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.


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.
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.


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
Levi Asher

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.


Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

view /NYPLVoicesForPeace
Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Levi Asher

(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)

The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.

But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses.  Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)

Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight.  There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths.  And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.

"Catch a Fire: Social Collapse in Multiple Voices" began one panelist short (a fairly common occurrence at book festivals). The Somali author Nuruddin Farah was unable to attend for reasons that were not explained.  But the smaller panel created an opportunity for the two present authors to expand their discussion beyond their individual novels and discuss the politics of Jamaica and Somalia.

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings opens in 1976, Jamaica - the year men armed with machine guns invaded Bob Marley’s home and opened fire, seriously injuring his wife and manager. Marley received only minor wounds and went on to perform at the free “Smile Jamaica” concert two days later.  And then he left Jamaica, choosing not to return for two long years. Taking those events as the novel’s launching point, James goes on to explore the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora over the next three decades.

Marlon James is a charismatic speaker and the scope of the book, as he describes it, is impressive:  687 pages, 76 characters, written in Jamaican patois, set in both Jamaica and New York City. The panel's moderator hinted at moments of disturbing violence, which James defended as being necessary. He didn’t seem to believe in trivializing violence by sterilizing it. James also spoke on the topics that interested him and had crept into his writing: the politics of the island where he was born and its role in the Cold War; stereotypes and expectations he’s encountered as a Jamaican author; his views on politics as they relate to his writings; and, in response to one audience member’s question, which of Marley’s albums was the soundtrack underscoring the events in his novel (Rastaman Vibration is the correct answer, not Exodus).

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is set 13,295 kilometers away in Somalia. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows the lives and fates of three women at the outbreak of that country’s 1987 civil war.  Like James, Nadifa Mohamed did not discuss her novel’s plot at length. She talked instead about her relationship to the place where she was born and the current wave of the Somali diaspora.  She and her family immigrated to England when she was only four years old, and so her experience is completely different than those of the (more conservative) Somali expats arriving in London.  She spoke of the ways in which the country where she was born is and isn’t home, and of how the characters in her novel both experience and perpetrate acts of violence.  The common theme for both both authors -- as for many authors on the panels I attended this year -- was our relationships to the countries where we are born and what that means in the wake of ever increasing globalization.

My next panel, again dealing with international literature and authors, was called "Cultural Collisions: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds".  I’m still not sure exactly what the title had to do with the actual panel.

This included the Brazilian author Paolo Scott (Nowhere People), Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd) and Cuban author Mylene Fernandez-Pintado (A Corner of the World).  All three books are translations.  Anderson Tepper, a Brooklyn Book Festival staple, was an excellent moderator as always, allowing each author to discuss their books in depth and give short readings.

Nowhere People is the first and only Brazilian novel about that country’s native population -- the Guarani Indians -- a subject on which Scott expressed strong feelings. Brazilians, according to Scott, avoid addressing race in a way that is detrimental (and shameful) to the society as a whole.  His novel tells the story of a young Brazilian man who is drawn into the world of an indigenous girl he sees walking along the side of the road.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Mylene Fernandez-Pintado’s A Corner of the World are so different that I’m not sure how they all ended up on the same panel. Luiselli’s book moves in time between modern New York City and 1950’s Philadelphia. Her characters are a young Mexican translator living in Harlem and the real-life poet Gilbert Owen (who the author described as “an all-right poet”). Taken directly from the back cover: “As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into a single stream, a mingling that is also a disappearing act, and an elegiac evocation of love and loss”.  Fernandez-Pintado, in contrast, has written a love story set in modern Havana, a story about a society that lacks choices and opportunities.

I’ll say it again: the Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. Particularly this year. The panels for which I harbored the highest expectations turned out to be terrible. And the one’s I felt lukewarm about turned out to be fantastic. But where else can you spend an entire day lining up to hear (mostly) obscure authors talk about books that will never make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List?

At the Brooklyn Book Festival I feel as if I’ve managed to escape the influence of Amazon’s algorithm, NPR recommendations and the Colbert bump. For one day a year I get to be on my own. Which is enough to bring me back in 2015.


Tara Olmsted finds a mixed bag at the annual book festival in downtown Brooklyn.

view /BKBF2014
Friday, September 26, 2014 09:35 am
Brooklyn Book Festival 2014
Tara Olmsted

Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people. The Huffington Post has the scoop.

The specific policy mission of this march is to deliver a message of solidarity before the beginning of the United Nations Climate Summit. This large group of concerned human beings seems to be doing a great job of making its voice heard.

We haven't written much about ecology here on Philosophy Weekend, a strange omission considering the writers and philosophers we like best here on Litkicks: Henry David Thoreau, William James, Yoko Ono, Gary Snyder.

As a political writer, I tend to focus on pacifism, but in fact pacifism and environmentalism are sibling philosophies. Both spring from a consciousness of the natural world, and from an appreciation for the gifts of human existence. It's hard to imagine how somebody could be a pacifist and not an environmentalist.

However, I've recently become aware that USA presidential candidate Rand Paul, the only conservative candidate brave enough to support a pacifist philosophy, has taken stands against sane environmental regulations. I'd love to hear from any Litkicks reader who understands Rand Paul's politics how it is that the only candidate who can clearly see the folly of our military policies can fail to see the folly of our lack of environmental regulation. One would think that the same awareness of common sense concerns (nature, and our freedom to enjoy it) would make any libertarian a natural environmentalist. What am I missing here?

Are there interesting literary or philosophical angles of environmentalism that we can explore here on Literary Kicks? Of course there are, and since I feel bad that I didn't make it up to New York City for today's big march, I am going to pledge to try to make this happen. I hope we can explore the meaning of ecology both from spiritual and political angles. If somebody can post a comment answering my question above about the Rand Paul position on ecology, which really ought to be smarter than it is, that might get things off to a good start ...


Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people.

view /ClimateMarch2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014 06:56 pm
Climate March September 21 2014 New York City
Levi Asher

If you only know the (great) movie version of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, you might think Atlanta was burned in a day. But a city as big as Atlanta can't be burned down that easily. It took General Sherman's army nearly three months, from September 1864 to November, to reduce the entire city and railroad center to ashes. The first of the three months was exactly 150 years ago.

150 years ago: the conflagration blazes around us. Of course, the clever journalist turned fiction writer Margaret Mitchell was not there for the original burning. It would take several generations before the young lady began typing her manuscript from a quaint room on Peachtree Street, imagining Scarlett O'Hara moving in to Aunt Pittypat's house on the same uptown corner.

Margaret Mitchell researched her book well, and her skill for brisk and vivid description made her telling of Atlanta's agonizing fall the one that stuck. Here is a passage from Margaret Mitchell's masterwork, her one and only book, the epic poem of the Confederate South.

Note: I tried to select a brief sequence of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, but prose this elegant must be allowed to breathe, so here's a long section. Here we find Scarlett O'Hara and her refugee friends hearing the news from the city they'd just fled.

The Confederates, he told them, had retaken Atlanta after Sherman marched out, but it was a valueless prize as Sherman had burned it completely.

"But I thought Atlanta burned the night I left," cried Scarlett, bewildered. "I thought our boys burned it!"

"Oh, no, Miss Scarlett!" cried Frank, shocked. "We'd never burn one of our own towns with our own folks in it! What you saw burning was the warehouses and the supplies we didn't want the Yankees to capture and the foundries and the ammunition. But that was all. When Sherman took the town the houses and stores were standing there as pretty as you please. And he quartered his men
in them."

"But what happened to the people? Did he--did he kill them?"

"He killed some--but not with bullets," said the one-eyed soldier grimly. "Soon's he marched into Atlanta he told the mayor that all the people in town would have to move out, every living soul. And there were plenty of old folks that couldn't stand the trip and sick folks that ought not to have been moved and ladies who were -- well, ladies who hadn't ought to be moved either. And he moved them out in the biggest rainstorm you ever saw, hundreds and hundreds of them, and dumped them in the woods near Rough and Ready and sent word to General Hood to come and get them. And a plenty of the folks died of pneumonia and not being able to stand that sort of treatment."

"Oh, but why did he do that? They couldn't have done him any harm," cried Melanie.

"He said he wanted the town to rest his men and horses in," said Frank. "And he rested them there till the middle of November and then he lit out. And he set fire to the whole town when he left and burned everything."

"Oh, surely not everything!" cried the girls in dismay.

It was inconceivable that the bustling town they knew, so full of people, so crowded with soldiers, was gone. All the lovely homes beneath shady trees, all the big stores and the fine hotels -- surely they couldn't be gone! Melanie seemed ready to burst into tears, for she had been born there and knew no other home. Scarlett's heart sank because she had come to love the place second only to Tara.

"Well, almost everything," Frank amended hastily, disturbed by the expressions on their faces. He tried to look cheerful, for he did not believe in upsetting ladies. Upset ladies always upset him and made him feel helpless. He could not bring himself to tell them the worst. Let them find out from some one else.

He could not tell them what the army saw when it marched back into Atlanta, the acres and acres of chimneys standing blackly above ashes, piles of half-burned rubbish and tumbled heaps of brick clogging the streets, old trees dying from fire, their charred limbs tumbling to the ground in the cold wind. He remembered how the sight had turned him sick, remembered the bitter curses of the Confederates when they saw the remains of the town. He hoped the ladies would never hear of the horrors of the looted cemetery, for they'd never get over that. Charlie Hamilton and Melanie's mother and father were buried there. The sight of that cemetery still gave Frank nightmares. Hoping to find jewelry buried with the dead, the Yankee soldiers had broken open vaults, dug up graves. They had robbed the bodies, stripped from the coffins gold and silver name plates, silver trimmings and silver handles. The skeletons and corpses, flung helterskelter among their splintered caskets, lay exposed and so pitiful.

And Frank couldn't tell them about the dogs and the cats. Ladies set such a store by pets. But the thousands of starving animals, left homeless when their masters had been so rudely evacuated, had shocked him almost as much as the cemetery, for Frank loved cats and dogs. The animals had been frightened, cold, ravenous, wild as forest creatures, the strong attacking the weak, the weak waiting for the weaker to die so they could eat them. And, above the ruined town, the buzzards splotched the wintry sky with graceful, sinister bodies.

Frank cast about in his mind for some mitigating information that would make the ladies feel better.

"There's some houses still standing," he said, "houses that set on big lots away from other houses and didn't catch fire. And the churches and the Masonic hall are left. And a few stores too. But the business section and all along the railroad tracks and at Five Points--well, ladies, that part of town is flat on the ground."

"Then," cried Scarlett bitterly, "that warehouse Charlie left me, down on the tracks, it's gone too?"

"If it was near the tracks, it's gone, but--" Suddenly he smiled. Why hadn't he thought of it before? "Cheer up, ladies! Your Aunt Pitty's house is still standing. It's kind of damaged but there it is ..."

There it is, indeed. We often think of Gone With The Wind as a story about a young girl with a crush, but it was also the story of a mature woman who became a powerful businesswoman and a proud rulebreaker in post-Civil War Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O'Hara on herself, and indeed both of them had the knack for rising up from ashes, and inspiring others to do the same.

I have spent 2014 working on an website project for a federal health agency based in Atlanta, and I had an opportunity to spend a week in this glimmering city earlier this year. I visited Margaret Mitchell's simple apartment house on Peachtree Street. I also tried to visit some Civil War battlefields, but I discovered to my dismay that Atlanta doesn't like to remember the Civil War very much. Battle memorials for this city are few and far between.

This conforms to a general principle of battlefield preservation that I've observed: if the region that owns the battlefield is proud of the battle, there will be a great battlefield park. This explains Gettsyburg, Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Shiloh and Chickamauga.

But Atlanta doesn't like its battlefields, and hasn't done much to honor them. There's a small Civil War museum east of the city, near one of many spots where the Confederates entrenched around the city in the summer of 1864 in a hopeless attempt to hold Sherman's army back. There are occasional reenactments of the major battles that took place around these entrenchments: Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough, Ezra Church.

But there's not a battlefield park to be found. The locations at Peachtree Creek, East Atlanta, Jonesborough and Ezra Church are completely paved over, developed into houses and golf courses and shopping centers, unknown and forgotten.

Atlanta wasn't kidding around when it obliterated its battlefields. They actually built a highway cloverleaf directly on top of Bald Hill, the site of the shooting of Union General James McPherson. This was one of the most climactic and dramatic moments of the battle for Atlanta. Here's a picture of the spot today.

No respect at all! This only proves how deeply painful and offensive it must have been for the people of Georgia to see their brightest city destroyed with such enthusiasm by invading enemies. The lack of public recognition for the traumas of 1864 indicates a need for healing that has still never taken place.

This is another reason we can all treasure Gone With The Wind: Margaret Mitchell's novel turned out to be the war memorial that the city could not create for itself.


A dull highway cloverleaf decorates an honored but forgotten battlefield in the proud Southern city that burned 150 years ago.

view /Atlanta2014
Wednesday, September 17, 2014 09:05 pm
Atlanta on fire in 1864
Levi Asher

If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.

Ken Kesey is a writer we have always appreciated here on Litkicks, both before and after he died in 2001. Kesey may be more often remembered for his crazy bus than for his great books these days, but we shouldn't forget that it was the critical and commercial success of his powerful novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962 that made the bus journey in 1964 possible.

If the idea of a bus trip in 2014 to honor a bus trip in 1964 sounds strange, we should recall that Kesey's original bus trip was itself an homage to Jack Kerouac's On The Road (which it enacted in reverse, California to New York) as well as a forward-looking and freewheeling hippie Dada experiment. We can't know for sure what sociological and countercultural expectations Kesey had when his first journey began, but it's obvious that the author was aiming to create a spontaneous living novel, even though the debris of the journey overtook its chief and he never transformed the journey into a book of his own. It fell to visiting journalist Tom Wolfe to write the definitive book about the bus trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I had all these literary themes on my mind as I strolled over to a bar called Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg at dusk on a Friday night and found the bus placidly parked on the corner in front of the bar. A happy gang of tie-dye-wearing hippies, clowns, musicians, dusty travelers and eager tourists milled around.

The bus had generated a lively and talkative sidewalk scene, though I had trouble finding anyone who could fill me in on the concrete details of how the cross-country journey had been going, whether expectations were being satisfied, and where I could find out more of the dirt and the details than were being posted on Facebook. I eventually found a friendly guy who seemed to be a member of the core traveling group, and he let me step onto the empty bus to take a selfie (posted above).

However, when I tried to ask him serious questions I quickly learned that he was coping with the crowd of interested tourists (a group which, unfortunately, he thought I was a part of) by delivering only oblique answers in the form of ciphers and koans. Recognizing this technique as Prankster-speak, I didn't push too hard for answers to my questions, and instead wandered inside the bar where a Grateful Dead band called Half Step was tuning up for their first set. I found Zane Kesey working a table stacked with t-shirts, keychains, bumper stickers and other Kesey-related paraphernalia (the one thing that was missing, I'm sorry to say, was books).

I was eager to chat with Zane, but I quickly realized that the conversation would go nowhere, because the room was too noisy, and because he was busily working the t-shirts-n-stuff table all by himself. I had a few questions for him about his father's legacy -- I was particularly interested in asking about the play Twister, a postmodern parody of The Wizard of Oz that had been one of Ken Kesey's later works, and which I'd always been curious to learn more about. Zane brightened up when I asked this question, but there was clearly no opportunity for a serious conversation as the band began to play across the room. I hope I'll get another chance to chat with Zane about his father's legacy some day.

I was not at all disappointed that I couldn't engage in a serious literary discussion of Ken Kesey's works with his son or with anybody else at this gathering, since no Prankster would ever answer a question seriously anyway, which meant the inhabitants of the bus were doing it right. I decided to switch gears and enjoy the music, and had a great time dancing with a happy half-Brooklyn half-Prankster crowd to the wonderful tones of Half Step.

The band struck the right chords for the night, and they cooked.
As they began their first song, I thought to myself that if they really knew about all the Ken Kesey/Neal Cassady/Grateful Dead connections, they would prove it by doing 'Cassidy' or 'The Other One'. They did both.

My encounter with Furthur only lasted one night. But Beat scholar Brian Hassett had a longer encounter with the 50th anniversary Furthur crew in Bethel and Woodstock earlier in August, and he has more stories to tell.


An updated Further arrives in Brooklyn, New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus ride.

view /Kesey2014
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 08:04 pm
A Levi Asher selfie in an empty Furthur bus
Levi Asher

I used to go to BookExpo in New York City every Spring. It was a grand event, a joyous social swirl of writers and publishers and editors and bloggers and critics. But, regretfully, I stopped going to BookExpo a couple of years ago. Some friends tell me the event has shrunk and that I'm not missing much. But I know I'm missing a lot whenever I get a chance to hang out with book people.

This year, I strangely found myself for the first time at DrupalCon, an amazing gathering of web development technology gurus, experts and dabblers who use the very powerful Drupal open source platform to build websites. I've been a Drupal developer since 2009, and I ported this blog from WordPress to Drupal in 2010. Drupal has been both my day job (currently, an exciting new federal government health information and community website launching in October) and my personal obsession. This is my first DrupalCon, my first chance to hang around with thousands of other developers who are as obsessed as I am.

I bet many of the people clustering around me as I write this in the convention center in Austin, Texas share the same sense of happy unreality that I've enjoyed this week: finally, we are surrounded by other people who know what Drupal is. The brand is not at all well known outside software development circles, though it is one of the most popular web dev platforms in the world. It's especially strong in science, education, arts, media, entertainment and government, and Barack Obama's is one example of a flagship site. (Litkicks, of course, is another).

Drupal is fully free and open source, and lives on the free and open source LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) stack. It's both extremely easy and incredibly hard to use, depending on how unique your requirements are. If you need to create a blog and plan to use designs and templates and features created by others, you will get great results very quickly with a Drupal install. In this sense, Drupal is similar to WordPress. But WordPress is not as complete a platform as Drupal. If you need to implement a custom design with complex functionality that integrates dynamic data with a variety of external services, Drupal will allow you to go as deep as you need to go. WordPress won't take you there. But going there with Drupal won't always be easy, and it won't always make sense.

Because Drupal is so popular among web developers, it often generates a lot of backlash, and I know some very smart web developers who consider it an infernal mess of quirky legacy code. They may have a point. Web development is a perplexing and fast-changing field, and developers like me choose Drupal -- not because it's always the best platform, but because it's the one with the greatest positive convergence of developer enthusiasm and technological vision. Web development thrives on hive-mind wisdom, and hive-mind wisdom is what the Drupal technology community provides.

Really, the whole magic of Drupal is simply the fact that web developers all over the world are doing things the same way. We modify forms with hook_form_alter, create lists with Views, cache with memcache, build custom search engines with Search API. It's not that this grab bag of techniques is any more valid than any other grab bag of techniques found in any other PHP toolkit. The strength that Drupal creates is the strength of community. Because we all agree to build websites the "Drupal way", we can share knowledge, share code, share experiences. We can build upon each other's work. We can meet at a convention and discover deep currents of commonality within the very private and often isolating mental processes that define our daily work challenges, and we can discuss these challenges at a very precise level with a crystal-clear vocabulary. For a software developer used to working and struggling alone, this can feel like a miracle when it finally kicks in.

This is why I find Drupal so transcendent, even though spending a week in Austin in crowded roving packs of peer developers can sometimes be obnoxious, frustrating, disappointing. Smelly, even. Well, each individual Drupal developer may or may not have a transcendent mission in life. Together, we definitely have a transcendent mission in life: we are creating Drupal, even as we use it.

It's funny for me to compare DrupalCon, the annual convention that seems to compel my presence at this point in my life, with BookExpo, which used to compel it. I'll be upfront about one thing: book people are more gregarious, and more skilled at the art of conversation. But there is a beautiful purposefulness to social interactions here at DrupalCon. It seems to be a general rule here that one should not speak unless one has something intelligent to say. Book people should try that sometime ...

But it's not just a roomful of techies I'm in right now: it's a roomful of web development techies, and this adds an interesting flavor to the brainy mood of this strange gathering. Software developers can choose many paths, but people choose to become web developers because they are creative or artistic or socially conscious in some way. Our work is public facing by definition.

Pure scientists and engineers don't deal with audiences. Nearly every introvert that surrounds me right now in this room in Austin is thinking about how to engage with audiences. Maybe that's what gives us Drupalistas -- not just here in Austin, but all over the world -- the bare minimum of social sense that allows us to work harmoniously together towards a quiet but brilliant goal: the continued development of awesome open source software.

In this way, DrupalCon people are like BookExpo people. We're into reaching audiences. And we all enjoy the chance to work together, to communicate harmoniously and productively with friends and strangers in a shared public workspace.

I only wish I could go to a convention and be with my Drupal peeps and my book peeps at the same time. Now that's what I'd call convergence.

* * * * *

NOTE: I'm flying home from Austin this weekend and will have to take a break on Philosophy Weekend. See you in a few!


I used to go to BookExpo every year. Now I go to DrupalCon.

view /DrupalCon2014
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 10:59 pm
DrupalCon 2014 in Austin Texas
Levi Asher

Furthur, Further ... that literary device on wheels, that great American rolling metaphor.

Fifty years after novelist Ken Kesey gathered his friends into a painted bus and drove a jagged route from California to New York City, the novelist's son Zane Kesey is hitting the road again, in a new bus with a new gang of Merry Pranksters, funded by a Kickstarter that has already met its goal.

We've written a lot on this website about Ken Kesey, who died in November 2001, and whose gregarious literary ambitions have sometimes been misunderstood because he broke so many rules about how to live as a famous writer. Despite Kesey's heroic refusal to ever conduct himself in a serious and dignified manner, his bus trip was a thoroughly literary journey, not only because he put Jack Kerouac's automotive muse Neal Cassady behind the wheel but also because the 1964 bus ride's cast of characters would include Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ken Babbs, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.

The destination was the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, which serendipitously connects literary classics in yet another way: here was the driver from On The Road heading to the spot immortalized in The Great Gatsby, with the author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest calling out the path to follow.

The bus trip became a countercultural legend after Tom Wolfe wrote about it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Douglas Brinkley also wrote about the trip in The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey, a book that emphasizes Kesey's intended historical significance. The continent that encompasses the United States of America was settled, civilized and modernized from the east coast to the west. By traveling from the west back to the east, Brinkley wrote, those mad California proto-hippies were on a mission to "unsettle America" in every possible sense of the phrase.

We'll be following Zake Kesey's journey as it proceeds. The Kickstarter video emphasizes that they will have separate blogging stations and YouTube portals near the front of the bus, so they intend to do this journey in a very networked way (though I hope their web design will be slightly better than that of, which also looks like it was designed fifty years ago, or at least at the height of the MySpace blinking-background era, which wasn't fifty years ago but could have been).

We presume that the journey will begin from Northern California in mid-June, and it's a good bet that they'll swing through Texas to visit Faye Kesey and Larry McMurtry, who got married not long ago. Beyond this, it's only known that they will be on the east coast in late summer and early fall.

I contributed $20 to the Kickstarter, which allegedly earns me some treats and a phone call that will come at some mysterious point in time from some mysterious voice on the bus. If and when this phone call comes, I will have only one question to ask: when is the bus coming near my town?

But I won't ask how I can get on, because this is a bus I've been on for a long time.


Zane Kesey, son of Ken, is funding a 50th anniversary bus trip via Kickstarter.

view /FurthurWillRideAgain
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 07:41 pm
Zane Kesey's new bus
Levi Asher

I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.

I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.

Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.

I'm also glad there were images of comparable American atrocities, and of a Ukranian soccer team and the Orange Revolution. All of the responses were smart and helpful. I hope the point of this visual exercise was to show that a systematic use of imagination and metaphor can turn up surprising new connections. (Imagination and metaphor is, in fact, a key tool for any problem-solver and puzzle-solver, but the tool is not often used very well in political debate.)

I promised to put up my own three selected images today, and I will do so. However, dramatic and upsetting events are unfolding today, as I write the final draft of this blog post on Saturday afternoon. There are strong indications that Russia is about to invade Ukraine through the Crimea, and may have already done so. A fast-changing news-flash environment is no fertile ground for philosophical thought, but I promised you three images today, and I'm not going to go back on my promise. After you look at these, please feel free to post a comment with your own three images, or with any thoughts you wish to share about the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

Here are my three images, representing my thoughts about the source and meaning of the conflict currently occurring in this country.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

As a descendant of Galician Jews, I can call Ukraine one of my homelands. My ancestors lived in shtetls and towns near Lvov, in the western part of the Ukraine that has often been part of Poland or Austria-Hungary or Russia, but has always been called Galicia. This is the land of Fiddler on the Roof, along with many other Slavic, Nordic or Baltic ethnic cultures. An ethnically mixed empire, the Ukraine included Jews, Ruthenians, Russians, Cossacks, Poles and Lithuanians, and they mostly managed to live in peace for many centuries.

Even though many of my fellow Americans have roots in Central Europe, there is very little understanding of the political structure of this vast land. There is some awareness of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but very little awareness of an earlier empire that was once very prosperous and progressive in Central Europe, and in which many of our various ancestors lived. I'm talking about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was at one time the largest government in Europe. I have recently immersed myself in reading about this little-known empire, which was unfortunately destroyed in the series of maneuvers known as the Partition of Poland. A lot of things started going badly in Central Europe after the Partition of Poland. ("Poland" was actually the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a union of two separate crowns.) What I find most inexplicable about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is that the existence of this vast, powerful empire seems to have been lost to history. Nobody knows about it. My own Jewish ancestors prospered as a part of this empire for centuries, and yet I don't think anybody in my family has heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

As you can see from this map, much of Western Ukraine was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is helpful context when trying to understand later events in Ukraine.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes a disastrous cavalry charge that took place during the Crimea. I personally dislike this poem, and strongly disagree with the attitude expressed in these famous lines:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Personally, I prefer to reason why, and I would have been dismay'd if I were sent on a cavalry charge towards certain death. I guess that's why I'd never be a good soldier. Anyway, the charge of Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade took place in the Crimea at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

A Memorial for the Holodomor

If you don't know much about the horrifying genocide inflicted upon the vast population of Western Ukranian peasants in the 1930s by Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, I urge you to read The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest. This genocide equals in brutality and absurdity the Jewish Holocaust that occurred a generation later, and the worst crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Mao Zedong in China. The Holodomor is little known to the world ... except in Ukraine, where it is a major part of shared national consciousness. This tragic history certainly helps to explain Western Ukraine's political hatred for Russia. The trauma of a past genocide also helps to explain why Ukraine's political culture in the past century has often been violent, excessive, morally corrupt, power-driven. It is a traumatized land, and it's good that after decades of silence Ukranians have finally begun to memorialize the Holodomor. This statue is part of Kiev's Holodomor memorial, which I hope to visit some day.


I asked you to send three images of Ukraine to fill a row of nine. Here are my choices.

view /ImagesOfUkraine
Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm
A farm field in Ukraine
Levi Asher