Tuesday, April 28, 2009

War Music




This weekend I went to a preview of the phenomenal new ACT production War Music, a modern reinterpretation of the Illiad based on the translation (or retelling, really) of Christopher Logue. This is a very powerful piece of poetry, with a percussive meter that was used to good effect in the staging.

About a dozen or so actors took on about 40 different parts, and mostly wore identical costumes based on present-day military desert fatigues, with small variations (the Greeks had red berets, the Trojans blue -- the gods wore carnival masks). This made the complex story harder to follow than it had to be.

The gods were played in a comical style which was very effective in conveying their vanity and caprice, although this sometimes went overboard into farce (Poseidon wearing a diver's mask and flippers, for instance).

The set was a minimalist-modern set of risers, with a golden model of the city of Troy set at the back of the stage. I thought that the presence of the sea was indicated very effectively by the use of large billowing cloths. Lighting was also quite effective, especially the use of a multitude of bare bulbs like traced fire that descended during a battle scene. Despite the name, music was not a very prominent element in the show.

This play seems to have gotten rather poor reviews, and I'm not sure why -- perhaps because it isn't structured much like a traditional play. It's really a dramatic reading of a poem, and the poetry is the strongest element of the production. So, here are the opening verses. It seems the only way I can actually manage to slow myself down enough to give poetry a decent reading is by saying it aloud, or by retyping it.

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.

Now look along that beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
And split by a double-doored gate;
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty's silent power stops your heart
Fast walk, face wet with tears, out past its guard,
And having vanished from their sight
Run with what seems to break the speed of light
Across the dry, then damp, then sand invisible
Beneath inch-high waves that slide
Over each other's luminescent panes;
Then kneel among those panes, beggar his arms, and say:

"Source, hear my voice.
God is your friend. You had me to serve Him.
In turn, He swore: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; and in perpetuity.
And so I chose. Nor have I changed. But now--
By which I mean today, this instance, now --
That Shepherd of the Clouds has seen me trashed
Surely as if He sent a hand to shoo
The army into one, and then, before its eyes,
Painted my body with fresh Trojan excrement."

Sometimes
Before the gods appear
Something is marked:
A noise. A note, perhaps. Perhaps
A change of temperature. Or else, as now,
The scent of oceanic lavender,
That even as it drew his mind
Drew from the seal-coloured sea onto the beach
A mist that moved like weed, then stood, then turned
Into his mother, Thetis', mother lovelost face,
Her finger, next, that lift his chin, that push
His long, redcurrant-coloured hair
Back from his face, her voice, her words:

"Why tears, Achilles?
Rest in my arms and answer from your heart."

The sea as quiet as light.

Random connection: Christopher Logue is on record as calling war "a criminal activity", which echoes Charles Tilly's paper War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, found via recommendation by reader bhyde. Me talking about the similarities between governments and organized crime were what got me started arguing with Michael S, back on Mencius Moldbug's blog. It's all connected, somehow.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Assorted torture laughs and facts


I'm outsourcing this week's torture commentary to a couple of guys who are much funnier than I am. At least on that subject:

First, Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America.
I have now lived through three major episodes in my life where the political elite have told me quite plainly that neither I nor my fellow citizens are sufficiently mature to suffer the public prosecution of major crimes committed within my government. The first was when Gerry Ford told me I wasn’t strong enough to handle the sight of Richard Nixon in the dock. Dick Cheney looked at this episode and determined that the only thing Nixon did wrong was get caught. The second time was when the entire government went into spasm over the crimes of the Iran-Contra gang and I was told that I wasn’t strong enough to see Ronald Reagan impeached or his men packed off to Danbury. Dick Cheney looked at this and determined that the only thing Reagan and his men did wrong was get caught and, by then, Cheney had decided that even that wasn’t really so very wrong and everybody should shut up. Now, Barack Obama, who won election by telling the country and its people that they were great because of all they’d done for him, has told me that I am not strong enough to handle the prosecution of pale and vicious bureaucrats, many of them acting at the behest of Dick Cheney, who decided that the only thing he was doing wrong was nothing at all, who have broken the law, disgraced their oaths, and manifestly belong in a one-room suite at the Hague. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m sick and goddamn tired of being told that, as a citizen, I am too fragile to bear the horrible burden of watching public criminals pay for their crimes and that, as a political entity, my fellow citizens and I are delicate flowers encased in candy-glass who must be kept away from the sight of men in fine suits weeping as they are ripped from the arms of their families and sent off to penal institutions manifestly more kind than those in which they arranged to get their rocks off vicariously while driving other men mad.
And Dear Leader (unexcerptable, go take a look)

Speaking of idiot America, I bet you thought Michelle Bachman was the dumbest person in congress. Here's some cracker named Joe Barton giving her a run for the money (he's schooling Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Stephen Chu on the sources of oil).

And here is IOZ pointing out that we've tortured and committed other assorted imperial crimes for many years, so what's all the big fuss about torture?
The idea that our interrogations are a unique moral stain is cracked and insane. Waterboarding is not the disease, merely one observable symptom of a deeper and more pernicious pathology.
Well, yeah, sort of. Torture is not uniquely immoral, it's just the most glaring and obviously evil form that state power can take. It's been targeted (by me, at least) because it is so obvious. It is not a subject that permits any debate, any nuance, any wishy-washiness. Most political questions are not simple moral questions; there is usually at least a little bit of merit on the other side. Not so with torture, either you oppose it or you aren't a decent human being. Not really complicated. Just like in Harlan County, there are no neutrals here. You are either opposed to torture or a thug for the worst aspects of the state.

Of course, there are a quite a few indecent people out here on the intertubes. I tried to school them in some basics, and didn't get very far -- read the prior and follwing comments if you feel like seeing a bunch of people in deep denial:
  • To be opposed to torture is not to be on the side of the terrorists. It is to be on the side of civilization and law.

  • It is not only deranged leftists who describe US torture as torture. There is, for instance, former Army Major General Taguba.

  • Even if you believe terrorists are sub-humans who deserve to be tortured, there is no guarantee that all of the people we have tortured were guilty of terrorism. There were no trials, no judicial review, no due process, no checks and balances. Even when the law is being followed scrupulously, innocent people get convicted and set to prision. How likely is it then, under the lawless conditions of the Bush/Cheney war on terror, that innocents were swept up and tortured? Here's one who was tortured to death, and there are a great many more like him.

  • It is doubtful that any useful intelligence has been produced by torture in the War on Terror. It is, however, a very good tool for extracting false confessions to justify government policies. That appears to have been its chief purpose:

    A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration...There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said...The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that Chalabi and others had told them were there."

  • Torture is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While naturally it is more important to bring to justice the higher officials who ordered these illegal acts, the Nuremburg Tribunals established the principle that following orders is not a valid defense for war crimes, so the soliders on the ground have to answer as well. I have some sympathy for soldiers in the very difficult position of having to choose between following their orders and following their consciences, but to deny them culpability is to deny their status as moral actors, which is a grave insult. Here's a story about one who was apparently driven to suicide over the choice.
I'm getting pretty damn sick and tired of torture as a subject. It has ceased to interest me; I don't see much more I can learn about it. Reading detailed reports on prisoner abuse is not uplifting. I feel some sort of awful duty, though, to do my small part to bring these facts to light, to confront torture supporters with them. I need to be able to say, when and if justice is done, that I did what I could to stop this most egregious abuse of government power.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The organization of (non)violence

Both Gandhi and the Palestinans have come up in conversation here recently, so I have to post this: The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King in the West Bank, by Gershom Gorenberg (who blogs at South Jerusalem, which is where I found this). It takes a look at the (fairly dim) prospects of Palestinians taking up the strategy of nonviolence that was successful in the hands of Gandhi and King. He finds a few figures in the Palestinian world who might have taken up that role, but for the most part any movements in that direction have been sabotaged, either by more violent Palestinian factions or by Israel. Saints are in short supply.

This fits into my own intermittent thinking on polarization and the dynamics of conflict. Peacemakers are a threat to those who proft from war on both sides. I previously noted that there are standard intra-group conflicts between warmakers and peacemakers. In this particular case, because of the control one side has over the others' affairs, warmakers in Israel were able to reach across the conflict and sabotage a potential peacemaker on the other side.

The mechanics and dynamics of group solidarity and group conflict seem endlessly fascinating, the kind of thing that raises interesting questions that most people can't even recognize as issues. It seems perfectly natural that Israel and Arabs should go to war, or France and Germany should go to war. But "Israel" and "the Arabs" are composed of individuals, who have or ought to have their own goals and agendas. What makes people ready to sacrifice themselves for a group? Suicide bombing is only an extreme case; every solider has been convinced (or coerced) to risk his life for the good of a larger whole. The extroardinary level of social cooperation in humans is matched in the animal kingdom only by the social insects. They too, spend a lot of their energy on war. But the level of cooperation in ants and bees has a genetic explanation. Human groupings, for war and more noble purposes, rely on something else, something that can make abstraction seem worth dying for.

Reflecting on my current sniping with Gagdad Bob and his minions. My mild efforts to tone down the conflict have been unsuccessful. We are bitterly insulting each other, the internet equivalent of war, and over what? Abstractions called "left" and "right", which can't even be defined consistently. Nonetheless they are terribly real in their effects. So is the abstraction called "God", another cause of many a war:



Which led me to this piece, which I remembered reading when I was 12 years old or so.
The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence.
The years have not diminished its shocking clarity.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Deviltry

GB has some more stuff linking the left to Satan...fine, whatever. The left is about resistance to authority, God is the ultimate authority, Satan is the rebel, fine. Hail to His Satanic Majesty!
"Doubt come from the devil, certainty of truth comes from God."
-- Fritjof Schuon

"œI slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning."
-- Aleister Crowley

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

"I am of the Devil's party and know it."
-- Philip Pullman

"œLest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins -- or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom -- Lucifer."
-- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
-- Satan, in Milton's Paradise Lost
Satan has always been a more attractive character than God, because rebels are cool and God is such an asshole. Aside from suborning genocide, getting all bent out of shape if he's not worshiped sufficiently, and other assorted Biblical atrocities, just look at the people he has speak for him on Earth. Who wouldn't want to be on the opposite side from such people? Perhaps in the old days that would have put you on the side of Satan, these days it just puts you on the side of sanity.

I was looking at Schuon since he's a primary source for GB. He's a theologian with a cult following; a member of a group of "pereniallists" who disdain New Ageists because...well, I can't tell you, they seem about the same to me, but what do I know. Maybe there's some value to his work. But that quote above is a sure recipe for mental disaster. It is almost a parody, a distillation, of the self-reinforcing parasitic brain worm model of religion. No wonder G. Bob et al and I have nothing productive to say to each other. Their entire modus operandi is to reinforce some sense of certainty that they locate in religion, whether it comes from personal experience or elsewhere. They cannot be wrong, by their own rules. Whereas in the world of the intellect, where I like to locate myself, everything is open to question. Conservatives complain that the academy is left-wing; but it seems as if thought itself is left-wing, so it's really not that much a surprise.

I haven't quarrelled with the Gagdadites over their metaphysics or spirituality, just their politics. If they want to hold certain spiritual truths to be as certain as mathematics, well, maybe, I've had thoughts in that direction myself. But apparently even to disagree with their politics is to be in league with the devil.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Are Palestinians People?

[this started as a comment on OneCosmos, but got too long, so I pulled out. It relates to themes I explore here occasionally on personhood and dehumanization. Why I keep paying attention to OneCosmos is a cosmic mystery which will have to be addressed separately.]

Gagdad Bob regularly applies dehumanizing language to non-American nationalities as well as to leftists of all stripes. For example, here's a collection of what GB says about Palestinians, all terms quoted from his writings:
Palestinians are barbaric, primitive savages. Palestinians have "mind parasites". They are bloodthirsty and can't evolve. "The average Palestinian wants to murder every last Jewish man, woman, and child". "This is why it is such a monstrosity to exchange the Palestinian beasts of depravity -- who are "living death" -- for the dead Israeli soldiers, who are "stolen life.""
In addition, he was the annoying tic of putting quotes around "Palestinians" as if to pretend that that makes them unreal.

I have relatives in Israel and have lived in Israel. Israelis, whatever their political persuasion, seem to have a more realistic picture of the world then these cheerleaders from afar. For instance, here is Vladimir Jabotinsky, a leader of an early far-right Zionist faction that later grew into the Likud party:
There can be no discussion of voluntary reconciliation between us and the Arabs, not now, and not in the foreseeable future. ... Each of you has some general understanding of the history of colonization. Try to find even one example when the colonization of a country took place with the agreement of the native population. Such an event has never occurred....The natives will always struggle obstinately against the colonists – and it is all the same whether they are cultured or uncultured....Any native people view their country as their national home, of which they will be complete masters. They will never voluntarily allow a new master. So it is for the Arabs. Compromisers among us try to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked with hidden formulations of our basic goals. I flatly refuse to accept this view of the Palestinian Arabs...They have the precise psychology that we have. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux upon his prairie. Each people will struggle against colonizers until the last spark of hope that they can avoid the dangers of conquest and colonization is extinguished. The Palestinians will struggle in this way until there is hardly a spark of hope.
Now, I am no fan of Jabotinsky, who was essentially a Jewish fascist. However, one has to admire both his forthrightness and his willingness to see his opponents as human beings.

Today's stuck song

So I'm walking down the street in San Francisco singsnarling songs from the Tom Waits / William Burroughs collaboration The Black Rider, like this one:
You must be careful in the forest
Broken glass and rusty nails
If you're to bring back something for us
I have bullets for sale
Perhaps it's got to do something with my recently-revealed Satanic connections (this song is sung by the devil himself). I had the pleasure of seeing Marianne Faithfull perform this role in the San Francisco ACT production a few years back. Can't find any videos of that, but the original German version is around: