joseph duemer: reading & writing
. . . he's sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless & all / muttering small talk at the wall . . . [dylan]
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Monday, February 25, 2002
Where have we heard this before? U.S. may send advisers to Afghanistan Feb. 24, 2002 | KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) --
The United States may send military advisers to try to rein in feuding Afghan warlords, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan said Sunday.
Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that conflicts between rival Afghan militias are a major concern for the United States, which supports the administration of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.
Khalilzad said the best approach for curbing the problem would be to establish a well-trained Afghan national army, although experts say that will take many months.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:10 AM.

Friday, February 22, 2002
Jimmy Breslin makes sense of Rudi Giuliani: "The Twin Towers Fund is for the families of firefighters and cops. It has $70 million and suddenly in December it stopped sending any money to widows. Giuliani announced he wanted to transfer the money from a city-run nonprofit organization to a private organization, headed by I, Giuliani." [via Follow Me Here]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:11 PM.

Thursday, February 21, 2002
These people: I was having a hard time thinking through the death of Daniel Pearl until I read this. " . . . in the words of one loser on FoxNews, the 'most brutal thing I have ever heard, and I have covered a lot of wars.' (That guy went on to explain why Pearl was killed: "These people do not want us in their country, in Vietnam, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan." The mention of Vietnam of course caught my eye, since I've spent a lot of time there over the last few years & have read the relevant history. The Fox News moron had one thing right, though he was drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from his single insight: they, mostly, don't want us around, especially if we insist on telling them how to run their lives. The president of South Vietnam between 26 Oct 1964 - 14 June 1965 was Phan Khác Súu; he was not consulted, but informed, when in March of 1965 the 9th Marine Expeditionary Battalion landed at Da Nang in Central Vietnam, along with two infantry battalions, two helicopter squadrons, and supply and logistics units. Phan knew that having large numbers of American troops in the country would effectively Americanize the war, tilting it from being a civil conflict between different factions of Vietnamese society to being an international conflict. That is, Phan knew the Vietnamese would lose control of their own future. What has this got to do with the current situation? Let's just say that people, even when they are confronting seeming intractable conflicts within their own society, tend to want to have the chance to determine their own destinies. Is this really so surprising? Unilateralism, the dominant style of this administration, inevitably leads to violent resentment. And then we wail, "Why do they hate us?"

I felt Pearl's death more acutely that I feel the run-of-the-mill deaths of the daily news for simple, personal reasons: he was a middle-aged professional (though quite a bit younger than me), a writer, someone who had spent a lot of time in developing countries & so on. His death makes me sad because I can fully imagine it; that I cannot fully imagine others' deaths--soldiers or civilians--is my moral failure, not the result of a quality or characteristic of the dead.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:07 PM.

Monday, February 18, 2002
Yesterday morning we woke up to a surprising amount of snow. It was what I think of as quiet snow--the sort that doesn't blow around but sticks to everything. (I had had a complex, long Blakian dream about Heaven & Hell of which I remember only scattered fragments.) This morning is as clear & brilliant as any I've seen. Temperature around zero, sky hard & blue as a china plate, snow still sparkling on the evergreens. Still & quiet. A hard quiet unlike yesterday's soft silence. Mornings like these make me realize that I have been spending too much time obsessing about the news & not enough time making my soul.

In that dream, we (Who was with me? Virgil?) we fell into a seemingly infinite cone-shaped pit, but Hell consisted of several abandoned decrepit 19th century industrial buildings on the rim of the pit, not at its center or bottom. It was explained to me (by whom?) that heaven was at the center of the earth. I have faint memories of other images & I remember that I spoke with angels, but other than a generally positive & transformative feeling upon waking, I don't remember anything else.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:18 AM.

Saturday, February 16, 2002
I posted these little bits last November: 1) I've been increasingly depressed by the parallels between the American War in Vietnam & the current actions in Afghanistan. My reading has turned more political--I scour Salon & the on-line NYT & abandon my philosophical reading, though that reading is perhaps the most political thing I could do under the circumstances. One thing is clear: As it was during Vietnam, the American language is in for a bad trip. [11/1/2001] & 2) "Afghanistan has been substituted for terrorism because Afghanistan is accessible to military power, and terrorism is not. The employment of high-tech munitions against irrelevant targets is a distraction from measures that actually deal with the threat." [William Pfaff, Int. Herald Tribune. Nov. 3, 2001]

Over the course of the war I have stubbornly resisted American triumphalism, especially that coming from the putative left. For a while there it seemed as if every other newscast began with "Now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down . . ." & I would grit my teeth, then sigh. I have thought all along that the peace would be far more difficult than the war & it now appears that the country is slipping back into warlordism & factional disputes. And, by the way Mr. President, whatever happened to the hunt for bogeyman bin Ladin? Are we naming new enemies now because we can't run him to ground? Apparently, we need an evil opponant in order to rationalize the most idiotic build-up of the military since Reagan.

Just want to be on the record here: I posted this to the Plastic discussion group on January 25th: I am a student of Vietnam, its history, culture & literature, including the American War. I have spent a lot of time there & I teach a university course called Understanding Vietnam, so you can ask my students from last semester--I am on record as being among the first "quagmirists." Soon after the Sept. 11 catastrophe, I told my students, who were very interested, being of draft age & some in ROTC, in possible parallels between Vietnam & Afghanistan, that while I believed the US had a moral obligation of self-defense to fulfill, I was at the same time fearful that we might be drawn into an extended conflict that might turn out to look a lot like Vietnam. That is, I supported the use of military force--I am not a pacifist--but I expressed grave doubts, having read a bit of history, that the "filthy Afghan peasant," as some idiot upthread called the Afghan people, might turn out to be more like the Viet Cong than we expected. Now, I make a stark distinction between the Viet Cong & the NLF on the one hand & the Taliban & Al Qaeda on the other: The Vietnamese were fighting a just war of national liberation against, first, a French colonial regime that had ground them down for ninety years, and then a puppet regime in the south supported by a hysterically anti-communist American government that had deluded itself into thinking they were containing an "evil empire," as it would famously later be called, by intervening Vietnam. // The parallels are not exact; one has to actually think a bit to get the historical analogies straight: 1) we denigrate the enemy because we are afraid; 2) we begin to believe our own simplistic portrayal of the enemy, which leads to miscalculation after miscalculation; 3) a badly-armed but highly motivated peasant army whose soldiers are ready to give up their lives for the cause should not be underestimated, whether their cause is just (Vietnam) or merely crazy (Afghanistan); 4) just because Afghanistan presents differences from Vietnam in politics & geography does not mean that it is "totally different," as some of my students wanted to argue. // If we learned anything from the Vietnam War, it should be that our own triumphalist predictions of victory are not reflections of empirical fact, but too often a form of wishful thinking. In some ways, Afghanistan presents, potentially, a more lethal scenario than Vietnam: In Vietnam there was no warlordism, which, if I may be permitted one conjecture, will be the undoing of the new Afghan government (though I hope I am wrong). Anyway, in 1965, four months after the first US Marine batallion landed at Da Nang, things looked very rosy--just a few raggedy-assed gooks (as LBJ referred to them) to clean up, then we can raise the flag & go home. So flame away . . . but you might want to wait a year or two: 65 was a great year, but 68 was a beast.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 10:53 AM.

Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Reading the polls: GWB's support is shallow, very shallow. The Associated Press reports: "Just over half in a new poll, 52 percent, think the Enron situation is 'very important' to the nation, more than double the percentage who felt that way about the Whitewater investigation in the early 1990s. Another third thought the Enron situation was 'somewhat important'. The CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of 1,001 adults, released Monday, has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Among the poll's other findings:Almost two thirds, 63 percent, said the most important issue in the Enron situation was that many Enron employees lost their jobs and their retirement savings while Enron executives made millions. Four in five said Congress should investigate the contacts that members of the Bush administration had with Enron executives. One in five said the problems associated with Enron involve mostly the Republican Party, while two-thirds said both parties equally. Very few, only 1 percent, said the problems associated with Enron involve mostly the Democratic Party. Just over four in 10, 43 percent, said the Bush administration is trying to cover up its contacts with Enron, while 47 percent said the administration is cooperating as much as possible in letting the public know about its contacts with Enron."

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:13 PM.

Too many teenagers on Blogsnob--I've removed the link from the site. Snark snark.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:35 PM.

Keep Trying
In my musings about pleasure the other day, I wrote: "There is also, I think, an ethical dimension to pleasure, but I have to think about that a little more." Mike Sanders at Keep Trying replied:

"Perhaps the ethical dimension exists in the pleasure of doing good. This weekend, my community made a carnival for the siblings of children with special needs. Special needs children require much attention, usually at the expense of their siblings. The carnival was a way to give the siblings a little attention. We encouraged our oldest daughters to participate and afterwards they felt really good about helping out.// In my family we feel that we have a responsibility to give of both our time and money to our community and beyond. The pleasure is incidental, but real nonetheless.// In parts of the blogging world, the focus is on rights. I was reading the blogging manifesto of Chris Pirillo and it seemed to boil down to, "I have the right to do almost anything I want." That seems reasonable from a blogging perspective. (By the way, I know that Chris is just having fun most of the time but it seems like he believes strongly in his unalienable blogging rights.)// I don't think that you can legislate morality, but is there harm in encouraging people to do good? Do we have a responsibility to do good? Or is the right to do whatever we want enough to create the better world many of us are hoping for?// Any thoughts on rights and responsibilities?"

I agree that there is pleasure in doing good. Before he wrote that big book on money that so many people so badly misread, the philosopher Adam Smith wrote a book on what, in his day, were called morals. (We'd probably say ethics.) Anyway, Smith believed that we do good because we get pleasure from being seen doing good. At first this seems a cynical notion, but it does add a social dimension to the ethics of pleasure. [See also: Acquiring Moral Standards: "Smith’s goal in TMS is to discover by means of empirical investigation the process that explains two phenomena: on the one hand, the adoption by individuals of moral standards by which they judge others; and, on the other, their adoption of moral standards by which they judge themselves. One striking feature about both phenomena is that during their lifetimes people seem to go from having virtually no such standards as children to having standards that are commonly shared with others as adults. What explains this transition?"] Blogging is an interesting laboratory for working out these ideas because it is at the same time quite a private activity & a very public one.

And what is wrong with basking in the approbation of our fellows? As long as we don't bask so much that we forget to keep behaving well--if we forget, doing good can itself become a vice. We have a derisive term for people like this: do gooders. But the reason I begged off going further with my meditation on pleasure a few days ago was that I suddenly began wondering about illicit pleasures & I wasn't quite ready to think that through thoroughly enough to write about it. What makes a pleasure illicit? In the clear light of a cold morning, I suppose it is simple--an illicit pleasure is one that harms another human being. As a philosophical pluralist, I have a powerful distrust of the applicability of universal statements, but this one comes pretty close.

Chris Perillo's manifesto [linked above] appears audacious at first, but I note that he is for the most part careful to extend the rights he claims for himself to others, a crucial concession of personal to social reality. For instance, point 14 says that Perillo visits all the sites on his blogroll regularly, which is the most fundamental kind of reciprocity. I do take issue with what he calls his "Standard Disclaimer," however (also point 2 in his manifesto): "You have no right to judge me," he writes; but of course we have every right to employ our judgement. He has said himself that he will feel free to criticize other bloggers, which is nothing more than making judgements about them. The key here, it would seem to me, would be some notion of fairness & openmindedness. Making a judgement ought, that is, to presuppose having actually though about the subject at hand. If he revised that to read, you have no right to judge me thoughtlessly or without understanding facts & context, I might be able to go along; but as long as we're talking about rights rather than responsibilities (which imply a community), I might not even agree then. Chris, I have a right to be an asshole--it's just not a responsible thing to do or be. By the way, where the hell do rights come from?

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:40 AM.

Monday, February 11, 2002
Enron investigators doubt testimony
Reading character: Enron investigators doubt testimony Asked whether Skilling could face a perjury indictment by federal prosecutors, Tauzin replied, "That could happen. I mean you can't come to Congress ... take that oath as he did in front of Jim Greenwood, and then not tell the truth."
Tauzin said: "He could have some real problems."
Even Skilling's mother questioned what he had said.
"When you are the CEO and you are on the board of directors, you are supposed to know what's going on with the rest of the company," Betty Skilling told Newsweek magazine.
"You can't get off the hook with me there," she said. "He's going to have to beat this the best way he can."

Why is this appearing in my reading journal, apart from the fact that I read it just now? Because I increasingly have the sense that the human ability to misuse language--to employ language to falsify / fictionalize--is at the root of our genius. And at the root of our powers of self-delusion. Self-delusion (which is at least partly an inability to see the world from any perspective other than the private & illusory self) is a prerequisite for fucking with other people's lives--what philosophers would call unethical behavior, or the clergy call immoral. It is possible to create narratives of justice or injustice, the difference being that justice-narratives are broad & encompass multiple perspectives; injustice narratives are narrow & self-involved. Justice-narratives are imaginative; injustice narratives imaginatively impoverished.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:59 PM.

Saturday, February 09, 2002
Mike Sanders on Pleasure
Mike Sanders, who writes Keep Trying, noted: "According to some schools of thought, the reason the world was created was for man to receive pleasure. I once read an illuminating piece that distinguished between different levels of pleasure. The article also pointed out that for every pleasure, the price tag is effort and the deepest pleasures comes from an understanding and appreciation of the pleasure.
  • The fifth level is physical and material pleasure. Any pleasure involving the five senses.
  • The fourth level is the pleasure of love. Let's define love as the emotional pleasure we get when we focus on the virtues of another.
  • The third level is the pleasure of doing good. As an example, when the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel saw the destruction caused by his successful explosives company he was determined to do something good for the world and created the Nobel Prize.
  • The second level is the pleasure of creating. Artists, writers, software designers and other creative types are a testament to this pleasure. Many of us experience this pleasure through having children and creating a family.
  • The first level is the pleasure of being in touch with the transcendent dimension. Connecting with the infinite."

Mike also wrote: "So life is about pleasure. Pleasure is not the same as fun and amusement. The pleasures available to us are much deeper but require a higher price and more focus and attention than fun and amusement." And a little later, Mike posts a response & comments: "Shelly wrote a nice piece on fun and different types of pleasure yesterday. She shunned the distinction. I still think it is important because recognizing the different types of pleasure enables us to pursue them better. Some of the higher pleasures, such as communing with the infinite (or God) require much thought and work. Unfortunately many of us were exposed to this particular pleasure as a child and take that understanding with us throughout our life. Maybe we can take a fresh look at that sometime."

I was thinking about all this this morning, though with the proviso that I have no idea why the world was created & it seems a little egocentric to imagine it was for my / our pleasure. (I have the same problem with the cosmological anthropic principle.) I had just finished a good cup of strong, black coffee; it was below zero outdoors but the sun was shining brilliantly on the crusty snow & ricocheting off the thin ice on the river. The sky was the very definition of blue. We had a good fire going in the woodstove. This was all enjoyable & I was very happy as I scrambled some eggs for breakfast. At nine, as is my custom on Saturday mornings, I flipped on the television--not an appliance usually associated with pleasure, I admit--to watch the New Yankee Workshop. I am not a woodworker, but I love to see how things are made, so I love this show. I lay down on the couch, propped my head up with a couple of pillows & pulled a cotton throw over my legs, whereupon the little terrier Penny jumped up & draped herself across my knees. She sighed deeply, I sighed deeply. I don't presume to know what Penny was experienceing, but I was experiencing pleasure. I'm not really inclined to make a general definition of pleasure, but if I were forced, I would say that it has something to do with feeling at home in the world. This at-homeness can be as straightforward as lying on the couch with a dog, as intense as loving sex, or as complex as preparing & eating a good meal. There is also, I think, an ethical dimension to pleasure, but I have to think about that a little more. Pretty clearly, though, pleasure is anything by sentimental.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:31 AM.

Friday, February 08, 2002
La Di Da
From La Di Da: A report ". . .on how professors and students are evaluated just published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences calls academe "a system that fears candor" and names grade inflation and uncritical letters of recommendation as harmful practices that undermine fairness in higher education. As someone who has spent the last two decades immersed in academe (as a teacher and as a student, and sometimes both, and even a few years as an administrator), I can affirm that this is old news -- and in keeping with the "fears candor" theme, seldom discussed at a level that can make a difference. The report suggests some possible causes of grade inflation, such as responses to the Vietnam War (professors sometimes gave higher grades than were merited to protect student deferments); the introduction of student evaluations of professors (profs can trade high grades for positive evaluations, which make the difference in getting tenure at some institutions); the watering down of curricula; the increasing use of adjuncts rather than full-time faculty; and the rise of consumerism in the 1980s (run the university like a business, with students as customer -- grrr! don't get me started on this one). The report also discusses the consequences of these trends in evaluation, and offers some recommendations for change. It's a start." [pdf of full report]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:13 PM.

Thursday, February 07, 2002
Steve Himmer, who writes OnePotMeal picked up on my question about sentiment versus sentimentality. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, both as a writer & as a teacher of writing. Himmer gets it right, I think, when he says,

"Sentimentality. . . is the result of ignoring realities in order to idealize and romanticize an event. War movies that go no deeper than a recruiting poster rather than depicting the complicated and confusing thing war really is (not that I know from experience) are a prime example: Behind Enemy Lines versus Full Metal Jacket. When a writer uses off-the-rack, soap opera style characters and scenarios with no emotional relationship to real life, it's sentimental."

Sentimentality is a failure of accuracy, a usually intentional or half-intentional wish to avoid dealing with the world honestly & fully. And finally, sentimentality will disappoint--it is a poor substitute for the actual world. After the honesty of initial grief, for example, I would say that my countrymen's reaction to the terror attacks last September has been largely sentimental. Public displays of patriotism may be by definition sentimental. To reject sentimentality is not necessarily to face the world only with grim resolve; I'd actually argue that joy in all its forms--from aesthetic delight to romantic love--is most deeply experienced outside the fog of false feeling raised by sentimentality.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:08 PM.

Monday, February 04, 2002
Maude's Death
On Thursday evening I was very tired & went to bed early while Carole stayed up to watch ER (one of her--few--guilty pleasures). Maude was now into her fourth day of not eating & third week of being progressively sicker. I had called our vet that morning & arranged to put her down. She'd been to the vet twice & I'd had several conversations with JC on the phone, the most recent one having confirmed that the blood tests were strongly indicative of liver cancer. We could have taken her to the hospital across the border in Canada for ultrasound, but JC said that that would be mostly for our comfort. Even the week before, though, watching her sleeping by the fire, skinny & shivering despite the heat, I had said to myself, she's dying. I am a light sleeper, but when I went to bed at 9:00 my consciousness went out as if a switch had been thrown. I woke at 1:45 Friday morning: Maude was up & walking around downstairs & I figured she had to go out.

While I had been sleeping there had been a period of freezing rain. When I let Maude out the front door she started down the steps, slipped & did a belly flop on the icy snow at the bottom. She lay there panting for a few seconds. To her credit, weak as she was, she struggled up & squatted to pee. The philosopher Santayana talks about "animal faith"--the basic biological sense that the world goes on. The dog, very near death, was still in the world, doing what she needed to do. From the outside this looks like nobility & maybe it is. Maybe it's just an animal's lack of sentimentality. Though I had to struggle myself on the icy steps, I helped her back in the house--we both slipped a couple of times & she was exhausted by the time we got up the six steps. It was physically awkward & sad for me to see how weak she had become; she lay on the snowy porch for a minute, then got to her feet; I took her in & got her situated on her bed in front of the wood stove & then went back up to bed myself.

I could not sleep. I had an appointment with JC to have Maude put down at 10:30 the next morning. I had told him I would take the body home & bury it on our property here by the river, but I kept thinking how it had taken me two days to dig Mingo's grave a couple of years ago--our soil is full of roots & boulders. I was just not sure I could get the job done & this tortured me. I kept thinking how I would ask JC to "take care of the body." Literally, I turned over various phrases, as if the right one might get me out of the responsibility of digging a grave for my dog. I lay awake for maybe two hours before getting up. I spent a little time reading things on the internet, then went downstairs to sit beside Maude. I just stroked her head & listened to her breathing. She seemed to enjoy the attention--her breathing, which had become ragged, smoothed out & deepened. I sat with her for quite a while, then went across the room & lay down on the couch, maybe six feet from her. This is the hardest part to explain.

Lying on the couch with my eyes closed, I was still fully awake. After about five minutes, I saw, even though my eyes were still closed, the outline of the back of the couch & the window above it. Sitting on the top of the couch's back was a small white dog, about the size of a Jack Russell terrier, but more delicate. All white, but with a bright black nose. The small dog looked at me & looked across the room at Maude & I realized that this was a spirit come to guide Maude's spirit to . . . wherever the spirits of dogs reside. I knew that the little dog would stay with us until Maude was safely on her way. I went back upstairs & immediately went to sleep. When I woke up, I told Carole I was thinking of having JC "deal with" Maude's body. But somehow this didn't feel right, so almost as soon as I'd said it, I added, but maybe I should go out & see what I can do. Freezing rain was still coming down, the snow was wet & heavy.

I put on my fleece hat & insulated gloves & headed for the shed to get a shovel & pick. This is where it gets a little strange again. I had thought I would bury Maude near Mingo, but when I had the tools actually in my hands, it occurred to me that I might want to go down to the lower level of our sloping property, closer to the river. As I slowly made my way through the heavy snow I had a very clear sense of the little white dog's presence. I let her lead me to the spot. It may have been the one spot on our acre here by the river that I could have dug a four-foot deep grave without striking a huge rock or major root. It took me maybe an hour & a half to dig her grave. I went in the house & took a hot shower, then started the car & began to get her ready to go.

Maude rode to the vet in the back of the Subaru & when we got there JC came out with the drugs in a syringe. I held onto her, wrapping my arms around her neck, but Maude, who had always hated shots, simply let JC insert the needle. Maybe ten seconds passed. She went limp & collapsed into my arms. I drove her home. I went in the house & asked Carole if she wanted to see Maude's body--Carole said she'd rather remember her alive. I went out & put Maude into the canvas cover of her Bean's dog bed--"Maude" stenciled on one side. As I was putting her in the canvas bag, curling her back legs & tail under her body, I noticed that one of her eyes had some matter in it. Maude had always been very sensitive about anybody doing anything to her--she hated getting her toenails cut--but she had always let me thumb the gick out of her eyes without complaint. I performed this office one final time, closed her eyes & zipped her into the cover of her dog bed. Carole came out then & helped me carry her down the slope to the grave I had prepared. A little water had collected in the bottom & the rain still came down--we put her in & covered her up.

After Maude was buried a huge windstorm came up. Today snow fell, covering the disturbed earth around her grave. I long ago gave up believing in God & for several years I have referred to myself as an animist. The meaning of that claim came clear to me burying Maude: I have no use for God or gods, but I know for a fact that everything is filled with spirits. Not stupid New Age ideas-about-spirits or fuzzy notions of spirituality, but actual goddamned spirits in everything like that little white dog who came to see that Maude made it to wherever she had to go & that I--for my own poor comfort--was able to put her body into the ground here, myself.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:00 PM.

Friday, February 01, 2002
We euthanized Maude this morning & buried her in the back yard under the maples, near the river. One of the odd things about being a writer--one of the few things that might actually make a writer different from other folk--is that while events are happening we are thinking about them from a distance, composing things in our minds. I have spent much of my mental energy today thinking about how I could describe this expereince. She collapsed softly in my arms when the drug took effect . . ."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:26 PM.