Thursday, December 25, 2008

Caller on the Line: a short play

A short theatre piece. I saw it produced in late 2007 and was surprised at how well it worked. It was also published here.

Cast of Characters

Stan: an executive

Mom: Stan’s mother

Sarah: a secretary, offstage


Stan’s office.


The present.

SETTING: An office with a desk.

AT RISE: STAN sits at the desk, working on a laptop computer. He drinks amber liquid from a liquor glass. A telephone sits on one corner of the desk. It rings. STAN presses a button on the phone.

Mister Garland.

Yeah, Sarah.
I have your mother on line one.

(Stan does not respond.)

Mister Garland?

Yeah. I’m here.

Should I go ahead and take a message?

(STAN pauses, then sighs.)

No. Go ahead, put her through.

(STAN presses phone button.)

STAN (awkwardly)
Yeah, Ma. Hey!

(A spotlight illuminates MOM, stage left. She is sitting in an armchair with a phone in her lap.)

Your father’s circling the drain.

(STAN yawns and leans back.)

Do what, now?

Your father. He’s circling the drain. Pulling the dirt in over him. Giving up the ghost. You know?

Are you trying to say he’s dying?

MOM (sarcastically)
You always were my brightest boy, Stanny.

Yeah, so what’s the old bastard’s problem this time? Ebola? Black plague? Alien anal probe? What?

He’s in the hospital.

So he’s graduated from daily doctor visits to inpatient mode? Way to go, Dad!

He’s decided to starve himself to death. Just decided it was a good idea, you know?
(long pause)
Stanny? You still there?

STAN (stunned, quiet)
Yeah, Ma. Yeah. I’m here.
(long pause; laughs awkwardly)
Well, you have to give him credit. It’s original. The old man thinks he’s Gandhi, or what?

Have you been drinking, Stanny?

No, Ma. No. I’m good. Just real tired is all.

OK. Because you sound like you’ve been drinking, and it’s only two in the afternoon, is why I’m asking.

STAN (a bit peeved)
I’m clean and sober, Ma. Cross my heart and hope to die. OK?

OK, that’s good. But like I was saying about your father, it’s like he’s set his mind to it, you know? I mean, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with him.
He just decided to go ahead and starve himself to death. Just like that.

Yeah, OK. So why are you of all people breaking a sweat over it?

I’m not. I just always seem to wind up getting stuck playing messenger boy between your dear old father and you kids every time he does one of his little psychodramas. Why the hell is that, Stanny?

STAN (chuckles)
Simple, Ma. You’re the only one that’ll still take his calls. The rest of us got call screening.

MOM (after awkward pause)
Do you think you should give him a call, Stanny?

STAN (evasively)
No. What for?

I don’t know. Sort out any unfinished business? Try and penetrate that thick skull of his? Tell him to stop being so melodramatic? Whatever?
(long pause)
Do you think maybe you should call him? Are you there, Stan?


No, you’re not there? Could’ve fooled me.

No, I don’t think I should call him.

Ah. OK.
(awkward pause)
I mean I’m not saying you should or anything, I’m the last person who’d say any of you should give your father the time of day, you know? I just figured, you know, because of how everything went, and how it all ended up, that –-

Like I said. I don’t think I should call him.

Why not?

STAN (after long pause)
Because I don’t think I should call him, that’s all. It’s not complicated. Look, Ma. We both know that as soon as the old man realizes his little drama routine isn’t going to make him the center of attention, he’ll get bored with the whole thing and get back to drinking his Scotch and smoking his smokes and flashing that million-dollar smile.

I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so this time. I really do believe he means to do it. He seems, I can’t explain it exactly, it’s almost like he’s relieved somehow, like he’s okay with it.

Come on, Ma. You can’t possibly think he’s serious.

Stanny, you know how his mind works, if anybody does. I sure as hell never did. Took me a long time to figure that one out, let me tell you. It’s like this. Your father’s going to starve himself to death because he doesn’t have an audience anymore. It’s like your father’s not even there when there’s no people around.
(long pause)
Looking back, I really do think it’s always been that way. Always. If he walks into an empty room, it’s like it’s still empty.
You there, Stanny?

STAN (quietly)
Yeah, Ma.

What? I can’t even hear you, Stanny.

Yeah, Ma. I’m still here.
And like I said, I don’t think I should call him, that’s all.

Listen, I’m telling you, Stanny, you need to be the one to call him. It needs to be you. You need to call your father up and you need to tell him it’s wrong. Tell him it’s selfish and melodramatic, and tell him it’s just wrong! He’ll listen to you. If the idiot ever listened to anybody, he listened to you.

STAN (quietly)
I can’t do that to him, Ma.

God damn these phones! Are you sure you don’t have me on speaker? What did you say?

STAN (louder)
I said, I can’t do that to him, Ma.

What? Do what ‘to’ him? What are you talking about?

He decided, Ma. I’m not going to take that away from him. He decided. He did. I’m not going to help him be weak again, now that he’s finally decided. I won’t do that to him.

What the hell do you mean? You are making no sense to me, Stanny.
You are drunk, aren’t you?

STAN (quiet, bitter)
Not yet, I’m not.

No, I didn’t get any of that. Can you hear me? Stupid phones. Hello?

STAN (almost to himself)
Judge, jury, and executioner. I can’t tell him he’s wrong to be any of those things.

Look, Stanny, you’re talking insane, you know what I mean? What the hell is this ‘I can’t tell him he’s wrong’ crap? What is that supposed to mean? Yes, you can! You sure can tell him, and you’re going to, you’re going to call him and tell him not to do this. Tell him he’s wrong to do this, God damn it!

STAN (after long pause)
I can’t, Ma. I can’t. (Long pause) Because he’s not wrong, Ma. He’s never been less wrong about
anything in his whole sorry-ass life. Leave it be, Ma. Leave him be. He needs to do this, and he’s right to do this. He’s been waiting most of his life to do this. Just waiting around trying to work up the guts to finally do it and get it over with. The best thing we can do is leave him alone to do this one thing right. Please, Ma.

Stan, listen. Please. You have to save him. Stan?
(long pause)
Did I lose you?

STAN (quietly)
I am saving him, Ma.

I can’t hear you, damn it. I told you a long time ago that these new high-tech phones aren’t worth a damn.

Yeah, Ma, look. I got calls stacked up like crazy here, and I’m five minutes late for a pretty important meeting. I really do have to get off this phone and get to work.

Stanny –-

Love you, Ma. Look, I got to go. I’ll call you later in the month, I think your birthday is coming up soon, I’ll call you then, you know?

MOM (quietly)
It was four weeks ago.

STAN (laughs awkwardly)
Ah, yeah. Damn it. You know me, I’m an airhead about that stuff. I’ll swing by the mall
and get you something nice for your birthday on the way home tonight.

Get your secretary to swing by, you mean.

Ma, look, they’re all standing right outside my office and I’m holding up all these people, so I have to go like right now. Bye, love you.

(STAN pushes the button to hang up. Spotlight over Mom immediately fades to black. Stan sits at his desk, staring, for a long time. STAN presses button on phone.)

Sarah? What’s my calendar look like for the rest of the day?

You have the weekly download meeting in fifteen minutes, then the Mid-Atlantic forecast briefing from four to five-thirty.

Cancel them all, will you?

SARAH (after long pause)
Sure. No problem. Is everything okay?
(long pause)
Mister Garland?

Yeah, I’m good. Couldn’t be better. I’m just thinking I’ll take off early today. You’ll take care of all that for me, right?

Of course. I’ve got you covered. You take it easy for the rest of the day, okay?

STAN (small smile)
Yeah. I will.

(Stan packs laptop in briefcase, drains his drink and exits SL.)



Monday, December 1, 2008

Chemical Bags and Dinner on the Grounds

What does atheism have to offer human beings in place of the rich, warm, familial cultural milieu that religious people have? I’ve recently found myself thinking about this question a lot, and there is a definite problem here if the secularist community is honest in its desire to bring more people into the secular fold. Secularists seem not to understand that the religious community is not exclusively about belief in the middle-eastern sky god. In fact, I’d say in my experience here in the American South, that is sometimes almost incidental. It’s an entire social structure: you have a communal celebratory meal at church ("dinner on the grounds"), you see friends and extended-family members at church, you pursue your hobbies at church, you perform your good works and your charitable efforts at church. Heck, a lot of people even get involved in church because it’s a (relatively) safe place to meet potential romantic partners! So it’s an entire social structure, something religions have provided as far back as we can see. And what do secularists offer as an alternative? “You’re just a walking bag of chemicals, evolved to do certain hard-wired things you can’t control. You have no ‘spiritual connection’ to any of the other walking bags of chemicals you encounter. You are truly ‘an island’, you’re on your own, everything is about the naked selfish will-to-live. Oh, and did we mention? When you die, your brain is extinguished and your body rots, and buh-bye, no more you!” I happen to believe that all those statements are 100% true, but I have to acknowledge the obvious fact that secularists have a bit of, shall we say, a “public relations problem” if this is all they bring to the table as an alternative to what the religious bring to the table. Would most people rather relax and lean back into the warm communal embrace of “dinner on the grounds,” or would they rather ponder the existential meaninglessness of an absurd world? Humans beings seem to have an innate need for community, celebration, and purpose, and until the secular community can address those human needs, it will remain what it is now: small, marginalized, and incapable of influencing events on any level.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Look Back at the Great Books

My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great
Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape
together the $$$). I wouldn't have survived my high school years
without them; they were my friends. It's a sad commentary on the
postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter)
that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those
infuriating "air quotes" around the word "Great". The fact is, they
are great, and they'll be great long after "Desperate Housewives" and
Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading
memories that makes you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you
ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume,
Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently
wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has
a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or
two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of
Plato's wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling
about Plato is this: if Plato doesn't infuriate you to the point where
you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven't understood
him ...).

The problem with the internet is that it is so bloody
indiscriminate. A young person online has no way of knowing that an
online version of Plato's Phaedrus is better for him/her to read and
learn from than an online screed from some tinfoil-hat wearer going on
about missiles taking down Flight 800. The idea that the internet puts
everything out there, and the person reading it has to apply his/her
discriminatory powers to culling the wheat from the chaff, dodges one
crucial question: where the hell are young people supposed to have
learned these "discriminatory powers"? The Great Books project did
something that's considered "rude" and "elitist" in this low, degraded
post-Western age. It dared to say: "look, kid, it's like this. Here
are the Great Books of Western Civilization. We probably missed a few,
but these are pretty much the best of the best. They've stood the test
of time -- in some cases, millenia of time. So just take our word for
it, and get reading!" I wish we as a civilization still had the courage and
faith in the best parts of our shared heritage to be willing to
dictate to our young people like that. These days we're more concerned
with pumping up their all-important "self-esteem." Twenty years from
now, I believe our young people will hate us for betraying them that

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John's in Annapolis, Md., told
Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow
graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John's
sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and
Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. "She
told me they were studying Rhetoric," Ms.
Rothenberg said, "and they would be watching episodes of
'Desperate Housewives' and listening to Eminem. They were going to
analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Another blog of mine

My "mainstream" blog (which I'll be linking off my home page) is open for business, and I'll be posting most of my "mainstream" content over there. I'll be saving Crustypolemicist for my worst screeds (man's got to have a place to rant, after all ... )

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Look Back at the Great Books

My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape together the $$$). I wouldn't have survived my high school years without them; they were my friends. It's a sad commentary on the postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter) that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those infuriating "air quotes" around the word "Great". The fact is, they are great, and they'll be great long after "Desperate Housewives" and Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading memories that make you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of Plato's wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling about Plato is this: if Plato doesn't infuriate you to the point where you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven't understood him ...).

The problem with the internet is that it is so bloody indiscriminate. A young person online has no way of knowing that an online version of Plato's Phaedrus is better for him/her to read and learn from than an online screed from some tinfoil-hat wearer going on about missiles taking down Flight 800. The idea that the internet puts everything out there, and the person reading it has to apply his/her discriminatory powers to culling the wheat from the chaff, dodges one crucial question: where the hell are young people supposed to have learned these "discriminatory powers"? The Great Books project did something that's considered "rude" and "elitist" in this low, degraded post-Western age. It dared to say: "look, kid, it's like this. Here are the Great Books of Western Civilization. We probably missed a few, but these are pretty much the best of the best. They've stood the test of time -- in some cases, millenia of time. So just take our word for it, and get reading!" I wish we as a society still had the courage and faith in the best parts of our shared heritage to be willing to dictate to our young people like that. These days we're more concerned with pumping up their all-important "self-esteem." Twenty years from now, I believe our young people will hate us for betraying them that way.

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John's in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John's sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. "She told me they were studying Rhetoric," Ms.
Rothenberg said, "and they would be watching episodes of 'Desperate Housewives' and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?"

"Charlie Don't Surf!" McNamara, Kurtz, and the Only Real Freedom

What was Indochina? What did it mean? And what visual images suggest themselves? For me, I have never been able to shake the image in Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” of the American Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who tells his staff that a seaside village with wonderful surfing conditions is to be bombed flat so that he and his staff can get a bit of surfing in before dinner. When one of his offers warns him that Charlie controls that village, Kilgore screams: “Charlie don’t surf!” It is self-evident and rational that he has a RIGHT to that beach because he can make better use of it. Kilgore’s proclamation is the paradigmatic image of one type of rationality, the type of rationality that manufactures sensible alibis for horrific acts. The rationale he manufactures to justify his right to a particular stretch of beach is really no more or less dubious than the alibis that our first protagonist, Robert McNamara, offered during the American misadventure in Indochina. Our other protagonist, Coppola’s fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, faces the same conditions as does McNamara, but Kurtz’s refusal to tolerate what he calls “the stench of lies” drives him insane and then kills him.

We are offered the visual images of two men who represent the best and the brightest that America had to offer. McNamara: the cold fish, the emotionless cipher, the utterly practical go-to guy. Kurtz, one of the best officers the Army ever produced; also, “a good man, a moral man, a man of gentle wit and humor,” a man of compelling decency who embodies the best of American values.

In Indochina, each man faces a confrontation with absolute freedom in the face of moral Horror, and each man faces the decision to make or not to make an absolute choice. Each man is revealed to us visually: McNamara in the documentary “The Fog of War,” and Kurtz, of course, in “Apocalypse Now.”

In McNamara, we have a man who, without knowing it, is a leading actor in the death throes of American Reason, a death played out during the long, inevitable catastrophe in Indochina. We understand McNamara as a typical believer in Reason’s ability to explain everything, a believer in the deployment of a muscular sense of racial and class superiority in a world that is fundamentally rational. Kurtz begins as the same type of man, and begins his first tour of duty in Indochina viewing the world through the same lens. However, Kurtz’s encounter with the reality of moral Horror pushes him beyond the timid, lying morality that he brought with him from America, and pushes him into the sunlit clearing of absolute freedom that waits on the other side of Reason.

McNamara and Kurtz both start out by fighting to defend the reality and efficacy – and hence the MORALITY – of America’s unique form of Reason and America’s unique faith in modernity as such. Both men – at least in the beginning – embrace the article of faith that Reason and American “know-how” (savoir-faire) can solve ANY problem. Starting at the same place, McNamara and Kurtz arrive, finally, at very different ends.

We have these two men who, like Virgil in Hades, take us on two very different tours of the death of American Reason. How do the moviemakers present them to us?

McNamara is given to us as “an IBM machine with legs.” He combines a self-assured egotism with a cold, internally consistent logic. Serving under General Curtis Lemay in WWII, McNamara absorbed Lemay’s credo of Total War. He enthusiastically committed himself to mastering the “statistical control of war.”

Now, McNamara was no fool. He understood the statistics and he could crunch the numbers better than anyone (often in his head). He knew where the American project in Indochina was going. As early as 1963, he was telling Kennedy “we need a way to get out of Vietnam.” Yet he continued to serve, and he continued to follow orders with maximum efficiency. In order to justify this to himself, he constructed an elaborate superstructure of moral imperatives and rational analysis. The struggle to reconcile these alibis transforms the aged McNamara into a man obsessed with the issue of JUDGEMENT. He asks the rhetorical question: “What is morally appropriate in time of war?” He keeps coming back to this question, picking at it like a scab. He finds himself pinned by his own musings. For example, when discussing Agent Orange with his on-screen interlocutor, McNamara suggests that the best method for deriving a moral judgment about this poison is to “look at the law.” He explains – emphatically, as if trying to convince HIMSELF – that there were no clear-cut legal restrictions on the use of Agent Orange in a war zone. Had there been a legal restriction, then he would not have done it, because THEN it would have been immoral. His understanding of morality is limited to the idea of LEGALITY. Legal=moral. In effect, the same defense used by the top Nazis at Nuremberg. McNamara does not recognize that he did anything immoral in Indochina. McNamara deploys the alibi that we’ve heard so many times, TOO many times, in recent years in America: it was simply an “error of judgment.” As if the entire catastrophe in Indochina could be explained away simply as a MISTAKE. He says, “I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgment.” In other words, our intentions were good but we screwed up. The eventual outcome – the defeat of America by what McNamara described as “a nation of peasants with bicycles” -- was simply incomprehensible to McNamara. His rational universe had no framework to understand exactly what had gone wrong.

In Kurtz’s Indochina, by contrast, Reason is already dead. Rationality has no place. Modernity has not been invented yet. Even the war doesn’t really exist here. None of the projects conceived by the generals in Saigon and the politicians in Washington exists in Kurtz’s Indochina. In the words of the narrator, Captain Willard, Kurtz “broke from them ... and then he broke from himself.”

Unlike McNamara, Kurtz understands himself as what Heidegger would have called a “thrown” man, thrown into the middle of the Horror, where he realizes that Reason cannot help him. Thrown back on himself, in the midst of unreason, Kurtz does the only thing left to do. He pushes through. He pushes BEYOND, into madness, and into authenticity. Kurtz’s madness cannot be understood as a mere “backlash” against Reason. To the contrary. In a war that could never be WON but from which it was impossible to WALK AWAY, perhaps Kurtz’s decision was quite rational. Perhaps he is as much an Enlightenment man as McNamara. Perhaps his response, his DECISION, was, in those circumstances, COMPLETELY rational.

Kurtz, in his situation, offers no alibis. As the insane combat photographer tells us, “He’s a great man. He’s fighting the war.” That simple: he is fighting the war. He is killing and killing and killing, “pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army,” without alibis or aspirations and most importantly, WITHOUT JUDGMENT. Because, as Kurtz emphasizes, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

“The Fog of War” is structured around what are called “Lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.” These are lessons that McNamara claims to have learned from his long and eventful life, especially lessons regarding the conduct of war in general and the war in Indochina in particular. Some of them are mindless, simple pieties, the sort of things one might see on a greeting card or on a pillow crocheted by your maiden aunt. But several of them are enlightening. I want to take a few minutes to explore a few of these “lessons,” look at how they contradict McNamara’s actual behavior, and highlight what our other protagonist, Colonel Kurtz, has to say on the subject.

Lesson: empathize with your enemy. McNamara had no real understanding of his enemy, and was constantly baffled by their irrational refusal to throw down their weapons and surrender. He tells us, significantly, “we empathized with the Soviet Union. But we were never able to empathize with the Vietnamese. We just didn’t know enough about THOSE PEOPLE to understand what kind of war THEY were fighting compared to the kind of war WE were fighting.” Kurtz, on the other hand, gives us a story that reveals his deep, perhaps TOO deep, understanding of his enemy. He describes going into a village and inoculating the children against cholera. After they leave, his team is called back by a weeping old man. When they arrive back at the village, they discover that the Viet Cong had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were, stacked in the village square, a pile of little white arms. He immediately understands the soul of his enemy, and immediately understands why America is doomed to fail in Indochina: “These were not monsters, these were men with families, these men whose hearts were filled with love. And yet they had the strength – THE STRENGTH – to do that.”

Lesson: rationality will not save us. An important lesson, to be sure, but if he knew this then why did McNamara continue to apply instrumental reason to the problem of Indochina long after most sane observers realized that the adventure in Indochina was OVER? The lack of comprehension in McNamara’s voice on-camera is telling. Kurtz understands the actual truth of this lesson, as he describes the men who cut off all those arms as men who were able to unleash their primordial instinct to kill and keep on killing, but WITHOUT JUDGMENT. In a world were Reason has no place, judgment can NEVER have a place.

Lesson: maximize efficiency. McNamara was able to apply this lesson indiscriminately in any context, from burning Tokyo to the ground to turning around the Ford Motor Company to attempting to hammer the Vietnamese into submission. With no hint of shame, and even a bit of pride in his voice, McNamara describes how “in one night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese in a bombing run on Tokyo. I analyzed bombing runs to make them more efficient.” To a bomber pilot lamenting the loss of one of his friends, McNamara offers this assessment, “You lost your wingman but we were able to destroy Tokyo.” McNamara puts many of his alibis in the mouth of General Lemay, but he argues with a passion that tells us he EMBRACES these alibis, and that he acknowledges them AS alibis. “Lemay said if we lost the war, we’d be prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara asks, rhetorically: “what makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” But we need to realize that McNamara is incapable of experiencing this as a GENUINE question, as a PHILOSOPHICAL question. As, perhaps, THE ONLY remaining Philosophical question. “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” As far as McNamara is concerned, he is simply ‘playing with concepts’ He is simply ‘brainstorming the question,’ confident that Reason will provide the only sensible answer.

Kurtz’s efficiency is of a simpler and more intimate kind. His efficient killing is something that takes place on the ground, surrounded by blood, but he will do it anyway. He tells us that “we must kill them, we must exterminate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army.” His efficiency is more intimate because it is something one must do while LOOKING AT the people that one kills, informed by the realization that “in a war there are many moments for ruthless action - what is often called ruthless - what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

One final lesson, possibly the most ironic of the many “lessons from the life of Robert McNamara”: in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. McNamara sanctimoniously qualifies this lesson, saying, “you may have to engage in evil, but you MUST minimize it.” He repeats several times, like a desperate prayer, the claim that “we were trying to save our nation.” He lets us know that this was “a difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in.” Please note that he most definitely includes himself in the ranks of those “sensitive human beings.” Kurtz doesn’t bother to slip a discreet tissue of lies over the evil that he is and that he does, he invites it in and claims it as a comrade. “It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what ‘horror’ is. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If not then that are enemies to be feared, truly enemies.” For this pure, unequivocal truth-telling, the generals declared Kurtz insane and then sent men to kill him as Kurtz waited, squatting in the jungle and broadcasting his truth over short-wave radio out of Cambodia. In his last broadcast, his last duty, his last attempt at honorable amends for the consequences of his own madness, seconds before he freely embraces his death, Kurtz gives us this: “We train our young men to drop FIRE on people, but we won’t allow them to write the word FUCK on their airplanes, because it’s OBSCENE!” McNamara would see no contradiction here. For Kurtz, the contradiction is enough to drive him mad.

In the elegiac last minutes of “The Fog of War,” the interlocutor asks McNamara, “After you left, why didn’t you speak out against the war?” McNamara evades the question, but finally responds, “These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You have no idea how inflammatory my words can appear.” Asked if he feels any responsibility, any guilt, he states, “I don’t want to go any farther with this. It just adds more controversy. Anything I can possibly say will require too many qualifications.” The interlocutor offers McNamara an easy way out, asking: “Do you think it was a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” McNamara thinks about this and finally agrees: “Yeah. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” McNamara, at the end of his life, embraces this ultimate act of mauvais fois. The technocrat is invalidated by his refusal to accept that he acted FREELY. And his own cowardly conscience rots his soul from the inside out as his time grows short. Kurtz is worth quoting again, very much apropos of McNamara: “It is judgment that betrays us.”

Kurtz, on the other hand, pushing out far beyond McNamara’s timid, lying morality into the very heart of The Horror, finally reaches a place where he can embrace his absolute freedom, “the only real freedom, freedom from the opinions of others, free even from our own opinions of ourselves.” And it is this freedom that drives him insane.

The seemingly opposite fates of Kurtz and McNamara reveal the ultimate moral failure of American Reason, of the idea that one can go somewhere and kill someone, and justify it with the alibi that one is doing one’s pure moral duty as revealed by the application of clean, unsoiled rationality.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Writer Slavoj Zizek described “the desert of the real” as the place where there are no illusions, no alibis, and no more comforting emotions. For all Americans – but especially for those of us who gave our hearts and our time to getting Barack Obama elected – it is time to move from the warmth of election night jubilation and step into the desert of the real.

In the desert of the real, we must end a pointless war in Iraq while winning a just war in Afghanistan.

In the desert of the real, we must take the lead in repairing a global economic meltdown that is the direct result of America’s irresponsibility.

In the desert of the real, we must protect, defend, and repair a Constitution that has been treated as “just a piece of paper” for far too long.

In the desert of the real, there are still far too many Americans who need our best efforts to help them gain the basic human rights that most of us take for granted.

To those who might accuse me of being a wet blanket, to those who just want to kick back and enjoy the glow for a little while, I can only say this: there is no time.

There is hard work ahead, and some of it is dirty work, and some of it is the work of generations that many of us will not live to see complete. But it is work that needs doing, work that we should have been doing all along.

It is cold in the desert of the real; the light is bleak and hurts the eyes. But it is where we have to go, because on the other side of that desert is our shared American future. So let’s go, everyone. Wake up, get a shower, and roll up your sleeves.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

Monday, November 3, 2008

To the little old white-lady Obama canvasser in rural N.C.

As some of you know, ol' Crusty lives out in the wilds of rural North Carolina. Though born and bred in and around NYC, this old urban burnout has somehow found his way out to the woods, where the oak grove that surrounds my house pelts the roof and the deck with acorns every year, where an afternoon on the deck lets me see hawks circling patiently, squirrels having throw-down turf fights over piles of acorns, and buzz-bombing by hummingbirds pissed that I'm sitting too close to "their" feeder (hummingbirds are vicious, territorial little critters, don't kid yourself ;)

Sunday the doorbell rings. Now, you need to understand, doorbell ringing on Sundays out our way means one thing: Christers wanting to come in and read the Bible with me. We're having none of that at Chez Crusty, and Lurlene The Hell Hound knows it, so she goes into her defensive position at the front door barking like mad.

I peek out as my wife restrains Hell Hound, and I see this sweet white lady of a certain age, with about a half dozen Obama buttons on her chest. She smiled tenatively, obviously feeling anxiety and maybe even some fear. I smiled and shouted to Hell Hound:

"It's OK, baby! You settle down now -- she's a Democrat!"

Ice broken, she and I shared a laugh.

"I stopped by to encourage you to come out and vote on Tuesday."

"Been there, done that. We did early voting on Saturday."

"Oh, OK. Um, did you ....?"

I gestured at my pickup and my wife's Honda, copiously pasted with Obama stickers. She smiled again.

"Well great, then you're all set then! Thanks for voting!"

We smiled and waved and sent the little old white lady Obama worker on her way. Out our way, her action -- walking down long driveways and knocking on the doors of strangers' homes -- is an act of genuine courage for anyone, but especially for an Obama worker. I don't know her name, and never will, but I salute her, and hope Obama wins if for no other reason than to reward her simple, unadorned courage.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel: 1912-2008

A life well lived, and a brilliant mind silenced. Damn it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On this date in 1938 ...

Many families have a story about that night.

My grandmother used to describe how my grandfather spent the night on the roof of their tenement building, drunk out of his mind, brandishing his old WWI Navy service revolver. From time to time my grandmother would hang her head out the apartment window and shout out updates.

"Al! Al! They're coming! God's sake, they're by Passaic now!"

"Shut up and get your head back in the house, will you?"

"Oh God, Al! They're coming up on the Palisades! They starting to wade over to NewYork!

"Will you get back inside, god damn it!!!"

"Can you see 'em, Al? God's sake, can you see 'em???"

A long pause ... his eyes would have been squinted, scanning the horizon hard, searching for Martian machines the way he had once scanned for German U-boats ... his voice drifted down from up above on the roof ... his voice sounded very small, very sober, and very, very scared.

" ... yeah ... yeah, I see them ... they're coming ...."

He went to his grave insisting that he saw a line of vast Martian machines striding across to Manhattan. You understand: he saw them.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1938 that a radio broadcast based on a science fiction novel caused mass hysteria across New England: Orson Welles's adaptation of War of the Worlds. The first part of the broadcast imitated news bulletins and announced that Martians had invaded New Jersey. There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the program explaining that it was fictional, but many people tuned in late and missed the explanation. So they panicked; some people fled their homes and many were terrified.

War of the Worlds (1898) was a novel by H.G. Wells set in 19th-century England. Orson Welles kept the same plot but updated it and set it in Grover's Mill, New Jersey.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

W: The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me

“He awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers.”

Immanual Kant (speaking of David Hume)

It was the lead-up to Iraq that did it. Iraq, and that lying smirk.

In late 2002 through the summer of 2003, I was on a software-development project far from home. I had to drive 1.5 hours to the site in the morning, and then 1.5 hours back home every evening. The route was through some of the least-inhabited parts of eastern North Carolina. Not much radio out that way, and what little there is just screams “short-wave loony-tune.” I had time to think, then, time I hadn’t had for decades. And I started thinking about the world, and I started thinking about that man with the lying smirk.

I didn’t vote in 2000. In fact, I hadn’t voted since 1980, when I voted for Reagan -- not out of any political conviction, but because I detested that grinning imbecile Jimmy Carter. I used to be different. Once I was young, I was engaged, I wrote philosophy, I wrote plays. I’m sure most of what I wrote was utter dreck, but it was the passion and the desire to make a difference that was important. Me and my friends were going to change the world, or at least change a few lives. We lived like we meant it, and we loved the struggle with ideas and words and causes.

Well, you know the story. Life did what it so often did. Life got in the way, and I went off on another path. Don’t get me wrong: after a decade-long rough patch (drugs) I was mostly happy in a bovine, unthinking way, happy for decades. And so the years drifted by – the operative word being drifting – and I found myself in late 2002 driving down that long empty road in the dark every morning and every night, thinking about Iraq and thinking about that god damned lying smirk.

And one day, shortly after the invasion began, I understood the scope of what had happened, and I said to myself aloud in my car, so loud that I actually startled myself: “Jesus Christ, we let the bastards do it to us again!” And so I rediscovered my rage, that blessed rage, that sweet emotion that has so many negative associations these days but that was so honored in simpler times that Homer was able to weave the entire fabric of his greatest epic around the rage of Achilles.

And so I started writing again.

There’s no way for me to avoid the inevitable conclusion: viewed from my own purely selfish perspective, George W. Bush was the best thing that ever happened to me. This idea horrifies me. If I could wave a magic wand and have it all play out another way – if I could have a world without W, at the cost of never awakening from my decades-long dogmatic slumbers – would I? Would I? I have to believe that I would.

My sanity depends on it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cultures and Cassoulets

“Two thousand years of Judeo-Christianity have not obscured the fact that pagan thought has not yet disappeared, even though it has often been blurred, stifled or persecuted by monotheistic religions and their secular offshoots.”

Alain De Benoist

People here in the US don’t speak much about “culture” anymore, not in any real sense. To speak these days about things like “a culture” or “a people,” and to demand that such things be taken seriously, is to invite smirks at best, anxious frowns at worst. I believe that the new century will contain certain centrifugal forces that will enable us – force us – to take these things seriously again.

The US has always comforted itself with the myth of the “melting pot.” What we actually have – what we have always had, if the truth is to be told – is more like the southern French dish called “Cassoulet.” A large, bubbling pot full of chunks of disparate, bizarrely matched ingredients. When people speak of “an” American culture, they are willfully insisting on the myth of the smoothly mixed “melting pot” rather than the uncomfortable reality of the American cassoulet. American culture as such does not exist. In place of the culture is the shared assertion that “We are all Americans!” From the perspective of authentic cultures, this is a non-statement. It simply says, “We believe in the same ideas.” So saying, “I am an American” means nothing more than “I accept the same propositions that you do.” In a nation where even the illusion of such unity of beliefs and values lies shattered on the ground, this entire model collapses – and the US has nothing authentic with which to replace it.

Once the chimera of “shared ideas and values” is seen for what it is, we are confronted with a Bizarro World free-jazz interpretation of an authentic culture. By the time Americans’ ancestral cultures have been fed into the maw of the great American degradation machine and shat out the other end, they are nothing more than a collection of Disney Land “small world” artifacts bearing no more resemblance to authentic cultures than “Saint Patty’s Day” bears a resemblance to my ancestral Gaelic culture that it purports to celebrate. The idea that a nation can simply manufacture a culture at will is not only the height of hubris, it also misses the point.

With the idea of “an” American culture exposed for the myth that it has always been, perhaps it is time to rediscover and renew our faith in the authentic cultures of the ancestors we left behind. Not so that we can “celebrate our heritage” in some typically shallow, mercantile little ritual of consumption. But rather so that we can have a true understanding of who we are and where we are from. As the “American idea” vanishes into smoke and faerie dust, this may be the only thing we have to hang on to, the only firm ground on which we can stand.

When I drive along the shore of the Mediterranean from Barolo to Monaco to Nice to Provence to the scrublands of Languedoc to the small rocky beach at Banyuls-sur-Mer, regions where the locals are once again demanding that their homelands be called by their true names – Catalonia, Occitania, Savoy – I rejoice in the multitude of alive, vital, authentic cultures. When I drive from mad King Ludwig’s castle across the Rhine and into the heart of wine country in regions that the locals are once again proud to call Bayern and Alsace and Bourgogne, I rejoice. Any place where an authentic culture grounded in an authentic people survives and even occasionally thrives in this flat, dull, monotonous, pasteurized, globalized, Disneyfied world, I rejoice in them. And I salute them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Birthday, Friedrich Nietzsche

At the age of 14, I sat in the cavernous balcony of the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, waiting for the science fiction movie with the odd title to begin. The house lights went down and I settled deeper into my seat, ready to begin the familiar, beloved ritual.

The screen was completely dark. Slowly I became aware of a strange, deep bass rumble coming from the enormous Dolby speakers on the walls. The floor itself, the seats, were vibrating. On the screen, the camera was panning up over the dark side of the moon. Three brass notes sounded, rising; the music suggested infinite distance and enormous possibility. On the screen, Earth broke above the curve of the moon, and an enormous orchestral outburst slammed me back into my seat. As the fanfare continued, I experienced something I’ve never experienced since: the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood up. I had to know what this music was, what it meant. The subject was not open for discussion. It was an obsession, you understand.

My investigations took me to the King Kullen record store in one of the sleazier neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, where I bought the sound track for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I played that LP until it became unplayable, its uneven grooves reamed smooth by the needle. The liner notes told me that the piece that possessed me had an odd title, in a language I didn’t recognize: Also Sprach Zarathustra. The liner notes explained that it was composed by Richard Strauss as homage to a book with the same strange, incomprehensible title, written by some man with an equally comprehensible name. How exactly should I pronounce that name? Nye-chy? Nitch-key? Nysh?

Another (warning: bad pun ahead) odyssey to Manhattan secured me a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which contained Zarathustra and several other works. And so I started reading.

Let me be clear: had it not been for Nietzsche, I would have wound up just another dead junkie in the low, dangerous, feral neighborhood where I grew up. I damn near wound up that way anyway, which is a whole other story. I have a t-shirt that reads, “Friedrich Nietzsche Saved My Soul.” People tell me how witty and totally post-modern it is. I tell them I'm dead serious.

Miraculously, I escaped to a small Jesuit college, where I majored in Philosophy and went head-to-head with the priests, full of the sort of tedious, humorless sincerity that only Humanities undergrads can muster. Nietzsche led me and my college peers to Camus and Sartre, and we all styled ourselves as engaged, indignant Existentialists, determined to change the world or at least change a few lives. You were either a Camusien or a Sartrean, and your life wasn’t worth a plugged franc if you got caught after dark on the Sartre gang’s turf with a copy of L’Etranger in your back pocket. We all wrote boatloads of philosophy, but in the spirit of our heroes we also wrote novels and plays and short stories. All of what we wrote was completely awful, of course, full of trite, portentous bathos and strident poseur bravado. What the hell; we put our hearts and souls into it, and we lived and wrote like we meant it.

You know the next chapter: life got in the way, as it always does, and I got waylaid, sidetracked, stopped ... for 30 years. And then one day five years ago, I found myself working on a software development project far from home, driving hours to and from work in the dark. With nothing in front of me but the cone of headlight, and no radio stations that far out, my quotidian mind slowed down and finally became quiet for the first time in decades. And that’s when I heard the little voice. Lethargically at first, as if struggling to wake from a long, drugged sleep, and then with increasing urgency, the small still voice said: Become who you are! At that moment, I felt something slip. It was a sensation, an actual physical sensation of a deep slippage inside my head. Something broke free, some great inner dam gave way and ideas poured through the breach and into my mind. An enormous flood of ideas, each demanding not only that I pay attention to it, but that I help it on its way out into the world.

And so, this blog. A place in the world for those ideas that are unlikely to grow into full-fledged essays, or books. I write constantly now, and am having some modest success in placing my work. But this place here, this is the place for the runts of my litter, my beloved runts.

So I found my way back, at the end, to Philosophy, to all of it, and when I’m grinding out the miles on the treadmill at my gym I wear my t-shirt proudly. And last March, I made an important pilgrimage, and stood at the head of the “Nietzsche Trail” in the mountaintop Hobbit village of Eze, the trail he walked up and down every day when he was writing Zarathustra. Standing there, I finally understood Nietzsche’s poetry of the great heights, his poetry of over-coming and under-going.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Is economics "value-free"?

It's a question that is finally -- finally! -- being raised. It's a question we sometimes raise about science, and people in the rationalist camp (of which I am one) tend to step back from that particular philosophical box of snakes, because the logical next step to saying that science is not value-free is: whose values get to guide and constrain science? The values of the rationalists, or the values of the flat-Earthers?

We now have the same issue on the table: is economics value-free? And if not, then what values -- whose values -- are to guide and constrain economics? Obviously, my philosophical instincts lead me to say "the guiding and constraining principle must be: is the result of this economic decision humane? If so, then proceed. If not, then drop back and re-think." But I have no way to philosophically ground this, which basically means it's merely my opinion, of no more value than any other opinion, including the opinion of the most rabid red-meat capitalist. There's a philosophical challenge here, and I'm not sure how to begin approaching it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fundies at the Door

If you are like me and live in Jesus Land (aka most of America between and below the Northeast and the West Coast), then you know what a bother it is when Evangelicals, Fundies, and assorted Christers show up at the front door. Here's what I do:

(sound of doorbell ringing. Lurlene the wonder dog immediately loses her freaking mind and starts trying to chew her way through the door. I beat her back with a flaming torch as I open the door...)

Me: Yeah, what?

Them: Good day to ya, brother! We wondered if we might come in and tell you the good news --

Me: No thank you. We're Druids.

(they stare, blinking in bovine incomprehension. I listen to the creaking sound of their gears grinding through this information, trying to find a context for it. I allow some time to pass...)

Me: Oh, and say, what a coincidence! It's time for Hell Hound to be let out for her morning run. Did I mention that she's very fast? Oh, and you're standing right between her and her favorite pee spot.

(I close the door. Behind closed doors I turn to Lurlene -- who is still losing her freaking mind -- and say loudly and cheerfully, "Don't worry, honey, I'll let you out to say hello to the nice people in just a few seconds ....")

Works every time.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Day The English Language Began

Linguists must shrink in horror (or lean in with deep fascination) when confronted with the chunky stew that is the English language. I've traveled to France several times, and at every turn I stumbled across words that, when pronounced with a different accent, were familiar everyday English words. Here's when it happened ...

From the Writer's Almanac:

The anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066. It was this week in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 — which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

The English word literature comes down from the Old French lettre. In the singular, the word in French refers to a member of the alphabet; when it's plural, it's as broad as it is in our phrase "Arts and Letters," encompassing literature and culture.

The pen with which we write may be mightier than the sword, but it was still a sharp object, at least when it first came into English from the Old French penne, "a feather with a sharpened quill." It was dipped in enque, which surely was spilled sometimes. This Old French word for ink came from a Latin word that described the purple fluid meant for a very specific use: the Roman emperor's official stamp of approval, his John Hancock.

Various genres of English literature derive their names from French roots, some of which ultimately derived from Greek. Poet, for example, we got from the Old French word poete, which entered French from Greek via Latin. In Greek, there's poiein, a verb meaning "to create." And in Greek there is poetes, "maker, poet." In Middle English, "poetry" at first referred to creative literature as a whole.

Tragedy in English is from the Old French tragedie via Latin from Greek tragoidia. The reasoning behind the Greek roots (tragos, meaning "goat" and oide "ode, song") is not entirely clear. On that note, mystery, from Old French mistere, was a word first used in English with the sense of "mystic presence" or "hidden religious" symbolism.

Comedy at first referred in English to a genre of stories in which the ending was a happy one. It also came into Middle English through Old French, via Latin from Greek, where it's a compound of the words "revel" and "singer." Comedian first referred to a person who wrote comic plays, and then — in the late 1800s — developed the sense of a person who stands in front of an audience and tells jokes.

Journal is from Old French jurnal, or "belonging to a day." At first, it was a sort of reference book that contained the times of daily prayers. In the 1600s, it acquired the meaning of "diary" and later became associated with newspaper titles and lent its root to journalism.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Noble Lies

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

- Seneca the Younger

Many of the top thinkers in the freethinker/atheist “movement” believe we have an obligation to drag all people – kicking and screaming, if need be – into our brave new secular world. They propose that we take away people’s primitive but cherished illusions and in return we offer them ... what? Ah yes, of course: The Truth. In exchange for surrendering your belief in the ancient Bedouin sky god, we will reveal to you The Truth: that life is random, that the universe views us with supreme indifference, and when you die you brain is extinguished and your body rots.

And we wonder why so many of them say “No thanks!”

We need to ask ourselves: do we really want to take away the primitive, childlike faith of the common people? Perhaps we should be mindful of Nietzsche’s theory that one can judge the strength of a person’s character by how much truth that person can stand. Anyone who has spent any time rubbing shoulders with the common people can attest to the fact that their tolerance for truth is very small indeed. What can we expect will happen to those people when we bring them the truth about a godless world? How will they react? Dostoevsky said that if there was no God, then anything is permitted. Anything. Think about that for a moment; think about the implications of it. Think about the prospect of millions of newly godless people waking up simultaneously to that single realization: anything is permitted. Think of the things your neighbors and coworkers might be capable of were they not restrained by the fear of an eternity in a lake of fire.

Perhaps Plato was right. Perhaps our best course of action is to just leave the common people to bask in the illusory comfort of their noble lies.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, H.L. Mencken

Nietzschean, elitist, racist, professional crank, and quite possibly America's greatest cultural gadfly (perhaps only Gore Vidal comes close). One has to forgive Mencken a lot if one wants to read him, but he rewards the courageous.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H.L. Mencken born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected: He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored. He finally mustered up his courage and told his father that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism. His father told him to bring up the subject again in a year.

Mencken had been working at his father's factory for three years when, on New Year's Eve in 1898, his father had a convulsion and collapsed. His mother told Mencken to get a doctor, 11 blocks down the street, and Mencken later said, "I remember well how, as I was trotting to [the doctor's] house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last."

His father died two weeks later. The day after his father's funeral, Mencken shaved his face, combed his hair, put on his best suit, and went down to the Baltimore Morning Herald, asking for a job. Mencken came back every single day for the next four weeks. He finally wore the editor down, and he got to write two articles, each fewer than 50 words long.

He went on to become one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America, writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for The American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. His masterpiece was one of the few books he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919), a history and collection of American vernacular speech. It included a translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English that began, "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."

When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On this date in 1981

He was an insufferable, narcissistic pig in every respect, but Picasso understood what art is supposed to do, the role it should serve in a society. If Picasso had lived in Plato's mythical Republic, he would have understood why the artists would be considered dangerous and would be driven from the city -- and Picasso would have fought it to the death.

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1981 that Pablo Picasso's famous painting "Guernica" was returned to Spain to hang in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting depicts the suffering in the city of Guernica, the capitol of Basque Spain, after a German bombardment in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso exhibited the painting in Paris, but then sent it to New York and refused to allow it to be shown in Spain until the rule of General Franco ended. Pablo Picasso, who said: "Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Against All Fanaticisms

“The first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism under whatever guise it may appear.”

-Gabriel Marcel

Listen to what Marcel is saying here. He is saying that we don’t get to pick which fanaticisms we oppose and which we embrace. He is saying that fanaticism as such must be opposed. Given that every “ism” is a fanaticism” more or less cleverly concealed, are we then to oppose all of them? Must we always be “reasonable”? Or do some things demand a level of commitment from us that cannot be described as anything less than “fanatical”? If so, then on what ground do we base our triage? How to decide which “isms” to oppose and which to champion? Everyone can agree that the fanaticisms of communism and fascism should be opposed wherever they present themselves. Many would say that capitalism (especially of the uncontrolled, freebooter variety) should equally be opposed. But what about those “isms” of which we approve? What about internationalism? Humanism? And what about that most problematical of fanaticisms, idealism? If these fanaticisms are not also to be opposed, then we need to evolve a “truth test” for good vs. bad fanaticisms, a truth test that by the nature of its structure and content would command assent from any rational moral agent. This truth test would require a lot more rigor than “Well, this fanaticism is nice to people and this fanaticism is mean.” That’s the truth test of the schoolyard, and is useless for our purposes.

This subject demands an expanded essay in itself. More: it demands a book. And who knows, maybe I might just be the one to write it. But not now, and not for awhile.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Del Martin, dead at 87

What an amazing life. When she and her life partner Phyllis Lyon met in 1950, homosexuality was classified as a mental disease. In May 2008, they were able to be side by side and get legally married. It's enough to warm the heart of a crusty old polemicist and make him think that there's the possibility of progress in this bad old world after all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Unphotogenic Art Form

“Of all things written, I love only what a person has written with his blood.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Think hard: have you ever seen an interesting movie or documentary about a writer? In the past several weeks, I have seen documentaries that did wonderful jobs of portraying two very different art forms: musical composition and painting. A Labyrinth of Time gives us American composer Elliott Carter, while the truly gonzo, loopy documentary Condo Painting shows us the painter George Condo at work. And this is the key: we see these artists at work.

We see Carter working with musicians, hunched over the piano sorting out a composition problem, conducting an orchestra; and when he wasn’t doing much of anything, the filmmakers showed him wandering the streets of his beloved Manhattan with his compositions as background music. With Condo, the visual “photogenic” aspects of his art form are even more obvious; I have a hard time imagining a boring documentary when your raw materials are paint and turpentine and canvases where new work is constructed as the camera watches.

And there’s the problem with writing. There is nothing visual about it. with Carter and Condo, we get to see them doing their art – and it is exciting. Watching a writer do his art is about as exciting as watching a tree put out new growth rings. Making a film in which the main action would be a writer writing would be a disaster. Films about writers always show the writer living his life, not doing his art. There is basically nothing to show.

The other problem with writing as an art form is that (until recently) there have been very few non-traditional outlets for the writer’s craft. We’ve all heard the story (probably apocryphal) of the woman who kick starts a photography career by hanging some of her work in a local bank lobby. We’ve all heard about the actor who got his start acting off-off-off-Broadway (or even doing street theatre). We even have the unforgettable image of Basquiat bombing the walls and subway trains of New York City with his spraypainted art.

Maybe blogs like this are what we writers get to have other than the all-too-rare experience of publication. Maybe the internet is how our art finally gets to be photogenic. Maybe what we’re doing out here is bombing the digital subways with our art.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft

An odd recluse, terrified of cities, people, and "lesser races". His prose style incorporates the worst of the stylistic excesses of Poe at best, the penny dreadfuls at worst. All that being said, Lovecraft had something in his work that most other "weird fiction" writers lack: a consistent vision. Plus, let's be honest: he's fun to read, one of those guilty pleasure we don't like to admit we indulge.

I highly recommend Michel Hoellebecq's book HP Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life, for an excellent critical/philosophical assessment of Lovecraft's work.

From The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called simply "weird fiction." Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available— books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stores (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I Am Not An Atheist

Quote of the week 8/15/08

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the patterns of their words.”

Isaac Asimov

I no longer call myself an atheist. Oh,don’t get me wrong: I still don’t believe there is a God or gods, but I have decided that the label “a-theist” makes no more sense as a positive self-description that describing oneself as an a-Bunnyist or an a-Santaist or an a-ToothFairyist. It is a negation, is it an “I am not” rather than an “I am”. Defining oneself on the basis of what one is not is quite literally absurd. I am not a scrapbooker, but I do not view “not a scrapbooker" as a self-descriptive label and a basis for solidarity with other “not a scrapbooker"people. One can quickly see how absurd this really is. How sad, how limiting to define oneself in terms of one thing out of the many things one does not believe.

I refuse to make a religion out of my lack of religion. I don’t organize my life or my thinking around my lack of belief. My life and my life’s projects are driven by things that matter. If I have to call myself anything, I could do a lot worse than steal an idea from Kierkegaard and label myself:


Sunday, August 10, 2008

What the Hell is Going On in Italy?

24 July 2008
Soldiers To Patrol Italian Streets To Fight Crime

Italian Mayor Bans Gatherings of Three or More

What is one to make of these ominous developments in Italy? Do they suggest more of the same is on the way in other European countries? Or is it simply an anomaly? I think to understand what is happening now, you need to think about Europe’s history.

Europe is a place that turned back the Muslim invaders in the 700's (Tours/Poitiers France) and the 1600s (Vienna Austria). The current "invasion" by poor people from Muslim countries is viewed by many Europeans through this lens of history. It's not something we here in the US can really grasp; we keep saying "yeah well we have our own problem with an 'invasion' from Mexico!" But it's really not the same thing at all. The US's wave of "invaders" have no history of aggressive behavior against the US (in fact, if you look at the Texican squatters of the 1830s and the unprovoked war against Mexico in the 1840s, quite the opposite is true). When Europe sees a new wave of "barbarians at the gates", they are seeing three things that we cannot grasp:

  1. historically, Islam did try to over-run Europe and convert it. We might say "Jeez Louise, that was centuries ago!" Which simply reveals our ignorance of the thinking of countries that actually have a history, one spanning millenia. To Europe (and, it should be noted, to the Muslim world) things like the battle of Tours and the siege of Vienna happened yesterday.
  1. our Mexican "invaders" do not have a recent history of detonating themselves in close proximity to the native population of their host country. When Europeans see Muslim immigrants, they think Madrid, they think Coventry Station. They look at Iraq and Afghanistan and they think "these people are trying to import that into our country." Every single Muslim immigrant gets painted with this same brush.
  2. Europe always has before its eyes the image of poor, brave, reasonable Theo van Gogh, run down on the street in Amsterdam in 2004 and slaughtered like an animal in an abattoir by a Muslim religious fanatic. They do not forget that the influential Imam of the as-Sunnah Mosque in The Hague gave a sermon several weeks before the murder calling for Van Gogh’s death. They do not forget that, as news of Van Gogh’s murder spread through the Muslim world, many Muslims turned out on the streets to cheer. They think of Van Gogh and wonder, “When will it be my turn?”

I'm not writing any of this to excuse the recent convulsions of xenophobia in Europe, but simply to give Americans -- who tend to view things through a very America-centric lens -- some idea of how things look from over there. If you think post-9/11 Americans are scared of hordes of Muslim "barbarians at the gates", you haven’t seen anything -- the Europeans are terrified at the barbarians at their gates.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Casual Stroll Through The Lunatic Asylum (quote of the week with Commentary)

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Like Nietzsche, I view people who say “I believe in God” the same as I would view people who say “I believe in Santa Claus” or “I believe in the tooth fairy” or “I believe in a six-foot invisible rabbit named Harvey.” That being said, I stand firmly in solidarity with the principle that every adult human being has the right to believe in any god or gods, no matter how ridiculous or puerile. But let’s be clear: your right to believe in your God does not impose on me an obligation to take your belief seriously. Your right to believe in your God does not deprive me of the right to laugh and point at your antic and to call your belief a silly thing. And should you be too outrĂ© in your demonstrations of belief – to the point where you go from being an annoyance to being a danger – I have not only the right but the moral obligation to push back against your insanity by any means necessary.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Childhood's End Someday? (Quote of the Week w/Commentary)

“It’s time to be patriotic about something other than war.”

- John Edwards

Alone among the developed nations of the West, the US still glorifies war and the “warrior.” This serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world about what happens when a nation obtains the means to wage war at will anywhere around the globe without also maturing into the wisdom to abhor the idea of war. I have come to believe that the love and glorification of war is something that a nation outgrows, and the US has a very long way to go before it is mature enough to turn its back on war. Indeed, I doubt that there can ever again be conditions dire enough to pull the US kicking and screaming out of its warlike childhood.

We can look to the nations of Western Europe as our benchmark for a sane, realistic attitude towards war. The thing we need to understand about Europe is that it did not achieve its maturity just by being in existence a lot longer than the US. Nor was it the result of philosophical reflection and rational critique. No, Europe turned its back on war because Europe bled. The countries of Europe bled and bled, and when they thought they’d finally managed to “end all wars,” they bled worse than all the other times combined. Europe has bled on a scale that the US cannot begin to imagine. The numbers that follow are in no way intended to trivialize US deaths in its wars – I’m of a mind that every single death in war is a moral outrage and an affront to reason – but simply to highlight the vast difference in the scale of death between Europe (which has moved beyond war) and the US (which has not).

The total US casualty count in its 10-year war in Vietnam was 57,000, less than the British casualty count on the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. US casualties in its 5 years in Iraq are small compared the 18,000 French war dead in their “Iraq equivalent” in Algeria. Even in the European theatre in World War II, the US suffered less combat deaths (291,000) than some surprising countries such as Romania (500,000), Hungary (300,000) and even Italy (330,000), a country widely seen as having waved the white flag at every opportunity. Even the French – still seen by most in the US as having played no meaningful combat role in the war – came close to the US numbers, with 250,000 combat deaths. And mind you, these numbers do not even take into account the massive civilian casualties in Europe’s wars. The civilian population of the US, by contrast, has been essentially unscathed by its wars .. which perhaps explains a lot about the US’s continuing infatuation with war and “warriors”.

Again, I feel the need to emphasize that these numbers are not intended to trivialize the horrors experienced by US military personnel (and their families) in the country’s various wars, but simply to suggest that the scale of the bloodletting necessary to cure a people of their addiction to war is not something that the US has ever approached. Europe had to be bled white before it could arrive at childhood’s end and step beyond their strutting bluster and testosterone-saturated militarism. The US has never come close to that scale of wartime suffering, nor (absent some unexpected, game-changing apocalypse) is the US ever likely to bleed on that scale. On a human level – which is where, ultimately, all our moral decisions must be made – it is a wonderful thing that the American people will never have to suffer so. But if the US will never go through that awful fire and emerge on the other side cured of the disease of war, is there any other way that the US can arrive at its own childhood’s end someday?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Educating our "organic intellectuals"

A good piece, and well worth reading. And no, I'm not just saying that because he cites my "Forget Guantanamo" at length. :-)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Eric Hoffer

I was standing in the registration line in the beginning of my freshman year of college. Two lines over was a guy I knew slightly from my high school. He shouted over:

"Hey, you still into the Philosophy thing?"


"Man, there is this guy I just read you got to read! Guy's name is Eric Hoffer. The book's called The True Believer. And check this out -- he's a philosopher and a longshoreman!"

"Thanks. I'll check it out." And I did.

From The Writers' Almanac:

It's the birthday of writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer born in New York City (1902). His mother died when he was seven years old. Shortly afterwards, Eric Hoffer mysteriously went blind. He finally got his eyesight back eight years later, and he was eager to catch up on his education, so he read every book he could get his hands on.

He moved to California and worked as a dishwasher, a factory worker, a farm hand, and a longshoreman. His plan at each job was work long enough to save some money and then take the time to do nothing but read. He held library cards in six different towns in California, so he could always have access to books no matter where he was in the state. His favorite book was the Essays of Montaigne, and he carried it everywhere with him in a rucksack. The first book he submitted for publication was a handwritten manuscript, and it was published in 1951 as The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Eric Hoffer said, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Quote of the Week - now with Commentary(tm)!

The Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages – which is to say, the theologians, since all philosophy in that era was nothing more than theology – were great ones for taking a small snippet from the Bible, or from “The Philosopher” (Aristotle) and writing these long, elaborate, often quite gonzo “commentaries” on the snippet. Thomas Aquinas was the most famous of the lot, but they all did it. They would offer their quote from an authoritative source, and then use it to prop up some (often philosophically indefensible) position that often had nothing to do with the quote itself. Reading Aquinas and some of the others, I get a sense of the enormous fun they had with this process. And since this is my blog – and since, as we all know, there’s nothing we bloggers like to do more than write lengthy commentaries about every little thing – I thought I’d try an experiment and sex up my Quotes of the Week with some (often philosophically indefensible) positions that will often have nothing to do with the quote itself. It’s going to look a little something like this ...

"God is dead -- and we have killed him."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

This one sentence has generated thousands – maybe millions – of words of commentary, interpretation, and condemnation; the likelihood that I will have anything of interest to say about it is very small. But since I love the quote so much – it’s stuck with me since I first encountered Nietzsche at the age of fifteen – I thought I’d explain what this quote means to me. What Nietzsche is saying here is that our view of humanity as nothing more than another species of ape (and keep in mind that Darwinism was very new and very powerful in Nietzsche's time) has destroyed any sense among the common people that they were somehow "special" because there was some benevolent eternal Big Daddy who loved them and viewed them as the center of his universe. In other words, "we killed" God by virtue of no longer believing in him -- which is to say, no longer believing that we humans had some special place in the universe above the animal kingdom.

Nietzsche was bluntly terrified by the implications of this "death of God," by this idea that there was no longer any eternal reward or punishment for any behavior we might choose to indulge. Nietzsche would have completely agreed with Dostoevsky's famous formulation: "If there is no God, then anything is permitted." Anything. The end result of the "death of God" was, quite simply, the 20th century -- and Nietzsche saw it coming.