Thursday, May 28, 2009

Release the Torture Photos Now

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.
Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.
- The Daily Telegraph, Abu Ghraib abuse photos 'show rape'

[The photos] are not particularly sensational, especially when compared with the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib.
- Barack Obama, May 13, 2009

I want to speak generally about some reports I've witnessed over the past few years in the British media. In some ways, I'm surprised it filtered down.

Let's just say if I wanted to look up, if I wanted to read a write-up of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper. If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I'm not entirely sure it'd be the first pack of clips I'd pick up.
- Robert Gibbs, May 28, 2009

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and gravity of lying, we would see that it more worthy of the stake than other crimes...Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up.
- Montaigne, "Of Liars"

The Obama administration isn't responsible for these atrocities, but it seems they are helping to cover them up . And lying about them. It's better to release the photos now; if they don't come out now, they'll leak out one by one and further poison our national life and our relationship with the world, even with ourselves. Just get it over with: release the photos, then we'll see who's bending the truth. It's time to come clean.

Cultural Destruction

Another China post!

More like a note, actually. I just wanted to pass this along:

KASHGAR, China — A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.
Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

China's Charter '08

Not sure how I missed this, but apparently a group of Chinese citizens--dissidents, writers, low and mid level government officials--has banded together to demand individual freedom, constitutional rule, and representative democracy. Basically, they want an end to their authoritarian one-party government. They call themselves Charter '08 in tribute to the great Charter 77, the 1977 Czechoslovakian manifesto-movement led by Vaclav Havel that demanded human rights and an end to Communist rule.

Read the Charter here.

Good and Bad

Listen to this piece of abject servility, glimpsed on CNN by Digby:

John King: are you ok with indefinite detentions and would that be here in the United States?

Barbara Boxer: I'll tell you what I'm ok with. I'm ok that the president of the United States says that our security comes first and foremost. I agree with that. But he went on to say, which you didn't show, that he's going to figure out a way to do this under the rule of law. So he is going to make sure that nobody is released into the United States who will be a threat to us and that these indefinite detentions will be somehow under the rule of law. And I want to give this president the credit for this. His wife said, one thing about my husband, he's not going to be afraid to change his mind or to nuance an issue. I applaud that frankly.

So the same policies--suspension of habeus corpus, eternal detention, near-total secrecy--that the Democrats opposed under Bush-Cheney are now being celebrated and defended. Not only that, but these policies are being celebrated and defended in the same language Bush and Cheney used: the Great Father of the People defending his children from Evil, security-uber-alles, etc. But all this is different, somehow, because it will all be "somehow under the rule of law." Right. But wait: the Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) never did seriously oppose the Bush-Cheney torture and detention policies, did they? Surely it's time for a genuinely liberal alternative to the two "national security" parties.

Meanwhile, I'm very, very excited about this:

Jane Campion has put herself in line for her second Palme d'Or here at the Cannes film festival with a film which I think could be the best of her career; an affecting and deeply considered study of the last years in the short life of John Keats, and the ecstasy of loss which suffuses his love affair with Fanny Brawne – a love thwarted not due to illness, but to a pernicious web of money worries, social scruples and irrelevant male loyalties.

Campion brings to this story an unfashionable, unapologetic reverence for romance and romantic love, and she responds to Keats's life and work with intelligence and grace. Any movie about a romantic poet has to be careful how glowingly it depicts the great outdoors but this film looks unselfconsciously beautiful, and Campion and her cinematographer Greig Fraser never harangue the audience with their images. Poets, like musicians, need silence above all, and much of the film is played out in a deeply quiet calm.

I've always thought the story of Keats's life, particularly the anguished and beautiful story of his love for Fanny Brawne, would make an excellent movie. Jane Campion sounds like just the director to do it, and by all accounts it's a stunning film. You watch a few clips here; the cinematography actually carries the same lush, rich, luxuriant but sensitive atmosphere as a Keats poem. I can't wait.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ana Marie Cox Bitchslaps Press Control Cretins on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

It's amazing that, here in Freedom's Land, most of our mainstream journalistic establishment doesn't question, not even mildly, our most blatantly insane and counter-productive policies, like Don't Ask/Don't Tell.

This has been happening for several years now, but: Another group of skilled Arabic translators, West Point graduates, recently got thrown out of the military for being gay. Happened several times in this first hideous decade of the 21st century. Since I happen to think that militant Islamic terrorism (and all terrorism, pretty much) is a law enforcement problem and not a military problem, I think it's reasonable to rely on intelligence like, I don't know, ARABIC TRANSLATIONS, to combat such stuff. Even people who think of terrorism as mainly a military problem would agree, I think.

Whatever your approach to fighting terrorism, I don't see how any thinking person could be in favor of sacking skilled Arabic translators for being gay. But we do, we do.

And the witless White House Press Corps rarely questions these things. But you know who DOES? Wonkette founder and Arch-Mistress of Wicked Internet Snark Ana Marie Cox! Watch her subtle take-down, uh, here:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some Noteworthy Things

Yes, I know, I've been neglecting the Skies. But no worries, non-existent reader, for your blogger is hard at work with a dear friend of his at creating a serious online magazine. It'll be like Clear Expensive Skies, but better. Much better.

Anyway, just thought I'd share a few things I've discovered in the news:

- George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia being made into a film! Colin Firth, apparently, is playing Orwell. Crazy.

- Orhan Pamuk--author of wonderful books like My Name is Red, Snow, and Istanbul--is in trouble with the Turkish nationalist press again.

- NATO air strike killed at least 8 today. This comes hot on the heels of a US air strike in Farah province that killed more than 140 people, 95 of them children.

- Obama's plan for Middle East Peace is becoming clear:

The matter of borders would be solved with territorial exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Old City of Jerusalem would be established as an international zone.

The initiative would require the Palestinians to give up their claim of a "right of return," according to Yediot, and Europe and the US would arrange compensation for refugees, including foreign passports for those residing abroad.

Obama's plan would also promote holding simultaneous talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria and Lebanon. Yediot said that when such talks come to an agreement on Palestinian statehood, diplomatic and economic relations would be established between Israel and Arab states.

The report added that in his Cairo address, Obama would reiterate calls for Israel to cease all settlement construction.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Empire, Confidence, Culture

Earlier today I was reading Bryan Appleyard's always-interesting blog, and I came across this:

There is a future danger that America may lose its distinct identity and become just another nation that believes nothing, though I don't think Obama embodies this danger. Relative decline may turn out to be the real culprit. It will be a sad day when - if - it happens.

Appleyard makes this point by way of contrast with his native Britain, where the Prime Minister never speaks with "a certain high solemnity and grandiloquence when addressing national issues," a country that no longer has a "destiny-laden sense of self."

It's indisputably true that America has a (to put it mildly) confident image of itself, and the most fervent of our nationalists make a fetish of outright America-worship. The US has always had a messianic self-image, and it's only inflated in the last few decades due to our economic and military pre-eminence. It does offer quite a contrast to post-imperial Britain, the culture of which has been marked by a sense of diminishment and depression ever since the end of the Empire in 1945. Britain's lack of self-belief permeates, probably excessively, quite a lot of the culture it's produced in the postwar period: Appleyard himself has written a great attack on Philip Larkin, a talented but imaginatively provincial poet that Appleyard thinks was grossly monumentalized to suit Britain's morose self-image. I tend to agree with this assessment, by the way. The best poets of Britain's post-imperial phase have, so far, kept faith with the best of British artistic traditions (the long march of English poetry, the painting of Constable and Turner, the visionary element in Blake, the Brontes, and Dickens) while cultivating an outward-looking, expansive aesthetic and attitude the polar opposite of Larkin and co.'s petty insularity. Examples: Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Raine, Hugh MaDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Lawrence Durrell...

It's strange, though, that Brits and others associate the loss of empire with a loss of confidence and vision. This has been the case with Britian (though periods of cultural effervescence like the 60s contradict this self-image, and it's more or less fallen apart lately in the more open and cosmopolitan years under New Labour), but it hasn't been the case with every country that's lost its empire.

Spain, for instance. After a couple of centuries of relative cultural stagnation, the final blow to their empire in 1898 (delivered, of course, by the United States in its inauguration of its own empire) coincided with an explosion of great poets, painters, essayists, novelists, and film-makers that lasted up until Franco closed the lid in the late 1930s. There is even a group of poets, essayists, and novelists known as the Generation of '98; it includes classics like Antonio Machado, José Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel de Unamuno.

They were followed by the talented of the first Spanish generation to grow up without an empire: Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca (born in 1898), Luis Cernuda, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and many others.

This level of greatness shouldn't be cause for national self-flagellation along the lines of postwar/post-imperial Britain. No one knows how America will respond when its empire dissolves, with a Spanish-style explosion of creativity or with British mortification. At least history shows us that a total breakdown in cultural confidence isn't inevitable. This is especially heartening to someone like me, who opposes America's ruinous and criminal imperial projects but worries about a possible loss of creative power in American culture.

Not that empire = cultural confidence. The migration of the collective creative impulse is a mysterious thing; who would have thought that tortured, powerless, downtrodden Poland--stuck between two murderous totalitarian systems--would produce many of the best writers of the 20th century?

Even the colossal stagnation that occurred on the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire was pretty much made up for--very much so--a thousand years later by the imaginative genius and visionary hope of the Renaissance. I look forward to America's disintegration into dozens of distinct city-states...

Poem of the Day

I know I said I'd post some late Milosz, and I will soon, but today I've been daydreaming about the sea and its shore.

As upon seacoasts when the gods
Begin to build and the work of the waves
Ships in unstoppably wave
After wave, in splendour, and the earth
Attires itself and then comes joy
A supreme, tuneful joy, setting the work to rights.
So upon the poem
When the wine-god points and promises
And with the darling of Greece,
Seaborn, veiling her looks,
The waves beach their abundance.
-Friedrich Holderlin

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To See

A couple of Poles today: one a splendid and haunting painter of Parisian life, the other one of the finest writers of poetry AND prose alive today.

To See

Oh my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian;
if I had to tell you, city
asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves,
if I needed to describe the ocean’s skin, on which
ships etch the lines of shining poems,
and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails
and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration,
and cities with sharp turrets gleaming
in the keen morning sun,
and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds,
the bureaucrats’ undying scorn for us, people,
Umbria’s narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,
and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing,
gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation,
Krakow, on Sunday, when even the chestnut leaves
seem pressed by an unseen iron,
vineyards raided by the greedy fall
and by highways full of fear;
if I had to describe the sobriety of the night
when it happened,
and the clatter of the train running into nothingness
and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink;
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world,
but you unmoving city turned to stone,
my brethren in the shallow sand;
the earth still turns above you
and the Roman legions march
and a polar fox attends the wind
in a white wasteland where sounds perish.

Painting: Józef Czapski
Poem: Adam Zagajewski

I've been reading the great Polish poets lately: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Zagajewski. I think Zagajewski might be my favorite living writer--his prose books are as good as his poetry--and I love Herbert's poetry, though I need to become more acquainted with his essays on art. 

Milosz is a titanic figure, more akin to Goethe or Victor Hugo than to any 20th-century-writer, except perhaps Octavio Paz. His many-faceted corpus of essays--on politics, religion, philosophy, literature, his own life and those of people he knew--are unspeakably rich, and his poetic talent never wavered or "fell off" at any point during his career. In fact, I think some of the poems included in his final volume, "Second Space," are among his greatest. Perhaps I'll post one of his late poems tomorrow.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poem for the Day

I'll get around to music, painting, and sensible words a bit later. For now let us continue with the springtime theme of the long majestic Paz poem. As a contrast and companion, let's listen to John Milton's brief, enchanting lute music.

Song on May Morning
John Milton

NOW the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
      Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
      Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
      Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,
      Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.