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A counterpoint in buildings, statues, ideas

June 26th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylann Roof’s trial, the New Yorker, and the scorable music of opposing voices ]
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On the way to taking us Inside the Trial of Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb makes an observation that interests me, describing the architectural features surrounding the trial asa point-counter-point in ideas:

Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, traces its roots to 1816. It was a center of clandestine anti-slavery activity and, in 1822, when city officials discovered that congregants were planning a slave revolt, they burned the church to the ground. The current building was erected in 1891, on Calhoun Street, named for Vice-President John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of secession. The Calhoun monument, a column eighty feet high, topped by a statue of the statesman, is half a block away. The monument and the church, which came to play a central role in the Southern civil-rights movement, stand like a statement and its rebuttal.

Counterpooint — the musical technique whereby two or more melodies are juxtaposed, now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their melodic integrity uncompromised — is a technique which I believe has application beyond music, in verbal thought.

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Different voices, offering different opinions and perspectives — now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their conceptual integrity uncompromised — are precisely what we find at the heart of all debate, from town hall meetings and parliamentary procedues to maritalspats and the conversations of genius — the letters of Max Born and Albert Einstein come to mind, as does the film My Dinner with Andre.

My gambit, borrowing from the brilliant game that lies at the heart of Hermann Hesse‘s novel The Glass Bead Game, is to suggest that we take Johann Sebastian Bach‘s use of melodic counterpoint and adapt it to its conceptual equivalent — thus opening the way to (a) thinking many contrasting thoughts as a single conceptual music, and (b) developing fresh means to score such a polyphony — or multitude of voices.

Essentially, the ability to think in counterpoint is the ability to hold in mind another voice beside one’s own — the capacity, if you will, to listen as well as to think. Seen thus, it is the basic skill necessary for us to make progress away from the terrible divisiveness of our times, and into a more convivial and ecumenical future.

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I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world.

This sentence, uttered by the other of one of Roof’s victims, gains power from its closely observed parallelism between birth and death, womb and tomb.

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Forgiveness as a consequence iof counterpoint:

The Civil War began in Charleston. The Ordinance of Secession was signed in Institute Hall, on Meeting Street, in December, 1860; the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, in the harbor, a few months later. The reaction of many Charlestonians to the extraordinary moment, at a bond hearing the day after Roof’s arrest, when, one by one, family members stood and forgave him, was an outgrowth of the city’s relationship to that past. Forgiveness was not just an example of how to metabolize hatred directed at you, or just a demonstration of Christian faith, though it was both of those things. It stood for a broader redemption, an exoneration from history itself.

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A counterpoint in statuary:

Herb Frazier, a black journalist who grew up in the city and has attended Emanuel since childhood, told me that black Charlestonians have always hated the Calhoun monument. “He looks down with this scowl on his face,” he said. Then, in 1999, Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial was erected just fifty feet from the base of Calhoun’s column. That proximity suggests either a wishful denial of Calhoun’s legacy or a level of irony not typically found among municipal planners.

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A counterpoint of races and ethical stances:

Those moral calculations, as with everything else associated with the case, were refracted through the lens of race. In a statewide poll, two-thirds of African-Americans favored sentencing Roof to life in prison, while sixty-four per cent of whites believed that the death penalty was warranted. That result mirrored the general division between blacks and whites on the issue of capital punishment, which is driven, at least in part, by the fact that it has disproportionately been used against black defendants.

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A counterpoint in colors and sentences:

For David Bruck, Roof’s case represented another chance to address the unjust imposition of the death penalty. At certain moments in the trial, though, his belief that he could diminish a racist practice by saving the life of a white supremacist appeared idealistic to a fault. During his cross-examination of Joseph Hamski, the F.B.I.’s lead investigator in the case, Bruck asked, “What became of Denmark Vesey?” Vesey, a slave who had bought his freedom and become a carpenter, was the lead plotter of the 1822 revolt at the church. “He was hung,” Hamski replied. Bruck was suggesting that the death penalty is irrevocably tainted by racism, but he had seemed to equate Vesey, a man who was prepared to kill for the cause of black freedom, with Roof, a man who had killed because he thought that blacks were too free. The families murmured uneasily at the comparison.

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Black and white, crime and punishment, death penalty and life sentence, good and evil, forgiveness and justice, even Union and Confederacy — these binaries rise in counterpoint in the trial and sentencing of Dylann Roof.. offering us a mappable display of cognitions past and present, normative and extreme.

Sunday surprise – a British Query

June 26th, 2017

[ By Charles Cameron — William Blake asks, David Jones responds ]
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William Blake asks:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

I won’t quote the rest of the poem, because it’s those last two lines that interest me:

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

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Is there a glimpse of Jerusalem to be had, among the mills and chimneys of industry? David Jones, I think, takes the question very seriously, not looking for an answer to some Glastonbury Festival site, but to the contemporary manifestation of those mills — the skyscrapers of the city — not turning his gaze away from them but peering into them, questioning the very assumption that paradise cannot be found among them.

And here, I think, Jones answers — his quest unsatisfied:

I said, Ah! what shall I write?
I enquired up and down.
(He’s tricked me before
with his manifold lurking-places.)
I looked for His symbol at the door.
I have looked for a long while
at the textures and contours.
I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
I have journeyed among the dead forms
causation projects from pillar to pylon.
I have tired the eyes of the mind
regarding the colours and lights.
I have felt for His wounds
in nozzles and containers.
I have wondered for the automatic devices.
I have tested the inane patterns
without prejudice.
I have been on my guard
not to condemn the unfamiliar.
For it is easy to miss Him
at the turn of a civilisation.

I have watched the wheels go round in case I
might see the living creatures like the appearance
of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected
from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel,
be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt
some beginnings of His creature, but A, a, a Domine Deus,
my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible
crystal a stage-paste …Eia, Domine Deus.

It is, I think, a very great poem. Eia, Domine Deus.

In which one might look to Boko Haram for a suitable husband?

June 25th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — oy, there’s nuance, even among one’s enemies ]
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Consider:

The media’s portrayal of jihadi groups’ horrific rule in the Sahel is a double-edge sword in the fight against these armed movements. On the one hand, their typical coverage provides a classic and possibly efficient form of war propaganda, which calls for unity against the common enemy.

But on the other hand, the depiction of Islamist presence and political influence as unequivocally oppressive misses some critical points: namely, the jihadis’ interest in managing their use of coercion rather than just unleashing it; and their ambition to govern aspects of life through both violent and non-violent ways, sometimes in accordance with local customs.

That’s what you’ll find under the subhead Easy narratives vs. difficult thinking in an African Arguments post titled Mali: The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters. That’s almost a disappointing headline, isn’t it? I mean, what? — was there nobody there who was without sin to cast the first stone?

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The idea that there was a stoning — in Mali, which I for one have never visited and was not even remotely thinking about until that headline popped up in my news feed — had a sort of immediate appeal, a frisson, of the type that characterizes clickbait. So I clicked.

Stonings, however, are abhorrent in my culturally conditioned view, and it’s fairly convenient for me to abhor them at a distance when indulged in by those I like to think of unkindly, the damn jihadists.

The thing of it is, there was no stoning.

That’s a hard thing to report, however. Breaking news — no stoning occurred near Aguelhoc in northern Mali — Christiane Amanpour reports!

Reporting that there has been a stoning, on the other hand, by jihadists — those damn jihadists — that’s not only easy to report, it’s welcome news. Somehow. Despite, or perhaps because of, our abhorrence of stoning — as a punishment for adultery — by, and this is the final twist in our abhorrence, those jihadists.

That’s welcome news, even if stoning is unwelcome, as are jihadists, and even if there was no stoning, despite them.

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Even if sharia law is not the monolith we tend to think it is — and, returning to that African Arguments post — specifically to those punishments “which are mandated and fixed by God and are applicable in cases of fornication, apostasy etc”:

Questions over these penalties (known as had, plural hudud) were debated at length in 2012 when allied Islamist movements occupied Mali’s three main northern regions: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Gao; and Ansar Eddine in Kidal.

At that time, judiciary decisions were delegated to local Islamic judges (cadis). Crucially, there were many differences in the application of hudud across these three regions. For instance, there were multiple cases of amputations for robbery in Timbuktu and Gao. But in Kidal, Ansar Eddine agreed with local Islamic judges that sentences would be maintained in line with local customs that historically prefer detention over physical punishment.

Oops. As the writers go on to note, there was actually one stoning for adultery in Aguelhoc in 2012, though the one-time leader of the Ansar, Iyad Ag Ghaly, apparently didn’t know about it. And:

Such complexities and variations between regions supposedly governed by the same Shariah provisions demands additional investigation. Why would hudud, a pillar of political and social legitimation across jihadi movements, be suspended in some places but not others?

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Okay, now I don’t really know who the Ansar are, and if you’d told me they are Malian jihadis and Iyad Ag Ghaly is or was their leader, I wouldn’t off the top of my head imagine he would disfavor huhud pubishments — as mandated by Allah — in favor of detentions.

But Boko Haram.

I’ve heard of Boko Haram, they don’t like western education, and they abducted the Chibok and other girls, marrying some and selling others into sexual slavery, if that’s a valid distinction. They too are, in a word, abhorrent.

And then I read this, in the same article:

In the Lake Chad area, several organisations – including The International Crisis Group – have documented that a significant number of young Kanuri women have voluntarily joined Boko Haram in order to find a suitable husband or benefit from new economic opportunities. For some women living in particularly impoverished rural areas, joining the jihadi insurgency may be more attractive, at least to start, than their daily routine in the strict patriarchy of rural villages.

The idea of members of Boko Haram as suitable husbands somehow hadn’t occurred to me. But then I’m not a young woman, nor even a local.

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If what I’ve written thus far interests you, I’d encourage you to read the whole article. There was no stoning in Aguelhoc, despite the reports in Agence France-Press (reporting from Bamako) and Radio France Internationale (reporting from Paris), picked up by Le Monde and The Guardian.

In sum:

Most media accounts depict an unequivocal reign of terror under Islamist rule in northern Mali. But field interviews reveal a more ambiguous situation in which egregious violence by radical groups coexists with a non-violent governance agenda and willingness to deliver services.

In central Mali, jihadi movements forcibly gather local population to preach. They also regularly assassinate those perceived to be collaborating with state officials and foreign armed forces. But at the same time, these groups provide mobile justice courts in places where judges have long been absent. They advocate for the suppression of land rights that benefit a tiny and contested aristocracy. They offer much-needed protection to cattle herders during seasonal migrations. And the simplified marriage procedures they impose allow youths to escape elder’s control over marital engagements.

How much simpler the world is, if we see it from a distance.

Oh, the Trumpian DoubleQuotes I’ve missed!

June 23rd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — praise of Bruce Hoffman’s review of The Exile (ie Osama bin Laden) — interrupted by Trumpist verbal pyrotechnics ]
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Saif al-Adel, key AQ operative

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War on the Rocks has a tremendous review by Bruce Hoffman of Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, a must-read.

Never mind that, I’ve been missing tremendous DoubleQuote opportunities, as I discover now I’ve seen Kathryn and Ross PetrasTrump’s Elements of Style in McSweeney’s. Consider some of my options:

I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.
— interview, Sean Hannity, 4/13/16

I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world. Nobody knows more about taxes.
— interview, AP 5/13/16

I know more about ISIS [the Islamic State militant group] than the generals do. Believe me.
— speech, 11/12/15

There is nobody who understands the horror of nuclear more than me.
— speech, 6/15/16

And then:

I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.
— TALK1300 radio interview, 4/14/11

I have a great relationship the Mexican people. I love them, they love me!
— MSBNC interview, 7/8/15

I have a great relationship with the people of Scotland and an unbelievably good relationship with the people of Aberdeen.
— press conference 6/8/15

And, for good measure, assuming you can stretch this far:

What I like is build a safe zone in Syria. Build a big, beautiful safe zone, and you have whatever it is so people can live…
— campaign rally, 2/13/17

We’re going to have beautiful clean coal.
— CPAC address, 2/24/16

And then again:

I have had tremendous success.
— interview, ABC News, 7/30/16

I am worth a tremendous amount of money
— interview, CNN 6/26/15

I have a tremendous income.
— presidential debate, 9/26/16

I pay tremendous numbers of taxes
— presidential debate, 10/9/16

I have to admit, those last four — besides being a tremendous source of potential DoubleQuotes — is and are beautifully consistent. But do yourself a favor, unless I’ve displeased you, and go read the whole of the McSweeney piece.

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I believe I mentioned Bruce Hoffman’s review of The Exile for War on the Rocks? One among many items of interest in that book would appear to be the significant role played by Saif al-Adel (see illustration above). Hamid Gul and Qassem Suleimani likewise. A key para:

This tale of Iranian connivance provides additional evidence debunking the popular misconception that extremists do not cooperate across sectarian lines. Rather, it demonstrates how when interests overlap, they have repeatedly shown a remarkable ability to cast aside their otherwise rigid differences to work together. The ancient proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has long characterized the shifting and sometimes inexplicable alliances formed across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia since the war on terrorism commenced 16 years ago. In this instance, the intensity of the shared enmity between Salafi-Jihadi Sunnis and Shia militants against the United States can never be prudently forgotten.

A tie strong enough to bind Sunni and Shia together — their joint hatred of America? For those of us who take a keen interest in religion and love America, that’s a notion that may take quite some time to digest.

On the Night of Power, in Mosul

June 22nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — figurative self-destruction by ISIS at the Nuri Mosque in Mosul ]
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Will McCants comes closest to my own sense of the business with his invocation of symbolism and his words “self-inflicted decline” — this is an ouroboric moment, the (yes, self-inflicted) death of the birthplace of ISIS, a homecoming with a vengeance.

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ISIS denies responsibility:

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Indeed, the Atlantic has a piece titled Who Blew Up Mosul’s Al-Nuri Mosque? — but points out that ISIS might prefer its founding edifice destroyed to its certain capture and propaganda use against it:

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi notes ISIS has not shied away from using mosques for battle purposes, and suggests its destruction could be aimed at preventing coalition forces from taking control of it themselves — a move that could be of symbolic importance given the landmark’s role in the self-proclaimed caliphate’s founding.

And there we go again — “the self-proclaimed caliphate” — ouroboric from start to finish.

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All this takes place on, of all nights, the Night of Power!


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