Rout of the Rebel Angels, by William Blake

A Dog Starv'd

A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
      -- William Blake,
     "Auguries of Innocence"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The NSA Concedes: It's Stopped Beating Its Wife

We see today in the New York Times (and other news outlets) that the National Security Agency doesn't do warrantless wiretapping. Er, anymore.
The National Security Agency has not conducted wiretapping without warrants on the telephones of any Americans since at least February, the nation’s top intelligence officer told Congress on Tuesday.

Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told the House Judiciary Committee that since he took office that month, the government has conducted electronic surveillance only after seeking court-approved warrants... Mr. McConnell’s testimony Tuesday was the first time he has publicly said that the warrantless wiretapping of Americans has actually been ended.
Thanks, Mike. I must have missed your first public admission that it had ever started in the first place. It feels so much better to know you've at last come clean. Guess it's all right to believe you from now on!


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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Deep Thought (cont'd)

Another Jack Handey quote:
I remember that one fateful day when Coach took me aside. I knew what was coming. "You don't have to tell me," I said. "I'm off the team, aren't I?" "Well," said Coach, "you never were really ON the team. You made that uniform you're wearing out of rags and towels, and your helmet is a toy space helmet. You show up at practice and then either steal the ball and make us chase you to get it back, or you try to tackle people at inappropriate times." It was all true what he was saying. And yet, I thought something is brewing inside the head of this Coach. He sees something in me, some kind of raw talent that he can mold. But that's when I felt the handcuffs go on.
<ADS laughing />

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Department of Funny Coincidences

I don't mean "funny coincidences" in the sense of suspicious coincidences. No, it's just that in an 86-year-old document, I've found reminders of how far we in this fair country have not come. It's from H.L. Mencken's The American Language; in particular, it's Mencken's recasting of the Declaration of Independence into plain old everyday English. While he plays it heavy-handed in spots, and his intent overall is jocular, and allowing for the differences in the precise situations (us vs. England then, the nation vs. W now), it's amazing how clearly the ironies pop out when the ideas are made so plain. Or maybe it's not a case of how far we've not come, but rather a case of the battles which we continue to refight...

Excerpts (ellipses omitted), from the famous list of grievances against the king:
The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:
  • He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.
  • He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgot about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.
  • When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by him-self, or they couldn’t have it at all.
  • He give the Legislature the air, and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.
  • He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.
  • He monkeyed with the courts, and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work, and so a person had to wait so long for his case to come up that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.
  • He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.
  • He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.
  • He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:
    • Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.
    • When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.
    • Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.
    • He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.
Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, we have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.
Read the whole thing here.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Open-Eyed Poetry

Suddenly I'm on a poetry kick. If you'd told me a couple months ago that my new blog would mention poetry in nearly every post, I wouldn't have believed you.

Anyway, a couple of poems to share. I've read (or re-read) them both, recently. And they share a certain theme, as you will see.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver, from House of Light

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford, from The Way It Is

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life --

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?


Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Things that We Notice, The Things that We Don't

Mrs. FLJerseyBoy and I were watching some old "Seinfeld" reruns recently; these included the episode which ended Season 7 -- the episode entitled "The Invitations." This episode is famous, justifiably, as the one in which George's fiancee Susan dies from licking the flaps of the cheap wedding-invitation envelopes which George has insisted are "good enough." The envelopes, it so happens, are cheap because their glue tastes funny and isn't very strong, requiring lots of licking. That bad-tasting glue is also toxic, and hence Susan's demise. (Characteristically, George is nowhere in sight while Susan is working on the invitations.)

The audience reaction to the Big Event was so strong that it swamped attention to a Lesser But Still Notable Event, namely that Jerry had apparently found his perfect girlfriend. (This was something like the 135th episode of the show, with nearly as many girlfriends -- who almost never lasted for more than an episode -- so a perfect girlfriend was a big deal indeed.) The girlfriend in question, Jeannie, was played by actress/comedienne Janeane Garofalo. And what made the character perfect for Seinfeld's character, as he felt, was that they were so much alike.

Here's the scene where they meet. Jerry is absentmindedly walking in the street, when he is almost hit by a car; this stranger -- Jeannie -- pulls him to safety:
Jeannie: Hey! Hey! Look out. (She pulls him back.) OK! Are you okay?
Jerry: Yeah! Thanks. Oh! My God you saved my life!
Jeannie: Shouldn't there be some kind of reward for that?
Jerry: Oh! Thank you.
Jeannie: You know you should be a lot more careful crossing the street like that, otherwise you could die. If that bothers you.
Jerry: Well I...
Jeannie: You see (points to his collar)? To me this is a waste.
Jerry: What?
Jeannie: The shirt you got on under your sweater. It sits for three weeks in your drawer, waiting to come out. And when it finally does, it sticks up only half an inch out of your collar.
Jerry: I'm Jerry Seinfeld.
Jeannie: Jeannie Steinman.
Jerry: Hey! Same initials. How do you like that?
Jeannie: I like it.
As writing, this is great. It takes just a few seconds to establish that you could simply interchange the two characters' roles and even their lines. Not only can they complete each other's sentences -- they match each other's very personalities. Jeannie's abrupt dropping of the subject (that Jerry miraculously is alive and uninjured) for the sake of some trivial, superficial observation about human nature: that's classic "Jerry Seinfeld," the character.

A couple days later I came across this poem by Robert Frost, one with which I wasn't previously familiar:
A Considerable Speck

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink,
When something strange about it made me think.
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt—
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
That's the core of it, eh? "I have a mind myself and recognize / Mind when I meet with it in any guise. / No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind." It's not just encountering someone similar that speaks to us; it's encountering their words.

A college professor with whom I was close once counseled me, in a letter, about my stupid, self-absorbed concern that my younger brother might at some point grow up to outshine me in people's estimation -- that I would come to be known as his brother, rather than the other way around. Heck, I reasoned, he was not only smart as a whip but he was athletic to boot, and I'd never been seriously interested in participatory sports. Therefore, wasn't it obvious that people would come to---

My professor's exact words are long gone now but I never forgot the gist of them:
I know [she wrote], because I've been told, that the ability to run and jump and score goals is a sign of intelligence and character. But I know, because I've seen it and felt it and watched it happen, dozens of times over, that the ability to write proves it.
(My brother, by the way, is -- like most of us in our generation -- no longer an athlete. But he is still smart as a whip and every day shines in ways that I couldn't hope to, professionally and personally... just as I do in ways that he can't. We do love each other.)

And then, for some reason, having encountered both the "Seinfeld" episode and the Frost poem within a couple days, and having thought -- apparently at random -- of my professor's words, I started to think about (get ready for the thud of an anticlimax) right-wing broadcasters and columnists, who these days far out-shout the whimpers of the "biased mainstream liberal media." What makes these idiots so successful?

What makes them successful is two-fold:
  • They can honestly (much as I hate to admit it) write. Not only can they write "correctly," in complete sentences and with proper punctuation. But they're also skilled in manipulating the symbols of patriotism, of Old-Testament godliness and sanctity, of other virtues originating decades or even centuries and millennia ago. Thrift. Hard work. Ruggedness. And so on.
  • They employ that gift with language in ways that their audiences wish that they could, while asserting the substance that their audiences believe to their core. They are like their audiences (at least, their public faces are), but even better.
Ain't language a wonderful thing? I had this Big Idea for a novel, years and years ago. The Big Idea was that God turns out to be language. It's ubiquitous, we are not fully human without it (sorry, opposable thumb). And boy do we pay it tribute, every day, every waking (and nearly every sleeping) minute.

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