20 December 2009

Hope You Had a Shaggadelic Zappadan!

With Zappadan rapidly drawing to a close, I felt it only appropriate to post up what scant videos I could find of the band that Frank Zappa reportedly felt was the #3 best band in history, better even than the Beatles: The Shaggs, starting off with the classic "My Pal Foot-Foot" with a remarkable fan video.

You can (and should) purchase their music at their own website here, or other commercial venues. But to get a sense of the band you really hafta' read their website.

15 December 2009

Family of Values: Love

This is the second topic in my ongoing "Family of Values" series.

If you Google the word 'love', you retrieve "about 1,590,000,000" items. The concept or idea of love plays an absolutely central part in our culture and its self-definition. We use the word 'love' to express our affinity for many things, from our cars to our music, from our shoes to our neighborhood, from cherries to aloe tissue paper, from our country to our crown molding, from NY to Hello Kitty, from golf to opera, from our pets to our friends, from our parents to our spouses, from our children to ourselves. We speak about amour propre, amour fou, courtly love, romantic love. We talk about falling in love and loving Jesus. And I could go on and on.

Standard philosophical discussions of love tend to turn to the ancient Greek notions of eros, agape, and philia. If you want to refresh your memory, you can read about them here. These discussions try to make distinctions between sexual, amorous, romantic, platonic, and familial loves. They tend to treat love as an attitude, a feeling or emotion, a valuing. This is a shallow psychological conceptualization, it seems to me, a devaluing of something much more profound.

I think if you asked Tiger Woods if he loves his wife and children, he would probably say yes. After all, in marrying Elin, he publicly professed his undying love for her. After the revelations of the last couple weeks, I think it's also fair to say Tiger doesn't really know what love is. But then, given our polyamorous proclamations, neither do we.

Without getting into the religious aspects of it, I have written here on more than one occasion about my take on the Christian virtue of love as found in the Bible. The actions of the story's hero, Jesus from Nazareth, are a metaphor for love. He and his gang of ruffians trashed the biggest temple/market day of the year in Jerusalem, Passover. Apparently, he was upset about the hypocrisy of the organized religion of the day, and this was the way he led his men in protest. We don't quite know what damage they inflicted on the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals, etc., but we know it had to have been significant for the temple police called the Roman guards. They cornered Jesus and his gang in their nearby hideout, a park outside the city, and Jesus manned up and took the rap for all of them—a death sentence, it turns out. Ultimately, he gave up his life so his men could escape and live to tell the tale.

This is a profound definition of real love: giving up one's self for the best interests of one's friends. Stated succinctly: "There is no greater love than that a man should give up his own life for the sake of his friends." That point is stated outright in the Gospel of John 15:13. Theological scholars, i.e., the Jesus Seminar, do not necessarily believe this was an actual saying of Jesus primarily because it comes in a passage in which Jesus calls for loyalty to himself. Still, it encapsulates the theme of Jesus's life and death. For more on this topic, I refer you to my previous post here. And as a definition of true love, it stands the test of time.

The Christian conception of love takes it yet a step further. Giving up what one most prizes, say one's only child, for the sake of others is a love that is worthy of a divinity.

This is a high standard. Fine. It may be an unmeetable standard. Okay. But love is such a central concern of our culture, an absolutely core value, that any but an ideal standard is demeaning not just to love but to who we are as a culture.

What I am talking about here is more than a feeling or an attitude or a valuing. It is pure action, a way of living one's life, a way of acting.

Undoubtedly, at some point, Tiger 'fell in love' with Elin. Falling in love is a feeling, a gushy, gooey, falling all over myself, endorphin spurting kind of emotion. There's nothing to stop someone from falling in love with a different person every day as far as I can tell—or at every tour event. But that is not true love. True love may take its start from there (in the case of spouses and life-partners and such), but it is more than that; it grows, matures, deepens, transforms.

If, e.g., Tiger truly loved his wife and his family, he might choose to give up his selfish interests in bedding every cocktail waitress he meets on the road for their sake. Or not. It may be that Tiger is in love with, or even hooked on, falling in love. Who's to say? If falling in love is nothing more than an endorphin rush, it can certainly be addictive (just like running, e.g.).

So, what does this exalted concept of love have to do with what we mean when we use the word love in statements like 'I love my Jimmy Choo's' or 'I love pancakes' or I love my country' or 'I love my job' or 'I love The Big Lebowski' or 'I am falling in love with her' or 'Love makes me happy'? Are these different things or are they somehow connected by this vaunted concept of giving up oneself?

We can certainly postulate that, on our definition, to love something or someone is necessarily to give up something of one's self (a feeling, an attitude, a valuation [monetary or otherwise], etc.) and that there are degrees of such love. I believe that that is an iron-clad law, kind of like the law of gravity. But is that really meaningful?

We throw the word 'love' around casually, to the point it almost has no more meaning. I wonder if Tiger told any of his 'lovers' that he loved them? Is it possible he did love any or all of them? Maybe Tiger has that much love to give—he certainly has that much money. However, one thing is clear, not all of his lovers were willing to share his 'love', especially Elin who felt—and rightfully by all accounts—that she had an exclusive right to it all.

On the other hand, maybe Tiger was the one who needed more love, more adulation, more worship, than any one of his lovers could give. Maybe he felt that by giving his affections (something quite short of love) so profligately he was gaining something in return—the love and adoration of all these women. To believe and act as though everyone should have your bests interests at heart, as though everyone around you should sacrifice themselves to satisfy your needs and desires is something short of true love. Though it is a sort of self-love, and it can be quite costly, for, ironically, in order to satisfy itself the self in love with itself must ultimately sacrifice itself—something it cannot allow itself to do. That is why, frankly, I fear for Tiger. Unless he faces this paradox down, he could become suicidal. But I digress.

This 'I want to be adored' attitude seems to be a wrongful attitude, at least on our vaunted account of true love. It ignores the true cost of truly loving. In love, one does not give up one's self in the expectation of getting something in return from the objects of one's affections. One does it for and in the best interests of the loved one. One sacrifices one's interests. One hopes one's love is reciprocated, but this can never be guaranteed. To love is to risk everything.

Still, none of us is perfect at love. None of us can be. We cannot give ourselves completely. We are selfish. We are individuals with our own wants and needs. We have boundaries. We are, in short, human—not divine. And we must take ourselves as we find ourselves.

Perhaps it would pay, in this season of love, to remember this one thing: Love is Action. Actions have costs. When we love something or someone, we necessarily sacrifice something of ourselves, whether we mean to or not and whether we know it or not—it isn't always obvious. And we each only have so much to give. Yet, ironically, the more love we truly give, the more likely we are to receive love in return; not the sort of love that feeds our selfish self-love, but love which replenishes and restores us, that has our best interest at heart and that is willing to sacrifice for our betterment (not, say, our ego).

Chris Farley - Interview Paul Mc Cartney (SNL) - MyVideo

So, love widely and love wisely. That is my wish for y'all for the Holidays!

Jim H.

12 December 2009

Welcome to WoW

I would like to welcome everyone visiting here from 3QuarksDaily where one of my posts has been selected as a Finalist for the Politics Quark prize. I am honored. Wisdom of the West is not strictly a political blog, but it makes no bones about its views. Please browse around. There are personal essays, literary essays, critical pieces, philosophical musing, aggregations, responses to other blogs, etc. on here as well—as stated in the header. There are also a number of theme posts, such as my fifteen part personal essay "Thyraphobia" about skydiving or the ongoing "Ur-story" series which has close readings and critical essays on interesting and what I take to be important works of fiction. The "Labels" list on the right side should give you a sense of the breadth of discussion topics you can find here.

Comments are welcome, even if just to alert me to the existence of your own blog—so long as it has interests reasonably related to those herein. (For example, I will delete Spam and trolling-for-porn comments. I've been getting quite a few of those lately and hope not to have to resort to those annoying passwords and comment-blocking mechanisms and such.) I try to respond to each and every comment, as reasoned discourse is something I prize.

You will note that my blogroll comprises mostly institutional blogs, including 3QuarksDaily, and hasn't changed much in the two years I've been operating WoW. My two-year anniversary is later this month, and one of the changes I've been contemplating is to add a blogroll of other blogs I read regularly. Look for it.

Again, thanks for reading.

Jim H.

11 December 2009

Son of Zappadan

We present one of the true 'high' priests of Zappadan. This guy never failed to clear the Elton John-, Bad Company-, Grateful Dead-, Kansas-, Peter Frampton-loving types out of my dorm room (that is when "Freak Out" or "We're Only in it for the Money" failed to do the trick), cement my cred, and still leave that sublime last minute just for my ears only.

08 December 2009

Of Cultural Historical Note

[Video Removed, but not exactly Censored]

In which Zappa is one of the least self-indulgent persons on stage for the full 24 minutes. Seriously, Yoko? Apparently, she didn't even know the words to "Sc*mbag" and had to be told. You know, people paid real money for this sort of jamming thing back then. What were we thinking? I mean, the blues thing was simple, easy to improv, and had a decent guitar break, but who was strangling that cat? Dayyum.

[h/t to BlckDgRd for the reminder about Lennon.]

Update: Okay, I'm having a bit of technical trouble embedding the video. Veoh is not as simple as YouTube. If you want to see this clip, either slide the side and bottom bars and press the play button above, or go here. Also, I apologize for the commercials: I mean, if any video was ever strictly non-commercial, this would seem to be one.

Further Update: That damned commercial starts automatically every time I open my blog. Forget it. I'm taking it down. Go to the site: http://www.veoh.com/browse/videos/category/music/watch/v8467343PNy5zAnz. There you can see John Lennon (the anniversary of whose murder is today) and Yoko Ono playing with Frank Zappa (whose Zappadan celebration we marked yesterday) and The Turtles, I mean the Mothers of Invention, at the Fillmore in 1971. It sucks, buts it's interesting and interestingly obscure.

As a consolation, here's FZ's take on what happened that night and subsequently:

Jim H.

07 December 2009

Happy Zappadan!

(h/t to Mitch at MFBlog for reminding us. Mitch has a competing post at 3QuarksDaily's contest. Read it.)

As I mentioned before: One of my readers—Frances Madeson—has nominated my Blunderbuss post for the 3QuarksDaily Politics Prize. Thanks, Frances. I am honored. And even if you disagreed with my opinion on the matter, I ask you to go over to 3QuarksDaily, read the nominated posts, and vote—preferably for me. The nominated posts are in alphabetical order, so mine is at the end. [I will append this message to all my posts until the voting deadline.]

03 December 2009

Truth, Politics, & Running—A Follow-Up

A quick follow-up to this post. In that earlier Family-of-Values post, I discussed the nature of truth as both a political and journalistic value. This clip of Dana Perino, the former spokesperson for the President of the United States (G.W. Bush) illustrates the point.

She is simply and obviously wrong when she states that "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term." It's a ludicrous statement on its face, but she says it with a straight face as if she believes it. This is why I do not miss the former administration: one could never tell when they were lying or were ignorant, and trying to sort it out was maddening. Recall Scott McClelland telling the press that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby had assured him they had nothing to do with outing CIA operative Valerie Plame when their (and VP Cheney's) fingerprints were all over the operation.

Here, it's not clear whether Perino is lying, or mistaken, or actually believes that 9/11 happened on someone else's watch. And it doesn't matter which. She is simply wrong.

Hannity had an obligation, likewise, to correct the record. Surely he knew different. Yet he said nothing and let the moment pass, doubling the offense.

It's clear neither of them (or the other guest, Varney) cared one whit for the truth of the matter. They are nihilistic with respect to the value of truth.

There are undoubtedly some who watch that program who believe what she said. And others who would like to believe it, forgetting how the conservative administration fell asleep at the switch. It is part of the misleading, revisionist narrative these conservatives hope to weave.

Remember the phrase cui bono? Loosely translated it means "Who benefits?" Who benefits from such a pernicious lapse of truth-telling? Not the current administration or its party. Whenever the Bushians engaged in these sorts of Rovian tactics, it was always for their own benefit. It's odd how self-serving their 'mistakes' always tended to be...

On a separate "blegstitution" note, one of my readers—Frances Madeson—has nominated my Blunderbuss post for the 3QuarksDaily Politics Prize. Thanks, Frances. I am honored. And even if you disagreed with my opinion on the matter (JMP?), I ask you to go over to 3QuarksDaily, read the nominated posts, and vote—preferably for me. The nominated posts are in alphabetical order, so mine is at the end. [I will append this message to all my posts until the voting deadline.]

Oh yeah, one other thing, following up my Fringe posts. Here I am at mile marker 9. Note the shoes. LOL. ROFLMAO.

24 November 2009

Holiday Surprise

Are we merely a generation or so away from a true kindness therapy: "oxytocin, the small, celebrated peptide hormone...helps lubricate our every prosocial exchange, the thousands of acts of kindness, kind-of kindness and not-as-nakedly-venal-as-I-could-have-been kindness that make human society possible." Maybe there is hope for humanity after all.

Don't know if oxytocin will help these guys, though. Do not doubt for an instant that if they start instituting 'purity tests' among themselves when they are out of power they will want to institute 'patriotism' or 'loyalty oaths' when they're back in office. It's in their DNA. It's encouraging that even oxytocin doesn't prevent you from recognizing assholes:"
Yet the hormone doesn’t turn you into a sucker. In the Nov. 1 issue of Biological Psychiatry, Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa and her colleagues reported that when participants in a game of chance were pitted against a player they considered arrogant, a nasal spritz of oxytocin augmented their feelings both of envy whenever the haughty one won and of schadenfreudian gloating when their opponent lost."
Ooh, she said schadenfreudian. I have goosebumps. Maybe you could spritz some of that stuff on mean old Uncle Ernie's turkey.

"Bleggalgazing" (to borrow a neologism from blogger extraordinaire BDR): What is blog that thou are mindful of it? Speaking of purity, here's Zadie Smith:
"There is a certain kind of writer – quite often male but by no means exclusively so – who has a fundamental hunger for purity, and for perfection, and this type will always hold the essay form in high esteem. Because essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection.

Novels, by contrast, are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no tell-tale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack. I think it's the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you're generally looking into is the self." (emphasis supplied)
Maybe, Zadie, essay-writing (a/k/a blogging) is just easier than art. Essay. Easy. Get it? Art. Hard.

But... but... but... if all the arguments for god's existence are flawed [that, of course, doesn't necessarily mean god doesn't exist; it just means we can't argue very well] to whom are we giving thanks this Thanksgiving holiday?

The soundtrack of our (younger) lives: The thrill of 'discovering' an obscure band that all your buddies thought was cool. (Always wanted to be an A & R man.) Steve Almond gets it just about right—a little sentimental and nostalgic, perhaps, but pretty much on the mark. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Family of Values: Truth

This is an inaugural post in what I propose to be an on-going, though intermittent, series discussing some core Western values—e.g., Truth, Knowledge, Meaning, Beauty, Justice, Fairness, Equality, Respect, Love, Goodness, Kindness, Wisdom, Creativity, Rationality, Freedom, Order, The Good Life, etc.

In 1986, Harry Frankfurt first published an essay in the magazine 'Raritan' entitled On Bullshit. Bullshit is, essentially, a disregard for the the truth of what one says. It isn't quite lying—which is deliberately stating something that is untrue—it is, on Frankfurt's account, something worse. When later published in book form in 2005, Frankfurt's essay seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time. Public figures were more interested in advancing an agenda than speaking truth. Sales and marketing and PR forces were more interested in selling credit default swaps or SUVs or mid-East wars or fraudulent memoirs or $5/gallon oil than counting their true costs.

Bullshit heedlessly admixes truths with untruths. Bullshit leaves the hearer confused, foundering, scrambling for a purchase on reality. In politics, bullshit is particularly useful in a politics of a certain style. This style does not fret about hypocrisy or correspondence with reality; rather, it uses every means at its disposal to assail its adversaries. That is its sole purpose. That is to say, bullshit is a tool in the politics of destruction, rather than construction. It is part and parcel of the politics of force, rather than of consensus. Inconvenient truths, on this model, are scorned. Truth-tellers in the Bush administration, e.g., were often ridiculed (Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke) or silenced (Lawrence Lindsay, climate scientists) or publicly attacked (Plame/Wilson) or simply shit-canned (Shinseki).

Why is truth so devalued in our society? Philosophers have long recognized that truth is a "meta" value. To say something is true is to make a value-statement about a statement-of-fact. We don't say 'the snow is true', e.g. We say, rather, 'snow is white.' And, along with Alfred Tarski, we say further "the statement 'snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white."

So, when we say something is a "meta" value we are dealing in the world of modernism, the world of analysis, the world of metaphysics (semantics) strictly construed: a Tractarian world, if you will, where what matters is 'what is the case.' We are dealing with normative statements about other statements, not statements about the world. And the only legitimate statements are statements that are grounded in knowledge. Truth does not exist in the real world; it exists only as a value in our attempt to understand facts about the real world.

We are living, however, in what many would call a post-modern world. A world where authenticity, simplicity, and action are prime. Not a world of thought, complexity, and reflection. In such a world, it doesn't really matter what you think; it matters what you feel. It doesn't matter whether you understand something; it matters what your opinion is. It doesn't matter what you know; it matters what you believe. It doesn't matter what is true; it matters who you are and what your attitude is—say or do what you will. So long as your point-of-view prevails.

But there is nothing new about this post-modern world; it is a reversion to the world of the sophists, the target of much of Socrates's arguments. In this morass, truth is merely one among any number of competing values (if that), and the people who try to tell the truth are shouted down either by the people with the platforms and the agendas or the ignoramuses (or, more likely, a toxic combination of both).

Truth is uninteresting, boring even. Journalists who try to be truthful are grey. Factual. So what if snow is white? So what if Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the atrocities of 9/11? So what if Iraq had no WMD? So what if the surpluses in the public treasury have been siphoned off by politically-connected private interests who, in turn, use their wealth and influence to prop up their political benefactors? So what if Dick Cheney tells a flat-out lie on camera to Gloria Borger? So what if the sky is falling?

Advocacy journalists, on the other hand, are interesting. Dynamic. Yellow. They can rant and rave and say pretty much whatever they please ungoverned by (or at least not restricted to) truth, so long as their ratings or readership stays high—which they will.

As an aside: It's amazing how much that passes for 'news' on the cable news networks originates from Public Relations firms. That, I think, is the story of the age that continues to go untold. Rather than investigating and reporting, these news organizations passively and mostly unquestioningly rely on what they are spoon-fed by professionals whose job it is to advance the agendas of their clients, whether they be celebrities or politicians or government entities.

To end this first piece in this series, I'll leave you with a quote from this article which calls contemporary journalists to be accountable for truth:
"we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science." Carlin Romano, "We Need 'Philosophy of Journalism'". 11/15/09 The Chronicle Review (h/t the estimable Arts & Letters Daily)

15 November 2009


President Obama, according to press reports, is considering options for Afghanistan policy. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the current commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, has reportedly requested upwards of 40,000 troops for his counterinsurgency and 'hearts-and-minds' campaign needs. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, himself a former U.S. general, has reportedly urged caution in expanding the Afghanistan counterinsurgency because the current Afghan government is rife with corruption and incompetence (which may be a nice way of saying the recipients of our aid and largesse are not necessarily loyally acting in our best interests). Interestingly, both reports, which were presumedly meant to be classified and for the President's eyes, came from leaks to the press.

The 'leak war' is a sideshow. The President of the United States is the Constitutional Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military. This President, Barack Obama, has a decision to make about the direction of the undeclared war in Afghanistan. He can continue along the path that was in place when he took office as urged by Gen. McChrystal (a tactical decision) or he can establish a direction of his own (a strategic decision). I urge the President to think strategically and refocus our effort on the original mission of the Afghan campaign

A brief history is in order here: On October 7, 2001, the United States and Great Britain invaded Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, an effort in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 to take out al Qaeda, the perpetrators of that terrorist assault within the borders of the United States. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set the operation in motion. This, in my view, was precisely the correct strategic response to the 9/11 attacks.

Since that initial incursion, however, the Afghan strategy has suffered from a lack of support from Washington and from mission creep. First, it was widely reported that in their zeal to expand what they termed the 'Global War on Terror' and take the fight to Saddam Hussein, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld decided to take the focus off the Afghan campaign and launch a new front in Iraq. Second, Rumsfeld is widely credited with implementing a policy that, essentially, sought to fight this 'war' "on the cheap." Third, as a result of this neglect, the initial mission in Afghanistan has lost its focus.

Throughout the Bush years, Afghan strategy was treated as the poor cousin to the favored Iraq adventure. Political attention and military materiel were diverted from destroying al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the military mission in Afghanistan expanded to include such efforts as fighting the Taliban, supporting democratic reforms, and nation building, recently implementing the same sort of counterinsurgency measures that succeeded, at long last, in quelling the Iraq situation.

The bottom lime is that in eight plus years, the vaunted American military has failed in its initial goal to capture and/or kill the perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This is a national disgrace. And there is plenty of blame to go around.

With the Iraq situation seemingly better in control, the current President has his first opportunity to do something about the situation—something he promised to do in his campaign. By all accounts, he has now turned his—and the country's—attention back to the conflict in Afghanistan. He should refocus on what was just and right about the Afghan campaign from the start. The military must accomplish its central mission: destroy al Qaeda. Then, and only then, should they worry about the rest—much of which can be dealt with politically and diplomatically.

Strategically, the Afghan campaign and, in my view, the entire 'Global War on Terror' should have been a surgical strike. Go in, find the perpetrators of 9/11 in their lairs, and take them out. End of story. Instead, the prior administration fired off what amounted to a blunderbuss: a noisy, blunt, and crude weapon lacking in accuracy or range. Its effort in response to 9/11 was too scattershot. They allowed their own political interests and ideologies to intervene, and they missed their true target. They wanted to get Saddam Hussein for peripheral reasons which they never convincingly articulated. This took the focus off Afghanistan, and we now find ourselves as occupiers in a country known as the place where empires go to die. And we still haven't gotten Usama bin Laden.

I urge Predsident Obama to refocus his, the nation's, and the military's attention on the true mission of the conflict in Afghanistan. His generals will continue to urge him to provide them with greater authority, a larger mission, and more materiel and troops. These are tactical requests and should be taken as such. The President's duty as Commander-in-Chief is to think strategically. He must define the mission and then, and only then, allocate resources accordingly. The generals' job is to implement this strategy. And the only just, strategic mission is to sew up al Qaeda and their enablers and supporters, get bin Laden, and get out. It was the correct strategic mission in 2001, and, despite nearly a decade of neglect and mismanagement, it is the correct mission now.

11 November 2009

Broken Man

Here in the U.S., our schools support athletic teams: football, basketball, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, etc. Kids, beginning in the middle school grades (ages 12+) compete on behalf of their schools against other schools. They wear uniforms with school colors. Often there are costumed mascots and uniformed cheerleaders rousing the crowd's passion for their team. It is well-known that our previous president, George W. Bush, was a cheerleader at his prep school. And here're pictures.

It is a measure of school 'spirit' or 'pride' for the non-participating students to cheer on and support their athletic teams by attending the games, by participating in 'pep rallies' to honor or energize their athlete heroes, and by raising funds to help pay for travel, uniforms, coaches, etc. In the state of Georgia, where I currently reside, football is the king of sports—high school and college. High school games are played on Friday nights during the Autumn, and it is like a secular religion in some areas of the state. This sense of spirit or pride in one's school's athletics carries over into university for some. It transmutes in the greater society to professional athletics. My British and South American readers can certainly identify with the passions they feel for their own futbol teams.

The spectacle of athletics is a civilized model, of course, for warfare: our team vs. their team in a winner-take-all contest. As a nation, we are goaded into 'supporting the troops' much the way we were scolded to 'support the team' in high school. Under this model, supporting wars and cheering on the soldiers that fight them become the true measure of patriotism for many.

Today, Nov. 11, in the U.S., is Veterans Day. Much of the rest of the world celebrates it as Armistice Day, remembering the conclusion of WWI.

Here's how our medical/insurance industrial complex supports our troops: "The number of US veterans [2,266] who died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance was 14 times higher than the US military death toll in Afghanistan that year, according to a new study." The Republican Party, principal goader and patriotic scold in the U.S., believes our health care system needs no reform.


On Thursday Nov. 5, 2009, an Army-trained psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, allegedly opened fire and killed 13 people, wounding some 38 others on the Ft. Hood Army Base near Killeen, Texas. Fort Hood "boasts of being the largest active duty armored post in the United States Armed Services."

Some basic facts about Maj. Hasan have been published: 1) he is a soldier in the Army Medical Corps who participated in the "Officer Basic Leadership Course (OBLC), a basic orientation course to the Army Health Care system, Army doctrine, and basic soldier and leader skills," 2) he is an M.D. psychiatrist, 3) he is a Muslim (possibly with ties to radical Islam), 4) in this country, he is a member of an ethnic minority, 5) he was willing to sacrifice his own life (though in this case it did not happen) to carry out this attack. Using these five coordinates, I think we can draw certain conclusions about why this horrific attack happened that avoid the sort of knee-jerk responses/analyses flooding the media.

If you had the patience to read through my longish series of posts on "Thyraphobia" (or recall some of the observations from my earlier "Swarm" series), you will recall I posed the following conclusion:
"Concretely: if I am invested with some sort of political or spiritual authority and have dreams of warfare (either offensive or defensive), to get you to do my warlike bidding and enlist you in my cause, I must first convince you of our natural affinity (family, community, nation, race, religion, etc.) and our mutual grievances against a common threat, stressing the goodness and rightness and love of our cause and the evilness and hate of our foe. To get you to be willing to sacrifice your own life in the service of this cause, I must break down your natural emotional defenses (to wit: fear and self-preservation) by demeaning you and your life. I accomplish this by appealing to your own existential situation of misery (it is caused by the devious threats of our enemy) and your natural emotion of shame (you are a fallen creature, weak, flawed, and unworthy). My cause, I assert, will ennoble your own life and, in the process, make things better for those about whom you care. Then I must cement your loyalty by promising you and convincing you that your faithfulness will surely result in some form of reward—physical (loot, booty, spoils, heroic acclaim, etc.) or spiritual (eternal life and favor in paradise). That is the formula. They all use it; they always have, and they always will."
Is it possible to make some sense of this incident through this lens? I believe so.

The military, medical school, and religion all seek to break down a person's individuality, to inculcate a certain professionalism. The military seeks to purge the individual of the emotion of fear and instill a sense of 'unit cohesion'; you must be willing to give up your life for your unit or your buddies. Medical school seeks to break down the complex emotions of sympathy and fellow-feeling; if you allow yourself to indulge in normal feelings of sympathy toward all the suffering you have to deal with over and over and over, world without end, you can easily become overwhelmed and burn out. Further, the psychiatrist is trained to recognize and avoid "countertransference", that is, to avoid any normal sense of empathy with his patients in order to keep a therapeutic distance. And religion (not just Muslim, but Christian and others as well, as discussed passim) encourages its adherents to deny themselves and look past the shamefulness of this fallen world (of which the individual religionist is a part) to a greater place and eternal world. [By the same token, law school seeks to break down the individual's moral sense so s/he can represent murderers, rapists, Enron, 'Scooter' Libbey, etc. without feeling guilty.] Each of these institutions has, at bottom, a depersonalizing effect on the individual, and Maj. Hasan, I think we can safely assume, has been subject to each sort of indoctrination. He has been broken down in different ways by each institution and, ultimately, alienated from himself.

Not once, not twice, but four times that we can count, this formula was applied to Maj. Hasan. And he, apparently, could not handle the strain.

This is not by way of an excuse or justification for his actions. I don't know Maj. Hasan. His thoughts and emotions are his own. I have no idea why he acted the way he did. He allegedly committed a brutal act, a crime, an atrocity. But warriors, by definition, are trained in the arts of atrocity, and wars are merely nationally sanctioned crimes. It only becomes news when warriors turn on their own—when sports team members fight among themselves. And now, in this respect, it is a legal matter for the military/judicial system to handle.

This is merely an attempt to understand what happened to a man, a frail human being, who appears to have been broken down once too often. The Army thought their mojo was stronger. In this case, it turns out they were wrong.


Of course, Maj. Hasan is not the only broken military man. The story of the broken war veteran returning home to an uncomprehending civilian society is practically as old as literature itself, ancient even at the time of the Odyssey. If you didn't see it, take a look at this wise essay in Sunday's NY Times.

When soldiers are among themselves, they are trained to cohere as a unit. They must depend absolutely on each other in life-threatening situations. They are uniformly broken down and indoctrinated to understand what war is and what their role in in it. When they come home, they are broken men and women. Their unit support system collapses. They have no idea, often, what their role in the society is anymore. And civil society, for good reason, does not share their understanding of the brutal nature of war—other than the superficial games model of sports. Some returning veterans are able to transition back into society because they have adequate social networks of family and friends who care for them. Others cannot because they do not.

In many respects, we are all broken individuals. Some more than others. Today—Veterans Day—we non-warriors cannot claim to understand what veterans' lives at war have been like, but we can express a sense of our shared humanity, our shared brokenness. And without cheering on wars and warfare as such, we can at least recognize the painful odyssey these men and women have had trying to find their way back into a place in civilized society and leave the horrors and brutality and dehumanization of warfare behind.


In case you were wondering, here're the shoes.

08 November 2009


(continued from this post)

In accordance with proposed new FTC rules regarding product endorsements, let me just say right up front: I paid cash at retail for my Vibram Five-Finger (VFF) shoes. No one compensated me for their use or endorsement at any time in the past & I have no expectation of receiving any compensation in the future.

When I first got my VFF shoes in late August, Wisdoc, being as supportive as she honestly could, laughed and said: "Well, honey, they are sort of..." she paused, "fringe. You're certainly making a statement, putting yourself out there." It's good to be married to someone who can keep you honest. But I knew that what she was saying was true. All you have to do is read some of the websites that are oriented toward barefoot running. Some are hard-core (barefoot only!), others encourage flexibility (minimal shoes are okay, too). I'm including a number of these sites for future reference:

Running Barefoot
Barefoot Ted
Barefoot Runner.com
Barefoot Running Shoes
Running Barefoot Yahoo! Group
Minimalist Runner Google Group
Runner's World Forum

There are more, but those sites have lots of information about this whole 'fringe' phenomenon. If you're starting out, look especially at training, easing into, and technique discussions.

Here's the key article on the topic. The point being made is that high-tech running shoes (elevated heel, shock-absorbing mid-sole, orthotic inserts/insoles, stabilizing technology, cushioning, etc.), besides being heavy, interfere with and possibly hinder the body's (foot's) natural proprioceptive functioning, thus increasing the risk of chronic plantar, Achilles, ankle, knee, and even hip injury. The feet and ankles and calves have natural shock-absorbing and stabilization capacities. Relying on shoes to perform these functions weakens the body's own adaptive mechanisms. Further, as a matter of straight physics, because each step barefootin' or wearing minimal support shoes such as the VFFs is lighter when compared to shoes, mid-soles, orthotics, etc., the body exerts less effort and, therefore, uses less oxygen over distance. As one friend said, "it's kind of like cheating." Well, yes and no. You still run the same distance, you just don't carry as much weight per step (x # of strides x distance covered).

Still, you have to be careful when you change over; there are risks of other sorts of injury such as puncture wounds, contusions, blisters, scrapes, etc. But, the point is, when you run barefoot or minimally shod you are more conscious of each step and pay closer attention to the placement of each footfall—that's the point of proprioception. By adjusting each step to the varied terrain (which you don't have to do in padded, structured shoes), you avoid repetitive motion injuries. Think of the VFFs as a second skin on the bottoms of your feet. You'll be amazed at how much protections they actually provide.

Also, you change the way you run. This is big. And it requires some discussion.

Mainly, you learn to strike the ground differently. Instead of heel-striking, you strike the ground with your mid-foot—balls of the feet and arches. This strengthens the muscles of your feet. My feet are actually larger now because they are more muscular. It also uses the calf-muscles; that's why if you don't ease into it, you can really get sore calves. My calves and ankles are larger now, too, more muscular. The advantage, though, is it takes pressure off your hips and knees. With my old running shoes, my knees locked on each stride, absorbed upward force, and it felt like I was jamming my thigh bones up into my hip. Now, I feel my core muscles working and my glutes are stronger.

The key to remember here is NOT to extend your leg out in front of you and land on your heel and roll your foot forward as feels natural in stabilizing and cushioned types of shoes. You should land on your mid-sole underneath your center of gravity. The idea is that each time you strike with your heel you are technically 'braking' or halting your own forward momentum. When you land mid-sole or slightly on the balls of your feet, you propel yourself along almost like your feet are wheeling.

One other thing, if you run barefoot or, like me, wear your VFFs in public—say, at a race or popular jogging route—you have to be prepared to be 'that guy.' As in, 'did you see that guy with the shoes?' People are always curious, and since there have been articles in a number of running magazines and McDougall's book is getting a lot of publicity, they want a first-hand report. And me? I'm always willing to oblige. It's a great ice-breaker.

I don't do a lot of pre-run stretching. I like to walk about a half-mile before I start, to loosen up my hamstrings and my feet. Then I jog the first mile more slowly than I know I can. But, I do feel the need to do a few stretches for flexibility. Here they are:

Then I do some foot exercises

And then I have to make sure my 'calves aren't too tight, bro''

So, last Saturday I ran a 15K road race. I finished, running the entire way! It was easily the longest distance I'd run since I was in my twenties. It's Sunday and I've got some lingering minor calf soreness. I had a little bit of foot pain in the ninth mile, but fortunately the road for that last mile had a broad, grassy shoulder. I ran on the grass and the foot pain went away almost immediately. I still have some adjustments to do w/r/t my stride, but that is par for the course when using the VFFs or going barefoot. Every stride is an adjustment.

Next week I'm running another 15K, but this time it's a trail run. I don't expect to have the same foot pain. And I prefer—no, I love—trail runs. Here, check out the course. It looks magical.

Finally, here's the bottom line on all this 'fringe' activity for me:
  • Things that are larger: my feet, ankles, and calf muscles.
  • Things that are smaller and tighter: my waist (from 36" to 33"), my glutes, my thighs.
  • Things that are stronger: all the above plus my toes, my arches, my Achilles, my knees, my core, and my cardio-vascular system.
  • Things that are longer and more flexible: my hamstrings! (Don't ask me why; I don't know.)
  • Thing I have to get used to being: 'that guy', i.e., the one with the funny toe shoes.
  • Thing I haven't seen in probably 15 years: the left side of 170 lbs on my bathroom scales!
  • Things I can do now that I couldn't do this summer: run 10Ks and 15Ks relatively pain free.
  • Things I aspire to do that I haven't ever aspired to do: run a mini-marathon and possibly a full marathon.
  • Thing I forgot I was addicted to: the morphine-like endorphin firing in my brain when I run long distances.
Oh, and as for that 'fringe' crack: Wisdoc and I used to run a lot together when we first met in Philadelphia, along the river, by the museum, around U. Penn, Haverford cross-country track, St. Jo's, etc. Now, because of her schedule, she only gets to run in the morning's on our running machine. But she does it barefoot. Last week, after hearing me go on and on ("and on and on" apparently) about my VFFs and all the new strides I've been making in my running over the last couple of months, she made me take her to REI and buy her a pair of these 'fringe' shoes. Turns out, her New Balance shoes were making her knees hurt whenever she got the opportunity to run outside in them, too.

Go figure.

Drop me an email or leave a comment and I'll be glad to answer any questions I can.

03 November 2009


We interrupt this (short) series on running to bring you links and such:

Narrative and sports. "To a remarkable degree, bloggers aren't storytellers. They are partisans, ranters, linkers. Bloggers give away their entire plot in the first sentence, or perhaps even in their URL (www.i-hate-everyone.com)."

"The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there's a business model that can support good stories." (h/t Dennis)

As if in response, a British study found that people who illegally download and share music spent "four and a half times more on paid-for music downloads than average fans."

Edmond Caldwell & Steven Augustine & Helen deWitt (each of whom has something to say on these matters): put that in your literary pipes and smoke it. The iPod did not destroy the music industry; it changed it in unexpected ways. More music is available and yet more is demanded. It's quite likely a similar thing can happen in the "book" industry with the advent of the Kindle, Apple reader [whatever & whenever]. More content will be demanded. Keep writing mes amis. The market is sure to turn our way.

MobyLives weighs in on Norway's decision to ban the Amazon Kindle because of the Animal Farm (ironically) controversy here.

Richard Eoin Nash, natch, is there already. Or at least he was, in Frankfurt.

Mark Athitakis points to a James Salter interview—yummy goodness. Light Years is still one of my favorite best novels of all time. Thanks for that, Mark.

Sometimes the words flow onto the screen just right. Here's Dan Green getting it just right:
"If a particular work of fiction does provoke a strong emotion--which for me actually happens only rarely--I presume that this is the emotion the text was designed to create (otherwise I'm just reading badly) and that my role as reader is to meet the text halfway and pursue that emotion where it's going to lead. That I would try to actively resist the work's effects--emotional, psychological, or formal--seems antithetical to my understanding of what a "reading experience" has to offer."
Who's your daddy, Dan? How about this guy?
Claude Levi-Strauss, pioneering structuralist, dead.
"Phenomenology I found unacceptable, in so far as it postulated a continuity between experience and reality. That the latter enveloped and explained the former I was quite willing to agree, but I had learnt from my three mistresses [Freud, Marx, Geology] that there is no continuity in the passage between the two and that to reach reality we must first repudiate experience, even though we may later reintegrate it in an objective synthesis in which sentimentality plays no part. As for the trend of thought which was to find fulfillment in existentialism, it seemed to me to be the exact opposite of true thought, by reason of its indulgent attitude towards the illusions of subjectivity. To promote private preoccupations to the rank of philosophical problems is dangerous, and may end in a kind of shop-girl's philosophy—excusable as an element in teaching procedure, but perilous in the extreme if it leads the philosopher to turn his back on his mission. That mission [which he holds only until science is strong enough to take over from philosophy] is to understand Being in relation to itself, and not in relation to oneself. Phenomenology and existentialism did not abolish metaphysics: they merely introduced new ways of finding alibis for metaphysics." Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, p. 50 (trans. John Russell 1961).

By that metric, these guys would be your cousins. Say Simon Critchley & Tom McCarthy:
"All cults of authenticity, it is declared, whether they celebrate it in the guise of transcendence, unity or totality, for aesthetic, religious or political ends, “should be abandoned”"
Thomas McGonigle at ABC of Reading nails two birds with one stone: Harold Brodkey & James Wood. Thanks for reminding me of what an intense fascination I had with Brodkey's books some years back. Perhaps it's time for a re-look.

Mark Sarvas, after some brief interruptions, seems to be back at blogging with regularity. Welcome back, Mark. Here he posts a Philip Roth interview with Daily Beast publisher Tina Brown. Good stuff.

In case you missed it, over at his fine blog, Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito has been blog-covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Here are links to several of his posts:

Take a look at some hand-drawn illuminations from Carl Jung's Red Book
h/t Levi Asher

Speaking of getting it right, Steven Beattie does, too:
"Novels – at least the ones that endure – take time, commitment, and patience, all things that are in short supply in today’s jacked-up, Internet-driven society, and all things that are antithetical to the very idea of NaNoWriMo. "
Oh, and thanks, Steven, for reminding me that I'm not going to do NaNoWriMo again this year. When I was in grad school, I 'free wrote' an entire novel over a summer on my portable Underwood typewriter. It sucked so bad. I have it sitting on my desk (I'm looking at it right this minute), and I still can't read it. Now my writing happens sort of like this: I load up (reading and absorbing novels, poetry, criticism, theory, philosophy, lit blogs, relevant non-fiction, anything & everything I can get my hands on), I reflect and refine, & I write. When I do it fueled up in this way, good stuff comes out—though it still needs copious & meticulous & judicious editing. They don't tell you that there.

Nevertheless, zunguzungu decides to give it a 'shot' (pun way intended).

Josh Corey says:
"Next time, I hope to think through the seductions of realism, and why it is that I've been unable to resist them, in spite of a healthy suspicion of the claims usually made on realism's behalf."
I'm all atwitter.

Meanwhile, Jacob Russell's dog is still barking, creating a new reality with each "arf":

I've played Colson Whitehead's game for years: One of the things you can also do is combine genres.

On the science front, this seems like an important technology. The next resource wars are likely to be over water. Cheap and effective desalination could usher in another golden age of peace and prosperity.

And last: teach your children well, Dog.

01 November 2009


I've been sitting on this post for some time now. It's not so much a lit-crit or lit or political essay as a personal statement.

First, some background: I began running in college. In high school, if I could make it twice around the track without being completely winded, I felt I had accomplished something. In college I discovered running trails and around multi-field soccer complexes. I loved running on grass. In grad school I started extending my distances and ran some 10Ks in fairly decent times (sub-7s). New York City and professional and parental obligations slowed me down and fattened me up some. After moving to ATL, in order to regain some fitness, I began jogging a mile or two.

As a middle-aged man, I began feeling some adverse effects from running: (1) something resembling Plantar fasciitis in my left heel, (2) a weak left knee, (3) a left hip ache that felt like my spine/hip connection was malaligned, among others. I would run, say, two miles and have to spend a couple days recovering—stretching, doing yoga, inversion table, etc.—to get right. I spent good money on top running shoes, but to no avail.

In August my life changed! On August 18, I saw Christopher MacDougall on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His tale about barefoot or barely-shod ultramarathon runners caught my attention. I did some on-line research and thought, "Geez, if I could run again without pain, how wonderful would that be?"

I found a large soccer field and ran some laps around it, first with shoes, then without. It felt odd, but invigorating. And NO PAIN! I began walking around my neighborhood streets barefooted to build calluses on my soles, but all I got was a few blisters. This was not going to work on the rough concrete streets around here for me. Zola Budd I ain't.

I continued to read up and found discussions of Vibram Five-Finger shoes. I had seen them in the local, funky shoe store where my teenagers got their Birkenstocks and in the local REI outdoor store. So, when I had a free hour, I went to REI, fitted a pair, and decided to try them out. I needed a new pair of running shoes, and these were one-half to one-third the price of the sort of good pair I felt I needed. What the hell! If they didn't work out for running, I could wear them for driving or water shoes or whatever.

I love them! I absolutely love them! I began running in them the first day, on the soccer field and a short trail I discovered in a neighboring neighborhood. I couldn't believe how they felt. I was stronger, able to run further, and felt great. I knew I could use them on trail runs and did my normal, short local trail run several times that first week. The infatuation was on.

Then I decided to take them out on the road. I did my "long" two-mile run—successfully. I wasn't winded and felt I could go longer. I was incredulous. The next time I decided to extend it. At about mile four, my calf muscles seized up like they were made of bricks. I hobbled back home and Wisdoc lovingly massaged my calves that night. But here's the thing: no PF, no weak left knee, no hip/spine pain. None. It was like my calves were taking the shock that had my heels, knees, and hips had been absorbing. This calf pain, I realized, was of the 'no-pain-no-gain' type, not the incipient injury type.

I read more and discovered that you really are supposed to ease into this style of running because you exercise different configurations of muscles than with running shoes. I rested for four days and the calf pain faded away. My next road run was just two miles; no soreness. And I eased up the distances. Three weeks ago, after a few longish runs of about 4 and 5 miles, on a whim, I ran a 10K for the first time in about 25 years. I pushed myself and, after minimal training, had 10 minute splits for the miles. I finished the 6.2 miles in just over an hour. My calves were sore but not nearly as much as before. I took my daughter shopping that afternoon and coached a baseball game the next day.

Bottom line: I bought the shoes in late August. I ran a painless 10K road race in early October and I'm running10-15 miles a week comfortably now. The shoes were a revelation.

(to be continued)

20 October 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 15)


This serial post has gotten way out of hand. This is the fifteenth post under this title. Other matters have been put aside or shelved. My blog socializing has diminished while I've been drafting it. More to the point, my thoughts have been meandering seemingly aimlessly into matters far afield of my own experience that afternoon last summer when I failed to talk myself into jumping out of an airplane. It's time now to wrap things up.

Thanks to all who've had the patience to read over or through this seemingly endless series. And, especially, thanks to someone I don't know personally (hell, I don't even know his name), but whom I consider a blog-friend, BlckDgRd, who has faithfully linked, if I'm not mistaken, to every single one of these posts. Go read his blog. Go on, do it now. Then come back. I'm not going anywhere. But, yeah, read his blog every day (except maybe those days when he rants about DC United. Heh!)

This, then, will be my last post on this topic, under this title.
Resolved: I will never be a soldier, much less a good one. I knew this back when they threatened to draft me to fight in the police action in Southeast Asia where I knew I would surely die. The fear is too great in me. But, so is its flipside: my love of life and self.

One's life is the most important thing one has. It is, really, all one has: everything. A great and marvelous gift. Once it is gone, self, identity, and consciousness of the world vanish. Life is not something to be given up lightly or surrendered—especially under false or illusory pretenses.

Once you get beyond the ritual and dogma and supernatural claims, there is a great and wise truth at the base of Christianity, and it stems from the story of the life and death of Jesus. One verse (and I don't want to be taken for a proof-texting, verse-quoting preacher here) captures this thought: There is no greater love than that a man should give up his own life for the sake of his friends. That point is stated outright in the Gospel of John 15:13. Theological scholars, i.e., the Jesus Seminar, do not necessarily believe this was an actual saying of Jesus primarily because it comes in a passage in which Jesus calls for loyalty to himself. It has Jesus predicting what will happen to him after he and his unruly friends trash the main temple in Jerusalem during Passover: he will step up and take the rap for his gang of rowdies so they can live to fight another day in their quest to bring about the end of time. It may, in substance, have been a true teaching of Jesus, but, in all likelihood, the saying itself was a later ascription to him by the community of believers. Already, here, they are using Jesus as a symbol around which to cement the bonds of aggrieved community, to manipulate the loyalty of a small, committed cadre. This, I've said, we are to be wary of.

Still, it does state a fundamental, yet all-too-forgotten (or -ignored) truth of Christianity: we ought to love one another. Sacrifice to make others' lives better, to make a better world here and now. The argument is, of course, who are these others—one's friends in the biblical language—and what constitutes a better world? That is for each person to decide.

The sentiment is this: love is a great and powerful emotion, greater than fear or hatred or shame or anger—the complex of emotions I've been examining in this series. It is the cement of human community [see here]. Factionalism and eternalism alike have been used to pervert that love, to demean it, and turn it into its opposites. Fellow-feeling (to borrow Scheler's term, see here) can be manipulated by playing on people's insecurities, by telling them who their friends are and what their vision of a better world should be.

Concretely: if I am invested with some sort of political or spiritual authority and have dreams of warfare (either offensive or defensive), to get you to do my warlike bidding and enlist you in my cause, I must first convince you of our natural affinity (family, community, nation, race, religion, etc.) and our mutual grievances against a common threat, stressing the goodness and rightness and love of our cause and the evilness and hate of our foe. To get you to be willing to sacrifice your own life in the service of this cause, I must break down your natural emotional defenses (to wit: fear and self-preservation) by demeaning you and your life. I accomplish this by appealing to your own existential situation of misery (it is caused by the devious threats of our enemy) and your natural emotion of shame (you are a fallen creature, weak, flawed, and unworthy). My cause, I assert, will ennoble your own life and, in the process, make things better for those about whom you care. Then I must cement your loyalty by promising you and convincing you that your faithfulness will surely result in some form of reward—physical (loot, booty, spoils, heroic acclaim, etc.) or spiritual (eternal life and favor in paradise).

That is the formula. They all use it; they always have, and they always will.

In dreams, Carl Jung asserts, doors represent opportunities for change and transformation. One should never refuse the opportunity to enter them, to grow, to deepen one's understanding of one's self and one's world—in dreams. In an airplane at 14,000 ft. listing to one side with an open door, something I've been calling thyraphobia prevented me from taking that chance. But that was in reality. It was not a dream.

Yet, by not going through that open door, I gained the opportunity to understand something about myself and my own limitations. I learned that I am not afraid of fear itself. I was ok with it at the time, even though it overtook me completely, even though it rocked my world. And, upon reflection (some may call it rationalization or justification), I'm still ok with it: fear is a defense, an emotion tied to self-preservation and love of life. It is nothing to be ashamed of, not a thing to hate in oneself. It is, in effect, the reason I am skeptical of power and deeply anti-authoritarian. It is the reason I am, by and large and for the most part, a pacifist.

I was not destroyed by my fear and shame. I did not seek to lash out at some foe, real or imagined. I owned my thyraphobia, claimed it as mine. As part of who I am.

It was a rational fear—though somewhat hypertrophied. It had a real-world stimulus. No one told me I had to fear this thing. No one broke down my resistances. If anything, this fear was resistance itself. And it arose out of a deeply rooted sense of self-preservation, if not self-love. Not, I emphasize, vanity. But a love of life, a love of the world, a love of the experience of its awe and majesty, its miracle and, yes, its ugliness and evil, its fear and shame. It was a direct expression of my will to survive, of my desire to experience as much of the world as I possibly can within the four score years the Fates have putatively allotted me. And yes, it was an expression of who I am—who any of us is at heart.

But it was also a holy fear. To live is to be afraid: everything we have and do, every accomplishment and affinity, every battle we fight, is an effort to stave off this fundamental truth. We erect barriers and buffers between us and this primordial shock of recognition at how small and insignificant we truly are in the face of an at-best neutral universe.

Not to fear life and reality is not to respect it. Fear and the complex of concomitant emotions that flow from it are not to be dealt with lightly. They are to be nurtured—for they are life itself.

That day, in that airplane some two miles above the surface of the earth, when it came my time to jump, I met the fear—pure and crystalline—at the heart of my very being, at the heart of all being, and I've made peace with it in all its power. And, as I said, I will never not jump again.

Standing waiting for a man to show
Wide eyed one eye fixed on the door...

You know it makes sense, don't even think about it
Life and death are just things you do when you're bored.
Say fear is a man's best friend;
You add it up it brings you down.

"Fear Is A Man's Best Friend," John Cale

19 October 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 14)

(cont'd from previous posts)

How were the men who hijacked and commandeered four commercial jetliners on 9/11/2001 able to conquer what I can only assume was their innate, very human immediate fear of heights and death, disregarding whatever love of life they might have had and aim the planes they were flying into buildings on the ground and certain death?

One conventional, somewhat simplistic answer making the rounds after the attacks of 9/11/2001 was that "they hate America." That may have been the case. Hatred is a strong emotion. Hatred of the 'other' is a species of misanthropy which, as I noted earlier, is a symptom of a deeper malady: distrust, fear. The 'other' is out to get me. If you are not with me, you are against me. Me against my brother, my brother and me against my family, my family against the clan, my clan against my tribe, my tribe against my race, my race against my nation, my nation against the world. Or something to that effect. But, it is too facile to ascribe such a simplistic emotion to people who put together such an involved plot that included their own destruction. An entire plot was hatched, plotted in minute detail, funded, and executed. It was an act of war, futile in many respects, but war nonetheless. Embattlement seems insufficient.

Many have pointed to the alleged reward of the martyrs as the motivating factor behind the pilots and their accomplices: 72 full-breasted, black-eyed virgins and lots of wine and a place in paradise. The carrot to the stick. It supplies a spiritual motive, of sorts, to their actions. But this somewhat caricatured version ascribes base, sexual motives to the pilots' spirituality. There is some dispute as to the precise translation of the boons of the Islamic paradise of the martyrs. But it bears noting that imputing the motive of sexual and sensual pleasure to the terrorists' religiosity effectively serves to demean them in Puritanical, Protestant American eyes.

Translation issues aside, this view that suicide bombers and terrorists are motivated by dreams of some sort of paradise seems to have some grounding in fact. It is not unprecedented in the Western Christian tradition: consider the promises to the early Crusaders that death in the struggle to liberate the Holy Land from Saracens would bring remission of their sins and admittance to heaven.

Clearly, though, paradise is meant to be a better place. Better than what? we might ask. Better than this place. Better than this life.

They are led to disdain this world and the things of this world which, presumably, includes themselves. Ashamed of their lot in life, ashamed of themselves, blame must be laid. And America looms large as a convenient target for their hatred—and fear.

Overcoming this fallen world, overcoming the shameful self, is the first step to conquering the instinct of self-preservation. Why preserve what you have been convinced you should be ashamed of? Why fear the loss of this fallen, shame-laden life?

Death is a doorway to a better place, a more acceptable self. To stature. To pleasure. To love. To pride. Thyraphobia is a bad thing, a sign of weakness or cowardice in the warrior—spiritual and physical. The suicider need not fear this door. The terrorist is eternally welcome on the other side of this door. If he goes through this door, his abased life will not have been in vain.

Fear—the pure, raw, immediate feeling I felt as I stared down two miles to the drop zone—is thus thoroughly expunged by convincing the victim (yes let's call him a victim) that his life is shameful and miserable, and that he can escape that lowly misery by overcoming his fears of heights and dying. He is convinced that the source of all his misery is not only his enemy, but the enemy of his brother, his family, his clan, his tribe, his race, his nation, his civilization. He has a duty to screw his courage to the sticking place, overcome this paltry fear, and go through that doorway to the glories of martyrdom.

Anger, hatred, shame, and fear: every warlord—whether it is Osama bin Laden or Dick Cheney, Ho Chi Minh or LBJ, Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill, Saladin or Richard the Lionhearted, Alexander the Great or Darius III, Xerxes the Great or Themistocles—must master the art of manipulating these emotions in the hearts of his warriors and his people. It is an ancient art and, thus, an effective one because these emotions are so profound, so deeply central to who we are as human beings.

(to be continued)

12 October 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 13)

(cont'd from previous posts)

It's important to be wary of imputing motives to others' actions: I know I, for one, despise it when some angry person—say, a drunk in a bar or a belligerent neighbor or a frustrated boss or an aggressive lawyer who knows he's losing his case or a political opponent or just about anyone with a borderline personality disorder—starts telling me what I'm thinking and why I did something and what I meant by whatever words I might have said.

It is not my intention here to do that, to project my own insecurities onto others, or to score political points against the previous administration. I'm trying to forge some sort of understanding of myself and, in effect, all of us, trying to operate at human baseline.

If—and I stress the hypothetical here—it is safe to say that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld (and especially Cheney) are heirs to what Richard Hostadter termed the "paranoid style" and that not only did they vicariously feel the terror (being, as predators, ever-sensitive to that weakness in others as well as under the civic duty of their offices) that we all felt on Sept. 11, 2001, but also, if they are at all human, that they experienced deep shame at their own failure to do what they loudly claimed their political enemies, the Democrats, were incapable of—to wit, keep us safe from terror—, that would seem to vindicate my own point that these negative emotions I've been examining demand careful handling—and especially so at the political level.

In response to these internal stimuli, compounded in effect by their access to true power (political and military), they instigated what I consider to be the greatest PR effort of recent memory: to wit that President Bush made us safe from terror. They sold us a war on fraudulent premises. But, more importantly for my purposes here, by pre-emptively "tak(-ing) Saddam out" they effectively managed to conceal their own shame and complicity (negligence).

[Aside: There is an argument to be made that their warring ways were strategically motivated. And I am not immune to that argument. That is to say, preserving U.S. might and world domination as the sole-surviving super power requires us occasionally to throw our weight around. To smack down some petty tyrant—i.e., Saddam Hussein—who threatens to disrupt our supply lines of a crucial resource—i.e., oil. To put the pincers on a troublesome thorn in our imperial paw since at least the time of President Carter's administration—i.e., Iran—by occupying countries on both its flanks and asserting controls over its access to key sea lanes. But that's another exercise, another theme blog series.]

But there's a flip side of that coin. I started off by acknowledging the healthiness of a certain kind and amount of fear: it demands you exercise caution out of a sense of self-preservation. Once this sort of fear is conquered, however—by, say, asserting that there is something more important and valuable than the individual self—then a different set of problems comes into play.

Individualism is an important Western Protestant Christian value. It is a cornerstone of the American way of life. Its concomitant, selfishness, is at the heart of many, if not most, of our economic and political policies. Understanding this is key to understanding America. We, as a rule, do not give up our allegiance to ourselves without a struggle. And we look suspiciously on those who do.

[There are exceptions, of course. These have to do, often, with our military and sports teams—though, even in those endeavors we reserve great affection for the heroes and stars who rise above their role in the unit or team and lead them to victory. Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, particularly the first half, is instructive w/r/t the debasement and thus conquering of the self in the name of the greater unit good. Shame, because it so volatile, can be used as a profound motivator/manipulator.]

On 9/11/2001, there were four airplane 'pilots' (along with their co-conspirators), who, unlike me, willingly somehow and at some point overcame their own fears of falling from the sky and flew their planes (three of them did, anyway) into solid objects on the ground, obliterating themselves in the process. In this, I concede, they were far braver than I who couldn't bear to jump from a slow-flying plane with a professional skydiver and a parachute strapped to my back. What could motivate a person to take such a radical step? It's baffling to me.

I am comfortable enough with my own fears to know that I could never do such a thing. My own fear of heights is deeply rooted in my love of life, my sense of self-preservation. Did those pilots (I'll restrict my question to the pilots, because it's not at all clear that their accomplices knew precisely what was going to happen once they took over the planes) have no fear? Of course, they had fear; they're human beings. We all do.

But what allowed them to overcome it and so willingly sacrifice their own lives and futures? Were they somehow coerced or extorted or blackmailed? Was it ideological, as Bush/Cheney asserted? Did they hate us and our life-style (or at least some caricature version of it) so much they were willing to give up their own lives to inflict damage on certain symbols of our civilization? Did they believe they were at war with us? We with them? Did they believe that everything we did was specifically directed against them and what they prized (what Hostadter called the "paranoid style")? Did they not love their own lives? Were they insane? Did they do it out of a sense of religious or spiritual calling? Did they feel shame at their own lives and existence and somehow believe that America was a potent symbol of the root causes of that shame?

I am not sure there are certain answers to these questions, but I believe these are the right sorts of questions. And we have some clues that can, at least, give us some insight into what may have motivated these 'terrorists'.

(to be continued)