Monthly Archives: August 2013

Two poems I happened to read within minutes of each other, as I was reading what I had in the house by the old, late Seamus Heaney. I’m going to miss his childhoods, his countrysides, his memories. And I’m going to love him forever for his Beowulf. The greatest stroke of genius in modern English poetry was surely translating the opening word Hwæt! not with some archaism like “hark!” or “lo!” or some such, but the laconic storyteller’s “So.”

Anyway, two poems about berries, one of which is by Heaney, both of which I love:


Wild Raspberries
John Fuller

Wild raspberries gathered in a silent valley
The distance of a casual whistle from
A roofless ruin, luminous under sprays
Like faery casques or the dulled red of lanterns
When the flame is flow and the wax runs into the paper,
Little lanterns in the silence of crushed grasses
Or waiting chaises with a footman’s lights
Curtains hooked aside from the surprising
Plump facets padded like dusty cushions
On which we ride with fingers intertwined
Through green spiky tunnels, the coach swaying
As it plunges down and the tongues slip together,
The jewels fall to the flood to be lost forever,
The glass shatters and the heart suddenly leaps
To hear one long last sigh from an old blind house
That settles further into its prickly fronds,
Speaking of nothing, of love nor of reproaches,
Remembering nothing, harbouring no ghosts,
Saving us nothing at all but raspberries


Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.


Quoting that same essay by WEB Dubois I just discovered a few weeks ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates rips into Barack Obama’s speech at the March on Washington 50 year anniversary ceremony.

Like Du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people, to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. Du Bois’s biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don’t know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.

This is exactly what I was thinking when I heard the speech. Ta-Nehisi just nails it, as he always does on matters of inequality and race in the US. (Break for endorsement: if you’re not following his blog run, don’t walk, and put it in your RSS reader). But Obama’s speech was an army of excuses.

He did do a lot of good things which I liked in the speech. He commended the men and women who constituted the nonviolent army of the civil rights movement, and laudably maintained his focus on the footsoldiers of the movement, not the leaders.  And he kept emphasising the incompleteness of the struggle:

But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.  The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.  To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.  Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.  (Applause.)

And I thought the way Obama kept coming back to the Jobs part, not just the more sexy call for Freedom, was excellent:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March.  For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal.  They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity.  (Applause.)

For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?  This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new.  Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise that in due time, “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

But still, the speech fell flat. The problems Ta-Nehisi take up is one of my two major gripes, the victim-blaming of black America which Coates has done such a great job of covering in the past couple of months.

My other great problem was more about what kind of broader ideology is presented in the text of the speech. Truly telling in this regard was the crescendo litany at the end of examples of how people today “march” in their own ways now, for freedom and jobs:

That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching.  (Applause.)

That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck — he’s marching.  (Applause.)

The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son — she’s marching.  (Applause.)

The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father — especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching.  (Applause.)

The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are marching.  (Applause.)

I think these examples show in completely stark terms, Obama’s failure to grasp and change the politics of the now in this speech. Why? Because these examples, every last one of them, are examples of people trying to ameliorate the pain caused by the failures of public policy today. These are people doing what they can, as individuals, to cope with the damage caused by collective problems, not with the problems themselves. These are not examples of people doing what Dr. King was doing.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”, wrote that other great thinker of American nonviolence, Henry David Thoreau, in Walden. Obama’s speech was about hacking branches. Dr. King’s life was all about hacking at the root. He was not content to sit at lunch counters and ride buses. He wanted the vote. He wanted jobs. He wanted forced integration. He wanted the war to stop. He was not content to buy school supplies, he wanted to make sure that the state bought those textbooks for everyone who needed them. He was not content to rely on the good will of kind bosses. He wanted to make sure that those bosses damned well had to pay a fair wage, because such was the law of the land.

Though he kept mentioning turning towards each other and doing great things, together, this was, in its heart, a speech showing us the United States as an atomised society, a society of unconnected individuals striving to get by and make do while the great wheel turned elsewhere. Why didn’t he tell those people to get organised and start knocking on doors?

What Obama should have done in his speech was offer a vision for the collective solutions of collective problems. He should have laid out the next step in the fight against inequality and injustice. But that doesn’t issue from the single actions of good men and women. It comes instead from their collective actions, from organising. It doesn’t come from petitioning your government from redress, it comes from forcing your government to listen to you whether it wants to or not. That’s what Dr. King did. And I’m less sure than ever that Obama understood that.

One of the best things I’ve read so far on the Syria civil war is actually this short, introductory blog post by Max Fischer in the Washington Post. He presents an astounding map of ethnic groups in the Syrian region:

I’m getting the feeling the coast is a bit more cosmopolitan.

Even if you’ve read a lot about the ethnic tensions in Syria, that map seriously hammers home the complexity of the situation. Then he presents two ways of thinking about this map, which is the part I really like:

The first is what you might call the Fareed Zakaria case for why Syria is imploding (he didn’t invent this argument but is a major proponent). Zakaria starts with the premise that Syria, like many other Middle Eastern (and African) countries, has highly artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers. Those powers also tended to promote a minority and rule through it. This tactic badly exacerbated some preexisting sectarian tensions. It also forced countries into unsustainable power imbalances, with minorities ruling over majorities. That’s not actually how Assad came into power — his father seized it in a coup — but Zakaria’s thesis is that what we’re seeing in Syria is in some ways the inevitable re-balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunni Arab majority retaking control from the Alawite minority. He compares the situation to post-2003 Iraq, when members of the Shiite majority violently took power from the Sunni minority that, under Saddam Hussein, had ruled them. That would explain why so much of the killing in Syria has been along sectarian lines. It would also suggest that there’s not much anyone can do to end the killing because, in his view, this is a painful but unstoppable process.

The other way to look at this is that it’s a war first and a sectarian conflict second. Religious and ethnic antagonisms have been around for many, many generations in the Levant, including Syria. Maybe what’s happening is that the war began for political reasons — people protesting dictatorship, the dictatorship overreaching in suppressing those protests by force, things spiraling out of control until it’s civil war — but that the fighting is causing people to retreat to sectarian identities and antagonisms, to make the old divisions deeper and more vicious.

I like the second case Fischer is making here (though as I mentioned earlier, Zakaria is making a lot of sense here, too). We have a tendency to over-explain and under-understand violence by referring to ethnic identities. It’s a simple way of thinking that we instinctually grasp: oh, right, those guys are fighting these guys because of racial hatred. Usually, however, I find that the ethnic conflict is really a mask put on some deeper political, resource, class or power conflict. Socialists and other lefties like myself have a tendency to ignore ethnic and cultural tensions and look for the “real” conflicts beneath them. This is often a good strategy, but we need to be aware that other things are always going on as well.

That’s why I like Fischer’s second explanation. It reminds me of some research by, among others, Clifford Stott which I was checking out a year or two ago. He does research into crowd psychology during riots. It seems intuitively very sound, and seems to better predict what happens during demonstrations:

Their study suggested that during the early stages of a demonstration against a new form of taxation, participants’ collective identity was defined in terms of non-violence and differentiation from those understood to be seeking disorder. However, the police held a view of the crowd based upon “classic” theory. Therefore, a small sit-down protest during the demonstration led the police to see the crowd as being “whipped up” by a small band of extremists and therefore beginning an inevitable slide toward “disorder”. In order to try to restore control, the police then drove into the crowd using relatively undifferentiated force (e.g. baton charges). Such indiscriminately coercive tactics changed the inter-group context for the crowd. Consequently, demonstrators redefined their collective identity in terms of the illegitimacy of their inter-group relationships with the police. This in turn led to a widely shared understanding among demonstrators of the legitimacy of conflict with the police and shared psychological group membership with those prepared to confront them. The redefined psychological unity of demonstrators also led directly to a sense of collective empowerment which meant that conflict with the police was not just seen as legitimate but also possible social action.

The blog Mind Hacks has another good way of putting Stott’s research:

Imagine you’ve just got on a bus. It’s full of people and you have to jam into an uncomfortable seat at the back. There are people going to work, some vacant students heading home after a night on the beers, some annoying teenagers playing dance music through their tinny mobile phone speakers and some old folks heading off to buy their groceries.

You’re late and you missed your train. You feel nothing in common with anyone on the bus and, to be honest, those teenagers are really pissing you off.

Suddenly, two of the windows smash and you realise that a group of people are attacking the bus and trying to steal bags through the broken windows.

Equally as quickly, you begin to feel like one of a group. A make-shift social identity is formed (‘the passengers’) and you all begin to work together to fend off the thieves and keep each other safe.

You didn’t lose your identity, you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.

I suspect that something similar is happening in Syria. Under violent pressure and fears of post-victory genocides, people are gaining or strengthening collective identities along ethnic lines, aligning with people with whom they suddenly have a clear and present external foe against. This kind of regression to isolated communities is dangerous not just for the cohesion of the rebel movement, but for any hope of a peaceful postwar Syria. Whatever the international community does, I suspect that an important part of it has to be giving all the ethnic groups in Syria know that they will be protected against genocide in some way.

One thing about Syria is for sure: when the assholes who brought us the war in Iraq come out the woodwork in favour of Syria, they will be mercilessly mocked. As well they should be.

And now, in case you were on the fence about whether the American government should take military action in Syria, Kristol has returned with an open letter urging President Obama to get bombing post-haste, and go big. You can find theletter on the Weekly Standard‘s website, where it runs under the not-sarcastic headline, “Experts to Obama: Here is what to do in Syria.” Among the “experts” are not only Kristol himself, but a whole bunch of folks with a nuanced grasp of the subtleties of Middle East politics and a track record of wise counsel on matters of war. People like Iran-Contra criminal Elliot Abrams, evangelical leader Gary Bauer, former seat-warming senator Norm Coleman, French gadabout Bernard-Henri Levi, foreign-policy genius Karl Rove, and presidential laughingstock Tim Pawlenty, not to mention the hilariously named Arch Puddington, who apparently is an actual person and not a character from a children’s book.

Arch Puddington! He sounds like he ought to be a chicken hawk. Personally, I prefer the Dan Savage model of contrition:

Foreign Policy is just killing coverage of the Syrian situation. Today with this exclusive story:

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

There’s been a lot of noise from sources close to the blah blah blah that signals intelligence, probably from the Israelis, was behind the calls for intervention and the certainty of the US and UK of the authenticity of the attacks and Assad’s hand in them. This seems to confirm not only that that was true, but also indicates that the US was the interceptor. Interesting development.

An incredibly compelling article in The New Yorker on the hunt for a mythological creature inside the computer game of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It seems that over the years, fans have started brewing up their own mythology around random sightings from the corner of their eye seen on insomniac nights playing the game. It’s a really interesting look into the beginnings of mythology. This is the original folk beliefs, generated from hyperactive brains that saw something unexplained once and desire to create significance around it. It’s very much in line with how philosopher Daniel Dennett argues about the roots of religion in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which is well worth reading.

Rachel Maddow makes a compelling case for caution on Syria in this clip, which an annoying WordPress feature does not allow me to embed. I think both propositions made in this clip — waiting for inspections to be completed and having an open floor debate in Congress on the matter — are sound. I like the idea of a possible intervention being secured in democratic processes.

But beyond those two sound propositions, the big question really isn’t how this matter is discussed in the US, but what kind of international support the action taken has. While I appreciate the celerity and diligence of the US in securing backing from its allies on the Syria question, the failure of the Security Council to debate matters divorced from the narrow, national interests of the veto powers is what’s really tragic about this situation. Throughout my lifetime, the UN Security Council has repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion and stop humanitarian disasters. Each time, Security Council veto power has been the arresting force on the momentum of humanitarian relief and security forces.

The latest atrocity in Syria is one more, sad item added to the ledger of the UN’s failures. And the matter hasn’t even been broached at the UN. The US and its allies has been slow to take the issue to the Security Council because they know they’ll likely be vetoed by Russia. They know that the parochial, ridiculous interests of Russia still lie with the bloody-handed Assad regime, and while the population keeps suffering, the UN system loses more credibility.

But about an hour ago, David Cameron announced that he will attempt to move a resolution through the Security Council today.

I’ll be following how that develops closely. There’s a lot of political pressure on now. Maybe Syria’s allies will cave, but I doubt it. But the moral imperative demands action of some kind. A statement condemning the attacks should be literally the least they could do, possibly predicated on the findings of the weapons inspectors.

But nonetheless, the fact that Russia and China made sure the Security Council wasn’t even capable of securing a resolution urging a full and open investigation of whether or not chemical weapons had been used — they couldn’t even pass a motion to just have someone check the damn thing out! — shows exactly why the international community urgently needs reform of the Security Council. End the veto power and put security resolutions to a general vote. It’s time the great powers grow up and learn to take their lumps.

UPDATE: The UN Secretary-General urges for a diplomatic solution. Things are moving fast and I suggest following the Guardian live blog for updates as they happen.