Friday, September 26, 2008

Perspective - studying a scholarly militant - Saffir Qtub

Watching the political free-for-all, it is evident to anyone who determines to be even relatively impartial that all political judgments depend on where you stand. A very liberal relative said to me the other day "How can you vote for him [McCain]?" The same day a conservative friend said to me, "I don't know one person that likes him [Obama]". Actually, I get both a lot.

Having watched the debate last night, I say again that we have two very decent candidates this time. Even though I favor the one I see as more moderate, I don't deny that I have my biases as well. Mark Twain said something like - if you wan't to be honest, you have to start out by admitting you are a liar. In the same way, if you want to try and see things clearly, you better know where your biases lie.

Actually, in the big picture, most politicians in America don't stand so far apart anymore. The partisanship and competition for power makes it seem much worse than it is. For example, when the civil rights acts started passing in the 60s, a large number of Southern political figures, including congressmen and senators, got together to issue the Southern Manifesto, decrying the legislation, their loss of freedom and a perceived betrayal of states rights. I doubt you could get even one successful politician in America today to say the civil rights acts were a bad thing. They couldn't get re-elected. If there are exceptions, I'd like to know.

Of course, non-Americans, not raised here, and not thinking that this is the best country that ever was, have a different perspective. Sometimes that perspective shocks us, but it shouldn't.

One of the most influential thinkers in the last century is not a household name -- Sayyid Qutb (“pole of universe”), whose name usually rings no bells even with Americans who are well versed in international affairs and even when they have actually read about him in the occasional article in the past. You will see his name translated from the Arabic in various ways.

Besides his name being strange to our ears, he has been dead for over 40 years and his legacy is represented by much more ominous and frightening figures to us such as Osama bin Laden and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (or Society of Muslim Brothers; take your pick - the real name is in Arabic).

Qutb, whose brother was a bin Laden mentor, is one of the best known, if not the single best known, commentator on the Koran in the Sunni Arabic world, and, he is most appreciated by the mujahideen (“strugglers”) and other Islamic militants.

I’ve heard it argued that we don’t need to understand our enemy, just kill them, but, as even such military figures as General Petraeus believe we cannot win a military victory in Iraq without winning hearts and minds too, it is, in my humble opinion, essential that we understand where they are coming from, so that we can combat it.

A lttle biography first. Qutb was born in Egypt 1906 (so, he'd be likely dead in any event) and executed by his country in 1966. Much of his later life was spent in prison where he wrote his major work. He attended what we would call a madrassah and could recite the Koran by age 10, to the delight of his very religious parents. He was educated at a westernized university, Dar al-Ulum, graduating in 1933, after which he began teaching and working in the Ministry of Education. In order to learn the American education system, he came here and studied at two schools and received his master’s degree. He was already a published author back home.

Qutb was disgusted by what he believed was the materialistic and sensual nature of our culture, and this was over 50 years ago, way before the so-called sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. It was not that he found nothing admirable in our culture. According to him, our scientific and economic achievements were impressive, but our value system was “primitive”. He wrote about it in his “The America I Have Seen”.

When he returned to his Egypt he joined The Muslim Brotherhood which was founded by his former classmate, Hasan al-Banna. Al Banna had already been assassinated by Egypt when he returned. The Muslim Brotherhood was dedicated to an Islam dominated society under Shari’ah law and was, not surprisingly, very anti-Western. It was the first of the Islamisist groups and still rivals Al-Quaeda in importance. It operates in many countries, sometimes illegally. It is not a political organization and operates as by different names in different countries. For example, although illegal in Egypt (although it exists and is quite popular), the political party Hamas controls the Gaza strip in the Palestinian territories. The Brotherhood's philosophy fit well with Qutb’s vision, although as of about 40 years ago, the society supposedly foreswore the use of violence for change (I won't argue the question here).

Qutb began editing the Brotherhood's newspaper and became one of their leaders. They began working closely with Gamal Nassar's Free Officers Movement. Nassar opposed the Egyptian monarchy and made a successful coup in ’52. But he was not an Islamicist. A couple of years after he was in power Qutb and other leading Brotherhood members were arrested.

He was released, then arrested again, and spent the next ten years in prison. Although he claims he was tortured, and I imagine he was, he managed to write In the Shade of the Koran, his 8 volume commentary on the Koran. It is hard to see how he could do so without some cooperation from his keepers. He also published his most popular book, Milestones, which incorporated parts of The Shade along with letters from prison.

Freed again, he was re-arrested the next year and finally executed in 1966. It is difficult to say whether he was involved in any violence or actively plotted against the government himnself. His manner of Jihad seemed to be the pen, by which he hoped to persuade others of his vision of Islam. It was certainly more useful to them than if he had picked up a gun.

I summarize his philosophy for you, gleaned from a number of sources which review his works. I have to admit, I have not read Qutb firsthand, but I’ve read the Koran twice and have no problem understanding his interpretation given the premise that the Koran is actually the word of God. In fact, I would argue that interpretations of Islam which differ from his, and concentrate on the peaceful nature of Islam have deviated from its text. However, I must add that I find this true of other religions, and I am always grateful for their deviation to more peaceful, and less literal, interpretations. We could not follow the words of the Bible, even the New Testament , to the t and retain enlightenment principles in our modern society.

The Koran is not much like the Old Testament, which recalls the history of the Hebrew people, or the New Testament, which tells the life of Christ and his ministry, and that of his most immediate followers, although some figures from both of those older books, like Moses and Jesus, were included in a different sense. The Koran is a series of lectures aimed at persuading that belief in Allah and following his instructions leads to paradise and everything else leads to eternal damnation. Mohammad claimed it was dictated to him by the archangel Gabriel in installments, and is the word of God.

First, a very short summary of Qutb's interpretation: Allah is sovereign and is the sole authority. Man’s purpose is to be his servant on earth, to spread out and live according to Allah’s direction. There is no compromising on it (this can be easily gleaned from reading almost any section of the Koran). Man was superior to the angels, who were ordered to prostrate themselves before him. One angel, Iblis (our Satan), refused. This set in motion a lengthy battle between men under Islamic regimes and those living in Jahili societies or Jahiliyyah.

But Allah made it easy for mankind to defeat the enemy. All he need do is follow Allah’s directions as contained in the Koran. Of course, men can screw anything up, and when Adam ate the apple, he lost the first of many battles to Iblis and they were both cast from heaven to earth.

Allah did not destroy man for this failure. He forgave him, but directed him to follow his rules, and allowed him dominion over the earth. Not only that, but he made it easier by sending a number of prophets, the last of whom is Mohammad, to earth, in order to keep us on the right course. Some of the names of these prophets or guides are familiar to us from the Bible – Noah, Lot, Moses and Jesus. Others, Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, we must learn about from the Koran (or, feel free, Wikipedia).

As should be well known by now (although our most famous television commentators seemed totally ignorant of Islam even after 9/11) Islam means "submission". In order to submit one must confess to the faith with "La ilaha illa Allah," i.e., "There is no god except Allah". Other religions have similar pronouncements.

Islam is, Qutb tells us, a substantively comprehensive program and includes everything in society: religion, morals,laws, etc. However, it is not technically exclusive by choice. Activities which were not proscribed or prescribed by the Koran were left to men's choice. That being said, there is much Islam does prescribe and proscribe, and that must be followed to the letter.

Here’s where Qutb’s perspective becomes interesting to us, even if repugnant. We think of the United States as a beacon of freedom. Qutb believes we have substituted our allegiance to God by substituting men in his place and have thereby lost our freedom to submit only to God’s will. If we obey the man made laws of society, which are contrary to Islamic law, or Shar’iah, then we have created a jahili society.

Thus, to follow our revered constitution is to worship it and its institutions, like the president or our law courts, and is a sin, as it places false gods on a level with Allah. To you and I, nowhere else is a Muslim so free to practice his faith as in America. Yet, Qutb holds that since a Muslim cannot enforce Shari’ah or use public means to convert non-believers to Islam, he is not free at all. In fact, he is a slave and probably living a delusional life. Thus, to a Muslim who thinks as Qutb, our first amendment, freedom of expression, religion, etc., requires our slavery.

Yet, what we would consider slavery, Qutb sees as freedom according to our true nature. In fact, Qutb saw our society’s separation of church and state as a type of schizophrenia. Moreover, Jews and Christians, whom the Koran held originally to be people of the book, have created jahili societies and will be punished for them on judgment day.

Take, for example, the Jews and Christians. Originally, they were following a true religion but lost their way, misinterpreting Moses’ laws and screwing up their rituals. Jesus was sent to reform the religion, but not to create a new one with him as a central figure. He was killed by the Jews for his purposes. The fallout between the Jews and the Christians led to an underground Christianity which lost Christ’s true message and even his history became lost. The Christians substituted for it irrational rituals and beliefs, such as the eucharist and transubstantiation.

The divine Mosaic law was thus lost and Christianity became a spiritual movement only. That may intuitively seem like a good thing from our perspective, but it is not from Qutb’s view, as, for him, if the religion is not tied to the law, the society is still partially, at least, jahili. Worse still, St. Paul, a major force in Christianity, incorrectly coupled pagan Platonism to Christ's message. This, actually, was also a complaint of some of the so-called heretical Christian sects and others. To Qutb, Paul's mythological Christianity led to a complete loss of the divine law passed down through Moses and Christ.

As an example of how spirituality is not enough, he believed Christianity continued to fail because of its adoption of monasticism in the middle ages. Monasticism could not be a complete society because monks took themselves out of society and thus were no longer God’s regent on earth.

The separation of religion from social order occurred because the church adopted irrational beliefs and discredited science (I recognize in writing this that even in Qutb’s time, our Judeo-Christian society had created atomic energy, had electrified its society and was soon to fly to the moon, whereas Islamic societies were still relatively primitive by comparison. To argue the contrary is counter-intuitive, some might even, say, plain dumb. I am merely reporting Qutb’s perspective, not advocating it). The Protestants did no better as they brought into greater existence the separation between the church and the governing bodies.

Qutb was a believer in some of the same things you believe in, like private property, although his views did not square with Western views at all. To Qutb, private property is held in trust for Allah and must be used by its owner to benefit the true Muslim society at large. This may seem counter-intuitive to you. However, Islam emphasizes charity and it makes sense from his perspective. He was not a communist though. Frankly, he did not see much difference between communists and capitalists because they were both solely materialistic societies to him, lacking a spiritual side (just as early Christianity lacked a non-spiritual side). Given his acceptance of Qtubian influences, it is easy to see how bin Laden can readily donate his riches to what we call terrorist causes.

Although Qutb believed that rationality was important (and, remember, criticized
Christianity for its lack of rationality) the purpose of man’s intelligence was not an end all. It was so that he could believe in God. The message seems to be circular in some sense. It all comes back to belief in Allah and following the rules as set down in the Koran as everything. Again, this is perfectly consistent with the Koran.

Qutb took this same approach to many other of our beliefs, such as pragmatism (which
brings about moral relativism as a function of chasing the buck). What we see as tolerance (e.g., the acceptance of sexual deviance) he sees it as animalistic behavior which pre-existed the Mosaic law.

Not surprisingly, one of the central tenets of Qutb’s beliefs is that the degeneration of the family system is a microcosm of societal ills. Again, the purpose of family is subordinate to a belief in Allah. The family was designed in order to prepare children to believe in Allah and follow his rules. Men and women have different roles, which are familiar to you and needs no description. The supposed subordination of child rearing to sexuality (definitely not the mother’s I know) is, of course, at the root of it.

Here’s a description of the problem by Qtub from The America I Have Seen:

"The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she knows all this and does not hide it . . . Then she adds to all this the fetching laugh, the naked looks, and the bold moves, and she does not ignore this for one moment or forget it!"

Hard to see that as a bad thing, and impossible to know what someone who wrote so sensuously of it really felt, but he saw it as a bad thing. He felt much the same about American men and also homosexuality, but feminism seems to have an especially malevolent effect on him. Women’s sexuality and dedication to working at the expense of child rearing go against their nature and the word of Allah.

In his view, only Islamic law gives women freedom. They should have equal rights to the degree that they agree with their nature as Allah gave them. That is, motherhood and raising children is their ultimate purpose. It is not clear but seems possible that unmarried woman or those without children might vote in his utopia.

Unlike other Muslim school’s of thought which seek to find common ground with Western values, Qtub’s understanding of jihad – i.e., struggle, is not just an inward one, but is a military one dedicated to destroying jahili societies. Indeed, Qtub, reasonably, given his perspective of the ultimate goal -- a society dedicated to God, sees jihad as encompassing both perspectives.

The Koran orders its followers to fight non-believers until they submit to Allah. It is hard to take this as metaphysical command given the violent examples utilized by the Koran. Jihad is a broad concept to Qtub (and to many militants) and serves as a bridge between the jahili society and an Islamic one. The Muslim who gives his life for Allah in jihad will be amply rewarded in the afterlife.

Although one would think that the late Iranian ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, would have had a more militant view of jihad than a philosophical type such as Qutb, but he didn’t. Khomeini shared the belief that there was an internal and external form of Jihad, but he believed that the internal struggle needed to be made first. Sort of a clean your own house first theme. Qutb believed that the man’s nature is such that he needs the environment of Islam to prepare him internally to make the struggle. Thus, violent overthrow of jahilli societies comes first. Failing to wage jihad by a man is not just a personal failure. It fails the miscreant’s duty to his fellow man to provide them with an Islamic society.

Given this predilection for violent jihad, it is hard to see how Qtub would not believe in forceful conversion (which, I am sad to say, is proselytized by some Americans with respect to Muslims). While, for him, the institutions of jahili societies must be destroyed, and there may be killing involved, that will not be used to persuade those who do not believe to submit to Allah. Mohammad prohibited killing woman and children, looting, mutilation and torture, unless it was necessary to overthrow the enemy. Naturally, that is a tail that can easily wag any dog and is certainly not limited to militant Islam.

Those of other religions may continue to practice in accordance with their beliefs as long as it does not infringe upon Islamic rights. Qutb’s understanding would allow a non-Muslim to drink alcohol, but not in public. They could worship, but not disturb Islamic society by publicly display of their worship or symbols. Ironically for us, that would infringe upon Islamic freedom to dedicate themselves fully to God. This rule of law is actually carried out in some Shari’ah societies today.

Naturally, like most utopian thinkers, Qutb believed that Islam will triumph, that all mankind will again become one and that a society akin to the one existing under Muhammad will come again.

Until that time, no back steps must be taken away from jahilisocieties. Although Iran is a Sh’ia and not a Sunnah society (Qutb is Sunni), perhaps they best represent this non-compromising attitude in their dealings with the world.

No man can be completely sovereign in an Islamic society. The would tread on Allah's sovereignty. Thus, the leader was follow Allah completely. Putting this into practice is, of course, the great difficulty. I imagine, the one with the biggest sword may have a better idea of what Allah wants than others. However, in theoretical terms, what is not clearly established by the Koran or the traditions may be up to the community to determine or one’s own judgment. Still, it is not a license to violate Shari’ah law.

Indeed, Qutb argues that those who rule must be freely chosen by the people. This seems counter-productive according to his theory. What if the freely chosen leader establishes a jahilisociety? Then, of course, he must be overthrown.

How to get to this utopian society? Qtub at least understood that it was a tough battle. Fortunately for Qutbians, death in the service of Islam is a good thing. It is this dedication of the Islamic militant that most frightens Westerners. You klnow, the whole - we embrace death as you embrace life thing.

It is my humble opinion that if I believed in the ancient religions that still exist today I would have been ever so much the fanatic and possibly attracted to the religious purity of Qutb’s philosophy, or that of other militants. Certainly, it would have been very seductive. His basic world view is logical if you accept the premises stated in the Koran as the word of God, even if it leads to some self contradictions (as if our way of life doesn't).

In the West, and even in America, most people want other folks to believe in God and some religion – but not so much. That is, even in religious America, all but a fringe hope that people do not completely act upon their beliefs. We call it tolerance (to Qutb, it would be slavery). The fringe, however, usually small self isolating Christian groups in this country, have a quite similar set of beliefs to Qutb. For most, though, in America, Europe and most of the industrial world, persuasion or example is favored, even if imperfectly. For my part, I am quite grateful of that, because otherwise, I would have been strung up or set afire long ago.

Monday, September 15, 2008

How likely is it that Sarah Palin will become President?

About one million years ago (actually less than 30, but I like to say "About a million years ago") I had a short article published in The New York Times, which, with some embarrassment, I will probably republish here some day. I got paid something for it, but I can't remember what -- certainly less than a hundred dollars. Let's say $50.

I've submitted at least one op-ed piece to The Times in the last couple of years, but, despite their saying that they will publish anyone, they almost exclusively publish famous people or those who are associated with some think tank or formal association. I give up with them. However, reading the most sizeable local paper (about 100,000 circulation) I saw that they occasionally publish regular folks like myself. So, I sent them an article. I figured that, if I got $50 from The Times 30 years ago, then even a much smaller paper would probably pay a couple of hundred nowadays. At least, I could eat well for a week.

To my surprise, they published it about a week or so after I sent it to them in their Sunday edition, even top of the op-ed page. I suppose it never feels bad to see your name in print. Besides, I made a few dollars, right? Right? Right? Right? Yeah, right. Apparently, I have to be satisfied with seeing my name in print. They pay zippo, nada, zero for an op-ed piece. Fortunately, I emailed it in, so at least I didn't lose the price of the stamp. Story of my life. No matter how small my accomplishment, and this one is pretty small, the payment is even smaller.

Anyway, I did get something out of it. I didn't have to really focus on writing a blog post this week because I'm just republishing my article here. So, below is my piece, published on The Roanoke Times op-ed page on September 14, 2008 and preserved for the benefit of the world on roanoke.com for at least a few weeks. Frankly, I wish they kept their editing pen to themselves. I wasn't fond of the couple of changes they made, but, then again, from their professional point of view, what do I know? I'm not even worth paying.

. . .

What do the following people have in common? No Googling allowed.

Richard Johnson, George Dallas, William King, William Wheeler, Thomas Hendricks, Levi Morton, Garret Hobart, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall and Charles Dawes.

They are all former vice presidents of the United States who never made it to president. Of course, they are remote in time; however, there are many others much closer in time also not readily recognized. I'd say 50 years is about the limit. But even recent veeps like Al Gore and Dick Cheney will likely be forgotten sooner rather than later. Pew Research Center polls taken throughout this decade showed that between 31 and 39 percent of those asked already could not identify Cheney as the present vice president.

This is what we do with vice presidents. We forget them. Those who became president because the serving president died in office or, in one case, resigned are still remembered, such as Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt and even Gerald Ford, but since the founding era, veeps rarely got elected without that advantage. In fact, since Martin Van Buren left office in 1841 only two other veeps, Nixon and G.W.H. Bush, made it without first taking over during the former president's term.

So, why are we making such a fuss about the current vice presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, regardless of how much anyone might like or dislike them? While it is true that one of them will technically become "one heart beat away from the presidency" and that a president John McCain's age would make a Vice President Palin more likely than Biden to be promoted under the 25th amendment, the historical odds seem against Palin ever taking over during a McCain presidency.


Just four presidents have been assassinated, and it has only happened once in the last century. When we factor assassinations out, only four of the remaining 38 presidents, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and FDR, died in office. In the last 150 years, it is just Harding and FDR.


No doubt, the better odds to survive the office these days are due to better health care and security, but McCain or Obama will have those benefits. The fact is that all of the presidents born in the last century who have since passed away made it to at least 80, except for Kennedy, who was assassinated while still young, and LBJ, who smoked heavily during much of his life and died of a heart attack. McCain reportedly quit smoking almost 30 years ago.


If we start counting after FDR, only Eisenhower fell a little short of 80, and he too was known to have smoked excessively for much of his life. Again leaving aside the one relatively recent assassination, all of our presidents have physically survived their one or two terms since Harding. Even the unhealthy FDR survived more than three terms of nearly nonstop crisis and stress before dying during his unprecedented fourth term.


Strangely perhaps, although no vice president has been assassinated, they seem more susceptible to health problems. A surprising number of them, seven to be exact, died of natural causes during their service. One of them, William King, never really served, although he was sworn-in in Cuba, where he was trying to recuperate, and died soon after.


Whoever wins, it is quite possible that Vice President Palin or Biden might find little interesting to do once in office, despite the perhaps exceptional example of the current holder of that office. John Adams wrote, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." One of FDR's veeps, John Garner, put it more succinctly, stating that the office "isn't worth a bucket of warm spit."


And then, as hard as it may be to believe right now with all the hoopla going on, unless one of them becomes president some day, which certainly could happen, Biden or Palin will almost definitely be forgotten in the fullness of time. That's just the way it goes.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Library

I always start moving projects with my books. This takes more time than you would think as I need to stop and read from dozens of them before I put them in my car. As much as I love any inaminate objects on earth, I love my library. If you don't have the same mania, buying more books when you have piles yet to read, then you may have difficulty understanding this. But, I'm sure you have parallels in your own life, whether it be cars, movies, home decor, fashion or cadavers (you never know who is reading this).

I spend enough time bashing the Thomas Jefferson's ghost here to quote him positively - "I can not live without books." Maybe a slight overstatement, but I could not live as happily without them, that is for sure. Besides, someone gave me a t-shirt for my birthday that bears that quote. So, it must be true.

Here’s a small sample of my meanderings through book world while packing this week. There is no theme to it, in fact, it's variety is what excites me. It is merely a personal celebration and example of why I keep all these books on my shelves even if I will not fully read most of them again. All of the quotes were chosen because I picked up the book to move it, stopped, and read the paragraph quoted, usually at random.

It was all part of the endless fight for recognition of foreigners in the process of becoming Americans. Every Irish kid who made a Jewish kid knuckle under was made to say “Uncle” by an Italian who got his lumps from a German kid, who got his insides kicked out by his old man for street fighting and then went out and beat up an Irish kid to heal his wounds. “I’ll teach you!” was the threat they passed along, Irisher To Jew to Italian to German. Everybody was trying to teach everybody else, all down the line. This is still what I think of when I hear the term “progressive education.”

This is from the best autobiography I have ever read – Harpo Marx’s 1961 Harpo Speaks. He died a few years later. The first 100 pages about his early life growing up in late 19th and early 20th century New York City, are so fascinating, they have seen them published separately as a slim volume. He makes you wonder, though, what good old days?

I was in love with a very beautiful woman who was endowed with all imaginable graces. She had rosy cheeks, a shiny forehead, lips like coral, teeth like pearls, and breasts like pomegranates. Her mouth was like the setting of a gem; her big eyes had a sleepy languor, and her speech was of sugary sweetness. She had a remarkable embonpoint, and her flesh was as soft as fresh butter and pure as the diamond.

This quote is from Sir Richard Burton’s 1886 English translation of the 16th century Arabic The Story of Joaidi contained in The Perfumed Garden, Burton is one of my great heroes and I wrote about him in more depth here on March 15, 2007. If you aren't aware of this 19th century multi-talented adventurer, take a look. Incidentally, if you care, “embonpoint” is French for plumpness. Wish I could say I knew that after 6 years of high school French, but I looked it up.

The valley went darker with dust and smoke, and there were only shadows and a big noise of many cries and hoofs and guns. On the left of where I was I could hear the shod hoofs of the soldiers’ horses going back into the brush and there was shooting everywhere. Then the hoofs came out of the brush, and I came out and was in among men and horses weaving in and out and going upstream, and everybody was yelling, “Hurry! Hurry!” The soldiers were running upstream and we were all mixed there in the twilight and the great noise. I did not see much; but once I saw a Lakota charge at a soldier who stayed behind and fought and was a very brave man. The Lakota took the soldiers’s horse by the bridle, but the soldier killed him with a six-shooter. I was small and could not crowd in, so I did not kill anybody. There were so many ahead of me, and it was all dark and mixed up.

This one is from John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, in which an aged Lakota Indian who was present at Little Big Horn as a child retells his life. The book has come under criticism as to facts about the old Indian that Neihardt left out, but it is a classic nevertheless. My policy is to read everything with cynicism, especially if it sounds too good to be true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy myself along the way.

Meander tells a story of a lady who had forgotten to try on her wedding-dress the day before the wedding, to the despair of the dressmaker, and remembered it only late in the evening. He connects it with the fact that soon after the marriage she was divorced by her husband. I know a woman now divorced from her husband who, in managing her monetary-affairs, frequently signed documents with her maiden name, many years before she really resumed it. I know of other women who lost their wedding-rings on the honeymoon and know, too, that the course of the marriage lent meaning to this accident. And now one striking example more, with a better ending. It is told of a famous German chemist that his marriage never took place because he forgot the hour of the ceremony and went to the laboratory instead of to the church. He was wise enough to let the matter rest with one attempt, and died unmarried at a ripe age.

From Sigmund Freud’s 1924 A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud had been largely discredited (although he still had followers – see Besdine selection below) long before I was a freshman psychology major in college over 30 years ago. I’ve always loved the joke about Sigmund and his daughter in which she tells him about a dream she had where she was smoking one of his cigars. The punch line is -- And Freud says, “Well, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Actually, he really said that in different circumstances but to the same point. Still, historically, aesthetically and iconoclastically, his original writings are fascinating as are biographies about him and collections of his letters. I particularly like The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, by Ernest Jones, 1974) which I don't own. The funny part of the stories Freud relates to us above, is, of course, the importance attached to a wife using a maiden name or losing a wedding ring back then as opposed to now.

It happened after a time that a north wind began to blow with great force, and the ships of Tartars, which lay near the shore of the island, were driven foul of each other. It was decided in a council of the officers that they ought to get away from the land; and accordingly, as soon as the troops were re-embarked, they stood out to sea. The gale, however, increased to such a degree that a number of vessels foundered. By floating on pieces of wreckage, some men reached an island lying about four miles from the coast of Zipangu.

This is from The Travels of Marco Polo, first published around 1298 and still going strong. Zipangu was the Italian word for Japan at the time. He is describing the Great Khan’s attempt to conquer Japan in 1281 (while Marco was visiting) when the island dwellers were saved by a storm. According to the Japanese, they were saved by a “divine wind”. The Japanese word for this is kamikaze” which the Japanese put to good use in WWII.

This book contains the records left us by a man whom, according to the expression he often used himself, we called the Steppenwolf. Whether this manuscript needs any introductory remarks may be open to question. I, however, feel the need of adding a few pages to those of the Steppenwolf in which I try to record my recollections of him. What I know of him is little enough. Indeed, of his past life and origins I know nothing at all. Yet the impression left by his personality has remained, in spite of all, a deep and sympathetic one.

The opening paragraph from one of my favorite novels, Steppenwolf. Does anybody read Hermann Hesse anymore outside of college? I wonder. I overuse the word "riveting" like teenagers overuse "awesome" but I remember finding Steppenwolf riveting all the same. In a nutshell, it is the story of a man torn between his civilized and animal natures. In most of us, the Steppenwolf is not dead, but buried beneath the domesticating miracles of technology, like those enabling this blog, but it cannot be killed entirely. Not surprisingly, the writing of Steppenwolf corresponded with Hesse's marital and other existential problems.

Among thousands of men perhaps one strives for perfection; and among thousands of those who strive perhaps one knows me in truth.

The visible forms of my nature are eight: earth, water, fire, air, ether; the mind, reason, and the sense of “I”.

But beyond my visible nature is my invisible Spirit. This is the fountain of life whereby this universe has its being.

All things have their life in this Life, and I am their beginning and end.

From the Bhagavad Gita, written sometime before the common era, itself a small portion of the Mahabharata, which one could probably best analogize as the Hindu Bible (it is too long to read the whole thing; I've read a one volume English version by one of my favorite authors, R.K. Narayan (see below). In the above quoted excerpt, Krishna, an avatar of the god, Vishnu, is speaking to the human protagonist about his true nature, but it could just as well be Yahweh speaking in the Bible, for all of that. When Robert Oppenheimer watched the first nuclear explosion, he purportedly thought of a quote from Krishna from the Gita including “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Out loud, according to his brother, he merely said “It worked.” Another witness later observed that he merely looked relieved. I should also note that the Bhagavad Gita is retold by Stephen Pressfield's novel, later a movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which seems to be merely a story about golf and life.

His savage barbarity was equaled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging , he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking his deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

From Frederick Douglass’ 1845 An American Slave. It is the only full slave narrative I have ever read. To say the least, it was stirring.

For example, Churchill was at the bottom of his class at Harrow. Edison failed dismally and was regarded as a mental defective by his teachers in public school. Einstein had to take time out of high school because of emotional disturbance and inability to conform. He failed his college entrance examinations and had to work a year to prepare himself again. Picasso could not learn to read and write; he was so obsessed with his art that all else was ignored. He was finally permitted to come to class late, a pigeon on his shoulder, a paint brush in his hand and given the widest leeway to wander. But even in this special school, he could not conform. Frequently, learning is possible for men of genius only by private tutoring and individual attention that recognizes the exclusive, unusual person in a one-to-one relationship. Dislike of school and school teachers, even to the point of school phobia, is not unusual in genius.

From Matthew Besdine’s The Unknown Michaelangelo, a slim volume applying the author’s psychoanalytical theory which he termed the Jocasta Complex. It’s a book of which I am fond of mostly because it was edited by my mom, the late Marilyn Eisenberg. Ironically, both the 81 year old Dr. Besdine and my relatively young, 55 year old mother, died within a month or so of each other the following year. Hmmm. Sounds like the first two chapters of a murder mystery. Honestly, not to create any tension in heaven, she didn’t think much of Besdine's theory.

In these propitious waters the acquisitive Phoenicians and the amphibious Greeks developed the art and science of navigation. Here they built ships for the most part larger or faster, and yet more easily handled, than any that had yet sailed the Mediterranean. Slowly, despite pirates and harassing uncertainties , the water routes from Europe and Africa into Asia--through Cypus, Sidon, and Tyre, or through the Aegean and the Black Sea became cheaper than the long land routes, arduous and perilous, that had carried so much of the commerce of Egypt and the Near East. Trade took new lines, multiplied new populations, and created new wealth. Egypt, then Mesopotamia, then Persia withered; Phoenicia deposited and empire of cities along the African coast , in Cicily, and in Spain; and Greece blossomed like a watered rose.

Thus speaks the immortal Will Durant in his The Life of Greece, the second volume of his The Story of Civilization. That volume, published in 1939, sits in a place of pride on my shelves, placed with its ruined binding and faded black cover among the ten newer red covered volumes that make up the full set. I had bought the volume on Greece before the set and could not part with it. Ironically, I gave the newer volume on Greece to an Athenian. Durant wrote so well, and had, literally, such an encyclopedic knowledge of history, that he could be quoted on almost every page would good result.

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named, Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trashfilled two story of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

Not from The Hobbit. It is the opening chapter of one of the greatest modern fantasy novels in my mind, although largely forgotten by modern readers. I’m happy to see that The Face in the Frost, first published in 1969, was reissued a few years ago in 2000. I hope it’s not lost. It is rare to find a fantasy novel which does not slavishly copy Tolkien, even if he delves into the same material.

He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of Foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

Jefferson, perhaps overdramatically, alleges one of the crimes of George III in his Declaration of Independence. It's not the part of the Declaration that we usually hear about. Ironically, it is not clear today what Jefferson meant by some of his accusations against Geoge, but this one we can be pretty certain.

The judge sentenced me to two years’ imprisonment. Our star lawyer looked gratified, I should properly have got seven years according to law books, but his fluency knocked five years off, though, if I had been a little careful . . . .

A paragraph from a little book, The Guide, written by my one of my literary gods, R. K. Narayan, an Indian (Asian) who wrote in English. I first read this book in college, as an introduction to Eastern religions. It was a brilliant idea to use it to introduce Hinduism and Buddhism, although there is no real theology in the book at all. It seems to be a story about a man who, although, unsuited to it, becomes a swami. But, when you started thinking in terms of these religions, the clouds cleared from your mind and it rang like a bell. Narayan wrote a few short novels about the clash between traditional and modern life in India in a make believe town, Malgudi, with protaganists both unusual and usually unimportant. I have never owned a copy where the binding did not dissolve (there have been three attempts), so this one sits on the shelf, but falls apart the minute I touch it. Still, I'm keeping it.

The peace that they foist on Muslims is in order to ready and prepare them to be slaughtered, and still the killing goes on. So, if we try to defend ourselves, they call us “terrorists”, and the slaughter still goes on. So it is said that the Prophet observed in truth: “The Hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say” ‘O Muslim, O Servant of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’ All the trees will do this except the boxthorn, because it is the tree of the Jews.” And whoever claims that there is permanent peace between us and the Jews has disbelieved what has been sent down through Muhammad; the battle is between us and the enemies of Islam, and it will go on until the Hour—and as for the so-called “Peace” or ‘Peace Award”, that is a gimmick that is given to the biggest bloodshedders. That man, Begin, the perpetrator of the Deir Yassin massacre, was awarded the [Nobel] Peace Prize. That traitor Anwar al-Sadat, the one that sold the land and the [Palestinian] issue and the blood of the martyrs, was awarded the Peace Prize.

Osama bin Laden in an interview ten days after the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers recorded in a 2005 volume: Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. I always recommend, know thy enemy.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Number 13 of Strunk & White’s landmark, The Elements of Style. I celebrate the book in the breach, by violating many of it’s instructions on a regular basis, but it is the most readable grammar guide in the world and I have on more than one occasion picked up the little book and read it straight through at a sitting. Didnt hurt; probably helped.

In fact, Hitler postponed D-Day from August 25 to September 1, and entered into direct negotiation with Poland, as Chamberlain desired. His object was not, however, to reach an agreement with Poland, but to give His Majesty’s Government every opportunity to escape from their guarantee. Their thoughts, like those of Parliament and the nation, were upon a different plane. It is a curious fact about the British Islanders, who hate drill and have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years, that as danger comes nearer and grows, they become progressively less nervous; when it is imminent, they are fierce; when it is mortal, they are fearless. These habits have led them into some very narrow escapes.

From Churchill’s 1948 The Gathering Storm, Vol. 1 of The Second World War, describing the state of England’s courage just before the war began. At least, it was what Winston would like to have thought. The work is only incomplete in that Churchill could not speak of what we now call the Enigma secret, the allies' cracking of Germany's secret codes.

One of the great differences between the fairies and us is that they never do anything useful. When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies. They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you in the least. They are frightfully ignorant, and everything they do is make-believe.

From J. M. Barrie’s 1902 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which is not the same as Peter Pan, which was first a play and then a novel. It actually preceded the more famous work by a couple of years, but first as a part of another novel that none of us could care less about anymore before it was ever published separately. In this earlier story we learn of Peter's origin. It is not a great work in itself the way the immortal Peter Pan is, but interesting as part of the story.

Seriously, I do have to move some books now, but this was fun (maybe just for me) and I expect to do it again sometime. If I've inspired anyone to pick up one of these books, then that is a bonus.

If everything I own goes up in smoke, let these piles of highly flammable paper survive and I will be satisfied.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Those wacky Republicans

Every once in a while a perfect storm of hypocrisy comes about where both sides switch their positions just because it is expedient in such a way that it is obvious and undeniable (unless you are a partisan). The vilification of Sarah Palin by liberals and her nomination for sainthood by the conservatives, are equally weak.

It actually reminds me of when we were kids playing baseball. Everybody on your team was absolutely positive you were safe and everyone on the other team just as positive you were out.

Here’s the problem. Neither party really cares if a candidate is qualified or experienced, although it is definitely true that Democrats are more likely to nominate candidates who they believe are smart. What both parties care about is winning. The two sides would nominate a pig and goat, and fight about which had more ecological experience, if it suited their purposes.

So, while Obama supporters can nominate a freshman Senator with no executive experience and cry racism when the Republicans criticize him for his shortcomings, their criticism doesn’t dissuade the Republicans from nominating a freshman governor who has no federal experience and then cry misogyny when she is criticized for her shortcomings. No partisan in either party seems to care if their relative experiences are fairly equal, and both, fairly low.

As I’ve said earlier in these pages, their specific experience shouldn’t matter much as long as they have related experience. President’s have tons of people to rely on for advice and information. As long as they have good judgment, whether they are governors or senators, congressman or business people, it doesn’t matter a hoot. Put Abe Lincoln at or near the bottom of the experience rankings for presidents. It didn’t matter.

Although I like Sarah Palin from what I’ve seen, I have to admit I’ve seen almost nothing. For all I know, she is a wicked witch of a mother and a bully of an executive. I don’t care about the first, but care a lot about the second.

Some arguments the Republicans make regarding their vp candidate make little sense. Apparently wanting to win the absurd argument of which of the two inexperienced candidates is the more experienced, the Republicans argue that she has commander-in-chief experience as the head of the Alaskan National Guard. Now that is just ridiculous.

However, when a spokesman for the McCain campaign was asked on a television program to name an order she gave to the Guard which shows her capabilities, he couldn’t, of course. Now, if he was better at his job, he would have just said I don’t know, but it stands to reason she did something (not really, of course, but he could have said it anyway).

In anger at the questions, McCain cancelled an appearance on the channel (CNN). I can only hope it was not his personal decision, because it was petty and foolish. The questions were fair enough in the kooky world of politics where only perception matters and his spokesman, Tucker Bounds, is not up to his job.

The truth is, despite her official status, those Alaskan troops serving overseas are under the command of the commander-in-chief of the United States of America, George Bush. (it says so in the constitution, that’s why). And I guarantee you, he has no idea where the Alaskan guard are stationed.

The Republicans claim that McCain vetted Palin well. It may be true but it certainly doesn’t look like it. My favorite tv host, Joe Scarborough, a Republican himself, asked each Republican on the show a few mornings ago who their chief of staff was and how well he or she knew them before they were put in place. None could give an answer to compare with how little effort McCain spent getting to know Palin.

Of course, to be perfectly honest, president’s very often don’t know their running mate well. Although that may result in disaster (McGovern/Eagleton - 1972), it rarely does. What I think doesn’t matter. One bad story that catches on or one candid video and it is all over for a politician.

Although Palin was already vetted, I don’t think McCain was that interested until during the Democratic convention, when it became clear how much resentment some women had due to Hillary Clinton not becoming the Democratic candidate.

I’ve watched the first three big speeches, Thompson, Lieberman and Bush, although not while they were being made. They were ok. Not great, not bad. I’ll skip Bush’s because it was totally unremarkable.

Fred Thompson, with his deep stentorian voice was charged with exciting the crowd about McCain’s history. As moved as I have been about McCain’s story and as much as like his character in general, I cringe every time I hear about it again. The Thompson speech was the first time we should have been hearing it. Perhaps that is impossible in this hyper-technological environment.

Still, the old guy (he seems much older than McCain, although considerably younger) actually spoke in a more fluent and interesting way than he did when running for president himself. Perhaps he likes this candidate better.

Joe Lieberman’s speech tickled me. Talk about awkward. He’s a Democrat who claims he is for McCain because he is putting the country over party. I don’t doubt it, but the fact that his own party didn’t re-nominate him for Senator and he had to win as an independent, makes you wonder.

Other than praising Palin and McCain, Lieberman sang the virtues of non-partisanship and got cheers. If Rush Limbaugh was speaking, he would say the opposite and get more cheers. McCain isn’t about to invite him though for a convention with which he clearly wants to attract independents (although Rush has now crowned him with the moniker “John McBrilliant” for choosing Palin). But, Lieberman, who still calls himself a Democrat and usually votes with them on issues other than national security, wants us all to be friends. Ok. I like that. Don’t believe it will happen, but I like it.

I noticed the Republican crowd was unusually quiet while he spoke of McCain’s role in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law (which Republicans hate), or fighting global warming (which Republicans don’t believe in) or his forming the gang of fourteen to work out judicial appointments without Dick Cheney lowering the boom on the Democrats (which Republicans wanted to happen). Then he even praised Bill Clinton and the crowd actually lightly applauded. That’s weird for anyone who remembers the 90s and how the Republicans beat up the president during both his terms, but there is a new enemy and Clinton, no longer dangerous to them, seems not so bad.

It was condescending and unnecessary for Lieberman to refer to Obama as a young man. Obama is 44. I’m 49. I’m no young man. Neither is Obama (although the bastard is in much better shape than I am).

I am writing these paragraphs while waiting for Sarah Palin to speak. In an odd sense, it seems more like her convention than John McCain’s. Certainly, there is more excitement at her speech than his. In fact, I look forward to hearing what the ratings were for both of them. In the meantime, three former candidates, a Republican who’s who, Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney, the last on the short list for the VP slot himself all speak.

Romney came first of the three. I have to say, I’ve never gotten him. It may not be fair but he strikes me as untrustworthy. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t believe that Romney was lying during the primaries when he claimed to be against gay marriage and pro-life. I think he was lying when he told Massachusetts he was pro-gay and pro-choice when he was running for governor. His speech was red meat and unremarkable. He thanked God a lot. Personally, I thank the holy manitou he wasn’t nominated. That would have been a disaster, but more so if he won.

Huckabee always goes down sweeter for me, although I’m not sure there are a lot of policy differences. I’ve liked him since I saw him campaign in New Hampshire (thanks to C-Span, as always) back in 2006 when maybe 1/10th of 1% people in the country had heard of him. He stated here, not to rousing cheers I note, that America is better for Obama’s nomination in showing an indifference to his color. But, of course, he is a Republican and then mocked Obama’s “excellent adventure in Europe”. But, it wasn’t a red meat speech like Romney’s.

It was full of Republican values but light and funny, even when cutting up the opposition. It pays to be a former preacher some times. I’d like to say nothing harsh or snarky to say about him. Except, he praised McCain for not sparing his pain by agreeing to condemn America when he was in captivity. Actually, he did. At one point he gave in to spare himself more pain. Not that you can blame him – who wouldn’t eventually give in, most of us a lot faster, but still, it was an error for Huckabee to say it. If you are relying on someone’s story to win, get the story right.

Unfortunately, he finished up by telling a really awful story about school desks and veterans that I just can’t understand. I’m sure he left something out or told it wrong. The crowd was nice about it, but, it made him seem a little coo coo, coo coo.

It has always come easily for me to be critical of Giuliani ever since he was the mayor in NYC (not my mayor, but pretty close), although, of all the candidates, his policies are probably closest to mine of all the candidates on either side. Too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals. He always struck me as tyrannical by nature, although people do change. For those who truly dislike him, see my 2/21/07 post written when he was still a threat to get the Republican nomination.

Truth be told, he is a pretty good speaker, although not in the traditional orator mode. Except for the time when he took out his cell phone to speak with his wife while talking to . . . was it the NRA, he is not boring? He usually does a fair enough job in his conversational style. He is completely comfortable and therefore so is his audience. Then again, when he started on the McCain POW story I just wanted to cry - “Oh, no, please don’t tell the same story POW story over again . . . Nooooooooooo!”

I can’t go over his whole speech because it was really long, twice as long as expected, and he was all over the place. But, I loved how he said near the end how dare the Democrats challenge Palin’s right to be VP and spend time with . . . . Oh My God . . . hold on.

Ooo ooo ooo! Here comes Palin. The hell with Giuliani. She’s waiving to the crowd (much like a beauty contestant would I might say) and giving the requisite thank yous while everyone quiets down. Shhhh. This is what we have all been waiting for. Will she appear tough and feminine at the same time? Will she kick ass on Obama?

You know, I hate to say this to you Obama-ites. She gives a pretty good speech. Not great in my book, of course, but pretty good. When she said – “As the mother of one of those troops, that is exactly the man I want as commander-in-chief”. And it feels real. Until the end that is, and she says, let me guess – God bless, America. Oh, I nailed it. How did I ever get that right?

I’ve got nothing nasty to say about her. She’s not only the cutest nominee we’ve ever had, but she comes across like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Serve the people, leave the country better than it found it, govern with integrity, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Oh, except it was just too friggin’ long. I nearly fell asleep. I know, he’s wonderful, but shut up already. Shut up and smile, get your family on and off quickly please. By the way, her little daughter is delightful, but what drugs do they give that baby so that he never cries?

And, of course, John McCain has to come on stage with them and the crowd goes wild. Please. Is this yet another so called unscripted surprise we will have to go through every single convention, Republican or Democrat. And, of course again, it is interminable and they never leave the stage. So it seems.

I just hope the two of them believe their own rhetoric. I’ve been let down too often before. Haven’t you?

Notwithstanding the new “it” girl (Sarah), did you notice all of those empty seats in that tiny arena? I’m not sure she is enough to overcome the media darlingness of Obama. I can see some independents being swayed by her, but I expect no more for than a few points.

Tonight (Thursday) is McCain’s big day. I don’t want to hear from him about his POW days and don’t think I will. I don’t want to hear about Obama or Biden (except nice things). I want to hear more about how he is going to stomp on greedy special interests, do everything in his power to get us more cheap energy and find and kill terrorists. That’s what I’m talking about.

I'm going to be glad when these conventions are over. I never wanted this blog to be all politics. It is just hard not to indulge in it in a presidential election year. Next week though, back to normal.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .