Seeing no evil

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.

Being different, learning difference

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

1. Who you lookin’ at?

I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but among white working class folks in Central Pennsylvania, if you think for yourself and people don’t like you, you’re weird . . . but if they do like or at least respect you, you’re merely “differnt.” As in, “Yeah, you know, Bonta, he’s, well . . . differnt!” It’s kind of like being African American: not necessarily a bad thing, but always worth mentioning. “Yeah, you know, them fellas that came out to replace my water heater was both colored. Nice guys, though.” And ever so slowly, one sees a similar acceptance of gays and lesbians beginning to spread – at least among women and the more emotionally secure among the straight men. Although I kind of doubt that some of the more colorful terminology for people so flagrantry different will go away any time soon.

This contrasts markedly, of course, with the ethos of college-educated WASPs. Sometimes it’s comical the extent to which members of this tribe (in which I include myself) will go to avoid even drawing attention to another’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. We tend to be acutely aware of the fact that such statements as I have quoted above presume stereotyped qualities. And we have a nearly unshakeable belief in the power of correct language to enforce correct thinking.

This view has its blind spots, of course. For some reason, it’s almost always O.K. to make fun of poor or working class white folks – precisely because they are presumed to be uniformly prejudiced toward, um, *cough*, you know . . . People of Color. This supposed failing appears to give carte blanche for their “betters” to ridicule everything about them and their culture – which isn’t even afforded the dignity of authenticity, being viewed instead as a warped or immature version of our own.

This is in fact consistent with the ideology of white supremacy, which is insidious precisely because it is invisible, a blind spot. How many times have you heard folks in the media refer to white people as if they have no ethnicity? And isn’t this how many WASPS view ourselves? “Color” comes from without: poor people are almost by definition colorful, even if they’re white hillbillies or Okies. Good for entertainment. But we – we seem bland, even to ourselves. Here, the Spanish word blanco includes just the right range of meanings: White. Blank. Target: what everyone is after. We are the default setting.

What I’m saying here is that most of us supposedly better educated, middle class white folks are no more enlightened than our working class counterparts. Members of both moieties are capable of tolerance, though almost inevitably they take themselves as standards of normalcy. No, the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t win many converts from among the well-to-do: the language of open hatred and rage is, well, uncultured. Thus, the better educated prefer to talk about “reverse discrimination” (originally a Klan idea, by the way) and “cultures of poverty/dependency” (which never seems to include the imaginatively impoverished and connection-dependent scions of wealthy families, such as our current “president”). The highly educated elites of both major political parties, in a rare display of bipartisanship in the mid-90s, had little trouble convincing themselves and significant portions of their power bases that shredding the social safety net would actually do those lazy people on welfare a huge favor. Aside from then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, hardly any voices in mainstream political circles or in the media were willing to confront the obvious fact that very few corporations could survive a minute without massive taxpayer subsidies. That’s good welfare, necessary for the survival of the rich.

Well-educated white folk, no matter how conservative, never speak publicly in racialist terms. But simply changing the language hasn’t changed the reality for poor people in this country and around the world. Nor, I’m afraid, has it altered the fundamental mindframe. While it’s impolite to openly challenge African American claims to Culture (aside from the deformed, immature kind), a mention of “ebonics” at a white cocktail party is almost always a laugh line, except perhaps among confirmed liberals. The huge, unexamined assumption at the heart of white supremacy is that They want/need to be like Us. They are un- or underdeveloped; huge swaths of the planet are viewed as being in desperate need of something called development. (Even many liberal environmentalists, who decry the destruction caused by developers in the U.S., believe this.) Everyone envies and wishes to emulate the American Way of Life, our leaders solemnly atone – and probably sincerely believe, in company with many others.

In Manufacturing Consent and other books, Noam Chomsky has advanced a sort of loose model to try and explain how political indoctrination can happen in a free society. Ever-more-restricted ownership of the mass media is of course one key element. But just as critical, Chomsky finds, is the way the educational system tends to enforce conformity and to weed out those who are too different. For example, much of the workload required to get a PhD is needless and inhuman, unless you assume that a good part of the reason for educational hierarchies in the first place is to serve as social sorting mechanisms. In that case, it makes sense to try and guarantee that the folks at the top of the intellectual pyramid are adept at swallowing their pride, jumping through hoops, and manipulating ideas according to carefully prescribed, peer-reviewed and enforced standards. (That’s not to say this always succeeds, I hasten to point out, given that at least six regular readers, including both my brothers, have PhDs, and none seem all that brainwashed! But in fact my brothers’ descriptions of their fellow grad students and professors were not encouraging, to say the least.)

Even without the class-based analysis, it seems intuitively obvious that academia constitutes a culture largely dominated by white men, and that new aspirants to the fold must adapt themselves to that culture either by internalizing its (white, male) norms, or by finding a way to maintain ideological independence without making too many overt faux pas (at least until they get tenure). And it’s perhaps unavoidable for members of any given culture both to want to enforce such norms, and to regard themselves as the standard against which all others should be measured. In addition, it is generally unthinkable for members of any priviledged class to question the ideological basis of priviledge in the presumption of specialness. The problem becomes particularly acute, however, when that culture holds a near-monopoly on the licensing of thinkable thoughts within a larger society that views itself as egalitarian.

But aside from the egalitarianism, this is nothing new. Ever since the invention of writing systems, the folks who knew how to write made fun of those who didn’t. Humor at the expense of ignorant bumpkins can be found in the earliest cuneiform texts. Walter Ong, whose invaluable Orality and Literacy I quoted from a while back, goes so far as to suggest that much of what we measure as “intelligence” simply reflects the degree to which a given mind has internalized and learned to reproduce uniquely literate thought-patterns.

2. Who you callin’ dumb?

Bigotry can take many forms; the perception of East Asians or Jews as more intelligent can be as damaging as the still-widespread perception among whites that black people (for example) are in some way just not as smart as we are. Again, this is the sort of sentiment one hardly dares to whisper in polite society. But I sort of doubt that the book The Bell Curve became a bestseller on the strength of sales to KKK members alone. And, as I’ve suggested, the willingness of middle-class folks to believe that “poor white trash” are dumb as dirt shows that most people do indeed regard intelligence as inborn and as correlating to some extent with class, if not skin color as well.

Most public school teachers have long ago stopped wondering why so few “good” kids end up in the remedial classes, and why so few kids from poor families ever score high enough in I.Q. tests to make it into gifted or advanced placement classes. It’s easier to believe that we live in a meritocracy, and that social differences reflect measurable genetic differences, than to question the tests themselves.

It was always painfully obvious to me that my good fortune in coming from a highly literate family was the main thing that gave me both the ability and (as time went on) the confidence to ace all manner of standardized tests. But over the years I’ve also come to appreciate the apparent irony that so often those with the least facility for the kind of abstract thinking I excel at possess a superior way with words. I find myself thinking, “If only we could properly educate these people who lard their speech with proverbs and other colorful expressions and who tell stories so expressively – if only we could turn them all into writers!”

Semi-literate people are also, for lack of a better term, semi-oral. Walter Ong showcases a study by the Soviet psychologist A.R. Luria, who “did extensive fieldwork with illiterate (that is, oral) persons and somewhat literate persons in the remoter areas of Uzbekistan . . . and Kirghizia in the Soviet Union during the years 1931-2 . . .

“[Luria] identifies the persons he interviews on a scale ranging from illiteracy to various levels of moderate literacy and his data fall clearly into the classes of orally based versus chirographically based noetic processes. The contrasts that show between illiterates . . . and literates as such are marked and certainly significant . . . and they show what work reported on and cited by [J.C.] Carothers (1959) also shows: it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”

The methodology was informal and relaxed, encouraging subjects to answer questions (or not) as naturally as possible. The subjects were, of course, unfamiliar with standardized tests, but that only makes the conclusions more valuable for the insights they offer into how kids from illiterate or semi-literate backgrounds perform on IQ tests. (Even in my own case, I still recall quite vividly how frightened and disoriented I felt during what I later realized was my first encounter with an intelligence test. I had not yet learned to read. Interestingly, when I took the test again a few years later, after I had become a voracious reader, my score improved by over 25 points. Had it not been for direct pressure from my parents – as intellectuals, honorary members of the local elite – I never would have been given the opportunity for a re-test.)

Ong draws attention to five main conclusions, which I’ll try to do justice to with fairly brief quotes. (For those interested in pursuing this subject, Luria’s own book, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundation, has apparently been translated into English.)

“(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. . . . ”

“(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from it in what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as the saw.’ Told that the hammer, saw and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything.’ Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, ‘Probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood.'”

As expected, subjects with a few years of schooling answered “correctly.” Those who were semi-literate “mingled situational grouping and categorical grouping, though the latter predominated.”

Luria also attempted to teach abstract classification to each of his illiterate subjects, but they invariably resisted learning: “They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking, that is, categorical thinking, was not important, uninteresting, trivializing.” I have often felt that myself. Much as I love to indulge in it, the invention and proliferation of categories – mental boxes – leads one further away from reality, not closer to it. And I wonder: how does “categorical thinking” differ from what Buddhists, for example, label discriminatory thinking? To what extent might the direct intuitions of artists and mystics represent simply a return to preliteracy, an escape from thought patterns ingrained by “chirographically based noetic processes”?

Finding # 3 in Ong’s summary involves reactions to “formally syllogistic and inferential reasoning,” the alphabetically-enabled invention of the ancient Greeks. In sum: “Syllogisms relate to thought, but in practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms.” Ong cites philosopher James Fernandez, who “has pointed out that a syllogism is self-contained: its conclusions are drawn from its premises only. He notes that persons not academically educated are not acquainted with this special ground rule but tend rather in their interpretation of given statements, in a syllogism as elsewhere, to go beyond the statements themselves, as one does normally in real-life situations or riddles . . . I would add the observation that a syllogism is thus like a text, fixed, boxed-off, isolated. This fact dramatizes the chirographic base of logic. The riddle belongs to the oral world. To solve a riddle, canniness is needed: one draws on knowledge, often deeply subconscious, beyond the words themselves in the riddle.”

And I would add that if in fact the category “intelligence” corresponds to anything in nature, it might well be this very canniness – a great word! A few people are prodigies, simply somehow more swift from birth onward. For most others, canniness – or wisdom – comes, if it comes at all, through life experience and through association with individuals who already possess such wisdom, especially grandparents and other elders. One trains oneself in the value of insight, the development of intuitions and the cultivation of special knacks – none likely to come through schooling as we know it.

Luria’s fourth significant finding was that non-literate people resisted even the logic behind definitions. Rather than describing concrete things, they preferred to give examples, though this didn’t seemed to reflect any lack of facility with description. “‘Say you go to a place where there are no cars. What will you tell people [a car is]?’ ‘If I go, I’ll tell them that buses have four legs, chairs in front for people to sit on, a roof for shade and an engine. But when you get right down to it, I’d say: “If you get in a car and go for a drive, you’ll find out.”‘”

“(5) Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described.” One man was asked to describe his shortcomings: “‘This year I sowed one pood of wheat, and we’re gradually fixing the shortcomings.'” (A pood is a Russian unit of weight, equivalent to 36.11 lbs.) Luria asked one of his subjects, “Well, people are different – calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?” “We behave well – if we were bad people, no one would respect us.” This exemplifies, as Ong notes, “Self-evaluation modulated into group evaluation (‘we’) and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others.

“Another man, a peasant aged 36, asked what sort of person he was, responded with touching and humane directness: ‘What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.'”

Ong concludes: “It is perhaps impossible to devise a test in writing or even an oral test shaped in a literate setting that would assess accurately the native intellectual abilities of persons from a highly oral culture.” The use of examinations to sort people came into use in the West only in recent centuries; the use of written exams to create and maintain the ruling classes in East Asia is much more ancient and contains valuable lessons for those who care to look. But I’ll have to leave that for another post.

I don’t want to minimize the importance and, indeed, the many rewards of mastering what Ong calls the grapholect: the dialect of the ruling class – in our case, standard English – that becomes the repository of written culture and the key to the whole, vast garden of the text. To use an analogy, my belief in the absolutely essential importance of large tracts of wilderness does not diminish my fondness for human society. In fact, in my view, the latter quickly grows sterile and unhealthy without regular infusions from the former realm. In like manner, I see the persistence of folk culture and the oral lifeworld of felt experience as necessary for the continued vitality of literate culture.

We can argue about whether or to what extent ethnocentricity or in-group exclusivity might be “natural” or inevitable. But history and anthropology do offer abundant examples to suggest the power of ameliorating influences. Multiculturalism has been the norm for most peoples throughout history. Monolingualism such as many WASPs experience it seems quite rare – especially if we consider additional competence in a non-standard English dialect to constitute a form of bilingualism. If I’d been a little less “differnt” and a little more social back when I was in public school, I might be able to claim such bilingualism myself.

The bloody sire

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

On Sunday night I finally got a chance to see Bowling for Columbine. I was extremely impressed. As a gun-toting freedom-lover, I was especially pleased that Moore did not simply blame the surfeit of easily available weaponry for the astonishing levels of gun violence in this country. He went to Canada to find out why its similarly well armed citizens manage to avoid shooting each other, and discovered an astonishing fact: Canadians don’t live in fear of their neighbors. He couldn’t find anyone in Ottawa or Toronto who admitted to locking their doors – “It makes us feel like we’re imprisoning ourselves,” one explained. They were also proud of the fact that their government shies away from violence as a tool of first resort in international diplomacy. Their nightly news features long, boring analyses of tedious issues such as health care and the environment, rather than hysterical reports about the latest threats to civilization and decency. About 11 percent of Canadians belong to ethnic minorities, yet white-skinned inhabitants of the suburbs seem to lack their U.S. counterparts’ obsession with looming invasions by armies of the less-fortunate. Moore interviews some African American men from Detroit who love to spend their weekends in Windsor – “I can RELAX here. People treat me like I’m just a normal person!” My father points out that Canadians won their independence as a result of an act of the British parliament – not from a revolution.

The same thing that bothered me at the time of the Columbine shootings four years ago had also stuck in Michael Moore’s craw. Here you had the president making strong statements about the need to lessen the appeal of violence among our nation’s youth, at the same time that he was sending young people in uniform to Serbia to bomb schools, bridges and power plants. What makes the U.S. different from Great Britain, Canada and Australia? Simply put: we have a unique and unshakeable belief in the redemptive power of violence. Hollywood movies are popular everywhere, but only in the U.S.A. are we so unsophisticated to think that John Wayne and Dirty Harry have the right approach. A lone ranger, armed with a six-shooter and his own moral rectitude, can make everything right again. Call it naivete or call it idealism: over 80 percent of USians tell pollsters they believe in angels and in heaven – but not in hell. Hell is for other people.

Watching Bowling for Columbine reminded me that I too had made a collage of sorts – though my results weren’t nearly as effective as Moore’s. I stitched together sentences and phrases from issues of The Christian Science Monitor from March-April 1999. (Why not The New York Times? The Monitor is the only daily newspaper I read. Plus, it features much better writing than the Times.) I discovered a curious symmetry in descriptions of and statements from the two presidents, Milosovic and Clinton. See if you can match the phrase with the administration.


Will this be the end of Mortal Kombat & Street Fighter? Peace in the Balkans, says Henry Kissinger, has existed only when a superior force has imposed it from above. Public opinion is very volatile. The two sides are increasingly locked in a contest to influence what plays on television. Their instructions: create & execute a marketing campaign that will get people thinking about God. Who’s in charge of watching the watchman? The images are so overwhelming.

The Serbs are unable to compete with the slick production of Western companies & TV stations. Boy Scouts have been going into the inner cities–U.S. protectorates where peace depends on F-15Es and Humvees. It worked well, but they were always being watched by the secret police. They’ve built war rooms & use sophisticated computer programs to look for crime patterns.

Police with pistols drawn jumped the car of two foreign journalists for no apparent reason. Many minority youths complain that they are routinely frisked. When it comes to going to a concert or dance, they are afraid of getting pulled over or arrested & beaten. Many of the worst atrocities are believed to have been carried out by paramilitary groups. Men & women, including the elderly, nurse wounds from batons or rifle butts. What researchers have documented is that prolonged consumption of this kind of stuff cultivates scripts in people’s heads.

I don’t think anyone knows the endgame. The situation has simply become too polarized by bullets & bombs. Even the waiter in the only hotel packs a .45. Drivers don’t stop at red lights any more. One of the state-controlled television stations showed hard-core pornography in the middle of the day. Body parts could be seen sticking out of a massive pile of bricks & twisted metal that was littered with plastic decorative flowers, old shoes & a Rubik’s Cube. Even “good” kids were potential victims of un-structured spare time–hanging out, boredom, lack of direction & cynicism. Budget restraints & a Republican Congress forced a mini-agenda of school uniforms and V-chips.

Now we’re one, like a fist. We are at war & this is propaganda. It shows the world that we are capable of doing something generous. The administration, with public opinion on its side, seems to want the bombing to continue. Airstrikes are helping the president. Touted as a test case for the “New World Order,” it was a diabolical extension of what he’s done before. The media’s depiction of violence as a means of resolving conflict & a national culture which tends to glorify violence further condoned his thinking. And in the macho warrior culture of the Balkans, to the victor goes not only the glory & spoils but also leadership & authority.

At stake now is the administration’s credibility in the eyes of its enemy. The worst thing you can have is people standing & shooting at each other in the White House. They were given a few minutes to leave their homes, which were looted & then burned, some with the infirm left inside. The president succeeded because he understood the power of fear & knew how to use it for his own purposes. The decibel level of the debate & its content, rich with mixed messages, made it especially dangerous. He will live in a bunker & take as many people with him as he can.

The jets are a kind of high-tech insurance. The squadron cancelled a war-game exercise in Las Vegas to head to the bombings. One by one, pilots balled their fists & pumped them in a “Rocky” pose, completing a familiar air warrior salute. Gambling is exhausting, so nothing less than the best will do for the tired gambler. General Electric’s chairman John Welch Jr. pocketed $52.6 million, while Viacom head Sumner Redstone got options worth $50.5 million. “Our demands are clear & he has to accept them. If not, the bridges keep coming down, the factories keep coming down, & hunger is just over the horizon.”

Such images play to a common weakness of democracies: a reluctance to sustain a long war. The Clinton administration is famous for being “on message,” with everyone singing the same policy chorus. “We love your music, your television, everything. We hope we can work with American companies when the war is over. The video games numb our youth to the issue of violence or violent acts, like trying to hit a puddle of mercury with a hammer.” And few can remember the last time any warrior took scissors in hand, signalling that something was being built & not being destroyed.

More on compassion

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Studies of giving patterns among Americans show that it is only the well-off who can afford “compassion fatigue.” In proportion to their income (and their free time), poorer folks donate much more time and money to charitable causes than the rich.

I believe this pattern is repeated around the world. I was just reading the family blog of some Palestinian-Iraqis, A Family in Baghdad, where the mother, Faiza, wrote:

Today I was driving my car to work and a convoy of American military vehicles passed to my left. We remained cautious and slowed down because we were afraid to come near them. I always pray that they return safely home because I’m a mother and I think with a mother’s heart not with a man’s cruel fighting heart.
They have another way in dealing with life and its problems.

I was thinking what would happen if they got attacked right now? where will it be from? it’s a sunny day.
Just as I was thinking I saw in front of me a cloud of smoke first then a sound of explosion that remained in my ear for over an hour. The birds were frightened and flew away . . .

She is not quite so charitable toward the leaders, however.

Bosh and Sharon made a press conference in the evening; they buy and sell other people’s countries and ignoring the struggle of Palestinian people that lasted for the last fifty years.
The powerful evil always stand in front of the camera smiling, and forget that there is a god in the skies up there, who has rules and justice, that he implements it in his way, and defeats the stupid evil when he wants.
“Let them play till they face the promised day” God says in Quran.

Cue up Black Sabbath, “War Pigs.”

But if the war pigs have their way, the possibility of compassion from our side will become virtually impossible – because machines will do all the killing. Conn Hallinan wrote recently about the U.S. Department of “Defense” plan “to make one third of the military’s combat vehicles driverless by 2015.” This is part of an overarching strategy for fully mechanized warfare that would include “unmanned combat aircraft, robot tanks, submarines, and a supersonic bomber capable of delivering six tons of bombs and missiles to anyplace on the globe in two hours.”

If this plan is carried out, it will also deprive Iraqi mothers – and other kind-hearted souls among the lucky millions targeted for “liberation” – of any souls to pray for among their “liberators.” No one for her or her God to be merciful towards. No one to show mercy.

(Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.)

The Directorate of Joy

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Since I don’t have the time for an original entry this morning, here’s something from my files. This appeared as an op-ed in the Centre Daily Times – the main newspaper for the region surrounding Penn State’s University Park campus – back in November 2002. This region is known to Penn State fans and other local boosters as Happy Valley.

A post on “non-lethal” weapons breaks the pattern of non-political or anti-political writing here at Via Negativa, but it does give some background for a passing comment I made in Tuesday’s post, “The mutter of all bums.” By sheer happenstance, the origianl op-ed came out within days of a Russian police assault on a Moscow theater that had been taken over by Chechen rebels. Over a hundred people died from exposure to the supposedly non-lethal chemical weapon injected by the police. I forget the name of the chemical, but it was indeed one of the main subjects of the Penn State study. Most (but not all) would probably have lived had they been given proper, immediate medical attention.

The P.R. flunky for this program did respond to my attack with an op-ed of his own. However, the only charge he denied was that this research was inappropriate for a public university. He didn’t specifically address whether or not it violates the Chemical Weapons Convention. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that one topic we will not hear Bush and Kerry debate in the upcoming months is the United States’ own growing stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The military’s obsessive and incessant use of acronymns and code-words remains a source of fascination for me.


I sat staring at my computer screen in disbelief, the address line of my browser keyed to My beloved alma mater Penn State is code-named MCRU, “Marine Corps Research University”? That can’t be right!

Surely what they really mean is something like “The Beatrice Q. and James P. Rugglethorpe III Marine Corps Research University.” It just has such a better ring to it.

MCRU was maybe the tenth semi-digestible new acronym I’d encountered in the course of an afternoon of web surfing. With an Iraq war looming, I was checking out some of the more arcane implications of an MRC (Major Regional Conflict), which seems to differ from MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) chiefly in the size and number of bombs dropped and missiles lobbed. The largest and toughest chunk of word-salad was still lodged halfway down my throat: JNLWD, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

If an acronym is long and unpronounceable, why use it? For simplicity’s sake, hereafter I’ll refer to the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate by an abbreviation, “Joy.”

Joy is a Pentagon initiative that contracts for research at the ARL (Applied Research Lab) at Penn State/MCRU, and at several other facilities around the country. “Non-lethal weapons” (NLWs), it turns out, is a catch-all category for anything that can be used to hurt, maim or incapacitate without actually killing people. Some weapons are classified as non-lethal because, if used in a certain way, they don’t kill human targets most of the time: rubber-coated bullets when they’re fired at the ground, for instance, or very brief, agonizing bursts of microwave radiation (both subjects of Penn State research).

But what really captured my fancy was the Joy-sponsored research into what one pair of military strategists rhapsodically describe as “neural inhibitors, gastrointestinal convulsives, neuropharmacological agents, calmative agents, and disassociative hallucinogens,” including such familiar drugs as Prozac and Valium; opiates “hundreds of times more potent” than heroin; a drug called Precedex that “increases patients’ reaction to electric shock”; even GBH (“the date rape drug”). Military planners prefer to lump all these chemical NLWs together as “calmatives”.

I’m quoting in part from a 50-page report produced for the Directorate by the College of Medicine and ARL, entitled The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique. Deploying a potent cocktail of Militarese and Medicalese, the report describes calmatives as “pharmaceutical agents . . . with a profile of producing a calm-like state,” with “physiological and behavioral effects [that] range from amelioration of anxiety, mild sedation, hypnotic effects to coma and death.” Ideally, of course, they would be administered in doses designed to produce merely “a less agitated, groggy, sleepy-like state” or “a stunned state of consciousness.”

Who’d have thought that the theme of Bobby McPherrin’s body slapping, sleepy-like hit of yesteryear, “Don’t worry, be happy,” might one day be enforceable by riot police?

The authors point out that such chemicals “offer specific advantages in a non-lethal warfare setting.” They don’t say exactly what such a setting might involve, though they do allude to situations involving an “agitated population,” exemplified at one point by “a group of hungry refugees . . . excited over the distribution of food,” and at another point they suggest helpfully that certain drugs offer superior “control of an individual.”

Non-lethal warfare? How very politically correct (PC)!

The foreigners and liberals at the Hamburg- and Austin-based Sunshine Project have a serious bee up their butt about this research. They’ve been using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain a number of classified documents (including the report cited above) which, they claim, add up to a pretty damning conclusion: that the US military is in direct violation of international law, specifically the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Not only does the R&D program itself constitute a violation but, they say, Joy is currently flouting CWC rules even further by testing a delivery system: the 81mm M252 mortar, which has a range of 2.5 km., according to recent FOIA-obtained documents. The sunshiners whine about the danger of escalation if “non-lethal” chemical weapons are used in battlefield situations, wring their hands over the possibility of a new chemical arms race, and go so far as to imply that using chemical weapons against Iraq would make us (U.S.) vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy!

The Sunshine Project’s latest bombshell is a press release dated 27 September, maintaining that experiments with human subjects are planned, or may indeed already have been conducted. Their evidence consists of a murkily written contract, dated 29 January 2002, between the Directorate and MCRU.

Actually, this isn’t too hard to believe. Anecdotal evidence suggests that close to half the student population of Penn State/MCRU on any given Friday night descends rapidly into a “stunned state of consciousness.” And was it really just a coincidence that Arts Fest revelers somehow didn’t feel like rioting this year?

The Directorate, for its part, tells the Associated Press (AP) that it has decided to “step back and make sure the use of calmatives would not violate the Chemical Weapons Convention.” Part of “making sure” apparently includes denying the release of over two thirds of the documents requested; ordering the US National Academies of Science not to release unclassified documents deposited in their public archives by Joy; and even by classifying their own internal, legal review–a tacit admission that thoughts themselves can be dangerous.

Which, come to think of it, is almost an inevitable conclusion, if you begin (as the Penn State study does) with the premise that resistance to authority constitutes a treatable psychological disorder.

But apparently they didn’t “make sure” soon enough. Already-released records indicate that back in 2000 our British allies–timid as always!–protested that the calmatives program was illegal. Joy simply replied that it would proceed anyway: “If there are promising technologies that DOD [Department of Defense] is prohibited from pursuing, set up MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] with DOJ [Department of Justice] or DOE [Department of Energy].”

Translation: “Pass the buck and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Space doesn’t permit more than a mention of some of the ironies surrounding the Joy Directorate’s work. Where to begin? In Afghanistan, where opium production under U.S. occupation has rebounded to pre-Taliban levels? In the Andes, where peasants’ coca crops are destroyed by U.S. taxpayer-subsidized military aircraft indiscriminately spraying deadly chemicals?

How about in Happy Valley, where a moralizing university president has encouraged police to crack down on underage drinkers, and where students are suspended or expelled for possession of a quarter bag of pot?

On the second week of October, the Sunshine Project presented its case at the Chemical Weapons Convention conference at the Hague. Oddly, its suggestion that the UN send a weapons inspection team to the US was greeted with resounding silence. (All I can say is, they better not try flying their black helicopters over Beaver Stadium!)

Hmmm, that’s strange–I feel this sudden, uncontrollable urge to lie down on the couch . . . turn on the television . . . watch football . . .

The text of the Chemical Weapons Convention may be found here or here. Since this essay was published, the ARL has removed most of the offending material from its website, though the most damning documents (including the report I quoted from) are archived here by the Sunshine Project. Access to the MCRU’s website has also been restricted. An example of the military’s thinking about the legal and ethical status of non-lethal weapons may be viewed here.

The mutter of all bums

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Must. Must really. Should. Ought to. It would be nice if. The procrastinator’s diminuendo, a rolling stop. Over the landscape of his imagination hangs a heavy haze. The distant peaks are invisible, buildings and monuments vanish rapidly from view. Memory does not speak, it yawns. Monday through Friday, most of its teeth are missing. Ah me!

Now here comes a fine funny fellow to shake things up a bit. A street-corner tin whistler with a nose for rats. What about the children? They must be saved and served up later, wrapped in the flags of monumental abstractions, over the hills and far away. The stage mother of all bombs sits in a storage facility at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. While the pilot who will deliver it to the theater of operations for the opening night performance dips his toast in his eggs at a truck stop somewhere in the Middle West. He is – need it be said? – a decent fellow. He doesn’t daydream much. He reads the papers.

In Hamelin the Rotarians are listening to a presentation by a retired colonel on the promising new frontier of non-lethal weapons. Tomorrow’s battlefield is the urban ghetto, we must be prepared. We can fire short bursts of microwave beams, high-frequency sound, souped-up tear gas. The agony will be selective and of short duration. Special agents will peel the graffiti right off the walls. Property values will soar. The rat-faced children of the working poor can be given uniforms, gas masks, clubs and shields. That way they’ll feel empowered and will avoid drugs, which they can’t really afford anyway.

It’s morning in America. The dreamers have been rounded up and given jobs in the public relations industry. At a certain point three years ago every public-private partnership in the country had the same boast: We Build Solutions. But what was this solution that everyone was working on? Something caustic, no doubt. What ever happened to civility? Penmanship and proper diction must be taught again in the schools.

Do you remember where you were when the news hit about the extinction of the golden toad of Monteverde? How about when they flooded out the snail darter? Do you remember all those bad-smelling black hippies in Philadelphia who wouldn’t MOVE? That’s exactly what I’m talking about this morning. With better planning, we can avoid all that. The news shouldn’t have to be so depressing. Our brave pilot dipping his toast into his eggs shouldn’t be subjected to the incivility and mudslinging of negative political ads and columns by liberals. Democracy is all about trust.

The carrot and the nightstick, muses the copyeditor. Who the hell eats carrots any more? There are plenty of night-vision goggles to go around. Some use them to play weekend warrior, chase down UFOs or illegal aliens, live out their fantasies. Me, I don’t go in for that screwy stuff. I’m just going to get myself a pair so I can see what my neighbors do in bed. Make sure none of them are secret perverts. This is a nice neighborhood. On a really clear day, you can see the mountains.

Poem for the heroes

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The following poem is in the expected voice of the 50 year-old Afghan woman Kairulnisah, from the farming village of Haji Bai Nazar. My source is a New York Times story by Carlotta Gall, archived at Common Dreams. Suggestions for improvement are, as always, welcome.


Two years after the fact & they pretend
we’re heroes. The infidels crowd around
waving microphones, snapping pictures.
Why weren’t we afraid, they want to know.

My son, 18 now & full of fight, tells them
we just didn’t understand the danger. Says
only men know war. But when we saw
those children die, we knew enough.
You can’t tell boys anything.
As long as those bright plastic toys
littered our yards and streets, it was clear
no mother’s son would be safe.

My husband tells the foreigners how
when the bombs were falling
I climbed up on the roof and shook
my fist at the American jets.
I wanted the pilots to see me, a mother
just like their own. I wanted to show them
where real fighters come from.
Only God can scare me.

Sometimes when we picked up the yellow cans
we could feel something shift inside.
As gingerly as we carried them,
they vibrated until our arms grew numb.
Sometimes they turned too hot to touch
and we had to put them in water.
Sometimes they made little noises
like the claws of rats. Could anyone
but a mother know how to carry
something so delicate?

Nasreen was the first to try it,
but she knows my heart.
We’ve been neighbors all our lives. So
that night we started cleaning them up.
Some lay half-buried in the dirt as if
they’d been dropped by a forgetful hen.
One by one we took them out to the ravine
and nestled them gently in a bed of straw
behind an old wall. Each needed
a little space. When the bed was full
we’d duck around the corner of the wall
& toss a match.

The explosions woke the village
and all the men came running
with guns at the ready. Come on
and lend a hand, we said, but they refused.
My husband was frantic, threatened me
with the word of the Prophet: no honor
to a suicide. I am a woman, what do I care
about honor? You’ll go to hell, he wept.

The bombs burned with a smell far worse
than rotten eggs. Nasreen must’ve held
her breath, but I got sick – a nine-
day illness. I lay on the roof
thinking my own thoughts. Foreigner,
you can tell the world: the Americans
are children. When I die & where
I go is up to God. Only a little boy
or an unbeliever should marvel
at something so plain.

Giving ourselves up

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From the AP’s daily dispatch of disinformation comes this puzzling statement:

Without ruling on el Motassadeq’s guilt, the appeals court said the lower court erred because it failed to consider whether the lack of direct evidence from Binalshibh should have influenced its decision.

A lawyer for relatives of Sept. 11 at both trials, Andreas Schulz, said Thursday’s ruling “will certainly be met with incomprehension” by them.

What does it mean to brag about one’s own (or one’s clients’) willful ignorance in this context? Could ignorance be somehow essential to innocence, that sine qua non of victimhood? It certainly inspires more pathos to imagine (say) new prisoners at Auschwitz actually believing the death camp’s motto, “Arbiter Macht Frei” (Work Makes [You] Free). But what about those among the prisoners who were both well aware of the fate that awaited all the camp’s inhabitants, and who were appointed by the Nazis to positions of power over their fellows? Doesn’t the consideration of their fate and motives somewhat muddy the “moral clarity” that neo-conservative nabobs are always nattering about? What does it mean to talk about “victim’s rights” if the right to reconciliation, the right to hold or withhold forgiveness, is routinely overshadowed by the demand for retribution? Should the wronged party in fact be permitted to claim a right to retribution, or should simple recompense suffice?


I wonder if the victim of a crime can ever be repaid in the way that retributive justice seems to demand. In Germanic tribal law, blood guilt could only be averted through arbitration, and the victim (or the victim’s next of kin, in the case of murder) agreeing to some settlement, usually monetary. For truly heinous crimes, exile was the severest penalty. By contrast, in our supposedly more enlightened society, most people don’t see anything wrong with making someone pay for murder, say, by depriving them of freedom and dignity and subjecting them to privation and often extreme violence and psychological trauma for the rest of their life. And we consider this more humane than simply executing them, which at least has the advantage of proportionality to the crime.

“Primitive” law codes, written or unwritten, express a tautological truth that many seem now to have lost sight of: that the legal system was developed to avert lawlessness. Lawlessness, in tribal societies such as those of the ancient Germans or Western Semitic peoples, did not mean primarily “lack of obedience to authority,” because authority tended to be fluid and decentralized. Rather, social disorder equated to illegitimate violence: another tautology. Better to say: disproportionate violence, violence that spirals or threatens to spiral out of control. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” may seem vengeful, but in fact it was intended to replace “an arm for an eye and your firstborn’s life for my tooth.”

What is it about the cycle of revenge that tends to send it spiraling out of control? Years ago my father came up with a physical analogy to describe what happens when individuals remain mired in their own points-of-view. “‘I was willing to go halfway, but he was not!’ How many times do we hear this sort of statement advanced as self-evident proof of reasonableness and good intentions?” my father asked rhetorically. “But here: let’s look at each other from a few feet away. Now, I am going to put my finger where I think the halfway point is. You do the same.” Between our fingers a gap of a few inches remained.

His conclusion: we each have to be willing to go more than half-way toward the other, from our own perspective, if harmony is to be preserved. There must be give as well as take. Is this not the root meaning of forgiveness, I wonder: to give in excess of that which strict justice would seem to require?


Martin Luther King: “Peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” In this sort of usage, I think, justice is invested with a broader meaning that encompasses both fairness and harmony. It includes seeing oneself as another and seeing another as oneself. To practice respect, to engage in hospitality. It’s not so difficult, really. As the quote with which we began this inquiry strongly suggests, willful ignorance is essential if we are to cling stubbornly to our own perspectives, insist on our unique and fundamental victimhood. No qualifiers are permitted; nuance is impossible. It is an outrage. The very ground cries out for blood.

But simple hospitality and mutual respect do not suffice to bring about social harmony. For proof, one need look no farther than the perpetually warring tribesmen of northern Yemen, or other parts of the world where the canons of hospitality are strictly observed. A more radical form of hospitality seems to be in order, one that transcends bilateral relationships to perceive the intricate web in which we all move, human and non-human alike, the living and the dead and the generations yet to come.

What might such a perspective entail? What are its preconditions? Does it depend upon religious institutions for its propagation, or might it flourish more readily beyond their reach? These are each huge questions; any answers I propose now or in the future must remain highly tentative.


A few angles of approach do suggest themselves. One is the possible centrality of the very kind of unknowing that has been the underlying theme of this weblog. In contrast to willful ignorance, which involves a self-conscious refusing to look/hear/understand, what I call “unknowing” describes a realization of inadequacy to anything approaching full and comprehensive vision/hearing/apprehension. Knowing that one doesn’t know is essential to understanding, both at the mundane and supramundane levels. At the supramundane level, I suppose, one comes acropper of the unknowability of Creation, the way in which the material world exceeds mater/matter at every turn – the way in which “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” And “more beautiful is the hunt than the pelt,” as the Dutch proverb has it, because when that which is hidden gives itself up for dead, we run the great risk of accepting a diminished role as killer, rather than recipient of a gift which is never fully deserved.

So we can perhaps draw a parallel with the religious concept of faith – not in the usual Christian sense of blind, unwavering belief in absurd propositions, which probably belongs more under the heading of willful ignorance. What I have in mind here is something more universal: the religious person’s sense that they must give themselves up to a higher or deeper power. “No gesture is more significant,” says the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, “than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up.” Or in that wonderful phrase of Heschel’s I quoted last week, “Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind.”

There is a feyness to such faith – a sense of ourselves as hunters no longer, but helpless prey. Lambs of God the great predator. I am reminded of a Vishnavite devotional painting that depicts the petitioner stretched supine across the knees of a multi-armed, multi-headed manifestation of the Godhead, Whose foremost arms end in the razor-clawed forepaws of a lion. The petitioner has been disemboweled; the Divinity’s fangs drip with blood. The petitioner gazes upward, rapt, enraptured.

This sounds horrific until one recalls that god and worshipper are not immutable roles. From the vantage-point of evolution, humans appear as both predator and prey. In the strictly religious realm, one goal in many traditions is personal transcendence through moksa, nirvana, imitatio Christi, etc. God can die within us (in the dark night, in the cloud of unknowing) just as we can die within God. When we partake of the sacrificial lamb or the wafer or the psychadelic mushroom, we are consuming the flesh of God, dissolving it within our own bellies. In these and many other ways, individual human beings are encouraged to strive for a realization that experience and thoughtful reflection tells us is beyond our powers. We need to somehow unite our own inadequate power with what the Pure Land Buddhists call simply Other-Power.

Usually outside the religious realm (at least here in the West) is the self-transcendence experienced during sex. But sex is an interesting case because, at least in its heterosexual form, it contains the implicit promise of a form of literal self-exceeding not possible with other altered states. (The Vajrayanists might argue with me here. I don’t discount at least the possibility of emanation-bodies and the like.) The literature on so-called entheogens – mind-altering drugs used for religious purposes – does suggest that shared visions are possible and even common, at least in some South American traditions. And as Andrew Weil once pointed out, the mind can be trained to do on its own anything that it can be made to do through chemicals. This, incidentally, may reduce the sense of dependence on gods and spirits but, if anything, increases one’s reliance on Other-Power in the form of the guru. Be that as it may, we should be careful not to succumb to the current fashion of treating sex as the standard by which all other self-transcending experiences must be measured. (Western science, too, can breed a form of fundamentalism!)


This discussion of self-transcendence brings us back to the subject of my two most recent posts. Recall, first, Tedlock’s comments about the Newekwe transcending all boundaries. Recall too how the Mudheads offered a graphic representation of material or biological being as grotesque. In the medieval European culture of the carnival, we saw the material body celebrated for its self-transcendence. “It is a body in the act of becoming . . . It is continually built, created, and builds another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world,” Bakhtin writes.

This returns us to the dance of predator and prey: “the gaping mouth, the teeth, the swallowing” are central images in the popular-festive system, connecting life and death, the banquet and the underworld. In greater Mesoamerica, of which Zuni was a far-flung part, the swallowing and disgorging underworld merged with the image of the world serpent (roughly analogous to the Sumerian Tiamat, ancestral to the West Semitic Leviathan).

In the Zuni worldview, culture involves a necessary but somehow tragic relinquishing of power: we are literally and figuratively less than our animal selves. Zuni creation myths offer an indigenous analogy to the now-discredited Darwinist myth expressed in the formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The Zuni believe their ancestors emerged from their original home in the dark and watery underworld with webbed fingers and toes, tails and extra sets of genitals on their heads – they were all basically Mudheads. Interestingly, it was a sinister character known as the First Witch who performed the job of civilizing the ancestral Zuni, bringing death into the world at the same time. I am greatly oversimplifying, of course, but this ought to give at least a hint of the kind of deep ambiguity with which the Zuni view our separation from Nature, and the utopian idealism that motivates their efforts to escape the tyranny of death and the dailiness of civilized existence. Levi-Strauss was sufficiently impressed by Zuni theorizing (as recorded originally by Frank Cushing and translated into French) to title one of his influential volumes on structuralist anthropological theory The Raw and the Cooked.

The notion here is of humans as eaters-of-cooked-food who “are what they eat.” Before a newborn can be given a name, shown the sun and welcomed into the world, it must first be “cooked”: placed in a bed of gently heated sand every day for ten days. The originally African practice of circumcision involves a somewhat related realization that to be civilized is to be reduced or refined (the analogy here is with metallurgy and alchemy).

Frank Cushing himself, in his ever-popular monograph Zuni Fetiches, captures the Zuni understanding of their position in the chain of being through a formulation just general enough to permit comparisons with a large number of traditional societies the world over. “The animals, because alike mortal and endowed with similar physical functions and organs, are considered more nearly related to man than are the gods; more nearly related to the gods than is man, because more mysterious, and characterized by specific instincts and powers which man does not of himself possess.”


But of course modern science must show these ancient intuitions to be inaccurate, right? I’m not so sure. The capacity of other animals to experience joy and sorrow, to dream, to anticipate, to recognize their own images in mirrors are fairly well attested now. Several years ago, in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, psychologist Frans B. M. de Waal reviewed the literature on empathy in rats and monkeys and concluded that, if anything, these creatures displayed more empathy than humans might have shown under similar circumstances. “Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the strength of empathy in monkeys came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so gives a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal, clearly a stronger reaction than that of the rats in [Russell] Church’s experiments.”

De Waal proposes some possible explanations for the existence of empathy. One is “emotional contagion” – the way in which even human infants will experience distress at the distress of another. De Waal notes that, though many theorists consider emotional contagion a peculiarly human trait, he has observed it quite commonly among infant rhesus monkeys as well.

“In all of those studies, the most likely explanation of the rats’ and monkeys’ behavior seems to be what, in humans, is called personal distress. That means that the acts of apparent kindness are not based on a concern about the other’s welfare but rather are a way of dealing with the distress of seeing the distress of another individual. For example, young children often get teary-eyed and upset – and run back to their mothers for reassurance – when they see another child fall and cry. They cry not because they are concerned about the other child, but because that child’s emotions vicariously overwhelm them. It is only later, when children develop a distinction between self and other, that they learn to fully separate another’s emotions from their own.”

Or to put it another way, animals and young children experience distress at the distress of another because they have not (or not yet) learned to fully distinguish between themselves and others. As cultured animals, human beings differ from the others not so much in our “level of consciousness” – an obnoxious conceit that implies a hierarchical arrangement with guess who at the top – but in our degree of self-consciousness. That is, our alienation. Thus there is, I believe, a trade-off. And rather than exhaust my limited supply of adjectives along with whatever remains of the reader’s patience, I’ll end by quoting from Rilke’s Eighth Elegy (Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2000).

With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. Only our eyes
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at its portals to freedom.
What’s outside we only know from the animal’s
countenance; for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal’s face. Free from death.
we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move. . . .


For a Buddhist perspective on what this Open might look like, and how the self might be transcended, see Dale’s discussion of “Ye Emptynesse of Selfe” at Vajrayana Practice

Found poem

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Cleland, a Democrat, had
some criticism for Chambliss.
“For Saxby Chambliss,
who got out of going to Vietnam
because of a trick
knee, to attack
John Kerry as weak
on the defense of our nation is like
a mackerel in the moonlight that
both shines and stinks,”
he said.

(from an AP article by Nedra Pickler)

The truth about conjoined twins

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The comedian grabs his mike, leans forward like a preacher or a cheerleader. “Repeat after me: ‘I am unique.'”

“I am unique!”

“‘I am an individual.'”

“I AM AN INDIVIDUAL!” roars the audience.

“‘I do not repeat phrases just because someone tells me to.'”

“I DO NOT REPEAT phrases just because . . . ” (Confusion. Laughter. Shame-faced applause.)

This routine forever endeared me to Steve Martin – my second-favorite living American philosopher (right after Yogi Berra, who gets top billing because he is only inadvertently wise). Face it, our naive mythos of rugged individualism just makes us all the more susceptible to group-think. The genius of the American system is that we conspire in our own hoodwinking. We are at once the most faithful and the least God-fearing of nations: we want to believe, but not to be confined by the dictates of the conscience.

But for all that, I love our culture of extreme individualism . . .


Spurred by my attempt to conjure up a two-headed woman, a couple readers searched the online database ProQuest and came up with an article from Life magazine, July 1996: “Together Forever,” by Kenneth Miller. My father remembers an earlier article, also from Life, describing the English conjoined twins of whom I was thinking the other day. (That article appeared too long ago for Proquest to pick up.)

The Miller article, which The Sylph was kind enough to forward, is touching and thought-provoking. The “Hensen” twins are somewhat more separated: their extra-wide torso contains two hearts, two stomachs, three lungs, and two spinal cords as far as the waist. At the time of the article they were in Kindergarten, and appeared happy, healthy, had loving parents and a supportive community (a small town somewhere in the Midwest). I’d love to reproduce the entire article, but I’ll content myself with a few paragraphs.

Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage–no one knows exactly how–to move as one being. The paradoxes of the twins’ lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. . . .

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a [rural] setting, and they’re lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don’t show it. “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Why us?'” says Mike. Instead, they seem to relish the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg–and are therefore special–when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. “It’s important to create two separate necklines,” says Patty. “Otherwise it would make them look like they’re one person.” They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue; Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious–“We go to church, but we don’t sit in the front pew,” says Mike–they draw on reserves of strength that can only be called spiritual. They also draw on a circle of helpers: Patty’s sister, Mike’s parents, the family doctor, the day-care provider who helped the twins learn to walk. . . .

When Abby and Britty go among strangers, the stir is not entirely the product of ignorance or insensitivity. As Freud noted, any event evoking ancient images of the supernatural makes us shiver–and gods and sorcerers have long been adept at generating doubles of themselves. Twins have symbolized good or evil in many cultures. The Yoruba worshiped them; the Algonquin killed them at birth. No wonder conjoined twins, who throw our definitions of doubleness and singleness into disarray, elicit such awe.

One uncanny phenomenon regularly associated with identical twins, conjoined or not, is paranormal communication: the man who dreams of a plane cash just as his twin’s F-14 is going down in flames; the woman who dreams of a litter of puppies the moment her twin, thousands of miles away, gives birth. Scientists have failed to find a higher incidence of telepathy between twins, but as Eileen Pearlman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in twins, puts it, “Is that because it doesn’t exist or because there isn’t a way to test it? The jury is still out.” It is certainly tempting to chalk up some of Abby and Britty’s behavior to mind-reading. Like many twins, they often speak and act in unison. Playing cards with their day-care pals, they shuffle the deck without even looking down. When Britty coughs, Abby’s hand–the right–shoots up reflexively to cover her sister’s mouth. “The other day,” says Mike “they were sitting watching TV. Abby says to Britty; ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Britty says, ‘Yup.’ And without another word, off they went to the bedroom. They both wanted to read the same book!”

Pearlman, who says she often senses when her own twin is about to call, believes identical twins may simply know each other so well, and have sufficiently similar brain wiring, that they can anticipate each other’s actions. Dr. Carson of Johns Hopkins speculates that something else may be at work with Abby and Britty: “Given the fact that they have shared organs, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some overlapping in their autonomic nervous systems.” . . .

The Hensel girls are stars here. Today the kindergarten teacher, Connie Stahlke, is having her 11 charges cut out paper snowmen. As always, she gives the twins an option: Create two separate projects or team up. Although they often work independently and never copy each other’s answers on tests, they decide to collaborate this time. Since it is impossible to use scissors without a spare hand to hold the paper, it would take them twice as long to finish if each made her own cutout. In the end, the twins’ snowman is the most elaborate of all.

Teamwork is a concept Abby and Britty have grasped more quickly than their peers. Once, after several students got into an argument, the twins led a class discussion on how to get along. “They’ve definitely had to do that their entire lives,” says Stahlke. . . .

It can’t have been easy. Their different temperaments have been apparent since infancy. Abby has a voracious appetite; Britty finds food boring. Abby tends to be the leader (“She wants more things and is more diplomatic in getting them,” says Mike’s mother, Dorothy); Britty is more reflective and academically quicker. Sometimes they argue. Once, Britty hit Abby in the head with a rock. But they have obvious inceptives to arrive at a consensus. When they can’t agree on where to go–a rare occurrence–they literally cannot move. When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room. “They watch out for each other like you wouldn’t believe,” says their father.

To J. David Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on conjoined-twin psychology, the individualism of siblings born of a semidivided egg sheds light on the nature-nurture debate–the question of whether we are shaped mainly by heredity or environment. Unconjoined twins have identical genes (nature) and grow up only inches apart (nurture), what can explain their dissimilarities? Some scientists theorize that the position of each fetus in the womb affects development. Some suspect one twin is dominated by the right brain hemisphere, the other by the left. Smith’s answer is less mechanistic: “It isn’t just genes or the environment. People are acutely involved in creating their personalities. They make different choices, choose different directions.” The development of conjoined twins, he says, “is a compelling study in human freedom.” . . .

In the hallway, the girls are putting on their sneakers. Abby consults her sister: “I think I should make a double knot, don’t you?” Britty nods and lends a hand. [Their mother] Patty, watching from the kitchen, gives one of her enormous smiles. “If they had to be put together,” she says, “I think they were put together perfectly.”

This makes me want to weep and cheer at the same time. I left out the central episode of the story, where they go to visit the Mall of America with their parents and siblings and are treated with an amazing mixture of respect and friendly curiosity. A few people stare, then apologize. Folks are friendly and welcoming as only Midwesterners can be. Sometimes I hate this country, but then I read something like this and it makes me realize I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.