Category Archives: war

10 years later, we remember

The Parkside School, Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago, I went to work early.  I was in the office before 8:00 am.  I taught political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and I hoped to get a lot of work done.  My wife was in St. Louis on a work trip, so I was on my own.  At some point in the morning, our Administrative Assistant, Jane, came running down the hall and ran into my office.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

We went to the seminar room and turned on the television.  Live coverage.  There was the building, with smoke pouring out of it.  Before I saw the pictures, I thought it must a be terrorist – but then once I saw the images I couldn’t believe it was a big plane.  So I thought it was an accident.  Maybe a small plane.  And then, as Jane and I sat there, gape-mouthed and gazing at the television, another plane came into the view and hit the second tower.  That was a big plane, and I couldn’t believe it.

After a bit, I went back to my office and put on the radio.  I was listening to NPR as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.  At this point, I thought we were under attack, at war, and I was terribly afraid of what might be next.  We didn’t know who was doing this, and it was very frightening.

I was able to talk to my wife later that day.  She was stuck at the airport in St. Louis for a day.  She was stuck but okay, and I was relieved to speak with her.  By midday, we knew what had happened, but it was still scary and hard to believe.  A couple weeks later, we found out that she was pregnant.  We were going to have a child.

Ten years on, I spent this anniversary of the attacks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  My son, Noel, had his first flag football practice today.  He’s been waiting for this day for a long time – he loves football and so wants to play.  He was incredibly happy, happier than I have seen him in other sports, and it was a joy to watch him play.

While the kids were practicing with Coach Marc, the other dads recounted where they were on September 11, 2001.  One worked just a few blocks from the towers and managed to escape the area as the towers were falling down to the ground.  The other had witnessed attacks from his apartment in Brooklyn, where he had a clean view of the events.  He’d been taking photos of the skyline that morning, and only later, upon developing his film, did he realize that he’d caught images of the second plane flying into the second tower.

I didn’t live in New York then, but I do now.  Noel was born on May 28, 2002, and I am raising him here.  New York – or Brooklyn, more precisely – will be the place he always calls home.  He has no memory of 9-11, though he knows what happened.  All his life, his country has been at war.  When I think about his life and my life, this post-9-11 world seems like a weird and different place, and this America is not at all the country I grew up in.  Yet this is his country, and on this day that I remember with somber feelings and sadness, he had a great football practice.  Later, we went home and watched the games on television.  Then I called my brother and wished him happy birthday, like I do every year on 9-11.

Notes and Credits

Photographs by the author.  The first is of the flag at half-mast at PS 130, The Parkside School.  The school is just next to the entrance to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Subway Station for the F and G trains in Brooklyn.  It’s where we live, and the site of an earlier post, Without the Truth, You Are the Looser.

The photograph of the airplane in the clouds was taken in Prospect Park, near the “dog beach.”  That’s where my son’s team was practicing this morning.  Prospect Park is beneath one of the main approaches to LaGuardia Airport, and you can hear the planes fly over every couple of minutes most days.  Today, it was cloudy, low clouds, and the planes could only be seen in the haze, rocketing over us on their way into the airport.  Fifty-one years ago, a plane crashed into Park Slope along that flight path.  It was one of the worst disasters in New York history to that point; 134 people died in the crash.  From 2004 to 2006, I lived on Sterling Place, the street where the plan crashed in 1960.  My neighbor, Ms. Phipps was a witness that day and had told me about it. You can find a photo essay of it here.

Planes and clouds.  It seems we have always lived under flight paths.  In Minnesota, we lived just under main approach to the Minneapolis Airport.  Noel’s first word was “airplane.”  As we were leaving Prospect Park after practice, we saw a man selling bubble-making kits for kids.  He filled the playground with bubbles as he walked along.

6 Comments

Filed under conflict, danger, death, fathers, freedom, life, New York, Park Slope, playing, politics, sons, struggle, toys, truth, war, youth

The truth and stones

With relation to stones, we observe two kinds of people:  those who cast them and those who collect them.  Of those who cast stones, some do so from fear, while others do so strategically.

The fearful cast their stones either from glass houses or at glass houses.  The former are the hypocrites, while the latter are self-righteous, and both are equally insufferable.  The fearful cast their stones in reaction to something and not because of a belief in something, less from the solidity of their own convictions than from a nagging sense of their fragility.  The fear that causes these stones to be cast comes from inside the throwers and, like the stones they throw, is projected outward into a hostile and alien world.

The strategically inclined cast their stones either from a position of strength or at a position of strength.  Both tend to claim truth as their ally, and the truth tends to flee equally from either, for the truth is seldom on the side of casting stones.  Truth, being what truth is, can win its battles without stones, or in spite of them, because all positions of strength are time-bound and predicated on illusion.  The emperors will never wear clothes.  Their castles will all be made of sand—and glass, as we know, is nothing but sand.

The collectors of stones are mainly of two kinds.  They are either martyrs or future throwers of stones.

Of martyrs, there are two types, the situational and the pure.  The former are those who, upon being showered with stones, simply die because they are overcome.  They die because nothing else is possible, regardless of the degree or intensity or their fervor.  No one can prove whether situational martyrs were committed to a cause, or if they just happened to be in the way of an angry mob.  Situational martyrs die in the right time at the right place before they can get bored or do something that would cast aspersions on their martyrability.  A great many narcissists have achieved sainthood this way.

Pure martyrs collect stones in order to cleanse the world and remove hatred so that the rest of us can live in peace.  While their service to humanity is well-recognized, in life most of them are indistinguishable from narcissists.  The pure martyr is only revealed in death, for in death their purity is preserved.  Die young, stay pretty. Pure or situational, martyrs are the scissors-carriers of the world.  Yet as our mothers told us, running with scissors will be no escape, for those with scissors will always be crushed by those throwing stones.

The future throwers of stones are the paper carriers.  They cover stones and rocks to avoid martyrdom.  For more than a few, not coincidentally, throwing stones is a second career taken up after re-assessing the limitations of an earlier vocation to martyrdom.  They cover the stones that have been cast at them, but then they tear away their paper covers and cast those stones back again.  Thus we observe the cycle of stone-throwing and fear in which victims recycle what has happened to them, joining the ranks of oppressors and casting off the stones they once hid beneath paper.  Write what you know, as the saying goes.

It is thus that we arrive at the central problem facing humankind:  In a world of human conflict, no one will win.  Neither the throwers nor collectors of stones can vanquish the other.  Neither righteousness nor evil will win the day, which may be some comfort for those who wish to avoid evil but not so much for those who wish to achieve righteous glory.  This is because victory by either side—stone throwers or stone collectors—would require settling differences among adversaries in ways that are not possible to achieve.

The stone throwers face each other in glass houses, which before long will lay about their feet in shards and pieces.  Of those who collect stones, the paper carriers who are the future throwers of stones will allow the stone throwers to crush those with scissors, who in martyrdom provide the narratives and scripts that give the rest of us hope.  Yet once all the martyrs are gone the future throwers of stones will become simply the throwers of stone and new martyrs will emerge with sharper scissors to cut the old paper into bits.

The fortunate thing is that we are defined not only by our relation to stones, conflicts, or disagreements.  We are bigger than this.  Our world is increasingly one made of glass in which the things we wear and say and claim dissipate around our bodies like lost auras or the blinding penumbrae of lives best viewed through smoke-colored glasses.  Seeking truth in this haze is both a worthy and a necessary endeavor, though a thankless and quite possibly never-ending one as well, whose value lay more in the seeking than in the finding.

Notes and credits

The photographs of rocks and stones and scissors were taken by the author.  The photograph of Philip Johnson’s  Glass House is from the Wikimedia Commons and is available for common usage.  The Sandcastles are also courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Rock/paper/scissors—RPL as it is commonly known —is a game of strategy, cunning, and skill. Or so the World RPS Society would have us believe.  Apparently, RPS has been used to resolve disputes for hundreds of years, supplanting dueling and other more barbarian forms of conflict resolution.  If only Alexander Hamilton had known.

The math whizzes at PlayRPS.com have devised a simple playable RPS game that allows anyone to use the method to resolve their disputes.  To the naive, this could be very useful, for example, in the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, greatly facilitating Hillary Clinton’s job.  The only problem is that while on average RPS tends toward random distribution of the results (i.e. on average rock, paper, and scissors even out over time), in any one instance the odds are overwhelmingly that one outcome will have more wins than the others.  For example, the odds that the results after 99 efforts will be 33-33-33 are slimmer than the odds that it will be unbalanced and favor someone.  Level results happen only if the total number is divisible by 3, which further narrows the odds.  Any odd number of games (and any idiot who agrees to play with an even number of games deserves to lose) that isn’t divisible by three guarantees that someone will have more wins than the others.

RPS actually exemplifies the perfect mathematical expression of the futility of human design and intentionality:  It is a conflict resolution device almost perfectly designed to engender more conflict.  RPS is more elegant than “Murphy’s Law,” which operates by way of categorical affirmations and a priori givens, without any justification or proof whatsoever.  While offering the masses a palliative notion of conflict resolution, RPS actually encodes the perfect mathematical explanation of why conflict resolution is almost completely impossible. It’s like politics in America rendered in a way that both children and adults can believe in.  Randall Munroe demonstrates this in his XKCD comic strip, “Improvised,” in which RPS doesn’t do Han Solo much good in figuring out how to reply to Princess Leia in a famously tight moment, though in Han’s defense this is not the kind of proposition that is easy to deal with even under the most relaxed of circumstances.

At least one financial analyst has chosen to analyze our current economic crisis as a relationship between currency and gold as one of rock (gold), paper (currency), and scissors (economic turmoil).  And the television show Big Bang Theory just made it all seem silly, as it does with most things.

The Rock-Paper-Scissors playing glove is a technological innovation that serves at least two purposes.  It should help indecisive people make decisions in crucial moments.  It is also something that Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware might find use in helping people to avoid masturbating by giving them something useful to do with their hands.  (Scissors and masturbation?  Oops.)  If the mathematical logical I outlined above holds, the glove will keep them playing forever, thus ensuring the inavailability of the hands for other, more profane purposes.

2 Comments

Filed under conflict, freedom, ideas, life, normal distribution, politics, risk, statistics, struggle, truth, war

The truth and diamonds

The truth is precious.  So are diamonds.

Both can shine brilliantly, sparkling in the light to dazzle your eyes, making young couples blush with happiness and pride.  Like the truth, diamonds aren’t nearly as rare as their market value would indicate.  Both can be found with ease when you know where to look.  Every once in a while, someone stumbles on a massive diamond in the plain light of day, just one more rock in the landscape until a chance encounter sets it apart. No small amount of truth is discovered in the same way.  What sets these discoverers apart from the rest of us is as often as not luck.

The truth and diamonds leave two trails, one of bliss and hope, the other of blood and cruelty.  More banal than ironic, this is the way of the universe.  The same truth that turns a God of peace into a God of war also turns simple assumptions about fairness into human rights.

What happens when beauty and ugliness form a bond so tight that they become inseparable?  The trouble with the truth and diamonds is that they can lead you anywhere.  What really matters is where you want to go.

Notes and Credits

The opening photograph of the Hope Diamond is by Chip Clark, who passed away on June 12, 2010, away after 35 years as a photographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  Mr. Clark’s beautiful photographs of gems, animals, birds, and other things can be found all over the web.

The Hope Diamond is surrounded by legend.  It seems that most who have possessed it have come to tragic ends.  It is currently owned by the United States of America and is on display at the Smithsonian.

The playing cards were photographed by the author, from a miniature travel deck for Patience (Solitaire) given to me in 1992 by Professor Raymond Grew, a mentor of mine in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

It should be noted that the truth also grows more precious with time, the simple truths of youth seeming to appear ever more complex and enduring as time goes along, much like the songs of Neil Diamond and just about everything touched by Johnny Cash.

8 Comments

Filed under beauty, danger, death, freedom, hubris, ideas, love, money, philosophy, revolution, riches, truth, war

E/F – The glass of history

halfglass-kaoru-1

“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind …  History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”

This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself.  It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw.  But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.

Notes and Credits:  Burke and history and quotations

This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.

Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments.  As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian.  With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.

In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism.  Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown.  (Note:  George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)

A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here.  As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing.  As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state:  “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.”  If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.

In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:

I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .

Notes and Credits:  The teacup

The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea.  It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting.  The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.”  She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin.  She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.

halfglass-kaoru-4

Teacup, with cap

The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers.  Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.

In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere.  Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here.  She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”

halfglass-kaoru-3

... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island

Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.  A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973.  After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.

In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island.  Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram.  The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others).  The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors.  In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.

1 Comment

Filed under beauty, freedom, ideas, order, politics, revolution, truth, war

The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the Future

zweig

This series of posts springs from three sources.  First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath.  Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town.  Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.

These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future.  They are stories of writers and writing.  They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions.  The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil.  The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited.  Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land.  Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.

These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others.  Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth.  Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is.  But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.

The truth and Brasília, 1:  Land of the future

In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.  Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.

Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life.  In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941.  By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”

No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.

Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless.  Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.

For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important.  He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration.  A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress.  To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.

Brazil-16-map

Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters.  In 1941, he published Brazil:  Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country.  On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher:  The World of Yesterday, an autobiography.  Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him.  In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife.  He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.

. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.

Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects.  After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.

Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited.  Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.

Notes and Credits

Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees.  It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees.  Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.

There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig.  My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia:  John Perreault’s Art Diary.  WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig.  Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,

Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.

Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven.  As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards.  The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services.  Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.

The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazil-16-map.jpg.  The photograph is in the public domain.

I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil.  The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime.  The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings:  Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.

The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history.  The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.

lery

Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare.  As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.

Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance.  Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.

1 Comment

Filed under death, failure, freedom, ideas, life, philosophy, politics, truth, war

Another year, and we remember

IMG_1220

This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

911-sarah-alt

My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

6 Comments

Filed under danger, death, existentialism, ideas, philosophy, politics, truth, Uncategorized, war

The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro

house-of-tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Indiana version

In the first installment of The truth and change, I wrote about how the Enlightenment gave us a new kind of science and social discourse that pictured a perfectible mankind, which would be the basis of real democracy and freedom in the future.  Yet it was really a Greek tragedy.

Jefferson snubbed the ancients by declaring that there will be something new under the sun, and a hundred years later the world embarked on a century that would witness versions of apocalypse previously imaginable only in epics and divine texts.  Everything that the Enlightenment made it possible to imagine, it also made it possible to destroy.  That was the dilemma of my generation . . .

Technoredemption Goes Pro

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the “House of Tomorrow,” which still stands in Indiana and at 78 years old combines the future and past in one space.  Like most dream houses created since the 1930s, it has a double garage, with a twist – one for an automobile and one for the airplane that “World’s Fair optimists assumed every future family would own …”

One can only imagine how this garage has played out of time – rumpus room, game room, massive mud room, cluttered workshop where grandpa used to build boats in bottles, and now the place where mom and dad surf the internet when the other isn’t looking.

The House of Tomorrow held out a vision of the future at odds with much of what was going on around it.  A few years earlier, World War I gave people a glimpse of the horror to be wrought by chemical warfare and bombs.  In 1933, faith in individual action and the capitalist economy was well under seige.  On February 27 of that year, Hitler burned the Reichstag and The Third Reich began.  World War II, with its multiple Holocausts of genocide, firebombing, and nuclear warfare would be soon upon us.

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (published in 1973) portayed this entire destructive arc of the twentieth century.  Science fuelled a spiral of violence, which unleashed and unbound human emotions both zany and horrific.  Pynchon captured this most vividly in Brigadier Pudding’s humiliation scene, a Pavlovian experiment in the malleability/perfectibility of mankind that was a living annihilation at the border between the past and our future in which Pudding relived and relieved himself of the filth of Ypres and Passechendaele over and over again.  The ritual became the center of his being.

Brigadier Pudding on the border between past and future.

Zak Smith: Brigadier Pudding, p. 236

Still, annihilation and holocaust were not the only ideas on the table. The playfulness of Pynchon’s novel and its main character, Tyrone Slothrop, held out the competing narratives of innocence and technologial redemption, impulses ironically (and perhaps hypocritcally) present in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  This was the year of my birth and the year in which Stanley Kubrik gave us Dr. Strangelove.  At the Fair, GM’s “Tomorrow Land” provided a delightful tour of the wonders yet to be bestowed on us by reinforced concrete, steel, and plastic.  Tomorrow Land was a glimpse into the world that could be, minus the evils of nuclear war, poverty, and exploitation.

At the Fair’s Pepsi Pavilion, “Children of the World” used mechanized dolls and music to showcase a world of hope and diversity.  This became Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” leading to the installation of its relentlessly saccharine theme song in the minds of millions of people every year, some of whom must wish that Slim Pickins would ride a missile into Orlando and put an end to the little dolls and gadgets just so they could get that song out of their heads.

The world we inherited in the Reagan years was reeling between the Jetsons and Dr. Strangelove as Paul Westerberg wrote “we’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it.”  If we were finally, really going to do it, to blow it up, I’d at least try to spend my last years thinking of other things.

TRS80mod3

The Mighty "Trash-80"

In 1981, I bought a TRS-80, Model III.  I was 17 and had saved up the money from my job at the pizza parlor down the street.  I read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Nesbitt’s Megatrends.  A future of progress was much more appealing future than the one forecast by the “Doomsday Clock” on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Such was the future according to Generation X, as we stumbled between slackerism and technoredemption.

In 1989, I remember being in my kitchen, washing dishes and listening to NPR when they announced that people had climbed over the Berlin Wall and were taking it apart.  In my own mind, I replaced The Day After with Blondie and hummed “Atomic” over and over again as I felt relief wash over me.

Then in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich started invoking Alvin Toffler at every opportunity.  1984 and Y2K came and went with neither Orwellian nor apocalyptic futures taking hold.  The most prescient glimpse of the future provided in my entire lifetime was not Space 1999 but Prince’s 1999, which accurately forecast exactly what I, and countless others around the world, were doing in 1999.  Whatever the future would be, it would be weird, and once Tim Berners Lee put the World Wide Web up, Gen X went online and, as if following Hunter S. Thompson’s consultation to our parents, we went pro.

Technoredemption provided a kind of cure-all for anxiety about the future.  Today it feeds the relentlessly positive assessments of Twitter’s contribution to revolution and freedom around the world.  Yet the same technology can bring us back to Huxley or Orwell, and we know it.  Evgeny Morozov writes that even as “activists and NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing to analyze data, map human rights violations, scrutinize the voting records of their MPs, and even track illegal logging in the Amazon”, ” governments are also relying on crowdsourcing to identify dissenters and muzzle free speech.

Technoredemption remains as much a promise now as it was in 1776, 1933, 1964, or 1989.  Rousseau’s famous line from the opening of On the Social Contract – “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strikes me as quite true today, in the same sense that Rousseau meant it, and with the same consequences.

Notes and Credits

The photograph of the House of Tomorrow, Indiana version, was found on Wikipedia, in the commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:571531cv.jpg.  The House of Tomorrow, Berlin version, is in the Wikimedia commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reichstagsbrand.jpg.

We didn’t need nuclear bombs alone to create armageddons of pain and horror.  Madhukar Shukla writes “The Firebombing of Tokyo was as devasting as the nuclear, Hidden in the history of that time, is an unnoticed footnote – the ‘Tokyo Fire-Bombing,’ which the Western press would not touch, and the Japanese survivors would not like to dwell upon [was an] event which happened months before the atom-bombs and with far more lethal consequences.”  Shukla’s blog is called “Alternative Perspective” and his homepage is here.

The illustration of Brig. Pudding is by Zak Smith, from his work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Much thanks to Zak for granting me permission to use the image.  The series of illustrations was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (agh, just before I arrived in New York!) and is now part of the permanent collection at the Walker in Minneapolis.  In the episode referenced above, Brig. Pudding must undergo a scatological humiliation scene with Domina Nocturna as part of his atonement for his role in Ypres and Passechendaele, a scene occupying pp. 232-36 of the book (Viking Press, 1973).  Click on the image and you will be taken to a website featuring all of the illustrations.

Among Pynchon’s themes we count the Europeans’ damning of the world to endure the repetitive future of their own racist, colonial past, which sits perversely at the heart of American innocence and condemns America (white America, especially) to this struggle between technoredemption, dystopia, and annihilation.  Like Rousseau, Pynchon sees the chains that reason has placed on mankind.  He continues to explore that theme in his writing, with impressive intensity in Mason and Dixon, in which the two famous astronomers are contracted to create an artificial boundary between two artificial entites (Pennsylvania and Maryland) that have been imposed on something like a state of nature.

Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, goes into the territory of detective fiction and film noir, two of my favorite genres.  I am giddy and cannot wait to read this book.  Expect more posts related to TP.

On August 31, 2006, Douglas Coupland posted a wonderfully ironic vision of the future as past and present on his New York Times blog.  At that point he boldly foresaw the Kindle-future, as he predicted that books will “cease to exist” and become “extinct.”  Looking at his old novels and thinking of insects, he began to think about how wasps made paper from wood, and then he used his own mouth to pulp his novels and make nests from them.  The resulting photos are quite beautiful, and the blog posting shows what Generation X looks like as a nest.

The photograph of the TRS-80 Model III comes from Stan Veit’s website, PC-History, based on his famous book, Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer.

I learned about Evgeny Morozov’s blog post in a Tweet from Cause Global’s Marcia Stepanek.

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

6 Comments

Filed under danger, death, freedom, ideas, politics, truth, Uncategorized, war