Present, Future & History

To try to make use of the past- to try to place a framework upon it – is to look in the wrong direction for answers. As Plato observed, the truth lies upwards in the heavens. We are better off imagining our future and carving it out of the ether than trying to mould it out of the misleading physical realities of the past. We see our past, as we see all falsehoods, through a glass darkly. The past is obscured by our cultural context and our search for the answers we already expect to find. We cannot learn from humanity’s mistakes because we cannot comprehend them and because humanity is too stained by sin and ineptitude to be worth taking any lessons from. Why conceive of utopia through a reading of the grubby realities of the French, Russian or Velvet revolutions? Why bother factoring in to our projects of social change the petty problems of dead people – with their silly flights to Varennes, their refusals to sack Washington, their untimely deaths, their squalid assassinations, their plots and counterplots and hairbrained schemes that landed them in the thick of it again – all historical accidents that are worth a laugh or a tear and nothing much more? The past is no use to us at all and that is fine. It is still worth a visit. But the future must be imagined and created afresh – again and again until no mistakes are undertaken at all. That is when history will finally stop and we will stop wasting our time looking for our answers within it.

Tim Stanley, History and Its Uses

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

Politics & The Writer

From Carolyn Forché:

The word politics presents more serious difficulties, particularly in the literary culture of the United States, where the word is most often applied pejoratively, and where politics is regarded as a contaminant of serious literary work. Our poets, most especially, are relegated to the hermetic sphere of lyric expressivity and linguistic art, where they are expected to remain unsullied by historical, political, and social forces. I speak to you today as a rather contaminated poet, but my understanding of the political is in accord with Hannah Arendt’s: “To be political, to live in a polis [means] that everything [is] decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding) to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were pre-political ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis.” Finally, we are discussing the writer with a politics—and of this I can only say that it would be difficult for me to imagine a writer or intellectual who would profess to be without one. I live and write, however, in the administered world of a Western industrial state, where communicative thought and action are inhibited; where money circulates more fluently than verbal forms; where democracy does not extend beyond the scope of its institutions; where “total communication yields endless debate in stead of change” (Otto Karl Werckmeister); in an economy so deeply dependent on military production that the national consciousness has been colonized by war; where armament and disarmament are simultaneously professed; where intellectuals find themselves “aesthetically oversensitized and politically numbed” (Werckmeister); and where the enlightened powerless occasionally produce works that are serendipitously drawn into debates beyond the literary sphere.

Ancient Greece & Now

Marcel Detienne:

It is commonly believed not only that both the abstract notion of politics and concrete politics one fine day fell from the heavens, landing on ‘classical’ Athens in the miraculous and authenticated form of Democracy (with a capital D), but also that a divinely linear history has led us by the hand from the American Revolution, passing by way of the ‘French Revolution’, all the way to our own western societies that are so blithely convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the true religion of democracy.

“The West’s selective reading of history” by Alain Gresh at Le Monde Diplomatique


… watching the news shows, you’d think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.

Robert Fisk

Torture Justified

From Glenn Greenwald:

… virtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures.  Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality. 


If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes — or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution — then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a “war crime” that merits punishment.  Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense.  But advocates of this view — “Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists” — can’t or won’t follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.  

But the rest of the world’s war criminals — the non-Americans — have no such complexities.  They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.  It’s not an accident that, in the run-up to the war, our Government and media jointly issued a deck of illustrated playing cards to demonize Iraqi leaders, complete with cartoon villain names.  It’s how many Americans have been trained to conceive of whoever the Enemy de Jour is, but never our own leaders.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression.  Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation.  Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs.  Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.  Freedom is on the March.

Read the whole thing here

Stiglitz on the Economy

Joseph E. Stiglitz at Vanity Fair:

There will come a moment when the most urgent threats posed by the credit crisis have eased and the larger task before us will be to chart a direction for the economic steps ahead. This will be a dangerous moment. Behind the debates over future policy is a debate over history—a debate over the causes of our current situation. The battle for the past will determine the battle for the present. So it’s crucial to get the history straight.

Read the whole thing here

Photography & Memory

From zuihitsu:

The connection between photography and memory is a facile one. Who doesn’t have a photograph of a time or place that they would like to remember? The school photo, the vacation snapshot, the wedding photograph all verify, more concretely than memory, that a certain moment occurred. Or do they? Even before digital manipulation, photography has had, at best, a loose relationship with reality. On the one hand, we are taught to consider photographs as representations of the real when they appear in newspapers, court rooms, scientific publications, etc. But even these images are produced by way of any number of subjective decisions which determine the “reality” of what is portrayed.

So what put me on this line of thought? First, I’m currently reading The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald which is a combination of reminiscence by the narrator and his chronicling of the lives and travels of the four emigrants of the title. Though the narrator is never identified, I can’t help thinking it’s Sebald himself. It’s a thought that’s at odds with the book being a work of fiction. This tension between document and fiction is strengthened by photographs placed throughout the text as if they have been collected from various shoe boxes and albums of the characters. The images, though they appear to relate to the text, could very well be a collection of unrelated images around which the author created his story. The book has me wondering, as if I were watching a movie “based on a true story,” how much is remembrance and how much is pure fabrication.

More here