September 27th, 2010
Among the many debased features of our contemporary public discourse is the tendency to evade discomfort by referring it to someone else. We had a pristine example of this tonight on National Public Radio. The story had to do with some pictures taken by American soldiers in Afghanistan of themselves with a corpse, or corpses. The pictures are evidence in legal actions against the soldiers by the Army. Whether the corpse or corpses were Taliban or civilians is a point of contention. The judicial officer in charge of the proceedings has ruled that the pictures can’t be made public. Among other reasons for this ruling, the reporter said, was the disrepute which such pictures would bring upon the American armed forces. Publication of the Abu Ghraib pictures had stirred great anger and anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, said the reporter. It was unclear to me whether this observation was drawn from the judge’s ruling, or was the reporter’s gloss on the ruling. Either way, I said to myself, were foreigners and Muslims alone in being sickened and outraged by those atrocities? Were there no Americans who found the Abu Ghraib photos revolting evidence of the perpetrators’ degradation and that of those at whose orders and by whose leave they acted? Of course there were, tens of millions of us, maybe hundreds of millions. But making that collective domestic grief and disgust a guide to action implies a host of difficult and unpleasant questions, not least among which are, why are George Bush and John Yoo and their confederates at large today instead of behind bars, awaiting trial? It’s easier just to mentally relocate the whole thing overseas. Then instead of dealing with our feelings about what is done in our name, and our complicity in it, we have the much simpler problem of how to deal with others’ responses to it, made even simpler by the convenience of imagining them as unfriendly to begin with. I am not so much concerned whose interest is served by shunting the discomfort of this memory on to an “other.” Although it is obvious who benefits from such a maneuver, I am sure that the NPR reporter, adherent to a somewhat mythical but nevertheless demanding standard of journalistic objectivity, would be offended by and rightly dismissive of the idea that he was helping to exculpate the war criminals responsible for Abu Ghraib. The judge certainly would be justifiably offended! Perhaps the reporter or the judge also would be offended by my suggestion that he fell victim to the easy thought, the conventional trope, the unexamined, reflexive elision of uncomfortable truth into comfortable slur. But that is what I believe he did, although he should have known better.
September 24th, 2010
A gurney used in Indiana for lethal injections
National Public Radio reported this morning on yesterday’s execution of Teresa Lewis by the state of Virginia. The reporter, stationed outside the death chamber, gave us an eyewitness description of Ms. Lewis’ demeanor as she went in. According to the reporter, she looked scared. The reporter repeated this several times. That was evidently the strongest impression on the reporter’s mind.
On the same broadcast, our local station, Vermont Public Radio, carried a commentary by a former network news luminary about the decline of journalism in the face of blogging and internet media. He opined that people seek out coverage that they find congenial in preference to journalism that tells it like it is.
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September 18th, 2010
About four months ago, to celebrate the publication of To Join the Lost,* I organized a house concert for Mary Fahl. This Friday, I had the good fortune to attend another one. At my house concert, when I asked Mary what she would like me to say as an introduction, she told me to speak from the heart and to keep it short. So I did. But seeing her again has revived thoughts of all the things I could have said. Here are some of them.
Each time she begins a song, it is a shock, the transition from an ordinary world in which a beautiful (but not too much so) woman stands in front of you with a guitar, chatting and joking and generally being charming and intelligent, into another place entirely. It is as if one opens a door and a huge wind comes through and blows the world away. Then the song ends and there she is, winsome as ever, with her stage patter. And even though you think you are ready for it, the next time she opens her mouth to sing there it is again, that wind and the huge red sun and suddenly nothing else.
There is the matter of her stage presence. I think the shock of hearing her sing is partly due to that. We exist only in relationship. The Mary Fahl who exists in relationship with her audience, I am sure, like any performer relating to an audience, exists nowhere else. But there are certain performers, like Mary, who appear to relate to the group watching them so easily and naturally, that it is easy for the group to believe that yes, this is who she is, she is being herself for me, as if she had no other selves – this is the “real” one. From there it is a short step to that sense of intimacy that is so similar to the intimacy we feel when we are enjoying the company of another person, alone together. She is telling me things about herself, she is funny, she is interesting. It is like being with a friend. It invites us to react to her from that part of ourselves which is capable of intimacy, that soft place of giving and receiving and mirroring laughter and tenderness.
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September 12th, 2010
Here is a poem I wrote on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. I think it still holds up reasonably well:
There are those who really lost
something that can be lost, but
they are not the ones who say,
“Everything has changed,” not
those who look back on the date
and remember where they were
when the horrid pictures flashed
and interrupted what they
were doing and would resume.
There is an instant before
you die that you can practice
to be ready for, empty
of thought, when all you see is
what is. Those whose names are squashed
beneath hundreds of stories
rolled through printing presses and
broadcast to the winds had no
chance to love that empty chance
before the floors suddenly
fell from them and on them.
Fearful little men running
from the blaze now run us. They
have made a banner of the
date and wave it blindingly,
three numbers on yellow cloth
as thin as scraped skin, while you,
who have lost nothing, make the
noises that you think you should.
September 5th, 2010
On May Day, I often wear a red tie. So, I think, did my paternal grandfather, a minor luminary in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. I don’t know what he did for Labor Day. Labor Day is back-to-school, burgers, football, end-of-summer. Congress adopted it as a national holiday in 1894 in order to propitiate the labor movement about a week after U.S. marshals and military massacred workers and busted the Pullman strike. It is a sop, and has the meaning of a sop. May Day is a holiday (not legally recognized as such in this country, of course) adopted by the international labor movement eight years before the Pullman strike. Congress could have made May Day the national holiday, but that would have had too much meaning. It would have meant celebrating the contributions to human welfare of socialists and unions. We can’t have that. So we got the annual holocaust of hamburger instead.
In the mid 1980s I worked as an investigator in the Civil Rights Division of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, helping to enforce laws that protect employees from discrimination of various sorts: race, age, sex, national origin, religion, etc. One of my duties was intake. People would call in with complaints, and I would interview them to determine whether it was the kind of thing we could investigate. Most often, it was not. Depressingly often, it was some form of unfairness or oppression that had nothing to do with a person’s race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, or other “protected category”, and everything to do with the fact that the person was a worker. “Employee” was not a protected category. I would ask, do you have a union contract? Maybe that might protect you. No, they didn’t have a union. Don’t hold with unions. Don’t want no union. Sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.
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