Sunday, November 28, 2010

Marilynne Robinson, "The dark side of justice," 2004

Tonight I discovered an old notebook from a class I sat in on with Marilynne Robinson, author of one of my very favorite novels, Housekeeping, and one that I like a great deal, Gilead. Robinson teaches in the Iowa MFA program, but this was something different: a Bible study, conducted in the basement of a church. Peter Manseau, with whom I wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, and I were in Iowa City to read from the book at Prairie Lights. Our friend Laurel Snyder told us about Robinson's class. She knew it was in a church, but not which church. So off into the night we went, and into a blizzard as well. We peered into several basements before we found it, in session, and interrupted nonetheless. Or rather, stood like frozen cattle in the doorway, staring at the great woman. She snapped at a heavily bearded poet to fetch us chairs and Bibles, and then we were in. Following are the notes I took in a miniature composition book I happened to have in my pocket.

"Can we imagine that He is happy?"

The story of Christ in the wilderness -- "How do we know this story? Did Jesus tell it himself? Regardless, it is strange, an embrace of natural laws, limitations."

A riff on the old English of "gospel," God spell, an accounting of Christ's speech patterns, the way he introduces statements with Amen, translated as verily. Literature, she notes, proceeds by pushing toward definition. (Really?) "The Messiah is a definition of how God will act in history." But Jesus, she proposes, presents a counterintuitive definition, since he is not an action hero.

"The revolution that goes on continuously," she says -- Christ in the world, I believe she means -- "is a refining of definitions."

"The whole Bible is trying to say, 'I take this very seriously.'" She speaks of God as an abused wife. She asks, "What would we do without feeling like we're on the dark side of justice?" Because justice has a problem: "As soon as the language of justice emerges, it becomes incredibly metaphorical."

Anything that threatens us, she says, we've created. Beneath which I write: "not so."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010

Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010
Chalmers Johnson, an academic cold warrior who became one of the most persuasive analysts of the ongoing costs of that conflict, has died. There's a respectable but too-brief obit in the New York Times, but Johnson hasn't gotten the Arts & Letters Daily treatment, a compilation of obituaries and commentaries for influential scholars and artists. Maybe that's still to come. Johnson certainly influential, both as a cold warrior, and then, after its official end, as a critic of the American empire into the service of which he put much of his scholarly career. Starting with Blowback, in 2000, and continuing with The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis, he moved from academe into public discussion; his books joined those of Hardt and Negri, Naomi Klein, and, of course, Noam Chomsky on the shelves of popular anti-imperialism. But he wasn't a radical; his critique of empire was that of a pragmatist, as Chomsky points out in a recent interview with the Jewish online magazine Tablet:
Take, say, the blowback theories. I like Chalmers Johnson, he’s a very good guy, but he argues that the U.S. policy of installing the shah didn’t work, because look at the blowback. Didn’t work? It worked perfectly for 25 years! That’s a long time in international affairs. Nobody plans for 50 years from now.
That's a fair point. But the real value of Blowback, the book, and the school of thought that grew out of it was the honest simplicity and eloquence of its accounting, its measurements of the costs. In 2000, I published a very short interview with Johnson for The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Verbatim" column. Here it is.
You know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions. Borrowing a Central Intelligence Agency phrase for the unplanned consequences of American actions-such as the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was probably retaliation for the 1986 U.S. aerial raid on Libya -- Chalmers Johnson, an emeritus historian at the University of California at San Diego, argues that in the aftermath of the cold war, the United States is facing an epidemic of "blowback" at every level, from individual acts of terrorism to the estrangement of nations.

Q. You argue that the cold war's legacies won't end anytime soon. Why not? Hasn't everybody had enough?

A. The American empire hasn't. The concrete origins of this book came as the result of a visit to Okinawa in 1996, after the rape incident of September,1995. I've spent my life working on Japan, thought I knew a lot about it. But Okinawa was a revelation. I was frankly just shocked by the sight of the then-42 American bases. And I was equally shocked that after a 12-year-old girl was raped by two marines and a sailor, the U.S. sought basically to spin the issue. To call it a unique tragedy. To claim that such things are not a common occurrence. To cover up the enormous costs of these bases on the Okinawan people. That then led me to ask, even if you could make a case for the deployment of American forces during the cold war, why are they still there 10 years after the cold war? Which led me to the conclusion, well the cold war hasn't ended in East Asia.

Q. Why not?

A. Whereas the Soviet Union created its own satellites, which then turned slowly into an empire in Eastern Europe, the U.S. did identically the same thing, and for identical reasons, often with even greater brutality, in East Asia. Whereas we may be able to make a strong case for our policies in Europe, in East Asia we have been in pursuit of empire. There the idea of the cold war was a sort of mask for an imperial project.

Q. Who needs an empire?

A. Mostly the military. For its bases, its budgets, its influence on foreign policy, which is bloated beyond reason. For instance, I believe that China is not a military threat, and that we ought to be much more accommodating in a military and political sense, to reassure them that we mean them no harm. By the same token, we ought to take them much more seriously as an economic challenge. If you want to be accommodating to China economically, who pays for it? It turns out it's not white men on Wall Street who pay for it. It's black steelworkers, in Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama. The continuing hollowing out of our manufacturing is another kind of blowback.

Q. And then there's the violent kind.

A. Look at the cycle of terrorism. Osama bin Laden was a protege of ours in Afghanistan. He then objected to the stationing of American troops at Dhahran and Riyadh during the Persian Gulf war. They're still there. Saudi Arabia, the world's most important source of our petroleum, is beginning to look like Iran under the shah: a place where we don't really know what we're doing, where we're running on vested interests and established practices rather than thinking through whether we ought to be getting out of there, putting our relations on a much more commercial and less military basis.

Q. And if we don't?

A. One of the things that alarms me most of all is that we seem to be losing options to the point that we have only the military option. Our diplomacy is weak. We are no longer leading by example, and we're not even concerned about it. Moreover, this is occurring in the context of a discourse that forever tells us we are wonderful, we are perfect, we are the model of the world, that history came to an end because there are no longer any alternatives to the American way of life. These are signs of a mistaken and flawed polity that is asking for -- well, what happened to the Soviet Union.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Danica Novgorodoff, Killing the Buddha Tin Anniversary Poster, 2010

I'm naturally very excited about the upcoming Tenth "Tin" Anniversary Party for Killing the Buddha, the online magazine Peter Manseau, Jeremy Brothers and I started in 2000 (and edited by a long list of wonderful writers since, with Nathan Schneider, Meera Subramanian, and Quince Mountain shouldering the bulk of the work now). The party will feature performances by some of my longtime favorites, such as comedian Eugene Mirman and poet Eileen Myles, and some artists I'm just learning about now, like musicians Gangstagrass and Gabriel Kahane (here's a NYT profile). Plus, Quince, a graduate of auctioneering school, is going to auction of some KtB crap to make money for liquor and communion wafers. But the real surprise, for me, is this fabulous poster by Danica Novgorodoff, an artist I didn't even know had come into the KtB circle. Novgordoff is the author of one my favorite books of 2008, Slow Storm, an intensely beautiful graphic novel in water color. It's a thrill to have her contribute her talents to this party. Now it's up to you New Yorkers out there to contribute yourselves to the party, too. (And don't forget it's a fundraiser.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Some Very Weird Spam

On the night I receive news of a new Family offensive against my work comes this peculiar spam, "commented" onto every blog post. It's a bunch of Microsoft Word 2007 links embedded in a piece of text in favor of Falls Church, a schismatic rightwing Episcopal church closely linked to the Family (and the anti-gay African Anglican dioceses that have welcomed any American church unable to abide the presence of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in their worldwide communion). Coincidence, I guess, but creepy all the same. Here it is, purged of the links that might be viral.
NEVERTHELESS, THE CIVIL LAW is and must be neutral about who has a more noble or rewarding faith. The breakaway parishes ought to win every facet of the lawsuit not becausetheir beliefs or their politics are better, but because both law and equity, along with common sense, are on their side. Not only does Virginia state law (the Division Statute) explicitly apply to just such a ituation as now exists, but the historyespecially of The Falls Church argues against the claims of the Virginia Diocese with which the have disassociated. First, The Falls Church was founded, formed, and developed long before the diocese, or the national Episcopal Church, even existed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rev. Flip Benham, Stalker & Ladies' Man Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America, has been given two years probation by a North Carolina court for distributing Wild West-style "Wanted" posters featuring the home addresses of abortion providers. The court considered this stalking.

What a relief! I spent some time with Flip and a few of his associates four years ago and left wondering whether I should call the F.B.I. Never had I met a Christian fundamentalist leader who seemed to be so clearly flirting with the idea of terrorism. At one point, when I asked Flip about the Army of God -- the underground movement dedicated to killing abortion providers -- he winked. Of course, I didn't call the F.B.I. -- that's not the journalist's job, and Flip hadn't said or done anything genuinely incriminating. Here's what he did say, as I recorded it in my book The Family*:
There was the Reverend Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America, also known as Operation Rescue. He was the man who baptized Norma McCorvey—Jane  Roe of Roe v. Wade—into fundamentalism. For the rally, he was wearing vintage  white-and-brown wingtips, symbols, he explained, of his commitment to  pre-1947  America—1947 being the year when the Supreme Court ruled according to Jefferson’s “wall of separation” for the first time, in a case concerning government funds for parochial schools....

While we  were talking, Reverend Flip had begun to preach. He told the crowd about a recent victory he’d scored near Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’d led seven hundred prayer warriors to a school board meeting to protest the formation of a  Gay- Straight Alliance club in a local high school. “The preachers preached, the singers sang, the  pray-ers prayed, and the theology of the church became biography in the streets!” Flip said. The school board shut down the  club—a deliberate bid, it had declared, to bring the issue before the courts and get  gay- straight clubs outlawed everywhere. Flip said this was what Jesus wanted. He even did an impression: “Cry to me,” he said in his best bass God voice; the prayers of the righteous will be answered....

Across the table sat Pastor Rusty and Reverend Flip. Flip threw his tie over his shoulder and leaned back in his chair. The waitress, a handsome  middle-aged woman named Anna, looked crushed when she learned that the  whole group, out of respect for the nondrinkers among them, would be sticking to iced tea. Several of the men asked her where her accent was from. She said she was  Polish-Russian, but when she came around to Flip, he said, “Hola, Señorita,” and asked her where she was from. Anna rolled her eyes. We ordered, most of us the buffet. Anna came back to refill our iced tea. She tried to tally the orders, which the pastors kept changing.

“You ordered the buffet?” she asked Flip.

Flip took a toothpick from his mouth, fixed her with a stare. He
owned the room. “I think I already had a buffet,” he said, pronounc-
ing the word as Buffy. “Now I’d like to try an Anna.”

Nobody missed a beat. The party went on.

*Flip is not a part of the fundamentalist organization called the Family.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sweet Heaven Travel Itinerary

I've finally finished -- really finished -- my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die.

The subtitle is Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between. For no reason other than it makes me happy to think about, here's an itinerary of my travels in that country for this book:

The 11th judicial district, Colorado
Knoxville, Tennessee
Princeton, New Jersey
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Scotia, New York
The old East Village, NYC
Kenilworth, Illinois
A Wisconsin death trip
East Berlin
Cleveland, Ohio
Tyler, Texas
St. Mark's-on-the-Bowery
America's Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo
The Khyber Pass, Philadelphia
Cradle of Filth tour bus
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Goshen, New Hampshire