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Archive for December, 2012

Angels in Aleppo

Monday, December 31st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick glimpse of the Qur’an in a Guardian report from war-torn Syria ]
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Noted in passing:


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It always interests me to see echoes of the visionary in everyday life, and this comment by a local commander in Aleppo, Syria is interesting both for the curious blend of ideas and references that Abu Ali has picked up along the way, and for its direct echo of the Qur’anic motif of angels accompanying the faithful in battle.

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Sow wind, reap whirlwind

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — on blowback, in praise of a Gregory Johnsen post, and literacy ]
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William Blake, The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind

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ED Hirsch and Joseph F Kett‘s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy doesn’t appear to have an entry for the phrase “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” which is straight out of the prophet Hosea and is now something of a proverb in the form “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. Hunh.

It’s an elegant phrase. The translators of the King James Bible were masterful in their singular ear for English, and no doubt Hosea‘s original Hebrew (Hosea 8.7) is no less pithy. Seed preceding harvest is about as basic a notion of cause resulting in effect as one can find in the lived world of agriculture, with the actual mechanism through which it comes to pass hidden in the “black box” between them where, as another biblical passage (John 12.24) puts it:

unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

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Sow the wind…

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put an airy nothing in the ground…

reap the whirlwind.

If you were within media reach of the devastation that Sandy caused to New York and New Jersey — or Haiti (yet again) for that matter — you know what reaping the whirlwind is about. And the proverb, with the prophet behind it, tells us we get it by sowing the wind.

Blowback.

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Gregory Johnsen, in a recent Waq-al-Waq post, Sowing the Wind: Three years of strikes in Yemen, pulls together three recent news pieces on Yemen to give us a view from 30,000 feet — in which blowback is clearly visible as the “whirlwind” his title implies we are already beginning to reap.

This sort of “here’s how the weather system looks from above” picture comes from the juxtaposition of key quotes, and since that’s one of my specialties, I’ll present two quotes that Johnsen selected in my own format devised with just that sort of exercise in mind:

That first quote is from Letta Tayler in Foreign Policy, and the second from Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post.

As Johnsen puts it:

This is clear: the US bombs, kills civilians and AQAP sends compensation – ie, helps out the families that have been killed – and takes advantage of the carnage the US has sown to reap more recruits.

This is at once all too sad, and at the same time all too predictable.

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There’s plenty more in Johnsen’s post, obviously, and being a trawler for religious details, I myself was particularly amused, or maybe alarmed, by this sentence:

That opening strike in the US’ war against AQAP in Yemen was a disaster, a strike so bad that the Pentagon lawyer who authorized it famously said later: “if I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

Indeed, as I hope to show shortly in a review of his book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, Johnsen has a great deal to tell us, and he tells it with the added grace of a real appreciation for the language he uses.

Which brings me to the reason why I singled this particular post for commendation, given that I read a number of insightful people on a number of interesting topics each day.

Gregory Johnsen is literate, lettered.

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I can’t estimate for myself just how many people would know and recognize the Hosea quote, nor how many more would at least know the proverb “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” well enough to recognize its first half and provide the second half from memory… That’s why I looked it up in Hirsch’s New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. And when I didn’t find it there, I have to say I wasn’t surprised.

Way back in 19232, was it, TS Eliot was dropping snippets of already obscure (obsolete?) texts in English, Italian, Latin, and French — from Thomas Kyd‘s Spanish Tragedy, Dante‘s Purgatorio, the Pervigilium Veneris, and Gérard de Nerval‘s El Desdichado — into his poem The Waste Land, with the comment “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

As Eliot would note later in Burnt Norton, “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place…”… And how much more so the myths, fables and proverbs made of them — myths, fables and proverbs which pass down the embodied wisdom of generations, as this proverb from Hosea passes down embodied wisdom about blowback — or negative positive feedback loops, as a latter-day Hosea might call them.

Johnsen is, precisely in this sense, literate, and in addition to the benefit his analysis brings, it’s a delight to read him for that very reason.

But there’s an even bigger issue here — the one Eliot was on about — the question of what happens when we lose the cultural underpinnings which, I’ll repeat, pass down the embodied wisdom of generations?

Johnsen speaks to the present, to Yemen, to the Yemeni people and to American politics. But in quoting that fragment of a proverb in his title, and expecting us to recognize it, he also speaks to memory, to culture, and to wisdom — wisdom, the capacity to act wisely — to which memory and culture are portals.

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William Blake painted The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, which I’ve placed at the top of this post, and it is said in Job 38.1, “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”.

In a forthcoming post — how often have I posted those words, and how seldom do I manage to fullfil them? — I hope to address the other possibility, the one in which as I Kings 19 has it (verses 11-12):

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

But the Lord was not in the wind — it might be nice if the evangelists of righteous doom would remember that verse, before they inform us that a hurricane like Sandy is simply God reproving Cuba, Haiti and the eastern seaboard of the United States!

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The Hobbit: Narrative Validation or Vandalism?

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a film by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit:Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien 

Last night, I took the kids and my nephew to see The Hobbit. In essence, it was less the classic tale woven by J.R.R. Tolkien than a sequel to The Avengers with a cast of Dwarves.

Peter Jackson has made, as he did with The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, a visually stunning film with The Hobbit. Jackson once again excelled at translating many physical settings of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth into screen reality. Erebor looks the way you would expect an age-old Dwarven kingdom should. Dol Guldor (alluded to ever so briefly in the book) appears to be the place of dread that would attract a great malevolent spirit like Sauron, This extends to some of the characters; the Great Goblin’s semi-comic personage manages to capture some of the original charm of The Hobbit as a children’s story before it later became part of the narrative for Tolkien’s larger and darker romantic epic, The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, the tendency that Jackson demonstrated as the films of The Lord of the Rings progressed,to take ever greater artistic liberties with Tolkien’s story, have, with his swollen ego, run riot in The Hobbit. The primary antagonist in the film, Azog the Orc chieftain is lifted from other Tolkien material, given mutant powers, a scary metal hand and an albino warg by Jackson and is brutally imposed on the story. The wizard Radagast the Brown, whose head for some reason is encrusted with bird crap, gets much screen time as he  zips around Middle-Earth like Mario Andretti on a sleigh pulled by magical bunnies when he is not getting high on ‘shrooms.

What began as a necessary fleshing out of narrative allusions and foreshadowing to effectively translate literature into a movie ended up as Jackson’s sheer invention and gratuitous abuse of the characters, all of whom sword fight more often than Conan the Barbarian and more bloodily than Leonidas. If Thorin had shouted in the midst of battle with the Goblins, “Dwarves! Tonight we dine in Mordor!” no one in the audience would have been the least bit surprised.  Zorro and the Three Musketeers had less skill with a blade in hand-to-hand combat than do these Dwarves, Gandalf or at times, Bilbo Baggins.

The only scenes where Jackson manages genuine fidelity to the story are the ones with Gollum, Bilbo and their Riddle-Game – perhaps out of fear of trivializing his previous movies, Tolkien’s actual dialogue and plot  enters the script before vanishing again into a Jacksonian cinematic homage to every American action movie ever made. No wonder Christopher Tolkien looks on with weary despair.

There’s a name for this kind of genre….

Fan fiction.

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Guns and The New Paternalism

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg      Photo credit: The New York Times 

Longtime reader and blogfriend Eddie Beaver sent me a link to an article by NYT columnist, Ross Douthat. In my view, Douthat has written a fairly important observation of a political dynamic that is broader than the simply the new push by the elite for new and stringent gun control legislation:

Bloomberg, LaPierre and the Void

FOR a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: the only possible response to Adam Lanza’s rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.

The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite. Like so many members of that class, Bloomberg combines immense talent with immense provincialism: his view of American politics is basically the famous New Yorker cover showing Manhattan’s West Side overshadowing the world, and his bedrock assumption is that the liberal paternalism with which New York is governed can and should be a model for the nation as a whole.

….Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.

….The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties — from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners — as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas, and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.

Douthat’s criticism of a reflexively angry but unimaginative and politically inept Right is correct, but class trumps mere Left-Right distinctions regarding gun control, with celebrity pundit Fareed Zakaria and conservative press baron Rupert Murdoch aligning with fellow Manhattan West Side billionaire and gun control zealot, Mayor Michael  Bloomberg  and various worthies in calling for UK style “gun bans”.

Britain of course, does not have a 2nd Amendment or, for that matter, a written Constitution that acts as a bar to government curtailment of civil liberties and both Parliament and British courts have different views on the limits of basic rights of free speech, self-defense (not just with guns), property and other liberties than the American norm. In light of the  2nd Amendment and District of Columbia vs. Heller, that sort of draconian legislation that makes gun ownership a privilege of the very few, would be obviously unconstitutional. If Illinois, for example must comply with a Federal Appellate Court order to permit citizens under new legislation to carry concealed guns, it is rather unlikely the Federal courts will entertain a confiscatory national gun control law that would trample not only the 2nd Amendment, but the 4th, 5th and 14th along the way. Nor would the governors of a majority of American states be on board for this, nor most Congressmen from rural states or the high tens of millions of Americans who own guns and reside in zip codes outside of Georgetown and Manhattan.

However, a healthy disregard for the strictures of Constitutional law and the liberties of ordinary citizens is a hallmark of the New Paternalism of our increasingly oligarchic elite, composed of superwealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, Fortune 500 CEOs and the technocratic-political-legal class sporting ivy league pedigrees. They are even worse on the 4th Amendment and individual privacy than on gun rights look disapprovingly at the First, which constrains their ability to censor and punish unenlightened opinions or political criticism. Outside of gay marriage and abortion, I am hard pressed to think of a single individual liberty our elite holds in unqualified esteem or at least in as much esteem in their own presumed competence to rule.

As Douthat noted, this not merely about guns, but of this small group having a searing contempt for the way the majority of Americans live their lives and a manifest, bipartisan, desire to regulate them for their own good in matters great and small. To decide how other Americans should educate their children; whether they should go to college and if so, what they should be permitted to study;  how much and what kind of food they should be allowed to eat or drink; whether their religion should be treated with deference in public policy or dismissed for the greater good; where they should live and how far back their “middle-class” living standards should be cut or pensions reduced, transformed or eliminated for the benefit of those whose incompetently  mismanaged companies, banks and   equities firms were so recently bailed out by taxpayers and the Federal Reserve.

It would be one thing, of course, if these high minded New Paternalists intended to live under the laws they eagerly want to impose on the rest of us, but largely they intend a different set of rules for themselves. They are ardent gun-control advocates who pack heat, public pension reformers who loot their employee’s pensions to enrich themselves, ed reformers who send their kids to posh private schools , crusaders against obesity who love junk food, zealous environmentalists with giant carbon footprints and advocates of tax reform whose corporations pay no taxes. Their mismatch between words and deeds is so vast as to almost be admirable – say what you like about this cabal’s lack of humility or sense stewardship, they hit the jackpot when it came to chutzpah.

If Hubris mated with Hypocrisy, their offspring would look much like the present American leadership class.

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Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton and …

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — season’s greetings in a couple of different contexts ]
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Lapis Philosphicus / The Philosopher's Stone, from Sir Isaac Newton, MS 416

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It is Sir Isaac Newton‘s birthday today, December 25th, and that’s surely cause for some celebration.

Shakespeare‘s birthday is unknown, but was probably around April 23rd, Bach‘s is celebrated on March 31st, Galileo‘s on February 15th, Buddha‘s is mostly celebrated on April 28th, and HM the Queen‘s on April 21st, making April — TS Eliot‘s “cruelest month” — a powerful time for moving from womb into world.

If you’re a cricketer, you might celebrate WG Grace‘s birthday, 18th July, it takes all kinds to make a world. But December 25th? If you don’t also make a big deal about Leibniz on July 1st, what’s so special about Newton on December 25th?

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There are some great aggregator blogs out there, and frankly I favor 3 Quarks Daily for their blend of culture, science and an accent from the subcontinent.

Today, as in other years, 3QD is celebrating Isaac Newton’s birthday, and I’ll raise a toast to him too. There are a great many things in our world that I am grateful for, that wouldn’t have been possible without his great and inquiring mind — though it’s his alchemical and apocalyptic interests that capture my own imagination.

What hath Newton wrought? You could do worse than to consult 3QD on this day across the years, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 — but you know, part of celebrating Newton’s Day (rather than that of Shakespeare, Leibniz, WG Grace, Dante, Marilyn Monroe or whomever) is that you can celebrate it on Christmas Day, on the day assigned conventionally to the birth of Christ — without getting all religious.

So it’s a sort of escape hatch for seculars, in a sacred season. As if all the gifts we give to commerce and each other weren’t enough.

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In honor, therefore, of the child whose nominal birthday makes Sir Isaac Newton’s so much more easily memorable — this poem:

The birth of phoenix bliss
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Gallows humor was implicit from the start
in the tiny child, in the newborn universe, in the
very heart of all that breathes and hopes,
evident then, at that first beginning, more so
in the tool shed behind the motel, most
now if we clear the rubble of malls and ads
from our eyes, blink a bit in the light, so
steady, so other than flash and glitter, so very

divinely human unfolding in each folded heart:
for oh, we are pilgrims, zeros traveling in
from earth to infinity, infinity itself
two zeros, two virgins intersecting, breeding,
filling the abyss: believe me, no phoenix
bliss is born, save from the ashes of crucifixion.

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I know, I know, some of you will wonder WTF Charles is on about.

A lot of people have folded their Sunday suits away and mothballed them, I know — I just happen to think that the finest story in the world tells of an infant conquering men at arms, mighty empires, with love alone in his eyes.

I am not of the opinion that this obliges me to expect greybeards in space, to follow the culinary restrictions of some desert tribe, or to condemn those whose attitudes are different from mine: on the contrary, I find liberty in the childlike gaze, liberty and clarity, depth and profundity, and at bottom a deep mystery.

I wish you all whatever blessings may befall you, now and always.

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