09/27/16

Stampede

Yes, my fellow Americans, it’s time to mount a vast public campaign to raise awareness of the illegitimacy of tattoo-removal services. Didn’t you know that a tattoo is supposed to be permanent? If people can just go and get their tattoos removed, what is the meaning of having a tattoo in the first place? An insincere, non-binding tattoo must be the most abject thing on earth. No wonder public morals have declined! And those poorly sourced Chinese characters you’ve repented of, those political slogans that you’ve realized were spelled incorrectly, those cartoon characters and commercial brands you’ve grown out of– well, if life has given you bad tattoos, turn them into lemonade! There must be consequences; the individual’s history must be legible and indelible. Five years’ imprisonment for the person seeking to have their tattoos removed; life behind bars for any individual procuring, facilitating, or offering to perform tattoo removal. For tats are, by definition, forever.

Get this on the ballot in referendum-friendly states, bribe a few congresspeople, go on the talk shows frothing at the mouth, and while the frenzy is at its peak, slip in a repeal of Citizens United and a real single-payer health system. Thanks.

09/14/16

App Locally

There’s been some grumbling on the web about neighborhood information services such as NextDoor — the gravamen is that such services are inherently racist, or foster racism.

There’s a solution. Move to a different neighborhood. I live on the South Side of Chicago and while I wouldn’t call the NextDoor service here spellbinding, you don’t see messages from people freaking out because they saw a black person drive by. The astonishing reason behind this is that 80 percent of the people in the neighborhood are themselves black. Instead, you have requests for information about house painters and dog walkers, announcements of festivals, complaints about noise, calls to pester the alderman about this or that traffic issue. Normal people dealing with normal stuff. Some lifestyle scuffles, but Pantone numbers don’t enter into it.

It’s not the apps that “have a racism problem.” It’s the composition of the neighborhoods. Do something about that before you blame the software designers. Or have the apps become the reality itself?

 

09/12/16

Further to the Man who Forgot Words

At the aquarium the other day, a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy slide show meant to raise the public’s ecological awareness was prefaced with the title screen:

ONE WORLD. MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

Now of course I know what they wanted to do: harness two slogans that people normally respond to in push-button, sleepwalking fashion, “one world” evoking those feelings of kinship with animals and nature, “making a difference” prompting us to get out our checkbooks and do something for the human-created organizations that are supposed to protect bits of nature. But having spent months reading the wrong kind of books, I couldn’t help thinking that if you are all about “One World,” “making a difference” must be the beginning of the downhill trend. If Laozi had been on that advertising account team, “One World: Stop Making Those Differences” or “Unmake a Difference” might have been the more consistent message (but then, who would have written checks?).

09/9/16

The Better Angels

On Sunday, September 11, 2016, it will be the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Sad to say, the terrorists did win. Not only did they demolish a piece of historic New York real estate, and kill three thousand people, but they also paved the way for America increasingly to resemble the autocratic Wahabiite kingdom from which they came. We saw it in the PATRIOT Act, and all the succeeding reauthorizations and expansions, which made it licit for not only the Three Letter Agencies, but local police, to delve into your past and present communications and interactions. We saw it in the retargeting of the Two Minute Hate away from the dimly remembered Communists and towards Muslims. We saw two unjustifiable and costly wars, and some less-documented quasi-wars, none of which made us in any way safer, and served primarily as a vehicle for turning our soldiers into mental patients. Our conduct of the first Gulf War led to the birth of ISIS, as all of Saddam’s generals and bureaucrats, barred by Rumsfeld from participation in the occupation government, needed jobs, and ISIS provided them. Our nominal “victory” — the assassination of Saddam Hussein captured live on video so that Obama and Clinton could view it in the Situation Room like tonight’s Netflix movie — led to no pause in our drone-enhanced military endeavors. And finally, let us not forget extraordinary renditions, “black sites,” intentionally inflicted US torture, at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — hooded figures, stress positions, sexual humiliation, waterboarding — that told the world that, yes, the Geneva Conventions were so much meaningless paper. So the terrorists did win. Their acts corrupted our essential nature, but we did have a choice, in the middle of our patriotism and jingoism, to preserve it. Some told us to do just that, and we rejected them, calling them unpatriotic and sympathetic to the enemy.

Now, fifteen years and $4 trillion later, are we doing any better? What have we gained? What are we celebrating? Our 33,000 military deaths, the 1 million Iraqis and Afghans killed as “collateral damage,” some new, symbolic real estate?

Despite the Kissinger-like Machtpolitik which will probably be emanating from Washington only a couple of months from now. I would say that we should bring the troops home. Spend a couple of trillion dollars on them for their mental health. Leave Afghanistan for the Taliban; we tried bribing the Afghans into democracy, and it was like feeding $100 bills into a shredder. Leave the Syrians, the YPG, ISIS, and the Taliban to work things out; they could hardly be worse than they are today. If Russia gets a toehold in the Middle East, just remember that we have had our toehold for over six decades, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and think of where that has gotten us.

This Sunday, exceptional America will be celebrated with processions of men in uniform, candlelight vigils, and NYFD T-shirts. We are mourning the loss of our buildings and our people. We cannot see that we have lost what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and we do not know where they have flown.

08/29/16

An Unhelpful Thought

Zhuangzi– the great Zhuangzi, who seems to go everywhere with me these days– is credited with a nugget of wisdom that in virtually all translations reads similarly. 荃者所以在魚,得魚而忘荃;蹄者所以在兔,得兔而忘蹄;言者所以在意,得意而忘言。吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉?

I take Burton Watson’s translation as the baseline for English versions: ‘The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Fair enough. No need to paraphrase. Zhang Longxi pointed out that “a man who has forgotten words” wouldn’t be much use as a conversation-partner, so we should probably read that clause as meaning “a man who will forget words” (and, by implication, capture my meaning). Also good.

But one problem remains, and that’s the parodic quality of Zhuangzi. He constantly picks up some pearl of wisdom, fits it into a slingshot, and uses it to shatter another vessel of wisdom that had been gathering dust on the shelf. Were it not for the lack of corroborating texts, I would be tempted to think that the first three segments, about fish, rabbits, meanings and their respective traps, were quoted from some source that took them straight as a proof of the priority of meaning over words; and that then Zhuangzi (whoever that might be) took things to their logical endpoint by saying, “Well, if you think that, then you’d probably advise me to find somebody who has forgotten words and have a word with him, right?” In other words, the problem Zhang Longxi fixed might not be the problem that needs fixing; Zhuangzi might have been laughing at the solemn ends-and-means calculus of conventional attitudes about language. The first three segments would be as it were in quotation marks, and the absurd conclusion would be where our author wants to go. Zhuangzi fans, your reaction? Or have you all obediently forgotten words? (Must go check on those fish-traps.)

08/26/16

The Allergens Among Us

It appears that the people least likely to develop life-threatening allergies are those who live on farms. Why is that? Farms are full of biota– from the charismatic megafauna Bossie and Fido to the worms in the apples and the fungus in the hay and the bacteria that break down the compost. Not to mention the boll weevils, locusts, ticks and other assorted annoyances. Living in such a place for a few years is great for training the immune system. You develop lots of antibodies and — I would assume — the hormonal equivalent of reflexes that deal quickly with new menaces. Resilience, let’s call it.

A college is (or should be) like a farm. You will run into many taxa there that you didn’t know existed. You will encounter people who think and say that [INSERT NAME OF GROUP THAT YOU BELONG TO] should be expunged from the face of the earth. You will hear that people who [INSERT NAME OF BEHAVIOR THAT YOU SOMETIMES PERFORM] should pay the presumed cost of their activities, even [INSERT NAME OF UNDESIRED OUTCOME, WHETHER DEATH, DISEASE, OR RESIDENCE IN CONCENTRATION CAMP]. You will hear people say that it’s all your fault that [INSERT DESCRIPTION OF THINGS BEING SCREWED UP]. People will try to intimidate you, to make you feel powerless, guilty, and/or small.

And because in college the ground rule is that we use reason, not force, to talk our way through things (this rule may not hold in Texas), you will develop a set of responses to these non-fatal threats. You will reexamine your previous beliefs and discover that when you defend them in public, you need a better reason than the fact that your mother, your priest, your TV role model, or your favorite teacher in high school held those opinions. You may discover that your previous identity-group, rather than being the plucky, heroic and endangered minority you always thought they were, are in many people’s eyes a danger to the public, or just a bunch of silly cranks. You may eventually go back to that group, but it will be on a different basis, because you have been exposed to the outside air. Or you may find a different group for yourself, with whatever degree of continuity with your prior self that you find plausible. If your college did the job it’s supposed to do, you will have developed intellectual resilience, something analogical to the immunity-building powers of life on the farm.

The analogical counterpart to antibiotic soap, to the removal of all threats to identity and belief, is what certain nice people who are basically on the same side as me in substantive matters call “safe spaces.” Patrick Henry College is a safe space for young Republicans. Oral Roberts University is a safe space for young evangelicals. Parents choose and pay for such safe spaces. But those safe spaces are not giving people the experience that I associate with college. They should be given a different name– “incubators” perhaps.

My classroom is a place where people can say stupid things and receive a (somewhat) respectful hearing and response. If you say an intelligent thing, you’ll have to back it up with facts and inference, because we’re not going to learn anything from it if you arrived at that smart remark by chance– we want to be able to reproduce it under other conditions. It is a fact of our life in literature that we must spend a lot of time on texts in which people behave badly– enacting mass murder, rape, cannibalism, incest, etc, and worse yet, uttering justifications for them all. Because I hate to cause pain, even indirectly, I will alert the sensitive to such content, but I can’t guarantee that every potentially troubling detail will be flagged in advance. Sugar-coating the barbarity of human history, or sweeping it under the rug, will only leave you with missing teeth and a lumpy carpet.

08/16/16

Tart-Pie

A friend from Beijing brought me a bottle of rice wine with a pagoda on the label: 塔牌紹興酒, or “Pagoda Brand Shaoxing Wine.” It reminded me of an earlier incarnation of that apparently famous brand, made in Taiwan: different bottle shape, different label, almost the same name, but complemented with an English transliteration: TART-PIE. There’s a whole theory of language in that designation.

The word for “pagoda” or “tower” is, in fact, borrowed in Chinese as a transliteration of “tart”: you can buy shuiguo ta, or fruit “pagodas,” in Taiwan. Before anyone gets excited, let me point out that they’re one-storey affairs. Knowledgeable consumers are aware that the “ta” is there as a transliteration, not as a unit of meaning. “Pie” is sometimes represented as pai (meaning “send,” fourth tone, 派). But every unit of sound, every syllable, in Chinese writing carries some kind of meaning. The translator of the Taiwanese rice wine label must have assumed that English works in the same way. If you wanted to translate the Pagoda Brand name, then, you would have to find words in English that had meanings and were phonetically similar, thus Tart-Pie. The absence of any relation between the wine and tarts and pies initiates the English reader into the way Chinese pastry buyers deal with “sendings” and “pagodas”: they just step over the misunderstanding and enjoy a fully semantic though partly nonsensical universe.

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08/10/16

the First Seven Jobs meme

  1. Lutenist of fleas, Wallace Stevens Industries
  2. Apprentice dragon butcher, Nanhua Zhengjing Supply Co.
  3. Supreme Court justice
  4. Secretary-General,  NATO
  5. Golf
  6. Drink
  7. Television
07/22/16

Again, Never Again

So, about thirty-five years ago, my mother’s parents were alive and well, and in the summer, went to bungalow colonies in the Catskills. These were the abode of elderly people of modest means; the younger people went to the big hotels for nightlife. There was no development, no noise — just Jews in the country. As it happened, at one of these bungalow colonies, I noticed that most of my grandparents’ social interactions were with these strange, quiet people with numbers on their arms. They dressed modestly, but they didn’t cover the numbers up. And at some point, as a kid, I had to yell out the question, “Hey, Dad, why do Grandpa’s friends have numbers on their arms?” The resulting discussion was very brief; it had little to do with history, and dealt more with my asking the wrong question at the top of my lungs. But I was told that these were survivors of the Holocaust, and that they should be treated very kindly and gently. I think they adopted my grandfather because he had been very visibly maimed by the Cossacks in the run-up to the Russian Revolution, and they loved my grandmother, because she was so kind and was a wonderful cook; many of them ate very simply.

From these survivors, I learned a few things.

  1. Life could change very quickly.
  2. Hitler explicitly wrote and said what he was going to do, years in advance.
  3. People could not believe that Hitler could come to power in a democratic election
  4. The rich people sat the election out on the theory that they would make deals with Hitler once he gained power.
  5. Once Hitler gained power, he did everything he said he was going to do, and more.
  6. The day that they lost their citizenship and human rights dawned like any other.
  7. Everyone tried to save themselves, but most died trying — or of depression, or of disease, or of starvation, or of bullets, or of gas.
  8. They survived for a reason — to tell young people like me that it should never happen again.
  9. Always support the State of Israel, because it will be your home when America spits you out, as it will in time.

I believed them, little Zionist that I was. Now, of course, things look different. Israel is not a place for Jews like me. So, what’s left is America. And who appears when I check off the first few boxes on the above checklist? You know, exactly.

So, for me, this election is not about good or bad policies, ways of governing, styles of leadership. This is about life and death. And it’s about those elderly people, thirty-five years ago, who had a message to convey to me as a little boy. Never again.

07/20/16

The Vienna Circle’s Tangent

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On the main marble staircase of the University of Vienna, brass letters set into the floor mark the event. “On 22 June 1936 Moritz Schlick, a leading member of the Vienna Circle, was murdered on this spot. An intellectual climate poisoned by racism and intolerance contributed to the act.”

I had always assumed that Schlick’s assassin was inspired by race hatred. It turns out, though, that the only Jewish thing about Schlick was the philosophical case he made for Einstein’s relativity theory (a piece of “non-Aryan science” according to the Nazi thought leaders). His murderer, a former grad student with a grudge who blamed Schlick for his own failures in love and career, had been stalking him for years. Stalkers will stalk, malingerers will malinger. But it was 1936 in Vienna. The murderer made no attempt to run away. Once arrested, he had his fan club. He claimed to have done the deed to purify the nation of a quasi-Judaic philosophical “decadent.” And with the benefit of a pliant jury and a bit of an insanity defense, he was out of jail within two years.

Schlick’s murder set other members of the Vienna Circle on their path out of Austria. Carnap came to Chicago, and another story began.

A climate of hatred and violence: it not only precipitates murder, but retrospectively justifies it. The university is right to call this to the attention of everyone going up and down the stair.

07/17/16

Ebola and Ethics

Ebola and ethics? Sure. Don’t listen to anyone who thinks that an emergency calls for desperate measures including the suspension of that pesky distinction between right and wrong. In fact the existence of an emergency calls for us to be especially attentive to all that ethics stuff, not to treat it as annoying paperwork that you sign your way through on the way to doing something ruthless and necessary. See the Letters column of the British Medical Journal if you don’t believe me.

 

07/12/16

“An Armed Society is a Polite Society”?

Really? People go around saying it. But, please, ma’am or sir as the case may be, I beg to differ, if you don’t mind. Seek the proof in the pudding. We have got ourselves the most heavily armed society on earth, and I don’t see us being any less rude, overbearing, hot-headed, irrational, stubborn, nasty or mean than any of the neighbors– indeed, our behavior speaks louder than the words of a hack sci-fi writer, sometimes abusively attributed to Jefferson. Pretty soon the only form of politeness we’ll know is the twenty-one-gun salute.

07/9/16

Kaddish for the Unarmed

On Yom Kippur, my former synagogue would substitute for the traditional Martyrology a Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust. The words of the Kaddish were interspersed with the names and places of the victims of extermination. Today, I am interspersing its words with the names of unarmed black people killed by U.S. police in 2015. My source for this information is http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/.

Yit’gadal

Keith Childress

v’yit’kadash

Bettie Jones

sh’mei raba

Kevin Matthews

b’al’ma

Leroy Browning

di v’ra khir’utei

Roy Nelson

v ‘yam’likh mal’khutei

Miguel Espinal

b’chayeikhon

Nathaniel Pickett

uv’yomeikhon

Tiara Thomas

uv’chayei d’khol beit yis’ra’eil

Cornelius Brown

Ba’agalah

Zamiel Crawford

u-viz’man kariv

Jermaine Benjamin

v’imru: Amen

Chandra Weaver

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh

l’alam ul’al’mei al’maya

Jamar Clark

Yit’barakh

Richard Perkins

v’yish’tabach

Stephen Tooson

v’yit’pa’ar

Michael Lee Marshall

v’yit’romam

Alonzo Smith

v’yit’nasei

Yvens Seide

v’yit’hadar

Anthony Ashford

v’yit’aleh

Lamontey Jones

v’yit’halal

Rayshawn Cole

sh’mei d’kud’sha

Patterson Brown

B’rikh hu.

Christopher Kimball

toosh’b’chatah

Junior Prosper

v’nechematah,

Keith McLeod

da’ameeran b’al’mah,

Wayne Wheeler

v’imru: Amen

India Kager

Y’hei

Tyree Crawford

sh’lama

James Karney, III

raba

Feliz Kumi

min sh’maya

Wendell Hall

v’chayim aleinu

Asshams Manley

v’al kol yis’ra’eil

Christian Taylor

v’im’ru: Amen

Troy Robinson

Oseh shalom

Brian Day

bim’romav

Michael Sabbie

hu ya’aseh shalom

Billy Ray Davis

aleinu

Samuel Dubose

v’al kol Yisrael

Darrius Stewart

v’al yoshvei

Albert Davis

teiveil

Sandra Bland

v’imru: Amen.

May the One who dwells on high make peace for us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.

And let us say, Amen.

 

07/5/16

Inflation Prophets

Around 2008– that is, for the non-USAns, two presidential election cycles ago– I remember a lot of dark muttering around various dinner tables about the “messianism” of Obama supporters. People on the left, that is, and some of the most philosophically and historically alert ones, were afraid that the expectations lifting the candidacy of the previously little-known senator from Illinois were going to swerve into something sinister. As it happened, nothing less messianic than Obama’s presidency could be imagined. Obama has governed within the limits of the law, not even testing those limits; far from that, he has failed to take a lot of opportunities that the law would have allowed him, and that would have made possible a deep change in our political culture (such as allowing war-crimes investigations to go ahead for the Bushocracy, before he got too deeply involved in the criminality of war himself). In Max Weber’s terms, he has let routine, not charisma, run the show. That’s the sign of a virtue. Maybe not the virtue we needed foregrounded for all of the last eight years. But a virtue nonetheless.

Messianism is certainly something to worry about. It is a symptom of an impatience that wants to throw off all legal restraints, the very restraints that make possible the “freedom” that Americans, those masters of paradox, trumpet loudest when they are trying to anoint someone as lord and master over them. For this we have historical parallels.

Countless “saviors of the twenties”… achieved a position of “great significance especially in the years of inflation from 1919 to 1923 and then again during the Depression of 1929 to 1933″… In 1922, a Berlin correspondent for the Kölnische Zeitung described these “prophets of the street” as follows: “For the past one or two years, the advertising boards in Berlin have been covered with announcements of disciples of the future and prophets who are advertising their lectures (often at considerable admission prices). Catchwords and quotations from the Bible always play a role in the advertisements. The old constellation of ideas surrounding the apocalypse has gained new life, as it did in earlier times of crisis… The existence of such prophets is a dangerous symptom of the mental state prevalent in Germany today.” (Klaus Schreiner, “Messianism in the Weimar Republic,” 311-362 of Peter Schäfer and Mark Cohen, eds., Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 338-339.)

The important thing about these saviors is that they promise to suspend all existing laws, treaties, and institutions, and simply “emerge as the bearer[s] of divine powers of mercy and fate” (337). One enthusiastic student essayist wrote in 1920:

In our misery, we long for a Leader. He will show us the way… The true Leader surely has no selfish motivation, just one, regal motivation, that he must be the Leader because he is it by nature…. The Leader is not guided by the masses, but by his mission; he does not flatter the masses; he proceeds harshly, uprightly, and ruthlessly, in times of good and evil. The Leader is radical; he is wholly that which he is, and he does wholly that which he must. The Leader is responsible; that is, he does God’s will, which he embodies…. God grant us the Leader and help us to achieve true fealty. (Käthe Becker, “Führerschaft, eine Rede vor der Vereinigung ‘Deutsche Jugend,'” in Deutschlands Erneuerung, vol. 4 [1920]: 563, cited in Schreiber, “Messianism,” 336.)

I have replaced “Führer” in Schreiner’s translation with the more ordinary term “Leader” in order to downplay the connotation that the word “Führer” has acquired in English as applying to one moustachioed individual only, because the date of the quotation proves that it’s not a matter of a manipulative individual or an evil genius, but of the fervent passivity of a mass movement begging to be led, pleading to be dealt with “harshly and ruthlessly.” There was a demand for a Führer, a howling demand, already years before the author of Mein Kampf stepped upon the stage. A well-prepared stage. I blame the preparers: the ones in Versailles as well as the pamphleteers, flag-wavers and revanchards.

And if someone had dealt with the root causes of the frenzy in a timely manner, perhaps the hero cult would have subsided. Inflation prophets will arise. They aren’t the evil itself but “dangerous symptoms” thereof. It shouldn’t be impossible to tap the top tax bracket, employ a few million people in infrastructure repairs, have an honest discussion about race, immigration and exclusion.

I didn’t worry too much about messianism in 2008. Perhaps I should have worried about disappointed messianism. But I do worry about it in 2016.

07/4/16

Commemoration in Another Key

My father would have been 80 yesterday (that’s how far it is to July 3, 1936). We slipped out to a jazz club in the South Loop by way of celebration. Think of it: in July ’36 Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton were still in their prime, Miles Davis was ten years old. An unpredictable zigzag was born.

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