Mournful tunes

Quite without meaning to, I’ve built up a liturgy of mournful tunes and made a habit of listening to them every year on the eleventh of September.  Three of them are from Tom Waits; I listened to both “The Fall of Troy” and “Yesterday is Here” on 11 September 2001, and was struck by how well lines like “There’s a world where nothing grows” (from “The Fall of Troy”) and “Today’s grey skies, tomorrow is tears,/ you’ll have to wait til yesterday is here” (from “Yesterday is Here”) fit the events of that day.  I also tried to listen to “Jersey Girl” that day, but it hit a bit too close to home; I still cry when I hear that song, but not so hard that I can’t hear it.

Two other songs I listened to that day have also become part of my annual liturgy.  One is by Phranc, the “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer.”  It’s her remembrance of her brother Gary Gottlieb, who was murdered in 1997.  Another is “Deportee,” with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman, about a group of people who died in a plane crash in 1948 while being deported from the USA.  That day I played an old record I had of Guthrie himself singing it; I can’t find that recording online, but here’s a link to Joan Baez doing her version of the song.

Twice already on this site I’ve posted about Martin Espada’s poem “Alabanza,” a tribute to the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 who died that morning after reporting to work at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.    I still think it is the best 9/11 poem.  Since most of those 43 had Spanish names, the chorus of “Deportee” (“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,/ Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria “) reminds me of them, and of Mr Espada’s poem.

My favorite patriotic song, aside from “The Star Spangled Banner,” is “The House I Live In”; Paul Robeson’s recording of it usually helps me to remember that September 11, 2001 was a day when ordinary citizens rose to extraordinary challenges. That’s a lesson the USA’s political leaders, military officer class, and securocrats of various stripes have spent the last eleven years working feverishly to obscure, but the record of the day’s events is unequivocally clear.  American national treasure Rebecca Solnit and Tom Engelhardt wrote admirably succinct articles about this a few years ago, which I noted at the time and which repay reading today.

It may not qualify as patriotism, but it is at least stereotypically American to commemorate sad public events with a performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  I’m particularly fond of this recording of the piece, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

Martin Espada reads “Alabanza”


Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles cartoon:

Some recent comments by Barack Obama, and a little joke about them:

In an interview with NBC News, Obama said those offended by the legal privileges given to Mohammed by virtue of getting a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won’t find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

Obama quickly added that he did not mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed’s trial. “I’m not going to be in that courtroom,” he said. “That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury.”

 The president then elaborated: “I’m not going to be on the jury that will report its guilty verdict at 3pm on September 11, 2010, nor will I be the one who administers the lethal injection that will kill Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a week before Election Day 2012.  I used to teach constitutional law, so I can tell you that it would be a violation of due process for me to do those things.”   

In fact, I do believe that they can find an impartial jury in New York City.  I would go so far as to say that Manhattan is probably the one place in the USA where it would be easiest to empanel twelve jurors who can judge the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on its merits.  That’s not only because the island is a bastion of liberalism, but also because the further you go from Ground Zero the more Americans you find who feel they have to prove that 9/11 was an event in their own lives and not just something they saw on TV.  If as Knight sarcastically suggests they did set up a temporary courtroom on the former site of the World Trade Center, the attacks would have a definite reality for the jurors- they would be real events, with specific causes, specific consequences, specific forms that could be examined empirically.  Go a thousand miles away, and the attacks become a symbol with an infinite variety of overpowering emotional associations.  That’s part of the reason why the Bush-Cheney administration had an easier time using the attacks to sell its agenda to voters far outside of New York than to those in the city in those first years of the “War on Terror.”

The triumph of civil society

Rebecca Solnit on “How 9/11 should be remembered.”  Some key paragraphs:

New Yorkers triumphed on that day eight years ago. They triumphed in calm, in strength, in generosity, in improvisation, in kindness. Nor was this something specific to that time or place: San Franciscans during the great earthquake of 1906, Londoners during the Blitz in World War II, the great majority of New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina hit, in fact most people in most disasters in most places have behaved with just this sort of grace and dignity.


Hollywood movies and too many government pandemic plans still presume that most of us are cowards or brutes, that we panic, trample each other, rampage, or freeze helplessly in moments of crisis and chaos. Most of us believe this, even though it is a slander against the species, an obliteration of what actually happens, and a crippling blow to our ability to prepare for disasters.

Hollywood likes this view because it paves the way for movies starring Will Smith and hordes of stampeding, screaming extras. Without stupid, helpless people to save, heroes become unnecessary. Or rather, without them, it turns out that we are all heroes, even if distinctly unstereotypical ones like that elderly woman who got Fichtel back on his feet. Governments like the grim view for a similar reason: it justifies their existence as repressive, controlling, hostile forces, rather than collaborators with brave and powerful citizenries.

Read the rest

Eight years of one day

tomwaitsEight years ago today some Tom Waits songs started running through my head.  “Yesterday is Here” seemed very timely; “today’s grey skies, tomorrow is tears,/ you’ll have to wait til yesterday is here.”  That song is on the album Frank’s Wild Years; several times in those days I set my CD player to play two cuts from Frank’s Wild Years, “Yesterday is Here” and “Cold Cold Ground.” 

Another Waits tune that seemed to fit the day very well was “The Fall of Troy” from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.  It’s about a boy who watched helplessly while his brother Troy was shot to death in a robbery.  The whole song is full of extremely apt lines.   “It’s hard to say grace and to sit in the place,/ of someone missing at the table./ Mom’s hair’s sprayed tight and her face in her hands/ Watching TV for answers to me/ After all, she’s only human/ and she’ll have to find her own way home.” 

“The Fall of Troy” would usually get me crying, back then.  If crying felt good, I’d turn to Heartattack and Vine and listen to “Jersey Girl.”  That would get me sobbing.  Waits said that before he wrote that song he never thought he’d use “sha-la-la” in lyrics; eight years and one day ago, I never thought “sha-la-la” would elicit tears from me.

Victoria Fontan

Victoria Fontan in Baghdad
Victoria Fontan in Baghdad

The 16-31 March issue of Counterpunch features an article by Victoria Fontan, a scholar in “Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies,” a growing subfield of Peace Studies.  Fontan studies conditions under which people who have been humiliated are more likely than others to become terrorists.  She has interviewed members of several violent groups in Lebanon and Iraq.  In this article, Professor Fontan tells what happened when she taught at Colgate University in upstate New York and a group of right-wingers launched a smear campaign against her.  The smear mongers managed to hound her out of her job and to get her name on an official terrorism watchlist.  A French citizen, Professor Fontan did research in Iraq after leaving Colgate, and now teaches at The University for Peace in Costa Rica.  While Colgate’s campus rightists may consider Professor Fontan to be a stooge of America’s enemies and congratulate themselves on having performed a patriotic service by driving her off campus and out of the country, much of the US national security apparatus disagrees.  Her work is still assigned to cadets at West Point, and the FBI agents who interview her every time she flies into the USA (she’s on a terrorism watchlist, remember) have become her friends, recognizing in her research something indispensible to them as they try to figure out how to look for terrorists without making more terrorists. 

Fontan’s article reminds me of two things.  First, I’ve often thought that in the Aeneid Vergil represents warfare as primarily a matter of humiliation.  One of these days I might get around to developing that idea in a scholarly article about books 7 through 12 of the Aeneid, the “battle books.”  

Second, an idea popped into my head which I don’t believe is original with me, though I can’t seem to find where I may have picked it up.  It doesn’t seem to be Fontan’s idea.  The idea is that the road from “humiliated person” to “terrorist” may tend to run in three stages:  humiliation→ isolation→ radicalization. 


The Nation, 22 December 2008


Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1916

It’s usually the reviews that feature most prominently in my notes about The Nation.  That’s because the notes are about things I might want to look up again, and The Nation‘s articles and columns are usually of strictly timely interest.  This week’s issue is no exception.

In this issue, Arthur Danto reviews a retrospective of Giorgio Morandi‘s paintings currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve always had a fondness for Morandi’s subdued color schemes and restricted perspective.   Danto claims that the objects in Morandi’s still lifes seem much more active than is typical for the genre; sometimes they seem “to interact and jostle” as if competing for space on the table.  He cites this 1961 painting as an especially crowded one.  He may be onto something; for example, this 1914 piece does seem to point forward to the Futurists.  But more often when I look at Morandi I see pictures like the one I’ve posted here, quiet images that neither call out for attention with flash nor resist the viewer with trickery, but, rather, allow those who are so minded to take whatever look they wish.   

Throughout a review of a reissue of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination runs the question of what it might mean for literature to have, as Trilling always insisted it should have, a serious moral purpose.  Trilling tries to answer the question with a remark about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an answer the reviewer finds unsatisfactory:

“No one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the engrained customary beliefs of his time and place.” One response to this might be to say that anyone capable of this kind of “thoughtful” reading is not likely to be a prisoner of social convention in the first place, and vice versa. The passage risks both patronizing the imagined reader and imputing an unrealistic power to Twain’s book. In such passages, the adjective “moral” appears overworked, now indicating the merely conventional social codes, now referring to the wider human vision offered by the critic.

A fair criticism, one must admit.  Humanists from Plato on would have to plead guilty to the charges the reviewer levels against Trilling here. 

Elsewhere in the issue, Katha Pollitt quotes New York University historian Linda Gordon, a founder of Feminists for Obama, calling on feminists to keep up pressure on Mr O, since that’s what their opponents will be doing.  She also quotes an op-ed by economist Randy Albelda calling for increased investment in health, education, eldercare, and other industries that employ many women as part of any economic stimulus plan.  Alexander Cockburn points out that in the aftermath of the Mumbai shootings, several top Indian officials were driven from office in disgrace, a stark contrast with the failure of any senior American to so much as admit error in the aftermath of 9/11.  Stuart Klawans reviews recent films Milk, Australia, and Wendy and Lucy.