Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Gazing

To write anything at this late stage about the new Star Wars movie is to confront the mathematical certainty that any observation one can make has already been done to death somewhere else, and probably made into a GIF. Let’s just say that, thanks to a half-beer drunk with dinner before the movie and my Jawa-sized alcohol tolerance, I was utterly defenseless against the torrent of nostalgia-mongering that was unleashed inside that theater. “Look! It’s Chewy!” “Look, it’s C-3PO!” “Are they really going to pack a confrontation with the new Death Star into the remaining fifteen minutes? Yes they are!” – I was ravished. On the way out the door I hung on the necks of my family members like a dead thing, saying: “I’ll never experience anything like that again in my life…” And I won’t, of course. There is no Third Coming. The Messiah can only disappear and reappear so many times before he kills his own suspense, and now I suppose Star Wars has become just another franchise, rather than the quasi-scriptural artifact from the impossibly distant past of 1977 that it was to those of us who grew up on it in the Nineties. For that small period of time in the movie theater, though, I was translated into a higher realm—the fact that the audience cheered the opening title crawl and someone said “May the Force be with us” as the lights dimmed heightened the sense of collective transcendence.

Monday, December 28, 2015

America America-- I am so tired of you

America America—I am so tired of you
And very near to saying I am through
You require so much petting and coaxing
To do the smallest right thing
Folk play ever more on your heartstrings
And even then you don’t do it.
Your truest friends prepackage their
Advice in microwaveable form
“In keeping with our deepest traditions….
“And military norms” –
Our what? Dazed and shaken
I am seeing stripes and stars
  (For any full encounter with either
  Would put the truest friends behind bars.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tough Guys and Little Men

Someone I know -- herself a refugee from Nazi Germany when she was a child -- was talking with me the other day about the parlous state of American democracy. What frightens her most, she said, are not the bigoted things that come out of Donald Trump's mouth or the incendiary intentions that Ted Cruz announces, but "the roar that greets them."

Indeed. That roar is more unsettling than the rest of it, and it's a queasy feeling that results from hearing it. You know the scenes I mean. Trump's remarks about Muslims, which are by now sufficiently notorious. Cruz's repeated calls for "carpet bombing" and "saturation bombing" of IS-held territory (the NYT ran a rather curious editorial in response to these comments, which argued Cruz's declared "strategy" was deeply at odds with America's military tradition. Would that it were so! In truth, Cruz's ideas are all too close to realizable). Trump's talk of setting out to kill the families of terrorists (What? "They can kill us but we can't kill them?" he said in the last debate). And after each one, the same furious bellow of approval from the crowd.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Under the Ban

Is it after all better to remain silent and be thought a fascist than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt? The brief consensus Tuesday morning appeared to be that this was so. However bizarre and disturbing may have been Donald Trump's persistent refusal to make clear exactly whether he would or would not violate wholesale the civil rights of all Muslim Americans upon his election, the uproar across the public sphere was understandably much greater when, late Monday, he declared that as president he would ban all Muslim people from entering the country. It was almost immediately agreed across left and right that such remarks were too savagely bigoted to stand. Even Republican politicos were now calling Trump a "fascist." Somehow, the view took hold that this was the end of Trump's campaign and with it of an ugly-- but already in retrospect so brief and ill-fated as to appear comical-- episode of American perversity.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Trump and the Conspiracist Within: An Auto-Commentary

So was that Trump/database story that I repeat at the end of the last post all a huge canard? No, not exactly, though I admit now that it needs to be handled with somewhat more caution than I displayed at the time.

I saw the warning signs when it first broke and ought to have paid more attention. It had the mark of the "too-bad-by-which-I-mean-too-good-to-be-true" story that bears out one's own direst predictions so perfectly that any resulting feelings of justified outrage and disgust are muted by an inward glow of validated prophecy. I confess to feeling the same kind of moral Schadenfreude that a David Icke follower might experience on seeing a headline in a mainstream newspaper declare: "Obama acknowledges membership in reptoid race from Draco; supporters undeterred."

Cross-Postings III

Here's the drill: first the newsletter, then my auto-commentary will follow, in which I excoriate myself for various things I should have said differently. Here is the original text of my December contribution:
The world has become a pretty frightening place this past month, but nothing scares me more than the extreme anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric we’ve been hearing from our politicians the last few weeks. I am afraid of an ISIS attack, but I have little hope that we can protect ourselves from terrorism if we can’t even preserve our own values and ideals in the face of our fear.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


It’s taken me far too long to find the time to write anything about this on the blog, which is embarrassing to me since it took the Republican candidates no time at all to say their piece. Within hours of the Paris attacks, Ben Carson was already calling for a halt to the admission of refugees. Ted Cruz was prepared to blame everything on the ostensibly excessive caution displayed by the U.S. military in avoiding civilian casualties in its airstrikes. Ah, but those are the nutty candidates, right (though also among the leading ones-- we'll come to the leading one in a moment, and he should prove no source of relief on this score)? Well, what do the "we-all-know-these-people-could-actually-be-president" candidates have to say for themselves? Jeb Bush thinks we should only admit Christians, and now John Kasich has backpedaled on whatever semi-reasonable things he said on this subject earlier in the fall and has joined the chorus calling for a suspension of the refugee program.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cross-Postings I

Six Foot Turkey is a mighty stream -- if diverted from its normal course it will yet find ways of breaching the dam, whether that is by sloshing over the top or seeping underneath it by subterranean routes. The last two months some of that gummed up verbiage has found its way into expression, believe it or not, through the church newsletter, where I, as a ministerial intern, have been allowed about a quarter page of monthly ramblings. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Five Short Poems


Small things trip me up
Take today, all I had to do
Was put on pants, and I knew
If I got them on, everything else
Would come out right
But the pants
Were too tight

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mine Is

Mine is a small blue peach pit
That shakes and rattles and rages
And knows if it’s put into cages
“Gets back you!" It says "And you! And you!”
It always knows what to do
That small sad,
Ugly wrinkled, mad
Bouncer at my door
Always minding the store --
Giving what-for
To Mr. On-time and Mr. Be-Nice
And Good Sir "I Can Stand This For a Little While Longer"-- Please
Don’t you ever let me forget
That mine is a small blue peach pit

Monday, September 7, 2015

Five Self-Commandments With Regard to the Global Refugee Crisis

1) I shalt harken unto my own counsel whenever countries of exceeding wealth and plenty -- and most especially the United States -- pleadeth poverty and incapacity to take in a greater share of refugees or to provide them aid elsewhere. I will remind myself of two numbers: $5 billion and $600 billion: the $5 billion being the annual budget of the entire United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides all the UN's aid to all refugees displaced by all conflicts and persecutions around the world; and the $600 billion being the US military budget for this fiscal year, 2015. I will dare to notice that one of those numbers is roughly 1% of the other. I will reflect upon the fact that all UN humanitarian organizations put together spend about $20-30 billion a year to attempt to provide food, shelter, medical care, and more to all the world's most desperately impoverished and displaced populations. I shalt recall that this is considerably smaller than the endowment of yon Harvard University, though it still bear the penurious designation of a "non-profit institution."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Are Such Things Done on Albion's Shore?"

In the increasingly overheated and carnivalesque atmosphere of immigration politics in this country (is “carnivalesque” too fond a word for casual proposals of mass population transfers and the eradication of birthright citizenship?—well, the medieval charivari was no pretty thing either – it too tended to involve the ritual humiliation of “outsiders”), it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the U.S. is no worse in this respect than most of the world’s wealthy and powerful nations, and it may be considerably better. Indeed, the very “stir” that Trump’s blustering has caused this summer has itself stood as evidence that many, if not most people in this country see him as beyond the pale. Compare this bombastic but ultimately substance-less American scene with the case of Britain, which has quietly unveiled its own version of the “Trump Plan” this past month -- except there it was not announced by an extremist candidate who, though he might sink his own party, will never win a national election—not, that is, by the BNP and its ilk, but by the Tory government in power. Compare the fact that while Trump has been fairly widely reviled in this country, the British plan is being reported with remarkable dispassion by mainstream and left-liberal outlets. Notice the fact that while Democrats have pounded away against Trump, voices in the UK Labour opposition, far from denouncing the basic orientation of Cameron's plan, have in some cases complained that it does not go far enough. Observe, finally, that while Trump's plan is disturbing as an exhibition of chauvinistic, but probably unrealizable fantasies, Cameron's plan will most likely be implemented.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Unscrupulous Landlords

Immigrants living in Britain illegally will face abrupt eviction from rental properties under new laws designed to make Britain a tougher place to live in, the government will announce as it redoubles its response to the Calais migrant crisis. […] A new criminal offence will target unscrupulous landlords and letting agents who fail repeatedly to carry out the ‘Right to Rent’ checks or fail to remove illegal immigrants from their properties. They could be fined, jailed for up to five years or face further sanctions under the Proceeds of Crime Act.” ~ The Guardian, 8/4/15.

-- We will now hear the case of
Name:[Redacted], Occupation: innkeeper
Of residence: Bethlehem, you, sir,

Saturday, August 22, 2015


You may have noticed that the world right now looks not altogether different from how it does in the opening chapters of Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, full as it is of "stateless people," denied basic rights, persecuted by chauvinistic movements of various stripes at home, and welcomed nowhere else-- least of all in the countries that could actually afford to take them in (their impoverished adjacent neighbors are often of necessity more hospitable). At such a time, ugly predictions based on this similarity come easily to mind, and are no doubt being made already. I fear that pretty much any era of human history is bad enough, though, that it can look like 1938 if you squint at it—so let’s not bother with the dark prognostications and just say that things are quite sufficiently rotten as they are.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"La Symphonie Pastorale": A Review

As kids we are taught that at some point in the early 20th century, our society fixed all the remaining problems in the Victorian moral code (and in everything else for that matter); so when we grow up, we tend to be rather surprised that life still turns out so often to be a painful struggle between our desires and the consideration we owe to other people. We resolve this tension by politely pretending that none of us ever desires anything that might be bad for anyone else -- which is of course how the Victorians resolved it too (except of course, for the Victorian villain, who, much like the modern "creep," never refers to the reader), so we are really back where we started.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Juvenilia One: The Attempted Overture

I'm inaugurating a new form of shameless self-exhibitionism on the blog today, which I hope will become a semi-regular feature. (Quarterly? Annual? We'll see how long it takes me to run out of juvenilia.) I was trying to remove some of the clutter of old files from my laptop yesterday and kept stumbling across things I'd begun work on as a teenager and abandoned after a few pages. Usually such finds are a source of stabbing pain to me, but not this time. I was surprised and pleased to discover that enough time had gone by at this point that I could look back on my early writing without expecting it to be any good, and therefore with the freedom to be mildly amused when it isn't and pleasantly astonished when, in the odd line or two, it is. Given that the internet allows me to publish pretty much anything I want (it just makes no promise that anyone will see it), I thought I might as well do something with these efforts.

Monday, August 3, 2015


As someone who is still technically resident in Florida, I am treated to the occasional email blast from my representative in Congress, Vern Buchanan. It is one of the few avenues left in my life through which Red State talking points can find me, and it serves as a check (healthy or otherwise) on my optimism about human affairs. A week ago they sent me a “poll” headlined “Sanctuary for Illegals?” (I imagine there being some sort of office competition to come up with that one – it’s hard to make sanctuary sound scary, so what’s the least human-sounding term we could use for the people affected?) But hey, he’s just asking, right? Don’t be so sensitive.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Felix Holt

Why did I do it? The book’s posthumous reputation certainly did not provide me a reason to read Felix Holt: The Radical – George Eliot’s often lamented “social novel.” I guess it's just that I never expect a critical consensus about a book to be borne out (until, each time, it is). And besides, I’m still enough of a Philistine on some level to hope that a worthy subject matter, a set of interesting political or philosophical ideas, and a character with whom I can “identify” (a triplet of cardinal Nabokovian sins) can make up for literary shortcomings.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Susan Sontag thought it was but a comforting lie
That true artists are renowned only after they die
I cannot confute this judgment on the deceased
But one thing I know: it is at least

Plain some in their own time get
        Renowned over-much
The present instance being
One such

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trump L'Oeil

When you see that Oompa Loompa
Prating away up there
A Gerald L.K. Smith
With rather more orange hair
Your sides they shake with laughter
Your eyes and nose go runny
(But then—I hear they used to think
The goosesteppers looked funny)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Turkey Turned Two And We Didn't Celebrate (What Kind of Parent Am I?)

I know, I know-- and I can't even pretend that I forgot the poor bird's birthday. No, the two-year June anniversary of this blog's creation passed by with my full and guilty cognizance that I was letting it go unacknowledged. I offer the following as explanation, if it does not quite pass as an excuse: I felt I could only permit myself the distinctive pleasure of the anniversary post if I was in the mood for self-congratulation, and while such a requirement did not prove any barrier last year, when this blog and I still had a love that sprang eternal, this year the June anniversary arrived at the end of the bleakest period in this blog's young history, and I didn't feel I had it in me at that moment to celebrate its life. This post tells the story of how that came to be. It thus takes you behind the scenes of the weekly production of this not-so-well-known blog.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Brother will you accept Him?

Friend you can’t say He
Loves me
And 'ld smile upon my face
If only I
Opened up a bit
And received the divine grace

Converted Me, whoever
Such a man might be,
Might be plenty nice but he
Sure would not be me.
'God wants to love me saved he’ll
Have to love me damned –
Damned Me ain’t so great but he
Is what I am

Saturday, June 27, 2015

ISIS: A Dialogue

-- The Times carried a pretty disturbing piece today about how ISIS manipulates people on the internet into joining them—wasn’t sure if you saw it.
-- No, I didn’t. What was it that particularly struck you?
-- I don’t know – I guess it was just the seeming impossibility of it. They find some person on the other side of the world who’s basically decent – someone who if you met them you’d say was about as far away as they could get from wanting to murder and terrorize people. And by the time they’re done with her they’ve gotten her around to thinking it’s okay to cut people’s heads off and set people on fire just for being tourists or aid workers or journalists trying to report on human rights. But then there’s an even wilder contrast that follows. There's that first impression of total impossibility, but then the fact that by the time you’ve finished reading, it all makes a perverse kind of sense.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Yesterday's Sentence

I followed the events yesterday in the formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in two capacities – first as one of a small number of protestors standing outside the Moakley Courthouse, where it was scheduled to be handed down later that day, and then as only one more helpless radio listener and web surfer, without even that morning's illusion of influence. To try at this point to describe everything I thought and felt that day would result in an inchoate mess, but the word heartbroken goes some way toward the truth. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"Mad Max" (1979): A Review

The appearance in theaters this month of a new Mad Max movie made me aware for the first time of a cultural touchstone in most of my friends’ lives that I had completely missed. I’ve heard the question “You saw the original Mad Max right?” at least three times now, and each time I've had to shake my head no – a silent legacy of my parents’ strict embargo on all violent movies when my sister and I were growing up. Being an adult now and in charge of my own import restrictions, I decided I wanted to know what everyone was talking about and what I had been missing. I wish now I had left well enough alone. I came away from watching the 1979 Mad Max unsure of whether I’d seen a good film or a bad one – sure only of the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it – but, one way or the other, feeling a new respect for the strictures of my childhood. This is a disturbing film and a vehicle for a lot of the more pervasive and damaging moral delusions in our society-- not something I'd gladly show to young people.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Notes on Clinton-Bashing

Isn’t it typical that in the Fox-fed blow-up the past few weeks over the Clinton Foundation and the sources of its fortune, the few truly disturbing stories to emerge flashed only briefly onto the news, and then vanished just as quickly-- while the ridiculous non-scandals seem more stubbornly to hang around? Such ironies in this latest tattle-fest are only one iteration of a well-established pattern in the way the media treats the Clintons. From Whitewater to the whole raft of inane accusations now denoted by the word “Benghazi,” we have been here plenty of times before.

Monday, June 8, 2015


I'm as shocked as you are that I'm still talking about this-- indeed I hear the soft patter of earth hitting ground behind me at the moment, as I dig myself in yet deeper-- but the reporting on this Josh Duggar story seems to be getting worse rather than better – or at least, I keep hearing over again the same journalistic prevarication that I heard at the outset, but now from media sources I respect, which is much more distressing. So I'm wading in this one last time to repeat what I said at the beginning.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

An Apology

Some disorganized online reading last night led me, through a process I don’t remember, to a short essay by Scottish poet Tom Leonard, which he wrote in response to the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. In it, he describes in plain language his experience of being raped as a child. The man who did this to him was not a priest or anyone associated with the church, but when Leonard took the matter to his confessor, he recalls that he was told to perform a “penance” for it. He was, in short, doubly violated – first by sexual violence, and then by a burden of guilt that he – the victim – was made to bear for it. It was a burden he took into adulthood, writing that he "would later search in myself for ways in which I must have been to blame for what had happened, for I was left feeling somehow to blame.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Reading Habits

It’s odd, but the one thing I’ve never seen close to accurately represented in a novel is the activity of reading one. You’d think that novelists, being egotists like the rest of us, would find novel-reading an especially interesting activity to describe. You would certainly think it was one they would have the knowledge to depict with realism. But I still have yet to see true, immersive reading described at length in a novel. We may learn of some impossible duchess who “tried to lose herself in the pages of an old novel,” but simply could not purge from her mind the dreadful scene that had just unfolded at the ball. (At some point soon she will “ring for the maid and ask her to draw a bath,” we can be certain, and the old novel will be forgotten.) Or perhaps we read of some gallant fresh from the riding grounds who “idly thumbed through” a book found in the tea room, “some trifling romance left perhaps by a maiden aunt at her last visit.” Maybe a professor and heroine spending the night in some Gothic structure will allow their eyes to dance over the words on a written page before them, or flip, “idly” again, through a chapter, but do not fear: eventually they will put it down in order to take up the candelabra and explore the dark passageway to learn the source of the creaking. The author may describe these very same individuals as fantastically well-read (usually because they are authorial stand-ins), but we never learn how they got to be that way, or when they could have found the time to become that way, when their lives and attentions seem to be entirely used up in a round of love affairs and duels, marriages and murders.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Poems for Prisoners


“Life Sentence” – put that way,
Doesn’t sound so bad
(Life is what a lot of folks
Round here
Wish they’d had)
But say instead they measured it
In centuries of time?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Outrage II: The Unredeemed

We have discussed elsewhere the theory of outrage, as well as that of moral panic. Today, however, we have the ugly privilege of witnessing both in action, as the world turns its ungenerous back on the Duggar family.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

From Feivel to Faisal

Occasionally one is freshly overtaken by gratitude for the internet –more specifically, for the wonderfully strange things that one can find out about – and then see for oneself – under its auspices. The knowledge that beloved animator Don Bluth made a 2009 propaganda short for the nationalized Saudi oil company, Aramco, is one of these cases. (Is “gratitude” really the right word?  Yes – it is. I am in fact grateful for this knowledge, in spite of myself.) Allow me to fill in some background, and the means by which I came to learn this.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

They Decided to Kill Him

Dzhokar Tsarnaev planted a bomb behind an eight-year-old boy, Martin Richard, which killed him and tore his body to pieces. He murdered a Chinese graduate student, Lu Lingxi, who was 23 years old. He killed a 29-year-old woman, Krystle Marie Campbell, who managed a restaurant in Medford. He shot a police officer, Sean Collier, who was 27, while he was sitting in a parked patrol car. As far as his intentions went, he evidently meant to kill a great many others as well – the radius of the explosions was so large that the Tsarnaevs' bombs injured more than 260 people.

Dzhokar did these things at 19—one year over the age of majority set by our law. He was a teenager. If his sentence is not reduced or overturned by some process of appeal or clemency, he will be killed by the state. How they will specifically manage to do this is a matter of some debate. If they can find the usual lethal injection drugs, they will put him under general anesthetic, then paralyze his body, then stop his heart from beating. Given the increasing difficulty of obtaining these drugs, however, due to the global revulsion against the American use of the death penalty and the refusal of many companies to supply chemicals that will enable it or be associated with it, Tsarnaev may instead be knocked out by a less effective painkiller, midazolam, which may cause him to wake into consciousness at a later stage of the process—perhaps after he has been paralyzed, meaning that he would experience the incomprehensible hell of feeling himself dying of poison without being able to fill his lungs to call out, or move any part of his body. To die while awake and conscious from potassium chloride – the last, fully lethal component of the executioner’s cocktail – has been compared by members of the US Supreme Court to being “burned alive from the inside.”

Friday, May 15, 2015


NPR had a story on today that jogged my memory about a social media fiasco from last year I had since forgotten: the fate of Justine Sacco. If the name is not familiar to you, the story will be. She was the woman who posted an immensely ill-judged Tweet about AIDS, from one side of a transatlantic flight to Africa, and emerged on the other side of it to realize that her entire life had been upended as a result. The original remark-- which was stupid, as she confessed time and again afterward -- was meant to be parody of what a bigoted and foolish person might say upon going to Africa, and it ended with a notorious line implying that white people can't get AIDS. (Do you remember Justine now?) This joke landed on the web about as rudely and uncomfortably as Sacco did on the tarmac in South Africa, where she abruptly learned, once she was allowed to reboot her personal electronic devices, that in the past few hours people all over the world had come to despise her -- that she had been fired from her job -- and that nothing would ever be the same.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Debt

“This is the debt I pay / Just for one riotous day / Years of regret and grief, / Sorrow without relief.”
Such is the opening stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Debt.” Reading this short cry of the heart, first published in 1903, one does not know what the crime is for which the narrator bears this guilt, nor the nature of the penalty he must endure – an unwanted pregnancy? A jail term? A financial obligation in a more literal sense? All we know is that the guilt is real -- the narrator does not entirely exculpate himself, and the mistake of that one “riotous day” seems to have been a genuine one. But the last small protest of his self-compassion is to insist that this crime, whatever it was, ought not to be entirely inexpiable. The debt ought eventually to be forgiven. That it has accumulated instead past all proportion, past all reasoning, is a violation of justice. “Slight was the thing I bought, / Small was the debt I thought, / Poor was the loan at best — / God! but the interest!”

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Anonymous Survey

Please complete this form; 
But be fore-
It may remind you
Of Painful scenes, the 
Kind you
Thought you'd hid

“Won't happen to me!” I said --

It did.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Police Dog

I am a police
Dog – happy, strong
I stand testicle-high and
(God – created me with
This limited view
So sometimes I forget he
Created you too)

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Ahemplease excuse me
Yes you, Professor Thou

(That goes with Comma, H.T.
And in the index you see
That those two initials stand –
For Mister Holier Than)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Poems

Where I come from

In the place
Where I come from
There was a school
Just down the street.
A girl got pregnant
They made her stand
In front of class

Monday, April 13, 2015


In working our way through a self-assigned (-inflicted?) program of religious subculture-themed movies, a friend and I recently came across the unexpectedly good 2000 Mormon missionary film, God’s Army. I wouldn’t say it bears up well under all standards of judgment—it is the sort of film, indeed, which seems from the first few minutes to be flying directly toward a mountain of sentimentality, but which has enough emotional honesty in it to make you think it is bound to pull up and away before it reaches it. When it disappointingly plows straight ahead into the mountain, however, in the last thirty seconds, you realize that there are limits to the realism that can safely be incorporated into a Mormon movie and remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. Bearing that it mind, however, it comes about as close to being earnestly self-searching and self-questioning as a film on this subject could without challenging any formal tenets of the church.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Passing: A Poem

From center stage-lit, high-browed 
Face, with hue
White as any, context of offering apologia
Biographical, words come 
Confess some
Mixed bloodline of race—for purpose serves

Friday, April 3, 2015

Our Friend, the King

Kings are good transmigrators-- so skilled in fact that some have been known to get themselves reborn as democrats and "reformers" without even having to undergo any discernible change in their regime. King Hassan II of Morocco was such a soul-changer (I in fact swiped the title of this post from a book about him by a French journalist (which I confess I haven't read)). Another would be the monarch of Greece during the civil war of the 1940s, who in a single three-month period in 1947 went from demi-autocrat propped up by British imperialism to hero of democracy, who needed to be supplied with arms and money under the Truman doctrine to resist the Communist advance.

But of course, when we say "Our Friend, the King" today, there is only one person we really mean. We can only be referring to the one who reigns in Riyadh, the "regional partner" and "counter-terrorist" par excellence, scion of the House of Saud.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Four Problems in Theology, Unsolved as of Finishing Divinity School (Poems)


Humor knows all things
No thought nor truth can escape its watchful eyes
Nor evade a judgment at its hands
It recollects the real reason why
You helped that woman over the ice or returned
To give the man five dollars-- it wasn't so lacking
In self-regard after all; and you know how humor
Sometimes shakes you in shower and snowbank
With gasps of self-delight and shame
By reminding you of the time
You got up in front of the sixth grade class and -- No, no
(Choke, chuckle) not that one again.
And humor forgives all that it knows and turns
Self-punishment into  pa-ha!s of joy – without in the least
Lightening the sentence thereby. Humor
Sees all, judges all, forgives all at the same time,
Ergo I must conclude
That humor is God.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Israel/Palestine: The Realistic Solution

Somewhere right now in the forgotten but still teeming bowels of the U.S. Postal Service is a check with my name on it, fighting to make its way to the New York offices of B’Tselem – the embattled Israeli organization that works for human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories. I doubt I’m the only person who makes this kind of nominal and conscience-salving donation only when there’s especially bad news out of Israel, but still it embarrasses me that it takes something like Netanyahu's reelection to jog me out of my complacency. The good people at B’Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others must feel somewhat torn at the fact that their financial windfalls come precisely at moments like these, when their objectives are most deeply threatened.

Yet I see that there’s a relevant point within that same paradox – now that I think about it. The pecuniary aspect just alluded to, that is, is only one of the ways in which Netanyahu’s reelection may actually not be such a bad thing for the people who would apparently stand to lose most by it – namely, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, Arabs living in Israel, and their allies. After all, most of these people had little reason to hope for a hasty end to the occupation, regardless of the outcome of the election. What recent events may have done, though -- as has been pointed out by all sides to the issue -- is cleared the way eventually for a one-state, democratic solution.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Five Poems


A man
In the preconscious process of not
Quite living up to his promise –
He made a small start at things
And failed
And did not try again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


In a course I'm taking on Italian fascism, we watched the other day a famous Holocaust film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) that affected me unusually strongly-- as in, it left that feeling that my stomach had been partly squashed and my hands were lightly trembling. After it aired, our professor said something particularly apt about the source of its power: "It's so understated," he remarked. It is. The film, which comes from the same director who made that classic of postwar Italian social protest, The Bicycle Thief, is only in a loose sense a Holocaust movie. The Jewish protagonists live out for most of its run a life of dramas and losses that are basically separate from the unfolding backdrop of Hitler's rise and the start of the war. It is only at the very end that they are torn from one another and deported to their likely murder in the death camps.

And because of this, it is more unsettling. Other Holocaust films might be more gruesome than this one, but for this very reason the events they depict are likely to seem alien. The emphasis in such films is on the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, on its unimaginable brutality, and these are, of course, important things to emphasize. In watching them, however, though we may feel differently about humanity, we are not likely to think differently about ourselves. We may ask ourselves, "If it happened here, what would I do?"; but we are not likely to ask the more disturbing questions: "Is it happening here? Am I doing anything about it?" Because of course, genocide is not happening here; that is plain.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Chomsky Method

If like me you were obsessed with Noam Chomsky at some point in your adolescence, then you probably outgrew him at some point since then -- but I'd wager you never fully transcended him either. You may have grown disenchanted with the Chomsky method as a whole, but there remain some shadows of its core questions in your mind, which periodically catch you up short. Such is the case with me. The most nagging -- and significant-- of all the questions successfully implanted by the Chomsky method (and it is something like the Ludovico technique, come to think of it) is that of the double standard in judging motives. When the adversaries of one's government abroad commit wrongs or invade countries, this question asks, perhaps you see in it only power politics. But when one's own state does the same thing, do you treat it in the same terms? Or do you immediately chalk it up to misguided benevolence on our part, excessive zeal for the good, well-meaning blundering? And if so, why? The obvious explanation, and this is the root of the self-doubt Chomsky rightfully wishes to implant, is that it is due to exactly the sort of ethno-nationalism to which all human societies have been depressingly prone throughout history. It's a question I find myself needing to answer once again; but first, I should define some terms. We'll begin with the Chomsky method.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putin, ISIS, and the Fascist Comparison

History seems to be repeating itself, as Marx predicted, but lately I'm not seeing the farce. Whether it is the assassinations in Russia, the murders gleefully perpetrated for the camera by ISIS, the recent spread of anti-Semitic violence in Europe which has desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves in France, killed four people in a kosher supermarket, and shot a man dead while he was guarding children at a Bat Mitzvah -- in these and other cases from the news, it can feel to a terrifying degree that we have been here before.

Consider for one the most recent news out of Russia -- the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader. I have not seen anyone else make the comparison between this incident and the assassination of Giacomo Matteoti by Mussolini (probably) in the early years of his regime, but I'm sure someone out there has already drawn it -- the parallels are too striking and ominous. Both Nemtsov and Matteoti were outspoken opponents of the ruling regime, both were high-profile politicians. And in both cases, the person in power who had reason to desire their deaths (Putin in this case, Mussolini in the other) was able to distance himself just enough from the assassination to try to claim innocence in the public view. Since the murder took place, Putin has, as Mussolini did, already been pulling lugubrious faces and shedding crocodile tears in comments to the victim's family. He has been vowing to seek out the assassin, and he probably will find some patsy sooner or later to place on the chopping block -- again, as Mussolini did.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Exactly is Wrong With "The Golden Notebook" (1962)?

I don't often get to make an independent critical judgment of a "great book." If I'm reading it on the assurance of its greatness, after all, I will either like it and therefore have nothing to add to the original recommendation; or I'll hate it and leave in disgust fifty pages inside, and know that I never really read far enough anyway to make a fair judgment. The Golden Notebook presents a rare opportunity, therefore, in being a great book whose greatness I read all the way through and still greatly disliked.

Of course, something beyond a feeling of obligation kept me going for all 600 pages. Reader(s) of this blog will note besides that, for all my supposed dislike of Lessing's book, this did not prevent me from harvesting from it my usual bounty of quotations to wedge irrelevantly into posts (though you will also have noticed that I am fairly promiscuous in this regard). But I am still left with the felling that despite its many recommenders and its considerable interest and its well observed portions, and despite an earnest desire on my part to like it, I don't like it. And I think now, after months of soul-searching, I know why. But since I've gotten myself too worked up already, we should probably start over.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Liberal Hawks

Things fare ill, both materially and spiritually, for that cluster of writers we call the interventionist left -- or, less charitably, the "liberal hawks." They first formed ranks in 2003 at the start of the invasion of Iraq; they had their brief apotheosis at the signing of the Euston Manifesto in 2006; and they mostly fizzled out when the moral consequences of the War on Terror became increasingly visible to the world and difficult to bear.

They were wrong from the start, to the extent they really lived up to their "hawk" designation; but they did have their moments in the early days when they nonetheless seemed, grudgingly, to "have a point." They were an eruption, a spasm, and like most such things they had their origin in energies that had in fact been unduly repressed and misdirected by an older, more relativistic Left, and that therefore manifested themselves in destructive forms when they did break through the resistance. One didn't like the Eustoners, that is to say, but one felt at times that the old leftist warhorses had some responsibility for their creation. The whole movement had a certain enfant terrible quality; it was upstarts like Nick Cohen and the then-unreconstructed Johann Hari against the old farts like Noam Chomsky and Terry Eagleton, who had been saying the same things for far too long.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"The King of Comedy" (1983): A Review

This gangly, awkward, sad, and uncomfortably hilarious film from Martin Scorsese is not much talked about anymore. Judging from Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia, it seems to have been upsetting fare for a lot of reviewers at the time of its release, which makes sense. The King of Comedy is an unrelenting staring contest with the most hopeless, outsized, and perpetually unrealizable kinds of creative ambition; and since most film reviewers have some creative ambitions themselves, watching it must have felt for some of them like an encounter with a private nightmare. Perhaps the strangest review in this vein comes from Roger Ebert, who contends: "It's hard to believe Scorsese made [this film]; instead of the big-city life, the violence and sexuality of his movies like 'Taxi Driver' and 'Mean Streets,' what we have here is an agonizing portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up." A weird assertion, as I say, because in spite of the superficially novel setting and subject matter, The King of Comedy is in every way a very typical kind of Scorsese movie, exploring the same characteristic themes and obsessions that all the rest of his work has done. It may be a "portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up" -- but what movie by this director is not?

Monday, February 2, 2015

John Updike's "Terrorist" (2006): A Review

John Updike's late and to some ill-advised foray into writing about Islamist terrorism is not a part of his career we talk about. I don't even get the sense that 2006's Terrorist has the distinction of being the "justly forgotten" entry in the Updike oeuvre -- something noticeable if only for its absence. It's more the case that people remember the novel exists, but don't incorporate that fact into their understanding of the world. "John Updike wrote a post-9/11 novel about an American high school student who joins Al-Qaeda? Oh yeah, I guess he did." The knowledge is present in one's mind, but somehow unassimilable. That's how I thought about it, anyways. Recent events in the news, however, and the fact that I noticed the book randomly in the library, not only made me finally assimilate it, they also made me decide to read this book that I had never had any intention of reading.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


The word "courage" doesn't instantly summon for us the same kind of associations it once would have. One gets the sense in reading William James, say, that for people of his generation, there could be no confusion or doubt about the definition of the term: it meant above all the willingness to face death or violence. It was "If..." and Balaclava; it was the blind charge into the nose of the Gatling gun; it was sitting quietly in the grand ballroom of the Titanic, as does one character in A Night to Remember, while listening to the wood panels all around you give a final creak and shudder before giving way. For earlier generations of outlaws and rebels and revolutionaries, similarly, courage was the ability to hold a grimace when facing the firing squad. It was that "calm and haughty look" on the condemned man's face, which "damns the whole multitude around the scaffold." (Baudelaire, Aggeler trans.). Nowadays, we view such a definition of courage as primitive, materialistic, insufficiently spiritualized. What about the courage to risk social opprobrium? The willingness to differ from one's peers? The ability to think for oneself?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Frontier Justice

After writing a post a month ago about the campus sexual assault controversy, I doubted at times the wisdom or utility of having done so. To enter this debate from the perspective of a college-educated man in his '20s is to risk the allegation of bias from others; more uncomfortably still, it makes you freshly aware of the biases, fears, and prejudices that really do possess you. I am also not unmoved, I should add, by the realization that the world is full of atrocity -- and full, most important to note here, of sexual violence against women. In such a world, the urgency of combatting the chance that campus disciplinary boards might act unfairly toward a small number of students accused of rape might seem to rank pretty low.

recent article in the NYRB by Zoë Heller not only quiets these doubts, however; it inspires new ones in the opposite direction. Her excellent and brave article makes me fear now that I have said too little by comparison, not that I have said too much.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Khirbet Khizeh" (1949) and the Guilt of Origins

I am in the midst this weekend of reading Yizhar Smilansky's 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh-- by all accounts a classic of Israeli literature. This short and vivid work-- 109 pages in the version I own; an afternoon's read, to people not cruelly interrupting themselves with blog posts -- has a reputation for controversy: it was the first book really to lay bare, they say, the ugly realities of the 1948 war that created the State of Israel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

France and Free Expression

In case you missed it, the tally by the end of last week in France was 69-- that is, 69 people who have so far been arrested on the spurious allegation of "defending terrorism." Apparently the government of France, the same one that turned out so massively at the big Je Suis Charlie protests last week, decided that the best way to declare themselves for free speech was to arrest everyone who disagreed with them. According to Amnesty International, one French citizen has been jailed simply for saying: “I am proud to be a Muslim, I do not like Charlie, they were right to do that." Another man, while drunk, likewise defended the attacks in the presence of a police officer. For these hasty utterances, delivered in moments of intoxication or high emotion or both, these men may lose up to five years of their lives to a prison sentence, and be saddled with a criminal record to boot. Others may get seven years, if they express the same sentiments on Twitter or Facebook (according to Human Rights Watch)-- online speech being more heavily criminalized in France.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tout est Pardonné

Image from The Guardian
Voilà -- the cover art too shocking and offensive to be carried this week by most mainstream media outlets. And I suppose it is a rather shocking image, in the best sense of the word. The surviving handful of the Hebdo staff could have offered the world a quite different message, after all. They could have offered a message of rage, anguish, even hate -- and it would have been hard to blame them if they did, a week after their friends and colleagues were killed. Alternatively, they could have backed down and refused to portray Muhammad. They could have followed the taboo for which their friends were murdered, out of a justified fear for the lives that are left to them. And again, it would have been hard to blame them. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Missing the Point

Our response to the murder of 17 innocent people in France this week seems to gradually be sliding, as I feared it might, away from the first outpouring of big-hearted sympathy towards cowardly, vituperative squabbling. The vultures have descended and are already worrying the remains. What seemed at first like a teachable moment about the importance of liberal principles, is now increasingly turning out to be a victory for illiberal anti-principles on all fronts. On one side we have the Murdochs and the Mahers, who would plainly like to use the attacks as yet another pretext to roll back civil liberties protections for Muslim people (who are justifiably afraid right now, in France especially, for the safety of their lives and property). On the other we've got the voices insisting that the Charlie editors, while they shouldn't have been harmed, were nonetheless guilty of printing "offensive" or "racist" material, and that other publications should refuse to follow them in the choice to depict Muhammad, etc. And the horrible thing is that probably both will get what they want! We'll get the craven identity politics and the erosion of Muslim peoples' civil and human rights-- and perhaps a newly revamped War on Terror to boot.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Blasphemy

Une blasphème


From The New York Times yesterday:
“For the first half of the 20th century, an eight-foot-tall marble statue of the Prophet Muhammad overlooked Madison Square Park from the rooftop of the Appellate Division Courthouse at Madison Avenue and 25th Street. […] Sixty years ago, the statue was quietly removed, in an episode that now looks, in light of recent events in Paris, like the model of tact, restraint and diplomacy. […] 'They probably didn’t know he was there,' George T. Campbell, the chief clerk of the Appellate Division, First Department, said in 1955, when the statue was finally removed out of deference to Muslims, to whom depictions of the prophet are an affront. […] (For the same reason, The New York Times has chosen not to publish photographs of the statue with this article.)"
And so on, in this thoroughly sold-out vein. God.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

I'm going to have to interrupt our scheduled William James programming today with a message of solidarity and friendship to the people killed in France and their friends and loved ones. The news must have broken yesterday while I was in a self-imposed, blog-writing exile from the rest of the internet, and I didn't see it until this morning. Once I did, I could do little more than stew with horror and guilt. Horror at a thought I couldn't get out of my mind-- the thought of the appalling contrast between how the day must have begun for those 12 people -- a boring, ordinary day at work, most likely, with meetings and phone calls-- and how it ended. The guilt, I suppose, is a kind of survivor's guilt. I think of the astonishing moral courage it took for the Charlie Hebdo staff to publish the images they did, despite years of death threats and an actual firebombing of the office. It brings home to me how little I risk on a daily basis, by contrast, for the sake of principle.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Metaphysics and Melancholy: A Review of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience," Part I

I set myself the goal this holiday break of toiling all the way through William James' Varieties of Religious Experience -- heading as it does my mental list of "things I probably should have read in div school by now but haven't." The book is sprawling, companionable, and at last, time-consuming -- but in a good way. It is also interesting to me for more extrinsic reasons. The book helps me to understand the place and the people among whom I currently find myself. To read Varieties after spending time at a liberal seminary is to think "Ah -- so that's how we got here." Good ideas and bad, they all seem to have their place, if not their origin, in James.