Thoughts On the Paris Attacks

As with many people, I was horrified by what happened in Paris last night.  I thought about whether I should write about the event, if a first opinion had any weight.  Mine alone does not.  I obviously don’t have any special information or insight to an event that happened thousands of miles away.  However, I can’t help but feel that my opinion is one that is probably shared by others.

I have been to Paris four times.  It is everything that a big city should aspire to be.  The last time was just a couple of years ago.  I was struck by how friendly Parisians were, especially compared to the first few times when I was there, where I would sometimes run into the kind of French that Monty Python parodies.  I talked to a man on a train from Serbia who expressed a similar feeling.  The French had become more open and excepting to outsiders.  I found no one that wasn’t willing and happy to speak English, to give directions, or to be helpful.  While some may say this is not a big deal, I think we know as Americans that when someone comes to our country without knowing English, many of us would not be able to speak to them, and there are some that would be outright hostile.   Also, France has always been a comparatively open country intellectually.  Now they even seemed to be more of an open country in every sense.  The French are a proud people, and deservedly so with all they have given the world. But now they seemed to be retaining their pride, while also shedding the negative qualities which often go along with that kind of national self worth.

I was also struck by how relaxing their airports were.  No shoes came off.  There were no dreadful security lines that filled with one with the kind of anxiety that one can often feel in our airports.  Although it is too early to tell, I hate to think that all of this might go backwards.  I don’t want more countries turning their airports into the maximum security prison malls that ours now resemble.

So many great thinkers have come from France.  France has given so many things to the world, especially in terms of culture.  I recently got around to reading Voltaire’s Candide.  For this one book alone I will be eternally grateful to France.  That is only the tip of the iceberg.  Striking at Paris is striking at one of the most important culture centers in all of the world.

This kind of attack can not be allowed to go on.  What is the solution?  I keep thinking of Hunter Thompson’s quote, after 9/11 that, “The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hope for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country.”

This is a clash of civilizations.  However, like all civilizations throughout history, individual people run the gamut in terms of good and bad.  But if this attack doesn’t do it, how many more will it takes before all nuance goes out the window?

I found myself angry reading the news last night.  I wanted retribution.  A place I love, a people I respect, and a culture that is important to the world had been attacked.  This kind of thing can’t be allowed to go on.  Freedom, not the kind of dimwitted freedom that we often talk about in the press, but true intellectual freedom, the kind that Paris is a beacon for, had taken a blow.

I was not only angry about the attacks themselves, but also about what I can’t help but feel they will lead to.  Not only were the crimes committed yesterday horrific for the people who were killed, wounded, or traumatized, but it won’t end there.  Theses idiots committing violence are sooner or later going to condemn not only those that share their beliefs, but many more innocent people that are related to them through religion, country, and genetic makeup.  Only the attackers and those that aid them deserve retribution, but that is not how these things play out.  A thirst for revenge is usually not carried out with any kind of rigorous sanity.  I may be wrong this time, but eventually, if things go on, I will not be.  These terrorists have destroyed many lives, and in doing so will destroy many more.

Our country has already muddied the waters by attacking Iraq in the wake of 9/11.  (Just to make clear that I’m not using the phrase “muddied the waters” as a euphemism:  We attacked a country that did not attack us and killed thousands of people in that country, while sending many of our own young women and men to be killed or maimed as well.  We helped create a tragedy that many years from now will also be viewed as a farce.)  How long will it be before the Western world does something like this on an even larger scale if these kinds of attacks continue?  More destruction and killing is coming.  There will be a few that deserve it, but many many more that don’t.  I can only hope that France and the rest of the Western world do their best to think clearly in these dark days.  I can’t help but feel that the senseless violence of yesterday will not make that easy.

Reflections On Slavery and Modern Justice

After reading two excellent books tied to the period of the Civil War, Rebel Yell: The Passion, the Violence, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson and Team of Rivals, by S.C. Gwynne and Doris Kearns Goodwin respectively, I decided that I wanted to know more about this period.  I read online that Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox is one of the best, if not the best, book on the war.  It is part of a three book trilogy on the Army of the Potomac.  I started with the book before it, Glory Road, as I wanted to read about the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place in my home state of Pennsylvania.  I also figured if I liked this book, I would have another one to continue the direct story with, even as I know there is a book before this.

Anyway, I found this passage interesting:

As the men took their places the Iron Brigade, by chance, found itself quartered on the Bernard plantation, some three miles below Fredericksburg, and Company C of the 6th Wisconsin had a contraband cook who until comparatively recently had been held in servitude on this very estate.  This one was highly pleased to be back, a free man protected by Lincoln’s soldiers, on the plantation where he was born and bred.  Yet when he saw some of his soldiers chopping down a fine shade tree to get firewood he ran up to them, pointing toward the manor house and pleading earnestly:  “You break dat ol’ man’s heart if you cut down dat tree!  His grandfather planted dat tree!”  

Although I may be reading into things too much, I took several things from this and other things I have read:

  1.  First, it should be noted that slavery differed form region to region.  Slavery, however wrong and unforgivable in concept alone, was much less cruel in states like Virginia then in the deep South, where the massive cotton plantations were located.  This is actually a known fact that is many history books.
  2. Second, that the relationships between slaves and masters was much more complex and strange than many people assume.  Note that the slave was grateful to be back to his home as a free man, but also still had some kind of compassion for his former master.
  3. Third, that however horrible something is, once it has been done long enough it becomes the new normal.  Just because something is done by a large group of people, just because something seems a normal part of society, is not a testament to its rightness or goodness.
  4. That even a slave that had a rather benign experience, compared to the everyday barbarity of other experiences, was still glad to be a free man, even in a situation that was normal for the time period.

What things are a part of our everyday lives, our culture, our society, our world, that are seemingly normal to us, that morally will not stand the test of time?  Looking at current issues of justice, we may have experiences with a part of the system that are more benign, but this doesn’t mean that the system itself is just even considering these cases.  Also, the system is possibly far crueler in parts that we realize and without knowing a whole system we cannot say so without facts that prove otherwise.  If you look at issues of police brutality, immigration, and the War On Drugs, as just a few examples, it helps to keep these things in mind.

Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

The headline story over at Huffpo today was about how Americans don’t seem to be overtly concerned about climate change.  This is exactly why the problem of climate change worries me more than any problem.  It’s the kind of problem that is going to be too late to do anything about once it affects people in a way that they can’t ignore it.  At the same time, unlike a lot of other problems, there is a definitive timeline in getting it right.  Not only has the right wing created a long running disinformation campaign to discredit climate scientists, but the problem itself is not the kind of problem that human beings seem genetically dispositioned to to deal with.  We are much better at dealing with problems that are immediate.  Especially in our culture, where short attention spans seem to be the norm, we seem to lack the ability to make changes based on our long term future.

Imagine if we could have destroyed the Nazi regime before they led millions to the gas chamber.  Would that be a worthy goal?  Millions of people are going to suffer from climate change, including our descendants.  The poorest and most vulnerable people of the world are going to suffer the worst and the suffer sooner.  Their suffering is going to increase due to our indifference on this issue.  Not only will weather become more destructive, but experts are predicting more famine and war due to climate change.

Fighting and winning World War II put the U.S. in the position of being a super power.  Wouldn’t it feel good to wave the flag again knowing that we did something that made the world better for a long time to come?  Or are we content to be thrown on the heap of history’s chumps?


Burning Witches in 2015

They Burn Witches Here

One would think in the year 2015 that burning witches was behind the human race.  However, as this Huffington Post article goes to show, it still goes on in parts of the world.

Reason and science are why much of humanity has moved beyond such practices.  We should remember that when we make choices on how to proceed concerning a whole host of political issues.  Before one reads the article, one should think about what choices we, as a people, are making due to “belief”.  Perhaps someone far away is looking upon us in dumbstruck horror.

What The Civil War Has To Say About Now

I’m about halfway through S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  It’s a fascinating book.  Jackson was someone who was mostly quiet, mild mannered, and kind in his private life.  He was a humble man of strong Christian faith.  But when he took to the battlefield he became a fiery psychopath that was hard on his men and even more vicious in regards to his enemies.  (His men loved him despite how hard he pushed them.)  Strangely enough, before the war, Jackson was a ineffectual teacher at VMI that was often mocked by his students.

The battle scenes in the book are often truly horrific.  Artillery only accounted for about 5% casualties in the Civil War.  However, in one battle they account for almost 50% of the casualties.  When artillery is fired into a formation of men it often removes heads and limbs, and sometimes just leaves a puddle of decaying ooze.

While I was reading the other day I was wondering if this was something that was worth my time.  There is no doubt that the book is informative and interesting.  But what does learning about the Civil War or Jackson or grisly battles have to do with my life?

But as I look out at our country, our culture, and our political landscape I realized that this war is still in our bloodstream.  Although there are very few Americans that would willingly turn their neighbors into puddles of decaying ooze, the fact that our ancestors did so affects us.  Through generations the fires of the war have dwindled, but that doesn’t mean they are completely gone.

The last Civl War veteran, Albert Woolsen, died in 1956.  That was after my parents were born.  So we’re not talking about a long time ago.  This isn’t like reading about ancient Rome.

It was only earlier this year that our country had an argument about the Confederate Flag.  (As a side note a friend remarked today that, “How can you claim to be a patriotic American when you are a waving a flag of succession?”  The conversation had nothing to do with the book, but about how some people were “confused” in regards to history.)  Most people understand how slavery affected issues concerning race in America.  But only a hundred and fifty years ago we were all too willing to kill each other by the thousands not only over slavery, but states rights and other issues that we are still debating.

My point is not to say we haven’t come a long way, or that given how contentious our current political climate is that we are surely doomed to repeat the past.  The fact is that even the most insane political arguments of the day seem mild compared to sending men to die by the thousands.

But often when people argue, especially people that have known each other a long time, it can be hard to figure out what they are really arguing about.  Often they are seemingly arguing about meaningless surface issues when really there  are deeper issues going on.  It might be hard to mediate a fight between lovers or relatives unless you can get to the root issues causing the argument.

While comparing such a situation to a political climate isn’t perfect, I think there is some use to it.  A lot of things get left behind when a generation disappears.  But it can’t help but to untangle the roots of our long term political and cultural problems.





“Waiting for World War III While Jesus Slaves”

Last night with Shinyribs I played a in-store for the new Ted Hawkins tribute record, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins.  It was a wonderful thing, with performances by James McMurtry, Ramsay Midwood, and Randy Weeks, some of my favorite songwriters in Austin.

Tonight I am lucky enough to be going to see Jackson Browne in San Antonio.  Browne has long been one of my favorite songwriters, who often gets overlooked I feel.  Many lump him in with all of the other singer/songwriters of the 70’s.  But Browne was always more intelligent and fearless than most of his contemporaries.  Don’t let the beauty of his melodies lead you astray.  (And he is an absolutely brilliant melody writer.)  He has a laser sharp wit and a moral courage that allow him to write songs that are often poetic and political at the same time, which is a hard trick to master.

I have always wished that I wrote the song Lawyers in Love.  It’s a great pop song and also a hilarious critique of our culture of mindless consumerism, among other things.  Written in and about 1980’s Reagan era American, it still says so much about what is going on now, as many of our current problems began then.  As I was a child in the 80’s, I have never minded 80’s era production techniques as much as some do.  (Nostalgia often plays a major role in our musical tastes, no matter how we try to deny it.)  However, even if the keyboard and drums sounds of that time period bug you, listen to the melody and lyrics, which are tremendous.

Depressing Debate Commentary

I was thinking today about how I hadn’t seen the Democratic debate yet, although I have seen clips.  Then I started thinking about how every clip that I saw was either about who “won” or about some joke or sensational moment from the debate.  There were no clips about anything meaningful, insightful, that gave you a deeper sense of who these people are and what they believe.  Then most of the commentary was about how the candidates looked, who seemed authentic, and who got the best jabs in.  There was a lot of sports terminology being used.  Who appears the most presidential?  Not exactly the kind of stuff that helps you pick the leader of the free world.  Oh well, better luck next time!  I realize that this kind of thing has been going on forever.  But nevertheless, it’s fucking depressing.

Was Anyone Surprised Yesterday?

I want you to think about the world we live in for a moment:  We live in a society where money is worshipped above all else.  Yet income inequality is increasingly obscene.  While healthcare and mental healthcare are slightly better due to recent laws, we still lag behind many developed nations.  We have a mainstream entertainment culture that is largely vapid and meaningless.  Schools are often not what they should be, especially when you consider that we live in an information age where critical thinking is more and more essential all of the time.  Although technology can connect us to people far away, it can also isolate us.  People can see with the push of a button, or a tap of the screen, all of the things that they lack.  Change is happening faster than ever.  Old orders are dying without anything viable to take their place.

On top of all this we have an insane amount of weapons.

When you add this all together, is it any surprise when someone goes on a killing spree?

I don’t mean to belittle what happened yesterday.  It’s sad and troubling.  But one thing it is not is surprising.

I want to try to drop politics for a moment.  No matter how you feel about gun control, the simple thing is this:

We either need to address the amount of weapons being given out, or we need to address the underlying causes that lead to violent behavior.  We either need a society that is more just and meaningful, where we take care of all of our community, or we need to prevent people from having the tools to live out their troubled inner lives.  Otherwise the violence is just going to continue.  The one option that I know will not work is to add even more killing machines into this modern cauldron of anxiety, created by all of the above issues.  Although there are many people that are able to navigate the extreme absurdity of our modern world and keep it together, we shouldn’t be surprised when this same absurdity pushes those without the proper coping mechanisms over the edge.

Laurie Anderson On Guantanamo Bay

One of my heroes, Laurie Anderson, just did an interview in Rolling Stone where she discusses her new project about Guantanamo called Habeas Corpus.  (Listen to her album album Homeland if you want to understand her brilliance.  I admit its not for everyone, but for those willing to dare, it is an exceptional piece of work, that examines American life during the Bush years.)  For this project she worked with a former inmate of the prison.   In the article she reflects on the horror and absurdity surrounding the prison, and the troubling nature of U.S. behavior regarding it.

4 Dumbest Arguments For Defunding Planned Parenthood

4 Dumbest Arguments For Defunding Planned Parenthood

The right wing’s attack on Planned Parenthood continues to boggle the mind.  If they wanted to reform it, and not allow the 3% of its activities that concern abortion, I would still disagree, but that would at least make sense.  But this is like trying to knock down a beautiful house because you don’t like the kitchen cabinets.  Planned Parenthood is an organization that helps a lot of women in need.  Why, why why?…

“And people like you / Make me feel so old inside” – Morrissey