Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Camus Snafu by Benjamin Ivry




Normally, honoring a writer as conventionally admired as the Nobel-prizewinning French author Albert Camus (1913 -1960) fifty years after his accidental death in a car crash should not be a controversial matter. But these are not normal times in France. The author of The Stranger, The Fall, and The Plague was proposed in mid-November by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for honorary reburial in the Panthéon, the vast monument in Paris' Latin Quarter which entombs many Gallic heroes, from Voltaire to Pasteur. In response, Jean Camus, 64, one of the late writer's twin children, told Le Monde newspaper that he feared Sarkozy was attempting an "appropriation" (récupération) of his father through a "misinterpretation" (contresens). In France, the concept of "droit moral" (moral rights) means that if Camus's son is opposed to the idea, the writer cannot be disinterred from his current resting place, in the cemetery of Lourmarin, a town in the Vaucluse department, in southern France, where he had a summer home.

Even preceding Jean Camus's reaction was one by the far-right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who accused Sarkozy of trying to lure away supporters of his National Front party by honoring Camus, a white Frenchman born in Algeria, or as Le Pen described him to the AFP, a "Pied-Noir writer," referring to the colonists of Algeria who were obliged to leave at the end of the Algerian War in 1962. A more common reaction came from Jeanyves Guérin, a Sorbonne professor and editor of the scrupulously detailed "Albert Camus Dictionary" (Dictionnaire Albert Camus), published in November by Robert Laffont in Paris. According to Guérin, interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, "Sarkozy is the friend of Bush, Gaddafi, Putin, Berlusconi. His politics are the antithesis of the values and ideas defended by Camus." The reliably middlebrow Bernard Pivot, formerly host of the popular TV literary program Apostrophes, also objected, although less antagonistically, in the Journal du Dimanche: "Reinter Camus' remains in the Panthéon? For a Mediterranean who always celebrated the sun, it would be quite cold there. Everything in the writer's life and work suggests that he would not have appreciated this kind of honor and official display which has no rapport to literature..."

Camus was indeed highly suspicious of political power and panoply, believing it corrupted those who possess it, and his play Caligula alleges that "to govern means to pillage, as everyone knows." Having known poverty in his own youth, Camus defended the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and while considering himself a leftist, criticized the Soviet system of gulags in the 1950s, which can make him look prescient today, at least compared to blinkered Communists among French intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir. Unlike the free-market capitalism strenuously advocated by Sarkozy, Camus was a devout libertarian, some writers remind us. Yet does this really matter? Other observers point out that in a few decades, few if any will remember under which French presidency Camus was reburied in the Panthéon, with accompanying hoopla. The philosopher and radio personality Raphaël Enthoven asked in L'Express: "Why deprive Camus of a hero's burial, after having accorded Sartre a papal funeral? Why deprive Camus of what was given to Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo and Zola?" The filmmaker Yann Moix concurred in the political journal La Règle du jeu, pointing out that since the Panthéon is the "Académie française for dead people," these days Camus is surely both "sufficiently academic and sufficiently dead to repose there." Moix adds, ironically assuring readers: "His works, great, lovely, and noble as they are, will not dynamite anything. Camus is not a dangerous author."

Yet he has turned out to be dangerous for Sarkozy, because even more than any putative political clash, Camus has reminded the French public of Sarkozy's own rapport with literature, which has been, in a word, disastrous. In other nations, politicians are not expected to be well-read or even functionally literate, but France is still an exception - or was until recently. During his campaign in 2006, Sarkozy notoriously dismissed the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de La Fayette, arguing that civil service entrance exams should not include questions about such painfully irrelevant subjects. A great crowd of unsuspected Madame de La Fayette fans arose, holding marathon public readings of La Princesse de Clèves and following the satiric "Sarkothon" campaign of the writer Jacques Drillon, who, mocking both the current government and TV charity telethons, wrote that since poor Nicholas has never read anything, French citizens should immediately mail him books.

As if in defiance, Sarkozy multiplied his aggressive comments about literature and those who spent what he saw as excessive time reading it. In 2007, Sarkozy told students in a speech: "You have the right to study classic literature, but the taxpayer is not obliged to pay for your studies in classic literature," thereby striking at the heart of academic subjects which are not immediately remunerative. A year later, at a press conference during a state visit to India, Sarkozy offended wide swathes of readers by claiming: "You can like [fascist French writer Louis-Ferdinand] Céline without being anti-Semitic, just as you can like [Marcel] Proust without being homosexual." Apart from the crude parallelism of anti-Semite/homosexual as two entities comparably offensive to Sarkozy, his reductive approach clearly typed him in the minds of the French as a book hater. Or, as Drillon explained in a September online chat, Sarkozy's critics "do not reproach him for [not being a great reader]. He can read or not read, that's up to him. We reproach his hatred for books, which is something different. We reproach him for despising books and readers."

Here is the crux of the problem, and the peculiar reason why Albert Camus will not, at least in the immediate future, be reburied in the Panthéon.

Benjamin Ivry is author of biographies of Rimbaud, Ravel, and Poulenc, and translator of books by Gide, Verne, and Balthus.

http://www.newstatesman.com/print/200912170063

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Interview with Gore vidal


From The Times
September 30, 2009
Gore Vidal: ‘We’ll have a dictatorship soon in the US’
The grand old man of letters Gore Vidal claims America is ‘rotting away’ — and don’t expect Barack Obama to save it
Gore Vidal
Tim Teeman

A conversation with Gore Vidal unfolds at his pace. He answers questions imperiously, occasionally playfully, with a piercing, lethal dryness. He is 83 and in a wheelchair (a result of hypothermia suffered in the war, his left knee is made of titanium). But he can walk (“Of course I can”) and after a recent performance of Mother Courage at London’s National Theatre he stood to deliver an anti-war speech to the audience.

How was his friend Fiona Shaw in the title role? “Very good.” Where did they meet? Silence. The US? “Well, it wasn’t Russia.” What’s he writing at the moment? “It’s a little boring to talk about. Most writers seem to do little else but talk about themselves and their work, in majestic terms.” He means self-glorifying? “You’ve stumbled on the phrase,” he says, regally enough. “Continue to use it.”

Vidal is sitting in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, where he has been coming to stay for 60 years. He is wearing a brown suit jacket, brown jumper, tracksuit bottoms; his white hair twirled into a Tintin-esque quiff and with his hooded eyes, delicate yet craggy features and arch expression, he looks like Quentin Crisp, but accessorised with a low, lugubrious growl rather than camp lisp.

He points to an apartment opposite the hotel where Churchill stayed during the Second World War, as Downing Street was “getting hammered by the Nazis. The crowds would cheer him from the street, he knew great PR.”

In a flash, this memory reminds you of the swathe of history Vidal has experienced with great intimacy: he was friends with JFK, fought in the war, his father Gene, an Olympic decathlete and aeronautics teacher, founded TWA among other airlines and had a relationship with Amelia Earhart. (Vidal first flew and landed a plane when he was 10.) He was a screenwriter for MGM in the dying days of the studio system, toyed with being a politician, he has written 24 novels and is hailed as one of the world’s greatest essayists.

He has crossed every boundary, I say. “Crashed many barriers,” he corrects me.

Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he reveals, he regrets his change of heart. How’s Obama doing? “Dreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we’ve had in that position for a long time. But he’s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He’s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.”

America should leave Afghanistan, he says. “We’ve failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it.” The “War on Terror” was “made up”, Vidal says. “The whole thing was PR, just like ‘weapons of mass destruction’. It has wrecked the airline business, which my father founded in the 1930s. He’d be cutting his wrists. Now when you fly you’re both scared to death and bored to death, a most disagreeable combination.”

His voice strengthens. “One thing I have hated all my life are LIARS [he says that with bristling anger] and I live in a nation of them. It was not always the case. I don’t demand honour, that can be lies too. I don’t say there was a golden age, but there was an age of general intelligence. We had a watchdog, the media.” The media is too supine? “Would that it was. They’re busy preparing us for an Iranian war.” He retains some optimism about Obama “because he doesn’t lie. We know the fool from Arizona [as he calls John McCain] is a liar. We never got the real story of how McCain crashed his plane [in 1967 near Hanoi, North Vietnam] and was held captive.”

Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists.”

Another notable Obama mis-step has been on healthcare reform. “He f***ed it up. I don’t know how because the country wanted it. We’ll never see it happen.” As for his wider vision: “Maybe he doesn’t have one, not to imply he is a fraud. He loves quoting Lincoln and there’s a great Lincoln quote from a letter he wrote to one of his generals in the South after the Civil War. ‘I am President of the United States. I have full overall power and never forget it, because I will exercise it’. That’s what Obama needs — a bit of Lincoln’s chill.” Has he met Obama? “No,” he says quietly, “I’ve had my time with presidents.” Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: “Bang bang.” He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. “Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital,” he says in a wry, dreamy way.

Vidal now believes, as he did originally, Clinton would be the better president. “Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, they’re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.”The Republicans will win the next election, Vidal believes; though for him there is little difference between the parties. “Remember the coup d’etat of 2000 when the Supreme Court fixed the selection, not election, of the stupidest man in the country, Mr Bush.”

Vidal says forcefully that he wished he’d never moved back to the US to live in Hollywood, from his clifftop home in Ravello, Italy, in 2000. His partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, who died in 2003, collated a lifetime’s-span of pictures of Vidal, for a new book out this autumn, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (an oddly clunky title). The cover shows what a beautiful young man Vidal was, although his stare is as hawkish as it is today.

He observes presidential office-holders balefully. “The only one I knew well was Kennedy, but he didn’t impress me as a good president. It’s like asking, ‘What do I think of my brother?’ It’s complicated. I’d known him all my life and I liked him to the end, but he wrecked his chances with the Bay of Pigs and Suez crises, and because everyone was so keen to elect Bobby once Jack had gone, lies started to be told about him — that he was the greatest and the King of Camelot.”

Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. “Ask an American what they know about Sweden and they’d say ‘They live well but they’re all alcoholics’. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefited us many times over.” Instead, America has “no intellectual class” and is “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.”

Vidal adds menacingly: “Don’t ever make the mistake with people like me thinking we are looking for heroes. There aren’t any and if there were, they would be killed immediately. I’m never surprised by bad behaviour. I expect it.”

While materially comfortable, Vidal’s was not a happy childhood. Of his actress and socialite mother Nina, he says: “Give her a glass of vodka and she was as tame as could be. Growing up is going to be difficult if the one person you hate is your mother. I felt trapped. I was close to my grandparents and my father was a saint.” His parents’ many remarriages means that even today he hasn’t met all his step-siblings.

He wrote his first novel, Williwaw, at 19. In 1948, he was blacklisted by the media after writing The City and the Pillar, one of the earliest novels to deal graphically with homosexual desire. “You’ll be amazed to know it is still going strong,” he says. The “JT” it is dedicated to is James “Jimmy” Trimble, Vidal’s first love and, he once said, the love of his life. “That was a slight exaggeration. I said it because there wasn’t any other. In the new book there are wonderful pictures of him from our schooldays. He was a great athlete.” Here his voice softens, and he looks emotional, briefly. “We were both abandoned in our dormitory at St Alban’s [boarding school]. He was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima [in 1945] because of bad G2 [intelligence].”

Vidal says Trimble’s death didn’t affect him. “No, I was in danger of dying too. A dead man can’t grieve a dead man.” Has love been important to him? “Don’t make the error that schoolteacher idiots make by thinking that gay men’s relationships are like heterosexual ones. They’re not.” He “wouldn’t begin to comment” on how they are different.

In 1956 he was hired by MGM, collaborated on the screenplay for Ben Hur and continued to write novels, most notoriously Myra Breckenridge about a transsexual. It is his satires, essays and memoirs — Live From Golgotha, Palimpsest and most recently, Point to Point Navigation — which have fully rounded our vision of this thorny contrarian, whose originality springs simply, and naturally, from having deliberately unfixed allegiances and an enduring belief in an American republic and railing sadness at how that ideal has been corrupted.

Vidal became a supportive correspondent of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeigh’s act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims. “And I was torn, my grandfather [the Democrat Senator Thomas Gore] had bought Oklahoma into the Union.” McVeigh claimed he had done it as a protest against tyrannical government. The writer Edmund White took the correspondence as the basis for a play, Terre Haute (the jail McVeigh was incarcerated in before he was executed in 2001), imagining an encounter between the bomber and Vidal charged with desire.

“He’s a filthy, low writer,” Vidal says of White. “He likes to attack his betters, which means he has a big field to go after.” Had he wanted to meet McVeigh? “I am not in the business of meeting people,” Vidal says. “That play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at his [White’s] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how it’s the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks I’m another queen and I’m not. I’m more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism.”

Vidal says that he hates labels and has said he believes in homosexual acts rather than homosexual people. He claims his relationship with Austen was platonic (though they reputedly met at a legendary New York bath-house). He was once quoted as saying that he’d had sex with a 1,000 men by the time he was 25. It must have been a little strange for Austen, Vidal’s life companion, to source those pictures of Trimble, his first, perhaps only, love.

Vidal puts on a scornful, campy voice. “People ask [of he and Austen], ‘How did you live together so long?’ The only rule was no sex. They can’t believe that. That was when I realised I was dealing with a public too stupid by half. They can’t tell the difference between ‘The Sun rose in the East’ and ‘The Sun is made of yeast’.” Was sex important to Vidal? “It must have been yes.”

He is single now. “I’m not into partnerships,” he says dismissively. I don’t even know what it means.” He “couldn’t care less” about gay marriage. “Does anyone care what Americans think? They’re the worst-educated people in the First World. They don’t have any thoughts, they have emotional responses, which good advertisers know how to provoke.” You could have been the first gay president, I say. “No, I would have married and had nine children,” he replies quickly and seriously. “I don’t believe in these exclusive terms.”

Impaired mobility doesn’t bother him — he “rose like a miracle” on stage at the National — and he doesn’t dwell on mortality either. “Either you accept there is such a thing or you’re so dumb that you can’t grasp it.” Is he in good health? “No, of course not. I’m diabetic. It’s odd, I’ve never been fat and I don’t like candy, which most Americans are hooked on.”

There is a trace of thwarted ambition about him. “I would have liked to have been president, but I never had the money. I was a friend of the throne. The only time I envied Jack was when Joe [Kennedy, JFK’s father] was buying him his Senate seat, then the presidency. He didn’t know how lucky he was. Here’s a story I’ve never told. In 1960, after he had spent so much on the presidential campaign, Joe took all nine children to Palm Beach to lecture them. He was really angry. He said, ‘All you read about the Kennedy fortune is untrue. It’s non-existent. We’ve spent so much getting Jack elected and not one of you is living within your income’. They all sat there, shame-faced. Jack was whistling. He used to tap his teeth: they were big teeth, like a xylophone. Joe turned to Jack and he says, ‘Mr President, what’s the solution?’ Jack said, ‘The solution is simple. You all gotta work harder’.” Vidal guffaws heartily.

Hollywood living proved less fun. “If there was a social whirl, you can be sure I would not be part of it.” He does a fabulous impression of Katharine Hepburn complaining about playing the matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer, which he wrote. “I hate this script,” he recalls Hepburn saying . “I’m far too healthy a person to know people like this.” Vidal snorts. “She had Parkinson’s. She shook like a leper in the wind.”

I ask what he wants to do next. “My usual answer to ‘What am I proudest of?’ is my novels, but really I am most proud that, despite enormous temptation, I have never killed anybody and you don’t know how tempted I have been.”

That wasn’t my question, I say. “Well, given that I’m proudest that I haven’t killed anybody, I might be saving something up for someone.” A perfect line: we both laugh.

Is he happy? “What a question,” he sighs and then smiles mischievously. “I’ll respond with a quote from Aeschylus: ‘Call no man happy till he is dead’.”



Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield


The roll-call of contemporary critics of Athenian democracy, during its flourishing in the fifth and fourth centuries, is impressive. It includes not just men of action, such as Alcibiades and Critias, but just about all the intellectuals who come to mind: the playwrights, both comic and tragic, the orators, the historian Thucydides, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates and Aristotle, and pamphleteers such as the anonymous author of The Constitution of the Athenians who is familiarly known as the 'Old Oligarch'. They had a limited number of points to make, and they made them more or less forcefully.

First, some argued that the masses were innately stupid and over-emotional, and remained so thanks to lack of education; moreover, since economic circumstances largely determined human behavior, the fact that the masses worked made them less moral than the rich; therefore democracy was the perverted rule of the morally inferior over the morally superior.* Democracy was by definition the rule of the working class, whose members had neither the money nor the leisure nor the education to do the kind of long-term and objective thinking that government required. The idea that mass decision-making could be superior to individual wisdom was a joke. This is still a live issue in political philosophy: a recent book takes as its starting point the fact that 'Democracy is not naturally plausible'. Why turn such important matters over to the masses of people who have no expertise?* In ancient Athens, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the elite felt that they did have such expertise, handed down from generation to generation ever since the good old days of aristocracy.*


Second, they felt that the democracy was a kind of tyranny of the weak over the strong, a violation of the natural hierarchy, too egalitarian and open. Democracy made laws in its own interest and gulled the credulous by calling this "justice". Democracy tended to confuse freedom with lack of restraint, lawlessness and anarchy, or at least promoted the sovereignty of the people rather than the law, with attendant dangers. As a kind of tyrant, democracy favored flatterers and yes-men, and exploited the wealth of others for its own purposes; it governed by whim, and the masses were therefore fickle and easily led by demagogues and self-interested speakers, especially into over-confidence or vindictiveness (but even the critics often wryly acknowledged that the Oligarchs served themselves in precisely the same fashion).

Third, democracy's preference for committees over individuals, and for the annual change of administrative positions, made it inefficient. It stifled initiative, favoured the average and failed to make use of experts in government. Democracy had too much power for its own good: elite fear of chastisement by the democracy made them less inclined to put their abilities in the service of the state. And in particular, democracy was hopeless at foreign policy: witness the follies and the final catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War. The masses were more likely than the elite to be belligerent, because the elite were linked by hereditary relationships to their peers abroad, had a better understanding of foreign affairs and naturally wanted to protect their foreign estates ( the 4th and 5th century 'Global Economy').


Fourth, the people mishandled public money. This mismanagement manifested above all in paying the poor for public service in the courts and Assembly and for military service, and in an ambitious programme of enhancing the city with monumental buildings and other public works. As if these measures- depriving the rich of resources they could have spent privately- were not enough democracy had also taken the state into a crippling expensive war (The Oligarchs didn't have a nifty banking system to turn such liabilities into rich reward.)

Curiously, it would be hard to draw up a similar list of counter arguments by democracy's supporters. Only a few isolated passages develop in a piecemeal fashion anything like a theory of democratic virtues, while others (such as Pericles famous Funeral Speech in Thucydides) are too complacent to contribute much ammunition to the debate ( it is a eulogy to Athens, not political theory). Dmocracy was more performance than theory, and was constantly evolving. Nevertheless, various ideas and arguments crop up here and there: the egalitarianism of democracy, and the idea that the possession of common goals reduces discontent and increases concord, without any need for hierarchy; the belief that almost every citizen has the mental capacities necessary for socialization and contribution to debate, so that there is such a thing as collective wisdom. Those in favour of democracy denied the equation of pluralism with anarchy, and claimed that accountability was self-evidently a good discipline for a community's officers to work under.

The debate was won by the democrats, not because they had the best arguments, but because their opponents had the worse track record. The scandals of 415, Alcibiades's arrogance and, above all, the brutality of the Thirty Tyrants were plain facts that needed no theoretician: if this is what oligarchy was like, democracy was clearly preferable. Oligarchs never fully recovered the moral high ground. Active dissent fizzled out in the fourth century and took with it much of the social crisis. After the rule of the Thirty, it was left to philosophers to formulate criticisms; the men of action had been silenced and democracy had been restored. There was only one loose end: Socrates.




* I personally heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach against this notion used a justification for Jim Crow in the early 1960s.

* The U.S. Senate routinely ignores the the desires of the majority of Americans when legislating such issues as Health Care, Banking and Tax Policy.

* The "Wisdom of the Founding Fathers" is often invoked whether very relevant to the current social, economic or political situation or not.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Andy Warhol by Arthur C. Danto


Let us consider his last substantial body of paintings, based on Leonardo's The Last Supper, which are thought by some to be evidence of Andy Warhol's religiousness. As so often happened in Warhol's work, the idea came from elsewhere, in this case from the dealer Alexandre Iolas, who had a gallery in Milan. Andy was one of five painters he selected to do paintings based on Leonardo's The Last Supper. His idea was that a show of Last Suppers by contemporary artists would generate interest, since the gallery was across the piazza from where Leonardo's masterpiece was undergoing its latest restorations, and there would have been incentive for visitors to take in both it and versions of it by painters of our day. Warhol specialists have observed that he found the reproductions of The Last Supper in art books too dark, explaining why he used cheap copies of the old painting instead. But my view is that everyone knows Leonardo's painting- it belongs to the common consciousness of the culture that Warhol shared with everyone who knew his work, and which he took as his artistic mission to raise to self-awareness- to show our inner life to ourselves. Leonardo's The Last Supper is one of the few paintings that enjoys this status- Warhol's can of Campbell's tomato soup is another- though few of those who know The Last Supper ever actually saw it in Milan; it is better known through its many reproductions. To show The Last Supper as commonplace is to show it as it appears on a postcard, the way Duchamp showed the Mona Lisa, or in a calendar of masterpieces. Ask people to name ten paintings, they will inevitably name The Last Supper- not La Conversation by Matisse, let alone The Last Sacrament of Saint Jerome by Domenichino or one of the Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes by Cezanne.

Andy treated the Last Supper as he treated many of his subjects. He did versions that showed series of Last Suppers, much like his serial paintings of soup cans or dollar bills. He doubled Jesus, the way he doubled Marilyn, or Elvis. Repetition was a sign of significance. He filled it with logos from contemporary products, like Dove soap, to represent the Holy Spirit, or the Wise owl from the familiar potato chip package, emblematizing wisdom. Or he used the General Electric logo to emblematize light. All these came from the commercial world in which he and the rest of us are at home, though it is fair to say that none of them had religious significance as such. Warhol's great artistic project began with the images in the Bonwit Teller window and evolved on two levels- the levels of fears and agonies, and the levels of beauties.

The level of plane crashes, suicides, accidents, executions; and the level of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, Elvis, Jesus, radiant with glamour and celebrity. A dark world with radiant beings, whose presence in us is redemptive, and into whose company Warhol sough to insinuate his own ungainly presence, and to make stars of us all. His mission was to externalize the interiority of our shared world. The Last Supper has penetrated the common consciousness with the momentousness of its message. In making it his he shows us that it is ours, part of life, rather than something one has to travel to Italy to see.- in this respect it is like the dish sometimes held to be the Grail, commonplace rather than rare, a dish like any other rather than something crusted with jewels and made of precious metals. Or, like his early prints, something that one could buy for a few dollars at the receptionist's counter at Castelli's, where they were displayed on the racks. A genuine work of art for five bucks! No wonder he stenciled low price tags- like $6.99- on pictures of masterpieces...

I think the religious turn, if there was one, happened much earlier. I believe that at some moment between 1959 and 1961 Andy Warhol underwent an artistic change deep enough to bear comparison with a religious conversion- too deep, one might say, not to be a religious conversion. Before then, his work had a certain effete charm, consisting of plump cherubs, posies, pink and blue butterflies, pussycats in confectionary colors. He made a handsome living as a commercial artist, whose chef product consisted of playfully erotic advertisements for upscale ladies' footwear. My feeling is that his religious identity was disclosed in April 1961, in his first exhibition- installed, symbolically, in a site displaying soft fluttery summery resort wear for the class of women for whom the luxurious shoes that had given him his first success were designed- the windows of Bonwit Teller, one of the great emporia for upscale women's clothing on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Warhol, as we saw, surrounded the mannequins with blowups of the coarse, grainy advertisements one sees in the back pages of cheap newsprint blue-collar publications. The images he appropriated after the conversion were vernacular, familiar, and anonymous. They typicalty advertise cures. A montage of black-and-white newspaper ads is for falling hair; for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders; for nose reshaping; for prosthetic aids for rupture; for love elixir ("Make him want you"); and for Pepsi-Cola ("No finer Drink'). It projects a vision of human beings as deficient and as needy. IT was a message not unlike that of Joseph Beuys, whose symbols were fat and felt, to minister to the hungry and cold. All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief. It was as if the message of saviors had been translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements. The Bonwit Teller show testified to what remains perhaps the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creation- Warhol's "before and after".

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Somali Warlords, Islamic Courts and the West by Daniel Sekulich


People misuse the term when they call places 'lawless' or 'ungovernable'. It's not true. Places like Somalia are not lawless or ungovernable; they're just not governed by a democratic state, if it there is such a thing. They're governed by the warlord or drug baron or the insurgent leader. These are the ones who fill whatever void that has been created by political instability and who then thrive. Warlords today have the same power as a baron in 1300s Europe. Gangs, such as pirate gangs, have the ability to bend politicians and governments through coercion, intimidation and bribery.

After years of brutalizing their fellow Somalis, harassing passing vessels, interrupting the delivery of aid shipments, and extorting vast sums from foreign shippers and fishing enterprises, you might think there would be little left for the warlords' pirate gangs to capitalize upon. But of course, you'd be wrong.

For Somalis gangs, the Indian Ocean is both a source of bounty and a vast expanse of emptiness. Or rather, that emptiness is another potential region to be marketed to foreigners, exploited as an appealing garbage dump for Western waste. The United Nations Environmental Programme and several nongovernmental groups have known that the seas off Somalia have become a dumping ground for waste as far back as the early 1990s, after the country slipped into anarchy. Reports filtered in that European companies were paying for the "right" to discard garbage in the seas, but there was little definitive proof since the evidence lay beneath fathoms of water.

But shortly after the December 2004 tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean, an unsettling result of illegally dumped waste washed up on the beaches of eastern Somalia. Hazardous-waste containers came ashore as a result of the tidal forces of the tsunami, spilling a toxic mess that no one expected. As the waves receded, they left behind steel drums and concrete containers filled with heavy metals and radioactive waste. Uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury, garbage from hospitals, it all splayed across the shoreline and soon began affecting people. As UNEP discovered, hundreds of people became sick in the aftermath, with symptoms such as skin infections, mouth and abdominal bleeding, and other problems caused by the various wastes.

For years, rumors have placed the source of much of this garbage as being Western Europe. In the early 1990s, Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi investigated what was going on in Somalia, trying to see if there was any basis to the whispers that Mafia-run firms were sending industrial waste to the Indian Ocean to be disposed of. Tragically, she was killed, along with her cameraman, while seeking the truth in Somalia, and so the questions remain ominously unanswered.

According to Andrew Mwangura ( head of the African Seafarers Assistance Programme), the warlords charge as little as $2.50 per ton for the "right" to dump waste off the Somali coast, while it costs about $250 to properly dispose of the same ton in Europe. At this bargain basement rate, it's not likely the dumping will cease anytime soon, and the prospects that anyone will step forward and offer to clean up the mess are currently nil.

Yes, Mr. Mwanagura understands that it is the Somalis themselves who have torn their country apart through greed and violence. But they have had a lot of help from the outside word. The weapons the pirates brandish are not manufactured in Somalia. Nor are the speedboats and engines and radios. The money to purchase weapons and supplies can come from foreign fishing fleets willing to pay off the warlords, transferring the funds through international banking systems. And the decision to toss hazardous waste into those same waters is only partially made by the Somali warlords.

Warlords have run things in Somalia since the early 90s- with one notably brief exception. In 2006 there was a dramatic decrease in pirate incidents along the coast that was directly related to the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU, also known as the Union of Islamic Courts and the Council of Islamic Courts). Fed up with the country's endemic corruption and infighting, this loose coalition of clerics, Islamic militias and other concerned Somalis managed to toss the warlords out of Mogadishu in June 2006 and forced the internationally recognized TFG to flee south. The ICU expanded its control over almost half the country, seeking to reimpose a sense of order in the areas they controlled (which included the imposition of Sharia law). They banned the use and sale of khat, the popular drug, and sought to crack down on corruption.

One of the ICU's goals was to stamp out piracy along the Somali coastline, and they made it quite clear that anyone engaging in the practice would face severe repercussions. With their warlord bosses on the run and facing the prospect of certain death at the hands of the ICU, Somalis pirates gave up their marauding ways. The clerics had managed to do what no one else had and address a serious criminal endeavor, rather like the way the Taliban tackled opium production in Afghanistan.

In the post-911 environment, the prospect of a conservative Islamic government in Somalia did not sit well with many in the West. Though the ICU managed to bring some stability to parts of the country, the shadow of Afghanistan under the Taliban loomed within the minds of "strategic thinkers" in foreign cities. There were fears that some factions with the ICU had ties to Al Qaeda and many did not want to see Somalia become an Islamic state. So, in December of 2006, TFG forces, aided by the Ethiopian military (and with the tacit approval of most Western countries), managed to overpower the ICU and return Somalia to...a lawlessness and chaos [whose toll in terms of misery, destruction and death far far exceeds anything ever perpetrated by Al Qaeda].

Friday, December 18, 2009

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Zizek


In the good old days of Really Existing Socialism, a joke popular among dissidents was used to illustrate the futility of their protests. In the fifteenth century, when Russia was occupied by Mongols, a peasant and his wife were walking along a dusty country road; a Mongol warrior on a horse stopped at their side and told the peasant he would now proceed to rape his wife; he then added: "But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you must hold my testicles while I rape your wife, so that they will not get dirty!" Once the Mongol had done the deed and ridden away, the peasant started laughing and jumping with joy. His surprised wife asked: "how can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?" The farmer answered: "But I got him! His balls are covered with dust!" This sad joke reveals the predicament of the dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to the party nomenklatura, but all they were doing was slightly soiling the nomenklatura's testicles, while the ruling elite carried on raping the people...

Is today's critical Left not in a similar position? (Among the contemporary names for ever-so-slightly smearing those in power, we could list "deconstruction", or the "protection of individual freedoms.") In a famous confrontation at the university of Salamanca in 1936, Miguel de Unamuno quipped at the Francoists: "Vencereis, pero no convencereis" ("you will win, but you will not convince")- is this all that today's Left can say to triumphant global capitalism? Is the Left predestined to continue to play the role of those who, on the contrary, convince but still lose (and are especially convincing in retroactively explaining the reasons for their own failure)? Our task is to discover how to go a step further. In our societies, critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power, whereas the real point is to castrate them...

But how can we do this? We should learn from the failures of twentieth century Leftist politics. The task is not to conduct the castration in a direct climatic confrontation, but to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices. Back in the 1960s, Lacan named the irregular short-lived periodical of his school Scilicet- the message was not the word's predominant meaning today ( "namely", "To wit", "that is to say"), but literally "it is permitted to know. (To know what?- what the Freudian school of Paris thinks about the unconscious...) Today, our message should be the same: it is permitted to know and to fully engage in communism, to act again in full fidelity to the communist Idea. Liberal permissiveness is of the order of videlicet- it is permitted to see, but the very fascination with obscenity we are allowed to observe prevents us from knowing what it is that we see...

Even in the case of "clearly" fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to trust the bourgeois media. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamic group who enforce their rule with the use of terror. However, when in the spring of 2009 they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, the New York Times reported that they had engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless peasants:

In Swat, accounts from those who fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power. To do so, the militants organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops...The Taliban's ability to exploit class divisions adds a new dimension to the insurgency and is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal.


Mahboob Mahmood, a Pakistani-American lawyer and former classmate of President Obama's, said, "The people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for revolution." Sunni militancy is taking advantage of deep class divisions that have long festered in Pakistan. "The militants, for their part, are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling", he said. "They are also promising Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution."

Thomas Altizer spelled out the implications and consequences of this new (to our Western ears) data:

Now it is finally being revealed that the Taliban is a genuine liberating force assaulting an ancient feudal rule in Pakistan and freeing the vast peasant majority from that rule...Hopefully we will now hear genuine criticism of the Obama administration which is far more dangerous than the Bush administration both because it is being given such a free hand and because it is a far stronger administration.

The ideological bias in the New York Times article is discernible in how it speaks of the Taliban's "ability to exploit class divisions", as if the Taliban's "true" agenda lies elsewhere- in religious fundamentalism- and they are merely "taking advantage" of the plight of the poor landless farmers. To this one should simply add two things. First, this distinction between the "true" agenda and the instrumental manipulation is an externally imposed one: as if the poor landless farmers themselves do not experience their plight in "fundamentalist religious" terms! Second, if by "taking advantage" of the farmers' plight the Taliban are "raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan", which remains largely feudal", what prevents liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US from similarly "taking advantage" of the situation and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad truth behind the fact that this question is not raised in the New York Times report is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are themselves the "natural ally" of liberal democracy..

What phenomena such as the rise of the Taliban demonstrate is that Walter Benjamin's old thesis that "every rise of Fascism bears witness to a failed revolution" not only still holds true today, but is perhaps even more pertinent than ever. Liberals like to point out similarities between Left and Right "extremisms": Hitler's terror and death camps initiated by Bolshevik terror and the Gulags; the Leninist form of the party is kept alive in al-Qaeda- yes, but what does all this mean? It can also be read as an indication of how fascism literally replaces (takes the place of) Leftist revolution: its rise is the Left's failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction, which the Left was not able to mobilize. And does the same not hold for so called "Islamo-Fascism"? Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries?


"First As Tragedy, Then As Farce" by Slavoj Zizek; Verso, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cuckold's Reel by Hallie Rubenhold


[1781]

The only potential turncoat in Sir Richard's army of captive accomplices was Mary Sotheby. His wife's letter, imploring her servant to come to London had never been delivered to Mary's hands, but undoubtedly the maid was simmering with anxiety, anticipating a command from her mistress. Of all the servants under the Worsley's roof, no one would have been more distressed by the events of that morning than Mary Sotheby. Her concerns were not simply mercenary ones, that Seymour's absence would inevitably signal the termination of her position, but genuine worry for the welfare of her lady. It was her responsibility to follow her mistress, to forecast her needs, to soothe her bodily discomforts, to dress her, to bath her, and to coddle her emotionally should she require it. The complexities of woman's attire and the strictures of a genteel upbringing meant that a lady of privilege was virtually helpless without the assistance of her servant's hands. Their relationship was a complicated one; and association of dependency based on mutual trust, subordination, friendship , and sometimes unwavering fidelity and love. As it was Mary Sotheby's occupation to observe her mistress's person completely, she would have been privy to her most intimate secrets: the individuals with who she corresponded, her private conversations, even the state of her naked body and undergarments. The bond that was forged between a maid and her mistress was often intense. Acts of disloyalty and disobedience could be taken as devastating betrayals.

Mary would have known that Lady Worsley urgently required her presence. With no clothing but the functional brown riding habit in which she had absconded, without so much as a change of linen or stockings, without her jewels, her pomades or powders and without Mary's fingers to assist her, Seymour would be as vulnerable as a motherless child. She would be forced to rely on the housemaids wherever she resided, with their catty tongues and thieves pockets. Without her baby, bereft of clothing and parted from her lady's maid, both Mary and Sir Richard knew, Lady Worsley would grow increasingly desperate. So it was to Mary that he turned before his departure. He addressed her with sternness, impressing upon her the importance of her duties to him, the master, rather than to her wayward mistress. In was the husband, not the wife, who paid her wages. Then, into her care he placed 'Lady Worsley's cloaths and jewels... with a strict charge not to let her ladyship have any of these in his absence'. He knew that Mary Sotheby's heart would be burdened and her resolve slippery so Godfrey the butler was set to watch her closely.

As predicted, the first test of her will came shortly after Sir Richard's post-chaise had started for the capital. Out of the dust from his wheels came Joseph Connolly who had been lying in wait, anticipating that Worsley's departure would unfasten the loyalty of his household. Like Lady Worley's distress for her maid, Bissett would be feeling the absence of his valet; his first line of defense against an irritating world of shopkeepers and creditors who required payment, of affairs that needed arranging and items that demanded tending. Connolly felt the same devotion as Mary Sotheby. He had done as the captain had instructed him and hired a post-chaise which he now had ready to ferry him and Mary to London. As he had received no response to his message, he returned with trepidation to the Worsley's doorstep and asked for Mary Sotheby. 'It was Lady Worsley's orders that you should immediately pack up her Ladyship's cloaths as well as your own and prepare to follow on to London with me,' Connolly told her, and the explained 'that he had stayed behind to accompany her'. Godfrey stood over her, watching. Mary responded with emphatic regret that she could not perform 'her duty to her lady. As the butler looked on she told Connolly with firmness 'that she was sorry but she could not comply with her ladyship's order', and the Worsleys' door was shut.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who's at Guantanamo Anyway? by P. Sabin Willet


That's what I was wondering one hot day last July (2005) when I walked across the silent and sterile prison yard. Nothing grew there: no grass or flower or tree or even a weed. We approached a hut. In side was a man chained to the floor. His name was Adel. My law firm had filed a habeas case for him the previous March, but I'd never seen or spoken to him before. Was he a terrorist? One of the worst of the worst?

Three weeks before I got to Guantanamo, Vice President Cheney said, "The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield, primarily in Afghanistan. They're terrorists. They're bomb makers. They're facilitators of terror. They're members of al Qaeda and the Taliban."

Something was off, right from the first minute. Something about the young man's gentle smile; his calm didn't fit. On the last day of July, I discovered what President Bush, and his lawyers at the Justice Department, had kept secret from the public, and even from the court: the military had concluded that Adel was innocent. Not a terrorist. Not an enemy soldier. Not a criminal. Never been on a battlefield. He'd been sold to U.S. forces from the soil of Pakistan, a nation with whom we have never been at war.

Vice President Cheney says that Adel and men like him were picked up on the battlefield, but according to a 2005 study conducted by Seton Hall School of Law, five percent were picked up on the battlefield. Ninety-five percent were not.

How did we get the rest? We distributed leaflets, with smiling Afghans declaring, "Get wealth and power beyond your dreams...You can receive millions of dollars helping anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people."

Eighty-six percent of the Guantanamo detainees were sold to the United States by people who got the flyers. Vice President Cheney says these men are al Qaeda fighters. What do the data show? Eight percent are al Qaeda fighters. Ninety-two percent were not.

Vice President Cheney says they committed hostile acts against Americans or their allies. What do the data say? Fifty-five percent of the detainees committed no hostile act against the United States or its allies or anyone else. By the way, Cheney and other Bush administration officials construed "hostile act" extremely broadly. Fleeing from bombing by U.S. forces is a hostile act. Being sold to U.S. forces is hostile act. Possessing a Kalashnikov rifle is a hostile act. It has been estimated that there were upwards of ten million Kalashnikovs in Afghanistan in 2001 and only eight million adult males. An adult Afghan male who hadn't possessed a Kalashnikov was harder to find than an adult Texan male who hadn't possessed a hunting rifle. If you walked into a restaurant in Kabul, you found Kalashnikov's hanging on the coat rack.

For sixty percent of the detainees, the only hook by which they are deemed enemy combatants is that they were "associated with" the Taliban. But you have to understand that in 2001 in Afghanistan, the Taliban was pervasive. Except in a few strongholds of the Northern Alliance, they controlled every village, every town, every guesthouse. If you traveled to Kabul and stayed in a guesthouse, you associated with the Taliban. If you were conscripted against your will into a Taliban militia, you "associated with" the Taliban. For two Saudis held in Guantanamo, their association with the Taliban is that the Taliban held them in prison as enemies of its regime.

I'm not making this up.

Who's at Guantanamo? Privates, orphans, the poor, conscripts, cooks, drivers. The mayors, the ministers, the Taliban generals- they're not there. Take Sayed Rahmutullah Hashemi. He joined the Taliban as a young man. He became a party spokesman. Osama bin Laden came to his office. Is Rahmutullah at Guantanamo? No. He is a freshman at Yale. Some of his former Taliban colleagues are now in the Afghan parliament that the United States helped to create. The desperately poor kids they employed as drivers and cooks sit in Guantanamo.

The last lie, the whopper, the huge one, is that Guantanamo holds terrorists. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, their amen chorus in the Senate, they all tell you relentlessly that these people are terrorists. I don't say that there is no terrorist there. But when you review the data, when you search it for anything remotely like a terrorist act- an act of violence against persons or property, for bombing or bomb making or the teaching of bomb making or the fund-raising for it- you find that that is, most of all, who isn't at Guantanamo.

If there is anyone in Guantanamo who conspired in the 9/11 murders, then I would like to see him tried. If he is guilty, I hope he is convicted. If he is tried and convicted by a federal court or a military court martial duly constituted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I would shed no tear for the ultimate sentence. All that we lawyers have been asking for, since the beginning, is a hearing, a chance to show whether someone really is an "enemy combatant" or not. And when Guantanamo cases have come up for an actual hearing, like Shafiq Rasul's, what happened after his case came under Supreme Court scrutiny?

They released him.

What happened to Moazzem Begg, another "worst of the worst"?

They released him.

Mandouh Habib?

When the story of his torture in Egypt surfaced, they released him

They told us these people were the worst of the worst, and yet rather than prove it, rather than protect you and me from them, they released them before a judge could see any facts. The Nazi war criminals were tried in the sunlight, and the world has never doubted the judgment at Nuremberg. But in no Guantanamo habeas case has President Bush been willing to let a federal judge hear a single fact about the worst of the worst. Instead, in the name of the global "war on terror", the president can seize anyone, anywhere in the world, and transport to Guantanamo Bay, where he may be held without criminal charge or process. The President may do so even after he has determined that a person was taken by mistake, as in Adel's case, and hold him as long as the war on terror lasts.

So I want to ask a question. How long will the war on terror last?

We need to acknowledge, if we are a thoughtful people, that terror is everywhere and has been with us always and involves all sorts of people who later get called "men of peace". My point is not that we should cease to fight terrorism. It is to ask, does anyone think he or she will live to see the end of terrorism? And thus the end of the global war against it? Do you think you'll watch on TV as the Emperor of Terror comes aboard a navy warship to sign an instrument of surrender?

When we say the president has special powers during the global war on terror, we are saying he has them forever. Always and forever can the president lock people up at Guantanamo without meaningful judicial review. Always and forever he can ignore the Congress's ban against torture, as he vowed to do. Always and forever can he tap your phone, download from your iMac,and go snuffling in your trash. Always and forever he can ignore the writ of habeas corpus...


I want my flag back.. My country has been hijacked, and I want it back. If we care about being a civilized people, then it is precisely in times of fear that we have to holds fastest to our rule of law. We already have the tools to deal with fanatics who blow up buildings and murder the innocent. We knew how to deal with Timothy McVeigh and not surrender our souls.

During the Vietnam War, a protester stood outside the White House with a candle. Every night for weeks. He stood out in the cold, in the rain. One day a reporter came up to him and asked, "Do you really think, with your candle, you're going to change White House policy?"

"No," he said, "I'm sure I won't change White House policy. But that's not why I'm doing this."

"Then why are you doing this?" the reporter asked.

"So that White House policy doesn't change me."

The rule of law is not coming back on its own. It will come back only when you go out and grab hold of it by the ears and drag it back. In the ballot box and the courtroom and the newspaper and the classroom and the public street. Can you remember where you were in January 2002? Think back. Now reflect for a moment on what has happened in your life since then. Where you've been. What you've done. Whom you've loved. Who has loved you. Now imagine that none of these things in your life happened because, like Adel, every single day since January 2002 you had been cut off in prison, isolated in a cage, just outside the map of the world. Even though the military determined there was no basis to hold you. And imagine the Congress of the United States voted to deny you the chance to ask a judge to make it right. So who's at Guantanamo? The truth is, the answer to the question is... You. And me.

{Speech at Princeton University in February 2006}

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anarchism in America by Evan Wright


Doug Peacock, the ex-Green Beret medic and a Vietnam vet who was a member of the actual "Monkey Wrench Gang" on which the 1975 book was based, argues that the radical environmentalism, including monkey-wrenching, he practiced in the 1960s and 1970s didn't go far enough. He believes the only hope for saving the environment lies in dismantling the entire system. When I spoke to him shortly after the WTO protests , Peacock said, "I'm right up there with those Eugene kids when it comes to throwing bombs at the system. Out of monkey-wrenching came Earth First! and out of Earth First! came anarchy. Monkey-wrenching ( sabotaging property in defense of the environment) was never enough by itself to take on the system. I see new hope in the upswing of the anarchist movement. I thank those kids for what they are doing in Seattle."

Anarchism as a political philosophy was originally more concerned with the deleterious effects of the state on the human condition than the harmfulness of technology. In the nineteenth century, when anarchism became fashionable in England, it was embraced as much as an aesthetic and moral philosophy as it was an actual political movement. If the point of anarchism was to explore the untapped potential of humankind free from the tyrannies of the state, the next logical step would be to imagine the liberated, natural human in harmony with wild nature. Technology, like the state, came to be viewed as a tyrannical force that corrupted humankind and nature alike. Mary Shelly- daughter of seminal anarchist thinker William Godwin and wife of anarchist-inspired poet Percy Bysshe Shelly- would pen the original horror story of technology, Frankenstein.

Utopian anarchist thought and musings of Romantic poets permeated the back-to-nature spirit of 1960s environmentalism. While Earth First! activists adopted, or at least talked about, use of militant, destructive tactics like spiking trees, the idea of anarchism as both means and end of the environmental movement didn't take root until the 1990s.

Wingnut's * hero, Ted Kaczynski, advocated waging war against technology, corporations and the political order in order to restore humankind to its proper state of subservience to nature. Where Mary Shelly's fable about Dr. Frankenstein's monster served as a warning about the dangerous effects of technology on the human race, Kacyznski's Manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995, was both anti-technology and anti-human, calling for murder, if necessary, to protect nature from humankind's rapaciousness.

Kacyznski's rise as guiding light of radical environmentalists like Wingnut was promoted by Portland, Oregon-based author and thinker John Zarzan, who describes himself as a "leading theorist of the anti-civilization movement"- what he sometimes calls the "primitivist movement". Zerzan came of age as an antiwar protester in San Francisco in the 1960s. Employed as a social worker by the city, he earned a master's degree in history from San Francisco State University and gradually evolved from being a garden-variety left-wing activist to an anti-technology theorist. In 1988 he published Elements of Refusal, a collection of essays in which he began to formulate his argument that all technology developed since about the time of the Paleolithic era has harmed the human race. [ see http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no9/refusal_review.htm]

After Kaczynski's arrest in 1996 for his seventeen-year Unabomber terror campaign that injured eleven people and killed three- all strangers to him selected because of their roles in fostering technology- Zerzan began meeting with him in prison and sharing ideas. He later dedicated the second edition of Elements of Refusal to the Unabomber. Wingnut and the other anarchists speak of Zerzan and the Unabomber in the same breath, and Zerzan's books are as widely read as the Unabomber Manifesto.

One of Wingnut's friends puts me in touch with Zerzan and we meet at an upscale pasta and panini shop in a gentrified section of Portland, which Zerzan selected. Zerzan, fifty-six, would not look out of place at a college faculty meeting. He wears dark loafers with cream-colored socks, and a brown leather jacket over a University of Paris sweatshirt. His graying beard is neatly clipped.

Zerzan describes himself as an anarchist opposed to nonviolent protest on the grounds that "civil disobedience is just the agreement that we respect the law. It's a very explicit consecration of the system."

Both of us order salads. As we wait, Zerzan speaks movingly of Kaczynski as a martyr who was "willing to put his life out there. The most humiliating thing for Ted was to be portrayed as crazy. He was not crazy at all."

By the time our salads arrive, Zerzan is explaining the desired end state of the current anarchist-environmental movement as he and Kaczynski see it: to dismantle civilization and turn the clock back to the Paleolithic era, aka the Stone Age.

"You mean so we can live like cavemen?" I ask.

Zerzan laughs and assumes a professorial air as he labors to erase my ignorance. "Think of our ancestors as wonderful primitives, not cavemen," he says. "Before agriculture and animal husbandry," Zerzan states, "when we were a hunter-gather society, there was equality between people and between genders. There was no war and no pollution. There was leisure time. Disease was unknown. Cancer did not exist." Zerzan smiles. "How wonderful the Paleolithic era was."

Zerzan refers to the harbingers of this new age- young anarchists like Wingnut- as 'future primitives". As I get to know Wingnut better, the influences of Zerzan become clear. "What needs to happen for Earth to survive is for a few billion people on this planet to be killed off," Wingnut tells me. "I'm not saying I want it to happen, or that I would try to make it happen. But people are a disease to the planet. If there is nuclear war, good riddance. Some of us will be out here surviving at the hunter-gathering level, where we belong."

Wingnut, his anarchist friends and mentors like Zerzan and Kaczynski have somehow managed to turn love of "Mother earth" into a cult of apocalyptic doom.



*Craig Marshall, alleged member of Earth Liberation Front, accused of causing more than $43 million of property damage during a period of five years; convicted, in a plea bargaining deal, of settling fires to several SUVs at a car dealership in Eugene Oregon and sentenced to five and half years. Evan Wright's report originally appeared as "Swamp's Last Day on Earth and other True Tales of the Anarchist Underground", Rolling Stone, March 30, 2000. "Wingnut" specifically refers to the decoration tied into Craig's beard.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Mysterious Collapse of World Trade Center 7 by David Ray Griffin.


The starting point of the National Institute of Science and Technology's investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center's building No. 7 *, in which it refused to begin with the most likely hypothesis, was also the starting point for all its other violations of scientific methods. Although there were many reasons to assume that WTC 7 was brought down by a controlled demolition, NIST's lead investigator, Shyam Sunder, claimed that this hypothesis was "not credible enough to justify a careful investigation." Instead, NIST declared: "The challenge was to determine if a fire-induced floor system failure could occur in WTC 7 under an ordinary building contents fire." So although every collapse of steel-framed high-rise buildings that had occurred both before or after September 11, 2001, had been brought about by explosives, which means that none of them had been induced by fire, NIST determined that, in this case, the fire hypothesis was the most credible one.

The claim that this is what NIST really determined is, of course, simply not believable. The only plausible explanation for NIST's behavior (confirmed by the testimony of some of the members of its own staff) is that, as an agency of the Bush-Cheney administration's Commerce Department, it had to exclude, and even try to discredit, the view that WTC 7 was brought down by explosives. This means that NIST, in restricting itself to the fire hypothesis, was violating the most general formal principle of scientific work: Extra-scientific considerations should not be allowed (in so far as possible) to determine conclusions.

By rejecting the controlled demolition hypothesis, NIST was also violating Occam's razor, according to which, if there are two explanations that are equally adequate, the simplest one should be chosen. In this case, of course, the two competing hypothesis were not even close to being equally adequate, because NIST, to advocate its fire hypothesis, had to ignore much of the relevant evidence. But even if NIST had come up with an explanation for all the ignored evidence, it would have needed one explanation for the melted steel, another for the inextinguishable fires (after the collapse), another for the unusual particles in the air, another for the particles in the dust that appear to have required extremely high temperature, another for the apparent nanothermite residue in the dust, and still others for the testimonial evidence about explosions. The result would have been an extremely complex hypothesis. But all of these phenomena can be explained by one and the same hypothesis, namely, that explosives, including nonothermite, were used to demolish WTC 7.

By rejecting and seeking to discredit this hypothesis, NIST was also led to violate the prohibition in scientific debate against straw man arguments. In refuting the claim that RDX explosives could have been used to demolish WTC 7, it ignored the far more plausible hypothesis that nonothermites were used. These types of explosives have very different properties, effects and residues.

NIST's report also, especially in its claims about fire and steel temperatures, violates the principle that prima facie claims should not be made without good reasons. The evidence presented by NIST for its prima facie implausible claims, is, however, extraordinarily weak. For example, in its computer models the sustained 'out-of-control' fires on several levels of WTC 7, for which there is very little evidence anyway, heated the steel components of the structure but not the concrete floors.

NIST's refusal to begin with the most likely scientific hypothesis- engendered by the free fall of WTC 7 which even NIST itself had eventually to accept- violated the principle that scientists should not affirm an unprecedented cause for a familiar occurrence without good reasons. But even more seriously, NIST's refusal to begin with the most likely hypothesis led it down a path that forced it, at the end, to make a claim implying that the fundamental laws of physics had been violated. This is the claim that, although WTC 7's columns had not been simultaneously removed by explosives, the building came down vertically in free fall for over two seconds. After over 600 pages of explanations, simulations, and graphics, NIST resorted to saying, in effect, that a miracle had occurred.

Chapter 2 articulated one more principle: scientific work should be reviewed by peers before it is published. NIST's WTC team did not submit its report to peers in the scientific community to be reviewed before it was published. In not doing this, NIST ignored the recommendation of Dr. James Quintiere, someone it should have taken seriously. A professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland, Quintiere was a member of the advisory committee for NIST's WTC project. This was a natural assignment, as he had previously been employed in NIST's fire program for nineteen years, the final years of which he served as Chief of the Fire Science Division.

In a lecture on the WTC investigations at the 2007 World Fire Safety Conference, Quintiere said:

"I wish there would be a peer review of this...I think all the records that NIST has assembled should be archived. I would really like to see someone else take a look at what they've done; both structurally and from a fire point of view."

In an interview later that same year, Quientiere repeated his call, saying:

"I think there should be a full airing of the NIST analysis and results with questions raised by the public before an impartial panel judging the completeness and accuracy of their results. In other words, peer review with accountability to a national body. That should determine whether further investigation is needed."

NIST did, to be sure, meet from time to time with an advisory committee. But it evidently did not take any advice from its members or even answer their questions. Speaking directly to a NIST representative, Quintiere said:

"I found that throughout your whole investigation it was very difficult to get a clear answer. And when anyone went to your advisory panel meetings or hearings, where they were given five minutes to make a statement; they could never ask any questions. And with all the commentary that I put in, and I spent many hours writing things...I never received one formal reply."

In short, besides not having a formal peer preview process, NIST showed contempt for those who offered advice (with the exception of David Chandler)*, including people such as James W. Quintiere and Frank Greening who, not believing that NIST was engaged in a cover-up operation, really wanted to help it produce a better report.

The authors of the NIST report on WTC 7 were evidently not responsible to anyone- except to the agencies mention by the former NIST employee quoted in Chapter One: The Department of Commerce, the National Security Agency, and President Bush's Office of Management and Budget.


*NIST NCSTAR 1-9, Structural Fire Response and Probable Collapse Sequence of World Trade Center Building 7 Final Report, November, 2008.; two volumes, 729 pages.

* David Chandler ( high school physics teacher) put a very effective video presentation on the internet and made an impressive statement at a live broadcast of a technical briefing, forcing NIST top admit WTC 7 did enter into free fall which they had previously denied.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP9Qp5QWRMQ

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Calvin and the Natural Sciences by Alister E. McGrath


The origins of modern natural science are complex and controversial. For instance, Lewis S. Feuer has argued vigorously that modern science was the direct result of a 'hedonist-libertarian spirit'. Theories which attempt to explain the remarkable development of the natural sciences in terms of one single controlling factor are, however, ambitious and generally unconvincing. It is clear that a number of contributing factors are implicated; one of those is unquestionably religious, and related to John Calvin.

There is a large body of sociological research, stretching back more than a century, which demonstrates that there are consistent differences between the abilities of the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions within Christianity to produce first-class natural scientists. These differences, which span a wide range of countries, can be summarized thus: Protestants seem to be much better at fostering natural sciences than Roman Catholics. In his major study of the foreign membership of the Parisian Academie des Sciences over the period 1666-1883, Alphonse de Candolle found that Protestants far outnumbered Roman Catholics. On the basis of population, de Candolle estimated that 60 percent of that membership should have been Roman Catholic, and 40 per cent Protestant; the actual figures turned out to be 18.2 percent and 81.9 per cent. Although Calvinists were considerably in the minority in the southern Netherlands during the sixteenth century, the vast majority of the region's natural scientists were drawn from this constituency. The early membership of the Royal Society of London was dominated by Puritans. As survey after survey indicates, both the physical and biological sciences were dominated by Calvinists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This remarkable observation clearly requires some sort of explanation.

Calvin may be regarded as making two major contributions to this debate. At one level, he positively encouraged the scientific study of nature; at the other, he removed a major obstacle to the development of that study. His first contribution is specifically linked with his stress on the orderliness of creation; both the physical world and the human body testify to the wisdom and character of God.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him...Hence the author of the Letter to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible world as images of the invisible, the elegant structure of the world serving as a kind of mirror in which we may see God, who is otherwise invisible...To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs- not just those more advanced proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them. (Institutes I.v.1-2) .


Calvin thus commends both astronomy and medicine- indeed, he even confesses to being slightly jealous of them- in that they are able to probe more deeply into the natural world, and thus uncover further evidence of the orderliness of the creation and the wisdom of its creator. ( The idea that Calvin rubbished Copernicus is a complete myth). It may thus be argued that Calvin gave a fundamental religious impulse and legitimization to the scientific investigation of nature, in that it was seen as a means of discerning the wise hand of God in creation, thus enhancing both belief in his existence and the respect in which he was held. This is born out by the influential Calvinist statement of faith, the Confesso Belgica ( 1561), the researches of Perry Miller into the worldview of the American Puritans and in the letters of Isaac Newton e.g. 'when I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye on such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose." There are unambiguous hints here of Calvin's reference to the universe as a "theatre of the glory of God", in which humans are an appreciative audience (Institutes I.vi.2).


Calvin's second contribution may be regarded as eliminating a major obstacle to the development of the natural sciences- biblical literalism. This emancipation of scientific observation took place at two distinct levels: first, in the declaration that the subject matter of scripture is not the natural structure of the world, but God's self-revelation and redemption, as concentrated in Jesus Christ; second, in the insistence upon the accommodating character of biblical language. We shall consider both these points individually.

Calvin indicates (although he is not totally consistent in this respect) that the Bible is to be regarded as primarily concerned with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is not to be treated as an astronomical, geographical or biological textbook. Perhaps the clearest statement of this principle is to be found in a paragraph added in 1543 to Calvin's preface to Pierre Olivetan's translation of the New Testament (1534): the whole point of scripture is to bring us knowledge of Jesus Christ- and having come to know him (and all this implies), we should come to a halt, and not expect to learn more (Corpos Reformatorum 9:815). Scripture provides us with spectacles, through which we may view the world as God's creation and self-expression; it does not, and was never intended to, provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information (Institutes I.v.8.vi.1). The natural sciences are thus effectively emancipated from theological restrictions.

On 4 June 1539, Luther commented caustically upon Copernicus' theory- to be published in 1543- that the earth revolved around the sun: did not scripture insist that the contrary was the case? And so the heliocentric theory of the solar system received a somewhat curt dismissal. Such crude biblical literalism appears to have been typical of the German reformer. In his controversy with Zwingli over the meaning of the famous words spoken by Jesus over the bread at the last supper- "this is my body" (Mathew 26:26) Luther insisted that the word "is" could only be interpreted as "is literally identical to". This struck Zwingli as a religious and linguistic absurdity, totally insensitive to the various levels at which language operated. In this case, "is" mean "signifies".

Calvin, on the other hand, developed a sophisticated theory of 'accommodation'. God, in revealing himself to us, has accommodated himself to our levels of understanding and our innate preference for pictorial means of conceiving him. God reveals himself, not as he is in himself, but in forms adapted to our human capacity. Thus scripture speaks of God having arms, a mouth, and so on- but these are just vivid and memorable metaphors, ideally suited to our intellectual capacities. God reveals himself in ways suitable to the abilities and situations of those to who the revelation was originally made. Thus the biblical stories of the creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) are accommodated to the abilities and horizons of a relatively simple and unsophisticated people, they are not intended to be taken as literal representations of reality (Corpos Reformatorum 23.9-10, 17-18, 20-3).

Since the nineteenth century, religion and science have often seemed to be locked in mortal combat within western culture. Some writers have suggested that this reflects an excessive influence of Calvin upon western Christianity.* Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely on account of Calvin having had too little influence upon his later followers. The infamous Scopes Trial (1925), centering upon the allegedly non-biblical character of the theory of evolution, bears witness to the inadequacies of a crudely literal interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. Yet for Calvin, even the idea of the 'six days of creation' was a divine accommodation to the human cognitive abilities, it was not to be taken as literally true (OC 23:18). Had Calvin had a greater influence over his contemporary followers, perhaps one of the central aspects of modern western [more specifically: American culture-JS)- the notion of a tension between religion and science- would have been averted. The entire evolutionary debate would have taken a radically different course.

This, however, is to speculate on what might have happened; our concern is to analyse what did happen. It is evident that there is a fundamental religious impulse to the rapid expansion of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century and beyond, and that this can be put down, at least in part, to the ideas and influence of John Calvin.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Charlie Chaplin: The Way He Worked by Simon Louvish


His last two films for the Mutual Film Corporation were The Immigrant and The Adventurer. Whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless, as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film- makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin's intuition. He seemed to have no clear image in his mind, beforehand, of the shot he wanted, and, being both the director and actor, had to view the 'dailies' before he could make up his mind. But once the right shot had emerged, he recognized it unerringly.

The out-takes of The Circus show Chaplin, again and again, shooting the brief scene in which he sits down with Rex and Merna and the taunts of the fighter begin. Version after version, with Charlie, Merna, Rex and a waiter positioned in every possible manner, this small sequence, that was clearly irrelevant to the film and was doomed to be cut, is given the Chaplin treatment of repeated takes, marking slates numbered 3,417 through 3,645, over several days of shooting. Again and again Charlie turns to his tormentor, turns back to sit and has his chair yanked from under him by the boxer.

Such compulsive behavior by a director towards his actors might be ruthless and tyrannical. Such an attitude towards himself put Chaplin in another bracket entirely. No wonder that, when asked how his ideas came to him, Chaplin replied that 'ideas come from an intense desire for them', and that his method of working was 'sheer perseverance to the point of madness.'

City Lights, despite its reputation as yet another Chaplin picture wholly developed script-less in the shooting process, nevertheless emerged from a plethora of notes, script ideas, large folders of scribbled and typed sequences. Many versions, false leads and entire plot-lines were discarded along the way, before the purified simplicity of the central themes of the film emerged as if they had been crystal clear and obvious from the start.

Chaplin's final script for The Great Dictator was a massive three- hundred-page affair. For the first time it set down in writing precise details of action and gesture, rather than these being worked out during the shoot. Production lasted a total of 559 days, with an early Sceduale of Shooting giving a glimpse of the general atmosphere on the set:

Since it has not been found possible to arrange these weekly sceduales with any brilliant accuracy, perhaps it would be better to simply list probable order in which the next scenes and sequences will be shot. It must be remembered, however, that even though the sceduale is this qualified it is still subject to change on short notice. That's the way life is, citizens?

INFORMATION DEPARTMENT: CHRISTMAS WILL FALL, AS USUAL, ON ABOUT THE TWENTY-FITfH OF THE MONTH, GUESTS WILL PLEASE KEEP THEIR DOGS AT LEAST THIRTY FEET FROM THE CHRISTMAS TREE. PLEASE THROW ALL BROKEN NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS IN RECEPTICLES LOCATED AT STRATEGIC SPOTS.


In the time that elapsed between the 1938 draft and completion, Poland was invaded and her cities bombed, the Germans marched into Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France, Paris was occupied and the blitz on British cities began.

Wither the Tramp?... he faded away, shrinking from the colossal podium. One can imagine him, one of millions of refugees, survivors of the holocausts, trekking on foot or piled in trucks, headed for a home that might be nothing but rubble. This was a world in which he could not raise many laughs by a desperate tussle with a cop, or a soldier, over a rare plate of sausage, or fall in love with a blank innocent face. Withered, the Tramp would be a horrific rather than pitiable figure clinging to the barbed wire of a liberated camp, if he were not one of the dreadful emaciated remains shoveled by bulldozers into a mass grave.

Having dared to laugh at terror, Chaplin could only admit that terror had prevailed, even if there was something called 'Victory' at the end... but as ever Chaplin's fate, and luck, if not his genius, human, all too human as it was, he found a way to respond through his art. And if this response emerged by trial and error, and by apparently disconnected circumstances, it was none the less his response, available to us to be evaluated, praised, criticized, or denounced. Out of the muck of war, hypocrisy, mass slaughter and lies, and a searing urge both to confess and to explain human transgressions, the Tramp crawled back out of the shadows, slipped into the dressing room of Chaplin's studios, raided the costume and, make-up closets and emerged in a completely new guise. Thus was born Monsieur Verdoux, unemployed bank clerk, prim, French bourgeois, moralist and murderer.*

Reporting on his visits to the production sets of Limelight New York Times Hollywood corespondent Thomas M. Pryor wrote:

"Everything about his pictures- good and bad- is his own. He acts every role for his performers, including the smallest gestures of a bit player. Nothing escapes his critical eye. At the same time, Chaplin seems to have little regard for established procedures... He simply has a innate contempt for anything be believes to be interfering with his complete freedom of expression...At one one point in the ballet scene his assistant director, Robert Aldrich, called to an aide before the camera started to turn: "If anything goes wrong technically give me a signal.' To which Chaplin promptly appended: "We'll stop if anything goes esthetically wrong.' Chaplin later told his visitor that 'if the audience is so intent on watching technique that people become disturbed if you come into the scene from the left in one shot and from the right in the next, then you are not entertaining them. If the picture is good enough they should be too absorbed in the story to notice. "

Luis Bunuel wrote that he stopped worrying about divine moral imperatives once he had accepted the reality of imagination. "My form of atheism', he wrote, 'leads inevitably to an acceptance of the inexplicable.' He could have well been speaking for Chaplin. There he sits, on his director's chair, surrounded by the machines of creation, camera, lights, cables, sets, props, costumes, film crew and actors, trying to conjure, out of this chaos- something. He knows not what it is. Unlike other movie masters, he does not have the film in his head, fully formed. It will emerge out of the mulch o experience, out of the process of this communal art which is also so intensely personal. An assistant is poised with that dreaded instrument of time wasted the clapperboard:

Slate number 4,655!

Will this brief flurry of action produce the imaginary moment that Chaplin knows exists, yet unformed?

It will. It did. It is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jesus by Terry Eagleton


Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, property-less, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.

Jesus thought that the end of the world was just around the corner and the morality he preached- not the kind one associates with chartered accountants or oil executives- was reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling block to real estate agents: forgive your enemies, give away your cloak as well as your coat, turn the other cheek, love those who insult you, walk the extra mile, take no thought for tomorrow.

The non-God or anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes and graven images of all kinds- gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies and the like. You shall know God for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty handed. Salvation, rather bathetically, turns out to be not a matter of cult, law, ritual, of special observances and conformity to a moral code, of slaughtering animals or even of being splendidly virtuous. It is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich. Astonishingly, we are saved not by a special apparatus known as religion, but by the quality of our everyday relations with one another.

There is nothing heroic about the New Testament at all. Jesus is a sick joke of a savior. Messiahs are not born in stables. They are high-born, heroic warriors who will lead the nation into battles against its enemies. They do not reject weapons of destruction, enter the national capital riding on donkeys, or get themselves strung up.

Christianity is all rather disappointingly materialist, unglamorous and prosaic. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" is a notoriously enigmatic injunction; but whatever it means, it is unlikely to mean that religion is one thing whereas politics is another, a peculiarly modern prejudice if there ever was one. Any devout Jew of Jesus's time would have known that the things that are God's include working for justice, welcoming the immigrants, and humbling the high-and-mighty. The whole cumbersome paraphernalia of religion is to be replaced by another kind of temple, that of the murdered, transfigured body of Jesus. To the outrage of the Zealots, Pharisees, and right-wing rednecks of all ages, this body is dedicated in particular to all those losers, deadbeats, riffraff, and colonial collaborators who are not righteous but flamboyantly unrighteous- who either live in chronic transgression of the Mosaic law or, like the Gentiles, fall outside its sway altogether. In fact, Jesus has very little to say about sin at all, unlike a great many of his censorious followers. His mission is to accept men and women's frailty, not rub their noses in it.

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed as the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God's law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don't love, you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful.

Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel's ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. Imitating Jesus means imitating his death as well as his life, since the two are not finally distinguishable. The death is the consummation of the life, the place where the ultimate meaning of Jesus's self-giving is revealed.

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with the destitute and dispossessed- the shit of the earth- the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition.

What is a stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new- of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt, depasse, washed-up world ( so characterized by the prevalence of greed, idolatry and delusion, the depth of our instinct to dominate and possess, the dull persistence of injustice and exploitation, the chronic anxiety which leads us to hate, maim, and exploit, along with the sickness, suffering and despair which Jesus associates with evil; what Christianity knows as original sin.) No middle ground is permitted here: the choice between justice and the powers of this world is stark and absolute, a matter of fundamental conflict and antithesis. What is at issue is a slashing sword, not peace, consensus and negotiation.