Lies to die for

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Whilst rooting through a steamer trunk of old jottings from the antediluvian age when I still used pen and paper to record my thoughts, I came across a draft of the Top Ten Lies of the 20th Century. I vaguely recall working on this with one of my brothers a few years back. It wasn’t too tough to generate lies; the difficult part was limiting it to ten – and ranking them.


1. Work Makes You Free (Arbeit Macht Frei – slogan above the gate at Auschwitz)

alternate: The Master Race

2. The War to End All Wars

3. Soviet Socialist Republic

4. Atoms For Peace

5. Great Leap Forward

6. Separate But Equal

7. Free Trade

8. Green Revolution

9. The Domino Effect

alternate: The Missile Gap

10. The Alliance for Democracy

Feel free to suggest others – or generate an alternate list at your own blog.

Forest time, forest space

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What happens when an inveterate traveler succumbs to the temptation to try and fully enter one of the places that haunt his imagination, when he craves “something so far beyond my comprehension that I would have to step completely out of my skin to understand and become a part of my surroundings”?

This is the task that Eric Hansen sets for himself in Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (Penguin, 1988). What’s amazing is that he succeeds – not just in the trek itself, but in adapting himself to a very different way of seeing and traveling, as well. Of course, it isn’t easy. And in the end, the transformative experiences of the first part of his journey do not magically turn everything wonderful for him. On the way back he almost gets killed by Kenyah villagers for walking by himself during Musim Takoot, “The Season of Fear,” and he almost kills a Protestant missionary who seems to embody the worst traits of the “ugly American.”

But the most memorable portions of the story, for me, concern his initial adaptation to jungle traveling under the tutelage of his two Penan guides. (Penan are the hunter-gatherer people of Borneo, who live in very low-tech, band societies and are comparable to the Ituri Pygmies in their level of at-homeness in the rainforest.)

Three narrow trade routes cross the great dividing range between the Kelabit highlands and Kalimantan, but because Bo ‘Hok and Weng, like all Penan, preferred the deep shadows of the forest, we meandered through a maze of game trails that had no beginning or end. I had been with Bo ‘Hok and Weng for nearly two months. . . . [They] wanted to explore this new landscape, and they laughed at my frustration about how little progress we made some days.

“Dawai, dawai” (slowly, slowly), they would say. They had a point. Why should they rush? There might be gaharu or stands of sago nearby. I didn’t know where I was and had finally learned to keep my suggestions to myself. Bo ‘Hok and Weng were the pathfinders, so we continued to meander through the rain forest. During this phase of the trip I remained completely disoriented. I knew we were headed in a generally southeasterly direction and stopped asking “How far?” or “How many days?” The questions were meaningless.

“If you haven’t been to this part of the forest before,” I asked Bo ‘Hok, “how do you know where we’re going?”

“Mal-cun-uk” (we follow our feelings), came the reply.

He made it sound easy. It wasn’t.

My anxiety about wanting to get “somewhere else” was partially due to the fact that I knew to many “other places” in the world. For Bo ‘Hok and Weng there was no “other place” apart from the jungle, and I grew to envy their sense of place, their contentment with where they were. When I became anxious, I would embark upon extraordinary journeys in my mind. When, for example, a steep, muddy trail became impossible because of the leeches, I might imagine myself on a pair of cross-country skis, gliding across expanses of unmarked snow, a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine in my pack. The sight of bee-larva soup could send me around the world to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, for afternoon tea and scones with freshly whipped cream and thick strawberry jam. Outside, a light snow would be falling on the passing traffic.

Even during this relatively difficult period, there were some days in the rain forest that were effortless and full of new discoveries. We saw tree-climbing pigs and flying snakes and lizards, and one day Weng brought me a leaf in the palm of his hand. When I touched the leaf, it stood up and walked around looking for a place to hide. The leaf was actually a cleverly disguised insect that blended in perfectly with the leaf litter on the jungle floor.

Also, Weng told me the story of a diving ant that launches itself from the rim of a Lowes pitcher plant (Nepenthes lowii) and plunges into the insect-eating reservoir of digestive fluid contained within the body of the plant. The diving ant rescues some of the insects by “swimming” them to the edge of the reservoir like a miniature lifesaver. Then the ants eat the insect.

I was reminded of this by the entry for “Forest” in my brother Mark’s brand-new, co-authored book, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary (Mark Bonta and John Protevi, Edinburgh University Press, 2004). This is one of the instances where the authors expand on the ideas developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (DG) in A Thousand Plateaus, Anti-Oedipus and What is Philosophy? (I discussed DG’s philosophy a bit back in January – see Cat’s Cradle.)

To understand the discussion of “forest,” one first needs to grasp three other terms. The first is “rhizome”- “a decentered multiplicity or network.”

DG list six principles of a rhizome: connection (all points are immediately connectable); heterogeneity (rhizomes mingle signs and bodies); multiplicity (the rhizome is ‘flat’ or immanent); ‘asignifying rupture’ (the line of flight is a primary component, which enables heterogeneity-preserving emergence or ‘consistency’); cartography (maps of emergence are necessary to follow a rhizome); and decalomania (the rhizome is not a model like the tree, but an ‘immanent process’). There can be a rhizome from which one extracts a piece and plants elsewhere; the piece is also a rhizome and continues to bud. Two multiplicities can form a rhizome with each other or become each other; this is the primordial example of the wasp and the orchid. . . .

The reference to the subterranean nature of the botanical rhizome is intentional in DG’s use of the term, because it is meant to evoke the hidden network quality of interlocked forces that have adapted to resist the striating forces of the surface and air, and especially the hierarchized State. . . .

The second Deleuzoguattarian term one needs to understand is “Plateau,” which is simply “a ‘region of intensities’ without reference to a transcendent goal. DG offer their own clear definition of the term: ‘A rhizome is made of plateaus . . . ‘” The third concept is “striation” or “striated space,” which in turn can best be understood in contradistinction to “smooth space” – “the space of intensive process and assemblages, as opposed to the striated space of stratified or stable systems. Although in constant interchange with it, so that it is in fact probably better to speak of ‘smoothing’ and ‘striating’ forces.” Both smooth and striated space operate “in the landscape, in mathematics, in music, in thought, in politics, in religion, and so forth. . . . Emergent properties, intensive becomings, occur only in smooth space. The possibility for symbiosis, for mutualism, for a food web and ecosystem, and finally for forests, seas, prairies, and so forth, is predicated on smoothing, not striating forces.”

Thus, striated space is space that has been measured or stratified, “especially as effectuated by the State apparatus.” However, “This is not to say that only humans striate: any organism striates milieus to achieve territorial organization. Human systems, however, attempt to achieve a particularly crude type of striation, and strive, via the signifying regime, to striate the earth completely.”

O.K., got all that? Now on to . . .

FOREST: DG spend little time on this space, except to characterize it as striated by ‘gravitational verticals’ (that is, trees) and as the annexed or associated milieu of many agricultural societies. . . .

We suggest an alternative map of forest space as holey space. The tree, far from being the standard for the forest, is rather deterritorialized by it, though perhaps not in the type of European wood-lot forests that DG imagined. DG failed to theorize the forest as anything other than a human space and precursor to civilization via short-fallow swidden agriculture. In seeing the forest as nothing more than a community of trees, they exclude the dynamics of tropical rain forests where the tree is but part of a vast rhizome with no center, no sense of perspective, no organizing principle, no ground [sol] (the soil is infertile, because nutrients are in constant cyclic motion throughout the system, and are not stored there), where plants can grow from top to bottom and then back (the strangler fig) or defy gravity altogether (epiphytes). The rain forest contains a high ratio of flow to order, and its complexity is engendered from this far-from-equilibrium crisis state. Its plateaus avoid climax.

Forest space, to remain a rhizome, can only be occupied and defended by anti-State forces, and many of its users – hunter-gatherer-swidden agriculturalists using long-fallow rotation (for example, in the Amazon) – are part of its rhizome. Forests are the outside of the State (Latin foris, outside), the holey spaces that fend it off: the shelter for outlaws and misfits, the domain of guerilla groups across the world today, powerful in their capacity to hide (thus, the necessity of the Agent Orange defoliant), they avoid the striations and overcoding of the State more than any other type of social formation. [Robert P.] Harrison calls forests the ‘shadow of civilization’ and because they are not and were not to be trusted, they have been ‘locked up’ as the King’s domain, and now as nature reserves. Tropical rain forests are often painted as multisexual or threatening bodies, as virgins, and so on: another threat to or possibility for the State. Forests, like deserts, also follow civilizations that overextend themselves, and grow along the borders between nation-states.

Actually, one can accurately describe temperate forests with much of the same language applied here to tropical forests. Only in the past few years have forest ecologists begun to get a handle on the emergent properties of old growth forest ecosystems, especially in terms of soil microorganisms. The literally rhizomatic structures of fungi – mycelia – turn out to be intimately involved in nutrient and energy flows, to such an extent that fungi and not trees may be considered the quintessential forest organisms.

The above description stresses the capacity of forests to disguise and conceal. In the mythologies of forest dwelling peoples, this is but the first stage in a process of complete transformation and (in DG terminology) deterritorialization (“the process of leaving home, of altering your habits, of learning new tricks”). Eric Hansen’s account suggests the power of such transformation, especially when he realizes how close he has become to the bali saleng, the peripatetic collector of human blood. “He is half-man, half-spirit; he lives in the forest; he is believed to be employed by large companies. . . . What I did not know was that the description of the bali saleng changed regularly . . . At the time I happened to be travelling through the Apo Kayan, the description was ‘a tall, white-skinned man with brownish hair who walks by himself in the jungle. He will come over the mountains from Sarawak during the season of grass cutting.'” Only by fully adapting to the native thought-system, and passing off a pin in his possession as a powerful charm to protect himself from malevolent forest spirits, did Hansen manage to save his life.

The reference to forest as land that has been “locked up” foregrounds one of the favorite images from the propaganda of the modern state, in the guise of the U.S. forest industry and its “wise use” front groups. Actually, it is striking the extent to which industry and government propaganda turns ideas inside out in its attempt to foster fear and hatred of unregulated natural landscapes. Land is “locked up” when it is most free (preserved from striating forces). Clearcuts are now generally referred to as “regeneration cuts” – even when it is obvious that the forest so destroyed was the result of stochastic events and/or disturbance regimes that are in no way reproducible through human actions. Foresters refer to any significant removal of timber or application of pesticides or chemical fertilizers as a “treatment,” employing a healing analogy also evoked by “regeneration.”

In other words, in forester space, natural forest ecosystems are vectors of disease. “Old growth” – originally a forester coinage – was once by definition “decadent,” a reservoir of tree pests and diseases that must be cleared out for the health of the forest (tree farm). That many in the forest industry still think this way may be seen in the very title of the Bush administration’s “healthy forests” initiative. But that’s a topic for another day.

To read more of my brother’s Deleuzoguattarian analysis of forest space, see here (second essay).

In the temples of Syrinx

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Summer weather has hit with a vengeance. Starting last Thursday, we were awoken by thunderstorms three mornings in a row, and by yesterday, when the dawn chorus could finally return to normal, the wood thrushes were much subdued. I suspect that they have paired up and are getting down to the serious and urgent business of building nests and laying eggs.

Be that as it may, I did get a bit of a consolation prize yesterday when I went for a dawn walk down along Laurel Ridge. I’d been startled by the sight of the rising sun glowing a lurid red through the mountain laurel. Then when I dropped down a little off the ridgetop to follow an old woods road we call Ladyslipper Trail, I was even more surprised to hear a Swainson’s thrush calling – for the second time in five days. The first time I heard him, he was on the ridgetop right up from the house, and we naturally assumed that he was just passing though. The fact that he is still here raises the possibility that he may be thinking about setting up shop, well south of the normal range for his species. This happened three years ago, when I heard a Swainson’s singing for about three weeks on another part of the property. I got the impression that that one hadn’t been very successful in attracting a mate.

The song of the Swainson’s thrush unmistakably belongs to the same group as wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery. It has the same bell-like quality, resembling a hoarser version of the hermit thrush – a very quiet series of ascending phrases. As my brother Mark once pointed out, for the thrush family, generally speaking, the relative loudness of the call indicates the type of habitat preferred. The loudest songs belong to the denizens of hedgerow and dooryard, such as the American robin, while the quietest are the deep woods or high altitude specialists, who have to compete only with the soughing of wind in conifers. The Swainson’s call is very much in this latter category.

Last week, when I was looking through the book Bird Sounds, by Barry MacKaye, I was struck by his description of the mechanics of avian vocalization. Instead of a voicebox, birds have a unique structure called the syrinx, located right where the trachea and the windpipe divide. The position and musculature are designed to take maximal advantage of the fact that birds resemble nothing so much as flying bellows. In addition to the lungs proper, they have nine air sacs distributed throughout the chest and abdomen, some of which may even extend into the bones in some species. The main evolutionary “purpose” of these structures, of course, is to provide bouyancy and improve gas exchange. Any given breath, MacKaye says,

may be stored for more than one cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Initially, the puff of air does not go directly into the lungs, but passes through them without gas exchange. The puff of air goes directly to the rear part of the bird’s body. First, most of the air the bird inhales reaches the posterior air sacs, including the large, paired abdominal air sacs. Parts of the lungs also receive air, and there is a subsequent exchange of gases as the breath passes through the lungs on the way to the back of the bird. But as the bird breathes out, the posterior air sacs contract, pushing the puff of air into the lungs, completing the first cycle of the bird’s two-step breathing process.

As the bird breathes in again, while the new air enters the bird via the route just described, the initial puff exits most of the lungs and enters the anterior air sacs via lung bronchi, where more gas exchange occurs. This single breath of air carries with it some of the warmth generated by the bird’s metabolic processes . . . The body contracts, and the initial puff of air leaves via the anterior air sacs at the front of the bird and the bronchial tubes that lead up from the lungs past the point where they join the trachea, and out. Put simply, the same breath of air passes through the lungs twice, although not the same parts of the lungs.

Thus, whereas humans, for example, “use only about 2 percent of the air column that passes out of the respiratory system in making vocalizations . . . songbirds use nearly 100 percent of the air column to produce song.” And the songbird’s complex anatomy allows the harmonic blending of different tones and even, in the case of some species such as the brown thrasher, two wholly separate songs, sung simultaneously.

The bird’s control of the configuration of the syrinx and associated sound-producing anatomy is so finely tuned that it can operate one side of the syrinx independently of the other. By rapidly altering the configuration of the trachea, throat and mouth, the bird can focus the two separate elements into the single complete song. Like a pianist’s two hands playing tune and harmony, a bird can blend two separate sounds into a pleasing harmonic.

Pretty nifty, eh? I can’t help recalling the lyrics from an old “concept album” called 2112, from the Canadian hard rock band, Rush —

We are the priests of the temples of Syrinx.
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

— which leads in turn to hazy memories of bowls and water pipes and puffs of air being breathed and re-breathed, strained by one pair of lungs and then another, capturing every last trace of blue until our bodies filled with light and the music on the stereo slowly turned itself inside-out. Ah, if only paranoia hadn’t forced us always to lock ourselves in, the dawn choruses we could’ve heard . . . the lives that could’ve been saved, I think, through such revelations . . .

Desire: new and improved!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

So New Orleans is bringing back its streetcar system.

“In 1964 the streetcars were removed from Canal Street and were replaced by buses. The new streetcars will look just like the old ones, complete with reversible wooden seats. The difference is that the new cars have heating, air conditioning and are ADA compliant,” said Elmer von Dullen, New Orleans RTA superintendent/vehicle assembly. “We are building a part of New Orleans’ history.”

Can we expect that one will be named “Desire” for the benefit of the tourists? Well, does a bear . . . you know.

In honor of this unlooked-for blessing, here are some quotes from Tennessee Williams’ play, proving that it is just as timeless as it ever was (or something like that).

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth.”

“Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable, and the one thing I’ve never been guilty of.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I said I was sorry three times.”

“Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?”

Zero tolerance

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New Iraqi prisoners’ accounts allege not only rape and sexual humiliation, but Muslims forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, violate Ramadan, and profess Christianity. How like the ancient Romans we’ve become! Just substitute Islam for Christianity, and Christianity for emperor-worship – which might not be a very big difference for some of the power- and mammon-worshipping epigones of the religious right.

I read about this yesterday afternoon, in a Reuters story on the front page of Google News. But on All Things Considered last night, only the sexual humiliation on display in newly released photos was mentioned. They didn’t use either “r” word (rape or religion). Will forced apostasy join racism and homophobia as dimensions of this scandal that must somehow remain off-limits in polite analysis?

I must admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the attention this story has garnered in the mainstream press. So many others like it have simply been buried over the years. But many aspects remain almost unexamined. For example, I’d like to hear more follow-up on the fact that some of the soldiers charged with abuse work as corrections officers in the U.S. I’d like reporters to pay more attention to Bush’s record as Governor, where he oversaw hundreds of executions of prisoners, including the mentally retarded and prisoners who were denied fair trials. Bush even publicly mocked one prisoner’s pleas for clemency. It might be useful to remind Americans that the death penalty – a practice we share with such regimes as China and Saudi Arabia – itself violates international law. Has our government’s willingness to flaunt international law in this regard led to permissive attitudes toward other violations where the treatment of prisoners is concerned?

Another, more-or-less off-limits story is the strong possibility that the agents directing the abuse of Iraqi and Afghani prisons received training from Israeli counter-terrorism experts. We know that U.S. Special Forces did receive training from the IDF in urban warfare. And one, extremely effective tactic of Israeli counter-intelligence has been to build a large network of informers in the Occupied Territories using ex-prisoners who have been humiliated and blackmailed in very similar ways to those on display at Abu Ghraib. Was this, in fact, an integral part of the plan? Were our soldiers under orders to arrest as many Iraqis as possible, in order to jump-start a network of informers in occupied Iraq? It would certainly help to explain: (1) how 70-80 percent of Iraqi prisoners could be manifestly innocent of any involvement in the insurgency, according to the IRC, yet still subject to torture; and (2) why torture was used so extensively – to the disgust of more seasoned intelligence experts, apparently, who point out that any information so extracted is generally pretty worthless.

Then again, this entire invasion was built upon false pretenses and worthless information; already the chief purveyor of that information, Ahmed Chalabi, is being forced aside as a public embarrassment and an increasingly inconvenient nuisance. And the removal of obvious truths from the bounds of acceptable discourse (such as the fact that this is a war for oil) has licensed the erection of elaborate superstructures of lies and self-deception. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee that the scheduled “hand-over of sovereignty” will carry about as much resonance for Team Bush as “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s good to see the attention of Congress and the media broadening to include the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But how much of this kind of prisoner abuse is routine for American citizens and others held in prisons on U.S. soil? To what extent does the brutal treatment of Iraqis by American soldiers on the streets parallel the brutal treatment of African American youths by inner city cops in the U.S.? The evidence is very clear about how so many black males – about one third – end up in jail at some point in their lives: through racial profiling that begins as juveniles, when they get sent before a judge for such “crimes” as jaywalking and back-talking. The cops – black and white – are “just doing their job,” of course: enforcing law and order by keeping the rabble in line.

I would argue that the abuse begins right there, with the definition of a rabble – an entire class of people whose very existence is viewed as problematic. In Iraq, soldiers’ accounts suggest that the Iraqi people in general are viewed this way by the troops. The suspect isn’t at home when you break down the door? Nuts. Well, at least we can arrest the over-inquisitive neighbor. The friend of a crud is crud.

How far this “law and order” mentality can go may be seen in such “ethnic cleansing” exercises as the on-going, state-sanctioned genocide against the Anuak people in southwestern Ethiopia. (Since Ethiopia is a geopolitically strategic ally in the “war on terror,” this genocide has yet to make a ripple in the mainstream press.) Barnabus Gebre-Ab, the Federal Minister directing the slaughter, sees himself much as Ratko Mladic or Adolf Hitler did: a heroic defender of the public order:

“These are Anuak,” Gebre-Ab said. “It’s an Anuak group which claims to have formed a liberation front in Gambella, okay? So these are the ones who are killing. They kill engineers. They kill health workers. Teachers. If they are Highlanders, they kill them. Deliberately. And we are hunting them. We have to hunt them down.

“If you want to challenge the political order through violence, we won’t let you go. So we are doing our job. Because we are giving them a mortal blow, they are fabricating about this rape, and this and that, it’s all fabrication.”

The homocidal mayor of Duvao, a city in the Philippines, has been far less circumspect. As a recent expose in the Independent describes it:

Davao’s reputation as an oasis of law and order in one of the world’s most dangerous regions masks a dark secret. Since [Rodrigo] Duterte took office three years ago, the city has witnessed a wave of murders, carried out in daylight by assassins on motorbikes. The victims are young men and street children suspected of petty crime. The death toll has reached 241, and not a single person has been arrested. . . .

Bizarre though it seems, few people in this city of 1.2 million are disturbed by the sight of dead bodies turning up, almost daily, on the streets. They call it the “40-pesos solution” to crime, referring to the cost of a bullet, about 40p. “I like it,” says Davao’s tourism officer, Edmundo Acaylar, stuffing a handful of cashew nuts into his mouth as he waits impatiently for dinner. “Whoever is doing it, I say ‘thanks very much, you’re doing a great job’. They are ridding Davao of criminals and making it a safe place. I call it a process of expurgation.”

Most of the victims come from the city’s slum communities, where half a million people live in grinding poverty. Many are teenagers, some as young as 14, whose only “crime” was sniffing solvents – said to take away hunger pangs. Others are suspected drug pushers, pickpockets or thieves, with a record of snatching handbags and mobile telephones.

Justice is meted out by two men on a motorbike, one acting as look-out, the other as assassin. Many of the murders have been carried out in public places, in full view of crowds of onlookers. But no witnesses have come forward to testify. “People fear that if they give evidence, they’ll be next,” says Carlos Zarate, president of the Davao chapter of the Philippine bar association.

Lawyers believe the death squad is run by Davao police, in collusion with Duterte. Bernie Mondragon, the coordinator of the Kabataan consortium of children’s advocacy groups, agrees. “These are summary executions,” he says. “They are state-sponsored killings. Otherwise, the death squad could not operate with such impunity”. . .

Duterte’s zero-tolerance policies are enormously popular. The president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, has appointed him her special adviser on law and order. His constituents credit him with transforming the image of Davao, once the most lawless city in the Philippines. Callers to talkback radio extol his achievements. The summary killings were the main issue in this week’s election, which saw him swept back into office with a big majority.

Sofronio Jucutan, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, says the elimination of criminals is good for business. “We don’t condone summary killings, but we want society to be cleansed of its scum,” he says. “These people are garbage and, just like any garbage, you have to dispose of them.” He adds: “But we are a Catholic country and we value human life.”

At one of his campaign rallies, Duterte, 59, told the crowd: “If I win, more criminals will get killed because I have vowed to protect the people of this city. It’s true that there have been killings. But who were those killed? Weren’t they criminals? They were all fools. Now if you tell me you won’t vote for me because I’ve killed many people, then don’t vote for me.”

“We value human life – therefore the scum must die.” Lord have mercy on us all.