Monday, March 30, 2015

Baile na gCorcaigh '57

Chuaigh Lena agus mise ag dul Naomh Monica Dé Domhnaigh seo caite. Chonaic muid an drama nua de réir na hAirm Phoblachtach Ëireannach agus Saor Uladh. Tá sé Baile na gCorcaigh '57.

Measaim go raibh ag tharla i mBaile Átha Cliath, go nádurtha. Ach, duirt Lena liom go bhfuil ina Philadelphia in áit. Bhí seo an gceantar na an chathair sin ar an lar leis lucht na Éireannaigh is mó.

Scriobh an h-údar leis as a chuid cuimhní linn a h-óige. Mheas muid go raibh an drama réasúnta mór.
Mar sin féin, shíl muid go raibh sé mall, agus leis ro-iomarch ceapacha laistigh lú na dhá uair an chloig.

Níos déanaí, thiomaint muid ag dul an teach tabhairne na Fionn Mac Cumaill. D'ith mé iasc agus scéallogaí leis leann ó Lagunitas. D'ól Léna leann piorraí leis ceapaire.

Ansin, shiúl muid ar cheile ar an bpríomhshráid in aice leis an dúiche na Venice. Bhreatnaigh amach an farraige fada an Aigéin Chiúin. Mhothaigh muid an leoithne fionnuar in aice le luí na gréine.

Corktown '57.

Layne and myself went to Santa Monica last Sunday. We saw a new play on the matter of the IRA and Saor Uladh. It's Corktown '57.

I thought that it happened in Dublin, naturally. But Layne told me that it was in Philadelphia instead. This was a district of that city center with very many from Ireland.

The author wrote this from his memories in his youth. We reckoned it was a reasonably good drama. Nevertheless, we thought that it was slow, and with too many plots for less than two hours.

Later, we drove, going to Finn McCool's pub. I ate fish and chips with an ale from Lagunitas. Layne drank pear cider with a sandwich.

Then, we walked together on the main street near the district of Venice. We looked out at the long shore of the Pacific Ocean. We felt the cool breeze near the sunset.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Free Speech Can Be Scary


It's difficult for those of us saturated in social and print and online media to keep up with anti-free speech demands. British laws, as conservative critic Charles C.W. Cooke tells the New York Times, apply capriciously: "A Briton was arrested for telling a police officer his horse was gay. A singer in a seaside bar was arrested for singing 'Kung Fu Fighting' in the presence of a couple of Chinese people." Although I have since writing this been informed that Cooke fails (at least in the edited version of an admittedly short space) to clarify that the “hate speech” legislation since the “horse” episode has been amended eight years ago, and that said offender was not prosecuted, this explanation shows the lengths to which such legal interference and incompetence have extended.

I cite the end of Judith Shulevitz' article, worth reading in full, for its applicability to the situation Maryam Namazie has chronicled the past week on her blog, and which The Pensive Quill excerpted. Namazie planned to speak at Trinity College Dublin. But, security asked for a moderator, to shield her talk from any threat of "antagonising" its "Muslim students." TCD seems to have clumsily tried to tip a "balance" away from "one-sided" views, but winds up censoring one who knows Islamist tactics well. "It is crucial that I be able to speak against Islamist fascism and honour our dissenters deemed apostates, blasphemers, heretics…whether ex-Muslims, Muslims or non-Muslims," she insists. 

Shulevitz, after documenting the increasing levels of administration on college campuses to protect supposedly vulnerable young adults from harsh opinions or dissenting ideas, raises the overlooked "possibility that insulating students could also make them, well, insular. A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase 'I am Charlie.'”

Judith Shulevitz goes on to narrate the situation, and I quote her at length. “Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, 'Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,' and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure 'that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.' Ms. El Rhazoui’s 'relative position of power,'  the writer continued, had granted her a 'free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.' In a letter to the editor, the president and the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had sponsored the talk, shot back, saying, 'El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.'

You’d be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that the student and her defender had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space." So concludes Shulevitz, in wise words to ponder.

Megan Murphy, a Vancouver feminist, has since added her view on the dubious protection afforded "safe spaces" in the Globe and Mail. She tells how she has been added to a list of "dissidents" on the Black Box, "an online incarnation of safe space." She joins a list of prominent freethinkers who have lately found themselves the targets of opprobrium for daring to speak out and not to give in to cant.

She reminds us of the cost that capitulation carries. "Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn’t support critical thinking."

She continues: "It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line. This is ironic, because many of those under threat of being silenced are people who are speaking out against abuse, harassment and violence. While some may hold 'controversial' opinions about how best to do it, they are just that – controversial. Throughout history, our heroes and radicals have held controversial opinions. How often do tepid opinions and fearfulness change the world for the better?"

Those at The Pensive Quill and as we see above, certain journalists and activists in the media, continue to fight for the right to freely express opinions and to promote facts that challenge pieties.
The reaction to Shulevitz' article in the following week of the New York Times, as these letters prove, was mixed. Professors and students tended to insist on safe spaces, at least from the correspondents selected, more than I would have predicted, but this appears to illustrate how deeply the principles of right-thinking by purportedly left-leaning individuals have permeated many in higher education.

(P.S. My blog piece has been updated for TPQ. I cannot find the original source of this image credit)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Marina Ginestà's iconic photo

"Iconic photo of Marina Ginestà on top of Hotel Colón in Barcelona." So says the Wikimedia caption. This was posted on my FB feed yesterday, and as I'd been reminded by a friend there to read Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, his 2006 revision of his 1982 book The Spanish Civil War 1936-39, I wanted to learn more. The Wiki entry for Marina Ginestà tells of her 1919 birth in Toulouse, her family's emigration to Barcelona, and her joining the United Socialist Party of Catalonia. That photo was taken by Hans Guttman (later, intriguingly, Juan Guzmán) who had left his native Germany to join the International Brigades, and then, 1300 SCW photos later, fled to Mexico, where he befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. He and his subject here lived long. Juan died in 1981 in the Mexican capital, and Marina in the French capital, back to her homeland, in 2014. 

She was wounded later in the conflict, evacuated to Montpellier. To flee the Nazis, she wound up in the Dominican Republic, where she married. In 1946, she left, opposing the dictator Rafael Trujillo. By 1952 she was married to a Belgian diplomat and returned to Barcelona. I wonder how she fared, two decades under Franco and the fascists she had fought against. She went to Paris in the early '70s.

This was taken early in the war, July 21, 1936. The Wiki entry notes this is the only time she carried a rifle. For a reporter, this weapon may be more her prop. She translated for Pravda, assisting Mikhail Koltsov, in turn another character. He inspired Hemingway's Karkov in For Whom the Bell Tolls. He participated in the Russian Revolution, reported on the Spanish war and served as Stalin's go-to advisor for the Loyalists, before falling out of favor and being executed with wife #3 in 1940 or '42. 

Beevor in his thoughtful introduction (all I've read so far) cites Juliàn Marías, who "never forgot the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down into the pavement. 'We've really had it,' Marías said to himself. 'When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.'" Consider this and the conflicting reactions to this icon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Pillar of Fire

Two headlines shared last Sunday's New York Times' front page. On the left, the feature: "Brooklyn Fire Kills 7 Children, Worst Toll in City Since 2007." The subheading: "Orthodox Family's Sabbath Hot Plate Cited." On the right, with a giant snapshot of a beaming "slightly built teenager with an easy smile" it documented "From Minneapolis to ISIS" as it told of a son of Somalians who chose "a Young American's Path to Jihad, and to Syria." I considered both, signs of what faith does to people.

The story of the Sassoon family, the father a Sephardic immigrant from Israel who emigrated to join his wife's New Jersey family, is sad. The mother and one daughter escaped, but their children and siblings perished. The father, at a religious conference, did not therefore hear of their fate until after Shabbos ended. Many neighbors or friends also had no knowledge until after their observance ended.

A blech, or tin plate, is often placed on top of a range to keep food warm. In the 90-year-old house, this caught fire in the kitchen, and then spread via the stairwell up to trap the family above. A "pillar of flame," firefighters concluded, shot up to be a manifestation of death, for a young, devout family.

Abid Nur's story, as he changed from shooting hoops to posing in the desert with a Kalishnakov, demonstrates another form of devotion to a desert religion's ancient code. He started to post threats of doom on social media, and then suddenly sneaked off, after perusing the 50-page online guide to jihad the Islamic States disseminates as to how to throw off Turkish border guards and prepare citified jihadists. Nur got some supplies, such as Nikes, at the local mall before going off to join the enemies of the West. His partner was caught, and the FBI plans to use him to dissuade other youths.

I thought of the "pillar of flame" and remembered another way fire works. On the stove, at the tip of a rifle, the power of the orange burst can kill as well as comfort, blast as much as it warms or heats a meal to keep the family content and happy, not wanting to eat a day-old plate of tepid fare. In Exodus, the divine presence marks the way for the Hebrews with a cloud by day and fire by night. The Wiki entry labels this as theophany--how God shows to us. The Sassoons and Nur (the surname is associated with a wealthy Iraqi business family, surely one that has very few remaining in that Islamic nation as ISIS continues ethnic cleansing; the latter name means "light" in Arabic) both seek that force. They craved its revelation, one by leaving America to go back to a holy land, the other by leaving the hallowed and contested desert to come to a big city. Which found what they sought?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Facebook's Community Standards + Censorship

 Image result for FB censorship
As I wrote two months ago about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their tragic aftermath for my friend's free-speech Irish-themed site The Pensive Quill, and as anti-censorship has always been a pursuit I've encouraged in my teaching, my personal life, and my discussions with patient pals, I share Justin King comments in the Pontiac Tribune about Facebook's updated Community Standards.

Of course, parsing FB's carefully worded and superficially cheery phrasing to compare with King's Orwellian interpretation opens this Big Brother interpretation to debate. There's lots of wiggle room when you compare the standards under "Encouraging Respectful Behavior" for the overview, nudity, hate speech, and graphic and violent content respectively. After gently warning us that we may find opinions different from ours in the big bad online realm, it then adds: "To help balance the needs, safety, and interests of a diverse community, however, we may remove certain kinds of sensitive content or limit the audience that sees it." Global sensitivity appears a goad, and while, for instance, we are assured breastfeeding or post-masectomy pictures are fine, as well as art of the nude, sex itself or the parts of us which engage in those actions are prohibited. Yet, as this French case about Gustave Courbet's "L'origine du monde" shows, FB censorship enters when art, freedom, standards all collide.

When it comes, too, for "hate speech," we might all agree in theory that "content that directly attacks people based on their: race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or gender identity, or serious disabilities or diseases" is not a feature of a civilized society. Yet, what about groups raising feminist protests against Muslims, or Palestinian commentary linking "the Zionist entity" and the IDF to the Third Reich? The line between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism itself is very, very blurred, as repeated instances occur on FB of liberal criticism of Israel's policies.

In turn, FB remarks that on some "important issues,"these "involve violence and graphic images of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, they are condemning it or raising awareness about it." The distinction between awareness, protest, advocacy, and glorification, and who is a terrorist and who is an insurgent, who a freedom fighter and who a traitor, depends on the perspective of more than one. 

At least sharing of these standards generates healthy and necessary debate. While FB is often a forum for petty and sometimes raw discussion, should it be curbed? King states: "Is my newsfeed pretty diverse? Yes. Are some of these statements offensive? Sure. Should they be banned? Of course not."
(Reprinted for The Pensive Quill, 4-8-15)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Celts or Pre-Celts?

DNA Samples
A few years ago I blogged on genetic studies conducted in Britain attempting to find out how many of the native population possessed Saxon, Celtic, Norman and/or Viking ancestry. New analyses confirm that invasion narratives of massive displacement tend to be myths, as genetics verify.  Dan Bradley's team at Trinity College has been investigating similar Irish genetic markers. Larissa Nolan in the Independent reports that similarities in the "Celtic fringe" (my words) distinguish many Irish.

"Compared to the rest of western Europe, our genetic type has remained relatively untouched and this has also been found in Wales, Scotland and the Basque country. The rest of Europe has developed but we have remained pre-Celtic, we have retained much of our genes from many years back. We have not been as affected by migration as other places and this could be why our genetics are very similar." Many share an O-blood type; those of us from Ireland's west a marked rise in similar genes. By the way, headlines that Celts are not a separate genetic group are no revelation. The Cornish differ from the Scots as do the Northern from the Southern Welsh. Always it's language and culture, not blood, making up Celts, who are many peoples linked by similar tongues and customs, ancient or modern.

Some argue we go back to Mesolithic times as there was never a massive Celtic invasion. I recall from a 2003 study that the area around where my family originates, where no "invaders" reached, Castlerea in Roscommon (a radius for my grandfather's farm of just over twenty miles north-west and about five or six miles for my grandmother's farm from Castlerea) was the highest concentration: 93% "pure" genes. DNA with another "untouched" group, Basques, and that of Irish natives matched.

This chart from the 2003 report shows a cluster of core markers uniting the Basques with two Welsh locations, Haverfordwest and Llanidloes, and with Castlerea, as highest Y-chromosome "extremes."
Is this more than other parts of Connacht, I speculate, as the Aran Islands were garrisoned by the English? The researchers chose Castlerea as an indigenous locale likely separated from in-comers.

Marie McKeown summarizes this. "Men with Gaelic surnames, showed the highest incidences of Haplogroup 1 (or Rb1) gene. This means that those Irish whose ancestors pre-date English conquest of the island are descendants of early settlers who probably migrated west across Europe, as far as Ireland in the north and Spain in the south." Maybe the Leabhar Gabhala/Book of Invasions is true!

I also have been diagnosed with an abundance of iron in my blood, which also is a trait I inherit. So, along with my very fair skin, faint freckling, blue eyes, and once reddish-brown hair, I am truly Irish.
P.S. Frank McNally in the Irish Times took the piss, as they say, out of this recondite research here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sinn Féin disdains "dissidents"


To follow up my post two days ago, I wondered about reaction to "Where the Bodies Are Buried" in the New Yorker of 3/16/15 by Patrick Radden Keefe. Irish Media & Niall O'Dowd Greet New Yorker expose of Gerry Adams with embarrassed silence by Ed Moloney on his The Broken Elbow site reports that the Irish Times for all its coverage of other scandals has not devoted attention to this case. Moloney, cited in Keefe's 15,000 word article, notes how O'Dowd's pro-Sinn Féin NYC Irish Voice as well as Dublin's paper of record the Irish Times by contrast gave much attention to the PSNI arresting Gerry Adams a year ago "on matters not a million miles away from the subject matter of Mr Keefe’s impressive article." I witness how the intimidation of Moloney, Anthony and Carrie McIntyre, and others labeled "dissidents" for daring to speak up against the Adams-McGuinness cabal continues, and when Keefe, who cannot be accused of opposing the SF party line, gets ignored or dismissed, this disdain demonstrates the customary attitude of the purportedly "Republican movement" to its critic. (P.S. 3/30/15: New Yorker audio interview with Keefe.)

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Where the Body is Buried": Jean McConville's case

My friends Anthony and Carrie McIntyre have been interviewed, among many others, in the current issue (dated today) of The New Yorker. Patrick Radden Keefe delivers, in an article lengthy even by that magazine's standards, them in a feature about the death of Jean McConville. "Where the Bodies Are Buried" examines what is known--or revealed, a key distinction--about the abduction and execution of this widowed mother of ten. In December 1972, living in the formidable stronghold at the start of West Belfast, Divis Flats, she was accused of having succored a wounded British soldier at her doorstep, and of having harbored--twice according to some testimony which is disputed in this piece--a transmitter to aid the enemy, the forces of the Crown. Of course, by then they were engaged in a street struggle against Republican operatives. Some are asked about this mission, the treatment of McConville, and two now deceased, Dolours Price and Brendan "the Dark" Hughes, have had their testimony (or its partial lack, in the former case), scrutinized by scholars and activists and operatives.

Gerry Adams and Billy McKee as PIRA insiders, journalists Suzanne Breen and Ed Moloney, son Michael McConville have their say. Keefe, near the conclusion of what is still an open-ended subject, cites one who knows: "'It’s not over,' Anthony McIntyre told me. 'It’s still a very dangerous society.”'
Caption to photo: "Archie and Susan McConville tending to Jean McConville’s grave, at Holy Trinity Cemetery, outside Belfast." See more context on this case at McIntyre's project The Pensive Quill.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Suíomh saor ina teanga na h-Iodáil
Chuir mé suíomh saor ina teanga na h-Iodáil ar an ghreasan le déanaí. B'fhéidir, mbéidh Léna agus misé ag dul go h-Iodáil go luath. Tá súim agam faoi a chúltur agus litríocht ó bhí mé ina bhuacaill; is maith liom na fuaimeannaí na teanga agus a chuid bia.

Measaim go raibh sé chomh mar rugadh mé Caitliceach. Ar ndóigh, maireann an-cumhacht ina Vaticáine, Róimh claisaiceach, Dante, agus an Athbeochan ó shin i leith. Iarraidh mé a cleachtadh ag léamh is mó, chomh maith; tá sé níos easca mar tá mé foghlaimeoir amharc ann.

Chuir mé an suíomh seo leis tri scéaltaí do pháistí. Is An Turgnamh Iodailach é. Gheobhaidh tú eolas faoi cláir foghlama ansin fós.

Tá suíomh eile leis comhráite simpli anseo. Is Iris Iodáil é. Tá ina teanga na h-Iodáil leis cúpla focal i mBéarla.

Seo chugainn, tá suíomh leis ceachtannaí go leor ar aisce ann. Is An Club Iodáilach Ar-Líne é. Breathnaínonn sé níos doimhne dom.

Ar deireadh, tá mé ag baint úsáide an ardáin seo. Is maith liom an app Duolingo don Fhrancais, ach níl ag baint úsáide é leis Iodáilach. Roghnaigh mé Mango ar bealach mo leabharlann ina ionad.

Free language sites in Italian.
I found free sites in the language of Italy on the web lately. Perhaps, Layne and myself will go to Italy soon. There's been for me an interest in its culture and literature since I was a boy; I like the sounds of the language and the food.

I think it was due to me being born Catholic. Of course, the great power of the Vatican, classical Rome, Dante, and the Renaissance live on since long ago. I sought lessons to read better, as well; it is easier for me as a visual learner.

I found this site with three stories for children. It's The Italian Experiment. You'll find information about learning programs there also.

There's another site with simple dialogues here. It's Italy Magazine. It's in the language of Italy with a few words in English.

Next, there's a site with lots of lessons for free. It's Online Italian Club . I found it more in-depth.

Finally, I am using these platforms. I like the app Duolingo in French, but I am not using it for Italian. I chose Mango by way of my library.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

No bars to reading

My family's sent books to California state prisoners who have received them torn apart, or never gotten them at all. Books are often ripped up or taken by guards. I hope the situation's better in other prisons, in other nations. I found this,one prisoner's reading list at Riker's. Here's a worthy British cause, Haven's campaign to distribute books, to celebrate World Book Day. 

"The Prison Reform Trust recently ran a writing competition for those in Britain’s prisons. One of the winning entries, by a prisoner called Paul, was about the significance that the prison library and books held for him. He finished his piece by saying that books provide prisoners “with the most coveted and precious commodity of all, in or out of prison ... time well spent.” Whether they are facing weeks or decades of incarceration, books can help to ensure that prisoners spend their time well." So reports Sarah Shin via the Verso site, a publisher of radical and left-wing books since 1970.  Might these titles, judged radical or incendiary by guards, cause them to be rejected or ripped apart?

I've been reading about Ignazio Silone, the Italian writer-politician better known abroad for his fiction than in his native land, where his reputation remains controversial. He was jailed both by the Fascists at home and by the Swiss in exile, which surprised me. His biographer reports that a man who was imprisoned when Silone was a boy generated a letter of appeal for that case he found unjust at a very early age. The biographer reports that Silone, decades later, found the man released and they met. 

The old man told the now-famous author how only Dante's Commedia and the Bible were permitted in his cell. He memorized great portions of that exile's (who fled his own unjust death sentence) verse. I wonder how this paean to loss, punishment, hope, and liberation comforted that inmate?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Corporate as avant-garde? 

While I figured Tom McCarthy's new novel, Satin Island (reviewed in the L.A. Times) might be too much to take on given my busy life and backlog of other books to read for now, I found, thanks to FB friend, the author's Guardian article insightful. It elaborates the anthropological applications that the LAT review and the novel itself document. "The death of writing--if James Joyce were alive today, he'd be working for Google" features this insight among many, near its conclusion:
As for the world of anthropology, so for the world of literature. It is not just that people with degrees in English generally go to work for corporations (which of course they do); the point is that the company, in its most cutting-edge incarnation, has become the arena in which narratives and fictions, metaphors and metonymies and symbol networks at their most dynamic and incisive are being generated, worked through and transformed.
His final words remind me of a fact that has intrigued me. Many of my students are computer majors and even more are gamers. But they will work in cubicles, they tap away on laptops, they stare at a screen enchanted for far longer than a book may entice most of them. I doubt they'll fall for "metaphors and metonymies" in pagebound fashion. Music fades, films recede unless tied into a reliable superhero or graphic novel franchise, and culture revolves around gadgets.

 While “official” fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens, or supposed tales of the contemporary rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of unexamined realism, it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to be performing writers’ essential task of working through the fragmentations of old orders of experience and representation, and coming up with radical new forms to chart and manage new, emergent ones. If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google, and if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it.
I live among this. I study languages, I pore over medieval lore and obscure writers, I dream of the past even if my place within it would likely have been a nearly blind boy, falling off a dark cliff not too long into his appointed span of years, one moonless night, hopelessly myopic and too thin to live. I like how Game of Thrones fascinates many. My older son shared this ingenious attempt at HuffPo to reason its fantasy world's workings into the increasingly complex series about to unveil season five.

Contrary to McCarthy, I'd mention from my vantage point among those who seek corporate jobs that this world of work cannot enchant as many. I read Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End one vacation while my workplace underwent a series of "reductions in force" that are still ongoing. I liked it but I was downcast at the same time. Ed Park's Personal Days tried to tie the keyboard-driven class to a rather post-modern conceit, and the unfinished The Pale King by David Foster Wallace to my surprise drew me into its accountant's vision, working for the IRS at a Midwestern "office park," of the connection between the government's attempts to change the tax code and corporate hegemony.

All these do sound bleak. Few movies take place mostly at work, and few want to escape this setting by finding entertainment about it. Parks + Recreation or the two versions of The Office, of course, can be cited to the contrary, but compared to the vast subject matter audiences prefer, they're rare.

Meanwhile, I integrate the satirical series Silicon Valley into my Technology, Society and Culture course, and my students sit up. They may even put down their phones. For, they see their ambition.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Work, Dog, Work

Last year I reviewed Nikil Saval's Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Although annoyed by the subtitle, increasingly used to market books on subjects I reckon might be thought otherwise dull, I could relate to the situation, having been "rightsized" not too long ago as my place of employment was halved, and many of us moved from shared offices to cubicles, except for higher-ups. This demoralized us, and this year, I am further displaced, as a satellite site I teach at finds me at a workstation, and I feel, tellingly, marooned as even my cubicle with its colorful magnets is far away.

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath published last June "Why You Hate Work," and I loved this illustration in the New York Times by Olivier Schrauwen, If it was not on newsprint, I'd have pinned it up in my cubicle. The writers report on analyses of engagement, renewal, value, focus, and purpose. Many of us lack time to think, and the constant interruption of demands transmitted or at our cubicle lead to frustration, unsurprisingly. But as a comment on my PopMatters review linked above noted, some of us also work better with headphones, and the separation of the office from the office space allows mothers to stay productive, True, but it's also an electronic leash, as I am working every day.

My parents and ancestors would regard my complaints as ridiculous. You resigned yourself to labor. Eight hours, five days, and that was it. You'd go home, sit by the fire and jabber, or later watch t.v., and never think about the job that much once you were off work. Only two generations separate me from an Irish farm, and once more, that life however romanticized was hard, wearing one out soon.

One of the first books I loved, and the first my older son learned to read all the way, was P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog, Go!. My wife gave it as a gift to our great-grandniece, and that child's  grandmother reposted the NYT article today, reminding me of why I liked it. I recall where the sentence "work, dog, work" appeared in that venerable children's primer, as blue dogs shoveled away.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Revolutionary Suicide, Freeways, Kabbalah, Countdowns


I've finished the 40-hour audiobook of Gravity's Rainbow. I had reviewed the book a few years back, when at last I figured I was patient enough for Thomas Pynchon's epic. Actually, while I liked Against the Day's anarchic apocalypsoes far more, I do admire the sometimes overlooked beauty in his prose, amid the coprophilia, antic songs, banana obsessions, bewildering hijinks, and pain. His books put off the uninitiated, as they had me for decades. I'd read Crying of Lot 49 in grad school and Vineland during that same time voluntarily, but that was it. But I kept getting asked if I had read it, so after V. and AtD, Inherent Vice if logically before Bleeding Edge (still in the works), I figured I had to tackle GR as a purported postmodern masterpiece. The PynchonWiki is invaluable. Even if it never responded to my repeated queries as how to become a contributing member. I suspect a gag is afoot.

What stands out on hearing it again is not the Nazi resistance narrated by a young woman, which had moved me the first time. I missed that. Either the fault of the accidental replaying of two hours when I pressed my phone back button by accident on the Audible app, or the noise, for I heard this as background for about two months of my commute, and sometimes I failed to make out narration or hang on every word. I liked George Guidall's wry, demotic, American drawl, educated yet homespun, a fitting match for Pynchon's blend of astonishing erudition (see that wiki) and down-home satire.

I thought about the novel, while recently reviewing Joanna Freed's monograph on Pynchon and the American Counterculture. So, I use this cover of a relevant book she mentions about "revolutionary suicide" by one who advocated it, to dire results. Freed compares this to the Black Panthers' fate.

The last section, as I drove to work down the Long Beach Freeway, made me wonder. "The Horse" opened as I left the house and ranged from a Germanic totemic sacrifice evoked poetically, to a take on the backward countdown of the rocket coming from a Fritz Lang 1929 film, to the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life tied into the ten worlds emanating from the initial pulse of light, to L.A. freeways (were its basic grids already in place by the end of WWII? I doubt it, but Pynchon never seems to err). The one I was on was not mentioned, but the coincidence was notable. The novel does take on so much, all the same. The freeways carry garbage trucks, and these are filled with the fragments of light from the God-explosion, or is it implosion, another connection that outside Pynchon sounds odd.

I leave you with a few passages that leapt out, as the novel reached at last its final pages, recited.

“Young Tchitcherine was the one who brought up political narcotics. Opiates of the people.

Wimpe smiled back. An old, old smile to chill even the living fire in Earth’s core. "Marxist dialectics? That’s not an opiate, eh?"

"It’s the antidote."

"No." It can go either way. The dope salesman may know everything that’s ever going to happen to Tchitcherine, and decide it’s no use—or, out of the moment’s velleity, lay it right out for the young fool.

"The basic problem," he proposes, "has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?"

"But you haven’t ever had the choice to make, have you."

"If I ever did, you can be sure—"

"You don’t know. Not till you’re there, Wimpe. You can’t say."

"That doesn’t sound very dialectical."

"I don’t know what it is."

"Then, right up to the point of decision," Wimpe curious but careful, "a man could still be perfectly pure . . ."

"He could be anything. I don’t care. But he’s only real at the points of decision. The time between doesn’t matter."

"Real to a Marxist."

"No. Real to himself."

Wimpe looks doubtful.

"I've been there. You haven't.”

I've been reading Ignazio Silone, the anti-fascist novelist between the wars (and during WWII), and contemplating his socialist-Stalinist-Communist-socialist to eventually a democratic socialist free agent. I reckon how I keep seeing, as I study Irish republicanism for so long and witness ideological and again religious fanaticism, and I teach veterans from our recent wars, proof of what we die for. 

We are told we must gear up and fund another endless war on terror, a war that we can never win.
“What more do they want? She asks this seriously, as if there's a real conversion factor between information and lives. Well, strange to say, there is. Written down in the Manual, on file at the War Department. Don't forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as a diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death's a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try 'n' grab a piece of that Pie while they're still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets."

It's part of the plan. My students who fight tell me that between them and us, it's only the military who keep us safe from terrorism, and if not for those armed, we'd be at the mercy of the mean.
 “Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, "The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning," is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that "productivity" and "earnings" keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it's only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . . though he's amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker . . .”
This book rewards. My first time through, I don't think my review linked above cited any of these....
“It's been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home -- only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”
Finally, as I think Joe Biden of all nitwits cited, or a better educated aide handed him the soundbite: 
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.” He knows.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Philip Levine's working-class poetry

I found this tribute at the libertarian communist site Libcom, not an oxymoron. It's full of current or
archival material documenting the often misunderstood or mocked voices of the everyday people who seek justice, oppose top-down imposition of coerced authority, and toil away with little hope of a hearing. I'd just read a poem by Philip Levine about an ordinary home when seeking some examples for a syllabus; after all, from a blue-collar family myself, I teach mostly the same students.

So, I liked the comment on Libcom who cited from the L.A. Times obituary this gem: "'Princeton students were apt to become emotionally undone when he critiqued their poems,' [poet Michael[ Collier noted, 'whereas Wayne State students were likely to unleash an obscenity in response.'"

Levine left his native Detroit where he'd began working at 14, and after a Stanford fellowship wound up teaching mostly at Fresno State. At least he could buy a house, way back I guess, for $165/month. I'd like to read more about him and his work, including his lifelong fascination with the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War (a subject I too gained an interest in as a teenaged bookworm, in a remaindered copy of Ronald Fraser's oral history Blood of Spain.) From the NY Times obit, I pluck this example, of the tedium and repetition of it all. It reminds me of my teenaged jobs at minimum wage, $2.85.

In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only one man spoke
to me and then to command me
to wheel the little cars of damp chips
into the ovens. While the chips dried
I made more racks, nailing together
wood lath and ordinary screening
you’d use to keep flies out, racks
and more racks each long afternoon,
for this was a growing business
in a year of growth

From "Growth" in What Work Is.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Game of Thrones: Who's next?

I've been very busy with the new term and teaching and mentoring. So, not much downtime to ruminate. So, for the record, a quick entry. My older son told me about this and given I rarely mention the idiot box on this forum, I am happy when it's not so sophomoric or soporific. Having enjoyed Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, and The Wire, to name finished series of high quality; in the middle of House of Cards, Masters of Sex, Homeland, and Better Call Saul (two of these are very good, the other two....); in hiatus for Black Mirror, Peaky Blinders as well as this series, I offer this:

Game of Thrones: Seven Wildest Theories about the forthcoming season. I have a hard time keeping dark bearded armor clad Brits apart if less so their fetching and disrobed Celtic, exotic, or even Brit counterparts or foes of the distaff gender, and I resist any character brought back from the dead (even Sherlock or Spock), but in the meantime, for those with more time to obsess and fantasize, have at it.