Pressing on

Pressing On (Return of the Phoebe) from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Ah, to be as single-minded as a phoebe! To sing for the sheer joy of it, one’s message reduced to the bare fundamentals:
I am here.
Life is good.
Gimme some sugar.

Isn’t that really what we’re all trying to do, as artists and writers ?

Apparently not. “Whether a person blogs to make a little money, to influence opinion or just for sheer ego gratification,” says Paul Boutin of the New York Times, “amassing a large audience is the goal.” Oh. Oops.

Funny thing, though. Remember my interview with an anonymous blogger? Anon. used a slightly different yardstick to measure success in blogging:

One of my blogs lasted only a few weeks and got mentioned on instapundit and metafilter, logged hundreds of readers daily, was cut and pasted and forwarded as emails, and led to several offers of publication in whole or in part. A year before that, I had written another blog that also lasted only a few weeks. This second blog drew few readers, was not widely linked, didn’t feature my best prose, and when it ended, wasn’t archived by me or anyone else. It, however, involved my wandering in snowy woods by myself several times a week. For that reason alone, I prefer it to its more celebrated cousin.

Now this same individual, writing under a pseudonymn and working with an agent, has gotten an offer from a major publisher to bring out his second novel, which also gestated in a (now discontinued) blog — one with a daily readership probably around 100, I’m guessing. (Which still sounds like a lot to those of us who have been writing poetry for a while, and are used to thinking of a large audience as anything in excess of ten people, including family members!) Nor is he the only friend or acquaintance for whom blogging has led to authorship.

But judging by the advice proffered by most of the blogging experts I’ve read, my friends are basket-cases. Not only do they fail to measure their success by Google PageRank or Technorati authority, but their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on (Anon. was famous for that). But like our friend in the video above, they are hardly lacking in dedication.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the American blogging cognoscenti have completely ignored what I consider the most significant blogging story of 2008 so far. Japan’s most prestigious literary award — the Akutagawa Prize, which recognizes up-and-coming fiction writers — just went to a blogger named Mieko Kawakami. She began blogging in 2003 as a way to try and stir up interest in her music, but soon the writing took over. The prize went to her third work of fiction; all three were originally written for her blog.

Kawakami’s award-winning novella, “The Breast and the Egg,” explores the ideas of divorce, the questioning of beauty standards and other themes of solitary womanhood that are still relatively new territory in Japanese literature. Kawakami’s stories in some ways are those of Japan’s Everywoman. […]

“It’s about living, our body, the changes of the heart that accompany the body, the urgency, the problems being born, moment by moment,” Kawakami said. “The fact that we are always doing our best at living.”

So it seems that some top-notch writers are finding their voice through blogging now, even if blogging as a medium for literary expression hasn’t really caught on here yet. As someone who has helped publish bloggers and other writers and artists in a blog-enabled online literary magazine for three years, this is obviously a topic of keen interest to me. In Japan, as the AP article goes on to point out, it’s not uncommon now for writers to produce novels in installments meant to be read on mobile phones. To say that Japan has a healthy blogging culture would be a bit of an understatement.

There are more blog posts in Japanese than any other language, according to Technorati Inc., which tracks nearly 113 million blogs globally. Last year, Technorati found 37 percent of all postings were in Japanese — about 1.5 million per day. Postings in English — from Americans, Britons, Australians and people in many other countries — accounted for 36 percent of the total.

It’s not just a matter of numbers, though. In Japan, the personal or diary blog is the dominant form, not only as a percentage of the whole (which may be true here, too) but in terms of public perception. This makes sense, because letters and diaries have held a central position in Japanese literature for over a thousand years, enjoying equal status with poetry and novels. (You may have noticed the quote at the bottom of my sidebar from Sei Shonagon, whose tenth-century Pillow Book was as much like a personal blog as anything one can imagine.) Moreover, novels based on lightly-fictionalized autobiography have been a staple of Japanese literature for close to fifty years now. So a Japanese blogger with literary aspirations would not have to look far for role models or an appreciative audience.

Here in the U.S., by contrast, the literary establishment seems reluctant even to concede the value of online literary magazines, let alone blogs. The proper curmugeonly thing to do is express distaste for something so obviously deleterious to the cause of true literature, as the British novelist Doris Lessing did in her Nobel acceptance speech this past December.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

God forbid! Then again, if all the bloggers I know followed the advice of the blogging gurus, I think we would have to concede Lessing’s point.

Echo chambers


Download the MP3 (546k)

highway to nowhereThursday was only my second time to ride on the newly opened section of I-99, central Pennsylvania’s infamous “road to nowhere.” This time I remembered to bring a camera, though the Bald Eagle Ridge portion was still in shadow. It’s amazing how quickly we can get from Tyrone to State College now.

I suppose a lot of people who had opposed this highway as passionately as we did might have a hard time using it, but we’re pragmatists, I guess. It’s kind of like voting even when you think the whole system is corrupt. Actually, the way this highway got pushed through is quite similar to the way candidates get pushed on voters: the local media presented it as a stark choice between an interstate highway on the ridgetop and continued carnage on the old, dangerous road up the valley — the “highway of death.” Any attempt to advocate for another position was drowned out by the baying of the interstate boosters. The sadly ironic outcome is that the new highway will result in far more deaths than the old one did, but the deaths will be largely of non-humans: increased roadkill of all kinds, with certain species of reptiles and amphibians probably suffering local extinctions in the long run due to inbreeding depression. And the highly acidic rock exposed by the removal of the mountaintop where the new highway goes over will undoubtedly be releasing some level of pollution into two different watersheds for centuries. From the perspective of wildlife and wildlife habitat, every highway is a highway of death.

As for “road to nowhere,” I see that even one of the biggest boosters of the project, the Altoona Mirror, has adopted the term. What does it mean when a leading local newspaper, the mouthpiece of the local chambers of commerce, asserts that this is Nowhere? Somehow, I doubt that they had the etymology of “utopia” in mind. With the completion of I-99 later on this year, the area will lose a bit more of its distictinctive character and come that much closer to generic Anytown, USA. And the elites will cheer and tell us how lucky we are, and assure us that prosperity is just around the corner. Sound familiar?

Sweet baby Jesus

Our government at work.

Martin E. Marty, the very prominent historian of Christianity, pointed out in a speech at Penn State’s Altoona College two years ago that state sponsorship of Christianity may not be such a good idea — unless one’s interest is in seeing Christianity wither and die. That’s what’s happening in all the Western European countries with state-sponsored churches.

Of course, the various Advent traditions haven’t been much affected by this withering of faith, since they long predated the imposition of Christianity. In central Europe, the demon Krampus (pictured above, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons), who accompanies St. Nicholas, is still widely popular, as is the shaggy horned monster Klaubauf, Knecht Ruprecht, and many others. The American Santa Claus — a conflation of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas — has spread throughout the world, even to non-Christian countries like Japan, where Christmas trees and lights and gift-giving have become commonplace. One could chalk this up to the modern commercialization of Christmas, but in fact the exchanging of presents during the midwinter holiday goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where it was a central feature of the Saturnalia celebration.

One can point to many signs that might indicate a decline in Christian values in contemporary American culture: the deep ignorance of the Bible among both secular and religious Americans; the decline in support for social welfare programs and the ever more popular equation of greed with moral virtue; the continued popularity of violence and warfare; the widespread lack of awareness of the very basic fact that Easter is the most important Christian holiday and movable feast. (Does anyone even still remember what “moveable feast” means?) But I strongly doubt that wishing folks “Happy Holidays” out of consideration for their possibly non-Christian sensibilites amounts to a war on Christmas, as certain demagogues have claimed in recent years.

As for officially sanctioned displays of nativity scenes, we should be careful what we wish for, as officials in Barcelona discovered a couple of years ago when they tried to ban the popular caganer figure from public displays. Catalonians told them loud and clear: Don’t crap on our holiday traditions!

Merry Christmas.

Subscribers must click through to see the highly edifying video (which is a couple years out of date, but what the hell).

Discovery channels

It was truly a Discovery Channel moment. Well, except for the fact that I was in the middle of taking a leak. After some twenty minutes of fruitless stalking, I had given up on getting a good picture of the sharp-shinned hawks screaming at me from various hidden vantage-points around the spruce grove at the top of the field. This is the third year in a row that they’ve raised a family there, and while extremely secretive as long as the young are in the nest, as soon as they fledge, the parents become quite vocal, even aggressive. Just about every morning for the past week, my mother had reported getting close views of them, but by the time I got up there in mid-afternoon, there was no sign of them. “They probably come back each night to the spruce grove, and hang out there in the morning before going off somewhere else to hunt,” she suggested.

Thus it was that around 9:30 on a beautiful, cool, Sunday morning I found myself in the narrow strip of field between the back of the spruce grove and the edge of the oak-cherry woods, engaged in contemplation of the wonders of nature. My bladder was only about half-empty I realized two things: a sharpie had landed in the black locust sapling right above me, and a large stick had just snapped at the edge of the woods about 50 feet away. It had to be either a human or a bear. I zipped up hastily, and a moment later caught a glimpse of a large, black form moving between the trees.

To tell the truth, I’ve never been quite sure that the kind of nature shows featured on the Discovery Channel or in National Geographic specials are entirely a good thing. I mean, if the goal is simply to entertain and to inspire, they’re great. But I worry that such shows raise false expectations about the sort of experiences people are likely to have when they go outside, where, let’s face it, your chances of seeing charismatic megafauna doing exciting things are pretty remote on a day-to-day basis — not least because most larger animals spend the majority of their time doing essentially nothing. Worse yet, the average person’s failure to see nature-show-worthy spectacles in his or her own neck of the woods might lead him or her to conclude, subconsciously at least, that preserving local wildlife habitat isn’t as important as, for example, Saving the Rainforest. How else to explain public silence in the face of runaway exurban envelopment, despite polls that consistently show widespread public support for Protecting the Environment?*

Those of us who have come to crave regular contact with wild nature have done so despite, or perhaps even because of, nature’s consistent failure to provide highly entertaining spectacles. There are lots of cheap thrills, if discovering a new wildflower or a fresh pile of coyote scat is your idea of a thrill. But really, wouldn’t you rather go geo-caching, or roar around on a mountain bike or an ATV? As one of my more urban visitors said one time when I tried to get him to go for a walk after several days of sitting around talking and listening to music, “I’ve seen trees before!”

Nevertheless, sometimes nature does — heeding the call of Oscar Wilde — imitate art, and this was one of those times. I snapped two quick photos of the sharpie before it flew over my head and landed on a taller locust tree a stone’s throw behind me. Then the bear reappeared at the edge of a milkweed patch an equal distance in the other direction. Jesus! Where to look?

Another thing about those nature shows: they’re culled from thousands of hours of film, taken by very talented photographers using very expensive equipment. My thrilling encounter with the black bear was fairly long by real-world standards — maybe a minute — and yielded one pretty good view, but the only picture I got was, as you can see, pretty darn lousy.

It was a medium-sided bear, possibly the same one my mom saw looking in her kitchen window last week. Mother black bears chase off their year-and-a-half-old cubs around midsummer, and these “teenaged” bears, like the one I was watching, haven’t yet developed the wariness of the adults. They’re still learning the ropes. As a result, this is always the busiest time of year for so-called nuisance bear incidents. You’ve just finished moving into your dream house in Ferne Hollow or Oak Pointe, and the next thing you know there’s a goddamn black bear going through your recycling bin like it owns the place. There goes the neighborhood!

This bear, however, seemed more interested in smelling the milkweed blossoms, which have a very sweet, almost cloying odor. It turned its head this way and that, as if breathing deep from a cornucopia of scent. Either that, or it had caught a whiff of Human, and was struggling to separate it from the powerful background soup.

I turned around to look at the sharpie, and realized it was sitting in full view for the first time all morning. I turned back toward the bear. It must’ve caught sight of the motion, because a moment later it was gone, crashing through the bottom corner of the spruce grove. In an agony of indecision, I snapped ten quick photos of the sharpie, then headed off after the bear, which I could still hear crashing around in the woods. I walked back along Laurel Ridge Trail hoping to cross paths with it again, but no luck.

An hour later, I had uploaded my photos to the computer and had just begun to go through them and realize how truly bad they were when my mom came back from her own walk down the hollow. She carried a large, orange and yellow moth on the end of twig, figuring I might want to photograph it. This turned out to be a royal walnut moth, the adult form of the famed hickory horned devil.

O.K., I take it all back: nature really is like the Discovery Channel — at least at the micro-level. Get a camera with a macro lens and you, too, can take eye-popping photos of wildlife in your own backyard: just ask Bev, or Cindy, or Rebecca. My mom was envious of my sightings up at the spruce grove, but her own find was the more interesting one, I thought. The royal walnut moth, like the hummingbird clearwing sphinx moth that came in to the bergamot in my front garden the previous afternoon, is not only easier to observe but also a great deal stranger than anything the furred or feathered tribes have to offer. And best of all, it’s not likely to flee if you stop to take a leak.


*Logically, an environment can never be destroyed. That’s the beauty of abstractions: they make horrors seem manageable by removing all traces of the real world: no land, no air, no water, no endangered species or ecosystems; no messy places or individual creatures. This is why I call myself a conservationist and not an environmentalist.


From village idiot as from villanelle
one learns the power of a repeated phrase.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.

Weapons of mass destruction: an easy sell.
We’re trained to like whatever the radio plays,
be it the Village People or a villanelle.

I learned to just do it before I learned to spell;
asking why was only a passing phase.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.

The pretty faces on the news can’t tell
spin from drip dry, fog from haze,
the village idiot’s raving from a villanelle.

We must support our troops. Ring that bell!
Pavlov’s elephants salivate. The donkey brays.
Everything I need to know I learned in hell.

The gnostic gospel of the cancer cell
preaches a god of growth. Replication pays.
Ask the village idiot with his villanelle:
everything I need to know I learned in hell.

[Poetry Thursday – dead link]

The assignment this week was — you guessed it — a villanelle. My feelings about the form are probably evident from the poem (I use the term loosely). Most of us are not Dylan Thomas.

Links to other Poetry Thursday posts are here. I’ve already found a couple villanelles that defied my expectations by not sucking. And of course many people did the sensible thing and chose not to follow the optional assignment.

On message


Along the old highway, soon to be replaced by an interstate, a billboard touting the benefits of advertising on billboards: THINK BIG, it says. And right beyond it, a billboard with this message:

There are times when she pretends
to be delighted with your gift.
This won’t be one of
those times.

It is an ad for, I think, diamonds. I only spotted it at the last moment as we sped past, my mind on the Engineered Rock Placement Area — the mountain of toxic rubble that will soon begin to take shape a quarter mile away along the creek.


In the patio outside the new wing of the library named after the football coach, the university sold the rights to inscribe names in foot-wide bricks for $2,500 apiece. The coach and his wife, public-spirited citizens that they are, each purchased a brick. You can’t have your name in too many places, I guess. Some of the bricks contain clever messages: one alum admonishes people to stop reading the bricks and go study. Another brick simply paraphrases Pink Floyd, “We are all bricks in the wall” — kind of silly, since this is manifestly not a wall. I do like one of the messages, though:

this brick

A few feet away stands a sculpture entitled Stacks, by an alumnus named Peter Calaboyias (see photo at top). Four large, bronze tablets lean together conspiratorially like football players in a huddle. They are embossed with a hodge-podge of glyphs with no collective meaning.

Those images were created out of twenty-five scripts, including the foundations of Cherokee, Armenian, Thai, Greek and symbols of Braille and Hieroglyphs. The sculpture is supposed to visually represent the function of a library as a repository of methods and systems for communications. The plate images only represent characters and symbols of communication, not languages, according to a University Libraries’ Office of Public Information and Relations press release.

To me, though, the unreadability of these tablets makes a statement about the occult nature of the specialized languages peculiar to academic disciplines. And the artist’s vision of information as context-free code rather than message seems highly compatible with an emphasis on “electronic information resources,” the purchase of which is supported by those $2,500-dollar bricks.

By contrast, the faí§ade of the other wing of the library, named after a pioneering professor of American Studies back in the early 20th century, features much more conventional carvings of cap-and-gowned scholars with the messages, The Library is a Summons to Scholarship and The True University is a Collection of Books. These sentiments seem more than a little mossy now: the part of the library’s budget dedicated to buying books continues to shrink as more and more funding goes toward electronic material. That wing faces southeast, and stands at the head of an elm tree-lined walking mall. Its nearest neighbors are office buildings for the College of Liberal Arts, and have the names of Great Men — Kant, Goethe, Shakespeare et. al. — carved in Roman letters all around the entablature. It is, as the kids say, very old-school.

The new wing faces in the opposite direction, toward the big new Spiritual Center across the street. This is mostly happenstance, of course, but I do think that information resources make a far more comfortable fit with spirituality than knowledge. The former term makes no implicit claim about truth-status, and thus doesn’t threaten the sovereignty of that mix of assertions and emotions that most people mean by the term spirituality. And whereas the acquisition of knowledge might lead to wisdom or inspire ethical behavior, the gathering of information serves merely to empower. Knowledge is active and alive; information is passive and inert. I like the inviting quality of the “Stacks” sculpture, but if I’d been the artist, I would’ve dispensed with all the exotic glyphs and covered the tablets instead with ones and zeros.

Those people

A couple weeks ago, many political commentators made hay out of Sen. Trent Lott’s statement about Sunni and Shiite Muslims:

“It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people,” he said. “Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBut of course, coming from a conservative white male politician from Mississippi, the ludicrous bigotry here seemed pretty much par for the course. Who knows why those people are all such racists!

If only ignorance were the exclusive property of idiots. On the opinion pages of yesterday’s New York Times, Jeff Stine described an informal survey he’s been conducting:

For the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

The results have been troubling, he says.

[S]o far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. […]

At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the [FBI’s] new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. “The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,” he said. “And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.”

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

He took a stab: “Sunni.”


Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”


And to his credit, Mr. Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about Al Qaeda while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam’s Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some members of Congress.

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

“Do I?” she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. “You know, I should.” She took a stab at it: “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.”

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?

“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?

“Oh, I think it’s very important,” said Ms. Davis, “because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”

It’s not all so grimly humorous. Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my “gotcha” question. But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more and more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.

Actually, I’m afraid I won’t be losing sleep about this, because it’s exactly what I would’ve expected. Bush’s War on Terror is by definition a struggle against an amorphous enemy. Those few public figures who have made a sincere effort to understand the motivations of the enemy, like Country singer Steve Earle, have been denounced as traitors by the right. The very invasion of Iraq was premised upon an absurdly ignorant expectation that the Iraqis would greet the invading army as liberators. And now, in the quiet build-up to a possible strike against Iran, only a similarly stunning inability to imagine how others might feel — combined with, one suspects, a nearly complete ignorance of Iranian history and culture — can explain the reported assumption of many in the Bush regime that bombing the bejezus out of Iran would undermine, rather than reinforce, support for their own bigoted leader.

Talking news

beech eyesFor years, my only morning paper was a chestnut oak leaf that had been skeletonized by leaf miners. I taped it to the window next to my writing table so I could see the sky through a map of veins. Even now, I have an aversion to beginning my day with the news. I prefer to save it for late afternoon, listening to the radio while I make supper. By that time of day, whatever creative impulses I may have woken up with have long dissipated, and I’m ready for the streams of clichés, half-truths and nationalist myopia that make up a typical All Things Considered broadcast — actually one of the least offensive sources of mainstream news and opinion in the U.S.

On Saturdays, though, I have breakfast with my parents, and this morning, the conversation strayed to the news. My dad reported that a landslide in the western Pittsburgh suburbs had completely buried the main railroad line between Pittsburgh and Chicago, as well as a major highway, Rt. 65, used by commuters into the city. The landslide began on Tuesday, as a result of construction for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The construction had been opposed by a local group calling itself Communities First!, who had gone to court to try and block it on the grounds that the slopes above the Ohio River were too steep and unstable for that kind of development. But they’d lost the case and construction had gone forward. Dad said that 300,000 cubic yards of debris had buried the rail line and the highway. “That’s about 100 times the volume of our barn,” Dad said.

Local officials, who had waived slope standards to permit the construction, denied that the disaster could have been predicted. Norfolk Southern managed to get one of the three rail lines cleared, and trains were moving at less than one-third normal capacity, which accounts for the relative scarcity of trains whistling our crossing over the past four days. Removal of debris from the highway is expected to last until October 7, though they might be able to open a single lane for traffic in each direction before then. “Who needs terrorists when you have developers?” Mom said.

The War on Terror did score one major, albeit under-reported, success back on September 11, netting obnoxious muckraking journalist Greg Palast for allegedly filming an otherwise top-secret oil refinery near New Orleans. Palast got Homeland Security to divulge that his accuser was none other than the owner of the refinery, Exxon-Mobil Corporation, which is understandably nervous about the effects of muckraking journalists on the fragile ecosystems of the lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf of Mexico, where a serious erosion of muck greatly amplified the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Save the muck!

In yesterday’s big story, unelected Pakistani President and supporter of democracy Pervez Musharraf accused the unelected Bush administration of making terroristic threats on September 12, 2001. Former Powell henchman Richard “Plame game” Armitage denied saying that he told Musharraf’s representative that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn’t support us in the War on Terror, however. He merely told the Pakistanis that they were “either with us or against us,” before describing in vivid detail U.S. intentions to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.

Despite the allegations, Bush and Musharraf were at pains yesterday to emphasize the closeness of their relationship. I was reminded of a story from an old girlfriend, describing how her parents had gotten together. Their relationship got off to a rocky start, but one day, her father-to-be pulled out a gun and told her mother-to-be that if she didn’t agree to marry him, he’d kill them both. She swooned, he took her into his arms, and they got engaged shortly thereafter. “Isn’t that one of the most romantic things you’ve ever heard?” my girlfriend asked. We weren’t together for very long after that.

Also yesterday, I was agog at the news of a hundred thousand fans cheering Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. Yes, I realize that Hezbollah provides many valuable social services in southern Lebanon, and has morphed into a quasi-state entity not unlike the Medhi Army in Iraq or the Tennessee Valley Authority in the Southern Appalachians. Hell, every government, at its root, is nothing but a glorified protection racket. But the fact that Israel withdrew before eradicating every multi-cellular life form in Lebanon does not amount to a glorious victory for Hezbollah.

Nasrallah reminds me of this retarded kid who used to follow me home from school when I was in 11th or 12th grade, shouting insults and throwing rocks. He was kind of deformed — think “post-nuclear holocaust mutant” — and thus unable to throw stones with any accuracy, but now and then I got annoyed and gave half-hearted chase. Once, to my shame, I went so far as to catch the kid and push him to the ground, where he gobbled and writhed grotesquely. As soon as I walked away, he lurched to his feet and resumed throwing rocks, yelling and jeering — “Ha ha! You’re afraid of me!” or words to that effect.

In a similar vein, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made headlines at the United Nations this week by calling Bush “the devil” and referring to the stench of sulfur. This was a serious escalation in metaphor for the long-winded strongman, who had previously likened the U.S. leader to a donkey. Though Bush regime flacks declined to respond publicly, one can’t help supposing that the PR machine is working overtime, trying to figure out how to tie Venezuela into the Axis of Evil without endangering the flow of sulfur-scented oil. Chavez began his speech by waving a copy of Noam Chomsky’s latest polemic and urging everyone to read it, especially Americans. “It’s an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what’s happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet,” Chavez said. He did not, however, announce any concrete plans to help the United States overcome its planet-threatening addiction to fossil fuels. The devil is, as always, in the details.

Then there’s the pope flap. I think it’s possible that Pope Benedict XVI actually intended to inflame the Muslim world, as a kind of show of force. After all, the pontiff’s power in modern times is basically restricted to speech acts — excommunication, the issuing of papal bull, and general pontificating — which must surely chafe for a man whose previous job was heading up the Inquisition (now known euphemistically as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). But while he can no longer burn heretics and Muslims at the stake, he can incite them to burn effigies of himself, which in his mind probably condemns them to the fires of hell just as definitively. And as Christ’s representative on earth, he may even derive some vicarious masochistic pleasure from seeing his name and image subjected to such passionate desecration.

The pope’s defenders say that his words about the “evil and inhuman” aspects of Islam were taken out of context. The context was an arid theological exercise designed to show that the Christian concept of deity is superior to the Muslim concept. Though couched as a defense of “reason” against those who allege that God is above and beyond all human categories, the pope never defines reason and decries its “limitation … to the empirically verifiable.” While Muslims contend that God can violate his own word if he wants to, the pope denies this, citing the opening of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word.” Well, again, it makes sense that the pope would believe in the power and primacy of words — his words, at any rate. He traces the roots of Christian theology to the Greek Bible’s mistranslation of Exodus 3:14, “I am that which is” — a tautology verging on pantheism, but never mind that. While acknowledging the novelty of the translation, the pope doesn’t mention that a more accurate translation would tend to support the Muslim position: “I will be what I will be.” Nope, sorry, God! You’ll be what the pope says. And everyone’s invited to a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions,” Catholics and heathen alike.

As I was washing up the breakfast dishes this morning, my mother mentioned that all the recent pictures of the pope in the news had given her an eerie feeling: “He looks just like Pop-pop,” she said, referring to my deceased grandfather, her dad. “The long nose, the great big ears — must be the Bavarian look. That’s where Nanna’s [i.e. Pop-pop’s mother’s] people all came from, Bavaria.”

Hmm, Pop-pop and the pope. They might even have been distant cousins, who knows? Pop-pop did like to indulge in sweeping generalizations about “those people over there” from time to time, although I am sure he would have been very distressed if he’d thought his words might have offended somebody. Thankfully, I don’t seem to have inherited his penchant for shooting his mouth off. At least, not as long as I can manage to ignore the ceaseless stream of blather they call the news.

On Target

CLOSED TEMPORALLY, says the sign on the door of an Abercromie & Fitch – “a prime example of how the wrong word can sometimes be so absolutely right,” Karrie Higgins notes.

But sometimes the right words can be wrong. Trying to leave a Target store the other day, I was confused by the set of doors marked ENTER | DO NOT ENTER. A little unintended koan, it probably captures the feelings many people have about shopping in big box stores. Or, heck, about shopping in general, mixed messages being so much a part of mass marketing culture. Drink beer – be athletic. Lose weight – feel good about yourself. Feel secure – buy a new burglar alarm system. Be uniquely yourself – or risk total unhipness. Like, whatever, you know?

I had stopped in to use the bathroom and get a drink at the water fountain. I was looking for a pay phone, too, but the near-ubiquity of cell phones has virtually eliminated phone booths from the American landscape. Given the new, inexplicable popularity of bottled water – often more contaminated than tap water – can public water fountains be far behind?

THERE IS NOTHING HERE WORTH YOUR LIFE, says the sign on a derelict building in an almost-ghost town in western Utah. Would these words seem as appropriate on the front door of a still-thriving Target store? Clearly, somebody’s life is at stake. Who’s wearing the bull’s-eye?

There is nothing here… With our thinking so conditioned by decades of mass marketing, such straightforward assertions sound hopelessly outdated, derelict. I used to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes, a once-popular brand with a red-and-white bull’s-eye logo virtually identical to Target’s and a slogan that betrayed its dinosaur status: “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” The problem with that kind of claim is that it’s too easy to disprove – though perhaps if delivered with the appropriate level of apparent conviction, it might qualify as truthiness. From what I hear, none of the more sophisticated tricks of the marketer’s trade hit the mark anymore; nothing short of product placement seems to work with the youngest and most desirable demographic. So maybe advertising should follow the lead of political discourse and return to its origins in the bald-faced lie. It might have a certain retro chic.

People always tell pollsters they want straight-talking politicians, but then people never tell pollsters what they really think, only what they think they should think. Because in fact the rare political candidate who speaks the truth pleases no one. Who wants to be told that they can’t eat their cake and have it too? We want to hear that there will be enough of everything for everyone forever.

Truth is like water: necessary, yes, but bland, and nearly impossible to over-indulge in. A marketing challenge! And you know that the marketers are winning when you start to find discarded water bottles floating in the creek. True, the water in the creek probably isn’t safe to drink anyway. It’s most likely aswarm with giardia cysts, thanks to our favorite hoofed consumers of the forest. “Deer Park,” says the label on the bottle. Indeed.

O monks, there are two paths which seekers of Truth should not follow. One is the path of habitual devotion to passion and sensual pleasures, which is base, ordinary, leading to rebirth, ignoble and unprofitable. The other is the path of self-mortification and extreme asceticism which is also painful, ignoble and unprofitable. Thus the first words of the Buddha’s first sermon at the Deer Park in Varanasi. “Unprofitable”? Hardly!

Have Deer Park Brand Natural Spring Water delivered to your door from about $1 a day! IT’S NEVER BEEN EASIER! Thus the home page of the Deer Park Brand Natural Spring Water website. Believe that, and I have a municipal water privatization scheme to sell you. Change the shape of what kids drink… with the all new Aquapod bottle! It’s not just water, it’s differently shaped water.

What would a marketing campaign for truth look like? Not truthiness, but real, virtually tasteless, hard-to-get-a-handle-on truth. Could a crack marketing team make it palatable again? Given its current scarcity, creating demand shouldn’t be a problem. I’m guessing the words “pure” and/or “natural” would have to be featured; images of happy, healthy white people would be optional. Would this truth be “unvarnished”? Probably not. But whatever, you know?

Because with truth, you can have it your way. Truth: whatever works! Unknowable… naturally. Temporally closed.


Rendition. Such an intriguing word.

Rendition is a legal term meaning “surrender” or “turn over”, particularly from one jurisdiction to another, and applies to property as well as persons. For criminal suspects, extradition is the most common type of rendition. Rendition can also be seen as the act of handing over, after the request for extradition has taken place.Rendition can also mean the act of rendering, i.e. delivering, a judicial decision, or of explaining a series of events, as a defendant or witness. It can also mean the execution of a judicial order by the directed parties.

Wikipedia, “Rendition”

[A] performance of a musical composition or a dramatic role … an explanation of something that is not immediately obvious … the act of interpreting something as expressed in an artistic performance

WordNet Search 2.1, “rendition”

Rendition was infamously used to recapture fugitive slaves, who under the Constitution and various federal laws had virtually no human rights. As the movement for abolition grew, Northern states increasingly refused to comply or cooperate with rendition of escaped slaves, leading to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

[T]he processing and manipulation of information in order to represent it, for instance, on screen or on paper. Not to be confused with conversion. Rendering is, for instance, carried out by a Web browser in order to display an HTML file on screen. Conversion or formatting refers to the preparation of a file so that the browser can display it.

Factory3x5 Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

The CIA was granted permission to use rendition in a presidential directive that dates to the Clinton administration, although very few uses were documented during that time. The practice has grown sharply since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now includes a form where suspects are taken into US custody but delivered to a third-party state, often without ever being on American soil. Because such cases do not involve the rendering country’s judiciary, they have been termed extraordinary rendition.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Instance of a record rendered into another software format by a process entirely within the control of the ERM/EDM system, without loss of content. The content and most of the metadata (i.e. all except the relational linking back to the native format record and details of the software format) are identical. Renditions may be required for preservation or access / viewing purposes.

DataCore Technology, Inc. – Glossary of Terms, “Rendition”

Human rights groups charge that extraordinary rendition is a violation of the United Nations Convention on Torture, because suspects are taken to countries where torture during interrogation remains legal, thus circumventing the protections the captives would enjoy in the United States or other nations in the West. Its legality remains highly controversial, as the United States outlaws the use of torture, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process. Rendered suspects are denied due process because they are arrested without charges and deprived of legal counsel.

Wikipedia, op.cit.

Rendition may also refer to the culinary process of rendering, “to heat a piece of fat, or fat meat, slowly in a pan to convert it to liquid form,” as one on-line glossary of cooking terms puts it. (This is also referred to as trying the fat or lard.) The unifying meaning-element for all these definitions would seem to be translation from one state or context to another. As one of the above definitions reminds us, rendition is not to be confused with conversion, which is generally conceived of as somehow altering the fundamental make-up of the thing or person converted. In rendition, as in translation, there is a general presumption that the object of rendering remains largely unchanged and unimpaired in some essential way. Extraordinary rendition is extraordinary precisely because it violates this norm.

Translation, though, is also famously problematic in its own right. Given the somewhat dubious attempts to justify torture as a way to obtain vital information, I think it’s important to consider what happens to thought and language when they undergo translation into simple, binary terms – i.e., into information. What are we to make of tortured words? What happens to a people whose public vocabulary of human rights and freedoms is rendered – boiled down – into the slippery fuel for a war with no concrete enemy and no identifiable end?

No one has pondered the nature of translation more deeply than the literary critic and philosopher George Steiner. According to Steiner, “To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate.” Quoting almost at random from his magisterial study, After Babel:

[E]very act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or an iceberg largely under water. Active inside the ‘public’ vocabulary and conventions of grammar are pressures of vital association, of latent and realized content. Much of this content is irreducibly individual and, in the common sense of the term, private. When we speak to others we speak ‘at the surface’ of ourselves. We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person. It was from this central fact of the dual or subsurface phenomenology of speech that Humboldt derived his well-known axiom: ‘All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding, all agreement on thought and feeling is also a parting of the ways.’ …But this opaqueness, this part of illusion in all public speech-acts is probably essential to the equilibrium of the psyche. Articulated or internalized, language is the principal component and validation of our self-awareness. It is the constantly tested carapace of individual identity. Yet at the phonological, grammatical, and, in significant measure, semantic levels it is also among the most ubiquitous and common of human properties. There is a sense in which our own skin belongs to every man. This apparent contradiction is resolved by the individuation of associative content. Without that individuation, in the absence of a decided private component in all but the most perfunctory, unreflecting of our speech-acts, language would possess only a surface. Lacking roots in the irreducible singularity of personal remembrance, in the uniqueness of the ‘association-net’ of personal consciousness and sub-consciousness, a purely public, common speech would severely impair our sense of self.

No wonder that so many of us who, to all appearances, have nothing to hide, still instinctively reject the proposition that anyone has the right to watch our every move, read our every e-mail and get our every word down on tape. And no wonder that those who assert that right tend to be the very same people defending the use of torture, or the right to invade sovereign nations under any pretext. But those who seek merely to colonize our imaginations with mass-produced fantasies are guilty of a subtler and more insidious violation, as a consequence of which the loss of freedom may be greeted with relief, and sensory deprivation or even torture may be actively sought as a respite from constant over-stimulation. If no thoughts are ever truly our own, how do we differ from slaves? Here’s Steiner again:

A diffuse rationalism, the levelling impress of the mass media, the increasing monochrome of the technological milieu, are crowding on the private components of speech. Under stress of radio and television, it may be that even our dreams will be standardized and made synchronic with those of our neighbours.

Welcome to the nightmare world of extraordinary rendition.