Friday, July 10, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“We look for stories in everything. If stones are thrown on the ground, they make a story. The stars, entrails, tea leaves. Neuroscientists and philosophers seem to be edging toward this notion of the human brain as being hardwired for narrative. Consciousness is a story. It is a condensing of the world’s details into narrative.”
Brian Kitely

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Life is not a series of triumphs."
--Robert Bly

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Who Are We

The other side of celebrating our liberty is to contemplate the liberty we have so recently and so easily given up, and why. "A nation may lose its liberties in a day," observed Montesquieu, "and not miss them for a century." Or not understand their import until an outsider puts them in context, as Alberto Manguel does when he writes about the centuries of suppressions and destructions, the book-burnings and censorships, that we may feel are relics of the past and disreputable habits of other nations and their systems that don't cherish and protect free expression and knowledge. Sure, there are isolated incidents in certain school districts, but these are not the norm, and certainly not national policy.

But in The Library at Night, Manguel reminds us of "Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore," without offering a reason, and forbidding the library or bookstore to disclose the request or the giving of this information, including to the person targeted.

The other side of celebrating our national identity and the values at its center is to notice where we violate those values and that identity. Manguel provides an example of this as well, for in his descriptions of libraries and legacies destroyed over the centuries--from the burning of the libraries of Alexandria and of the thousands of books containing the cultural legacy of the Mayans and Aztecs, to the Nazis and various Communist governments, he adds the days in 2003 when in the chaos created by the Anglo-American invasion, and with their troops standing by and doing nothing, "the National Archives, the Archeological Museum and the National Library of Baghdad were ransacked and looted. In a few hours, much of the earliest recorded history of humankind was lost to oblivion."

Though this was a direct consequence of American ignorance and arrogance,
it was set in motion ultimately for the same reason as the Patriot Act: fear, both disproportionate and all too easily manipulated. It was this unreasoning fear, which in the end looks a lot like national cowardice, that permitted other outrages. We know what they are, but sometimes the so-called "debate" over them is exposed as baseless and phony, in the form of simple, direct statement, as provided by Gareth Peirce in the London Review of Books:

Seven years ago now, in January 2002, came the first shocking images of human beings in rows in aircraft, hooded and shackled for transportation across the Atlantic, much as other human beings had been carried in slave ships four hundred years earlier. The captor’s humiliation of these anonymous beings – unloaded at Guantánamo Bay, crouched in open cages in orange jumpsuits – was deliberately displayed. The watching world needed no knowledge of international humanitarian conventions to understand that what it was seeing was unlawful, since what is in fact the law precisely mirrors instinctive moral revulsion. The definitions of crimes against humanity, and war crimes, are not complex: ‘Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949’, including ‘torture or inhuman treatment’; ‘wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health’; ‘wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement.’ What the world could instantly see for itself in those images was that this was the trafficking of human beings."

Once again the ultimate culprit is fear, and how easily our liberties and identity falls to it. We may find solace in the changes made since: the U.S. no longer officially permits torture, but torture was officially committed, libraries and booksellers were monitored, and as a society we have not yet fully acknowledged and condemned these acts, which might go a long way towards making it less likely they will recur. Those who opposed these acts were called unpatriotic, when it was especially dangerous to be so accused. Until these acts are themselves condemned as unpatriotic, we have not affirmed these liberties and identity.

Besides which, these threats are not all in the past. We know someone who in the past week was pulled out of his seat on a commercial aircraft by federal marshals, despite passing through security, showing his boarding pass, etc. Even though the airline quickly acknowledged its error, he was forced to miss his flight and all connecting flights, more than doubling his travel time to nearly 24 hours. There is no escaping the likelihood that this happened to him because he has dark hair and a dark complexion. That he's an Italian-American only makes this outrage a clear echo of a similiar situation, another acquaintance, also Italian American but as well the son of a prominent political figure in Washington, who was also pulled out of line for no other discernable reason. That was in 2002. This is 2009, and it is still happening.