31 July 2009

The Gates/Crowley Affair

Like many, I've been watching the latest example of our slide toward the "police state," and have been thinking about what to say about it. Well, I need agonize no more. Ted Rall has taken the words right out of my mouth at his latest blog - Everyone Hates the Cops. It captures almost exactly what I've been thinking.

I particularly liked "I admit it: I don't like cops. I like the idea of cops. The specific people who actually are cops are the problem" and "Nevertheless, the Gates incident has illuminated some basic, strange assumptions about our society. Cops think they have a constitutional right to be treated deferentially."

I don't think it's so much a matter of individual cops consciously wanting to further the agenda of the police state but rather a matter of terror. The cops are terrified of the citizenry (in some neighborhoods justifiably so) but they've been trained to respond like soldiers in a war - shoot first and hope you're right. But the rational response should not be to ratchet up the fear and violence. A rational response would include, among other things:

Civilian oversight of the police. (In my own city, it's pointless to complain to the LAPD because they investigate themselves and invariably find that their actions were justified.)

A more just economic system. (I know, it won't and can't solve all crime and violence but you can see the ameliorative effect it has in countries where the divide between rich and poor is not so wide.)

Better police training that emphasizes defusing situations and an emphasis on those quaint Constitutional guarantees of privacy and innocence until proven guilty.

28 July 2009

And one final thought today...

An even briefer note: Contact your senators and representative - e-mail, snail-mail, call & fax - overwhelm the bastards:

1. Single-payer healthcare - yes
2. Get out of Iraq and Afghanistan
3. "Yes" on the Employee Free Choice Act

3:10 to Yuma

Just a brief note: If you're a Western movie fan, a fan of Russell Crowe, a fan of Christian Bale, a fan of Glenn Ford or any or all of the above, I would recommend watching both the 1957 and 2007 versions of "3:10 to Yuma."

Personally, I think the Crowe/Bale version superior to the Ford/Heflin version. But it's a close thing; neither lacks for good storytelling or wonderful acting.

And speaking of time, over the course of the last few weeks I've caught four very different examples of the time-travel genre. In order of increasing "artsiness": "Retroactive," "Timecrimes," "Primer" and "Le Jetee."

"Retroactive" is the most "Hollywoodish" of the four but is an entertaining diversion; and it's fun watching the body count continue to rise each time the hapless heroine goes back and tries to make things "right."

"Timecrimes" is a Spanish film that follows a middle-aged man who's accidentally caught up in a time-travel experiment. Probably the best of the lot. A friend of mine who's also seen the film has invested some serious mental effort in justifying some of the less believable aspects. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the question of whether or not you should even try to change the past knowing the consequences.

"Primer" is the indie film that wowed audiences and critics on the film-festival circuit. It doesn't merit the hyperbolic praise of the critics but it is good, one of its strengths being that it's the story of a man's moral disintegration and the destruction of a friendship rather than just a time-travel story.

"Le Jetee" is a French film (1962) told in a series of still photos and voice over. There's probably no American director who could have pulled this off (except for a young Orson Welles) but Chris Marker succeeds brilliantly. (FYI, this film heavily influenced Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys, a good film in its own right.)

I Think I'm In Love

I think I'm in love. No, not that way - the woman's been dead for 40 years. No, I have had the great good fortune to once again stumble across an author who has completely enamored me, and for whose works I would gladly pay so that I could set them up on their own book shelf.

Of that august body I would include the following:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky. D. was the first "literary" author who captured my imagination and altered the way I read and judged books. Crime and Punishment was on the list of selections my 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Hartmann, offered the class as a paper topic. My choice was almost at random; I think some of the factors was that D. wasn't an English-speaking author, I didn't want to read the "usual" classic and the subject sounded suitably lurid to my 17-year-old mind.

I'll admit that the full scope and genius of the novel escaped me at the time (and probably still does albeit to a lesser extent) but it was a wonderful experience reading it. The next year, in College Comp (with the same teacher), I moved on to The Brothers Karamazov and beyond.

More briefly, others:

Edgar Pangborn. An unjustly forgotten master of humane SF. Check out Davy and Still I Persist in Wondering, but even his "failures" are worth reading.

Ursula Le Guin. A writer who's grown in skill and power over the years. Fictionwise, I would especially recommend her last two Earthsea volumes - The Other Wind and Tales of Earthsea. Nonfictionally, pick up her several collections of essays and her idiosyncratic translation of the Tao Te Ching.

W. Somerset Maugham. I met Maugham through the chance remark of a friend who compared me to Larry in The Razor's Edge. I found myself closely identifying with author and many of his characters.

Around the same time I discovered Joseph Conrad; and just as serendipitously. I saw "Alien" when it first came out in 1979 and always wondered why the ship was named "Nostromo." Eventually, I bought a used copy of the novel, and it was another case of love. I devoured it while camping on Catalina Island, and went on to feast on all his other works.

Anton Chekhov. OMG! How could I have missed this author for so long? No matter, I did find him.

Iain Banks and Steven Erikson are two authors whose works (Consider Phlebas and The Malazan Book of the Fallen, respectively) galvanized a flagging interest in SF.

But none of these authors are the real subject of this blog. Our real subject is an English writer named Ivy Compton-Burnett. Born in the 19th century, her first successful novel was published in 1925, and she continued to publish right up to her death in 1969. All of her novels focus on families and their relationships, and all are composed nearly entirely in dialog (one commentator I've read compares her to reading a Mamet play). They require an attention span somewhat longer than that fostered in modern culture but they are so worth the effort. Compton-Burnett writes with a mordant, piquant wit but still creates real people whom the reader cares about.

You can open her novels to pretty much any page to get a sample of her wit and style but the opening to Manservant and Maidservant can give you a taste:

"Is that fire smoking?" said Horace Lamb.
"Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy."
"I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking."
"Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth," said his cousin. "But we seem to have no other."
Horace advanced into the room as though his attention were withdrawn from his surroundings.
"Good morning," he said in a preoccupied tone, that changed as his eyes resumed their direction. "It does seem that the fire is smoking."
"It is in the stage when smoke is produced. So it is hard to see what it can do."
"Did you really not understand me?"
"Yes, yes, my dear boy. It is giving out some smoke. We must say it is."

If your interest is piqued, check out her website:

13 July 2009

A New Revelation?

For your hands are defiled with blood,
And your fingers with iniquity;
Your lips have spoken lies,
Your tongue has muttered perversity.

No one calls for justice,
Nor does any plead for truth.
They trust in empty words and speak lies;
They conceive evil and bring forth iniquity.
They hatch vipers' eggs and weave the spider's web;
He who eats of their eggs dies,
And from that which is crushed a viper breaks out.

Their webs will not become garments,
Nor will they cover themselves with their works;
Their works are works of iniquity,
And the act of violence is in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
And they make haste to shed innocent blood;
Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
Wasting and destruction are in their paths.
The way of peace they have not known,
And there is no justice in their ways;
They have made themselves crooked paths;
Whoever takes that way shall not know peace. (Isaiah 59:3-8, RKJV)

I transcribed the above not just because it's a pretty good invocation of these times (sad, isn't it, that something written c. 3,000 years ago still applies) but also because it shows that there is a fair amount in the Bible that's actually quite good (there's also a lot that's quite bad: And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 14:10] and just plain irrelevant: He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired [Leviticus 16:4]).

I also mention it because it has come into my mind that we are ripe for - in desperate need of - another "revelation" along the lines of the great ur-revelations of the Axial Age (Abraham, Buddha, Laozi) and their successors - Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, any number of bodhisattvas. Lately, I've been reading histories and commentaries on various scriptures and it seems to me that we need another prophet to sweep the detritus that's accumulated over the last 2,000 years on the essential messages of our greatest philosophers.

We're at a point now where we can't afford to be the errant little children of a Father God (or a Mother Goddess, for that matter). It's time to grow up and start taking responsibility. We know how to behave ourselves - we've known for 3,000 years - but we've always managed to justify murder, rape, lies, selfishness, etc. in the name of that God (or Gods).

The factor that prompted this entry comes from an essay I caught on by Robert Jensen, where he sort of articulates what's been bouncing around in my own head: "To imagine a just and sustainable world, we need not just a politics but a theology that can help us face the delusional arrogance and disastrous self-indulgence of humans." (I like it when I find validation in other's musings.)

I wish I had the charisma (and belief) to be that prophet but I don't. Human beings seem to be constituted in such a way that an a-theistic view of the universe is almost impossible to imagine or sustain, and ultimately unappealing, so we have to hope for a man or woman of faith to emerge. And a person of real faith. Not an L. Ron Hubbard who was cynical enough to exploit human gullibility but didn't have the moral sense my cats were born with.

03 July 2009

Happy Fourth of July

Oh, come on! You knew it was coming. July 4th? The most patriotic day on the U.S. calendar? It just cries out for one of my “anti-American” screeds, doesn’t it?

Well, not quite.

Make no mistake, I still loathe what our government descended to over the last eight years (and more) and that it appears to want to remain in the sewer under Obama but I don’t have any new targets. Sites like or programs like Frontline or Bill Moyer’s Journal do far better and more credible jobs than I can aspire to in exposing how rotten and corrupt this country has (unfortunately) become.

No, I want to look back today at the founding of our Republic and ask “Was the Revolution really necessary?” or, at least, was a war necessary to wrest the colonies from Britain? I was reminded of the topic because this month’s issue of The Progressive carries an essay by the historian Howard Zinn, “A Just Cause ≠ A Just War.” In it he asks us to consider what alternatives there may have been not just to the Revolutionary War but to the other “good” wars in American history – the Civil War and World War II. I don’t think I can entirely agree with his contention that there were alternatives to war in the latter two cases. From my reading of Civil War history, Lincoln bent over backwards to placate Southern fears, and it was South Carolina’s precipitate action at Fort Sumter that forced the federal government to act. True, the president could have let the South go, and good riddance, but that would have left I-don’t-know-how-many African-Americans slaves. What, possibly bloodier, violence would have lain ahead if that cancer hadn’t been addressed? And, if the South had successfully seceded, what would have happened to the idea of the Union? More than any other president before him, Lincoln made “these United States” into “the United States,” a truly unified nation.

In the case of World War II, the fascist dictatorships forced war on us. Again, it’s true, preceding actions on all sides often didn’t help defuse tensions or actively abetted the fascists (the Versailles Treaty being just the poster boy of a long string of foolish mistakes) but fascist ideology needed war. No matter what the Allies did, even if they had made no mistakes, it was only a matter of time.

That doesn’t make these wars “just” or “good.” Violence is never so but I can’t make the case to myself (much less you) that it’s never necessary.

The Revolutionary War, on the other hand? Maybe not so necessary. After all, who were we revolting against? The British Empire? A nation on the cutting-edge of democratic reform at least from the Glorious Revolution in 1688? As oppressive dictators go, George III was pretty tame; and given the inevitable change in government, the colonists’ complaints (so eloquently set out in the Declaration of Independence) could have been addressed by a new Prime Minister. Zinn points out in his essay that a year before “the shot heard round the world,” “…farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials.” Zinn argues that it was the richer colonists’ desire for land that provoked their decisive break with London. After the French and Indian War, treaties with Native Americans blocked the Colonies’ expansion westward, and that, more even than stamp taxes or no representation in Parliament, incensed certain sectors to no end. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as all that but it does suggest that the motives behind the rebellion were not as pure as the common wisdom would pretend, and there were alternatives, if anyone had had the vision to pursue them.

Would the Colonies have eventually won their independence without war? Almost certainly. Look at Canada or Australia or any other province of the Empire. Even if they hadn’t, would things really be so bloody awful today? I can’t think so. Perhaps the abolition of slavery (which came about quite bloodlessly in the British case) wouldn’t have required 600,000+ dead and a further 150 years of segregation and Jim Crow. Perhaps a Great Britain that included the “kingdoms” of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Thirteen Colonies would have been too daunting for the fascists to challenge. Perhaps a happier relationship could have pertained between us and the Native nations. Perhaps.

Perhaps, too, the world would be in even worse shape politically, economically and environmentally today (though that’s hard to imagine).

The point is, however, not “might have beens” but that violence unleashes so much chaos, destruction and pointless death that its justification has to be nigh unassailable. It’s not a Manichaean choice between war and pacifism but one between war and how do we create a world where that option is not ever on the table.

Was the death and destruction of the Revolutionary War a necessary price to pay?

2009 Mid-Year Book Round-Up

It’s mid-year 2009 and time for the now traditional overview of the more interesting books I’ve read so far this year. (All these have been reviewed on my GoodReads page.)

Top Five Fiction:

1. Modern Love (poems), George Meredith. I’m not one for poetry usually but I was intrigued by Michael Dirda’s write up of this 50-sonnet cycle of poems about the author’s disintegrating marriage in his Classics for Pleasure.

2. The Great Stink, Clare Clark. A marvelous novel about the building of London’s sewers and the love between a man and his dog.

3. Three Bags Full, Leonie Swann. From my review on GoodReads: “Three Bags Full is, without a doubt, the best sheep detective novel ever written.”

4. King Jesus, Robert Graves. Graves’ iconoclastic look at Christianity’s savior. It’s a brilliant book.

5. The Judging Eye, R. Scott Bakker. Bakker’s fourth book set in the world of the Three Seas. It’s not as strong a beginning of this new sequence as The Darkness That Comes Before but it’s quite good.

If I were listing the top seven, I’d have to include Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (a bit of a surprise because I loathed My Antonia when I had to read it in high school) and James Cabell’s Figures of Earth.

Top Five Nonfiction:

1. An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson. Atkinson’s first book in his trilogy on the Allied invasions of Africa and Europe. I started in the middle with the author’s account of the Italian campaign; this is just as good, and I’m looking forward to his concluding volume about D-Day.

2. The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy. Very readable account of the wars that birthed the Roman empire.

3. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter. A short, well written look at some of the quirkier aspects of English.

4. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich. A follow-up to Bacevich’s extraordinary The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. This one’s just as good.

5. Comanche Empire, Pekka Hamalainen. The academic jargon can be a bit of a slog, especially in the first few chapters, but well worth the effort as this author reveals a fascinating chapter of Southwest American history.

Best Reread of the Year to Date: A tie: The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison and Still I Persist in Wondering, Edgar Pangborn

Worst Reread of the Year to Date: The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

Best Reading of New Material from a Favorite Author: Kull: Exile of Atlantis, Robert E. Howard

Most Disappointing Reading of New Material from a Favorite Author: Regenesis, C.J. Cherryh