Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Cyberspace tends to be collective, combative and ideological. And Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web. Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information over the world wide web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal, part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.
When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way this gunship did.
This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, has been available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.
Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.
I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
When I was making art, I was fascinated by metonymy, a figure of speech that substitutes one word for another word that it's closely associated with. Over time, the crown comes to stand for the king.
It is metonymy that gives documentary film and other forms of sympathetic magic their power over us. And it is metonymy that connects the unseen and unseeable theoretical concepts of science to their manifestations in the realm of the senses.
In the physical world, films and photographs are instantly metonymic. The weaver ants in the header stand for actual ants in a completely realistic and convincing way. The ants in the header may be suspended in time and space, immutable, undying, but, to our minds, they are real. And they are doing a real ant thing, a thing they were caught in the act of doing by the biologist who snapped their picture and generously gave us permission to use it here. They will continue to do that one ant thing and nothing else as long as the photograph lasts. They will not sting us to move us off their trail, they will not turn around and head in the opposite direction, and the major worker will not put the minor worker down. They will move forward together, always tending toward some place outside the frame of the photograph, but never getting there.
Now the scientist who took the picture of these weaver ants, Bert Hölldobler, knows as much about ants as anyone alive, and he tells us that what is literally going on in that picture is an example of the division of labor. What Professor Hölldobler's photograph shows is a major worker carrying a minor worker "to a place where the minor worker is needed for special work, such as attending honeydew-secreting homoopterans or nursing small larvae."
That's the observable fact of the picture. The denotative meaning of it. But we do not live by metonymy alone.
Beyond metonymy, there is metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word that literally denotes one thing or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness. As metaphor, the picture of our ants points to something beyond itself. It refers to other things that it is like. And, as a picture that is a metaphor for something else, the more things it refers to, the better it is.
As metaphor, Professor Hölldobler's weaver ants are amazingly polyreferential.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
I kept thinking, if we stayed with it long enough, we could improvise our way to something important, some clear statement of what it is to be human. Some reader, years from now, might find that theme in our notes. People were here. They had jobs. They had lovers. Husbands and wives. Some of them had kids. Their world was changing fast. Sometimes, it seemed to be coming down around their ears. But they went to movies, danced, listened to music, watched TV, made it to the grocery store. They read books. They talked about the things they saw and heard. Like you, Reader. They tried to be direct, unmediated and genuinely human in what they thought and said, to keep things and people in perspective. They hung out. And they all had porn star names. But the women didn't like to give head.
Maybe that's why the Hive collapsed. Or maybe it was politics. It's easy to have an opinion about politics, but it's mainly a waste of time. Or maybe there is something about creative people that makes collaboration difficult for them, even impossible. Whatever the reason, the Hive collapsed, the victim of some kind of colony collapse disorder. We hardly understood what was happening to us.
When I drained the basement, I found ideas flopping around like fish out of water, and not a single one of them was of any use in finding a way to live better or even to survive in this upside-down, inside-out world of America circa 2010. Not one article or idea as useful as the articles in The Whole Earth Catalog of the Sixties.
What we needed badly a couple of years ago were tools for survival. Do we need them still? I'm not sure we do.
Maybe what we need now are better ways to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we survived the social upheaval that destroyed millions of other lives. Maybe we need to turn our thoughts inward and celebrate the personal life in this time of collective discontent, to adopt the attitude that someone has to keep living, as though we have been selected for that task.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
When I knew him, it was Michael Tracy's intention to make the vestiges of ancient signs visible in the modern world.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents in their house down by the docks. During the Depression, my mother says, my grandfather used to bring home groceries and meat he got from the grocers and butchers on his beat. We'd share the food with my grandmother's sisters and brothers and their families sometimes. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.
I don't remember any of that. I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf. When my dad came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.
MT had a friend like that. John lived across the hall from MT on the Strand in Galveston before it was gentrified. MT brought a couple of guys back to his loft one night and they tried to kill him. They had MT up on the top of his refrigerator, trying to hold them off with a paring knife, when John busted down MT's door and beat the shit out of them with a baseball bat. Thing is, the door wasn't locked.
Sometimes relationships are like that. Wires get crossed somehow. Takes a while to figure that out. You have to watch your ass.
My daughter hasn't quite got the hang of religion yet. She wanted a nativity scene, and we got her one from Saint Vincent DePaul. She called it her Jesus set, and mixed in Hello Kitty and farm and jungle animals. I figure the Mary I grew up with wouldn't mind that much.
Friday, June 25, 2010
I was born in a Texas Gulf Coast town during the Depression, right before the war. My grandmother was Italian and my grandfather was an Irish cop. My father was a bohunk from Pennsylvania who was in the Army when he met my mother.
When my father got out of the Army, he cut grass and delivered ice until my grandfather got him a job on the police force. My mother divorced him right after that. He went back into the Army after Pearl Harbor and ended up fighting in the Philippines and occupying Japan.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents in a house down by the docks during the war. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.
I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf.
My father sent me a little vinyl record from the Philippines. A scratchy and tinny sounding recording, reminding me to be a good boy.
When he came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.He lost most of one lung to a fungus he contracted in the Philippines. The army didn't know how to cure the fungus, so they just cut the infected part of his lung out. The surgery essentially ended his real life. He lived the next 50 years as an invalid, then died from cancer at the age of 85.
He died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.
When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath.
We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.
I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.
For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place.
And he was a very ordinary man.
Monday, April 19, 2010
For my money, Fresh Air is the best program on radio. And Terry Gross is the best interviewer in the world. Nobody follows-up the way Terry Gross does. My favorite interview? Divine, explaining how John Waters talked him into eating a dog turd and what he did after he ate it. If you can get your nerve up to interview Terry Gross, you're ready to interview anybody.
I don't know who River is, but Baghdad Burning is a brilliant blog. It's out in book form now, complete with introductions and assessments by foreworders, but I like to read it on line better, the way I read it first. When River left Iraq and stopped blogging, I felt an important voice of Iraqi nationalism had been silenced. I may never know who River is, or even whether she is a woman or a man. I may never know if her blog is one of the finest examples of citizen journalism I've read, or just clever propaganda. For all I know, River is an Iranian agent. Juan Cole seems to believe she's authentic, but, for all I know, Dr. Cole is an Iranian agent himself. This is cyberspace. It's worse than Chinatown. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
I keep this picture on my desktop to remind me that I know less than zero about what's going on most of the time.
What's happening here is Norman Schwartzkopf, the first general to double envelop an enemy army since Hannibal, and an authentic genius with an I.Q. of 168, is telling the leaders of the Iraqi army he destroyed that they can keep their helicopters so they can massacre the Shiites down around Basra when the Shiites revolt. The Shiites in the South were Iran's way into Iraq, you see.
Schwartzkopf's version of the event is that the Iraqis fooled him. I saw him say that in an interview. He said it with a wry smile. He thought they wanted those helicopters to fly to business meetings or something like that, he said. The Iraqis fooled Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and George H.W. Bush at the same time, of course.
This is Schwartzkopf's envelopment of the Iraqi army. Look where the 24th Mechanized Division is. You tell me if you believe Schwartzkopf could be gulled by a bunch of Iraqis.
When Camille Paglia started writing about Madonna back in the Sexual Personae days, I had a hard time keeping their life stories apart. It was never clear to me if Paglia was writing about Madonna or about herself. It's not hard to tell these days. Apparently, Paglia doesn't approve of the way Madonna has chosen to age.
I always figured it was a bad idea to talk about anybody's body parts, but Paglia and the British press are into the contrast between Madonna's face and her legs. Paglia says Madonna looks like a dissolute old streetwalker. Maybe Paglia has written about Madonna so much she thinks she owns her. For Paglia, writing has become a kind of sympathetic magic. She uses the written word instead of a voodoo doll.
I'm more interested in Madonna when she was starting out, when she was dancing and posing nude for Lee Friedlander.
How did Madonna become Madonna. That's what I want to hear about.
An Unknown Soldier
He was probably a Russian, though he might have been Polish. He was among the first Russian Army soldiers to enter Auschwitz, one of the first to liberate a concentration camp with living prisoners. On January 27, 1945, he found 7,000 survivors at Auschwitz. Like the prisoners at the other camps on the Eastern front, the rest of the Jews and political prisoners at Auschwitz had been killed or relocated as the line of battle moved toward Germany.
Thornton Wilder constructed his novel The Bridge At San Luis Rey around the collapse of a suspension bridge in Peru. Wilder asks why some people ended up on the bridge that day, while others escaped death.
If one of those Russian soldiers is still alive, I'd like to know how he ended up at Auschwitz that day. Exactly how did history choose him for that great honor?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
At long last, I find out I'm not alone. It's a scientific fact. Men take more risks when pretty women are around.
When I met The Cowgirl in Austin, I was at the top of my game, way above it all. I was fond of saying about myself: This is not my first rodeo. She was 25 and I was in my 40's. We became good friends.
I had a girl friend younger than she was, and she was in love with a part-time politico named Rex. He was a real cowboy. Broke horses and took rich people on hunting trips in Montana. She used to tell me: Billy, I could never respect a man who didn't wear a suit and tie to work, and I could never love a man who wasn't a cowboy. When I'm with Rex, I feel like I'm the luckiest girl in the world.
She was a fantastic dancer with long blonde hair and that perfectly smooth skin some blondes have.
But I was above all that.
I ended up on my knees in a parking lot, using a little fire extinguisher from a shoe store to battle a fire that was blazing around the muffler of her white Pinto. I had it whipped, too, until the fire extinguisher ran out of foam.
I was walking away from the car in disgust when a fire truck pulled into the parking lot.
The firemen put their truck between them and the Pinto and drowned the fire with a million gallons of water or so. They got a kick out of my little fire extinguisher. They'd look at me, then they'd look at the young blonde and say things like: Was probably good the tank was full. Not as likely to explode that way.
The cowgirl warned me not to marry my girlfriend. Texas women do that. Even if they don't want you, they know they're the only women good enough for you. I didn't heed the warning, but, after 30 years of marriage, when my wife composted my white bread the other day to keep me from eating it, I remembered the Cowgirl's warning.