Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.

The Nation, 15 February 2010

Ramon Fernandez was a French fascist who actively collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of France.  His son, Dominique Fernandez, has written a biography of his father.  The Nation‘s review describes this biography as the culmination of Dominique Fernandez’ life’s work, his attempt to comprehend what his father did and why he did it.

Anyone who hoped that the election of Barack Obama as US president heralded a return to the rule of law will be dismayed by the news sections of this issue.  An article on “America’s Secret Afghan Prisons” lays out evidence that the Mr O’s administration, so far from ending Bush-Cheney’s policies of torture  and disappearance, has intensified those policies.  That article’s author, Anand Gopal, gave an interview about the story, which you can listen to here

Reports suggesting that three men who allegedly hanged themselves at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006 were in fact murdered move the editors to say that Mr O’s refusal to order investigations into the charges against his predecessor amount, not only to dereliction of his duty as a law-enforcement officer, but to a cover-up of crimes against humanity. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ acknowledgement that the Blackwater Group’s soldiers-for-hire are operating in Pakistan and the Pentagon’s subsequent assertion that the secretary never said the words he was shown on television saying prompts the magazine to quote the Washington adage, “Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”  Any Nation readers unconcerned by Blackwater’s expanding operations might want to look at a web-only piece, “Blackwater’s Youngest Victim.”

Some stuff on our daily reads

Yesterday at Ukulele Hunt, Al Wood opened a contest to award the title of best internet ukulele video of 2009.  Each commenter is entitled to nominate five videos.  My five nominees are:  Ukulele Loki and the Gadabout Orchestra, “Prague:1998″; Poopy Lungstuffing, “Dolly Got a Haircut”; Ukulelezo, “When I Grow Up I’m Gonna Wear a Bikini”; Gensblue, “All That Ukulele Xmas”; and Ken Middleton, “Time After Time.”  I can’t resist embedding Poopy’s haunting original:

Meanwhile, Language Log featured a link to one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on the web, “This is the title of a typical incendiary blog post” by Chris Clarke.  Each sentence starts with the words “This sentence” and describes what sort of sentence you would find in that position in a typical incendiary blog post.  Trust me, it’s funnier than that description makes it sound.

Eight days ago, Josh Fruhlinger, “The Comics Curmudgeon,” posted something that I’m still snickering about.  He gave us this “Herb and Jamaal” strip:


And added this comment:

Herb seems to have been possessed by an extremely mellow demon, which has compelled him to casually pull the Bible off the shelf and spit on it. The holy book responds to this assault by releasing thick clouds of acrid smoke. Who will win this low-stakes battle for Herb’s immortal soul?

The rule of threes

Sometimes they say famous people die three at a time.  I never believed it.  But in the last few days, Louis Auchnicloss, Howard Zinn, J. D. Salinger.  Not just three celebrities, but three rather similar celebrities.  Granted, one of their similarities was being around 90 years old, but still it’s a striking coincidence.

Garry Kasparov on the role of computers in the future of chess

The former chess world champion summarizes the effect computers have had on high-level chess in the last couple of decades, and sketches some possible ways the game might move forward.  An excerpt:

In 2005, the online chess-playing site hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, “anti-cheating” algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. (I wonder if these detection algorithms, which employ diagnostic analysis of moves and calculate probabilities, are any less “intelligent” than the playing programs they detect.)

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

(The New York Review of Books)

“Reporting from the mean streets of the cul-de-sac”

A spellbinding mini-memoir from our friend the PPRScribe.  My favorite moment: a neighbor, visiting the Scribe and her husband in their garage, goes on a bigoted rant about a Japanese guy who lives down the street.  Their reactions:

The Mister, who is less tactful than I am, got up and abruptly walked into the house. Leaving me to say, “__________.” (I leave that blank in the hopes that I come up with a sufficiently appropriate anti-racist come-back to insert later.)

There’s also a very nice photo with the post.

“Pork chops are most satisfying. Mmmmmmm. Dangle them from the ceiling.”

I’d resisted looking at “Sleep Talkin’ Man” since it hit a few weeks ago, but when it was mentioned on Language Log yesterday, I had to look at it.  A woman named Karen reports what her husband Adam says in his sleep.  I have to admit, the guy says some funny stuff.  My favorites are all R rated.  For example, on the 8th of this month:  “Flap’s on fire. Your flap’s on fire! Chili in the vagiiiiina. I’m a bad bad boy.”  Karen’s editorial comment: “you guys have to image “chilli in the vagina” in a child’s sing-song cadence. Creeeeepy.”

Excuse me, but you have an alien in your nose.

Nostril-probing for aliens sure beats aliens anal-probing.

“I will pray for you”

Quaker meetings don't usually look like this anymore

Sometimes I envy my Christ-y Christian friends their habit of telling people in distress “I will pray for you.”  Coming from someone you trust, from someone whose God is love and whose worship is nurture, those words can be comforting.  The nervous chatter that I tend to fall into when people tell me their troubles comforts no one, I’m sure. 

Of course “I will pray for you” is often far from comforting.  When someone you have no particular reason to trust says that s/he will pray for you, you may hear “I know what’s good for you and am looking for an opportunity to impose that agenda.”  Or, “I wish I could use God as a means to control you and make you into the sort of person I like.” 

Last year Mrs Acilius and I visited a Quaker meeting in Seattle (Seattle-ite readers might want to know that it was University Friends Meeting on 9th Avenue NE.)  University Friends Meeting is unprogrammed, which is to say that the meeting for worship consists of whoever shows up sitting quietly together until someone feels the need to say something.  That person stands up, speaks, then sits down.  The silence resumes. 

One man stood and told the group what he does during silent worship.  He thinks of a person he knows and cares about.  He tries to picture that person in his mind’s eye.  He holds that mental image, the person in front of a plain background of white light, as clearly as he can for as long as he can.  That’s his way of praying for someone.  Since there are no words involved, he doesn’t wish anything on the person. 

I’ve tried this meditative exercise  quite a few times now, and I can recommend it.  Not only do I not spend that time thinking about ways to turn the person I’m thinking of into a different sort of person, but after a few moments any desire I may have had to control the person fades away.  Instead, I become more willing to listen to whoever it is I’m thinking of, to accept him or her as s/he is and to respect his or her own power of decision. 

I think this is where silent meditation in general has an advantage over language-based forms of prayer.  If we are to live life as it comes at us and to accept people as they are, it will be because we are able, first, to distinguish between those few things we ought to control and the infinite number of things we ought not to control, and, second, to show respect to that which we ought not to control.  We should respect other individual humans, other cultures, other countries; non-human animals, non-animal life, and the ecological systems in which they thrive; the world of the past, the possibilities of the future, and the immensities of space.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control. 

When we produce language, whether by speaking or signing or writing, we are faced with a continual series of decisions, of factors subject to our control.  Which words we use, how we structure those words into sentences, which other participants in the conversation we acknowledge and how we acknowledge them, these are all matters we try to control precisely.  Language, in turn, is a tool we use to control our world, by classifying knowledge, developing social networks, and crafting tools.  Language can be a tool we use to control each other.  Because language is so bound up with the idea of control, no one who prays in words is ever more than one step away from trying to cast a spell.  Silent meditation, on the other hand, is a way of letting go, of renouncing control.  Through it, we become more aware of our surroundings as they are and less concerned with the way things used to be or the way they ought to be.  Silent meditation may be a tool of some kind, but it certainly is not a tool for remaking the world in one’s own image.  In silent meditation, we may even let the world remake us.

Some thoughts about race and sports

These guys are Navajos, not Nazis

The three original Thunderlads- Acilius, LeFalcon, and VThunderlad- have exchanged some emails in recent days in which we’ve been talking about race and sports.  The discussion has gotten on to some pretty interesting questions, I think, about politics, economics, culture, etc.

This started when blog founder VThunderlad sent us a link to a news item about “The All-American Basketball Association,” a proposed professional basketball league that will be restricted to players who were born in the USA to two parents “of the Caucasian race.”  I blogged about that story a few days ago, explaining my suspicions as to what the promoters are really up to.

In response to VThunderlad’s email, LeFalcon mocked the AABA’s promoters’ claim that African-American players had corrupted the NBA:

There actually is something interesting about
the reasons they give for forming the league:
They’re suggesting that African-Americans have corrupted the sport.
How so?

The white players are grounded in “fundamentals”
(= honest, hard-working).
Black players violate these “fundamentals,” supposedly gaining an unfair advantage from doing so.
It seems to be implied that black players, in a seeming paradox, are both superior players
AND intrinsically lazy.

Question:  If opportunism wins the day,
can’t white players similarly “cheat”?

“Both superior players AND intrinsically lazy”- that’s exactly the kind of logical absurdity racism makes it possible for people to accept blithely.  VThunderlad expressed surprise about one point:

“”natural born citizens of TWO (2) Caucasian parents” (they seem to have left out a definition of parents being a man and a woman, as one might expect, but perhaps they don’t mind homo-ball, just negro-ball.”

I responded with the theory I laid out in my “Gametime for Hitler” post.  Then the conversation started to turn away from the sarcastic tone above (“riddim,” “negro-ball,” etc) and toward a more serious discussion of the underlying issues of race and sport.  From LeFalcon: