Monday, April 29, 2013

When words kill perception

As a writer and editor, I obviously enjoy words and language when used well. But among the leftist elite -- and through decades of educational indoctrination it's filtered down to self-identified intellectuals and the "creative" class -- words seem less and less to refer to anything real. They have become complete in themselves, a substitute for observation and thought about facts.

What I see constantly among liberals (and to be fair, not only among liberals) is a belief that coming up with the perfect verbal formula is equivalent to finding truth.

Richard Fernandez had a posting the other day about how verbal templates have crippled the government's response to Muslim aggression. He quotes from the Washington Examiner:
It is quite possible ... the FBI agents who interviewed Tsarnaev on both occasions failed to understand what they saw and heard because that’s what they were trained to do. As The Washington Examiner’s Mark Flatten reported last year, FBI training manuals were systematically purged in 2011 of all references to Islam that were judged offensive by a specially created five-member panel. Three of the panel members were Muslim advocates from outside the FBI, which still refuses to make public their identities. Nearly 900 pages were removed from the manuals as a result of that review. 
The approved modus operandi for the FBI was not to find out what was actually happening, evaluate it, and draw conclusions about what it might mean for protecting the United States. The administration, following the progressive world view, believed that the problem of Muslim jihad (of which overt terrorism is only a small part) could be dealt with by words -- in this case, eliminating words that would offend Muslims. The language having been removed, the phenomenon had supposedly been removed.

Fernandez: "Institutions do not always seek to find the truth. More often than not they seek to find the approved solution.

"But to really learn you have to be prepared to listen to what you don’t want to hear. The future only contains new information if it tells you something you don’t know. But bureaucracies want to make all new knowledge predictable, consistent with the existing narrative. And homogenization destroys information."

It isn't only governments that indulge in avidya. It has become standard operating practice throughout Western culture, especially among those who pride themselves on their tolerance and ability to rise above the prejudices of the multitudes.

Look at the photos at the head of this posting. Under the heading "Reevaluating Arab Stereotypes," the author, Pinar, says:
In this day and age, it's refreshing to see a positive perspective on a script that has the ability to cause unease in America. Political street artist Peter Fuss' billboard pieces entitled This Means Peace were first placed at a railway station in Gdansk, Poland in January 2008. His works are immortalized on his website and are just as powerful, nearly four years later.

The two billboards, that Fuss posted his signature minimalist typography across, feature Arabic writing with an explained translation underneath that reads "This Means Love" and "This Means Peace." The strength in the message of the simple black and white print is insurmountable due to the universally positive understanding of the terms love and peace. They signify a humanity that has always been present in the Arab culture, despite the overwhelming stigmatism of destruction that has been linked to the Arab community in the last decade. Fuss' eye-opening work reevaluates social stereotypes and forces the viewer to reexamine their own ways of thinking.
But she is not contradicting stereotypes. She is promoting a stereotype dear to the hearts of leftists. Her bionote says, "I am a lefty. I'm the kind of lefty who uses a computer mouse with her left hand (pretty extreme case)." If you print the words love and peace and place them adjacent to Arabic terms,  she imagines that disproves so-called "social stereotypes" about Islam.

I don't know Arabic, but I beg leave to doubt that in the Muslim mind love means anything remotely like what Westerners associate it with. Peace? Islam famously divides the world into dar al-harb, the infidel territories (sometimes translated as "the World of War") and dar al-Islam, the part of the globe ruled by Muslim ideology and sharia law. 

But Pinar, like so many others, doesn't recognize such a thing as factual reality. Words and creativity are her metric for truth. Words and creativity -- genuine creativity, not the institutionalized rebellion of the contemporary arts scene -- are life enhancing, but do not determine the validity of beliefs about the everyday world, in contrast to the mental world. When or if she wakens from her trance it may be too late for her. And for the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sir Colin Davis, 1927-2013

I seem to be writing a lot of memorial posts lately. It is one of the writer's duties that comes with surviving for a reasonable span of life. I keep being reminded of the line from the poet and playwright known to history as Shakespeare: "Friends hid in death's dateless night."

Sir Colin Davis, the orchestra conductor, has long been a "friend." I put "friend" in quotation marks ('inverted commas' if you're British) because, of course, I did not know him personally. But we can have friends who have shared some of our time on earth and touched us deeply  through their artistry, even if we never met them in this life on an illusory plane of existence.

I don't remember when I first became aware of Sir Colin as a musician -- well, he was plain Colin Davis at the time; he received his K only in the late '80s, I think. But I do remember when he registered on my consciousness as someone important. It was back in the 1970s, and I was hardly knowledgeable enough to compare performances -- for the most part I still am not -- but when I heard his recordings of the late Mozart symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden, I said to a friend who appreciated such things, "This man has seen the light."

As much as I loved the performances I never acquired them on compact disc (I think I had the black discs for a while, but they've gone to vinyl heaven). I heard them again recently, thanks to the CD buyer at my town library, bless him. Decca has reissued them in a four-disc package. I was ravished all over again when I heard them.

I've also recently heard his late Haydn symphonies from the same period. They are wonderful in their own way. Sir Colin, unlike lazy or clueless conductors, understood the significant differences between Haydn and Mozart and his conducting reflected that: Mozart is feminine, lunar, yin;  Haydn masculine, solar, yang.

Sir Colin remained an active conductor until very recently. I have at least a dozen recordings of performances he led, and there are so many more to be savored, I trust. He had an ability to characterize a great range of music, unlike conductors who are fine on their own special patch (for instance Sir John Eliot Gardiner -- brilliant in Bach cantatas, poor in the Romantic repertory). But -- and this is to his credit -- Sir Colin knew his strengths and, perhaps, his weaknesses. He was a superb interpreter of music from the Classical and Romantic eras, but as far as I know never recorded most 20th century masterworks: no Prokofiev or Shostakovich or even Ravel.

Every post-mortem tribute ends with some variation on "he will be greatly missed." Sir Colin Davis will be, and by many besides me.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

If only we fought wars the way we fought the Boston Marathon suspects

The Boston Police, state police, feds and whoever else was involved approached their task in the spirit of how we sorted out millions of Germans, Japanese, and Italians in World War II. Too bad we can only do this now when hunting down a 19-year-old kid.

Some people are already second-guessing the law enforcement tactics. They say it was an over-reaction to put a whole city in lockdown, that it made us look vulnerable. Well, we are vulnerable. The reality is that Al Qaeda and their brother organizations at war for Allah can easily recruit dimwits to do their dirty work, and that work involves killing and maiming civilians in the ordinary course of their lives.

I don't see what alternative the cops had. A presumed killer was at large, there was no way to know what weapons and explosives he carried or whether he was part of a cell with a safe house. The law forces behaved as if there was only one acceptable end, capturing or killing the suspect, period. They seem to have acted with discipline and good sense. Did it set a dangerous precedent for civil repression by police kitted out like battlefield soldiers? Maybe. But this time they were doing a legitimate job while making every effort to keep the public out of harm's way.

The irony is that it is now our domestic police who in many cases look and act like armies; our armed forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq shoot if they must but otherwise are supposed to be Girl Scouts and Peace Corps volunteers, winning through good behavior plus building schools and water treatment plants. No wonder so many of the locals express their respects through IEDs, contemptuous of people who don't know how to fight.  Our deluded soldiers, sent by the neocons to the middle east, expected pretty girls to be handing them flowers like during the liberation of France. Instead they found themselves looking around for their missing limbs.

You can't make war genteel. You can only avoid it -- usually the best policy -- or win it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The week's inevitable headline

What a shock to the system if a neighbor of characters like these said: "They weren't big enough to contain all the bad in them, it had to spill over sometime. I'll tell you what, I hope never to have any crazy sons of bitches like them on my street again. I wasn't born yesterday and a fake smile doesn't hold much weight with me."

Of course they are only alleged killers. Like they were alleged nice kids.

I rarely follow true crime stories, although the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath have a dreadful fascination. I feel sorry for the detectives and uniforms in the Boston area who must have been working practically around the clock. Their procedures were impressive, from determining the search areas and sealing the perimeters to the thorough house-to-house sweeps of every possible hidey hole. Somebody was also on the ball in telling residents to stay home, stay safe and not get in the way of the cops.

Aside from the bombing itself and the murder of the MIT policeman, one element felt disturbing: so many police armed like Special Forces. I know each police department has to have a force de frappe, but it seems like more and more cops are becoming paramilitary units, with armored vehicles, high-end automatic rifles, target-painting beams, and all the rest of the clobber. You read stories about SWAT teams breaking into houses at night for what should be routine searches or arrests for nonviolent crimes.

As I write this, the second suspect hasn't been found. He will be. My prediction: if he has a gun left, he'll aim it very carefully ... at himself. Even if he's as stupid as the day is long, he must know that killing a policeman on duty is signing your own death warrant.

Then the post-9/11 culture clash will resume in a new key. The Left, bitterly disappointed that the perps weren't old angry right-wing white men, will fall back to their second line of defense. Their captive media will drive home the message that Islam had nothing to do with the crimes, they were lone nutters (or rather double nutters), victims of racism and anti-Muslim prejudice.* The alternative-media Right will use the event as an argument against mass immigration -- in my view, a mistake because it's far from the the most important argument. In turn, they'll be blasted as "xenophobes" and "nativists" by the Washington Post et al.

Here we go again.

* Added later: That sentence reads like caricature. But progressives aren't shy of any absurdity in their obsession with blaming Americans -- well, white Americans -- for others' twisted acts.  See Marc Ambinder: "I love American culture, and I also think that something about living in a modern society loosens the moorings that prevent us from acting on our deepest, ugliest thoughts. Maybe in America it's a combination of economic distress, mass media, access to guns, bias and prejudice ... Bias against Muslims is real and it hurts. And the easiest way to radicalize un-radicalized people is to treat them like enemies."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The high life

Architecture of Destiny: This image of a pink tower block soaring high into the skies above Hong Kong could almost be mistaken for a piece of abstract art 

This is what "welcome home" means to thousands of Hong Kong residents, many of them rich by Chinese standards.

This is the density that James Howard Kunstler believes is the solution to our environmental problems caused by our retrograde attachment to single-family houses with yards and automobiles that take us where we want to go when we want to go.

Shoulder to shoulder: The thousands of residents of these Hong Kong apartment buildings go about their daily lives in extremely close proximity to their neighbours 

Each of these tiny boxes is a human filing cabinet for the Mass Man that Communists of a century ago could only dream about.

Reducing the photos to fit them in this column doesn't do them justice. To see the towering horrors better, click this picture essay in the Daily Mail.

My heart sinks when I look at these. I don't even want to think about what actually living in one of them would be like. These inhabitants, by no means the Hong Kong underclass, probably work in office suites larger than their homes.

A certain brand of twisted futurologist gets an all-over thrill from scenes like this. More! Bigger! Taller! Yeah, baby!

Like all high-rise forests, these can be pretty, even spectacular, in the evening or at night with their pointillist electric colors. Like Manhattan at twilight as you cross the Queensboro Bridge. An abstract painting with people inside.

Prosperous: Charities in Hong Kong have warned of the growing divide between the area's rich elite and the increasing numbers living in poverty 

Inevitably our Western commentariat perceives the problem, if it perceives any, as purely economic. The Daily Mail story says:
Earlier this year the Hong Kong-based Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) highlighted the plight of the city's most under-privileged people, increasing numbers of whom are being forced to live in almost inconceivably small spaces.

In districts including Sham Shui Po, Yau Tsim Mong, and Kowloon City, families, elderly people and the unemployed are crammed into living quarters that are barely bigger than a toilet cubicle in some cases.

The combination of Hong Kong's huge population and sky-high rents - around HKD$90 (£8) per square foot a month - has led to a housing shortage that is affecting hundreds of thousands of the city's poorest people, SoCo said.
Note: "huge" population, not overpopulation. Our public intellectuals no longer believe there is such a thing as overpopulation, only "under-privilege." Why are rents "sky-high"? Because that's what happens when there are too many people who want to live in the same space. But for many reasons, most having to do with political correctness, you can no longer talk about population limits. "Persons of color" will be sure you're talking about them. Race killed the population stabilization movement in the '70s, even though eco-disaster-porn king Paul Ehrlich, a coward as well as self-serving scoundrel, explicitly said population stabilization should apply only to white people.

A wider view of the towers of Hong Kong 

In some sense, those who live on Level 42, Zone 3, of these high-rises are underprivileged, if fresh air, some space you can call your own that isn't purely functional, and a little distance from your neighbors are privileges. But you can bet they pay dearly for their views of other buildings.

Admittedly, their digs are a few notches above the really, uh, underprivileged:

Dilapidated: The photographer documents some less than idyllic living quarters in Hong Kong, where charities have highlighted the plight of underprivileged residents trying to afford a home in a place where space is at a premium   

It isn't just loons like Kunstler who've lost the plot. Econo-Man in general sees growth in everything, especially population, as the key to a return to prosperity and a cushioned old age. Libertarians are the worst, most self-styled conservatives next worst. Their only ideas are economic, and those are wrong. The quality of life decreases, not increases, with numbers of people. But quality is not in their vocabulary.

Liberals are deluded about almost everything, but a few at least acknowledge that overpopulation is at the root of a lot of misery. At least, until their "protected class" persons of color start howling.

 photo RD2.gif  

Friday, April 05, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Americans have had precious few public events to feel proud of in a long time. The mission to prong Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan was among those few. Zero Dark Thirty, based on the long search to locate and destroy the target, is -- thank goodness -- worthy of the exploit. In cinematic terms it succeeds as impressively as the CIA-military campaign that delivered death to bin Laden.

The film is complex and the storyline not always easy to follow. (If there was an explanation of the title, I missed it.) Hurray. It wasn't pitched at the lowest common denominator in the audience. The real hunt for bin Laden was surely messy, full of false leads and frustration; Zero Dark Thirty captures the near-incoherence that prevailed in the Middle East and presumably the CIA offices at Langley.

Whether the actual long-drawn-out reconnaissance and stealth helicopter attack were led by an obsessive CIA agent (Jessica Chastain) I know not. Nor do I care. This isn't a documentary, it's a dramatization, and damned effective.

The movie will undoubtedly make a Chastain a big star -- already has, I guess. And it's well deserved. She's on screen for a big chunk of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, and brings something new and appropriate to each scene. She draws you in.

The other actors, including those in supporting and brief roles, are bang on. One of the CIA guys is played by Mark Strong, an English actor you've seen in lots of TV dramas, but to listen to his accent here you'd never dream he's anything other than American.

Actors can save a weak script (which, this time, Mark Boal's isn't) and even make a floundering director seem good. But Kathryn Bigelow adds her own brand of star quality. She has a gift for striking visuals, a rare ability to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. The movie's texture is a wonder.

That might seem like faint praise, but it isn't. The production of a big-budget film is as artificial as can be. A scene usually begins as a handful of lines in a script. Chances are those lines are rewritten, and rewritten, and ... the scene is storyboarded. When it's time for the shoot, the set designers and costume designers and makeup people go to work, sometimes for hours while the actors do whatever they need to do to keep from going mental while waiting to project their lines. Movie scenes aren't usually rehearsed much, but recorded over and over again; the actors make the same moves, express the same expressions five, a dozen, or more times. It can be perfect and an extra sneezes; okay, that was great, let's do it again. 

Under those circumstances, a director needs more than technical chops. He or she needs to understand the inner world of actors, how to motivate them to give their best time after time. I mean to pay Bigelow a high compliment indeed when I say that she makes this artificiality look and feel authentic.

I had mixed feelings about her previous The Hurt Locker, but she's eliminated the debits and kept the assets for Zero Dark Thirty.

It's also amazingly not politically correct. Buraq doesn't even appear so we don't have to watch his chin-in-the-air poses he's so fond of. The implication is that our president had very little to do with the strike, which is probably true: I have a picture in my mind of him trying to slither out of taking responsibility, like Bill Clinton did, and his handlers working all night to brace him up. 

There are lots of Muslims, naturally, and most aren't portrayed as villains. Fair enough. But the script thankfully avoids introducing a major-character "good" follower of the Prophet whose conscience compels him to help the hunters track down bin Laden. The only black man among the CIA contingent is just one of the team rather than a "magic Negro" spouting deep wisdom and showing the dim whites what they're doing wrong.

The Blu-ray DVD transfer captures the overbright shadowless light of offices, the slightly creepy and inhuman camouflage and metallic tones of the military scenes. Zero Dark Thirty is gripping and convincing. It's hard to think how it could have been made better. Once in a while, the American film industry can still rise above itself.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Sunday, The Falls Church

I surprised my better half by announcing a few days ago that I'd like to go to a church service on Easter Sunday. She is a Christian but shares some of my distaste for institutional religion.

She asked which church. All I could say was one where the service includes music plus some pomp and ceremony. After a little discussion we agreed to attend the The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia -- maybe the only town in the U.S. named after a church. 

The setting was appropriate for Easter, a mixture of the somber and an exuberant return to life. Lawrence Auster's passing was on my mind. The morning was cool, granite-gray clouds submitting rain droplets. But cadmium daffodils cut through the gloom, cherry trees wore their pink auras, forsythia flowers were tentatively emerging, the irises prepared for unfurling feathery purple petals.

The Falls Church (Episcopalian) is historic, although the interior is restored (I think it was used for a field hospital or army stable during the War Between the States). The style is a tasteful colonial, mostly painted white, but with a golden cross on the altar. Clusters of Easter lilies on either side further sanctified the atmosphere.

For me it was a little like visiting another culture, if not a foreign country. Although I felt a slight unease at first, I got into the spirit of the thing once the service began, even reading along with the congregation as they spoke traditional prayers (is that the right word?) such as the Nicene Creed. I am a skeptic about the "narrative," but sometimes that is less important than sharing words of reverence with believers.

The Ministers and the People greet one another in the name of the Lord, the program booklet said. The greeting was done with warmth but also dignity -- no hugging strangers, just a handshake and "Peace be with you." "Peace be with you," I was happy to reply. I did not take communion; that would have been a false acknowledgement of a theology I don't believe in. (The Falls Church is nothing if not up to date: "Gluten-free wafers are available for those requiring them.")

Going to the Easter service was not inspiring, but I left uplifted after spending time with a large group seeking in their way, or ways, to connect with God. The cynical will remark, as they have for hundreds of years (and similar complaints were probably heard about Christian meetings in the 1st century), that for many it was simply a prescribed routine and a chance to dress to impress. Most of the women were stylishly and expensively kitted out. But love of ornament and love of God are not contradictory if priestly vestments and church architecture count. I leave that kind of spiritual bookkeeping to God; I'd rather take the congregants at their Word.

Around this time, I knew, preparations were being made for Lawrence Auster's funeral. I did not mourn unduly. He is alive with a greater consciousness than he knew on this side, and I hope he will attend his funeral and listen to what I'm sure will be fine tributes. (Many spirits communicating through mediums have described perceiving their own funerals.)

I respectfully disagree with St. Paul when he writes in his beautiful First Letter to the Corinthians that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. No. It will be the first to be destroyed, by passing through the gate and finding ourselves more alive than ever on the other side. You and I and everyone who lives will defeat death when we cross over.

The poet who wrote under the pseudonym Shakespeare was closer to the mark in one of his sonnets, which can be read as a message from the eternal soul to our limited personality on earth:

Within be fed, without be rich no more:
   So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
   And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.