Friday, May 29, 2009

She Loves to Watch (how do you watch?)

In a previous post of a collage my friend Anno suggested some commentary accompany the piece. I'd prefer the viewer be allowed to read what, to me, is a strong narrative inherent in the images.  I realize, however, those images might not be as obvious in the posts as in person.

I'll resist dissection of this post, but offer by way of explanation the following by Charles Simic:

Everything's foreseeable. Everything has already been foreseen. What has been fated cannot be avoided. Even this boiled potato. This fork. This chunk of dark bread. This thought too....

My grandmother sweeping the sidewalk knows that. She says there's no god, only an eye here and there that sees clearly. The neighbors are too busy watching TV to burn her as a witch. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Myth and Torture


I suspect that Obama’s recent about-face on the issue of releasing the so-called torture photos is more about preserving cherished cultural mythology than the stated “protection of our troops” from attacks in the far-flung reaches of American Empire. Shaken by the revelation of the torture at Abu Ghraib, the mythology that argues for American high-purpose on the world stage is shaken. Thus shaken, the debate has devolved into particulars; that is, Abu Ghraib, extra-ordinary renditions, and Guantanamo were aberrations occurring during the watch of a cowboy president and the only debatable idea is if such methods were effective in protecting the American people.


On one side of this debate is the bloviating former vice-president Dick Cheney claiming that the premium the Bush Administration placed on security trumped bothersome restraints such as treaties, human rights, and humane values. On the other side, President Obamarefuses to release the photos, breaking a prior commitment to do so, justifying his about-face with the platitude that “nothing new is revealed in the photos.”


In a sense, Obama speaks the truth. Even a cursory review of the history of American imperial development reveals that torture has been a constant feature, yet a feature obscured by an elevated rhetoric of divine providence. As Noam Chomsky reminds us in a recent article from Alternet, our national self-concept is framed by the phrase “city on a hill”, borrowed from the Gospels by the Puritan John Winthrop in 1630. Something of the “divine right of Kings” entered the American psyche, blinding us to our own worse excesses and providing a “civilizing and humanitarian” rationale to our expansionist project. In other words, the poor blighted peoples of the world need our intervention, and woe to those who resist. One need only consider the genocide of the Native American peoples to realize that as regards our national destiny, nothing will be allowed to stand in our way.


Yet examples distant from us in time are often met with dismissive shrugs. Even the more recent record from the 1980’s in Latin American—the disappearances, executions, torture, and death squads that operated and were funded by the Reagan Administration—cannot penetrate the distorted mantel of heroism with which Reagan has been draped.


Torture, as Chomsky reminds us, is a tool of empire. And for all of our embrace of “American Exceptionalism” as an animating force, we have in the past and continue through today to behave as interventionist thugs.  But like a knight of old defending the honor of a maiden, our national mythology will survive whatever revelations are allowed and the illusion of our virtue will remain intact.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Picturing Hell



GQ Magazine recently published a story with accompanying photos regarding intelligence briefings originating from the Department of Defense and furnished to The White House. The cover-sheet photos of these reports showed triumphant images of US. Military actions in the Iraq War appearing beneath biblical quotations. Frequently, these reports were hand delivered to The White House by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield.


Having endured several years of Rumsfield pronouncements I was familiar with his self-righteous rhetoric; with the revelations of these bible verse laden reports it is apparent that what I had considered self-righteous, Mr. Rumsfield himself (and presumably other top officials in the Bush Administration) considered RIGHTEOUS.


Certainly, Rumsfield isn’t the first government representative to seek to ally The Almighty to military adventures. The Bible itself is full of armies putting the unbelievers to the sword. A central symbol of Christianity—the Cross itself—moved to representative prominence with the vision of the Roman Emperor Constantine who, it is said, was granted military victory by his embrace of Christianity and by emblazoning the shields of his soldiers with the Cross prior to battle. Prior to this peculiar alignment, the religion of Jesus represented itself with symbols of life—fish and bread. From Constantine on, however, Christianity became known by the Cross, an instrument of torture.


The critic George Steiner in his book “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture” implicates monotheism in providing psychological wounds to human kind still being worked out in our civilizations. The graphic representations of hell-fire and damnation, prominent in our Western Tradition provide the “rough sketches” for Inquisitions, pogroms, Death camps, and the current idea of a “permanent state of war” waged on terrorism. In a linear conception of Time such as we understand History, all life moves toward a final reckoning, an Apocalypse, an End-Time.


The dangerous hubris of what the Rumsfield reports reveal is the identification of narrow national interest with complex symbology, manipulated for geo-political gain via the U.S. military. The military itself, having been evangelized, increasingly views itself as doing “God’s Will.” Theology these days comes form the barrel of a gun.


Religious language of any religious tradition is laden with metaphors, which, if taken literally, become dangerous realities of degradation and domination. Subtleties of language are ignored at great peril. Onward Christian Soldiers marching AS to war—a reference to spiritual battles, becomes in the zealot’s mouth justification for holy war.


As the poet and novelist Jim Harrison remarked, “There is no such thing as a free metaphor.” I fear we will be paying the price for the appropriation of these metaphors for generations.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

From the Closet of History

That world! These days its’ all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?

Denis Johnson


Jesus' Son

Last week Democracy Now observed the 39th anniversary of the massacre at Kent State when four students were shot and killed. I was in eighth grade, confused and shocked by what the Ohio National Guard' assault on students that day. Education, I was taught, brought opportunities and lead to a richer fuller life. The startling images of dead students stood as refutations to the lessons I’d learned.

It was a strange time. Protests against Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia thundered across the country and around the world. High schools and middle schools twitched with unrest as the student bodies thereof absorbed the division of the greater society around them. As I walked down the hallway of Otsego Middle School, a discreet black armband on my sleeve, I was grabbed and slammed against the lockers. “Are you with those ass-holes in the streets?” Wild eyes and hot milk breath of blooming adolescence blew in my face. I had no words for a response. Otsego was a small town, and this incident lay between myself and my assailant throughout our high school years. It rode with us together once when he picked me up as I hitchhiked my way home. It was summer after graduation. He was headed off to the Air Force Academy. I later heard he dropped out. I heard he was dismayed that the Academy wanted to remake him, change him; and to his way of thinking he was everything they’d want him to be.

* * *

The great Brazilian theatre pioneer Augusto Boal died last week at the age of 78. Founder of the renowned Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal was serving time in prison when I visited Brazil in the summer of 1973.

At seventeen I was excited to see again Jose’ the exchange student who the year previous had lived with and enriched my family. He introduced us to wine, broadened my appreciation for music, and told me stories of pristine beaches populated with scantily clad, beautiful women. At 17 how could I have not been excited to go to Brazil?

I knew other things of Brazil, a darker history of military coups, imprisonment, and a governing body of generals; the Brazilian flag proclaimed “Order and Progress”, but it was a progress to be done without progressives. Students, union leaders, intellectuals, artists, and actors were rounded up and sent to the gulag or exiled.

In honesty, however, the country’s underside didn’t much impinge on my awareness. I wandered the beaches, slack-jawed at the beauty I saw. In a small beach side village, macumba drumming pounded into the night, and walking the beach the next morning I found bouquets of flowers washed up onto the shore. As I bent over to pick one up, Jose’ warned me off. “Macumba,’ he said as he made the sign of the cross. Yet for all of my blissful absorption in beauty, a darkness of authority and repression was part of the atmosphere. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets, and military bands blared strident, brassy marches. I was counseled to keep my papers with me always.

Walking downtown with Jose one day, we were clowning: a string of puns, wisecracks and one upsmanship. Zinged by a cleaver retort, I affectionately grabbed Jose around his shoulders.

“Stop it,” he said.

Of course, I continued to hold him and started to shake him slightly, laughing and pushing him to and fro on the crowded sidewalk.

“Stop it,” he insisted, looking over my shoulder.

“Stop it,” I mocked him, laughing all the louder and, truth be told, enjoying the ease with which I was physically besting Jose’.

“Greg. Stop it now. We could be arrested by the soldiers for this.”

Augusto Boal was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured before being released into exile. Years later, after the rule of the Generals passed, he was allowed to return. He continued to work with the oppressed, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, to have the experience of oppression speak through him. His work spread around the world, his dream reaching beyond Brazil; a dream of freedom for the world.

Rest in Peace, Augusto Boal!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


O'Lord have mercy

On me amidst the ersatz and illusions.

Let down just the hem of your garment

And let me touch the genuine article.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Our National Medicine

I’ve enjoyed making collages lately, bemused and sometimes shocked by the juxtapositions of images and the context that emerges from combining disparate elements. Sometimes my mind struggles to achieve a broad enough view to encompass, say, the image of Henry VIII and a crowd of war refugees from the conflict in Dafur. What narrative could connect these persons, these historical moments?


Recently, I’ve come to appreciate collages especially as I attempt to get my mind around the torture issue as it is played out in the media. The startling juxtaposition here is that torture emerged out of a context of “spreading democracy”, and that the active agent of that effort, the United States, views itself as “a city on a hill” a beacon of freedom and justice. At once the instances of torture were viewed as the work of a “few bad apples” who were certainly acting outside of the established protocols. Then, a messy trail of memos indicated that torture was a matter of policy, the implementation of which was justified for the sake of “national security.” These are, after all, dangerous times that call for “enhanced techniques.” And now that we have moved toward calling water-boarding what it is, namely torture, our leaders tell us that we should, however, “move forward” with the pressing need to address “current” realities.


This call to “move forward” is consistent with the ahistorical mindset of America; we take pride in our past to the extent we ignore its darker troubling traditions. And so we tout our occupation and conquering of what is now the United States, what we still call our Manifest Destiny, but never fully allow ourselves to consider the displacement and destruction of the native populations and cultures or the enslavement of a people whose toil and suffering made our wealth possible. Our “approved history” is like gauze to cover the deep wounds to our national psyche. In a way, leaping across time to the shame of U.S. torture, what is coming to light is hemorrhaging through this veneer, this gauze of exceptionalism.


According the Professor McCoy at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the United States has a history of utilizing “enhanced techniques”, torture. On this morning’s Democracy Now he traced a lineage of horror that includes the infamous Phoenix Program of the Vietnam Era and the Death Squad practices common from the 1950’s forward in Latin America (practices that the United States funded, trained, supported, and participated in). Following the disclosure of these events there was an outcry of disapproval, a wringing of hands, and then…amnesia.


The critic George Steiner in writing of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazi’s pondered the agonizing reality of Time that allows for such a horror to occur alongside the occurrence of happiness. How can a moment hold such contradictions? We struggle with the intimacy of such moments, and the failure of our moral imaginations leads—as it has in Europe and elsewhere—to denials that this genocide occurred at all.


That our national history holds similar contradictions provokes in us the shrill notes of patriotism, the brash refutations of Limbaugh, Hannity, and others who assert, “America does not torture.” Our national inability to look history in the face and attempt to reconcile our highest ideals with ugly realities distorts and perverts our politics, our economy, and our faith in democracy. The modicum of outrage mustered gets muted by cries of traitor or by blanket assignment to membership in the “blame American first crowd.”  Forgetting becomes the only way out of shame, and so “moving forward” toward the future becomes the prescription, and “real Americans” only open their mouths to swallow this bitter pill.