The fish that snored

Things have been pretty agitated here in Carboneras lately, with the local Socialist (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español) municipal administration at loggerheads with the national PSOE government's Ministry of the Environment over a development project (a big hotel) on a nearby beach. The Ministry wants to tear down the hotel as a violation of coastal protection, the Carboneras town hall was counting on it as a source of employment for the citizens. It's a complicated issue, and we have good friends on both sides -- the local ecologists (Greenpeace actually seized the hotel briefly a week ago) and the local Socialists (who organized, of all things, a general strike in the village last Friday). I've started to write up an analysis of it, because it's symptomatic of a much bigger issue involving all of Spain (and probably every country on the Mediterranean), but I'm writing it English because I don't want to become a participant in the battle -- not yet, anyway, until I can offer some helpful alternatives.

What is happening is that chunk by chunk, Spain's beautiful rugged coast is getting cemented-over by hotels and enormous developments of hundreds or even thousands of second homes for opulent retirees from all over Europe. The retirees are attracted by the climate, the culture, and the excellent and free health care, better and cheaper than most of them could get at home. Golf courses, swimming pools, and the extravagant personal hygiene and gardening habits of the newcomers are sucking up scarce water, even as this part of Europe is growing drier and drier. Carboneras' big new hotel is a minor culprit – Marbella, in Malaga, has thousands of illegal shore side constructions, granted licenses by the local administration in clear and repeated violation of law, and nearer at hand, Mojácar’s once wild beach is now a solid strip of tourist traps big and small. But the nearly-completed 411-room hotel built by the big Azata company (based in Madrid) is the most recent offense, and the Ministry wants to make an example of it. The example comes a little late – but better late than never; there is still some pristine coast left to be saved, in Carboneras and other parts of the region.

But the need for jobs is real, too. Carboneras used to live mostly on fishing, but bigger fishing interests with dragnets, etc., have so depleted the stock that fewer and fewer fishermen can continue. Their sons are more like to go into construction, building those fancy second homes (like ours), but that can't last long -- space for new building in Carboneras is just about gone. So service jobs in tourism seem like the best option -- waiting tables, making beds, whatever.

A better option that has been suggested by some people here would be to encourage the development of what are called “rural hotels” inside the Nature Park (Parque Natural Cabo de Gata-Nijar) that occupies 75% of Carboneras’ territory. These would not be new constructions, which are (properly, I think) strictly forbidden in the park, but conversions of existing farmhouses, as has been done throughout Spain. There are families and farmhouse-owners eager to do this, since they can’t very well farm economically in the park and need the income, and such hotels would surely create jobs directly (hiring a gardener or cook, for example) and indirectly (through demands for services), and of course more and more attractive places for tourists to stay near town. So far, though, the authorities have denied applications for licenses for such conversions, fearing that they would in fact lead to new construction that would alter the natural environment of the park. But that has to be a better idea, both environmentally and economically, than a cement ziggurat of 411 rooms right on the water’s edge that profits mainly some huge and distant hotel management company.

The coastal area in dispute includes, first of all, the Playa de Algarrobico and extends to the pebbly shore known as the Piedra de Roncaores. The roncaor, or “snorer” fish (“roncador” in more formal Spanish, “croaker” in English) seems like a good symbol for Carboneras in its present plight. It’s about a foot long with a bulldog-like face and lateral fins like wings that, when attacked, it thrusts out to make it look much bigger than it is, while it makes an angry (snoring?) noise with its jaws. Like Carboneras (pop. about 7,000) with its “general strike” and angry speeches against the Minister of the Environment last Friday. But all that fin-thrusting and snoring doesn’t always keep the roncaor from getting caught and eaten by bigger, human predators.

(The roncaor pictured above had washed ashore in Valencia, just up the coast from Carboneras. For sketches and further data on this peculiar beast, check out Mare Nostrum. Because of its "wings," the roncaor is also known as the pez golondrina.)


The Old South in Black and White

Jones, Edward P. 2003. The Known World. New York: Amistad (HarperCollins).

This powerful novel, like a Brueghel painting, is a crowd scene of individual portraits where each character is engaged in some intense, private activity. The collective ritual in this case is slavery in the ante-bellum South of the U.S., and the characters include black slaves, black freemen and women some of whom are themselves slave owners, whites of various social statuses and backgrounds, and an Indian of ambiguous status – not quite enslavable, but not quite a white. Some of these characters, black and white, attempt to behave honorably without always succeeding; some do cruel things thoughtlessly or selfishly. All are trapped in a system that rewards whites for cruelty even when they want to be just, and servility from blacks no matter how hard they struggle to attain and retain dignity. The women – especially the black women -- are as vivid as the men. Though most of the action gets started in one county in Virginia in the 1840s, Jones wants to know what became of his creatures after they left the county, some as far as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, and shows us the lives of the surviving blacks many decades later, after the Civil War and emancipation. Some of them do achieve dignity.


The view from Carboneras

In this small town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, the people who have been here a while are always looking for an opportunity to turn a stranger into a vecino, that is, into a known quantity that can be integrated into the community. This is why newcomers are so often surprised by unsought conversations in a shop, a bar, or on the street, even when the language barrier is high.

Community is woven of many threads of information, some of them as light and fragile as a person’s sigh or tic, others– remembrances of ancestors and of living family, or knowledge of one another’s political or religious preferences –tightly wound into stronger cords. The denser the weave, that is, the more the threads that cross through it, the more firmly attached are the members to each other. A vecino is not necessarily an amigo – among families that have dealt with one another for generations, threads of ancient conflicts pull against other, newer ties. But for the same reason, the multiplicity of ties, a vecino can never be entirely an enemy. And a newcomer is always a potential amigo, someone you know well enough to know what might please and what might hurt, and care enough about to avoid the latter.

People here are friendly and open not just to one another, but even to unmonied immigrants from Africa, black and brown, Eastern Europe, and China, to foreign retirees of means – mostly English or other European –and even gypsies. And here in Carboneras, as Susana & I happily allow ourselves be woven ever more tightly into this community, we watch – on TV and in the papers – how different things are in other parts of the world.

Right now the most dramatic contrast is with France, where youth of all colors, but especially those whose parents came from Africa or Asia, are hurling firebombs in protest against their exclusion from the community. And yet France has far fewer immigrants from those areas than Spain, which in 2004 received 610,000, more than any other country in the world except the U.S. (“Un milagro español,” by Andrés Ortega, El País, 7 Nov. 2005). Not all parts of Spain are as welcoming and harmonious as Carboneras, but this country has made far more successful efforts than France at bringing immigrants into the community. The reasons are complex, but surely the policies of inclusion of Spain’s socialist government, in sharp contrast to the punitive policies of Chirac and Sarkozy, are part of the explanation.


Chávez & Perón

Carmen makes an important observation in her comment on my essay below, "Chávez & the chavistas." The parallels between Hugo Chávez's "Movimiento de la V República" (MVR) and Juan Domingo Perón's "Justicialismo" are striking, including the complicated problem each movement has created for intellectuals on the left (me included). Each movement is a mix of progressive and authoritarian-militaristic impulses.

By the way, I also have a book on Argentina, where I attempt to comprehend Perón's relationship to his movement; did Perón create Peronism, or was it the other way around? I hope to come back to this subject. Meanwhile, if you're interested, check out The Land and People of Argentina. Though written for young readers, it may also be a handy starting point for intelligent adults to understand that country's politics. (Photo of Perón is from the Instituto de Formación y Capacitación Política "GRAL. JUAN DOMINGO PERON", who are true believers.)


Some more of those babies

Aren't they beautiful? And can you believe that rooftop forest our neighbors are growing? It's a whole 'nother city up here.

The view from my window

It's a beautiful day. This is from the 8th floor of our building on 4th St., between Broadway & Lafayette, looking north. The tall glass tower at the right is the new Gwathmey-Siegal building on Astor Place. The railing on the rooftop at left goes around a swimming pool where celebs sometimes hold parties and fashion photographers often take their models. But mainly this is a photo about water tanks. If I look a little to the right of this photo, I can see at least eight more on various roofs. Each is beautiful, individually weathered, and seeing them clustered makes me feel well accompanied. I took this with our new Fuji FinePix E550.


Chávez & the Chavistas

A friend writes: "I've been reading in the NYRB about Hugo Chávez. I have a soft spot for him but he sounds really weird. Maybe you should put up something about him."

Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, I should say something about Chávez. I kind of like him, too, and think he is a good phenomenon -- that is, that it's good for Venezuela that he happened. About him personally: He's a very quick thinker but not a deep one. What I mean is that he latches onto ideas that he reads or hears about without working out their likely consequences -- to an even greater degree than Fidel. He's also a very quick talker (I had a five-or-ten-minute impromptu conversation with him once; see Chatting with Chávez). He's also got a strong authoritarian tendency, which could bode ill.

First, about chavismo being a good phenomenon, apart from whether Chávez is or is not a good president.

The overthrow of the last military dictator, Lt. Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, on January 23, 1958, raised great democratic hopes, but in the decades since, a narrow elite of business leaders, political party bosses and their allies managed to turn the institutions of Venezuelan democracy into a machine to guarantee their privileges and exclude the masses. The electoral laws, party structure, judicial system, etc., protected them and their property from scrutiny, while the national petroleum company channeled the oil wealth into their bank accounts or into projects benefitting mainly the elite. The two major parties entered into a pact to share the spoils of the country's oil wealth, while neglecting the needs of the mass of the population and of the nation as a whole: public schools, public health, affordable housing, economic development to create jobs. Those who were born poor faced ever decreasing chances to become less poor. The elite, because they were mainly descendants of generations of privilege, were and are mostly white; the great majority is dark.

Pressure from below threatened to blow this system apart several times, most dramatically in the guerrilla war of the 1960s and the riots of 1989. In the unions, the barrios, professional associations, the armed forces and minority parties, many people were working more or less independently of one another to change things. Finally, in 1998, all that pent-up energy for change found its almost-ideal leader in a hyper-energetic, quick-witted, dark-skinned, up-from-poverty military man, who had tried and failed to lead a coup six years earlier and now was ready to try politics.

Chávez has by now survived a coup and won a whole series of elections, the most recent by over 59%. But the huge movement we call "chavismo" is bigger than Chávez and parts of it are much older than his political presence, stemming from movements founded in 1989 or even earlier. Those older movements need him, and he still needs them, and for now the uneasy alliance between them leaves space for a lot of divergent opinion -- as we saw in the recent, hotly contested internal elections inside the chavista party.

Is this democracy? What else would you call it? You have a popularly elected president and legislature, and a lot of room for debate -- although the guarantees of freedom of speech are not really secure, and the meaning of certain constitutional restrictions (by the new "Bolivarian" constitution) not entirely clear. But the opposition to chavismo has hardly been muzzled (just sometimes threatened), and the debate within chavismo continues.

I haven't been back to Venezuela recently, and it's hard to judge the tenor of political discourse without actually being in it. But I do know the country's recent past, and have some idea of the dynamics of revolutionary regimes, and here's my hypothesis: The danger for democracy in Venezuela will come if and when Hugo Chávez establishes such a wide base of power in organizations of his own creation, that he no longer needs to heed the other organizations that so far have been supporting him. At that point we may expect a Creole and (probably but not certainly) bloodless version of the "night of the long knives," as the Germans called the 1934 purge of the SA.

But I don't think that will happen, or -- if it should happen -- that consolidation of absolute dictatorial power would last very long. Partly as a consequence of all the agitation and political education that has been going on for the past seven years, including the government's health and education misiones in the barrios, Venezuelans across the land will know how to recognize and resist any sort of dictatorship. And so far, Hugo Chávez has been very good at reading the national mood.

For more detail, look at my 1991 book, The Land and People of Venezuela (written for young readers), or these more recent essays: Venezuela, 2004/05/01, and Venezuela Now, 2003

See also:
Steve Ellner, Venezuela’s “Demonstration Effect”: Defying Globalization’s Logic

Alma Guillermoprieto, Don't Cry for Me, Venezuela, New York Review of Books, 10/6/2005, and The Gambler, NYRB 10/20/2005 -- and be sure also to check out the Corrections to several errors in the first piece (Alma must have been in a hurry when she wrote it).


Recent reading: Wiarda, "Civil Society"

"While the United States may vaunt its "liberalism" at home, it projects a kind of corporatism abroad, in that it seeks to subordinate other people's civil societies to the U.S. government," I wrote in my review of Howard J. Wiarda, Civil Society: The American Model and Third World Development (Boulder: Westview Press, 2003). The review has just been published and should be posted in a day or two at H-Net Reviews (Humanities and Social Sciences Net).


And speaking of genocide...

Let's not forget our own troubled history. A new documentary by Don Vasicek reminds us. Check out the trailer for The Sandcreek Massacre. And of course, a book mentioned here earlier, Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star, about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and all the characters and politics that made it. (On that occasion, the guys in feathers won.)

Speaking of beasts...

Check out Karla Huebner's elegant new blog, Rabbits, Toyen, and So Forth. She promises more pictures of Prague, which is certainly picturesque (I used to work there, sort of). Pet the rabbits, but please don't feed the toyen.

Eternal Treblinka?

Charles Patterson's 2002 book Eternal Treblinka is a forcefully and even elegantly written denunciation of killing or harming animals, in the context of a history of slaughterhouses and of 20th century militant vegetarianism. It takes its title from a phrase in a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Letter Writer": "In relation to [all other creatures], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

The book has forced me to think through my own position. I recognize the logic and respect the commitment in Patterson's book, but I'm not ready to become a vegetarian. There is a fundamental difference, in my mind, between genocide and animal slaughter, between killing human beings to rid the earth of them and killing beasts to provide for human beings. Where animal slaughter is a kind of genocide is in the deliberate exterminations of whole species, as nearly happened to the American bison and did happen to the dodo, the thylacine and many other animals -- all of which I regard as terrible errors, but not crimes comparable to what occurred at Treblinka, Auschwitz and other Lager (or in Cambodia or Rwanda or Darfur more recently). I'll focus my rage and what energy I can summon to defending humans first. But read the book. You may come to a different conclusion. In either case, you will be required to think through these issues more clearly.


Pinter: Torture in name of freedom

From the online edition of The Independent, a speech by Harold Pinter, who the day before yesterday won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He writes,"We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'. But, as we all know, we have not been welcomed with the predicted flowers. What we have unleashed is a ferocious and unremitting resistance, mayhem and chaos."

Beautiful mayhem: "Innocent Voices"

The film Voces Inocentes is a gorgeous fable being mis-marketed as a political statement. It's promoters claim it is a denunciation of the forcible recruitment of children in wars, but what it really is is a child's view of flames and violence, filmed in the beautiful colors of El Salvador's picturesque poverty during the war of the 1980s. The memories are those of director Oscar Torres, and they are probably true memories. The movie is a fable not because it deliberately tells untruths, but as a literary form: innocent children beset by monsters who seek to destroy them, but our hero foils the much more powerful monsters by his cleverness and ultimately is saved by a guardian spirit. The monsters are the U.S.-trained Salvadoran army, the guardian spirit who shows up NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON is his Uncle Beto, a selfless leader of the guerrillas in the FMLN. There are moments of very effective acting -- the brutish bus driver, the anguished priest, the resourceful grandmother, the virtuous Beto -- and some spectacular scenes of firefights and of fires. But as a political statement, it comes 20 years too late and is far less effective than Oliver Stone's 1985 Salvador.


Comments from real people only

I just discovered Blogger's new "Word Verification" feature, so that anyone who wants to comment must prove he or she is a real person. Whew! Thanks to Michelle at Brain Terrain -- I discovered it when I started to leave a comment on her interesting blog on cultural events in NYC. So now I can relax and re-open the blog to your feedback.


Tonight we had a little feast
(we two alone)
to celebrate the surprising fact of our continuing existence.
On the news were people much like us
-- exactly like us but for the color of their skin and their histories --
crazy with grief for loved ones buried in the mud
in Guatemala, Mexico. Or dead of bullets in East New York or Baghdad.
Or torn apart by bombs, in Chechnya or Iraq or Israel
for no good reason any of us can fathom.
We are so fragile, all of us.
Yet we two, mine and I, remain, in an accidental niche of class and comfort,
still healthy, still reasonably secure.
It cannot last.
And so while we can we feast.

(Today I was saddened to learn of the death of Horst Bienek. It happened 15 years ago, but nobody told me.)



A day late, but here is my favorite Wednesday poem, which I was reading again yesterday. The last three lines summarize the intentions of this blog. Reading German is a struggle for me, but with this poet the struggle is worth it.
Im Lesesaal

gehe ich in die Staatsbibliothek
die Bücher liegen schon für mich bereit
vom letzten Mittwoch
Es sind immer dieselben Bücher
ich schlage sie auf aber lese nicht darin
ich beobachte die andern die lesen aber
mittwochs liest niemand mittwochs
beobachten die da zum Lesen gekommen sind
alle die andern die zum Lesen gekommen sind
Mittwochs lesen die Leute in Gesichtern
nicht in Büchern
Horst Bienek (*7.Mai 1930 in Gleiwitz, † 7.Dezember 1990 in München/Bayern), Wer antwortet wem. München, Wien: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1991. And my translation:
In the Reading Room

I go to the public library
the books lie already in place for me
from last Wednesday
They're always the same books
I turn the pages but I don't read them
I look at the others who are reading but
on Wednesdays nobody reads Wednesdays
those who have come here to read
look at the others who have come here to read
Wednesdays the people read faces
not books
Had Bienek lived, he would have been 75 this year. Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag, Horst! Bei mir deine Gedichte noch hallen.


Unsolicited comments

Folks, I may just close down the "comments" option. If people were really commenting on my blogs, I'd love it. But no. Almost all of them are thinly disguised ads like this, just in: "Very unique blog you have! I'm definitely going to bookmark you! I have a free knitting patterns site [or some other unrelated product or blog]. It pretty much covers free knitting patterns related stuff. Please visit it. [signed] Rod." They even put these same phrases (in English) here, on my Spanish-language blog.

Writing lives

James Atlas asks in today's New York Times Book Review (My Subject, Myself) "How many American writers -- that is to say, novelists or poets -- have written biographies?" I immediately thought of one he had missed: novelist Evan Connell's richly contextualized, vivid and tragic biography of America's great genocidal maniac, George Armstrong Custer. See my note on Son of the Morning Star (1984).

Also, while you're in the NYTBR, don't miss A. O. Scott's essay, God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut. Mr. Vonnegut, of course, is the very opposite of a genocidal maniac.


How's that again?

From an ad for an upcoming MediaBistro course: "Learn how to write, edit, and sell your first book from a woman who's done it twice--"


Sly wit and liberated dreams: González Viaña

Since his hilarious, touching novel Sarita Colonia viene volando, about the incorporeal adventures of a folk heroine and healer turned angel in Lima, the Peruvian writer Eduardo González Viaña has been delighting readers with his unpredictable riffs on the popular imagination. Now his most recent collection of stories, incorporating tales of Mexicans in Mexico and the U.S., is available in an English translation by Heather Moore Cantarero. It's called American Dreams. González Viaña treats the incredible hope-filled fantasies of his subjects with humor, but also with deep respect, recognizing that however fabulous they seem, they represent deep emotional truths for their believers. The book is a joy. You may also want to check out his web site, El correo de Salem (Salem, Oregon, where he now lives and teaches).


Belief in the unbelievable

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a conversation between New Yorker editorial director Henry Finder and biologist Richard Dawkins. I first learned of Dawkins about 8 years ago and became enamored of his description of the kind of conceptual virus he called a "meme." I was myself trying to introduce a meme by the title of my book, "Hispanic Nation" (I seem to have succeeded; the phrase has now become common to describe the newly-developing sense of community among U.S. Latinos).

Dawkins is genial, quick-witted and a thoroughly rational philosophical materialist, as you surely already know. He is of course an evolutionist, since Darwin's theory is the only one that makes sense and has mountains -- or fossil-heaps -- of evidence to support it. Does belief in evolution necessarily make one an atheist? he was asked. Yes, indeed, he replies, though "I'm not supposed to say that." That's because other defenders of evolution don't want to alienate those more or less sane religious people who accept evolution as a fact. There are those who claim that religion and science are two paths to different kinds of truth, and that they can happily coexist. However, says Dawkins -- and I think he's absolutely right on this -- that's balderdash, because any religion implicitly or explicitly makes scientific claims. Specifically, that the universe was created by some divine intelligence -- a hypothesis for which there is no evidence whatsoever, and that, if true, would yield a universe utterly unlike the blindly developing, purposeless one we actually have. Purposes are made by human beings, because our brains have evolved to give us that capacity, and each of us must forge his or her own purpose.

That seems to me not only eminently sensible but liberating. There's no big Daddy in the sky, it's just us, having to take responsibility for our own lives. One of the central questions that Finder kept bringing up is why so many Americans (far more than people in the U.K. or other European countries) believe otherwise, and why religious belief -- as irrational as it obviously is -- has survived through the millennia. Since Dawkins is a biologist, not a sociologist, he could offer only a biological explanation: The human infant brain is "wired" to accept commands from elders. This childhood propensity to believe is highly adaptive (in Darwinian evolutionary terms) for the survival of the species, since in our species, the young need lots of protection from their elders for several years. Once we reach the age of reason, we begin testing those things we were taught by our elders against experience, and need retain only those that seem valid. But, for reasons Dawkins cannot explain,some people continue to honor the absurd precepts of religion even into adulthood.

A biological answer won't really work here, because of the great variation among human groups. Let's try sociology. Almost everybody gives up belief in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus by adolescence. Why don't they also abandon beliefs in miracles, virgin birth, invisible spirits and so on? A big part of the reason must be because our society has so much invested in maintaining religious belief. Whereas it is in our society's interest that kids give up believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa as they themselves near parenting age, it is in the interest of many institutions -- the churches, of course, but also political parties that rely on religious fervor -- to keep religion alive. Thus even people who don't really believe still pretend to, because it's considered the proper thing to do. Or they try to force themselves to believe, often by repetitive mind-numbing rituals to keep their minds from asking probing questions. This kind of adherence to doctrine that is not really believed is what they call "faith."

I think there are other reasons, too. Some of my friends who may or may not really "believe" (that is, accept as scientific fact the miracles and so forth) but who retain "faith" do so because they find the religious ritual deeply moving. They do not want to sacrifice the esthetic and sensual experience. And no doubt there are other reasons, such as the appalling scientific illiteracy permitted or even encouraged by our schools. Anyway, while Dawkins' biological answer is plausible, it can't be more than part of the story.



Here's me about two weeks ago, looking somber (I was tired), in the garden of Frieda Kahlo's house in Coyoacán in front of the pyramid her on-again, off-again husband Diego Rivera built to place some of his favorite antiquities. Photo by Susana. I'll be reporting on our recent Mexico trip in more detail on my Spanish-language blog, Lecturas y Lectores. Here, I just want to say that we had a wonderfully productive time, thanks mostly to the hospitality and generosity of many Mexicans. We visited many architectural sites that we plan to discuss in our coming book, Architecture and Urbanism in Latin America (W. W. Norton, probably 2007), spent a highly productive couple of days in the Archivo General de la Nación (examining the voluminous files of Carlos Lazo, who oversaw the building of the Ciudad Universitaria and other things in the 1950s), and nearly a week in the XI Seminario de Arquitectura Latinoamericana, which took place this year in the state-operated resort of Oaxtepec, in the hills south of Mexico City.

Travel tip: For a very economical, friendly and centrally-located place to stay, try the Casa de los Amigos, run by English-speaking Quakers, right near the Metro stop "Revolución" and easy walking distance from the Alameda, Palacio de Bellas Artes, etc. They have several simple rooms, some with bath, and -- real luxury -- a single apartment (el departamento) with kitchen, bath and separate sleeping and sitting areas, currently for just 320 pesos a night (less than US$30). Because of the kitchen, we were saving money even though we were paying about 60 pesos more than in our first, kitchenless and bathless, room. The young volunteers running the place are really sweet and thoughtful. Saludos a Sol, Nick, Lis, John, y Reya.


Strange anatomy

Willa Martin writes to tell me she has "always worried about the size of my penis." Poor dear! Do you think we should tell her that she's not supposed to have one? Or do you suppose Willa's e-mail address may have been hijacked by a spammer?


Keep smilin'!

Obviously, there are more important events than our visit to Mexico. We all remember that image of Bush Jr. clowning around, looking under a table for the imaginary "Weapons of Mass Destruction." It was just as we were arriving in Mexico City that Bush Jr. lost an entire city. The drowning of New Orleans didn't interrupt his vacation, however. A dear friend sent me this "Bush vacation picture."



Susana & I have just arrived in Mexico, where we will be until September 19 -- mostly in Mexico City, but for a few days at the conference "Seminario de Arquitectura Latinoamericana" in nearby Oaxtepec. Susana's main objective -- besides delivering a paper at the Seminario -- is research on urban developments in the 1940s & 1950s (big things happened during the presidency of Miguel Alemán, 1946-52). I'll focusing on more recent and on-going projects, talking with urbanists and others about efforts to confront Mexico City's big problems by changing the built environment. I'll probably be doing most of my reporting on the Spanish-language blog, but I'll try to share highlights here to. Today we're just getting settled, in the very pleasant, very simple Casa de los Amigos, or "Friends House" (of the Quakers) in the center of the city. Talk to you soon, as things develop.


How's that again?

Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Television evangelist Pat Robertson told viewers of "The 700 Club" program that the U.S. should kill Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to stop the Latin American country becoming a "launching pad" for extremism. (From Bloomberg.com:Latin America)

Umm... Isn't murder a tad extreme?


Intelligent research

The credentialed crackpots who are promoting "intelligent design" -- because they don't trust their own intelligence to tackle the hard scientific problems -- are performing one valuable service: they are stimulating the real scientists to explain their research and thinking more clearly to the rest of us. Some of their answers to the "intelligent design" folks are captured in this NYT article by Kenneth Chang.

I've always been amazed that anybody could seriously advance this sort of illogic: that "Biological marvels like the optical precision of an eye, the little spinning motors that propel bacteria and the cascade of proteins that cause blood to clot... point to the hand of a higher being at work in the world" because they are too complex to have occurred by chance. It is precisely their complexity that is the strongest argument that they did evolve over a long series of chance mutations; they are far too complex to have been planned out beforehand. The most profound and basic statement of this matter is one I first found quoted by the noted philosopher (and my college classmate) Daniel C. Dennett, who attributes it to "the great biologist D'Arcy Thompson":

"Everything is the way it is because it got that way."

Here's a biographical note on D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 1860-1948


Recommended reading

Children continue to be main victims of Iraq war by Dr. César Chelala. César has for many years been a leading expert on health issues and how they are affected by war and politics.


Recent reading: Death in Venice

While thinking of things German, I decided it was high time I read this famous 1911 novella, which has become emblematic of a kind of fatal obsession.

Thomas Mann, "Death in Venice." (Der Tod in Venedig) In Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage Books, 1954 (though there are many other editions).

Gustave von Aschenbach, a famous but lonely 60-ish author in Munich, decides to spark his dull life by a an unscheduled vacation in Venice, where he is so overwhelmed by the beauty and youth of an unreachable object that he dies of desire.

The love-object is a young boy (12? 10?) who is called, Aschenbach thinks, "Tadzio" and whose Polish-speaking family is staying in the same hotel. The language barrier could be easily breached, if this were a realistic story; those prosperous Poles would surely be able to communicate in French or German. Rather, it is Aschenbach's inhibitions that prevent him from ever speaking directly to the boy, while desire drives him to spy on him. Death comes to Aschenbach from a plague that he could easily have avoided, if he had not been sneaking around the infested parts of town for further glimpses of the boy.

Mann was himself a famous author by this time (1911), though only 36. The story seems to be an ironic commentary, a mean-spirited joke, about his profession -- that no matter how cultured a writer or other artist may seem, animal desires win out. Mann uses the story as a structure to hang various reflections about art and desire, his and Aschenbach's. For example:

"Men do not know why they award fame to one work of art rather than another. Without being in the faintest conoisseurs, they theink to justify the warmth of their commendations by discovering in it a hundred virtues, whereas the real ground of their applause is inexplicable -- it is sympathy." (Pp. 10-11 in my edition)

"Sympathy" as in just liking the author's voice, I suppose. Or the cover photo. There's probably something to that.

Here Aschenbach imagines himself as Michelangelo:

"And yet the pure, strong will which had laboured in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art [Tadzio] to the light of day -- was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?" (44)

"Marble mass of language" indeed! Aschenbach is a more pretentious version of Updike's pathetic Bech, a kind of negative alter ego. Mann was having wicked fun. But here's a passage that may (possibly) express Mann's own view of his profession:

"This life in the bonds of art... had been a service, and he a soldier, like some of them [Aschenbach is thinking of his warrior ancestors]; and art was war -- a grilling, exhausting struggle that nowadays wore one out before one could grow old. it had been a life of self-conquest, a life against odds, dour, steadfast, abstinent; he had made it symbolical of the kind of overstrained heroism the time admired, and he was entitled to call it manly, even courageous." (56-57)

Well, maybe Mann did not really mean that. It sounds pretty ridiculous today.

"Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease." (75)

One hopes the world awarded him a Purple Heart to match his face.

A one-and-a-two-and... The monkey polka

In case you're wondering why I've suddenly become a Lawrence Welk fan -- judging from the ads on this blog -- it's not true. Google's trained monkeys who choose the ads saw my reference to "Lawrence" -- T. E. Lawrence, he of Arabia -- and connected it to the band leader from Minnesota. (Maybe they're all Polish-American monkeys.) Anyway, happy polka-ing!

"Civil Society" & uncivil aims

I just reviewed a book about how US-based NGOs misinterpret the societies they operate in, for H-LatAm (part of the huge Humanities and Social Sciences family of scholarly websites). The book is Wiarda, Howard J. 2003. Civil Society: The American Model and Third World Development. Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Wiarda's concern is that Americans in NGOs abroad will be so naive as to think they can reproduce US-style "liberalism" (as he calls our system) and the "unfettered sociability" of US civil society in other countries, which tend to be suspicious of US-type "civil society" associations. No wonder. "Empire" is the unmentioned factor that might explain the suspicion. While the US government may tolerate "liberalism" at home with little interference in NGO operations or missions, Wiarda fails to note that overseas it uses the NGOs it funds to implement US policy -- e.g., overthrowing governments in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, trying to do the same in Venezuela and doubtless many other places.

Look for the full review to appear on H-LatAm in about a month (the editors are backlogged).


Breaking horns on terror

Antonio Machado, one of my favorite poets, wrote:
De diez cabezas, nueve
embisten y una piensa.
Nunca extrañéis que un bruto
se descuerne luchando por la idea.
(Proverbios y Cantares, XXIV)
Which is to say:

Of every ten heads, nine / charge and one thinks. / Never be surprised when an imbecile / breaks his horns struggling for an idea.

On the subject of terror, we have a lot of people in Washington crashing around breaking their horns and too few thinking. Here are two thoughtful articles, available without subscription from the magazine Legal Affairs. "What Would Allah Do?" discusses a re-doctrination strategy that may sometimes work. "The Dread Pirate Bin Laden" proposes a legal redefinition of terrorists as "pirates," which seems to me brilliant. There is already established international law on piracy, and terrorists fit the definition beautifully (except of course for state terrorists, which nobody is going to prosecute anyway).

Berlin: The Wall and its traces

While we were in Berlin, our hosts took us to the new museum constructed like a watchtower overlooking a section of the Berlin Wall. Not much is left, and the wide swath it left through the middle of the city is now very valuable property. Mostly, it is being reserved for public uses, including the new memorial designed by Peter Eisenman, which actually has turned out to be more effective than if the designer's original intentions had been strictly followed. City authorities insisted on adding an information center beneath the Eisenman monoliths, which gives literal depth and figurative meaning to the work. (For images and background, see the official Holocaust-Mahnmal site.) When I got home I thought it was time I read what had been the emblematic novel of the wall -- though "novel" is a misleading term for what appears to be lightly disguised personal memoir by a West German writer who was about 40 in 1982, when it still seemed as though the Wall would last forever.

Schneider, Peter (1983). The Wall Jumper (Der Mauerspringer, tr. by Leigh Hafrey). New York, Pantheon Books.
Anecdotal "novel" about Berliners on either side of the Wall and those who cross repeatedly from one side to the other, and about their radically different ways of perceiving the world and of relating to one another. In the West, lefties like Schneider are laid back, curious & naïvely open to the ideas of the East; in the East, & among those who have recently come from the East, every intellectual he meets is suspicious, guarded and cynical.
"It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see." 119

"'I come from Germany.' Either it [the expression] has no meaning, or I am speaking of a country that appears on no political map. ... If I were asked where it lies, I could only locate it in history and in the language I speak." 126-127
To see what Schneider was talking about, look at this marvelous collection of photos by Jürgen Müller, Die Berlinermauer. And this observation about news presentation is still relevant, 16 years after the cracking of that particular wall:
"Network executives on both sides are laughably alike: in ther own camp, they let only the rulers speak; in the enemy camp, only the oppressed." 117-118
One of the participants at the conference we attended was the Dutch artist Ronald Klein Tank, who has been documenting the disappearance of the wall and its lingering "traces," die Mauerspuren.

For more links, check out Andreas Ramos's Personal Account of The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The 11th and 12th of November, 1989


Intelligent design

Now it is revealed. See this scientific explanation from the world-renowned Venganza Organization of how our universe was created by The Flying Spaghetti Monster.


On memory and amnesia

First, about selective amnesia regarding the bombing 60 years ago of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see Danny Schecter's News Dissector.

And on selective remembering, from my friend and colleague Dirk van Nouhuys:
I was in Berlin recently. The idea of a war memorial was naturally quite touchy for the Germans after the Second World War, and they did not make one for many years. This is what they finally did-: They took an existing neoclassical building -; basically it looks like a Doric temple, a smaller version of Grant’s tomb. Inside is one large room with in the middle a sculpture of a mother morning her dead child. A bit pietá-like, but not too. Three corpses are buried there, an unknown German soldier, and unknown concentration camp victim, and an unknown resistance fighter.

This seems to me to represent maturity born of suffering.

Really, the principal should apply to most war memorials. Not only the victors suffer.

Shouldn’t US memorials for the Second World War include a victim of the Hiroshima bombing, and the Dresden bombing as well?

I think the Vietnam memorial in Washington is one of the great pieces of public art, but should there not be recognition of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese whom the Americans killed? Maybe some one killed at Kent State s well?

And when the Americans declare victory and scuttle out of Iraq, or whatever happens, should not the ensuing memorial include representation of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died? Maybe even proportionally?

Fat chance.

- Dirk van Nouhuys
Susana & I were also in Berlin recently, to participate in a week-long symposium of Germans and Argentinians on how to commemorate state atrocities. I hope to say more about that here soon.

(Nagasaki bombing image from Bombardements.)


Empires, sub-empires & peripheries

Hubert Sauper’s 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare is an astonishingly intimate and compassionate inquiry into one of the garbage heaps of our global consumer society, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. It is also beautifully filmed, the colors of sky and water and shimmering of rotting fish, the smiles and gestures of the people, their obvious embarrassment at the strange and contradictory situation they're in, all make it hard to distance oneself from this complicated story or to deny our own complicity.

In Mwanza, giant Russian cargo jets swoop down to scoop up loads of frozen fish for the European market, while the greater part of the local population starves. The big planes sometimes arrive empty, but at other times bring cargos of tanks and other weapons to supply and enourage the region's many warlords. Sauper gets amazingly intimate interviews with those conflicted pilots, with Tanzanian prostitutes who serve them and other foreigners, a fish-factory owner, and a night watchman who hopes for war (because it would mean a better salary), and also shows us neatly-uniformed factory workers, crippled fishermen, street urchins squabbling over fish carcasses and intoxicating glue, Tanzanian government officials and European investors who want to look only at the "positive side" of the fish export business, and at the fish itself -- the Nile perch, a foreign species that has taken over the lake and grown almost as big as the Ilyushin cargo jets.

This whole complex story made me think again of a 2-year old lecture I just listened to last week, and that you may want to listen to on the web: A New American Empire? by Professor Stephen Rosen of Harvard. Rosen thinks the U.S. is not yet an empire, but that it has since Clinton been behaving like one -- disregarding the sovereignty of other states within its "imperium," or area of hegemony, and exercising overwhelming military force within that region. The disparity of power between the U.S. and every other potentially allied country is so great that this country has only three choices, Rosen thinks: to assume full imperial control in the regions of interest to it, to limit itself to intervening only in coalition with other military powers, or to withdraw from any interference overseas and just take care of our own North American territory. The second option is unrealistic, because there just isn't any other military power the U.S. needs to take seriously, at least not among our potential allies. The U.S. army spends more on R&D than France does on its entire military. The third option is also unlikely, though the Tom Delay wing of the Republican Party would probably favor it. But the first option implies more than invading and trying to police a foreign country whenever we are provoked. Rather, it implies assuming responsibilities of maintaining stability and some degree of prosperity in the regions that accept our imperial dominance. Rosen proposes the establishment of an "imperial civil service," similar to what the Romans, the Ottoman, the Chinese, and the British all had in their respective empires -- that Harvard and other institutions undertake to train people to serve in foreign regions.

OK, so how do I connect Sauper's film and Rosen's lecture? I see what is happening in Mwanza as a consequence of the breakup of an older imperial system, and the failure so far to consolidate a new one. But this note is already too long, and the connections you see between the film and the tectonic shifts in global imperial systems since, say, 1989 may be very different from the ones I see. But check out both the lecture and the film, if you can.


Saúl Yurkiévich

Yesterday we learned that our dear friend, poet and critic Saúl Yurkiévich, had died in an automobile accident near his and his wife Gladys's summer home in the south of France. Here's something I wrote about him the last time I saw him, a year and a half ago: In the homeland of language. (You have to scroll down to the third item on the page.)

On my Spanish-language blog, today 5 August 2005, I've posted one of his last poems, "Yo".


Northern Ireland: the Troubles continue

The IRA’s disarmament doesn’t mean the end of the Troubles, as the NYT’s Brian Lavery reports today. The “loyalist” paramilitaries continue murdering one another. It’s time to re-read a classic of the Irish struggles, Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel The Informer, which made a profound impact on me when I read it in my adolescence. It is one of the works that has most helped me understand how the struggle for liberation can turn the combatants into monsters. It happens over and over. Somewhere, probably in the Svendborg poems, Bertolt Brecht remarks about the terrible personal cost, the distortion of one’s own capacity to love and be generous, that comes in long struggle, even when the objective of the struggle is to free mankind from something as horrible as Nazism.

“Lawrence of Arabia” & imperial follies

Speaking of Turks, the other night we rented David Lean’s 1962 movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” which neither of us had seen for, oh, maybe 40 years. It’s about how the Arabs got mobilized by the British to kill Turks during World War I, so that the British and French could divide up the Ottoman Empire for themselves – and how some of those Arabs got sick and tired of being used for other people’s empires and began to conceive of Arab nationalism. The young British Major T. E. Lawrence, as a catalyst for Arab raids and a deeply ambivalent and self-deceived promoter of Arab nationalism, was a useful tool of His Majesty’s government, and became an embarrassed hero after the war was over.

Well before the movie was released, I had already read T. E. Lawrence’s colorful memoirs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, plus every book I could find about his life. (If you want to do this today, check out the T. E. Lawrence –Lawrence of Arabia website.) I found Peter O'Toole’s portrayal of the doubts, confusions, outrageous exhibitionism and rash impulsiveness of the man just about perfect – except that the actor was about a foot taller than the real Lawrence, whose physical puniness no doubt contributed to his compensatory compulsion to one-up the other English officers, often by playing barbaric practical jokes.

I had started researching him because the girl I was then madly in love with said that I reminded her of Lawrence, which I mistook for a compliment. I now think what she meant was that I was moody and unsure of my identity – but then, I was only 17. Lawrence, or T. E. Shaw as he took to calling himself after his Arabian adventures (he tried to get George Bernard Shaw to adopt him), was still trying out different identities when he suffered that fatal crack-up on his motorcycle at age 47.

Mostly the movie is useful today as a reminder of the unintended consequences of Great Powers’ meddling in other people’s cultures. We in the West are still paying the price of the shortsighted interventions of British, French and later U.S. for their various strategic purposes.

Except for the sadistic colonel and his minions who administer a frightful beating to the disguised Lawrence, the Turks in that movie are all faceless and brutish khaki-clad conscripts whose only function is to be slaughtered by Lawrence’s Arab cavalry. In reality, most of those extras were Spanish farmers and fisherman of Carboneras, the little village on the Mediterranean coast of Almería where key battle scenes were filmed. A fake city of Akaba was built on Algorrobico beach, which is why the morning after the battle Lawrence (in the movie) looks eastward over a great expanse of water to the sunrise (the real Akaba’s water-view is to the south, over the narrow gulf – here’s a map). We know the Algorrobico beach well, in fact we just came back from there. And that was really why we rented the movie, just to see a familiar setting in its movie guise.


Recent reading: Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul

Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories and the City. Translated by Maureen Freely. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Pamuk projects his personal melancholy -- hüzün in Turkish -- onto this once-great city, interspersing reminiscences of a privileged but cloistered childhood with meditations on writers and artists who have portrayed the city.

Istanbul’s hüzün, he tells us, is different from the tristesse that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in tropical cities such as Delhi or São Paulo, because “in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. … For the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.” (p. 101) Sensitive and attuned though he may be, he appears unaware that Delhi had “a glorious past civilization” of its own, even more ancient than Istanbul/Constantinople.

Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile de Gautier and other foreign visitors help shape Pamuk’s vision of what the city was like before he knew it, and also, he argues, shaped the way of looking at it of later Turkish writers, particularly “the great fat poet, Yahya Kemal”; “the popular historian Reshat Ekrem Koçu”; the memoirist Abdülhuk Shinasi Hisar; and the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. (Spellings approximate; I don’t have a Turkish font.)

To me the most interesting chapter was “The Rich,” the class from which Pamuk’s family was descending (falling) throughout his childhood, which includes this acute observation:

“If Istanbul’s westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country [sic] has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion.” (p. 183)

His personal story here goes up to about age 20, when, in the final sentence, he declares that he is going to be a writer. His reminiscences of childhood help explain some of the peculiarities of his fiction, for example his childhood fascination with an imaginary double (“the other Orhan”), which is the central theme of The White Castle, and his fascination with miniaturists and meticulous reproduction of familiar scenes, as in My Name is Red. And the many photographs and other illustrations, one or more on almost every page, all in black and white, seem to confirm his vision of his own and his city’s hüzün.


Best wishes

I signed up for the Google ad service, whereby ads supposedly related to the content of the blog get placed in the box over to the side of this page. Suddenly, after I posted my reactions to the London bombings and the apparent desperation of some British Muslim youth, I see a bunch of ads for "Muslim dating". That's a happy result of Google's algorithms! Hey, guys. Feeling lonely and unappreciated? Don't get a bomb. Get a date!


Fiction to grasp reality: British Muslim extremism

Yesterday I mentioned Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, and I regret having omitted Hanif Kureishi, as fiction writers who can help us understand what happened last Thursday in London. The BBC has published portraits of three of the suspected (almost certain) bombers. And this report from Leeds by Dominic Casciani suggests some of the powerful factors that drive some Muslim youth to such extremist actions. One "young man, wearing traditional Pakistani dress and a beard," describes one reason why the parents, first-generation immigrants who presumably want their kids to stay of trouble, can't control them. "There's a language barrier - the kids speaking English, the elders not - and then there are huge cultural barriers. Some of the kids won't talk to the elders, they think it's too difficult."

And as Thursday's events confirm, a huge cultural barrier can grow between these youth -- as assimilated as they appear -- and the white majority around them, despite the many shared experiences and common language. The people of Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, cannot begin to control this desperate tendency among those young people until they can imagine what their inner lives are like. No doubt there are social workers and psychologists in those communities (such as Leeds) who are able to imagine. For the rest of us, we must rely on the fiction writers such as Smith, Rushdie, Kureishi and their successors to provide us the elements for our own imagining.

For historical background on the militancy of British Muslims, see today's article by Roger Hardy, BBC Islamic Affairs analyst, UK multiculturalism under spotlight.


Home-grown fanatics & Zadie Smith

The discovery that the London bombers were four British-born lads of Pakistani heritage, radicalized in their own North England community, made me think immediately of Zadie Smith's angry young British Bangladeshi in White Teeth. The most serious action he undertakes is joining in a mass burning of a novel that neither he nor anyone he knows has read, but that he has been told insults Islam (that other novel isn't named, but the reference is clearly to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, a wonderfully complex and comic book about cultural displacement of South Asians in Britain). Smith's treatment, like Rushdie's, is comic, but the dynamic toward terror is evident.


London bombings: a personal response

My apologies for the long silence while I was in Spain. Without a home computer (see earlier note on getting robbed in the Atocha train station on April 30) it just seemed too complicated to try to digitalize and post my thoughts, so I returned to my more ancient system, notebook and pen. If any of those handwritten notes from the past two months seem still worth sharing, I'll post them. Those that were on current events that are no longer current, I'll spare you.

I boarded the bus from Carboneras to Madrid last Tuesday evening at 8:30, and arrived at the Estación Sur in Madrid (a bus terminal connected to a metro stop) around 6: a.m. on Wednesday. There I got right onto the metro and, with one change of trains, got to the Barajas airport where I checked in and waited for a 3:25p.m. Iberia flight that got me to London Heathrow a little after 6 p.m. London time (7 p.m. Madrid time), and just barely caught the British Airways flight to JFK that got me in about 8:45 p.m., New York time. The next morning I learned about the London bombs on the tube and bus.

The images -- not of the blood, but of the setting -- were very familiar to me, and so were the accents of the people trying to comprehend what had happened. Usually on trips to Spain, we have used the London tube and a long bus ride to connect between Heathrow (for the NYC-London segment) and the smaller airport Stansted, clear across town and beyond, for cheap flights between London & Spain. And when we can, we like to walk around the center of the city itself. Also, over the past year we have made some dear friends among the English retirees and semi-retired living in and around Carboneras, but still strongly connected (through children and grandchildren and other associations) with the homeland. This massive attack thus seemed as close to me, almost, as the attack on the World Trade Center towers in 2001. (See my 5-day personal account, Attack on New York .)

Bravo to the brave Londoners, especially all the emergency medical and other personnel. We don't know precisely what the bombers had in mind (since we don't even know who they were), but it sure looks as though you Londoners are being made to pay a price for Tony Blair's mad-dog aggression in Iraq. Which, truth be told, has caused many times as many fatalities, mostly Iraqis, as the New York, Madrid and London attacks combined.

The New York 9/11 attack occurred long before Bush and Blair's attack on Iraq, proving that some Arab religious nuts had other grievances against our city. Still, I think the recent London bombing must be related to the images of destruction and death in Iraq, much of it caused by Arabs resisting the occupation but much more of it -- the destruction of Falluja, for example -- by the bombs and artillery of the U.S. and its allies. If, as seems almost certain, the London attack was organized in similar fashion to the attack on the Atocha train station in Madrid on 11 March 2004, the operatives were a pick-up team of local boys of Arab or other Muslim origin, knowledgeable of the local terrain and transport system and radicalized largely around the Iraq issue. (On the Madrid attack, see Casimiro García-Abadillo, 11-M. La venganza. Madrid, 2004; see also my op-ed column on the Spanish elections 3 days later, Historic Reversal: Bombs and Ballots in Spain).

Doesn't it seem odd that the people who bombed Baghdad and allowed its ancient treasures to be pillaged now claim to be defenders of civilization? Blair actually used that phrase right after the London attack.


When in Spain...

... do as the Spaniards do. We'll be here in Almería until the end of June, & because it's hard to keep updating 2 blogs without a home computer (see note below for explanation of that problem), I'm pretty much limiting myself to notes in Spanish. Please see new entries in my Spanish-language blog, Lecturas y Lectores. I'll probably have more to say in English when we get back to New York. Thanks for your patience. I hope you can read Spanish, if not, just ask (drop me a line) & I'll try to make sense out of it.


Re-learning to write

Novelist and pal RD Larson sends me encouragement on my work as writer and translator. As I told her, I know much more Spanish (learning every day) than I did when I started out as a translator, & that makes me more aware of subtleties yet to be discovered. I think I'll give up the translation biz, and stick to writing (in the two languages). It's just too impossible.

Writing is a little more complicated without a computer in my lodgings. I'm having to recover old habits, and I find that my manner of composing has changed, making it hard to switch back to pen and paper to organize my ideas. It's an interesting discovery.


New date for Carlos Fuentes interview

Carlos Fuentes will now be answering your questions about 'The Death of
Artemio Cruz' on Wednesday 18th May at 4.30pm. The venue is BBC World
Service Radio, Bush House, The Strand, London SC2B 4PH. As before,
places in the studio audience are free, so if you would like to attend,
just drop an e-mail to: worldbookclub@bbc.co.uk and don't forget to
think of a question to ask!

World Book Club



We've arrive safely in Carboneras, Spain, but don´t have many files I need with me. I did, but my bag with our 2 computers got lifted by a clever team in the Atocha train station in Madrid. Major disaster. I have back-ups of almost everything at home, where we'll be returning on July 1, but Susana does not.

I suppose the thieves weren´t all that clever, but I was inattentive after an all-night flight, guarding our two suitcases and two backpacks in front of a quiosco. An elderly, white-haired gentleman bumped into me and fell to the floor. I rushed to assist him, but he got up and waved me off with a nervous smile. When I turned back to my things, one bag was gone -- the one holding our two iBooks. I didn´t want to believe it, but that´s the way it was. I trust that you will be more wary than I was.

Fortunately, we have good friends here in Spain, to restore my faith in humanity. They cannot however restore the lost work on those computers.


Recent reading: Herman & Chomsky

I've been looking at the mass media battles in Venezuela, where the commercial media are overwhelmingly opposed to the government and even participated openly in the short-lived coup of 11-13 April 2002. And so naturally I've been interested in the argument offered here:

Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky (2002).
Manufacturing consent : the political economy of the mass media. New York, Pantheon Books.
Posits a "propaganda model" of U.S. journalism, meaning that it broadly adheres to and promotes "an official agenda" as news passes through 5 "filters": (1) size, concentration & profit orientation of the dominant companies. (2) advertising as primary income source, (3) reliance on government & business-oriented 'experts,' (4) "flak," (5) "'anticommunism' as a national religon and control mechanism." (p. 2) However,

"Certainly, the media's adherence to an official agenda with little dissent is likely to influence public opinion in the desired direction, but this is a matter of degree, and where the public's interests diverge sharply from that of the elite, and where they have their own independent sources of information, the official line may be widely doubted." [xii]

The curious things about the Venezuelan case are (a) that the "official," government line is precisely the opposite of the one that Globovisión, Radio Caracas TV et al. are promoting, and (b) it is the elite who are most opposed to the government. The public's interests do indeed diverge sharply from those of the elite, so it is the anti-official line that is "widely doubted."

And speaking of 'El Quixote'...

... and of Venezuela, and of education for the proletariat, three frequent topics in this blog, check out Christopher Toothaker's report on Hugo Chávez's distribution of the novel (free) to the citizenry. Quixotic president's novel way to inspire his people, The Scotsman, Mon 25 Apr 2005.


Steaming off the end of the pier

The National Writers Union announces, "NWU Offshoring Campaign Gathering Steam." What an image! Reminds me of a history of U.S. intervention in Central America, wherein a noted historian wrote of "gunboat diplomacy in America's backyard." (I'm not making this up). Does a hell of a job on your lawn.

But the best mixing of metaphors I ever heard was from a community college president. Coming into a meeting after it had started, she announced, "I want to make sure I'm on the same page before I step into the water." At which point, no doubt, she would take in water to build up steam.

But about "offshoring": As the NWU says, you can find a description of the campaign and its strategy, as well as relevant position papers, on the campaign web site, and then you can sign the petition.

"Artemio" & Carlos Fuentes on the BBC

On May 5 -- anniversary of the battle of Puebla (when the Mexicans defeated Maximilian's troops) and a big holiday in Mexico -- the BBC will interview Carlos Fuentes about his breakthrough novel, La muerte de Artemio Cruz, tr. The Death of Artemio Cruz. You can read and hear it on the BBC World Book Club. The producer found a comment of mine about the book, and asked me as a "fan" to pose a question to the author. (See? Blogs are useful.) I've got to think of a good one. If you've got any ideas, pass them along. For now, I'm thinking of asking Carlos Fuentes if he thinks that the kind of corruption characterized by Artemio Cruz -- with his claws in media, oil rights and the political machinery -- has survived in post-P.R.I. Mexico. If you have a better idea, let me know.

Back in business (of blog publishing)

I'm happy to report. Blogs weren't appearing because my web host, the Authors Guild, had changed servers and my settings had to be changed accordingly. Thanks to John Merchant of the Guild for getting this straightened out as soon he knew about it.

Unpeace in our time, with Howard Nemerov

Last Saturday my neighbors were holding a party so noisy that they couldn't hear the phone when I called to ask them to turn down the music; I was in pyjamas & didn't feel like barging in (I supposed their door was unlocked for their guests), and also I knew it was a big event -- celebrating their impending marriage -- so I just decided to bear it by reading poetry. I decided I wanted the company of someone very wise and witty, and so pulled from my shelves: Nemerov, Howard (1981). The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

I got so involved in reading the section "Guide to the Ruins" (1950) that I kept reading long after my neighbors' party had quieted. Because Nemerov's verse, in this period right after one great war and at the beginning of the next one, in Korea, was far from quieting. Here's one very short example, gruesomely timely in light of today's (and ever day's recently) report of casualties in Iraq:

Honor is saved by the national will,
The burgher throws up his cap.
Gone is the soldier, over the hill,
And the rat has defended his trap.
And this:

These secretly are going to some place,
Packing their belted, serviceable hearts.
It is the earnest wish of this command
That they may go in stealth and leave no trace,
In early morning before business starts.
For much more on Nemerov, including a chance to hear his voice, go to the Howard Nemerov page of the Academy of American Poets. Here I learned that he had served as a pilot in World War II, first in the RCAF and then in the USAF -- he must have been very young; he was born in 1920. I also learned that he died in 1991. (I already knew this odd fact: he was the slightly older brother of Diane Arbus. I don't know what to make of that.)

And on a link on that page of the Academy of American Poets I also found a poem I should have read Saturday night, but isn't included in the "Collected Poems" -- maybe he wrote it later: Insomnia I


PEN Festival - the lowlights

My novelist & journalist colleague Jan Alexander missed the PEN events, so I took the opportunity to write to her what I would have put on the blog, if only my blog were functioning. I'm confident (or at least prayerful) that the Authors Guild will get it straightened out again (the moved to another server, and somehow blanked out my new blog entries), so here's what I had to say about the panels and celebrations at this week's festival. Some were just fun, others more practically useful. There's a short note in today's NYT -- too short, and Dinitia Smith thought that Salman Rushdie's closing joke at one panel was that "Literature is a loose cannon." I'm sure he was thinking "canon." I wrote up a note on the big Cervantes night and wanted to write others, but the Authors Guild (which hosts my website) has screwed up and no new entries are appearing in my blog for now. Bummer.

One of the oddest things I heard was from the Chukotka (I'll bet you didn't even know that was an ethnicity) writer from Siberia north of the Arctic Circle, who spoke in what I suppose is his second language, Russian. The panel was on "The Post-National Writer," basically about reaching audiences of different cultures from one's own, and naturally the question of translation came up, so the Chukotka, Yuri Rytkheu told, in scraps through his interpreter -- a New York Jewish joke. In New York City's New School. Rushdie, Francisco Goldman, Yoko Tawada, Eliot Weinberger and the others just looked out over the audience, too stunned to say anything. Here it goes:

Two Jews meet on the street in (Brooklyn?), and one says to the other, "Hey, Caruso's in town! I hear he's wonderful. He gave a concert last night." The other man answers, "Ah, Caruso shmaruso, he's not so hot. He sings off-key and he was flat." "What?" says the first guy. "You went to the concert?" "No, I didn't go to the concert. But Shapiro did, and he sung it to me."

That was about translation. It must have them rolling all over the tundra back home.


Debating Venezuela

For some contrasting opinions on the media wars in Venezuela, check out this edition of Danny Schecther's News Dissector; you can follow the links to some recent journalistic attacks and the government's response. Also, on the Myths and Realities page of the Weekly Newsletter from Venezuelan Information Office, click on the link to the new media law, nicknamed "Resorte" (for REsponsabilidad SOcial de Radio y TElevisión -- "Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television"). At the bottom to the official description of the law (in English), you'll find a chart comparing its provisions to those of 6 other countries -- it really looks like a pretty moderate law.


Don Quixote at the NYPL

A big crowd – Salman Rushdie said 500 – filled the elegant old Celeste Bartos Forum (a theater, not an event) at the New York Public Library, to hear --. Well, what was on the program was a tribute to the novel Don Quijote (or “Quixote”), first published 400 years ago, but the ladies who struck up conversations with me seemed to think it was about Salman Rushdie, who evidently has quite a distaff following. Rushdie, president of PEN and thus chair of the PEN World Festival: The New York Festival of International Literature, introduced the event with a funny, multi-staged argument attribute the novel’s greatness to India. (You see, Cervantes pretended the real author was an Arab, and used the typical Arab narrative frame or a story within a story – like Sheherezade in Arabian Nights – but the Arabs had learned that device from the Indians, so Don Quijote was really a masterpiece of the great Asian Subcontinent.)

There probably was no one person in the crowd who understood everything going on – the Jacques Brel lyrics (in French, of course) played from a recording or the Ravel lyrics (also French) sung for us with energy and flair by baritone Chris Pedro Trakas, the reading from Chapter 8 (the battle with the windmills) by Spanish actor Javier Cámara (which for us Spanish-speakers was hilarious in Cámara’s vigorous reading). And there were the commentaries by famous authors. Paul Auster’s was the most amusing (a fanciful little tale about the supposed “true” author of the book, concluding that it was neither Cervantes nor the Arab but Alonso Quijano, alias Don Quijote, himself). And Laura Restrepo gave me the most to think about, with her reflection on the madman (Quijote, Hamlet) as prototype of modern man, when all the ancient received truths crumble before new, myth-shattering experience (I suppose she meant the discoveries of distant continents, scientific discoveries and technology).

In the earlier session, Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe, I was most impressed by Carolin Emcke’s description of the great psychological damage suffered by victims of violence, that “they lose language.” She has reported on and from places of horror, including the killing fields of Colombia and Afghanistan, for her German readers, who (one might expect) know something about the lasting psychological damage of horrors. They – the victims – have never asked her for any material help, such as a ride to the border, or food, or money; what they do ask her for, almost always, is to tell their story. She thinks this is because the horrors they have suffered have caused them to lose trust in humanity, which makes it impossible for them to tell their own stories coherently, and because they may have begun to doubt that what occurred to them was unjust. They need the writer to confirm that the horrors really were horrors, that things are not supposed to be that way. I hope to read her work as soon as it is translated. Svetlana Alexeivich, who spoke in Russian (very ably translated, it seemed to me) about victims of Chernobyl and has also written about Russian casualties in the Afghan war, echoed these thoughts, and also spoke about the unreliability and variability of informants memories and thus the need by the writer to to work and feel to understand the patterns of people's lives.

In contrast, François Bizot seemed to have been obsessively focused on the psychology of only one person, the Cambodian who had beaten and interrogated and frightened him in Cambodia and had gone on to murder thousands of Cambodians -- and concluded, woefully and even despairingly, that his tormentor had been the mirror of himself. An understandable but deeply depressing conclusion that those of whose who have not suffered such trauma are not obliged to share. You can find out more about all these authors, and others at the Festival, by clicking on their names in the Festival program.



I've been thinking a lot about Latin America and how the media filter and distort info, so when the accomplice suggested we rent a movie last night, I wanted to see Oliver Stone's powerful 1985 almost-true "Salvador". Wow! So gruesome it's often hard to take, but not nearly as gruesome as the reality it portrays. You see but don't get to smell the rotting, mutilated corpses of the U.S.-backed "killing machine," as former Ambassador White calls the Salvadoran military regime of the period -- in the fascinating documentary that's also packaged onto the DVD. In that documentary, you also get to see the real Richard Boyle (the character played with such overwhelming intensity and believability by James Woods); Boyle co-wrote the screenplay and shot the scenes in El Salvador (Woods refused to get closer than Mexico, where most of the movie was shot -- there was still a war going on in the real El Salvador). Woods is brilliantly crazy, and the real Boyle must have been, well, at least crazy and, like the character version of himself, basically honest though sleazy. If you haven't seen it recently, maybe you should, as a way of thinking about how information gets to us from Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela, among other places.


Recommended reading: Democracy

Democracy Starts At Home
by Joseph Stiglitz, TomPaine.com
How can Bush spread democracy abroad when he undermines it at home?

What's happening in Venezuela

What happens in Venezuela matters, to the U.S. and to every other country in the region. At issue: Can the Chávez government and its movement -- the MVR -- survive, despite fierce U.S. opposition? If so, will they be able to fulfill their program of reducing social inequality and broadening participation and opportunity, without going bankrupt? Can the chavistas maintain its honesty and openness despite being so embattled? Or have they, as the opposition claims, already lost them?

I think: (a) the movement will survive any coup attempt -- just look what happened in April 2002; (b) the oil wealth won't last forever but probably long enough to finance huge institutional changes that will be felt for ever after; (c) they (or at least the leadership) are going to try to be pure, but it's tough to remain democratic when you're under siege, and not everybody is going to resist temptation when there's so much money being invested. Finally, (d) the chavista movement will continue to inspire radical reforms throughout the continent and beyond.

To find out what's up and get a sense of what may happen next, from the chavista perspective, check the text and links on The Cyber Cycle, weekly newsletter of the Venezuelan Information Office.


For a more literate proletariat

What could be more socially responsible and literary than defending public libraries? And so I pass this on, from the United Farm Workers.
Take Action: Online petitions to save Salinas libraries in John Steinbeck’s hometown will be handed in Tuesday

On Tuesday, April 12, National Library Week, more than 100 residents from Salinas, Calif.—including many farm workers and their children—will travel to the state Capitol in Sacramento and hand in petitions they have collected urging lawmakers to save their libraries.

Due to budget cuts, all three libraries in the city of Salinas, hometown of Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck, are on track to be shut down soon. Salinas is a poor largely agricultural community where many residents do not have money to buy books or access to computers. Their children don't have many places to study. This community desperately needs it’s libraries.

Last weekend in Salinas, as the nation marked Cesar Chavez’s birthday, dozens of authors, community activists and library backers organized an emergency 24-hour “read-in” outside the Cesar Chavez Public Library to call attention to this pending tragedy.

Make a difference and sign the petition today. Help us tell California elected officials that libraries and education are not expendable.

Sign the petition TODAY!

More literary news & comment

Frank Conroy dead at 69
The Long Writing Road, by Chip Scanlan

The unimbedded journalist

We read a lot about, and by, journalists "embedded" with the rich and powerful. Here is one who was fiercely unimbedded. For his story, see Gary Webb: Do What He Did. But there has to be more to it than that.

Recommended reading

These from the current Village Voice:

Liberty Beat: Circling the wagons around the defense secretary and his commander in chief. Whitewashing Rumsfeld by Nat Hentoff.

And this: "The dirty little secret about the modern soldier is that most of us are completely unsuited to being told what to do. You're thinking that an army can't run with its ranks full of anarchists. Well, we are not anarchists; we are iconoclasts." From The Essay: G.I. Joke. A real-life Yossarian on the comic efficiency of a soldier's life in Iraq, by Craig A. McNeil.


Saul Bellow

This felt weird: Today’s NYT carries the obituary of Saul Bellow, just after I had finished reading one of his most famous works. Check out Featured Author: Saul Bellow, especially Edward Rothstein's appreciation with the slide show. Here's my take on one big book: Humboldt's Gift. New York, The Viking Press, 1975.

Charlie Citrine, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright, is haunted by the overwhelming spirit of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a once-brilliant poet and Charlie’s one-time mentor who went mad and abusive from his failure to make it big as a literary star or commercial success. Some very vivid character sketches of social types including sexy gold diggers, a would-be Mafioso, pretentious lawyers, and culture moguls after Charlie’s wealth (rapidly diminishing) or his talent (still intact), plus long-suffering wives (Humboldt’s ex and Charlie’s greedy brother’s current spouse); also amusing descriptions of Chicago society in the 1970s, and Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Most interesting to me were Charlie’s notes for a future essay or book on boredom, which “has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has. In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life.” (p. 200)

Also worth remembering: Humboldt, according to his widow,
“...used to say how much he would like to move in brilliant circles, be a part of the literary world.”

“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I [Charlie] said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius – a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now [mid 1970s] resembles ours – poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.” (p. 370)

The writing is energetic, witty, intelligent and linked through references to very wide reading, and so gives many moments of pleasure. But as a total fictional experience, I found it disappointing – disjointed and jerky, farcical realism but with an ending that that is more like a shrug than an explosion or any kind of resolution.

Your Holiness

I suppose I've been remiss by not saying anything about the death of the pope. It's not that I hadn't noticed. It's just that I'm one of the many millions of people to whom it didn't really much matter -- although from the TV coverage you would never suspect that we even exist. Karol Wojtyla seemed like a basically nice old man, with some dangerously reactionary views on women, homosexuals and sex in general, along with a refreshingly persistent challenge to social and economic inequality. Like Max Weber, who spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the sacred (not only in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism), I am "religiously unmusical." That is, like Weber, I don't get any special thrill out of mystical claims of life after death, or some unseen and unknowable remote power controlling our lives, or any of the rest of it.

But like Weber, I do have a lively sociological curiosity, as to why other people get such thrills and are willing to believe such unprovable assertions. I was even wondering if Karol Wjtyla really "believed," but I suppose that's a ridiculous question -- "Is the Pope Catholic?" I think we have to distinguish between at least two kinds of beliefs. When I "believe" some claim or argument, I mean that I have adopted that claim as a working hypothesis. Believing requires no special emotional effort -- some things seem probably true based on my own experience or evidence I've read, and I'll believe those things until they're disproved. Once upon a time beliefs in gods must have seemed like reasonable working hypotheses, too, since people didn't have any better explanations available for the weather, disease, disasters or favorable events. A religious person today, though, must will him/herself to believe in God or gods, contrary to all available evidence. Willed belief is what they call "faith," and it takes effort. I wonder why they bother.


Martín Espada on "killer Coke"

I'm a big fan of Martín Espada's street-wise, political committed poetry, and here (as in many other things he's done) he shows us that the commitment goes beyond setting angry words on paper: A Poet Speaks Out About Colombia: Why I Refused Coca-Cola's Money. Check out the links at that site for some of his poetry.


Literary images: Rubaiyat

These graceful drawings by Shahriar Shahriari should stir your imagination: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Trying Bellow again

I've just gotten into Saul Bellow's zany opus, Humboldt's Gift. (1975, New York, The Viking Press). Immensely clever, with translingual puns and sly (sometimes) references to everything a litteratus should be expected to have read, from Zinoviev to Whitehead, built on a loony premise. It has long been on my list of "Famous Books I Really Should Read," but I'd been putting it off because I'd been so disappointed with a much earlier book of his. I'll let you know what I think of this one when I finish it. Meanwhile, here is what I wrote about the earlier one when I read it 8 years ago.

Bellow, Saul (1956). Seize the Day. New York, The Viking Press.
A feckless fool has a really bad day. Clumsy, paunchy, 40-something Tommy Wilhelm, a failure as a salesman, soldier (he's an undistinguished WWII vet), actor (he was an extra in 1 movie long ago, when he was still handsome but no brighter), son (his distinguished father, a retired physician, finds him repulsive) & husband (his estranged wife will not divorce him, nor let him have much time with their sons, but squeezes him for money he doesn't have), entrusts his last $700 to an extravagant old con man, Dr. Tamkin (who may not be a real doctor), who gambles it on lard futures & disappears when the investment crashes.Tommy then stumbles into a funeral and weeps so at the futility of it all, the others think he must be a relative of the deceased. The end. All this takes place on upper Broadway, between 70th & Columbia U., in Bellow's version an urban shtetl inhabited entirely by middle-aged & older Jewish men. Dr. Tamkin is amusing, but otherwise there's nothing here to merit the extravagant blurbs; if it was "one of the central stories of our day" (Herbert Gold, The Nation) back in the '50s, it's neither central nor much of a story today (April, 1997).