Guns, germs & steel
I just finished reading Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Random House, 1997. Reprint, 1999 Norton paperback). I can see both why it is immensely popular on college campuses and why it is the exasperation of so many scholars -- mainly for the same two reasons.

If you haven't read it yet, here's the argument: The reasons why European whites acquired the "guns, germs and steel" with which they decimated and subdued all other peoples have nothing to do with their relative intelligence or other biological differences ("race") but entirely with accidental geographical advantages. The main ones were: a wide variety of minerals, including the rocks necessary for an efficient stone-age technology necessary as a first stage for using other minerals; the availability of easy-to domesticate, highly productive plants and animals enabling people in Mesopotamia to become farmers and produce enough of a surplus to build cities, long before anybody else; and the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent, with a wide swath in the same latitude with a long growing season and plenty of rain, so that crops developed in Mesopotamia could also be grown as far as western India, all across northern Africa and across southern Europe to its western edge; the absence of major physical barriers also facilitated transfers of inventions (whether in agriculture or devices such as the wheel, practices such as weaving, etc.).

The book's great success ("over 1 million copies sold," the cover proclaims) is mainly because Diamond weaves a coherent story through a huge subject, all human history, that is a plausible alternative to the naïve race theories still current. The problem for many scholars is that the coherence seems too facile, neglecting the complexities of many developments over the millennia and (according to some of those scholars) getting many particulars wrong.

The other reason for both the books popularity and many scholars' impatience is that Diamond repeats his essential points over and over. This makes it hard to miss them, which must be convenient for the distracted undergraduate, but is wearisome for the attentive reader, especially one who is already familiar with many of the arguments. And if you've read Hans Zinsser's 1935 book Rats, Lice and History, or much of Max Weber, or any of the other many books on human development, much of this will be familiar. And such repetition wastes word-space, making the book longer than necessary for its argument.

Still, if I were teaching such a course, I would assign the book as a terrific discussion-starter, because it takes on so much. And I think the basic arguments are correct. That is, I think they are the most useful hypotheses at present for organizing our thinking about development and undevelopment.


New story up
One of my Venezuelan stories, "Stairways," and many other good things to read (one really spooky story, another set in rural India, plus poetry and reviews) are now up at Small Spiral Notebook. I'm very pleased to be in such good company and in such a handsomely produced journal.


FTAA: A Communist plot
I already had plenty of reasons to oppose the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, but this is a new one on me:
The New American asks:
... Could the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, now galloping toward completion, actually spur the spread of Marxist revolution throughout Latin America? ...
Welcome Mat for Terrorists
Silly time
From a quiz, "What kind of postmodernist are you?" These were my results. theory slut
You are a Theory Slut. The true elite of the
postmodernists, you collect avant-garde
Indonesian hiphop compilations and eat journal
articles for breakfast. You positively live
for theory. It really doesn't matter what
kind, as long as the words are big and the
paragraph breaks few and far between.

What kind of postmodernist are you!?
brought to you by Quizilla


Saddam and the G.O.P. (Greed, Oil & Privilege)
From another blog:
What happened Sunday was that the Republicans captured a former ally, with whom they had later fallen out.
For more, see historian Juan Cole's Informed Comment.
Sara Fishko just sent me a note that her December 12 broadcast is now available for listening on the WNYC website. If you care about memory and memorials, or if you just enjoy intelligent reporting, you will want to listen. Here's the link again, to that and other radio essays she has produced.
The Fishko Files


Carlos Fuentes: 'Artemio Cruz'
I finally read Carlos Fuentes' famous analysis (1st published in 1962) of how injustice and corruption got institutionalized in Mexico after the revolution. If you read Spanish, and don't yet know this book, you may be interested in my commentary on La muerte de Artemio Cruz.


Constructing memorials
Here's the reference to the essay by Susana Torre that I mentioned the other day:
Susana Torre, "Constructing Memorials," in Enwezor, Okwui et al. eds. Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation, Documenta 11, Platform 2, Hatje Cantz 2002, pp. 343-360
The always intelligent Sara Fishko produced another of her serious, thought-provoking radio essays on this topic for the WNYC news program this morning. I couldn't find a link on the station's website -- perhaps it's too soon. You can find many other pieces by her, however, including one on memorials in music, focusing on mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade.

The Fishko Files


A 9-11 memorial proposal: Susana Torre

Susana Torre was one of the 5,000+ entrants in the open competition to design a memorial for the World Trade Center site. What distinguishes her proposal most from those of the eight finalists is its provision for memory's "reinscription," by dynamic events that continually renew memory and encourage us to rethink the meaning of what happened here. In part, this dynamic is in the recurrent, seasonal changes that the design celebrates and emphasizes. In part, it is in the provision of spaces for us and future generations to invent and act out our own rituals. Torre is the author of a major article on memorials, which she was completing just as the planes struck the World Trade Center towers -- whose burning and collapse she and I witnessed from our rooftop. In the essay, she compares memorials to the dead of World War I; victims of the European "Holocaust" in Poland, Austria and Germany; the murdered millions of Cambodia; the American dead in Vietnam; the "disappeared" during the military terror regimes of Chile, Uruguay, and her native Argentina -- and she added then a brief paragraph on what we had just witnessed. Everywhere, she finds, memory remains alive only when it is renewed, through reinscription by rituals that make the past speak to the ever-changing present.



Cuban tragedy

À propos of recent reports and denials of a financial scandal in Cuba's Ministry of Tourism (one of the few places where anybody can get hold of large number of dollars there), a friend asked me a provocative question: what I thought of Cuba today. Here's the answer he provoked:
Briefly, what I think is that the tragedy of Cuba is that its people have not been permitted to assume [excuse me, I'm using this in the Spanish sense of asumir -- to "appropriate," or to "accept as theirs"] the enormous achievements of 1957 (beginning of the war) or 1959 (triumph of the revolution) to, say, 1970 (when the colossal failure of the "10-million ton sugar harvest" demonstrated the weakness of a command economy) and move on. Those achievements were, 1st, freeing the island from the heavy hand of US capital so that its people had some room to breathe and maneuver ("Cuba libre"); 2nd, hugely reducing disparities in wealth and life-chances (between black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor); 3rd, bringing the entire population to literacy and expanding educational opportunities to create a highly skilled, critically conscious population; 4th, infrastructural and industrial development projects that -- while mostly uncompleted and in some cases misdirected (importing a windowless Czech factory to make refrigerators, for example, or trying to convert the green zone around Havana into an immense coffee plantation) -- nevertheless pointed the way to greater economy autonomy and improved standards of living.

Having done these things, and having developed a literate population fully capable of rational debate, they should have been allowed to open political contests to groups outside the party, and let the enormous ingenuity of the people go into economic projects more constructive than building rafts to float to Miami, or "barbacoas" (improvised lofts) as a homemade solution to the housing crisis. Some very stubborn Cubans inside the party and a pack of crazed and persistent Cubans in Miami conspired (with lots of help from Washington) to keep tensions so high that party leaders are afraid to relax their grip or let Fidel retire.


'Every Child is Born a Poet' - Piri Thomas
People keep getting born, so there must be some who haven't heard yet of Piri Thomas. Most people find out about him when they're about 14. A sensitive teacher turns them on, or another kids says, "Hey! You godda read this book!"

The book, of course, is Down These Mean Streets, which Piri started to write as a teenager when he was in prison for a botched holdup. That was before he took his mother's nickname for him as his pen name (his prison record says "John Thomas"). The book was his way of transforming himself from a confused, violent, self-disgusted kid into the poet and performer he is today. Born to a Cuban-Puerto Rican couple in Harlem in 1928, saved from total self-destruction from drugs or violence by prison, he went back to Harlem and to other communities like that to awaken pride and a sense of possibility in other young men.

Now, one of the other kids touched by his story -- Jonathan Robinson, now grown up to be a filmmaker -- has finally finished his 10-year movie-making collaboration with Piri, to show his life, his performances of some of his poems and stories (including a hilarious presentation of "La Peseta," in which Piri takes all the parts -- Mama, Poppi, and naughty little Piri), and some of Piri's work with juvenile offenders in a California prison. I caught it, and had a chance to meet the jovial, life-affirming poet, at Anthology Film Archives the other night. "Every Child is Born a Poet" is supposed to be shown on public television in April, and should appear in other venues. Watch for it.

Piri Thomas' web site. If you click on "Reviews," you'll find a quote from my book Hispanic Nation.


And unknown knowns?
This just in:
He may not know it -- or know that he knows it -- but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has won this year's "Foot in Mouth" award for the most baffling statement by a public figure.

Britain's Plain English Campaign, scourge of jargon, cliches and legalese, announced the honors Tuesday, giving runner-up to California governor Arnold Schwartzenegger.

The top prize went to Rumsfeld for this logic-twister he gave at a press briefing on Iraq:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns, there are things we know we know," Rumsfeld said.

"We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

"We think we know what he means," said Plain English Campaign spokesman John Lister. "But we don't know if we really know."

What Rummy and all of us should really be worried about are the unknown knowns. For example, the likely complications of US military occupation of Iraq were very well known to experts, and pretty evident to amateur observers. But at the apex of the Pentagon, those were unknown knowns.


"INTERIOR MOTIVES" - A Panel Discussion
For anybody in New York, this should be a stimulating "literature & politics" event.

Wednesday, December 10, 7:30 PM
Wooster Arts Space, 147 Wooster Street, New York City
Concurrent to the exhibition: "Outside/In" curated by Joyce Kozloff
Artists: Elizabeth Demaray, Donna Dennis, Simonetta Moro, Abby Robinson, Nina Yankowitz

Moderator: Carey Lovelace
Panelists: Daryl Chin, Nina Felshin, George Melrod, Carter Ratcliff, Radhika Subramaniam

The panelists will discuss the ways in which artists represent movement from the external world into an enclosed space, and then back out again. With boundaries becoming increasingly porous, we can move more fluidly than ever before, either escaping to "somewhere else" or burrowing further within.

Daryl Chin is an artist and writer in New York; he is Associate Editor of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). He co-founded the Asian-American International Film Festival (1977) and was on the Board of Directors and the programing committee of The New Festival (New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival),1989-2000; he has been a guest curator at The Whitney Museum of American Art, and was on the staff of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art.

Nina Felshin is curator of Zilkha Gallery, Wesleyan University, where she teaches in the art and art history department. She has been a curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, and worked for the Art-in-Architecture Program of the General Services Administration in Washington, DC. Recent group exhibitions include "Good Morning, America"; "Tainted Landscapes"; "Wake-Up Call: Politically Engaged Art for the 21st Century";
"Frames of Reference: From Object to Subject"; "Black and Blue: Examining Police Violence"; and "Beyond Glory: Re-Presenting Terrorism". She is the author of But is it Art? The Spirit of Art As Activism (Bay Press, 1995) and many catalog essays. She is an activist in both her professional and "real world" lives.

Carey Lovelace has written for Art in America, Newsday, Performing Arts Journal, Millenium Film Journal, ARTnews, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and many other publications. She is co-president of AICA-USA, the US chapter of the International Art Critics Assocation, and is also an award winning playwright whose works are frequently produced in New York and elsewhere.

George Melrod has written hundreds of articles about contemporary art. During the 1990's, he reviewed regularly for ARTnews, Art in America, Contemporanea, and Sculpture, and wrote features for such magazines as Swing, Vogue, Mirabella, and Los Angeles. From 1994-98, he was a Contributing Editor to World Art and Art & Antiques, for whom he wrote a monthly galleries column. He currently lives in LA, where in addition to writing about art, he also writes screenplays.

Carter Ratcliff is a Contributing Editor of Art in America and Art on Paper. His writings have appeared in European and American journals and museum publications (for the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Royal Academy, London). Recently, his essay on Georgia O’Keeffe was published in a catalog for the Kunsthaus, Zürich. He has taught at the New York Studio School and Hunter College, and lectured at institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His most recent books are The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (Westview Press, 1998) and Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art 1965-1975 (Allworth Press, 2000). Other books include studies of Andy Warhol, Gilbert and George, and John Singer Sargent.

Radhika Subramaniam is a writer and scholar whose work focuses on urban modernity in South Asia; she holds a PhD. in Performance Studies from NYU. She has worked with Arts International on a range of projects for several years - she joined its staff when it was established as an independent organization and was the Executive Editor of its interdisciplinary art and culture journal, Connect: art.politics.theory.practice. In that position, she spearheaded the effort to establish its independent voice and led its editorial, management and publishing operations.


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Caroline, or Change
Back on November 2, the Day of the Dead (and S's birthday), we went to see this work at the Public Theater, and loved it. I meant to write a review here, but never got around to it. Fortunately my friend Bob Lamm has, and he says pretty much what I had wanted to say. I guess what we saw must have been a pre-preview, because Bob says it had its "opening" just a week ago. Here's Bob's review; see link below for images.

Dear Friends--

Just back from the Public Theater, where I saw one of the last previews of
the new musical, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, for which Tony Kushner wrote the book
and lyrics and Jeanine Tesori wrote the music. It had its "opening" a week
ago and apparently the reviews will be in the newspapers on Monday.

I found it very powerful and very moving, another triumph for Kushner (and
Tesori). And this rave comes from someone who rarely enjoys musicals unless
they were written by Frank Loesser!

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is set in Louisiana in 1963. It's about Caroline
Thibodeaux, a divorced African American mother of four who is working as a
maid in the home of a Jewish family with lots of problems. To write a
musical addressing Black-Jewish issues is certainly walking through
landmines, but I believe that Kushner and Tesori have done a great job. For
me, the first act had some fine moments yet lagged at times. However, the
second act was superb and memorable.

Tonya Pinkins is sensational in the lead role. If Ben Brantley gives it a
rave review in the Times, if they can get the money to bring CAROLINE, OR
CHANGE to Broadway, it's a certainty that she will win a Tony Award for Best
Actress in a Musical. There's also a terrific performance by a young actress
who was new to me, Anika Noni Rose. She plays Caroline's teenage daughter,
a young woman who is becoming involved in the civil rights movement.

I'd definitely recommend seeing CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at the Public if you can
(though I imagine it will quickly sell out) or, hopefully, on Broadway.


Scenes from "Caroline, or Change"



A friend forwarded me an essay by Franz Schurman, purporting to explain why China and India, former foes, are now becoming buddies. I've read Schurman in the past, and frankly, I expected better. Here I think he's all wrong. So you can judge for yourself, I've appended his original article to my riposte.

Some of this is bullshit. Countries don't change polices because they get "sick and tired of their mutual hatred of each other." They change policies when there are shifts in internal pressures -- meaning what the leadership needs to do to stay in power. Schurman treats this as a psychiatric, rather than a pragmatic political, problem; India and China were a couple that just needed counseling.

What has changed within India and within China to make each more interested in cooperation? I don't know in detail, but my hunches are to look at:

- In India, the decline of the Congress Party; the Hindu zealots now in power don't have a tradition, or any motive, to continue Cold War policies, especially now that the U.S. is no longer basing military & other sorts of aid on the basis of hostility to China;
- In China, a departure from the partly paranoid, partly arrogant doctrine of self-sufficiency and a growing concern with market-share for exports -- due to the unleashing of internal forces of capitalism;
- For both, a mutual hostility to Islamic militants (Kashmir & Pakistan for the Indians, Uyghurs and all those other Muslims on the borders for China).

Schurman writes:
Another answer to the question how hatred morphed into cooperation is that both China and India are ancient empires that produced brilliant civilizations. Empires are states that rule over a great diversity of peoples and extend over huge tracts of lands. Civilizations are cultures on a vast scale. And culture can be defined as the ways people live, work and think together.

Some empires rest on great civilizations, others do not. The former last very long while the latter do not. China and India are the world's greatest examples of the former. And great empires like these seek peace and prosperity. It's the short-lived empires that stir up wars, like the ones led by Napoleon and Hitler.

Puh-leeze! This kind of stereotyping mystifies instead of clarifying. To imagine India as ever having been a unified empire comparable to China muddles the differences that explain why that other empire, the British, ended up with such contrasting strategies toward the two regions (to call India a "country" would be to exaggerate its integration). The "great civilization" that informed some of the empires within India (because during most of its history, it was divided among several) was Persian. Anyway, it's not clear that most of the rulers during most of their pre-19th century history in either country were primarily interested in peace and prosperity. Confucius certainly didn't think so, which is why he made such an issue of it. The Indian kingdoms were almost perpetually at war with one another.

What would Schurman say was the great civilization on which the Ottoman empire rested? It lasted 700 years, or about 550 if we count only from the fall of Constantinople, which is a pretty long time. Their civilization was brilliant, actually, because it was completely eclectic -- a little Arabic, a little Persian, a little Jewish, wrapped in ancient Turkic traditions from Central Asia. Doesn't fit Schurman's model.

And how does he conclude that Napoleon's and Hitler's empires (the Reich lasted 12 years, by the way, not the "less than a decade" he says) did NOT rest on great civilizations? The civilizations of France and Germany were pretty impressive and pretty ancient. It was the empires themselves that were new.

So, here is Schurman's piece, from the Pacific News Service:

EDITOR'S NOTE: India and China, both with a strong and prosperous economy, have overcome old vehemence to shake hands across their once bloody border. This new Indo-Sino relationship will spur a vast common market in Asia and bring back the glories of their civilization. PNS Editor Franz Schurmann (fschurmann@pacificnews.org) is emeritus professor of sociology and history at U.C. Berkeley and the author of numerous books.


On Nov. 22, 2003, the prestigious French paper "Le Monde" ran the headline "Huge Asian Common Market Working Better Than Europe's." The two founders of the world's newest common market are China and India, each with a population of over a billion, and each with high literacy rates. Just a few years back, relations between the two countries were terrible. How is it that now they are cooperating so well that Le Monde hailed it as a "new direction in (global) development?"

One answer is that both countries are sick and tired of their mutual hatred of each other. The animosity started in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to India, where he still lives. In 1962 the two countries fought a war over Aksai-Chin, a barren plateau in the frozen Himalayas. Neither side gained anything except deepening hatred.

However, the thaw in the relations between the two countries occurred in January 2002, when former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited India. Zhu was the first high-ranking Chinese official to do so in 11 years. This time Zhu started a process that recently resulted in joint maneuvers by the two navies in the East China Sea. Zhu also gave a speech in Bangalore, India's information Technology (IT) hub. The gist of the speech was that China excels in hardware while India excels in software. And his punch line was that the two countries should work together.

Two years later, Sino-Indian IT cooperation is moving at a fast pace. An example of this Sino-Indian common market is that NIIT Ltd, one of India's biggest software producing firms, has landed a contract to build 125 schools in China's 25 provinces. NIIT will teach 25,000 students each year.

Another answer to the question how hatred morphed into cooperation is that both China and India are ancient empires that produced brilliant civilizations. Empires are states that rule over a great diversity of peoples and extend over huge tracts of lands. Civilizations are cultures on a vast scale. And culture can be defined as the ways people live, work and think together.

Some empires rest on great civilizations, others do not. The former last very long while the latter do not. China and India are the world's greatest examples of the former. And great empires like these seek peace and prosperity. It's the short-lived empires that stir up wars, like the ones led by Napoleon and Hitler.

The Indians and Chinese have three or four millennia of civilization embedded in the minds and souls of their huge populations. Now they also have well-functioning states highly respected throughout the world. It's not coincidental that Indian and Chinese youngsters do well in many areas of education. They are all immersed in stories about great heroes and heroines that mould their minds and give their souls direction. Their most powerful direction is education.

Furthermore, both civilizations radiated out to many countries, near and far. These collateral youngsters perform just as well as those of the root civilization. For one thing, they share the traditional stories of the root civilization. Even way back in history when foreigners ruled India and China these rulers accepted much or all of the great civilizations that surrounded them.

And over the centuries many of those foreign rulers gave their Indian and Chinese subjects the peace that provided security to farmers, traders and intellectuals. The rulers of both countries now know that the combination of a strong state and a brilliant civilization can give their huge populations what most want, peace and prosperity.

An answer to the question posed by Le Monde, why the new Sino-Indian common market is doing better than the European Union (EU), is that after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 B.C., Europe only had only short-lived empires. Charlemagne's attempt lasted less than two decades.

Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804 and met his Waterloo in 1815. Hitler's Thousand Year Reich didn't even last a decade.

Around the beginning of the second millennium Europe did create a civilization, the Renaissance, that still sends rays of knowledge and beauty all over the world. But they were not able to create a Roman-style empire in Europe.

Britain built a vast empire all over the world but shunned Europe. France's dominion over Europe died at Waterloo. Like many empires, Austria had great diversity but was never able to create a strong state.

And today, while Europe is still struggling to build a strong European state, India and China are using their historical capital to create both brilliant civilizations and strong states.


For subscription information or to reprint PNS articles, please go here, or contact catherine@pacificnews.org.



Oh, how innocent we were!
I just found this old note from November 2000, showing how seriously I, and many others, misunderestimated the damage that George W. Bush would be capable of to our economy, our environment, our liberty and our very lives -- as his "war on terrorism" does everything imaginable to stimulate greater terror.

00/11/20 -- Elections 2000: What's at stake?
Erectile dysfunction: World Trade Center fizzle
New York City missed an opportunity to acquire a landmark building by the firm that knows more about how to build one, and to make it work for a democratic society, than any other. Instead we get Danny Libeskind's eager-to-please, unworkable structure with its frantic gesture. And, if the jury selection of the 8 finalists in the memorial competition stands, it looks like we'll get a generic, airbrushed sort of mock cemetery to mock the grief of 9/11.

Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is an impressive small work. When we saw it and walked through it three years ago, it did not yet have anything on exhibit, and didn't even seem to offer good exhibit spaces, so the building itself was the exhibit. With its nowhere-leading staircase, it seemed a fitting commentary on the sadness and dead-endedness of the story of German Jewry in the 20th century. Libeskind has visual imagination. But he's never built anything as big as a skyscraper and, as his renderings of his assymetrical projected WTC tower demonstrate, he doesn't know how. Building it will be somebody else's headache, engineers especially.

Libeskind is all about conceptual design. A one-sided spire to mimic and wave back to the much smaller Statue of Liberty, though, is a silly concept, like making the tower exactly 1,776 feet tall (as though the Christian calendar could be equated to the English foot-pound system, or as though anybody could tell from the ground precisely how many feet it was). And then of course there was that spurious "shaft of light," a beam from the heavens that, it turns out, won't even fall where he said it would. These are empty gestures, saluting democratic tradition (and some vague, generic religious sensibility) without grappling with it, or thinking through how to revitalize democracy in the 21st century.

Norman Foster and his London firm do know how to build very large buildings that are both elegant and functional. Foster also, despite his feudal-sounding title ("Lord Foster"), understands much better than Libeskind the strains on democracy and some ways that 21st century technology can help renew it. His transformation of the old German Reichstag, not far from Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, is brilliant. The glass dome is a perpetual reminder of the original, which was an important icon in German history, but its transparency is not merely a symbol of the hoped-for transparency of modern German democracy, but also an opportunity for citizens (and visitors from abroad) to see how the new parliament works and to look over the whole of the reunited city. His London City Hall (which I haven't personally seen yet) is an engineering marvel, also celebrating democratic openness.

Maybe, though, empty gestures are just what the decision-makers these days want for us. Like a frantic wave toward Miss Liberty so nobody notices how they are ignoring her real message.

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, Berlin
Lord Norman Foster's Reichstag, New German Parliament
BBC coverage of Foster & Partners' London City Hall
WTC Memorial finalists
Libeskind, Foster, and other proposals for the WTC site (2002)
Pagan Pilgrimage: Berlin, Oktober 2000 by Geoffrey Fox (originally published in the now-defunct Themestream, October 2000.
Scoundrels all!
The trouble with disputes in the National Writers Union is that everybody is so damned articulate, that each side can put together a vehement, eloquent argument proving that the other side is a pack of scoundrels. And I'm inclined to believe them.

No, not really. Even though some folks are getting nigh on hysterical, I don't think anybody has really evil intent. We just have different views on what's best for writers; for mine, see my note from 11/19 (below, or if not there, in the archives link on the left).


Note to myself (and other writers)
I read something the other day in one of the Zoetrope "offices" that has taken a while to sink in, but now I'm feeling the full impact. It was a quote (or paraphrase) of something from former New Yorker editor* Bob Gottlieb (now an agent)* said, something like, "I can sell a poorly written piece with a good story, but not a poor story well written." THAT'S MY PROBLEM!

I suppose if I'd come into fiction writing through writing programs I would have learned that. All these years I've been puzzled and annoyed by rejection letters that told me how well the work was written, but that they couldn't take it. And I'd get annoyed reading published things that I thought were poorly written. And I couldn't understand or accept that some of my stories were accepted for publication and others that I thought were at least as good were not.

Now I see it. I was concentrating on writing stories better, instead of writing better stories.

A story has to have a beginning, middle and an end (not necessarily in that order, as somebody pointed out). I'd be great on the beginning and the middle, but then I would have accomplished my goals -- description, characterization, all those things that make an experience vivid -- and neglect the ending. What's a proper ending? Well, something has to happen, or be clearly about to happen (the way Hemingway sometimes left things, on the edge of a huge event), something that is or will be life-changing (or life-ending) to somebody.

Geez, what a jerk I've been! Sometimes I've got it right, but only sometimes -- because that's not what I was focusing on. The story about to appear in the next issue of Small Spiral Notebook does work as a story, I think (something does happen that changes at least one character's life). I hope it's also well-written, but that's obviously less important.

* NOTE: My error. Two different Gottliebs. Quote is from Bob G., the literary agent, not Robert G., the former New Yorker editor. See blog for 2004/7/5.

Small Spiral Notebook


Lara JK Wilson
I just discovered this writer in a deeply moving first-person story in Chelsea 74 (the current issue). In "Soon and Very Soon," a grotesquely obese, bed-bound woman tries to tell us how she got that way, and her story is so sad and so real that it will change how I look at people we ordinarily want to shun. The magazine Chelsea is not on line, but you can see another of Wilson's stories here: Book Magazine


Crisis in the National Writers Union
After long pondering and some anguish, I'm going to support the insurgent ticket headed by Jerry Colby -- which is a way of voting against the direction our union has been heading, and maybe a vote for creating a different sort of organization all together.

I was present at the original National Writers Congress in 1981, where the NWU was born. I've been a member for most of the years since, and at times have taken an active leadership role, as a steering committee member in the New York local and, a year ago, as Eastern Regional Vice President. I have appreciated the generous comradeship, and have benefited from services including book contract advising and, very recently, advice on a contract with an on-line publication. These services were offered by volunteers, unpaid for time consuming, attentive help.

I am also a member of the Authors Guild, which provides my web hosting and domain name registration, sponsors seminars on book agenting, and offers legal advice on book and agent contracts. And, when neither the NWU nor the Authors Guild gave me satisfactory access to health insurance, I also joined the Editorial Freelancers Association, which does. (Honestly, that was my only motivation for joining EFA.) If I continue doing more journalism, I may want to join the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA).

The NWU, though, has been trying to provide services plus political lobbying (on copyright law and other writerly issues). For that it needs a paid staff, more than it has at present. And to pay them it needs money, which it has been getting mainly from the much larger union we affiliated with a few years ago, the United Auto Workers. Conflicts over what sort of organization we were going to be, plus the generally worsening times for freelance writers (a lot of publications have sunk without a bubble, remaining ones are paying less than they used to), have driven down membership, so there are fewer people available to meet growing financial demands. And the UAW was weary of bankrolling such an obstreperous, nonproductive (in membership-growth terms) outfit, which it viewed as one of its locals. (We, since our founding, had always thought of ourselves as the "national" union, and our branches in New York, the Bay Area, Chicago, Boston, Twin Cities, etc., "locals"; for the UAW, they are "chapters," and the entire NWU is one "local.") Now, to resolve the budget crisis and quell the obstreperousness, the delegates at our last Delegates Assembly voted to raise dues hugely (to $160 per year) and fold our union completely into the UAW structure.

ASJA dues are $195 -- probably worth it for professional journalists, given ASJA's many services. AG dues are a mere $90 a year, and I'm saving more than that (as compared to my old Earthlink account) by using their very economical web hosting services. So the new NWU dues may not be outrageous, if the NWU ends up providing comparably valuable services -- but what's the point? Authors can join one of the other organizations for those.

Professional, published writers do not need another organization to do what the AG and ASJA do well. What I and other writers need is an organization that can do what those organizations can never do as well as the NWU as I've known it throughout the years, which is to foment a lot of member-to-member interaction for moral support, industry scuttlebutt, collective action. So I think the current leadership is taking us in the wrong direction.

I wish them well. I hope that, if incumbent president Marybeth Menaker (whom I like personally and respect professionally) and her slate win this election, they will be able to accomplish some of what they promise. But I fear that even if they do, the old spirit of solidarity among writers that has been what has held us together over the years will further dissipate. After all, there is no pressing economic reason for anyone to join the NWU -- we don't have a closed shop with any publication. We are in the NWU because it feels good to be here. I don't think it will feel as good as the leadership becomes less responsive to the members and more anxious to stay in line with the much larger industrial union which, naturally, has other priorities.

So that's where I come down: I'm voting for Gerard Colby and the entire "Working4Writers" slate. Maybe we can renew the good feeling and disinterested solidarity that I seem to remember from years back -- it wasn't always a reality, but it was always a realistic aspiration.

National Writers Union
American Association of Journalists and Authors
The Authors Guild
United Auto Workers


Does IT give good ROI for SAP?
John Wicker doesn't think so. I found this link in a mailing from Publishers Marketplace. You know what IT is, I suppose, since you're using it right now. ROI is not the king of France, but Return On Investment, and SAP is not what you think it is either (or who you think it is), but (I think -- at least this is the first listed of the acronym definitions I found) Systems, Applications and Products. Now you know. Or maybe you don't. I think what Wicker is talking about is whether computer technology is a good investment for publishers, and he suspects it is not.

John Wicker, Executive Vice President, VISTA International, speaking at the 25th annual Supply Chain Specialists Meeting during the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 2003.


More on Vargas Llosa
I wonder if Vargas Llosa's recent provocative comments about indigenous movements may not be an act of jealousy -- probably unconscious -- in the face of all the attention being given to his one-time hero, friend and rival Gabriel García Márquez? (Years ago, Vargas Llosa wrote a 600-page biography of GGM, admiringly calling him a "deicide.")

Over the years, I've made notes on my readings of Vargas Llosa's fiction (which I find fascinating). Most are handwritten, and I haven't yet transferred them to my website file of readings. Here is one, though, that I had in a computer file and have just uploaded, if you want to see my take on (and quarrels with) his Historia de Mayta.


Gabriel García Márquez
Just a reminder, now that Gabo is so much in the news with the translation of Volume I of his memoirs. If anybody who does not read Spanish is interested in getting all the in-jokes and more of the context of his most famous novel, there's a pretty good "Monarch Note" available from Barnes & Noble on One Hundred Years of Solitude. I wrote it.

In the first volume of his memoirs, Vivir para contarla (2002), Gabriel García Márquez writes (this is my translation): "my library has never been much more than a working tool, where I can consult instantly a chapter of Dostoyevski, or verify a fact about Julius Caesar's epilepsy or about the mechanism of an automobile carburetor. I even have a manual for committing perfect murders, in case one of my poor characters ever needs one." He also says of the North American novelists he was reading while writing his first novel, La hojarasca (1955; translated as "Leafstorm"), that he read them with "insatiable curiosity" to discover how they were written. He read them first "right side up, then backwards, and I submitted them to a kind of surgical disemboweling until I uncovered the most deeply hidden mysteries of their structure."

I loved that description. I think that's the way any serious writer must work.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Monarch Note)


The two Mario Vargas Llosas
My faithful correspondent Daniel del Solar has forwarded an article datelined Quito, about reactions by indigenous leaders to a talk by Mario Vargas Llosa. The Peruvian novelist and one-time candidate for president recently (once again) criticized them severely for radical actions in Ecuador, Peru and -- most recently and dramatically -- Bolivia.

I don't believe that Vargas Llosa is "racist" (though that word has shifting meanings), but he has long been a neo-conservative (in US political terms) and may even have become a neo-liberal (in Latin American terms), which is worse. Many years ago, in a very public debate, his tocayo (meaning someone who shares your first name), Mario Benedetti, pointed out something that is still is true of Vargas Llosa: His fiction is far to the left of his "public intellectual" statements. It is as though he can only feel what the disadvantaged feel when he imagines them as characters, and when he steps before a microphone or a lectern as himself, he must distance himself from them. Sometimes he becomes aware of this conflict, or split vision, even within a novel -- like the quite amazing Historia de Mayta. Mostly, though, he is empathic in his fiction and coldly, very coldly, analytic outside it.

For the author's own words: Artículos de Vargas Llosa

For an article by another of my friends, Peruvian historian José Luis Rénique, which puts Vargas Llosa in an understandable context: Flores Galindo y Vargas Llosa: Un debate ficticio sobre utopías reales


Revolution and Venezuela's audacity
Last night I finally saw the movie I've needed to see for months, the one that shows just how the attempted coup against Hugo Chávez was foiled by a combination of spontaneous popular mobilization and courageously decisive action by military men loyal to the constitution. The opposition, almost all white and backed by the richest sectors, controlled all the private TV stations and took over the single state channel, Canal 8, to present a totally distorted view of the government and then of their own coup. But even without TV to tell them what was going on, the masses moved from the barrios to the presidential palace to confront and surround the usurpers, and the palace guard then decided on their own to retake the place and put the coup-makers under arrest. But it was a very tense 48 hours, and without (1) the decision of Chávez to avoid the threatened bombing of the palace by accepting arrest by the military and (2) the decisive action of a few young soldiers, it could have ended as bloodily and disastrously as the coup in Chile 30 years ago. Powerful film. Makes very clear the strength and directness of the connection between Chávez and the masses.

For a note on my brief, intense conversation with Hugo Chávez in March, 2002, the month before the coup: Chatting with Chávez

For images and background of the movie: The Revolution will not be Televised
Armistice Day
Today, November 11, 2003, is the 85th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the bloody carnage we now remember as World War I. It was the war that brought us into the 20th century, destroying utterly the empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans, and postponing the imperial pretensions of Germany. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And yet, imperial ambitions surged again, in Germany and in Japan, which threatened the remaining empires of France (in Indochina and North Africa), Britain (in Hong Kong, Burma and India, and Egypt) and the Netherlands (Indonesia). Those old imperial powers were joined by the United States to defeat the upstart imperialists, but within the next two decades lost their empires anyway. So then a new imperial power arose, disguised as a democracy -- but how can a democracy, which means rule by the people, impose its rule on other people? As events show in Iraq, it cannot, at least not for long or very securely. Check out what our fighting men and women have to say about this bloody, self-inflicted folly.
Last Letters Home
Veterans Letter to the President


Lobster in the library
At a dinner party in Montauk one year I was seated next to a marine biologist whose name was almost, but not quite, Langostino and whose specialty was lobsters. He had been observing them as they clanked along the sea bed in their bony armor. I was especially fascinated by his description of how they make love -- though "love" may not by the scientific term for crustacean congress. He -- Mr. Lobster -- has to wait until she -- Ms. Lobsterette -- molts, her soft body escaping from the shell she has outgrown, and before her soft underskin hardens into something like my old Levis. At that point, she is vulnerable and he with his great horny claw sort of protects her while he rolls her this way and that and has his way with her. (When he molts, he hides in a cave until his new armor is hard.)

The other thing that impressed me was the lobsters' dining habits. The seabeds that my conversation partner had observed were full of good things for a lobster to eat, mostly shellfish. The lobster would meander by, grab at a clam or an oyster, crack its shell with a mighty claw, and take a nibble -- then discard it and meander on to crack, kill and nibble on something else, but ignoring most of what's there because it is so abundant. And that's pretty much the way I behave in my actual and potential library -- the books that are on my shelves plus all those I know about and could easily acquire.

"Nibble, nibble, nibble, eh, Mr Gibbon?"

On lobsters in love


Literary "postmodernism" explained
My old mentor Walter James Miller, poet, literary critic and long-time professor of English at New York University, was kind enough to send me the CD of a lecture he delivered recently, Postmodernism, based on a book of that title edited by Derek Maus (Greenhaven, 2001). If you, like me, are interested in the topic but haven't made it a special project to keep up on all the literature about postmodern literature, you'll find this a really clear, sensible, good-humored introduction. And if you already know all about it but have trouble explaining it to others, you'll want to hear how this master teacher puts it all together.

For other lectures & info on Walter James Miller
For a review (by me) of Walter's most recent collection of poetry, Love's Mainland.


Opting for failure and other Iraq notes
William Safire concludes today's gung-ho column (NYT) thus: "We will help Iraqis win the final war against Baathist terror. Failure is not an option."

The problem is that the Bush administration already opted for failure by invading Iraq. War is a failure of politics. In this case it was a failure of diplomacy, of respect for the popular will (those millions of us who demonstrated in bitter cold to keep this war from happening!), and obviously of planning -- as David Rieff's article in the Sunday NYT Magazine reminds us (in case you needed reminding). As too often has happened in world history, the men with power refuse to recognize their failures and persist in a doomed course.

A couple of days ago Thomas Friedman wrote that France and Germany's refusal to give millions to support the U.S. occupation of Iraq, in contrast to the open coffers of the Saudis, proved that Saudi Arabia was more committed to stability and democracy in Iraq than are those two great European powers. This is loony! Can Friedman have forgotten that democracy means "government by the people"? As some people in France and Germany see clearly, there can be no democracy in Iraq as long as it is occupied by a foreign power. Paying for the U.S. to stay there, and thus to further subsidize Bechtel and the other profiteers, will only delay the process.


Recent readings: a vivid novel of war
I'm still trying to read a few more of the great books before I start on my after-death reading list. (See blog note from yesterday, 2003/11/01.) Here's a note on J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. This vivid and chilling account of survival in a Japanese P.O.W. camp may help us imagine what those guys are going through in Guantánamo and other parts of the world. (Not that the Americans are cruel in the same ways as the Japanese -- they have different ways. But the experience of being penned up and under constant surveillance, and for nothing you can understand as a crime, must be similar.)


After-death reading for the Day of the Dead
Tomorrow, November 2, is the Day of the Dead, as you surely know if you've read Malcolm Lowry, and even if you haven't. It is also Susana's birthday. Whether this coincidence explains some of her supernatural powers, I cannot say, but there is some mystical connection. It drove us to travel to Mexico, at considerable trouble and overcoming ridiculous mishaps, to the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, one memorable birthday, to celebrate the Day of the Dead the proper way, with dancing and music and flowers and feasts to be shared with the beloved dead. It was nothing at all like the solemn observances to which she had been confined growing up in Argentina.

Now just in time for the Day of the Dead comes news from the NYT's Edward Rothstein of a new book, The Dominion of the Dead, by Robert Pogue Harrison (U. Chicago Press).
For Mr. Harrison, in fact, the entire world of the living is permeated by the dead.
"We inherit their obsessions," he writes, "assume their burdens; carry on their causes; promote their mentalities, ideologies, and very often their superstitions; and often we die trying to vindicate their humliations."
Mr. Harrison is also haunted by their presence.
"It is impossible to overestimate how much human culture owes, in principle and in origin, to the corpse," he proposes.
Since I've already concluded that I'm not going to get to read all the important books I'd like to during my lifetime, I'm putting this one on the list of books to read after I'm dead. I don't want to be bored in the hereafter.


Under the hobnailed boots of the Empire

From Otto Reich, billed as "the White House's chief envoy to Latin America":
"There are people in Bolivia who don't believe in democracy and we cannot allow them to take power,'' Reich said. Still, he insisted that he was not telling Bolivians what to do.

I'll bet. On Bolivia, if you read Spanish, check out this report: Bolivia:Todas las cartas en Mesa by Daniel Badenes. The quote from Otto Reich is from a Knight Ridder reporter, picked up by Centre Daily, the Penn State paper.


In the homeland of language
I've been meaning to write about this for days, but you know how it is. I'm sure the same thing happens to you. The things that are most important are the hardest to write about. So, I kept putting it off. It's about the most intimate thing I know, language. Because language is the way we construct ourselves, with every thought and every statement -- at least for me. I don't know how to begin, so I guess I'll approach my subject indirectly. By talking about Saúl Yurkiévich.

Saúl approaches everything indirectly, or so it seems when you read his poetry. But sometimes he is very direct. Like the Sunday before last, when he suddenly dropped in on us. We didn't even know he was in the U.S. -- he's lived in Paris for decades -- but there he was at our door, and he ended up staying for dinner.

He's a loving and lovable little man -- really tiny -- with an immense vocabulary and a wide compassion for humans of all languages. Susana has known him since she was a girl in La Plata, and I've known him for almost as long as I've known Susana. He had come to the States this time to present his two latest books -- the first bilingual (English & Spanish) editions of his verse -- and to read from them at various schools; he'd already been to Harvard, was scheduled for Columbia, and later in the week -- last Friday -- I would get to hear him read at the CUNY Grad Center. He has written 15 books of criticism of other Latin American writers, and 17 volumes of his own poetry. And his conversation is a fantastic chase through allusions and references. Julio Cortázar (who knew him well) pokes gentle fun at him in the novel El libro de Manuel (I think this was translated as "A Manual for Manuel"); in that comic and terrifying book about Argentine exiles in Paris trying to think of something, anything, they can do to overthrow the dictatorship in Argentina (this is around 1973), Saúl appears under another name as one of the conspirators, speaking in long and convoluted sentences flavored with the rarest of words.

Saúl's first language is not Spanish, but the Yiddish his parents continued to speak after escaping Europe and ending up in La Plata, Argentina. He has, doggedly, made his home in the Spanish language, exploring its byways and crevices, and now he knows it as thoroughly as any botanist may know a forest that the rest of us just blithely walk through. If you get a chance, take a look at his new book, Background Noise / Ruido de fondo, tr. Cola Franzen (North Haven CT: Catbird Press, 2003). And when you do, you might turn to one poem whose meaning is absolutely clear, and sad, and yet bravely persistent in the face of many tragedies: "It All Tattoos You / Todo te tatúa".


Raptured Republicans
My National Writers Union colleague Mel Friedman just forwarded the article in the NYRB by Joan Didion, on the "Left Behind" series about the last days of the world before Christ returns to defeat the Antichrist. This happens after all the true believers have been taken into Heaven in the Rapture. Didion's point is that G. W. Bush actually believes this stuff -- or at least has decided to pretend to. Mel promised a "frisson" from reading it.

Quel frisson! It's left my hair curled like a bichon frisé.

Actually, I hope it's true -- the Rapture, I mean. It would be a great thing if all the True Believers suddenly disappeared, leaving behind only their clothes and pacemakers and surgical pins. Then maybe we could get back to work on some sane politics. Fwoop! There goes Bush. Fwoop! there goes Ashcroft. We'd be left with Cheney (who believes only in cash), Wolfowitz (who believes only in power), and Rumsfeld (who believes only in himself), but we'd have a better chance of overcoming them once the Christian host has wafted off to glory.

Here's the Joan Didion article (New York Review of Books)
And if you're not already a member, check out the National Writers Union


Pax Americana, Pax Romana
I had just read of yesterday's rocket attack on the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad when I came across this passage, in the obituary of the distinguished British historian of the Byzantine empire Donald MacGillivray Nicol:
One of his last books, The Reluctant Emperor (1996), is a sympathetic portrait of the controversial 14th-century emperor of Constantinople, John VI Cantacuzene, who had also been a historian. As Nicol understood him, Cantacuzene had been one of the few leading men of his time to perceive how far the empire had declined since its heyday. When he realised the impossibility of restoring its fortunes, according to Nicol, he did the decent thing, and abdicated.

Nicol's lifelong study of the terminal dissolution of an empire that had once believed itself to be God's kingdom on earth may owe something to the same stoical pessimism that he attributed to this "reluctant emperor".

Here is the full obituary, by Roderick Beaton in the Guardian (UK).

I also noted this interesting insight into how some Americans view the city we say we're liberating, in a piece in today's NYT by Joe Brinkley:
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 26 -- The Dor al Sikik neighborhood lies like a snake coiled around one side of the Rashid Hotel...


Canine unbelievers
According to today's NYT, Sheik Mahmoud al-Ghassi, a young mullah in Aleppo, Syria, has been giving fiery sermons denouncing "atheist dogs." Surely the same question must have occurred to you: Are there really any atheist dogs?

My first thought was, "Impossible. Every dog worships its master." But then I thought back to a summer in Williamsville in the western mountains of Virginia. My accomplice and I had rented a cabin from the writer Donald McCaig and his wife Anne on their sheep farm.

The cabin had sounded quite attractive (especially the price) in an ad in the NYRB. It turned out to be a collapsing shack among the weeds where the McCaigs' land dipped down toward Bull Pasture Creek. It had electricity, but no air conditioning. The window screens were torn and clusters of big black flies would light on your eyelids and stay there till you brushed them away, while their kinfolk stopped for a taste of saliva on your lips and others explored your ears to distract you from all the reading and writing you'd gone there to accomplish. But the place did have its virtues. It was absolutely quiet, except for the buzzing of the flies and the occasional deer crashing through the trees on the way to the creek. The smells were pleasantly organic, pine and other country plants I wouldn't know how to identify, the rich black soil, the occasional scent of manure. And the firefly displays at night were just spectacular.

It was a short walk up the hill and along the two-lane country road to the general store/ post office -- we could never find anything there that we would want to eat, but for the first few days we enjoyed the illusion that we might. Williamsville must have had a population of, oh, maybe 50 people (that may be an exaggeration -- we never saw more than three at one time), so I guess there wasn't much demand for caponata or gorgonzola or other necessities of urban living. Plenty of lamb chops were available, though; we just had to ask the McCaigs.

Somehow -- traveling all the way to Roanoke for shopping -- we managed to put together a pretty decent non-lamb dinner one night and invited the McCaigs down from the big house to share it with us. Our secret agenda was to get them inside the place to experience the flies and see that maybe the screens should be replaced. Actually, it was a two-point agenda. We also wanted to get to know the McCaigs, and have a chance to talk to somebody besides each other.

They turned out to be pretty interesting. He especially was full of stories. He was at the time working hard on what would become his acclaimed Civil War novel, Jacob's Ladder. He'd found archives of a WPA project of the 1930s, interviews of former slaves, and was quite excited about it. But mostly we talked about sheep and especially the dogs that herd them, most especially the highland border collies that are so smart their owners have to go to a special school to learn how to communicate with them. McCaig's reputation (before the Civil War book came out) was based mainly on his dog books, both fiction and nonfiction, celebrating the wit and complex personalities of these dogs, and he lamented that despite trips to Scotland and Australia to learn more, he hadn't really become expert enough as a dog-partner to get his own two border collies (mother and daughter) to respond to his sometimes confusing commands.

In the next days, when we wanted to take a break from the heavy workloads we'd brought, my partner and I would go walking through the forested hills. The younger collie would come bounding after us, not just to accompany us but, eyeing us closely, to nudge us in one direction or another. After looking us over, she had decided we weren't much smarter than sheep, and she was herding us. This was a little embarrassing, but I suppose from her point of view, and given that we were wandering more or less aimlessly in unfamiliar territory, she was right.

And I remembered McCaig saying that border collies were so smart and so capable of thinking ahead that, unlike almost any other dogs, they would sometimes disobey an explicit command the better to meet what they knew was the master's larger purpose. For example, the master, standing at quite some distance from the action, would think that the dog should make some particular maneuver to get some wayward sheep back where they belonged, but the dog, more experienced and at the scene, would see a better way to it, and would do it that way.

That's when I thought that yes, the mullah in Aleppo may be right. Border collies must be atheists. They are the only dogs to realize that their masters are merely human. Atheism, after all, requires a sense of irony.

Here's something about Donald McCaig.

And here's something about border collies.


She speaks for all of us
"Us" being people who care about humanity and who are trying to puzzle out what we can do against the horrible abuses and deceptions or our elected or, in the case of the US, unelected leaders. I have been listing to Arundhati Roy on WBAI-FM, and felt so moved by her eloquence and clarity (and Amy Goodman's consistently courageous broadcasting) that I even made a small on-line contribution to WBAI's fall fund-raising drive. Maybe you will want to, too. This was the program: Fri., Oct. 24, 9:00-10:30 am: Democracy Now!, with Amy Goodman. Arundhati Roy, acclaimed Indian activist and author of Power Politics, War Talk, and the novel The God of Small Things, gives a speech at Riverside Church in Harlem titled, "Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy, Buy One Get One Free."

Someone (not Roy herself) has set up an Arundhati Roy website, with a lovely photo and links to her writings. There's lots more about and by her on the net.


Anybody still there?
We're back! Bear, Lion, Glib and your host, GF (for background on all of us, see Our Editorial Team). We were incomunicados (pardon my Spanish) for a few days, due to some erroneous settings we entered after switching to our new domain host, the Authors Guild. (Fellow authors: if you're eligible to join the AG, they've got a great deal going; I'm saving more $$ on website hosting than I'm paying in annual dues.) But thanks to the friendly support folks at Blogger, we're back on the electron waves. (Gee, this blog is full of advertising, isn't it? Well, they -- in particular a chap named Graham at Blogger, and the web wizards Tenchi and John at the AG -- were a big help and deserve some credit.)

As you've probably figured out by now, Bear, Lion and Glib live mainly in my head, just the way somebody he calls "God" lives mainly in Gen. Boykin's head (see post below). Of course, as soon as Boykin or I can get you thinking about them, they'll start living in your head, too. Or at least drop by for a visit. So I guess it would be all right to speak of these three buddies of mine as my gods (they don't mind). The only difference between them and most people's gods is that I know I made them up -- which doesn't make them any less real.

But it does make me acknowledge an error in my previous post. I spoke too quickly, without consulting my furry deities. It is not true that if left to themselves, "Tlaloc (of the Aztecs) could probably get along quite peacefully with Ganesh (of the Hindus) or Jehova (who comes in various versions) or Estarte or Venus or Inti or Allah." Bear and Lion have both informed me that they get extremely uncomfortable sharing space in my head with Tlaloc, who not only has a nasty temper (he keeps shooting torrents of water at Lion), but -- to Bear's great annoyance -- continuously jabbers in Nahuatl, which none of the four of us understands (though Glib pretends to).


Toward a Deity Liberation Manifesto
"My god is a real god, yours is an idol!" declares Lt. Gen. Willam G. Boykin to the Muslims. May the gods save us from such thinking. This is an idea that has brought mayhem ever since Samson committed genocide against the Philistines. For the sake of all the gods and the people who believe in them, we must establish a Declaration of Deity Rights.

The gods cannot speak for themselves, so it's up to us, the humans who have created and who sustain them, to draft the Declaration.

1 - All deities are created equal. They are created by the imaginations of human beings, to satisfy very deep felt needs, and no human being has a right to question the validity of those needs.

2 - Deities all have the attributes that their human believers assign to them. They may be male, female, or gender-free, they may have an elephant's head or a profusion of arms or a bright nonhuman color, elaborate headdresses, nail-holes in their limbs, or they may be completely noncorporeal and physically undescribable. No matter; no believer in a god with one set of traits should mock the believers in a god (or goddess) with some other set of traits. People believe what they need to believe, and to mock their gods is to mock their needs.

3 - All deities need believers. Without them, they cease to exist. Therefore it is extremely cruel to any god or goddess to deprive him/her of believers.

We should note that these problems hardly exist among the deities themselves. Tlaloc (of the Aztec) could probably get along quite peacefully with Ganesh (of the Hindus) or Jehova (who comes in various versions) or Estarte or Venus or Inti or Allah. We should let them be, all of them, and any future gods that humans choose to invent. They all meet real human needs, and thus must be respected.
Kucinich is the man
Definitely. The only one speaking clearly and forcefully against the madmen leading us toward national suicide. To find out why, if you don't already know, you can start here.


Some quick thoughts: US politics
I've been thinking about these things for days. I don't expect to have time soon to develop them as they deserve, so here are just the starter thoughts.

• The juggernaut of the right is grinding to a halt, its impressive assault on civil rights, democratic voting procedure, and economic equity is finally falling apart. The juggernaut was not a single machine (like the original Juggernaut of India), but a coalition of single-cause anger groups, united only by their belief that it was the liberal establishment that stood in their way. Now that not much of anything stands in their way, they have only each other to blame for the massive failures of their policies. The Iraq disaster, the economic disaster (both entirely unprovoked), the many assaults on personal privacy, the "war on terrorism" that ignores the causes of terrorism and instead inflicts terror ("shock and awe") on another country and asks for $87 billion to cover its errors -- hey, you can't fool all the American voters all of the time.

• Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California was a defeat for the extreme right (which had expected something entirely different). Of course it was also a defeat for Democratic machine politics, but maybe that was necessary to clear the deck for a real renewal of progressive politics (with or without, probably without, Arnold).

• When the president of the United States has to go around to non-news TV stations to make the case that his policies are not a failure, you know his end is near. Like Nixon, when he felt obliged to declare, "I am not a crook!"

• Reporters have mocked John Podesta's new progressive think tank for not coming up with a single unifying "big idea" to counteract the propaganda skills of the rightwing think tanks. Maybe we should suggest some. How about democracy? It's time we tried it again. Let the people vote! In the U.S. and in Iraq. And let's let the votes be counted.

More later when I get more time. Any comments are welcome. Just click on "Contact" over on the left of this page.


Good news!
My short story "Stairways" (one of my South American tales, featuring a very young Ted Auer) has been selected for publication in the Winter 2003 Edition of Small Spiral Notebook, a handsome and well-edited e-journal. I'll let you know when it's up. Meanwhile, check out the current (Autumn 2003) issue of Small Spiral Notebook. It's worth a look.


Phony letters from G.I.s?
I first saw mention of this in a short article in the NY Post. The NYT so far has not deemed this fit to print. It appears to be a new twist in the propaganda war. CBS News article
Re-blog: item of interest from the Poynter Org.
Posted by Juan Carlos Camus 12:17:08 PM

Digital Journalists Meet in Buenos Aires
The Iberoamerican Congress of Digital Journalism, organized by Clarín.com and Fundación Noble, will be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 29-31. With 10 tracks, this event will include discussions on many digital-media issues, from business models to weblogs as new mass media -- with specialists from many countries including Spain, the U.S., and Argentina, of course. The sessions will be brodcast live by Clarín.com.


U.S. as all-devouring monster
Yesterday was the last day for "The American Effect" show at the Whitney Museum of Art here in Manhattan. As you surely know, the show brought together works about the U.S. by artists from many other countries. Some were whimsical, like the delightful large-scale model of "New Manhattan City, 3021" by Bodys Isek Kingelez of the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- a future Manhattan full of shiny, bright-colored towers of fanciful shapes and many corporate logos. Some were pseudo-anthropological, like Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe's drawings by an imaginary ethnographer documenting racial types in 19th century America, or the hyper-realistic, out-sized figures of Custer's Last Stand by Ousmane Sow of Senegal, now living in France. The twisted, dying, still shooting Custer and the Sioux attacking or falling from a horse or, in the case of Sitting Bull, praying, are all made of wire, mud and cloth by somebody who really understands anatomy. The scene is quite frightening in its violence as the visitor walks among these straining, reaching men, right onto the battlefield and into the line of tomahawk thrust or bullet. Video permits the sequential telling of a story, and the three-channel video about the international battle for custody of little Elián González, made by two Cubans -- Meira Marrero Díaz and José Angel Toriac -- and one U.S. artist -- Patricia Clark -- goes futher, by playing off contrasting and complementary scenes on the three screens. Particularly effective is the "rewinding" -- the tapes actually do run backward briefly, with the scenes of the rescue/seizure of Elián from his Miami relatives, and Fidel Castro and Elián's father, and various other political and cultural figures. Then the story begins again, but much earlier, with the first great attack of the U.S. against the Cuban revolution at the Bay of Pigs, thus giving context to the tensions over the child more than 30 years later (José Martí's children's book gives the video its title).

The fear and hostility toward the U.S. in some of the other works might seem over the top, unless you've been reading the papers lately to see what the U.S. is really doing to countries around the world. For example, Hisushi Tenmyouya (Japan) has a wonderfully complex, comic book-like drawing of "Tattoo Man's Battle" in which Tattoo Man -- Japan -- on a white horse and waving a glowing sword confronts a huge monster, the United States, whose three leering mouths spew flames and whose biceps are other angry monsters and whose claws reach down to grasp Tattoo Man. This is what the U.S. must seem like to many Iraqis and Afghanis these days. The U.S. submarine's apparently careless sinking of a Japanese fishing boat a couple of years back, and the utter lack of remorse for the loss of lives, are commemorated in another of this artist's drawings. And then there are the Mughal-style miniatures by Pakistani artist Muhammad Imran Qureshi. In one, we see the tops of a cluster of trees, about to be bombarded by U.S. aid. Qureshi is quoted saying about this drawing, "no matter whether for good or for bad, everyone today is a target of America."

Over the top? Check out this article by a Chicago Tribune reporter: U.S. data mining riles Latin America.


A 'cosmic jerk' -- No, not the one in the White House

Today we are going to talk about the universe. Why? Because, as Sevren Darden of Second City used to say in his professor routine, "Zair eesn't ennysing else!"

Astronomer Adam Riess has now proven, to the satisfaction of his colleagues, that there was a "cosmic jerk" about 5 billion years ago (give or take a month or so, I suppose), when the forces causing the universe to expand -- "dark energy" -- overwhelmed the gravitational forces making it contract -- "dark matter." Thus we learn, to my immense relief, that the universe is not likely to contract and ultimately implode in another few billion years. But on second look, the news is not so reassuring. It now appears, as NYT reporter Dennis Overbye puts it, that "the universe will expand faster and faster as time goes on."

"It will be cold and dark in a few billion years," he quotes Dr. Frank Wilcsek of MIT, and "[t]hat would be very sad."

And I ask you, what are the Republicans doing about this?


Another great story from Chimamanda
I just got "Transition to Glory" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the latest One Story. It's terrific -- about two women, of widely separated classes and ages, and their tormented relationship to the same charming guy, in Lagos, Nigeria. Chimamanda has had rapid success since the first trial stories of hers I read in the Zoetrope workshop. Publications in prestigious magazines, literary prizes including the "O. Henry" selection. All deserved. The fact that she is a very photogenic young woman from Nigeria doesn't hurt, but I think what really works is: 1) she brings us news of a culture and characters we wouldn't otherwise know; 2) she keeps her p.o.v. tightly focused on one person's experience; 3) things happen, often dramatic things, in the world this person lives in (unlike in a lot of stories I see on Zoetrope); 4) nevertheless, what really matters is not the events but the way the p.o.v. character experiences them, making her (protagonist is usually a woman) a just slightly, intriguingly unreliable reporter; 5) descriptions are very vivid, using all the senses. All in all, that's very fine writing.
Common Cause: The greater efficiency of inefficiency
It's a helluva way to run a meeting. More than 2 dozen people who mostly have never seen each other before, with no agenda but a list of talking points, and nobody chairing. What could we possibly get done at a Common Cause "Meetup" in a New York City diner, like we had last night at the Starlight Diner on West 34th St.?

I loved it. It's not what we got done, but what we got started. We were all drawn because we care about some issues, specifically the campaign by the media giants to seize a monopoly of all the available TV, radio and printed press. (They haven't figured out how to monopolize the Internet yet, but watch out!) And we feel angry and eager to do something about our exclusion from decisions like these that affect our lives. And not just about the media. We marched in the hundreds of thousands against the war, and before that we voted in an election where our majority went completely unheeded. We're trying to recover our American democracy, and democracy is people, us. E-mails were our medium, and now -- after months of firing off e-petitions and letters to our Congressmen from our home or work computers -- we had a chance to see what some of the others looked like and actually to hear our voices.

The real "getting things done" work -- drafting petitions, choosing targets, organizing rallies -- will get done, by as many of us as are willing to participate, when we get back to our computers and phones. Meeting some of our comrades is a way of renewing the strength to go back and do that. The "meetup" reminds us of who we're fighting for -- all of us, and those to come.


So the Terminator is the Governator. Nothing to do but laugh
This is too much! I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't discovered this guy until just now. If you don't know his work already, check out Khalil Bendib's cartoons. (The Arnold cartoons -- by other artists -- were too insipid, but Bush makes a nice, plump, soft target for Bendib.)
Films of protest from the Cono Sur
Two short, moving films about the piqueteros' movement in Argentina (shown by one of the filmmakers at NYU yesterday) make it possible to see and feel part of some of the terrible clashes reported by Sandra Russo in the book I mentioned last week (click on "Archive" in the left column of this page, and go to 2003 09 28): "El rostro de la dignidad" follows a group from the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD) from the once-industrial, now rust-belt suburb of Solano as they cut access roads to Buenos Aires, and lets them explain why they're doing this and what they hope to accomplish. "Crónicas de la libertad" documents the police killing of two piqueteros in the massive confrontation between the movement and the forces of repression (army, police, prefectura) on the Puente Pueyrredón (Buenos Aires) on June 26, 2002. This was the subject of one of Russo's notes that I mentioned.

Also, I highly recommend a movie we saw in Buenos Aires the week before last, "Che va cachai" -- which seems to be current youth slang in the Southern Cone for "You get it?" It's about the movement of H.I.J.O.S., the children of the disappeared in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Good, moving interviews and dramatic scenes of demos and, as a finale, an especially dramatic escrache, or public exposure of a torturer from dictatorial days, in this case a Santiago (Chile) physician who is confronted in his office.


Playing pundit: California turmoil
A young woman with a Colombian accent, Camila, just interviewed me by phone from Paris for Radio France Internationale's Spanish-language service, about today's California recall election. She expressed amazement that Arnold Schwarzenegger could still be a serious candidate after all the revelations of his man-handling of women. Well, unfortunately, lots of people have come to think of politics as part of the entertainment industry, and Arnold's shenanigans seem pretty amusing -- except to the victims. Lots of Americans also seem to have confused Arnold's on-screen persona with the real guy. If -- gasp! -- he actually gets to be governor, I don't expect him to be either bold or strong in protecting the less-powerful against the energy interests that robbed the state blind, or the auto and other industries that want to gut California's environmental protection laws. He'll be too busy posing for TV cameras and for himself in front of mirrors to even notice how he's being used by the money guys.

One of Camila's colleagues, another Colombian woman in Radio France Internationale, has called occasionally in the past for my views on such things as Bush's sudden attack on Afghanistan, the infuriating theft of the 2000 elections, and the political clout of hispanos in the US. The first time she called, I was a little embarrassed to opine for the world about things I could not possibly be expert on. But hell, William Saffire does it all the time, so why not? By now I'm quite comfortable, and glad that somebody who is not from the American right gets to be heard in the Spanish-language radio markets around the world.

If you want to see what else the station offers, go to Radio Francia Internacional en castellano

For another -- quite compatible -- view of the California vote, see this note by my friend RD Larson, Useless Knowledge.


Cuba and the survival of the left
My friend Daniel del Solar just forwarded to me a lengthy, detailed article from Le Monde Diplomatique about the Bush administration's unceasing campaign to destroy the independence of Cuba. (Click for English-language version.) As I just wrote to Daniel, it seems to me that, at least since Nixon, this is what the US Government has been doing all along, with no success, and similar to what they did to Chile with tragic success (the destruction of democracy for a very long period, which meant an opening of the economy to rapine by US and other international business interests). The difference between now and earlier periods is the world context: no more Soviet Union, a much diminished left in most of the hemisphere. Or maybe not so much diminished as fundamentally changed in composition -- less proletarian -- and strategy -- more nationalist & more self-reliant.

The left can't die. It's simply not possible. I think there are two things that can never be killed, even though governments of one kind or another have tried over and over, and the reason is that no matter how suppressed, they spring up again. One is God, i.e., the hope for an individual, nonmaterial solution to desperate situations. The other is what I still think of as communism, though it has other names: the aspiration, even the drive, for a collective and practical (material) solution.
Now how do we do that?
I just looked at Craig's List to see what writing jobs were available, and one of them, "IT Research Firm looking for Jr. Year English/Journalism Majors," included this information:

"Compensation: To comenstruate with experience"

That would be some experience!


Those Latins again!
"Latin Rebels Down Plane" is the headline on a short item in today's NYT (p. A1). It turns out they are referring to a guerrilla squad of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Army of Colombia, which shot down an American plane (piloted by a Costa Rican) that was said to be "dusting clandestine coca plantations with herbicide" in the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia.

The Latins, as you know, were a tribe of Northern Italy, best known for founding Rome and bestowing (or imposing) their language on the entire Mediterranean world and beyond. Then the word came to be used for anyone who spoke one of the languages derived from Latin, and now the US press uses it mainly to refer to any "Latin" Americans (the French these days might be called "frogs" but not "Latins," the Rumanians and Portuguese are simply Rumanians and Portuguese, and the Italians, the original Latins, may be called many things but seldom "Latins"). It was not "guerrillas," or even "Colombians" who downed the plane, but undifferentiated Latins -- like it's all one big country down there, and who can tell them apart anyway?

I suppose we should be grateful that there was no NYT headline, "Boer wins Nobel Prize in Literature."
The Nobel
You will be relieved to learn that I am abandoning my campaign for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I have not yet decided whether to refuse it if offered (the $1.3 million would be tempting), but I shall not continue actively to pursue it.

It is not that I disapprove of the selections the committee has made. J. M. Coetzee is no doubt as deserving, from some points of view, as any of the candidates I might have chosen. (Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, was on my personal short list.) It is simply that I have decided that pursuit of any such prize -- Pulitzer, National Book Award, or whatever -- will constrain my art. I don't want to feel that I have to intuit and then meet the criteria for excellence of some committee. I did that once (for my Ph.D. dissertation), and I know the work suffered.

I am aware that my withdrawal leaves the way open to any of the others of you who may be contenders. And if that's your aim, I wish you the best of luck! As for me, I am just going to write whatever pleases me, or confronts my own demons (as Ernesto Sabato calls them), and any of those committees can just take it or leave it.


False alarm: Gabo is still with us
Someone began circulating on the Internet a letter, supposedly by Gabriel García Márquez, as his "Farewell" because he is, according to the message, dying of lymphatic cancer. It's a very nice letter, but it's not Gabo's, and he says his cancer is in remission. Why do people do these things? Go here to read the counterfeit letter, and about Gabo's response.


Venezuela: Serious land reform
Encouraging news reported in an article in the Baltimore Sun Journal. The Venezuelan government's land refore is a tepid measure, leaving alone vast latifundios, but even so, a big advance for thousands of small farmers.


Blogging and journalism
OK, no more bold faced names. I don't really want to model my weblog on a gossip column. What I'd like it to be is more like the space Sandra Russo occupies on the back page, or contratapa, of Buenos Aires' most consistently interesting daily, Página/12. She has collected a couple of dozen of those from December 2000 to April 2003 in a book called, simply, Contratapas (Buenos Aires: Astralib,2003). In a very personal voice, she tries to make sense of the confusing events of these tumultuous years, especially since the crisis of December 2001, to unmask the the charlatans and political criminals responsible, and especially to celebrate those acts of solidarity -- some very painful and ending tragically -- that give signs that a new, healthier Argentina can still emerge.

When in Argentina, I like to read Clarín for news and Página/12 for analysis -- and if I lived there and had a little more time for reading than one can manage on a hurried trip, I'd try to read parts of both daily. That week of exposure to the Buenos Aires press made me painfully aware of the limitations of my own hometown paper, The New York Times. The picture of goofy Laura Bush dully thrilled to have her hand kissed by Chirac on that paper's frontpage today, in Página/12 would have raised editorial guffaws and cutting caricatures, but the solemn NYT remains the Gray Lady (even though she now has color tints in her photos), and refrains from hooting at the truly hootable. Montevideo's La República, a quirky but comprehensive daily representing the conservative-liberal-nationalist amalgam called the Blanco party (now in opposition to the ruling Colorados, representing pro-globalizing business interests), seemed to me to be editorially closer to the NYT.

One of the essays in Sandra Russo's book is especially focused on a case of press distortion. "Propiedad privada" (2002 June 28) analyzes the way the conservative Buenos Aires daily, La Nación, covered the deaths from police bullets of two piqueteros, who are street protesters, many from the slums, who have been organizing to demand jobs, schools, and basic services, sometimes by blocking roads. The wording of the headline and of the lead paragraphs clearly implies that the protesters were at fault, because they were attacking "private property" (some cars and store windows were smashed by angry and hungry piqueteros). The reporting is an example of "[t]he dripping of the authoritarian discourse that again drives our home-grown liberals to schizophrenia."

"Liberal" is here used in its traditional sense: pro-free trade, free markets, and against state intervention. "They [the schizophrenic liberals who read and write for La Nación] speak of the piqueteros as though of a human subspecies, they speak of blockades of streets and bridges as something inexcusable, whereas death is excusable. There were those yesterday who spoke more about the broken windows of the shops than of the deaths of the two young piqueteros. They ignore the fact that life is also a private property."
Back from Buenos Aires
Eleven-hour flight from Ezeiza international airport to JFK, arriving Sunday morning; sleep to catch up on, nearly 400 e-mails (some of them important), so no blog up till now. Here I'll summarize a few highlights of the trip.

First, spirits were generally much better in Argentina than on my last visit, 2 1/2 years ago -- the crisis of December 2001 (devaluation, sequestering of everybody's bank accounts, plummeting of the economy in all areas) was the absolute pits, and now, even though violent crime is still rampant, unemployment high, and thousands try to scrape together a living by going out at night to gather recyclables from the garbage, people seemed generally to believe that they're going to get through this and that Argentina will become a normal, self-sufficient country once again.

Some people: The artist Catalina Chervin, whose painstaking drawings (see URL below) concentrate and focus cataracts of pain and somehow help her, and viewers like me, to cope with them, opened her house (a multifloor apartment in Palermo, with a terrace on which she has constructed a well-lit studio) to us and our and her friends for a welcoming party.

Among them was her partner, the elegant Isidoro Polonsky, sociologist, psychoanalyst and cattle rancher (it's hard to live from psychoanalysis alone in today's Argentina). We're grateful to Isidoro for lending us his apartment near the U.S. embassy while he camped with Catalina.

Among the old friends were Carlota Gershanik, who practically grew up with my accomplice Susana, and Carlota's husband Mario Vacchino, recently retired from his job as a CEPAL executive and now devoting himself to more useful pursuits, like cooking -- as we discovered later, when we had a meal at their house. Mario is really a culinary artist. Carlota -- a former mathematics professor -- has invented a new career for herself. She founded and directs an efficient little company that provides Internet drafting services worldwide (I don't have the URL handy; contact me if you're looking for exquisitely careful work at Argentine prices).

Other old friends included Norma and Mederico Faivre, co-adventurers with Susana on their first foray into the US back in 1967, when none of them spoke much English and America was in its drug-enhanced pro- and anti-war fervor. These very young architects on generous fellowships were bouncing from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury and trying to look at buildings, but the American counterculture kept getting in the way. The story is too funny for me to tell here -- either they will write it down themselves or I will, but it would take too long for now. Norma and Mederico are busy building all over Buenos Aires, and Mederico also teaches at the relatively small, prestigious Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (UNQ). Mederico is an exuberant talker and probably a gifted teacher. Their kids, Pablo Mederico and Florencia, are becoming famous as makers of animated videos (look 'em up on Google).

In the next days (it's too late to go on writing) I'll tell you about another professor at UNQ, Adrián Gorelik, an architect and historian whose writings have helped me understand Buenos Aires. And more. Please stay tuned.

Some drawings of Catalina Chervin
Mederico Faivre (foto & datos)