Saturday, December 9, 2017


Salvador Dali: Alice’s Evidence
It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then ~ Alice in Wonderland

(Alice attends a trial of the Knave of Hearts, who’s accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts. Alice finds that she’s growing in size and becomes more and more fearless.)

`Here!' cried Alice, quite forgetting in the flurry of the moment how large she had grown in the last few minutes, and she jumped up in such a hurry that she tipped over the jury-box with the edge of her skirt, upsetting all the jurymen on to the heads of the crowd below, and there they lay sprawling about, reminding her very much of a globe of goldfish she had accidentally upset the week before.

`Oh, I beg your pardon!' she exclaimed in a tone of great dismay, and began picking them up again as quickly as she could, for the accident of the goldfish kept running in her head, and she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back into the jury-box, or they would die.

`The trial cannot proceed,' said the King in a very grave voice, `until all the jurymen are back in their proper places — all,' he repeated with great emphasis, looking hard at Alice as he said do.

Alice looked at the jury-box, and saw that, in her haste, she had put the Lizard in head downwards, and the poor little thing was waving its tail about in a melancholy way, being quite unable to move. She soon got it out again, and put it right; `not that it signifies much,' she said to herself; `I should think it would be quite as much use in the trial one way up as the other.'

As soon as the jury had a little recovered from the shock of being upset, and their slates and pencils had been found and handed back to them, they set to work very diligently to write out a history of the accident, all except the Lizard, who seemed too much overcome to do anything but sit with its mouth open, gazing up into the roof of the court.

`What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.

`Nothing,' said Alice.

`Nothing whatever?' persisted the King.

`Nothing whatever,' said Alice.

`That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: `Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,' he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

`Unimportant, of course, I meant,' the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, `important—unimportant — unimportant—important—' as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down `important,' and some `unimportant.' Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; `but it doesn't matter a bit,' she thought to herself.

 At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out `Silence!' and read out from his book, `Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.'

Everybody looked at Alice.

`I'm not a mile high,' said Alice.

`You are,' said the King.

`Nearly two miles high,' added the Queen.

`Well, I shan't go, at any rate,' said Alice: `besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now.'

`It's the oldest rule in the book,' said the King.

`Then it ought to be Number One,' said Alice.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. `Consider your verdict,' he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.
. . .

`Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

`No, no!' said the Queen. `Sentence first—verdict afterwards.'

`Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!'

`Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

`I won't!' said Alice.

`Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

`Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) `You're nothing but a pack of cards!'

 At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

`Wake up, Alice dear!' said her sister; `Why, what a long sleep you've had!'

`Oh, I've had such a curious dream!' said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, `It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it's getting late.’

~ Lewis Carroll (Reverend Charles Dodgson), Alice in Wonderland, 1865


This is actually more succinct and better, I think, in the preliminary version, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, 1864. Below is the last page of the handwritten manuscript, with Carroll’s own drawing.

What liberation it is to finally see that about any set of bullies! They need to be nasty because the real power, which comes from depth and wisdom, isn’t there.

My past is full of both continuities and discontinuities. But mainly I nod my head: I was a different person then. My first “Alice wakes up experience” — I mean the very ending, when she says, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards” — goes back to the age of 14, when I realized this about Catholicism: it's all made up, it's all mythology. All those gilded icons might as well be a pack of cards. And in an instant, I became a different person: one who made a quantum leap in courage and understanding.

(My story of awakening is relatively dull. What I love the story of a priest going over the seven traditional proofs of god's existence — something he’s done many times before — and suddenly seeing that all of them were invalid. Also the story of a pilot and writer who was reciting the Creed during mass, repeating “I believe”, “I believe” — and realizing that he didn’t believe a word of it.)

Looking at the manuscript version (which I prefer: “The verdict first, evidence later”), I'm also reminded at how stunned I was by the American judiciary principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” The implications go beyond the judiciary system: it’s how we treat people on a daily basis. Do we instantly ascribe malicious motives to them, or are we willing to see most of them as basically decent, just beset by problems like everyone? 


Dear Alice! That wonderful book where nonsense makes sublimest sense, and Alice's strange adventures perfectly mirror the truth of experience. How often I've found I must run as fast as I can to stay in the same place, or that I woke up as myself but changed several times before making it to noon, or have been brought to trial by some paper tribunal, pronouncing verdicts without evidence, flimsy as a pack of cards. So much wisdom in Alice, it makes her irresistible!!


“Life should be a joy: not a ledger of sins and failures to live up to impossible standards, but an iridescent beauty like a dragonfly.” ~ Oriana Ivy

“As people age and time horizon grows shorter, people invest in what is most important.” ~ Oh, I thought, so I was not unique in having my “cornered by mortality” moment.

“Youth is a period of perpetual disappointment.” ~ So it wasn’t just my youth?

“Older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise.” ~ So that’s a universal phenomenon? So I'm pretty average after all? Still not a poster child for normalcy (to me, “family” is a foreign language), nevertheless my life has been in some ways TYPICAL??

Fortunately, reading this article I was long past the point when I’d be bothered by seeing myself as typical, average, “merely human.” The phrase “merely human” is a gigantic oxymoron, since being human is glorious.

The article talks about diminished expectations and how we come to accept them and accept ourselves as less than exceptional, members of the choir rather than soloists. The reward is contentment. Once we are fifty or so, we become steadily more happy as long as we are reasonably healthy. And, quite often, older means richer — for one thing, the mortgage is paid off.

I thought of my own midlife crisis (though up to that point it had been a whole-life crisis) and how, once I pulled through it, I defined myself as “posthumous.” The earlier phase of striving and ambition was over — it felt like another lifetime, this driving myself without mercy, in spite of huge amount of rejections. The Sisyphean labor, the tears, the despair — literally. In fact it feels like an understatement.

Now I submit rarely, and pretty much only at invitation. Not getting wider recognition doesn’t bother me anymore — it’s not important, and I'm in the stage of life when I concentrate on what is important: the prose essays I'm doing now (compared to poetry, that’s as easy as doodling), the enjoyment and creation of beauty (I’ve discovered gardening). Just lying down and thinking once more, in continual astonishment, how happy I am.

I don’t feel I have to achieve anything. I don’t have to prove anything. Been there, done that. Now just to harvest and enjoy. Reading and writing, but without pressure — not only am I posthumous, but at the stage of unbridled hedonism (it helps to know that this is my last chance for unbridled hedonism).

I am not not pursuing any dream. I have no dream — just micro-projects and micro-ambitions. Following my bliss, yes, but bliss with a small “b.” And blisses in the plural, rather than one central passion. Still learning, still having an active life of the mind — but nothing I do is a stepping stone to anything else. It has to be satisfying in itself.

And beauty. I must have beauty. As Khalil Gibran said: “We live only to discover Beauty. All else is a form of waiting.” He may be right.

And a clarity has emerged, precisely about the inner life. Little things don’t bother me because my life of the mind is always there for me. Life hasn’t given me certain things which I once desperately wanted, but I don’t resent that. I don’t think that a malicious deity manipulated circumstances so as to make me or anyone else unhappy. It had nothing to do with “deserving.” Like most people I too have learned the most important lesson: to focus on what we have rather than on what we don’t have. And to savor the gentle winter light in all its radiance.



That U-shaped curve of happiness rings true. When I was young I often thought I'd like to be an old woman, living outside objections to my choices, in dress or words or attitude. An old woman, I thought, could be what she wanted to be, and no one would interfere, because she had moved outside the circle of their desire. What freedom! When you are young you are everybody's business, when you are old you are nobody's business but your own.

It makes sense that the nadir of happiness comes in mid life. The future is not then a promise, but a pressure — it weighs on you, measures your failures, mocks your small accomplishments, reminds you time and opportunity are limited and short. Moving into the later stages of life, always dependent on reasonably good health, you might lift your nose from the grindstone, ditch your watch and alarm clock, and look about you, finding a world of infinite interest, entertainment  and delight. Do what you love, love what you do. Think your own thoughts, be slow enough to see beauty wherever you find it. Breathe.



So true. My own crisis, combined with severe depression, had as a major premise: “My future has been stolen from me.” So I can only nod when you say “In mid life, the future is not a promise, but a pressure — it weighs on you, measures your failures, mocks your small accomplishments, reminds you time and opportunity are limited and short.”

And I realized I could remain stewing in bitterness and waste what years remained brooding on the various misfortunes of my life, or I could choose productivity nevertheless — never mind recognition. It was a major awakening, the most dramatic one in years.

Down the line, I even got the international audience I used to dream about. The blog did it. Wow — I can’t complain about luck anymore. 

One more important point: You stop blaming yourself for having accomplished so much less than you were hoping to accomplish because you gain a better understanding of life. No, it wasn’t that I was lazy — what a joke! On the contrary, people like me are workaholics. It wasn’t that I lacked ambition — I mean, talk about being "driven"! In fact at one point I burned out from entering a gazillion contests. What I lacked was connections — and the more accomplished I became and the more acquainted with the poetry world, the more I saw that it’s “totally who you know, totally” — to quote a more worldly friend.

I also started too late, had too little money to enroll in the kind of MFA program that could have provided mentoring . . .  and on and on. And another friend may have been correct as well — the one who said, “You have brains enough to make it . . . What you don’t have is experience. You should travel and have affairs.” Travel and romance (both the start and the end of it) are well known for triggering bursts of creativity. (If you are a genius like Dickinson, you can afford to be a recluse; otherwise, prepare to pay a heavy price for reclusiveness. And no, in modern times no one will devote themselves to preserving your writing for posterity.)

One way or another, I saw the huge role of circumstances, stopped blaming myself, and began to enjoy writing once more — this time mostly as essayistic prose, a wonderfully inclusive medium. I only wish I dropped self-blame sooner, and understood sooner that the great gift we give to others is simply our unique being (Heidegger).

It’s such a relief to realize you don’t have to try to be charming. You don’t have to try to be clever, or witty, or marvelously accomplished . . . or . . . . or . . .  any of those things we desperately tried to be in our teens and beyond. We touch the lives of others often when we are least aware of it; we serve by being ourselves. 



Happiness is having some kind of work for which you have infinite patience. ~ Jeremy Sherman

Me in my poetry years. I didn’t realize my luck. There was also agony, of course, but when I look back at my life, those were the heights — the best years.

The best years, but the happiest years? Only while I was engaged in creative work.

"Once I lived as the gods —
more is not needed.”

     ~ Hölderlin, To the Fates

Ultimately, though, my happiest years are right now. I still have infinite patience when it comes to writing prose. And now I can finally be happy also when not working, not doing anything in particular — just looking at my patio, say, my own small Garden of Eden. What I have now, above all, is contentment — and the gratitude for it.

Victoria amazonica, St. Petersburg Botanical Institute

~ “Our epoch began somewhere around the end of the eighteenth, the beginning of the nineteenth century, and should be viewed as a whole. It is distinguished by a central philosophical problem ripening slowly as a result of the criticism directed at traditional Christian beliefs and aristocratic institutions, monarchy chief among them. . . . The true revolutionaries were the poets and the artists, even the most ethereal and least bloodthirsty of them, because they cleared the way; that is, they acted as the organizers of the collective imagination in a new dimension, that of man’s solitude as a species.” ~ Czeslaw Milosz


Yes, the poets and the artists — and certainly the great novelists, and now the great movie-makers. They all played an important role in the growing secularization of the culture. They gave testimony to the fact that religion was fading, and the psychology of human beings was becoming the center of interest, not a deity whose existence was becoming less and less certain.

That meant a certain loneliness, since other humans are not always a reliable source of comfort to us. Still, if there is no one up there in the clouds, where else can we turn? Only to family and friends — and to pets. Modernity means that a dog is a “member of the family.”

Secularization was also linked to the rise of democracy. There was less and less enchantment with the royalty. Along with the waning interest in serving the “King of Kings,” not as many really wanted to “serve the king,” now no longer seen as having any kind of “divine right.” Writers and artists were perhaps the first to realize that no one really had the “mandate of heaven.” Human, all too human . . .

Another page from Lewis Carroll's manuscript


~ “Hitler exploited images and tropes that were familiar to Christians: God, prayers, original sin, commandments, prophets, chosen people, messiahs—even the familiar Christian tripartite structure of time: first paradise, then exodus, and finally redemption. We live in filth, and we must strain to purify ourselves and the world so that we might return to paradise.

To see paradise as the battle of the species rather than the concord of creation was to unite Christian longing with the apparent realism of biology. The war of all against all was not terrifyingly purposeless, but instead the only purpose to be had in the universe. Nature’s bounty was for man, as in Genesis, but only for the men who follow nature’s law and fight for nature. As in Genesis, so in My Struggle, nature was a resource for man: but not for all people, only for triumphant races. Eden was not a garden but a trench.

Knowledge of the body was not the problem, as in Genesis, but the solution. The triumphant should copulate. After murder, Hitler thought, the next human duty was sex and reproduction. In his scheme, the original sin that led to the fall of man was of the mind and soul, not of the body. For Hitler, our unhappy weakness was that we can think, realize that others belonging to other races can do the same, and thereby recognize them as fellow human beings. Humans left Hitler’s bloody paradise not because of carnal knowledge. Humans left paradise because of the knowledge of good and evil.

When paradise falls and humans are separated from nature, a character who is neither human nor natural, such as the serpent of Genesis, takes the blame. If humans were in fact nothing more than an element of nature, and nature was known by science to be a bloody struggle, something beyond nature must have corrupted the species. For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew.

“Therefore I believe myself to be acting according to the wishes of the Creator. Insofar as I restrain the Jew, I am defending the work of the Lord.”

Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful.

Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: “One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.”

The strong should starve the weak, but Jews could arrange matters so that the weak starve the strong. This was not an injustice in the normal sense, but a violation of the logic of being. In a universe warped by Jewish ideas, struggle could yield unthinkable outcomes: not the survival of the fittest, but the starvation of the fittest.

For Hitler, the conclusion of World War I demonstrated the ruin of the planet. Hitler’s understanding of its outcome went beyond the nationalism of his fellow Germans, and his response to defeat only superficially resembled the general resentment about lost territories. For Hitler, the German defeat demonstrated that something was crooked in the whole structure of the world; it was the proof that Jews had mastered the methods of nature.

If a few thousand German Jews had been gassed at the beginning of the war, he maintained, Germany would have won. He believed that Jews typically subjected their victims to starvation and saw the British naval blockade of Germany during (and after) World War I as an application of this method. It was an instance of a permanent condition and the proof of more suffering to come. So long as Jews starved Germans rather than Germans starving whom they pleased, the world was in disequilibrium.

Hitler understood that agricultural science posed a specific threat to the logic of his system. If humans could intervene in nature to create more food without taking more land, his whole system collapsed. He therefore denied the importance of what was happening before his eyes, the science of what was later called the “Green Revolution”: the hybridization of grains, the distribution of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the expansion of irrigation. Even “in the best case,” he insisted, hunger must outstrip crop improvements.

 In Hitler’s world, the law of the jungle was the only law. People were to suppress any inclination to be merciful and were to be as rapacious as they could. For Hitler, nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion. Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi legal theorist, explained that politics arose not from history or concepts but from our sense of enmity. Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and kill and die.

Since politics was nature, and nature was struggle, no political thought was possible. This conclusion was an extreme articulation of the nineteenth-century commonplace that human activities could be understood as biology. In the 1880s and 1890s, serious thinkers and popularizers influenced by Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection proposed that the ancient questions of political thought had been resolved by this breakthrough in zoology. When Hitler was young, an interpretation of Darwin in which competition was identified as a social good influenced all major forms of politics.

Hitler entitled his book Mein Kampf — My Struggle. From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not. The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence.” ~


Darwin actually wrote that cooperation was the major reason why humans became the dominant species. Altruism is actually in harmony with Darwin's thinking: all social species (e.g. wolves, elephants, various primates) manifest it to some degree. 

~ “With movies being seen by 88 million Americans a week in 1937, and by 150 million people throughout the world, Goebbels feared that a powerful anti-Nazi campaign by Hollywood studios could prove disastrous to German ambitions. Consequently, the propaganda minister turned to Georg Gyssling, German general consul in Los Angeles, for help in manipulating the American psyche. Gyssling cajoled, threatened, and did everything in his power to ensure that the Jewish-dominated studios followed Production Code Administration (PCA) regulations and made no film attacking Hitler or his government.

By 1937 the motion picture business reigned as the nation’s fourth largest industry, with over $2 billion in capital investments. Lavishly paid movie industry leaders accounted for 40 of the 63 Americans earning more than $200,000 in 1937. Topping the list was Louis B. Mayer at $1.3 million, making him the highest paid employee in America. The MGM head earned more in salary that year than the entire U.S. Senate combined. As the number of American films shown in Germany steadily dropped from 61 in 1933–34 to 36 in 1936–37, the moguls were forced to deal with Gyssling if they wanted to protect their studios’ bottom lines and their own high salaries.

During his first three years as consul, Gyssling repeatedly used the threat of imposing Article 15, which refused permits for any film deemed “detrimental to German prestige,” to hammer the moguls into compliance. As German military aggression increased after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Gyssling became even more aggressive with Hollywood, intimidating individual actors and studio employees. When he heard that Malvina Pictures was preparing to release I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany in July 1936, Gyssling contacted the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association and demanded they stop the filming. Based on a true story, the movie recounts the harrowing experience of American journalist Isobel Steele, who was arrested and imprisoned by Nazi authorities on charges of espionage in August 1934. Steele spent four months in solitary confinement at Berlin’s infamous Moabit prison and was deported only after the intervention of the U.S. State Department. Upon her return home, the celebrated journalist wrote numerous stories describing her experiences in Nazi Germany.

When MPPDA officials told Gyssling they had no jurisdiction over independent companies such as Malvina, the consul sent Isobel Steele a letter on German consulate stationery, threatening her for participating “in the making of a film allegedly dealing with certain experiences of yours in Germany.” He warned Steele that if the film were released, any future production in which she might appear would be banned. Similar threats were sent to every cast member, warning that they too would be permanently banned in Germany if they appeared in the film.

Gyssling also summoned the movie’s German actors and actresses to the consulate. Seated at his desk with a massive portrait of Hitler behind him and swastika flags throughout the office, the six-foot-three consul appeared a daunting figure to his nervous visitors. He let the actors know reprisals would be taken against family members living in Germany if they appeared in the film. The movie’s cast took Gyssling’s threats seriously. Following their meeting, a number of actors quit, while others agreed to continue under the condition that their names did not appear in the credits.

When producer Alfred Mannon approached industry censor Joseph Breen about getting the seal of approval needed to book I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany into first-run theaters, the Production Code Administration head agreed with Gyssling and rejected the movie on the grounds that it violated the Code provision “which directs that ‘the history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.’” The PCA’s board of directors in New York overruled Breen; however, without a major studio backing it, the film soon disappeared from circulation.

Although he ultimately lost this battle, Gyssling won a larger war by letting Hollywood’s German community know they could not escape the long arm of Adolf Hitler. The PCA might have defied Gyssling, but who would protect their relatives in Germany if actors and actresses dared do likewise?

Gyssling had considerably more success in forcing changes in two major films that promised to be far more critical of the Nazi regime, The Road Back (1937) and Three Comrades (1938). Both were based on novels by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, the fervent anti-Nazi who lived in exile and had published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. Hitler hated Remarque’s antiwar novel so much that he banned the author and his books from Germany. Although Three Comrades was released after The Road Back, it was the first of the two productions to catch Georg Gyssling’s attention. Set in late-1920s Germany, the novel told the story of three disillusioned German World War I veterans, Robert, Otto, and Gottfried, fighting to survive in an economically devastated nation. In the film, which is filled with critiques of the German government, the left-wing hero Gottfried is eventually killed in a street clash with Nazi thugs.

Gyssling succeeded in turning Remarque’s anti-Nazi critique into a harmless love story stripped of its dissident political edge. As the opening page of the film’s press book declared, “3 Comrades is not a propaganda picture. The locale might be any large Central European city and the time is the present. It is not political or controversial, and its turbulent scenes could happen in any country.” Americans would learn nothing about the Nazi threat from this film, which was precisely what Gyssling wanted.

The able representative of the Nazi government also fought to depoliticize The Road Back, Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. The 1931 novel told the story of a shell-shocked squad of German veterans forced to deal with the economic and political chaos of postwar Germany. When Gyssling learned that Universal Pictures was turning the book into a film, he contacted Breen with his usual objections: “It would beyond all doubts lead to controversies and opposition on the part of the German government as the story gives an untrue and distorted picture of the German people.” He urged Breen to use his influence to kill the project.

The final version of The Road Back was a neutered rendering of the polemical novel. As New York Times film critic Frank Nugent complained, “the spirit of the book has been lost, its meaning changed”; the novel’s “tragic impact has been vitiated by a meandering conclusion.” Berlin had little to fear from this production.

Gyssling also achieved a number of smaller victories along the way. After news leaked out that Warner Brothers was planning to make The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a film about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongly convicted by anti-Semitic officials of transmitting French military secrets to the German government in 1894, Gyssling called the studio and spoke to the film’s associate producer. Several days later, Jack Warner ordered several lines cut in which Dreyfus was referred to as a Jew. The word “Jew” was never spoken in the film.

Gyssling’s power over Hollywood was clear. More often than not, the German diplomat succeeded in convincing studios to delete scenes his government would find offensive. The moguls hated Gyssling but understood that the cost of ignoring his demands went far beyond any one film; he had the power to keep their productions out of every theater in the rapidly expanding German empire. Despite their bitterness, most movie executives just shrugged and chalked it up to the cost of doing business.


Let’s detox from this with some beauty:

‘While others were saluting the flag, I saluted the wind.’ ~ Dave Bonta

Wild horses, probably in New Mexico


~ “For three years, I've been monitoring IS's Arabic language media and trends in the way it communicates.

I have never seen the group's propaganda more subdued than it is now.

For months, IS has been putting its all into diverting supporters' attention away from the hemorrhaging territories of the “caliphate".

In the summer of 2015, it was producing more than 200 videos, radio programs, magazines and photo reports each week.

It was also releasing dozens of claims about its military operations every day.

IS wasn't just mindlessly pumping out propaganda - it was manufacturing a brand.

Media officials had a direct line to the caliph himself and pervaded every part of the organization.

They had a hand in everything from military affairs and external terrorism, to irrigation projects and traffic policing.

In many ways, they were making the IS "utopia" really look like a utopia, painting an intense — and, by all accounts, demonstrably false — picture of life in the "caliphate".

Photos and videos depicted giggling children playing freely at funfairs, modern medical care being dispensed to the elderly and infirm, and bags of cash being delivered to the poor and destitute.

Nowadays, IS propagandists can barely get out 20 pieces of media in a week.
And that's not all — their utopian message has almost entirely evaporated.

While they may have been able to churn out a few photographs of grape farming in Egypt and drug policing in Afghanistan in the past few weeks, their output is more stilted now than it has ever been.

These days, the IS brand is all about war.

Its images of children zooming down inflatable slides have been replaced by pictures of teenagers scrambling through trenches and driving bomb-laden vehicles.

The focus is squarely on buoying morale: showing that its fighters are enthusiastically dying in its name is a way to shame those having doubts.

Increasingly, IS seems to be relying on places outside of its heartlands to keep up the propaganda flow: its Sinai and Afghan affiliates have been disproportionately vocal of late.

Second is IS's reduced manpower.

Alongside IS fighters, media operatives have long been in the sights of the coalition and its allies.

Its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and information minister Abu Muhammed al-Furqan were killed last year.

Countless other mid- to high-level propaganda officials, cameramen, editors and producers have been targeted by coalition air strikes.

These mounting losses have inevitably had an impact on the operation as a whole.

Third, the internet is not quite the "safe space" it once was.

Whether it is down to coalition cyber-offensives, or self-regulation by internet service providers, IS can no longer use big social-media platforms and file-sharing spaces like it once could.

Propaganda is a litmus test for organizational health, and that its brand has disintegrated in this way does not spell success for the group's insurgent prospects in Syria and Iraq, at least in the short to medium term.

While this is certainly something to be optimistic about, it is not all good news.

IS may be less productive than ever, but the quality and ambition of its propaganda remains head and shoulders above that of its rivals.

Indeed, in spite of the pressures the group is facing on the ground in Syria and Iraq, the trickle of instructional materials on how to plan terror attacks still emerging online could prove extremely dangerous.

Another threat comes from its supporters, who still swap recipes for homemade explosives and handcrafted poison in their droves.

The problem hasn't gone away, it's just changed.

It is far too early to talk about the end of IS — either in Iraq and Syria, or as a "virtual caliphate" — but neither should we ignore the fact that it is reeling.” ~

Isis propaganda used to feature images of happy children at play


To me the fascinating thing is the sameness of it all: the Soviet propaganda trying to create a picture of workers’ paradise, American counter-propaganda relying on images of model kitchens (think of Nixon’s famous “kitchen debate”), and now the Islamic utopia showing happy children, free medical care, and aid to the poor. And, come to think of it, the Nazis too specialized in presenting the Aryan utopia — again centered on the images of happy, well-fed families.

Against this, we’ve had various movements promoting the monastic ideal. Yet even religions with a strong monastic tradition had to acknowledge the importance of the family: after all, new members were needed. But the family is subversive: it’s about individual happiness rather than serving the state or the church. 

But what about our domestic religious fanatics? “They want war in the Middle East. The Battle of Armageddon, at which time Jesus Christ will return to the Earth and vanquish all God’s enemies.” ~ Dr. Diana Butler Bass, theological scholar 

~ “US mission drift is especially tragic because ours was a country born of a liberal vision made most possible by isolation and abundance both of which are no longer possible anywhere. Liberalism is easiest to embrace when you're safe.

It's unlikely that there will ever be another chance for a country to be founded in such isolation and abundance as ours was.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


“I’ll make egrets great again!”

photo: Zsolt Kudich


Oriana Ivy: I think I finally understand the prohibition against saying "Yahweh." If a deity has a personal name — Yahweh, Zeus, Wotan, Marduk, Isis, Osiris, etc — then Yahweh is at the same level as those other gods. The name had to be forbidden, basically erased, and something more abstract substituted, including Ha Shem, which literally means "the name."

Leonard Kress: Right! But even worse — it makes the name of God just another proper noun like Sigmund or Doris. I think the contemporary Jewish G-d makes more sense. There should be an element of strangeness, unapproachableness, distance, mystery, terror, etc. All those things that Rudolf Otto said in The Idea of the Holy.


To my surprise, the word “translation” appeared under Leonard’s post. So I clicked to see how English (apparently not recognized as such by the Facebook computer) would be translated into English.

Right! But even even even even even in even even even — it makes the God of God, like or Doris. I think the contemporary Jewish G-D makes more sense. There is an element of :, unapproachableness, distance, mystery, etc. The those things in the rudolf said that the idea of the idea of the idea.
Automatically Translated


Maybe that’s finally the definition of god we’ve been looking for: “the idea of the idea of the idea.” This we can find in the Gospel according to rudolf (not to be confused with Doris).

photo: Ryan Seek
Charles: Looks like abstract art.

~ “RELIGION TEACHES HELPLESSNESS. Sometimes we don’t recognize the deep relationship between religiosity and resignation. In the most conservative sects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, women are seen as more virtuous if they let God manage their family planning. Droughts, poverty and cancer get attributed to the will of God rather than bad decisions or bad systems; believers wait for God to solve problems they could solve themselves.” ~ Valerie Tarico, summarizing sociologist Phil Zuckerman

Oriana: I remember my silent rebellion when first told that humans cannot NOT sin; even worse was the teaching that humans are so depraved that they can’t do anything good either, except when empowered by the gift of grace.


The history of religion is fascinating. I've just been reading of the difficult job the priestly editors had trying to stitch Elohim and Yahweh into a single deity — but then every religion we know of had its origin in earlier religions (note the plural).



~ “Most moons in our solar system are tiny relative to the planets they orbit. These planets wouldn’t miss a moon or two if one got knocked out of orbit. But Earth’s moon is relatively large. So Earth without its large nearby moon would be a very different world indeed.

Imagine … no solar or lunar eclipses.

No calendars based on a system of months. The word month, after all, stems from a word that means moon. That’s because many calendars are based on the changing phases of the moon.

With no moon, there’d be no nearby world for astronauts to visit. We might never have begun to venture out into the solar system.

The moon and sun together cause the tides. If we’d never had a moon, we’d still have tides, but they wouldn’t be as strong.

What’s more, the moon has a place in human culture. Imagine no romantic moonlight walks – no concept of moon madness, or lunacy.

But the biggest change – for us humans and for other earthly life – would be in the length of Earth’s day. Without a moon, Earth would spin faster. Our day would be shorter. Why?

It’s because, billions of years ago when Earth was young, our planet spun around on its axis much faster. Our world’s cycle of day and night was less than 10 hours long. The ebb and flow of the tides are what put the brakes on Earth’s spin. So – if you’re imagining Earth with no moon – you have to imagine our day on Earth much shorter than our present-day 24 hours.” ~


~ “While the admonition to control breathing to calm the brain has been around for ages, only recently has science started uncovering how it works. A 2016 study accidentally stumbled upon the neural circuit in the brainstem that seems to play the key role in the breathing-brain control connection.  The circuit is part of what's been called the brain’s “breathing pacemaker” because it can be adjusted by altering breathing rhythm (slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit; fast, erratic breathing increases activity), which in turn influences emotional states. Exactly how this happens is still being researched, but knowing the pathway exists is a big step forward. Simple controlled breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method may work by regulating the circuit.

Breathing regulates your blood pressure.

“Take a deep breath” is solid advice, particularly when it comes to keeping your blood pressure from spiking. While it’s unclear whether you can entirely manage blood pressure with controlled breathing, research suggests that slowing your breathing increases “baroreflex sensitivity,” the mechanism that regulates blood pressure via heart rate. Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate may lower risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm, and generally decreases stress on blood vessels (a big plus for cardiovascular health).

Counting breaths taps into the brain’s emotional control regions.

A recent study showed that controlling breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain,” particularly in brain regions related to emotion.  Participants were asked to count how many breaths they took over a two-minute period, which caused them to pay especially focused attention to their breathing.  When they counted correctly, brain activity (monitored by EEG) in regions related to emotion, memory and awareness showed a more organized pattern versus what’s normally experienced during a resting state. The results are preliminary, but add to the argument that controlling breathing taps into something deeper.

The rhythm of your breathing affects memory.

A 2016 study showed for the first time that the rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that influences how well we remember.  The biggest differences were linked to whether the study participants were inhaling or exhaling, and whether they breathed through the nose or mouth.  Inhaling was linked to greater recall of fearful faces, but only when breathing through the nose. Participants were also able to remember certain objects better when inhaling. Researchers think that nasal inhalation triggers greater electrical activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional epicenter, which enhances recall of fearful stimuli. Inhaling also seems linked to greater activity in the hippocampus, the seat of memory.

Controlled breathing may boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.

While this is the most speculative of the study findings on this list, it’s also one of the most exciting.  The study was evaluating the “Relaxation Response” (a term popularized in the 1970s book of the same name by Dr. Herbert Benson, also a co-author of this study), which refers to a method of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the nervous system's “fight or flight” response to stress. Controlled breathing triggers a parasympathetic response, according to the theory, and may also improve immune system resiliency as a “downstream health benefit.” The study also found improvements in energy metabolism and more efficient insulin secretion, which results in better blood sugar management. If accurate, the results support the conclusion that controlled breathing isn't only a counterbalance to stress, but also valuable for improving overall health.” ~

photo: Harry Penders

ending on beauty:

Be like the fox.
Make more tracks than necessary — some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

~ Wendell Berry


Khalil Gibran: “We live only to discover Beauty. All else is a form of waiting.”  

Jeremy Sherman: “Happiness is having some kind of work for which you have infinite patience.”

I agree. These are the most striking statements not only in this blog, but perhaps this entire year. And even that is too restrictive. This is deep, timeless wisdom.

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