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Still center of the burning world

Monday, May 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a bookish Brit myself, I could easily see myself in either one of these pictures ]

One trouble with my DoubleQuotes format is that it conforms any images or texts to its own size: there are times when a larger font size in text — or a larger version of an image, allowing greater detail to be seen — would be preferable, as in the case of these two photos from the Blitz:



The first has been nicely described by Eileen A. Joy in her book-in-progress, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History:

Consider the well-known photograph taken of Holland House in London of September 1940, the morning after a German air raid had devastated the house, but had somehow left the library walls, with their shelves of neatly arranged books, mostly intact. This was the period of the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London and other English cities continuously for months, hoping to make Britain vulnerable to a land invasion. Holland House, the remnants of which now form part of an open-air theater, was built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope. It was one of the first "great houses" of Kensington, and during England’s Civil War it was occupied by Cromwell’s army.The photograph shows three men in bowler hats who appear quite comfortable, even calm, as they browse and select books from the tidy stacks, while all around them lie the bombed-out ruins of the house, its roof smashed to pieces, its charred beams exposed, ladders and chairs and other assorted pieces of furniture crushed under the rubble. But the browsers appear oblivious to the terrors of the night before and the chaos surrounding them on all sides. They are the very image of scholarly repose, of quiet study and reflective contemplation, and the symmetry of the books and shelves are the very picture of order in the midst of disorder. Outside, but also inside, lies a world on the brink of apocalypse, what Churchill called "the abyss of a new dark age" (Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour [Boston, 1949], 2: 225-26).

The photograph provides an image of the fetishization of the text, or document, of the ways in which history attaches itself, not to the social disturbances and crises surrounding it on all sides, but to the ruins of the past, and even more so, to the orderly archive of the narratives of those ruins. In that austere repository of the bound volumes of fabula and historia — the library — the scholar seeks the world of lived human experience but encounters instead one of its chief symptoms — writing.

The second is one Zen just used as the header for his most recent Recommended Readings. The Atlanti, which appears to have done the requisite research, titles this image:

A boy sits amid the ruins of a London bookshop following an air raid on October 8, 1940, reading a book titled “The History of London.”


So, question:

Is it the love of books we see illustrated in these two photos — or British aplomb?


Recommended Reading

Monday, May 19th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Top BillingThe War Nerd: Nigeria’s inevitable Mess 

….Most people don’t remember Biafra now, except as the second name of that spoken-word asshole Jello Biafra. It’s a shame; the Igbo deserve to have their heroic war remembered and honored. But like I said, nobody much cares about African casualties, and when they do, it’s always Africans as helpless victims—never, ever Africans as brave and well-organized armies. I’ve noticed that, over years of doing this column. When Africans are threatening to form a strong, united country, like the Igbo, the Tutsi or the Eritreans, they come in for some weirdly intense hate, and a lot of times it comes from the bloodiest bleeding hearts around. Creeps me out, actually, and I’m not easily crept.

MarketWatch -Too-big-to-fail battle between Larry Summers, Nassim Taleb 

….Summers, who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and more recently as an adviser to Barack Obama, took exception and charged that Taleb was being unrealistic about the difficulties identifying the institutions that pose systemic risk.

Summers told Taleb that he was for more capital, more liquidity, living wills for banks and procedures to wind them down. “What are you for?” he challenged.

“I’m for punishment,” Taleb replied.

 Dean Cheng – The Odd Couple: China and North Korea 

….By contrast, one of the worst case scenarios for Beijing would be a reunified Korean peninsula that was allied with both the United States and Japan. In that situation, the PRC would see itself being contained by three of the largest economies in Asia, adjacent to its territory and capable of wielding enormous military power. Certainly, the prospect of American forces being based in close proximity to Chinese territory, even if not in the former DPRK, would be concerning, if only due to the potential for intelligence collection. Moreover, the Chinese would likely see the steady expansion of NATO as presenting a malignant model for East Asia, with an American-led coalition steadily encroaching upon Chinese territory and jeopardizing the PRC’s ability to access the seas.

Cheng is my go-to guy on Chinese policy.

Christopher Ford -Confucian Rationalizations for One-Party Dictatorship 

….Today, the development of the new quasi-Confucian political discourse of a technocratically-guided but civilizationally-grounded national unity and strength receives support and encouragement from the very highest levels of the Party-State.  The regime and its propaganda apparatus have increasingly been using Confucian key words or notions, and stressing themes of “Chineseness” in political and international relations theory by picking up on elements that began to emerge after Confucius studies received the Party-State’s ideological imprimatur and encouragement in the mid-1980s.

 David Stockman-Why China Will Implode: Its A Monumental Building Aberration, Not An Economy


 …Occasionally a picture is worth a thousand words, and here’s one buried in a Financial Times story on China’s rapidly deteriorating housing market. It seems that during the two-year period 2011-2012, which was the peak of China’s much praised “aggressive” stimulus response to the Great Recession in the DM world, China consumed more cement than did the United States during the entire 20th century!

Agree with Stockman that this figure is astounding. Suspect that it is also fake and also suspect, on a more ominous note, that the Chinese government may not know what the real figure is either.

FORBES -Eyes Wide Shut to North Korea’s Terror Ties


Small Wars Journal Still Shortchanged 

WarCouncil.org -Not By Force Alone: Russian Strategic Surprise in Ukraine

Sensable Learning-Why Standards Cannot Measure Student Achievement: The Binary Bar of Proficiency 

WSJThe Closing of the Collegiate Mind 

Christianity TodayUnconventional Warfare 

SEEDEarly Warning Signs

Ultraculture -A Mexican Scientist Just Invented a ‘Telekinesis’ Helmet 


From Sebastian Junger, author of WAR and featured in RESTREPO

Korengal the Movie


Recommended Reading

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

Top Billing! Karen Peterson -Peterson: Soldier on trial because reporter kept digging 

People often ask where reporters get their story ideas.

 Carl Prine, investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, learned of a story four years ago in a roundabout way. It turned into a blockbuster — and last week it led to a story in The News Tribune. Rather than having a byline on the TNT story, however, Prine was a subject, a witness testifying at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord preliminary hearing of Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera. Barbera is accused of killing two unarmed boys during a reconnaissance mission in Iraq in 2007.

If not for Prine’s digging, Barbera would not have been sitting in a JBLM courtroom. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has the stories about it posted on its website at triblive.com/investigative/specialprojects/rulesofengagement.

 They tell how Prine was working on another national story in 2010 about the care of wounded soldiers when he met Ken Katter. Katter had recently left the Army, and his wife had posted online comments about the quality of his care. Prine read them and drove to Michigan to interview Katter. The fact that Prine was a former Marine, who also spent a year in Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard, gave Katter reason to trust him.

 It was past midnight, after the reporter had stopped asking questions and turned off his tape recorder, when Katter opened up about something else. An incident in Iraq continued to haunt him. He told Prine that one of his fellow soldiers on patrol had killed two unarmed Iraqi boys who were out simply herding their cattle. It was later reported that the boys were deaf and mute.

Prine would spend almost two years getting to the bottom of Katter’s story. He learned that the Army had investigated the shootings, and that Barbera had falsely reported he shot insurgents that day, not children. Investigators recommended charges. Instead, commanders gave Barbera a reprimand and a promotion. Driven to learn more, Prine criss-crossed the country to interview four other members of the Fort Bragg unit who witnessed the shootings….. 

Carl Prine is what journalists once were before they became courtiers. His Line of Departure blog was one of my regular reads.

Global Guerrillas - “White Privilege” as the Neutron Bomb of Moral Warfare 

The growing popularity of “check your privilege” and “white privilege” at Universities and in political debates is interesting.  

Why is it interesting? It’s not a force for progress or positive change, it’s a form of moral warfare.   That means it’s not a constructive remark that improves the debate, rather, it’s an attack that does damage the target.  However, it doesn’t damage the target directly.  Instead, the damage is done by weakening or breaking the moral bonds that allow the target to function in a social context.  

In other words, the attack disconnects the target from the moral support of others.  You can see that disconnection at work in how groups within the target group “white privilege” are fleeing from it, rather than rejecting the concept outright.  For example, I’ve seen “white male privilege” as a form of attack now.  I’ve also seen “white straight male privilege” being used.  This divisibility of the attack makes it the neutron bomb of moral warfare.  The kind of attack that’s meant to surgically remove a specific target group from the debate without doing damage to your own group.  [....]

Edward Luttwak – Weaken Putin with a Russian Brain Drain 

With Russia already suffering from capital flight amid economic sanctions and rising tensions over the Ukraine conflict, the U.S. has another option for ratcheting up financial pressure on the Putin regime: Start a brain drain too.

Call it an “anti-sanctions” approach. Blacklisting individuals and companies closely tied to Vladimir Putin is fine, but let’s also open America’s doors to Russia’s best and brightest. The instruments to do so are a pair of special U.S. visas that already exist—the O-1A and the EB-5.

But President Obama, who is not averse to using executive orders to shape legal matters more to his liking, could simply issue an executive order declaring that in the case of citizens of the Russian Federation, an advanced degree—a doctorate or its equivalent—would suffice for an O-1A visa. If O-1A visas were available to Russians on a large scale, the present outflow of talent from the country, already in the thousands, would likely become a flood. President Putin can ill afford the loss of talent, and the U.S. economy would benefit. If America presented such a visa offer, it would also neatly expose the false depiction of the U.S. as hostile to the Russian people—a theme of Mr. Putin’s recent speeches and of the entire Kremlin propaganda apparatus.

Daniel Hannan -Supposing him to be the gardener: Sam Gamgee, the Battle of the Somme and my Great Uncle Bill 

….There ought to be a special name for novels about the First World War in which the First World War doesn’t feature. I mean novels such as Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Risesand (except for two glancing references) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Novels, in other words, in which the trenches are a constant, brooding, unacknowledged presence.

Tolkien was very clear that his books were not allegories. Still, his experiences as a lieutenant on the Western Front could hardly fail to suffuse them. The Dead Marshes, desolate, poisoned and filled with rotting corpses, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme,” he later wrote. As for Mordor, pocked with holes resembling shell-craters, choked with foul vapours, void of every living thing except the columns and sentries of the enemy, no war diary contains a bleaker description of No Man’s Land:

Nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.

The Bridge – (Rich Ganske) A Modern Airpower Theorist and (Crispin Burke) Resilience: the Obstacle is the Way 

Slightly East of New - Quantum entanglement, the arrow of time, and John Boyd?

Medical Express -Research shows strategic thinking strengthens intellectual capacity

WarCouncil.org – (Matt Cavanaugh) Mission Command is Not Enough

Foreign Affairs -Putin’s Brain 

I was watching reactionary crackpot Alexander Dugin long before it was cool. “National Bolshevism” also enjoyed a brief  1920′s  heyday after the Russian Civil War among White officers attempting to make peace with the Red victors and Russian intellectuals exiled to cafes in Berlin and Paris. It all came to a very bad end. This will as well.

Duck of Minerva (Charli Carpenter) - “Norm Anti-preneurship” and Russian Use of Autonomous Weapons

AFJ - Book excerpt: FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation’ 

Aeon Magazine – The Unforgiven

David Brooks – Saving the System

Steve Sailer – Occam’s Butter Knife 

That’s it.


Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]

Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.


I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.


If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…


Peter Matthiessen, 1927 – 2014, requiescat

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Wallace Black Elk & Wounded Knee, 1975, & the loss of a great writer, gone to paradise ]

Peter Matthiessen — novelist, zen priest and teacher, and author of a non-fiction book that means a great deal to me — has died.


I felt a strange and unique bond with the man, because he wrote a 550 page book focused largely on a time and date that were of great importance in my own life, setting my memories in a far wider perspective.

It was late June 1975, and as I was traveling from Denver to Rosebud, South Dakota with Roy Haber, an attorney friend from the Native American Rights Fund, to visit Wallace Black Elk, his Lakota medicine man friend and colleague, we heard word on the radio that two FBI agents had been killed in a shootout at Wounded Knee, the reservation next over from Rosebud.

The news meant little enough to me — as a Brit who had only come to the States a few years earlier, I had very little sense of the elite nature of the Bureau back then — and when at last we arrived at Wallace’s place, I found a tranquil scene. As I wrote recalling my visit a week or so later:

Feelings were running high in the newspapers, but the little town of Rosebud seemed to be an island of good natured calm.

Little did I know.


My recollections of that day will give you a taste of Wallace Black Elk, the man.

It’s fascinating to talk with Wallace, for he braids his topics together, each theme weaving in and out of his conversation for several hours. He speaks for the Indians as though he was carrying their whole history in his body. “I’ve been in prison two hundred years, and I’m about immune to it.” You mean your people?” I ask him. “Yes, my people.”

He’s full of short, pithy quotes, sometimes humorous, often breathtakingly beautiful. “Grandpa Great Spirit planted me here. I didn’t come in a plane or a bus.” “The Spirit comes when we put our ears down and curl our tail between our legs and humble ourselves. The Spirit comes and comforts us, and shows us a pathway through the traffic.”


As I mentioned above, my impression was one of peace and calm as Wallace talked with me for hours about the Lakota ways — but the situation was a great deal more complex, and in 1983, when Peter Matthiessen published his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, I was able to understand far better just how tense things must have been, not only at Pine Ridge but also on Rosebud where Wallace and I met — and sweated:

Wallace Black Elk invited us to take part in the Sweat Lodge ceremonies that evening. It’s very hard to describe the Sweat Lodge. It’s a place of purification, the place where the Indians meet to express their deepest hearts in prayer. And at the same time, it’s a place of bodily purification, a Native American sauna. So the purification is both bodily and spiritual.

Physically, the Sweat Lodge is constructed around a framework of young willow stems, covered over with heavy blankets and rugs. It’s very dark inside, and when the hot stones from the fire are brought in and sprinkled with water, it gets to be very hot in there. The Sacred Pipe is passed around, and after smoking it and passing it on, each person makes his prayer. Wallace instructed me to address my prayer to Grandpa Great Spirit, and told me, “When your turn comes to pray, your mind will go blank and you won’t know what to say, and the spirits will tell you.” He told me to close my prayer with the phrase “all my relatives,” because “we are related to the sun, stars, moon, to all green things, to fire, the stones, to water, all creatures.”

I remember, too:

After the Sweat Lodge was over, when we came out into the wide South Dakota plains, we could hardly believe the sky. There was no obstruction from where we stood to the horizon in a complete circle, and above us hung the most majestic sunset I have ever seen. Wallace later told me, “the spirits said they would help you increase your knowledge and understanding of our ways and will show themselves to you, and you will actually see them the next time you come to the Sweat Lodge.”


Wallace had been involved in the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation and FBI siege of Wounded Knee, two years before I met him. In the words of Carter Camp, given in memory of Wallace after his death in January 2004:

In the natural order of our ways it fell upon Wallace Black Elk and his beautiful companion Grace to minister to the needs of the young men and women of the warrior society of Wounded Knee. We were a rag-tag group of young men and women from many tribes and nations from throughout this invaded land they call the new world. Our squad leaders and military planners were veterans of Viet Nam and Korea and our cadre were the youth of the red people. We could fight and we were willing to die without exception, but to be a warrior society in the old way we needed to be more than that, we needed the guidance of a wise man to differentiate us from the hired wasicu killers. So we turned to Wallace Black Elk to be that guiding teacher and his companion Grace to be our clan mother. It was a rule among us for each patrol or squad to be cleansed in a Inipi [a stone people's lodge or "sweat lodge"] and for each to pray for bravery and success in the old way. Uncle Wallace was called on to do this sacred thing for us, to make us worthy to fight and perhaps to die for our little nation.

The occupation of Wounded Knee was, from Wallace’s perspective, yet another battle in the long war between US government forces and the Lakota and other tribal peoples — this one specifically commemorating the Lakota Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

You can get a sense of how Wallace comported himself under fire — and the intensity of his belief in the sacred ways of his ancestors — from the following episode which Camp describes:

Once as we prepared to enter the inipi, the sacred grandfather rocks had already been heated and a dozen warriors were inside the lodge, the enemy began to fire on us and bullets were flying around us like mad hornets. My brother Vic and I were the last ones outside, just undressing after bringing in the rocks. When the enemy began shooting we started to get ready to run and told Wallace and the others inside… “they’re shooting!” Let’s go!” but Black Elk calmly looked out and said, “come inside nephews, don’t leave”. Quickly we jumped into the lodge and closed the door. Uncle began to sing and we all began to pray with him, we could hear the wasicu firing their M-16′s and machine guns but nothing penetrated the thin covering of the lodge. Calmly, without fear or hesitation, Black Elk performed the ancient ceremony while the shooting continued and we could hear the gentle rain of the bullets falling upon the lodge.

Soon we forgot them and sang, and prayed and learned to believe, in an hour maybe two the fight ended and we came out to continue our duties. The next morning the people came and looked at what had happened, women and children picked up hundreds of spent bullets laying around and upon the lodge and then strung them into necklaces as souvenirs.


Wallace Black Elk prays with the Sacred Pipe in the tipi with Asst Atty General Frizzell and AIM leaders Means, Banks and Camp prior to signing of Wounded Knee peace settlement. AP Photo: Jim Mone


Agent Ron Williams' car, June 1975, FBI photo

It was a continuation of that century old struggle when two FBI agents, Ron Williams and Jack Coler, were shot and killed in a firefight on the Pine Ridge reservation on June 26, 1975 — not thirty miles and twenty-four hours from where Wallace welcomed me to his home and introduced me to the inipi ceremony.

Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse offers a detailed exploration of what was happening on Pine Ridge on and around the day Agents Williams and Coler were killed — and an impassioned defence of Leonard Peltier, who was found guilty of their murder in 1977 and remains incarcerated in US penitentiary in Florida today.

I cannot do the book, or Peltier’s case, justice in this post, but for those who are interested, Matthiessen’s book is required reading, while the Bureau’s account can be found on the FBI’s website, Minneapolis Division.


NPR yesterday ran a piece announcing the upcoming publication of Matthiessen’s last book:

At age 86, Peter Matthiessen has written what he says “may be his last word” — a novel due out Tuesday about a visit to a Nazi extermination camp. It’s called In Paradise, and it caps a career spanning six decades and 33 books.

This would appear to have been written before his death was announced. The New York Times obit, also published yesterday, says quietly:

Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books.

In Paradise… the timing could hardly have been more exact.


In paradisum deducant te angeli….

I offer this rendering of Faure’s beautiful In paradisum with prayers for the repose of Peter Matthiessen, Wallace Black Elk and Grace Spotted Eagle, and FBI agents Agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler: may they all rest in peace.


Perhaps Wallace should have the last word, as he did when I interviewed him that day in 1975, since he generalizes on the same theme: “I can see” he said, “we’re going back to paradise.”


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