Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Speechless (because immigrants took my speech).

So, I saw this ad today on CNN. I don't even have any further commentary. I saw this fucking ad on CNN in the afternoon and that's crazy to me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Democracy in a field of brambles.

I recently returned to the Old Testament and can’t help thinking that there’s a strong anarchist strain to be found there. I never really thought that before, but I just see it everywhere this time around. There are some obvious moments—Pharaoh’s defeat, Samuel’s warnings against the establishment of a kingdom, much of the prophetic tradition—but even those parts most dedicated to military triumph and the Law end in disaster precisely when a transition is attempted from the taking of land to the establishment of state authority. The very founding of the chosen nation constantly undermines itself in subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—ironic ways.

What’s fascinating is not only that this is in the text, but that it goes largely ignored by Christian anarchists, who, as far as I know, focus almost exclusively on the pre-Pauline New Testament.

Now, it could be said that the Old Testament’s critiques are simply anti-monarchical. Indeed, I think it’s a miracle of human ignorance that the Old Testament was ever used to unquestioningly prop up monarchies, but there’s more to it: inherent in its denunciations of monarchy are important warnings about empire which our not-monarchy has yet to heed. Furthermore, to restrict the Old Testament’s message to ancient feudalism is to miss some of the Bible’s most important points about the nature of power—and thus to prove it obsolete in our time (a judgment which, no doubt, some readers of this blog will find unsurprising and correct anyway).
Seriously, America? This is effective propaganda?

These musings, in pretty much this sloppily-conceived form, have been bouncing around in my mind recently and complementing my general discontent with the current state of democracy in the U.S.; with my disgust at how hard most people will actually try to remain as ignorant as possible as to the origins of their condition; and with my bewilderment as to how the hell it is that a voting public can be so easily duped into repeatedly and enthusiastically accepting the sorts of candidates which make up our elections.

Enter the Book of Judges, chapter 9. Gideon's already refused the throne and denied it to his sons on the grounds that no human king should rule over Israel (see what I mean?), but now he's dead and his illegitimate son Abimelech has declared himself king. In so doing, he kills his brothers; but Jotham escapes and yells the parable of the bramble king from a mountaintop.

I think this sums up the current political landscape rather nicely:
7 When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, "Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you."
8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree, "Reign over us."
9 The olive tree answered them, "Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?"
10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, "You come and reign over us."
11 But the fig tree answered them, "Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?"
12 Then the trees said to the vine, "You come and reign over us."
13 But the vine said to them, "Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?"
14 So all the trees said to the bramble, "You come and reign over us."
15 And the bramble said to the trees, "If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon."

Friday, August 5, 2011

from "A Key to the Lock"

"To sum up my whole Charge against this Author in a few Words: He has ridiculed both the present Ministry and the last; abused great Statesmen and great Generals; nay the Treaties of whole Nations have not escaped him, nor has the Royal Dignity itself been omitted in the Progress of his Satyr; and all this he has done just at the Meeting of a new Parliament. I hope a proper Authority may be made use of to bring him to condign Punishment: In the mean while I doubt not, if the Persons most concern'd would but order Mr. Bernard Lintott, the Printer and Publisher of this dangerous Piece, to be taken into Custody, and examin'd; many further Discoveries might be made both of this Poet's and his Abettor's secret Designs, which are doubtless of the utmost Importance to the Government."

- "Esdras Barnivelt, Apothecary"
(aka, Alexander Pope, reviewing his own work)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why I went to Italy.

I've now been home for two days from a fantastic trip. Although in the second week it became a for-pleasure wandering tour of central Italy, I was technically there for "work," attending the conference of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric at the University of Bologna. Since then, several people I've spoken with (some of whom are frequent readers of this blog) have asked to see the paper I presented; so--although it makes me a little uncomfortable to publish this in blog form--I'm sharing it here. Please feel free to criticize as brutally as you feel necessary. I took a methodology that calls for exhaustive research and attempted to reduce it to a fifteen minute-long talk, so I'm aware that it has weaknesses, and would be delighted to get feedback from you fine, intelligent folks.

*         *         *

Regional Interests, Universal Truths: The Legal Implications of Conflicting Christian Moral Rhetorics. 
            On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts gave a now infamous speech advocating passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, mandating that all runaway slaves must be returned to their masters, and that the law was enforceable in Free Soil states on pain of fines and/or prison sentences. Part of the Compromise of 1850, the Act was viewed by many of Webster’s constituents as a betrayal of northern sovereignty. Abolitionists obviously opposed it, but even many more moderate and more inclined toward compromise viewed this compromise as an encroachment which forced their hand in the most divisive and important issue of the day, with no less than Abraham Lincoln famously alleging a Southern conspiracy to turn the U.S. into one large slaveholding nation. In Webster’s speech, the emphasis was not on the moral virtue of slavery, but on preservation of the Union and the prevention of secession as the primary objective for American legislators.
By contrast, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reaction to passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and especially to Daniel Webster’s role as an advocate for the Act considers preservation of the Union a worthless goal if the purpose of a nation and its laws amounts to nothing more than the protection of property and the exploitation of human beings as property. Both of these noted pieces of Antebellum oratory make use of an interpretation of human law based on the transcendental Law of God as interpreted in different parts of the New Testament. For considering the use of biblical allusions in each of these famous speeches, I plan to read them through the prism of Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics, in order to show how such a method illuminates the ways in which such oratory is contemporarily and historically interpreted, as well as its effect on the historical interpretation and even canonization of particular works, figures, and movements in American politics.
            In favor of the Fugitive Slave Act, Daniel Webster’s March 7 Speech characterizes the Boston Senator “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States…a body not yet moved from its propriety…” With the specter of secession looming, Webster follows this self-description by noting, “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union.” Personally opposed to slavery but generally moderate and accommodating to Southern interests in his policy decisions, Webster lists the opposing factions on either pole of the debate: well-meaning, devoutly Christian Southern slaveholders, whose peculiar institution certainly has its flaws but who are generally misunderstood and mischaracterized by their foes; and Abolitionists, whose radical perversion of Scripture for the Abolitionist cause sows discord and undermines the possibility of a gradual progress which might organically bring about the end of slavery in due time if given the chance. In support of his allegation that the Abolitionists are in fact engaging in little more than anti-Christian rabble-rousing, Webster points to the Book of Romans, chapter 3 verse 8, in which St. Paul admonishes the Christians at Rome not to “do evil that good may come of it.” Webster’s allusion to Paul’s letter—itself an address aimed at heading off an ideological split between Jewish Christians and converted Gentiles—employs a deceptively simple good/evil binary that nonetheless speaks volumes and quickly makes a complex case for his preferred emphasis.
            It’s important to remember that Webster’s support for the 1850 Compromise was the result of political wrangling in the North, lifelong opposition to radical measures taken for any purpose, and compromise and cooperation with Southerners, especially the Kentuckian Whig Henry Clay. It is with that in mind that audiences would have heard Webster’s self-identification not as a Massachusetts man or Northerner, but an American legislator first and foremost. By identifying this vocation as one which includes him in an august “body not yet removed from its propriety,” Webster lays claim to a correctness of ethical interpretation based on his position as an elected official, and to the ultimate goal of preserving the institution that allows for election, for debate, and for the democratic tradition on which all of Webster’s most celebrated oratory is predicated. In so many words, Webster proves his mettle as primarily American by showing a willingness to compromise his own personal beliefs for an ultimate national good; and the very possibility of such service, debate, and compromise is itself proof of that national good’s superiority to other more specific moral and ethical concerns. The dissolution of slavery would, it is implied, be good; but the disunion inspired by that good would be the greatest possible evil.
            If we accept Webster’s claims, his allusion to the Book of Romans does not posit a purely pragmatic realpolitik approach by which compromise is simply necessary for a chosen outcome; rather, it’s a hermeneutic tool by which the Union and its laws are interpreted as the ultimate manifestation of a shared moral tradition, so that any threat to the Union must be seen as more immoral and more unethical than the alternative.
            Interestingly enough, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s argument against the Fugitive Slave Act over a year later operates on the basis of many shared assumptions regarding the status of the United States and its Constitution as the ultimate manifestations of western moral tradition and ethical progress; with one important distinction: that the Act itself represents not the necessary compromise for maintaining the Union but the opening salvo in a dissolution brought about by national participation in an unforgivable immoral act. Formerly an admirer of Webster’s intelligence and oratorical skill, Emerson considers the March 7 Speech an affront to the principles for which Webster once stood and fought, and which catapulted him to regional admiration and national fame. Throughout his best known works, Emerson sees in the U.S. and its Constitution the embodiment of his paradoxical reconciliation of radical autonomy and a collective spirit of progress. In particular, Emerson had long seen in New England the moral beacon of the republic, with Webster as one of its brightest lights and one of its staunchest defenders of a moral and ethical legislature that upheld what Emerson refers to alternately as “natural law” and “first principles.” Drawing on legal precedents taken from British judicial history, Emerson argues repeatedly that the institution of slavery itself is contrary to basic human morality and decency. For example, quoting from Blackstone, Emerson holds that sovereignty is “the antecedent to any positive precept of the law of nature” and that all “should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render unto every one his due,” continuing that “No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” Going on to borrow from such notables as Coke, Mansfield, Montesquieu, Burke, and even Cicero, Emerson drives home in no uncertain terms the point that even one so dedicated to the letter of the law as Daniel Webster must acknowledge that legal precedent itself holds to a standard of human decency which transcends the merely political. Political ethics and morality, Emerson argues, must be founded on a universal and incontrovertible moral standard which endures throughout human history. This, the argument goes, is not negotiable, regardless of political contingencies: “Laws are merely declaratory of the natural sentiments of mankind and the language of all permanent laws will be in contradiction to any immoral enactment: And thus it happens here: statute fights against statute…” 
            To buttress his case, Emerson presents—as the foundation of European and American civilization—the Golden Rule as stated in the Book of Matthew, 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have others do to you.” Here it’s worth noting that my analysis of these speeches consciously omits the voices of staunch activists on the abolition or pro-slavery sides, not to mention the oratory and writing of such important African-Americans as Frederick Douglass and David Walker. This is to underscore that the discourse being examined here is what would have passed for a quite mainstream treatment of the events of the day, with Webster’s and Emerson’s views being those of a prominent legislator and public intellectual, respectively. With the former addressing fellow members of Congress and the latter a series of patrician New England lecture attendees, it virtually goes without saying that, within the context in which these speeches were heard, the subaltern certainly did not speak. Although both personally disliked the practice of slavery, neither Emerson nor Webster self-identified as a member of the abolitionist movement and—even at the height of their anti-slavery sentiments—both evinced varying levels of ethnocentrism with regards to relations between white and black Americans. Even among abolitionists, there were in the Antebellum period debates as to what would be the rights of freed slaves post-abolition, or whether they should even be allowed to remain in the United States at all.
            Thus we return to Emerson’s citing of the Golden Rule to ask, “Who are these others unto whom we should do as would be done to ourselves?” In other words, who is a citizen, who is human, and who deserves the benefit of universal human morality? It is an obscene question in the 21st century, and yet even in the Romantic humanist milieu of the Antebellum period, the 1850 Compromise was viewed in many quarters as the most sensible and least radical option. As such, the Golden Rule as used by Emerson takes on several implications. The primary concern outlined by Emerson is that the Fugitive Slave Law mandates kidnapping. This applied not only to escaped slaves, but to the fact that several legally freed African-Americans at the time were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Emerson does not need to distinguish between the kidnapping of freedmen and that of escaped slaves, since the primary topic of his speech is not the well-being of the kidnapped, but the moral standing of the kidnappers and the fact that it legally intends to turn otherwise moral citizens into kidnappers: “It is contravened by the mischief it operates. A wicked law can not be executed by good men, and must be by bad. Flagitious men must be employed, and every act of theirs is a stab at public peace. It cannot be executed at such a cost, and so it brings a bribe in its hand. This law comes with infamy in it, and out of it.”
            Speaking to an audience of anti-slavery advocates occupying various spots on the ideological spectrum, Emerson would have found it rhetorically inexpedient to wade into debates about the status of African-Americans, but could easily find common ground among Northerners who felt that the Fugitive Slave Law imposed immorality upon them through a political act which subordinated their own sense of justice to the commercial interests of the South. Thus is revealed a clash of universalities in the speeches of Emerson and Webster. Both New Englanders claim to want to protect the moral foundations upon which the United States was founded, and in doing so both refer to Christian Scripture for evidence of that foundation. Ostensibly, each speaker uses biblical moral standards as a hermeneutic tool with which to interpret the constitutionality and necessity of the Fugitive Slave Act, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. How is this possible?
            I would argue that the use of Christian Scripture as an interpretive tool for positing opposing arguments about the Fugitive Slave Law is itself an example of what Steven Mailloux in Disciplinary Identities describes as “contingent rhetorical beliefs,” whereby the rhetorical heft of the statements used relies not on accuracy of interpretation (which is impossible to determine) or logical validity so much as the “rhetorical force of the ideas hovering around” the terms and quotations in question. So whereas Daniel Webster defends the law based on the need to keep intact the Union and its Constitution, Emerson argues that the law violates natural Law and the human constitution, which chafes against abuse of other humans; thus setting in motion the inevitable unraveling of the Union due to its residing on an unstable foundation—the defense of property rather than human rights, freedom, and love.
            Logically, Webster’s is a strong enough argument: the Union must avoid disunity at all costs; disagreements between free and slave states threaten to create disunity; ergo, the Fugitive Slave Act must be passed to effect a compromise which will prevent secession and Civil War. But as Mailloux aptly points out in describing how discourses often traverse the boundaries of their respective disciplines, “For some people a belief can be weakened not logically but rhetorically by the effects of new experiences, including being scandalized by someone you admire who holds a belief you also hold or by being persuaded that the philosophical status you once gave to your belief (that it was true absolutely) is no longer believable.” If applied to the debate at hand, we might consider some of the absolutes to which both Emerson and Webster (and, presumably, their audiences) subscribed: mainly justice and freedom, as insured in and upheld by the Constitution of the United States of America. Quoting from the New Testament is not merely a way of calling attention to the particular statements quoted, but is itself a powerful signal; the New Testament stands as a rhetorically potent trope, a signifier that carries with it associative implications of transcendental first principles, unquestionable moral standards, and the history of western civilization. By signaling such an interpretation of their speeches, both Webster and Emerson build their arguments regarding the Fugitive Slave Law on the foundation of the universally (at least to their audiences) coveted idea of the United States, which itself rests on deeper, more generally universal foundations such as freedom and justice.
            But what do we mean when we talk about “universals,” “absolutes,” and “first principles”? Building from Stanley Fish’s antifoundationalist critiques of universalism, Mailloux remarks that “Positive universals are empty and must always be filled in by instantiations that are not universal but local, not neutral but interested, not transcendentally general but politically specific. Positive formal universals can never serve the guiding function they claim for themselves.” Thus we see the rhetorical pragmatism at work in the speeches of Webster and Emerson: far from taking their positions on the Fugitive Slave Act from a democratic ethic based on interpretations of universal or natural Law, their uses of biblical allusion are based on foregone moral conclusions. So even as first principles are rhetorically positioned as preceding the political arguments being made, they are actually selected based on the rhetorical efficacy of the very idea of absolutism and universal Law as a metaphor for an otherwise unreachable Truth. This is not to accuse our rhetors of abject relativism—far from it—but rather to consider the structure of truth claims founded upon abstract principles that are paradoxically both unverifiable and extremely powerful. To quote Mailloux again:
These are practical and pragmatist questions, practical in not being based on universalizing theories and pragmatist in making judgments by looking toward the effects of actions. They are also, I submit, rhetorical hermeneutic questions insofar as the judgments made are based on interpretations of past conditions and future probabilities, and those interpretations and resulting judgments are rhetorically enmeshed in the persuasive arguments, enabling tropes, and grounding narratives of the times and places of their rhetorical performance.
 And it is the historical context of the performance—as well as the consistency of the truth claims upon which Webster and Emerson base their arguments—that ultimately dictate interpretations of those speeches for posterity. As mentioned before, Emerson and Webster both operate on assumptions that take for granted such abstract principles as freedom and justice. Both men consider history teleologically, making the case throughout their illustrious careers that the progressive arc of history is toward greater justice and human dignity. And yet, in this instance, only Emerson upholds those principles at the most abstract and affecting—indeed the most pathetic—level. While both make pragmatic rhetorical arguments about the morality of the law as well as practical arguments about the viability of its implementation, Webster uses universal Law not as a centerpiece of his argument but primarily as a precedent to make the case for the necessities of mundane earthly law.
            Lest we consider this a foolish decision on his part, context must again be considered. Webster’s speech was made to a meeting of exasperated Congressmen, many from slaveholding states working to diffuse a four year-long conflict between the Free-Soil and slave states; and it worked: the law was passed. Yet in scholarly settings the speech is now considered—if at all—not for its moral strength or even its persuasiveness but for its rhetorical flourishes, clarity, and construction; what Rufus Choate called the “crystal water of the style.” It is mainly regarded with infamy as an example of skillful oratory used to ignominious ends. And so we see an example of a formerly “extreme” position (abolition) taking on the valence of a universally accepted principle and in so doing changing the interpretation of all the tropes used in a speech predicated on the immutability of certain principles.  
            I consider this an example of what Mailloux identifies as stemming from “events of universal truth-making.” This concept is drawn from philosopher Alain Badiou’s interpretation of Pauline Christianity, which considers Paul’s proclamation of the Word the event that emerges out of a particular situation, which must be named and in its naming develops around itself a truth procedure. Mailloux’s own example in discussing the theory of the event is the September 11 terrorist attacks, an event whose impact had to be universally acknowledged in order for the discourse surrounding it to make sense by standing on a common foundation. To identify at what point Webster’s speech begins to be considered less sensible and less moral in American public discourse than Emerson’s is a difficult task because there are so many individual events that could be said to have turned the tide, and such an analysis requires more historical and theoretical rigor than this short paper allows for. What we can certainly say, however, is that much had not yet taken place in March of 1850 or in May of 1851. Webster’s speech followed the anxieties of the Mexican-American War in a context punctuated by the fear of slave revolts and anxieties over states’ rights; it also preceded the beginnings of more widespread abolitionist sentiment by about a year, and Bleeding Kansas by four years. The election of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War were eleven years away, the Emancipation Proclamation twelve, and the Thirteenth Amendment still fifteen. All of these events—and more—played a role not in relativizing the concept of truth but in constructing it around a shared set of principles drawn from common experience and discourse. As such, they not only shape how we interpret individual tropes within a work, but cause the dominant discourse to view those works themselves—as well as the works to which they allude—as signifiers for ideologies and their valuation as outmoded, progressive, revolutionary, opportunistic or any number of judgments we might apply to them with the benefit of hindsight and careful reading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Grandma's travel and art review.

There it is.
In the original Portuguese:
“Florencia é lindo! Vais ver os Michelangelos! O David com a sua pombinha de fora!"

In English:
"Florence is beautiful! You're going to see the Michelangelos! The David with his little weiner hanging out!"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Keep your head up.

I haven't had time to contribute as much as I'd like, and I'd ideally like to be posting something everyday. But in keeping with a theme running through my May 19 and May 27 posts, it's worth noting that Tupac Shakur would be forty years old were he alive today.

Tupac! Would be forty!

Time does fly, doesn't it?

I can't help but wonder what the cultural and even political landscape would be like had he survived the stupidity that got him killed. Maybe had he lived the world wouldn't have learned its lesson, so it was inevitable that he had to be sacrificed, Jesus-like, for the rest of us to grow up. I personally hate the everything-happens-for-a-reason, let's-reduce-a-person's-death-to-our-own-life-lesson approach, but I suppose it's one way to make sense of senselessness.

It's hard not to dreamily guess at what a Tupac would have to say about these times in which we live. The man was so full of contradictions. For every Hit 'em Up there was a Keep Ya Head Up. For every spittle-hurling vitriolic battle interview a thoughtful expression of compassion and complexity.

I guess those of a mind to believe that there's a point to all this say things like "Everything happens for a reason" to avoid joining the rest of us who can do nothing but shake our heads and sigh.

Fuck the world indeed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron. April 1, 1949 - May 27, 2011.

Gil Scott-Heron died today. I don't know yet what was the cause of death, but that's another truth-teller in the grave too soon. At sixty-two years of age, forty-one years after the release of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and forty after the groundbreaking Pieces of a Man, his words are still all too relevant and--as a nation in general--we have yet to listen. The Godfather of Rap, an unflinchingly prophetic critic of national entropy and persistent injustice, tragicomic to the bitter end. Listen to Gil Scott-Heron. I mean, listen to Gil Scott-Heron. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

das Man.

Something about this pisses you off.
"We have shown earlier how in this environment which lies closest to us, the public 'environment' already is ready-to-hand and is also a matter of concern. In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one's own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of 'the Others', in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the 'they' is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the 'great mass' as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness."

 - Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, I.4

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A letter from Tom Lutz.

Spread this far and wide.

Dear colleagues and students,

After a year and a half as Chair of the department, I am stepping down.  Professor Andrew Winer will be taking my place, for which we should all be grateful.

As my last act as Chair, I would like to share with you my sense of the gravity of the situation we face.  I spent most of my academic career doing what most of us do—teaching, writing, reading graduate applications and theses, having office hours, reading in my field, doing research.  I didn’t pay much attention to the University and its administration.  None of us have that luxury anymore.  Budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts have left us all painfully aware of how the sausage is made, or not made. 

Having served in administrative posts for most of the last five years, I have come to know the budget issues very well.  We are now past the tipping point.  We are on a rapid downhill slide that will have profound effects for our state, our families, our country, and our world.

In the space of less than a single lifetime, the University of California, Riverside went from being a small agricultural experiment station to being one of the top 100 universities in the world.  An incredibly dense and elaborate web of specialists across all fields of scholarship, science, and the arts was developed, and it took enormous efforts by thousands of people over those years to make it happen.  In less than the four years it used to take to graduate, it is being destroyed.

Our department is a great example of the breadth of vision and dogged effort that has made Riverside the exceptional place it has been.  There are other creative writing programs in the country, but not a single one anywhere with the range across genres and fields, with the breadth of knowledge in world literatures, with the diversity of voices, methods, and styles that we have.  And there is not another creative writing program anywhere—and certainly none with our caliber of professors—that is more truly dedicated to its pedagogical mission at every level.  The faculty at Princeton is perhaps a bit more famous, but undergraduates there never meet them, much less have access to them in, before, and after class.  I have now taught at every kind of school—fancy elite universities, small colleges, Big 10 universities, art schools, and universities abroad.  I have never been part of a faculty this student-centered, this concerned about the educational experience and future prospects of its undergraduate and graduate students.

Three years ago I was offered a job at USC, which is much closer to my house, more prestigious as an academic address, and was offering me more money.  UCR worked hard and did the best it could to match the salary and I stayed.  I stayed because I wanted to be part of this project, I wanted to teach a student body that is over 85% first-generation college students, that comes not from the richest families in California but some of the poorest, a group of students that have a much greater likelihood than not of coming from immigrant families and from families that speak more than English.  I wanted to remain part of one of the greatest democratic experiments in history, and certainly one of the few greatest experiments in public education in the history of the human race, the University of California.

If I got that offer today, though, I’m not sure I could turn it down, and in fact, many people are not turning down outside offers these days.  There are people who have taught here for more than twenty years considering going somewhere else, somewhere the future is a bit more certain.  These are people who are the best in their field—you don’t get such offers unless someone thinks you are among the best in your field—and UCR, and the educational experience at UCR, is diminished each time this happens, each time one of the best of our best leaves for a better job.  We can’t blame them—they have kids of their own to put through college, they have research projects that require funding, they know that to teach the most complex subjects effectively, they need to run seminars with 15 students sitting around the table, not 150.

The budget cuts of recent years and the ones we know for certain are coming next year mean a gross deterioration of our school.  Those faculty who leave for better jobs are not being replaced.  Many of you know Yvonne Howard, who has been the chief administrator for our department since it was founded.  This year her job was unceremoniously terminated.  Staff people and faculty who retire are not being replaced.  Next year students at UCR will have trouble getting the classes they need, and many of the classes they get will be crowded beyond responsible limits.  Departments are being forced to abandon optimal class-size limits for classes two, three, and five times that size.   The library has virtually stopped buying books.  We are on a race to become a mediocre university at best, and if the $500 million of proposed cuts to UC turn into a billion dollars, as they are now discussing in Sacramento, we will be over.  The billion dollar cut translates into thousands of classes across the system.  It means creative writing workshops with 50 students.  It means we will cease to be a real university, and will simply become another community-college-level institution. Then, maybe, after a few years, with tuition at $25,000 or $30,000 a year, we can begin the slow build back into a real university.

Why is this happening?  Political demagoguery and corruption.  Thirty years ago UC received 9% of the state budget and prisons 3%.  Now UC gets 3% and the prison-industrial complex gets 9%.  The legislature is taking the money that should be used to educate the best of its citizens and using it enrich the people who make a profit from the imprisoning the poorest.  The percentage of the cost of higher education provided by the state has been cut in half, cut in half again, and is on the verge of getting cut in half a third time.  The people in the legislature understand the value of public higher education—the vast majority of them have degrees from our state system, and many of them have multiple degrees—all made possible by the legislators who preceded them and had more courage.  They do not protect the University for a very simple reason:  because they risk a flow of conservative attacks and Tea Party racism if they stick up for anything that is directly devoted to the commonweal.

In my darkest moments, I think the monied interests working against reasonable taxation are doing so because they consciously, actively seek to make sure we do not have an informed, educated citizenry, the better to extract our collective labor and wealth unimpeded.  But such intentionality isn’t necessary.  Simple, short-sighted, grab-it-now, bottom-line greed explains their destruction of our culture, without recourse to any dystopian conspiracies.

The only thing that has a chance of turning this devastation around is student activism.  We in higher education cannot spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions the way the prison profiteers or the medical and insurance and aerospace industries do, so we need to find other ways to provide a political counterweight.  We need to make our voices heard.  For you students, your own self-interest should be the catalyst, as you will, no matter what happens this year, have trouble finding the classes you need, much less than the ones you want, and the chance you will graduate in a reasonable amount of time is already gone. But you should also think of what this means for your families, your neighbors, your friends, your own kids when they come of age.  And think what it means if California reduces its higher education budget to the levels of Missouri or West Virginia—we will become like those places.  Because of its education system, a system that, until just a few years ago, has always been considered the best in the country, California has been among the most innovative and significant literary and cultural centers in the country, and because of this education system, too, California has been the economic powerhouse it has been—1000 research and development companies a year are formed out of the UC system, for instance, and four UC inventions a week are presented to the patent office.   We had the best educational system because we were willing to pay for it, and our expenditures were among the highest in the nation, too. In a few short years we have dropped into the middle in state spending, and we are fast falling even farther.  Only a political movement strong enough to buck the corporate money determining our tax policy can change this downward spiral.  Only you can make that happen.

We have been told, from the top, not to expect a return to ‘the glory days.’  This year was not the glory days.  This year we already have discussion sections that are not discussions, fewer classes, an exploded faculty:student ratio; we are very far from the glory days.  Now that either 500 million or 1 billion more dollars are getting yanked out of the system, your favorite lecturer will be gone.  The class you wanted won’t exist anymore.  Your student advisor will have 800 or 1000 students to advise instead of the 300 we all agreed was an absolute maximum two short years ago.  This is the end of quality.  And why?  Because a few very wealthy people are protecting their wealth from taxes, taxes considered reasonable not only everywhere else in the developed world, but considered reasonable in America until the last 20 years.

I hope you get angry.  I hope you get active. Call and write your legislators, get out in the streets, take back your university, don’t let yourselves be the last people to have even this chance.

Tom Lutz
Professor and Chair, Department of Creative Writing

May 19.

May 19 is Malcolm X's birthday. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz would be turning 86 were he alive today. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 82. Medgar Evers would be 85. Fred Hampton: 63. Bunchy Carter: 69.

All (and many others) were killed within a five year span at the peak of COINTELPRO's efforts to prevent the emergence of a "black messiah." That's not even conspiracy theory--that shit's in the file.

Their truncated efforts fomented the rumblings that Nixon used at the end of the 1960s to seize on fears of integration and black urban migration with the euphemism "Law and Order." That became Reagan's "Morning in America," with its wars on vague concepts and its rancid downward trickles.

But unless you grew up in a disenfranchised community with some sort of minority political agitation, making those connections is just not a valid part of the study of history. If it comes at all, most Americans will only ever get that part in college--and now the motherfuckers want to take that away. Intersections like these are not simple coincidences, folks: UC tuition might jump 32% if tax proposal fails, official says.  

Just because we can't point to some back room where one group of scary men in suits pulls all the world's strings doesn't mean the game's not rigged to work in the favor of a de facto aristocracy. 

How many investment bankers have you seen in handcuffs?

Maybe Ahab was right when he observed that "This whole act's immutably decreed." 


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Theirs was always a diasporic consciousness of sorts. Their dispersal hadn't been forced per se, but for them existence itself had woven into it a vaguely haunting sense of wandering, of being truly at home nowhere despite putting down roots. It was all the more disconcerting when one considered that, materially, they did have quite comfortably settled homes. They had carried on the old traditions wherever they settled, had built churches and clubs, started businesses, founded societies and sports teams, even convinced local schools to teach the children in the language of their fathers and mothers. They had carved out a niche for themselves so perfect that it was now hardly recognizable as the space to which they had immigrated--it was an island of the old country in the new ocean, a space they'd made theirs, a space they'd made home.

Home was also the old, the real island in the real ocean, the windswept green on bulging hills, the cobblestones and whitewashed homes that had all moved on without them after they left. People often noted that the imitation of the old in the new country had become more authentically old than the now increasingly new old country.

No home was what it had once seemed, no home was comfortably home. And they, these wanderers, were never actually home, were never completely visiting. One foot was always on the platform. But the hills remained, veiled in chill mists so dense that they seemed to muffle the ocean's roar.

All video clips lifted from the vimeo page of Ruben Tavares, whose montages of Terceira turn me into a ball of nostalgic misty-eyed mush.

Ilha Terceira - 24 horas em Timelapse from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Céu Nocturno from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Twilight (Azores) from Ruben Tavares on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


So it's not new--it's from 2006, to be exact--but as I just saw it I have to recommend Byron Hurt's short documentary about hyper-masculinity in hip-hop, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (links to the entire film online).

Highlights include Jadakiss's annoyingly stubborn but shrewdly pragmatic defense of all that the film examines, Fat Joe's candid and somewhat touching self-critique, some incisive commentary from Michael Eric Dyson and Chuck D., and an interview in which--when challenged--a bunch of aspiring rappers pull a complete about-face from talking about killing and raping to reveal tragically repressed social consciousness.

I hope to post some blogs on related matters soon--a reading of Nas lyrics, some words on de-facto segregation and urban decay, polemics against the right's assault on Planned Parenthood, passive aggressive neighbors--but of course that will all depend on how this quarter pans out.

So...stay tuned?

For now I just wanted to post something on here before the weekend's end.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why I refuse to celebrate.

"That is a subtle observation on the part of philosophy: you can both love virtue too much and behave with excess in an action which itself is just."
- Michel de Montaigne, On moderation
* * *
 "...but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things."
- St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine
* * *
I took notes, I sat down, I got tired and frankly lost interest in the whole thing. I was going to compose this long argument about why I think it's wrong to celebrate even a justified death, how it demeans us as a society, how the sudden mainstreaming and approval of our tendency toward ultranationalist necrophilia gives me the creeps, how I don't want to be aligned with people who consider a mosque several blocks away from Ground Zero sacrilege and then go get drunk at Ground Zero and encourage drunken superpatriot college girls to flash their breasts...and so on. But Osama hatefuck fatigue has set in (exacerbated by Obama lovefest fatigue, which in this context is just as irritating), and I think we'd all be better served if I just linked to these remarkably thoughtful pieces by Mona Eltahawy at The Guardian and David Sirota at While you're at it, if you really want to see the depths to which people stoop during a civilization's decline, check this link to a Wonkette article about Osama's Dead merchandise. Maybe you can get your dog a shirt, or treat yourself to a trucker cap.

Or just take a look at the guy in the clip below. And if you don't see layer upon layer of horrifying irony here, may God help you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Trump, Black King, Poker Face: The Anatomy of A Political Takedown.

Much has been made in recent days of President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and rightfully so. It was brutally funny. Or was it hilariously brutal? In any case, it’s safe to say that anyone still supporting The Donald’s potential bid for the White House does so quietly and with some embarrassment. As host Seth Meyers noted at the dinner, Trump’s candidacy was—or is it still?—a joke. And although I’m not usually a vindictive person who relishes the humiliation of another human being, I can’t honestly say that I was anything but delighted to watch the smile fade from Trump’s face as he watched his grandiose political aspirations slip away in a hail of roaring laughter at his bombastic stupidity.

Then on Sunday an extra dimension was retroactively added to that verbal trouncing, as YouTubers everywhere returned to the video to re-watch it in light of current events. What one sees in that clip pre-May 1 is an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a skilled orator holding the higher moral ground in an absurd situation. Post-May 1, it’s an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a head-of-state staring down his detractors after secretly giving the order to eliminate the nation’s—perhaps the world’s—most vilified foe. Bloggers especially latched onto one clip of Obama laughing heartily at a quip by Seth Meyers about Osama bin Laden’s elusiveness, and the president was roundly applauded for maintaining his “poker face.” I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do, but it was really intriguing to watch amid the collective national fist-pumping over bin Laden’s death.

But why is this so satisfying to me? Am I relishing the fact that our awesome president finally has some points on the Republicans? Am I just really super excited that a terrible dude trained in the midst of a terrible idea died a terrible death during a terrible war, thus proving how fucking awesome America is and allowing me to finally be proud to be an Obama supporter because all this time I’ve felt effete and weak by not being able to express how badass a patriotic red-blooded American I can really be?

Well, no.

It can’t be a vindication of Obama’s policies that makes me smile, because I’ve been generally pretty dissatisfied—if not disgusted outright—with those. Corporate bailouts, our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gitmo, Race to the Top, the severely compromised health care plan, and a host of other letdowns have left me pretty disillusioned with an administration whose campaign stickers I still have by the stack somewhere in my apartment.

And it’s not because Osama bin Laden’s dead. I mean, I’m glad that a planner of and inspiration to mass murder is off the grid, and sure I take some pleasure in the fact that the guy was capped on a non-Republican’s watch.  But the Democrats don’t have—will never have—clean hands either, and I’m not about to engage in all this bloodthirsty fist-pumping about how great violence and death are when they’re justified (quick side note about that: what the fuck are you doing, American liberals? Have you only opposed violent rhetoric and stupid jingoism up until now because it wasn’t your team carrying it out? ).

No, what turned my frown upside down was something different, something most Americans would (wrongly) consider a separate issue. What I’ve relished in viewing upon viewing of this smackdown is the complete disregard it shows for the “race card” taboo in American politics. Of course, it wasn’t (couldn’t) be framed that way explicitly, but it was there—it couldn’t not be there, focused as it was on the Birther issue. The Birther movement is a racist movement, regardless of whatever else they try to say and how gingerly the media tries to dance around that fact when they give it airtime. It’s not a coincidence that “Birther” is one letter away from “Bircher”—these are xenophobic nativists and nothing more. President Obama will never be an American to them, just as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were treated as buffoons—African-Americans are not Americans to these folks, and non-Americans are hardly even people.

But you can’t say that. To point that out would be to “play the race card.” Because the racists are not playing the race card, they’re being “patriots” and “realists,” they’re being vigilant about the Constitution or looking out for American jobs. So the rest of us are supposed to keep our mouths shut. We’re supposed to grind our teeth in silence at Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, Jesse Helms’s hands, National Security PAC’s Willie Horton ad, John McCain’s Messiah commercials—but to point out the racist implications of each is going too far. That’s playing the “race card.”

So, to get this definition straight: playing on racial tensions and xenophobic fears, enacting racially discriminatory policies, employing racist rhetoric to appeal to a base of disgruntled sheeple is fair game. Pointing out these strategies and calling them for what they are: playing the race card.

It’s a clever metaphor, simultaneously implying a knockout quality and an unfair, forbidden advantage. So it’s both a trump card in the political game and a form of cheating. It’s as though, despite its power to win everything, it’s actually not part of this game, making it shameful to put it on the table. Of course, that’s bullshit. First, it’s incredibly rare that the perceived “race card” actually wins anything. Second, race is always already on the table—it’s only when we identify it that it becomes an issue.

What’s most troubling about this for me is that liberals play along. I think some of this is pure political pragmatism, but there’s something else going on: liberals (actually neoliberals, but let’s call them what they call themselves) relish their little victories. We really wanted to think we’d fixed racism when Obama won the election. We really like the idea that Brown v. Board of Education and the Voters’ Rights Act healed all those old wounds. Explain to a room full of white liberals how crack proliferated in American ghettos, why incarceration rates reveal a new form of Jim Crow, and watch how many squirm uncomfortably if not challenge you outright.

So the race card doesn’t get played not because it’s politically inexpedient. It’s politically inexpedient because half of the “left” in America is drinking the right’s Kool-Aid and allowing itself to be shamed into submission.

And that’s what made me love Obama’s roast of Donald Trump. He didn’t pull any punches and he didn’t leave the race card off the table. He slammed Trump, he mocked Michelle Bachmann for being an abject liar, he slammed FOX News for its idiotic coverage of every sensational tidbit they could scavenge from right wing hacks, and he didn’t let up until he’d essentially destroyed their ability to ever speak again on this issue. It was more than a series of political jokes, it was a rhetorical submission hold.

My reading is certainly open to disagreement, but I would direct detractors’ attention to the Lion King bit and ask that you consider all the implications of calling that the president’s birth video. In one crushing blow (and using a beloved Disney clip!) Obama brutally mocks rumors of his African birth, criticisms of his campaign’s messianic undertones, and questions of his leadership. It’s cocksure, brazen, and—to me, at least—glorious.

As far as I’m concerned, all of this turns on race—John McCain’s “The One” ad, which mocked Obama’s “messiah” status, was little more than a thinly veiled critique of an “uppity” negro. Questions of the president’s leadership are certainly merited, but much of that discourse has adopted the assumptions and rhetorical strategies of the Birther movement, which is pure xenophobia, and a huge segment of our population ate it up.

It’s that segment of the population that Obama’s speech really nailed. If anything, Trump was cancelled out and shown to be a political zero, FOX and Bachmann were called out for the stupidity we knew about all along—those are easy. But without Trump or Bachmann the idiots in our nation will carry on. They’ll find new leaders to spit vitriol and preach hate in the name of Christian love, so who cares about Trump and Bachmann.

What this speech really accomplished was a takedown of a form of political discourse, exposing a powerful ideology as nothing but stupid bigotry. Obama stood before the nation, looked half of it in the eye, and issued a smiling but serious “Fuck you.”

Does that mean they’ll go away? No. But at least I know that, for all the other shit he does wrong, this president can take a stand in the culture wars and be on the right side of history. Whether he’ll continue to do that remains to be seen, but for about five minutes, as the Black King trumped the Trump with a race card, it felt pretty good.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Springtime in the 'vine.

As much as I love to complain about the county of Orange, the Orange County city of Irvine, and the weirdly orange apartment complex I call home, living here has its benefits. We're close to the beach, not that far from L.A. (which for me also means that I'm close to family), and of course I'm within walking distance of campus.

My favorite thing about Irvine, however, is how the hills look in the spring. After January, February, and some March rains, April around here is gorgeous. Uninhabited parts are covered in tall grasses, yellow and purple flowers, blooming trees. Cottontail rabbits and squirrels abound, stalked by ever-present hawks. The sun is warm but--for now at least--the air is cool.

So every morning for the past few weeks I've started my day by just sitting on the steps of my building and looking out at the little ravine that runs parallel to Anteater Drive. The tranquility of the scene has been compromised this week by repairs to the roofs of neighboring buildings, but I don't care. The smell of tar, the pneumatic pops of nail guns, the guys in bright orange and neon yellow vests sitting down for lunch in the parking lot all just blend into the scene if you're in the right mood. After all, it's not like this is rural North Dakota--we're in Irvine. Strip mall developers won the war a long time ago. You can't take in the bunnies without the roofers, so lamenting encroachment on nature is futile.

It's best to just see it all as one and enjoy the panorama.

Over the past few days a couple of finches have settled into a gap between the steps above my door. They appear to still be building the nest, and I don't hear any baby chirps yet, so I think for now it's just the two of them. Just another starry-eyed, nervous young couple moving into a new home in Orange County. This morning when I came out for my daily sit-down-and-stare session, the finches were apparently in the middle of renovations--as soon as I stepped outside they chirped frantically and perched on a bit of railing just above my head. The female sat still, eying me warily, while the red-chested male hopped back and forth in a furious panic. They both held feathers and twigs in their beaks, as evidence that I'd interrupted them in the midst of moving in. I tried sitting low on the steps and tight against a wall so they'd realize I wasn't a threat, but they weren't having it. Their panic just increased, the female's head shifting from side to side while the male continued his angry dance. Their chirping reached a fever pitch that weirdly blended with the rhythm of the roofers' nail guns.

In the parking lot below, and directly under the panicked birds in my line of vision, one of the roofers argued with his foreman. He held a hammer in one hand and a spatula in the other, the brim of his hard hat exaggerated his nods or head shakes in response to the foreman's scolding. The foreman held a pencil and a clipboard, which he waved around while gesticulating for emphasis, or pointed at a spot on the roof of a distant building to make his case. They didn't appear to be angry at one another, but the disagreement was serious, as evinced by the mounting volume of their protests and the shiftiness of the foreman. As the roofer signaled uncomfortable resistance by crossing his arms tightly and planting his feet, the foreman spoke loudly and with gravity, pointing upward in all directions with both hands, pacing, walking in semi-circles in front of his employee while laying down the law.

Directly above them, the female bird planted herself on the railing and chirped nervously while her mate chattered in anger and repeatedly hopped over her, making it clear that he was not happy about being interrupted during the construction process.

Monday, April 11, 2011

happy thoughts with chemical assistance.

"Maybe the collapse of academia will be good for us in the long run. No, seriously! Right now we're generally acknowledged to be pretty smart. Think of how smart we'll look thirty years from now. We'll be, like, geniuses--prophets!"

- Friend, whose glass is half full

Sexy shit.

The "opposite" of the ossature is the intestines, which gets us close to Swift's disgust with the excretions of the body--a disgust, as a significant quotation from Swift in Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral makes clear, that was also linked with sex, because of the way in which the body has economized in localizing the channels of these two functions. This sense of a union between love and filth was the essence of his working credo, that "everything spiritual and valuable has a gross and revolting parody, very similar to it, with the same name." If the "life within" equals intestines, and the "life without" equals a deceptive projection of the skeleton, and the man's love of woman is secretly tied to both, maybe there is no way of making peace with the state of things. One is on the run, like Whitman, but without the "salute."
 Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History

image: A Scene from 'Description of a City Shower' by Jonathan Swift.  
Edward Penny, 1764.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If the hat fits...

     "The cool was a whitened degenerative form of bebop. And when mainline America was vaguely hipped, the TV people (wizards of total communication) began to use it to make people buy cigarettes and deodorants . . . or put life into effeminate dicks (uhh, detectives). The white boys slid into all the studio gigs, playing 'their' music, for sure.
     So-called 'pop,' which is a citified version of Rock 'n' Roll (just as the Detroit-Motown Sound is a slick citified version of older R&B-Gospel influenced forms) also sees to it that those TV jobs, indeed that dollar-popularity, remains white. Not only the Beatles, but any group of Myddle-class white boys who need a haircut and male hormones can be in a pop group. That's what pop means. Which is exactly what 'cool' was, and even clearer, exactly what Dixieland was, complete with funny hats and funny names . . . white boys, in lieu of the initial passion, will always make it about funny hats . . . which be their constant minstrel need, the derogation of the real, come out again."
-LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), "Jazz and the White Critic." 1966

Monday, March 28, 2011

Decline and/or Fall.

From The New York Times, an exercise in agonizingly strained optimism: Opportunities and Perils for Obama in Military Action in Libya. How many ways can one find to say "If it works..."?
The Course of Empire: Destruction. Thomas Cole, 1836.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Two fun facts.

"There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good...Swiss watch?"
- Cherry Valance (John Ireland), Red River, 1948
Seeing these sexy dudes size up each other's guns made the Duke feel all funny inside.
At the start of filming for the 1948 Howard Hawks film Red River (which I reluctantly watched and thoroughly enjoyed thanks to the great Roberto), there was concern that John Wayne and Montgomery Clift would not get along due to their matching outspokenness on opposite sides of the political spectrum. They agreed to steer clear of politics on set, but Wayne and Walter Brennan both made it a point to avoid Clift off-camera because he was a known homosexual. Shit really hit the fan when a rumor made it to the Duke that Monty was having an affair with John Ireland, at which point the Santa Ana Airport's namesake actually lobbied to have his costar fired.

So I can be dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that John Wayne made some (some!) really good films, but I maintain that the guy was a complete jerk-off. 

Thank you, Public Enemy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Brave New World.

An exchange between my father and a friend of his, both of whom were raised in villages on the island of Terceira, upon hearing that their sons (myself and a friend, both of whom were raised in southern California) hung out together on the east coast:

"These guys go to New York easier than we used to go to the city."

"It's true. We hardly ever left the village. Maybe once a month. But we used to have to walk."

"Yeah, I guess if they had to walk they wouldn't make that trip so often."

Friday, March 25, 2011

"You daggone right."

I think that as a nation we need to be reminded that what's passed for country music over the past few decades is actually a popular offshoot several removes from what the term "country" once referred to. I don't mean this as an argument about authenticity--that's a discussion that tends to give me hives--but merely to suggest that most members of my generation who subscribe to the "I listen to everything but country" position don't know what they're actually missing.

How can you dislike someone who threatens to kick your ass with such a winning smile?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Pow, you're dead." (1932-2011)

The Westboro Baptists have come to serve some practical purposes in American society, not least of which is to paradoxically confer honor on their declared foes. If you've earned a Westboro Baptist picket line at your funeral, you're okay by me.

So the fact that they've announced their intention to picket Elizabeth Taylor's funeral shouldn't just elicit anger. Rather, it should enable us to chip away at the patina of celebrity craziness with which Taylor's been tarnished for at least as long as I can remember.

Also: damn, she was pretty!
Many of the people most repulsed by the Westboro Baptists today seem to have conveniently forgotten that for a while back when they lived in Reaganland it was perfectly acceptable and quite common to talk about AIDS much as the Phelps family does now: as God's punishment for the abomination of homosexuality, or at least as the natural consequence incurred by a population for living in sin. And while most everyone else with a high profile was either maintaining a cowardly silence or running in the opposite direction, Taylor came out and voiced her unequivocal support for a segment of the population whose suffering was for most Americans little more than the butt of tasteless jokes.

So child star, addict, alcoholic, home-wrecker, serial monogamist, odd religious convert, narcissist who did and said some crazy things in that long strange second half of her life--whatever. Dame Elizabeth has earned her Westboro tribute, and whatever else one might say about her career or her very public personal life, that gets a tip of the hat from this humble blogger.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wheezy 'n' Breezy

Are we there yet?

No, and we'll never get there. Wherever we are is here, and there will always be somewhere else. We're just chasing the horizon. There will never be here and here will never be there. We'll never get there, and that's the most important thing to remember. The joy's in the voyage, in the constant chasing and the knowing that it's never to be caught.

Shit, we wouldn't know what to do if we did catch it.

A haunting on the Newburyport/Rockport line, or...

Friday four pm, Newburyport/Rockport line from Salem to Boston, after a day of maritime mansions museums witches handless wax figures and colonial Newengland homes in biting harbor breezes, coupled like pigeons on the spacious cushioned bench awaiting departure anticipating this last lovely evening of a sweetest week Cambridge Portuguese food followed by a gentle nighttime walk and Greenline back to the Northend a stroll to Caffévittoria for coffee and pastries and peoplewatching, you lazily cock your head right to lean on her shoulder maybe steal a kiss on the neck a nibble of the earlobe but your hatbrim impedes tenderness so you remove it and lean in again longingly nestling, she brushes back your hair caresses your neck kissing your forehead and you can feel the warmth of her gaze as her right hand slips over yours fingers interlocking in your coat pocket squeezing tight as you turn to stare into widebrown longlashed eyes glistening above plumpdimpled coldbitten carnation cheeks the most welcoming of smiles housing a neat file of white teeth interrupted by a wayward speck of ancient errant coastal sand from erstwhile colonies, a laugh a kiss on the lips prolonged with heavy lidded tired eyes closing closed in suspended touch as the train commences chugging picks up speed rumbles louderlouder louderstill almost like a jet engine buildingrisingbuilding to a pitch lurch and jolt beneath your seat.

Head cocked left slowly unlidding eyes suddenly stabbed by lightblade through tiny square window over massive shoulder of baseballcapped collegestudent whose right elbow violates the claustrophobic seat threshold, to your right leatherjacketed Dylaneque computerprogrammer plies his trade on seatback tabletop devoid of smiles or dimples or kisses oblivious to frigid breezes and fugitive sands, no Friday shoulder beneath your head no fingers interlaced with yours on this Saturday three pm flight from Boston to Denver to Orangecounty, only Bostonharbor receding beyond a bulky baseballcapped collegestudent frame, only retreating Massachusettsbay cloaked in mist a cumulus roof over Friday fickle a floor beneath train rumble become jet engine hum on Saturday ascending, longing, ascending.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"This land was made for you and me."

"Go home!"
In response to the video of their hate speech having gone viral, the purveyors of OC’s ugliest fighting words have gone on the defensive, with Ed Royce condemning hate speech and distancing himself from the nastiest bits of that video while reminding us that the speakers at the CAIR event were deserving of criticism. Deborah Pauly says her words were taken out of context by deceptive editing, and Gary Miller continues to cower in the shadows.

To be fair, Royce’s distancing of himself temporally from the screaming hate-gasm makes sense: it’s clear from the video that the elected officials in question spoke during the late afternoon, whereas the shrieking took place at night.

The problem with using that fact as a defense is that the video has audio, and in it Royce sure seems happy to receive applause from these same people whose beliefs he now claims to find detestable.

But, Royce reminds us, event guest Abdel Malek Ali is himself still a pretty detestable figure; and it’s true that the man’s said some detestable things in his loud and strange career. Yet despite what these speakers and a few fringe right wing blogs and organizations would like to have us believe, neither he nor his fellow speaker Siraj Wahhaj have any links to terrorist organizations.

As for Pauly’s statements, she’s right: the video is heavily edited. So if her words were taken out of context, then it should be easy enough to see how wrong we’ve all been about her. All we need is the full video, or a transcript of her speech.

Interestingly enough, despite the pride Pauly’s shown for participating in the event (see her twitter feed—or, you know, don’t), she’s refused to release a written transcript of her speech. Furthermore, the blogs defending her as having been taken out of context (you can google them, I’m not giving those fools traffic) when she seemed to be advocating the murder of Muslims don’t bother to show her in context.

Why might that be?

Perhaps it’s because the full video (posted below—Pauly starts around 00:43) doesn’t exonerate Pauly of the charge of wholesale Islamophobia. Yes, when she talks about Marines sending “these terrorists” to paradise, one might (but one also might just as easily not) infer that she’s talking about actual terrorists. However, what emerges from watching her entire speech is a sense of just how completely she lumps all Muslims together as a terroristic monolith. If anything, context worsens the impact by making it clear how inclusive her vision really is.

That’s all I’ll say about it. I'm sleepy and tired, and besides, you can see for yourself how the thing unfolds "in context." I have no reservations about continuing to call these people hate-mongering cowards and laughing bitterly at the irony of their freedom jabber. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

"I confess to you, Lord, that I still do not know what time is, and I further confess to you, Lord, that as I say this I know myself to be conditioned by time. For a long period already I have been speaking about time, and that long period can only be an interval of time. So how do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Perhaps what I do not know is how to articulate what I do know. My condition is not good if I do not even know what it is I do not know."

- St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Rosinha dos Limões

A haunting and playful daydream of a fado on one of the genre's seemingly (some would say annoyingly) inexhaustible themes--unrequited love--A Rosinha dos Limões has always reminded me of childhood. This, for me, is comfort music.

The title literally translates to "Rosie of the Lemons," but when I was a teenager in a traditional Portuguese guitar group we used to jokingly call it "Rosie and the Lemons," thus seemingly transforming the song's eponymous protagonist from a lemon-selling peasant girl to the lead vocalist of an arena rock band. I got in the habit of calling the song by its wrong name, and still catch myself doing so from time to time.

It's been in my head lately, so I thought I'd share.

This is the original recording by Max. Below the video I've copied the lyrics in Portuguese and then attempted an English translation, which doesn't quite do justice to the clever simplicity of Max's lyrics. There's almost no attempt at proper versification, and only the slightest hint at puns subtly analogizing the coquettish Rosie with the Virgin Mary. Well, that's how I read them anyway.

I'm no translator.

“Rosie and of the Lemons”