Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

Genocide: “That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

Sunday, August 10th, 2014
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Jonah

13th century Tomb of Jonah. It’s history now.

On Friday, we said the “g” word has a lot of gravitas. An unnamed government official agreed in the most literal way: “That word has a lot of weight.” But this weekend post from Politico has left me more confused than ever:

But Thursday morning, the urgency to act in Iraq became clear: Obama’s advisers warned that there would likely be a genocide.

“I had not heard the word ‘genocide’ used in the Situation Room before,” the official said. “That word has a lot of weight.”

The reports from the intelligence community and the State Department were vivid and compelling, the official said: People were dying of hunger and thirst, women risked being enslaved and the existence of a religious minority looked imperiled. It more than met the legal definition of genocide, aides told Obama.

“While we have faced many difficult humanitarian challenges, this was in a different category,” the official said. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things we have confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature, the scale of it, the fact this is a whole people. That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

I’m somewhat flabbergasted by this report. Tens of thousands of Yazidis had been cornered on a mountain, and were already burying scores of children, the ill, and the elderly in shallow graves after they had died of hunger or thirst. Clearly the ISIS intent was to kill without mercy adherents of the fascinating “devil-worshipping” religion – and those plans were not a possible genocide, but one that was well underway. As we wrote on Friday, Norm Naimark defined genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” So how many have to be “eliminated” before it is considered genocide? How many murdered to determine intent (even when the intent has been openly stated already)?

obama3I’m glad the horrific situation with the little-known Yezidis finally inspired some action, but I have been tracking the genocidal intent toward Iraqi Christians for months and waving my arms and jumping up and down about it (read the links on the Wikipedia entry here for some of the history). It’s too bad the ancient Chaldean, Melkite, Syriac Armenian, and Assyrian churches in Iraq, who numbered 1.5 million adherents a decade ago, failed to capture the public attention in quite the same way. About 200,000 are now fleeing their homes, given the choice of leaving fast with nothing but the clothes on their backs or being slaughtered. This may be about the total of all the Iraqi Christians left, and Mosul for the first time in 2,000 years has been emptied of them.

Clearly, words matter. This raises another question about genocide: is it only the most camera-ready situations that get labeled genocide? Only those people who manage to capture the public fancy?

If it hadn’t been for the Yezidis and the Kurds, would we be allowing the remainder of these Christians, and other minorities, to be robbed, beaten, raped, mutilated, beheaded, crucified, and otherwise killed or put to flight? What about the horrific massacres of Shia minorities (read about it here)? If no one calls it genocide, did it not happen? If a tree falls in the forest…

When is murder genocide? Obama drops the “g” word.

Friday, August 8th, 2014
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The word that gives gravitas.

It was, perhaps, his most statesmanlike moment: a president brought to the decision he didn’t want to make, to defend a far-off nation he’d hoped was part of our nation’s past. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”  The New York Times described the situation with a certain amount of prissiness:

Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”

Dropping the “g” word gives gravitas to any presidential statement. What Mr. Obama “called” genocide presumably included not only the attempt to wipe the small tribe of Yezidis off the face of the earth by allowing them to die of thirst and hunger on a mountain, but also the attempt to erase 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq, along with its Chaldean, Assyrian, and other adherents (some of whom are the last speakers of Aramaic anywhere – we wrote about that here), along with the massacre of hundreds of young Shia men at Takrit, with more, much more, to come.

If that’s not genocide, what is? What does it take to get the scare quotes off? It’s a more complicated question than might first appear. The current definition includes the planned elimination of national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. In that case, the definition definitely embraces what is happening in Iraq today, even if carried out by a non-governmental actor.

naimark3

Genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

However, Norman Naimark, author of  Stalin’s Genocides, argues that we need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Joseph Stalin. I wrote about this a couple years ago, here – it turns out that the Soviet genocidaire had a hand in deciding how we define the word genocide.  The Soviet delegation to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide vetoed any definition that might indict its own leader, who killed 15-20 million of his own people.

Accounts “gloss over the genocidal character of the Soviet regime in the 1930s, which killed systematically rather than episodically,” said Naimark. In the process of collectivization, for example, 30,000 kulaks were killed directly, mostly shot on the spot. About 2 million were forcibly deported to the Far North and Siberia.

He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social class, the kulaks (who were higher-income farmers), and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants – as well as the notorious 1937 order No. 00447 that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” – were, in fact, genocide.

“I make the argument that these matters shouldn’t be seen as discrete episodes, but seen together,” said Naimark, who argues that social classes and political groups should be considered in the definition of the “g” word. “It’s a horrific case of genocide – the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.”

Read “Stalin killed millions. A Stanford historian answers the question, was it genocide?” here.  (We’ve written about Norm elsewhere, here and here and here and here.) Also, Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Norm on genocide here.

Postscript: Here’s more: “Isis persecution of Iraqi Christians has become genocide, says [sic] religious leaders” in The Guardian. You mean marking homes with a “nun” sign; torturing, mutilating, raping Iraqi Christians; the destruction of 1,800-year-old churches and shrines; beheading children and crucifying adult adherents; burning homes and driving thousands of people from their homes with a warning to convert or be put to the sword – that didn’t count already? Is it  only the success of the mission what determines the label “genocide,” rather than the intent? In that case, the Holocaust was not genocide because it failed to kill every Jew.

The movie: President Obama honors National Medal winners

Thursday, July 11th, 2013
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ryan

Yayyyyy Kay!

Yesterday we wrote about the National Medal for the Humanities winners.  And today we have pitchas.  Here’s Kay Ryan, looking spiffy, accepting the award at the White House ceremony.

But wait a minute!  We hadn’t mentioned the National Medal for the Arts yet … or rather we did, because George Lucas and Tony Kushner were in fact winners of the arts medal, not the humanities medal.

jennyJust to sort everything out, here’s the complete list for both:

2012 National Medal of Arts: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming,  Ernest J. Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC.

2012 National Humanities Medal: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, Camilo José Vergara.

Another familiar face is buried behind the “Washington Performing Arts Society”:  President and CEO Jennifer Bilfield (not Jenny Bellfield, as the subtitle says)  accepts the award on behalf of the organization in photo at right – you can read more about the society here.

But bleccchhh… some of the bland clichés that were offered to presumably reward excellence and innovation in the texts!  Robinson writes about “universal truths about what it means to be human.” The Washington Performing Arts Society has “inspired generations of young performers to follow their passion” – and follow their bliss, too, I’ll bet.  Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, “elevated the book review to a literary art form.”  So what about Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, and a few others writing well before the NYRB launch in 1963?

We have the pitchas, but we also have the movie.  Kay accepts the award from President Obama at 28.05 below.  Jenny is at 20.42.

Josh Landy’s lonely fight against “The Chicago Way”

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012
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"Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

“Who is this Mr. Chicago?” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Unemployment remains above 8 percent.  Foreclosures continue to devastate cities.  There’s persistent talk of a double dip recession.  And all President Obama and Mitt Romney do is whack at each other.

It’s time to get serious.

So what about the Oxford comma? I have had an ongoing argument with an editor of my acquaintance over this issue. Wars have been fought over less.

Josh Landy has some good and certainly witty points on these and other subjects in his Arcade essay entitled, “Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?

Chicago ManualHe is, of course, railing against the tyrannical Chicago Manual of Style.  I think of myself as somewhat of a style agnostic, having been brought up on the AP Stylebook since I was knee-high to a pica rule.  I’ve even adhered to the esoteric MLA Stylebook, on occasion.

But I applaud the Mr. Chicago on most of his choices,  with the most powerful exception being the prohibition against starting sentences with numerals. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight people responded to the survey” seems a bit cumbersome to me.  So does writing out numbers up to 100.  Like Mr. Chicago, I still prefer the old-fashioned abbreviations for states over the ugly postal codes that have become ubiquitous (I favor Mich. instead of MI, Wisc. instead of WI).

Josh takes exception to Mr. Chicago’s avoidance of hyphenated words, rolling them into one:  “I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.” I side with Mr. Chicago. I think the excessive use of hyphens is aesthetically squalid.

Josh deplores Mr. Chicago’s putative habit of wrenching hyphenated terms apart, but he blows his argument when he uses “finely tuned” as an example.  Surely he knows adverbs ending in “ly” are never hyphenated?  Wait a minute, that’s the AP Stylebook…

“You better watch where you put those commas, Mr. Landy. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

It is time for me to out Mr. Landy.  He is an Englishman.  And, as someone once wrote, an Englishman lecturing Americans on punctuation is akin to an American lecturing the French on sauces.  I am irritated by English texts that seem to be on a unending comma diet.  The elimination of commas after clauses like these: “In May Churchill gave his address to the…”  Who is May Churchill?

Josh continues:

No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.”  Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.”  In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.”  But all these commas slow things down.

As they say in Chicago, “What’s the hurry, Bub?”

To show how desperate things can get, Helen DeWitt, who can only be described as a punctuation libertarian (she hyphenates copy editor, for example), rants in a 2007 post over at Paperpools about her trauma in publishing a book involving a number of texts with different kinds of punctuation.  She cites an Oprah Winfrey interview with  author Cormac McCarthy: “He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.”

Style libertarian (Photo: Aileen Son)

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy’s punctuation in McCarthy’s texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer’s texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Hence she was at odds with her publisher when a manic copy editor decided to have a go at her text, making thousands and thousands of punctuation corrections.  DeWitt describes one of the opening rounds:

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

He hates semicolons.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

It gets worse.  In America, land of the free, she argues, we should be free to punctuate as inventively, as creatively as we wish.  She dashes to a bookshop to buy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and shows it to her publisher.  Her manuscript nevertheless slips through to the “advanced reading copy” stage with her persistent “stets” disregarded.  She mulls suicide: “If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed.”

Even Tatum O’Neal is involved. Read the rest here.

Postscript on 7/20:  The incomparable Dave Lull retrieved the following passages, from Jacques Barzun‘s  essay “Dialogue in C-Sharp,” in response to a younger editor who cited the Chicago Manual whenever he could:

“. . . run words together and make the reader puzzle out the result. See here: antiintellectual in one word. What is the point? What has been gained?”

“Never mind the Manual – it isn’t holy scripture; I haven’t joined a religious sect and taken an oath to be ruled by a book. My creed is that I put my name only to what I write; I write as I like; and I like hyphens – especially when they make reading easier.”

Postscript on 1/8/2013:  You see what it’s all come to?  “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion, here.

“Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. ‘At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,’ said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word ‘anti-social’ had been corrected to read ‘antisocial.’”

New feather for Arnold Rampersad’s cap

Sunday, July 15th, 2012
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Accepting the National Humanities Medal last year

Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote to tell me what I’d already heard from other sources – Publishers Weekly, among them.  Arnold Rampersad, the award-winning biographer of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, has won the 77th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, widely recognized as a highly prestigious prize.  It’s the only juried literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. headed the jury, which included Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama.

It tops a very good year for the author and literary critic: President Obama awarded him a National Humanities Medal last year.

Rampersad has already won a previous award with the organization, when the first volume of The Life of Langston Hughes, published in 1986, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction in 1987. Volume Two, published in 1988, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

His other award-winning books have profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He has also edited critical editions of the works of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

Shelley, who co-edited Oxford University Press’ Race and American Culture series with the prizewinner from 1993 to 2003, called the new award “really special. … a major honor that is very well-deserved.”

He’s in especially good company now.  The Lifetime Achievement award has recognized some of the most widely-respected and influential writers and artists  of our time. Past winners include poet Derek Walcott;  playwright August Wilson;  fiction writers Ernest Gaines, Dorothy West, William Melvin Kelley, Paule Marshall, and John Edgar Wideman; photographer Gordon Parks;  writer and critic Albert Murray; and historian John Hope Franklin.

Here’s what Shelley said:

An extraordinarily elegant writer, a meticulous researcher, and a scholar gifted with the ability to focus on what matters most about any subject that he tackles, Arnold Rampersad richly deserves this honor.

A winner

His biographies and his literary scholarship have had an enormous impact on our understanding of American culture, illuminating issues of race and racism in America in groundbreaking, crucial ways. He has been a role model for generations of scholars in American Studies, English, and African American Studies. I congratulate the Anisfield-Wolf jury for recognizing his important contributions to the cultural conversation with this award.

New award for Rampersad tops an exceptional year – not only for him personally, but for a number of other folks in Stanford’s English and Creative Writing Department.  I wrote about that here.

Stanford writers bag an awful lot of prizes this year

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
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It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day.  So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble.  Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley.  Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.

This year has been a banner year.  Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards.   Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?

From a piece I wrote recently:

Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.

Simone Di Piero, Photo credit: David LiittschwagerPoet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1.  “They called me on April Fools Day.  So I had to ask twice if they were serious.  They said it was on the up and up.”

“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English.  His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.

According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Denise Gigante, photo credit: Raul DiazThe Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.

“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante.  “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today.  And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.”  Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.

Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

The list of awards continues:  President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)

The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country.  Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.

Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”

The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”

Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”

Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Adam JohnsonJesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”

“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that  “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”

“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”

For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”

For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”

What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car.  I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”

“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others”: Junot Díaz on race, privilege, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
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Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-winning author of 2008’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, always gives a scorching good show, and he did so again during a visit to Stanford earlier this month.

He did it all off the cuff:  “Guess what?  No fucking lecture,” he announced at the outset.

Díaz has a special license to mention the unmentionable – or what he says is the unmentionable.  His sensibility is divided between Dominican Republic, where he was born, and New Jersey, where he was replanted as a child.

Little of the Caribbean side was in evidence in Palo Alto: he wore preppy pullover and white collar, jeans and running shoes – and altogether more slender than he had appeared when I wrote about him in 2008.  The spellbinding author spoke about J.K. Rowlings, he spoke about H.P. Lovecraft, and he spoke most of all about J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Whether he especially favors writers who use only their initials is not known.)

“I write about race – by extension, I write about white supremacy,” he said, cutting to the chase.

He deplored the “rhetorical legerdemain” of “deforming our silences to fit in with the larger silences of society.” It’s a betrayal, especially, of the people “at the racially sharp end of the stick.”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others,” he said.

The idea of a post-racial society is a “happy delusion,” he said. “We are as hyper-racial today as we were two hundred years ago.”

He said that describing oneself as beyond race was as delusional as a man saying he isn’t sexist.  “These languages do not go away.  Heterosexual masculine privilege never goes away.”

How deep is the denial?  He recalled observing to a group of male peers that they were all dating white women or women lighter-skinned by themselves.  The predictable response:  “Oh, but it was love… we just met… it was random.”

No one ‘fessed up: “I date who I date because I was told people who are light-skinned are better.”

“Who wants to embrace that?” he asked.  Under such circumstances, “How the fuck do we bear witness to ourselves?”

“The default setting of universality” is white, he said.  Though writers of color often resist that categorization, he said he’d never encountered a writer who said, “You know what?  I don’t want to be a white writer.”

Díaz, flanked by Packer and Barry (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

People outside that default setting live in a “delusional space” of “specifying without signifying.” He referred to President Obama’s double message: “I’m not that black, but I will code some shit so you know I’m black.”

He, too, was asked to “signify without specifying” – “I ran from that as hard as I could.”  He wondered, as a writer, whether it was possible to capture in writing all the layers of denial and truth, avoiding the pitfall that would have been deadly for the writer, one in which “I’m going to blind myself so no one notices I’m not noticing.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was his attempt to use “all the nerd stuff” to portray “the hemispheric madness through the Dominican Republic.”

Science fiction and fantasy was an obvious source of inspiration. “Coloniality is the dark subconscious of the speculative genre,” he said.

For example, he commented on the different treatment of the ring in Wagner’s Rheingold and Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring.  In Wagner, “the ring just makes stuff go bad for you,” but in Tolkien, “the ring produces slavery” and functions racially, he said.  Tolkien was a survivor of World War I, and his Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, said Díaz.  The Dark Lord Sauron is “a being that comes from outside Middle Earth,” from a race that dominates Middle Earth.

While the Harry Potter series pits “bad guys versus good guys, my power versus your power,” Tolkien’s p.o.v. offers a different take:  “Fighting power with power you lose.  Power breeds corruption,” he said.  “The more power, the more opposition.”  René Girard, of course, would add that you become the thing you oppose – which ought to be a major deterrent, but isn’t.

In the end, said Díaz, “power never destroys power.”

Orwell Watch #20: Joe Loya has had enough of “playing politics”

Saturday, April 28th, 2012
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Joe Loya in a car.

It’s election year, and no doubt we will find much fodder for our Orwell Watch, from all points on the political spectrum.

Here’s a good catch from Joe Loya on Facebook: “Politicians decrying other politicians ‘playing politics’ with an issue has to be one of the goofiest moral spectacles on the planet. What are they supposed to play? Badminton? Third base? (Sen. McCain, Prez. Obama plays politics because he is a politician, like you!) These knuckleheads sound as stupid as if they bemoaned cellists playing cellos, or basketball players tossing basketballs in baskets, or race car drivers driving race cars. I mean, c’mon, ‘politic’ is right there in the word ‘politician.’ Dummies!”

He was, of course, challenged:  Is a smoker wrong for telling someone not to smoke?  Shouldn’t a murderer warn a kid not to murder?

Da Man

His rebuttal:  “All I’m saying is if I applied for the job of dishwasher and then the other dishwasher tried to make me appear morally inferior to them for washing dishes while they are also washing dishes, all I’m saying is they are idiots for hassling me for doing what I was hired to do, what is in fact the job description in the title ‘dishwasher.'”

What can we add?

The Orwell Watch.  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #19: End the war.

Orwell Watch #18: “Back to the Middle Ages” – an era that “exceeds expectations”

Orwell Watch #17: The 10th anniversary of 9/11 – prepare for an avalanche of buzzwords

Orwell Watch #15, #14: Jens Stoltenberg’s graceful words, a few of our graceless ones

Orwell Watch #13, continued: “The American people”

Orwell Watch #13: More daily offenses.

Orwell Watch #12: There is no faculty lounge. Get over it.

Orwell Watch #11: One man’s lonely war against cliché

Orwell Watch #10: Literary criticism, or cut-and-paste?

Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Orwell Watch #8: “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6: “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner: Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3: Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

As 9/11 anniversary approaches, litcrit’s Marjorie Perloff speaks out on American insularity

Friday, August 19th, 2011
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No comfort in Whole Foods Market

I’ve had a chance to finally go through Marjorie Perloff‘s “Language,” which has been open on my MacBook Pro forever…well, at least since August 7, when it was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Perloff, one of the preeminent lit critics and a champion of the Language Poets and other avant-garde movements, takes on the changes in the nation since the events of 9/11.

In her essay, she argues that an event that should have made us more attuned to the outside world haa, paradoxically, made us more inward instead:

A new worldview

“The very language of the decade expresses our anxiety about the outside world. Talk of the ‘third world’ and ’emergent nations,’ expressing as it does a first-world confidence and sense of control, has given way to the ubiquitous ‘our planet,’ as in, ‘saving our planet.’ …”

“When most Americans talk of saving our planet, they have a myopic view: They mean the environment they witness every day, with its SUV-clogged freeways, plastic-bottle glut, and absurd excesses of electricity and water consumption. In this context, a session at Whole Foods Market may feel comforting, but what about those places on the planet where there is not enough electricity to speak of excess or where there are no paper diapers to clog landfills? Better not to think about them, and to focus on such issues as childhood obesity (Michelle Obama‘s cause) or the relative effectiveness of the various sunscreens on the market.”

Time to look outward again

She concludes:

“Perhaps, now that a decade has gone by since 9/11, it is time for us once again to look outward. The increasingly tedious discourse of self-reflection—based on the assumption that we are the leaders of the ‘free world’—must give way to a more accurate sense of who and where we are in relation to the developing nations and cultures in our ‘global’ backyard. Language study—not just of ‘foreign’ languages but also of our own—will help us to deal with the reality that, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘we are not / At the center of the diamond.'”

I don’t find her final argument terrifically convincing. “We are not the center of the world” has been the mantra of President Obama, but so far I don’t see Brazil or South Korea or even China stepping up to the plate of “world leader,” though their economies may be (comparatively) booming and their populations swelling.  Perhaps the role of “world leader”itself is one of the 21st century’s early retirees, and there are no cops on the beat anymore.

She quotes Stevens, but W.H. Auden makes a more foolproof bet:

"I told you so"

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

On heroes: Irena Sendler, Phil Zimbardo, Kendall Fielder

Sunday, May 8th, 2011
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I arrived in Kraków yesterday – or perhaps today, I’m not smart enough to untangle the time differences.  I spent a good part of the afternoon reacquainting myself with old haunts and half-familiar streets. The city is awash with images of its native son, John Paul II, who was beatified on May 1. Photographs are in windows, banners on the streets, and large biographical displays mark two sites I’ve passed so far.

May 1 was also the national screening of PBS’s In the Name of Their Mothers, about Irena Sendler and the women of Żegota, who saved 2,500 Jewish children from certain death during the Holocaust. I’ve written about it here and here and here and here.  Alas, I doubt the film got much attention; it unexpectedly vied with President Obama’s announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I strongly suspect the latter event got the upper hand. But May 1 is significant for other reasons.

My lighter airplane reading was Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust. I didn’t hold out much hope for this modest, yet reasonably expensive ($40) book with the clumsy title – but the newly translated biography-of-sorts by Anna Mieszkowska is so far the only work that exists in English. Fortunately, the book so far has proven much better than my subdued expectations. For one thing, a good deal of it is written by Sendler herself, from letters, memoirs, and recollections she left behind.

A spider or a Rorschach test?

So what else is May 1? It is also marks the celebration of Divine Mercy this year – a custom instituted by the late pope, who, in another mysterious link, died on the eve of the Polish visionary whose writings caused the celebration.

The event is linked with Sendler, too.  From Mieszkowska’s book:  

A period of mass executions began at Pawiak Prison. Every morning the cell doors opened, and those called out never returned. “I once found a small, damaged picture with the words ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ I hid it, and had it with me all the time.”

The footnote to this text says: “This picture, which she described as the most valuable object in her life, Irena posted in a letter (describing its history but not leaving a return address) to Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Poland.”

Skinner: Kind of a hero herself

Somewhere I heard the story that the pope returned it to her later, and she gave it back to him, and it’s in a museum somewhere. I can’t remember.

Mary Skinner, the filmmaker behind In the Name of Their Mothers (and kind of a hero herself) told me the image was a signal the women of Żegota sent to each other and left for each other – sometimes just to buck themselves up.

Turning away from the dark side

In any case, I keep the image in my wallet, reminding myself of their example, and not to be such a sissy. When a member of the Polish literati saw it, he acted as if I had shown him a spider. Well he asked.

All this links with a current Science article about Phil Zimbardo’s work on heroes – that’s right, Zimbardo of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. His latest work explores the basic idea that “anyone can be a hero,” he said.

At age 78, he has reinvented himself as a social entrepreneur, leading a new project that will attempt to turn the Stanford Prison Experiment and other studies of the dark side of the human psyche into a force for good. Last year, Zimbardo founded the Heroic Imagination Project … “Our ambition is to seed the world with heroes,” Zimbardo says.

A different kind of military hero

He’s putting his money where his mouth is:

“This is my new mission in life,” he says. He chipped in $30,000 of his own money to start the project and has since raised nearly $250,000 more from other donors. He’s considering auctioning off some of his art and wine collections. “I grew up in abject poverty in the South Bronx,” Zimbardo says. Now that he has nice things, he says he’s willing to give them up if that’s what it takes. Zimbardo seems to have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the challenges of his grand new experiment – and the shot at redemption. “It’s rescued my career from being Dr. Evil to being Dr. Good,” he says.

Some other good stuff he’s done is here.

At one point, Phil was asking for examples of heroes. I suggested Irena Sendler, of course. I also suggested someone I’m proud to consider a relation: my grandfather-in-law Brigadier General Kendall Fielder, who resisted the orders for the confinement of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.  (He was also the highest ranking officer exonerated after Pearl Harbor.)

G'night from Kraków and Wawel

Greg Robinson, who has written about him in two of his books about the Japanese internment, explained heroism this way:  “You never know who will have a moment of grace, and under what circumstances.”

Ah, I hear Wawel Cathedral tolling midnight …  in the which reminds me I’m in Kraków…