Blind Man with a Pistol

A More Perfect Rhetoric

Game Six, 1975 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, cursed, improbable participants against Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds who had beaten their closest Rivals in the National League West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers, by 20 games. The game is a classic, and for good reason. It had everything: changing leads, brilliant catches, controversial calls and a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth to tie it for the home-team Red Sox.

Then comes Carlton Fisk, bottom of the twelfth. He connects with a Pat Darcy pitch and drills a swerving line drive towards left-field. The ball is heading certainly, tragically foul. But Fisk leaps up in the air, desperately flails both his his arms right, willing the ball fair. It kisses the yellow foul pole, an electric kiss, winning the greatest game ever played with a walk-off solo home run. Poetry and pandemonium.

Earlier this month, Barack Obama hit a home run of his own. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

It was a beautiful thing. A poetic, virtuoso performance turned a difficult situation—the comments of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—into a positive, unifying gesture. Based on some of the responses by the media, you’d have thought Obama had eradicated racism with a single speech. It was reprinted in the New York Times for chrissakes! Home run? It was a career-defining grand slam.

So imagine Obama’s confusion when Rev. Wright did not disappear after Obama opined that his comments “had the potential to widen the racial divide” and “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country [the United States].” Instead, Wright repeated his comments and insisted upon such inconvenient concepts of historical providence and poetic justice:

We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, the Arawak, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism! We took Africans from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism! We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel. We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenagers and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard-working fathers. We bombed Gadafi’s home and killed his child. “Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against a rock!” We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to payback for the attack on our embassy. Killed hundreds of hard-working people; mothers and fathers who left home to go that day, not knowing that they would never get back home. We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye! Kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians – not soldiers – people just trying to make it day by day. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and Black South Africans, and now we are indignant? Because the stuff we have done overseas has now been brought back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost! Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred and terrorism begets terrorism.

Obama is a skillful speaker. But despite the acclaim he earns for speeches like “A More Perfect Union,” rhetoric cannot bridge the crevasse that American history has dug for itself. In fact, tragically, such rhetoric obscures righteous attempts like those of Rev. Wright to expose such fissures in the fabric of American society and packages racial divide as a challenge we can work through and “move beyond” rather than a crisis and trauma that requires intense interrogation and wholesale reconfiguration of social relations. Obama dresses racial prejudice in the comforting guise of an “issue,” much like the vomit-inducing grandstanding of Hollywood films like Paul Haggis’s Crash; whereas Rev. Wright shines a naked light on the catastrophe of racism in America.

I do not live in America and I do not know what I would do if I was faced with the difficult choice with which progressive Americans are faced. Between two lesser evils is never a pleasant decision. But what I do know is what is at stake when Obama dismisses the just diagnosis of Rev. Wright for a more politically expedient path, however eloquent: Obama is dismissing an ally of progressives everywhere in favour of appeasement. Reverend Wright is our ally, rhetoric is not.

Carlton Fisk can sympathize with Barrack Obama’s bewilderment; after Fisk’s career-defining thunderbolt, his game-winning home run, the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the World Series two days later. Don’t mistake a single round for the match, Obama. It ain’t over, not by a long shot.

JTB Shortlist Announced

Back in February, I wrote that I was reading for the James Tait Black Memorial prize for literature. The shortlist for “Britain’s oldest literary prize” has just been announced.

For Fiction:
Our Horses in Egypt, Rosalind Belben
The Devil’s Footprints, John Burnside
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
A Far Country, Daniel Mason
Salvage, Gee Williams

Special mention should go to Gee William’s Salvage, which is not only the solitary finalist by a first-time novelist, but is also the only novel not issued by a major publisher. Alcemi is a small, bilingual Welsh imprint from the independent publishing house Y Lolfa, and boasts only a handful of titles to its name. I read Williams’s book during the review process and hers was by far the best of the bunch. You can read my review of Salvage (as well as that of another finalist I reviewed, Mohsin Hamid’s excellent The Reluctant Fundamentalist) in the original post.

The prize, an impressive £10,000, will be awarded in August as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. See you there.


When Western governments and media heard that Chinese weapons were heading to Zimbabwe, they could scarcely contain their glee. Here was an opportunity to smear both the rising star of China and the easiest and most fruitful target Western leaders have whenever they need to boost their human rights credentials. How the United States and Britain can possibly keep a straight face while criticizing either the accumulation of weapons or their trade is certainly entertaining, but the spiteful gall of imperialism overpowers the gentle comedy of chutzpah.

The BBC, who never waste an opportunity to disclose with a smirk that they are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe, also never seriously examine why that might be the case. The BBC assumes that they simply remain the victims of state-sanctioned censorship, a savage suppression of journalistic freedom; meanwhile, they continue their portrayal of Zimbabwe as a country unable to hold democratic elections, fully under the thrall of a bloodthirsty, corrupt dictator. Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, for his part, insists that the guns are not needed because the country is not at war. Such a statement does not prevent the BBC from proffering that tantalizing possibility, however—a reportage that continues unembarrassed by the fact that they cannot report first-hand.

I admit that like most of the Western media, I do not know much about the Zimbabwe political climate (or “crisis” if we are to believe the likes of Sky News). On the other hand, unlike the media, I will not make assumptions about or condemnations of Zimbabwe and its people based on what I do not know. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all bluster and vinegar, declared “I call on the whole world to express its view that this is completely unacceptable to the whole of the international community.” Nothing warms the heart more than a fading world power engaged in illegal conflicts in the Middle East pontificating to a former imperial colony on what it deems “unacceptable.”

Despite all the evidence that shows the barbarity and violence taking place in Zimbabwe, and the fragility of the political climate that could very well erupt at any moment, Great Britain has ceded its claim to the moral high road when it comes to her former colony. Here is a rule that Great Britain, on whom the sun has set, should take to heart: in the machinations of a world leader that issued from the catastrophic failures of your own imperialistic, exploitive and racist history, from the colonialist sense of entitlement of white land owners, you don’t get a say. Hush, now. That ship has sailed.

The Tears of J.K. Rowling

“I really don’t want to cry,” came the impassioned plea from J.K. Rowling. “Because I’m British.” J.K. Rowling testified Monday in the copyright case Rowling vs. RDR Books. RDR Books wants to publish the Harry Potter Lexicon, the work of American librarian Steve Vander Ark (who claims to have read the series more than 50 times). The Lexicon, originally a website that once received a fansite award from Rowling herself, organizes and alphabetizes any nugget of information contained in the world of Harry Potter. Rowling calls the book “wholesale theft of seventeen years of hard work.” RDR Books and their counsel, Anthony Falzone of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, call it fair use.

Rowling’s testimony is curious. One wonders why she needs testify in a copyright case at all; she had certainly never done it before, even in defending against plagiarism charges levied at her. But what strikes me most about her testimony is the emotional, personal tenor of her testimony.

Those characters meant so much to me over such a long period of time. It’s very difficult for someone who is not a writer to understand what it means to create something. It’s the closest thing to having a child.Those characters saved me. Not just in a material sense – though they did do that. There was a time when they saved my sanity.

As Ed Pilkington wonders in the Guardian article linked to above, why has a copyright case testimony turned into a treatise on a writer’s relationship to her art? Why the threatened tears, the appeal to pathos?

As mentioned above, Rowling and Warner Bros. had no complaint when the Lexicon existed only as a website. It was only after Vander Ark wanted to make a profit off his work that the plaintiffs pursued legal action. If these characters “meant so much” to Rowling, why didn’t she protect them earlier instead of rewarding the site for its dedication and utility? (Incidentally, according to Falzone, Rowling employed the site as a a fact-checking aid while writing later volumes in the series.) Could it be because as long as the Lexicon was offered free, it simply expanded her fanbase and burrowed the roots of Hogwarts deeper into the public consciousness?

Make no mistake: the lines Rowling is trying to buttress are financial ones, not boundaries of artistic integrity. According to Tim Wu (a former assistant of Judge Richard Posner), “Rowling is overstepping her bounds. She has confused the adaptations of a work, which she does own, with discussion of her work, which she doesn’t.” Rowling is shoring up her ability to profit at the expense of artistic integrity, not to preserve it. Or, as Lawrence Lessig puts it, copyright protection “was meant to foster creativity, not to stifle it.”

Perhaps, in her tearful reminiscing of her impoverished writer days, Rowling should consider letting Harry grow up. After seven barnburner novels and seven more blockbuster movies, perhaps it’s time for Harry to saddle his Quiddich broom and make his own way in the world.

Free Tibet?
15 April 2008, 11:08 am
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: , , , , , ,

Uri Averney wrote an excellent article for that wonderfully articulates the difficulty I have with the global “Free Tibet!” campaign.

[W]hat is really bugging me is the hypocrisy of the world media. They storm and thunder about Tibet. In thousands of editorials and talk-shows they heap curses and invective on the evil China. It seems as if the Tibetans are the only people on earth whose right to independence is being denied by brutal force, that if only Beijing would take its dirty hands off the saffron-robed monks, everything would be alright in this, the best of all possible worlds.

Tibet offers an attractive combination of exoticism, morality and the plucky status of an underdog sparkplug to the world media. It’s a narrative almost tailor-made for Western bourgeois liberalism: we convince ourselves that they want what we have, and it’s our moral obligation to help them achieve it. Free Tibet! Free World!

Forget the fact that there are threatened peoples in our own country that want what we have. Hell, they’d settle for clean water. As Canadians, our first duty should be to ensure that we do not oppress people at home or abroad. Any pretension otherwise is moral blindness. As progressives and anti-imperialists, we should question any attempt to render China’s sin bigger than our own. Or, failing that, why the mote of Tibet is bigger than the beam of East Congo or Chechnya.

With that in mind, it seems to me that what’s really going on here is not that Tibet wants what we have, but that they have what we wish we had. Or rather, the Tibetan myth Western media has constructed—one based on peace, non-violence, abstinence and asceticism—purchases our largesse. As long as Tibet eschews consumerism and consumption, our destructive lifestyle can proceed apace. The irony is of course, that as we “free” such ethical impossibilities from themselves as reward for affirming our pretense, we threaten to eradicate the myths on which we rely. It’s a dilemma Jack Gladney discovered almost a quarter century ago:

“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”
“If you don’t, why should I?”
“If you did, maybe I would.”
“If I did, you would not have to.”
“All the old muddles and quirks,” I said. “Faith, religion, life everlasting. The great old human gullibilities. Are you saying you don’t take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?”
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe bu they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”
“You’ve had long life. Maybe it works.”
She rattled out a laugh, showing teeth so old they were nearly transparent.
“Soon no more. You will lose your believers.”

—Don Delillo, White Noise (1985)

h/t to unionist at babble

Despising Deconstruction

Stanley Fish, as you may know, maintains a blog at the New York Times. This week, his blog takes on “French Theory in America” in a book review of Francois Cusset’s survey of deconstruction and its ilk, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.

Professor Fish is remarkably clear in his explication of he much-maligned, oft-misunderstood deconstruction. Presumably since Fish was a major player in this debate himself, he bases his discussion in the 1960s conflict between the so-called rationalist and post-structural schools:

Certainly mainstream or centrist intellectuals thought there was a lot to worry about. They agreed with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who complained that the ideas coming out of France amounted to a “rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment” even to the point of regarding “science as nothing more than a ‘narration’ or a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.”

This is not quite right; what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.

It’s a good trick. What is so often missed in attacks on deconstruction is that it is a direct response to the problems inherent to the Enlightenment project. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously addressed this issue from a Marxist standpoint in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). While Fish levies a less severe critique at the Enlightenment/Rationalist tradition (Adorno and Horkheimer believed fascism and Nazi Germany were direct descendants of the Enlightenment) he equally demonstrates its futility.

The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.

It also thinks the world. This is not say that the world apart from the devices of human conception and perception doesn’t exist “out there”; just that what we know of that world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any unmediated encounter with it in and of itself. This is what Thomas Kuhn meant in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when he said that after a paradigm shift — after one scientific vocabulary, with its attendant experimental and evidentiary apparatus, has replaced another — scientists are living in a different world; which again is not to say (what it would be silly to say) that the world has been altered by our descriptions of it; just that only through our descriptive machineries do we have access to something called the world.

As with most discussions about deconstruction, gleeful derision picks up in the comments following Professor Fish’s article immediately and doesn’t stop for 400-or-so entries. A sample of the vitriolic responses:

This is drivel about drivel — “metadrivel” as some stucturalist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist might say. Literary theory (not to be confused with literature) is more worthless and deluded than alchemy or astrology ever were. It should be banished from our educational system. Failing that, any student who takes a course in literary theory should be required to take three in mathematics, a discipline which has actually manages to cogently connect words and names with perceptions and actions.


Dr. Fish says that “If deconstruction was something that an American male icon performed, there was no reason to fear it….” But we know not only American icons performed deconstruction. One of its most infamous practitioners, Paul de Man, was a Nazi collaborator, raising the spectre that even a devil could quote the supposed holy scripture of deconstruction.

Hard to argue against charges of “metadrivel’ and Nazism, especially for a text that contains evidence of neither. I don’t personally accord with some of Fish’s views, particularly his assertion that deconstruction “doesn’t have any” political implications. Derrida himself spent the second half of his career arguing the exact opposite. In fact, if the 400+ responses, the majority of whom can scarcely keep their spittle in their mouths, are any indication, deconstruction can assert a very palpable political force.