The inadequacy or inappropriateness of qualifiers need not imply the absence of attributes.
I’ve been thinking a little more about how the “bounds of acceptable discourse” are perpetuated. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the flap over the decision of the Sinclair-owned ABC stations not to air the “Nightline” segment in which the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq were solemnly intoned. (If you missed the story, this AP article contains just about everything you need to know.)
This interests me not simply because of what it suggests about the corrosive influence of media conglomeration and political corruption on the free flow of information in a democratic society. Appalling as that is, it is also utterly predictable.
To me, what this story really highlights is the untenability of our popular construct of the impartial journalist. The truth is, at one level the cynical, Bush-whacked Sinclair was correct: the decision to read those names on the air was a political decision. Every decision about what to air on a news show is guided by politics, however much the producers might like to believe that they are above the fray.
And I would go one step further and suggest that the failure to acknowledge this simple, fairly obvious fact might actually result in a more dangerous slant than if the bias were fully conscious and freely acknowledged from the start. There’s no bias like an unconscious bias.
For example, the unexamined assumption shared by maybe 95 percent of working U.S. journalists, and 100 percent of mainstream political commentators, that our government is basically well intentioned in the conduct of its foreign affairs has the effect of burying a great number of important stories. For example, how much do you remember hearing or reading about the extraordinary pressure brought to bear on the citizens of El Salvador to vote as our government wanted them to in the buildup to their “democratic” national election last month? I’m guessing that you, like me, remained blissfully unaware of it (as we do about so much that our government does, every day, to ensure its unquestioned hegemony throughout the hemisphere). Why didn’t it get more play? This story would seem to have been highly relevant to other stories that are considered worthy of coverage (“sovereignty” in Iraq; the ability/willingness of partisans to use foul means to decide elections in the U.S.). Widespread concerns about the continuing flow of immigrants into the United States and the decline in wages, etc., as well as the fairly extensive constituency that opposed the U.S. backing of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, would seem to have ensured a receptive audience for coverage of the Salvadoran election.
So why didn’t we hear all about it? Again, the concentration of media ownership has a huge influence, without a doubt. But you can read the headlines in any newspaper from three decades ago and you won’t see much more openness to these kinds of stories than you see now. (Indeed, the age of the Internet has initiated a new level of ready access to information scarcely conceivable only ten years ago. Anyone can go to the public library, log on to a computer and find the very blueprints for U.S. global imperialism with a few clicks of the mouse.)
Laziness and inattention are huge factors in determining coverage. For decades, the vast majority of newspapers in the United States have relied upon the New York Times to decide what the headlines for the following day should be. But does that mean that if we simply did away with the New York Times, everything would be hunky-dory? The problem is, it’s impossible to cover stories like the Salvadorean elections without challenging the bedrock assumption about American virtue I mentioned above.
It seems almost laughable that our major news organs consider it too controversial to refer to U.S. troops in Iraq as occupation forces, preferring instead the clearly pro-Bush term “coalition forces.” But thirty years after the end of our Indochina adventure, it remains impossible to refer to U.S. entrance into Vietnam as an invasion, or to “model villages” as concentration camps. Just the other day, my father mentioned his anger at a statement in Newsweek that the Vietnam War “cost 50,000 lives.” It is still difficult, if not impossible, for respectable commentators to accept the fact that we invaded another country, set up a puppet regime, and did unspeakable things to its inhabitants. (Around 1,600,000 people died on all sides in that conflict, including an estimated 340,000 civilians and 56,000 U.S. soldiers.)
I think of my recently deceased maternal grandfather, and how good he was at not seeing things that would have made him uncomfortable. Pop-pop was a strict Methodist who never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and he believed that all of his offspring and their children were just as uniquely blessed with good sense as he was. Pop-pop was a patriarch in the best sense of the word: he was extremely proud of all of us, and I remember how he sat grinning from ear to ear throughout the fairly riotous reception for my cousin Heidi’s wedding a few years back. All around him, his children and grandchildren drank wine from wineglasses and beer from the bottle. He saw – I’m convinced – nothing, other than some rather exotic forms of soda pop and iced tea!
On the other side of the coin, in every area where the conventional assumptions of mainstream commentators can be contested, the bounds of acceptable discourse inevitably expand to accommodate a more diverse selection of possible story lines. Take stories concerned with the relationship of government toward its own citizens. Imagine if we didn’t have a long tradition of suspicion toward, and agitation against, governmental authority. Would we even see stories like the AP article linked to above, freely quoting the left-liberal media reform group Free Press as an expert witness on the cozy relationship between Sinclair and the Bush regime? Would environmental and social change movements ever have gotten off the ground without this widespread presumption of an agonistic relationship between citizens and their elected representatives?
That’s not to say that this belief is unproblematic. For quite a few years now, commentators from various positions on the political spectrum have urged more harmonious, communitarian conceptions of government. I’ve been known to advocate such things myself: if we truly believed that we were the government, imagine how things might change! But I have to admit that it is at least as likely that such communitarianism would be hijacked by impulses toward conformity – another, very strong political tradition. If you think we’d be better off without conflict between grassroots pressure groups and government, take a look at Japan. The pressure to “go along to get along” in Japan is so overwhelming that almost every effort to found an independent union or an adversarial environmental group ends quickly in co-option. The one major exception to this rule, the national teacher’s union, has managed to maintain its independence over the years only through steadfast adherence to a rigid, Marxist ideology. And that’s why, every couple of years when the Ministry of Education issues new textbooks, the ever-simmering controversy about whether (for instance) Japan merely “expanded” into Manchuria, or whether it invaded it, gets a full airing in the Japanese media.
We in the U.S. are far from immune from similar pressures to muzzle dissent and “work within the system.” In our ever-more-partisan political climate, bipartisanship tends to be seen as a virtue. But all too often, a lack of serious controversy in the corridors of power simply means that the moneyed classes are united in their opposition to the popular will and/or in their determination to mold that will into a more favorable shape. We saw this especially clearly a year and a half ago, with the closing of ranks behind the “President” in his determination to invade Iraq. Bipartisanship in that case threatened the very foundation of our republic – Congress actually relinquished its own authority to declare war, quite possibly violating the Constitution in the process.
But pay close attention to the words: they want us to think that bipartisanship is identical to nonpartisanship, which it manifestly is not. Bipartisanship means that the two major parties collude, consciously or otherwise, to restrict the bounds of acceptable discourse to such an extent as to exclude the concerns of vast segments of the voting public. Single-payer health care? An end to commercial extraction on public lands? A radical downsizing of the military budget? More taxes to pay for programs that nearly everybody supports? All off the table.
The most obvious mechanism for achieving this form of bipartisanship is redistricting, as Molly Ivins pointed out in a talk at Altoona College the week before last. She noted that in Iowa, where political districts are drawn by a non-partisan panel of experts, 80 percent of all districts are competitive. That’s the exception. In every other state, nearly all districts have long ceased to be competitive. Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for this nearly universal gerrymandering; the current ascendancy of the less-popular GOP simply testifies to its superior mastery of the process.
The result? “Representatives” elected by non-competitive districts feel themselves under little obligation to represent anyone other than the vocal minorities that elected them – much less to try and appeal to their ideological opponents, as was once the case. A shifting number of polarizing issues (flag burning, prayer in schools, abortion) become ever more prominent as the parties seek to build and mobilize ever more rabid constituencies. The impeachment of President Clinton was a watershed event in this polarizing process. And look how well it worked: Nader’s claim that the two parties had become indistinguishable was viewed by most mainstream journalists and commentators as arrant and possibly dangerous nonsense. (In addition, of course, he suffered from the decision to replace the previously nonpartisan sponsorship of televised debates – by the League of Women Voters – with a bipartisan commission.)
But the actual results of the 2000 presidential election – the one race not directly influenced by gerrymandering – bore out Nader’s claim to an extraordinary degree. Yes, Gore won the popular vote (and probably the election, had the Florida voter registration records not been purged), but by a statistically insignificant margin. Now, you can believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus if you want to, but it really stretches credulity to imagine that the electorate is precisely evenly divided in its party preferences. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the only logical way to explain such an unlikely result is to assume that people voted almost entirely at random. The huge numbers of undecided voters reported by pollsters in advance of the election help bolster this hypothesis.
In other words, bipartisanship works in large part because the majority of voters don’t care about either party. Large differences in substance would threaten the real business of America – business. Let’s remember that, while the corruption and criminality of the Bush regime exceed Clinton’s by at least a factor of ten, the Clinton administration did pave the way with unprecedented levels of access and influence for business interests over policies both foreign and domestic. It’s a vicious circle. As more and more people become alienated from politics and fewer and fewer bother to vote, the influence of a few, wealthy backers becomes ever more prominent. In this way, apparently bitter, competitive partisanship becomes a mask for bipartisan collusion. The likely end of such collusion is complete rule by corporations – we’re nearly there already.
Most corporations are themsleves supremely bipartisan. They bet on all horses that can win. (Dissidents, like Diebold or the Sinclair Group, who are too flagrant in their bias toward one party, risk being outed and denounced in the mainstream media. Some have suggested that Microsoft’s original sin had been not to bribe either party. Given the effectiveness of the protection money doled out to the GOP in 2000, we can expect Microsoft to remain an enthusiastic team player from now on.) I’m willing to bet, however, that just like their counterparts in the news media, the corporate board members who engage in such legalized bribery would lay claim to objective neutrality. Because, of course, they are afflicted with the biggest blind spot of all: they are all partisans of money and power.
Power itself, in all its expressions – authority, hierarchy, monopoly, exploitation, constructs of self/other, us/them and purity/pollution – looms invisibly behind all the other misprisions and delusions that keep our imaginations in thrall. Challenging its hegemony, plowing under the “monocultures of the mind,” in Vandana Shiva’s resonant phrase, may constitute the most crucial of all the political acts we can engage in.
Afterthought: In light of the pervasive self-censorship of the U.S. news media, free Arabic-language media organs such as al-Jazeera play an increasing role in shaping coverage of the Iraq war. Unless and until al-Jazeera can be bought off or shut down, the occupying powers will be forced to take the “Arab street” into consideration. The airing stateside of such hugely damaging stories as the Iraqi prisoner scandal also reflects deep divisions over the occupation among U.S. elites themselves – a division which is both substantive and nonpartisan. In fact, some of the most outspoken opponents of the invasion and occupation have been conservative Republicans. But tellingly, on this most crucial of issues, the two major-party presidential candidates are nearly united, differing only in minor nuances of packaging and expedience.
LOVE IS ALL.
Diogenes needs your help! It’s not easy getting the attention of the fast-walking inhabitants of Madhatter with just a few words on a large piece of cardboard. The wording of today’s sign was suggested by Via Negativa reader the Sylph. If you have any ideas, e-mail ’em to me, bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com. Not every sign need refer to panhandling; liberal political statements (as on yesterday’s sign) can sometimes be a big hit with New Jerkers. Whatever the topic, it should make people think, and give them a bit of a chuckle.
Then again, you could always just send money.
Last night I went for a walk around 10:00, and kept pausing to notice how the branches of various trees seemed to stretch caressing or imploring arms toward the second-quarter moon. A very thin cloud cover meant that the moon was virtually alone in the sky – Venus was just setting behind the ridge – and there were no shadows. I stood on the little wooden bridge down at the forks and listened to the stream for a few minutes, enjoying as always the braiding together of so many watery voices.
When I got back to the house, emerging from the trees I saw for the first time the dark hoop of the moon’s halo. It was difficult to escape the impression of a monstrous celestial eye. The pupil was small and bleary-yellow; it was almost unsettling. I found myself unconsciously reaching for my fly. What do I do with this? Oh, right – time for another leak.
Female readers might find this a little hard to understand, but most of us men have a deeply instinctual response to the threatening, the awe-inspiring or the liminal: we mark territory. (Ideally while whistling, or pondering baseball statistics.) I suppose I could have mooned the moon, but that would’ve made me feel utterly ridiculous. Well, I was ridiculous, of course – but that’s simply an existential condition. I pee, therefore I am. Or am I?
MAN DOESN’T EXIST
translation of “No existe el hombre,” by Vicente Aleixandre
Only the moon guesses the truth.
And it’s that man doesn’t exist.
The moon gropes its way across the plains, fords the rivers,
penetrates the woods.
It fleshes out the still warm mountains,
runs into the heat from erect cities.
It forges a shadow, slays a dark corner,
drowns in shimmering roses
the mystery of caves where no scent can be found.
The moon keeps moving, seeing, singing, going on and on without a pause.
A sea is not a mattress where the body of a man can stretch out all by itself.
A sea isn’t a shroud for an otherwise shining death.
The moon keeps going; it soaks, sinks into, gullies out the beaches.
It sets the calm green murmurs to rocking crazily.
The standing carcass of a man sways for a moment, wavers,
lurches forward – green – stays put – stiff.
The moon takes note of its broken-down arms,
its disapproving glare at a couple of cuddling fish.
The moon sets fire to sunken cities where one can still hear
(how enchanting!) the clear bells,
where the last echoes of the surf still ripple over sexless breasts,
over soft breasts some octopus has worshipped.
But the moon stays forever pure and dry.
It comes from a sea that remains forever a box,
a block whose limits no one, no one can measure,
a sea that isn’t a hunk of rock glowing on top of a mountain.
The moon comes out and chases what once had been a skeleton,
what once had been the blood vessels of a human being,
once had been its resonant blood, its tuneful jail,
its distinct waist that splits life in two,
or its light head bobbing on the breeze, facing east.
But man doesn’t exist.
Never has existed, never.
But man doesn’t live, just as the day doesn’t live.
But the moon makes up his furious metals.
I have always loved this poem, one of several by Aleixandre that I’ve almost memorized despite my very imperfect Spanish. However, I have always relied on the crutch of Lewis Hyde’s translation (in the bilingual A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, Harper & Row, 1979). Only this morning, when I decided to try and come up with my own version, pondering every word with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary, did I discover just how inadequate Hyde’s translation really is. What seems to have happened is that Hyde assumes more randomness in choice of words and images than the poem in fact possesses – an understandable error for a translator of a surrealist poet, to be sure, but I have always felt Aleixandre to be among the most logical of surrealists. For example, Hyde’s version doesn’t really bring out what seemed to me to be fairly obvious sexual imagery in the second stanza. At one level, this is a song of sex and death, like so many poems from that brilliant generation that came of age around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the moon is like a witness or an accessory to a crime whose face we scrutinize for signs about what really happened.
There were some delightful surprises: “stiff,” which translates “inmóvil,” also of course means “corpse” or “person” (as in “working stiff”) – precisely the right nuance for an English version, I thought. The image of a block of immeasurable dimensions evokes, intentionally or not, the Daoist image of the uncarved block that symbolizes original purity. I also wonder why Hyde chose to translate “mar” as “ocean” throughout, considering that the moon has so-called seas, but not oceans.
I welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement. I’ve no great ego wrapped up in this. You can find the original Spanish on the web. Click on “escuchar la poema” to listen to a recording of Aleixandre himself reading the poem. (His reading doesn’t get very animated until the next-to-last stanza.)
I don’t want to analyze this poem any more than I’ve done already, but it does occur to me all of a sudden that my mission here at Via Negativa is to make unknowability as comprehensible as possible. Does that make any sense? I ask you!
Oops, gotta go take a leak . . .
Today I’m feeling more focused than I was yesterday, so I’ll take the risk of putting down some fairly scattered impressions and seeing if I can make some sense out of the whole.
To begin with, here’s something for Dale, in reference especially to a recent comment thread at Vajrayana Practice. Actually, it’s an encore presentation, as they say on Car Talk. This odd epigraph appears as a preface to the first part of my book Spoil (which is beginning to give off a bit of a musty odor, I must say). I was picturing two stone buddhas – or perhaps two stoned buddhists – facing each other . . .
The hedonist bows to the image of the ascetic–& vice versa.
It turns out that the buddha in the mirror is an agent provocateur.
You find yourself grimacing, baring your teeth.
Anything to wipe that smile off its face.
It turned out that The Buddha in the Mirror was the title of a popular book explaining the tenets of Soka Gakkai. Now, if there’s one branch of Buddhism that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s this sect (and to some extent the other followers of Nichiren as well). Why? Because they are just like Christian fundamentalists: their praxis is basic in the extreme, admitting of little nuance, and they state outright that if you don’t belong to their little club, you’re more-or-less screwed. To which I always have the same reaction: if salvation means I have to spend eternity with self-righteous pricks like you, who needs it?
Beyond the quicksand claims of fundamentalists and other true believers to possess a monopoly on the Truth stretches a somewhat less treacherous swamp: the almost universal tendency to assume that others would be happier if only they were more like us. I approached this from one angle with my screed on classism and racism the other day. But many of us simply get caught up in our enthusiasms. And of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to “convert” others to various forms of fandom, as long as one is reasonably respectful about it. But sometimes I do worry that I can be awfully obnoxious about it.
Yesterday I found myself once again trying to nudge a friend of mine into starting a blog. She gently reminded me that she has a variety of very good reasons not to keep one. In some of her remarks about her own reticence I heard echoes of the Amish critique of our “English” cult of self esteem. For an Amish, to sign one’s name to a creative product is suspect (though the nature writer and organic farmer David Kline gets away with it), and to publish one’s photo is virtually impossible. Why? Such gestures are seen as too “prideful.” Now, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to bend my pride and submit to communal authority as the Amish do for one second. But that doesn’t mean I’m content to be a puffed-up asshole, either. And I do like the fact that the Amish emphasis on peacefulness includes a profound disinclination to try and convert others to their way of thinking.
In this regard, they differ sharply from even their closest cousins-in-faith, the more conservative Mennonite sects. Not entirely coincidentally, most old-order Amish honor the Bible’s exhortation to “works” as well as faith. They tend not to want to take the easy way out and say, just believe this one thing and you’ll get to heaven. Submitting to communal authority does not invariably entail mindless obedience, it seems. But I suppose one must expect a certain mental agility from people who are so un-American as to agonize over the possible social consequences of every new technology.
Speaking of faith and works, here’s rich irony. The April 20 Christian Century reports:
On the presidential campaign trail, Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.) is using the New Testament’s Letter of James to imply that the Bush administration may be long on expressing faith but lacks compassionate deeds in dealing with hunger and joblessness. Following Kerry’s appearance in a St. Louis church, a White House spokesman decried the ploy as “exploitation of scripture.”
To shouts of approval on March 28 from worshipers at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, Kerry cited two verses from James, first 2:14, then 1:22.
“The scriptures say, ‘What does it profit my brethren if some say he has faith but does not have works?’ When we look at what’s happening in America today, where are the works of compassion? Because it’s also written, ‘Be doers of the word and not hearers only,'” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Likewise, Time magazine’s Web site reported that Kerry told a Mississippi congregation on March 7 that President Bush does not practice the “compassionate conservatism” he preaches. The Massachusetts senator then cited James 2:14, saying, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Bush, a United Methodist, has referred to his beliefs while promoting his faith-based initiative and on other occasions.
In speaking at the St. Louis church, Kerry vaguely criticized “our present national leadership.” But a spokesman for Bush, Steve Schmidt, said the senator’s comments were “beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and a sad exploitation of scripture for political attack.”
In other news, a bunch of Christian pastors concerned about the environment sent Bush a letter encouraging him to actually read the Bible.
It’s always interesting to hear Republicrats make solemn pronouncements about “the bounds of acceptable discourse.” What does this mean? Could anyone give me an example of unacceptable discourse?
O.K., how about this: Iraq would probably do just fine if the occupying troops pulled out tomorrow. Civil war is highly unlikely to break out. The Sunnis and the Shiites are not at each other’s throats. And somehow Iraqis managed to rebuild almost all the country’s infrastructure destroyed during the 1991 war, which was far more devastating, in less than a year – without the help of Halliburton, Bechtel, the United States Marines, Blackwater/CIA agents, or even the United Nations . . . which was doing its darndest to prevent said reconstruction through economic sanctions and by giving carte blanche to the U.S. and British to continue bombing the crap out of the country for the next ten years.
But perhaps you, like Senator Kerry, consider yourself a liberal and a humanitarian. Don’t we have a responsibility to fix what we have broken? Sure. But exercising such responsibility would be almost unprecedented for the United States (with the exception of the Marshall Plan, which we can debate about). So maybe we’d better experiment, first, and try to fix things up in Afghanistan some – say, commit to paying, dollar-for-dollar, as much as we paid for the ordnance we dropped. That might sound sort of minimal, but it would probably prove impossible to get the bipartisan warhorses in Congress to sign on to anything more ambitious. If it works out and we decide to apply our new-found expertise in reconstruction elsewhere, I’m sure any new, sovereign government of Iraq would be more than happy to accept reparations. (But I forgot, Iraq was supposed to pay for its own reconstruction!)
Shouldn’t we get the U.N. to send peacekeeping troops? But as long as Iraq is occupied by foreign powers, there won’t be any peace to keep. If the U.N. had armies of peacemakers, they could send those. You know, people with experience in democratic organizing, building the cultural infrastructure of a pluralistic society: unions, public libraries, grassroots advocacy groups, zoning boards, all that boring stuff. Such folks could really be quite useful, I think. But for some reason, we in the “international community” of “civilized nations” always leave such essential functions up to poorly funded (and not always democratically run) non-governmental organizations. (Talk about an abrogation of responsibility!) And peacekeeping troops under the aegis of the U.N. would probably be even less effective than the U.S. and British troops who are there now, because not only would they be acting under false pretenses, if recent incidents in Kosovo are any guide, they wouldn’t even be willing to do what occupying armies must do to maintain “peace” – kill people.
Now let me go wash my mouth out with soap, and examine the other side of the coin. What constitutes acceptable discourse?
Money! That’s what the Supreme Court – and the “liberal” ACLU – have said. Money is a form of speech. You can look it up.
What else? How about: Bombs! Great big bombs! All kinds of bombs, and mortars, and grenades, and live ammunition, and things that go explody-boom! That’s what G.W. said over a year ago, wasn’t it, at the very beginning of the bombing campaign, when the evil not-so-genius Wolfowitz convinced him that Iraqi generals would turn Saddam in if we gave them half a chance. We weren’t just bombing, Bush said, we were “sending a message to Saddam.” Then when that didn’t work – something got lost in the translation, perhaps? – we dusted off the not-so-moderate Secretary Powell’s “shock and awe” doctrine. The thinking there seems to have been along the lines of, “These superstitious heathen believe in an angry, punishing sky god. If we drop lots of things from the sky that go boom, they’ll think we’re God and fall down in awe! Then, they’ll welcome our troops with flowers!” Don’t believe me? Check out the original brand name – oops, I mean code name – for the bombing campaign: Operation Infinite Justice.
The foregoing rant was triggered by a remark from Christian Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson last night on NPR. Reporting from Fallujah, Peterson admitted that the “cease fire” was a fiction – but a useful fiction, he said, because it was a way of keeping communication channels open. If words don’t work, the Marine commander told Peterson, we drop 100-lb. bombs for a while. It’s the only language these people understand.
As long as I’m depressing the hell out of you, I ought to mention another article from the same issue of The Christian Century cited above. “Church Failure: Remembering Rwanda,” by David P. Gushee, concludes that the presence of Christian institutions did nothing to prevent genocide either in Rwanda or in Nazi Germany. “It cannot be assumed that the people gathered to hear the Word proclaimed and to participate in the sacraments are serious about the Christian faith. . . . Jesus himself said that the seed of the gospel is scattered on all different kinds of ground; only one of the four kinds of soil that he mentions has the quality needed for fruitfulness.”
This is a crucial point all too often ignored by both religious and non- or anti-religious people. Religions are, inevitably, an imperfect means to achieve highly provisional ends. At best, we should expect that religious institutions work to provide healing. Complete and irreversible transformation of self or society seems not only unlikely, but quite possibly dangerous as well. I would go so far as to suggest that people who believe in such totalizing transformations, be they secular revolutionaries or religious folks, are precisely the sort of people most likely to heed calls to war, genocide or ecocide.
Unfortunately, folks in every religion have a tendency to believe that a profound conversion, or a mystical experience, or satori, or the achievement of any number of other exalted states will solve everything. Thank goodness that religions also produce people like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutierrez and Desmond Tutu to perennially remind us that God’s agendas are very different from our own.
Now, perhaps some of you are wishing I would stop making these political remarks and restrict myself to spiritual speculations, nature poetry and the like. I wish I could! But I’ve just never been very good at keeping things in separate mental compartments.
We have our work cut out for us. Get right with God or the Universe or the Emptiness of the Self if you must. But don’t keep your mouth shut about everything else – and whatever you do, don’t let the sons of bitches get away with claiming it’s all in our name! If you’re a Christian, pressure your priest or minister to join in efforts like the one I mentioned above – and write the White House and the newspapers yourself. (Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter-to-the-editor!) Agitate in whatever way and to whatever degree you can, without losing your sense of humor, your compassion or your religion.
As David Gushee notes, history shows again and again that “when a ruling elite decides to target a group of people in a society, most of the people who are not targeted will not resist, whatever their religious affiliation. To put it bluntly: politics usually matters more than religion does; or, politics co-opts religion and thus neutralizes it. To put it even more bluntly: people are sheep. Most will go along with what their elites tell them to think and do. Few have the intellectual, spiritual or moral capacity to resist either the genocidal thinking of elites or the genocide itself once it begins.”
May I strive with all my might, through this weblog or otherwise, to help bring about a world where this would no longer be the case – and where treating any injustice, no matter how seemingly minor, as the price of progress would be beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. Inshallah.
NO DIAL TONE
BUY MY SILENCE
Madrugada. Get up, get up. Questions crowd my brain even before I am fully awake. I can feel a modern-day version of the Tian Wen bubbling in my gut. How wrong it seems to advance and defend propositions, to use the declarative mode at all. How joyfully wrong! And having read the Buddhist ruminations of Hoarded Ordinaries just before bed (I hoard them up, you see, and read a whole week at a time), I am bowing to my own teacher, the tireless coyote of the mind. (When was the last time you saw a monkey roaming freely in the wild, Lorianne? Or is that the point behind the metaphor, that we keep monkeys in cages? Ah, a new Disney classic waiting to made: Free the Mind-Monkey!)
Coffee. A new book so good I can’t bring myself to go outside and sit on my porch as I do every morning to give my mind a chance to pick up some fresh scent-trails, listen for the snap of a twig three miles off. But for no good reason I am happy, happy. I can’t decide whether to sing or shout, so I just keep quiet. But that’s probably O.K.
Juan Ramón Jiménez, you didn’t tell the whole truth. There are such things as holy fools, yes, but in your ceaseless gravity I sense a grave digger quite a bit more pious than the clowns in Hamlet. I want to alter the third line of your famous poem: with the substitution of a single word, everything changes. Así:
Mis pies ¡qué hondos en la tierra!
Mis alas ¡qué altas en el cielo!
de corazón distendido!–
My feet, so deep in the earth!
My wings, so far up in the heavens!
–And in the heart stretched
between them, such
– or was that really such a dramatic change, I wonder?
Alba. Waiting for the sun. A cold front has blown in, leaving the sky almost cloudless except along the horizon. I’m standing with my back to the 30-year-old spruce grove at the top of the field, looking at the familiar panorama of ridge after ridge, the long, low wrinkles on the earth’s skin that are the sign of great senescence for these so-called mountains.
Familiar? Wait a second. If I didn’t already know what I was looking at, how would I be able to tell that the thin band of cloud stretching the length of the horizon isn’t in fact a farther, higher range? It’s just a shade lighter than Tussey, Nittany and Bald Eagle Mountains below it – as it should be if it were a slightly more distant sierra, towering, I figure, some 15,000 feet higher than the measly 2,400 feet attained by the present mountains.
The longer I stare, the less convinced I am that this is not the case. I could be a time traveler, gazing back a couple hundred million years to the Appalachians’ first upheaval. The Appalachian orogeny (one of my favorite words!). But it doesn’t feel that way; I’m too fully locked into the present. And the funny thing is, for no good reason I can think of, ever since I left the house I have been whistling under my breath, over and over, a theme from Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain. I mean, I haven’t listened to that in close to two months – and the last time I did, I felt more than a little bored with it. It’s hardly a complex work, and I know every goddamn note. It seemed utterly familiar, though still an old friend to be sure. Like someone we know too well to be surprised by any longer, if that’s not too trite a way of putting it.
So anyway here I am, and I can’t get this tune out of my head . . . Well, I don’t try, actually. I am a big believer in the use of monotony as a kind of mental floss. The coyote gets that enticing scent in his nostrils and he can’t leave it, you know, he just keeps on trotting, mile after mile, neither too fast nor too slow – eating up the horizon. There’s an odd noise in the grove behind me – it sounds like nothing so much as a brief snatch of human conversation, a man and a woman. Maybe a squirrel or something – I have been hearing a chewing noise off and on. But I had sort of pegged that for a porcupine. Well, the sound doesn’t repeat itself, so who knows?
Minute by minute the sky changes, the red-orange band getting darker, but the mysterious mountains looming up behind the familiar ones only seem to grow more solid. I wish I were either a better writer or at least a blogger with a camera, so that I could show you exactly what it looks like. The one break in the ridge of cloud is east-northeast, right where the sun ought to rise. And as I watch, a broad, dark line emerges above this gap, a good 20,000 feet higher than the main chain: the crest of some hidden Himalayan masif. Orange sky above it, pale “clouds” (actually, the absence of cloud) around its imaginary slopes. The sky glows. I have a sudden realization: my glasses are really, really dirty!
Amanecer. The spell doesn’t break. (Never. Not as long as the Wile E. Coyote of the mind keeps bouncing back!) What happens instead is that a new spell is cast overtop of it. One mask is traded for another. Mt. Sumeru breaks into a dozen sun-touched fragments, floating blue stones edged in fire. Then up up up up up like nothing you ever saw comes the mask you can never really see without going blind. What color is it, I wonder? I’m not talking about that old yellow dwarf, that astronomical body, I’m talking about the sun. It gives off a reddish light at the moment, but that won’t last for more than a few minutes. I turn and enter the spruce grove. Now that the wait is over, one craves the close-at-hand.
The coyotes have been worrying the deer carcass quite a bit since the last time I checked. (This is one of probably at least twenty-five such carcasses within a half-mile radius. It was a tough winter.) The front legs are splayed out at right angles to the chest cavity, which has been cleaned down to the ribs, but the hind feet are together and point straight back. In other words, this deer carcass seems to have been arranged to resemble Christ on the cross – there’s Coyote for you! – with the hide pulled up like a cowl around the neck; the head is missing. A patch of reddish orange light stretches toward it. I am noticing details of moss and twig, I am keeping my ears open – the dawn chorus is past its peak, of course – and there’s a call I recognize but can’t quite place. Four high notes in a row, quasi-mechanical – just once. Bird of prey, I think, but which one?
As I leave the grove I am thinking again about some of the recent observations from the two Buddhist bloggers I read the most faithfully, Dale and Lorianne. The wordless Hovhaness tune is momentarily overwritten by some remembered lines from the thrash band Pantera (taken completely out of context, but what isn’t?). In typical thrash metal style the lyrics were hurled, halfway between a song and a shout –
WHAT’S – WRONG – WITH – YOUR – MIND?
it’s time to RISE
it’s time to RISE
it’s time to RISE
– and it gives me a chuckle to think about either Dale or Lorianne actually listening to this kind of music.
Día. I head down along the nearly 200-year-old, moss-covered woods road we call Laurel Ridge Trail. I am anxious for the fate of all the tiny, tender leaves of the oaks after this below-freezing night – the sun can’t rise fast enough for them. Ten minutes later, as I’m descending the ridge with Hovhaness once again ghosting in and out on my breath, I suddenly remember who it is that makes that monotonous call I heard on the other side of the spruce grove: the saw-whet owl.
If you go to my mother’s website, you can see a picture of a saw-whet owl perching on her hand. You can also see, down at the bottom of the page, what the view from the top of the field looks like. Meanwhile, I will think about some of the other posts I could have come up with had I not decided to write this one. Meanwhile, terrible things will take place all over the world – some of them preventable, some not. Meanwhile, the poet Arthur Sze, author of The Redshifting Web, will sleep off a hangover and wonder just when synchronicity became so utterly predictable. Meanwhile, I will try – and fail – to recover a rare, original thought that occurred to me just moments after remembering about saw-whets. How utterly unmindful of me! But the sun also rises. The coyote also pauses to mark his territory. Truly the light is sweet, says the Bible. Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
UPDATE: Title changed 4/29 – I already used “Good morning, blues”! I am starting to seriously repeat myself & I haven’t even been at this for half a year! (If it gets too bad, I will switch to an all-poetry format.) Incidentally, the last two quotes above do not occur sequentially in the Bible; “Truly the light is sweet…” comes from Ecclesiastes, whereas “Man is born unto trouble” may be found in Chapter 5 of Job. (But you probably knew that.) Incidentally #2: It’s safe to say I would never have become such a fan of the Bible were it not for the inclusion of these two books, along with the Song of Songs. Can you name any other sacred texts generous enough to admit the voices of radical skepticism and eroticism?