Siam I am

by Edward B. Rackley

Nature captivates in Thailand. Its beaches and islands are legend; its birdlife and tropical flora endlessly entertain. On this visit though, nature bored me. A relentless jetlag was partly to blame. Its disorientations so warped my perceptions and instincts that I acquiesced to its inversions, accepting the Thai night as my day. Also, I was hungry not for nature but for the artifice of human imagination: grand emanations of culture, artisanry, cosmology. Has our petty species generated anything that I’ve never seen, never imagined? In creativity is there redemption for Homo Faber? For answers to this question Thailand is a gold mine.Homo faber

Heavily subject to international marketing strategies and thus cast as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand wants desperately to be permeated by magic. Of all possible reasons to be ‘desperately seeking’, permeation by magic is worthy enough, and seemingly free of ulterior motive. Orientalism and its facile seductions be damned, I thought, after my first week in country. If this place holds even one treasure of the human spirit, its authenticity will be self-evident to the most gullible and the most jaded.

From where I live it’s an 18-hour flight to Thailand. I learned to stop fighting jetlag long ago; it is now my companion and confidant. Wandering Bangkok streets and alleys at 3 am, nothing remained of the diurnal parade of human pursuit to entertain me. Roaming dog packs and the occasional buzz of a moto taxi broke the surprising silence of a vast urban labyrinth. I was left with night’s shadows and breezes, long walks along empty boulevards and closed shop fronts, the constant hum of yellow street lamps and neon. Repetition sets in and one begins inspecting a city for its anomalies, its artifacts of human touch, the physical traces of the shopkeeper at home ensconced in dreams.

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FASTER, TERPSICHORE, FASTER! On Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Zipporah Films)

By Randolyn Zinn

LA-DANSE Zipporah Films

Rehearsal is everything and Frederick Wiseman knows it. As usual for this eminent American documentarian, his interest lies in the workaday world, but in his latest project he finds the harmony of place serving the artistic process. The opening shot fills the screen with a bird’s eye view of the rooftops of Paris as the white domed confection of Le Sacre Coeur entices the eye to the horizon line. Then the camera cuts to a closer view of the ninth arrondisement with its stately mansard roofs and street life before dropping down to gaze upon the facade of the 19th century Beaux-Arts Palais Garnier, home to the world's oldest ballet company.

Palais Garnier


Wiseman intercuts scenes of rehearsal with architectural snapshots of the busy hive that is the Palais Garnier – an apt metaphor because he finds an actual beekeeper harvesting honey on the roof. Multiple close-ups in underground quarters show lighting instruments rigged to pipe and thick ropes coiled in meticulous spirals on the floor. Just as meticulous is the student footwork in ballet class. Throughout, Wiseman cuts away from the dancers to admire the graceful curved balustrade of the central spiral staircase that connects cupola to basement. He stops in at the cafeteria at lunchtime, watches ballet shoes being dyed in the costume shop, and visits the empty opera house as a young man cleans its plush scarlet velvet seats. Meanwhile an underground stream (the legendary hiding place of the Phantom of the Opera) hosts not only living plants…but swimming fish. Wiseman sees everything.

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Losing the Plot: Hope

By Maniza Naqvi Red-Poppies-No-2

Chapter One: The Little Coffee Shop

Chapter Two: The Hotel

Chapter Three: Dreaming Dulles

Chapter Four: Civil War

Chapter Five: Stanley’s Girl

There is no telling what a murdered man is capable of doing.

Murdered, in the cross hairs of a surveillance camera mounted on an unmanned predator drone; murdered on national and international television—murdered on CNN, murdered on Fox News, murdered on MSNBC and murdered on BBC— the last word in murders. Incinerated over and over again on a 24 hour news cycle—killed, burned, assassinated, maligned, analyzed, sermonized, eulogized murdered, dead.

A murder of a man killed in a burning building expanded and super sized on television screens all over the world—in cafes, and in sports bars—in airport terminals and subways, in doctors’ waiting lounges—in old people’s homes, in tea stalls, in currency exchange kiosks, in living rooms and bedrooms, in newspapers and radio talk shows and in the aspiring manuscripts of hundreds of post killing literature.

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From The Owls: Postcard from Vancouver

Postcard from Vancouver
By Stacie Cassarino

In this fog, it’s true, we are made-up of less than bone. When I reach for you, there is radiance in the dark. I promise you kindness. This blue city misses your New York. What can I say about so many windows? On the Greyhound, a woman is reading The Case for Christ. I remember Grandma blessed me before leaving as if something might make me suffer in the future. How dumb belief is, silly boat with its red flag. She was right. The sea surrounds. A cable pulls my body to the top of a mountain Vancouverbowlingand the view is broken: I see you everywhere. I wonder how love ever goes away. We should insist on willing things: archipelagos, the secret your lip feels, the harbor. I ache for you. We should insist that letting go is one form of hope. Here, defiance in a stand of evergreens. I sip red wine with a Brazilian queer. Remember Rio de Janeiro, the size of God’s hand, sardines fleshed-open at the market, the way I entered and moved inside? Looking down, is this the kind of density you can live with? What is the slightness of our bodies to stay, to be good at loving a second time? My mouth pretends it is an oar when it lives inside your mouth, but you are far away. The last time, above a playground on 6th Avenue, I tasted your fear. We heard basketball, pigeon, boy after school. There were names called out, even mine was not among them. We didn’t know what to hold onto. Red light, green. A delivery truck kept turning the same corner. I kept paddling nowhere fast, but you couldn’t see me. You said you needed time. The playground emptied. I flew West into summer. From a payphone, I describe the light in Canada. I tell you it is something I believe in, though there is no voice on the other end.


Stacie Cassarino is a recipient of the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize. She is currently a candidate for the Ph.D. at UCLA. “Postcard from Vancouver” is from her first book, Zero at the Bone, published by New Issues Press at Western Michigan University, available here.

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Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ 50 Years On

539w Mark Feeney in the Boston Chronicle:

Robert Frank’s “The Americans’’ certainly is a book, one that consists of 83 photographs taken during 1955 and 1956. But to say it’s “just’’ a book is like saying the same thing about “Moby-Dick.’’ Both works are central, defining documents of American culture. What the white whale was for Ahab, a red, white, and blue nation was for Frank. Ahab employed a harpoon. Frank used a camera. Unlike Ahab, he not only managed to capture his prey, he survived. Frank turned 85 on Nov. 9.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the US publication of “The Americans.’’ (The French edition came out a year earlier.) To observe the occasion, the National Gallery of Art has organized a superbly comprehensive exhibition, “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.’ ’’ After stops earlier this year at the National Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 3.

“Looking In’’ is just right as a title. Seeing, an act that’s optical in nature, is as much passive as active. Looking, an act that’s not just optical but directive, is inherently active. It’s no accident that the first photograph in “The Americans’’ shows both an American flag and people watching.

Looking at America, Frank took in things others had seen but failed to note. Some were banal: jukeboxes, the ubiquity of flags, the many manifestations of automotive culture. Other elements – vaguer, abstract, even sinister – were anything but banal: a sense of isolation, the place of African-Americans in US society, a tension between openness and confinement. The latter is evident in everything from the sweep of a Southwestern landscape to the flickering image on a TV screen. Precisely because Frank’s exteriors look so large, even boundless, his interiors (bars, elevators, the inside of an automobile) feel so constricting.

The First Time As Tragedy

Kmstudy Michael Doliner in Swans Commentary (via bookforum):

It seems to have become fashionable to quote Marx's famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Grazing on the Web I came upon others using these bons mots to refer to a political battle in Hungary over the legacy of 1956. Then there's one comparing Obama's Nobel to Carter's. Lot's of people like to crack wise about “the third time” with a frisson of clever self-congratulation. Some guy on the, a blog, conjectures that what Marx meant by this is that things keep changing all the time.

Although many use this expression, no one seems to have bothered actually to have read The Eighteenth Brumaire. Marx was not merely coining bons mots, he actually meant something when he wrote this. The two events Marx was talking about were first, the French Revolution, which he took to extend from 1789 to 1814, and second, the French Revolution of 1848-1852, of which The Eighteenth Brumaire is a history.

Marx follows this famous line about tragedy and farce with one almost equally famous: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” This also used to be quoted often, but now isn't, I suspect because it makes some people uneasy to suggest that men make their own history. After all, if they get the idea that they can do something, they might decide to make something other than what the rulers have in mind. Marx is not treating history as a scientific phenomenon worthy of observation. Science is a discipline that postulates the impossibility of acting with a purpose. It expunges purposes from the pantheon of causes. Marx, a firm believer in human action, that is action with a purpose, is trying to explain its difficulties. People often take the farce line to mean that the first time, the tragic one, is serious, and the second, farcical one, is a kind of joke. But Marx is making the point that whenever people want to act they usually can only act in a pattern taken from the past. People act in a way that they know. Thus the first French Revolution took on the trappings of Rome to bring about the Bourgeois Revolution. Once the revolutionaries overthrew the ancien régime, the Roman garb came off and they settled down to moneymaking in a world free of the complicated obligations and ties of the ancien régime. The Revolution of 1848 imitated the Revolution of 1789 precisely because it was not a “real” revolution. For whereas the Revolution of 1789 threw off its Roman costume once it had accomplished itself in the abolition of the ancien régime, the Revolution of 1848 continued to imitate the earlier revolution because it had so little to accomplish: it was a farcical revolution. In the end it all vanished behind Louis Napoleon's conjurer's handkerchief.

Obama’s Brilliant First Year

Jacob Weisberg in Slate:

CA_091129_ObamaTN About one thing, left and right seem to agree these days: Obama hasn't done anything yet. Maureen Dowd and Dick Cheney have found common ground in scoffing at the president's “dithering.” Newsweek recently ran a sympathetic cover story titled, “Yes He Can (But He Sure Hasn't Yet).” The sarcasm brigade thinks it's finally found an Achilles' heel in his lack of accomplishments. “When you look at my record, it's very clear what I've done so far and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it,” Obama stand-in Fred Armisen recently riffed on Saturday Night Live. “It's chow time,” Jon Stewart asserts, for a president who hasn't followed through on his promises.

This conventional wisdom about Obama's first year isn't just premature—it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn't an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It's a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

More here.

Cyrus Hall on the Swiss Islamic Minaret Ban

An email to me from 3QD friend, Cyrus Hall (published with his permission):

Ciao Abbas-

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 29 17.24 My temporary home of the last five years, Switzerland, has just voted for one of the most bigoted and undemocratic constitutional reforms in recent memory: the banning of Islamic minarets on Mosques. The vote appears to be quite stunning, with 58% of voters backing the ban. This was after the most recent polls showed the measure being rejected by 53%, a story in itself.

This represents the most direct attack on the European Muslim minority yet. The French “headscarf ban” was at least religion neutral — something I would still argue against (as an Atheist), but I appreciate the attempt at even-handedness. On the other hand, this constitutional amendment targets a small, largely immigrant population (many of whom have no vote), single-handedly banning them from behavior that would be perfectly acceptable were they of any other faith. Outrageous.

This is an issue for 3QD like no other. To me, it represents the continued erosion of Western values, in the U.S. and Europe, and their replacement with vapid platitudes and fear, and deserves all the attention in the world.

It's early still, but some basic news links on the issue include this and this.

I am going to be sick with disgust and revulsion as Hannity, Rush, and other media personalities in the U.S. pick this up as a great example of the way forward, for both Europe and the U.S.


Couldn't agree more, Cyrus. Thanks.

The world’s most prosperous (and happiest) countries are also its least religious

David Villano at Miller-McCune:

ScreenHunter_06 Nov. 29 16.49 In a paper posted recently on the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, independent researcher Gregory S. Paul reports a strong correlation within First World democracies between socioeconomic well-being and secularity. In short, prosperity is highest in societies where religion is practiced least.

Using existing data, Paul combined 25 indicators of societal and economic stability — things like crime, suicide, drug use, incarceration, unemployment, income, abortion and public corruption — to score each country using what he calls the “successful societies scale.” He also scored countries on their degree of religiosity, as determined by such measures as church attendance, belief in a creator deity and acceptance of Bible literalism.

Comparing the two scores, he found, with little exception, that the least religious countries enjoyed the most prosperity. Of particular note, the U.S. holds the distinction of most religious and least prosperous among the 17 countries included in the study, ranking last in 14 of the 25 socioeconomic measures.

More here.

Sunday Poem

You and I are Disappearing –Bjorn Hakansson

The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak

she burns like a piece of paper.

She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
at dusk.

We stand with our hands

hanging at our sides,
while she burns

like a sack of dry ice.

She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker's cigar,

silent as quicksilver.

A tiger under a rainbow
at nightfall.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.

by Yusef Komunyakaa

from Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press, 1988

Bjorn Hakansson

Karen Armstrong profile: Writing on His behalf

From National Post:

Karen So what is Armstrong saying about God and religion? She argues for an approach that has more to do with the heart and spirit, approaching religious texts as allegories rather than literal truth. She argues for a religion not burdened by systems of belief that she views as man-made constructs that squeeze the joy out of faith. Religion, she believes, should be more about ritual than ideas. The height of religious experience, she insists, is to be left in a state of awe and the realization that God cannot be known.

Most important, religion is about developing a high level of compassion for our fellow beings.

We became distanced from that purer form of faith, as science and religion found themselves in conflict. People, she says, forgot that reason and myth, logos and mythos, were “essential, and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary.” But during the Enlightenment, religion began to take on more of the characteristics of science, with the Church adding layers of doctrine to prove scientifically that its belief could withstand scrutiny. She points to Newton — who “hated mystery, which he equated with sheer irrationality” — as being key in the melding of science and religion, to the detriment of both. “Newton confessed from the outset he hoped to provide a scientific proof for God’s existence,” Armstrong writes. “At a stroke, Newton overturned centuries of Christian tradition. Hitherto, leading theologians had argued that the creation could tell us nothing about God; indeed, it proved to us that God was unknowable.”

More here.

Multicultural Masochism

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Major Very well, then; the case for Maj. Hasan the overburdened caseworker seems to have evaporated. Robert Wright, among others, is big enough to admit as much. Wright, now emerging as the leading liberal apologist for the faith-based (see his intriguing new book The Evolution of God), now proposes an alternative theory of Maj. Hasan's eagerness to commit mass murder. “The Fort Hood shooting,” says Wright, “is an example of Islamist terrorism being spread partly by the war on terrorism—or, actually, by two wars on terrorism, in Iraq and Afghanistan.” I know that contributors to the New York Times op-ed page are not necessarily responsible for the headlines that appear over their work, but the title of this one—”Who Created Major Hasan?”—really does demand an answer, and the only one to be located anywhere in the ensuing text is “We did.”

Everything in me revolts at this conclusion, which is echoed and underlined in another paragraph of the article. Why, six months ago, did “a 24-year-old-American named Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad—Carlos Bledsoe before his teenage conversion to Islam—fatally shoot a soldier outside a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark.? ABC News reported, “It was not known what path Muhammad … had followed to radicalization.” Well, here's a clue: After being arrested he started babbling to the police about the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Wright describes this clue-based deduction of his as an illustration of the way that “an isolated incident can put you on a slippery slope.” Though I can't find much beauty in his prose there, I want to agree with him.

More here.

Let A Hundred Theories Bloom

Ve798c_thumb3 George Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:

The economic and financial crisis has been a telling moment for the economics profession, for it has put many long-standing ideas to the test. If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause of great concern.

But there is, in fact, a much greater diversity of ideas within the economics profession than is often realized. This year’s Nobel laureates in economics are two scholars whose life work explored alternative approaches. Economics has generated a wealth of ideas, many of which argue that markets are not necessarily either efficient or stable, or that the economy, and our society, is not well described by the standard models of competitive equilibrium used by a majority of economists.

Behavioral economics, for example, emphasizes that market participants often act in ways that cannot easily be reconciled with rationality. Similarly, modern information economics shows that even if markets are competitive, they are almost never efficient when information is imperfect or asymmetric (some people know something that others do not, as in the recent financial debacle) – that is, always .

A long line of research has shown that even using the models of the so-called “rational expectations” school of economics, markets might not behave stably, and that there can be price bubbles. The crisis has, indeed, provided ample evidence that investors are far from rational; but the flaws in the rational expectations line of reasoning—hidden assumptions such as that all investors have the same information—had been exposed well before the crisis.

Just as the crisis has reinvigorated thinking about the need for regulation, so it has given new impetus to the exploration of alternative strands of thought that would provide better insights into how our complex economic system functions – and perhaps also to the search for policies that might avert a recurrence of the recent calamity.

Mumbai Revisited

Prashad-150x150 One year ago, Mumbai was the target of a horrendous terrorist attack. Over at the Immanent Frame, several scholars–Veena Das, Sumit Ganguly, William R. Pinch, Vijay Prashad, Arvind Rajagopal, Anupama Rao, Tariq Thachil, and Arafaat A. Valiani–reflect on “what might constitute an appropriate response on the part of the Indian government, reflected on the terrorists’ use of spectacle (and the media’s response to it), considered India’s ongoing struggle to maintain its self-professed secular identity, and discussed the troubling socio-economic status of Muslims in India, the history and current state of Muslim-Hindu relations, and recent challenges to Mumbai’s historically cosmopolitan make-up.” Vijay Prashad:

When mass movements wither, bitterness remains with the movements’ fugitives, many of whom plot amongst each other to contrive their return. These fugitives fire bullets at each other, accusing one another of treachery, holding themselves above the reasons for the failure of their movements. Equally, they seek refuge somewhere to gather up strength so as to return again with force.

In the 1990s, Afghanistan was that refuge for fugitives from Mindanao Island to Ingushetia, from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago. Those who went to Afghanistan arrived with grievances of their own, some of the body, some of the soul. The exhaustion of national liberation into the authoritarian states of the 1980s, combined with the export of Saudi Islam to undermine any hope for the resurrection of radical nationalism and gave succor to this Jihad International. Funded by Washington and Riyadh, this International grew to have a greater sense of its own destiny, believing that what it accomplished was by its own means and not by the deft maneuver of its puppeteers. Not Hekmatyar, nor Shah Massoud, nor Bin Laden, could have set the trap for the Russian Bear, and none alone would have been able to thwart the Soviet Afghantsi, the frontline troops. It took this rag-tag brigade, despite Pakistani and US support, four years to dislodge the weak government of Mohammed Najibullah after the withdrawal of the Soviet armies. But the take-over of Afghanistan in 1992 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 produced the excessive fantasy that the Jihad International was responsible. It was a fantasy that continues to have catastrophic effects.

jedi romance


In fact, it was a 15-year-old who turned me on to the game in the first place—one of my SAT students. He was funny, smart, and sensitive and lived with his family in a wealthy community on Long Island where I’d recently started to work as a tutor to keep my writing habit afloat. I taught my student how to look for patterns on the SAT test, and how to spot the usual errors people made when answering questions. He liked learning how to outsmart others. But he was a teenage boy, and didn’t always want to concentrate. He wanted to talk about his Xbox, which my live-in boyfriend had coincidentally just given me for Christmas. My student wanted to know if I had played the video game Knights of the Old Republic. It was set in a mythical version of the Star Wars universe, and would train me in the ways of the Jedi: a private universe where I could build my own light saber, even have my own Wookie sidekick, and become that enviable thing—a cross between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker—all while still remaining a girl. Or a boy. I could mold my features to look like anyone I wanted. There were instructions I could follow in case I wanted my character to look like Halle Berry. It was January and I was bored. The low sky and constant snow made the cramped city borough where I lived even more claustrophobic. But out here in the neighborhood I visited twice a week, wide windows looked out over an icy lawn and Manhasset Bay. It was doubtful that any residence I ever owned was going to have the luxury of a vast, scenic view outside the dining room window. But now there was at least the allure of becoming a Jedi to pass the winter months. My boyfriend thought we ought to give the game a try.

more from Marie Mutsuki Mockett at The Morning News here.

Madame Chiang: far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined


There is a bull market these days in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and his wife, Soong Mei-ling (1897-2003), usually called Madame Chiang Kai-shek. When I was studying in Taiwan in the late 1950s, then-President Chiang was regarded by most of the Western students on the island — and many of the Chinese as well — as the remote, cruel man who lost China; his wife was the austere, once-glamorous Dragon Lady who had helped him lose it. Although Chiang alone, or both Chiangs, had appeared numerous times on the cover of Time magazine, those illustrious days seemed over. But now that Jay Taylor has written his comprehensive book “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China,” we are able to see Chiang as a man of considerable cunning, brutality and patience who skillfully played a weak hand against the Japanese and Mao’s forces while extracting huge sums from the Americans. Similarly, in her latest biography, “The Last Empress,” Hannah Pakula presents Madame Chiang as far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined.

more from Jonathan Mirsky at the NY Times here.