Friday, July 28, 2006


About a week ago, Alan Dershowitz published an execrable editorial in which he suggested that there should be degrees of "civilianality." In essence, his argument held that should you have the bad fortune to live in an area in which terrorists were being harbored, you were by that very fact less innocent than other "civilians" and presumably more eligible for being shot. This is just how far Professor Dershowitz, who has also argued in favor of "torture warrants," has wandered from civilization in this "war of civilizations."

How goes it in the real world tonight? One minute, I'm seeing video tape of the civilian victims of an Israeli attack on a Red Cross convoy. The civilian medics, drivers aides and patients (already shot) had been in contact with the IDF before setting out, had agreed upon a route, had been assured they would not be fired upon. They started out on the agreed upon route. The Israeli forces mortared them.

A test case of degrees of "civilianality"?

Then, a breaking story. Some nut has just shot several people at a Jewish community center in Seattle. As of this writing, one of the victims is dead. The guy who did this probably had an idea similar to Dershowitz's, probably thinks that civilians are somehow complicit in things with which they have nothing to do.

Whatever our other disagreements, I hope we can all join in the struggle against this kind of thinking. It's one thing to say that all of us are in some ways responsible for our government's actions. Or the actions of governments supported by our government. But once you start thinking of ordinary citizens as complicit in the horrors wrought by their states, you're well on your way to Bin Laden's cave.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

One Reason Israel Doesn't Like UN Observation Posts

In the period since Israel withdrew its army of occupation from Lebanon, UN observers on site have recorded approx. 200 violations of the border by Hezbollah.

During that same period, the same UN observers have recorded 11,000 Israeli violations of the border.


Just days ago, representatives of the government of Israel appeared on American cable news networks declaring that Israel had no intention of sending ground troops into Lebanon at this time. They repeatedly asserted that Israel did not believe a ground war would prove necessary.

That very night, the same cable news networks reported that "small groups" of IDF troops were already in Lebanon, but explained that these were quick guerilla missions, and did not presage an invasion.

The very next day, the same cable news sources were commenting on the now obvious -- Thousands of Israeli troops were massed at the broder. Israeli government spokesmen continued to repeat to American journalists that they hoped it would not become necessary to send significant nmbers of toops across the border.

Cable news anchors speculated on the question of whether or not the IDF would enter Lebanon in force.

Of course, the next morning they were there -- in force --

And now the official word is that Israel will occupy a twenty mile swath of Lebanon, temporarily.

But, the invasion was part of the plan for dealing with Hezbollah that IDF spokesmen had revealed more than a year ago.

Why would anyone believe anything the Israeli government says? For the same reasons, perhaps, that they appear to believe what the Bush administration says.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"The terrorists deliberately target civilians."

The Israeli armed forces fired at a United Nations observation post fourteen times today. Then, when the UN observers sought to save themselves by leaving the outpost and seeking shelter, the Israelis dropped a bomb on them, killing four.

Then, when civilians came to dig out the corpses of the UN observers, the Israeli forces fired on them as well.

I saw an Israeli spokesman denouncing the savagery of Hezbollah on television, holding up a piece of a fragmentation shell fired into Israel as evidence.

The Israeli forces are firing cluster shells at civilian targets in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, our government takes the position that a ceasefire would be pointless.

These are people who cannot see any point in stopping the savagery.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Going into the weekend, Israel was warning all citizens of southern Lebanon that they should leave their homes and evacuate the area.

Yesterday, Israeli forces, in at least six incidents, fired upon people who were following the warnings and evacuating. In one episode, an Israeli helicopter hit a minivan full of innocent evacuees in a missile strike.

On another issue, does anybody besides me find this suspect? Following the assasination of a major political leader in Lebanon just months ago, the US and the world demanded, quite rightly, that Syria remove all its troops from Lebanon. So they did (though they are suspected of leaving agents behind). So there were no Syrian army forces in Lebanon when Israel decided to respond to the Hezbollah outrage by invading and bombing.

Coincidence? Perhaps . . .

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Twelve days in -- we cannot be surprised -- we have seen this before.

Early in the first term of the Bush administration, Sharon sent Israeli troops into the Jenin refugee camp. The rest of the world recoiled in horror at the destruction the Israeli government visited upon the refugees. How did the Bush administration respond to this crisis?

Bush made several statements to the effect that the Israeli forces should leave Jenin some day. Asked how soon the Israelis should end their invasion of the camp, Bush simply said, "soon." Meanwhile, his administration did absolutely nothing to bring an end to the terrible suffering of Jenin. It quickly became clear to all observers that Bush had given Sharon the proverbial wink and nod. Israel had been given the green light to create whatever "facts on the ground" it chose, with no fear of any consequences.

You didn't have to have access to alternative media to see the consequences for the Palestinians. The Isreali forces engaged in an orgy of devastation. One of many images from the press coverage I have never been able to get out of my mind -- Israeli tanks proceeding through the streets of Jenin, diverting from their course, making a point of crushing every private vehicle on the street.

After they left, we saw the full extent of the destruction. An education office building completely wrecked -- every computer destroyed by hand -- every piece of office furniture crushed -- every usable piece of anything rendered beyond use.

Israeli spokesmen are on record announcing their intention to set Lebanon back decades. These are the same spokespersons we have seen rushing in front of cameras to declare that they are actually doing the people of Lebanon a favor.

The Israeli officials like to make a distinction between themselves and the terrorists. They say repeatedly that Palestinian terrorists deliberately target civilians. They excuse their own killings of civilians by pointing to the fact that guerilla fighters conceal themselves among the civilian populations. There were no terrorists concealing themsleves in the cars that Israeli tanks crushed. There were no guerillas working in that education office. There were no suicide bombs concealed in those computers.

This morning, I saw an editorial cartoon that dramatized the Israeli official position. It showed a member of Hezbollah hiding behind civilians and complaining about civilian casualties.

And yet, the Isreali army has long employed a strategy of using human shields. In Jenin, as elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza, the IDF makes a practice of grabbing innocent Arab citizens and making them serve as human shields as the Israeli soldiers approach houses they want to enter. This has long been an undisputed fact of Israeli strategy, but we don't hear much about it in our media.

The rest of the world calls out for an end to the destruction, for a cease fire. The Bush response, as mouthed by Bolton, Rice and others, is that a cease fire would be simplistic -- that the problem is more complex -- that there should be no cease fire till a political solution is in place.

It is clear what this means. Israel is to be at liberty do destroy as much of Lebanon as it chooses, to kill as many civilians as it wants, with no consequences. Not only does the Bush administration make no effort to constrain the savagery, they are currently speeding up delivery of sophisticated weaponry to assist the Israeli military.

Yes, we have seen this before. We will see it again.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I first learned of Malachi Thompson more than two decades ago when I stumbled across an EP (remember those?) that included his wonderful piece THE ALI SHUFFLE. In the years following that initial listening I picked up on Thompson's work whenever I could, and I'd especially point you to the CDs 47th STREET and FREEBOP NOW!, whose title is a wonderful play on the landmark album by Max Roach, FREEDOM NOW! Malachi died this past week after a long struggle with cancer. The music lives on. Here's a snippet of a performance with poet Amiri Baraka, HEATHENS and SPACE/TIME PROJECTION.

this is an audio post - click to play

Monday, July 17, 2006


iIt's always been a curiousity that David Horowitz's center for the collection of large donations from right wing moneybags was called THE CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF POPULAR CULTURE. Not only because that name seemed to have a whif of the hated popular culture studies about it, but because the center seemed to spend precious little time studying anything at all, let alone popular culture. Readers of the center's old newspaper HETERODOXY, like readers of the FRONTPAGEMAG web site today, would be hard pressed to recall many articles devoted to any sort of popular culture studies.

Rather than presenting "studies", Horowitz was just as likely to publish outright fiction. ("Outright" meaning that it was termed fiction on publication, unlike the more persistent fictions of Horowitz's books and speeches.) One instance I especially recall, because of where I was working at the time, was a "story" titled OLD HOSE, that purported to send up those dangerous tenured radicals at San Jose State University, where I was teaching. Now, since the whole world was learning in those days that Shelby Steele was a member, indeed a tenured Full Professor, of my department at San Jose State, that university was an odd choice for anyone trying to make the case that rampant political correctness was driving right-thinking conservatives from the professoriate.

But that's exactly what the author of OLD HOSE, David Berlinski, and the publishers of HETERODOXY, the aforementioned Center for the Study of popular Culture, wanted to convey.

Those of us who were on the ground in San Jose knew, though, why Berlinski had to tell his tale of suffering the slings and arrows of leftist persecution in the form of fiction; it was fiction.

True enough, Berliski had eventually lost teaching assignments from more than one department at the university. It was clearly not, however, because of his politics. I genuinely doubt that many people at San Jose State knew anything about his politics. I doubt that, because I read his book BLACK MISCHIEF, in which Berlinski's truly objectionable racial politics are on full display as he complains about teaching "smouldering Leroy's," etc. [haven't checked to see if that remains in the later edition] -- I was in wonder when I saw that the author of that book was being assigned to teach courses designed to meet the school's cultural pluarlism requirements. Sure enough, it turned out nobody else had read the book.

By the time I made this discovery, it was already too late to ask what he might be teaching in those classes, as he was already gone. It seemed that Professor Berlinski had an aversion to such things as teaching students and grading their work. One by one, the departments that had been availing themselves of his services had found his work unsatisfactory.

[By the way, I should point out, in the mode of Ann Coulter, that everything I'm writing about Berlinski is SATIRE -- just like OLD HOSE, wink wink]

On his way out the door, Berlinski dropped off his stink bomb in revenge, with an assist from the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which seemed every bit as unconcerned with studies as Professor Berlinski himself.

[Berlinski's later record as a hired hand in the "Intelligent Design" cause at the Discovery Institute seems to indicate that "studies" remain something he has a problem with. I note that his book BLACK MISCHIEF is not cited among his works in his DISCOVERY INSTITUTE profile -- perhaps out of concern that readers may make a link between his odd ideas about race and his odd ideas about evolution.]

So, to get back to the immediate occasion, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Center for the Study of Popular Culture is undergoing a name change that will communicate more clearly just what is and always has been its central preoccupation. The new name is -- are you ready for this?


Putting aside his legendary modesty, Horowitz has agreed to go along with his board's decision in the matter of the new name.

Any guess why the name of the center's original cofounder isn't also part of the center's new name?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Baghdad Burning

For the past hour I've been watching a program on C-Span's BOOK TV that has been revelatory. The broadcast (delayed from June 8) featured readings from blogs emanating from Iraq. And that brings me to today's plea -- Please put this URL in your favorites list and start reading this blog:


The author of this blog is an Iraqi woman in her twenties, a former computer professional, who has been posting her observations of life in Iraq during the war. If, like me, you've been profoundly frustrated by the American media's coverage of the life of Iraqis (you know the drill -- 20 second responses from people in the street, with no context -- no idea who is who or what is what), then this blog site will go a long way toward telling you what life on the ground is like these days.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

REVIEW: The World Republic of Letters

The World Republic of Letters
Pascale Casanova
Trans. M.B. DeBevoise
Harvard University Press - 2004
420 pp ISBN 0-674-01345-X

Funny thing about the universal; it’s an ideal of our own making whose reality we must acknowledge, whose impossibility we constantly sign by hedging the concept about with incessant qualifications. As generations of critics assailed one or another writer for failure to achieve the universal, did it not occur to some among their readers that it was a severely attenuated conception of the universal that was marked so readily by these outliers? In our own time of "culture wars," a time when any number of people have been ready to credit the West with the very invention of the idea of the universal, it has always seemed a bit odd that the universal was an idea whose time had still to come, an idea that had not already occurred to everyone. Pascale Casanova writes that "It is because this idea of the universal was universally acknowledged (or nearly so) that Paris came to be invested with the power of conferring universal recognition" (29). Let sufficient weight fall upon that phrase, "or nearly so." If there have been those recalcitrant readers who refused to acknowledge the idea of the universal, then even Paris could not achieve, on behalf of any given work, a truly universal recognition. Elsewhere, Casanova remarks that literature might be defined "as a unified field (or a field in the process of being unified)" (103). So it would seem that we have created for ourselves the problem of a universal that is only nearly so, defining a field that is unified, or in the process of becoming unified. For a concept that had started out with such great hope, the unified universal seems always to be receding before us.

And thus it must be with any world republic of letters; in the same sense that the fact that so many of us speak of globalization can never mean that our definition of the global will itself be global, it is inevitably the case that no matter how appealing we may find the world republic of letters, not everybody is a republican. Like Plato’s ideal republic, Casanova’s republic of literature is something that can only exist in, well, literature. But at least Casanova permits entry to poets. Alluding to Henry James, Casanova argues that "Understanding a work of literature . . . is a matter of changing the vantage point from which one observes it–of looking at the carpet as a whole" (3). Not to strain the metaphor much farther, but it does seem the most common of sense to remark that even the figure in the carpet viewed from sufficient distance to take in the whole must appear quite differently to those standing in different parts of the room, at different heights, different, perhaps, even to the owner of the carpet versus those who have been told not to track their feet across it.

Still Casanova is not simply reiterating the Eliotic conception of tradition and the individual talent, with its peaceable kingdom of constellated greats awaiting the entry of newer talents around which to reconfigure themselves. If there is such a thing as a literary space, then it is a striated space, a contested space, a space every bit as pock-marked, rippled and oddly shaped as Einstein’s universe. Literary space contains black holes, regions of such powerful gravity of reputation that no light can escape; vast tracks of emptiness; neighborhoods of blinding light and even empires in conflict. And it is on that score that Pascale Casanova, working very much with the conceptual frameworks laid out by Pierre Bourdieu, has perhaps the most useful insights to offer. For if there is one universal on offer in this book, it is an intricate mapping of the processes by which authors, literary traditions and critical apparatus contend with the political powers of what Éduoard Glissant terms "vehicular languages." Glissant himself, in his relations to William Faulkner (notably expanded upon by Glissant in his recent study Faulkner Mississippi) could almost be a casebook for examination of the issues addressed by Casanova. The cover of the Harvard University Press translation of Casanova’s book displays a solar globe transected by lines of type in different languages, fixing, as it were, global lines of literary migrations. One set of such global transits is beautifully laid out in Casanova’s tracing of the lines of Faulknerian flight, tracings that demonstrate convincingly the ways in which what were often taken in the official literary centers of the world "only as formalistic devices" (336), were often seized upon in other parts of the world as tools of liberation. This, on my reading, is one of the most crucial insights in the book, for it makes the case that those critics who for so long have opposed literary innovation to political liberation were quite simply asking the wrong questions. If, as Casanova argues, "no literary project, even the most formalistic, can be explained in a monadic fashion" (320), then there should be little to surprise us in the fact, long documented, that generations of Caribbean and African writers found liberatory spaces in the pages of Shakespeare’s Tempest, or in the understanding that a novelist as racist as Faulkner could be, could at the same time afford radically liberatory opportunities to authors working their way toward a braver new world, witness García Márquez, or Glissant himself.

Along the many routes these discussions follow are to be found any number of startling propositions. Perhaps the most startling comes in the discussion of Kafka, which takes an oblique course from the itinerary set out some years ago by Delueze and Guattari in their work on "minor" literatures and languages. In Casanova’s reading, Kafka’s work can be amazingly understood "as entirely translated from a language that he could not write, Yiddish" (269). While that is no doubt a highly arguable assertion, it links in revelatory ways to the movements through the literature of languages that hardly anybody in the West can read, such as Ngugi’s Kikuyu. Ngugi first came to world attention writing in English, and his Kikuyu texts even now must appear in English to be read by many outside Kenya. Yet it does make a difference that Ngugi is able to publish in both languages, that Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, presents the French versions of his works as the authorized texts, that James Joyce conducted a revolution in and against English.

It would seem, finally, that the one sure effect the conception of the universal has had in the world is quite different from what we were all taught when reading Aristotle in school. Casanova writes that:

the notion of universality is one of the most diabolical inventions of the center, for in denying the antagonistic and hierarchical structure of the world, and proclaiming the equality of all the citizens of the republic of letters, the monopolists of universality command others to submit to their law. Universality is what they–and they alone–declare to be acceptable and accessible to all. (154)

The dream of universality proclaimed at the center is an impossible dream, but it has had a universal effect, and here Casanova for once appends no qualifiers, no "or nearly so." Throughout four centuries of literary history, across broad swathes of the globe, a universal effect of domination has produced the same modes of response in artists the world over. And if we may sometimes cavil at Casanova’s claims for the novelty of her approach, if we might find her Paris-centric view of the republic of letters more than a little dated, few comparativists have done such a thorough job of anatomizing the writers’ responses to linguistic and political domination . It would be difficult to conduct a tour of the world’s literatures from Dante to Achebe and not fall prey to a certain amount of over generalizing; it might seem suspect that the tour ends crowning the same European texts that had been the verbal icons of the very modes of criticism Casanova is attacking, but Casanova is nowhere on surer ground than in tracking this one universal:

Although they sought a way out from a situation of domination that, despite its historical differences, was very similar structurally, Joyce and Beckett completed and crowned the genesis and emergence of a world republic of letters: in coming full circle and rediscovering the inventor of weapons forged against Latin oppression, they restored to Dante’s work its full subversive charge by raising it as the standard of their own revolutionary ambitions. (330)

This is not to say that Ngugi and Achebe should write like Beckett and Joyce; they do not. It is to say that they have found themselves in the same predicaments that those Irish artists had faced before them, and that they formulated similar strategies in response. Casanova could be over-optimistic in her hope that "the present work may become a sort of critical weapon in the service of all deprived and dominated writers on the periphery of the literary world" (354-55), though that’s a far better motivation than most, and it may well be that the periphery of the literary world is as likely to be found in the suburbs of Paris as in the outer reaches of what was once called the third world (a fact that Casanova appreciates), but her mapping of the responses to domination among many of the world’s best, and most republican, artists is among the strongest feature of this book.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Seems so
A project

You’d think
We’d think

Something better

Of ourselves

Sunday, July 09, 2006


In this reading from Washigton, D.C., recorded in 2005, Spellman reads "The Truth You Carry Is Very Dark" and "The Beautiful Day V," both of which appear in the anthology EVERY GOODBYE AIN'T GONE. As noted in an earlier blog, Spellman's landmark collection THE BEAUTIFUL DAYS has recently been reprinted.
this is an audio post - click to play

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Swift Boating the SWIFT Scam

In the wake of newspaper revelations of the Bushies' monitoring of American citizens' money transfers from overseas, the usual bevy of serpents has slithered out of its basket to find its way in front of every available camera with its hissing points.

Not satisfied with calling for the NY TIMES to be prosecuted for treason, the Right feels compelled to lie about the larger issues of the controversy.

I have now heard from more than one of these scaly miscreants that SWIFT, the international version of that routing number on your checks that you have to supply to get your automatic deposits, is something that shouldn't even be a subject for public discussion. Yesterday I turned on my television only to hear from one of these heavily subsidized rattlers that SWIFT is so obscure that even many bankers have never heard of it.

Odd - just two days earlier I'd had to call my bank to get its SWIFT number so that an overseas university that owes me a reimbursement can deposit the funds in my account. The clerk who answered the phone recited the number to me from memory with no hesitation. Now I know it is often the case that front line bank staff know things that upper management don't bother with, but it seems unlikely that anyone in the banking industry, or in the international terrorism business for that matter, isn't thoroughly famailar with the operations of SWIFT.

No, it's not the terrorists the Right wants to keep confused. It's us.

Monday, July 03, 2006


A while back I wrote in this space about the legislation recently passed in the state of Florida requiring that in Florida schools "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed," that it "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

Now, the thought of teachers having to be required by law to regard their subject matter as teachable is in itself striking, but how are Florida's champions of the factual and knowable doing?

In my previous posting I pointed out just how constructed the legislators' own view of the history of the teaching of history was. In yesteday's NEW YORK TIMES, Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton points to another portion of the bill that seems particularly relevant as we celebrate the Fourth of July.

The Florida bill places especially strong emphasis on the Declaration of Independence with its appeal to natural rights and the equality of men. The new legislation requires that the history of the United States be taught under the view of the USA as "a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Among those principles the Florida legislature regards as "stated" in the Declaration, as Norton points out, are the "inalienable rights of life, liberty and property."

Apparently the Florida teachers are required to teach a version of US history in which the Declaration is drafted by John Locke rather than Thomas Jefferson. Somehow somebody in power in Florida is trying to undo the work of the Revolutionary War. Jefferson's crucial change of "property" to "the pursuit of happiness" is something it might be good for students and teachers to contemplate in their classrooms. But at any rate, I think we can all agree that if we are to pass laws requiring that teachers teach what is stated in the Declaration of Independence, they should at the very least teach what actually is stated in the Declaration, not this revisionist model recently given the force of law by politicians who clearly have not read the document themsleves.

Maybe we could all spend part of this holiday reading the Declaration of Independence -- In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that, in the interests of a teachable, knowable, testable history, we teach the earlier versions of Jefferson's draft, the versions that included among the bill of particulars against the King a complaint about the slave trade. Maybe it would be good for our students and teachers, for all of us, to spend a few moments thinking about why that provision was deleted from the Declaration, and what consequences that may have eventually had in places like, say, Florida.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


In what can only be seen as an act of career suicide, Lil Kim has been released from jail early for GOOD BEHAVIOR.