Saturday, August 28, 2010


Photo by Donna Bister
Dionysus reigns! Our front porch is overwhelmed with grapes red and white, leaves bristling out like mad conductor's hair, fruit hanging in a wall of Eat Me.

The only trouble is that under those grapes are our signs listing the numbers of the dead -- military and civilian -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, the data output of our locally popular National Bad News Service, a neighborhood landmark, and source of urgent conversation.

Not that the autumn grapes are the only thing hiding those numbers. There is the year-round assault by language, the misdirection of "winning hearts and minds", of Operation Enduring Freedom, of "bringing democracy" and the upgrade from Bush's "War On Terror" to Obama's more Harvard-y "Enduring Struggle Of The Forces Of Moderation Against Those Of Violent Extremism." A fog of language as dense as the fog of war, year round, and thickening.

Yet rereading Thomas Pynchon's 1973 masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, I came across a passage that makes me think that our numbers themselves, in deep mid-winter, standing stark against red, clear and nasty as can be -- are themselves false fronts for a reality more hideous even than war. In the context of WWII, Pynchon writes:

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to nonprofessionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death is a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets. (p.105)

It's a little throwaway passage, a remark by one of the characters, not a thesis, not the point of the book, not some commie peacenik agit-prop. Just, oh, you know, the underlying truth.

I think I'll add it to the explication of the numbers posted on one of our golden-yellow porch posts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


A happier 148th if you can, Claude Debussy.

The 17th and 18th century paved his way: the motto (in the celebrated words of Kant) "dare to know." And enlightenment thinkers did just that, opening new vistas of science and a rational understanding of the universe.

The l9th century intensified the motto: "dare to master"--and the financial might of capitalist industrial revolution empowered the quest for domination of the natural and political world.

With his revolutionary message, Beethoven epitomized this vision of human creative power. Take a theme and develop it, twist it and explore it, find its inner possibilities and squeeze them out, prod its reflexive interaction with the tool of the will--the creator transformed by its history. With Beethoven the "development section" of classical sonata from grew to engulf the work, and from Beethoven sprang Wagner's manipulation of leitmotifs, and Schoenberg's permutations of the twelve-tone row. The message: man the master.

My favorite Debussy image is of the young man at a concert, whispering to a friend, "Let's go--he's beginning to develop!" What? Leave at the most exciting, revealing, genius-testing moment? What does this guy want? A little insight from his school days when he submitted a composition to his professor which flouted all rules. When asked what rules he observed, he said, "None--only my own pleasure!" "That's all very well," was the retort, "provided you're a genius." We don't know what grade he received in this battle, but we all know who won the war.

The premiere of The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun helped initiate the birth of a certain kind of modernity--some would even say post-modernity--in which there were no grand rules applying, no agreed-upon values, no fixed forms.

As the music flows from moment to moment, mood to mood, at its own "pleasure," eschewing "development," embracing only the barest symmetrical form, so do we flow as a culture: enveloped in our private dreams, resisting "government," despairing of "solutions," heedless of what may come, going with the flow.

Twenty three centuries earlier, Chuang-Tsu wrote "Am I a man dreaming I'm a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I'm a man?" More than a century ago, Debussy dreamed his prophetic dream. And here we are today.Is it an accident of fate that Debussy died in agony, of cancer, in the middle of a war?

Saturday, August 14, 2010


There have been several large studies on the effects of occupation -- bombing, physical injury, house demolitions, tear gassing, house searches, etc. -- on Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza (Google palestine/children/trauma/). A few studies look at the rather smaller numbers of traumatized children in the southern Israeli towns bordering Gaza who experience occasional rocket attacks. (Google israel/children/trauma/.)

All studies demonstrate what might be expected from such direct and witnessed exposure: concentration and attention deficit, memory problems, and various levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. War, as they say, and as shows up in their drawings, is not good for children.

Yet there is another area of child abuse, not generally labeled as such, both here and in the middle east, with which we must also be concerned: educating children toward paranoia and retributive violence.

Whatever your position is on the Israel/Palestine situation, I heavily recommend that you watch these two ten-minute YouTube segments by an Israeli filmmaker, documenting a state-sponsored high-school trip to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz/Birkenau is a hair-raising experience. Hair-graying, too. My companion assured me at the time, that I had a few grey hairs afterwards -- my first -- I hadn't had before that afternoon. The key question, however, is what does one understand and take from that experience.

My own feeling is that these Israeli children were battered and reduced in emotional capacity going from the before to the after. See what you think.

It's not hard to connect such an "educational" experience with such consequences reported here:

America's children have little direct experience of war, occupation and lethally threatening violence, but their lives are full of virtual exposure via film, video, music, and electronic games. In a way, their cart precedes their horse: they are learning the response before the stimulus.

Consider this NPR piece on an Army Experience Center:

Your tax dollars at work, training children to deal with terrorists who -- the adults likely assure them -- hate us for our freedoms.

One Marine boot camp chant I've come across recently goes like this:

“Throw some candy in the school yard,
Watch the children gather round .
Load a belt in your M-50,
Mow them little bastards down!”


Nice. I'm sure the indoctrination in the Experience Centers is not as strong or vicious as among the Semper Fi boys, but the subtler brain-washing may be more extensive and effective.

I don't know what kind of chants they use in the IDF, or in jihadist military training, but I assume it's all similar -- child abusing "education" preparing children for the abuse of children and others.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


August 6th: Hiroshima. August 9th: Nagasaki. Three days in between.

The days between close-set giant pillars take on special significance. Whatever the current behavior of the state of Israel, most Jews know such spaces well.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, are not actually holidays, but mark a special period of time -- what are called the Days of Awe.  They are a kind of spring cleaning in fall, a purification of one's world and soul so that on Yom Kippur the Jew can faced the Eternal with all worldly issues in place.  And what is the main strategy for this cleaning?  It may surprise you.  Asking and giving forgiveness.

The tradition of the shtetels -- those small eastern European Jewish communities depicted in Fiddler on the Roof -- was that in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur people would ask forgiveness of everyone they had wronged that year.  All the little, and sometimes the big, wrongs that had been done in the community were brought out into the open, confessed, made good if possible, and forgiven.  The entire community felt cleansed and pure.  Perhaps not everyone was that honest.  Like folks everywhere, not all Jews had the courage to beg someone's pardon or, when they themselves were asked, to give pardon with a full heart.  But they found it a lot easier to do than we would today.  While we have much more information now than they did, we don't know as well how to say "I'm sorry." But in those simple villages, to avoid a world full of hate, people often took the ten days and went knocking on the doors of any estranged friends, and cleared their personal paths, and those of the community.  The world was cleansed for Yom Kippur -- the "Day of Atonement".

And on that day the naked human being was scheduled to go mano a mano, godwrestling with the Eternal.  Tradition has it that on Rosh Hashanah, God inscribed your name in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. That's why the concern for measuring up.  But the verdict on Rosh Hashanah was not final.  You had the ten days in between, and especially Yom Kippur, to change the Judgement.  But at the end of Yom Kippur, the Books were closed. 

And so it is understandable that Yom Kippur be a full day of prayer without food.  Five separate services take place during 25 hours -- like Muslim practice -- but with little or no pause between them.  The idea of the fast is this: when the human body has paused from its natural acts of life, and history has suspended its normal ups and downs, the spirit can be utterly reborn.  We don't really do fasts in America.  We're better at pig-outs.

And sin -- or evil, for that matter -- is not a very popular concept in the contemporary American heartmind. Yet some concept of estrangement from the Truth has been common to most religious world views. The acknowledgment of sin is a crucial part of the Yom Kippur service. 

"The Cloud Over The Culture" is the punning title of an extraordinary article by Paul Boyer (1985) which appeared on the fortieth anniversary of dropping the bombs. In it, he asserts, as do I, that although "Hiroshima" and "Nagasaki" are such familiar words -- banal even -- the United States "has yet to assimilate fully what those words represent in its political, cultural or moral history."

He quotes the American Catholic Bishops' 1983 Statement on Nuclear War:

After the passage of nearly four decades and a concomitant growth in our understanding of the ever-growing horror of nuclear war, we must shape the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945.  Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons. (My emphasis)

Sorrow.  Remorse.  It sounds Days of Awe-like.  How very, very strange it is that we -- as a nation -- have never done that.  Not once, in now sixty-five years. Not even the teensiest bit.  Un-Amerkin.

We have consistently refused -- and still, even now, refuse -- an absolute and explicit "no first use" nuclear weapons policy. One of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project observed that

If the memory of things is to deter, where is that memory?  Hiroshima has been taken out of the American conscience, eviscerated, extirpated.

1945 seems so long ago.  We were a nation in genuine and legitimate relief from a dreadful war.  But what tenacity there is in the myth of American innocence, the belief that we are somehow set apart from the world, our motives higher, our methods purer.

It is this constant myth that prevents us from having any national Days of Awe, that keeps us from expressing sorrow over the event.  And, as the Catholic Bishops so insightfully express, without that sorrow, we cannot go on, we cannot build a world safe -- from ourselves.

New National Holydays

Let me therefore beat the drum for some pre-Labor Day labor.  Down with innocence!  Up with memory, confession, sorrow, apology, healing!

I hereby propose a new national holiday, modeled on the Days of Awe, but occurring in August, between Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Like the Days of Awe, they would be bounded by two momentous events, would celebrate those events with appropriate ritual, and would feature redemptive tasks to be done in between. 

"It could never happen," you say, "too serious.  It runs against the American grain to do that kind of self-criticism."

Maybe, maybe not.  We have our solemn holidays, in places still solemnly kept.  And besides, we may be growing up as a nation.  Engaged in five current wars, with Iran coming up, the peach fuzz is off our cheeks.  Obama's fairytales notwithstanding, we know we're not in Kansas anymore. 

The vast majority of people realize we can't go on as we are -- exporting jobs, exploiting foreign workers, making wars, eviscerating and polluting the planet. "Change" has become the buzzword to win elections. 

The Christians have taught the world to acknowledge a December season of Peace.  Is it too much to imagine that churches and synagogues, national organizations and neighborhood groups, schools and universities could slowly grow a late summer holiday to express the profound sorrow the Catholic Bishops recommend -- a mindful holiday to witness and grieve, to assimilate a painful part of the past, to dissipate the cloud over the culture, to ask and give forgiveness, to sing in chorus "Hiroshima, Nakasaki. Never Again", and to be able to go on, safer from ourselves?

The religious historian Mircea Eliade has made a distinction between sacred and profane time.  In sacred time, historical events gradually come to partake of the permanence of myth, while in profane time they gradually lose their grip on people and become merely material for historians and the technicians at Disney World.  I am calling for a holiday that would change Hiroshima and Nagasaki into universal myths, deeply grounded in sacred time, permanent stop signs on the road to destruction.  Four new holydays, making things whole, healing.

Here's how it might go.  On August 5th, supper is a Japanese meal, which Americans would learn to make as beautifully as we do a turkey dinner.  The event would have a ritual component like a Seder, in which symbolic foods are eaten, and history is thoughtfully reviewed.  Each family, each congregation, each school would develop its own texts until some key themes and treatments became solidified.

The morning and afternoon of the 6th -- Hiroshima Day -- would be a time for fasting, or some special breakfast, with a ritual observance at 8:15 AM.  During the 6th, 7th and 8th -- our three days of awe and repentance -- individuals would consciously perform expiatory tasks, personal and interpersonal, as in the Jewish Days of Awe, but also social, holding teach-ins, attending peace events.  If a weekend fell between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there would be special services at churches, synagogues, mosques. Morning and afternoon of the 9th is again a special time of fasting. 11:02 is observed, and everyone gears up for a big celebration in the evening, at which international foods of all kinds would be prepared -- a huge community festival.

What I'm describing is a full-blown, big holiday.  Things don't begin that way, of course.  We might just start by thinking about it for a few years, by recognizing that in fact something important did occur on these days.  Then, who knows what would grow -- in individual hearts, in individual families, in individual congregations and institutions.  Were something like this to get underway, in ten years we'd have Good Housekeeping printing August peace recipes. 

We postmoderns like to play with history.  Now we can play in its real mudbath, and actually get dirty -- a death-defying vital alternative to psychic numbing.  Would the New Days of Awe change anything?  I can't imagine otherwise.  The power of confession has been known to the Catholic Church for centuries.  If anything has sustained the even older Jewish community, it has been the inspiration of the High Holy Days.  The Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca.  This stuff has both a track record and the power of newness-at-large.  Like an exotic virus spreading in a vulnerable population, the power of guilt could quite transform postmodern American culture. Revelation through genuine memory, then Teshuvah, turning and Tikkun, healing.

Or shall we just go on making wars?