Monday, March 31, 2008

The Crime of Indecision and the Crime of Indifference

There are moments when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has its price, when nothing is neutral anymore.

Albert Camus

During the most uncompromising and dangerous years in the 20th century, Camus threw down the gauntlet. There were people in France and around the world who wanted to sit on the fence, think about the best course of action, weigh their options, and hide behind the many alibis for refusal to make a decision and then act on that decision. We all try so hard to hide, to wait out the crisis, hoping that events will move quickly and deprive us of the curse of choice, hoping that events will make the decision for us. It is human nature, it is an understandable cowardice. But still, it is cowardice.

A parable for this moment and for all the moments in history when every choice has its price and nothing is neutral anymore:

The semi-mythical Athenian leader Solon made it a law that anyone who refused to take sides in a revolution would lose all civil rights. That way, people could not stand aside and hope trouble would pass them by while they waited to see which side would win.

On this date in 1889 ...

From The Writer's Almanac:

On this day in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was inaugerated in Paris. It was built for the Paris Exposition as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and also as a demonstration of the structural capabilities of iron.

The tower elicited strong reactions after its opening. A petition of 300 names, including writers Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas the younger, was sent to the city government protesting its construction. The petition read, "We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower."

De Maupassant described it as, "A high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, [a] giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney." He hated the tower so much that he started eating in its restaurant every day, because, he said, "It is the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Vincent

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). He painted sunflowers, starry nights, wheat fields, and self-portraits, and his work was just beginning to be acknowledged when he committed suicide at the age of 37. When he was 20, he went to work for an art dealer in London, then went off to Brussels to study to become an evangelist, and then went as a missionary to the coal miners in southwestern Belgium. One day he decided to give away all of his worldly goods and live like a peasant. But his religious superiors thought he was having a nervous breakdown. They kicked him out of the mission, and he had to go home.

It was then that he started to draw and paint. He taught himself with art books and by studying the masters. He was especially interested in painting the daily life of peasants, and he began a collection of clothing that had been worn by fishermen, miners, and other laborers.

For the next 10 years, from 1880 to 1890, he painted fast and furiously. He eventually settled in Arles, in southern France, where he said he could "look at nature under a brighter sky." It was in Arles that he began to develop the style he became known for, in which the images of flowers and trees and landscapes are exaggerated by extremely rough brush strokes and vivid colors. He believed that his paintings should convey the mood he was in when he painted them, and he painted extremely quickly so that his mood would not change before he finished. To get the job done, he often squeezed tubes of oil paint directly onto the canvas.

His brother Theo was an art dealer, and for years he had supplied Van Gogh with a small monthly stipend. In return, Van Gogh gave his brother every canvas he painted. He wrote thousands of letters to Theo. "How much sadness there is in life," he wrote. "The right thing is to work." He moved to a small town north of Paris and painted feverishly until insanity overtook him. He cut off part of his own ear and was placed in an asylum at St. Rémy. One of his greatest paintings, Starry Night (1889), was painted while he was confined there. He left the asylum for good in the spring of 1890. In July, just as he was starting to receive favorable attention for his work, he committed suicide. Shortly before he died, he wrote "I feel a failure."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A nation of manufactured tribes

The problem with the American experiment is that it is a nation built on the idea of "a people" rather than the reality of a people. What I mean by that is, you go to Italy, for example, and for the most part, it's populated by Italians. Go to Germany and it's populated, mostly, by Germans. Spain, mostly by Spaniards. I'm simplifying, of course, and thinking in terms of long-term (many generations) inhabitants rather than relatively recent immigrants. So their "tribe," so to speak, is "Italian," "German," "Spanish", etc. (Interestingly, this concept is not the case in France. I've driven through France several times, and thanks to expansion and acquisition, there are people within the borders of France who are from other "tribes." Anywhere east of Aix-en-Provence, the people are Italians (they still call Nice "Nizza"), anywhere west of Arles they are Spanish (from the defunct Hispanic kingdom of Catalan). In Alsace, they're German, and speak French with a delightful German accent. In Brittany, they're genetically identical to the Welsh. But I digress.) But my point is this: these nations have an actual national identity that gives them their tribal definition. In America, we are all immigrants, so our "tribal" definition is based on the "idea of America."

And when that "idea of America" starts to implode, as it has in recent years, and we no longer think of ourselves as "one nation" (under God or not), then we are pulled by centrifugal forces into odd new "tribal" configurations that are not based on genetics or race or a millenium of shared culture, the way it would be in Europe. Without an unwavering belief in the "idea of America," we Americans quite simply don't know what we are.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Quote of the Week

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.

- George Bernard Shaw

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"What do you want?" "We want our freedom!!!"

I have this little annual ritual I've done since March 2003. I sit down with a stiff drink and watch "The Battle of Algiers." And every year it makes me a bit sadder when the French officers near the end congratulate each other on having killed all the leaders of the FLN, thus believing that they had killed the Algerian rebellion. The movie immediately fast-forwards 2 years, to the surreal nightmare of the last scene, when it is finally over for the French and the entire Algerian nation is on the streets and ready to drive them out. It is one of the most incredible scenes every filmed, because a riot scene is incredibly difficult to enact, and this last scene looks like a real riot. A massive haze of tear gas and gunsmoke washes over the Algerians, obscuring them. They become invisible, a looming presence behind the smoke. It becomes very quiet. A French officer, his nerves clearly gone, steps forward and shouts into the smoke:
"What do you want?
The camera lingers for several seconds on the blank white wall of gas and smoke. And then one voice, echoed immediately by a thousand others, screams:
"We want our freedom!!!"
And then the Algerians -- men, women, children -- come pouring out of the smoke and wade into the French.

I fear that the endgame in Iraq will be something very much like this. I fear it will make the iconic footaqe of the evacuation from the embassy roof in Saigon look benign by comparison.

Monday, March 24, 2008

More than 1000 at "history-making" DC war protest

A couple of years ago I was at the big anti-war demonstration in DC. By my estimation (and by splitting the difference between the numbers claimed by the organizers and the numbers claimed by the police), there were roughly 200,000 people there. I was proud that so many people, across all demographics, cared enough to spend a day marching. These days? Not so proud. The good people at United For Peace try really really really hard in their post-action blurb, but no amount of earnest Leftist fluff can hide the facts.

Reports are still coming in, but it is clear that March 19th -- and this whole week of anti-war action -- was historic.

On Wednesday, the atmosphere out in the streets of our nation's capital was exhilarating. More than 1,000 people -- students, grannies, veterans, and more -- engaged in more than a dozen bold, creative, inspiring actions in downtown DC that disrupted business as usual. The protests made those who profit from war, and those who enable it, stop and take notice.

"More than 1000 people" .... given United For Peace's tendency to double the actual number of boots on the ground, that means that somewhere just above 500 people showed up. After all that's happened in the last five years, the "historic" peace march in the nation's capital drew just above 500 people. This made me angry, and then I somehow just ... llet go of all my anger. Because I realized, in an ineffable Moment of Zen, that i
n time of crisis -- like, say, a disastrous war -- Americans don't protest. They go shopping! Or watch American Idol. But march? Nah.

Moral cowardice and stupified TeeVee-worship abound, and more and more I find myself believing that, as Sartre famously said about the French catastrophe in Algeria, "a country gets the war it deserves."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Down the Castle Wall" accepted by Blue Moon

The first fiction piece I ever wrote, "Down the Castle Wall," was just picked up by Blue Moon for their upcoming issue. I've been circulating it looking to get it picked up for 2.5 years, which seems like an eternity but from what many people tell me, isn't really that long. One guy I talked to said he crunched some numbers once, and he averages 40 submissions for a piece before it gets picked up. The degree of patience and self-belief involved in accepting the 39 NOs to get to that YES humbles me -- and motivates me to find homes for all my other homeless children ... :-)

The New Leviathan

On 9/11, America was shocked to discover that there was an outside world with many, many people in it who quite simply hated America’s guts – and this discovery scared the hell out of America. If the last several years are an indication of what America’s future holds – and I believe they are – then 9/11 will haunt and infest American cultural life for many years to come. Everything that Americans think, write, do and believe will be refracted through this enormous funhouse lens. This event, which contained so much potential to inspire serious-minded reflection and subtle analysis, instead inspired America to do what it does best: unleash its power.

Michel Foucault wrote of:

A power that presented rules and obligations as personal bonds, a breach of which constituted an offense and called for vengeance; of a power for which disobedience was an act of hostility, the first sign of rebellion .. of a power that had to demonstrate not only why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies ... of a power that was recharged in the ritual display of its reality as ‘superpower.’

America’s favorite ritual display is war, something that seems to have an almost addictive power over Americans. America spends as much on war as the rest of the world combined. This is beyond any sane concept of “security”; this is the behavior of a junkie.

I do not describe this behavior as “addiction” lightly. As writer Chris Hedges pointed out (at a college commencement address at which he was shouted down by an auditorium full of fresh-faced, patriotic young Americans), “the seduction of war is so insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true – it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” This is why America – a country full of people who are so un-alike in so many ways – embraces this addictive new chapter in its love affair with war, the “Global War on Terror.” Because as soon as that warm, patriotic glow of togetherness starts to dim (as it appears it is now doing with the “Iraq front in the war on terror”), a new battle in this war without end is served up: pure, uncut, expensive as hell but cheap at twice the price, ready to be mainlined by an eager nation.

America does not view its decades-long string of foreign-policy disasters (most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) as failures of diplomacy and policy. War replaces diplomacy and defines policy. War is the point: so easy, so unambiguous, so damned glamorous compared to the mundane tedium of building consensus and displaying moral leadership.

But what is this frantic, almost compulsive resort to the military option as the default response really in aid of?

I recently found myself re-reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, and I was struck by how easily one can map Hobbes’ mythical authoritarian/submissive society to America in the 21st century. Hobbes believed that a society’s function was to accrue more and more power, to strive constantly to seize the upper hand, all in aid of defending a passive and cowering populace from a world full of evil enemies. Hobbes argued that humans are always willing to accept submission to a strong and domineering leadership in exchange for protection from evildoers. Protection from fear itself, in effect. The citizens of Leviathan were so riddled with fear and doubt that they surrendered their freedom with breathtaking eagerness. America’s default attitude since 9/11 can best be summed up by Derrida’s wonderful phrase: “manic triumphalism.” However, this is mere posturing, intended to cover a deep core of dread. Underneath all the testosterone-laden, Hoo-Rah bravado, America in the 21st century is the new Leviathan, in which the citizens cower like whipped dogs.

Still, the unabashed willingness with which Americans surrendered their freedoms must give us pause. Because at the end of the day, that is the fundamental question: why did so many Americans toss off the burden of freedom with such eagerness? I would like to propose at least a partial answer. America is a country where 90% of the people describe themselves as “religious” and 46% describe themselves as “evangelical.” Eighty-six percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83% believe in a real, literal Virgin Birth. Over 40% of Americans believe the world will end in an actual battle of Armageddon, and a stunning 45% believe in a real, anthropomorphic Devil. To the majority of Americans, those who live and die within such a belief system, America’s vaunted “freedom” – and, more importantly, the consequences of that freedom – is, quite simply, horrifying. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and “Piss Jesus” and Mapplethorpe’s photos of men with bullwhips jammed up their asses, on and on and on. They look at America’s free society, they look at the things that this free society permits to happen and they hate what they see. They absolutely hate modern America, and they believe that surrendering their freedom is a very small price to pay in order to make it stop. These Americans have more in common with Muslim fundamentalists than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in 21st century America. America will have another Bush some day, because it is what so many Americans want and need.

In my next essay, “Mister Bush’s Sermon,” I will analyze how George W. Bush used finely honed rhetoric of a uniquely American flavor to frighten and then seduce a credulous population, a population that desperately wanted to be seduced.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Quote of the Week

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Tale of Young Snotty

Once upon a time, there was a vicious little bastard who everyone called Young Snotty. They called him that because, no matter how old he grew, he still acted young (in every bad sense of the word) and because his attitude towards everyone around him was always that of an arrogant, entitled, snotty frat boy. Young Snotty liked to hurt things when he was a kid, liked to hurt them bad. Lit firecrackers inserted into the anuses of frogs, that sort of thing. Maybe this was because he had a brain problem, or maybe it was because his Mommy and Daddy didn’t kiss him enough when he was a very Young Snotty. Or maybe, just maybe, he was that way because God made him that way. Because that’s something God would do to a person, if that person were someone for whom God had Big Plans down the road.

So, as I said, Young Snotty grew up but inside he remained what he always was. He wasn’t in a position to do much damage, outside of his immediate family. The most he could manage on a good day was to damage his wife, she of the medicated and defeated countenance. But outside of his small circle, he couldn’t really do any real damage, because he was powerless and everyone laughed at him behind his back, and not always behind his back. In the normal order of things, the most that Young Snotty could have aspired to was to be appointed dogcatcher or garbage-dump babysitter in some little Texas shithole town.

But a voice came to Young Snotty, and that small, still voice in the middle of one of his dark nights of the soul started talking to him. And this is what that small, still voice whispered to him:

“Small time, Snotty. Such a sad little Snotty you are. How small you are, inflicting these million sharp little pains on people within easy reach as you stew in your own booze-saturated juices, heading down. Always heading down, Young Snotty. Let me toss out a vision for you, a vision to conjure with. A whole world, all of it, for you to hurt and punish and give it back to them a hundred times over. Pain and fear inflicted everywhere. Everywhere. I’ll give all of that to you, Young Snotty. All that power to kill while you mock and torture while you preach and invade while you pontificate and bust up everything around you while you demand ‘respect,’ a respect that everyone gives you because that dare not do otherwise because they are terrified of you. I can give you all of that ... and all you have to do in return is worship me.”

“Who are you?” the sad, laughable barfly mumbled into his pillow.

“I’m God. I’m Yahweh. And I am your God. Come with me. Come with me, and together we will smite the world with a great burning."

And so Young Snotty, the laughable looser and bitter barfly, looked up and his bloodshot eyes no longer had the look in them of a whipped dog. It was time to pay them back. Time to pay all of them back. He was The Fist of God, and it was time for that fist to punish the world.

Quote of the Week

The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.

Mark Twain

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Edward Albee

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of playwright Edward Albee born in 1928. He worked a series of odd jobs including selling music and books, working as an office assistant and a hotel barman, and then his favorite job: a Western Union messenger, about which he said, "It kept you out in the air and it was a nice job because it could never possibly become a career."

During this time, he frequently attended modern art exhibitions, concerts, and plays in New York City and, inspired by the emerging Theatre of the Absurd, he quit his job and in three weeks wrote The Zoo Story (1958), a one-act, two-man play about strangers who meet in Central Park. It was at first rejected by New York producers, premiered in Germany, and then staged the next year in New York's Greenwich Village.

He wrote a few more one act plays and then his first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the work for which he is best known. The title is taken from graffiti he saw on a mirror at a New York bar. In its first season, the play's profanity shocked some audience members, and one critic called it an "exercise in depraved obscenity," but it was largely popular with critics and audiences, ran for 644 performances, and won many awards. A film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came out in 1966.

Happy Birthday, Jack Kerouac

I can't make heads or tails out of the man's work, but I'm told he's Terrribly Important, so here's something courtesy of The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was part of the "Beat Generation," and he came up with the name. He said, "To me, it meant being poor, like sleeping in the subways ... and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that." Later, Kerouac decided that "beat" stood for "beatific."

His parents were from French-speaking Quebec, and he did not start learning English until grade school. He skipped second and third grades, and as a 16-year-old senior, he ditched class in order to go alone to the public library and read what he wanted: Hugo, Goethe, Hemingway, William Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, history books, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and books of chess problems. He was a good football player and received a scholarship to Columbia University, but he broke his leg in the first season and didn't play anymore. He dropped out of Columbia, joined the Merchant Marine and then the Navy, and was given a psychiatric discharge after only two months, having been labeled as a "schizoid personality." The next fall, he went back to Columbia where he dropped out again almost immediately, but kept his apartment near campus and it became a gathering place for young intellectuals. During that time, he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, Neal Cassady, and others who would help found the Beat Movement.

He spent the next seven years hitchhiking around the United States and Mexico, and in 1949 he and his friend Neal Cassady drove a Cadillac limousine from California to Chicago, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke. In 1951, he sat at his kitchen table, taped sheets of Chinese art paper together to make a long roll, and wrote the story of Cassady and their trips. It had no paragraphs and very little punctuation. Allen Ginsberg called it "a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself." It took him only three weeks to complete and became his novel On the Road (1957).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Knew It When I Saw Him Dancing and Singing

The Prez is always happy, loose, and utterly serene after he's made the decision to go somewhere and blow some shit up. In the weeks leading up to Iraq, everyone commented on how the only person in Washington who wasn't strung out and sitting on the edge of their seats -- the only person who was, in fact, happy, loose, and utterly serene -- was The Prez. He's a happy guy again, no longer the peevish, garbled, shrunken man he was a few short weeks ago. I'm thinking the decision was made when he and McCain met the other day. McCain probably serenaded him with a snappy chorus of "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!" and Bush said, "Say, Squirrelly, that's a fine idear ya got there. Bomb Iran? Sheeit, I bet that'll get me outta these doldrums! Hey Fallon, ya traitorous peacenik piece a crap! Yer fired! We're goin' in! Noo-clear combat, toe ta to with the rag-heads! Yee hawwwwww!"

I'm gettin' my drunk on. Who's with me?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Quote of the Week

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

- Steven Weinberg

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bleak Times Call For Bleak Measures

An obscure internet radio station led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, composer of some of the most relentlessly bleak music ever composed. On the page for one of her symphonies I saw a “listmania” item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced feature of Amazon, sort of “If you like this, you’re gonna love the items on my list!” It was the title of the list that got the hook in me and kept tugging at me for the next several months:


Like I said, the words kept at me; this glib and self-consciously ironic collection of words seemed to carry the freight of more meaning than their creator could have ever intended. Nietzsche claimed that we need chaos in our soul to give birth to a dancing star. I believe we need bleakness in our soul to give birth to a dancing god. Most people don’t need the experience of bleakness; most people couldn’t stand the raw, uncut experience of bleakness, and do everything they can to keep it at bay -- through booze and drugs, through frenetic social activity, and of course through that most popular defense mechanism, regular visits to partake of the glass pipe at their local houses of worship.

I recently listened to Ingram Marshall’s Three Penitential Visions, as bleak in its way as anything Coates ever composed. But after playing Marshall’s piece through a couple of times, I realized something: Coates’ bleak vision only got it half right. She captures the bleakness like no one else can, but she never understands that there’s something beyond the bleakness. Ingram takes it and turns it right on its head, transforming it into a joyous “Yes-saying” in the epilogue, Hidden Voices. This epilogue, the last three minutes of which can almost make a crusty old polemicist believe in god, rises triumphantly as both the confirmation and refutation of all the empty bleakness that came before.

There are very few things more bleak than the unplugged acoustic torch songs of Tracey Thorne; her despair and yearning and hopeless need give us a world so bleak that we are only left with one genuinely philosophical question: slice lengthwise, or across the wrist? But then her husband, Ben Watt, had one brilliant, unforgettable idea: take her hurt, bleeding songs and lay a demanding techno dance beat on top of them. Her songs of doomed love and tainted pain became something that got into your head and your body, and told you that sure, the world and life and love and just being human was unimaginably bleak, but the backbeat wove it into something that not only told you what was on the other side of bleakness, it also told you what the cure was.

Which brings me to my point, finally. We find uplift and something resembling meaning not in despair, but on the other side of despair. It’s no coincidence that this important philosophical issue keeps finding its way back to music; we humans have some important unfinished business with music. Because, you see, we’ve forgotten what music is for. Music is what we get instead of God. Maybe it’s our “consolation prize,” in every sense of both those words.

On the other side of despair, beyond the bleak times and the bleak places inside us, waits a god who dances. A god promised by Nietzsche and so many others, and some may call him Dionysus and some may know him as Dancing Shiva and in the big continental sprawl of America they know him as Kokopelli, but they are all the same and they all continue to hand down just one simple commandment:

Shut up and dance


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Koyaanisqatsi, baby

I responded to a diary on with the comment below. I liked it enough to want to preserve it here. Maybe I can evolve it into an essay someday.

Life out of balance, crazy life, a way of life that cannot continue. We are witnessing the largest human-made alteration of the ecosystem ever, much larger than the destruction of the North American megafauna when the Paleo-Indians came over the land bridge. Is "the planet" in peril? Is "Nature" in peril? Of course not. The planet will be fine and Nature will do what it always does: heal and move on once the irritant (in this case, humans) is no longer there to irritate it. Lots of species will disappear thanks to our predations, for sure. What most people mean when they say "We have to save the planet!" is really "We have to save humanity, specifically our high-maintenance modern Western lifestyles and infrastructures!" From a purely selfish perspective, of course, we all root for this project to succeed (we all have a vested interest, after all). But from an objective, planetary perspective, should this project succeed, so that humans can screw things up in slow-motion in the future, rather than in fast-forward like we're doing now? Very problematic.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Quote of the Week

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. - Richard Dawkins