Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Chat with a Caracas Taxi Driver: The Venezuela of Hugo Chávez that You Won't Read about in the New York Times

His name is Giovanni* and soon after we leave the airport we find ourselves imbedded in a barely-moving mass of cars, mopeds, and trucks, a traffic jam he had resignedly prophesied before our progress was so heavily forestalled along the main road between the Venezuelan coast and the urban-sprawl of Caracas. Giovanni owns two cars and is the boss and only employee of a transport service he began years ago. He is part of a small, slowly growing middle class in a country where according to him 80% of the people live in stark poverty, governed by a very wealthy elitist minority. Such a scenario is far from uncommon in South America, a continent where for many corruption is the norm and simply a way of life, a seemingly monolithic obstacle contributing in large part to the persistence of the gap between the very rich and the very poor (and the associated near-absence of a middle class).

The burgeoning Venezuelan middle class, Giovanni suggests, is confused, afraid, and somewhat unsure of their identity, capitalizing in part on the wealth of the now-nationalized petroleum industry, but feeling the effects of Chávez 's ever more openly socialist and dictatorial regime. Moving against privatization of all forms, Chávez has according to Giovanni begun reclaiming some peoples' land and homes, and Giovanni says he and other entrepreneurs like him are worried the government will soon come to claim their cars and houses as well. Chávez - apparently paranoid of being killed by the US government and a CIA coup to the point of refusing to live in the presidential palace like each of his predecessors, or even to tell the public where his residence actually is - hasn't yet begun any major acts of violence to maintain his power. Giovanni is sure, however, that it won't be long until people who speak and act against the regime start disappearing. Peaceful demonstrators and casually outspoken citizens have begun to suffer jail time in some instances, and the media is starting to fall completely under government control. Already there are times, Giovanni explains, when all radio and TV stations broadcast only the voice of Chávez for hours on end. In these broadcasts, the president speaks nationalistically about public works projects and community development tasks that Giovanni claims aren't actually being conducted but are instead one aspect of a broader project of propaganda used to create an illusion - nationally and internationally - of the Chávez regime as one concerned with and actively engaged in improving the welfare of the Venezuelan people.

Giovanni points to the garbage-strewn barrios with their ramshackle houses spewing over the hills surrounding Caracas and explains that the people struggling to survive here have no quality water or sewage system, and that gang violence over drugs, for example, results in countless deaths on a weekly basis; the money that Chávez claims is being directed to stem this suffering is in fact only being used to line the pockets of his friends and purchase Mercedes and BMWs for his political allies. Giovanni laughs somewhat bitterly and recalls a point when he talked on the phone with his sister, who has lived in France now for sometime. His sister spoke highly of Chávez , claiming that people in France were impressed with how much he was accomplishing in Venezuela. She initially refused to even believe her indignant brother when he protested that the apparent self-proclaimed successes of the Venezuelan president were no more than a well-crafted and well-presented mirage.

Now, Giovanni continues, with complete control of the military and the congress, Chávez can start being more bold and public in his moves to establish his vision of socialist Venezuela. Giovanni believes that Chávez will mirror the future Venezuela after the Cuba of Castro's golden days; apparently Chávez has already regaled Cuba with free petroleum (a gallon only costs 10 cents here) on several occasions in an effort to develop and maintain good relations with the Castro regime. Most recently in Chávez 's alarming and ever-more extreme leftist but internationally obscured decisions has been in relation to the food sector: Giovanni says exasperatedly that with no sense of the economy or the logistical effects of his actions, Chávez has begun taking over the meat and dairy industry. Within the last year, certain distributors and sellers of chicken and eggs, for example, have been shut down by the regime so the products can be sold in other venues, sometimes even abroad, leaving the Venezuelans at times with a complete a lack of food or with produce so expensive that it is completely unaffordable. Just yesterday, Giovanni grumbles, his wife went to buy chicken but found that all the local grocers had been unable to secure any poultry or eggs from the distributors, whose operations had had all their produce recently seized by Chávez.

As we near the address of my lodging in Caracas, Giovanni says that to understand how Chávez achieved his position of power, and why nobody will currently do anything concrete to prevent the despot from pursuing his agenda, I must understand the history of the president's predecessors. During the reign of the Venezuelan dictators Gómez [Juan Vincente Gómez**, 1908-14, 1922-29, 1931-35] and Jiménez [Marcos Pérez Jiménez, 1952-1958], Giovanni says, major, highly visible developments were achieved in the Caracas area and elsewhere. He takes one hand off the wheel to motion to the overpass arching above his taxi and the modern highway under the tires and explains that these are the same roads that were constructed under the direction of the regimes of those previous dictators. Their actions and devotion, in small part at least, to Venezuela and its people (in addition to the fatness of their own pockets) left the Venezuelans in a position of knowing a feeling of hope for their country and partial faith in its rulers, making it easy now for Chávez to convince the people that his views are in their best interest. Even if Chávez starts taking a more violent and militant stance to maintain his position of power and affluence, the precedent set by those previous despots might suggest to those yearning for a feeling of peace and prosperity here that Chávez will still bring to the country more money and perceived progress than it possess now, a big enough dangling carrot to keep the mule of the Venezuelan people struggling along even under back-breaking conditions.

Giovanni pulls up to the apartment building of the friends I'll be staying with in Caracas, hopping out to unload my pack with a sense of relaxed professional confidence; I can tell he likes being a chauffeur and being his own boss, but more than that he likes that he got to where he is on nothing but hard work, his own hands, and long hours. Without another word, he jumps back in his cab and drives off, as if our intense conservation over the course of the hour and a half start-and-go ride from the airport to the city was as ordinary as the run-of-the-mill "how about the weather" chit-chat. Maybe the Venezuelans are getting that kind of talk out of their system while they still can, before they start worrying about the fists pounding on their doors late at night, or the unmarked government vehicles screeching to a halt along the curbs outside their houses when they step out to leave for work in the early hours of the morning.

In the subsequent days after my conversation with Giovanni, with a certain curiosity about the accuracy of his words swirling around my mind, I began working for my project in the international American school in Venezuela where my friends have been teachers for several years. When those friends told me they had decided this would be their last year teaching in Venezuela because they were worried about the Chávez regime, I began to realize that Giovanni's complaints were not restricted to one person and bore more accuracy than my scientifically-trained, persistently-doubting mind had allowed. I've now had a chance to speak earnestly with other teachers at the same international school, and one after another each has told me they had come to the same decision as my friends: this will be their last year teaching in Venezuela. Sitting here now in the sun in the courtyard of the school, adding the final touches to this essay, this institution feels like a bastion of sanity and intellect that Chávez's paranoid socialist agenda will never be able to touch. But the teacher's are afraid and growing more unsure of their safety all the time. When they leave and go back to the US, where many of them come from, or to other international schools in South America, what will become of this school and its students? Some of the students here are part of the vast majority of the people in this country: Venezuelan by birth with no where else to go, with insufficient means to leave and no where to run when these pristine white walls finally come tumbling down.

*His name isn't actually Giovanni. I decided to use a different name because I don't think he'd want me to use his real name.

**According to Wikipedia, Gómez was granted by the Venezuelan Congress the title of El Benemérito (the Meritorious One) for his large-scale public works program and his role in Venezuela's development. Certainly the discovery of petroleum in Venezuela in 1918 provided Gómez with an enormous amount of monetary resources for the pursuit of development projects and, of course, for the benefit of his own fortune. Despite his contributions to the Venezuelan infrastructure, Gómez did use brutal tactics to maintain his position of power, "ruthlessly crushing his opponents through his secret police in a way that earned him the reputation of a tyrant".

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges, Struggling to Write in ‘Bedeviled Times’: Must an Artist Be the People’s Voice?

[this one is a little long; I recommend, with apologies in advance to the trees and to the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, printing it out and enjoying it over a cup of coffee...]

In a Slate article on Jorge Luis Borges, entitled, "Can a Great Writer Be Blind to The World around Him?" (February 7, 2007), Clive James questions the lack in Borges' writing of open, direct, unambiguous criticism of the Argentine junta. James opens with a quote that Borges made in 1979, late in this writer's career and life, when, according to James, "the Argentine junta was doing its obscene worst". Using (or misusing) the quote to establish Borges as an author who thought that "what was happening to his country was of secondary importance, because his first loyalty was to the world", James forges his stance: Borges was disloyal, almost non-Argentine; detached from the human situation and the concepts of "truth, justice, and mercy"; hiding and taking "refuge in an invented world; writing only as a means of escaping reality. I seek to elucidate not only certain basic historical facts that James omitted in order to strengthen his points but also the apparent political ambivalence of Jorge Luis Borges with a deeper, more thorough examination of his writing and philosophy.

Before constructing a comparative analysis of Borges' writing, I pose a few basic points (and counter-points) on Clive James' commentary. Jorge Luis Borges did live from 1899 to 1986, and most of the major violence characterizing Argentina's Guerra Sucia [Dirty War] did begin in 1976 when Jorge Rafael Videla took control of the country after the ousting of Isabel Martínez de Peron. During the period, however, of 1976 to 1983, when the Argentine junta was conducting its genocide, and, according to James, when Borges was walking the streets of Buenos Aires in a state of oblivion to the suffering all around him, this author was for the most part not even in the country. Borges' mother, his personal secretary, scribe and literally his eyes since he went completely blind in the mid 1950s, died in 1975. After her death, which must have been a serious blow to his writing capabilities, Borges began traveling all over the world, up to the time of his own death in Geneva, Switzerland. If he was even in Argentina for the 1979 writing and publishing of his homage to Victoria Ocampo, he probably wasn't even there long enough to 'hear the screams of the torture center near his house'.

James’ depiction of and attitude towards Borges' career - his citation of Borges’ works published only after 1962 and his use of only the later Argentine violence as a backdrop - creates a misleading and false image of this author. James states that "Borges openly loathed Perón, but fell silent on everything that happened after Perón was ousted - fell silent politically, but artistically came into full flower, an international hit even as his nation entered the tunnel of its long agony". This overly dramatic, hyperbolic statement contains a claim that is delusion bordering on blatant lie. Juan Perón died in 1974 and Isabel Martínez Perón was ousted in 1976, approximately 30 years after Borges actually "came into full flower", and 10 years before the death of, at that later time, that old man. Borges' most famous and acclaimed work - considered by him and others the pinnacle of his career - was Ficciones (1944), for which he received the Gran Premio de Honor de la Sociedad Argentina de Escritores [High Honor Award of the Society of Argentinean Writers]. Labyrinths (1962) is actually a compilation of works written mostly in the mid 1950s earlier, and the first 13 pieces in this compilation represent Ficciones (1944) in its near-entirety. Ten years after Ficciones was first published, Borges was almost completely blind in both eyes, and "because of his near-blindness, Borges ceased to write stories after 1953...and since then has concentrated on even shorter forms which can be dictated more easily" (1). In the prologue of A Personal Anthology (1961), published in the year in which he and Samuel Beckett jointly received the Formentor Prize and in which his international fame really began, Borges writes "My preferences have dictated this book. I should like to be judged by it, justified or reproved because of it, and not by certain exercises in excessive and apocryphal local colour which keep cropping up in anthologies and which I can not recall without a blush" (2). This statement is not one made by a writer who is still 15 years shy of blooming and 'coming into full flower', and though such a statement does not prevent Borges from accomplishing subsequent great works, it does seem to suggest that after consistently publishing his writing for almost 40 years, he had by 1961 begun to reach a certain level of comfort and satisfaction with his literary career. While it doesn't necessarily excuse him from or explain the apparent political ambivalence 15 years later that James wishes to focus on, it is crucial to understand that Borges’ literary mind was much more vibrant decades before Perón was ousted, and not during the latter ten years of this Argentine writer's life, as James falsely suggests.

With those historical corrections in mind, I move to the issue of artistic political silence. James states that "his [Borges'] name and growing international renown were lent to the regime without reserve, either because he approved or - the best that can be said for him - because he was clueless". James is wrong on both counts and neglects to pose the most obvious alternative, namely that Borges simply chose, as I believe any artist is entitled to do, not to write directly and openly about the political situation of his country in the latter years of his career and life. One could potentially claim by 1983, when the juntas led by Videla had disappeared 9000 people at minimum, 30000 at maximum, and when Borges was 3 years from his own death, that the absence of political commentary on the part of this author was the result of old age, fatigue, blindness, and a comfortable feeling of accomplishment with the literary achievements of the previous 60 years. Indeed even by 1940 his "failing eyesight and other crippling afflictions made him more and more a semi-invalid, more and more an incredible mind in an ailing an almost useless body, much like his character Ireneo Funes" (3). One might also contribute Borges' apparent political ambivalence during the most violent epoch of Peronísmo to the fact that he was rarely in the country after 1975 and was most likely out of touch with the events of his country, whether or not he read the newspapers. In my mind, however, the best explanation of Borges' political silence comes as should be expected from his own writing and through a thorough examination of his personal philosophy, an examination which James fails to undertake.

James leads into his discussion of Borges' "apparently detached political position" with the mention of disgruntled Argentines who expected Borges to take a more active anti-Peronísta role. In the introduction to Labyrinths (1962), James Irby discusses this dissatisfaction as well, but also begins to pose a counter-argument: "In Argentina, save for the admiration of a relatively small group, he [Borges] has often been criticized as non-Argentine, as an abstruse dweller in an ivory tower, though his whole work and personality could have emerged only from that peculiar cross-roads of the River Plate region, and his non-political opposition to Perón earned him persecutions during the years of the dictatorship" (4). It was apparently even "speculated that Borges was considered unfit to receive the award [the Nobel Prize in Literature] because of his tacit support of, or unwillingness to condemn, the military dictatorships that were being established in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere,....[despite the fact that] he was granted the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society" (5).

To those Argentines grumbling at the absence of active and engaged political commentary on the part of Borges, this literary behemoth might have said that such malcontents fail to understand that "history, true history, is far more modest [than traditionally accepted 'historical' days and dates] and that its essential dates may well be, for a long time, secret as well" (6), an idea that Borges explores in the essay The Modesty of History. Earlier in the same essay, Borges writes (perhaps somewhat cynically and bitterly) that "one of the tasks of modern governments (most notably in Italy, Germany, and Russia) has been to fabricate or counterfeit them ['historical' days and dates], with the help of previously accumulated propaganda and of persistent publicity" (7). Further in the The Modesty of History, Borges states that "such 'historic dates' [referring for example to a famous battle that occurred on Sept 20, 1792] bear less relation to history than to journalism" (8). Newspapers and historians alike it seems to Borges do no more than record certain mundane superficially critical days and dates, and fail to actually chart the progress of man's humanness - the evolution of the human situation - over the centuries. For Borges, writing openly and distinctly about the Argentine junta would have been to submit to the unimaginative role of simple reporting, of journalism, an unacceptable shift for Borges that Irby detects to some degree as well: "Apparently, many of his [Borges'] countrymen cannot pardon in him what is precisely his greatest virtue - his almost superhuman effort to transmute his circumstances into an art as universal as the finest of Europe - and expect their writers to be uncomplicated reporters of the national scene" (9).

Borges' approach to the concept of history begins to provide insight on how he might have viewed the actions of Videla's junta. His outlook suggests that even if he did read the newspapers, as he claimed he didn't, he wouldn't have ever felt obliged to react - literarily or otherwise - to any articles contained therein, independent of whether they were written in times of peace or in times of violence. The truth is that Borges' political ambivalence is not an emotional neutrality or frigidity with respect to such times of violence, cruelty, and destruction, or even with respect to times of peace, harmony, and productivity, but in truth is more a lack of concern with all aspects of the traditional concept of time. In A New Refutation of Time, Borges follows the idealist logic of Berkeley and Hume to present an associated postulate on time: “Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment” (10). Borges then goes on to mention a section of the treatise Sanhedrin of the Mishnah which states 'whoever kills one man destroys the world', and then writes, "That is the way I understand it, too. Clangorous general catastrophes - conflagrations, wars, epidemics - are a single grief, multiplied in numerous mirrors illusorily" (11). Borges supports his view on human suffering with a quote from Bernard Shaw: "'What can you suffer is the maximum that can be suffered on earth....Do not let yourself be overcome by the horrible sum of human sufferings; such a sum does not exist'" (12). Would even the genocide of thousands of Argentineans over the course of 6 years at the end of Borges' life overcome this philosophical point of view? I think not. Would such physical dates of mass murder in Argentina, the period 1976 to 1983, stand out in man's long repetitive history of torture, self-destruction, and war that has played out from one corner of the earth to the other, among all peoples, all civilizations, races, and nationalities, at one time or another? I think not. Borges may indeed have heard the screams issuing from the torture center that was apparently within walking distance of his house, but the precedent for one human being torturing another had unfortunately been set long ago. To Borges the 'true' historical moment would be have been the date on which one human first tortured another; or to plunge even deeper, the date on which one human first tortured another without suffering sickening feelings of guilt, horror, and remorse; or deeper still, the date on which one man tortured another and only at the death of the tortured realized that it was in fact his own brother. This is the core of the human situation and this core is what interests Borges most.

Failing to see what drives Borges writings, James makes the mistake of analyzing Borges' quote on the 'Patriot of Heaven' literally. Borges, who traveled all over the world and lived for a number of years in Spain, Switzerland and other places in addition to Argentina, truly was a citizen of the whole world. As André Maurois says in the preface to Labyrinths (1962), "Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds" (13). James sees as Maurois would also have seen that Borges' "first loyalty was to the world", but James fails to comprehend the symbolism that Maurois touches on, namely that 'the world' to Borges is merely a representation for all its human inhabitants and the play of humanness through all time (or through the infinity of moments constituting the human experience). James sees a literal allegiance to the world as synonymous with and necessitating a physical, actual abandonment of one's own country and one's "loyalties to truth, justice, and mercy", but this point of view is gravely short-sighted. Borges was concerned in his writing with the human situation, with Man, not just the Argentinean man or woman, and if his writing is not a directly obvious discussion of his own country, of the political situation in Argentina, then it is at times, at the least, an indirect one, a commentary that can be applied to the human situation in Argentina as anywhere else. In an almost unforeseen and unplanned response to James, Irby wrote, "Borges' stories may seem more formalist games, mathematical experiments devoid of any sense of human responsibility and unrelated even to the author's own life, but quite the opposite is true. His idealistic insistence on knowledge and insight, which means finding order and becoming a part of it, has a definite moral significance,...and all his fictional situations, all his characters, are at bottom autobiographical, essential projections of his experiences as writer, reader and human being" (14).

This idea, that Borges' imaginary worlds and shrouded mysterious fables were actually deeply pertinent, not only to the Argentine people during the junta but also are so to people at all times, was also touched on by Anthony Kerrigan, one of the translators for A Personal Anthology (1961). He states in the foreword to that book, "Jorge Luis Borges is most poignantly and hauntingly interested in what men have believed in their doubt: Siddartha, Josaphat, the Face of Christ; Duns Scotus, Averroes, Berkeley, Hume; Judaism, its offshoot Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Idealism. His equivocation regarding heresies and dogmas renews them all, though he may be the unique evocative source of his own nostalgic non-belief in Belief or prescient belief in non-belief" (15). For the Argentine citizen, the era of Peronísmo, beginning when Juan Perón first came to power in 1946, was certainly a time of tremendous doubt, and thus in light of Kerrigan's quote, it is really no surprise that Borges thrived as a writer in this environment as much as he did. Irby expands these ideas, rather verbosely, beginning with a question similar to that originally posed by James:

"It could be asked what such concerns of a total man of letters [Borges] have to do with our plight as ordinary, bedeviled men of our bedeviled time. Here it seems inevitable to draw a comparison with Cervantes, so apparently unlike Borges, but whose name is not invoked in vain in his stories, essays and parables. Borges’s fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life which is not only the central problem of all literature but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality. We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author: but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight’s, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails, at our expense. Borges’s ‘dehumanized’ exercises in ars combinatoria are no less human than that (16)".

It seems in the unimaginative, institutional mind of James there can be only two polar and immutable sides: a black or a white; a loyalty to the world, or a loyalty to one's country and the standards of truth, justice, and mercy; that "Borges either hadn't noticed it [the junta's genocide] or...he knew something about it and thought it could be excused". As a related side note, Borges was raised by "parents of the intellectual middle class [who were] descended from military and political figures prominent in the struggles for Argentine national independence and unity that occupied most of the nineteenth century" (17). Brought up then undoubtedly with a mind politically aware, Borges was actually fired from his position at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library in 1946 when Perón first came to power and was subsequently 'promoted' to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market, a position from which he immediately resigned, presenting the Argentine Society of Letters with the following statement at the time: "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy" (18). Late in his career, Borges didn't write openly or directly about the killings occurring in Argentina but that doesn't mean he was "blind to the world around him", or that "he should have tried harder to use his ears", as James suggests.

This latter idea, the question of what Borges should or should not have done in reaction to the political situation in his country, leads this discussion into new territory. It seems fairly clear from his writing why Borges chose to abstain from political commentary, namely because of the philosophical belief that the pain of his countrymen was not a new phenomenon, for Argentineans or humans in general (a silence and ambivalence NOT to be confused with quiet approval of Peronísmo or Videla's actions). The question of what Borges should have done is clearly a relative matter. James seems to think Borges' decision to abstain from political commentary an inexcusable course of action and feels justified in subsequently painting this artist as a blind, deaf, clueless, doddering potential advocate of the Guerra Sucia genocide. Like James, however, I too am stirred by the excerpt from "Homage to Victoria Ocampo", perhaps because I too, continually traveling from place to place - homeless in a certain sense of the word - feel like a "displaced person", to use James’ words (though his adjective seems to bear more negative connotations than those used by Borges to describe something seemingly so noble as a 'citizen of the whole word', an advocate for the entire human experience). Unlike James, though, I feel that an artist, no matter how widely read or acclaimed, can dedicate themselves to whatever subject matter they feel moved by, be it political or otherwise. I also feel that the greater the distance that this chosen subject diverges from the expectations, imagined or real, of an apparent audience base, then the greater the awareness of self and confidence of independence possessed by the artist in question. Countless artists are motivated and inspired by monumental (according to the traditional sense of 'history', not Borges' notion of that word) social, cultural, and political events in their country, but I am mystified as to the time and place when such action or pro-action or reaction, as it may be, became a requirement for the successful work and accomplishment of anyone considered an artist by the masses (if they exist at all). I am venturing close to a point in this discussion where I must define the word artist, and I want to avoid such territory, save for the following thought. I would say that being an artist is about expression of ideas, images, thoughts, and beliefs that have no where to go and need an outlet, but that in a sense already violates an aspect of Borges' philosophy and leads me into contradiction. So I'll let Borges speak for himself on the matter:

"Croce held that art is expression; to this exigency, or to a deformation of this exigency, we owe the worst literature of our time. True enough, Paul Valery was able to write with felicity:

Comme le fruit se fond en puissance,
Comme en delice il change son absence
Dans une bouche ou sa forme se meurt

and Tennyson could write:
...................................and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bore the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.

verses which reproduce a mental process with precision; but such victories are rare and no one (I believe) will judge them the most lasting or necessary words in literature. Sometimes, I too, sought expression. I know now that my gods grant me no more than allusion or mention" (19).

It seems to me that an exigency only appears to be an intrinsic aspect of expression when there is for the 'artist' a perceived audience with perceived expectations, and that such perceptions and the associated yoke of feeling obliged to meet such expectations is the point at which the expression itself becomes warped and the exigency proven to be deformed. I believe when Borges speaks of the 'worse literature of our time' he is speaking of such expression so bent to meet the will of the 'masses' (a term Borges doesn't even believe in) that it is no longer the voice or expression of the artist. Thus would Borges have most likely wished to avoid the title Artist at all, and avoid the dubbing of his work as Expression. Thus would he come to feel in this wisdom, most likely only gained after so many years of writing, that he achieved no more than 'allusion or mention'.

I will say no more on what art should or shouldn't be, or what Borges should or should not have done, but will let his words stand on their own. Any opinion I pose on questions such as those will be contested as easily and quickly as I contested the opinions of Clive James. I sincerely desire to end this ramble with the words of Borges himself, and I feel that the following quotes can do more to reveal the rashness and ignorance of James' criticism, and to defend Borges' own philosophy and apparent political ambivalence, than anything I said in the previous paragraphs:

"I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses'. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time" (20). — Introduction to The Book of Sand (1975)

And lastly: "[Un autor] debe tratar de ser un amanuense del Espíritu o de la Musa (ambas palabras son sinónimas), no de sus opiniones, que son lo mas superficial que hay en el. Así lo entendió Rudyard Kipling, el más ilustre de los escritores comprometidos. A un escritor - nos dijo - le esta dado inventar una fabula, pero no la moralidad de esa fabula. Ojala las paginas que he elegido prosigan su intrincado destino en la conciencia del lector. Mis temas habituales están en ellas: la perplejidad metafísica, los muertos que perduran en mi, la germanística, el lenguaje, la patria, la paradójica suerte de los poetas" (21). - Prólogo de Nueva antologiía personal (1980)}

{Translated by me: "[An author] should attempt to be a scribe of the Spirit or the Muse (the two words are essentially one and the same), not of his own opinions, which are the most superficial aspects of his nature. Rudyard Kipling, the most distinguished of the committed writers, understood this endeavor. The writer - he tells us - is given the power to invent a story, but not to invent the moral of the story. I can only hope that the intricate unforeseeable path of the pages I've chosen persists and develops in the minds of the readers. These pages contain my usual themes: metaphysical perplexity, the dead that live on through me, Germanistics, language, the mother-country, and the paradoxical luck of the poets (21)". - Prologue to A New Personal Anthology (1980)}

1. Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths, New Directions Publishing Corporation, USA, 1962, pg 22
2. Borges, Jorge Luis, A Personal Anthology, Editorial Sur, S.A., Buenos Aires, 1961, pg xi
3. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 17
4. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
5. Wikipedia contributors, "Jorge Luis Borges", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, DOLR: Feb 20, 2007, PL: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jorge_Luis_Borges&oldid=109490746
6. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
7. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
8. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
9. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
10. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 46
11. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
12. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
13. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 9
14. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 20
15. Borges, Pers Anth, pg ix
16. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 21
17. Wikipedia, Borges
18. Wikipedia, Borges
19. Borges, Pers Anth, pp xi-xii
20. Borges, Jorge Luis, The Book of Sand, Emecé Editores, S.A., 1975, pg 2
21. Borges, Jorges Luis, Nueva Antologia Personal, Editorial Bruguera, S.A. , Barcelona, 1980, pp 8

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Tell me if this sounds odd to you, that my friends and I often joke about being autists. "Mulligan, the evidence you've got Asperger's is mounting day by day," is not an uncharacteristic example. Often this sends me--don't know about the others--into a careful reconstruction for reevaluative purposes of the events leading up to the gybe in order to figure out when I went too far (out).
For a bunch of smart kids, we exhibit an uncommon--no, unexpected--frequency in our faulure to get just what's going on in a given social setting. In an earlier, Romantic world, such outsidership would be marked as a sign of giftedness--but we've been told we were gifted since grade school--as a sign of uniqueness--but everyone we went to school with was unique and all the unique kids quite often failed to get it, only the uninteresting ones never at a loss for words--as a sign of an unexpressable knowledge--but again, the point here is that we're not getting something.
This is the tricky bit, because we're not punished like an Eckbert or Werther but smiled at with mild worry and wonderment for not being so common--with an expectation, though, of our ability to get it--they think either that we refuse to or are not ready yet. But either way, it's an issue of maturity, wherein our inabilities are used to fend off societalization.
Becauase when we do get it, when the game is explained to us, there's the sort of dawning of realization that made older metaphysicians believe in a priori truths, the, "yes, I feel I knew that all along," feeling.
And the point is that we are postmodern angels, we genius incapables, who are children to our parents whose failures, we in our latent abilities and material unsubstantiations, seeem to make choices, who simulate asceticism in our apart-ness and casually validate truth in our joy at understanding, who are the survivors because when the shock goes down the chain of everyone jostling won't we be distracted, just a little aside, and this unelectrocuted by accident? We who are the glimmering dead who will have to become those who died when they then do not care for us anymore.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Work Keeps Me Busy


The great American writer Herman Melville says somewhere in The White Whale that a man ought to be "a patriot to heaven," and I believe it is a good thing, this ambition to be cosmopolitan, this idea to be citizens not of a small parcel of the world that changes according to the currents of politics, according to the wars, to what occurs, but to feel that the whole world is our country.

—Jorge Luis Borges, "Homage to Victoria Ocampo," in Borges en Sur

A reverse of the standard order today, if only because I quite like the sound of that quotation. Reminiscent of Kant and Hegel I suppose and a nice reminder that postmodernism must not always be so terribly dense and obfuscatory. Romance persists.

Even if it is a self-exculpatory romance used to shirk moral duty in a world of human atrocity. Or so Slate argues. I do need to get through more of “Labyrinths” one of these days, and I’ll be curious to see whether Borges’ political ambivalence doesn’t make his map of the world easier to distinguish from the world itself.

A follow-up to bad politics with yet another piece on Amis, though this one contextualizes his most recent work better within his own bibliography. Particularly interesting to see the author suggesting that Amis is going down the road of Hitchens, especially since the two are such virulent enemies (and I thought there split was over Hitchens’ conservatism). Regardless, ignoring Amis’s new book, I must insist that all seek out “London Fields”. Such a vision of the contemporary city I have not seen elsewhere.

I must admit I’ve yet to finish this next essay – time at work is limited these days – but despite not reading “Homage to Catalonia”, I’m always interested in Orwell’s relationship to those who co-opt him. Smectymnuus, you’d enjoy I suspect.

Slate posted this gorgeous slideshow of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs adjacent to a brief biography. I’ve always been partial to Bresson, no doubt from fond memories of looking through his works whenever trips to the attic would yield an exploration of my Dad’s photography books.


One of the more interesting pieces I read over the weekend was from NYT’s Week in Review on Biden’s terrible blunder last week in calling Obama the first “articulate”, mainstream black politician. Yikes. This essay moves beyond the political firestorm and does a nice job of explaining the racism inherent in “articulate” and the terrible inequality in expectations it demonstrates.

From the subtle persistence of racism to the unflinching brazenness of homophobia and intolerance: a blurb from Slate that summarizes shamed former preacher Ted Haggard’s road to “recovery” (from being gay). There are also some other interesting blurbs in this piece related vaguely to science, health, etc…

Also, two profiles of note: one from NY Magazine on RFK Jr, the always impressive environmentalist attorney who bleeds privilege in an entirely forgiveable way; and the other of Milton Friedman by Princeton economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman, which is very critical of Friedman but also interestingly fond. My unfamiliarity with most things related to economics (or money really) is hampering my speed on this one, but Friedman is always an interesting case study in the evolutionary history of contemporary American capitalism.

And finally, well not really, two articles regarding culture in foreign countries (not very patriotic, I know): the first is quite old, but I recently re-read it for my job and it is terribly depressing – a New Yorker piece on India’s growing water crisis. And continuing with theme of catastrophe in the developing world: an article on Cambodia’s destruction by tourists. Angkor Wat is being overrun, but don’t worry, there are still responsible ways to see it.

Last for real: rooting out anti-Semites. Take this quiz to see whether you dislike the Jews, tolerate them, or are perhaps part of the flock.


To get this out of the way: Dinesh D’Souza is absolutely f%cking insane. I know I’ve posted reviews of his new books previously, but this one speaks more to the content, and he is absolutely mad.

The primary political news of late has of course been the Senate resolution against Bush’s troop surge, or rather its failure to even see debate. Article One, and Article Two on why the debate didn’t happen, and then a Newsweek interview with our favorite Maine celebrity and political maverick Sen. Collins (R). Written prior to the resolution’s failure, it is nonetheless interesting to see the schisms and fields of power within the GOP camp these days.

Also, all of these articles have little quotes from or references to Joe Lieberman, who I continue to nominate as the most obnoxious fucking person on earth. Even Dinesh D’Souza didn’t get the “u”. This lengthier piece from the New Yorker only confirms my sentiments.

And to make you hate Lieberman and the pro-surge camp even more, here is a well-done breakdown of Bush’s new defense budget by Slate. Once again, billions for a failed missile defense system and absolutely redundant and superfluous military technology. Also, make sure to notice the total price tag of the Iraq ware. Now that is terrifying. No wonder populism is taking root. (The Nation, however, argues that rhetoric is going to need substance soon, and I think I agree. Speaking is only courageous for a little while when you live in a democracy. Speak out in an authoritarian regime, perhaps more leeway).

Speaking of the Iraq war, Hitchens, (oh, Hitchens) wrote a piece for Slate I can almost get on board with, which argues that, although this is tacit, perhaps an exit strategy isn’t so morally reprehensible, as Iraq would’ve very likely collapsed anyway. Anyhow, I think it articulates his position on the war better than how I recounted it several days ago and affirms Mr. H of Durham’s opinion on the matter.

Lastly, a brief synopsis of the ’08 campaign trail. Another article, this one more nuanced and thorough, on women and humor relative to a Clinton attempt at a joke. I think it makes a nice point about how women in power are not allowed to have “normal” personalities.

Over the weekend, Edwards announced his new health care plan and was grilled on Meet the Press about his position on Iraq. A decent job in general pivoting away from the subject, but I think he could stand to be a bit more firm in his regrets. He doesn’t quite have the rhetoric down yet. Not sloppy entirely, just not entirely cohesive. Hire me Edwards, hire me.

Also, another piece in the Obama as Jesus series, this time with a journalist portraying Obama as an esteemed and impressive physicist.

And finally, a brief bit from the Economist on why so many people are running in 2008. To influence policy sure, but it sounds like ego is still the driving force behind it all. And now we’ve approached the intersection of (my)self with (the) world.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

'300' and the Sum of its Parts

(I used to do semi-serious work, reading difficult articles on critical theory [I have Barthes and Baudrillard collecting dust on my bookshelf right now]. Now it seems all I do is write about television. Or movies.

I tell myself that I’m interested in the stories that society wants to tell itself, and I am. But it also absolves me of a lot of the heavy lifting. Especially when I wind up talking about a movie that I haven’t seen yet. On with the rabid speculation!)

I am giddy for ‘300’. I have the trailer on my iPod. I’ve downloaded the song featured in that trailer (Nine Inch Nail’s “Just Like You Imagined”) and have also put that on my iPod. I’m planning on getting tickets to see it, but not just on your run of the mill movie screen. I want IMAX. I want the carnage to swallow me. I want my ears to bleed.

Watching the previews, there’s absolutely no downside to this movie. The filmmakers seem to have crammed in every shot with of the stylized hyperviolent as possible. It looks like the beautiful, glossy, slow-motioned, musically-synched, jaw-(and body) dropping, twisted son of Quinton Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Which is why I’m going to hurl my money at it.

In fact, ‘300’ will attempt to solidify a new branch of the hyperviolent films, those created on the page by comic book artist Frank Miller. Miller’s comics served as the inspiration for the surprise hit ‘Sin City’: the actors in that film (Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba-Lebeaux, Elijah Wood, etc.) acted against a green-screen throughout the film, enabling the filmmakers to perfect a seedy, sickly and beautiful world behind them, the world that Miller had inked long ago (there’s a sequel in production).

And ‘300’ uses the same green-screen technique (this could lead to an interesting trend: artistic adaptations have always integrated previous works of art, but films that successfully adapt any work of literature have to interact with that literature, transforming it for the medium of film [while we’re on comics, think the well-adapted ‘X-Men’ against the terribly or not-really-adapted-at-all ‘Batman and Robin’]. With Miller, the films succeed, or at least the films’ gimmick has worked, because they preserve so much of the original work).

Because I’m excited, because I enjoyed ‘Sin City’, I bought Miller’s comic book, the print version of ‘300’ that will serve as the principal, if not sole, inspiration for the coming movie.

Unlike the uber-noir ‘Sin City’, Miller’s ‘300’ has an added and nerdy historical layer (yet another reason for my excitement): The coming movie is based on the comic; the comic, however, is based on Herodotus.

Written some time in the 440’s BC, Herodotus’ Histories chronicles the Greek city-states’ war with Persia. Considered the first work of western history, Herodotus has earned the nickname ‘the father of history’, an interesting nickname, and in some ways an interestingly accurate one: if, as the name implies, Herodotus fathered history, then it also puts Herodotus outside of his progeny, separates Herodotus from the current and ‘accepted’ practices of that art. As Herodotus’ work can not be verified, can even rarely be checked against any opposing sources (indeed, in many instances, he is the source), and as his work sometimes smacks of the supernatural (god’s routinely broadcast instructions into the heads of kings, etc..) separating Herodotus from history seems pretty fair.

Regardless, among the various myths/legends/folkloric tales/actual events that Herodotus relates is the battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartans fought against a horde of invading Persians. The Spartans channeled the invading army into a narrow canyon to negate the advantage the Persians had in terms of numbers. In perhaps the very first underdog story The Spartans, supposedly the very best of the best at fighting in ancient Greece, fought long and hard and gloriously against the Persians but were eventually slaughtered to a man; still, their sacrifice bought the rest of Greece some time and eventually Greece repealed the invasion

(For those of you with a copy of The Histories lying around, check around in book seven).

Throughout his Histories, Herodotus returns to the theme of Greek reason and democracy versus Persian despotism. It wasn’t just a war of conquest, it was a clash of ideologies.
If this sounds familiar, look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the fifth anniversary of September Eleventh, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office refering to the war on terror by saying “This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations. And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”

Miller’s comic book, again, the main inspiration for the upcoming movie, emphasizes this ideological clash again and again. The Spartans are fighting for reason, for equality before law, and they’re fighting against a ruthless tyrant.

Miller of course tends to ignore the fact that the Spartans were such good soldiers because they trained all day instead of say, well, farming. And they had the time to train all day instead of farm because they had an enormous slave population that did their dirty work and farming for them. But that’s besides the point.

I really think that the studios releasing ‘300’ are doing because its going to earn them some cold hard cash in an off-movie month. I think they’re doing it because comics in general and Miller in particular have set a precedent of being high-earners (plus the fact that ‘300’ is being filmed with relative unknowns in the lead roles…). I really do think that.

But I’m curious as to what its influence will be, if any. I’m curious how eager the audience will be, and for what reasons. I’m curious why they’ll see it: will it be because they’re obsessed fanboys trying to legitimize the comic books of their youth like me, or is it because the film will serve as some kind of safety valve, some release where we get to see Us Versus Them, where we get to see westerners die for a reason, for the rest of us in a war that we’re absolutely going to win. For the Homeland, even. For our way of Life. A lot of that is being promised from our politicians, but considering the recent election, it doesn’t seem as if most Americans have been delivering.

‘300’ isn’t America fighting the terrorists by any means, but it is the west fighting the east. It is our cultural ancestors versus darker-skinned people from Northern Africa and the middle-east. And, like the current war on terror, that war of invasion was dubbed as an ideological clash.
I have transgressed many a crime in Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, so I really hate writing this next sentence: but I’m a little worried. I’m a little worried about watching westerners engage in the wholesale slaughter of easterners in a cinematic way. I think a part of it will have to resonate with the war that we’re fighting, with our xenophobia, with our starring contest with fear. I really am. But it’s not going to stop me from seeing it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Rusty, or, Notes from the Echo Chamber

Thirty years from now, I don’t think I’ll be sitting around and saying ‘I was there’. I really haven’t told many people in the eight days since it’s happened, so I doubt that I’ll be recounting it decades from now. But I was there, in DC, watching and sometimes (mainly through a combination of chance and police barricades) marching around the Senate. I was there.

And I wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of them (‘us’?) on Sunday. The obligatory hippy crowd was there, and yes, they were drumming and dancing. But most of the crowd was pretty clean-cut; one marcher raised his DoD badge in front of him. There were some grandparents there as well. There were lots of people: I hesitate to put a number on it, because whatever I say, I’ll be wrong. Tens of thousands. Maybe a grand?

Yet despite its size, despite the behavior of the crowd, despite the cross-generational representation that marched through the streets, the entire protest seemed like a giant tree falling in a forest. The Senate is surrounded by other Federal buildings and a neighborhood to the east. The marchers seemed to be marching for themselves, seemed to be marching in an echo chamber. The lack of an audience—not necessarily of an opposition force but of anyone—seemed unnatural to me.

I don’t have much protest experience (the best I could do was think about what Hunter Thompson was thinking in Miami during the Republican National Convention) as reported in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) and I admit that I didn’t really understand the goals of this march: despite its grandure, despite the spectacle of watching an idea marshal itself or a common cause becoming animated by possessing its acolytes, it all seemed, well, self-reflexive at the time. Marching for marching’s sake. Marching for the marchers.

I knew that the idea was to send a message to the Democratic congress (This Is Why We Put You In That Building, And Should You Forget It You Will Be Removed) but without an audience there, and, indeed, with the likes of Danny Glover and Jane Fonda speaking, it didn’t seem like a message that would necessarily permeate the capitol dome.

But the Democrats seem emboldened. This might be the after-effect of their sudden victory, and the persistent numbers that are transforming President Bush into a lame duck—indeed it might have nothing to do with the march. But something’s gotten into them. I can almost feel it now, can almost see the winds changing. And I think everyone can: Democrats, in power, and not making complete jackasses of themselves.

The Democrats can’t continue to attack the war in Iraq: eventually that chorus will turn into some distorted version of the ‘Remember 9/11’ that won 2004 for President Bush. Americans seem to have finally woken up from the effects of that incantation, so the Democrats will have to win at home. And they’re off to a good start. Their first 100 hours realized a Minimum Wage increase and a stem cell package. Personally, I think the Democrats should put a stem cell package across the President’s desk every week and make him get in front of a podium every week and explain why he vetoed it. Eventually the children that he used as a backdrop during his first explanation will start getting ill, and each week we’ll have to hear why it was his moral obligation to veto the bill, right up until 2008, right up until the voting public has seen how crippling a Republican President has been to biomedical research. But I digress.

It all feels too good right now, all feels like the other shoe is about to drop (Joe Biden has come close to letting it go). But if the last few years have taught us anything in politics, it’s that if you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense. And for now the Democrats seem to have learned.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Question of Journalistic Integrity

A denizen of St. Louis, Missouri for the moment, I have followed, at times unwillingly and at times with interest, the story of the recent discovery of kidnappees Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck in St. Louis County.

To begin, a brief summary:
In October 2002, Shawn Hornbeck, then 11, mounted a bike in Washington County, Missouri, with the ostensible intention of visiting a friend. Despite the persistent efforts of his parents (the Akers), Hornbeck was unseen for over 4 years - and believed by many to be dead. Then, on January 8, 2007, in nearby Franklin County, 13-year-old William "Ben" Ownby turned up missing. A classmate provided the lead that a large white van was seen near the site of the kidnapping, and it was this van that eventually led the FBI investigators to Kirkland, Missouri - a reasonably wealthy suburb in St. Louis County - where not merely Ownby, but also Hornbeck, was "found in the residence of Michael Devlin, alleged kidnapper, who was promptly arrested and is being held at $1,000,000.00 bail under the charge of kidnapping Ownby.

"Among the most notable aspects of this case, if one can detach it from the human interest elements and the emotional pull of the boys' return, is how "classically" villainesque it paints the alleged kidnapper. Michael Devlin, gratuitously described in The National Ledger as a "300-pound pizza shop employee," grotesque and seedy with the requisite oversized glasses and greasy hair (forgive my editorialization). The gigantic white Ford Van with its sliding door, complete with tales of a gun (in Hornbeck's case) and duct tape (in Ownby's), is exactly what Mommy warned us about when we were little. Hornbeck, brainwashed in a classic manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, seems to have been granted a modicum of freedom during the years of captivity, even seen by his neighbors riding his bicycle, and some less cautious media sources suggest that he may have aided in the kidnapping of the younger boy.

On the surface, the joy is all. Hornbeck is reported as clutching his grandmother's hand and burying his face in his mother's shoulder upon the initial reunion - and his stepfather chuckled that he knew that Shawn would be all right when he asked for McDonald's on their first drive home. Ownby reportedly made his first request in front of the media - he wanted to go home and play his video games, which reportedly consumed him for a large portion of his first 24 hours home. The Ownbys and the Akers thanked God for hearing their prayers; the Akers criticized the false psychics whose aid they sought but who ultimately "foresaw" Hornbeck's demise; they felt legitimized for having sacrificed career and financial stability for their son.

I must be careful, here. I do not want to appear crass. I have full confidence in the joy of the two families' reunions; I vicariously share their delight and shock in the conclusion of the four years' story. The long mental recovery to which Hornbeck, at the least, must look toward seems daunting, and I wish both of the boys the best in recovering some normalcy in their lives.

"Normalcy," however, may be a while in coming. Short of the boys' changing their names, the families' relocating, and a great deal of psychological care - in addition to re-socialization and intensive education for Hornbeck - sensationalism may triumph. This is really the source of my discomfort. After my initial joyful reaction, my first comment upon hearing about the case was that if the captivity did not break the boys, then the media attention would. This was a bit ignorant, but I stand by part of its portent. Unbelievingly, I saw a TV advertisement for an Oprah episode devoted to an interview with the survivors. I became very angry: how could this be in the best interest of the boys? I begrudgingly accepted that there might me something gained by one "final" statement, so as to eschew hosts of other reporters potentially waiting around the proverbial corner.

Oprah, however, begins to inspire the tension I feel about journalistic integrity related to this case. She did not lack integrity herself; most people felt she handled the interview with grace. However, her probing of the Akers about whether or not they feared that their son had been sexually abused began to blur the line that tends to exist in situations involving minors. On one hand, minors' names tend to be concealed in the media, particularly in cases of such a sensitive nature as sexual abuse. But on the other hand, the names are already out - the cat is out of the bag, as it were. I suspect that few people with any familiarity with the case have failed to pose the question, however briefly. There seems to be little chance of the families avoiding like questions, certainly. My question is: when does media sensationalism move from inevitably probing and "rude" toward an almost unethical embracing of human misery? Can we draw this line?

I think the line is better articulated in another interesting side-story, which I initially heard debated on NPR but which has found its way to many articles as well. The accused, Michael Devlin, imprisoned not far from St. Louis, Missouri, is isolated in his own cell, and reporters are barred from visiting him. However, some time around January 20th, a young woman named Susannah Calahan appeared at the prison, identifying herself to guards as a "family friend." To Devlin, Calahan described herself as a college student interested in the case, and he provided her with an interview, even being quoted as confessing that "It's much easier talking to a stranger about these things than your own parents" [see quoted article].

Calahan, however, was not a family friend, nor an interested stranger. She was, in fact, a news correspondant for the New York Post. A student at the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, Calahan is a former university music- and sex-column journalist. She obtained an interview, though it is unclear whether or not she deceived Devlin in order to do so, and the Post printed the article. Although they certainly have the perogative to protest, Devlin's lawyers and their objections to the interview concern me less than the overarching question of journalistic integrity. Journalists so often walk the fine line of invasion and truth-seeking; this is familiar. When deception becomes a question, however, the integrity of the journalist herself is less alarming than the related dilemma about the integrity of journalists in general. Suddenly, a college student becomes, like Rita Skeeter, symbolic of all that many people find loathsome about journalism. Now, don't get me wrong. A large percentage of people were probably more thrilled with the new quotations and the new aspect that Calahan's interview obtained than concerned with its implications. And there are educated persons who have argued for the "guts" Calahan displayed in her dogged pursuit of the truth. Others, however, have a grimmer perspective.

We already knew that the media was inherently biased and truth inevitably ambiguous. We already knew that our society's attraction to the sensational tends to overshadow its desire for the "facts." But now, we start to wonder if in employing its ability to shape a societal consciousness, the media holds some clear responsibilities to maintain ethics to protect us from ourselves - ethics that Calahan was shirking. We may want to know everything at any cost - but are these costs eventually going to take their toll on journalism, if Machiavellian journalism ignores the ethics of honesty in order to obtain the ends of full disclosure?

I have likely taken this too far. After all, Devlin's account to Calahan was far from "full disclosure," and Oprah was hardly "immoral" in her questions to the Akers. Perhaps this particular story has inspired people to toe the ethical line but, ultimately, to remain on the better side. Regardless, it raised some important questions. When does it become ethically "wrong" to eschew truth in order to discover the truth, and when will it become dangerous enough threaten the ethereal ideal of Journalistic Integrity?

I'll let you know when I've gotten the scoop.

Friday, February 02, 2007

To Trust or not to Trust, a Traveler's Question - A follow-up to The Great Mustard Ruse

When one travels for a great length of time, alone, one finds that it is a physical and mental impossibility not to place deep trust in complete strangers. In other words, the lone wanderer often has no choice but to rely on and have faith in people totally unknown. Learning to take strangers at their word and to have confidence that their intentions are in one's best interest, independent in some cases of their appearance or dress (and assumptions made thereon), flies in the face of indoctrination that began, at least in the course of my own education, in kindergarten, when I was 5 years old. That of course was the most-likely standardized "don't-accept-the-cookie-from-the-smiling-man-in-the-large-unmarked-Ford-van-with-the-open-sliding-door" lesson. Thus it began for my cohort in our very first year of schooling, a message that would be repeated in various forms countless times throughout the subsequent 8 years of education. If such drilling of children's minds occurs on a wide scale throughout the US, this practice might incidentally serve to explain in part the apparently rampant mentality of fear that seems to persist in the minds of many people in that country, in my country. This mentality of fear is explored to some degree in the movie Bowling for Columbine, and though Michael Moore approaches the concept in something of an over-dramatic and self-alienating manner, I think there is some truth in the points he makes.

It is natural to assume that inexperienced travelers from the US will bring their fear and mistrust of strangers with them when they leave home - if they leave home at all - and make for far-away lands, but this extra baggage strains the mind worse than any heavy backpack can break the back or crush the body. Living on the road in a state of fear produces an exhausting stress that one feels grinding down on the spirit, pulverizing the will to move and see new things and meet new people. My own well established mistrust - at least eight years of virtually unrecognized unconscious skepticism of others - was unraveled and undone in one month in Canada, probably the only country in the world where such a feat can be accomplished in such a short period of time. My interactions with the people of that nation replaced my lack of trust and lack of hope for humanity with the first seeds of a boundless faith in people and a conviction that humans as a whole are at heart marked by a certain goodness. My encounter with Stephi Graf's cousin in the Winnipeg train station on the very first day of my journey (I think I wrote about this on my website) exemplifies the mentality of openness and goodwill that is not a surprising or unusual human trait in Canada, as it appears to be in the US, but is rather the norm, an aspect of humanness commonplace and taken for granted there. After having my impressions of my fellow humans broken down and reshaped in Manitoba and Newfoundland, I left Canada with an outlook on the world that I had never possessed before: one of hope for Mankind (pardon the political incorrectness). Some of you who read these words will not understand or think I exaggerate or over-dramatize, but the fresh peace and happiness of mind that inevitably follow the discovery of new hope cannot be denied. Mr. John A Atchley III will appreciate that he introduced me to Couchsurfing (couchsurfing.com) at exactly this moment in my journey.

Despite, one, a burgeoning trust in strangers; two, a rising conviction that there are enough like-minded, good people in the world to seriously affect change; and, three, a blooming realization that allowing one's path to be partially shaped by apparently random interactions with foreigners is in fact the only way to mentally survive the experience of long-distance, long-term migration; despite all these things I found when I arrived in Africa and traveled through developing countries where the language was to me unknown and incomprehensible, that I still had much to learn in terms of my outlook on the world and its human inhabitants. I encountered fellow travelers - at cafes, in the desert, on trains - from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada who bore with absolute certitude the belief that people are good and a bone-deep sense of everything-will-be-all-right. After passing through Morocco, Senegal, and South Africa, I came to find this stance, this outlook, was held universally with a strength that can only be described as enviable by all travelers from the aforementioned first-world countries, without exception. It is either a testament to the truth behind the convictions of the traveling Aussies, Kiwis, and Canucks, or to my own deaf, dumb, and blind luck, that my refusal to relinquish or compromise my new-found faith in strangers didn't have drastic consequences for the first eight months of my journey, through Canada, Europe, Africa, and southern South America. Minor setbacks were not uncommon: the instant sourness shattering a relationship, for example, when an apparently friendly, helpful person who, claiming at first he wants nothing from you but is simply going in the same direction as you and would be glad to point out what you are looking for, suddenly begins after some time to demand money and gifts for his services and trouble, and grows angry when you turn your back on him and walk away.

But no, it wasn't until eight months had passed of traveling alone, burdened down the entire time with items of great monetary value that make me even more of a target than the simple fact of my skin color, that I suffered any real material loss, that I was legitimately robbed and taken advantage of. As I mentioned briefly in The Great Mustard Ruse, the loss of gear is not important. Being robbed and replacing the items - wading through muddy bogs of bureaucracy filled with paperwork snags and the rank rotting stink of long lines - is an annoying and in my case humiliating and humorous series of events, certainly, but one that was actually expected to take place much earlier in the course of my journey. Far worse is the potential undermining of eight months of mental, spiritual, and philosophical dedication to a simple but previously unconsidered and unimagined principle: that the majority of people in the world are kind, caring, individuals, often with an interest in their fellow human beings and in the world around them. I don't want to mislead people into thinking that I live in a fairy-tale land, that I go skipping through the bad neighborhoods of Johannesburg or Paris or Guayaquil with my camera and binoculars dangling from my neck, $100 dollar bills spilling from my pockets, and gold watches jangling on my wrists. I am not naive to the presence of advantageous human predators of all forms, those people (actually true capitalists in the purest sense of the word) who recognize an influx in their region of visitors from wealthier areas as an opportunity to potentially increase the standard of their own living conditions; and I have made a constant effort to learn increased discretion and awareness on the streets, to minimizing my status as a target as much as possible.

It is instead simply that I have come to feel that the these predators - in particular the small percentage of which that actually seek illegitimate and illegal means to gain access to that the wealth of foreign visitors - are far outweighed by individuals who, once actively and sincerely engaged in conversation and cultural exchange, reveal many more common interests and similarities to me than I ever would have thought possible; and who subsequently open doors to me that I could never have conceived of existing. In constantly traveling from region to region, country to country, first to third to first world and through everything in-between, one discovers that not only time but also place, movement, momentous experience, and all aspects of the human experience begin to rush and rage and flow like a river that is swollen by snow-melt and rain-fall in the spring and crashes along like a juggernaut. Attempts to control this river single-handedly, to organize and plan its course, to do anything in some cases but enjoy (or try to survive) its insane currents, to ignore a stranger's simple suggestion and kind voice and try to bend the bed-rock of the river itself with constant strength of will and mind, all this began to threaten my very sanity. Today in Cuenca, Ecuador, I know that the only way I have come as far as I have without suffering a complete breakdown of mind, body, and spirit is through trusting, listening to, following, and believing complete strangers, often despite intuition and preconceived notions that are, of course, mostly inaccurate and wildly false. One of countless examples: in Cape Town only several days before driving to Johannesburg and flying to South America, I still had not organized my project for that continent - where I would go, who I would seek, how I would travel. Still focused on my project in South Africa, I called the university and discussed my work with a professor of conservation biology. He suggested I visit an associate of his at a field station north of the city along the west coast of South Africa. I had been looking forward to seeing what a weekend in Cape Town was like, but on a whim on a Friday morning I left the city and drove to Vredenburg. Andy Winder, a friend of the professor's, owns a hostel near the field station and although there were no free beds, their daughter had just moved to the city to live with her boyfriend, so they let me sleep in her room for the weekend at no charge. I conducted work for my project on Friday and Saturday, planning to return to Cape Town on Sunday morning. Andy and his wife, however, convinced me stay on Sunday and attend their West Coast Bird Club luncheon, a standard brai. In the course of drinking and eating with the west coast birders, I met a woman whose son had recently married an Argentinean and just happened to be living in Ushuaia, which was incidentally and most likely the next destination in my journey, and what I hoped would be my disembarkation site for Antarctica. To make matters more unbelievable, the son's Argentinean wife worked for a tourist company associated with trips to the Antarctic peninsula. This stage of my travels manifested itself like many other stages have done: I had very little part in carving my path, but instead found it like a separate living organism taking perfect shape before me, a shape I could have never designed independent of how much time in advance I had begun planning.

I was conned yesterday by a man who by all rights should have been trust-worthy, whose appearance played off of my first-world upbringing and my still partially unchanged value system. Like the car-thieves and con-artists in South Africa who dress in perfect replicas of police uniforms, the smartly-dressed businessman who first alerted me to the mustard on my legs and led me, knowingly, I'm convinced, to the bear-trap, has probably learned that people from the first-world will be more eager to follow someone they can perceive as official and safe than someone wearing more common street clothes. If he had so soundly defeated my own street-smarts, intelligent rationality, keen awareness, and first-world notions at the outset of my journey, before I gained conviction that his kind were a minority opposed by individuals who desire the opposite and seek instead a strengthening of human contact and interactions, then my mistrust, fear, and skepticism might not have broken down as quickly as they did. I feel, however, that this process of reshaping values and perceptions is unavoidable when traveling alone. For some it might require more time on the road, for other's less, but I do not think that the world will permit a nomad dedicated to that world to pass through seas of people without seeing a common thread, a mutual humanness, a shared-ness of hopes, loves, hatreds, fears, strengths, desires, pains, dreams, and pleasures. I found myself at dusk on the same day of The Great Mustard Ruse walking back to my hostal with the sun on my face, tired from filling out forms and being bounced from one office to another all across the city and completely oblivious to the fact that I was on the same block of the same street where I had been robbed earlier in the day. Awareness dawned as I passed the same kiosk where I had been mustard-ized and found myself suddenly arrested by the voice of the shop clerk who had sold me needle and thread calling me over to his counter. This time his eyes and the lines on his face assured me more than his words that he had had nothing to do with the earlier con, and after chatting for a time about what had happened, comparing the events of the morning from our two different angles and perspectives, he gravely took my hand, locked his eyes on mine, and implored me to be more careful and take care of myself. As I walked away, I felt even more strongly than before that everything really was going to be all right.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

From Our Compatriot Mr. Ryan

Neo-Luddism in the NFL, or Why the Chicago Bears will win the Super Bowl

In the late 1700s, outside the village of Lancaster, two British schoolchildren mocked a

worker named Ned Ludd for his apparent stupidity. In a fit of rage, Ludd pursued his antagonists to their very home and gained entry by force. The wily youngsters managed to disappear, and the scorned curmudgeon, seeking an outlet for his fury, set upon the nearest object- a knitting machine. By incident’s end, the implement lay in ruin, and Mr. Ludd (somewhat becalmed, we hope) stalked away.

The event garnered local attention, and history, as it is wont to do, enacted a gradual distortion. The misrepresentation culminated thirty years later, when a group of disenchanted mill workers crowned Ludd a folk hero, interpreting his act as defiance against the burgeoning technological infrastructure. Though their version was apocryphal, it succeeded in spurring the momentum of the cause. For three years, the self-proclaimed ‘Luddites’ defended the working class by engaging in ‘industrial sabotage,’ a mission which mostly comprised attacking factories and assaulting mill-owners. Eventually the powers-that-be grew weary, hung a few of the instigators, and deported the rest to Australia.

Though the original incarnation dried up around 1815, philosophical strains have persisted in the succeeding 200 years. Luddite culprits usually act on an individual basis, the most famous and recent example being Ted Kaczynski, alias ‘The Unabomber.’ But the strength of the market, it seemed, was too great for any kind of unified opposition. This January, however, the group phenomenon has experienced a resuscitation in the most unlikely of places: The National Football League.

It may seem bizarre to accuse the NFL of Neo-Luddism, but once we consider the symbolic evidence from this year’s playoffs (derived by victorious nicknames), it becomes clear that the organization is not merely against the industrial framework. No, the truth graver yet; the NFL appears to have drifted into the far-left reaches of ecological extremism, dedicated to complete demolition of human structures and the restoration of animal supremacy. In turn, they’ve tipped their hand, and the act of Super Bowl prediction becomes mere formality. Behold, the round-by-round corroboration!

AFC, Wild-Card Round:

Patriots defeat Jets: The Luddite manifesto couldn’t have said it better- any man who loves his country must destroy manmade machines- in this case, airplanes.

Colts defeat Chiefs: Young horses, a species so long enslaved by man, usurp the very leaders who once rode upon their backs. What fitting imagery!

NFC, Wild-Card Round:

Seahawks defeat Cowboys: Birds topple humans, and humans, no less, with a history of poor treatment toward animals.

Eagles defeat Giants: Birds unseat the largest, most powerful men in existence. The message from the NFL is clear- even the greatest of our species stand no chance against the animal kingdom.

AFC, Divisional Round:

Patriots defeat Chargers: Again, pure Luddism. A country-loving man must destroy all chargers, making it impossible to power any electronic devices, thereby stymying technology.

Colts defeat Ravens: Here we are confronted with two animal species, and the difference is clearly made by a raven’s similarity to an airplane. Both fly, after all, and association renders them inferior.

NFC, Divisional Round:

Bears defeat Seahawks: As with the preceding example, a ground animal must triumph over its airborne counterpart owing to the latter’s resemblance to man-made flying machines.

Saints defeat Eagles: At first glance, this result appears to buck the trend. However, as noted by my good friend Brian, the eagle has come to represent America, the world’s foremost industrial power. Surely a Luddite group as subtle as the NFL could not tolerate this symbolism. The Eagles, as it were, had to land.

AFC Championship:

Colts defeat Patriots: Animals over man. The noblest of mankind cannot hope to match immature equines.

NFC Championship:

Bears defeat Saints: Perhaps the strongest example. The bear- fierce, solitary symbol of nature- triumphs over humanity’s best. Even canonization, the NFL asserts, is no retribution for the crimes of man.

The undeniable logic of the theory poses serious questions, the most pressing of which concern the future. Will the NFL’s propaganda ever spread beyond coy metaphor? Time will tell. There is one certainty, however, and it pertains to the impending match on February 4th. The playoff pattern seems to long for a return to nature, whose main precept is survival of the strong. The obvious conclusion, then, is that Chicago must emerge victorious. The only possibility of a colt defeating a bear is with a vicious, well-timed kick. Therefore, in the absence of Vinatieri heroics, I predict the following:

Bears 24 – Luddism began with Ned Ludd’s act in 1779- simply add the digits.

Colts 17 – Luddism ended in York, where 17 instigators were tried and executed by the crown.

The Great Mustard Ruse

After months of traveling without incidents of any kind, my luck was bound to run out. The way odds and percentages work, I figure the probability of something unpleasant happening was getting higher and higher each day, combated only by my slow but continuously growing knowledge of the streets. Early this morning, though, perhaps because I was still groggy from a less than sufficient amount of sleep, that knowledge did nothing to avail me. A block and a half from my hostal there is a small kiosk, and it was there that I stopped to purchase a needle and spool of thread on my return from an early, casual birdwatching walk along the river that runs through downtown Cuenca. As I began to walk away from the kiosk, a smartly-dressed businessman - jacket, tie, slacks, well-polished shoes, briefcase, clean-shaven face, neat haircut - tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to my pants with a look of concern and a string of Spanish words that I didn't understand at first. I glanced down and noticed that the backs of both my pant legs were covered with mustard from top to bottom. I had been walking all morning along a tree-lined river, and that fact alone should have first eliminated the possibility that I had sat on or leaned against a massive mustard mess, and then served as the first clue that I was being drawn into an elaborate con. I was so surprised however to see the morning sun reflecting off of such a large quantity of condiment smeared across my legs that I let the kind and helpful businessman lead me across the street to a cafe. The day still early, the cafe was empty, and the owner - a middle aged, slightly overweight, dark-skinned Ecuadorian woman - took us to the bathroom at one end of the single-room, small establishment. I left my bag, newly-purchased hat, and binoculars along the wall next to the bathroom, and the kind and helpful businessman, still in tow, made an effort to assist me in wiping off the pant legs. I thanked the kind and helpful businessman and told him that I could clean the rest myself, and as he left, I returned to the work at hand, noticing out of the corner of my eye two men - or only boys, perhaps - entering the cafe at the same time. I thought nothing of it but looking up a short time later noticed the pack was suddenly gone (though the hat and binoculars were untouched). The woman, still watching attentively over the empty seats and tables in her empty cafe, produced a look that my cynical mind pegged as contrived naivety and explained that the two men had claimed they were taking the bag to have it cleaned. Shrugging at my look of anger and incredulity, she went back to staring blankly at the empty cafe. I dashed into the street and made a circuit of several blocks around the cafe, but the 'bag-cleaners' were nowhere to be seen, having probably jumped on the nearest bus. I walked slowly back to the hostal and assessed my losses en route. I may be a gringo tonto, but I'm not as tonto as some. As has become my custom, I had left my wallet, passport, ATM card, and cash in the hotel room, carrying only a few dollars in my pockets. My little orange notebook - filled with email addresses, poems, phone numbers, people to visit and places to see, ideas, and bird lists, and more precious to me than anything I own - was securely in my pocket. My travel insurance should cover the pack and its contents - raincoat, water bottles, jackknife, small camera; perhaps this is why I wasn't as upset or animated when I arrived back at the hostal and explained to the desk attendant what had happened. She offered to call the police but we both knew they wouldn't be able to do anything, so I declined. More upsetting than losing the replaceable pack filled with replaceable stuff was having my sense of trust and faith in my fellow humans - a crucial and wonderful feeling I've developed, built up, and relied upon over the last eight months of solitary travel (partly out of necessity and partly because I've discovered that there really are a lot of good people in the world) – most upsetting was having this feeling infringed upon, damaged, and partially destroyed. The businessman, the cafe owner, the man at the kiosk all seemed kind and helpful, and I want so badly to believe they truly are good people, but on another level I know they were all part of the con, or at least don't care enough about one ´rich´ gringo who lost his pack. This is the feeling I hate most of all: that of being turned against my fellow human beings, potentially unjustly, by a small number of 'unofficial re-distributors of first-world wealth', by a pair of bad apples who I have come to feel are inactuality just a minority in the world. At least the thieves left me my new hat and binoculars, and at least they robbed me using mustard and a clever ruse, instead of knives and brute force. How many people that you know can actually say they've been held up in downtown Cuenca by a tube of bright-yellow, delicious-smelling mustard?