Thursday, July 2, 2015

Taking Posthumous Advice

The other night I was reading a book by a man with lifelong interests in science and literature. He mentioned Henry David Thoreau's incandescent opening chapter of Walden, with its powerful statement on man's relationship with nature. This led to my having to go find Walden, pull it off the shelf, and dip into the first chapter, which is titled "Economy." I remembered having a strong reaction of my own to Thoreau's opening pages the first time I read the book almost 30 years ago.

I should say "the first time I read the book all the way through," because I'm pretty sure I had tried to read it before, probably while I was in college, without getting very far. It was another example of a book whose time hadn't yet come for me. I'm not sure what prompted me to pick it up again that particular autumn, when I was struggling not so much to find the meaning of life as to find an employer who required the skills of an English M.A. It was a rather discouraging juncture, which was probably what put me in the mood for philosophy.

Something Thoreau said stopped me in my tracks, so applicable did it seem, almost as if he had reached out across time to say something I needed to hear. The experience was similar to the one I had in seeing Joseph Campbell for the first time on public television (which hadn't happened yet when I was reading Thoreau). It's safe to say I wasn't used to those types of peak experiences, and the force of it was almost as if Thoreau had clapped me on the shoulder.

In after years, I went back to locate this statement that had affected me so strongly, and--guess what? I couldn't find it! So much of what Thoreau says in the first chapter is memorable, and I kept reading one beautifully observed statement after another without recognizing the one. What! How could this be? I was left to consider the possibility that in all the living I had done post-Thoreau my experience might have expanded to encompass a few more of his observations. The one that had struck me so forcibly in the beginning was now one of many.

When I was leafing through the book the other night, I decided to try once again to locate the statement I'd once taken as a motto. Reading at leisure, late at night, by lamplight, I suddenly recognized it and remembered why it had moved me so much when I was in my 20s, out of tune with my surroundings and wondering when life would start falling into place. "But man's capacities have never been measured," wrote Thoreau, "nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been thy failures hitherto, 'be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou has left undone?' "

I now see that the last part of Thoreau's quote is from the Vishnu Purana, a Hindu scripture, so that in effect Thoreau was speaking along with the Hindu sages of long ago, speaking with them in unison. No wonder the statement had seemed like a revelation. These words greatly encouraged me then and helped me believe that, no matter how disappointing the present was, there was so much more life ahead, and some of it was bound to be better.

Thoreau had been dead for 125 years when his words moved me; Joseph Campbell died right around the time I was reading Walden, perhaps the very week, and the following year I heard him say "Follow your bliss" on PBS. Dead white males, both, and father figures. Mentors come in all sizes and shapes, living and dead, and I say, never ignore a good piece of advice.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Obama and the White Bull

I saw a description for a course someone is offering on learning to recognize myths and archetypes in current events. What a good idea for a course--because how challenging is it to separate the real story from the apparently real in the news we see every day? Separating the false from the true is both an art and a science, and familiarity with myths can be a great help in discernment.

It helps, as I've said before, to view the political stage as just that--a stage. It's the practiced performance you see, not actors standing around being themselves (with a few exceptions). Unrehearsed events are so rare that it makes me wonder how often reporters even ask the right questions. I get the feeling sometimes that press events, talk shows, and public appearances of all kinds are predicated from the word "go" on certain things not being asked, so that it's not a matter of an official parrying a tough question or refusing to comment on something. The conversation never even gets to that point.

I've read reports in the news media that President Obama has been showing more emotion lately, as if to imply that he's "loosening up" and revealing a more human side. I view those reports with some skepticism, based on my observation that almost everything that happens in politics happens for a stone cold reason. I'm not saying that the President doesn't have any of the emotions he might be displaying, but I am saying that if he's letting you see them, that's a calculated decision on his part (the same goes for other warm and fuzzy Washington people).

Was there a time when being presidential carried more gravitas and less of the aura of carnival side show, or am I just imagining that? President Obama seems to want us to think that he's a great guy with feelings just like ours, a sense of humor, lovable foibles, etc., and that he's not even above appearing in someone's garage to record a podcast. I know this folksiness is meant to be disarming, but what I find interesting (and disconcerting) is the fact that Mr. Obama works so hard at projecting this image.

I try to read events--whether they're press conferences, speeches, interviews, or news items--a little like advertisements and a little like poems. If it's an ad, what are they trying to sell me? What's the motive? What's the gain? Reading an event like a poem means reading intuitively or slantwise--literal understanding is just the beginning. The more elusive truths only appear if you don't stare at them head-on but listen instead to your gut feelings.

Here's a Greek myth that surfaced for me this afternoon, in thinking about our President: Poseidon sent King Minos a beautiful white bull, a magnificent animal that, because it was sacred, was meant to be sacrificed to the gods. Minos coveted this bull, and instead of offering it up, decided to keep it for himself, substituting a lesser animal in its place. Much havoc ensued from this self-serving act; Minos' wife even fell in love with the bull, which led to the birth of a monster, the insatiable Minotaur, and the need for an elaborate labyrinth in which to hide it.

The currency in this myth concerns the bait-and-switch, which in our day is the slick appearance and trappings of power as a substitute for the true working of democracy. In matters of personal rights, trade, and economic justice for ordinary citizens, the President, as I see it, is too often on the side of the moneyed and the powerful (a true son of Zeus, like Minos)--but he doesn't want it to look that way. So in place of that just, self-sacrificing, and courageous leader of the free world that we need but don't have, he gladly offers up a shiny, photogenic, and urbane substitute. We'd like to believe it's the real thing, but the truth is, you know, it's just some old bull. And you're not fooled, because you know your mythology.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Buddy Holly's Glasses

I checked out two library books a couple of weeks ago and read them back to back. Both were novels, one by an American and one by a Briton. I was deep into the second one when I came across a character described as having Buddy Holly glasses. This was an interesting coincidence because the first novel also had a character with Buddy Holly glasses. Synchronicity or accident?

It's not an earth-shattering coincidence, but it was odd enough. What are the chances of bringing home two unrelated novels and finding that same descriptor? Not great, I would guess. There was no obvious connection between the books, but it got me thinking about possible reasons for the use of the same image by different authors.

In David Guterson's The Other, the glasses belong to Rand Barry, the wealthy father of John William, a dropout, rebel, philosopher, and Gnostic. Neil Countryman, who narrates the story, is John William's best friend, aiding and abetting him in dropping out of society and out of sight to a precarious backwoods existence. Rand Barry's glasses are described this way: "This style of glasses . . . has waxed and waned, but mostly they've functioned as a comic prop or as a prosthetic for the elderly urbane, sometimes appearing on the faces of mods or dissonantly on generals hauled before the press."

In Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, the glasses belong to a minor character named Harold Mather, who has them broken by a street punk as he and the story's protagonist, Edward Mayhew, are walking down a London street in early 1961. His glasses seem less likely to be an affectation (Mr. Barry sports his in 1974), and in any case, suit his character, a hip but nerdy university student who has "an important jazz record collection . . . [and] was hilarious in formal student union debates."

While Guterson describes Barry as a somewhat anxious and uncomfortable figure, despite his wealth, and McEwan's Mather is in his element as a successful and well-regarded intellectual, both scenes describe the removal of the glasses, in one case by the wearer himself and in the other by a violent act. In different ways, both characters are hapless. Barry thinks he's about to be attacked by his son's friend, whom he does not at first recognize, and removes his glasses in a sort of nervous gesture. Mather has them knocked from his head but brushes the incident off, becoming upset with Edward for coming to his defense.

Is there any larger theme in the novels that might connect these seemingly minor incidents? Both novels deal with loneliness, alienation, and the tension between societal norms and the individual. Mr. Barry, as John William's father, is the focus of much of what John William rebels against, and he's not unaware of the role he plays, at least to some degree. Nervously removing his glasses in Neil's presence almost comes across as an unconscious attempt to unmask himself, a futile but poignant gesture in light of his estrangement from his son. 

In the case of Harold Mather, it's Edward who takes the damage to the glasses seriously. While Harold takes the incident in stride, Edward enacts a macho revenge, seeing the matter as a point of pride. The lack of respect for his friend "justifies" his violent reprisal. When I first read this scene, I was surprised that Harold grew upset with (and dropped) his friend over the episode, which seemed to express little more than Edward's instinct to protect. By the end of the novel, I was seeing the incident as evidence of an unfortunate impetuosity, an adherence to a macho code that precludes a more nuanced approach to situations. It was Harold who lost his glasses, but Edward who lacked the ability to "see."

The glasses are in both cases part of a persona relatively easily dropped, in one case deliberately, and the other by accident. Authenticity is achieved to different degrees by Barry and Mather and their counterpoints, Neil and Edward. Mr. Barry seems to realize that his son's friend knows more about his son than he does, even if the realization does him little good. To what extent does he "see" that his son rejects everything he stands for? Harold, on the other hand, sees enough, even without his glasses, to make him reassess his friendship with Edward.

More than aids to vision, more than parts of a mask, the glasses act also as reflectors, as mirrors in which the other character sees himself. For Neil, as he recounts the scene years later, complicated questions of love, loyalty, complicity, and guilt are reflected back. For Edward, an image of who he is as a young man, not yet deepened by experience, chastens him but fails to foster inner change. In one case, the reflection reveals greater depths, while in the other, what shows is mostly an image shaped by social norms.

Why Buddy Holly's glasses? Because of Holly's untimely death, they carry associations with tragedy and early loss that seem to foreshadow later events in both novels. Certainly, the image of Buddy Holly, in conjunction with the character of Rand Barry, an aerospace executive, is both incongruous and apt. For Mather, who seems comfortable with himself as a man despite some physical drawbacks, the glasses are more of a mirror cracked, in which Edward sees, but does not recognize, himself.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Stollen's Clock Repair, Toy & Magic Shop

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived alone on a long, leafy street with old-fashioned houses. She was a fairly young woman, with no husband or children to think of, and she liked to spend her spare time (she was a teacher) reading, taking walks, drinking long cups of tea, and (on Saturdays) occasionally rummaging in antique shops. 

Rummaging was how she found it, the jewelry box. She wanted someplace besides a candy box to store her earrings and necklaces. She wasn't actually thinking of it that Saturday as she poked around in Stollen's Clock Repair, Toy & Magic shop, but when her eye fell on the lacquered box, a midnight blue affair spangled with faint stars and crescent moons, it came to her mind how perfect it would be for her jewelry and how snugly it would fit on top of her dresser. Mr. Stollen thought the box had originally been used for papers but, unusually for him, was vague on its provenance. He mumbled something about objects of beauty with troubled pasts and frowned as he wrapped it in tissue and put it in a bag for her. She did not think much of this as Mr. Stollen was old and--though kindly--could, on occasion, be crotchety.

The box did indeed fit snugly on her dresser, and her jewelry fit neatly into the partitions she created for them. She casually mentioned her find to several of the other teachers at her college in the break room one morning. They agreed that Stollen's was the place to go when you didn't know what you wanted because you were bound to find it. It was a small town, and everyone knew Stollen's.

By and by, the young woman, whose name was Clare, began to notice something odd happening among her colleagues. It began with whispers and hurried looks and was never more than a faint rumor at first. She eventually discovered that the rumors had to do with her jewelry box, which some said had belonged to a wealthy governor of a far-off place, some to a captain of industry, and some to a potentate. It was said to have a hidden compartment housing a secret document, a document that had been left by mistake in the box, which by some roundabout and uncertain way had ended up at last in a dusty corner of Stollen's shop.

Clare did not believe the rumors at first, knowing how little of import happened in her small town and how exciting the slightest hint of the exotic always was (when the circus came, it was the major topic of conversation for weeks). But gradually, rumors turned into a coolness in the air, and there were frightened looks and hushed voices. She was never sure who started the stories, or if anyone really knew anything for sure about the box. When she asked Mr. Stollen one day, after running into him on the street, he merely shook his head.

Whether Clare believed the rumors or not, it was evident that other people did. One autumn evening, when Clare was returning home from school, she encountered a well-dressed gentleman at the end of her street. He was idling there with an air of purpose, and when she turned in front of him, he bowed slightly. "My name is Mars," he said, handing her a card on which the name P. T. Mars appeared in elegant black lettering, followed by the word "Antiquities." "I understand you purchased a box from old Stollen some time ago. I wonder if you'd be interested in selling it to me. I'm a collector, and I believe it may have some value."

"Really?" said Clare. "Mr. Stollen said nothing about value to me, and he always knows these things. I didn't pay very much for it. It's only lacquered wood."

"Ah, but you see, the look of a thing can be deceiving. Who would think that a tarnished old lamp could hide a genie, for instance? Yet one hears of these things."

Clare did not like the look of this smooth gentleman, with his black hair and pale skin, and said nothing about the rumors she'd heard. A feeling came to her that whatever happened, he should not have her box. "Well, I'm rather fond of the box, as it is," she said carefully. "And I've never done business with someone I met in the street. It may be that I will want to give the box away one day, as a gift."

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," said Mars. "That box contains something very important, not worth much to you, but worth a great deal to those willing to pay for it. Why not save yourself a great deal of trouble and sell it to me? You will make a lot of money from it."

"I'm sorry," said Clare politely, looking at Mars directly. "But I don't feel as if I want to sell it. And it's getting late, so I must be getting on."

"Not today, perhaps," said Mars, with a dismissive wave. "But keep my card. You can reach me at that number anytime." And he laughed and turned away. As he did, Clare caught sight of his fine leather shoes. His feet were small and goat-like, and he moved on them lightly. When he was a short distance away, he turned and smiled again. "And don't think of destroying that box," he said. "To do so would be quite dangerous, as it is well-protected against any type of tampering. You cannot destroy it without destroying yourself, believe me." Then he was gone.

When Clare got home, she stared at the card with distaste for a long while before burning it in the grate. She looked at the jewelry box, sitting quietly and unassumingly on the left side of her dresser, glowing softly in the lamplight. She would have liked to believe that the entire episode was a case of mistaken identity, but as she gazed at the box, she feared it was not.

Of course, that was not the end of the affair of the box, as it seemed everyone had now heard the story of its hidden treasure, whether from Mars or by some other means. Clare no longer felt carefree as she walked down her street, from home to school and back again. The neighbors behaved oddly, and the formerly friendly shopkeepers on Main Street all seemed troubled and disinclined to be social. Clare wondered what could possibly be in the box to turn everyone's heads so completely. She didn't want to know but thought it best to draw conclusions so she could decide what to do. Perhaps it contained a map to a treasure, a list of names, or the plans for an invention that would make its owner rich beyond imagining. There were many possibilities, but no one of them seemed more likely than the rest. In the end, she decided, it wasn't so much the contents, but the greed that mattered.

Clare began to dread the ordeal of her daily walk to school, which she had formerly enjoyed. The loud talk and furtive glances of her neighbors troubled her; she sometimes heard strange laughter coming from behind the curtains of the houses. It was now November, and the air was getting chilly. Clare looked forward every day to turning the key in her latch, putting the kettle on to boil, and settling into the window seat of the turret (she lived in a Victorian cottage) to read the evening away. She worked her way slowly through all of Henry James, Dickens, and then Trollope as the months went by, watching from her solitary seat as the seasons wheeled around. 

The months turned into years. Even her old friends seemed to have gotten wind of the story of the box, and few of them came around any more. She sometimes heard rustling outside her window at night, and once she even heard footsteps on her porch, a hand on the latch. When she opened the curtain, she saw a dark shape retreating. 

She couldn't help but notice the altered appearance of her neighbors; the doctor in the Queen Anne down the street, always pale from late shifts at the hospital, now looked almost vampire-ish as he turned his grin toward her. The minister two doors down, with his red hair and sharp eyes, had grown vulpine and watchful, and bearded Mr. Brown, who lived across the street and published the local newspaper ("The Intelligencer"), had somehow grown to resemble Lon Chaney Jr. in his hairier stages. Mrs. Carmine, who had moved in next door a year ago, had the crooked teeth and pointed nose of a hag and swept her porch furiously as she watched Clare with speculative eyes. When Clare was awakened one night by noises on the roof, she instantly pictured Mrs. Carmine poking about the chimney, though how she could have gotten up there, with all her two hundred pounds, was a mystery Clare preferred not to consider. She decided instead that it must be bats.

Ownership of the box had made Clare a prisoner in her home and had taken most of the sweetness out of life. "One thing I know," she said to herself, "is that I can't let anyone else get this box. Whatever's in it is bad, to make people act the way they do. I suppose I must just guard it. I wish this were a fairy tale so that I might have a godmother to tell me what to do, but since it isn't, I'll have to do the best I can."

Do you think someone was listening? That night, Clare dreamed of her grandmother, who had been dead for many years. She was a small Southern woman with a lively expression, and in the dream she gave off a decided radiance. She looked very pleased as she smiled at Clare, who felt, at the sight of that smile, a lifting of the dread that followed her in waking life. "You see," she said to her grandmother. "This box has changed everything."

"Yep," her grandmother replied. "What are you gonna do about it?"

"I don't know," said Clare. "I've been watching this box for almost five years now, and it's getting old."

"What do you want to do?" her grandmother persisted.

"Smash it to pieces."

"Good idea," the grandmother said.

"Someone told me that I'd end up hurting myself if I tried to get rid of the box," Clare said. "There was a man, Mr.--"

"Oh, him," said her grandmother. Then she laughed. "That don't make no never mind. If that box would've hurt you, it would have done it by now. What do you think happened to them neighbors of yours, studying all the time on that box and how to get their hands on it? It's ruined their looks, sure enough, and I'll tell you what--them changes are permanent. There's no going back. But not you, honey. You watched over that box, and never asked nothing for yourself out of it. That's kept you going."

"You mean, he lied to me about the box, and I could have destroyed it all this time?"

"Well, lied, honey--of course he lied, but in a way of twisting the truth. You had to show that box it was not the boss of you before it would let you go, and now you have. Getting rid of an old tricksy sumpen like that is no small matter till you show it what's what. If you want to smash it, smash it. And honey," she said, pressing her granddaughter's hand, "get yourself out of this mess here," and she gestured broadly and inclusively. "It'll sap the life right out of you, sitting in a nasty place like this. And you still with a husband to get."

Clare woke up. It was only midnight, and she hadn't been asleep long. She got up and went to the dresser. Without a second thought, she removed all of her earrings and necklaces and put them in an empty Whitman Sampler box. She took the jewelry box and a hammer into the living room, where she smashed the box into tiny pieces inside a large bucket. Once she was finished, she took the bucket outside. Next to the fence was a canister of acid the landlord had left after treating a swimming pool. She dumped the splinters in and watched them disintegrate with a satisfying fizz. Then she went inside and washed her hands. 

"There may have been another way to do that," she said to herself. "But anyway, it's done. It's a shame to lose a pretty box, but no sense taking any chances on pulling out one paper and leaving something else behind. Anyway, I could probably lacquer a box myself." While in the kitchen, she thought she heard a long wail in the side yard followed by a howl from somewhere down the street. Then all was still, and she listened as the silent neighborhood seemed to rearrange itself around the fact of the now dead-as-a-doornail box.

She felt her arms and legs, and touched her head and heart. "Well, it looks like I'm still here," she said. Then she went to bed.

She woke up early the next morning, a sunny May Saturday, and began to pack her clothes, her books, and her personal things. She was not teaching this summer and had not yet renewed her contract for next year, so there was nothing more to be said about that. She took down her pictures and wrapped them up. She packed up her kitchen and her bathroom; she tied a ribbon around the Whitman Sampler box. All this took a few hours. By that time, the rental agency was open, so she went over and hired a small trailer. Backing it up to the front porch, she piled in her boxes, pictures, roll-top desk, and her small kitchen table. She left the futon (which had never been comfortable) and the odds and ends that had come furnished with the place. 

In the mailbox on the corner, she dropped a note to the landlord with half a month's rent (he had neglected for months to repair a leaking roof, so she subtracted two weeks for that), her key, and her month's notice. As she got into her car, she saw that her neighbor, Mr. Brown, had emerged from his house and was trimming the hedge desultorily with his clippers. He looked, she thought, quite depressed. The heavy hair on his face, neck, and arms and his hollow expression were all visible in the rear view mirror as she drove away. At the end of the street, she turned onto the main road without looking back. At the edge of town, she rolled a window down and called, "Don't let the screen door hit you, folks!" Then she was on her way.

(The inspiration for this story was a drive down a street of old houses not far from where I live. I pictured it on a windy night and knew I wanted to write a story about it. I imagined the residents as werewolves and vampires, and it took off from there. I made up the jewelry box.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Who's Afraid of Aphrodite Wolf?

This year I may have set a record for number of books started but not read all the way through. Normally, it's rare for me to pick a book that I can't hang with to the end, but within the last month I've returned at least three to the library unfinished. One of them I started twice and even got most of the way through before deciding it was a bit too gloomy for a love story. A couple of others had mythological themes that seemed promising at first but lost me for one reason or another.

I seem to have more problems finishing books written within the last few years than I do with earlier ones. I perceive this to be a reflection of the unsettled times we're living in, which somehow find their way into even the most innocuous of stories, tales of romance, adventure, and suspense. It's not a reflection on the capabilities of the writers, but more a problem with my thinking I'm getting one kind of book and finding I've gotten another. It's also been the case that I didn't finish a book (Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour) because the theme, though adeptly handled, was rather dark. (This I consider to be my own judgment and not the fault of the author.)

It's one thing to be topical and another to be memorable. Occasionally, one stumbles upon a book that seems to reflect the tenor of the times unflinchingly, and one comes away the better for it. The author performs a kind of alchemical magic on contemporary themes so that they are recognizable but transmuted, a remarkable sea change akin to Heart of Darkness morphing into Apocalypse Now. I've seen it in authors like Jane Smiley, Donna Tartt, Mark Helprin, and Ian McEwan, as well as in writers previously unknown to me whose works came back to haunt me later, like Lorrie Moore, Amor Towles, and David Mitchell. (Bark, anyone? Rules of Civility? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?)

If I were to name a mythological idea that seems common to many of these authors' recent works, I would mention some darkness around issues of Eros. Is that surprising? You may ask what that has to do with contemporary American/world affairs, which seem on the evidence to be caught up in much drier and more prosaic issues of power and money. I agree, but for whatever reason, content connected to a disturbed Eros crops up in many of the recent works of fiction I've seen. Of course, surface content often obscures latent content, in both life and fiction, and never does a theme appear in isolation. Eros and power, and Eros and money, in particular, tend to be quite combustible combinations.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Iphigenia's Lament

Last week, I wrote about the theatrical quality of much of what passes for news these days. This week, events surrounding the debate in the U.S. Congress on the renewal of expiring Patriot Act provisions have been in the headlines. The episode itself, despite all the drama accompanying it, seems all too serious and real, without the need for anyone to inject rhetorical flourishes.

What bothers me is that the debate over Section 215, important as it, falls short of addressing privacy issues that are outside its scope (for example, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which has been used to scoop up email content and Internet searches, among other things, is a separate law). I've seen assorted opinions expressed on the "USA Freedom Act," what will happen if Section 215 sunsets, and whether various provisions in the Patriot Act actually enhance security in any way. The more I learn, the more I see the need for serious reform. The gag orders associated with production of data, the secrecy of the FISA court's workings, the relative ease with which the government has been able to command vast amounts of personal information--all of these are troubling.

I know that the USA Freedom Act is considered a small but positive first step by many privacy advocates, but forgive me for saying that if the intelligence community and the Obama administration are OK with it, I assume it can't be strong enough. Some have argued that expiration of Section 215 might be the best thing that could happen, since it practically ensures a re-evaluation of the program, and I'm not sure that I don't agree. Certainly this seems preferable to trying to cobble together a compromise at the last minute on a deadline. The law is too complex, and the issues are too important, for that to be wise. Apparently, some lawmakers complained after 9/11 that they were railroaded into approving the Patriot Act without a complete understanding of what it entailed. There's no excuse for that to happen again.

The potential for abuse in the collection of personal data in the name of security is no mere fantasy. "Metadata" sounds so abstract but reveals more than you might think it could at first glance. (As one NSA official put it, "If you have enough metadata, you don't really need content." As it is, intelligence agencies have broad powers to obtain both.) With so much secrecy around the workings of the NSA and other agencies, how is it even possible to know what the information gathered is used for? How do we know that someone's concept of national security doesn't include spying on those who disagree with him or on people he wants to make trouble for? We don't, not at all.

For a mythic parallel, consider the Greeks on the eve of the Trojan War, desperate to sail from Aulis but unable to get favoring winds. To placate a goddess, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia may seem far removed from the workings of the U.S. federal government and the NSA, but what strikes me is the irrationality and ruthlessness of the action, the willingness to give up something precious that can't be replaced. It's not unlike the day the Patriot Act became law, Iphigenia standing in for our Fourth Amendment rights.

Stories say the weather did change after that, although those favorable winds, fickle things that they were, carried many of the Greeks to their deaths in Troy. And it's certain that Agamemnon brought about his own fall through his act, long delayed though it was. So much followed on the all-consuming desire to leave Aulis at any cost and get those war drums going. Beware the quick, unreasoned action.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Only a Paper Moon' or 'Look This Way and Smile'

When watching the news, do you ever find yourself asking, "OK, but what's the REAL story?" (No? Wow! I'm coming over to your house--your reception must be different from mine!) Of course, by the way I've asked the question, it's obvious that I have had experiences of doubt, and I'm not saying it's just the fault of the media. Certainly, there's faulty and incomplete reporting, but sometimes I have the feeling that, no matter how accurately journalists record events, what's shown is little more than a badly written skit complete with props, flimsy backdrops, and bad actors. ("OK, Senator McConnell, you stand here and look mean, and I'll stand there, and it'll look like we're fighting. Meanwhile, Rand will be shaking his fist." "Sure, Mr. President, glad to help.")

This is especially true when the news emanates from the rarefied vicinity of Washington, D.C. There are exceptions, of course. I certainly don't believe everyone in Washington is a lying coxcomb, but I do believe a lot of them are. I won't put a percentage on it, but let's just say I think it's alarmingly high. There, I haven't said anything you would probably disagree with yourself, since it's a truism that politicians lie. My question is, why aren't we more upset about it? Why aren't we angry? Are we uninformed? Is it mere apathy (which may be understandable but is still, by the way, bad for democracy)? Or don't we care if someone lies as long as their lies coincide with the ones we tell ourselves? I've come very reluctantly to believe that the latter is often true, which certainly doesn't reflect well on us as a people.

This is how bad it is: Last week I read the article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh alleging that the story told to the public about the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 is largely false. Shocking, right? Mr. Hersh alleges that the Obama administration not only lied to the public about what happened but also double-crossed the Pakistanis. I certainly have no trouble believing that the true version of events is different from what the public was told, but Mr. Hersh's whys and wherefores didn't convince me either. He suggests that Obama's version of events may have been politically motivated (which I have no trouble believing). What I don't believe is that Mr. Hersh's article gives an accurate account of what transpired any more than Obama's did.

I don't know what happened in Abbottabad, but, personally, I wouldn't be surprised if U.S. officials had always known where bin Laden was. It always seemed strange to me that despite all the apparently strenuous efforts to find him, he managed to elude detection. The United States can apparently do anything from bug Angela Merkel's cell phone to spy on the phone calls, emails, and who knows what else (library accounts? hotel records?) of its own citizens, but it couldn't seem to zoom in on the allegedly low-tech, out-numbered bin Laden.

I don't believe that all the connections between the Bush administration, the Saudi government, bin Laden, and other players in this game--including the current administration--have ever fully come to light. There's simply too much paranoia from the administration in its stance toward the media and its own citizens, too much willingness to disregard the Constitution (allegedly for our benefit, isn't that a neat trick), for me not to conclude that something's fundamentally wrong. Eleven years ago, I was reading Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud on my lunch hour at work and noticed the way the atmosphere in the office turned perceptibly colder after I discussed it with someone else. Mr. Unger's book does nothing but document the (by now, I think) well-known closeness between the Bush family and the Saudi royal house. My life was never quite the same in the office after that, so from my own experience, I know what an unpopular topic this is with some people.

My knowledge of what's happening in the world comes from reading, watching current events, and trying to think things through. I have the same sources as other people but often seem to come to different conclusions. My distrust of President Obama (someone I voted for twice) is based on his own actions, including his administration's interference with the press, his attempt to slip such serious deals as the TPP past public scrutiny, and, quite frankly, his seemingly obsessive concern with being ubiquitous on the talk show circuit and any place else that'll take him. It's all polish and no substance, a bit too Big Brother-ish for me. Nobel Peace Prize? Are you kidding? I don't believe he's really that different from some of the biggest hawks and warmongers out there. Some of these highly publicized political spats are, in my opinion, mere disguises for a mutual agreement to present the "facts" in a certain way to the public while a vastly different story goes on behind closed doors.

You may say things have always been this way. Maybe, but I think we've come to a critical point in the life of our democratic experiment (and remember, it is an experiment; it's only as good as we make it) where we have to decide how serious we are about our founding principles. Do we still think taxation without representation is tyranny? Do we still believe in certain inalienable rights? (Chris Christie evidently thinks it's hard to enjoy them in a coffin. Whatever happened to "Give me liberty or give me death"?) Do we still believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Do we still think the government is privileged to work for us and is obliged to tell us the truth about the things it does in our name?

Are we still Americans? Or are we now something else? Inquiring minds want to know.