Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Talkin' Occupy With Vanessa Veselka

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 09:26 pm

One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter.  But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.

Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.

Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.

How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?

Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...


by Levi Asher on Monday, February 20, 2012 10:17 pm

1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.

2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.

3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.

Philosophy Weekend: Groupthink, Group Mind

by Levi Asher on Friday, February 17, 2012 09:17 pm

What do the following scenarios have in common?

  • A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
  • An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
  • A family watches TV together.
  • Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
  • Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
  • A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
  • A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
  • Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
  • A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
  • A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
  • A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.

Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:

  • A person cries alone in an empty apartment after a bad romantic breakup.
  • A captured war criminal sits on a witness stand in court, and says "I was just following orders."
  • An employee is laid off, and slinks away silently from the office where she's worked for years.
  • A person sits at a computer hitting "refresh" repeatedly on Facebook, hoping to see something new pop up on the Friends stream.
  • A person leaves a crowded city for a day to climb a mountain alone, then sits at the peak for hours enjoying the view.
  • What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.

    A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.

    Philosophy Weekend: What is Wealth, and Why Shouldn't We Talk About It?

    by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 21, 2012 07:41 pm

    A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.

    Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.

    It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.

    Not Dark Yet

    by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 17, 2012 08:14 pm

    I considered going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with Boing Boing, Reddit and Wikipedia), but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I don't think little sites like Litkicks will make much impact at all by going dark. You've got to be pretty huge to pull something like this off effectively. Second, my favorite President has already signaled that he will veto the bad bill, so I'll save my protest for the next good cause. And here are some literary links, many of which seem to revolve around the classics:

    1. We were with her a quarter of an hour before Eliz. & Louisa, hot from Mrs Baskerville's Shop, walked in; -- they were soon followed by the Carriage, & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn'g ride. Well! -- & what do I think of Mr Moore? -- I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. -- His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike -- but by no means winning. Most of the letters in the new collection by the genius of Steventon, England, Jane Austen, are not this juicy, but the mundanity of the writer's daily routine is also valuable to read about, and the sickness-to-death letters towards the end are quietly, tragically moving. Jane Austen's Letters, the Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.

    2. James Franco, who was pretty good as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, has made another film based on the life of a 20th Century poet: The Broken Tower, about Hart Crane. Slate isn't impressed, but I'll give it a chance.

    3. Ezra Pound's daughter Mary De Rachewitz is trying to make sense of her father's fascist past while protesting an Italian neo-fascist party that has attempted to adopt his name.

    Philosophy Weekend: Does Ultimate Evil Exist?

    by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 7, 2012 07:17 pm

    I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.

    Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.

    I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.

    It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.

    Peace Eye! Fug! A Long Talk With Ed Sanders

    by Alan Bisbort on Tuesday, January 3, 2012 07:33 pm

    (Last year's big counterculture memoir was "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, and 2012's might turn out to be "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side" by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I've long admired. I'm proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir myself. -- Levi)

    Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders's appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.

    Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco's City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.

    In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”

    Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.

    On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.

    Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?

    Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.

    Philosophy Weekend: What Does Ron Paul Represent?

    by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 1, 2012 09:16 pm

    I disagree with ultra-conservative presidential candidate Ron Paul on most issues, and I can not imagine myself ever voting for him (I'm a lock for Obama in 2012 anyway). Still, I recently found myself vigorously defending this controversial Texas politician to my journalist and fellow liberal friend Tom Watson. Tom has been a severe and constant critic of Ron Paul, and has called him the worst of the Republican presidential candidates.

    I know that Paul has many flaws, but I think he's clearly the best of the Republican presidential candidates, because he's the only one who does not advocate a ridiculous "get tough" policy on Iran. This "get tough on Iran" idea is rooted in the same guerrophilia and bigotry as George W. Bush's previous "get tough on Saddam Hussein" idea, and I really can't understand how Ron Paul can be the only Republican candidate to understand the similarity. He is also the only Republican candidate willing to propose strong cuts in military spending and military activities around the world. The Republican candidates for 2012 are a raggedy bunch, but Ron Paul seems at least to be more clued-in than the others on military and foreign policy.

    After reading a steady stream of anti-Ron Paul tweets by Tom Watson, I asked Tom why he puts so much effort into criticizing the one Republican candidate who has an antiwar platform, and who stands very little chance of getting elected, when other Republicans who have stated an inclination to invade Iran if they get elected are actually considered serious contenders. I also asked Tom why he doesn't feel any optimism about the fact that Ron Paul is introducing an antiwar message to many conservative voters who have long ago shut their ears to antiwar messages from liberals or from the mass media.

    Departed: George Whitman and Vaclav Havel

    by Michael Norris on Monday, December 19, 2011 10:34 pm

    There were two incarnations of the fabled Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

    The first store was the labor of love of Sylvia Beach, an American expat from New Jersey. It lasted from 1919 until 1940 when it was closed by the Nazi occupation. But during its best years it was the haunt of “Lost Generation” writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. James Joyce used the shop as his office, and it was here also that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922.

    In 1951, another American (and English language) book store sprang up on the Rive Gauche, on the banks of the Seine, a stone’s throw from Place Saint Michel. This bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, was opened by bohemian wanderer George Whitman. His goal was to create“a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Under the sign “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, Whitman opened his bookshop not only for browsing and reading, but he also provided couches and beds for tired literary travelers to spend the night.

    Philosophy Weekend: Why Occupy and the Tea Party Should Protest Together

    by Levi Asher on Friday, December 2, 2011 10:53 am

    The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- two serious protest movements with urgent messages about the condition of the economy and the purpose of government -- do not currently communicate or collaborate with each other. What a wasted opportunity! Even worse, Tea Partiers and Occupiers often look at each other as opponents -- a ridiculous idea, since we are all protesting the same injustices and mistakes, and we all seek the same basic goals: an honest economy, a smaller government, greater freedom and greater opportunity.

    It's time for the Tea Party and Occupy movements to begin working together. Throughout history, protest movements with common goals have benefited from collaboration even when they've disagreed on specific issues. The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a few major differences on principles, but we should not let this obscure the fact that our goals converge more often than they diverge. So why are we at each other's throats? Why isn't there a combined Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party gathering going on in every city in the United States of America right now?

    I like to develop and improve my political ideas by talking to as many different people as I can, and I've already tested today's argument on a wide range of friends, co-workers and relatives. I discovered a surprising and encouraging thing: people who do not have much interest in either the Tea Party or Occupy movements are the ones most likely to dismiss the idea that they can work together, to declare that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are opposites.


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