If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a picture of words worth?
Spelling mistake or assertion about the relationship of truth to intestinal fortitude? Martin Luther would surely disagree, for in his case getting to the truth was intimately dependent upon getting loose, and the entire fate of the Medieval Church hung in the balance. Luther’s was one divine and hellacious struggle.
By the time Alberto Fujimori got loose and began to deal with his struggles, he was a wanted man. President of Peru from 1992 to 2000, he defeated the Shining Path revolutionaries by resorting to atrocities that rivaled those of this enemies. The dirty war in Peru took over 70,000 lives on both sides, and mass graves of military executions are still being found. Peru’s Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team) has made a striking documentary of the largest grave site, If I Don’t Come Back, Look for Me in Putis. After losing the 2000 presidential race, Fujimori fled to Japan after corruption schemes involving over a billion dollars came to light. He returned to South America in 2005 to run for president again the following year, but instead he was arrested, tried, convicted, and thrown in jail. With or without the truth, Fujimori was finally the loser.
How many words is a Wordsworth worth?
Notes and Credits
All photographs were taken by the author, except as otherwise noted.
“Without truth you are the looser” was taken in Lisbon, Portugal in 2000. The ironies of this photograph go well beyond its mispelling. But that’s all I’m saying here.
“Fujimori Presidente” was also taken in 2000, on a trip I took to Peru with students from the college where I taught at the time. This political graffiti was seen on a fairly desolate road in the altiplano, the high plains of the Andes Mountains. We were on a bus on our way over the continental divide, which we crossed at around 16,000 feet, and then down, down, down to the Manu River Forest Preserve. The Manu River is a tributary of the Amazon River which at this point has just come rushing down from the Andes and is settling into the massive river it will become with each new tributary on its 2,000+ mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Belém.
“William Wordsworth” is an image from the Wikimedia Commons of what is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor of the poet by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887).
The Importance of Place: Fort Hamilton Subway Station
The Ft. Hamilton station is beneath an expressway interchange, where the Prospect Expressway empties out on to (or begins at, depending on your vantage) Ocean Parkway, beneath the Ft. Hamilton Parkway overpass. Ocean Parkway is a major thoroughfare running south to Coney Island from Prospect Park. It’s a folkloric parkway lined with trees and sidewalks where people are walking every day of the week, at all hours it seems. Kareem Fahim posted this wonderful story on Ocean Parkway in the Times on October 10, 2008.
Here’s a video, working hard to be experimental, on the Parkway …
And this one, with a bowling theme, which is big here. In summer camp they take the kids at least once a week, from age 5 on up.
The Prospect Expressway links Ocean Parkway to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE as we call it. This interchange is a concrete manifestation (literally) of Robert Moses’s dreams for New York. Moses served in various posts involved in urban planning and development, and from the 1930s to the 1970s he managed to thoroughly remake the city and Long Island’s highway system, housing agencies, and parks, which we have taken up before in Truth and Rocket Science, in The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro and The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara. The Fort Hamilton interchange is one small of Robert Moses’s living legacy.
The photograph above is found on the Wikimedia Commons. To the right is the beginning of Ocean Parkway, where the Prospect Expressway empties out. The person walking away in the photo has just passed “Trust your Struggle,” to the left, on the side of another retaining wall, as is obvious from the way that he (or she?) is contemplating the solipsism of passengerless cars rushing by on the expressway. I do not know who put this particular graffiti there, but I smile a little every morning as I walk by it.
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 onlyin 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert S. McNamara struggled with his own humanity in the face of all he had done. His faith in statistics, systems theory, and science was equaled by his seeming allergy to human emotion, in spite of a life lived full of emotion. Whether his sense of duty was a righteous sham or a noble straightjacket cannot be answered now, but we do know that his sense of duty prevented him from acting on his beliefs. In not acting – not speaking out against the war and Johnson’s stubborn pursuit of it – McNamara’s misdeeds became the emblem of his life.
My perspective on McNamara is a luxury of history. In 1984, when I was working for the Mondale campaign as a College Democrat, we looked back on the 1960s with dim and misplaced nostalgia for something we didn’t understand. When we drew up our marches and rallies against the U.S. role in Central America, we wondered what had been lost since 1968.
With this in mind, I wrote my friend, Peter, who was there in 1968. I asked him to read the post and address one question: “[D]o you think I let him off too easily?”
He wrote me the following, which he allowed me to post here without editing:
McNamara remains something of an enigma to me. He was definitely my enemy back in the 1960s when I was going to school in Ann Arbor. I recently relived those days with one of my old friends. I was attending a conference in Dearborn and made a trip to AA on a beautiful spring day, and my buddy (I hadn’t seen him since 1984) drove in from western Michigan. We recalled the bombing of the ROTC building, the bombing of the CIA office hidden somewhere in downtown AA, various demonstrations we took part in, our first and subsequent encounters with teargas, etc., our first trip to DC to take part in an antiwar march, etc. (we didn’t leave out drugs and rock and roll in our tour of memory lane).
You are quite right about McNamara’s capacity for self-reflection and his—you don’t use these terms— almost theological understanding of what Paul Ricoeur would call “fallible man.” And of course this is what makes him so very different from the motherfuckers of recent vintage who got us into unnecessary wars. Not only will they never be described as the “best and the brightest,” but they provide ample evidence of a total incapacity for self-reflection and self-doubt. All this being said, one of the things that “The Fog of War” revealed was that there were definitely limits to McNamara’s willingness or ability to plunge into his psychic depths. I have a sense that he got near the heart of the matter, but perhaps because of what psychoanalysts call (or at least used to call) resistance, never quite managed to truly come to terms with the reasons for and consequences of his actions.
Errol Morris’s reflections came out in the New York Times yesterday, “McNamara in Context.” Morris points out that as McNamara saw it, his job was to keep us out of nuclear war, which he succeeded in doing even as he failed so spectacularly in other important ways. So much of his life’s work, including at the World Bank, created unintended consequences that were not good at all. Robert S. McNamara was one singularly influential person, a Robert Moses of death and destruction, who had it in his power to do so many things at the flick of a finger.
Like my friend Peter, Morris notes that McNamara never fully accounted for his individual role in the Vietnam War and the unnecessary death it caused, noting that he always used the first person plural when speaking of it. “We were wrong.” For Morris this is part of a greater conundrum: “… how do you say you’re sorry for history?” That kind of accountability is bigger than the individual who, if responsible for some large part of the problem, was surely not alone in it. McNamara was in over his head. He had no mind for the ideas and emotions that would have addressed the situation he was in.
We see now how Dick Cheney is living with his failures. It’s not likely his obituary will state that in his later years “he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington — stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind — walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand-yard stare.”
That image, by Tim Weiner in the New York Timesobituary of McNamara, recalled for me another fallen genius of the same era: John Nash and his haunting of Princeton in his illness, prior to his resurfacing and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Economics. Both men were gripped by insanity at the height of their powers, only McNamara’s was an historical psychosis that had sanction and authority, while Nash’s was a bitterly lonely, neurological defect.
What is the line between the righteous pursuit of the good, however one conceives it, and real evil? Between clarity of vision and madness? Or perhaps more aptly stated: Who draws that line? The righteous believe they know, and that it’s a simple issue. But it’s not. Maybe there is no line at all, or maybe it gets dim or disappears from time to time. An unwelcome thought indeed, but in math, the empty set is always a subset of any set. ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A So it is with life.
This is not the same as saying there is no good or evil – for there is – only that in some situations truth and rocket science place us at a disadvantage, in a fog of righteousness and knowledge. McNamara was an outlier in the same population of which we are all members, and when we really look at outliers, we simply see ourselves, or at least parts of ourselves, magnified.
The mathematical notation ∀A: ∅ ⊆ A means that “for all sets A, the empty set (∅) is a subset of A.”
Robert Moses was the most powerful figure shaping the urban geography of the New York City metropolitan area. From the 1920s to the 1970s, he created park systems, highways, bridges, tunnels, and public housing that, taken together, are fundamental elements of any picture of 20th and 21st century New York. While few dispute the benefits of the parks, beaches, and swimming pools Moses created, his highways destroyed neighborhoods and isolated populations from each other. Along with the system of public housing he created, Moses is partly responsible for the patterns of racial segregation in New York, and according to Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf), this was intentional. By the 1960s, Moses’s star began to wane, and he lost several public battles over new projects. One of Moses’s most influential critics was Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered a classic urban geography and community theory. Jacobs led the fight against Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was never built. Like McNamara, Moses was an appointed official.
For six months in 2004, I lived on the Red Hook side of “the trench,” a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a Moses project) that, along with the Gowanus Expressway (Moses) and Battery Tunnel (Moses), cuts off Red Hook from nearby Carroll Gardens. Red Hook’s public housing development (Moses, again) is one of the largest in New York, and its residents are largely non-white. Carroll Gardens is an old Italian neighborhood that has retained its character, though they had to fight make sure the BQE didn’t demolish their church. In the last few years, Red Hook is undergoing new change, as people from all over the city flock to the giant swimming pool in the park there (Moses), along with one of the newest, and largest IKEA stores (not Moses) in the metropolitan area. Another major (decidedly un-Moses) attraction to Red Hook today are the tacos, whose vendors recently won a touchy battle with the city in order to keep plying their delights for summer soccer fans. It was a struggle Jane Jacobs might have appreciated, as chronicled in part in the Brooklyn Paper.
I have not read Gladwell’s book, Outliers. I’ve read two of his other books and enjoyed them. In my own work as a social scientist, I’ve spent the last 20 years looking at the differences between outliers the rest of us. Not a fan of essentialisms, yet without denying the possibility of essential differences among some people, I tend to view difference as a matter of degrees and context. (see The truth and us).