Saturday, July 28, 2018


Photo: Peter Huib


A jacaranda undulates across 

three wide windows uptown —

billowing and pressing,
thousands of greedy mouths

trying to reach through the glass
with moist little lilac snouts. 

That’s where God likes to be: 

waterfalls, whirlwinds, 

wildflowers waving
on the edge of the cliff

God blowing kisses
from the abyss.

God receives countless prayers
from lovers and aging poets,

the guard in his guard-booth at night,
women who date only prisoners,

and other holy and unholy fools
trying to nail themselves to a cross.

The point of being on the cross
is to become a blossoming tree,

the God of the Jacaranda
wants us to see, waving in merciless

glory — showering moist 

jacaranda kisses

on you and me,
and the hard pavement below.

~ Oriana


 The jacaranda season has already ended, but I still sense its presence, pale violet, a ghost of beyond-blue, angelic. It reminds us of the magnificence nearly everywhere if we only stop thinking of our troubles and look around. True, the kisses of nature are often mixed up with the abyss (“for beauty’s but the beginning of terror”) and fall equally on soft animals like ourselves and on the hardest stone.

Some speak in an appalled tone about the “indifference of nature.” But I like this neutrality. The impartiality of nature, its lack of premeditated malice to me are hugely appealing. To me the main point is: you are not being punished.

In this poem I'm using “God” to mean nature. This upset Milosz, who saw this as a trend: god not as a being, but simply as nature, with predators eating the prey — “everything devouring everything else.” At the same time, he was inclining to dispense with the kind of deity that operates through reward and punishment (even if delayed until the afterlife). I don’t think that’s the kind of god we want. If I were creating a god, I’d want one who understands — the ideal confidant.

But that’s not to be. We have human friends to approximate that. What nature can offer us is beauty. California is still (not as much as before the drought, but still) nature in stunning glory. It’s a country within a country. I’ve come up with this special pledge:

I pledge my allegiance to the Pacific Ocean
and to the beauty for which it stands,
one ocean, indivisible,
with malice toward none,
with sunsets and waves for all. 

OLIVER SACKS (2015, shortly before his death): ~ “A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.” ~


Oriana: Milosz also observed that rather than withdrawing from the world as he grows older, feeling more indifferent toward its beauty, he finds the world more and more beautiful and life ever more sweet, every day precious.


It is a beautiful surprise that the fear of death, which used to occasionally torment me when I was younger, has grown much less as I’ve grown older. This is apparently fairly common. Like Milosz, I too find that the world grows more beautiful and precious every day.

(I feel sorry for those who have never seen the “real” sky, away from light pollution caused by artificial lights of a city. What a vertigo of glow the countryside sky is on a clear night, when one can see billions of stars, and the edge of the Milky Way is very distinct.)

Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.” ~ Joseph Epstein, in The Cultured Life


I think it's Horace who wrote an essay on noise that's was an absolute delight to read . . . part of the delight being the very antiquity of it, but the sentiments so totally understandable, the humor not dated. And then there's Catullus, so startlingly modern in a good translation. And others, certainly -- a mix of what no longer speaks to us with what still does, and very much so. Notes from the Underground, much of Kafka, even, well, Sherlock Holmes — imagine not being familiar with Sherlock! I can't. Knowing only about Superman and Batman, and never having felt that cultural continuity with past centuries — that's what I can't begin to imagine.

Young Cicero Reading; Vincenzo Foppa (1427-1515)

“It’s not that I am so smart, it’s that I stay with a problem longer.” ~ Albert Einstein

“Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise. Because of impatience we cannot return.” ~ Kafka

Gustave Doré: Adam and Eve driven out of Eden

~ “Franz Kafka is the twentieth century’s valedictory ghost. In two incomplete yet incommensurable novels, “The Trial” and “The Castle,” he submits, as lingering spirits will, a ghastly accounting—the sum total of modern totalitarianism. His imaginings outstrip history and memoir, incident and record, film and reportage. He is on the side of realism—the poisoned realism of metaphor. Cumulatively, Kafka’s work is an archive of our era: its anomie, depersonalization, afflicted innocence, innovative cruelty, authoritarian demagoguery, technologically adept killing.

But none of this is served raw. Kafka has no politics; he is not a political novelist in the way of Orwell or Dickens. He writes from insight, not, as people like to say, from premonition. He is often taken for a metaphysical, or even a religious, writer, but the supernatural elements in his fables are too entangled in concrete everydayness, and in caricature, to allow for any incandescent certainties.

The typical Kafkan figure has the cognitive force of a chess master—which is why the term “Kafkaesque,” a synonym for the uncanny, misrepresents at the root. The Kafkan mind rests not on unintelligibility or the surreal but on adamantine logic—on the sane expectation of rationality. A singing mouse, an enigmatic ape, an impenetrable castle, a deadly contraption, the Great Wall of China, a creature in a burrow, fasting as an art form, and, most famously, a man metamorphosed into a bug: all these are steeped in reason; and also in reasoning. “Fairy tales for dialecticians,” the critic Walter Benjamin remarked. In the two great zones of literary susceptibility—the lyrical and the logical—the Kafkan “K” attaches not to Keats but to Kant.

The prose that utters these dire analytic fictions has, with time, undergone its own metamorphosis, and only partly through repeated translations into other languages. Something—fame—has intervened to separate Kafka’s stories from our latter-day reading of them, two or three generations on. The words are unchanged; yet those same passages Kafka once read aloud, laughing at their fearful comedy, to a small circle of friends are now markedly altered under our eyes—enameled by that labyrinthine process through which a literary work awakens to discover that it has been transformed into a classic.  

Kafka has taught us how to read the world differently: as a kind of decree. And because we have read Kafka we know more than we knew before we read him, and are now better equipped to read him acutely. This may be why his graven sentences begin to approach the scriptural; they become as fixed in our heads as any hymn; they seem ordained, fated. They carry the high melancholy tone of resignation unabraded by cynicism. They are stately and plain and full of dread.

And what is it that Kafka himself knew? He was born in 1883; he died, of tuberculosis, in 1924, a month short of his forty-first birthday. He did not live to see human beings degraded to the status and condition of vermin eradicated by an insecticidal gas. If he was able to imagine man reduced to insect, it was not because he was prophetic. Writers, even the geniuses among them, are not seers. It was his own status and condition that Kafka knew. His language was German, and that, possibly, is the point. That Kafka breathed and thought and aspired and suffered in German—and in Prague, a German-hating city—may be the ultimate exegesis of everything he wrote.


~ “He did not live to see human beings degraded to the status and condition of vermin eradicated by an insecticidal gas. If he was able to imagine man reduced to insect, it was not because he was prophetic. Writers, even the geniuses among them, are not seers. It was his own status and condition that Kafka knew.” ~

Kafka wasn't published in Communist Poland. His work wasn't officially forbidden (too famous; it would be bad PR) -- just not published. But somehow old copies were found. Our literature teacher, on the last day of school before our high-school graduation exam, read The Penal Colony to us. The silence in the classroom was total. I wondered how Kafka could have imagined all this, and thought: "He went to a German school." Meaning abusive, oppressive. But some years later, I had a more direct answer: his emotionally abusive father.

“The poisoned realism of a metaphor” is an interesting statement. It certainly applies to The Metamorphosis, which is written in an astonishingly realistic way (makes me think of Dali's realism within the surrealist framework).

It never occurred to me that Kafka's “K” points to Kant (aside from obviously standing for Kafka himself). It makes sense: he had a lawyer’s mind. Like Kant, he was a rationalist, desperately trying to make sense of a world that follows more the logic of a nightmare. 

Again: Kafka was a lawyer. If we take him for a religious writer, then his god was an insane judge, meting out outrageous, unjust sentences if not on the completely innocent, then on the semi-innocent (but let’s not forget that “the attractive ones are always guilty,” as we learn in The Trial).

While Kafka’s darkness looms much larger than flashes of his absurdist humor, when we think of Kafka the man we should remember that actually he was not a gloomy person. He had a circle of close friends and loved to laugh and tell jokes. 

Kafka at an amusement park

"Hilarious 2nd Amendment fact: sabers, bayonets, and other edged weapons were outlawed after the Civil War. We have no problem restricting those. It is still a felony to carry a concealed long knife, as there is no National Blade Association funding candidates and putting out voting reports on Congress." ~ Phil Boiarski


It's pointless trying to be nice to the Nazis.


Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. 

No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.

One straightforward way to trace the growing influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated so many other languages. For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.

In some countries, such as France and Israel, special linguistic commissions have been working for decades to stem the English tide by creating new coinages of their own – to little avail, for the most part. (As the journalist Lauren Collins has wryly noted: “Does anyone really think that French teenagers, per the academy’s diktat, are going to trade out ‘sexting’ for texto pornographique?”) Thanks to the internet, the spread of English has almost certainly sped up.

The gravitational pull that English now exerts on other languages can also be seen in the world of fiction. The writer and translator Tim Parks has argued that European novels are increasingly being written in a kind of denatured, international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar. Novels in this mode – whether written in Dutch, Italian or Swiss German – have not only assimilated the style of English, but perhaps more insidiously limit themselves to describing subjects in a way that would be easily digestible in an anglophone context.

Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.

Within the anglophone world, that English should be the key to all the world’s knowledge and all the world’s places is rarely questioned. The hegemony of English is so natural as to be invisible. Protesting it feels like yelling at the moon. Outside the anglophone world, living with English is like drifting into the proximity of a supermassive black hole, whose gravity warps everything in its reach. Every day English spreads, the world becomes a little more homogenous and a little more bland.


Until recently, the story of English was broadly similar to that of other global languages: it spread through a combination of conquest, trade and colonization. (Some languages, such as Arabic and Sanskrit, also caught on through their status as sacred tongues.) But then, at some point between the end of the second world war and the start of the new millennium, English made a jump in primacy that no amount of talk about it as a “lingua franca” or “global language” truly captures. It transformed from a dominant language to what the Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan calls a “hypercentral” one.

De Swaan divides languages into four categories. Lowest on the pyramid are the “peripheral languages”, which make up 98% of all languages, but are spoken by less than 10% of mankind. These are largely oral, and rarely have any kind of official status. Next are the “central languages”, though a more apt term might be “national languages”. These are written, are taught in schools, and each has a territory to call its own: Lithuania for Lithuanian, North and South Korea for Korean, Paraguay for Guarani, and so on.

Following these are the 12 “supercentral languages”: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili – each of which (except for Swahili) boast 100 million speakers or more. These are languages you can travel with. They connect people across nations. They are commonly spoken as second languages, often (but not exclusively) as a result of their parent nation’s colonial past.

Then, finally, we come to the top of the pyramid, to the languages that connect the supercentral ones. There is only one: English, which De Swaan calls “the hypercentral language that holds the entire world language system together”. The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura similarly describes English as a “universal language” . For Mizumura, what makes it universal is not that it has many native speakers – Mandarin and Spanish have more – but that it is “used by the greatest number of non-native speakers in the world”. She compares it to a currency used by more and more people until its utility hits a critical mass and it becomes a world currency. The literary critic Jonathan Arac is even more blunt, noting, in a critique of what he calls “Anglo-Globalism”, that “English in culture, like the dollar in economics, serves as the medium through which knowledge may be translated from the local to the global.”

In the last few decades, as globalization has accelerated and the US has remained the world’s most powerful country, the advance of English has taken on a new momentum. In 2008, Rwanda switched its education system from French to English, having already made English an official language 14 years earlier. Officially, this was part of the government’s effort to make Rwanda the tech hub of Africa. Unofficially, it’s widely believed to be an expression of disgust at France’s role in propping-up the pre-1994 Hutu-dominant government, as well as a reflection that the country’s ruling elite mostly speaks English, having grown up as exiles in anglophone east Africa.

When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it made English its official language despite having very few resources or qualified personnel with which to teach it in schools. The Minister of higher education at the time justified the move as being aimed at making the country “different and modern”, while the news director of South Sudan Radio added that with English, South Sudan could “become one nation” and “communicate with the rest of the world” — understandable goals in a country home to more than 50 local languages.

The situation in east Asia is no less dramatic. China currently has more speakers of English as a second language than any other country. Some prominent English teachers have become celebrities, conducting mass lessons in stadiums seating thousands. In South Korea, meanwhile, according to the sociolinguist Joseph Sung-Yul Park, English is a “national religion”. Korean employers expect proficiency in English, even in positions where it offers no obvious advantage.

The quest to master English in Korea is often called the yeongeo yeolpung or “English frenzy”. Although mostly confined to a mania for instruction and immersion, occasionally this “frenzy” spills over into medical intervention. As Sung-Yul Park relates: “An increasing number of parents in South Korea have their children undergo a form of surgery that snips off a thin band of tissue under the tongue … Most parents pay for this surgery because they believe it will make their children speak English better; the surgery supposedly enables the child to pronounce the English retroflex consonant with ease, a sound that is considered to be particularly difficult for Koreans.”

There is no evidence to suggest that this surgery in any way improves English pronunciation. The willingness to engage in this useless surgical procedure strikes me, though, as a potent metaphor for English’s peculiar status in the modern world. It is no longer simply a tool suited to a particular task or set of tasks, as it was in the days of the Royal Navy or the International Commission for Air Navigation. It is now seen as the access code to the global elite. If you want your children to get ahead, then they better have English in their toolkit.


Aneta Pavlenko, an applied linguist at Temple University in Pennsylvania, who has spent her career studying the psychology of bilingual and multilingual speakers, has found that speakers of multiple languages frequently believe that each language conveys a “different self”. Languages, according to her respondents, come in a kaleidoscopic range of emotional tones. “I would inevitably talk to babies and animals in Welsh,” reports a Welsh-speaker. An informant from Finland counters: “Finnish emotions are rarely stated explicitly. Therefore it is easier to tell my children that I love them in English.” Several Japanese speakers say that it’s easier to express anger in English, especially by swearing.

In recent decades, sociolinguists have arrived at a few startlingly suggestive findings concerning the influence of language on color perception, orientation and verbs of motion — but in general, the more expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.

Nonetheless, some version of this idea continues to find supporters, not least among writers familiar with shifting between languages. Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Kraków: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. “After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular — urgently.”

In the 1970s, Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist who found herself marooned in Australia after a long career in Polish academia, stood the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head. Instead of trying to describe the worldviews of distant hunter-gatherers, she turned her sociolinguistic lens on the surrounding anglophones. For Wierzbicka, English shapes its speakers as powerfully as any other language. It’s just that in an anglophone world, that invisible baggage is harder to discern. In a series of books culminating in 2013’s evocatively named Imprisoned in English, she has attempted to analyze various assumptions — social, spatial, emotional and otherwise — latent in English spoken by the middle and upper classes in the US and UK.

Reading Wierzbicka’s work is like peeking through a magic mirror that inverts the old “how natives think” school of anthropology and turns it back on ourselves. Her English-speakers are a pragmatic people, cautious in their pronouncements and prone to downplaying their emotions. They endlessly qualify their remarks according to their stance towards what is being said. Hence their endless use of expressions such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I suppose”, “I understand”, “I suspect”. They prefer fact over theories, savor “control” and “space”, and cherish autonomy over intimacy. Their moral lives are governed by a tightly interwoven knot of culture-specific concepts called “right” and “wrong”, which they mysteriously believe to be universal.

Wierzbicka’s description of English’s subconscious system of values hardly holds true for the billion or more speakers of this most global of tongues. But it is also a reminder that, despite its influence, English is not truly universal. Its horizons are just as limited as those of any other language, whether Chinese or Hopi or Dalabon.

For if language connects people socially, it also connects them to a place. The linguist Nicholas Evans has described how Kayardild, a language spoken in northern Australia, requires a speaker to continually orient themselves according to the cardinal directions. Where an English speaker would orient things according to their own perception – my left, my right, my front, my back – a speaker of Kayardild thinks in terms of north, south, east and west. As a consequence, speakers of Kayardild (and those of several other languages that share this feature) possess “absolute reckoning”, or a kind of “perfect pitch” for direction. It also means removing one’s self as the main reference point for thinking about space. As Evans writes of his own experiences learning the language, “one aspect of speaking Kayardild, then, is learning that the landscape is more important and objective than you are. Kayardild grammar literally puts everyone in their place.”

Those of us troubled by the hyperdominance of English should also remember the role it has played in some societies – especially multi-ethnic ones – as a bridge to the wider world and counterweight to other nationalisms. This was especially keenly felt in South Africa, where Afrikaans was widely associated with the policy of apartheid. When the government announced that Afrikaans would be used as a language of instruction in schools on par with English in 1974, the decision led in 1976 to a mass demonstration by black students known as the Soweto uprising. Its brutal suppression resulted in hundreds of deaths, and is considered a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. Similar protests have periodically racked southern India since the 1940s over attempts to enforce official use of Hindi in place of English.

In some ways, the worst threat may come not from the global onrush of modernity, but from an idea: that a single language should suit every purpose, and that being monolingual is therefore somehow “normal”. This is something that’s often assumed reflexively by those of us who live most of our lives in English, but historically speaking, monolingualism is something of an aberration.

Before the era of the nation-state, polyglot empires were the rule, rather than the exception. Polyglot individuals abounded, too. For most of history, people lived in small communities. But that did not mean that they were isolated from one another. Multilingualism must have been common. Today, we see traces of this polyglot past in linguistic hotspots such as the Mandara mountains of Cameroon, where children as young as 10 routinely juggle four or five languages in daily life, and learn several others in school.

A resident of another linguistic hotspot, the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, once told Evans: “It wouldn’t be any good if we talked the same; we like to know where people come from.” It’s a vision of Babel in reverse. Instead of representing a fall from human perfection, as in the biblical story, having many languages is a gift. It’s something to remember before we let English swallow the globe.” ~


~ “The fundamental problem with English for me was that there is no direct connection between words and meanings. In Chinese, most characters are drawn and composed from images. Calligraphy is one of the foundations of the written language. When you write the Chinese for sun, it is 太阳 or 日, which means “an extreme manifestation of Yang energy”. Yang signifies things with strong, bright and hot energy. So “extreme yang” can only mean the sun. But in English, sun is written with three letters, s, u and n, and none of them suggests any greater or deeper meaning. Nor does the word look anything like the sun! Visual imagination and philosophical understandings were useless when it came to European languages.

Another curious realization came when I discovered that I used the first-person plural too much in my everyday speech. In the west, if I said “We like to eat rice”, it would confuse people. They couldn’t understand who this “we” was referring to. Instead, I should have said “We Chinese like to eat rice”. After a few weeks, I swapped to the first-person singular, as in “I like to eat rice”. But it made me uncomfortable. After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? The habitual use of “I” requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities. But in China no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.” ~

Beijing, The Tianning Pagoda built around 1120 


Ah, language, our most magical and defining invention! We live in and through language, but in thinking about it must avoid both determinism and romanticism. First it is important to realize that like the history of species the history of language has lost more to extinction than the total number of extant forms now alive — and this is normal. Extinction happens all the time, whether we cause it or attempt to prevent it. The evolution of societies from a multitude of small tribal groups to eventual larger communities and then nations was also the development from many distinct languages to ones spoken and understood by all members of a nation. In this process the majority of languages were lost — spoken by fewer and fewer people until only one last speaker was left, and a language can't survive with one speaker. There have been projects to record and save such languages, but they are now merely historical, no longer alive.

I do not believe a language determines how or what its  speakers experience, but the order of a language, its grammar, the forms and sounds of its words, (like the portmanteau words found in German and some Native American languages, or the musicality of a language) can influence both experience and thought. Language is a cultural form, so there is interaction between what is said, how it is said (or can be said) and what is done (or can be done) — what is seen as important,  what is remembered, and what is forgotten. Imagine living in that language that demands your location in space, imagine you must know that location in order to speak . . . And consider how none of that information is necessary, revealed or even always accessible in English, or most languages we know.

There is also an inevitable interaction between language and history. The German language used to sanction the classification of millions of human beings as vermin, and to organize their systematic extermination, can never escape that history, that usage. It will carry that foul and poisonous echo forever. English, as a language of colonialism, as used both in the defense and the abolition of slavery, also encapsulates that history in its vocabulary: words that can bring old nightmares, old injustices, old prejudices, back into play. These echoes are particularly strong in vocabularies of forbidden words, words that have unusual weight, curses and prayers. Think of the "N" word in the United States, or of the politics embedded in insisting our civil war was about “states’ rights," not the perpetuation of an economy based on slavery. Think of the difference between calling secession a "rebellion" instead of "treason."

I don't think there is any mystery in the preeminence of English globally. The primary determinant is economic, and the universal perception that knowing English will help one succeed is difficult to counter. It may not be sufficient, but is generally necessary. Even countries colonized by France are turning from the colonizers’ French to English — perhaps as a refusal to honor the colonizer, but perhaps even more as a matter of pragmatics. And English continues to be a great borrower from other languages, with a huge and ever growing vocabulary, even as English terms are appropriated by other languages. This is a living process difficult to resist and probably impossible to reverse, despite even the most fervent efforts of the French purists.

The study of language, like the study of its creators, is infinitely fascinating — perhaps central to linguists and poets, but something universally shared by all, and universally necessary to all human enterprise. Without words, we are hardly human.



Even as recently as before WW2, and definitely through the 19th century, French was still ahead as the universal language — to be educated meant to have at least a reading knowledge of French. French was elegant and beautiful; it was an established marker of a social class. Unlike English, thought to be “mercantile,” French was the language of “culture.”

Then Germany started forging ahead as the most advanced country while the British Empire began to decline, and German gained some popularity as a second language — but the catastrophe of the two world wars put an end to that, except in countries like Poland where German can still be useful for conducting business. Yes, pragmatics again, though to a limited degree.

After WW2, though French still lingered in Africa for a while, there was no longer any question about which second language children should study in school: the emergence of the United States as the leading world power consolidated the status of English. And the richer, more ambitious parents invested in private lessons as well.

As you insightfully note, it’s above all a matter of pragmatics. And now English mainly exports new words. The world of science and technology depends on the short, wonderfully usable terms like “stress” or “wi-fi.” A scientific study needs to be published in English — at least the abstract. No matter how important the findings, they will remain unknown if published only in, say, Hungarian.

As the article points out, English is not especially pretty. I’d add that it’s hard to pronounce, its spelling is chaotic and archaic, and its grammar can get maddening when it comes to the verb tenses — there is a crazy excess of tenses (and of prepositions as well). As in all languages, there is completely illogical stuff that makes it more difficult for non-native speakers. Native speakers of English do have an unfair advantage, but — that’s reality. One hundred years ago, we’d likely be saying, “C’est la vie.”

The Chinese ideograms have a poetic quality, but I suspect that a different system of writing would have to be adopted for Chinese to emerge as a hyper-language, even as China gains more and more dominance in technology.

I remember the period when Japan began to make huge strides, and American businessmen were signing up for Japanese lessons. That didn’t last — a message not lost on the rest of the world, where English lessons remain a constant feature of the lives of children lucky enough to go to school. There is something admirable about those multilingual tribal villagers, and with each lost language we lose some particles of special perception or music or a word for a feeling that may not exist in any other language — but, as you say, there is no stopping a natural cultural evolution.

Let’s record the songs, though — there is something special about songs that comes through without having to know the meaning of the words.

Baalbek, Lebanon, the temple of Dionysos (Bacchus). Let's not forget that Greek was the hyperlanguage of Antiquity, at least in what was later to become the Roman Empire; educated Romans spoke Greek.

~ “In the 1980s and early 90s, American epidemiologist Gary Slutkin was in Somalia, one of six doctors working across 40 refugee camps containing a million people. His focus was on containing the spread of tuberculosis (TB) and cholera. Containing infectious diseases relies heavily on data. Public health officials map out exactly where the most transmissions of the disease are occurring. Then they can focus on containing the spread in these areas. Often, this containment happens by getting people to change their behavior so that a rapid effect can be seen even when larger structural factors can’t be tackled.

Changing behavioral norms is far more effective than simply giving people information. To change behavior — whether it’s using rehydration solutions, avoiding dirty water or using condoms — credible messengers are essential. “In all of these outbreaks, we used outreach workers from the same group [as the target population],” says Slutkin.

After more than a decade working overseas, Slutkin returned to his native Chicago in the late 90s, exhausted from the perpetual travel and constant exposure to death. “I wanted a break from all these epidemics,” he says. But he returned to a different kind of problem: a skyrocketing homicide rate.

His ideas about tackling the problem began as a personal project: he gathered maps and data on gun violence in Chicago. The parallels with the maps of disease outbreaks he was accustomed to were unavoidable. “The epidemic curves are the same, the clustering,” he says. “In fact, one event leads to another, which is diagnostic of a contagious process. Flu causes more flu, colds cause more colds, and violence causes more violence.”

This was a radical departure from mainstream thinking about violence at the time, which primarily focused on enforcement. “The idea that’s wrong is that these people are ‘bad’ and we know what to do with them, which is punish them,” says Slutkin. “That’s fundamentally a misunderstanding of the human. Behavior is formed by modeling and copying. When you’re [looking through] a health lens, you don’t blame. You try to understand, and you aim for solutions.”

He spent the next few years trying to gather funding for a pilot project that would use the same steps against violence as the WHO takes to control outbreaks of cholera, TB or HIV. It would have three main prongs: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms. In 2000, it launched in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. Within the first year, there was a 67% drop in homicides. More funding came, more neighborhoods were piloted. Everywhere it launched, homicides dropped by at least 40%. The approach began to be replicated in other cities.

“When we were trying to control outbreaks of HIV, it was all about changing your thinking about risky sexual behavior,” says Slutkin. “That’s much harder to change than violent behavior. People don’t want to change sexual behavior – but they don’t actually want to have violent behavior.” Although there were many deeper structural factors contributing to Chicago’s violence – poverty, lack of jobs, exclusion, racism and segregation – Slutkin argued that lives could be saved by changing the behavior of individuals and shifting group norms.

As in many places, discussion of violence in Chicago often takes on a highly racialized tone. The city is deeply racially segregated. Many South Side neighborhoods are 95% or more African American; others more than 95% Mexican American. Most of these areas are socioeconomically deprived and have suffered years of state neglect. Homicide rates can be up to 10 times higher than in more affluent, predominantly white areas. But Slutkin emphasizes that this clustering is not to do with race, but to do with patterns of behavior — usually among a small section of the population, usually young and male – that are transmitted between people. “Language dictates the way people respond, so we don’t use words like ‘criminal’ or ‘gang’ or ‘thug’ – we talk about contagion, transmission, health,” he says.

Demetrius Cole is 43, spent 12 years in prison. He grew up in an area of Chicago afflicted by violence and, at the age of 15, saw his best friend die in a shooting. Nonetheless, he had a stable home life and stayed out of gangs. He planned to join the Marines. When he was 19, a close friend bought a car. Some other boys from the neighborhood tried to steal the car, and shot Cole’s friend. Cole didn’t stop to think. He retaliated. In those few minutes, his life changed. His friend was left paralyzed, and Cole was sent to prison. “I reacted off emotion like you see out here today,” he says. Since October 2017, he has been working for Cure Violence in West Englewood, a South Side district of Chicago. He finds people in the same situation he was once in, and tries to persuade them to pause. “We try to show them this is a dead end. I tell them, there’s only two ways this thing is going to end. You’re going to go to jail or you’re going to die.”

Cole works as a “violence interrupter”, employed by Cure Violence to intervene in the aftermath of a shooting to prevent retaliations, and to calm people down before a dispute escalates to violence. “We try to come up with different kinds of ways to deter these kids from the ways they’re used to thinking,” he says, “and give them a different outlook.”

Violence interrupters use numerous techniques, some borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy. Cole reels them off. “Constructive shadowing”, which means echoing people’s words back to them; “babysitting”, which is simply staying with someone until they have cooled down; and emphasizing consequences. “A lot of kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from, [or] their mother’s getting high,” says Cole. “People say everything is common sense. No. Sense is not common to a lot of people.”

Interrupters’ ability to be effective depends on their credibility. Many, like Cole, have served long prison sentences and can speak from experience. Most also have a close relationship with the community. They can respond when a shooting takes place, for instance by convincing loved ones not to retaliate. But they are also aware if conflict is brewing between two individuals or rival groups, and can move to defuse the tension or suggest peaceful alternatives.

Although it must always be adapted for each location, Cure Violence follows roughly the same steps when establishing itself in a new place. First, map the violence to see where it clusters. Next, hire credible workers with a local connection. These interrupters patrol the streets on their beat, getting to know shopkeepers, neighbors – and building links with the young men and women deemed to be the highest risk. “They’re able to know if there’s been a fight, or if there’s a fight brewing. That’s what makes violence interrupters successful. You have to be there.”

“You have to have a few tricks up your sleeve,” said Jermaine Peace, an outreach worker at Grand Crossing. Sometimes he might catch someone’s interest by telling them he can help them get photo ID, like a driving licence. “Some of these boys and girls think no one cares,” he said. “Once you start showing you care and you call them, they may call one day and say, ‘Man, I ain’t ate in two days.’ You go over there and buy them something to eat, you get more chance to talk to them.” Peace uses these openings to try to change their outlook on violence. Outreach workers assist with whatever their clients need – referring them to addiction treatment, finding jobs, or even buying new clothes to wear to interviews. The work is challenging, particularly in the younger age bracket where peer pressure is strong. One young man Peace was working with was recently shot dead, just as he was starting to engage with the process.

While Slutkin emphasises how quickly this model can be effective in reducing homicides, and how it costs less than mass incarceration, there is no escaping the fact that it takes a lot of workers to get results. Some of Chicago’s gang territories are very small, just a few blocks. A violence interrupter respected in one area may be unknown, or even mistrusted, in another. To work, there must be at least one interrupter with strong connections in each district, so that if a conflict erupts, someone with the trust of the group can mediate. “I’ve been there. It’s hard coming back from prison and back into society,” says Cole. “If people know of you and know your history, you’re able to stop a lot of things when it comes to shootings and killings. I’m able to show people: you can do this, you can change.”

Despite the ever-growing evidence, governments are sometimes reluctant to properly invest. “The difficulty is not how to reduce violence – it is the way people understand the problem,” says Slutkin, his frustration visible. He draws a parallel with Aids and the stigma attached to those who contracted it during the first outbreaks in the 80s.

On a sunny evening in downtown Chicago, I watch Slutkin give a talk to an audience of young professionals. In Chicago, homicides reached a 20-year high in 2016, and the following year President Donald Trump threatened to “send in the feds”. Slutkin presents graphs showing that every time Cure Violence’s funding is cut in a certain area, shootings spike, and when it returns, they drop. (Critics argue that it is impossible to draw conclusions about causality, due to other factors at play.) “Despite massive amounts of data, it’s hard to get funding for this,” Slutkin tells the audience. “Mass imprisonment has no good data – but it’s funded. This is the only epidemic health problem not being tackled by the health department.”


Thirteen years after it was established, the Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit has retained its flexibility and openness to new ideas. In 2012, Iain Murray, a policeman working for the unit, travelled to Los Angeles to visit Homeboy Industries, a catering company that employs former gang members. In addition to providing employment for a year for former violent offenders, Homeboy gives mentoring, psychotherapy and other support. Murray came back inspired, thinking how to put a “Scottish spin” on it.

The result is Braveheart Industries, a social enterprise run by the VRU. Its main business is Street and Arrow, a food truck that sits in the Partick area of Glasgow, dishing up peri-peri chicken burgers and fish tacos. It hires former violent offenders for a year, and provides intensive mentoring from a navigator as well as regular psychotherapy and assistance with literacy, housing, parenting and anything else that is required. Participants must have a criminal history, must abstain from drugs and alcohol, and must be ready to change.

Allen, 27, has been working at Street and Arrow for three months. When I ask how long he had spent in prison, he isn’t able to tell me: he’s lost track. But according to Murray, he’s been sent to prison 27 times. “I didn’t come from a supportive background, so I chose the wrong path – drink, drugs, violence, chaos, prison,” says Allen, a tall, well-built man who avoids eye contact. “That was my life. It’s hard to escape once you start.” After his last prison stint, he went into rehab. Someone there told him about Street and Arrow. He applied for a job, and was shocked when he got it. “I came up here with nothing, and I mean nothing,” he says. “But the more I was away from the chaos, the more my life just got better and better.”

The rain suddenly stops and the sun comes out. Allen gestures at the sky. “In my area, when it was sunny, it made me even more anxious as there were more people out, with knives,” he says. “I’m not anxious when it’s sunny any more. I’ve got a future ahead of me.”

For many participants, apparently simple things can be a challenge: arriving on time, taking orders, wearing a uniform. The navigators support them through this, so that, at the end of a year, they’re prepared for a normal job. At the same time, there are echoes of Chicago’s interrupters, modifying behavior to prevent the transmission of violence. The navigators build a relationship with trainees and help them change their responses to conflict.

The program has been highly successful, with 80% of participants staying out of prison and going on to other employment. Murray has noticed the drastic difference in Allen. “I know from my previous roles in policing over the years that I could have arrested that guy 10 times in a row and I wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference to his behavior. By supporting him and connecting with him, I can make a long-term, sustainable change to his behavior,” he says. “I cannot believe how good that guy is. I cannot get him to leave work. It’s remarkable to see. You start caring about them and they start caring about themselves.” ~

A job-training food truck in Glasgow. Glasgow used to be regarded as the "murder capital of Western Europe."


But I wonder if the urge to condemn and punish is stronger than the urge to understand and show caring. Of course it’s vastly more expensive to keep someone in jail than to provide job training and business clothes suitable for an interview. But as the article points out, in politics being “soft on crime” is a suicide. Training a disadvantaged youngster to be a chef? “Nobody ever trained me to be a chef!” I can hear the bitter outcry from those who try to make ends meet by working two poorly paid jobs.

When I worked in prisons, I heard how guards sometimes sabotaged the inmates’ classes because of their envy of the education the inmates were receiving and the “fun” they were supposedly having, and the attention and respect they were getting from the instructors. Prison educational programs have been shown to dramatically cut down on recidivism, but getting funding is always a struggle.


“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” ~ Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre and de Beauvoir at a fair, 1929


~ “Blacks made up about a quarter of the Democratic Party, but Republicans estimated the share at 46 percent. Republicans thought 38 percent of Democrats were gay, lesbian or bisexual, while the actual number was about 6 percent. Democrats estimated that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year. The actual share was 2 percent.

People also overstated the numbers of these stereotypical groups within their own party — Democrats thought 29 percent of their fellow Democrats were gay, lesbian or bisexual — but they weren’t off by as much as members of the other party.

If you told someone on the phone whom you had never met before that you are white, that single fact would not tell them much more about you. But if you told them that you are a Republican, they could reasonably assume that you are not black, lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual, nonreligious or Jewish. They could also assume that you don’t live in Washington, D.C., and that you don’t believe racial discrimination is the primary reason blacks aren’t making more advances in today’s America. If you told them you are a Democrat, they would have good reason to believe that you are not a white evangelical Christian and don’t live in coal country in Kentucky. (We should not exaggerate how perfectly sorted people are: In raw numbers, there are still plenty people who buck their party’s stereotypes — young and non-evangelical Republicans and Democrats who are religious and non-urban.)

And which party people belong to is important because there is some evidence that instead of people choosing their party affiliation based on their political views (and changing parties if their views are no longer represented by that party), they shift their views to align with their party identity. The clearest case of this might be polls showing Republicans with more favorable views of Russia and Vladimir Putin after the 2016 election.

But you can also see people molding their political opinions to their party on other issues. Opinions of the FBI, for example. Or, perhaps, the half of Republicans who have told pollsters that they support separating children from their parents at the border.

“The danger of mega-partisan identity is that it encourages citizens to care more about partisan victory than about real policy outcomes,” Mason told me. “We find ways to justify almost any governmental policy as long as it is the policy of our own team. What is best for America, Americans or even small children is secondary to whether our party’s team gets what it demanded.” ~

“The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” ~ Aldous Huxley

“We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness. The world simply cannot afford this many more times.” ~ Edward Said

“Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument.” ~ Dr. Samuel Johnson


“Once, Picasso was asked what his paintings meant. He said, 'Do you ever know what the birds are singing? You don’t. But you listen to them anyway.' So, sometimes with art, it is important just to look.” ~ Marina Abramović

Picasso: Boy with a Pipe, 1905

“Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” ~ Theodore Roethke
Chagall: Artist at Easel


~ “Rolf Erik Eikemo, a Norwegian man who should have been in the prime of his life, instead succumbed to cancer last year. But he will live on — at least on Google — because he agreed to a very cool experiment proposed by the TV show Folkeopplysningen (Public Education).

Editors of that program, which frequently takes aim at superstition and woo, heard that Eikemo’s days were numbered, and got in touch to ask him if he would write a secret message on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope, and put it in a safe.

The idea was that after Eikemo died, psychics from around the world would be given the chance to either remote-view the note via paranormal means, or would somehow get inside the deceased’s head to learn what he had scribbled.

With Eikemo gone, some 2,000 people from around the world participated in the challenge, e-mailing the TV makers with what they thought they’d been able to glean. Many had obviously googled the man and gambled that he’d left a note of consolation to his children (wrong). Others wrote that the secret note said carpe diem or other thoughts and clichés that might pop into a dying person’s head (also wrong).

When the actual Eikemo note was removed from the safe and opened, it turned out that he had written a wonky World War II reference:

    ‘Two ME 110 Messerschmitt planes fly over Gandsfjord on April 9, bank west, and fire on Sola Airport.’

Did any of the 2,000 self-described psychics come at all close? Was there at least one person who guessed something about fighter planes, or war, or Gandsfjord, or an airport, or April?


Shortly before his death, Eikemo told a TV interviewer that

    ‘The illusion that there’s life after death is used to take advantage of the survivors, the loved ones. I would like to show that that’s wrong.’

And he did.

Maybe the episode will put a dent in the number of Norwegians — almost 33 percent of them — who believe there is life is after death.” ~


One could argue that this isn’t about life after death but more about the falseness of the psychics’ claims in general. But a lot of the psychics’ business comes from allegedly communicating with the dead, who tend to spout inspirational platitudes rather than reveal the cure for arthritis or the location of an employee who absconded with the money, or anything useful or specific.

As long as the inspirational platitudes are emotionally supportive, not much harm is done, but sometimes the so-called psychics are real scam experts who manage to extract a lot of cash from the survivors. 


Interestingly, Harry Houdini devoted a lot of time in his last years trying to find even one honest “medium” — and discovered nothing but fraud. Still, he too left a “code” for his wife Beatrice (Bess) which he would use to communicate with her after death — should he indeed exist and be able to communicate. Bess held yearly seances, waiting for her beloved Harry to manifest his presence. No conclusive results were obtained, and after ten years Bess ended the seances.

Alas, Houdini’s unmasking of the mediums’ tricks destroyed his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of hyper-rationalist Sherlock Holmes believed in the spirit world and communicating with the dead — who were all around us and apparently eager to chat. But Houdini, himself a master of tricks — “There is something interesting about the way he was always so convinced by the evidence of his own eyes. Theatre is all about directing the eye,” Eidinow says, “and where people look. It’s about controlling what people see and don’t see” — could apparently outthink even Sherlock. And Doyle could not cope with Houdini’s brutal honesty (please pardon the cliché — “brutal” because so many people desperate cling to the belief that they and the deceased loved one will “meet again” and all will be forgiven and beautiful).

(By the way, one of the “proofs” that Conan Doyle tried to use to convince Houdini was an alleged letter from Houdini’s dead Hungarian-Jewish mother, produced via automatic writing. The letter was written in grammatically correct English; Houdini dismissed it by saying that his mother’s English was terrible.)


Houdini in chains; Conan Doyle in uniform


I too would love the afterlife to exist in some form (preferably not the eternal hymn-singing of Christian heaven), but my first choice would be simply to live for centuries right here on earth — I'm always curious about happens next, and my appetite for beauty appears inexhaustible. I would not be bored just looking at things: nature, art, people’s and animals’ faces.

So it’s not that I'm devoid of the longing to continue. It’s rather that the alternate explanation of how consciousness ceases seems very convincing to me. Consciousness (“soul”) is not a thing that can leave the body after death and go anywhere, be it heaven, hell, purgatory, or some mysterious “spirit world” filled with colored lights and music of the spheres. Consciousness is not a noun but a verb — a process, a brain function that ceases when all brain function ceases.

When a candle gutters and goes out, we don’t ask, “Where did the flame go?” The fuel that fed the flame got spent, or else the oxygen supply was cut off (I used to love watching the sacristan snuff out the tall church candles with a special metal hood, like an executioner). Likewise, where a movie ends, we don’t ask, “Where  did the movie go?” It ceased to be projected or downloaded — but the process can be repeated again. Not so with us — even if we download our memories on a computer drive, that will hardly be the same thing as being alive. Alas . . .



~ “Researchers found that a daily dose of 75 to 100 milligrams of aspirin lowered the risk of cardiovascular events by 23 percent for people weighing less than 154 pounds, but had no effect in those weighing more. In people over 154 pounds, low-dose aspirin increased the risk for a fatal cardiovascular event.

Higher doses — 325 to 500 milligrams a day — were effective in lowering cardiovascular risk in people who weighed more than 154.

Low-dose aspirin reduced the risk for colorectal cancer in people weighing less than 154 pounds, but not in those weighing more. High doses lowered the cancer risk in people between 154 and 176 pounds, but not in those heavier than that.

“There are a billion people worldwide taking aspirin regularly, and every randomized trial is based on the same dose for everyone,” said the lead author, Peter M. Rothwell, a professor of neurology at Oxford University. “It may be that we’ve got that wrong, and have to tailor dosage to the individual, as we do with other drugs.” ~


Note: “ In people over 154 pounds, low-dose aspirin increased the risk for a fatal cardiovascular event.”

Shouldn’t this research have been done decades ago, before issuing guidelines on low-dose aspirin for the cardiovascular protection? And shouldn’t drugs in general be dosed according to body weight, as is the common practice when animal lab studies are performed?

Meanwhile millions of men, who generally weigh well over 154 lbs, have been put on low-dose aspirin. Less means safer, right? Oops!

I think the baby aspirin was chosen on the basis of studies that showed that it takes only a small of acetylsalicylic acid to inhibit platelet aggregation, thus reducing the likelihood of a clot. But the anti-clotting effect just one benefit of aspirin. It has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, and reduces body temperature (this is a positive thing —- even for a person not having a fever).

The anti-inflammatory effect probably counts more, since aging means increased inflammation (hence the term “inflammaging”) — and cardiovascular disease is inflammatory, meaning that our own immune system is killing us (in many ways, but cardiovascular disease is the one killer).

My guess is that not only the person's weight, but also their age and personal and family medical history should be taken into consideration.

For prevention of heart attack or stroke it’s best to take aspirin at night rather than during daytime.

If you are concerned with damage to the lining of the stomach, the Alka-Seltzer type of aspirin (with baking soda) has been shown to cause no damage.


ending on beauty:

The dog days of summer are upon us:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.

~ Homer, the Iliad

Munch: Summer night in Asgardstrand

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Giselbertus: The Temptation of Eve, Cathedral of St. Lazare at Autun, 12th century. (It is uncertain if Giselbertus is the name of the artist or a patron)

“What Do Women Want?”

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it  
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store  
with all those keys glittering in the window,  
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old  
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers  
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,  
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.  
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.  
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you  
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment  
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body  
to carry me into this world, through  
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,  
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,  
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

~ Kim Addonizio

What woman doesn’t have fantasies about a sexy red dress? Or at least “used to have”? Ah, to be a “scarlet woman” at least in appearance — fearless, shameless, look-at-me kind of woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Flaunting rather than hiding. When men cross-dress, they don’t put on demure clothes and barely visible “natural” make-up. Their bigger egos naturally push them toward flaunting, toward the red dress.

The women I know love this poem. How come? I think it’s because women are socialized to be “nice” and always put the needs of others ahead of their own. If they resent it, but carefully bury that resentment. That’s why these lines — only when coming from a woman — are a shock:

I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you  
or anything except what
I want.

But do we believe them? After all, a poet is a woman, so most likely she is just putting on this bravado, while underneath the imaginary dress she is “nice.” She is “sweet.”

The best comes after this passage — and the dress, while still a dress, becomes much more, the woman’s truth, the essence of her life:

When I find it, I’ll pull that garment  
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body  
to carry me into this world, through  
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,  
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,  
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Will she ever find this dress, even after she drops the layers and layers of slavish niceness? One hope is getting older. Once they see that there isn’t much time left, at least some women decide to make the best of their last years — at least before the disabilities of advanced aging take hold. This is the last chance to reach for what you want. The last chance to tell the truth. To eat the food we really like, to wear the clothes we love to wear (usually the comfortable sort), to get that puppy or kitten we always wanted. These are not small things — they are primary. Freedom!

Being buried in a red dress is not small either. Never mind “dying with honor.” It may be too late to live free. But to die free — in the end, that's what the red dress is about. At least that.

In contrast to wanting a red dress, some women want to be near-invisible.


And when the Heavens — disband —
And Deity conclude —
Then — look for me. Be sure you say —
Least Figure — on the Road —

~ Dickinson, 401

Ah, Emily, with her careful self-effacement, her “I'm nobody — who are you?”

And that was very clever of her too — her own rebellion, her freedom, her “red dress” was pretending she hardly even existed. That’s yet another strategy, one well suited for times when repression is just too heavy.


This being the Southwest, "no figure on the road" is the typical experience. After the biblical “end of the world” (eagerly looked forward to by many), for a while at least, things here would look pretty much the same . . . or in Nebraska, say.

I'm glad for the companionship of clouds.

By the way, “heavens disband” because “the kingdom of heaven” did not mean a place in the clouds. It meant the future paradise here on earth. “Thy kingdom come” — not that we “go to heaven” — the Jews at the time of Jesus had no concept of “going to heaven” — but that heaven come to earth.


“Writing is that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” ~ Pico Iyer
That, too, is the essence of Emily Dickinson.


“By the time she was their age, she had seen all the Kurosawas, all the Tarkovskys, all the Fellinis, all the Antonionis, all the Fassbinders, all the Wertmullers, all the Satyajit Rays, all the Rene Clairs, all the Wim Wenders, all the Truffauts, the Goddards, the Chabrols, the Resnaises, the Rohmers, the Renoirs, and all these kids have seen is Star Wars.” ~ Philip Roth, The Human Stain 

Somewhat my experience after I came to this country — not that intensely with movies, but mainly with literary masterpieces. Antigone, Oedipus, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables — those were unforgettable, formative encounters. Toss in also my knowledge of world history (much as I’d hated memorizing the dates of battles). My American peers had been formed chiefly by mass culture. There was much less common cultural heritage than I’d expected. History began with George Washington (well, OK, Columbus; someone asked me, “Did you know who Columbus was before you came to America?”)

“You must feel very lonely,” a sensitive LA woman poet once observed. I was even glad for Catholicism — at least I could talk to ex-Catholics, and have something in common.

"Bicycle Thieves" was one of several unforgettable movies that stayed in my mind forever, along with "400 Blows." Those movies expanded my empathy and molded my psyche. There was no possibility of becoming a Republican after seeing a movie like that. None.

Perhaps that's one reason that there is more sympathy for the poor in Europe: well-known cinematic masterpieces made it very plain about the power of circumstances. Inequality and randomness have always been on display in European cinema: a hero defeated by circumstances is a familiar, and sympathetic, “figure on the road” (to borrow from Dickinson). I suspect this is still true: when misfortune strikes, Europeans are less likely to assume that it's all your fault, you deserve it, you didn't work hard enough, didn't “dress for success," think positive, etc.

~ “Einstein warned: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” I would say that the unleashed power of language yields clusterfucks that are beyond us to manage.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


We’ve developed abstract concepts. Religions and ideologies were not far behind, ever grander and more absolute, leading to enormous suffering and slaughter.

Obviously, we can’t roll back the development of language. But we can educate children (and people in general) to question absolutes.

And we can become more aware of how our need to find meaning and patterns everywhere can lead us astray. A bird may be a symbol of freedom, but the real bird is primarily interested in food. That’s not inspiring, and we crave inspiration. But if we take an interest in reality, that may prove fascinating. Did you know that if humans had the metabolism of a hummingbird, they would have to consume approximately 155,000 calories a day? 


~ “On June 23, 1993, between 3:30 and 4:30 A.M., Lorena Bobbitt, 24, cut off the penis of her sleeping husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, in Manassas, Virginia, a small town 30 miles west of Washington, D.C. She fled the scene, penis in hand, in a 1991 Mercury Capri. At the intersection of Maplewood Drive and Old Centreville Road, she flung the penis out the driver’s-side window, before continuing on her way. The penis landed in a grassy field opposite a 7-Eleven.

Lorena Gallo, born in Ecuador in 1969, raised in Venezuela, became besotted with the America she saw in our movies and TV shows. In 1987, she came to the U.S. on a student visa, enrolling in Northern Virginia Community College. She worked as a manicurist at the salon of a local businesswoman, Janna Bisutti. At a dance hall near the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Lorena met Lance Corporal John Wayne Bobbitt, of Niagara Falls, New York. The attraction was instantaneous, powerful, mutual. Lorena: “I thought John was very handsome. Blue eyes. A man in a uniform, you know? He was almost like a symbol—a Marine, fighting for the country. I believed in this beautiful country. I was swept off my feet. I wanted my American Dream.” John: “Lorena was pretty. She was innocent. She was real, real sweet.” On June 18, 1989, they wed. The bride was 20, the groom 22.

The union went south quick. Lorena blamed John’s violence: physical (he beat her, she claimed), sexual (he forced her to engage in anal intercourse, and later to undergo an abortion, she claimed), emotional (he threatened to have her deported, she claimed). John, who denies all such allegations, blamed Lorena’s greed. “Lorena was a good wife a lot of the time. But she was obsessed with having her American Dream, her American Dream, her American Dream—she said it all the time. Janna Bisutti had a big house, a cabin cruiser, a Mercedes. Lorena wanted those things. She just wanted too much, too fast.”

In 1991, John was discharged from the Marines and found himself without steady employment. Lorena became the main breadwinner. Their fights escalated. She called 911 (so did he). Lorena was caught embezzling $7,200 from Bisutti (she stole the money out of desperation, she claimed, because she was supporting both her and John). The couple’s house went into foreclosure. They broke up. A year later they reconciled. It didn’t take.

John and Lorena had already agreed to separate again when, in the early-morning hours of June 23, 1993, John returned to their apartment with his friend and houseguest, Robert Johnston, after a night of drinking. Johnston retired to the living room; John to the bedroom, where Lorena was asleep. According to Lorena, John raped her before falling asleep himself. She went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She saw a knife. She used it to cut off his penis. “I didn’t want to teach him a lesson,” says Lorena. “No, it was survival. Life and death. I was fearing for my life.” According to John, the sex was consensual. “I was leaving her for good,” says John. “It was what my mom said—If she couldn’t have me, no one could. And there was the green card, too. That didn’t come to my mind at the time, but it’s obvious. You have to be married to an American citizen for five years to get one, and we’d only been married for four.”

Lorena got into her car and drove to Janna Bisutti’s house, flinging the penis out the window en route. Bisutti called the police, gave them its rough coordinates. Officers recovered it and brought it to Prince William Hospital, where Johnston had taken John a short time before. It was re-attached by Dr. James Sehn, a urologist, and Dr. David Berman, a plastic surgeon, in a near-miraculous nine-and-a-half-hour operation.

On November 11, 1993, a jury of nine women and three men found John not guilty of marital sexual assault. Two months later, on January 21, 1994, a jury of seven women and five men found Lorena not guilty of malicious wounding due to temporary insanity. Both offenses carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

By acquitting both John and Lorena, the judicial system was basically throwing up its hands, admitting it didn’t know who to blame. The public, however, was neither so confused nor so equivocal. Complexity and ambiguity be damned. They wanted a villain—John, an under-employed former Marine barfly with barbells for brains. And a heroine—Lorena, a young woman tipping the scales at 92 pounds who could hardly speak except to weep. This wasn’t life, it was TV. In fact, it was reality TV, or would have been were such a term yet coined.

CNN aired Lorena’s trial in its entirety. When coverage was interrupted to show President Clinton’s press conference on Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, the switchboard lit up with calls from irate viewers who didn’t want to miss a single second of the proceedings, the minutiae of the couple’s squabbles—over whether to buy a real Christmas tree or a plastic one, for instance—riveting in their banality. Comedians hadn’t had it so good since a Long Island teenager named Amy Fisher knocked on the door of Mrs. Joey Buttafuoco—and not to sell Girl Scout cookies. Outside the courthouse, vendors hawked Slice sodas and hot dogs, penis-shaped chocolates, T-shirts bearing the legend LOVE HURTS. Lorena expressed the hope that Marisa Tomei would play her in the movie. Once John’s trial wrapped up, he embarked on a 40-city tour in which he participated in “Stump the Bobbitt”—that is, tried to guess punch lines to jokes about his mutilation—went on radio programs, autographed steak knives, and appeared as a judge on Howard Stern’s New Year’s Eve pageant (fellow judges included Tiny Tim, Mark Hamill, and Daniel Carver, the Grand Dragon of the Georgia K.K.K.).

Once her trial ends, Lorena is able to impose on her life a new story line, one that could have been lifted from a Horatio Alger novel, or from the Hollywood movies and TV shows that so enchanted her as a teenager. Hers becomes a tale about making it in America with nerve, pluck, and grit.

After a 45-day psychiatric evaluation, doctors decide that Lorena isn’t a threat to herself or the community. She’s released from the psychiatric hospital. “I had no money, no job,” she tells me, as we sit in the kitchen of her house, a two-story affair in the quiet, suburban town of Gainesville, Virginia, a mere stone’s throw from Manassas. There’s a bowl of fruit on the table, family photos cover the walls. She continues, “I could go back to Venezuela and my parents, but I want my parents to come here for a better life. I have nothing, but I still have my American Dream.” That summer, she becomes a citizen. Her father, mother, brother, and sister are on hand to witness the proud moment. They stay in the hopes of being granted citizenship themselves. Lorena supports them all as an administrative assistant and a manicurist.

A film deal based on her life story fails to materialize, which is O.K. by Lorena. She’s still dazed and blinking from the glare of the spotlight, has no desire to have it trained on her again. She and John divorce. She reverts to her maiden name. While she makes paid appearances in South America, she refuses many lucrative offers in the U.S., including, she says, one from Playboy: a million dollars to pose nude. “My family, we just ate beans and rice and hot dogs because that was the cheapest thing,” she says. “Do you know how much a million dollars would have helped? But I stood up for my beliefs, my integrity, my Catholicism.” If cutting John turned her from a normal woman into a sideshow freak, she’s going to turn herself back, purely through force of will.

She re-enrolls in community college, where she meets her partner of the last 20 years, David Bellinger: “I didn’t just fall in love with David like I did with John. It was a friendship that grew into love.” In 2005, she gives birth to daughter Olivia. In 2007, she starts a foundation dedicated to the prevention of domestic violence. “The media was focusing only on the penis, the sensationalistic, the scandalous. But I wanted to shine the light on this issue of spousal abuse. When I went to Knoxville [to speak at a symposium for Lincoln Memorial University’s law review], the president of the school introduced me as a celebrity. I said, ‘Thank you, but let me correct you. I am not a celebrity, I am an advocate.’”

What Lorena, 49, wanted with John she got with David: the family—not just her daughter but her brother and sister and parents, all of whom live close by—the job, the home. And the Lorena of today seems like a different Lorena. Gone is the tear-stained child-woman hiding behind the curtain of long dark hair. For one thing, she’s a blonde now. And though slim, she appears not in the least frail. Nor is her personality meek or retiring. In fact, she’s commandingly confident, particularly when discussing the Lorena Gallo Foundation or her support of Hillary Clinton or on being regarded by some as a #MeToo pioneer. And why should she lack for assurance? It’s been, against all odds, nothing but progress and ascension for her since she walked out of the Central State Hospital on March 1, 1994.

Well, there was one small misstep. In 1997, she was arrested for allegedly assaulting Elvia Gallo, her mother. A neighbor testified that Lorena jumped on Elvia while she was watching TV, beat Elvia’s head with her fists. But in court Elvia claimed, through a translator, that her facial injuries were caused by “a pimple, a big one.” Said the judge, “If you asked me if I think [Lorena is] guilty, I’d say yes. I have reasonable doubt, so I’ll find her not guilty.”

Lorena Gallo (formerly Bobbitt), 2018

John, too, reached an end point in March 1994. It’s possible to see everything that happened to John subsequently as a consequence of his decision to move to Las Vegas—the neon Babylon, the land of the louche and the lost, the vortex of bad behavior and worse impulse control—as determinant in its way as Lorena’s not to appear in Playboy. If her choice put her on the path to middle-class respectability and wholesome family life, his put him on a path in the opposite direction.

A chance encounter with adult-film actor-director Ron Jeremy at the Playboy Mansion leads to John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut. “A porno seemed like the best way to show my penis worked,” says John. “Only it wasn’t all-the-way healed yet. I realize now that that was the point.” Uncut is released in the fall of ’94. John almost misses the premiere because he’s convicted of misdemeanor domestic battery against his girlfriend Kristina Elliott, a dancer at the Olympic Garden Topless Cabaret, and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

John and Jeremy’s follow-up, Frankenpenis, so named because John had accepted Howard Stern’s offer to pay for what is euphemistically known as male-enhancement surgery and the results were mixed, comes out in 1996. Says Jeremy, “Let’s put it this way: with that type of procedure, length you can do, not thickness. John went for both.”

Though Uncut is, according to Jeremy, among the highest-grossing adult films of all time, and Frankenpenis does respectably, John somehow winds up more broke than when he started. “The porn industry is a crooked place,” he says. In 1997, Jeremy introduces him to Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a Nevada brothel, and star of the HBO reality series Cathouse. (Hof is the current Republican nominee for a Nevada State assembly seat.) Recalls Hof, “I hired John as a greeter. I thought it might be an opportunity to get a little media for the ranch. John’s first interview was with NBC. He was all ‘I feel so bad. I’ll make it up to Lorena. I want to get back together.’ And then he offered to show the producer his dick, which, I heard from some of my girls, looked like a dented Red Bull can. I get him in the office and say, ‘Listen, butthead, this is not a petting zoo. Put your dick away. And forget this crap about you’re sorry. Your wife cut your penis off. This is the Bunny Ranch. You’re surrounded by 30 hot chicks. This is the get-even. Get it?’” John doesn’t quite. Hof fires and re-hires him several times. (John denies this: “I wasn’t fired. I I ran off with two of Dennis’s girls. Then I came back.”)

In 1999, John pleads guilty to a felony charge of attempted grand larceny related to the theft of $140,000 worth of clothes from a store in Fallon, Nevada. (John claims he was unaware the clothing hadn’t been paid for.) He’s sentenced to five years’ probation. Four months later, he’s found guilty of harassing Desiree A. Luz, an adult-film actress and ex-girlfriend.

After John leaves Nevada, he drifts. There are fewer and fewer ways left to exploit his notoriety, though he and his lawyer-manager, Barry Levinson, a scam artist (Levinson will die in prison for defrauding multiple homeowners’ associations), keep trying to find them. He appears on WWE Monday Night Raw. He joins the Jim Rose Circus, part of the knife-throwing act.

He’s supposed to step into the ring with Joey Buttafuoco for Celebrity Boxing 2, only he’s unable to make it because he’s charged with battering his third wife, Joanna Ferrell, a fitness model. (Somewhere in there, he slips in a second wife, writer Dottie Brewer. That marriage is annulled after 13 days, which doesn’t stop Brewer from publishing a tell-all, This Week I Married John Wayne Bobbitt. Her other titles include How to Shit Money! and When the Soul Cries.) He works construction, drives a truck, hauls furniture. He and Ferrell split. (John would be found not guilty of several domestic-battery charges relating to Ferrell.) He moves back home to help take care of his mother, sick with cancer. In 2014, a car runs a red light and John smashes into it, breaking his neck. In 2016, he schedules an appointment with Dr. Berman, asks the man who once re-attached his penis to reduce it. “I should’ve just left it alone,” says John.

These days, John is back in Vegas. He’s single and lives off the disability settlement he received from the car accident. And though he still makes the occasional paid appearance, the majority of his time is devoted to searching for the treasure chest that eccentric millionaire Forrest Fenn is rumored to have buried in the Rockies. He hopes to be invited to the White House if he unearths it so he can express his support of President Trump.

it suddenly dawns on me why his eyes unnerved me so [the day I interviewed him]. They’re Trump’s eyes—small, blue, panicky. In a rush, I realize how much the two have in common: tabloid covers, the Playboy Mansion, WWE, foreign-born wives, pornographic actresses, Howard Stern. It’s beyond that, though. It’s the macho swagger coupled with the crybaby belief that the human race has wronged them, that it’s a witch hunt or that they’ve been framed, fake news and more fake news. No setting goals and reaching them through the steady application of effort; instead, it’s get-rich-quick schemes or, in Trump’s case, stay-rich-quick schemes. Forget cultivating a talent that the world might recognize you for; instead, achieve instant celebrity for knockoff of real Hollywood fame and has since eclipsed the original, this fame more famous than fame. And yet, much as I hate to admit it, I’m compelled by John, just as I’m compelled by Trump. I admire Lorena for her nose-to-the-grindstone, up-from-the-bootstraps ethic, much as I admire Hillary Clinton for hers. But it makes them feel like figures from a different era, an era I wish wasn’t gone but is. Somehow John and Trump are the primitive men who are, paradoxically, the modern men.

The silence between us stretches. And then John says softly, “You’re not going to victimize me too, are you?” ~

John Wayne Bobbitt, 2018


Lorena had the advantage of the right cultural timing: feminists (and many women who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves feminists) embraced her. Men did not embrace John Wayne. He basically never outgrew being a dirty joke. 


The John and Lorena Bobbitt story reads like a tabloid epic, the American Dream of a population choosing the inauthentic mythology of celebrity over any limitations of historical fact. We have not come into the present situation, where a narcissistic  buffoon speaks gibberish meant to obfuscate and deny the facts, calls into question all opposition as nothing but lies and fake news, all the while endlessly spooling out lies and accusations on anyone "disloyal " to him, now holding the highest office in the land, and proceeding in every move to disallow, dishonor and destroy the very principles and laws once the foundation and backbone of all we were and could be — THAT American Dream, the one that promised freedom and equality, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all.

The Bobbitts and their story prefigure and reflect a nation prepared for the particular disaster now playing out before us. Lorena insisted on her American Dream over and over, disappointed, and probably furious that she wasn't getting all the wealth and luxury of that dream, was stuck in a going nowhere job with an unemployed husband . . . no riches forthcoming, she stole from the employer she envied, and didn't get away with it. Her dream was a dream of wealth, prosperity and possessions. THAT American Dream. The dream she felt she deserved was replaced and withheld. Then her husband raped her. So she cuts off his penis, takes it for a spin and throws it out the car window.

The emasculated husband has the organ restored and reattached . . . the miracle of medical science comes through for him . . . THAT American Dream. But then he exploits his situation, and his story makes him a Celebrity in the tabloid world, rife with a kind of Carnival life, where grotesques achieve fame and endless attention. This is also, unfortunately, the American Dream of so many, not to be any particular thing, not to care if they are infamous, as long as they are Famous . . . living in that celebrity spotlight, in the kind of fame they think might also make them rich.

The Bobbitts and their story are an American creation, part of the groundwork for Trump's presidency. They are part of the “reality show” world where there is no reality, where all is staged to manipulate an audience either unaware or indifferent to the fact that it's all a huge pretense . . . the cameraman is right there munching on his sandwich next to the "naked and afraid" “reality stars.”

Trump did not appear sudden and full blown. America was getting ready for him for quite a while.

Dutchman’s breeches — love those plant names. For whatever it's worth, please note the similarity of the blossoms to bleeding hearts.



~ “If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump — a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) — she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility. In fact, the president of the US often seems less like a persuasive character than some manic cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubu Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière [as presumably too grotesque a caricature].

Relativism, of course, synced perfectly with the narcissism and subjectivity that had been on the rise, from Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” 1970s, on through the selfie age of self-esteem. No surprise then that the “Rashomon effect” — the point of view that everything depends on your point of view — has permeated our culture, from popular novels such as Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies to television series like The Affair, which hinge on the idea of competing realities.

The postmodernist argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disfranchised to be heard. But it has also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated. Creationists, for instance, called for teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution in schools. “Teach both,” some argued. Others said, “Teach the controversy.”

A variation on this “both sides” argument was employed by Trump when he tried to equate people demonstrating against white supremacy with the neo-Nazis who had converged in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate statues. There were “some very fine people on both sides”, Trump declared. He also said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers and other groups who don’t have science on their side bandy about phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a college class on deconstruction – phrases such as “many sides,” “different perspectives”, “uncertainties”, “multiple ways of knowing.” As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway demonstrated in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, rightwing think tanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. “Doubt is our product,” read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

The strategy, essentially, was this: dig up a handful of so-called professionals to refute established science or argue that more research is needed; turn these false arguments into talking points and repeat them over and over; and assail the reputations of the genuine scientists on the other side. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a tactic that’s been used by Trump and his Republican allies to defend policies (on matters ranging from gun control to building a border wall) that run counter to both expert evaluation and national polls.

What Oreskes and Conway call the “tobacco strategy” was helped, they argued, by elements in the mainstream media that tended “to give minority views more credence than they deserve”. This false equivalence was the result of journalists confusing balance with truth-telling, willful neutrality with accuracy; caving in to pressure from rightwing interest groups to present “both sides”; and the format of television news shows that feature debates between opposing viewpoints — even when one side represents an overwhelming consensus and the other is an almost complete outlier in the scientific community. For instance, a 2011 BBC Trust report found that the broadcaster’s science coverage paid “undue attention to marginal opinion” on the subject of manmade climate change. Or, as a headline in the Telegraph put it, “BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programs”.

In a speech on press freedom, CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour addressed this issue in the context of media coverage of the 2016 presidential race, saying: “It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth … I learned long ago, covering the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences. I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth.”

In a 2016 documentary titled HyperNormalisation, the filmmaker Adam Curtis created an expressionistic, montage-driven meditation on life in the post-truth era; the title was taken from a term coined by the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak to describe life in the final years of the Soviet Union, when people both understood the absurdity of the propaganda the government had been selling them for decades and had difficulty envisioning any alternative. In HyperNormalisation, which was released shortly before the 2016 US election, Curtis says in voiceover narration that people in the west had also stopped believing the stories politicians had been telling them for years, and Trump realized that “in the face of that, you could play with reality” and in the process “further undermine and weaken the old forms of power”.


[Red-pilling: selling an inside-out alternative reality, in which white people are suffering from persecution, multiculturalism poses a grave threat and men have been oppressed by women.]

Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, the authors of a study on online disinformation, argue that “once groups have been red-pilled on one issue, they’re likely to be open to other extremist ideas. Online cultures that used to be relatively nonpolitical are beginning to seethe with racially charged anger. Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities – having accepted run-of-the-mill antifeminism – are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas. ‘Ironic’ Nazi iconography and hateful epithets are becoming serious expressions of antisemitism.”

One of the tactics used by the alt-right to spread its ideas online, Marwick and Lewis argue, is to initially dilute more extreme views as gateway ideas to court a wider audience; among some groups of young men, they write, “it’s a surprisingly short leap from rejecting political correctness to blaming women, immigrants, or Muslims for their problems.”

Part of the problem is an “asymmetry of passion” on social media: while most people won’t devote hours to writing posts that reinforce the obvious, DiResta says, “passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to ‘wake up the sheeple’”.

Language is to humans, the writer James Carroll once observed, what water is to fish: “We swim in language. We think in language. We live in language.” This is why Orwell wrote that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, divorcing words from meaning and opening up a chasm between a leader’s real and declared aims. This is why the US and the world feel so disoriented by the stream of lies issued by the Trump White House and the president’s use of language to disseminate distrust and discord. And this is why authoritarian regimes throughout history have co‑opted everyday language in an effort to control how people communicate – exactly the way the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four aims to deny the existence of external reality and safeguard Big Brother’s infallibility.

Orwell’s “Newspeak” is a fictional language, but it often mirrors and satirizes the “wooden language” imposed by communist authorities in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Among the characteristics of “wooden language” that the French scholar Françoise Thom identified in a 1987 thesis were abstraction and the avoidance of the concrete; tautologies (“the theories of Marx are true because they are correct”); bad metaphors (“the fascist octopus has sung its swan song”); and Manichaeism that divides the world into things good and things evil (and nothing in between).

Trump has performed the disturbing Orwellian trick (“WAR IS PEACE”, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY”, “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”) of using words to mean the exact opposite of what they really mean. It’s not just his taking the term “fake news”, turning it inside out, and using it to try to discredit journalism that he finds threatening or unflattering. He has also called the investigation into Russian election interference “the single greatest witch-hunt in American political history”, when he is the one who has repeatedly attacked the press, the justice department, the FBI, the intelligence services and any institution he regards as hostile.

In fact, Trump has the perverse habit of accusing opponents of the very sins he is guilty of himself: “Lyin’ Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie”. He accused Clinton of being “a bigot who sees people of colour only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future”, and he has asserted that “there was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats”.

In Orwell’s language of Newspeak, a word such as “blackwhite” has “two mutually contradictory meanings”: “Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this.”

The administration, in fact, debuted with the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, insisting that Trump’s inaugural crowds were the “largest audience” ever – an assertion that defied photographic evidence and was rated by the fact-checking blog PolitiFact a “Pants on Fire” lie. These sorts of lies, the journalist Masha Gessen has pointed out, are told for the same reason that Vladimir Putin lies: “to assert power over truth itself”.

Trump has continued his personal assault on the English language. His incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith and his inflammatory bombast) is emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on, as well as an essential instrument in his liar’s toolkit. His interviews, off‑teleprompter speeches and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations and innuendos – a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize and scapegoat.

Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest. Chuck Todd, the anchor of NBC’s Meet the Press, observed that after several of his appearances as a candidate Trump would lean back in his chair and ask the control booth to replay his segment on a monitor – without sound: “He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute.”

The back cover of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, 1935

Philip Roth said he could never have imagined that “the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters”, would appear in “the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon”. Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.

There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.” ~ Michiko Kakutani, author of The Death of Truth



Religions have shown that it doesn’t matter how absurd the statements are — only if they are repeated often enough — abetted by attractive promises as rewards for belief and dire threats as punishment for non-belief.

Nazism and Stalinist Communism, grand ideologies that have adopted religions’ disdain for truth and evidence and thus became secular religions, showed that the simple old techniques are best for manipulating the masses. A bold, simple lie repeated often enough is bound to have an effect — it enters the psyche in an ineradicable manner even when we are on guard against it. Does truth always win in the end? Or, even if finally accepted as true, is it simply dismissed? I forget how many smokers I met who said that yes, smoking did cause cancer, but “we all have to die of something.”

Now I have a reply to that — dying of lung cancer is a particularly horrible death because you slowly suffocate — not only do you gasp for breath, but oxygen starvation of the tissues causes agonizing pain. There are easier, better ways to die. But even that can be countered with, “My grandfather smoked all his life, and he lived to be eighty” — or something similar. It’s like talking to an alcoholic — their whole life philosophy is a huge defense system of their inalienable right to drink. And it seems that the interest in the unorthodox religious views of Simone Weil has dropped after someone observed that the purpose of her “spiritual development” was to find new ways to defend her anorexia. 

Ah, but I have strayed into the territory of addiction, and it could be argued that an addict’s “truth” is too distorted to be relevant to politics. But is addiction so utterly different from other realms of life and belief? Or a fanatic’s religious beliefs? Is is possible to reach the mind of a cult member?

Nor does truth necessarily lie “somewhere in the middle.” The Holocaust either did happen or it didn’t happen. There is overwhelming evidence that it did. It won’t do assert that yes, a few million Jews did die, but not as a result of a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole people — no, they died mostly of natural causes, and also because a war was going on. A lot of people die during a war, don’t they? On both sides. On many sides. And there were such fine people among the Nazis.

Perhaps the most disturbing trait of humanity is that the drive to discover the truth seems absent in the majority — truth is often disturbing, and they want comforting lies. We are not a rational species; we are the rationalizing species. That science has emerged at all seems the greatest and most fragile of all miracles. 


“Beggars do not envy millionaires; they envy other beggars who are more successful.” ~ Bertrand Russell



The counter-culture held two absolutes:

We are all one.
Do your thang. If it feels good do it.

We didn't notice that these have always been in potential tension and we're speeding toward a head-on collision. Our faith in a win-win was as gullible as the libertarians' faith today. Everybody can do their own thing and we'll end up with a harmonious whole.

Or like lovers in the honeymoon period, when honesty and generosity stroll hand in hand and it's unimaginable that they could ever be at odds with each other.

Lovers often continue saying "I love you" long after the feelings have become more conflicted than that.

Before the TMP cult replaced the GOP, the US was calibrated to maintain a level of civility (we are all one) that we can't sustain now without compromising our honesty. Something has to give. Either we lower our standards for honesty to sustain respectful civility or we lower our standards for civility. Pretending that we can always optimize both civility and honesty is another false faith in win-win solutions, the kind of faith that leads people to falsely claim that you can always find a way to be kind and honest.

 We should always try to find ways to maximize civility and honesty, but never assume that they can both be optimized. There will be times when one of those absolutes must be compromised because no win-win is possible.

For civil defense, especially against evil growing from within, civility should be compromised to maintain honesty to the extent one can, especially because many people are constrained by circumstances to maintaining civility, for example, an inability to speak honestly on social media without losing your job.

In times like these, those of us with the lucky latitude to speak honestly should, rather compromising honesty in the name of civility, peace, love, and harmony.

If we don't, normalization is inevitable.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


The bible can be quoted to justify practically anything. So yes, at one point we are told to “love thy enemy” — but at no point are we told to be nice to the Anti-Christ and the Whore of Babylon.

By the Whore of Babylon I don’t mean Melania. A mere gold-digger, she’s too small an exemplar of evil. It’s rather kleptocracy, the corrupt system of government by crony billionaires plundering the country.

Expecting the victims to be “nice” and civil to the oppressor unfortunately plays on what is impressive in Christianity — but forgets that Jesus simultaneously preaches “Judge not” and promises to come again to be the judge at the Last Judgment.

Another thing that's relevant here, historically, is that Jews were urged to be nice to Hitler, not to "inflame him." Again, Christian teachings were ultimately the model of this "niceness" -- turn the other cheek!

Jeremy replies:

~ “Indeed, or the Christians counseling forgiveness for TMP mulligans in their existential campaign to cast out the devil Dems.

Tolletalitarians (Ehkart Tolle's douchebag movement) does something similar. He claims he's not being egotistical and judgmental when condemning all egotistical behavior. He's just reporting on the way reality works from a neutral overview. He never bothers to provide an objective definition of egotism.

It's perfect. It afforded people the license to say "that's ego (bad), about anything they don't like and feel the joys of non-judgmental egolessness at the same time.

This is the season for us to get clear on the source of cult/asshole power. It has nothing to do with what you believe but how you strut it. It's all trump cards for pretending your omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-noble.” ~

Jennifer Steinkamp: Blind Eye, 1981


Prague, 1964. Naively, I didn't think it would happen to me — being so molded by my different childhood and youth, carrying all kinds of eccentric love within me (e.g. Warsaw's Palace of Culture — historically and aesthetically indefensible, yet too great a part of a certain generation's psyche to be demolished until that generation is gone; Vatican 2 was a major emotional devastation, letting lapsed Catholics know there was nothing to return to).

Of course the danger of "remember only the beauty" principle is a serious distortion of reality. That's the danger of all nostalgia, "that morphine of beautiful lies," as I call it in one of my poems. But a part of me always remembers the bitter parts too. Always.



~ “New research by the Black Dog Institute has identified, for the first time, the consistent risk factors in male suicide, which equates to 80% of all suicides in Australia. They are:

    A period of disrupted or depressed mood 

    Unhelpful conceptions of masculinity – the ‘tough Aussie bloke’ stereotype in particular

    Social isolation 

    At least one personal stressor, like unemployment or relationship breakdown.

Researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with 35 men who had survived suicide attempts, alongside forty-seven family and friends of male suicide survivors.

“It appears that some of the stereotypes are true,” said study leader and Associate Professor Judy Proudfoot. “Many Australian men are not good at dealing with poor mental health and unfortunately this tips them into a downward spiral of hopelessness, poor decision-making and poor resilience to day-to-day life stresses.”

The typical ‘toughen up, mate’ mentality is a huge blocking factor in seeking help, which leads to isolation in men, which leads to increasing risk of suicide. Excessive displays of masculine behavior is typical and aggression can often be overlooked as a symptom of depression. Turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms is also common.” ~


Just two tiny comments: no matter what the explanation, the mystery remains. The “why” after someone near you commits suicide never leaves you.

The second comment may seem indecent in the face of the tragedy of suicide. Dr. Proudfoot — what a comic, Dickensian name. I wasn’t going to include this, but it hit me that my having noticed is relevant after all. A sense of humor IS a defense against suicide.

And no one ever lacked a reason for committing suicide, as Cesare Pavese said, before eventually committing suicide.


CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics calculated age adjusted suicide rates by state. Here are the 10 states with the highest suicide rate:

10. Oregon: 15.2 suicides per 100,000
9. Utah: 15.4 suicides per 100,000
8. West Virginia: 15.9 suicides per 100,000
7. Arizona: 16.1 suicides per 100,000
6. Colorado: 16.4 suicides per 100,000
5. Nevada: 18.3 suicides per 100,000
4. Montana: 19.4 suicides per 100,000
3. Wyoming: 19.7 suicides per 100,000
2. New Mexico: 20.4 suicides per 100,000
1. Alaska: 22.1 suicides per 100,000

This has given rise to the hypothesis that suicide rate is linked to population density, and that explains why it’s higher in “sparsely populated hinterlands.” I dare say those are incredibly scenic “hinterlands.” But what I’d call the “frontier mentality” makes you either a winner or a loser.  

Even if your expectations of success collapse, in a city you constantly run across people who are doing worse than you are. There are the homeless, begging. There are the disabled, making your problems seem small by contrast. And there are support groups. There are, very simply, people. A city provides more venues for jobs, new social connections, and making a contribution, relieving that “useless” feeling that’s tied to a suicide risk.

The beauty of nature can protect you only if you truly commune with nature and are in awe of its beauty. I owe my survival at least in part to the beauty of California. But most people need other people. 

The average rate across the whole country was 12.6 per 100,000 (2015 data)

Wyoming experienced the highest increase in suicide rate in the last ten years.
Some of these states have the highest gun ownership, but there are exceptions.

Nevada and Arizona also have a very high homicide rate (Louisiana is #1).

It seems to me that some of those areas are a kind of “rural skid row” for alcoholics and drug addicts (and also for compulsive gun collectors). 

Alice Neel: John, 1981 (I'm not suggesting that the subject of this portrait committed suicide. And yet I find the image fitting and compelling.)


~ “Many scientists had long assumed that amyloid-β was essentially a waste product, with no meaningful purpose. But the researchers had earlier shown that amyloid-β might actually serve as a first line of defense against fungal and bacterial infection.

In the current study, both viruses seemed to provoke an identical reaction. The mice’s brains grew new deposits of amyloid-β plaques practically “overnight,” according to senior author Rudy Tanzi, a geneticist specializing in the brain at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as Harvard Medical School. And the mice bred with these human-like neurons were able to better fend off brain infection than mice without them. The same effects were also seen in the petri dish.

“The seeding of amyloid is what causes the deposition of plaque,” Tanzi told Gizmodo, “and herpesviruses and other microbes can rapidly seed amyloid-β.”

The study is the second in recent weeks to support the role of viruses in Alzheimer’s disease. That first study, also published in Neuron and led by researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, found evidence that certain herpesviruses are more abundantly present in the brains of people who died with Alzheimer’s; it also suggested that genes belonging to these viruses directly interact with human genes that raise the risk of the disease.

The timing is no accident, Tanzi said. His team has corresponded with the Mount Sinai team for years, and they had originally planned to release their results at the same time (both will be published in the same print July edition of the journal). It was the Mount Sinai team, Tanzi notes, that suggested the Harvard team look at HHV-6 as well as HSV-1 in their experiments, since that was the virus they had started to zero in on in their work.

Supporters of the viral theory have often speculated that germs such as HSV-1—the most commonly blamed culprit—directly goad the brain into spiraling out of control through inflammation, with amyloid-β only being a bystander. But in Tanzi’s version, amyloid-β still is the key cog behind the disease. Neurons use the protein to either kill or safely trap viral or bacterial particles in a “nano-net,” as Tanzi put it. In Alzheimer’s disease, this process goes off the rails, leading to the uncontrolled buildup of plaques. From there, Tanzi’s work has shown, the plaques trigger the production of tangles—clumps of another brain protein called tau seen in the later stages of Alzheimer’s—which together then trigger chronic inflammation. All of these moving parts align to wither the brain, eventually causing death.

In this scenario, it’s not so much the germ, but the immune system that’s at fault. “The microbes are the prequel to the amyloid hypothesis,” Tanzi said.

Viruses are only one of the things that could set off Alzheimer’s, he pointed out. The same sort of seeding might happen in people whose genes cause them to make too much amyloid-β, in the absence of infection. And genetics might help explain why only some people’s infections cause the brain to start producing amyloid-β en masse. “Just having the virus isn’t enough,” Tanzi said.

In this scenario, it’s not so much the germ, but the immune system that’s at fault. “The microbes are the prequel to the amyloid hypothesis,” Tanzi said.

Viruses are only one of the things that could set off Alzheimer’s, he pointed out. The same sort of seeding might happen in people whose genes cause them to make too much amyloid-β, in the absence of infection. And genetics might help explain why only some people’s infections cause the brain to start producing amyloid-β en masse. “Just having the virus isn’t enough,” Tanzi said.

“I think we’ve gotten past the point where this idea is ridiculed, but some might be still violently opposing it,” Tanzi said, referring to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s maxim about the three stages of truth (first ridicule, then violent opposition, and finally acceptance as self-evident).” ~


First, we need to understand that most diseases of old ages are auto-immune: it’s our own immune system that kills us. And it’s often the pathogens that trigger the immune system into an over-reaction.

For more on this, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes. Few people know that she has a Ph.D. in immunology.




Calvinist minister R. C. Sproul, in his book “What Is Reformed Theology?” writes:

~ “Love for God is not natural to us. Even in the redeemed state our souls grow cold and we experience feelings of indifference toward him. When we pray, our minds wander and we indulge in woolgathering. In the midsts of corporate worship, we are bored and find ourselves taking peeks at our watches . . . Our natural lack of love for God is confirmed by our natural lack of desire for him.” ~

Though the minister cites this as an example of our total depravity, how I wish I’d come across a passage like this one when I agonized over my inability to stay attentive during prayers! I didn’t know it was a normal phenomenon, and everyone’s mind tended to stray. I thought that happened just to me, the wicked one.

But what worried me most was my inability to love god. I saw god as evil so love was impossible. Jesus was supposedly sweet, but he too would come back to preside as judge at the Last Judgment, tossing the huge majority of people into hell for eternity.

Only Mary was non-punitive, so only Mary could be loved. Others must have felt that way too, since most churches were dedicated to her, most icons and most candles.

Then there were the many saints, all helpful, non-punitive spirits. It was not unusual to love one or more favorite saints, especially Saint Francis and Saint Anthony. Mary was the adored mother, while the saints were like kindly uncles and aunts.

Children were taught to love Jesus and generally were not reminded that it was Jesus who would come the second time for the Last Judgment, and throw misbehaving children into eternal fire. As a child I was under the impression that it was the cruel God the Father who did that, but not the children-loving Jesus.

Still, the text is clear: Jesus, and not the Father, will be the judge at the Last Judgment. “Judge not”? Just typical of all the contradictions that we were not allowed to question.

But here comes the real jewel. ~ “Sproul cites Luther’s answer to the question ‘Do you love God?’

Luther replied (prior to his conversion), ‘Love God? Sometimes I hate him.’ This is a rare admission among men. Even Luther’s candid reply was less than totally honest. Had he spoken the full truth, he would have said that he hated God all the time.’ (Sproul, 127)” ~

~ John Morreall, “Questions for Christians”


Perhaps the answer is simple: even most believers don’t believe that god is good.

Maybe we need a radically different approach to life, not just to the unpleasantness of mortality.

Perhaps we need a dancing god.

Perhaps a laughing god or master teacher.


ending on beauty:

You see, I want so much.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with each infinite fall
and the shimmering blaze of every step up.

~ Rilke, The Book of Hours