Grieve Christina with Care

Christina Taylor Greene, born at 12:50 p.m. on September 11, 2001; died at 10:10 a.m. on January 8, 2011.

Dear Christina,

I wanted to talk to you before you become a face on plastic amulets in our convenience stores, before the struggle over the meaning of your birth, life and death becomes a fight over political territory. I know I am appropriating your birth and death for myself. I do it with good intentions and in the hope that it would make you happy.

You were born in a moment of your nation’s despair, hatred, fear and rage. You knew none of that but you, as all of us, have lived in its grip for your whole life. It sounds as though your family didn’t let it hold you too hard. You were life for them when their country-people focussed on death. You were beauty and innocence and, little doubt, hope. Someone even put your face in a book called Faces of Hope, so you became a symbol for a larger circle of people than those who knew you and nurtured you.

That circle has failed you, Christina. Perhaps against our own wills we allowed your birth and the nourishment of your young life to be overtaken by our own selfish wishes for revenge, our desire to take back our own innocence by force, by our anger and rage and childishness. We moved from the terrible day of your birth too quickly, forgetting to mourn, forgetting what mourning means. We stayed in our rage and bitterness too long and polluted your environment so that it could no longer sustain you. We are famous for making this kind of mistake.

In the time since you were born we have killed many children like you. We thought we were doing that to protect you, so that you could grow up whole and strong and give us those gifts I see in your eyes. We forgot how easily and quickly we could destroy those gifts if we didn’t prepare ourselves to accept them.

We grew scabs over the pain caused us on the day of your birth. But they were scabs made of fear and a need for retribution and they allowed poisons to fester beneath them. We allowed our wounds to become fuel for violence. We have spent years spitting at each other. For all that I am against war and for peace, people have felt my spit on their faces too, I have been in such a rage about the killing. I know I am part of what killed you.

Yesterday, you went to hear and see Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords because you were interested in the workings of government and your curiosity caused a neighbour to invite you to meet her. Your interest, your neighbour’s interest in you, these are such good things. But we didn’t give you a good or safe place to explore your interests and curiosities. We gave you adults shouting inanities back and forth. We gave you insulting and hurtful and painful chatter. We made fun of people who called the rhetoric hurtful and insulting. We gave you words as weapons and vehicles to carry the poison of those festering injuries we sustained back on the day you were born. And long before that.

I’m not a romantic or an idealist, Christina. It’s become very difficult to say the words “all you need is love” and be taken seriously. Perhaps because we have never really understood what we meant when we said those words. Maybe we thought those words just meant “don’t worry, be happy”. Though even that is hardly a bad thing.

We seem to have forgotten that wise women and men (and children) have pondered the meaning of those words for centuries and only understood them fleetingly and through a dark glass. We don’t think those words are “useful” in “real” life which is harsh and hard and technical and practical and scientific and rational and emotionless. Many people sneer at those words, Christina, and think they are nice enough in a song but of no useful significance. Others think they can use them in their churches and synagogues and mosques and decide what they mean in those limited places and forget what it means to bring them out into the world – the real world that often doesn’t look as though it was made for love but was.

I’ve had a bad year myself, Christina. I watched a livestream of some very vengeful men hurting some peace-loving, gift-bearing people on a ship bound for a place called Gaza and it affected me profoundly even though I wasn’t quite sure how. I watched a bunch of vengeful men, and probably some women, intimidate, corral, beat and imprison some friends of mine in Toronto and it affected me profoundly even though I wasn’t quite sure how. It has seemed in the past year that everything I’ve always worked for and towards was in tatters and that the world was going from bad to worse. I wondered if there was anything I could really hope for, or in, any more. I’ve been pretty angry and have often felt embittered. I use that word, “embittered”, because I felt someone made me bitter, I didn’t take responsibility for choosing bitterness. That was dumb of me. I take that back. I am not bitter, I was just being stupid for awhile. You have caused me to wake up a bit.

I want this bad death that has been inflicted upon you by all of us to lead to something better, if not something good. Like a world where kids can admire and respect and actually learn some wisdom from their elders because their elders have taken the trouble to be respectable and wise. A world where it’s actually sensible to participate in the ways we govern and nurture ourselves and look after others because we do our best at it and respect ourselves and others who try. Hey Christina – a world in which we’ve taken the trouble to know ourselves and understand what a good life might be and care enough to work for it. If we got that for ourselves, if we thought enough of ourselves to demand it, we wouldn’t be able to help being good to each other, because that’s what being good to each other requires.

We need to grieve you now, child. I admit, I’m trying to get on the grief bandwagon here quickly and take over. I know I’m going to be angered by the way your death gets exploited and people tread either too hard or too lightly on your life and its meaning. I know I’m going to get it wrong too. I just hope I can stay committed to a gentle path of grieving you, one on which I don’t cling too hard and fast to anything in particular and don’t respond too nastily to others who think they know what you meant and what you mean. I do think I know something though. I’ll try to hold onto it and share it, in your honour, without wearing my rage.

You are so beautiful. I’m glad to know you. And so sad you are gone.

The Last Generation

From the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, June 1962

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through”, beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity — but might it not better be called a glaze above deeplyfelt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. On such a basis do we offer this document of our convictions and analysis: as an effort in understanding and changing the conditions of humanity in the late twentieth century, an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life.


Rebels with a Cause chronicles the movements for social change of the Sixties that began with the civil rights movement and culminated with the angry protests against the US war in Vietnam. Told through the eyes of SDS members, the film is about far more than SDS. It’s about the values, motivations, and actions of a generation that lost its innocence but gained a sense of power and purpose. It’s about a decade that changed America.

On Dropping Acid

The great Joe Bageant:

For the first time in years, my life in that small town was very enjoyable. In fact Winchester soon spawned its own small psychedelic scene, one among thousands in heartland America at the time. We never hear about them today, the media having since trivialized the entire Sixties (which actually ran into the Seventies) into a handful of newsreel snippets of the Haight Ashbury, Kent State, long hair, Vietnam and the Beatles.

In Winchester, an assortment of perhaps fifty artists, gays, hillbilly hipsters, academics from a nearby college of music, passing beatniks, and psychedelic enthusiasts had accumulated around town, hanging out at a marvelous old “dinner and juke joint” in the poor section. Winchester’s good Southern burghers couldn’t help but notice all this “suspicious happiness,” as the mayor once called it. But because the sons and daughters of local doctors, lawyers and authorities, including the daughter of the town’s prosecuting attorney, were in the mix, and because the queer son of a state senator hung out there, a hands-off policy prevailed for the first couple of years. Finally, the good fundamentalist Christians and Republican business community just couldn’t take it any more.
Read the whole thing here

Blackbirds, Motorbikes & Berger

On John Berger:

Blackbirds are in fact solitary creatures by nature, and they prefer woodland and heaths as habitats, near to open ground. They have a fine lyrical repertoire, and sing richly and clearly with a mellow voice, rather like the dulcet tones of a flute. Furthermore, while the color black has connotations with death and darkness, with mystery and evil, Berger sees it also as the color of sex, of black truffles, of making out in the bare earth of a forest under an oak tree. I can visualize Berger in his kitchen, not far from an oak tree, anointing his sexy black Blackbird with pleasure and tenderness. I can see him lovingly checking the brake fluid, the cooling liquid, the oil, the tire pressure, gripping the chain with his left forefinger to test whether it’s tight enough. Turning on the ignition, he’ll watch the dials light up red and then he’ll examine the two headlights and hear the purr of his flute. Methodical gestures: careful and gentle, done as if the bike’s a living organism, done in the kitchen in front of the stove at night.

In front of Berger’s stove, in his kitchen, is the warmest spot at his chalet in winter. It’s a cozy corner that all visitors remember. Apparently, Berger’s house is pretty beat up inside; he likes it like that. I imagine there are all sorts of bike parts and gear spread about everywhere, amidst stacks of books, loose papers, scythes and work boots. I remember reading a few years ago in the conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph a surprisingly affectionate article on Berger, “Portrait of the Artist as a Wild Old Man,” which spoke about his “bashed-up home” and his curious affinity with the American polemicist Andrea Dworkin. “She emerges as an intolerant castrating feminist,” says Berger, “but in her fiction you can see that she is incredibly open, sensuous and tender. There’s a strange relationship between fury and devastating tenderness.” Just like a motorbike, I guess; just like Berger himself: pissed off and furious with the state of the world, with the Dark Age we now inhabit, yet full of devastating tenderness, too. In one of his essays on Rembrandt in The Shape of a Pocket, Berger cites Dworkin saying: “I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But the ones all shined up on the outside, the ass wigglers, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them. Not at all.”

I doubt I’ll ever understand how “the strange relationship between fury and and devastating tenderness” is like a motorbike, but I’m impressed that Berger likes Dworkin.  Though I should have known.

Dark Hearts of Humanity

From Chris Hedges at TruthDig:

[Joseph] Conrad saw cruelty as an integral part of human nature. This cruelty arrives, however, in different forms. Stable, industrialized societies, awash in wealth and privilege, can construct internal systems that mask this cruelty, although it is nakedly displayed in their imperial outposts. We are lulled into the illusion in these zones of safety that human beings can be rational. The “war on terror,” the virtuous rhetoric about saving the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban or the Iraqis from tyranny, is another in a series of long and sordid human campaigns of violence carried out in the name of a moral good.

Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker’s paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.

Conrad understood how Western civilization and technology lend themselves to inhuman exploitation. He had seen in the Congo the barbarity and disdain for human life that resulted from a belief in moral advancement. He knew humankind’s violent, primeval lusts. He knew how easily we can all slip into states of extreme depravity.

“Man is a cruel animal,” he wrote to a friend. “His cruelty must be organized. Society is essentially criminal,-or it wouldn’t exist. It is selfishness that saves everything,-absolutely everything, –everything that we abhor, everything that we love.”

Conrad rejected all formulas or schemes for the moral improvement of the human condition. Political institutions, he said, “whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind.”

He wrote “international fraternity may be an object to strive for … but that illusion imposes by its size alone. Franchement, what would you think of an attempt to promote fraternity amongst people living in the same street, I don’t even mention two neighboring streets.” He bluntly told the pacifist Bertrand Russell, who saw humankind’s future in the rise of international socialism, that it was “the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any definite meaning. I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything convincing enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.”

Russell said of Conrad: “I felt, though I do not know whether he would have accepted such an image, that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”

Read the whole thing here

Comment on a Comment

Airline pilot Patrick Smith on Malcolm Gladwell, interviewed at CNN:

CNN interviewer: Another fascinating finding is that you are more likely to be in a plane crash if the pilot comes from a particular country. What’s that all about?

Gladwell: Yes. That’s a fascinating thing. The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.

That is a reckless and untrue statement. There is nothing, statistically or empirically, to justify such a conclusion. Looking over the accidents from the past several years, I see crashes involving airplanes from Nigeria, Cyprus, Kenya, France, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand. Looking further into their various causes, I do see a pattern of pilot error, usually in response to technical failure or some other unusual situation, but the majority of fatal mistakes were strictly technical/operational.

A factor in a limited number of accidents? I can accept that. But “the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes”? That is totally absurd, and I am extremely disappointed that somebody as influential as Malcolm Gladwell said it. In addition to being incorrect, it encourages the widely held notion that non-Western airlines are by their nature less safe than those of North America and Europe — a mythology I’ve addressed many times in this column.

What all of this underscores is the difficulty of finding wholly reliable information when it comes to commercial air travel. Aviation is a strange and mysterious realm, steeped in secrecy and veiled by an almost impenetrable vernacular. It begs to be sensationalized. Any journalist who comes near it has a hard time coming away with information that is, for the lay reader, at once digestible, useful and accurate. Gladwell gets a lot of it right, but still I expect better from one of our most talented and meticulous reporters.

Read the whole thing here

Hearts & Minds

From Ali Eteraz at The Guardian:

Growing up and then attending college in America’s deep south, I was taught that when it came to the English language liberals were like Humpty Dumpty. What with their “deconstruction” and “post-modernism” and “relativism” those leftists – linguistic anarchists! literary terrorists! – could make a word mean “just what I choose it to mean”.

Meanwhile, conservatives were the mature and staid and serious “defenders” of “the canon” and “the great books” and “the classics”. They believed that words had certain fixed, even sacrosanct, meanings that were rooted in religion, tradition and western mores.

Then I graduated and encountered the Bush administration.

Conservative in garb, southern in style, jingoistic in jargon, it was Osama bin Laden to English. All of a sudden I saw not just an absolute disregard for language but a complete subversion of it. Everyone from GW Bush down to his staff and political appointments traduced our lingua franca and left me feeling utterly disoriented.

It is worth considering some of the crimes against English that Bush conservatism wrought.

There was, for starters, the term “compassionate conservatism“. It should have immediately rung a warning bell. Here was a leader whose mantra was an insult to his own philosophy. Hint: if you need to put “compassionate” before “conservatism”, you are signalling that regular conservatism is brutal or indifferent. (Incidentally, some Muslims object to the use of the term “moderate Muslim”, because it wrongly implies that the average Muslim is an extremist).

Putting aside the seven minutes of silence that occurred on one of the most tragic days in American history – to what can those be attributed except a lack of coherent words? – one ends up in the arena of law enforcement, where the Bush administration turned English into a laughing stock.

The most serious error was the term “war on terror.” On September 18 2001, the Rand Corporation requested the government not to refer to our response as a war, as it would confirm the narrative that al-Qaida wanted to establish. And how can one wage war upon a feeling? A war on terror is as farcical as a war on pain or a jihad on arousal. “War on terrorism” is not a whole lot better because a) it doesn’t have the requisite ring and b) most of what we’ve done in response to al-Qaeda constitutes collaborative police action and doesn’t fit the traditional definition of war. The unsexy, but correct, term should have have been “counter-terrorism“.

The terror errors accumulated. Faced by a group of killers who fancied themselves modern-day Saladins and sought revenge for the occupation of Jerusalem, President Bush went ahead and called his response, yes, a crusade.

This was followed by the foolishly named “Operation Infinite Justice” – a theological phrase invoking God – which was the first title given to the operation in Afghanistan. It was eventually renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom” when someone realised that Muslims believed in God as well. By then, however, the damage had been done.

Then, as the United States tried to “win the battle for the hearts and minds” of Muslims, we gave our operations such conciliatory names as “Operation Hammer” and “Operation Mountain Fury”.

Read the rest here

Women Spies & Cyphers

Honeytrap Lies and Women Spies“:

mata-hari-greta-garbo-spy-spionThe stage is dominated by a statue of Shiva. As the lights go down, a woman emerges from the wings dressed in oriental costume; veils, a metal breastplate and elaborate jeweled headdress. She dances for Shiva, writhing around the statue in a suggestive and impassioned manner. A young soldier in the audience is entranced, while his older colleague looks on disapprovingly. This is a pivotal scene in George Fitzmaurice’s 1931 film Mata Hari, where we and the hero (Alexis, played by Ramon Navarro) get our first sight of the titular character and star, Greta Garbo.

Garbo was not the most obvious choice to play such an exotic role, but Hollywood in the 1930s seemed to regard any foreign star as representing a whole range of “other” nationalities, and so we have Garbo’s oddly unerotic dance sequence—at times almost stomping round the statue. What makes the scene even stranger is that this is a Swede playing a Dutch woman pretending to be a Javanese dancer.

This movie sequence, with its confused account of cultural and racialized identities, is a good example of the manifold mythologies surrounding women spies.


If spies are agents, then the woman spy is doubly transgressive because she crosses the line that ordinarily designates woman as object rather than subject. Women spies in popular fiction, film, and television represent an uneasy rapprochement between women spies as agents/subjects and as objects.

Depictions of female spies thus reflect upon women’s conundrum in twenty-first century in the wake of alleged equal opportunities: the doubled emphasis on work and on the work of femininity, that women be beautiful, make a home, have children, care for them. Where John Berger once asserted that “men act and women appear,” in the twenty-first century privileged white women are often required to both act and appear. Women spy-protagonists in popular fictions map this dynamic. Television series like Alias and films like Nikita show how women spies cross the boundaries of femininity and are shepherded back to it by visual codes of beauty, whiteness, and heterosexuality. They both break out and are contained, becoming an amphibious combination of radical and reactionary. In this way the woman as spy in popular culture tests the bounds of gender and is encrypted both as a cypher of social change and of resistance to change.

Read the whole thing here

VAW Across Cultures

From the Canberra Times:

A new report suggests one in five ACT teenagers has witnessed an act of domestic violence against their mother or stepmother.

The report, which looks at the issue of family violence and the perceptions of young people, shows Canberra teenagers are among the 500,000 young people around the country to witness violence at home.

The An Assault on our Future report will be issued by the White Ribbon Foundation today .

It shows nearly a third of teenage boys nationally believe that violence against women is “not a big deal” with a similar number believing “most physical violence occurs because a partner provoked it”.

Report co-author and researcher Michael Flood said the findings echoed the experience of many people working in the field.

He said the attitudes of some young men were being negatively influenced by parents, peers, the media and pornography and the study the results showed a need for more targeted campaigns against family violence.

“It is remarkable that a substantial minority of young males thinks violence against women is OK in some circumstances when she’s led you on or she’s flirting,” he said.

The report showed a large number of girls had experienced sexual assault or attempted rape, and nearly a third of Year 10 girls reported having experienced unwanted sex.

“I was surprised just how common it is for girls and young women in particular for girls or young women to be pressured or forced into sex,” Dr Flood said.

What kind of a researcher is Dr. Michael Flood that he hasn’t heard how common it is “for girls or young women to be pressured or forced into sex”?  WTF?!  And “unwanted sex”?  Hmmmmmm.

And from The Daily Star (Bangladesh):

The UNFPA report on the state of the world population this year finds that the concept of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, often does not resonate within the Bangladeshi society and is not readily identified, even among many victims themselves.

The report also mentioned that those who do recognise themselves as survivors of violence often remain silent because of the dishonor associated with this taboo.

This must be due to the fact that 80% of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim.  They just have no respect for women in Islamic countries.