Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Oscar Rant

I never see most of the nominated movies, so I can't weigh in on who was or wasn't robbed. But I'm wicked annoyed at the trend of allotting Best Actor and Actress awards before a film even starts shooting, simply on the basis of casting. Daniel Day Lewis is going to play Abraham Lincoln? Oscar! Colin Firth is playing the king that stuttered? Oscar! Meryl Streep is playing Margaret Thatcher? Oscar!

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Indoor Clouds of Berndnaut Smilde

Nimbus D'Aspremont, 2012 Digital C-type Print 75 x 110/125 x 184 cm
Kasteel D'Aspremont-Lynden, Rekem, Belgium.

I mean, seriously, how cool is that? I recently came across the work of Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde at the Slate photo blog. If you go there you can see many more images. 

Here's a link to the artist's own site.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Just War Delusion

Michael True is professor emeritus of English at Assumption College. As a respected authority on the United States’ history of nonviolence, he has written and edited 10 books, including An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995). Speaking in 1999 at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue (where I presently work), he said:
Since the time of Augustine, our culture — and some of the best and brightest among us — has spent volumes arguing and deliberating about what constitutes a just war and what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behavior in a war culture. The fact that every side in armed conflict regarded its war as "just" renders much of the language of the just war tradition ridiculous, particularly in a nuclear age.
The standard position among thoughtful people is that pacifism is something advocated only by those in denial about our world; ostriches with their heads in the sand. Yes. Maybe. It surely would seem that pacifism can't always be appropriate. But how often do we apply even a fraction of this "realism" and critical thinking to matters of war making or the use of violence as a tool for social or global transformation? Not often. In fact, the "radical pacifist" is most often nothing but a straw man trotted out whenever it's needed to make a weak or ideological argument for war look "reasonable" by comparison. To hear them talk, you would think pacifists are everywhere!

And let us also ask: How many wars that were argued as just going in turned out in retrospect to be that? Not many. Now we find that the favored tool of militarism is being sharpened once again, this time for possible use in Iran.

We live in a culture of war. How might a culture of peace emerge in these difficult circumstances? In his same talk at the Center, Michael True cited a poem by Denise Levertov called "Making Peace" as part of the answer to that question.

A voice from the dark called out,
"The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war."

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can't be imagined before it is made,
can't be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light--facets
of the forming crystal.

Denise Levertov, Breathing the Water (NY: New Directions, 1983)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Blindingly Obvious, #3: Hip Hop Is Poetry

A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory, 1991

I just saw another one of those articles explaining how, a century ago or so, students were required to memorize poetry, thus internalizing sophisticated word schemes and imagery that could inform their consciousness for the rest of their lives. The implication is that education is too dumbed-down today to require that kind of rigor from students, who are in any case philistines. This is true, sometimes, but it's also true--blindingly obvious, that is--that young (and oldish) people are memorizing massive amounts of complex language all the time in the form of rap, which at its best marries ingenious, often humorous wordplay and intellectual insight with cutting edge rhythms and sample-based soundscapes. In fact, a lot of rap and hip hop is so artsy it's amazing to me that it can be so popular. While I'm write this I'm listening to A Tribe Called Quest. I like that early 90s sound that had a lot of that jazz influence. Here's the YouTube for their song Scenario.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mythical Taxonomy

Categories are mirages. They disappear the closer you get. I wake up at night wondering why Chuck Berry is rock and roll and not the blues. Who was it that divided us into teams of black and white? Categories are illusions, but it's hard to play without them. They point the way but are not the way. If we squint too hard our foundation might collapse.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nonviolence, Pragmatism & the Fantasy of Revenge

The wisdom or efficacy of nonviolence is determined by the situations in which one finds oneself and the objectives one is seeking to achieve. If you are trying to stop a heavily militarized monster like Hitler, it's clear that violence is going to be needed. However, if you are trying to effect social or political change from a position of inferior power, nonviolent action offers the best chance for lasting positive change.

This is why Martin Luther King Jr. and the thousands of other heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement were able to achieve what they did. If they had chosen violence they would have at once ceded any moral superiority, and the use of violence by the oppressor would have become justified, placing the Movement on a direct path to defeat given the huge asymmetry of physical and institutional power. One of the most indelible images from the Movement was created, in 1963, when peaceful school-aged marchers in Birmingham, Alabama were blasted with high intensity fire houses and set upon by dogs. When the footage aired, the balance of moral sentiment shifted irreversibly toward the Movement and its objectives.

Further, the Movement was not seeking revenge. They were seeking a transformed society in which the sickness of racism might begin to be vanquished from the hearts and minds of those stuck in an old view of the world. They sought a society in which equal rights might be extended, not just to Black Americans, but to all the dispossessed and excluded. Third, they rejected revenge because they understood that, as King put it, humanity is like a family that has inherited a large house that it must somehow find a way to live in together.

Revenge fantasies make for compelling, satisfying stories. This is Quentin Tarantino's bread and butter. But in the end his movies are indeed just that: fantasies and nothing more. Getting violent revenge on particular Nazis or slave owners would have done nothing to change the larger systems or patterns of injustice that keep us from our fullest potential.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beloved Old Books: Emerson's Essays

Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1951 edition; first published 1926

This book was purchased for a buck around 1985 or so at a used book store on Colfax Ave, the main east-west artery in Denver. The store sat across the street from the State House in Denver's Capital Hill neighborhood, where I lived at the time. I'm not sure if the cover design is from 1926. It looks like it.

Good Things to Do, #3: Browse

Harold Arlen, 1905 - 1986

This is a tremendous site is devoted to the Great American Songbook. It's not a great looking site, but it's really well designed for accessing information about the standards from a number of angles. My favorite way to search is by rankings. The most recorded song is Body and Soul, followed by All the Things You Are and Summertime. Incredibly, Somewhere Over the Rainbow -- the melody of which was composed by the man pictured above, Harold Arlen -- checks in at # 63. For me, this is the greatest American standard. Come prepared for your next cocktail party music debate by spending time at If you do so at work, don't blame me.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why, Jah, Why?

Bob Marley & the Wailers, Rastaman Vibration, 1976

In reflecting on the recent Grammys, I can agree that a Bob Marley tribute is a worthy thing, if a touch obvious. But why in the world would I want that tribute to feature Sting, Bruno Mars, and Rhianna? It strikes me as the final, inevitable reduction of the mystic musical prophet Marley to nothing more and nothing less than a “pop star.” In reality, this has been the case for a long time, but my lingering youthful idealism kept me from acknowledging this sorry fact until now. It’s true that pop has unitive properties, which is good and something reggae aspires to, but for reggae to be reggae, and for reggae to make the impact that only reggae can make, it has to communicate a very specific vibration: a rastaman vibration.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Veterans and the Moral Injury of War

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55

I was recently pointed to the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, who lives and works, as I do, in the Boston area. Upon investigation, I learned that Dr. Shay is not only an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but is also at the forefront of helping us understand the "moral injury" that afflicts those who have experienced war as soldiers. In the introduction to an illuminating NPR "Talk of the Nation" episode on this topic, which featured Dr. Shay, we are told: "'Moral injury' is a term used in the mental health community to describe the psychological damage service members face when their actions in battle contradict their moral beliefs." Moral injury is a category distinct from PTSD.

Looking further into the topic I came across a well-researched article by Nan Levinson, also of the Boston area, called "Moral Injury and American War." I'll quote her intro at length to give you a sense of what's at stake:

The veterans at the heart of this story—victims, heroes, it doesn’t matter—struggle to reconcile what they did in those countries with the "service" we keep thanking them for. We can see them as sick, with all the stigma, neediness, and expense that entails, or we can recognize them as human beings, confronting the morality of what they've done in our name and what they’ve seen and come to know—even as they try to move on.

Levinson and others want us to understand that the victim-hero dichotomy and its corresponding sympathy-gratitude response pattern tempts us to avoid a "full reckoning" of the true costs of war, the complicity we all share in the pain veterans endure, and our shared responsibility in the healing that must occur.

Also appearing on the "Talk of the Nation" show was Tyler Boudreau, a veteran and author of Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine (Feral House, 2008). His take is that

it's very easy for the American public to say, hey, yeah, let's take care of those veterans. Let's get them to doctors. Now, with moral injury ... it's not necessarily a medical issue anymore. Now it's a social issue. Now when a veteran says, hey, I have something that's challenging my moral code, that means it's challenging society's moral code.

Our modes of warfare, like the very definitions of war itself, increase in ambiguity with each passing year. This increasing ambiguity calls for us to increase our compassion for veterans in equal or greater proportion, and, further, to redouble our efforts to minimize war-making and it's inevitable, tragic consequences. By better understanding moral injury we better understand a crucial dimension of Buddhist thinker Daisaku Ikeda's contention that nothing is as cruel and barbarous as war.

Also participating in the "Talk of the Nation" discussion was Rita Nakashima Brock, who explores these themes in her book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War (Beacon Press, 2012), co-authored with Gabriella Lettini.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Advice

I don’t know what love means or how it transpires for anyone else. I barely know what it is and has been for me. If I had advice I’d give it to myself. Maybe it has something to do with what Paul McCartney meant when he sang Let It Be. I found out the hard way that some things can’t be fixed, and have bid farewell to treasured friends and family. But some things can be fixed, or maybe, are able to fix themselves; or heal themselves. I know that, too.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Thoughts on "Art and Argument"

Walt Whitman, American Poet, 1819 - 1892

Many of you will recognize the phrase "art and argument" as being from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the most influential poem in his masterpiece Leaves of Grass. The passage containing the phrase goes:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers;
And that a kelson of the creation is love;

For a long time I thought that "art and argument" would make an ideal blog name but resisted it, because as presented in this passage, not just argument, but art, too, are identified as things which Whitman transcended in a moment of enlightenment, understanding, and connection, not unlike the flash of insight and awakening known in the Zen tradition as satori.

But I finally reconsidered and decided to go forward. That's because the truth is that while we are here we are embodied beings, and even when we are doing wonderful things like creating art, we always reside in a state of duality, which means a certain separation must prevail at all times. Recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced a blessed state of non-duality. It was only after being tempted by Satan in the form of a snake did they "fall" into an awareness of the fundamental existential duality of Man and Woman. Heaven, Nirvana, or Paradise can wait, right?

And when I heard Leonard Cohen singing his song "There Is a War," that sealed it for me. The biggest mistake as we seek higher things is to think that spirituality should exempt us from life.

There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say there isn't.
Why don't you come on back to the war, that's right, get in it,
why don't you come on back to the war, it's just beginning. 

Though he first published Leaves in 1855, Whitman continued to revise it right up to his death in 1892. And while the original edition employed the phrase "art and argument," some subsequent versions deleted the word art, suggesting that art is the means of achieving enlightenment while we are embodied. I tend to agree, but consider that deletion a failure of nerve. Come on back to the war, Mr. Whitman!

I'm researching now to see how he worded this passage in his final "deathbed" version of Leaves of Grass. If you know, please comment. Regardless, I'm sticking with "art and argument"!