Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Guardian article - "Fascist America, in 10 easy steps"

Monday, April 23, 2007

September 1, 1939 - W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Keeping Quiet - Pablo Neruda (trans. Alastair Reid)

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

If interested-- the original Spanish language version is here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pity and The Lord of The Rings -

"What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature [Frodo declares] when he had a chance!"

"Pity? [Gandalf replies] It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that [Bilbo] took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."

"I am sorry" said Frodo. "But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum."

"You have not seen him," Gandalf broke in.

"No, and I don’t want to," said Frodo. ". . . Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, or good or Ill, before the end; and when that comes, the
pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many -- yours not least."


"The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many" is the only declaration to be repeated in all three volumes of The Lard of the Rings. (Says Notre Dame professor Ralph C. Wood)

It is the leitmotiv of Tolkien’s epic, its animating theme, its Christian epicenter as well as its circumference. Gandalf’s prophecy is true in the literal sense, for the same vile Gollum whom Bilbo had spared long ago finally enables the Ring’s destruction.

Great literature teaches us something. And here, Tolkien gives us a great nugget of knowledge that might just make us a little uneasy. By nature, humans want to strike back when hit- we want to dole out our version of justice and call it right. But is it right? In this section from The Lore of The Rings, Tolkien gives us one answer to this question- no, it is not right.

There is a place for anger, and while many voices may call for quick vindication -- there must also be a voice like Gandolf's in society pleading for us to be to be slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

London Times article

The scale of the Virginia incident is, sadly, all that distinguishes it

By the desensitising standards of routine American gun violence, yesterday’s shootings at Virginia Tech university were shocking only in their scale. Over more than 20 years, Americans have got grimly used to a ritual that plays out on the cable news every few months. The initial news is sketchy, reports of shots fired at a campus or in a schoolyard. Then, the first confused images of students running terrified from classrooms, black-clothed Swat teams gingerly pressing into doorways; the press conference in which some dazed school principal or university president mutters the first incomplete details, with casualty estimates and emergency phone numbers for worried relatives to call.

Finally, as the horror gradually dawns in its fullness, someone finds some photograph of the gunman, pulled from a high-school yearbook or holiday. Sometimes he is a fresh-faced, American-as-apple-pie-looking young man who friends say would never harm an insect. Other times, in that first image, the brooding face is already a sad window into a soul that is well on the way to its ultimate destination of murderous and suicidal mayhem.

It’s so familiar you could write the script yourself. Only the names change — Jonesboro, Columbine, Lancaster County and now Virginia Tech. And the numbers.

Yesterday’s death toll of more than 30 handed Virginia Tech, a proud college with a strong academic record and a famous sporting pedigree, the unwanted title of worst shooting in US history. There is something slightly unsettling about the way news reporters seize on these landmarks with the kind of statistical excitement with which you would announce a new sporting record. You can’t blame them. It is the only thing that really distinguishes one of these events from another in the public’s mind.

And the truth is that only an optimist would imagine Virginia Tech will hold the new record for very long. Surely in a year or two the news networks will be replaying the same footage from another college, with only the numbers different.

Perhaps of all the elements of American exceptionalism – those factors, positive or negative, that make the US such a different country, politically, socially, culturally, from the rest of the civilised world – it is the gun culture that foreigners find so hard to understand.

The country’s religiosity, so at odds with the rest of the developed world these days; its economic system which seems to tolerate vast disparities of income; even all those strange sports Americans enjoy – all of these can at least be understood by the rest of us, even if not shared.

But why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?

The truth is, not all Americans do oppose such measures. The US of course, is a vast, federal nation, with different laws and cultures in different states. In Virginia, scene of yesterday’s shootings, they passed a law a few years ago that did indeed restrict gun purchases – to a maximum of one per week. In the neighbouring District of Columbia, on the other hand, the law bans the possession of all guns.

DC’s draconian measure highlights one reason tighter gun control is difficult in the US. The federal courts recently ruled that the ban violates Americans’ right to bear arms, as protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

But the constitutional question is not, in fact, settled. The final legal status of gun control rests at least in part on the composition of the Supreme Court and can, and has, changed, over the years.

Those on the Left like to think that the reason guns remain so available lies with the famed power of the National Rifle Association, the body that promotes the interest of gun owners. The NRA is deemed to be so influential that it can force members of congress or state representatives to support permissive gun laws, for fear of losing the association’s useful financial support at election time.

But this is overblown. The NRA is certainly a powerful body but cannot on its own outweigh the views of millions of ordinary Americans.

The simple truth is that Americans themselves remain unwilling to take drastic measures to restrict gun availability. This is rooted deep in the American belief in individual freedom and a powerful suspicion of government. Americans are deeply leery of efforts by government to restrict the freedom to defend themselves. A sizeable minority, perhaps a majority, believe the risk that criminals will perpetrate events such as yesterday’s is a painful but necessary price to pay to protect that freedom.

The sheer scale of the carnage yesterday may after all make the Blacksburg killings truly unique in American history. That will doubtless lead to more self-examination and perhaps calls for new restrictions on firearms. But it won’t change America’s deep-rooted and sometimes lethal commitment to its own freedoms.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

32 lives.

When things like this happen, does it make us question humanity in general? Should it?

But those questions should come later. First - if we hope to learn anything from this, we need to react in a logical progression. We need to find out if the reaction of the university to the shootings was adequate. Some are saying it was not. If it did not respond quickly enough or if it did not notify the campus - leadership must change and new rules must be instituted.

We need to understand why the shooter did what he did. Could it have been prevented?

One issue that stands out for me is the presence of guns in our society. The NRA is a powerful lobbying group and that needs to change. It's silly to think that having a gun is a god given right, and until we change our antiquated and farcical laws on gun ownership we will have more lives lost because of needless gun sales.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Christ worshipping agnostic

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Downhill fast -

When a situation is going as badly as the Iraq war, it's hard to be surprised by much of anything. But this article on the payoffs by the U.S. military to families of killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan really saddens me. This quote struck me as a particularly telling sign that things are going wrongly and quickly headed even more downhill: "In all, the military has paid more than $32 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage, an Army spokeswoman said. That figure does not include condolence payments made at a unit commander’s discretion."

It's not so much that I'm surprised that we are paying these families -- that is the only sensible thing to do -- but I'm caught off guard at the numbers and the stories. I do think this is the way we should look at this war (or any other disaster)-- the big picture (the numbers) and the individual stories (what those numbers really represent). The humanity in the big picture is better represented in the stories of the small picture.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Coming back for a while--

We know that God and the devil are locked together in combat over the world and that the devil has a word to say even at death. In the face of death we cannot say in a fatalistic way, "It is God's will"; we must add the opposite: "It is not God's will." Death shows that the world is not what it should be, but that it needs redemption. Christ alone overcomes death. Here, "It is God's will" and "It is not God's will" come to the most acute paradox and balance each other out. God agrees to be involved in something that is not the divine will, and from now on death must serve God despite itself. From now on, "It is God's will" also embraces "It is not God's will." God's will is the overcoming of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death come under God's power, must it serve the purpose of God. Not a fatalistic surrender, but living faith in Jesus Christ, who died and has risen again for us, can seriously make an end of death for us. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When I read Bonhoeffer and other great religious thinkers who, as Jim Wallis has said were "brilliant intellectuals, yet they felt called by the crisis of their historical moment to act, not just to think," I realize that there is a certain duality of thinking that one must have if they choose the life of the mind. If we remain in the realm of the abstract -- the purely philosophical and theological, we may have no effect. We may be inconsequential. But Bonhoeffer was not a victim to this -- he "felt called to act."

I feel the importance of this desire to act more than ever before.

Having decided to make my life for the next 2-5 years one that might exist in the realm of the abstract (I will be in graduate school studying English in a few months) more so than the realm of reality -- I will be challenged and tempted to seek the safety of academia more than the unsafe alternative of living in the "real world."

So, with Bonhoeffer (and countless others) as my example I look to begin my journey with a hopeful optimism.

"He was both a contemplative and an activist, who showed that you really can’t be one without becoming the other as well. His insistence on the life of personal discipleship to give belief its credibility was matched by his conviction that the life of community was the essential way to demonstrate faith in the world. All those paradoxes were necessary complementarities for Bonhoeffer and formed an integrated faith and life rare in his time, or in any time." -- Jim Wallis on Bonhoeffer.