a bit pointless for me to post an open letter to Trump supporters here. But honestly, I’m not sure where else to turn. After all, I don’t get to hoist monthly essays onto any Republican-leaning websites, and what follows is bound to be a bit too long for that modern day version of a Letter to the Editor, the beastly maelstrom known as a Comment Section.
So if you happen to be among that slim minority of Clintonistas who has real and meaningful interactions with Trumpatistas, feel free to share this with them, he said, like a pen pal in want of a postman.
Dear Trump Supporter:
I get it. Clinton supporters can be insufferable, condescending elitists.
I understand this on a personal level, just like you do. You see, even though I’m a kind of a lefty and kind of a liberal, I’m not actually a registered Democrat. So if they see you Republicans as the enemy, then they see people like me, who agree with them on many issues but don’t always vote Democrat, as apostates.
In their world view, it’s like we’re all living in that ghastly, disease-infested stink pot that was Medieval Europe. And in their super violent, smelly little fantasy land, they’re the Christians, you’re the Muslims, and I’m part of a tiny schismatic reform group. They’d love nothing more than to permanently take the entire Holy Land back from you and kill or convert every single Mohammadean. But it ain’t gonna happen. And they realize that no matter how much they hate you, and no matter how many murderous crusades they send to massacre your brethren, on some level they simply have to accept you and your ilk as the savage enemies they can never fully vanquish. So they’ll find a purpose for you. They’ll turn you into the permanent villains they can pour their hatred onto, the heathens they can use to define themselves as civilized.
It’s like you’re each other’s Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.
You know, the same way some of you wanna stone Gary Johnson’s supporters to death.
So, Trump supporter, our situations aren’t exactly the same. But I at least understand why you’re hesitant to engage Clinton supporters. I too find myself holding back, even though I actually agree with them on many, maybe even most issues. Who actually wants to talk to these people, right? Ugh.
So fear not. This letter is not a finger-wagging lecture about why Trump’s an asshole and how you’re ruining America. You’ve had to put up with that kind of venom even when you’re supporting someone reasonable like John Kasich or old man George Bush, both of whom are practically Democrats, quite frankly.
Instead of spewing hate, I’d like to take it upon myself to talk about where we are at this historical moment. As a historian, I tend to take a long-view. And it seems to me that this is one of those elections they’ll still be writing about in textbooks a hundred years from now.
Most elections don’t make the cut. No one today remembers who won in 1880 (it was former Union general James Garfield, who got shot not long after being elected and was succeeded by a dapper dandy from New York named Chester Arthur).
However, there are a handful of turning point elections. Not only do all U.S. historians know a lot about these select few ballot battles, but we also insist on boring our students with the details, because they’re just more important, or at least more meaningful than the rest. Here’s quick rundown of some really momentous presidential elections.
1828: Andrew Jackson defeats John Quincy Adams in an epic rematch with shades of Ali-Frazier (Adams had won in 1824). Jackson’s victory is made possible by the advent of universal white male suffrage, and with help from a savvy machine politician from New York named Martin Van Buren. And it ushers in both, the era of modern political parties, and populist campaigning.
1860: Abraham Lincoln loses every Southern state, but still gains enough electoral votes in the North and West to earn a majority and best three other candidates. The rest of the story kinda writes itself.
1876: An otherwise uninspiring showdown between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden erupts into mayhem when the results of three Southern states are disputed. A prelude of 2000's Bush/Gore tilt, each side claims victory, and a special commission of congressmen, senators, and Supreme Court justices hammers out a negotiated settlement, voters be damned. Hayes gets the White House, Union troops finally pull out of the South, and boy is it gonna suck for black people for another century or so.
1896: The People’s Party, also known as the Populists, represents Southern and Midwestern farmers pissed off about the screw job they’re getting from the nation’s new big businesses: banks and railroads. The Populists are poised to launch a major third party challenge, but the Democrats steal their thunder by nominating Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan. The good news is, Bryan has co-opted many Populist issues, bringing them to the mainstream. The bad news is, Bryan has co-opted many Populist issues, thereby marginalizing the party as a fringe group. Confused and desperate, the People’s Party also nominates Bryan, in absentia. But Bryan is a loyal Democrat and distances himself from them. He then loses the election to William McKinley, who really likes banks and railroads. But eventually, many Populists positions will actually become the law of the land, such as the direct election of U.S. Senators and secret ballots, so you can tell all your friends that you voted the same way they did, but deep down you know you did what was right.
1928: The Republicans nominate Iowa orphan Herbert Hoover, a Protestant prohibitionist. The Democrats nominate New York Tammany Hall politician Al Smith, a wet Catholic and the son of Irish immigrants. This will turn into the ultimate “Your Guy Is Evil!” showdown. The election becomes a way for the nation to grapple with its rural/urban split and a bevy of cultural divisions flowing from it. In the end, Smith is too foreign for most Americans. Also, the economy seems to be doing really well, and Hoover promises there will be a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Doesn’t sound like much now, but back then it was like promising people a McMansion and a Porsche. And they believe you. Hoover wins in a romp of historic proportions. Although not given to smiling much, he’s very happy for a few months. Then the Great Depression happens.
1932: Hoover has spent three and a half years making one PR gaffe after another as the rate of full time craters out at 50%. The Democrats could nominate a chimp and win this election. Instead they choose New York governor Franklin Roosevelt. He has a plan. It’s called the New Deal. It still shapes your life in too many ways to list here. He’s so beloved he wins four elections. Can you even imagine? Afterwards, shell shocked Republicans are so distraught they help push through a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms. Which is the only reason Trump is not going to lose to Obama by 25 points. Believe me. That would be happening.
1980: Ronald Reagan punches incumbent Jimmy Carter so hard that the Georgia peanut farmer feels the need to spend the next four decades trying to repair his public image. This is a very important election. I don’t need to explain why to Republicans. I’ll just let you have a few moments alone to savor it.
2016: Regardless of who wins this election, it probably actually will be written about for a very long time, even though some of the reasons are as of yet unknown. Perhaps one of these nincompoops will start a major war or destroy the economy. Each side seems to believe that’s what will happen if they lose. But even without knowing what awaits us over the next four years, this election will still be one for the ages.
Why? Because if you look at the above list, it’s not just about the concrete consequences of a given election such as the Civil War or the New Deal. It’s also because all of those elections represented something. In each instance, the nation was very highly divided, and the election crystalized those divisions. And right now, in this highly divided nation, larger issues are being filtered through this election. Historians will likely talk about it with regards to national anxieties over long simmering racial tensions, and demographic changes resulting from immigration and the political rise and peak of Millennials and Baby Boomers respectively.
So now, dear Trump supporter, I’d like to talk to you about your role in history. And that in no way means I’m going to sing Hilary Clinton’s praises, much less ask you to vote for her.
Remember, I don’t like Hillary Clinton either. I think she’s a liar and war monger. I wasn’t the least bit surprised by how Colin Powell described her in his leaked emails. He characterized her as overly ambitious and full of hubris. He said she creates her own problems and “comes across as sleazy . . . for good reasons.” He even went so far as to admit he’d rather not have to vote for her.
That sounds about right. But you know what? He also said Trump is a racist, a “disaster,” a “national disgrace and an international pariah.”
Can we let our partisan guards down, and be honest and open with each other for just a moment?
We both know in our hearts that Powell’s probably right on both counts. The retired general and registered Republican who has served presidents in both parties, nailed it: Clinton’s pretty bad and Trump’s much, much worse.
Let’s start with the racist part.
Trump is a racist. He says racist things. He advocates racist policies. It really is pretty straightforward. That’s why, even though neither candidate can muster support from a majority of voters, 60% believe that Trump is “biased against women and minorities.” Hell, even 7% of his own supporters go a step further and admit that he’s he’s outright racist and sexist. Don’t stick your head in the sand on this one.
Of course, just because you vote for a racist, it doesn’t mean that you’re a racist. And if you support Trump, I’ll never call you a racist on that count.
But you are in fact supporting a racist, and you have to take responsibility for that.
Donald Trump frequently says racist things. Not just coded racist things, like claiming Obama wasn’t born in America, but clearly racist things that are beyond dispute. Don’t believe me? How about Fortune Magazine? They, for one, have absolutely no qualms admitting Trump’s a racist, and they even list a whole bunch of examples from the 1980s to the present.
Voting for Donald Trump won’t make you racist. But down the road, when history has its say, you’re going to have to explain to your kids and grandkids why exactly you did vote for a blatant racist. In the year 2016.
Aside from Trump’s racism, there’s also the question of qualifications.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that Democrats have this really ugly habit of trying to paint Republicans as stupid. Back in the 1950s, they even tried to smear Dwight Eisenhower as being dopey. You know. The guy who had just been in charge of the European theater during World War II. Utterly shameless. Democrats later did the same thing to George H.W. Bush, who had previously run the CIA.
Democrats, especially the dumb, self-satisfied ones, love to pretend they’re smarter than Republicans; they’re brilliant, urbane sophisticates, while Republicans are a bunch of slack-jawed, mouth-breathing neanderthals. And Dems are so arrogant about it, they don’t even know why you hate them.
I’m with you on this one. I really am. I don’t think Donald Trump is stupid. I think he’s very smart. But here’s the thing: he’s also patently unqualified to be president.
I don’t say that because he’s not a politician. I’d be happy to see someone with little or no experience as an elected politician find their way to the White House. Hell, I might end up voting for Green candidate Jill Stein, and boy is she not a politician. Or very qualified. But unlike Trump, she has zero chance of winning.
So I’m not warning you off Trump because he’s an outsider. I love outsiders. And I agree with you that insiders are a huge part of the problem. However, being an outsider, in and of itself, is not enough to be a good politician. And Trump is authentically unqualified to be President of the United Sates for several reasons.
First, there’s the whole racism thing. I’m sorry, but that really does count. As does the sexism.
Second, he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. It’s one thing to not have experience. It’s another thing to not have the relevant skills. And being a good businessman isn’t by itself a relevant skill for being president. You need to translate those skills into politics. And to do that, you have to understand the basics of how government works, both on domestic issues and foreign policy. But Trump has shown time and time again that he does not have a sound understanding of either. He simply does not have the skill sets to be successful.
Third, and I know you’ve heard this many times and are probably dismissive of it, but Trump does not have the temperament to be president. It sounds like a copout, but it’s a real thing. And it’s not just that he pops off and says outrageous tings. Yay! That’s fun! More importantly, he can’t seem to stay focused. He loses interest and moves on to the next thing. He also seems completely incapable of understanding any issue from anyone else’s point of view. He seems to be driven primarily by ego instead of a coherent set of beliefs. And he’s so lacking in self-discipline and empathy as to make you wonder if he’s mentally ill. At the very least, he’s selfish, narcissistic, and impulsive to the point of being reckless, and the thought of him having access to the nuclear codes should give you serious pause.
For all of these reasons, Donald Trump is almost certainly the most unqualified major party presidential candidate of the last hundred years, if not all time, and if elected, may prove to be history’s least effective and most dangerous president.
Now, none of that means Hillary Clinton will be a good president. In fact, I think she will probably be a bad president in the mold of progressive, interventionist Democrats like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson. But she’ll be bad in all the conventional, regular ways. Nothing you can’t predict. She’ll develop a flawed agenda and make poor decisions. Her good accomplishments will be overshadowed by her mistakes.
But Trump does not even have what it takes to be just plain old bad.
I don’t think he’s going to start World War III. But I do believe that if Trump moves into the White House, he will embarrass you on a near daily basis. I mean, I won’t be embarrassed, because I won’t have to admit having voted for him. But this isn’t like voting for Reagan or a Bush. This isn’t just about policy differences, which in this case aren’t even that stark in many respects. They’re dramatic (Build a wall!). But even though most people won’t admit it, Trump and Clinton aren’t nearly as far apart on the issues as, say, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. Clinton’s barely liberal and Trump’s barely conservative.
Rather, this is about recognizing that the Republican presidential candidate is fundamentally unqualified to be president, and that if he wins, he may very well end up as the worst president of all time. Which is precisely why, even in this era of hyper-partisan party loyalty, scores of the nation’s top Republicans are NOT supporting Trump. Dozens are abstaining. Many are even actively campaigning against him. And not a single living former president from either party is supporting Trump, which really ought to tell you something. I don’t care how much you hate all of those former presidents. They’re the only people in the world who really understand what the job entails, and not a one of them, including fellow Republicans, believe Trump has what it takes, which is really quit stunning and completely unprecedented.
Look, I’m not asking you to vote for Hillary Clinton. I would never do that. Shit, I’m probably not voting for Hillary Clinton either.
Instead, I’m just asking you to think long and hard before you punch the screen for Trump. Figure out an alternative.
Vote for Gary Johnson. Write in Ted Cruz. Trade your vote with someone in another state. Stay home. But think twice, and then a third time before you vote for Donald Trump.
The 2016 election is probably going in the history books. And a hundred years from now, when we’re all dead, and absolutely nobody has any skin in this election, when it’s all been reduced to an odd puzzle from the past, Americans will look back in amazement while historians do their darndest to explain why so many people did something so incomprehensible as voting for Donald Trump.
Which page of the history book do you want to be on?
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Romance of the Red Dictionaries
by Leanne Ogasawara
Maybe that's why the absence of a shared language never seemed to slow us down much.
Arriving in Tokyo on Easter Sunday 1991, I was a recent college graduate and spoke no Japanese at all.
And Tetsuya spoke not a word of English.
In those days before smart phones and the internet (and with neither of us having enough money to buy an electronic device to help), we were stuck with his old student dictionaries to facilitate communication. He said they were from his 10th grade English class in high school. With their red leatherette jackets, one was Japanese to English and the other English to Japanese. We took them everywhere! In the early years, we hauled them in our bags all around Tokyo, placing them right in front of us at the table in restaurants and cafes; almost as if marking off the two worlds: English here and Japanese there.
We were endlessly looking things up. Too hard to read the foreign words out loud; one pointed to a definition, and the other read the translation, smiling and nodding— understanding at last.
Our romance with the red dictionaries lasted for ten years into our marriage; despite the fact that within a few weeks, we came up with our own means of communicating to supplement the dictionary definitions. Speaking a kind of made-up language, we disregarded grammar and often dumped the verbs (preferring to act those out in mime); he avoiding all pronouns, in the style of spoken Japanese, and me (having Italian blood) doing a lot of arm gesturing and pantomiming. We made do communicating in this manner, and the two red dictionaries became colorful accessories to all of our outfits—from formal gear to pajamas. And, although communication between us involved some physical effort, it was rare that one of us would feel frustrated at the inability to communicate something. Onlookers would laugh and shake their heads—perhaps attributing our ability to communicate without a shared language to young love.
In later years, after we were married and living in the Japanese countryside, we spoke exclusively in Japanese. Tetsuya came to prefer it, as he claimed that listening to my English made him tired. I often wondered if he didn’t prefer to have me restrained by all those polite forms of speech demanded in Japanese. So often, rather than speak my mind or try and make my point, I would concede to a point and avoiding conflict and the hardship of getting it right without being abrasive, just keep quiet.
And so I often thought back on the early days fondly. Our early conversations reminded me of one of my favorite stories by Italo Calvino; in which Marco Polo and the Great Kublai Khan also engaged in mutually unintelligible conversations. Calvino described the two as whiling away their afternoons together, where one imagined asking a question that the other would imagine answering. In this way, without a language, we too imagined ourselves talking of ancient empires or the color of the sky after a monsoon shower. Sometimes we would even talk of death.
(At least I think we talked of those things. I will never really know if he understood what I was trying to say and vice versa-it took many, many years of studying the language before I could be sure of anything).
It’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge, said Iris Murdoch about speaking a foreign language.
It's true. And, it's not just the mental somersaults of speaking and thinking in a language so linguistically different from English that made thinking about things in Japanese so stimulating. Living with verbs at the end of the sentences opened up many possibilities for playing around or for being ambiguous--but what was really mind expanding was to see myself over time transformed by the language itself; to discover that my mind has so many other chambers in it, and that I am capable of being so different --and yet remain the same person.
I mean, I definitely think I am a funnier person in Japanese. My friend Sachiko once complained that she disliked seeing me speak in English because I looked so different; older and more serious, she said. At that time, I thought she was teasing me for being sillier in Japanese, sounding like a child. But, now I think I see what she meant. I do think I am much more humorless and less apt to be conversationally generous in English. Of course, I no longer have to worry about female forms or polite language and can just say whatever I am thinking in English—but in the end, I wonder if I am as considerate and kind-hearted?
I have a friend who is proficient in multiple languages and one day he up and decided that he no longer wanted to think in English. One thinks different thoughts in different languages, he said, and he preferred thinking in French.
I do miss talking about the weather and the seasons. Of course, one can do that in English but people don't. Japanese has many poetic ways of talking about the changing seasons and it is a topic that people enjoy. I have heard British friends say as much, though, so maybe this is less about language than culture. I also miss shared allusions to poetry. I miss lighthearted joking and the ever-present imperative not to be unpleasant or cause any discomfort in whoever was on the other side of the conversation.
One of my Japanese teachers way back when implored that we keep in mind that less important than what we are saying is how we say it! It was in a class full of fluent kids of Japanese parents. They were fluent in the language but not knowledgeable about its use. She said, “You are all speaking Japanese as in translation. Japanese is not like English. You can’t just plug in the words. We think and say different things in different language so it is never a matter of just plugging in words, like some sort of machine translation.” She paused and then tried to explain some more, “When we speak Japanese it is like catch ball. Someone tosses the ball up and the other person needs to catch it and toss it back.” That means, no take downs and no in your face arguments. Whenever possible, find the common ground. Seek harmony in conversation and always aim to please!!
The LA Review of Books published an essay by Ilan Stavans in which the writer and translator reminisces about his Memoir of Language: On Borrowed Words.Born in Mexico to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Stavans was raised with two native languages: Yiddish and Spanish. When he was a young man, hes left Mexico to work on a kibbutz in Israel; later he married an American and moved to New York. Reflecting on his lives in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English--- the translator engages self- translation:
I firmly believe that how one perceives the world in any given moment depends on the language in which that moment is experienced. Take Yiddish, which is, at its root, a Germanic language, but is strongly influenced by Hebrew. It also features Slavic inclusions. These distinct elements give the language a taste, an idiosyncrasy. The life I lived in Yiddish was defined by the rhyme, the cadence of the sentences I used to process and describe it. But this wasn’t my only life. I was born in 1961 in Mexico City into an immigrant enclave of Eastern European Jews, and so began speaking Spanish right alongside Yiddish. I have two mother tongues — di mame loshn and la lengua materna. Both shape my viewpoint. Eating in Spanish — dreaming, loving, and deriving meaning from life in that language — all these actions differ from their counterparts in Yiddish. The taste of things is determined by the words used to express it.
In Spanish, he feels unconstrained. He says he waves his arms more but the lyrical quality of the language grates on him. English, being much more “rigid and logical,” is preferably to think in, he says. But, he always prefers joking in Yiddish. He says the rhythm of the language lends itself to joking around. While liturgical and metaphysical, Hebrew is the language for praying…And I love his words that The taste of things is determined by the words used to express it.
After my marriage fell apart, and I returned to the US, I was not just returning to my country but was returning back to thinking and living life in my native language again after two decades. At first, I thought I would be so much more efficient in English.
Linguistically finally back ahead of the power curve, I no longer had to endlessly worry if I was being polite or using female forms of Japanese (this latter being one of my biggest fears in Japanese since I heard so much male Japanese at home and if I wasn't very careful, I was liable to stun people by using the verbs or vocabulary not associated with women). Back to thinking in English, I had high hopes about how much easier it would be to communicate with my new lover.
And surely being married to a man who speaks the same native language ought to make life easier, right…?
You would think it would and yet-- as the years pass, I find that I miss myself in Japanese. Like Sachiko used to say about her discomfort in seeing me speak in English, my mom used to tease me as well, wondering how it was that her feisty and outspoken American daughter had become so polite and sweet? In Japanese consideration of the feelings and position of the other person is woven into the language and the innumerable choices one is forced to make expressing every thought. To speak true Japanese is to speak with empathy, mutuality, and community. Somehow the Japanese language, maddeningly simple in structure but complex in meaning, light and lovely in the ear and mouth, with it’s beautiful characters and rich seasonal vocabulary, reflects the people’s appreciation for the beauty and poetry of everyday life, the deeply observed passing of the seasons, and the variety and solace found in the natural world. Of course, it is possible to all of the above in English, as it is possible in any language, but for me speaking in Japanese lent itself perfectly to these things.
And so I wonder, what new possibilities might be open in thinking in a different language. Maybe in a different language I could become something else entirely yet?
But what language to learn?
Perhaps a dead language; for it would be a form of time travel. In the same way that the Japanese worldview was embedded in the language itself, I imagine the languages of cultures long past would open more archaic and timeless ways of being in the world. Think of all the metaphysical vocabulary in Sanskrit or the the way Ann Patty in her memoir, Living with a Dead Language describes reading ancient Roman poetry with its concepts of empire and paganism. Like learning a stringed instrument, the older one gets the more challenging language learning becomes, and Ann Patty decides to stay mentally fit by taking up Latin at the age of 57. Language learning, she concedes, is an activity for young people with their more plastic minds….. and yet, the allure of this idea (evoked so beautifully by Stavans in his memoir and Patty in hers) of the existence, in various languages, of different versions of ourselves, remains strong.
Sughra Raza. Narcissus at The Bus Stop. September, 2016
Making the world a nicer place, one Virtual Reality at a time
by Sarah Firisen
People are awful. You only need read the daily headlines to realize how awful so many of us are to each other. Intolerance, prejudice, ignorance, sit behind so many of the evils that men (and women) do to each other. But as bad as things are, they are mostly so much better than they ever have been. You don’t need to go back far in history to realize how much more tolerant and open minded we have tended to become as a species. The further back you go, the worse it is. What has made things, relatively speaking better? Well, not surprisingly, exposure and engagement tend to breed tolerance. We fear and suspect the unknown.
The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I." —Michael Tomasky
And for the most part, what has brought us increasing exposure and engagement with each other has been advances in technology; from better boats, to planes, to computers and the Internet, it seems that while exposure to “the other” often aggravates fears, eventually, the ever adaptable human being learns that other people are far more similar to us than they are different. As we become exposed to people of different religions, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientation, it becomes harder and hard to see them as “the other”. There’s nothing radical or surprising about this. While there were clearly many complex issues at play, there seems to be real evidence that one of the major factors in the radical change in attitudes towards homosexuality in the US can be put down to the TV show Will and Grace, which, if nothing else, exposed gays to be much like the rest of us: self-absorbed, looking for love and acceptance and really in need of best friends who get us no matter how self-absorbed we become.
I was talking with another mother of teen girls this weekend and she lamented what technology has wrought and what it will continue to do to the social skills of our kids. I pointed out that people two hundred years ago, who had nothing else to do with their evenings other than to sit around a hearth and tell stories and sing songs, would probably have been pretty appalled at my childhood 30 odd years ago that involved sitting around a TV set with my family watching sitcoms. Wringing our hands about Snapchat, Instagram and the like is not only pointless but also probably not necessary; technology advances bring good and evil. Always have, always will. Society changes, people change, their interactions change, but we ultimately move forward. I read a great fictional account of the printing of the Gutenberg bible recently where a character bemoans the obvious lowering of standards that the printing press will bring over books written by scribes and the attendant evils.
Perhaps no technology trends bring the dreams of sci-fi writers and enthusiasts to life more than Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Wearing even one of the many moderately priced headsets, you could be “standing” on the edge of a skyscraper with the immersive experience so realistic that you may find yourself experiencing very real vertigo. As such, it can be easy to dismiss these technologies as geeky toys. And while they clearly do have huge applications for gaming and entertainment, the potential goes much, much further. Even as the technologies stand today, they could fundamentally change the way we interact with the world and with each other. But once you experience them, you begin to realize that at the speed the technologies are moving, it will not be long until they change everything in much the same way that the Internet changed everything.
This technology is very much in its infancy; in 5 years we’ll look back at the Microsoft HoloLens and the Oculus Rift much as we now look at flip phones, maybe even more dismissively; technological advances are moving exponentially quickly. I remember the first Internet browser (yes I’m that old). I remember using my dial-up modem to browse to the Vatican website. It was one of the early very graphical websites. I could sit in New York and look at the art of the Vatican. I remember being amazed. It’s sometimes hard to recall how revolutionary the Internet was back in the day. I worked for an investment bank back then. And this was an investment bank that was heavily involved in media and technology related companies. And when it came out that I was using a company modem and phone line to connect to the Internet I was told to stop and that the company would not be doing anything with the Internet anytime in the foreseeable future. This was around 1993/94. Just think about the money that investment bank lost by not paying just a little bit of attention to what I was doing.
I mention this because I think that Virtual and Augmented Reality is poised to be as huge (and as discounted today) as the Internet was back then. It’s very easy to see what’s available today as sitting squarely in the realm of gaming and entertainment, with particularly interesting potential for porn. But put on a headset and you begin to see the real potential. Recently, I tried on an Oculus Rift and “played” a game that was set on an asteroid somewhere in the galaxy. I have no idea what I was supposed to be doing in the game and what the objective was, but I do know that I was standing on an “asteroid” with rocks around me gradually being blown away. I have a really terrible, sometimes crippling fear of heights. At some point I found myself huddling next to a “rock” on this asteroid, it being the only thing standing between me and the black depths of the galaxy. Suddenly my rock safety got blown away and I was standing alone with nothing between me and oblivion. Suddenly, my heart was racing and I had to take off the headset. Every physical reaction I have to standing at the edge of a tall building looking down was in play. Yes, my rational self knew none of it was real. I knew I was wearing a headset and was in a virtual world, but it FELT so real.
The potential of Virtual and Augmented Reality haven’t even begun to be tapped. Just playing with the technology the way it is now is thrilling. If you have any imagination you can feel the potential. Could this technology help us take the next big step as a race towards greater empathy and tolerance? Maybe. I know that sounds like a grandiose expectation, but why not? If being exposed to people not like us eventually tends to produce greater tolerance, why do those people have to be actually physically engaging with us? Why can’t they be virtual? Or real, but not really in the same space as us?
Already, virtual reality is being used to help people work through their fears and paranoia. If I’d had the opportunity, could I have put that headset on and worked through some of the irrationality of my fear of heights? Maybe. If my fear had been about other people who aren’t like me, could an extremely realistic and positive experience of interacting with them have reduced those fears? There’s already research being done in how these technologies can help increase electronic empathy, “Immersive technology creates empathy by putting the individual at the centre of every experience, and it has broadened its reach from gaming and entertainment to news, documentaries, education and healthcare. “
Like all technology, this also could encourage violence and disengagement from actual human experience; clearly the potential to experience huge violence in a consequence free manner could encourage real world impulses and incite real world violence, but it could also be a harmless way to indulge such impulses.
One thing is clear, we have only started to scratch the surface of what this technology could do and the advances in human social interaction it could herald.
Martha Mills: Lawyer, Activist, Judge
Martha Mills came to Mississippi as a young civil rights lawyer, looked racists judges, lawyers, and Ku Kluxers in the eye, and never backed down–in court or out. Small in stature, huge in guts, as far as I was concerned she was the smartest, bravest, and just plain toughest of that corporal’s guard of dedicated lawyers committed to giving life to the law.
—W. Hodding Carter III
The 1960s were tumultuous years in American politics. The nation blundered into a disastrous war in Vietnam that sparked years of protest and deprived Lyndon Johnson of a second full term as president. His boss, John F. Kennedy, and been assassinated in November of 1963, leaving Johnson to pursue that terrible war, but also to work with Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They brought the civil rights movement to fruition with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when Robert was a U.S. Senator. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968, only two months after Martin Luther King was assassinated. King’s assassination fulminated race riots across the nation.
On February 7, 1969, The New York Times ran a story on page 20:
Woman Lawyer, 27, Jailed on Contempt In Grenada, Miss.
Special to the New York Times
GRENADA, Miss., Feb. 6–A 27-year-old woman lawyer was jailed for three hours here today after being held in contempt of court by Circuit Judge Marshall Perry when she attempted to file a bill of exceptions to a case involving a Negro civil rights worker.
Miss Martha M. Wood, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, based in Jackson, was released under $300 bail.
An offense that merits release after only three hours in jail and with bail at $300 can’t have been much of an offense. And it wasn’t. But it involves a kind of
intricate legal obfuscation that defies easy summary and that is characteristic of race relations in the United States, then and alas now. If the prospect of summarizing it brings me to the edge of extreme annoyance you can imagine what it did to those who suffered through and by it, day after day.
Such is the texture of the story that Martha Mills recounts in a memoir of her years as a civil rights attorney, Lawyer, Activist, Judge: Fighting for Civil and Voting Rights in Mississippi and Illinois (2015). In this particular case the obfuscation was also the occasion of a little theatrical detail in the manner of arrest: “The deputy grabbed my arm roughly and hauled me out of the courtroom. As soon as we were out of the courtroom, however, he dropped my arm, apologized, and said he had to do that for the judge” (p. 277). You gotta’ love it, the delicate egos of those racist judges. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.
After an undergraduate education at Macalester College and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, Martha A. Mills became the first woman lawyer at White & Case, a prestigious Wall Street firm. As members of that firm had been involved in the 1963 formation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mills was aware of the committee’s volunteer program (p. 21):
In hindsight, there were few women trial lawyers anywhere in the United States in those days, and trial lawyers were what the Lawyers’ Committee in Mississippi desperately needed. White & Case was definitely very white, very male, and much imbued with status quo ideas about what women lawyers should or could do.
But they approved and Mills arrived in Jackson, state capital of Mississippi, on March 1, 1967. That same evening she accompanied another staff attorney, Barbara Shapiro, to attend a mass meeting in Natchez following the death of Wharlest Jackson, who had been murdered because he had taken a $7-an-hour job formerly held by a white man.
This meeting was held in a church, as many such meetings were, for the church has traditionally been the center of African-American community. As Barack Obama said in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:
Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah, rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
And now Mills was one of those foot soldiers and was hunkered down in her first meeting deep behind enemy lines (pp. 100-101).
The mass meeting went from one hour to two and then three. It was interrupted several times by phone calls of reported threats on the lives of NAACP people in the community. After each phone call, the threat would be announced, in part so that everyone knew the danger that skulked outside, and in part to poke fun at attempted threats. After each announcement both murmurs and soft laughter ran through the crowd, so that I could see that people took the warnings seriously but that it was recognized as “white business as usual.” Given the history of the Klan and many whites in the area, the dual reaction was the only sensible response. […]
The atmosphere, in spite of the context, was positive. People sang hymns between speeches that called on everyone to stand strong and fight for the equality they deserved. The message was that together they could overcome all the years of degradation and abuse. It was not a somber event. Dogs barked outside, people responded from all parts of the crowd, “Yes,” That’s it,” “You’re right, brother,” “You tell ‘em!” Everyone, especially me, seemed so caught up in everything that the heat, the overcrowding, and the long hours were not even noticed.
After the meeting Mills was introduced to Charles Evers, brother to Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who had been assassinated in 1963.
They soon became fast friends and allies. Mills bought a home catty-corner from Evers’ and met and played with his children, Nicie especially, his youngest: “We talked, told stories, played music, baked cookies, and made a papier-mâché hippopotamus and painted it purple.” In 1969 Evers decided to run for mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, a small city of less than 2000. He registered 450 additional voters and won, 433 to 264, over “Turnip Green” Allen, who was asked to but refused to swear Evers in as mayor. Evers hired Mills as city attorney. She resigned her position with the Lawyers’ Committee to take the job and set about training city officials and straightening out the budget, which had been deliberately left in a mess. Then they got word of a plot to assassinate Evers, something about an ex Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Green Forest and a former Exalted Cyclops of the United Klans of America (294-297).
And so it goes.
There is the law, in all its majesty and eloquence, albeit often embroidered with intricate traceries of technical detail, and there is the practical business of making it work. People make it work, or not. And so Martha’s book–full disclosure, she’s a friend, so I’m entitled to the informality–is full of people and stories about them, little stories, big stories, but stories.
Did you see Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe? It was based on the 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Well Martha had extensive dealings with William Harold Cox, the real-life judge in that case. It seems that pretty near anyone involved in civil rights in Mississippi had dealings with Judge Cox, who once rendered a decision in which he said: “Who is telling these people [black applicants for registration] they can get in line and push people around, acting like a bunch of chimpanzees?” (222). Guess what? Martha was able to manage things so that Judge Cox was the one who had to admit her to the federal bar of Mississippi (197):
I suppose I wanted him to suffer through having to swear me in. My attitude was a bit petulant, but I figured that I was entitled to something for the anguish Judge Cox and his court regularly put as all through.
Like I said, people. How’s the song go? “People who need people/ Are the luckiest people in the world.” Hmmm…
One more story:
Lynn and Larry Ross hosted the Seder and invited me, others from the office, and some black friends. The text we used was the “radical Seder” [that had been published in Ramparts magazine in 1969], which used both the traditional and familiar questions and answers as well as the expanded recognition of the universality of the desire for freedom. It acknowledged leaders other than Moses, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We had the traditional accouterments, including the empty wine cup and empty seat at the dinner table for Elijah. The Seder hope was that a stranger would appear, and perhaps the stranger would be Elijah to lead us all to freedom and better things.
My friends having the Seder lived in the same neighborhood I did, with winding streets in which it was easy to get lost, or at least not find what you are looking for. An about-to-be-very-surprised black couple stopped at the house to ask directions. They were not only confronted with a mixed race dinner gathering in a black neighborhood, but also being hailed as Elijah and welcomed in to participate in the dinner! And they did stay awhile and have a glass of wine. We were all delighted.
Preclearance and the Return of Obfuscatory Nonsense
Mills devotes a substantial part of the book, five chapters (pp. 25-92) to explaining the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, what they are and how they came about. In particular she details the many ways Mississippi had devised to keep Africa-Americans from voting, tactics that were given a new life in June of 2013 when in a Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder (Wikipedia), the Roberts court decided that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. That, in turn, rendered Section 5 toothless. Section 5 “requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practice.” Section 4(b) “contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.”
What’s this about? It’s about poll taxes, reading tests, oaths, where you live, when you moved, the distinction between municipal and state elections, the publication of lists of voter applicants, and who knows what else. It’s all intricate obfuscatory nonsense designed to provide legal cover for denying black people the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 said If you want to change the requirements for voting you have to get our (the federal government) permission to do so. That’s preclearance and the objective is to eliminate one particular variety (among many) of obfuscatory nonsense. The Roberts court decided the times they have been changed and, in effect, nullified that requirement.
The result? The return of obfuscatory nonsense. For example: Michael Wines, writing in The New York Times, “Critics See Efforts by Counties and Towns to Purge Minority Voters From Rolls” (July 31, 2016):
Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance mandate unconstitutional, saying the blatant discrimination it was meant to prevent was largely a thing of the past.
But since the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in the voting-rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, critics argue, the blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting have been supplanted by a blizzard of more subtle changes. Most conspicuous have been state efforts like voter ID laws or cutbacks in early voting periods, which critics say disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Less apparent, but often just as contentious, have been numerous voting changes enacted in counties and towns across the South and elsewhere around the country.
They appear as Republican legislatures and election officials in the South and elsewhere have imposed statewide restrictions on voting that could depress turnout by minorities and other Democrat-leaning groups in a crucial presidential election year. Georgia and North Carolina, two states whose campaigns against so-called voter fraud have been cast by critics as aimed at black voters, could both be contested states in autumn’s presidential election.
And so it goes. Freud called it the return of the repressed. I call it nonsense. I call it evil.
A Million Dollar Win
And that’s what Martha Mills was up against. But she, and many others, did win some victories.
In 1966 Ben Chester White was murdered near Natchez. Criminal charges were brought against Claude Fuller, Ernest Avants, and James Lloyd Jones, to no avail. In 1968 Mills and her colleagues sued them, and five top officers of the KKK (199-217). The case was tried before Judge William Harold “Mississippi Burning” Cox and Mills and her colleagues won. The story involves a good measure of backwoods insanity, grandiose titles, beer and strawberry soda, male bonding through violence, torching a car, “religious conniptions”, and obfuscatory nonsense, of course. Would you believe, for example, that a disbarred Klansman was allowed to represent the defendants?
When the jury returned, they were asked if they had reached a verdict, and the foreman said yes. The verdict was passed to the clerk of the court to read. He read the first part finding the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Jones, Fuller, and Avants liable for $21,500 in actual damages and then stopped. He paused and glanced at the judge. He continued. He read that the jury awarded $1 million as punitive damages. We were both ecstatic and a bit surprised. Later, when we thought about it, we felt the clerk looked at Judge Cox before reading that part of the verdict out of an excess of caution because the clerk too was surprised. (214)
Of course it is one thing to win a million dollar judgment and quite something else to collect on it. As Mills notes, their Klan bed sheets weren’t worth spit (my wording, not hers). Still, it was “the first major verdict since Reconstruction for a black person killed or harmed by whites” (215).
What a life.
In the span of four years, 1967-1971, at one and the same time both short and long, short in chronological time, long in the pace of events and the centuries of history encapsulated, Martha Mills made a difference. Not by herself, certainly, not by herself, for she worked closely with others, black and white, well educated and not, but strong in spirit, all dedicated to justice and to freedom. The struggle continues and will always continue. There are no final victories. Only accomplishments, hope, and promise.
If you are a student, read this book. If you are a citizen, read this book. If you care about truth and justice, freedom and dignity, read this book.
* * * * *
The book is also available for pre-order at Amazon.com for release, I kid you not, on April the first, 2017. The earlier link is to the American Bar Association, which publishes the book, and will sell it to you now for $60 simoleons, $48 if you're a "Sponsor Member". There is some hope that the price will become more reasonable at some time in the future.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Chris Burden. What My Dad Gave Me, Rockefeller Center, NY. 2008.
"I have always wanted to build a model skyscraper using Erector parts. The model skyscraper, built from a toy and 65 feet in height, takes on the dimensions of a full sized building. The circle of actual buildings inspiring a toy in 1909, which is then used to build a model skyscraper the size of an actual building..."
No Can Go
The Spectacle is not a collection of images,
but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
Now that Pokémon Go has had a few weeks to work its way through our collective psychosocial digestive tract, we can begin considering the effects of this latest, and by far most successful, manifestation of augmented reality (AR). Because it has been so successful, it's worth asking the big questions. Does Pokémon Go really make us more social? Does it make us better as individuals, or as a society? What gets amplified, and what gets obscured? (Hereis a brief overview of how Pokémon Go works.)
It's worth mentioning that augmented reality broke into the national consciousness in the form of a game. Educational tools have a limited audience and their effectiveness is difficult to measure. Workplace applications are either niche or still undercooked - for example, if we're to go by this recent video by AR darling Magic Leap, work seems to entail checking the weather and stock prices, at least until you're interrupted by your kid sharing his school report on Mt. Everest. After buying some spiffy orange boat shoes, there's not much left to do but look up and zone out to the jellyfish languidly passing across the ceiling. Clearly, this is a job that is safe from automation.
Games, on the other hand, are the perfect vessel for distributing a technology such as AR. Software is a contained system; it is built according to specifications and anticipates a gamut of interactions. There are rules - visible or invisible - that tell you what the system may or may not do. And engagement with the system is based on the fact that identity and progress can be established and measured, with performance compared and contrasted with other players.
All of this makes software ideal as the substrate for the gamification of, well, everything. If you've ever used Uber, you can see the available cars trundling along the streets in your vicinity. Once you complete your ride, you rate your driver. What's a rather lesser-known fact is that your driver rates you. Silicon Valley abhors a data vacuum, and a great way to get people to provide data about anything is to make a game out of it. The genius of this is that, consequently, people are really convinced that it's just a game.
So is Pokémon Go just a game? To be sure, there was much ridicule as gamers emerged from their darkened rooms, like refugees from Plato's cave, stumbling into the blinding sunlight in order to catch their little monsters. And any activity that seeks to weave the real world into its purview is bound to have odd consequences. To be sure, there are the heartwarming anecdotes of autistic teenagers gaining newfound social confidence. Or consider the (very dubious) account of a player who ran into "two sketchy black guys" in a park at 3am who - as it turns out! - were also catching Pokemon. When the cops come by to see what's up, they're persuaded to start doing the same. It's like that old Mr. Microphone commercial: Everyone wants a piece of the fun!
At the same time, there is a decidedly darker side to the proceedings. In Wiltshire, England, four teenagers had to be rescued from a cave complex by three fire engine units and two rope crews (how they had reception down in the caverns unfortunately went unexplained). A guy in New York got caught cheating on his girlfriend as a result of the traces the game left on his phone. Players have been "asked to refrain" from chasing virtual creatures through Arlington National Cemetery; nor have they been shy to play the game at funerals or at the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan. I mean, you're either going to catch them all, or you're not.
More gruesomely, in searching for virtual monsters, players have stumbled across real dead people. In Wyoming, a teenager found a corpse under a bridge. A player in Odense, Denmark found another one in a drainage canal. And a group of players made a similar discovery by a creek bed in a San Diego park. (I suspect the chiron from ABC's TV coverage of the event - "3 Women Find Dead Body Playing Pokémon Go" - is just crying out for a copy editor's cold, clammy hand.) This is just a casual survey, however, and I am sure there are other, similar cases. It's reasonable to conclude that cash-strapped local law enforcement might wish to consider previously uncontemplated virtues of crowdsourcing. Although the cops in Smithfield, Virginia, went one better and used the game to lure a player with an outstanding warrant into the police station itself, where she was promptly arrested. As Columbo used to say, "Sometimes the smartest thing to do is act stupid."
But truly tragic events have occurred as well, while others were only narrowly avoided. A couple of guys fell off a cliff while playing the game in Encinitas, California; despite this particular augmentation of their reality, they survived. People have been mugged, since anyone with the game can spot other players who may happen to be playing in out-of-the-way places. Even worse, in North Carolina, a teenager was shot to death by a 67-year-old widow after attempting to break into her house to claim a particularly rare Pokemon. Another was gunned down in an apparently random slaying while playing in San Francisco, and another along some railroad tracks in a small town in Guatemala. This too is a list compiled only through casual browsing and is by no means intended to be complete.
In addition to this awful catalogue, there are more accidents just waiting to happen. An NGO in Bosnia has warned players to avoid "areas littered with unexploded mines left over from the 1990s conflict" (as opposed to any other time, when avoidance would seem obvious). And one of the first posts I saw surface about Pokémon Go mused on the hazards of what might be called "playing Pokémon Go while black". Coming not long after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Omari Akil describes his epiphany while wandering around in a semi-oblivious play-state within the context of potential police violence: "When my brain started combining the complexity of being Black in America with the real world proposal of wandering and exploration that is designed into the gameplay of Pokémon Go, there was only one conclusion. I might die if I keep playing."
This almost came to pass in Iowa City, when a student at the University of Iowa was mistaken for a bank robber. Faith Ekakitie is a big guy - 6'3" and 290lbs - and plays as a defensive end for the school football team. He was also playing Pokémon Go in a park located a few minutes from the robbery that had just occurred, and his description somewhat matched the robber's. Thanks to the distraction of the game, plus the headphones that he was wearing, he didn't hear the police accost him, which led to four guns trained on him while he was stopped and searched. The fact that he emerged unscathed from this encounter is somewhat miraculous. It's my fervent hope that a game that memorializes the location of Tamir Rice's death doesn't eventually see an ironic consummation.
The memorialization of Rice's death at the hands of Ohio police leads to an interesting insight into how Pokémon Go constructs its world, which, in turn, is the world that its players see. Why are certain locations privileged over others? Why would you include places like minefields and national cemeteries? And simply from a logistical point of view, how do you launch an augmented reality game that is truly global in its scope?
In reality, Pokémon Go is a collaboration between two corporations. Nintendo is the owner of the Pokémon concept, which has been around in one form or another since 1995. But the technological enhancement - you might say the ‘Go' in Pokémon Go - was provided by Niantic, a former subsidiary of Google that was spun off in 2015. In 2012, Niantic released Ingress, a massively multiplayer online game.
The competition in Ingress is primarily between the two opposing factions (teams) rather than between individual players, and players never interact directly in the game or suffer any kind of damage other than temporarily running out of XM (the power that fuels all actions except movement and communication). The gameplay consists of capturing "portals" at places of cultural significance, such as public art, landmarks, monuments, etc., and linking them to create virtual triangular "control fields" over geographical areas.
This is pretty much Pokémon Go, without the branding. What's fascinating is how the "portals" came about: they were patched together from a number of different sources, including, perhaps most significantly, user-provided locations. Niantic first started with mining public databases as well as Google Maps for locations that were popular. Once Ingress started taking off, players were asked to "submit places they thought were worthy of being portals. There have been about 15 million submissions, and [Niantic] approved in the order of 5 million of these locations worldwide".
So we can immediately appreciate the notion that there is some arbitrariness at work here. Wherever there are more people, and the wealthier and more connected those people are, these are the places that become privileged, because these are the voices that get amplified and heard within cyberspace. All the usual lumpiness applies.
This is made especially resonant in a fantastic Medium essay published by Rob Walker, about catching Pokémon in his local neighborhood, which happens to be New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the same place that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and essentially left for dead. Walker compares the area's desolation with its further desolation in the realm of augmented reality: there really aren't that many places that are marked for play in the game. Instead, what Walker sees is a lost opportunity to experience the lived and broken but real environment of a post-hurricane neighborhood.
Instead of focusing on landmarks as we understand them, he prefers "the idea of a kind of Bizarro-world version of Pokémon Go, leading players not to their geography's most laudable features, but rather to the ones they'd prefer to ignore, or avoid." For him, an abandoned house is an object worthy of attention. To catch a Pokémon behind a car that hasn't been moved for over a year requires us to acknowledge that this car is here, even though we may have passed by it a hundred times before, perhaps only half-noticing its ongoing deterioration. It renders the invisible visible; it generates acknowledgment. For Walker, this is real exploration. Indeed, it is a genuine flânerie.
It is this act of making the invisible visible that makes the Tamir Rice landmark so extraordinary. Known as the Cudell Gazebo, there is no official designation of the event at the site itself. However, if one approaches the gazebo with Pokémon Go in hand, the description reads "Community memorial for Tamir Rice, shot and killed by CPD officers who shot him in under 2s after breaking department policy regarding escalation of force." It doesn't get much more explicit than that. Moreover, this is in contrast to the official version of events, where the police responsible were exonerated by the county prosecutor, who agreed that they had acted in fear of their lives.
But how did this virtual memorialization come about? There is only one comment to the local article I just cited on the Cudell Gazebo. Someone by the name of Jamie wrote:
Well, this was a bit surreal. I wrote that not long after Tamir died, and never expected many people to read it…. Memorials are built in the hope people will remember. The events that ended Tamir Rice's life are something that I worry will be forgotten. It was difficult to see the gazebo pictured without context, and I added a bit without expecting it to be noticed by anyone else.
Nicolas Carr, in a recent Aeon essay, writes that "What I want from technology is not a new world. What I want from technology are tools for exploring…the world that comes to us thick with ‘things counter, original, spare, strange', as Gerard Manley Hopkins once described it." Even if those tools take the form of a transient video game - or perhaps especially if they take that form - somehow, in ways that are both lucky and lucid, these tools may yet lay within our power.
(All images from the fabulous web comic Apocamon: The Book Of Revelation)
Don W. in Manhattan
—eating the dust of 2001
Dining in Soho alone, a man
served by a girl with lip studs, nose ring,
and serpent tattoo uncoiling
from deep cleavage,
sees the new man of La Mancha,
in dim light across the room,
seated with his back to the street:
This new La Mancha man
topples a pepper mill with his fork
gesturing to his wife, Sancha,
vowing he'll avenge New York
Sancha smiles and re-sets the mill in place
among constellations of pepper stars
strewn across formica space
Between them supper's done:
spent dinnerware, filaments of flaked filo
circling half a buttered bun,
remnants of dense moussaka,
and that pepper mill now standing like a dustbowl silo
near languid cubes in tepid water
Don Doble U, enemy of disorder,
sweeps a hand through this small universe
upending the pepper mill once more
and plows a thousand minuscule black galaxies
into his cupped palm
and dumps them on the floor
He takes his tined baton
between forefinger and thumb
and sets a cadence in the atmosphere
thumping on his different drum
Then Don (el hombre fútil),
maestro of mishap,
conducts the ice and water glass
into long-suffering Sancha's lap....................
Jim Culleny; 2001
Monday, September 05, 2016
Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
……………….. —Bob Dylan
upon first hearing
I knew the perfection
Dylan wove that verse around
(as if anything on earth could be so flawless
as to deserve the divinity of that word)
.....................could be here now
and so well timed that all the angles
of Pythagoras and all the angels
of Einstein’s curly gravity
and all of Kepler’s mathic motions
and all of Shakespeare’s mythic tragedies
are met in streets laid in English Bond
as beautifully sublime as the Pietá
whose only imperfection
is in the brutal timeless tale it tells in stone
in which Michelangelo distilled so perfectly
the failed perfection of the world
Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art
of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature.
Sughra Raza. Morning fog on Great Pond. July 2015.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Quantitative Measures of Linguistic Diversity and Communication
by Hari Balasubramanian
Of the 7097 languages in the world, twenty-three (including the usual suspects: Mandarin, English, Spanish, various forms of Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese) are spoken by half of the world's population. Hundreds of languages have only a handful of speakers and are disappearing quickly; one language dies every four months. Some parts of the world (dark green regions in the map) are linguistically far more diverse than others. Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, and India have hundreds of languages while in Japan, Iceland, Norway, and Cuba a single language dominates.
Why are languages distributed this way and why such large variations in diversity? These are hard questions to answer and I won't be dealing with them in this column. So many factors – conquest, empire, globalization, migration, trade necessities, privileged access that comes with adopting a dominant language, religion, administrative convenience, geography, the kind of neighbors one has – have had a role to play in determining the course of language history. Each region has its own story and it would be too hard to get into the details.
I also won't be discussing the merits and demerits of linguistic diversity. Personally, having grown up with five mutually unintelligible Indian languages, I am biased towards diversity – each language encapsulates a unique way of looking at the world and it seems (at least theoretically) that a multiplicity of worldviews is a good thing, worth preserving. But I am sure there are opposing arguments.
Instead, I'll restrict my focus to the following questions. How can the linguistic diversity of a particular region or country be numerically quantified? How do different parts of the world compare? How to account for the fact that languages may be related to one another, that individuals may speak multiple languages?
In tackling these questions, my primary source and guide is a short paper published in 1956 by Joseph Greenberg . Greenberg's main goal was to create objective measures that could, in the future, be used to "to correlate varying degrees of linguistic diversity with political, economic, geographic, historic, and other non-linguistic factors." His paper proceeds from the assumption that linguistic surveys have been conducted and data on what people consider their mother tongue/first language, the number of speakers of each language, vocabulary etc. are already available. Ethnologue is an example of such a global survey .
The Linguistic Diversity Index
The most basic measure Greenberg proposed is the now widely used linguistic diversity index. The index is a value between 0 and 1. The closer the value is to 1, the greater the diversity. The index is based in a simple idea. If I randomly sample two individuals from a population, what is the probability that they do not share the same mother tongue? If the population consisted of 2000 individuals and each individual spoke a different language as their mother tongue, then the linguistic diversity index would be 1. If they all shared the same mother tongue, then the index would be 0. If 1800 of them spoke language M and 200 of them spoke N, then index would be:
1 – (1800/2000)2 - (200/2000)2 = 0.18
In the above, (1800/2000) is the probability that a randomly picked individual speaks M as their first language/mother tongue. And (1800/2000)2 is the probability that two randomly picked individuals speak M. Similarly, (200/2000)2 is the probability that both the randomly picked individuals speak N as their mother tongue. When we subtract these squared terms from 1, what remains is the probability that the two randomly sampled individuals do not share a mother tongue. In this particular example, the index of 0.18 is low because of the dominance of M.
If there are more than two languages the procedure is the same. You would have one squared term that needs to be subtracted for every language. In a population of 10,000 where 10 languages are spoken and each language is considered a mother tongue by exactly 1000 speakers, the index would be:
1 – 10 x (1000/10,000)2 = 0.9.
This high value reflects both the number of languages and how evenly distributed they are in the population.
In fact, there are fifteen countries whose linguistic diversity exceeds 0.9, as the table above shows (based on Ethnologue data ). The list is dominated by 11 African countries, with Cameroon at number two. India, whose linguistic diversity I experienced firsthand for twenty years, is at number 13. Two Pacific island nations – Vanuatu and Solomon Islands: small islands these, and yet so many languages! – are in the top 5. First on the list is Papua New Guinea whose 4.1 million people speak a dizzying 840 languages! The country's index of 0.98 means that each language has about 5000 speakers on average and that no language dominates as a mother tongue.
In his book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond, who did a lot of his fieldwork and research in New Guinea, has this startling anecdote:
"One evening, while I was spending a week at a mountain forest campsite with 20 New Guinea Highlanders, conversation around the campfire was going in several different local languages plus two lingua francas of Tok Pisin and Motu…. Among those 20 New Guineans, the smallest number of languages that anyone spoke was 5. Several men spoke from 8 to 12 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15. Except for English, which New Guineans often learn at school by studying books, everyone had acquired all of his other languages socially without books. Just to anticipate your likely question – yes, those local languages enumerated that evening really were mutually unintelligible languages, not mere dialects. Some were tonal like Chinese, others were non-tonal, and they belonged to several different language families."
How different from what the majority of us are used to!
While New Guinea's linguistic diversity is widely recognized and not in doubt, its high language count and the rampant multilingualism that Diamond observed nevertheless lead to us to two flaws in the linguistic diversity index.
The first flaw is that the index assumes languages are well defined, mutually exclusive units. It ignores the relatedness between languages and the fact that a dialect may be arbitrarily called a language. What of cases where there is close relatedness and even mutual intelligibility, for example between Hindi and Urdu, or between Spanish and Italian? And what to make of those cases where two dialects may well be closely related, but nevertheless are mutually unintelligible when spoken? Further, the language question seems loaded with the question of identity and politics. Apparently there is a running joke among linguists: "A language is a dialect backed by by an army and a navy."
To partially address this, Greenberg -- who recognized these problems, and was well aware of the difficulties of distilling complex language realities into quantitative measures -- suggested that the resemblance between languages or dialects could be numerically quantified by a value between 0 and 1. This what I understood from his paper: take the combined current vocabulary of a pair of languages and calculate the proportion of words that are common to both languages in relation to the total list of words. This proportion gives us a approximate measure of resemblance. A resemblance close to 1 means that the two languages are virtually identical, and a resemblance close to 0 implies an almost total lack of relatedness.
The resemblance can then be used to adjust the linguistic diversity index. Suppose there are three languages M, N and O spoken by 1/8th, 3/8th and 1/2 of the population and suppose the resemblance between [M, N], [M, O], and [N, O] is 0.85, 0.3 and 0.25. The unadjusted linguistic diversity index is 0.593. If we adjust for resemblance, this value drops to 0.381 -- diversity is not as high as it originally seemed. I have explained the calculations at the end of the piece .
The second flaw in the index is that, by considering only an individual's mother tongue, it ignores multilingualism. As Diamond's New Guinea anecdote shows, a high linguistic diversity does not necessarily represent a lack of communication. The examples of Indonesia, India and the many countries of Africa show that it is possible to communicate in some common languages, lingua francas that span large parts of the population, while yielding space to local mother tongues. So a different kind of measure is required.
Index of Communication
To accommodate multilingualism, Greenberg proposed the index of communication. As before, the index is a value between 0 and 1. A value close to 1 indicates high communicability and a value close to 0 indicates the opposite. If I randomly pick two individuals in a population, and each individual speaks one or more languages, then what is the probability that the individuals share at least one language in common? To ensure communicability, only one language has to overlap. (This index too has its problems. One flaw is that it ignores how well an individual speaks a particular language – something that might be hard to elicit in a survey. Another is how to set the threshold of communicability - is knowing a few basic words sufficient?)
Consider the simplest case where a population speaks only two languages, M and N. Using a census, you can calculate the proportion of the population that speaks M only, N only, and is bilingual in M and N. Suppose those proportions are 0.5 (speak M only), 0.3 (speak N only) and 0.2 (speak both M and N). To calculate the index of communication, I simply subtract the cases where the two individuals cannot understand/communicate with each other, which happens when the first individual speaks only M and the other only N, and vice-versa:
1 – [0.5 x 0.3] – [0.3 x 0.5] = 0.7
The same idea can be extended to more than two languages.
I'll try to illustrate the index with a personal example. The engineering college I attended in the south Indian city of Trichy had students from all parts of the country. At the time the college was called Regional Engineering College (REC), it is now called the National Institute of Technology. There was one REC in each major Indian state. The RECs had a unique admission policy. Half of the engineering students admitted each year were from the local state – in the case of Trichy, the home state was Tamil Nadu – and the remaining half were from outside the state. The more populous states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, got more students, but even far-flung parts, the Northeast and Kashmir, had some representation.
In my first year, all the 400 odd male engineering students were packed into the same hostel (dormitory), with 5 students sharing a room. In what seemed like a deliberate policy at integration, the students were assigned rooms so that 2-3 of the students were from Tamil Nadu and each of the others was from a different state. Since states in India are organized along linguistic lines, you had 3-4 mother tongues in each room. In the corridors you could hear the two dozen major languages of India .
Despite all this diversity, communication was never a problem. Among the North Indians almost everyone knew Hindi and so Hindi was the bridge between mother tongues. The local state students– they were colloquially called Tambis by the North Indians – spoke Tamil but did not understand Hindi and were even hostile to it (even today, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's emphasis on Hindi annoys my Tamil friends). But all students whether North Indian or Tamil, had some working knowledge of English – the language of the textbooks, which everyone aspired to speak well if only to get access to good jobs after graduation. So English – however grammatically inaccurate or spotty – was the bridge between the locals and the North Indians.
If I randomly sampled two individuals from that student population of 400, then there is a good chance that the two students would have different mother tongues (high linguistic diversity), but due to multilingualism they would have at least one language in common. So the index of communicability was essentially 1, if we ignore the question of proficiency.
My own case was somewhat different but by no means unique. Although I was born with Tamil as my mother tongue, I had lived mostly in West and Central India and had picked up Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi socially (the last two have dropped off due to lack of practice). I applied to college as an out-of-state student, but was really returning to my home state. In Trichy, I could communicate in Tamil with all the local students. Indeed, my colloquial command of Tamil – all the bad words included –went up! With everyone who was not from Tamil Nadu, I used mostly Hindi or English. I learned, to my surprise, that my ability in conversational English was poor, because I'd never really spoken it socially.
The college experience I've described applies more generally. Many parts of India are like this: different language communities live together in cities and along borders between states and multilingualism facilitates communication.
To summarize, Greenberg's two indices capture contrasting aspects of language reality in a population. The diversity index captures the number of mother tongues and how evenly represented they are in relation to each other, while the index of communication captures how connected a population is.
In theory, a population could retain its linguistic diversity while also maintaining a high index of communication essential in a globalized world. In practice however, a worldwide rise in communication appears to be happening at the expense of linguistic diversity, with hundreds of languages in Australia, North America, Central and South America losing ground quickly. Africa is the only continent bucking the trend. India's twenty odd major languages are still doing quite well, but many of its numerous other languages are not – check out these podcasts (1 and 2) by Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian on the challenges of linguistic surveys and inevitability of language loss.
Finally, here are brief notes on two different countries: Mexico and United States. I've had a long-standing interest in both these countries. Drawn to its pre-Columbian indigenous past, I traveled to Mexico six times – from Chiapas to Oaxaca in the south, to Michoacán and Mexico City in the center, to Chihuahua in the north. The United States, meanwhile, has been home for the last 16 years.
In the last section of his paper, Greenberg demonstrates how his two measures – linguistic diversity index and the index of communication – stack up when it comes to the 31 states of Mexico, and Mexico as a whole. To do this, he used bilingual data from a census in 1930. Like so many parts of the world, Mexico had hundreds of indigenous languages, which began to decline after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.
In Greenberg's calculation, Mexico's linguistic diversity index (unadjusted for resemblance) was 0.31 in 1930 while it's index of communication was 0.83. Among individual states, though, there was a great deal of variation. The federal district (DF – Distrito Federal), which includes the highly populous Mexico City had much lower linguistic diversity of 0.12 while its index of communication was 0.99 – virtually 1, which makes sense because Spanish is indispensable in the capital. The state of Oaxaca, which I have visited twice recently and where indigenous groups have a strong presence, had the highest linguistic diversity index of 0.83. In Greenberg's data, Oaxaca's index of communication of 0.47 was the lowest in Mexico.
But this was in 1930; I am sure things have changed in the last 86 years towards greater communicability and lower diversity as Spanish continues to be dominant. According to Ethnologue, Mexico's language count is 290 but its diversity index is down to 0.11. Most likely – this is a guess – its index of communication, which was already 0.83 in 1930, is well over 0.9 now.
According to the Ethnologue, the US has 430 languages: 219 of which are indigenous and 211 of them immigrant. North America before European settlement had hundreds of indigenous languages from different families. California was one of the most linguistically diverse places in the America with around 70-80 languages from as many as 20 language families.
Because of the sustained ethnic cleansing that happened after European arrival, the vast majority American Indian languages are now tethering on the brink of extinction. English is dominant, which explains the country's relatively low linguistic diversity of 0.34. English is also why the United States' index of communication is likely to be very high – above 0.9 if not close to 1 (this is a guess and is not based on data). Today an American Indian who speaks, say, Navajo or Cherokee, can communicate in English with a recently naturalized Indian-American whose original mother tongue was, say, Telugu.
Despite English's dominance, the United States does have a certain linguistic richness to it, thanks to immigrants (citizens or not) from all other continents to make a living here. By some estimates 800 languages are spoken in New York City!
Reference and Footnotes
1. Greenberg, Joseph H. "The measurement of linguistic diversity." Language 32.1 (1956): 109-115.
2. Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
3. Greenberg's adjustment for resemblance between languages: Suppose there are three languages M, N and O spoken by 1/8th, 3/8th and 1/2 of the population and suppose the resemblance between [M, N], [M, O], and [N, O] are 0.85, 0.3 and 0.25. Then the linguistic diversity index adjusted for resemblance is:
1 – [(1 x 1/8 x 1/8) – (1 x 3/8 x 3/8) – (1 x 1/2 x 1/2)]
– [(0.85 x 1/8 x 3/8) – (0.85 x 3/8 x 1/8)]
– (0.3 x 1/8 x 1/2) – (0.3 x 1/2 x 1/8)
– (0.25 x 3/8 x 1/2) – (0.25 x 1/2 x 3/8)
The first line is exactly the linguistic diversity index we have already seen, without adjusting for resemblance. There are 3 languages so one squared term for each language. Each term calculates the probabilities that both randomly picked individuals speak the same language. There is a multiplier of 1 since the resemblance of a language to itself is 1. If we used only the first line, we would get an unadjusted linguistic diversity index of 0.593.
The next 3 lines take care of relatedness between language pairs. The second line calculates the probability that the first randomly picked individual speaks M and the second speaks N, and vice versa. The multiplier of 0.85 indicates that there is a high resemblance, therefore speaking M and N should be treated (almost) like speaking the same language. Lines 3 and 4 do the same for language pairs [M, O] and [N, O] and the respective resemblance multipliers are used. In the end the adjusted diversity index gives us a value of 0.381, significantly lower than the unadjusted value of 0.593.
4. The beautiful Indian language tree illustration is by Minna Sundberg.
Wide Awake with Isabel Hull
by Holly A. Case
It was from Isabel Hull that I learned what tu quoque means, and how important it is to know. Hull is a professor of German history at Cornell, where I have also taught. Once I invited her to a class to talk about the British blockade of Germany during the First World War. She explained how the Germans had made war by invading neutral Belgium in 1914, knowing full well they were breaking international law. The title of her latest book, A Scrap of Paper (2014), alludes to the phrase that the German chancellor used to describe the international agreement governing Belgium's neutrality: it meant that little to him.
Hull described to my class the blockade's origins, what the Germans had thought and done, what the British were thinking, how they reached the decision to initiate the blockade, and what its likely impact was. But one concept stood out and remained a topic for discussion for the rest of the semester, even finding its way onto the final exam: it was the Latin phrase tu quoque. A literal translation of the phrase is "you also." Tu quoque is a rhetorical strategy whereby, instead of arguing directly against the claim of your opponent, you challenge their right to make an argument by charging them with hypocrisy. For example: the British government asserts that Germany violated international law by invading neutral Belgium and persecuting its inhabitants. The German government retorts that the British government itself is in breach of international law for having subsequently initiated a naval blockade against Germany, cutting off not only its supply of raw materials, but also (potentially) food to civilians.
The tu quoque is as old as the hills. Cicero used it to win a case in the trial of the exile Ligarius: "You are accusing one who has a case, as I say, better than your own." The Nazis were especially adept at deploying it. In 1942, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels confided to his diary: "The question of Jewish persecution in Europe is being given top news priority by the English and the Americans…We won't even discuss this theme publicly, but instead I gave orders to start an atrocity campaign against the English on their treatment of Colonials." There have been countless examples of tu quoque since. The Soviets countered American claims of human rights abuses with the phrase "And you are lynching negroes," which has its own entry on Wikipedia. Some Turkish scholars have used tu quoque to argue against claims that the Ottoman Empire instigated a genocide against the Armenians in 1915: "No nation is innocent. [T]hough the West has always accused the rest of the world of not being civilized enough, no other nations can be compared with the Germans, French, or Americans if we are talking about racism, fascism, and genocide."
In logic, the tu quoque is considered a fallacy, because it does not actually controvert the original statement. If anything, it confirms the moral valence of wrongdoing, declaring: Yes, I have done wrong, but so have you.
My personal favorite among Hull's books is titled Absolute Destruction, which lends a helpful aura of dead earnestness to any faculty office. Visitors' eyes invariably fall on the title: "Absolute Destruction?" they ask. "Yes," I reply, with deadly earnest glee.
Absolute Destruction shows with great clarity, precision, and, above all, evidence how the institutional culture of Imperial Germany's military leaked into its statecraft, with devastating effect. In the book and a related article, Hull argues that the German understanding of "military necessity" that emerged during wars in Europe and German Southwest Africa in the late nineteenth century—an understanding that had grown increasingly impervious to the influence of either politics or diplomacy—gave rise to the "final solutions" of the twentieth century.
The book that inspired Hull to become a historian was Konrad Heiden's Der Fuehrer: Hitler's Rise to Power (1944), which came into her hands at the age of twelve. It's a six-hundred-page, ultra-detailed history of Bavarian local politics during the Nazi takeover. Although she has never written on the Nazis directly, it doesn't take a very discerning reader to detect their shadow in the background of her work. She told me that what she remembers about Der Fuehrer is Heiden's description of "why a bunch of people would turn away from democracy," a possibility she had hitherto considered unthinkable.
I once ran into Hull in the mailroom, cursing at the copier. When I asked what she was working on, she told me she was reading for an article on Carl Schmitt, a twentieth-century German legal scholar whose work provided legal justification for the Nazis' suspension of the German constitution in 1933. Schmitt is frequently assigned in upper-level university courses; left-leaning scholars and students are drawn to his lucid critique of liberal hypocrisy. Yet I had noticed that whenever Schmitt's name came up at department events, my colleague reacted with unconcealed agitation. So when she told me she was writing about Schmitt, I was intrigued.
Schmitt suffered from a common malaise of many modern German intellectuals, she explained, who tended to reverse-engineer the premise of an argument from their desired outcome. They did not think and write in order to figure something out, but in order to justify something they either wanted to do or had already done. (A disturbingly fine example is Thomas Mann's Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, first published in 1918. It's a retrospective intellectual/spiritual justification for Germany's involvement in the Great War, tacitly directed against Mann's own progressive brother Heinrich.)
Recently I read Hull's article on Schmitt, which focuses on the jurist's "pattern of argumentation." She writes that Schmitt was not a tu quoque man. Having recognized that the tactic did not serve Germany well at the postwar treaty negotiations, he favored another, much more radical mode of argumentation that went far beyond the aim of undermining the right of the accuser to judge the accused. His argument completely reversed the Allies' assertions that Germany was a megalomaniacal belligerent. It was not Germany, Schmitt insisted, but "Anglo-Saxonia" that had sought world domination with its "fake, universal international law." And it was not Germany, but the British who made "total war" with their blockade. In fact, the whole of international law was naught but a cover for Anglo-American imperialism. Norms themselves are always ideological, Schmitt concluded, "abstractions that obscure the facts of power."
Meanwhile, to retrospectively justify the Germans' invasion of neutral Belgium, Schmitt defined a "Notstand" (state of necessity). What made the Notstand exceptional was that it was not predicated on any rights possessed by others, nor on any duties or limitations on one's own comportment: it was unapologetically unilateral. Insofar as it took issue with the entire premise of the rights of others and espoused self-interest (realism) as the highest, indeed the only ideal in international relations, it was impervious to counter-arguments that appealed to fair play and international law.
A Scrap of Paper was published in 2014, at roughly the same time as Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. It is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar works of scholarship. Whereas Hull argues German militaristic belligerence and deliberate disregard for international law led to the outbreak of the Great War, Clark does not assign blame, but rather focuses on the misperceptions of Europe's leading men—the "Sleepwalkers" of the title—in the months and weeks leading up to the war. Clark's work enjoys stellar ratings on Amazon, and has won a number of prizes and distinctions. One reviewer wrote of Sleepwalkers that it "deserves to become the new standard one-volume account" of the run-up to the Great War.
Although Hull hadn't read Clark's book when her own was published, in a sense, the "Prologue" of A Scrap of Paper offers a way of reading Sleepwalkers. The prologue is titled "What We Have Forgotten," and is about historians' complicity in effacing Germany's war guilt. She shows how, starting already in 1920, western journalists and scholars copy-pasted what the postwar German government—in its attempts to roll back reparations and undo the punitive Versailles treaties that ended the war—had fed them without probing to see what was left out or interrogating the bias of their sources. The result, she concludes, is a revisionist perception of the war very much like Clark's:
Faced with claims and counterclaims concerning violations of the laws of war, too many historians despair of getting to the bottom of things and making a reasonable judgment. Instead, they refuse to judge; they fall back on the tu quoque defense. That position generally rests on the unspoken (and rarely examined) premise that every violation was equal, that every decision of statesmen or military leaders to break the law was taken for the same reasons, or taken as easily or thoughtlessly, or was arrived at in the same way, following the same procedure, or was justified or explained to themselves or the world with the same arguments, or in the same language. In fact, all these things could, and often did, differ.
In other words, it was not the diplomats and statesmen of 1914 who were "sleepwalkers," but historians.
The last time I visited my colleague at her home, she said that her favorite among the things she's written is a short piece about the ideas of a late eighteenth-century German thinker, Adolph Freiherr von Knigge. In 1788, a year before the French Revolution, Knigge published a book titled Über den Umgang mit Menschen [On Intercourse with People]. Like many of the characters who appear in Hull's books, Knigge's thoughts have been distorted and obscured by both politics and posterity. Unlike most of those other characters, however, Hull clearly has a soft spot for Knigge.
Whereas Absolute Destruction and A Scrap of Paper read like expert exhumations of a mass grave with the object of identifying the perpetrators of a massacre, the piece on Knigge is more like an archaeological excavation of a long-lost treasure. Forensic skill and precision characterize all of Hull's writing, but in the Knigge piece—as in another of her early books, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815—she shows us that there are good, smart people buried out there in the past.
She begins with a characterization of Knigge's philosophy as "change through willful individual action." But his was no libertarian manifesto. "It is important for anybody who wants to live in the world with people," Knigge insisted, "to adapt to the customs, tone, and mood of others." This injunction included one's enemies, whom one should treat with "benevolence, objectivity, understanding, [and] care." Above all: "Learn to countenance objection" [Lerne Widerspruch ertragen!]. Although On Intercourse with People was mistaken early on for a self-help book, and savaged by editors in subsequent editions to more closely resemble one, Hull notes that, "It does not lay down static rules of comportment, nor does it aim at cynical manipulation of others; rather it seeks to analyze why problems in social communication arise and how one might overcome them." Knigge's "first art" to living was "the art of making oneself understood, thus speaking and writing."
Reading Hull on Knigge is a melancholic enchantment. The Germans come off very badly in her last two books, not because she sees them as an ongoing menace to the world, but because she knows what treasures they destroyed and denied in their own thought in order to become the monsters of the first half of the twentieth century. There is an unmistakable love that emerges from contemplating Intercourse together with Absolute Destruction: "Let go of your desire to rule," wrote Knigge, "to play a brilliant main role." It is as if the poignant crime of Germany's most prominent modern thinkers, from Thomas Mann in Reflections, to Carl Schmitt, to Max Horkheimer, is that they tried to salvage German culture for humanity by defining it in opposition to liberalism. The tu quoque is a way of borrowing liberalism's mores to discredit liberalism, rather than to discredit the act of killing and power politics. Hull's oeuvre shows how German thinkers returned to this cynical reversal again and again, starting in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the liberals skewered and buried one of their own in Knigge. "Thus, liberalism itself destroyed one of the most remarkable sources of liberal thinking in German history."
A few weeks ago Hull told me how she sees Germany now: "It has really, really applied itself to its past, and is critical, insightful, morally scrupulous, and thoroughly admirable in the way that it has looked at itself. It's awake, and I'm filled with admiration for what they've done." As she sees it, today's menaces lie elsewhere, in the demagogic politics (Trump) and policies (drone warfare) of the United States, but also in the militarism and widely imitated authoritarianism of Russia. Just because some political systems and figures rely on the tu quoque instead of critically examining their own past and present policies does not exonerate us from critical self-examination. "Act independently!" exclaimed Knigge. "Do not deny your principles, […] in this way neither your social superiors nor inferiors will be able to withhold their respect."
Two of Knigge's principles were practicality and moderation. When I read this, I recalled another meeting with Hull, this time in her office. One of us was ill, or had been, so we started exchanging self-cures (none of which should be tried at home). There was my diluted hydrogen peroxide solution to address a lingering congestion, which left my olfactory nerves on permanent strike (I don't recall if it had any effect on the congestion). Hull then told me how she had cured herself of crippling fallen arches by forcing herself to walk miles a day in normal shoes all around hilly Ithaca. I countered with more hydrogen peroxide adventures, already feeling a bit like a one-trick pony. She then met me on my own pharmaceutical terrain by describing how she had cured herself of a skin malaise with the help of diluted bleach, and showed me the patch on her shin to prove it. "Completely cured!" she declared, beaming triumphantly.
I folded in awe and admiration, and pushed my metaphorical chips to her side of the table. Since then I don't play that game with her. When it comes to "practicality and moderation," no one can beat Isabel Hull.
Lest I be suspected of making a tu quoque argument here, let me be clear: I'm not. I am fully convinced that Hull practices what Knigge preached. Practicality is not about compromise; it's about efficacy. And moderation is not for the meek; it's for the rigorous.
I Hold Things Up
As a carpenter I learned, before you can leverage things apart
you have to find purchase. You have to have a place where a pry-bar
can be slipped in or driven with a hammer to separate.
That being done, whether by violent or pursuasive means,
when two factions have been split
they're easier to manipulate.
These are also political techniques.
They apply as well to sweaty things.
They dictate the tone and conditions of our species' life.
They reach into souls and wrench them.
Though pneumatic they're not ephemeral.
They're tough and mean as muscle.
As a carpenter I also learned
If you set a post upon a solid pier
and brace it well it will never
tilt in glory
it will simply know
I'm here to serve
I hold things up,
end of story.
by Jim Culleny
The Culture of Information Technology
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
"Kar le kar le, tu ik sawaal,
Kar le kar le, koi jawaab,
Aisa sawaal jo zindagi badal de…
[Ask a question,
Try and answer,
The kind of question that will change your life]
It's just a question of a question."
—Title track, Kaun Banega Crorepati
Light bursts forth like rays from the sun. The Indian film star Shahrukh Khan pirouettes across a set, made deliberately larger than life. It is glitzy, neon inundated and disproportionate. Women in some form of modernized traditional Indian clothing stand behind the so-called King Khan as he exhorts the audience to ask a question. The irony, of course, is that in this Indian version of "Who wants to be a millionaire?" it is Khan who asks the questions. As he swiftly changes clothes from scene to scene, a rapper in one moment, a suave sleazy conman of some sort in the other and an overgrown American teen hipster in yet another, his supporting cast range from close cropped capped rappers to women of unidentified nationality in golden and silver lamè. In another frame, Shahrukh in waistcoat and trousers dances with women in tartan mini-skirts and white shirts. They all gyrate to a catchy tune that repeats the mantra of the one question that can change lives.
Slowly seducing the audience with song and dance, Shahrukh coaxes them into participation, insisting that they must come out with their deepest desires since this opportunity might not arise again. Assuring them that they will win the game he asks them to strengthen their hopes. He ends with the oxymoronic question "Is a hot chick cool or a cool chick hot?" On the poorly manifested and highly pixellated version that I watch on the Internet, the paucity of this content seems glaringly obvious.
Danny Boyle's film Slumdog Millionaire, is set in Mumbai and chronicles the unexpected success of a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. A rags-to-riches chronicle of a protagonist called Jamal Malik who wins the game show, the plot is nothing if not predictable. The twists in the plot and the form of resolution are, however, what are interesting to this essay. Jamal is also what Prem, the character who portrays Shahrukh's counterpart in this reel life version of reel life, refers to as a slumdog. By winning the game's prize of Rupees one crore, Jamal stands as testimony to what chance can offer even the most underprivileged, as long as they have the hunger to grab it.
In the film, Jamal is an orphan from the slums. The main plot revolves around Jamal's love for his childhood companion, Latika, who was tragically lost to him when escaping child trafficking slumlords in Mumbai. This plot is furthered through the game show that he accidentally gains access to, when working at a call center. Through the questions that he answers correctly, the audience is made privy to the details of Jamal's life during the course of which he overheard and absorbed information that one would not consider within the sphere of possibility for an underprivileged lower class citizen of India. So, for example, Jamal knows that Cambridge Circus is in London because he has absorbed the communication lessons taught in the call center as he serves chai to the "phone-wallahs". Similarly, he knows that the Hindu god Rama holds a bow in his right hand, because he espied a young boy in costume when running away from Hindu rioters who attacked his slum. He also knows that the picture of Benjamin Franklin peeps out of a hundred dollar note because he was once guide to American tourists visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal.
Kaun Banega Crorepati has been one of the most successful television serials of the recent past. Running for many consecutive seasons on the channel Star TV, it debuted with much fanfare and employed as its host one of the longest reigning superstars of the Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan. The serial then not only offered contestants a chance to win large sums of money but also live out the fantasy of being intimate with a film star. Amitabh Bachchan is no ordinary hero. Tabloids have long sung paeans to this lanky star of unlikely heritage and deep-throated baritone. Born to distinguished parents in northern India, his father the poet laureate Harivanshrai Bachchan, the Big B as he is known was rejected by the film fraternity in his first few years on account of being too lanky and not good looking enough. Finally making his fortune in the eighties through a string of films where he portrayed the angry young man who violently attacks a corrupt system, often at great personal cost and sometimes, loss of life, he went on to make some of the highest grossing films in Indian cinema.
In his current films, he prefers to portray an ageing patriarch seeking to keep together large families of upper middle-class men and strong, yet traditional women that live in castles and travel in helicopters. Bachchan hosted two seasons before ending the contract which was subsequently offered to Shahrukh Khan, also one of the highest paid stars in Bollywood history, one known in earlier stages of his career for taking on a plethora of roles, including that of villains and anti-heroes. Shahrukh Khan, in order to distinguish himself from his superstar predecessor opted to make himself more accessible to the contestant and audience.
Kaun Banega Crorepati and Slumdog Millionaire share commonalities in the sense that each of these stories is about the very process of the search for information that seeks to combat rapid change. Information is hearsay. It is what we absorb every second of the way as we make our way through life's unrelenting lessons. The body is a receiver and the mind a processor. The atmosphere and the body then replay the articulation between the computer and the data that it is fed. Information is also ostensibly, the solution to what Richard Sennett has called the "the specter of uselessness". However to recognize true information is not easy; anything could be it. So while information might be a solution, its search is not a solution at all, but merely an activity meant to mimic activity. It is not my intent to say, for example, that Kaun Banega Crorepati or Slumdog Millionaire are films that dictate to young men and women, the idea of information technology culture. However in this long-short account, normality is affectively charged with the power of information technology as a story and a set of possibilities. If one imagines lives as being structured by desire — desire for a "better life", desire to be comfortable, desire to be independent, and desires to escape the very life that offers such possibility — then one must also ask as to the ether that produces the form of desire. Perhaps, Rene Girard's theorization of desire as mimetic and contagious may work as a heuristic to understand the relationship between the proliferation of media images around information technology in India, and daily experience. For desire in this analysis is very much a densely sedimented body of image, text, discourse and bodily experience. Those asking questions of the culture of Information Technology or IT must also then ask questions of the ways in which forms of work are simultaneously forms of desire.
Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984). Channeling Experience with a Medium, 1931.
A Piece of Cloth?
I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. I wrote a similar post on facebook and now want to engage you here in this debate. So tell me am I wrong and why.
The issue about the hijab, burka and now burkini is not simply about its presence on the beach or in public institutions and spaces including schools, or about the presence of Islam in public spaces in Europe or about freedom of choice there. The issue is about the hijab, burka and burkini becoming the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam.
A garment now defines Islam. A cloth, has become Islam. The issue is that modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment. And that indeed is a shame.
It isn't that the space for hijabs and niqabs is threatened to be reduced. It is Islam that is being reduced. Reduced to a piece of cloth. And who is responsible for this?
Those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it. Indeed it is about misogyny and patriarchy. Those who promote it are women. And they are predominantly articulating themselves to the West. They are reducing themselves, reducing the air around them, the light, the conversation, and they are reducing the faith that they profess to belong to by this reductionist action.
They have reduced Islam to a piece of cloth. There were two American Muslim women who participated in the Olympics and won medals. NBC and the media only played up and focused on one. Yup, the one wearing the hijab. Regularly, those women invited to speak about Muslims or Islam or represent Muslims are wearing hijabs. Those appointed and recruited to police and surveil and provide security duties are in hijab. Why?
Modesty, virtue and religion now symbolized by hijabs, pre-Islamic tribal garb for men and women. So are the women who are Muslim who do not wear this garb, not Muslim? Not modest? Not virtuous?
Is the hijab, burka, niqab, abaya and now the burkini a symbol of Islam and of religion?
Or is it a prop for communicating modesty and religiosity. The women that I know who wear hijabs wear them because they think it's conveys religion and modesty. All of them are new to wearing the hijab. Most of them have something to hide or to not deal with intellectually. They are hiding, their sense of ugliness, they are hiding aging, they think it's a way to instantly communicate that they are not only Muslim but also good Muslims, it allows them an easy pass through their neighborhood streets that are controlled by thugs and bullies, they are transmitting a demand or a plea to be treated better or differently than everyone else, they are hiding past bad behavior and keeping that tendency under check. It hides the shame of old clothes and not being able to keep up with the Jones. It helps women emerge from deeply patriarchal and authoritarian relationships and families. Whatever. It hides. There are a myriad of reasons for wearing the hijab. And all of them are deeply lazy and narcissistic.
The niqab deceives. It deceives foremost its wearer. The hijab and the niqab do not relay modesty or humility, they relay the opposite. It is a deeply narcissistic act that screams look at me! Look how different I am. Look how virtuous! I don't need to do anything else to prove how good and moral I am. It allows a woman to hide her own idol, herself, inside her cover.
So a good Muslim woman wears a hijab or a niqab? Ask these women and push comes to shove they'll say yes. They will indeed sit in judgement of other Muslim women, who don't.
The police on the beach gave the woman a ticket and fined her for ‘not respecting good morals and secularism." Poor putz of a policeman simply carrying out the decree of the Mayor, ends up scribbling and mixing up good morals with secularism. One a religious concept and the other supposedly not. So in doing so the police on the beach in Nice becomes the morality police—which has very little to do with secularism unless secularism in France means being naked. Not everyone being naked. Just women. Preferably only the good bits. Bare breasted women. That's secularism?
Or did the policeman by writing ‘Not respecting of good morals' actually inadvertently point to something very basic---a piece of garment is not the symbol of faith nor of goodness. It is in fact the symbol that you are weak of faith and goodness and must cloak yourself.
Nakedness. Nothing to hide. Open societies, bodies and minds. That's a pretty good definition of morality and secularism isn't it? Indeed the policeman shames the fully clothed woman, forcing her to take off her covering. Shames her in the name of good morality and secularism and does while being heavily clothed with body armor and had weapons. Did he reach deep inside his intellect and calling upon the entire Western Canon? Canon by the way, I have just learned, comes from the Arabic word, caanoon. Meaning, law.
Come to think of it—modesty and morality for the French State is therefore the definition of what the Abrahamic God intended it to be—one where nakedness is the perfect state—and the unease with it—Shame, a crime.
Or does secularism in France mean ‘not Muslim' Europe is being goaded to turn on itself, divide itself along religious lines. But this is not a fight within Europe. It is a conflict between women and their judgements of each other.
Wear what you want to but don't tell me you do so in the name of 'modesty'. Who decides what modesty is and what is virtue? Someone dressed in a burkini, hijab, burqa, or niqab? I say no. Do not argue the case of wearing a burkini or anything else in the name of modesty. If you do this then you are providing a judgement on what constitutes modesty and virtue and that those who do not don this garb are immodest. It can be argued that a hijab, a niqab, a burka and abaya is a heightened and elevated sense of immodesty and titillation, bordering on pornography. It is a prop that constantly introduces sex and the danger of being raped into the public sphere when no such idea is even present. It suggests in a public sphere that a woman is covered because she is in danger of being molested or that if she were uncovered she would incite a molestation of her. Covered in the public sphere as these women who are wearing niqabs and burkas in Europe and the US where there is no social or cultural history for its presence these women are introducing the concept of being constantly stalked or in sexual danger or being the cause of it if they were uncovered. It is if not ridiculous, psychologically unstable. To cover herself is to suggest a constant pre-occupation with sex.
OH MY GOD! Oh my God what am I saying? How insulting of me! Is it? I am only repeat what we know from the Old Testament, the Bible and the Koran--what God said to Adam and Eve when God deported them, exiled them to earth, threw them out of Paradise--for their transgression, their loss of innocence--meaning their loss of equality, their loss of a sense of unawareness of any difference between them--a loss of their sense of freedom, their loss of an ultimate superiority which today we refer to as feminism. The acceptance of the burka and niqab is an acceptance of a loss of freedom, not its expansion.
If at a society's level it is accepted that the covering from head to toe of a woman is her freedom of choice—to separate herself out and not interact with others, see them, but not be seen, create an unfair and unjust environment, a conversation that is only and only a perversion of sexuality, then why does she choose this? Does she make a moral judgement? The answer will be yes. Women who wear this, point falsely to religion for reason. They make a false claim to religion as well as to morality. Our ethics demand that she not impose her morality or the lack of it in our public spaces on us.
For to accept a woman in a full cover, the niqab and burka, to do so, makes her exception, the rule, her judgement valid and makes us all immoral, non-secular and unethical.
Tell me I am wrong.
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.