Monday, September 29, 2003

While I'm On the Subject

While I'm on the topic of Iraq, not to mention America's worldclass ability to wage indiscriminate, myopic wars . . . maybe what needs to be remembered most is that we're still us.

We didn't lose in Vietnam. We weren't there to lose. By every conventional military standard, we won. Yet we fled. We fled from our own creation, when we could no longer deny its horror and its ugliness. And we fled from ourselves, when we realized that what we'd fallen in love with was a monster of our own creation, an unintended monster, but a monster nonetheless. And how fitting it is that, when we face the marble of The Wall, we see our faces reflected on the names.

We won't lose in Iraq. We won't be there to lose. And someday, when the time comes to design the Iraq Memorial, I'd hope for a fountain, a fountain and a pool, in front of The Wall.

So we can see them reflected there, too.

Back to Iraq

A friend and reader of Silentio recently asked me about my relative silence, lately anyway, on the situation in Iraq. 'Do you no longer even care?' were his words, I believe. I'm not sure if his question was rhetorical, an observation in the form of a question, or what; nevertheless, it did provide some incentive to point out that not only am I curious enough in general to read about Iraq, I care enough to post about it a bit more. My thoughts, I realise, are not the most helpful for most people. (Newbies to this blog, realise, please, that I'm not a primarily a 'linker', but a self-conscious obfuscator.) Fortunately, there's 'big media' to help us out. Having sunk their heads deep in the earth the past few months, lo and behold, many editors are now arising and greenlighting the kind of pieces that would not have seen the light of day six months ago.

Case in point -- the latest Newsweek cover story..

LAST FEBRUARY, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was trying to put together a team of experts to rebuild Iraq after the war was over, and his list included 20 State Department officials. The day before he was supposed to leave for the region, Garner got a call from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered him to cut 16 of the 20 State officials from his roster. It seems that the State Department people were deemed to be Arabist apologists, or squishy about the United Nations, or in some way politically incorrect to the right-wing ideologues at the White House or the neocons in the office of the Secretary of Defense. The vetting process “got so bad that even doctors sent to restore medical services had to be anti-abortion,” recalled one of Garner’s team. Finally, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to stand up for his troops and stop Rumsfeld’s meddling. “I can take hostages, too,” Powell warned the secretary of Defense. “How hard do you want to play this thing?”

Pretty hard. Powell lost, as he often does in the councils of the Bush war cabinet, and Rumsfeld had his way. Only one of the 16 State officials was restored to Garner’s reconstruction team. It was a petty triumph, but emblematic of Rumsfeld’s dominating, sometimes overbearing style. Rumsfeld was not a rogue elephant. In much of what he did, Rumsfeld himself was following orders. The hidden hand of the White House (read: Vice President Dick Cheney) was decisive in many of the behind-the-scenes struggles over postwar policymaking in Iraq. But President George W. Bush put the Defense Department in charge of both invading Iraq and rebuilding it after the war. Since 9/11, the secretary of Defense has been a brilliant war leader. Yet when it comes to making peace, he has been guilty of almost willful denial. His deep reluctance to use the American military for “peacekeeping” and “nation-building”—he scorns the very terms—threatens to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.

The rest of the article, though attempting to maintain that quintessentially American, jejune journalistic objectivity that I find particularly boring, is worth reading -- for the quotes alone:

At the State Department, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, Powell’s number two, fought bitterly with the Defense Department neocons, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian. Armitage was convinced that the Defense neocons had spies at the State Department. “Bats, we call them. Bats,” said Armitage, in a colorful private harangue reported to NEWSWEEK. “Because they hang upside down all day, with their wings over their eyes, pretending they don’t see anything. But at night they spread their wings and fly off to whisper, whisper, whisper.”

[. . .]

“I’m sorry, but I just got off a phone call from a level that is sufficiently high that I can’t argue with him.”

[. . .]

On May 16, five days after he arrived in Baghdad, Bremer assembled the top American officials in Baghdad and announced that all ministries would be “de-Baath-ized” by removing roughly the top six layers of bureaucracy. The CIA’s Baghdad station chief demurred. “We’ll, that’s 30,000 to 50,000 pissed-off Baathists you’re driving underground,” said the senior spook. Bremer went on: the Army would be formally disbanded and not paid. “That’s another 350,000 Iraqis you’re pissing off, and they’ve got guns,” said the CIA man. Said Bremer: “Those are my instructions.”

[. . .]

On the ground, the Coalition Provisional Authority, charged with actually running Iraq until the Iraqis can take over, is the source of increasing ridicule. “CPA stands for the Condescending and Patronizing Americans,” a Baghdad diplomat told a NEWSWEEK reporter.

[. . .]

At least one old Middle East hand is a pessimist. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently passed a message to Rumsfeld. It ran roughly: “There’s a 5 percent chance you get Saddam tomorrow, the energy goes out of the resistance and things get dramatically better. There’s a 5 percent chance a car bomb takes out the entire Governing Council, and things go to hell. In between those, it will get better over time, or worse over time. Right now, I say it’s twice as likely that it gets worse.”

'Why don't you write more about Iraq?', M. asked. I wonder.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Nearly Rested

I'm sure you all, all three of you, have been wondering about this for days now, so I'll begin by saying that, yes, my trip back to Scotland was fine. Time slipped by quicker than my wayworn friends cum chauffeurs anticipated while en route to Chicago. I tell you this only to flag the one marginally notable aspect of my travels back home. Should any of you ever feel behooved to take me to an airport, consider yourself warned when I tell you that I am not a fun passenger when I feel as though I might be late for a flight. (Just ask Pat and Julia.) Anyway, I finally got to check in about an hour prior to my flight, and was lucky enough to have a departure gate not too far away. By the time I emerged from my routine orifice inspection, I had a few minutes to pump up on the piety I never fail to leave on the ground just before a flight.

The flight itself was pretty uneventful -- a bit bumpy in parts, but short enough for it not really to matter all that much. Unfortunately, but certainly not unexpectedly, no sleep was to be had. Upon my arrival at 8.30 a.m., I was welcome by the Zoons clan, with K. clad in an enormous parka-like thing around her petite frame, last week's reward to herself for passing French.

Since then, life's been pretty non-stop. Deprived of sleep or not, I was a bundle of energy once we got to the flat, skimming through my midden of mail and making quick phone calls to verify the astonishingly miniscule outstanding bills. The standard, minus the 'astonishingly miniscule' part. Come 7.30, though, I was beyond wiped out. However, about thirty minutes earlier I'd begun a large Windows update download, and I was bound and determined to stick it out. I dozed off once, I remember, while watching the Australian women's soccer team playing somebody whose nationality I can no longer remember.

This morning was a layer of hell for which I was not suitably prepared. Hell #1 -- shopping, not simply browsing mind you, at Ikea. K.'s mom is a born-and-bred shopper. Holy hell, nothing escapes this women's shopping gaze. One can but guess that the only thing that helps things escape her grasp is her husband. A couple of hours after entering, we emerged with a suspiciously cheap dining room table, a full-length mirror, a little vanity-mirror thing for the bathroom (with requisite interior medicine cabinet), toilet paper roll, floor mats, shower and sink mats, a couple of other things that I, rejoicefully, do not have to remember because I did not pay for.

The good news -- it's not been entirely, or even mostly, bad -- is that K. got a job at the very first place, and only, place she's interviewed. Boy does it pay to have marketable skills.

Back to your irregularly scheduled, non-autobiographical blog tomorrow.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

My Only Drinking Problem is That It Ain't Free

I am sooooo looking forward to getting back to Scotland on Monday.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

A Slacker

Two posts with actual links in one day, that ain't bad, is it?

Man oh man, I've really been a slacker when it comes to blogging lately, haven't I?. I was on the verge of making up an excuse like 'pity poor me, I've been busy', but, let's face it, just about anybody who reads this blog, regularly or just in passing (esp. you, the one who has hit my site twice in two days in search of 'tennis hotties'), is working harder at that very moment than I do on a typical day. This is all the more true since I've returned to America. With the exception of a couple of mornings and evenings, I've been stripped of any inspiration at all (let alone the usual sense of abject resignation to type something . . . anything) to regale you with my wit and raucous good-naturedness.

And yet, strangely enough, lo and behold my time here in these United States of America is nearly at its end and I actually feel rejuvinated. It's not quite been forty days days in this here desert, but I think I'm on the verge of coming out a better, more bitter man.

In other words, Silentio, dear, leave the light on and have dinner ready -- papa's nearly home (i.e., strap in, strap on, and stay tuned!).

Fun While It Lasted . . .

Ah, remember the salad days of unfettered MP3 downloads? of free internet porn? (errr....) of more real email than Spam? when Webcrawler was your search engine of choice, for no good reason at all? when AOL plebs were relegated to twenty hours a month? Well, I do, and pretty soon I'll be adding to the list 'when I could sign online in Europe and buy a dirt cheap ticket airline ticket.' Sigh.

With Apologies to My Friend and Colleague . . .

Hey, all you interdisciplinary types out there with a sympathetic side towards religion, take notice. I'm not entirely sure what my role in this conference is. At one point, I was a co-chair; but at another point, more like a series of consecutive points, I kind of neglected to do anything for it. Indeed, this trend held through for most of this year, which has more or less been lost in the neo-alcoholic haze that is student-loan-funded life in Brussels. All the same, with or without my administrative contribution, the oblique biblical reference on the main page notwithstanding, this looks like it could be halfway interesting -- in the not-at-all practical way most people would invest in the term 'interesting'. The other half of it, well, looks like yet another academic circle-jerk. (Look for the DVD at your local Hustler shop next spring. If I have anything to say about it, the special features will be killer!)

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Souvenirs, anybody?

I've only about a week left in the States, so I've been frantically getting all my requisite shopping done this weekend. Shoes and socks yesterday, jeans today -- all of which, surprisingly enough, are poverty-strickeningly (is that a word??) expensive back in Britain and Belgium. In addition to my wardrobe enhancements, there's also the matter of souvenirs. Any suggestions for trinkets of Americana that I simply must buy for somebody, anybody, back in the Old World?

Oh, and don't bother suggesting this:

It's on its way already. Your welcome, Katrien.

'Everyone I know goes away in the end'

Suffice it to say, we here at Silentio are hoping tonight that good ol' J. R. Cash is giving heaven a bit of hell. He is, as I'm sure you know, or at least have been told a good three dozen times today, already missed. In an age in which artistic sincerity is only as important as it can either be commodified, Johnny Cash somehow achieved both -- he, the millionaire-mythic 'Man in Black'.

Having long been a fan, not to mention one who operates a sporadically-updated weblog, I think I'm qualified, or at the very least willing and able, to offer up a few things I've learned along the way:

(1) Black is, indeed, slimming; as is a copious amount of barbituates.

(2) I, too, would snowball Jackson for June Carter.

(3) Pushing one's brother onto a circular saw, in hopes of emulating the tragic inspiration for your brooding disposition, while hardcore, just isn't cool and definitely won't get you an autograph.

(4) One good turn definitely doesn't always deserve another.

And (5) how to win friends and influence people.

RIP, Johnny.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

A Bit More About Religion

Ah, would that more religious traditions / myths / narratives discover their own Douglas Rushkoff.

Because I can

"The sun is half the world, half everything, the bodiless half. There is always this bodiless half, this illumination, this elevation, this future, or, say, the late going colors of that past, effete green, the woman in black cashmere. If, then, New Haven is half sun, what remains, at evening, after dark, is the other half, lighted by space, big over those that sleep, as of a lone, inevitable sound, a kind of cozening and coaxing sound, and like the goodness of lying in a maternal sound, unfretted by day's separate, several selves, being part of everything come together as one." (Wallace Stevens)

More words.... We even sneeze them, you know: ahhh choo. "Ahh" who? "Choo" . . . chew. "Ah[,] choo[-choo].." Words upon words, skin upon skin, sand upon sand -- layer upon layer, all the way down. My, we're getting thick already -- or maybe it's just me. Maybe both. May[it]be neither.

Not surprisingly, I'm more enchanted by the night than I am the day. The day seems so promising and alive, and yet I find the prospects of either wanting. The night, however, is demure. She slinks onto the stage with grace, slowly, until she finally owns it. She holds no promises -- in fact, she rarely speaks. She speaks so seldom, she hardly seems alive. And yet, when she does sleep, truth and lie do not matter nearly as much as hearing her voice. She speaks softly, like a lullabye. And when she sings, she sings in a hush. And when she sings, we all become one without a face, hushed and hidden.

Oh, what am I talking about now? What am I saying? Down what path am I treading with these romanticised, idealised thoughts? More to the point, though, why are these paths I set you on only well-worn by previous exits - was it an exodus or exile? Are we, pray tell, headed to Egypt or Eden? Maybe a breather from this mysterious course is necessary.

Re: Mysticism

As much as I try to question my relationship with religion, it's probably pretty obvious to any regular readers that I'm still pretty consumed by the topic for one reason or another (there's a blog post, perhaps?). While I'm not inclined to, nor do I think most of you care to know, the specifics of what I believe and/or disbelieve, I thought I'd toss out a little essay on the topic, generally speaking, of mysticism.

* * * * * * *

What to do when words run out on you, off to another pen, another's lips? They're never our own, you know; they are forever, and forever have been, nothing but a haunting silence -- present only as a spectre. Words fail me.

"I who live by words am wordless when
I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then
Reveal their emptiness."

So begins one of my favorite poems about prayer. If I don't do it often myself, I sometimes take solace that others do. This poem, which is not entirely distinguishable from the prayer its about, is a story and song of hope and healing. It is, on the surface, a story of peace and quiet:

"The stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration."

To silence?/./! -- need this be a simple statement, or also a question, an exclamation. Is it possible to be each? Is there enough breath, enough room on one tongue? -- though one may rightly suspect that the answer to this question depends upon who is asked. For instance, to interrogate the silence we identify as God, our question, statement, and exclamation is empty, indeed silent. What kind of silence is this?

"The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended."

A silent devastation; but, and this is the ineluctable question that haunts, is it a devastation that is seen, and if so by whom? To speak, particularly in prayer, though perhaps also in poetry, and maybe still in one's living and dying, is to betray one's self by speaking the unspeakable Word, heard only in a whisper, (in parenthesis), and which comes at a price: "Do no think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to brign peace but a sword."The Word of prayer, then, it slices and it dices, having itself been punctured and hung to die. Indeed, in speaking the Word, one shares in its fate, as well as, so it is sometimes spoken, inside empty, silent rooms, its resurrection.

"I leave, returned to language, for I see
Through words, even when all words are ended.
I, who live by words, am wordless when
I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen."

This, to me though, causes yet more problems. We arise to a world of words that can do nothing but fail. What, then, does this say of that which we see, if we do indeed 'see through words'? What, then, does this say of our world, of us? What else can words say but silence?

A spoken silence?/./!

I've been asked by several people about mysticism, my philosophical investigations often sounding as though they may indeed be so disposed (though perhaps merely interested). Its minimal acknowledgement notwithstanding, I think this poem is a pretty fair description of the Christian variety. To be truly mystical, however, to follow the trail of one's assumptions and, one's prayers and tears, one must be willing to err along the groundless ground of a radical silence that never quite heals, unlike what we find in the poem. That is, the promised healing is always ever a present we can never open. "Is there no balm in Gilead?"

Faith, it would seem, is certainly scary business. I suppose it could be regarded in a couple of ways: a tease, or the motivation to continue erring, seeking that which cannot be found, saying what cannot be said and hearing only silence, but never a telling silence, of the sort that most mysticism uncovers. The mystic's gift is one that cannot be opened. It is an impossible gift that faith continually experiences as the impossible.

It's enough to make you mad. -- and indeed it normally does.

I, of course, find this whole realm of (non)thinking very intriguing. Mysticism points to Absolutely Nothing, which is not to say God -- or at least gives it its all to do so; it cannot, in fact, point to any thing, not even Nothing because Nothing then becomes the possible, the thought. No-thing is what is sought, and sought it must be, and never found.

I've already said too much: mysticism is the experience of the impossible as impossible, thus inflicting the mystic with her wounding silence that proves to be too much. Words fail. She and the Word, the Christ of the Gospel-page, collapse under the weight of an indifferent silence, only to find life again, and again, and again.

For Lack of Anything Better to Say . . . An Old Email

Dear _____,

I went for a drive tonight for a couple of reasons. For one, it was a beautiful dark-blue night -- like driving into the deep sea. The traffic was minimal, and the only thing I was missing was a destination. But, the more I thought about, do any of us ever know any of our destinations. Sure, we have our plans -- X marks the spot -- to go from point A to point B, perhaps indulging in circuitous scenic routes or nomadic fruit stands along the way, but the reality of life is that plans exist to fail.

In essence, when we plan to do something, we, by definition and often unconsciously, plan NOT to do some other set of alternative actions that would otherwise prevent what we would like to accomplish. This is all well and good, and I would think provides the impetus for most of the things that actually get done in life, but the shocking reality is that things rarely ever go as planned. Planes are generally either early or late. No two road trips ever takes exactly the same amount of time. The things that we often think are set in stone are perhaps only written in chalk.

The reason for this is simple: We interact on a nearly infinitesimal level with other people and their plans. Some of these plans coincide with ours, others don't; all of them, however, directly or indirectly, play a role in the development, promotion, or subversion of each of our plans. One decision may not appear to affect another, but on closer inspection -- that is, interestingly, by stepping back -- we see that most human circumstances are created by human decisions, or humans working toward a (unconscious or conscious, unintentional or intentional [whatever either of those words really mean]) plan.

It is not so much a puzzle, as this is far too static an image, as it is a bivouac of ants. When a colony of ants is on the march, they set up headquarters by forming a nest composed entirely of their own bodies. A few ants will anchor themselves by their legs to the bottom of a fallen tree. Other ants hook onto the first ones, then more, then more, until they begin to form long, wiggling brown ropes. As more and more ants join, the ropes merge into an enormous thicket. It may contain hundreds of thousands of individual ants. Inside are tunnels and chambers and galleries through which ants carry food, tend to the queen and her brood, and fuss with the endless chores of maintaining the bivouac.

The point of all this, simply enough, is to say that what looks like, from a distance, a single 'something' is actually a complex collection of 'somethings'! The same would appear to be true with human circumstances. Nothing we do is done is our own. We often make plans that are congruent with societal norms, norms that are constructed by a community's prevailing majority and not necessarily representative of an individual creation. Sometimes these societal norms are internal compulsions, other times they are external -- neither can be said to be any more or less malevolent because of where its compulsive power resides. Furthermore, the very actions in which we engage ourselves are connected with other plans on the outside that work against the success of our own. In sum, our plans are merely that -- ours. Yours are not mine; mine are not yours. In fact, your plans two weeks ago for tomorrow may not reflect your goals now for that same day. Therefore, not only are our plans 'ours,' but they are 'ours' only on the most banal (though necessary) of existential levels. That is, they are our plans in-the-now, if such a time can rightfully be said to exist -- the moment you appeal to it, it is has passed.

Plans are perhaps not things to which we appeal, as we attempt to give our life its parameters or its shape, but simply the product of lives lived in response to the free-floating, surface-level chaos that comprise the matrix of the human condition. Should we plan? I think so: To live is to plan, for all human decisions necessitate a plan of action -- do this, don't do this; to plan is to (often) fail; to fail is to live (and learn, so the maxim goes). And so the cycle goes. To not plan doesn't avoid the 'problem,' if you want to call it that. It, in fact, shows how wed we are to its reality, because it itself is a plan of action. One, I hasten to add, we have already failed to achieve.

To conclude, I said I had couple of reasons for my drive this evening, but the most important was that I was hungry.