Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How can it be justice if nobody got hanged?

I really thought the media zoo was over when Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges against the Duke lacrosse players (falsely) accused of raping a dancer at a team party. But then I heard that there was still a group that was holding a protest against the dismissal of the charges. I thought, "Which part of 'completely innocent' did you not understand?' "

But, hey, maybe I'm not getting the full story. Did they come up with new evidence that was not presented? Was the dancer bringing a civil suit?

Well . . . no. The "protest" was fifteen "community members," at least three of whom worked with specific causes that had been trying to make hay from the allegations. ""They took the whole process as if all the defense and all the prosecution had been heard," said Shafeah M'Balia of the Black Workers for Justice Women's Commission."We say that is a travesty."

Ahhhh. Ok, let me explain something to you, Ms. M'Balia. Just because someone makes an accusation, doesn't mean that it gets to go to trial. You have to have, you know, credible evidence to bring someone to trial. That's how the system works. If you think a mere accusation should be sufficient to run someone into court, please go watch The Crucible two or three times and let it sink in.

I fail to understand why the self-appointed defenders of the helpless consistently think they need to accept every allegation at face value without a shred of critical appraisal. These leaders no doubt feel like they need to stand by the "victim" in solidarity, and cling to the cultural mythology that any accusation by a black woman about a white man simply must be true. A century ago the inverse was true -- a black man could be strung up on the mere say-so of a white woman -- and I have no desire to embrace mob justice again. To use such rationale shows that these activists are not interested in justice, but in power, and are no better than the lynch-mobs of yesteryear.

To accuse the Attorney General's office of being biased in dismissing the case is equally jaw-dropping. It's not like the state's lawyers didn't want to run in the lacrosse players into jail -- Nifong was savoring every last politically juicy drop of the of the case. The community, the university, everyone gave that women a huge amount of consideration in hearing out her case, to the extent that the players were tossed from the university on her mere accusation. Now the deparment is facing censure and Nifong faces disbarment for being too biased in favor of the accuser. And yet the activists are sticking to their guns -- anyone who disagrees with them is a racist, a bigot, a sexist pig.

Thank goodness it was only fifteen people at their little protest. The rest of the world has come to their senses.


Friday, April 20, 2007

What he lacked . . . and why

"Do you believe in 'bad seeds'?" my wife asked last night.

Is evil the result of trauma and deprivation, or are some people just born bad? Kenny pointed me to an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which a professor made a case for "evil genes." While the mood of tragedy still hangs in the air, no one is willing yet to assign blame, but nature/nurture debaters are standing by on high alert, anxiously awaiting details on Cho's background.

American psycho-mythology has two models for understanding this sort of case. No one will be surprised if Cho was the victim of some sort of neglect or abuse: another basically-good kid who had his humanity strangulated at an early age. Then again, it seems equally likely that he might have just been born that way: a smaller amygdala, a paucity of serotonin, a mix-up in the wiring. Both models are difficult to falsify: both abuse and bad genes can lurk under the surface, hidden from view. Both the nature and nurture sides will probably claim points in this case.

I, for one, will back up NBC in their decision to air some of Cho's video. We do need to see this. I don't think we need to fear for Cho's immortal soul, because looking at that video confirms, for me, that he had lost his soul long ago. His words are angry, his face is fixed in hate, but fundamentally I could sense no affect in him. He was dead inside. (I find it somewhat ironic that his affectless face reminds me so much of the Botox blankness of certain celebrities, the very people he probably despised.)

Whether born or created, it certainly happens early on. As his great-aunt said: "He didn't talk. He was always cold." Even by eight years old, "warning signs" were present. So much of our fate is determined so early on . . .

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Era of the self-documented

What are we to make of Cho Seung-Hui's pre-rampage video?
  • What a nut.
  • What a fucking nut.
  • No matter how much it seems like other people are the cause of your misery, suffering is ultimately self-generated. Cho's martyrdom began and ended inside the walls of his own skull. The scary part is that we are no different. We generate our own drama, our own self-pitying attitudes, our own fantasies of persecution or heroism, in exactly the same way. Our only salvation is our connection to other people, which puts a reality check on our delusions and cultivates the essential sympathy for others that defines what we call "humanity." I think it's important to recognize that Cho's evil was not in what he had -- hate, resentment, anger, frustration -- but in what he lacked: the slightest sense that other people mattered.
  • Cho may have done us a favor by striking so many action-hero poses. Should we be surprised that all the images of gun-wielding power are embraced by those who feel powerless? I'm not saying that a violence-glorifying culture caused the tragedy . . . but those images are going to make it difficult for Hollywood to push its muscular fare for a few months. Suddenly, the stock image of "man with gun" has renewed horror.
  • Nonetheless, we should not blame the media. Every man with the slightest trace of testosterone saw that photo of Cho pointing a gun and the camera, and had the immediate mini-fantasy: "I wish I could have been there, with a gun, to blow that guy away." The violence, the urge to power, are a part of the masculine psyche, for better or worse. Again, it's not what was in Cho that caused the tragedy; it was what he lacked.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Death Threats

When news of the Virginia Tech shootings trickled into my house, my wife said, "You should probably read up on that, the students might want to talk about it tonight." And I replied, "What's to be said? I just watched five students on CNN say exactly what everyone always says: I'm shocked, I'm stunned, this is terrible."

The UNC students, too, had kind of the same reaction. They didn't want the tragedy to go unnoted, but they were smart enough to know that these things defy explanation. One said, "I don't want to know why these things happen. I only marvel at the fact that they don't happen more often."

I've thought the same thing. Haven't you ever been driving down a two-lane road, and had the thought pop into your head: "I could just give this wheel a little jerk to the left, right now, and it would be all over." The mind amuses itself with these morbid imaginings, and yet, day after day, time after time, I don't come anywhere near the thought of actually doing it. And as much murderous rage as we might feel from time to time, we still manage to avoid acting on it a remarkably high percentage of the time. Whatever it is that keeps us from killing each other, it must be mighty powerful, that only the most deeply disturbed break its bonds.

The equally ludicrous question arises: "How can we keep our campuses safe?" As if lone gunmen were the leading cause of death for college students. Accidents, especially auto accidents, cause more deaths of college students than shooters, by three or four orders of magnitude. And yet everyone still climbs into their cars most every day. Clearly the problem is not the actual threat of violence, but the perception of threat: "Our students don't feel safe anymore."

That, too, has been a remarkable luxury for us. Many people are threatened by gunfire every day; they just happen to live in all the places the college students and their families don't. The wake-up call is not: "Oh my God, a new menace is on the loose." It's the realization that death can find you anywhere, any time, which has always been true for all people. Perhaps, instead of convulsing into fits of paranoia, we should seize the opportunity to relate more deeply to all those people, both here and abroad, who face the threat of death daily. Only the recognition of our own fragility, and our shared mortality, can inspire the kind of compassion that might prevent more violence in the future. Early warning systems and more campus police might help, but force and threat and lock and key have never been what ultimately protected us from violent death at each others' hands. The answer is inside of us. Let's look there.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The music of poetry

The Self Knowledge Symposium is developing a track record for filling up Duke Chapel with unlikely events. Ten years ago we packed in a standing-room-only crowd to hear Father Francis Kline play "The Spiritual Bach" on Duke's renowned organ. And tonight, the echoes of that event were felt again, as over 700 people turned out to hear Dr. George Gopan read T.S. Eliot's "The Four Quartets."

How rare and wonderful when all the random factors align to make a perfect event. A string quartet played a Beethoven (Or was it Bach? Jeez, where did I put that program? . . .) piece to begin the evening. That was nice, but only nice . . . until Joanna Childers delivered an introduction that put the music in perfect perspective and connected the music to the poetry. A little "aha!" bubble quietly exploded in the audience's mind, and suddenly everyone was in the right place to listen to a very long, very demanding poem.

And, thankfully, George Gopan delivered the goods. He has been reading the poem aloud, once a month, for several decades. His scholarly understanding of the poem was impeccable and perhaps peerless . . . and made all the better because he was in love with the music of the poem. And you could tell that he was moved, to have an audience of that size. "I would say it's a pleasure to look at all your faces . . . but there are so many of you, going so far back, I can't even see all your faces."

And all that was perfect before we even listened to the poem. I was struck again by how many different lines of the poem had worked their way into the SKS theology and tradition:

A condition of complete simplicity
(costing not less than everything)
Humankind cannot bear very much reality
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Raids on the inarticulate
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive

Damn, but we've taken a lot out of these poems, over the years. I'm so glad we got the chance to share it, so well, with so many.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

And all shall be well

A reading of T.S. Eliot's spiritual masterpiece poems, with live music
Tuesday, April 17
7:00 pm
Duke Chapel(Duke University campus, Durham)

* * *

"A condition of complete simplicity(costing not less than everything)"
-- from The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

* * *

You haven't lived until you've heard The Four Quartets.

In the world of spiritual poetry, T.S. Eliot is right at the top,rubbing elbows with Lao Tzu and Rumi. Not only are his four linked poems beautiful and profound, they are packed with hidden meanings and a lifetime's study of philosophy and religion. No wonder the dude won a Nobel Prize.

Like most great poetry, you need to _hear_ it to fully appreciate its power. Dr. George Gopen, Senior LecturingFellow in the English Department at Duke University,combines both depth of understanding and dramatic energy in his reading. A reception will follow, so youcan hang out and talk poetry afterwards.

If you really want to impress your date with your how cultured and deep you are, you can't go wrong withthis event. Go on, just try saying it: "Would you careto join me at a reading of T.S. Eliot?"

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Secret-Bashing

Readers chimed in on my pan of The Secret. Kenny rightly pointed out that action is not only the primary means of changing your mind, it is also the primary measure of determining whether you really did change your mind:

If you say "I really want to (lose weight / help the poor / find God)" enough,
you may start to believe that you really want that. But do you really want it,
or are you fooling yourself into thinking you want it? Once you ask that
question, you start into an endless cycle of self-questioning, re-examining, am
I being too easy on myself, am I being too hard on myself, is that my mother's
voice in my head, blah, blah, blah. The way to cut through all that is to watch
and see what sacrifices you are willing to make: are you (eating right and exercising / giving money and time to the poor / praying, reading, meditating, joining a group)? That is the easy way to see how much you *really* want it.

I didn't even scratch the surface of all the contradictory notions that were present just in the short section of the book from which I quoted. For instance, Rhonda Byrne doesn't stop to question the nature of the desires people are trying to fulfill in the first place. Why, exactly, would I want to ask the Universe to make me a "perfect weight"? Why, because people believe that changing their physical circumstances (lose weight, get rich, find a mate) will change their state of mind -- that is, make them happy. But if someone had the perfect mind control that Byrne prescribes, loving their body completely and accepting it totally, then they don't need a "perfect weight," because they have already achieved the thing that they sought to get by having a "perfect weight."

It's rather like the old saw about investing: "How can I make lots of money in the stock market? Well, start by putting a lot of money into the stock market." You can only get what you want by already having what you sought to get. Oddly, people immediately see the contradiction with material things, but don't see it when something as intangible as the Mind is invoked.

My new guru Puppetji cuts straight to chase: "It is true: you can have anything you desire. But ask yourself: who is desiring?"

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