Feb 2 2017

The flag: a Pseudo-Prophetic Image of America

Old Glory

The Flag: A Pseudo-Prophetic Image of America

The other day I was driving and glimpsed out the window at some power-lines strung parallel to each other as well as parallel to the road, and in the brevity of the moment, the flicker-flash of the window-framed image seemed to me as though it were a wire skeleton of Old Glory, as if the American flag had been burned and only its outline, made of cables, remained. The form was fixed; and instead of substance, there was only space. Utter emptiness. Surface sans depth.

And I kept on driving.


Dec 28 2016

The City Toad and the Country Toad

grass and soil

The City Toad and the Country Toad:

A Conversation Concerning Some Things I’ve Read & Reread in 2016.

Odious toadies are
All we, rolling in dust,
Licking ants red as rust.

Recently I  read the following:

I then compared the ideas gained by reading these things to other things read awhile back (listed in the footnotes) and the conversation between two toads is the below result:

Moses: It’s strange a book should poison me into believing the corruption of my prior innocence is what has lately made me more…. civil.[1]

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Me: Moses.

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Mr. Hughes. Mr. Moses Hughes, brother of Nimrod. We are the Brothers Hughes who chartered the city of Healthy Rapids out in the west Texas country, just off Quicksilver Creek. [2]

 Mercury: I’m sure the rapids of that creek were once healthy, but now that you’ve built a city along its banks, I wonder if the running waters are still so salubrious? No, I bet not, because it’s to the country where you must go for fresh air and clean water. As is written: for the lost who are weary of the maze of the city, the countryside offers sanctuary.

 Moses: Well, I don’t agree. I say the city is amazing, and it’s in the country where one gets lost in the woods. As is written: where one remains stationary, one stagnates.

Mercury: Yes, but wildflowers may grow out of doors––

Moses: ––But in a drought they stay stunted! Meanwhile, flora planted inside a greenhouse burst and blossom all winter long.[3] Yes, I’m afraid innocence is corrupted by experience––

Mercury: ––Ha! That is no secret! Hence innocence preserves itself by evading the dangers of the city, by retreating to the balmy countryside, where everything’s quite cozy and carefree.

Moses: Yes, certain pleasures attend us upon the absence of particular pains, and yes, their attendance may sometimes occur in the country, but the innocence you describe remains inert, cold and motionless as a marble obelisk. Yes, it’s easy to be carefree in a country cemetery among the obelisks. Perhaps the grass is always greener over there. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling among its urns.

Mercury: You may mock me, Mr. Hughes, but when in the city, whether in the street or on the sidewalk, you may get run over,[4] for as it is written:  the word on the street is the language of the city. [5] The city speaks to you and about you, yet you cannot speak back. You are too lost in its maze, too busy questing for better paths between pylons and shopping carts.

Moses: In the city I walk beside my friends, and they talk to me. But I confess that, later when I’m home alone, I realize I’m only “me” to others, not to myself. I am only me to them when I’m not around them. (Furthermore, this means that since I’m always around me, I can never be me to me.) In the city I’m around my friends, but when I go to the country, they miss me. Yet it’s the being missed that makes me me,[6] just as the white spaces of the Constitution make just as much a part of the Law as the black marks on the animal hides which constitute it. One seems to hide the other, and yet they both reveal everything.

Mercury: In other words, it comes down to either our presence in the census, or our absence.

NOTES

[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. XI. Compare also: “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us,” (Ch. II).

[2] Moses Hughes (1819–1903) is buried at Pleasant View Cemetery, Troy, Bell County, Texas; his brother, Nimrod Hughes (1830–1862) at Cook Cemetery, Lampasas, Texas. See also: Elzner, Jonnie Ross. Relighting Lamplights of Lampasas County Texas. 1974. pp. 18–22; Lampasas County Texas: its History and its People. Vol I. eds. Lampasas County Historical Commission. Walsworth Publishing Company: Marceline, MO. 1991. pp. 1–2, 217–18; O’Neal, Bill. Lampasas: 1855–1895: Biography of a Frontier Texas Town. Waco, TX: Eakin Press. 2012. pp. 1–13.

[3] From The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate. (Ch. XIX)

Compare also Wilde’s use of “uncivilized” above to Mark Twain’s usage of “sivilized” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Ch. I, VI, XLIII.

[4] Gary Toth has pointed out how modern American streets constitute one-third of a city’s geography space; furthermore, streets are now exclusively for vehicles when they used to also be play areas, much more public than they are now. See: Toth’s “Place-Conscious Transportation Policy.” Why Place Matters. (eds.) Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 55.

[5] See Wittgenstein:

“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders.  If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language.  (And how many houses or streets doe sit take before a town begins to be a town?)  Our language may be seen as an ancient city:  a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions form various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (Philosophical Investigations, I, #18)

“Language is a labyrinth of paths.  You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” (ibid I, #203)

[6] Based on three quotations:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” (Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children “I “The Perforated Sheet”).

I don’t know what doesn’t change—within me….” (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. (1932. Untitled, XV, 827.) [p. 354]).

I am I, and wish I wasn’t.” (Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006.) Ch. IV, p. 64.


Dec 15 2016

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service:

An essay on some things I’d read recently and from long ago
as well as some recent experiences, and some from long ago.[1]

If you ring the bell you release the genie. Today it appears to be a genie named Johnson, sometimes called “the POTUS from Podunk,” other times just Lanky Lyndon. And this genie, like all genies, can’t grant wishes if you know not what you want. All genies, no matter their names, are free to roam around in the vast past, but I am jailed here in modernity, which is a fancy way of saying that I know there is a problem all around me but I don’t know what the problem is.

So I rang the bell and summoned Genie Johnson, explained to him how, not so much had I discovered or found the problem at hand so much as reconfirmed its existence. It seems silly to say I was doing nothing but muttering the utterness of the situation to a hard-of-hearing genie, but it is so. Yes, I, a child of the naïve nineties, merely affirmed the apparentness of the problem but without thinking through the implications.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Even previous good ideas and sound programs and policies require hard decisions that create haves and have-nots—red tape means everyone wants a slice and everyone wants to cover their ass when they don’t get their slice.[2]

I once was an outlaw child, at least when it came to driving, and outlaws tend to end up in court. Yes, I was a child. I was an outlaw. I was my own attorney and made my client keep quiet while I raised objections and offered a sense of objectivity before the judge, a judge who had been a friend to me long before I was ever a child. But with evolution having occurred since then, he now was my moderator. There in the courtroom sat just me and my objectivity, him and his moderation, and a jury of sneering, jeering peers.

 Yes, I pled my case before a jury of my peers, all children and outlaws who had once served time in modernity, but now, as qualified jurors, had put all that behind them. My pleading was ineffectual. Their sentence, therefore, was blunt—an awful asymmetrical prime sentence: apparently I now owed seventeen hours of service to my community for the high crime of a traffic misdemeanor.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

As bureaucracy grows, so does specialization…. The watchword of bureaucracy is authority without responsibility and responsibility without authority….[3] Karl Mannheim, the well-known sociologist, noted many years ago that it was the fundamental tendency of bureaucratic thought to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration.”[4]

The town had named itself Sixes-and-Sevens[5] after its seven flowing springs and its six dry wells. Why anyone chose to live there I never learned, for the water smells like sulfur and tastes like lime. But one terribly bright, fiercely silent Saturday morn I strolled the town plaza looking for a way to carry out my sentence and serve my community. On one side of the plaza stood the firehouse, on its opposite the police headquarters, on a third side sat parked the ambulance fleet, and opposite that, the dog catcher’s kennels, and in the center of it all loomed the courthouse.

First I went to the police who gave me an interceptor to wash and clean from the inside out, and that took about two hours. Next I went to the lobby beside the garage to the ambulance fleet. There I defrosted a freezer and de-fungi-fied a refrigerator meant to feed the triage technicians working standby. That too took about two hours. Then I went to the kennels and helped hold down stray dogs while the catcher put them to sleep, and that took about twenty minutes. Finally I went to the firehouse and for about an hour chamoised the trucks, even though they were already shiny.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled how in a bureaucracy:

everyone has an excuse…. In other words, the legal code—at least in several areas—is no more than a facade, an aspect of the world of appearances. Then why is it there at all? For exactly the same reason as ideology is there: it provides a bridge of excuses between the system and individuals, making it easier for them to enter the power structure and serve the arbitrary demands of power.”[6]

Cleaning emergency vehicles meant I was helping to serve the servers of the community. It also meant I was re-cleaning things already clean. It was all sanitation versus sterilization. Perhaps there were just too few messy emergencies in the town of Sixes-and-Sevens. It wasn’t like that old Taxi Driver flick where Travis Bickle lists all the different body fluids and their multiple colors to be cleaned out of his big city cab at the end of the night. Sixes-and-Sevens was a small town, not a big city. Still, other government bureaus in town might’ve offered their own forms of community service, but, with too many hours to serve and not enough deputies to watch me do the work, who would supervise? Perhaps the problem emerged because too many others had already completed so much community service that none could be had by me.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

because we are no longer treated as citizens but as clients of the StateI wonder if all institutions mold individuals into clientele? When I was a child, “residents [were] treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….”[7]

Being a child of the naïve nineties, I was slow to realize the town had not enough service for me to render, despite the fact that I had worked slower than normal and exaggerated my inefficiencies and went through the motions to uphold my appearance of serving the community.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as customers rather than citizens….[8] Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens….[9] To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run afoul of some agency or other.[10]

I had worked a little over five hours that Saturday, but when the authorities signed the timesheet they essentially gave me the missing eleven hours plus. It turned out neither my service nor my sentence mattered that much, and I didn’t know if this was just one more consequence of the privilege of being a child of the naïve nineties or the result of mere defiance from inept bureaucrats who had been scheduled, to their surprise, to work on Saturday afternoons? I didn’t know what it meant except that I was now qualified to serve on a jury at some later date.

 NOTES

[1] Things recently read include: “Why Don’t Poor People Move?” By Rod Dreher, December 12, 2016, The American Conservative (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/why-dont-poor-people-move/); and “Indiana town left with no police force after every single officer resigns in protest.” By Jason Silverstein. December 14, 2016. New York Daily News. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/indiana-town-no-police-force-quits-protest-article-1.2910801.)

[2] Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson [Vol. I]: The Path to Power. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981.  p. 350.

[3] Laqueur, Walter. A World of Secrets: the Uses and Limits of Intelligence. NY: Basic Books. 1985. p. 312–13.

[4] Laqueur, A World of Secrets 93.

[5] Sixes and sevens: “the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions, and in later use the creation or existence of, or neglect to remove, confusion, disorder, or disagreement,” (Oxford English Dictionary).

[6] Havel, Vicláv. “Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless.”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § XVII.

[7] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 168.

[8] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy,” Why Place Matters 214.

[9] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters 194.

[10] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 141.


Nov 18 2016

Memo to Dave Eggers: Kids Don’t Watch C-SPAN on their PS4s

bookbread CanterburyMemo to Dave Eggers: Kids Don’t Watch C-SPAN on their PS4s

Over at the British The Guardian, American writer Dave Eggers observes and analyzes American children and the election. It is a thorough report with many interesting anecdotes and sidelights. But then the New York writer visits a school in Kentucky:

The students had witnessed eight years of exquisite presidential self-control and dignity, and now there would be a 70-year-old man in the White House whose feelings were easily hurt, who called people names, and who tweeted his complaints at all hours, with rampant misspellings and exclamation marks.

Nope. Those kids were playing Minecraft on their PS4s, Snapchatting on their phones, watching YouTube videos with their friends, absorbing Netflix alone, cheering the Chicago Cubs and Dallas Cowboys with family. They were doing millions of things other than brooding over Barry Obama, just as the millions of American children before them have always had plenty to do besides thinking about who occupies the White House.

Left-headed journalists can’t help spreading this pseudo-mythology that American children follow every move of a president’s administration. But why? Why do they assume children in the United States are ready to follow a president at every beck and call like a well-beaten dog with its tail between its legs? It never was this way and it never will be. These journalists have been drunk on hero-worship for so long, they’ve forgotten what it was like when one was below the drinking age: to be a sober child.

Children in the United States have always been aware of the current presidency; but they have never been absorbed the daily intricacies of any administration. Yes, many children (probably) cried when Lincoln and FDR and JFK died while in office, and they knew who they were crying for—but they didn’t know why they were crying and they never thought it important enough to ask.