Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Beyond the book: page 1379 of Deathly Hallows...

(Image from Wikipedia)

Though still a little-known fact, the latest Potter volume contains more than 759 pages.

No, I don't mean those those seven blank pages nor the "About the Author" page, another blank page, the "About the Illustrator" page, or that last visible page, on art direction and the choice of font.

Nope, not those.

I mean the part of the book that extends into another dimension, much like Doctor Who's TARDIS, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside. In those pages beyond our earthly dimensions, Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows never seems to end.

It is, indeed, a hypertext, unbounded in all directions and linked to every other text in the universe, a veritable universe of discourse.

I've reached page 1379, where Voldemort fully melds with the Antichrist, something I've been anticipating for several volumes now as Voldemort has taken on ever-more-serpentine qualities and thereby grown ever-more Satanic. Turns out, then, that the entire anti-Potter faction among evangelicals has been utterly wrong the whole time about Rowling's supposed 'anti-Christian' magic. In these hypertextual pages, the Christian imagery grows ever more obvious. Those evangelicals who had opposed the Potter phenomenon for its 'pagan' worldview will just have to learn to read it in much the way that they've learned to read C.S. Lewis, seeing the deeper magic beneath the witchery and accepting the pagan details as vehicles for a Christian message, as Elisabeth Gruner has been arguing for some time.

Deathly Hallows is simply another expression for the valley of the shadow of death, so we should fear no evil...

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Big Ho's "Potter spoilers" Spoiled!

(Image from Wikipedia)

Don't look at the Big Ho's "Potter spoilers" . . . unless you don't want to have your reading of Rowling's latest (and last) volume spoiled.

Yes, you heard me right, even if you did have to think about it.

But if you're currently being tempted to read the Big Ho's "Potter spoilers" -- which you can access immediately to gratify that temptation -- then don't read my blog entry any further because what comes next will spoil the spoilers. Here's the Big Ho's first 'spoiler':
"1. I was shocked that Hermione was killed off in the first twenty pages. That was totally unexpected. Wow."
Liar! I've read 175 pages, and Whiney Hermione ain't dead yet. However, there remain another 584 pages, and that fact leaves plenty of collective room for hope.

So . . . I'll continue to hope the worst for Hermione and the best for me, but I'm still angry at the Big Ho because I bought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows solely to see Hermione get her comeuppance.

The Big Ho has five other "Potter spoilers" -- or should I say 'Potter soilers' -- given the Big Ho's predilection for a certain genre of humor -- but I've not read them yet. I read the Hermione 'spoiler' by chance as my eye happened to pause upon that particular day's entry before I realized what I was reading. Overjoyed to hear of Hermione's death, but not wanting to spoil any other unexpected plot developments, I immediately stopped reading the Big Ho and rushed out to a bookstore to grab the latest Potter and rush out again to start reading. My headlong rush was interrupted when the store clerks grabbed me and extorted money for a book that was already in my hands! Dammit! Don't Koreans know that "Possession is nine-tenths of the law"? That's one of those proverbial bits of practical wisdom that I learned as a kid along with other wise sayings like "Finders keepers, losers weepers." I guess that Koreans don't have any proverbs in their language, or they would know these things.

Anyway, I was soon rudely disappointed to discover that Hermione doesn't die . . . not in the first 20 pages, at any rate.

The truly unsurprising thing, of course, is Harry Potter's death. I was a bit taken aback to read of it in the first 20 pages, for one would expect the book itself to end at that point -- what with Voldemort victorious and all in this darkest of the Potter series -- but the book goes on and on and on as Voldemort and his Death Eaters hunt down and exterminate one Potter friend after another. Basically, the rest of the book appears to be a mopping up operation for the victorious forces of Voldemort, and I'm surprised that Hermione has survived so far.

Everybody knew that Potter had to die (so this isn't a plot spoiler) because Rowling had already announced that this latest volume would be the last in the series, tantamount to saying that Harry Potter dies.

So, this hairy Harry phenomenon will all be over soon, thank God! I do worry, ever so slightly, that Whiney Hermione might survive to fight on in subsequent volumes.

I certainly hope not, but if that should happen to happen, then I say that the time has come to join forces with the anti-Potter faction of evangelicals and ban these books!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Absolute National Sovereignty to the Taliban?

Taliban's Destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas
All power to the Taliban?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Over at Malcolm Pollack's WakaWakaWaka, an individual going by the name "Gak Seolli" has posted a comment about the Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan that includes the following remark:
The Taliban, no matter how morally repugnant we may find them, doesn't [sic: don't] have to answer to anyone in regards to what they do on their own land. They've guaranteed no safety for foreigners, offered no invitation to missionaries. They've quite plainly done the opposite....
When questioned on this point, Gak Seolli elaborated that concerning the Taliban, he had merely:
...inquired into the rights anyone had to enter their territory and what rights outsiders would have to demand that the Taliban allow certain behaviors or visitors on their lands. Did the Taliban not make it pretty clear that outsiders and non co-religionists should stay out of their land? The US/Korean governments got the message, By what right do we declare that their declaration is invalid?
These two brief statements don't provide much for me to go on, but the basic position seems to be what one might call "absolute national sovereignty," for the Taliban need not "answer to anyone in regards to what they do on their own land."

There seem to me to be two problems with this position, one empiricial and the other theoretical:
Concerning the former, empirical problem: Are the Taliban actually the political authority in Afghanistan? If they are not -- and they don't seem to have political power at the moment -- then is Afghanistan "their own land" in the relevant political sense? If the Taliban are to speak in terms of absolute national sovereignty, then they ought at least to hold political power before doing so. Political power, however, is currently held by the government of President Hamid Karzai under a constitution ratified by the loya jirga in 2003. This official government has demanded that the Taliban free the Korean hostages. If absolute national sovereignty is accepted, then how can the Taliban oppose its own government?

Concerning the latter, theoretical problem: Is absolute national sovereignty a reasonable political position? Does a governing authority really not have to answer to anyone with regard to what it does on its own land? That seems counterintuitive to me, for it implicitly leaves one without the right to criticize the internal affairs of any foreign country for any policy whatsoever. Does one truly not have this right? If a country is committing genocide within its own borders, can one really not legitimately criticize this? My moral intuition suggest that we should not only criticize such an internal policy, we should also attempt to stop it. If this intuition is correct, then absolute national sovereignty is an unreasonable political position to hold.
My intent here is not to set up a straw man for attack, and I don't know that I've correctly understood Gak Seolli's position, but absolute national sovereignty would seem to be the logical implication of the view that the Taliban need not "answer to anyone in regards to what they do on their own land."

Variants of absolute national sovereignty have had eminent theoreticians, such as Thomas Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, but most political thinkers decline to adopt such a political philosophy.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blood of the martyrs?

But where's that bloody seed of the faith?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, in a typically garbled allusion, I typed these words:
It was said -- perhaps by Eusebius -- that the blood of the martyrs watered the seeds of the church.
Joshua Snyder (aka Western Confucian) corrected me:
[I]t was the heretic Tertullian, God bless him, who said it: "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum." (Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:44 pm)
Joshua's passing reference to Tertullian as a 'heretic' is an ungarbled allusion to Tertullian's Montanism, a mid-second-century Christian sect that gathered around the ecstatic prophet Montanus who claimed to be the incarnate Paraclete, or Holy Spirit.

Anyway, I thanked Joshua for embarassing me -- dirty work, but somebody had to do it! I tried to redeem myself by translating the Latin: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians."

I then went looking for the exact quote in Tertullian's online works but couldn't find it. I did find that Tertullian says something similar in his Apology: "semen est sanguis Christianorum" (Apologeticum (Apology) 50.13), i.e., "the blood of Christians is seed."

(Yeah, I know, the quote looks like it says that "semen is the blood of Christians," but that's just your ignorance of Latin!)

Parentheticals aside, did Tertullian actually say "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum"? This reminds me of my fruitless search for the first person to utter those even more striking words "The Church is a whore, but she is my mother!" I found that quote attributed to individuals as diverse as Luther and Augustine but always with no source specifically cited. Well, I've also found no specific locus of the words "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum" in Tertullian ... yet.

Now, he may indeed have penned these words (and they surely echo his sentiments), but I have reason to think that the quote is a conflation of the words "semen est sanguis Christianorum" in his Apology and remarks on Christian martyrs elsewhere in his voluminous writings. Why do I say this? For various reasons.

For instance, I found online, in a work titled Dicionário de Expressões e Frases Latinas (compiled by the Henerik Kocher), the following reference:
Sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum. [Maloux 333]. O sangue dos mártires é a semente dos cristãos. VIDE: =Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum. =Semen est sanguis Christianorum. (Kocher, Dicionário, #219)
The "Maloux" citation refers to this page 333 of Maurice Maloux, Dictionnaire des proverbes, sentences et maximes (Paris: Larousse, 1960), which I don't have but which undoubtedly says the same thing as Kocher's Dicionário. Kocher appears to be a Brazilian who enjoys collecting proverbs in various languages -- though not in English, apparently. If Maloux had provided a specific source, then Kocher would have cited that, for I see from Kocher's other entries that he ordinarily gives specific, original sources.

I also located a scholarly article by J. Petruccione, "The Martyr Death as Sacrifice: Prudentius, Peristephanon 4. 9-72," which appears in Vigiliae Christianae (Vol. 49, No. 3 (Aug., 1995), pp. 245-257) and which notes Tertullian's words "semen est sanguis Christianorum" but says nothing about the putative quote "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum" despite being an article on martyrdom.

Nor does Blake Leyerle's article "Blood Is Seed," in The Journal of Religion (Vol. 81, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 26-48), cite the words "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum" even though its central theme is on blood as seed.

If Tertullian had in fact penned the words "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum," then surely at least one of these three scholars Kocher, Petruccione, or Leyerle would have quoted them and cited him. But they don't.

I therefore humbly suggest that the quote is bogus.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Two opinions on the Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan...

André Thévet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies des Hommes Illustres
"semen est sanguis Christianorum" - Tertullian

I suppose that I should have an opinion on the hostage crisis in Afghanistan.

I mean the 23 (now 22) Christian medical missionaries from South Korea captured by the Taliban and threatened with execution if South Korea doesn't withdraw its troops 'immediately' or pay a ransom, or if the Afghan government doesn't exchange 23 (now 22?) Taliban prisoners for them, or if the United States doesn't do something (probably), or if the whole world doesn't convert to Islam (eventually). As you see, I'm not absolutely clear on what the Taliban want.

Even one local police chief in Afghanistan, Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, acknowledges that the Taliban demands are confusing: "One says, let's exchange them for my relative, the others say let's release the women, and yet another wants a deal for money."

While the Taliban may not know what they specifically want, they do want the world to know that they are very serious. They've already killed one prisoner, the 43-year-old pastor, Bae Hyung-kyu, who was leading the group, reportedly because he "was sick and couldn't walk and was therefore shot." I don't know if that early report was accurate, but it's hardly one to counter the negative image that many already have of the Taliban.

Anyway, I suppose -- as I said -- that I should have an opinion on the hostage crisis in Afghanistan.

Actually, I have two opinions, and I've already expressed both of them ... not here at Gypsy Scholar, but over at the Marmot's Hole. My first opinion was in reaction to the spate of initial criticism blasted at the missionaries themselves by a number of commentors, who considered the missionaries stupid -- first for being Christian, second for going to a Muslim country as missionaries, and third for going to a war zone. At that time, people didn't know much about the situation and were reacting to the report in ways that sounded less like reasoned analysis and more like the results of a Rorschach Test, revealing less about the hostages than about the commentors themselves.

Here -- from the Marmot's original posting on the hostage crisis -- are my own Rorschach results:
I think that every Korean Christian heading to Muslim countries has been perfectly aware of the potential cost ever since Kim Sun-il was beheaded in Iraq three years ago.

These Christians go to do volunteer work in health and charity services as well as to witness to their faith, which is by and large a peaceful one.

When they speak to Muslims about their faith, they speak of a God who loved the world enough to take human flesh and die for humanity, and they see as their mission to live a Christlike life, which for them means living -- and possibly dying -- in the service of others.

They don’t force anyone to become a Christian -- and in fact believe that belief cannot be forced.

They are among the last individuals whom I would look down upon. (Posted July 20, 2007 at 9:31 pm)
Later, in the comments to another Marmot post, I expressed my other opinion -- the Rorschach results this time revealing my Realpolitik views:
As I told the folks in my Sunday School class, these 23 missionaries chose to express their faith by going to Afghanistan to minister to the Afghans. They knew the danger, and they took the risk. They made their choice. The Korean government should not negotiate with the Taliban over these hostages. The Taliban are murderous, violent, fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. Negotiating with them will lead to more hostage-taking -- especially hostage-taking of Koreans.

If Christian missionaries wish to witness -- in word or in deed, or both -- to Muslims, then they should not expect their own governments to pay ransoms for their release. It was said -- perhaps by Eusebius -- that the blood of the martyrs watered the seeds of the church. If that’s so, then Christians should accept the possibility of martyrdom.

That said, I do not know what these missionaries have expected, nor am I sure that anyone knows clearly since their wishes have not been expressed in any reports that I’ve read. Doubtless, their faith is on trial. Faced with death, whose thoughts wouldn’t be concentrated? -- if I may borrow a thought from Samuel Johnson. I hope that they are released unharmed -- the 22 remaining ones, at any rate -- but that should be the decision of the Taliban, and nothing more than moral pressure should be exerted, with the exception of a rescue operation if that be the decision of the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

I suspect that the Korean government has already gained the reputation as one willing to pay ransom, based on the experience of hostage-taking by Somali pirates and Nigerian rebels. Unless I’m mis-remembering what happened in such cases... (Posted July 26, 2007 at 6:29 pm)
The Western Confucian (Joshua Snyder) corrected me:
[I]t was the heretic Tertullian, God bless him, who said it: "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum." (Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:44 pm)
Thanks, Joshua. For the benefit of those whose Latin is rusty, here's what Tertullian meant to say: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." I haven't located this exact quote, but Tertullian says something similar in his Apology: "semen est sanguis Christianorum" (Apologeticum (Apology) 50.13), i.e., "the blood of Christians is seed."

But Tertullian's insight may also be true for Islam: "sanguis martyrum semen muslimorum."

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oversleeping a homework assignment...

"Much depends upon dinner," breakfast,
and the occasional snack...
(cf. Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto 13, Stanza 94)
(Image from Wikipedia)

I overslept this morning and couldn't help my hillbilly friend JK with his homework assignment:
I recall a fairly recent blog on a poem that you and your class discussed that ended (it seems) with a general consensus that it had to do with a suicide? And love. I'm about to go on Gypsy and look for it, it was fairly recent but I've never really searched on your site, just hit the daily blog. I know that you're sleeping as I type but if you have the time (provided I can't find it) might you send me the poem?
As he said, I was sleeping, really deeply sleeping, but he found my "Luke Havergal" post on his own anyway. I'm awake now but probably not going to be much help with his other homework assignment:
Because I've missed two days of class in Comp I've been rewarded with the coveted "Compare James Joyce with Proust" essay. 2000 words. It took me three years to wade thru Ullysseys [sic]. 6 citations. He didn't give any specific date but August 8 is when the semester ends . . . . I'm sort of familiar with Joyce tho' it's been nearly 20 years. Proust is outta my universe, definitely beyond my ken. But were you to provide a few lines in the way of an "approach" that could prod me in forming a good thesis I would be most appreciative and in your debt. Were you to point me to . . . research resources that would too be nice.
I'm ashamed to say this, but I was so groggy when I awoke to JK's request that I couldn't recall precisely what it was that prompted Proust's remembrance of things past -- as I confessed in a note to JK:
I'm not well-read in Proust or Joyce, but maybe you could look at what triggers the remembrances. In Proust, it's a piece of pastry, right? In Joyce, something triggers Molly's remembrances, but what? I don't recall. Is it sex? Are their memories triggered by something similar? Concrete? Sensuous?
Only over a slightly late breakfast as I bit into my morning toast did I recall -- in a trickle of memory -- that Proust had bitten into a madeleine that triggered his flood of memory:
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine... (Marcel Proust, Swann's Way: Remembrance of Things Past, C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, translators (Vintage 1989), page 63)
But what triggered Molly Bloom's total recall? I do recall that her internal monologue in the final chapter of Joyce's Ulysses begins and ends with "Yes":
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs...

...I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Rather a lot of yeses. But does anything trigger this? The memory of a breakfast, possibly? Perhaps this Ulyssesian site has all the Joycean answers.

Meanwhile, if other readers could advise JK, I'm sure that he'd be grateful. Not full of great rewards for those who help, but he'd offer at least his grateful thanks over a toast...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Do ye ken it?"

"Do ye ken it?"
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a comment to my post on "Strange, overlapping loops," one of my regular readers, JK, noted the continued use of the word "ken" in the Arkansas Ozarks up until the time of my own childhood there:
In the hills the lexicon still contained a few words not much heard today. You'uns, we'uns. But one perhaps most revealing in this context was "ken."

My grandfather occasionally used it when he was giving me a life lesson. One of my most memorable times with him occurred when he took me fishing on Southfork [River]. I don't recall the exact lesson that day but I asked him just what ken meant.

"It's a bit like understand, but there's more to it" he said. He slapped his head and said "you know it here." He placed his hands on his chest and said, "you know and feel it here." He made an arm's wide gesture and said, "and you can use it to feel the world around you."

If memory serves, and perhaps your English commentor [Eshuneutics] might give a more accurate lesson, my memory seems to tell me that "ken" was of Scots origin.
Now, I have to own up to never hearing this word myself when I was a kid. It must have passed out of people's active vocabularies, but I've no doubt that the old folks would have known it. I wish that I could ask Grandma Shell (born 1877) or Grandpa Perryman (born 1895) -- or even better, my Grandma Hodges (born 1895) or 'Grandpa' Archie (born 1899), who lived on an isolated farm southwest of Viola, Arkansas at the end of 6 miles of dirt road and who still spoke like oldtimers. 'Grandpa' Archie was still living in the mid-1990s -- long enough for Sun-Ae to meet him -- and could have told me if I'd known to ask about the word "ken." But, of course, asking about this word never occurred to me because I didn't know that "ken" had lasted until my own Ozark childhood.

JK's anecdotal remembrance of his grandfather's explanation of what "ken" meant is striking for me because of what it suggests about people's nonacademic understanding of their own language. Let me get at my meaning this way. If I -- in my academic way -- wanted to know what "ken" meant, I'd check a dictionary. Let's try the online free dictionary as a first approximation:
noun: 1. Perception; understanding: complex issues well beyond our ken. 2. a. Range of vision. b. View; sight.

verb: kenned or kent (kĕnt), ken·ning, kens Scots

transitive verb: 1. To know (a person or thing). 2. To recognize.

intransitive verb: To have knowledge or an understanding.
We can immediately see that JK's grandfather's use of "ken" fits within this range of meaning. Two things, however, strike me as missing in the dictionary -- the old man's emphasis upon feeling as a way of knowing and his way of uniting the word's three uses rather than dividing them. Recall his own words:
"It's a bit like understand, but there's more to it" he said. He slapped his head and said "you know it here." He placed his hands on his chest and said, "you know and feel it here." He made an arm's wide gesture and said, "and you can use it to feel the world around you."
Rather than distinguish meanings, JK's grandfather joined them, emphasizing "there's more to it." I particularly like the way that he joined "ken" in its senses of know (mental), feel (emotional), and perceive (sensational) -- as though all three can operate simultaneously.

And that leads me to rethink my earlier reading of these lines in Milton's Paradise Lost, which describe Satan awakening in Hell after his expulsion from heaven and growing aware of his dismal circumstances:
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [50]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [55]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [60]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [65]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd: (PL 1.50-69)
I focus here upon lines 59-60: "At once as far as Angels kenn he views / The dismal Situation waste and wilde." Alastair Fowler notes that "kenn" may have verbal force here (Fowler, ed., John Milton: Paradise Lost, 2nd edition (1998), page 63, note 59).

If I may extrapolate from the old man's explanation of "ken" in the early 1960s back to Milton's use of the word some 300 years earlier in his 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, then I should understand "kenn" to mean more than merely "range of vision" (a meaning that goes back to at least 1205 in its verbal sense, according to my OED, page 671). I should understand "kenn" to mean that Satan not only "sees" but also feels his situation in perceiving it and knowing it. Certainly the emotional force of his dismal situation would be powerfully perceived, known, and felt all at once.

Now, this may seem like a minor point, but it's an important matter for interpretation and translation. If I am working with a Middle English text such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and encounter the word "ken," then I will need to consider that the word may combine its meanings rather than distinguish them, for with such a text, I am forced to translate its archaic and even dialectical English into a more modern, mainstream form, so I need to understand what meaning needs to be preserved in doing that.

I'll have to give this point some more thought and perhaps seek out a few examples, especially since I'm scheduled to present a paper at a Medieval conference on translation this autumn...

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Another fan-death disbeliever!

Fan Death in Korea
The pain is horrific to bear!
(Image from OhmyNews)

Despite my best efforts, I seem to be fighting a losing battle against those who doubt fan death. Why do I say this? Because another fan-death skeptic has visited my blog, and this one is a Korean!

The infidel's name is "Julia," but we cannot blame her loving parents, for the accursed disbeliever tells us that her own dear mother:
...used to wake up EVERY night at 3 am to open my brother's bedroom door because he slept with the ceiling fan on. Because Richard would never heed her advice about leaving the bedroom door open if he was going to have his fan on, she was horrified that the fan (in a closed room) would SUCK the air our of the room and leave her with an empty shell of a human being as a son...
Such loving care -- careful love that only a Korean mother could bestow -- was wasted on this ingrate, who laughed at a sad song titled "Fan Death Suicide Pact Cult" that she heard in some bar and then returned home to Google the internet so that she could laugh at the sad stories of others who have posted warnings about fan death.

She even happened across my blog entry of warning about fan death and reported back on her own blog:
[H]ere's what one crazy ex-pat professor of English Literature says about fan death (it's just too insane to NOT share):

How can people doubt fan death!? Fans kill thousands of people each year, but most of the deaths go unreported because the fans were in a different room. It's a little-known fact that the whirling blades cause disturbance in the ether that pervades the universe, and the ripple effect impairs organisms up to 500 feet distant.

This summer, fans killed several of my son's pets. First a stag beetle died when our cat, driven mad by ripples in the ether, overturned the beetle's plastic terrarium and fought the poor beetle to its death. Miraculously, the cat survived. Our eel was not so lucky as the cat. Driven insane by the whirling blades' insidious disturbance of the ether, it managed to flip itself out of its aquarium -- through a tiny hole in the top!! -- and die. We found it on the floor ... shriveled and dry. That could happen to you, too. Since then, two other stag beetles have died. Snails as well. And a goldfish has turned deathly white! Scary.

Miraculously, our cats and children have survived, but we're taking no more chances, especially now that our two fans have begun to alter weather patterns in our apartment. In the past two days [this September 2006], they've actually been blowing cool air at night -- even though there's no air-conditioning unit attached! We think that the fans are now trying to freeze us to death, so we've put them away in a closet, completely covered in a bag zipped carefully shut to prevent them from doing even more damage.

Fans are killers. Why do you think that they're called fans? The word "fan" is short for "fanatic." You can't trust fanatics. Don't trust fans, either.
If you want to see the original post, check out his lunatic rants here.
As if her own scoffing at the truth weren't bad enough, Julia is in league with others opposed to fan-death theory. A certain Jennifer comments:
Wow, I'd be speechless, except I suspect the English professor is being satirical. If he isn't... well, then I really am speechless.

I think "fan death" will make it into a blog post, oh yes indeed! :)
Jennifer's skepticism even extended to doubts about my very sincerity, but Julia at least believes that I'm sincere (an important Korean virtue):
I would have thought that as well, seeing as how ridiculous his claims are, but if you read the rest of his blog entry... I don't know. I think that he believes in fan death...
At this point -- seeing that I needed to certify my sincerity -- I posted the following comment:
Yes, [Jennifer,] do blog on fan death:

"I think 'fan death' will make it into a blog post, oh yes indeed!"
Call attention to its dire threat!

Not only does it cause death, but even in small doses, it will make one ill.

Why, it's already driven me insane ... as duly noted in this blog entry [by Julia]. (Thanks for noticing.)

Indeed, I am so mentally disturbed by the etherial effects of those whirling blades that I even believe this nonsense about fan death.

I realize that this belief is crazy, but ... well, so am I.
That's the sad part, of course: I'm truly insane. Those whirling fans have driven me mad, forcing me to scribble all sorts of egregious nonsense. Yet, even my "nonsense" has more sense than non. I count five letters to three, which implies that sense wins out.

Need I remind you, therefore, that fans drove the brilliant Hwang Woo-suk to utterly destroy his illustrious career in cloning? Recall how Hwang's fans made the poor doctor look even more ridiculous?

Or note how fans are also responsible for the disgraced Shin Jeong-ah, the disgraced Lee Ji-young, and the disgraced Lee Hyun-se. How, you might ask, are fans responsible for their false academic claims? A moment's sober reflection will answer that question.

Koreans are such fanatics about obtaining higher degrees from elite universities that each year, high school graduates even kill themselves for failing to score high enough on qualifying exams for admission to Korea's top three universities. Although Shin Jeong-ah, Lee Ji-young, and Lee Hyun-se escaped almost certain death by academic disappointment, they did glimpse the abyss gaping at their feet. They faced a stark choice: either die or lie. Thank God they made the right decision, and we should respect them for choosing life.

Besides, it's not their fault that they lied. Academic fanaticism drove these three to deceive everyone! Read the authoritative words of Thomas R. Ellinger and Garry M. Beckham ("South Korea: Placing Education on Top of the Family Agenda," Phi Delta Kappan, April, v. 78. no. 8, p. 624) for what they tell us about this sort of fanaticism:
South Koreans view education as they view the rest of life: a process of winning and losing. They have no concept of a game played well for its own sake. The family emphasis on educational achievement is so strong that it has been dubbed "education mania." (quoted in Paul Robertson, "The Pervading Influence of Neo-Confucianism on the Korean Education System," Asian EFL Journal, June 2002, Volume 4, Issue 2, Article 1, paragraph 8)
And what is "education mania" but insane fanaticism? Indeed, such fanaticism made academic fanatics of Shin Jeong-ah, Lee Ji-young, and Lee Hyun-se. In short, they were themselves, literally, turned into academic fans!

But it's a fate that they share with all Koreans, for each and every Korean is secretly an academic fan for whom education -- like life itself -- is a process of winning or losing! Most, of course, lose out and grow self-destructive. I think that Korea's current, unsustainably low birth rate can only be explained as the collective suicide of all those failed educational fans. In other words, fans are killing the entire Korean nation.

Fans are truly insidious...

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Strange, overlapping loops...

"My future's so bright, I gotta wear shades..."
(Image from Wikipedia)

In late 1979, I moved from Waco, Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, living first in Menlo Park and then in Atherton with my 'significant other.' Such was the politically correct expression for one's main squeeze back then, a linguistic formula that eschewed sexism and homophobia in one tongue-twisting abstraction -- though I jokingly called her my 'insignificant other' (which might be partly why that relationship didn't work out so well).

Sorry, Linda of the lovely auburn hair.

Anyway, she was pursuing her doctorate in history at Stanford, while I was working for Wells Fargo Bank in Palo Alto, where I performed each day the essential task of putting a "stop payment" on every second-thinking bank client's check. I used a manual typewriter and had to press each key extra hard to force the imprint to carry through the top sheet and two sets of carbon and paper. Facing me across the large desk sat another person doing exactly the same thing. Together, we typed out stop payments in the rhythmic stereotype of low-level clerks.

By evening, I played at being a bohemian intellectual -- visiting cafés where I got to hear a then-unknown Tuck and Patti perform jazz for free as I drank inexpensive glasses of champagne, or where I could read the newly-known Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach over rather more expensive cappuccinos, all the while dreaming of graduate school and a future so bright that I'd have to wear shades.

My future didn't turn out quite like that.

Nor does anybody's, I guess ... neither the immensely talented Tuck and Patti nor the intellectually gifted Douglas Hofstadter.

The former appear to have spent years on the road, touring. I once saw an ad for a performance of theirs back when I was living in Germany, perhaps around 1994. They seem to have missed the big time.

Some few years later, perhaps in 1996 or 1997, a highly successful Hofstadter -- published, tenured, recognized -- lost his beloved wife Carol. I was reminded of this on Saturday as I read these words by David Brooks:
Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they'd just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.

A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol.

He describes what he felt in his recent book, "I Am A Strange Loop":

"I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, 'That's me. That's me!'"

"And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain." (Brooks, "Bonded by Loops and Flares," International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, July 21-22, 2007, p. 7)
There's something both insightful and deflating about this. The part that especially lets me down, I think, is his choice of the term "brain." I would have preferred at least "mind." Why he chose that very material word when he's willing to use the loaded term "soul" remains somewhat opaque to me. I suppose it's partly because he thinks that the mind is the brain, but if so, then why not use the word "mind"?

But let that be.

Brooks likes Hofstadter's theory of the self and thinks it applicable to some of our social problems in America:
A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol's selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.

I bring all this up in an Op-Ed column because most political and social disputes grow out of differing theories about the self, and I find Hofstadter's social, dynamic, overlapping theory of self very congenial.

It emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it's not one of those stifling, collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.

It exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve through their own genius and willpower.

It exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being. There is no self that exists before society.

It explains why it's so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. Human beings are permeable. The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust. (Brooks, p. 7)
I'd need to know more about this conception of the self as a collection of overlapping perspectives, which means that I'd need to read Hofstadter's recent book, I Am A Strange Loop, but his theory is at least potentially applicable toward explaining some of the problems facing inner-city African-Americans that Barack Obama has written about.

But I'm not sure -- even if the theory is true -- how to apply it to solving our inner-city problems.

But I do see how Hofstadter's insight into the fusion of souls explains my failure with my long-ago Linda. Not sharing "identical hopes and dreams," Linda and I never grew into a fusion of shared souls. Rather the opposite. People talk about growing apart. Perhaps they lose that shared point of view, that shared way of seeing the world.

But here I am again, talking to myself about books that I haven't read because I'm not successful enough to afford them. That bright future has eluded me, it seems, but that's okay, for I've never looked especially good in shades...

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gypsy Scholar visits the police...

Police Encounter
"Please police me, oh yeah, like I police you..."
(Image from Wikipedia)

On Friday afternoon, I had a brief encounter with the Korean police.

It started like this...

On Wednesday afternoon, I received a phone call from a certain Korean man who proceeded to remind me of an experience way back on the evening of September 14, 2006 during the 31st anniversary celebration of Papua New Guinea's independence, an event that I attended at Seoul's Grand Hyatt Hotel and that I happen to have blogged upon:

I had an ... exciting encounter with a journalist from the Korea IT Times. I happened to be alone for a moment, sipping an Australian shiraz and musing about maybe testing that special Arabicas roast [imported from Papua New Guinea], when a Korean man approached me to introduce himself. He was a perceptive fellow, for he already had me pegged as a professor and asked if I taught literature.

In our ensuing conversation, he learned that I had previously taught at Hanshin University. At this point, he became animated and informed me that he had majored in German at Hanshin. I responded by switching to German, and he impressed me not only by replying in German but also by continuing our talk in that language.

I say "impressed" because many Korean students in Korea are not especially serious about their major, and one often meets people here who know very little about the field that they 'studied.'

Anyway, I was just about to hand him my card, when a rather burly fellow who was clearly deep into his cups came over, grabbed the journalist, spoke some angry words in Korean, and began pushing the poor fellow. Astonished by this sudden irruption, I could only stare as my conversation partner was pushed halfway across the room. Other people intervened to separate the two, the aggressive man was escorted out, and my journalist returned to accept my card and supply his own before exiting with determination in his eyes.
To be frank ... the Korean fellow didn't specify all of these details. Rather, he mentioned being a reporter for the Korea IT Times and reminding me that we had met at a celebration "On the Occasion of the 31st Anniversary of the Independence of Papua New Guinea," to which I had been invited by Ambassador Kuma Aua.

All of the details then came flooding back ... vaguely. I was drowning in them, but rescued by the Korean man on the other end of the line, a lifeline:

"You remember the attack?" he inquired.

That, I recalled clearly. "Yes," I confirmed.
That established, the man reminded me that he had attended Hanshin University, where I had taught (an important connection for Koreans, for whom connections mean everything), and asked me if I would be willing to act as a witness of the attack.

I agreed.

Now, I agreed -- of course -- more out of abstract principles than due to any particular connection that I might have with this fellow. I had seen what appeared to be an unprovoked attack, the apparent victim needed an eyewitness, and I felt that testifying was my duty.

As I remarked, rather abstract.

Of course, I had to rope my wife into this. At first, she was skeptical and gave me that 'look' that says "What are you thinking?!" But after she had spoken to the man himself and learned that he had been attacked three fricking times by the same implacable fellow, her Korean heart was touched, and she wanted to help the poor man.

I -- by this time -- was wondering, "Uh ... three times? What have I gotten myself into? Is Mr. Implacable going to come looking for me?" So much for abstract principles...

Nevertheless, on Friday afternoon, I went to Samseong Subway Station to meet my wife on her way back from teaching, and we walked to our scheduled meeting in the nearby police station, where the poor man looked so relieved to see us appear. He shook hand with me, bowed to my wife (the obvious boss, I guess), and thanked us profusely for coming to help him.

Soon, we approached the policeman who bore responsibility for posing the questions. He took one look at me and sighed, "Oh no, not a foreigner!"

But he soon learned that I was a professor at Kyung Hee University and married to a Korean, which seemed to help rehabilitate me ... a bit.

After instructing the Korean fellow to go out, he asked what had happened. I recited the dry details -- which you can derive from the description above by deleting all of the adjectives.

My wife waited until I had finished telling everything, which wasn't much, and then translated.

Afterwards, the policeman typed and typed.

Then, he asked my wife to proofread what he had written. She looked at it and smiled. After reading through, she explained, "It's written up as a report of the policeman posing questions that you answer." As if he had interviewed me!

The 'legal' truth will thus differ from the actual truth. Granted, the policeman did ask a follow-up question. I had described the aggressor as having pushed the man who had asked me to testify on his behalf.

The policeman asked, "Did the alleged aggressor strike the victim with his fist?"

I replied, "I did not see this happen."
The policeman asked this more than once. Each time, I testified that I had not seen that sort of violence. At length, the policeman appeared satisfied. Actually, he seemed to have the opinion that a mountain was being made of a molehill (if I may ascend into cliché).

My wife and I were then allowed to leave ... after I had signed my statement and been duly fingerprinted. (Was I the criminal?)

Outside, we spoke again with the man who had called me. He was very grateful ... until he learned that I hadn't witnessed the aggressor strike him a blow. At that point, he appeared ... deflated. He wasn't less grateful, but he looked as if he felt that he had lost his case. I guess that I was supposed to have seen fisticuffs. I had not, however, witnessed any ... though my line of sight may have been obscured.

At any rate, that was my 'exciting' Friday afternoon encounter with the Korean Police...

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Barak Obama: Post-Epilogue

Michelle Robinson Obama
(Image from Wikipedia)

Obama's story in Dreams from My Father has a happy ending, almost like a fairy tale. It closes with an epilogue on his marriage to Michelle Robinson:
Michelle and I decided to go ahead with our wedding plans. Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., performed the service in the sanctuary of Trinity United Church of Christ, on Ninety-fifth and Parnell. Everyone looked very fine at the reception, my new aunts admiring the cake, my new uncles admiring themselves in their rented tuxedos. (page 440)

Toward the end of the wedding, I watched . . . [my Luo brother Abongo] grinning widely for the video camera . . . . Abongo lifted up his glass of fruit punch for a toast.

"To those who are not here with us," he said.

"And to a happy ending," I said.

We dribbled out drinks onto the checkered-tile floor. And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive. (page 442)
If you read his book -- and I've skipped a lot of things about Obama in Kenya that are too complex for me to summarize -- then you can understand how Obama's life could easily have turned out some other way.

Read the book. That's my strong recommendation.

Following the epilogue comes an excerpt from Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006), which describes him commuting to his work:
On most days, I enter the Capitol through the basement. A small subway train carries me from the Hart Building, where my office is located, through an underground tunnel lined with the flags and seals of the fifty states. The train creaks to a halt and I make my way, past bustling staffers, maintenance crews, and the occasional tour group, to the bank of old elevators that takes me to the second floor. Stepping off, I weave around the swarm of press that normally gathers there, say hello to the Capitol Police, and enter, through a stately set of double doors, onto the floor of the U.S. Senate. (page 445)
I guess that this means that he's living happily ever after . . . except that the story's not really over.

Next on my reading list? Something audacious...

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Thanked for a thankless task...

Korean Association of International Studies
(Image from KAIS Homepage)

I've just passed my 911th blog entry, according to the count being kept by Blogger, so I suppose that I ought to be posting something on Al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack -- if I were superstitious about number symbolism. In fact, even before knowing the number of my entries, I was considering a post on the Crusades, for I've been doing some reading on that series of Medieval enterprises as I prepare a course on "War, Religion, and Civilization" that I'll be teaching this autumn at Yonsei University's Underwood International College.

But I'm not quite ready to post about that.

For the moment, I have other fish to fry. All day yesterday and facing me all day today are articles that I'm proofreading for a book scheduled to be published this year here in Korea. The book will include the best of the presentations given last year at an international conference on issues related to Northeast Asian and East Asian peace and prosperity in an era of globalization -- the special emphasis having been on the future of the two Koreas -- in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Korean Association of International Studies (KAIS).

Copyediting can be a thankless task, even if one happens to enjoy proofreading scholarly articles, but a couple of scholars have actually thanked me:
UC Irvine social science professor Patrick M. Morgan, who gave a talk on "Theory and Practice of Security Management for a Highly Dynamic Environment: Challenge and Response in the Northeast Asian System," wrote only yesterday in response to my editing: "I think the copyediting is very good! I have some changes to suggest but they are minor."

Princeton sociology professor Gilbert Rozman, who gave a talk on "Reshuffling Priorities for Northeast Asian Security: Revisionism, Regionalism, Reunification, and Realism," wrote a few weeks earlier in response to my editing: "I accept all of the changes. The editing was very well done."
That might not seem like much, but it's nice to know that someone on the other end can respond personally, and positively, to something that I did during the long, lonely hours of the early morning or late afternoon.

Anyway, all of this is to let you know why today's entry is so short -- my summertime is being eaten away by such grinding scholarly undertakings as trimming the papers of other people.

And thereby neglecting my own...

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Barack Obama: In to Africa...

(Image from Wikipedia)

To understand Barack Obama today, you have to know what he came to understand through his trip to Kenya. His earlier views on Third World, or even African solidarity took a few knocks.

Wanting to see more of Kenya, he decides to take a safari trip to the Great Rift Valley, so he and his half-sister Auma go to a travel agency in Nairobi. The agency is run by 'Asians' -- the British term for "South Indians" -- as are most small businesses in Nairobi, according to Barack.

These 'Asians' are not especially popular, as Obama comes to find out -- along with some other disappointing revelations. As he and Auma ride a van to the safari spot, he recalls that as they were purchasing their tickets at the travel agency, Auma had tensed up:
"You see how arrogant they are?" she had whispered as we watched a young Indian woman order her black clerks to and fro. "They call themselves Kenyans, but they want nothing to do with us. As soon as they make their money, they send it off to London or Bombay."

Her attitude touched a nerve. "How can you blame Asians for sending their money out of the country," I had asked her, "after what happened in Uganda?" I had gone on to tell her about the close Indian and Pakistani friends I had back in the States, friends who had supported black causes, friends who had lent me money when I was tight and had taken me into their homes when I'd had no place to stay. Auma had been unmoved.

"Ah, Barack," she had said. "Sometimes you're so naive."

I looked at Auma now, her face turned toward the window. What had I expected my little lecture to accomplish? My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of a racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody's fault necessarily. It was just a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life.

Anyway, the divisions in Kenya didn't stop there: there were always finer lines to draw. Between the country's forty black tribes, for example. They, too, were a fact of life. You didn't notice the tribalism so much among Auma's friends, younger university-educated Kenyans who'd been schooled in the idea of nation and race; tribe was an issue with them only when they were considering a mate, or when they got older and saw it help or hinder careers. But they were the exceptions. Most Kenyans still worked with older maps of identity, more ancient loyalties. Even [Aunt] Jane or [Aunt] Zeituni could say things that surprised me. "The Luo are intelligent but lazy," they would say. Or "The Kikuyu are money-grubbing but industrious." Or "The Kalenjins -- well, you can see what's happened to the country since they took over."

Hearing my aunts traffic in such stereotypes, I would try to explain to them the error of their ways. "It's thinking like that that holds us back," I would say. "We're all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe. Look at what tribalism has done to places like Nigeria or Liberia."

And Jane woud say, "Ah, those West Africans are all crazy anyway. You know they used to be cannibals, don't you?"

And Zeituni would say, "You sound just like your father, Barry. He also had such ideas about people."

Meaning he, too, was naive; he, too, liked to argue with history. Look what happened to him.... (pages 347-348)
What had happened to the elder Obama was that as a Luo in a time of Kalenjin dominance, tribalism had lost him his political position, his status, his wealth, his power, leaving his family to bicker over the small inheritance bequeathed to them.

In looking at all of this, Obama suffered some rather poignant impressions of Africa. He doesn't attempt to paper the problems over, perhaps in part because of what on old friend of his father, the historian Dr. Rukia Odero, told him when he and Auma visited her in her Nairobi home:
"Truth is usually the best corrective." (page 434)
For the moment, I'll leave it at that...

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Forever Young"

The Han River
...in the direction not taken.
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've made an unplanned trip to the university today because my internet link at home is broken, but I'm relying on an unreliable electrical system that too often overloads and blows its circuit, so who knows if I'll have the patience to deal with frustration over lost words everytime the circuit blows...

I'll try to keep my entry short today, which will constitute a minor miracle if successful since I'm usually so longwinded.

My wife persuaded me to buy a bicycle a couple of days ago, and since the Koreans celebrated Constitution Day yesterday, we took our kids out for a riverside ride along one of the Han River's tributaries. My wife had mentioned that we could ride down the tributary until we reached the Han, which would mean heading for the city's center, but I soon saw that we were heading upstream. I kept my mouth shut, however, for the mountains ahead looked more inviting than Seoul's steel-and-glass canyons. We'd gone several kilometers before Sun-Ae noticed her minor navigational error.

I was having a grand time, however, and pretended only slight disappointment that we wouldn't see downtown Seoul from the banks of the Han. My reward for such a spirit of generosity on my part was a generosity of spirits on hers. She treated me to two cold beers at an isolated spot under a train trestle that sheltered a few tables where some working class family served boshintang and cold beer on tap. I partook only of the latter, for I wasn't quite hungry enough to devour any of man's best friends.

I hadn't ridden a bike for several years, and En-Uk is really still just learning, but all four of us bore up well under a hot sun and a hard ride. En-Uk kept me laughing with his complaints -- Mama was riding too fast, Sa-Rah was passing him too often, Daddy was being too bossy. I swear that his mouth was running a lot faster than his bike, and I told him that if he'd just attach some Rube Goldberg device from his lower jaw to his bike's back sprocket, then he'd outrace us all.

Eventually, we wended our way back home, where -- in a frenzied fit of physical fitness -- I proceeded to run up all 25 floors to top off the long day, feeling despite my fifty years forever young...

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Obama: "a stake in this order..."

Searching for the lost moral oder?
L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire
Camille Flammarion, 1888
(Image from Wikipedia)

Readers will recall this entry from several days ago:
I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man's court, ... by the white man's rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, ... wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had power and you didn't. If he decided not to, if he treated you like a man or came to your defense, it was because he knew that the words you spoke, the clothes you wore, the books you read, your ambitions and desires, were already his. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning. In fact, you couldn't even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self -- the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass -- had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger. (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, page 85)
In a comment, Hathor asked: "Why do you think he moved from that logic?"

Well, Obama eventually gives a hint, along with other details about how things can go wrong. In the following passage, he first describes how things began to get worse for young inner-city African-Americans:
[S]omething different was going on with the children of the South Side that spring of 1987 ... an invisible line had been crossed, a blind and ugly corner turned.

There was nothing definite I could point to, no hard statistics. The drive-by shootings, the ambulance sirens, the night sounds of neighborhoods abandoned to drugs and gang war and phantom automobiles, wherre police or press rarely ventured until after the body was found on the pavement, blood spreading in a glistening, uneven pool -- none of this was new. In places like Altgeld, prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation; during my very first days in Chicago I had seen the knots of young men, fifteen or sixteen, hanging out on the corners of Michigan or Halsted, their hoods up, their sneakers unlaced, stomping the ground in a desultory rhythm during the colder months, stripped down to T-shirts in the summer, answering their beepers on the corner pay phones: a knot that unraveled, soon to reform, whenever the police cars passed by in their barracuda silence.

No, it was more a change of atmosphere, like the electricity of an approaching storm. I felt it when, driving home one evening, I saw four tall boys walking down a tree-lined block idly snapping a row of young saplings that an older couple had just finished planting in front of their house. I felt it whenever I looked into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairrs that had started appearing on the streets that spring, boys crippled before their prime, their eyes without a trace of self-pity, eyes so composed, already so hardened, that they served to frighten rather than to inspire.

That's what it was: the arrival of a new equilibrium between hope and fear; the sense, shared by adults and youth alike, that some, if not most, of our boys were slipping beyond rescue. Even lifelong South Siders like Johnnie noticed the change. "I ain't never seen it like this, Barack," he would tell me one day as we sat in his apartment sipping beer. "I mean, things were tough when I was coming up, but there were limits. We'd get high, get into fights. But out in public, at home, if an adult saw you getting loud or wild, they would say something. And most of us would listen, you know what I'm saying?

Now, with the drugs, the guns -- all that's disappeared. Don't take a whole lot of kids carrying a gun. Just one or two. Somebody says something to one of 'em, and -- pow! -- kid just wastes him. Folks hear stories like that, they just stop trying to talk to these young cats out here. We start generalizing about 'em just like the white folks do. We see 'em hanging out, we head the other way. After a while, even the good kid starts realizing ain't nobody out here gonna look out for him. So he figures he's gonna have to look after himself. Bottom line, you got twelve-year-olds making their own damn rules."

Johnnie took a sip of his beer, the foam collecting on his mustache. "I don't know, Barack. Sometimes, I'm afraid of 'em. You got to be afraid of somebody who just doesn't care. Don't matter how young they are." (pages 252-253)
Hathor had a post back on January 13, 2007 in which she talks about Lost Boys, or one in particular, a boyfriend from junior high who got lost growing up:
Beginning high school was such an adventure, that I soon forgot him. Several years later I ran into a mutual friend, I ask about him. I was told he was in prison for fatally shooting his best friend. I never knew why, although I did see him later, I never asked. That last time I had seen him he was high and his appearance disheveled. We just made small talk. I walked away thinking what had happened to that good looking black boy. He never really became a man, because murder and drugs had usurped that. What is sad, is that there are so many stories like this one. That was almost fifty years ago.
That would have been nearly 30 years before what Obama saw in 1987. Hathor saw the isolated case way back during the early 60s, but in Obama's time, entire generations of young men -- even young boys -- were being lost to the streets.

In the late 80s, I was living in Berkeley but just on the border to Oakland, along Alcatraz Avenue, and I used to lie awake at night and listen to the crack wars being fought over the control of turf. I've already blogged on one violent experience from the fall of 1987, but there were more than one. Like Obama, I used to see crippled young African-American men, or even boys, hobbling along and using canes to support themselves -- casualties of the crack wars, I guess, or of the crack itself.

Like Johnnie, I found the scene frightening.

Even Obama begins to worry one night when he get out of bed to ask some teenage boys in a car to move on:
"Listen, people are trying to sleep around here. Why don't y'all take it someplace else."

The four boys inside say nothing, don't even move. The wind whips away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed, standing in a pair of shorts on the sidewalk in the middle of the night.... (page 269)
Obama remembers being a young boy like them ... but not quite like them:
I'm thinking that while these boys may be weaker or stronger than I was at their age, the only difference that matters is this: The world in which I spent those difficult times was far more forgiving. These boys have no margin for error; if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can't admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt. Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man's injured pride. Their anger won't be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy's lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it willl not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order -- indeed any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. (page 270)
Here, I think that Obama hints at what helped him exit from the "maddening logic" of his youth -- logic telling him that since everything was already governed "by the white man's rules," the only alternatives were withdrawing totally into oneself or violently lashing out against everybody. Or even choosing both alternatives simultaneously, as the youth of 1987 seemed to be doing. The way out of this logic opened up for Obama when he came to see that he had a stake in a rule-governed order that transcended race even if the specific, existing system didn't treat every group alike.

But I'm speculating a bit, for I see from this last passage that Obama has left out some details of his teenage years and given us a mere shading, allusions to things that might have passed...

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Obama: Walking the talk...

Altgeld Gardens
A garden community?
(Image from Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison)

I'm still reading Barack Obama's fascinating memoir, Dreams from My Father, which I'm finding not only well-written but also funny ... and sad.

In the early 80s, Obama spent some time working with churches in trying to organize the African-American 'community' of Altgeld Gardens, Chicago. In the course of his work, he met some odd characters, such as an African-American man named Wilbur Milton who wore a clerical collar, called himself "Deacon Will," and had joined the Catholic Church despite having grown up Baptist.

Friends of the 'Deacon' called him just "Will," and he was rather willful. Obama describes Will's tendency to get off track:

As much as I liked Will, as much as I appreciated his support, I had to admit that some of his ideas were ... well, eccentric. He liked to smoke reefer at the end of a day's work ("If God didn't want us to smoke the stuff, he wouldn't have put it on this here earth"). He would walk out of any meeting that he decided was boring. Whenever I took him along to interview members of his church, he'd start arguing with them about their incorrect reading of Scripture, their choice of lawn fertilizer, or the constitutionality of the income tax (he felt that tax violated the Bill of Rights and conscientiously refused to pay).

"Maybe if you listened to other people a little more," I had told him once, "they'd be more responsive."

Will had shaken his head. "I do listen. That's the problem. Everything they say is wrong." (page 173)
Not a man easy to work with on organizing solidarity....

But Will had another side to his character, and in a meeting with a small group of the church-based organizers, said something that revealed a fundamental problem facing African-Americans in the Northern cities:

"I'll share something that's been on my mind for a while. Nothing big -- just memories. You know, my folks weren't rich or nothing. We lived out in Altgeld. But when I think back on my own childhood, I remember some really good times. I remember going to Blackburn Forest with my folks to pick wild berries. I remember making skating carts with my ... buddies out of empty fruit crates and old roller skate wheels and racing around the parking lot. I remember going on field trips at school, and on the olidays meeting all the families in the park, everybody out and nobody scared, and then in the summers sleeping out in the yard together if it got too hot inside. A lot of good memories ... seemed like I was smiling all the time, laughing --"

Will broke off suddenly and bowed his head. I thought he was preparing to sneeze, but when he raised his head back up, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He continued in a cracking voice, "And you know, I don't see kids smiling around here no more. You look at 'em listen to 'em ... they seem worried all the time mad about something. They got nothing they trust. Not their parents. Not God. Not themselves. And that's not right. That just ain't the way things supposed to be ... kids not smiling."

He stopped again and pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket to blow ihis nose. Then, as if the sight of this big man weeping had watered the dry surface of their hearts, the others in the room began speaking about their own memories in solemn, urgent tones. They talked about life in small Southern towns: the corner stores where men had gathered to learn the news of the day or lend a hand to women with their groceries, the way adults looked after each other's children ("Couldn't get away with nothing, 'cause your momma had eyes and ears up and down the whole block"), the sense of public decorum that such familiarity had helped sustain. In thier voices was no little bit of notalgia, elements of selective memory, but the whole of what they recalled rang vivid and true, the sound of shared loss. A feeling of witness, of trustration and hope, moved about the room from mouth to mouth, and when the last person had spoken, it hovered in the air, static and palpable. Then we all joined hands, Mr. Green's thick, callused hand in my left, Mrs. Turner's, slight and papery to the touch, in my right, and together we asked for the courage to turn things around. (pages 177-178)
Later, Obama put an arm around Will's shoulders and told him:

"That reflection at the end was pretty powerful, Will."

He looked at Mary and they both smiled. "We noticed you didn't share anything with the group," Mary said.

"The organizer's supposed to keep a low profile."

"Who says?"

"It's in my organizer's handbook." (page 178)
I like Obama's humor. It's witty and also a good way to deflect a question on an issue that he wasn't yet ready to talk about, his own mixed past.

But to get back to Will and the nostalgia about the past.... What he and the others had been talking about was the loss of community. Some days later, Obama happens to see a Korean woman hard at work in her shop, and he reflects upon the problems facing African-Americans in Altgeld, comparing it with his own observations on the interrelations of work, markets, community, and moral order:

The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.

I'd always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Roseland, Rafiq [of the Nation of Islam] and [the African-American businessman] Mr. Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.

It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was so torn? (pages 182-183)
Well, that's a problem that we all face in our modern -- or postmodern -- anonymous worlds of Durkheimian anomie, the "painful chaos threatening all the time," as Mary Douglas puts it in her 1987 essay "A Distinctive Anthropological Perspective" (Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, p. 11). As with civil society, how do we reconstruct community when it's gone? I bring Douglas's anthropology of "drinks" into this discussion, along with her anthropology of "food," because community requires food (else what were those markets for?) and family -- both of which are also dysfunctional these days. Michael S. Rose, in reviewing British author Theodore Dalrymple's book Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, notes the connection made by Dalrymple:
In his essay "The Starving Criminal," Dalrymple draws the connection between the destruction of the traditional family structure and the life of common criminals. In his work as a prison doctor, he has seen countless criminals enter the big house malnourished, dying a slow death of starvation. After a few months in the "health farm of the slums," the prisoner would recover his health simply by eating his regular ration of three meals a day. Talking with many of these starving criminals, he discovered that, lacking a normative family life, most of these men had never eaten a single meal -- sitting at a table with others -- outside of prison. Rather, food was consumed alone in purely pragmatic fashion. Many of these culinary loners subsisted largely on chocolate and potato chips; others ingested nothing but sugary soft drinks. This, he says, was a result of the kind of family breakdown made viable by Britain's extensive welfare system, a breakdown so complete "that mothers do not consider it a part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator." (Michael S. Rose, "The Frivolity of Evil," New Oxford Review)
When communities, families, and even meals break down, how can one reconstruct them? I'm curious what conclusions Obama reaches, for some of the big governmental programs that Obama probably would have favored in the early 80s are precisely what commentators like Rose and Dalrymple focus upon as part of the problem.

I'll keep you posted.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

A war of ideas ought'n be too hard...

A scurrilous report?
(Image from Photo: AP)

Yesterday, my family and I hiked most of the way up the impressive, 739-meter Mt. Dobong, a local mountain on the northeast fringe of Seoul, and we saw no squirrels!

Now, ordinarily, I wouldn't make much of this fact.

Except that later in the day, my eye was caught by this headline in a Ynet News report: "Iranians arrest 14 squirrels for spying" (Dudi Cohen, YnetNews.com, July 13, 2007).

A subheading revealed the evidence: "Islamic Republic's intelligence agents allege rodents were carrying advanced Western spy gear."

It's a no-brainer. Obviously, these squirrels were Western agents. Or what the Islamists call Zionist agents. Or Crusader agents. Or sons-of-monkeys-and-pigs agents. Or Zionist-Crusader sons-of-monkeys-and-pigs agents. Or ... well, it gets a bit complex, even for one as steeped in the Islamist-espionage literature as I.

But maybe we should read the article:
Iranian intelligence operatives recently detained over a dozen squirrels found within the nation's borders, claiming the rodents were serving as spies for Western powers determined to undermine the Islamic Republic.

"In recent weeks, intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran's borders," state-sponsored news agency IRNA reported. "The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services."

Iranian police commander Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqadam confirmed the report, saying that a number of squirrels had been caught bearing foreign spy gear within Iran's borders.

"I heard of this but I have no specific knowledge on the subject," he said. He refused to give further details.

Recently, Iran has increased its efforts in combating espionage by the West. The use of rodents has not been documented in the past.
Rodents, perhaps not. But giant badger terrorists are already being used by Western forces in the area around Basra to undermine Iranian influence in this mainly Shi'ite Iraqi port city near the Iranian border. According to correspondents in Basra, "Giant badgers terrorise Iraqi port city" (The Sunday Telegraph, July 11, 2007):
The Iraqi port city of Basra, already prey to a nasty turf war between rival militia factions, has now been gripped by a scary rumour -- giant badgers are stalking the streets by night, eating humans.

The animals were allegedly released into the area by British forces....

"I believe this animal appeared following a raid to the region by the British forces," said Ali Mohsen, a farmer in his 40s from Karmat Ali, near the air base used by the multinational force. "As we are close to the airport, they probably released this animal into the area."
Another no-brainer. Obviously, these badgers are Western terrorists. Or what the Islamists call Zionist terrorists. Or Crusader terrorists. Or sons-of-monkeys-and-pigs terrorists. Or Zionist-Crusader sons-of-monkeys-and-pigs terrorists. Or ... well, it again gets a bit complex, but you again follow my drift.

My analysis? The squirrels bearing spy gear were indeed 'Zionist-Crusader' agents, but they were not Western ethnically. The squirrels missing from Mt. Dobong were on an espionage mission conducted by American and Korean spy agencies working together with the Mossad. Korea, a leader in hi-tech industries, supplied ethnically Korean squirrels -- who are the smartest, most dexterous squirrels in the world -- for the top-secret mission. These squirrels were flown from the Korea peninsula to Korea's Zaytun Division, stationed in the Arbil Governorate of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. From there, the Korean squirrels made their way into northwestern Iran. The strategy was to trap the Iranian Islamists in a pincher movement between a squirrel-fomented uprising of Kurdish Iranians in northwestern Iran and a badger-fomented uprising of Arabic Iranians in southwestern Iran as the badgers move from Basra into Iran.

Unfortunately, this has been thwarted. Personally, I blame President Roh for bringing too many of the radical 386 generation into central positions of government. I strongly suspect that some leftist in the Korean government alerted the North Koreans to this espionage mission. The Norks then passed the information along to the Iranians in return for help with the North's nuclear weapons program.

If I might speak in coded terms for a moment, I think that it's high time that we started 'badgering' the traitors...

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