Big Thinking

Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.

But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.

Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.

I've just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.

The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.

We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:

As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It's interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don't see a single one. That's strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you'd think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it's all Joe's Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what's the story there? I asked. What's the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.

McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka's The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.

McCarthy's greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it's supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don't even accurately describe his close friend who just died.

In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn't even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.

Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He's worried about us all, and about what we've done, and what we're about to do next:

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she'd said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least.

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Why Tom McCarthy is emerging as the best postmodern novelist on the scene today.

view /SatinIsland
Wednesday, May 13, 2015 07:47 am
Satin Island, a novel by Tom McCarthy
Story
Levi Asher

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled "Nonviolence as Compliance", and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's article ... because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates's article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

"Nonviolence is a ruse"? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don't know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it's weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it's sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

Nonviolence is not a ruse because nonviolent protest has an incredibly successful track record. In fact, there is no other form of political activism that has been anywhere near as successful around the world in the past 100 years. Nothing else comes remotely close.

The term "Nonviolence" is associated with the anti-British anti-Imperialist protest movement led by Mohandas Gandhi for many decades in India. While there is nothing simple about either Gandhi or about India, it is a basic fact that Gandhi's very courageous and excruciatingly tough campaign against the sometimes murderous oppression of the British Empire achieved its mission: India made Great Britain go away. It's hard to imagine how this goal could have been met so well without the strenuous application of the principles of Satyagraha, or Truth-force, which were widely influential as the moral foundation of the anti-British nonviolent protest movement.

It's because he was inspired by Gandhi's success that Martin Luther King adopted the principles of Satyagraha as a practical playbook when he began a protest campaign against segregation and institutionalized racism in the American south. With the nonviolent Martin Luther King at the head of the public protest through the 1950s and 1960s, great progress was made against racism in the United States of America.

"Nonviolence is a ruse". The guy can't be serious. He's certainly not thinking about the lessons of history. I wonder what path to justice Ta-Nehisi Coates considers more likely to help the African-Americans who fear the police forces that patrol them? I also wonder what effect Coates thinks his popular article will have on the sadly misguided racist police officials who already see African-Americans as potentially violent enemies? Coates is offering a path to greater alienation on both sides. And this is the article that's breaking the Internet today.

In case this isn't clear: I support the loudest possible public protest in Baltimore, and as far as I'm concerned it should go on forever and get louder and louder until change is accomplished. If I were able to be on the streets in Baltimore today, I would be there (just as I was there for the Occupy protests when I could be). Protests are great, and I don't even mind when they get unruly.

Nonviolence is about protest. Nobody logged more time, and endured more agony, in illegal public protest than Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi. They both went to jail constantly. They both gave their own lives for the cause. A serious dedication to nonviolence breathes life into a protest movement. It's what allows a protest movement to stay alive as long as it needs to, and ensures the enemies of the protest movement that the protest movement has got what it takes to endure.

"Nonviolence is a ruse." You lost the path here, Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just went over to the stupid side.

Nonviolence is not a ruse. Here are a few things that are a ruse: police violence, bad government, bad journalism. These are the frauds that must be continually exposed. More importantly, public apathy is a ruse, and hopelessness is a ruse.

Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

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Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

view /CoatesNonviolence
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 10:02 am
Ta-Nehisi Coates says "Nonviolence is a ruse". Wrong.
Story
Levi Asher

On the morning of April 9, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago, the main Confederate army attempted a last desperate escape from its encirclement southwest of Richmond, Virginia. The attempt was over by the break of dawn, and General Robert E. Lee sent a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later described that he'd been suffering from a terrible migraine headache for hours on that morning, and that the moment he read Lee's letter his headache disappeared.

How does a war end? There are many different possible ways. Recent US wars in Iraq both ended badly and uncertainly, as our invading forces left vacuums of power behind. But questionable wars do not always end badly. The US/Vietnam War, which began exactly a hundred years after the US Civil War ended, was finally resolved in an luxurious European conference room by depraved and nefarious diplomats. And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.

Ironies abound as we compare the unique ways a war can end. The Korean War never ended; it stands ridiculously at eternal stalemate, requiring armed guards to stand stiffly with weapons glaring at each other across a big fence to this day. They are marching at that fence right now, solitary soldiers in a war that has been dormant since the age of television: a show that nobody knows how to cancel.

World War One and World War Two each ended in opposite ways. The Second World War so completely exhausted all its combatants that most of the nations involved have managed to live peacefully next to each other since 1945. They seem to have learned a lesson that is all too easy to forget.

But the chaotic collapse of Germany 27 years earlier at the end of the First World War left a dreadful power vacuum. Extremist parties began rising up almost immediately in Berlin and Munich, as the leaders of the victorious nations met at Versailles to produce a formal treaty that would provide an enduring peace. American president Woodrow Wilson strongly urged an equitable settlement, along with the creation of a powerful League of Nations to arbitrate global disputes.

The League of Nations was formed, but Wilson's own Senate refused to ratify the treaty, mostly on petty political grounds. Led by Wilson's bitter rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the US Senate actually rejected the treaty that all the nations of Europe had signed, a treaty that was designed to curb the power of extremist parties that were then rising all over Germany. Four years later, Hitler staged his first putsch.

Some wars end in an overpowering sense of moral collapse. The literature and journalism of late 19th Century France shows a nation deeply wounded by the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. But other defeated countries bounce quickly back, as Japan did after 1945. It's very difficult to find clear patterns of any kind that explain how a war ends, and what happens after it does.

150 years ago in Appomattox, Virginia, four years of ruinous war ended with an outburst of gentlemanly courtesy. According to all accounts of the meeting between Lee and Grant, both generals addressed each other with sincere warmth. Lee told Grant that his soldiers were hungry, and Grant ordered that they be immediately fed from his stocks.

Though this meeting went well, a bitterness has remained between the former South and the former North in the United States of America, and a political division has remained too. When a war is fought and the war ends, do the conflicts that originally created the war linger into the peace that follows? It does not seem so; rather the shame of defeat itself sometimes seems to become a new source of conflict.

War is a thing that self-perpetuates; this is perhaps the best reason why peace treaties are nearly always helpful. What, for instance, are the USA and Iran at war about today? Nobody really knows, and yet we do not seem to know how to end this war either. Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.

* * * * *

I visited Appomattox, Virginia for the 150th anniversary. Here are some pictures I took while visiting the town and the historical park, where of course a reenactment was taking place. The specter of Robert E. Lee on horseback with an aide seemed to me to bear an unintentional resemblance to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The house is the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee and Grant's first meeting took place.

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Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.

view /Appomattox
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 08:33 pm
Postcard: General Lee leaving Appomattox
Story
Levi Asher

I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.

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From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.

view /ShipOfFools
Monday, March 23, 2015 09:59 pm
boat full of dumb crazy people, by Heironymous Bosch
Story
Levi Asher

If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.

News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.

Our media outlets are so incapable of reporting good news that you might even have first heard about this historic Iran deal in a Literary Kicks blog post last November titled "Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran". We're not in the breaking news business here at Litkicks, and yet we took the trouble to fill you in on the happy developments last year, while most professional news outlets remained silent until they found a tasty way to frame the news as a bitter controversy instead of a blessed breakthrough. Wake up, people! From Havana to Tehran to Obama's White House, smart politicians are trying to make good decisions, and they deserve your support.

Why is the Iran peace agreement good? Because it's a peace agreement between several nations that have been bitterly afraid of each other for six decades. This simple truth speaks for itself. Several major nations are afraid of each other right now, and a peace agreement is primarily an attempt to soothe raging paranoia.

The paranoia in pervasive. Many Americans I know are completely ignorant of the Iranian view of history, and cannot comprehend how frightened Iran is of the world powers who supported the Shah's oppressive (but oil-friendly) oligarchy from 1953 to 1979. Anybody who needs an explanation for Iran's hatred of Europe and USA only needs to read up on the history of Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That would be a valuable education for many Americans who think the problems between Iran and the USA only began in 1979.

But Iran isn't the only frightened party in 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a diagram of an imaginary bomb, while Tom Cotton seethes in the Senate. On Facebook, I hear my own friends express a sense of surreal terror that the villains in Tehran will surely take advantage of the deal to secretly build a nuclear bomb and blow up Tel Aviv, or New York City if they can reach it. This kind of primal paranoia appears hysterical when rationally examined, but the level of popular hysteria cannot be denied. Perhaps this is the nicest thing that can be said about Tom Cotton, the young pro-military Iraq veteran who has now made himself famous for writing a letter to Iran. He did not write this letter to advance his own career (though he has in fact advanced his career, and will probably be a popular face on Fox News for the next fifty years). He wrote this letter because he really thinks Iran is going to blow up the world. He's ignorant, but he's not cynical.

This kind of paranoia is what peace agreements are designed to cure. Difficult negotiations allow embattled leaders on all sides of an unbridgeable dispute to exchange information and ask questions. Peace agreements permit various kinds of conversation and commerce to slowly spin up, allowing cultural and economic interchange on new levels. They empower moderates at the expense of extremists -- and if that's not good news with regard to Iran and the rest of the world, I don't know what is.

Is it ever possible for a peace agreement to be a bad thing? Those who oppose this agreement right now point to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938, but that famous example is full of hot air. Even a failed peace agreement like the Munich deal of 1938 does little actual damage, and of course the primary cause of the Second World War was not Neville Chamberlain -- it was the First World War.

It was right before that ruinous war began, back in the muddled summer months of 1914, that Europe's paranoid nations lost their last chance for a significant peace agreement, and instead began the process of systematically slaughtering each other for the next few decades.

Its 2015, and we're not going to make those mistakes anymore. The peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will be signed next week is glorious good news. I'll be dancing in the streets when it's finally signed -- even if I have to go dancing alone.

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Forget the noise. Despite the loud opposition, the peace agreement that will hopefully conclude this week is a great and historic step forward for every nation in the world.

view /IranDeal
Sunday, March 15, 2015 08:41 am
International talks over Iran peace agreement
Story
Levi Asher

"I'll meet you under the words". There's a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.

Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.

The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters-- and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors' languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.

Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.

It's because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary's last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse's meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.

Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.

Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I've known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called "15 Rules For Hecklers" in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we're lucky he'll do more and more.

There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.

It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.

Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.

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A new documentary showing on PBS explains the deep cultural significance of regional languages, many of which are destined for extinction.

view /LanguageMatters
Monday, January 26, 2015 09:22 pm
A Welsh poem embedded upon a building.
Story
Levi Asher

"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."

I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?

Nothing will ever change.

Politics is just a lot of noise.

It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.

This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.

Until the announcement dropped, few people expected such a definitive single stroke, and many might have doubted that such a thing could be possible. Who in the world when they woke up this Wednesday morning would have expected that USA and Cuba would simply declare themselves in a state of hopeful peace before the sun would set? And yet it happened. This is an act of great political courage on the part of both President Obama and President Castro, and the announcement has already been greeted with gleeful acclaim on all sides. (Credit must also go out to Pope Francis, who encouraged and embraced the new relationship, and who is starting to look like the coolest Pope of all time.)

The fact that peace agreements can disable and deactivate the effects of years of suspicion and hostility doesn't mean that the suspicion and hostility are wiped away or cured. There are centuries of bad karma to be dealt with between the United States of America and its Caribbean neighbor. Learning about the troubled history of USA/Cuba relations is a vital first step towards making this important friendship real.

When the news of the historic informal peace agreement broke this week, unfortunately, most of the journalistic commentary was incredibly trivial. How will this peace agreement affect Barack Obama's popularity index? Does it give Marco Rubio's presidential aspirations a new boost? I find this type of news coverage very disappointing, and I find it even more disappointing that my own social media feeds are usually dominated by the same kind of short-sighted commentary.

We can better direct our attention towards the long and convoluted history of USA/Cuba relations: the African slave trade, the sugar harvests and rum empires, the Spanish-American War (a war fought largely over control of Cuba and the Phillipines), the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962, the US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay.

When we critique the leadership style of Fidel and Raul Castro, it's helpful to understand that we are talking about a small country that has been a focal point of global war for centuries, that has naturally developed an oppressive and intolerant government in response. Similarly, when we talk about our recent problems with North Korea, it's helpful to understand the horrifying modern history of that war-torn nation, which like Cuba has been a stomping ground for global powers, suffering greatly and silently through the agony as Russia, Japan, China and the United States fight for its control. An awareness of the history of North and South Korea can give more insight into our current North Korean crisis than the usual dumb jokes about dictators with funny haircuts.

Our pathetic shared history often seems like an insurmountable barrier to world peace, but we can't allow it to be. Fortunately, peace has a momentum of its own, and change moves fast. This is why I am confident that world peace will actually happen, despite all the discouragement and disgruntlement that always surrounds us in our daily lives.

Sometimes positive change will happen because our leaders will take the lead (as Obama and Castro did this week) and the grateful populaces will run to catch up. Other times, change will happen because the people take the lead and the leaders run to catch up (as happened in the USA during the Vietnam War era, and to some extent during the Occupy protests a few years ago).

Either way, it's a happy fact that peace moves fast. I bet this is what John Lennon and Yoko Ono had in mind when they recorded a song called "Move On Fast" in 1972. This is my Christmas song for 2014, Hope they can hear it in Havana too ...

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A historic new approach between USA and Cuba proves how dynamic our planet's future is, even with all the gloomy discouragement and disgruntlement that dominates our conversation.

view /PeaceMovesFast
Thursday, December 18, 2014 07:22 pm
Cuba in Olive, Forest and Lime
Story
Levi Asher

The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.

This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?

To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.

Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.

When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.

This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.

If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?

But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?

Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...

No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.

It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.

The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.

Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.

Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.

Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.

So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.

This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.

Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.

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Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is more powerful by levels of magnitude than that of any individual's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind.

view /TortureAndTheHerdMind
Saturday, December 13, 2014 10:51 am
A 1919 Wilfred Trotter book explains a lot today.
Story
Levi Asher

What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.

"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."

Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:

This got a lot of retweets and responses, and the increasingly popular cultural critic doubled down:

The conversation spread. Inevitably, the popular idea that World War II was also a "good war" because it ended the Holocaust (ignoring the fact that World War II also created the Holocaust) was invoked:

Ta.Nehisi Coates's statements here are hardly new or shocking. But it is shocking and upsetting that statements like this seem to carry the force of truth, and that pacifists should fail to challenge this rash idea. Pacifists need to speak with a louder voice, especially since facts are on our side. History shows that war is often a primary cause of racism, and that war is nearly always an enabler of its worst offenses. War doesn't correct racism; it generates it.

How can a pacifist begin to speak about racism, when emotions are high and words seem misplaced? First, we can point out that the obvious fact that wars tend to pit ethnic groups against each other. This makes it nearly self-evident that war aggravates feelings of ethnic hatred, that militarism is likely to be a primary cause of racism.

Once we begin to look at the actual evidence, it becomes clear that war and racism are hopelessly entwined, that they amplify each other, and that even the fear of possible future war can be a tremendous enabler of racism. An acclaimed recent history book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor hammers this point home (we wrote about this book earlier this year in a blog post titled "Blood Alienation"). This important book shows that fear of a militarized slave revolt played a gigantic role in the South's debates over the future of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. This fear originated with news of the bloody Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and was increased by Nat Turner's attempted slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy counters the popular idea that greed was the primary engine of the slave economy in the American South. Greed may have been the original motivation for the wide acceptance of slavery -- sure, there was a lot of money in sugar cane and cotton. But The Internal Enemy shows that an obsessive fear of black uprisings began to dominate government policy in Southern states before the Civil War. Paranoid fears that white women would be raped en masse during a slave uprising added a psychotic edge to this fear (this meme would later justify many lynchings after the Civil War).

Alan Taylor's book suggests that an overwhelming fear of race war left Southern states incapable of rational decision-making when the time came for these states to follow the rest of the enlightened world and outlaw slavery. The North could outlaw slavery, and so could England, because their smaller slave populations didn't present a significant internal threat. States like Virginia saw their slave populations as a terrifying and highly capable militant presence (a fact that has been largely lost to history until Alan Taylor's book) and thus could not converge upon moderate and humane practices with regard to this internal enemy. Fear of race war defeated every Southern impulse towards moderation.

To suggest that war helps to fix racism is to suggest that a recovering alcoholic take a drink to steady his resolve, that a tank of gasoline be used to fight a fire. No serious thinker can look at the historical evidence and continue to believe that this method can work. Of course, we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a serious thinker, and many of his Twitter respondents probably are too, so we can only conclude that they have not looked at the evidence.

One key point of evidence is the fact that the loss of the Civil War created a shared white/black society that never came to peace. Instead, after 1865, many Southerners dealt with the humiliation of a crushing military defeat by turning the refusal to assimilate with blacks into a badge of defiance and pride. As movies like D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation show, it became a sign of military distinction among prominent Southerners after the loss of the Civil War to refuse to associate with the victors of the war, either white or black. This type of "victory" was not a good ground upon which to build a civil society between whites and blacks.

After the loss of the Civil War, the humiliation of invasion and defeat replaced the fear of slave revolt as the main ingredient in the cauldron of racism that has been swirling in the post-Confederate states ever since. The rebellion is over, but the hatred that lingers after the loss of a hard-fought war still pollutes this section of American society today. This appears to be a frequent phenomenon after a war is lost. The Nazis who congregated in Germany after the loss of World War I were also sore losers. Sore losers do a lot of damage.

It's very good that slavery was ended between 1963 and 1865. But military vanquishment by blockade and invasion was the worst possible way to achieve this result, because racial integration was imposed by a hated enemy rather than accepted from within. This is not a good model for the future of our planet. I hope that those who think of war as a redeeming force will consider the alternative of pacifism, which is a broad, flexible and (hopefully) emerging philosophy.

Pacifism often includes the belief that peace is a redeeming force for society as a whole, and that the best way to achieve a peaceful world -- which means a world without racism -- is to follow the peaceful methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Since social sicknesses like racism are generated by the culture of hyper-militarism, the best way to cure these sicknesses is to cure our addiction to the culture of hyper-militarism. Romantic paeans to noble war by Atlantic Monthly writers do not help this case.

Pacifists should explain that evidence of the damage war does to our society is present in human history at least as prominently as nitrogen is present in the air we breathe. (For anyone who is curious: nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breathe, though nobody ever talks about all this nitrogen. Fear of violence and perception of internal threat probably accounts for at least 78.09% of our problems with racism, and nobody ever talks about this either.)

Besides quoting Alan Taylor on public attitudes in pre-Civil War Virginia, what other historical facts can a pacifist cite against the ridiculous suggestion that war can correct or cure racism? Plenty, plenty, plenty. We can remember that the entire practice of human slavery is based on military conquest, that a slave is a prisoner of war or the descendant of a prisoner of war. We can speak of all the atrocities of the past hundred years, every single one of which took place in the context of total war: Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine, Nanking, Poland, Czechoslovokia, Hungary, Romania, Tibet, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria.

We have previously noted here that genocide is always enabled by war, that genocide never occurs outside of the context of war. Pacifists need to help explain that genocide, like racism, is a direct by-product of militarism. It is impossible to imagine that we will ever have a world without racism, or without genocide, unless this is also a world without war.

Scratch a racist and you'll find a militarist. Remember the outbreak of anti-semitism enabled by the Dreyfus Affair in France? In fact, Dreyfus was considered a "German Jew", and the entire explanation for the vicious attacks against Dreyfus can be found in France's stunning loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to the fear of Germany that became a French obsession after this loss. It's a vital and little-known point that Dreyfus was not singled out because the French had suddenly become intolerant of Judaism. He was singled out because as an ethnic Jew he was suspected of having ties to Germany.

The pattern repeats over and over: a war is fought, and racism follows in its wake. Or a war is anticipated, and racism becomes a sensible policy. What about the slaughter of Native Americans in 19th Century USA? Like the slaves in Virginia, like Dreyfus in France, like the Armenians in Turkey, the Native Americans were seen as an internal threat, a strategic liability in time of war. We didn't kill the Native Americans because we hated them; we killed them because we were scared of them. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the USA force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps because we suddenly hated them? No, we forced them into concentration camps because we were afraid of them. Wherever war arrives, racism follows.

War as a cure for racism? A worse idea has rarely ever been suggested. I don't blame Ta-Nahesi Coates for expressing his frustration at American racism in 2014 by praising the outcome of the Civil War. But war is no prescription for racism, and I hope nobody thinks that the Civil War stands as proof that a good war can exist. And what would have been the result of this "good war", I'd like to ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, if the Confederacy had won?

I don't blame Ta-Nehesi Coates for writing what he feels. But I do blame my fellow pacifists -- are you out there, anyone? -- for not speaking up more effectively to join the conversation and share some historical insights when emotional paeans to the nobility of war are widely shared. The fact that many people seem to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and few people are pointing out the flip side of his story shows once again what we've observed here before: committed pacifists need to do a much better job of making our voices heard, of saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks violence is sometimes necessary to combat the evil of racism. How can a committed pacifist respond?

view /PacifismAndRacism
Sunday, December 7, 2014 10:10 am
Police frontlines in Ferguson, Missouri
Story
Levi Asher

A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.

This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.

I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".

I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).

But here's the strange thing about last night's Dylan concert in Washington DC: I wasn't feeling this anxiety myself at all. I had already seen Bob Dylan fourteen times. But last night's concert came 24 hours after a shocking judgement from Ferguson, Missouri which had caused an impassioned protest around the world. Emotions were high on November 25 all over the United States of America. I wondered if this would affect the mood of the crowd.

I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".

Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.

He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".

Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.

The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.

"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.

This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.

Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.

Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.

Last night's concert, I'm happy to say, was Bob in top form, a night to remember. Here's the setlist, and here are some more detailed reviews of the show I saw.

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Bob Dylan and his traveling band delivers a powerful performance at Constitution Hall in Washington DC on November 25, 2014.

view /DylanDC2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 09:50 am
Bob Dylan concert in Washington DC 2014
Story
Levi Asher