Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Hamlet, Fortenbras and the Border
We face on our border with Mexico much of what Hamlet's royal family faced with Norway.Borders are never easy to maintain. The news reports following Katrina included a brief mention that our border guards had been pulled from the Mexican border to assist with the recovery. Congressional authorization for increased guard strength has only partially been executed by our president. Since he's from Texas, President Bush is undoubtedly familiar with the personal virtues of our Mexican neighbors – by all accounts hard-working, religious and family-oriented - and so he may be reluctant to force their removal. Presidente Fox of Mexico, and the Mexican nation at large, are certain to follow American policy closely, measuring options. After all, Mexico cannot look on so much territory which was once Mexican without a wistful sense of longing. A longing that Fortenbras, the young and headstrong leader of Norway, understood.
In Hamlet, Fortenbras seeks to reclaim the lands lost to Denmark in an earlier war, occurring before the play begins. King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, step-father and king, summarizes:
"Now follows that you know, young Fortenbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not failed to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father…".
For Fortenbras, let's substitute the broad stream of Mexican society as it regards our society from across a thin strip of neighborly fencing. Nor is there lacking the sense of resentment over lands thought taken and sought to be restored. Horatio explains Mexican, I mean Norwegian, sentiment in Act I, Scene I:
"…Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortenbras of Norway,
Thereto pricked on by a most emulate pride,
Dar'd to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet, -
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him, -
Did slay this Fortenbras;"
It's easy to forget that Hamlet killed Fortenbras' father in a prior war. It's easy to forget how the swath of land from Texas to California was once listed on maps as part of Mexico. And it's easy to forget that no matter how virtuous individual Mexicans may be, they remain saturated in a broad culture of poverty and corruption that we cannot expect them to leave behind as they import themselves into America, and that this culture has led them to a fully understandable desperation. Horatio explains:
"…Now sir, young Fortenbras,
of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway, here and there,
Shark'd up a list of landless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That has a stomach in't..."
These "landless resolutes, for food and diet" travel thousands of miles to Denmark, I mean America, because their own government over centuries has preferred corruption to growth. These are the most ambitious and most misused of Mexicans, the ones paying graft rather than receiving it, the ones who would push for change within Mexico if they couldn't get out.Even under Claudius, Denmark's response was better than ours. Horatio's speech about Norway is in answer to Marcellus' question about why he and Bernardo and Francisco have been assigned additional watch duties:
"Why this same strict and most observant watch,
So nightly toils the subject of the land…?"
Things break down later, of course. Denmark's government becomes distracted over domestic, indeed very domestic, concerns. Gertrude's fecklessness, Hamlet's doomed but good faith attempts to confirm his suspicions of his father's murder, the Miers nomination, the leaking of a possibly covert CIA agent's name. The list goes on.
Decades of distraction have opened portions, in fact all, of our country to essentially uncontrolled entry. Our past allegiance to the concept of assimilation, for ourselves and other new Americans, has been weakened by concepts of multi-culturalism. And even though our constitution does not require it, our laws generously permit the children of illegal immigrants automatic citizenship.
Our imaginations flee from the prospect of a Trail-of-Tears forced march back to Mexico. But what will the social reaction be during the next economic downturn, when the labor of these non-citizens becomes not only unneeded, but unwelcome? We are responsible today if we fail to avoid such a predictable reactionary surge before it happens.Fortenbras found himself in charge at the end of the play, having sensed such weakness, represented by Hamlet's collapse of will:
"O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew…"
That's not exactly leadership.
Friday, October 21, 2005
The Bard on Brad (and Jen and Angelina)
If the ill spirit have so fair a house,
Good things will strive to dwell with 't."
That's Miranda's opinion about Ferdinand, offered in The Tempest. Do we agree? Do people like Brad, Jennifer and Angelina find good things striving to dwell within the fair houses of their fair bodies? Do their arresting bone structures and pleasant wrappings of flesh compel what is ill to flee from entry?
Well, Miranda, we should remember, was abandoned from the age of three with her dispossessed father on a desert island. Ferdinand was the first normal guy that she encountered.
"You are the cruelest she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy."
Viola says this to Olivia in Twelfth Night. It is a favorite theme of Shakespeare's, the obligation to perpetuate one's graces through reproduction. Infertility is a tragedy or at least a challenge for many married couples, who have with solemn dignity pledged themselves to each other in marriage, hopeful of children, and have then met with this difficult fate. For many adoption follows. But Brad can't adopt unless he marries someone, or unless someone marries him. Meanwhile Angelina is effectively cuckolding Brad with the children of other men (if of other women as well), right before our eyes:
"...On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did."
A description of Cleopatra offered by Enobarbus. The smiling cupids are hers, not Brad's. Yup, Brad is starting to look a wee bit foolish, with aspirations toward love, marriage and fatherhood - all pleasantly mired in a swamp of sex. While exceptions need to be made for a woman like Angelina, it's all just a bit unbecoming in a forty year-old man. He might've kept his mouth shut about his conflicting desires.
"To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in waxBy him imprinted..."
Theseus in Midsummer's Night Dream. I thought I'd be writing about the catfight between the two women, but I find myself focusing on Brad, a strangly passive figure being publicly eaten alive by Angelina, as his child-rearing years dwindle away, the woman he might find to realize this happy ambition (if Angelina won't permit him to jump on the runaway train of her own single-mothered family) still unsought, unfound, their relationship unforged.
But I have my objections to Jen and Angelina as well. Ordinarily it would be none of our business as to why these two ladies don't or didn't want to bear children. But if indeed they don't, then as public figures I think a certain deference is owed the millions of couples who do marry, and who stay married, who do render society more orderly and dignified by removing their volatile sexual desires from the public sphere, who do desire to bear children, and who are unable to have them. Theirs are serious lives, and they should not be lived under the checkout line shadow of such frivilous ones.
"Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime."
(NOTE: please recall that I am shifting all blogging to my new blog at;
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Shakespeare on the Miers Nomination
I had a few choices for this one, just like President Bush did, but I've decided to go with Henry IV, Act 4 scene 4. I know what you're thinking - was this Henry IV Part One or Henry IV Part Two?. Can't get much past you, can I? It was Part Two, le sequel.King Henry says the above line to his son Prince Henry, also known as Hal, and later to be known as Henry V. Hal has been struggling with his youthful spirits, constantly led astray by the larger-than-life Falstaff. He will eventually undergo a profound tranformation into the wise ruler we see in Henry V, the next play in Shakespeare's history series.
Miers too, as we know, has undergone profound transformations, changing religions and political parties, struggling we all hope successfully to come into a full maturity.Hal walks in on his father when he's asleep. Thinking him dead, Hal takes the crown into the next room and weeps over it. His father awakens and suspects his son of ambition. They argue, but at last Henry is assured of his son's great love, and reciprocates it. We see the same sort of bond, forged over time and shared adversity, now existing between President Bush and his personal attorney.
"...God knows, my son,By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head..."
Our democratic party-affiliated readers will savor this passage. Miers, but of course I mean Hal, assures her client, I mean his father, of the legitimacy of his rule:
"...My gracious liege,You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be..."
And so too would Miers' rule, in a judicial position in many ways co-extensive with the presidency, extend beyond her father's, I mean the President's.
"Thou seek's the greatness that will overwhelm thee."
Henry says this earlier, before he is won over to full confidence in his son. Miers of course oversaw the selection process for Bush's previous judicial picks, including the strict vetting of candidates. Though she did decline once the crown of nomination, she accepted the second offer, and when she did she exempted herself from the same vetting process. Only a personal friendship could support such an exemption, which is now getting her nomination into trouble and harming her client's - the President's - interests. But then I suppose he is now her former client.
Thus it is that I feel an accusation of ambition is justified against Miers. And when I refer to ambition I mean the wrong kind, the kind Brutus killed Caesar over, not the good kind, that led let's say Roberts to devote himself for over 30 years to developing an expertise that rendered him at last deserving of his nomination. Like Hal.
Yes, I think Henry IV Part Deux will do quite well for Miers. This will now leave me free to move onto something lighter, like Brad, Jen and Angelina. Actually Falstaff, in this same play, has an eventful dinner with two competing women, Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly. One of them has sued him over a proposal he denies making while the other applauds everything he does. That may well do for Brad's triangle. I'll be thinking it through.
A Slight Adjustment
During my trip to Scotland, and aside from enjoying the stately cities and stunning countryside, I reflected on the experiment of this blog. When I was younger, I could never have dreamed something like this was possible, to present to as broad a readership as found itself interested the full range of my desired expression. And I find myself wholly involved, committed and encompassed in the project.
Still, my desired expression will only take me so far. What happens when I've expressed pretty much all I have to express? I want to create something that grows and ramifies over time, reflects my interests, and serves or responds to (some) people's needs and interests as well.
On our return from the well named Isle of Skye, where the heavens themselves seem closer, our train took us past Burnam Wood, the one Macbeth felt sure would stay put, guaranteeing that he would not be murdered, as per the witches' fortune-telling. An idea occurred to me.
I will be amending the focus of my modest blog in a way that will guarantee a lifetime of content and, if done well, I hope may of interest to others as well. I've started a new blog entitled bardseyeview, at http://bardseyeviewblog.blogspot.com Bardeyeview will present a Shakespearean parallels on the people and issues of the day, leaving plenty of room for my own ideas as well. I'll be posting simultaneously on both blogs for a while, to alert existing readers, and will then transfer to bardseyeviewblog.com only.
I look forward to a shared learning experience as I delve deeply into Shakespeare each day to find how he would or might have looked at Brad, Jen and Angelina, or Saddam, or the Miers nomination. And I hope you'll stop by.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
King John, As Portrayed By Saddam Hussein
Shakespeare doesn't have King John announce his villainy like Richard the Third. His evil choices are borne of weakness, and if this makes him less satisfying as a villain, it makes him probably more believable. Watching Saddam in court as he vacillates between denying the proceedings and practicing amateur legal maneuvers, you see someone who has made a successful career out of lying to himself about his true nature, or what his nature has truly become. John is much the same.
King John's nephew Arthur is a young boy with a rival claim to the throne. We'll let Arthur be a stand-in for democracy, accountability, legitimacy. Like Saddam, John's against it. John takes Andrew's keeper, Hubert, aside:
""I had a thing to say, - but let it go;
The sun is in the heaven, and the proud day,
attended with the pleasures of the world,
Is all too wanton and too full of gawds
To give me audience;"
He has a little trouble getting to the point. Daytime is not his idiom, and he knows enough to admit it. Saddam certainly spent his share of time avoiding the light of day. And just this morning he objected to sunlight being brought to bear on audiotapes which apparently will incriminate him.
" - If the midnight bell
Did, with his iron tongue and brazen mouth,
Sound one unto the drowsy ear of night;
If this same were a churchyard where we stand,
And thou possessed with a thousand wrongs;"
Hubert's virtue, even as it guarantees his loyalty, is abrasive to John as well. And when will he be able to get to the point?
"Or if that surly spirit, melancholy,
Had baked thy blood, and made it heavy, thick, -
Which else runs tickling up and down the veins,
Making that idiot, laughter, keep men's eyes,
And strain their cheeks to idle merriment -
A passion hateful to my purposes, -"
Human as he looks on stage (or in Saddam's case, weilding a rifle before a dutiful rent-a-crowd while wearing a suit and what I believe was a bowler hat), the guy's starting to seem not just non-human, but defined by whatever being human isn't. It's laughter that's grating on him this time. Meanwhile Hubert's waiting for his orders.
"Or if that thou couldst see me without eyes,
Hear me without thine ears, and make reply
Without a tongue, using conceit alone,
Without eyes, ears, and harmful sound of words,
Thin, in despite of brooded watchful day,
I would into thy bosom pour my thoughts."
Let's have those sensory organs removed Hubert, they make me uncomfortable. We see the plastic shredders into which victims were fed, the surgical removal of the hands of those Saddam felt might oppose him.
"Oh Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On yon young boy; I'll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way."
Hubert gets the point. "Death," says John. "He shall not live," Hubert replies. Hubert escorts Arthur onto a ship which will take Arthur to his place of imprisonment. During the voyage, Hubert opens a letter from King John. It commands him to put out Arthur's eyes with a hot iron.
"Oh Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue,
So I may keep mine eyes: O spare mine eyes;
Though to no use but still to look on you!"
Hubert loses his nerve, or gains his nerve, and relents. Arthur is spared and hidden. He will die later while trying to escape from the tower Hubert hides him in. Ironically, this occurs after John has lost his nobles' support when they hear that Arthur is dead and suspect John of the crime. Hubert, at that future time, tells John Arthur is alive and John runs to collect him in order to win his nobles back. But the boy's body is found at the foot of the tower, by the nobles, the people of Iraq, who by now have had enough.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Repatriot on Hiatus
Please stop back after the 18th when I will resume my daily essay-like inquiries in the nature of things.
I realize most blogs are faster paced, but I prefer things stately and sedate.
Until then, please consider browsing through some of Repatriot's Posts of Enduring Value, linked at the left.
Monday, October 10, 2005
A Look at Oil Shale
As big and rudely muscular as the US economy is, three-fourths of the world's oil demand is non-American. And good luck standing in the way of Mr. Lee and Mr. Cho as they gain the chance to drive and air condition themselves. So the question of whether we'll be paying six dollars at some point is going to hinge on supply. Saudi princes have recently been acting as coy about their reserves as debutantes about their chastity, and so we in the general public, incluidng bloggers like myself, have begun wondering about alternatives. And you can dream all you want to, but the realistic short to medium-term alternatives all involve alternatives that you can still pour into your tank.
Hence oil shale.
I know what you're going to say. What about thermal depolymerization? Whereby they process garbage and animal biproducts in a manner similar to how crude oil itself is treated - they heat and pressurize it, and then depressurize it at differing rates to produce different oil grades. I'm all for it. It's going to be a welcome, small-scale contributor to our solution. But there's just not going to be enough feedstock to affect the big picture.
Ethanol? Please. How much corn do you want to plant? And like tar sands and coal and gas conversion, the low net energy output means you're running ever faster to produce only marginally more. That didn't work for Alice in Wonderland and it won't for us.
Now, probably around when our children are older than we are, in my inquiring but admittedly layman's opinion, hydrogen produced with excess nuclear capacity may kick in, but until then oil shale is the real trump card for the next generation in terms of large scale production of stuff you can put in your gas tank.
Oil shale is bituminous material containing kerogen that can be heated to 450-500° C in the absence of air to distill it into petroleum. The US Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale reserves places world supply at 1662 billion barrels. 1200 billion barrels of that is in the US.
Point one: We've got 3/4's of it. With apologies to my non-American readers, but that puts the same big fat smile on my face that I trust good news about your nation would put on yours.
And no, you don't have to strip-mine it using West Virginian child labor in a sardonic reprise of a Dickens horror scene. You can convert it in-situ. You lower a heating element into a mineshaft and heat it up. It converts into oil right there in the ground. Then you pump it up. Any non-idiotic regulatory policy would further allow refineries to be built within pipeline range of the shale fields. Are there any retired military bases along oil shale's major Uinta, Green River, Washakie and Piceance basins which runs across Wyoming, Utah and Colorado?
Environmental? The strip mining form of extraction is indeed problematic, because the extracted rock expands after heating and must be disposed, plus a lot of water is involved.
But there's far less footprint with in-situ production. CO2 emissions from the energy used in extraction and refining (oil shale is 4.5% sulphur, double or more heavy crude but less than tar sands) have to be considered and the groundwater exposed to the in-situ heating has to be cooled or managed in some other way. From this standpoint, it is indeed not a sexy, forward-looking solution, but it buys time for technology to advance. Time that we can hope won't be squandered the way the last 30 years - following the wake up call of the 1970's oil shocks - was squandered.
Economical? Royal Dutch/Shell (they've all merged, haven't they?) proclaimed this year that oil shale could be extracted at $30 a barrel. So long as the oil companies are sure it won't drop below that price, and republicans - real republicans - are in office to cut prohibitive regulation that extreme enviros use to circumvent the popular will (when they're nto using the courts to do the same), it will be produced.
For further reading, let me direct you to this post and succeeding comments at futurepundit where energy-savvy experts offer greater expertise than my amateur survey can provide.
Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, describes Americans as doom-eager. He says nice things about us at times as well, but I see his point about our willingness to read today's bad news as signs of the end times. I wrote in opposition to that idea yesterday and in a sense I tried to do the same today.
There is no cause for real alarm, so long as we do not shrink from confidence in our own system, which has brought prosperity to hundreds of millions (simultaneously with a cleaner environment than Old Europe's). No doom awaits us without our consent. With oil shale and other potential sources out there, second-or third best solutions though they are, there is broadly speaking a ceiling on the price of oil.
Just as there is none on human ingenuity.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
The Horror in Pakistan and India
Still, it is worth wondering if too unrelenting a series of disasters will cause our modern world to lose its already precarious hold on reason and begin regarding these calamities as signs – presumably signs of a divine hand that is either benevolent and displeased or not benevolent in the first place.
As far as divine hands go, I raise mine in favor of the theology presented in the Simpsons, whose characters all have three fingers and a thumb. G-d, who does make cameo appearances, is depicted as a hand in the sky with five fingers. I know this doubles as the cartoon drawers' inside joke that they are the five-fingered (ok, four plus a thumbed) collective god who create their characters, but it also suggests the image of a six-fingered (five plus a thumbed) G-d who has drawn us.
"…There is one within,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war.
Which drizzled blood upon the Capital;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
If you prefer something more contemporary to Shakespeare's depiction of a freaked-out wife of Caesar describing calamity below brought upon us by displeasure above, there is always Bill Murray in the first Ghostbusters describing to an incredulous mayor of New York what would happen if the Keyholder were to successfully contact the Gatekeeper, releasing thereby the malevolent god Zuul:
"Dogs and cat living together…".
To me, all of this goes back to the distinction between godly religion and paganism, a distinction that is not between mono- and poly- as to theism. The pagan Greeks and Romans acknowledged a unitary force behind the distracted and adolescent three-ring circus playing around on top of Mount Olympus. The true difference is not between many and one but between (a) listening intently for what G-d or the gods want of you, known as prayer, and perhaps modestly asking for something, and (b) not asking the gods at all but trying to order them around. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, in focusing on the incantations and spells which order the gods to do our bidding, both get paganism right. Under Judeo-Christianity, who does whose bidding is reversed. You can also ask if you want, but you can only ask.
But I wouldn't waste any breath in asking for the mud huts in Pakistan to be raised by divine hand. In this world, as JFK said, G-d's work truly must be our own.
And as each part of the world grows more acutely aware of every other part, our sense of responsibility over what we can no longer pretend not to know about must grow. If a divine hand provides anything, it provides not disasters, but the urge and impulse to alleviate them. Ultimately that urge and impulse should impel us equally toward charity, volunteerism and as well toward good citizenship. The last because every dollar wasted to bad government or bad policy is another dollar not available for relief, and every percent hike in the tax rate above what's necessary squeezes more charitable giving out of existence. And that would be a calamity indeed.
Saturday, October 08, 2005
On the Grasshopper and Cricket
The poetry of earth is never dead
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's – he takes the lead
In summer luxury – he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never;
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
"The poetry of earth is never…" As opposed to the poetry of man, which succumbs occasionally. But like the messiah (to Christians), we live in the hope of its return.
For a reason I'll reveal later, Keats selects a grasshopper to represent the poetry of earth, whose voice runs "from hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead." Keats next asserts that the grasshopper takes "the lead in summer luxury," and is "never done with his delights." "When tired out with fun," he rests "at ease beneath some pleasant weed."
What we have here is an anthropomorphized grasshopper imagined as frolicsome, with circumstantial evidence given in support. I can no longer hide that this is not a deep poem, but I found it too pleasant to ignore. Besides, is it better that our insects go unimagined?
This is an Italian-style sonnet, the first eight lines for one idea, the last six for a responding thought. The English sonnet – three fours rounded off with a couplet (think Shakespeare) – is more argumentative and single-minded. Keats's responding six starts out by reprising his theme:
"The poetry of earth is ceasing never;"
Way cool. His proof is that even in winter you will hear a cricket chirping in the stove, and as it does so you will drowsily hear the echo of the summer grasshopper.
It may be childlike to ascribe purely human impulses to nature, and to think that the highest compliment we can pay to flowers and insects is to imagine them to be like ourselves. But what else but ourselves are we likely to start out with as a basis for comparison? Wordsworth in another poem writes:
"And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breaths."
The romantics cared and thought a lot about our connection to nature, which true to their label they romanticized. But it is possible to include more than nature and humanity in the equation, and find a higher purpose in this intimation we feel of emotion or at least of some shared sense of yearning between ourselves and the trees. Here's Wordsworth again:
"If this belief from heaven be sent
If such be nature's holy plan
Have I not reason to lament
What man has done to man?"
Well, I started out with Keats and wound up 20 years earlier with Wordsworth, but it's all good. Wordsworth asserts that the intimation of a connection to nature is a divine gift, not to be taken for granted. And his argument is that it is because of this divine gift that we "lament what man has done to man." Presumably, if this belief were not from heaven sent, humans would not have reason to lament such inhumanity. And so it is that our childlike, imagined identification with nature - really our identification of nature with ourselves - has a moral role to play.
I start our reading Keats and Wordsworth and end up asking myself questions about how we're treating our farm animals, and the moral effect that turning our heads from the plight of chickens and pigs (those two especially) in chicken and pig factories is having on ourselves.
Keats wrote his poem on a bet, or as a parlor game, a sonnet competition with Leigh Hunt, who suggested the bug-based title. Mozart and Haydn played a game like that, each trying to write a piano composition the other couldn't play, reducing each other to hitting treble keys with their noses as their hands remained occupied at the far ends of the keyboard.
How do our parlor games compare?
Friday, October 07, 2005
An Encounter with the Subcontinent
I mention this because of a recent blog exchange I enjoyed over at sepiamutiny.com, a blog devoted to things subcontinent. It started when I posted a comment to an article about a very thin Indian man who painted himself to look like an emaciated ghost and hired himself out for events. I suggested that India's dietary rejection of beef removed "the major source" of protein from their diet, and that this represented a decision to "legislate asceticism." Whoops.
Actually, most of the responses from the obviously more knowledgeable Indian posters were judicious, restrained, informative and offered with goodwill. "The" major source, I was asked? Had I never had Chicken Marsala? And "legislate"? Moreover, whence comes this broad-brush assumption about asceticism, and the implied imputation that a vegetarian military could not be the equal of a meat-filled one?
I should've known better. Still, my interlocutors were probably gentler than Jewish bloggers might have been to a non-Jewish blogger questioning kosher practice. Negotiating these cross-cultural borders is a chancy thing. I may have lived in Japan for 17 years and made friends throughout East Asia, but as far as Indians are concerned, it's hardly enough for me to say, "Honest, I'm not dumb - I'm just dumb about you."
But I do at least have questions. How is the relatively recent Indian expatriate or diaspora culture faring in America, beyond its striking economic success? How are expatriate Indians viewed back in India? What reverse-osmotic influence, if any, are they having there? Why does Gujarat generate such a great percentage of Indian Americans (60% according to one sepiamutineer)? How does the caste system translate outside India, or even within it under the pressure of post-industrial society? (For example, how does a Brahmin employee manage reporting to his lower caste superior?) What are the rates of intermarriage and how is it viewed? And how are each of these questions answered differently for different Indian regions? If an Indian American marries an American Indian, what do you call their children?
I reserve for the future the question I also ask myself of Judaism, and of every civilization and tradition worth preserving. What vision do Hindu Americans have of an enduring American Hindu culture?
Christianity, with its universalist appeal, was well-placed to prosper in America. Of course it also helped that the country started out Christian, but universalism is an advantage in a free society where people are offered a lot to choose from. I think an American Judaism, without becoming evangelical, needs to find the confidence to assert its own universalist message, a message of ethical humanism based on a covenant, a set of mutual obligations, with G-d.
As for Hinduism, I suspect that in an America riven by competing ideologies, a culture that de-emphasizes ideology in favor of non-authoritarian moral guidance and life within a tradition will find an enduring place in a country where, over time (whether due to intermarriage, the secularization of parents or the lure of the new) people must periodically adopt or readopt their traditions.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
The Corners of thy Tents
But after all, the reason a free people engages in politics at all is to preserve their culture and perpetuate their civilization. And that suggests to me that a certain amount of energy should be expended in describing, debating, defining or disseminating that culture and that civilization. Not that I can or should be any arbiter of taste like the critics in the major media are; Pauline Kael in cinema, Michiko Kakutani still in literature, pronouncing from on high and presuming to direct our sensibilities. Today, with a million voices able to be heard, I am content just to be an arbiter of my own tastes, and do so publicly for fun and to interact with people a bit more.
And so I choose to stick usually to culture and ideas. And I find that if I spend most of my time sharpening my own reason on subjects like bike trails, Korean movies, Balinese tradition, Solzhenitsyn's nobel speech,dance classes and fine poetry, then when a political subject comes along I find I know my views quite clearly. Participating and reflecting on things of cultural value nourishes the spirit. If I then find I cannot resist commenting on Iraq or Katrina, at least I'll be able to do so with, you know, a nourished spirit.
So that's why I prefer to write about Japanese candidates for the US CPA exam, such as Miyoko, a family friend from Japan has been staying with us over the last month. She was here to take portions of that exam, which is only administered within the US. (By staying a month she could take two bites out of the test center apple). Japanese accountants are lining up to take the US CPA in order to manage their US-based subsidiaries, and because in short order Japan will make its accounting rules compliant with the US GAAP style.
I had particular reasons to be happy to host Miyoko, even beyond the fact that hospitality is prized in the Torah. Indeed, Lot if anything was a bit too hospitable in offering his daughters to the men who had surrounded his tent, the rough men of Sodom who were threatening mayhem if Lot didn't submit their real target, the male strangers who were Lot'sguests, to be raped. And gee, I wonder where this depiction in the Torah of an entire culture of homosexual rape, set in the middle east among the pagan neighbors of the emerging Hebrews, could have come from? After all the Torah, inspired by G-d or not (and I vote yes) could only describe the local color of its time. Digression.
So we did take her kayaking in a salt marsh in Wilmington, NC, to our Thursday dance classes where she broke a few Southern hearts, to the high street at NC State for shopping and middle eastern food. Her favorite activity was to sit by our local river and eat Krispy Kreme donuts and jabber in Japanese with my wife. And here's the additional reason I had, beyond the pleasure of friendship, for wanting to do all I could for Miyoko.
Two and a half years ago, Miyoko had been barred from entry into the US at the airport in Seattle. She had flown in to attend our wedding, but because she had already traveled to the US twice within the preceding six months, her travel activities raised a flag with Homeland Security. This excessively frequent flying by a 4 foot 10 inch Japanese woman represented too great a potential terrorist threat for our country to absorb, and she was ushered onto the next available plane back to Japan.
A real-world effect our unwillingness to profile is having on our nation's reputation for hospitality.
In spite of what I wrote before, there is a need to engage in politics – in this case to fight against the political correctness that led to a policy that has inconvenienced millions, jeopardized our collective security and caused me this personal embarrassment. And so there now stands revealed the source of my own possibly excessive eagerness to show Miyoko the sights of Greenville, North Carolina. What Homeland Security tooketh, my wife and I did our besteth to giveth back.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Will we be bearing that in mind as we witness the unfolding of democracy in Iraq? I doubt it. Though already the Shiite representatives have shown real wisdom and restraint. Even in the midst of attacks targeting them, they have pulled back from a proposal that would have ensured ratification but at the cost of limiting the electoral clout of the Sunnis.
Meanwhile, in California, Governor Schwarzenegger struggles to enact, also by referendum, a law that would end the gerrymandering that has turned seats in the statehouse into sinecures. And in New Orleans Katrina has knocked over the rock covering up a rat's nest of corruption, including police officers with felony convictions, ex-cons who began plundering drugstores as soon as the security guards were gone.
So who exactly are Californians and Louisianans to judge Iraq?
Note I don't say "Who are we to judge?" Because someone has to judge, at least temporarily, now that we are embarked on nation building; someone has to (and here comes a beautiful phrase from a William Carlos Williams poem) drive the car. And while a dose of self-criticism is one thing, the paralyzing overdose that today's liberalism has taken is quite another.
It's a simple fact that most of us live in better-run states than California or Louisiana. And why? Well, it's because we have better ideas than Californians and Louisianans have. And yes, I do think the quality of local governments can undercut the general flavor of opinion coming from the people who have instituted such governments. To translate, blue states have crummier government than red states; more corruption, more crime, higher taxes. It's perfectly fair to include that in assessing blue and red opinions on the issues of the day.
Note also my reference to today's liberalism. Not every era's liberalism has been like this. The democratic party used to be in favor of "engagement", an active foreign policy. But the beating heart of today's democratic party is anti-war (at least).
I understand the superficially appealing argument in favor of neutrality. You see two boys fighting in the schoolyard. You tell them to break it up, or you go to the UN and petition that they break it up. You feel great. You feel, basically, like you're better than either of them.
But you carefully never check on or talk about, or talk honestly about, how the fight started. Did one boy hit the other, insult his mother, abuse his sister? Was there any history of unprovoked attacks, dating back to the U.S.S. Cole perhaps, or the first World Trade Center bombing or the Lebanon barracks massacre or beyond? Ask not!
It's almost a misguided religious impulse, a desire to enter heaven early, before your time, by pretending you're an angel, angelic, removed, and certainly superior. If you got your hands dirty, that would be too much like being alive.
But you do have to choose sides in wartime. Bush's early statement that you're with us or against us really means that if you're neutral, you're against us. Although that looks a little ugly, I agree. Switzerland wasn't able to maintain its neutrality in WWII, the Big One. It shipped escaped Jews back and, having no army, could conveniently say it had little choice.
The argument from the right goes that it's racist to assume Arabs do not share the universal human hunger for freedom. The argument from the left goes that it's ethnocentric and hegemonic to assert that hunger on behalf of Arabs.
I prefer the argument from the right. We really are not fighting for land or for political control, we're fighting for polling places. That's why we merely felt relieved when our original assault on Baghdad succeeded, while we felt truly thrilled when we saw those inky fingers held aloft. And we're doing all of this, at a great cost of blood and treasure, on behalf of distant, uneducated foreigners.
Who cannot find that noble?
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
We Will Glide, Starry-Eyed
The former C&O train line, that crosses that little corner of the map where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina meet with Kentucky not far away, was closed in 1977. Trucks now transported to market the Christmas trees for which the region was famous, and the tracks became idle.
Twenty years would pass among the impressive local Baptists churches and not always so impressive local homes before someone had an idea. Others listened and agreed, and soon another large, strenuous, hopeful, multi-year endeavor was launched, as yard by yard the tracks and ties were, this time, pried from their gravel bed, the gravel itself scooped out and the dirt beneath patted to a smooth dirt trail.
And so it is that today tourists like my wife and I flock there from distances great and small, unified by what they have strapped to the backs of their cars.
Five different shops in Damascus, Virginia will for around ten dollars slide your mountain bike into a bike rack bolted to the bed of an open trailer, and usher you yourself into the converted special-ed style school bus towing it, for a winding ride past kudzu-coated forest to the top of Cold Mountain, a high point in the converted railroad's path.
The ride down is three to four hours of breezy pleasure, a steady glide along a narrow strip cut through plain nature, punctuated by the sudden vistas that arise with each of over 30 bridges, before one is plunged back into the shade-dappled glade.
The builders of the original trackbed could never have foreseen this, especially if they had been asked during the what must have been dispiriting interregnum between the shutdown of the trains and the opening of the trail. But a door closes and a window opens, and only faith will allow you to perceive the winding trail formed by the progress of a free people.
Monday, October 03, 2005
We, too, had known golden hours
When body and soul were in tune,
Had danced with our true loves
By the light of a full moon
And sat with the wise and the good,
As tongues grew merry and gay
Over some noble dish
Out of Escoffier;
Had felt the intrusive glory
Which tears reserve apart,
And would in the old grand manner
Have sung from a resonant heart.
But, pawed-at and gossiped-over
By the promiscuous crowd,
Concocted by editors
Into spells to befuddle the crowd,
All words like Peace and Love,
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased,
To a horrid mechanical screech.
No civil style survived
But the wry, the sotto-voce,
Ironic and monochrome:
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent?
"We, too..." The speaker speaks for a group. They are slightly past it now, but he wishes to remind the reader that they weren't always. They had danced with their true loves. They had sat and chatted memorably, though not with just any partying friends but with "the wise and the good." And under the influence of such friendship they -
had felt the intrusive glory
which tears reserve apart.
A bit British, the idea that you start out reserved. The larger point of course is that it isn't drugs, alcohol, loud music, sex or any combination of those that had opened their hearts, but "an intrusive glory."
I can't get past that phrase, the dignity it lends to this opening of the spirit, which occurs to sane and sober people whose only influences are good food, wise and good friends and their youth.
Moreover, these old fogeys who once were young, recalling their youthful fullness of spirit, recall also the desire to express that fullness, but not by howling at the moon or (as occurs around here in North Carolina) driving their pickups around town with the stereos blaring at an indescribable volume. No, they -
...would in the grand old manner
Have sung from a resonant heart.
From a resonant heart. Another phrase I can't get past, and don't want to. I can rest on such phrases, I know myself to be safe with them.
But we now to move to a minor key, as the old fogey, speaking for many old fogeys, recalls how, some time after those golden hours, words like Peace and Love began to be "pawed-at and gossiped-over by the promiscuous crowd." And yes, this is one of those "harder" sections in terms of poetic syntax, with the subject of the sentence, Peace and Love, being buried in the middle so that the overall meaning has to be puzzled out in a way that inexperienced poetry readers find a bit challenging. Aw, those poor overtaxed readers.
Back to the poem. Over time, misuse of the same exalted language that allowed their souls to find sublime expression has left them literally speech-less. The poem inadvertently supplies an example by innocently using the word "gay." And - a little irony drum roll please - the poet innocently using this phrase in a poem decrying the debasement of language is himself gay. Bah-dah-Boom!
Another great, painful, restful phrase: "All sane affirmative speech." Ah.
He concludes by noting that "no civil style survived / That pandeamonium." There are too many examples to choose from. Screeching talking head shows, most mau-mauing rappers, the season's sensational murder. I hardly have to make the case. As a result, sane and civil people are forced into a language that is "wry, sotto-voce, ironic and monochrome."
Here at the last Auden shows us what has been lost by this theft of language. An outlet for our souls' expression. For who among us may sing with a resonant heart as easily as we might have in a more sincere world?
Sunday, October 02, 2005
Most of Indonesia had at one time been Hindu of course as the ruins of Borubadur attest, and I wondered (aloud to local fast friends I made when visiting that massive structure, whose every surface is carved with Hindu gods) how it felt to look at the gods worshiped by your ancestors, even as you enter the local mosque. The inquiry was received with a polite silence. The Islamic wave has pushed the Hindu remnant back, century after century, to its last redoubt in Bali, where it long maintained its customary monarchy and aristocracy, still reflected in its social structure today.
There are not three but five different greetings given during the day, based on the time of day, "Salamat pagi," good morning, is the first. During rainstorms the locals pull palm and banana leaves to use as makeshift umbrellas. After a week there you can identify weavings by the Indonesian island that produced them, based on distinctive patterns. The Hindu mythology is reprised in six traditional plays, performed by masked dancers, including the famous young Balinese girl dancers. The locals seem to know every gesture of each play by heart and watch enthusiastically from the wings, where they all stand, allowing the seating in the main hall to be taken by the tourists.
I don't want to overly-romanticize Bali's Hindu culture, romantic as it feels to be there. It's not all flowers and fruitbowls, even if each day does begin with saronged women dropping small prepared bouquets at each doorstep, where they remain all day. They drive like maniacs. One Balinese told me of being badly injured on the street, and watching his fellow countrymen drive past him for hours. I had to bribe a taxi driver to slow down, shouting the Indonesian word (there is a Balinese language, but it is complex, and business is done in Indonesian) for slow, while showing him a fistful of rupees, and then shouting the word for fast and showing him only our agreed fare.
Still, they don't deserve to be bombed, indeed bombed again, by the same muslims who have already pushed them into an island enclave.
We perceive ourselves as strong and predominant, just as strong and predominant as I'm sure the Hindus once felt in Indonesia. But will our descendants find themselves surrounded, assailed, besieged, as the Balinese are today?