Sunday, November 30, 2014

Obituary: Amiri Baraka, American poet and playwright

Amiri Baraka, an accomplished poet and playwright, died on Jan. 9, 2014 in Newark, N.J. He was active with organizations devoted to Black empowerment. This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 10, 2014.

Amiri Baraka, 79, an accomplished poet and playwright, died on Jan. 9, 2014 at a hospital in Newark, N.J., the city of his birth. He was a passionate defender of the integrity and authenticity of African-American art.

His given name at birth was Everett Leroy Jones. He published many works, including the acclaimed play "Dutchman," under the name LeRoi Jones. 

One of his most influential essays, "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature,'" published in 1962, can be read today in "Home: Social Essays." In the essay, he argued that, as Kaluma ya Salaam paraphrased it,

"as long as the Negro writer was obsessed with being accepted, [and with being] middle class, he would never be able to 'tell it like it is,' and, thus, would always be a failure, because America made room only for white obfuscators, not black ones."

In the early 1960s, LeRoi Jones was developing as a beat poet in Greenwich Village in New York City. He and his wife, Hettie Cohen, worked on a literary magazine together. However, the murder of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965 was a turning point in his consciousness. Leaving behind his children and his wife - their marriage had lasted from 1958-1965 - he and a group of committed artists moved to Harlem to form the Black Arts movement, related in spirit to the Black Power movement. in 1967, he married Sylvia Robinson. The next year, the couple converted to Islam, as Malcolm X had done, and changed their names. His wife became known as Amina Baraka; he chose "the Bantuized Arabic name Imamu Ameer Baraka, later changed to Amiri Baraka."

An article posted by the Academy of American Poets explains the widespread influence of the Black Arts movement:

"Sometimes criticized as misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racially exclusive, the Black Arts movement is also credited with motivating a new generation of poets, writers and artists. In recent years, however, many other writers - Native Americans, Latinos/as, gays and lesbians, and younger generations of African Americans, for instance - have acknowledged their debt to the Black Arts movement."

Among the familiar names whose poetry was part of this movement are Nikki Giovanni and Eldridge Cleaver.

In the 1970s, Amiri Baraka remained active with organizations devoted to Black empowerment; his work began to lean more toward Marxist and Leninist politics, drifting away from his former beliefs about Black nationalism. In 1984, he published his autobiography.

In 2002, he became the state poet laureate of New Jersey. He quickly lost the post after performing a poetic indictment of violence, "Somebody Blew Up America," which asked "Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / to stay home that day". The lines implied that there was conspiratorial foreknowledge among Jews regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that destroyed the Twin Towers and killed nearly 3,000 people in their office buildings on a Tuesday morning, and that these Jews had only protected their own kind. (The claim is, of course, false. It was likely based on a reported Israeli government estimate that 4,000 Israelis were in the vicinity when the towers collapsed. Several hundred Jews died in the event.)

With Amiri Baraka's passing, poets count the loss of a literary star, in the sense that he wrote about stars in his poem "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note":

"And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave."

Photo: Amiri Baraka at the Malcolm X Festival in San Antonio Park, Oakland, Calif. Image by: David Sasaki from San Diego, Calif. © Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Quobnah Ottobah Cugoano: An eighteenth-century Afro-Briton abolitionist

Quobnah Ottobah Cugoano grew up alongside the children of a king of Fantee in present-day Ghana. When he was 13, in the year 1770, he and the children were kidnapped in the woods by other Africans and sold to a European slave ship. He was unable to convince anyone to send word to his family. Finding that "death was more preferable than life," the captive women and children - while the men were chained beneath the deck - conspired to burn the ship and perish together, but one of the women betrayed their plan.

Cugoano was taken to the West Indies (that is, the Caribbean) before being sold to a master in England in 1772. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Lord Mansfield issued his famous ruling that prohibited slave-owners from pursuing their slaves who had escaped to other countries; this was commonly understood as the de facto abolition of slavery in England, 75 years after parliament had allowed private merchants to slave-trade on the west coast of Africa for a fee of ten pounds. It is not known how Cugoano eventually became a free man, but a decade after his arrival in England, he was working as a servant and was an abolitionist. Having been baptized with the name John Stewart, he came to accept Christianity as the one true religion.

His book, "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery," was published in 1787, when he was about 30 years old. A revised version was published four years later.

In this book, Cugoano acknowledges that there were slaves in Africa, too, but says they were primarily prisoners of war or people who owed a debt and were treated relatively well. The same applies to slavery in ancient times. He thinks it may be possible to allow "a free, voluntary, and sociable servitude, which is the very basis of human society, either civil or religious, whereby we serve one another that we may be served, or do good that good may be done unto us, [which] is in all things requisite and agreeable to all law and justice." On his view, slavery may also be used as a punishment for lawbreakers.

He contrasts this ideal with the reality of slavery in the contemporary West Indies where "hard-hearted overseers have neither regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men." Slaves are stripped and stared at, stowed like cattle in a stinking ship-hold, sold and separated from family forever. Cugoano personally witnessed a fellow slave in Grenada whipped for choosing to attend church rather than continue laboring in the field. He also refers to a well-known incident in 1780, where a captain threw over a hundred ailing slaves overboard because he preferred to attempt to recover their market value from his insurer.

He decries this modern type of slavery as "an evil of the first magnitude" that finds no justification in the Bible and is "contrary to all the genuine principles of Christianity." He lauded the writings of other abolitionists who describe how slavery is "to the great shame and disgrace of all Christian nations wherever it is admitted in any of their territories."

He proposes "days of mourning and fasting" for repentance, followed by "a total abolition of slavery" throughout Europe, to be enforced by warships sent to the African coast to ensure that emigrants are leaving voluntarily. During the transitional period, he recommends a lighter form of servitude for Afro-Britons: they should be freed, he says, after seven years of service which will compensate their keepers for the cost of their Christian education, and they should be released from their service only if they have become morally upright Christians, after which they should be compensated for their continued service or else they may elect to return to Africa to serve as Christian missionaries.

Cugoano explicitly rejects the European pro-slavery claims that African society is so terrible that its members consent to slavery as an improvement, and that slavery may be assumed to be harmless simply because other Europeans practice it. He also rejects the claim that dark skin is the curse from God known as the "mark of Cain" in the Bible. "The life of a black man is of as much regard in the sight of God, as the life of any other man," he writes.

Rather, violent imperialists and slave traders aren't truly Christian, but are part of the "synagogue of Satan" and the "Antichrist." He warns that breaking Biblical law by enslaving others will result in an eventual "awful visitation of the righteous judgment of God" which will be no less severe for its belatedness, perhaps manifesting in hurricanes, crop failures, national debt and individual poverty. As an economic strategy, freedom for all people would enable more national prosperity than would the keeping of a slave class.

He concludes:

"the voice of our complaint implies a vengeance ... and if it is not hearkened unto, it may yet arise with a louder voice, as the rolling thunder ... not only to shake the leaves of the most stout in heart, but to rend the mountains before them, and to cleave in pieces the rocks under them, and to go on with fury to smite the stoutest oaks in the forest"!

Image: Benkos Bioho statue © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license Wikimedia Commons.

Article originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 9, 2012.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Zen and the art of flying: Planes and bikes in Saint-Exupéry and Pirsig

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memoir Wind, Sand and Stars is his recollection of his adventures as a French pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s and '30s. It shimmers with sensory immediacy and ebullience as time and again he lifts the plane and points it toward the stars glowing in the night. The memoir records his contemplation leading to small steps of transformation. It reveals how frequently he feels himself communing with the infinite, and overall it testifies to the importance of mortal human relationships. "It is man and not flying," he writes, "that concerns me most."

The technology

In his opinion,

"to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away ..."

Perhaps because this kind of beauty is best found in nature, where nothing has been added and everything is in its primal nakedness, he acknowledges later in the book that "a tree does possess a perfection that a locomotive cannot know."

The twenty-first century reader must make a leap of imagination to understand what it was like to be a pilot at this time. The locomotive had gone from being perceived as "an iron monster" to "a humble friend who calls every evening at six," but the airplane was still new; Saint-Exupéry, who lived 1900 to 1944, went to flight school only two decades after the Wright brothers pioneered the first reliable aircraft model. Yet he knew that, just as a boat "does not disturb our philosophers" but is simply a thing that sails on the ocean, the airplane will someday become to the cultural understanding simply a thing that sails through the sky. "Every machine will gradually take on this patina and lose its identity in its function," he added. So, although he found his job as a pilot immensely thrilling, he did not harbor any illusion that what he was doing was essentially different, on a historical scale, from sailing a boat.

Cecil Lewis wrote in his introduction to Saint-Exupéry's book:

"The Western Front on which I fought in 1916/17 bred the sort of warfare Antoine de Saint-Exupéry never knew. Although he was only two years my junior his flying life did not start till mine was almost over. But his first experiences must have been very similar - marvelous youthful days flavored with dope and varnish and castor oil, when flying was sport and skill more than danger and duty."

What Saint-Exupéry describes is a mix of all these things: sport, skill, danger and duty. Flying over barren and potentially hostile territory, he had to worry about losing fuel, getting swept up in a storm, or running out of drinking water while crossing the desert on foot. The French pilots' temporary living conditions in foreign lands were Spartan to say the least. Their reliance on each other for survival built an intense camaraderie.

While he appreciated airplanes, he reserved his greatest sentiment for people. He felt keenly the death of any person, whether he knew that individual or only heard of him or her in a story. Each death is a loss, "for man's greatness does not reside merely in the destiny of the species: each individual is an empire." Saint-Exupéry himself met with his "final smash-up" five years after the publication of his memoir; his plane disappeared over the Mediterranean, its pieces to resurface three years later, and it is believed that he was shot down by German forces.

Zen and the art of flying

Some 35 years after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's publication of Wind, Sand and Stars, Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book remains immensely popular today, and its theme bears a strong similarity to Wind, Sand and Stars.

Pirsig's book reveals a perspective on technology that seems unusual to many Americans, then and today. He explains how technology can be valuable and meaningful, not primarily as devices per se, but for the experience of a human being who operates a device and understands its physical workings. If one understands a motorcycle well enough, one can fashion one's own small working parts for it that work just as well as expensive parts from a manufacturer. He engages at length in an abstract philosophical discussion that tries to pin down the definition of beauty and value, which he calls "quality." "Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object," he concludes. Rather, it's in "the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use."

Likewise, Saint-Exupéry writes that

"the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them...The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space."

Both writers argue that value is relative to the individual. Saint-Exupéry says: "If orange-trees are hardy and rich in fruit in this bit of soil and not that, then this bit of soil is what is truth for orange-trees." Similarly, Pirsig says: "One geometry [such as Euclidian or Riemann] can not be more true than another; it can only be more convenient. Geometry is not true, it is advantageous." Therefore, for Pirsig, "quality" may be "just what you like," assuming that a person is at least as intelligent as an orange-tree and prefers nourishing rather than toxic soil. People may argue that you oughtn't do "just what you like" because you oughtn't commit crimes, but in making this argument, Pirsig objects, they are "making some remarkable presumptions as to what is likable."

Saint-Exupéry complains about the overuse of logic to prove points. Any ideology can be logically defended, and yet ideologies nevertheless contradict each other, and men kill each other over these ideologies. "Truth," by contrast, "is the language that expresses universality...Truth is not that which is demonstrable but that which is ineluctable," he writes. He claims that "men manifest identical yearnings" and therefore "we must never set one man's truth against another's. All beliefs are demonstrably true. All men are demonstrably in the right. Anything can be demonstrated by logic." The important mission seems to be not proving the validity of a person's existential values, but respecting those values. Because of this, a man ought to "share with other men a common and disinterested ideal" and men must be "looking outward together in the same direction." It is only "methods" and "reasoning" that drive people apart, not their ultimate and deepest goals.

Similarly, Pirsig identified one of his central questions as whether a man "accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the 'insane.' To go outside the mythos is to become insane..." Mythos, here, refers to a cultural narrative architecture that defines one's place in the world. For an individual to declare that he sees the world differently than he has been taught to see it is always, by definition, to go against the current. He will have to use different stories, methods and reasoning to arrive at the same shared, universal human goals and values.

Flying into a cyclone, Saint-Exupéry experiences terror such that he cannot command his hands on the wheel of the plane. "My hands were not my own," he writes. Of this neurological disassociation, he reflects:

"How can a man tell the difference between the sight of a hand opening and the decision to open that hand, when there is no longer an exchange of sensations between the hand and the brain? How can one tell the difference between an image and an act of the will?"

For rather different reasons, Pirsig's character, too, reflects on his hands on the steering wheel of the motorcycle, which he understands as having once belonged to a different personality:

"That is the terror of it. These gloved hands I now look at, steering the motorcycle down the road, were once his! And if you can understand the feeling that comes from that, then you can understand real fear - the fear that comes from knowing there is nowhere you can possibly run."

These passages are significant because, for both men, the significance of the technology lies in the relationship of the vehicle and the person who operates it. Any loss of control of or identification with one's hands will inevitably affect that relationship.

The elements

Could Saint-Exupéry have imagined airplanes that fly with no one in the cockpit to experience the stars at night or the empty desert or the frozen mountain passes below? Could he have endorsed the craft of flying with no one to learn it? Could he have explained what travel means when there is no way for a conscious being to become intimately united with its vehicle?

The twenty-first century is witnessing the rise of unmanned drones: airplanes with no pilots inside. They may be self-controlled by computers or remotely controlled by a human operator on the ground. On a purely technological level, there is much to say about how these drones differ from the first airplanes that were created a hundred years ago, but surely Saint-Exupéry would want no part of an airplane with no conscious mind to experience the flying, and no part of an adventure without the beauty and terror of wind, sand and stars.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 25, 2013.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Reading the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 'The Great Gatsby'

In May 2013, American cinemas headlined a new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel "The Great Gatsby". It is a deeply American tale about the hope in love against all odds. It is not a story about peace talks. But, then, myths tend to enlarge their scope. The world runs on politics as well as on love stories, and some common threads run through them.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 6, 2013.

A love story

The story is about a man called Gatsby who, in his youth, fell in love with Daisy. “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath,” Fitzgerald wrote, “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” Unfortunately, because of Daisy’s social class and her expectations, she was unattainable. Gatsby left her and sought his fortune. Eventually, he became fabulously wealthy, but by then, Daisy had already married someone else and settled in a mansion in a place called East Egg. 

To attempt to reunite with her, undissuaded, Gatsby deliberately purchased his own mansion in West Egg. Their houses were separated by a bay. Gatsby would often gaze across the water at the green light that marked Daisy’s home. What would it be like to return to that moment in time when he had kissed Daisy? Could things have been different? To attract Daisy’s attention – for she did not yet know that her old flame was so near – Gatsby threw parties for the entire town, but Daisy never came. Finally, he enlisted his neighbor, Nick, to host a private meeting between the two of them.

It is a breath-catching moment in the film when Gatsby and Daisy are brought together in Nick’s house while a rainstorm surges outside. They are surrounded by an impossibly rich profusion of cut flowers. But then what? What will they do? Where can they go, with a third party watching, and the whole world waiting outside the door, with the rest of their lives hanging in the balance? Where do they want to go? Can they stretch out time and stay in the moment forever? They cannot. They have limited time to make their decision together.

The audience knows that Gatsby and Daisy must declare their true interests. They must begin to hammer out a solution to their predicament. They must decide whether past wounds can be healed, missed opportunities can be regained, past wrongs can be righted, and disappointing roads can be rerouted. In these respects, they are beginning a sort of peace talk. They will have to aim to reach a swift decision.

Peace talks

Later in the summer of 2013, a rather different kind of story began to play out in real life. On July 29, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a dinner for Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams at the State Department building in Washington. It signaled the beginning of a new round of peace talks, a process that had been sidelined for three years. After the scintillating moment of the initial banquet is over – whether the participants find it uplifting or nerve-wracking – the emphasis can no longer be about the arrival in Washington. The emphasis must quickly shift to the inhabitants of east and west looking at each other and deciding whether their gulf can be bridged.

In one sense, this, too, is an American story. Of course, it is also a Middle Eastern story: the Israelis and Palestinians are the ones who already live with each other and will have to live with any new policies they agree upon. Yet, if the story were narrated by the mediator, John Kerry, it would be told from an American point of view, at once spectator and stakeholder. The future is inherently mysterious for everyone, but the mystery might look different for the direct participants and for the mediator. Different parties see different possibilities at different times. Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace have long been a concern of American politicians. There is an American story within this saga.

“He did not know that it was already behind him,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning –“

So, love did not work out for Gatsby; he waited too long, and his life burned out too quickly. But a political solution might still be found in the Middle East. Past, present and future will all be discussed in the context of this new round of negotiations. People care in part because of their long memories, their "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Millennia are behind us, yet there is still tomorrow. There is still tomorrow especially because there are peace talks today. There is East Egg, and there is West Egg; there is everything between and beyond; and there are worldviews that are willing to accept that today’s social divisions may change. What is decided today will sail the boats into the future.

Painting by Jan Preisler (1872-1918). Preisler painted "Lovers" in 1905. © Public domain, due to the age of the artist. Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ancient assyrian obelisk shows King Jehu paying tribute to King Shalmaneser III

Shalmaneser III ruled Assyria from 858-824 BCE, expanding his empire through military campaigns. He ruled from the capital city Nimrud – once known as Calah or Kalhu, which was near Nineveh – in present-day Iraq. He is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings 17:3 and 18:9. His name honors the god Shulmanu, a war god who was the Assyrian equivalent of the Mesopotamian god Ninurta.

What remains of Shalmaneser III's palatial grounds, the place where the old, wealthy, powerful king lived out his retirement, is today a valuable archaeological site. A fire-damaged underground complex made of glass-glazed brick on a sprawling 60-acre site was discovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1845. M. E. L. Mallowan discovered a nearby 18-acre military site in 1959. Known as "Fort Shalmaneser," it yielded carved ivories, plaques, and pottery, according to an article on the "Archaeology of Mesopotamia" in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

Image: The black obelisk of Shalmaneser III. © Trustees of the British Museum. Used here for a non-commercial purpose according to the British Museum's Terms of Use. Image identification: ME 118885, AN32487001.

Shalmaneser III's famous obelisk, erected a year before his death during a civil war sparked by his feuding sons, is six-and-a-half feet tall and made of black limestone. Twenty reliefs and about 200 lines of cuneiform script depict five conquered kings paying tribute, for each of which there is a four-relief sequence that wraps around the sides of the obelisk, thereby totaling the twenty reliefs. As one author explained: "From top to bottom [the conquered kings] are: (1) Sua of Gilzanu (in north-west Iran), (2) Jehu of Bit Omri (ancient northern Israel), (3) an unnamed ruler of Musri (probably Egypt), (4) Marduk-apil-usur of Suhi (middle Euphrates, Syria and Iraq), and (5) Qalparunda of Patin (Antakya region of Turkey)."

The Black Obelisk was recovered by Layard from the ruins of Nimrud and is kept today at the British Museum. In late 1845, Layard, who had developed an archaeological curiosity about the mysterious mounds in the Iraqi desert, traveled to Iraq with the backing of Sir Stratford Canning. He lied to the fearsome governor of Mosul – the one-eyed, one-eared Mohammed Pasha, known as Keritli Oglu – that he had traveled to Mosul only to hunt boars. Layard's party then rafted on the Tigris River toward Nimrud where they began digging up a large mound strewn with pottery fragments. Mohammed Pasha was soon replaced by Hafiz Pasha and then by Tahyar Pasha who, while spending three days admiring Layard's site, referred to sphinx images as "the sacred emblem of which True Believers speak with reverence". After a year of excavation, one of Layard's workers made the most significant find, the Black Obelisk, which was shipped to England in December 1846. Although Layard had hired local protection, due to political instability in the fraying Ottoman Empire he left the area soon afterward.

In a lengthy account based on the writings of Layard himself, one of his contemporaries, an assistant at the British Museum, described the obelisk:

"The whole inscription was in excellent preservation; scarcely a single character was wanting, and the figures were sharp and well defined. The king is twice represented, followed by his attendants, a prisoner at his feet, and his vizir and eunuchs are introducing to him a procession consisting of various animals, and of figures carrying vases and other objects of tribute on their shoulders, or in their hands. The animals are the elephant, the rhinoceros, the Bactrian or two-humped camel, the wild bull, the lion, the stag, and various kinds of monkeys."
The inscription attributes the gift of the Asian elephant to the ruler of Musri, according to Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries.

Shalmaneser III's Black Obelisk is seen as significant by those interested in Biblical history since one of the kings paying him tribute, Jehu, is also mentioned by name in the Bible. Some people therefore take the Black Obelisk as evidence that "the Bible’s stories are true, they really happened, and the biblical record is accurate." According to Richard Rives' religiously motivated book Too Long in the Sun, the obelisk's inscription also mentions the names of many Assyrian gods including Assur, Anu, Bel, Ea, Sin, Adad, Shamash, Merodach, Adar, Nergal, Jusku, Beltis, Bel, and Ishtar.

Originally posted to Helium Network on April 14, 2011.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Bible may be worth studying, but it doesn't contribute to science

Why can't the Bible be used as part of scientific literature?

The Bible is full of poetry and philosophy, story and song. It is not full of science. This can be demonstrated by examining the Bible as a work of literature, where its literary strengths are also its scientific shortcomings.

Natural phenomena in the Bible are usually assigned metaphoric meanings. The sun represents God's radiance, and plant and animal agriculture implies health, happiness, and prosperity. Lightning, earthquakes, floods, plague and disease were generally construed as punishments from God – for example, Miriam was said to have been stricken with skin problems in return for her racist taunts (Numbers 12:9-11)

Locations were not mapped, and when ancient villages and natural formations cannot be precisely identified, it is difficult to prove that they ever existed at all. They may have been inventions or embellishments, and the writers may have considered their roles in the story to be more important than their material reality.

Nor does Biblical writing always quantify precisely and in a literal manner. The recurring number 40 – as in the number of days it rained in the Great Flood, and the number of years that the Hebrew people were lost in the desert after leaving Egypt – appears to simply mean "a lot."

Famously, a numerical description of a "circular" cauldron in the Temple of Solomon must either be a rough estimate or else the cauldron was not a perfect circle.

Noah could not have single-handedly collected a male-female breeding pair of all species on the planet (there are as many as 7.7 million animal species, most of them as yet undiscovered, according to a recent scientific estimate), and the boat that he built could not have reasonably been large enough to hold them all (even excluding the ones that could swim, as Biblical literalists insist upon, as if that makes the proposition more reasonable).

Sometimes there are outright logical contradictions. In the first chapter of Genesis, plants are created before the first humans are created. In the second chapter, a male human is created before the first plants.

One New Testament scripture says that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), and another says that he suffered spontaneous disembowelment (Acts 1:18). These contradictions arise in part because the scriptures are narrated by different people, and there is no obvious scientific method by which to judge which narrator is most reliable. It is just a question of "he said, she said."

The best way to understand these references is as rough approximation or metaphor. Natural objects and events were considered important, but exactly recording their quantity, weight, dimensions, temperature, or other scientifically measurable properties was not considered important, at least not within the context of the story. Natural objects and events were considered important primarily because of their meaning in human life. Could the original authors, oral historians, and redactors hear this discussion today, they would likely be bewildered by the modern-day assumption that their artistic, spiritual storytelling was a mere literal recording of their observations about the desert. They might even be offended by that assumption, since the scientific method was probably not something that they understood, believed in, or used. They likely believed in magic and miracles, and they may have considered empirical knowledge less valuable than religious mastery.

Scientific literature documents the process of answering questions through observation, experimentation, and logic. The Bible does not even attempt to do this. It is a collection of stories focusing on human relationships and philosophies, and it makes relatively few references to the natural world Therefore, while the Bible provides valuable insight into life thousands of years ago – as well as addressing philosophical and religious questions about the meaning of life that are still relevant today – it is not scientific literature.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on July 27, 2006.

Image above of golden bowerbirds in Australia. Photographed circa 1900. © No known copyright restrictions. Powerhouse Museum Collection. Flickr.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What you can learn about capital punishment from ''

'' is a blog that provides thorough, detailed information about executions throughout history and all over the globe. This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 16, 2013.

The blog "" features a daily post of an execution corresponding to "this day in history." Undeniably, this is a macabre approach to learning history, but for some readers, it will be absorbing and effective. The writing is highly literate and contains deliciously obscure vocabulary.

The executions are usefully organized by category. For example, Agnes Bernauer (executed Oct. 12, 1435 for witchcraft) can be found under the category "Wrongful execution," and Udilberto Vasquez Bautista (executed Sept. 11, 1970 for rape and murder) can be found under the category "Popular culture." The latter is famous as a "folk saint" in Peru among those who consider him innocent, and he is the subject of the film "Milagroso Udilberto Vasquez."

The executions are also searchable by location, method (e.g. "Blown from Cannon" or "Lingchi," the Chinese practice of slow dismemberment in public) or the date on which the stories were posted to the blog. A few of the featured executions, such as a 1942 photo of Nazis executing the resistance in Belarus, occurred on uncertain date; the author has included cases such as these to avoid focusing prejudicially only on famous, better documented cases where dates are known.

The blog's "About" page provides a lengthy description of intent. The author acknowledges that, while "this is not an all-purpose chronicle of human cruelty," the definition of an execution - a killing by the state - can be debated. Also, while the author admits to opposing the death penalty, the blog is not ideological and aims simply to illuminate "the perspective on humanity we gain through the window of this human institution."

There are a variety of reasons why someone might be interested in reading the blog: if not for the prurient interest in violence, then for a desire to learn about political, military and religious history or about judicial approaches to criminal cases. While not pornographic, neither is it quite "safe for work," unless one works in the sort of environment where it is normal to look at photos of naked victims huddled at the edge of mass graves. If an occasional visit to the website does not satiate one's appetite, the dedicated reader may subscribe by email, RSS or Twitter.

With well over 2,000 posts, this is an extremely thorough collection, as it seems to consist of daily posts that began in 2007 and are still accumulating as of 2013. There is certainly a niche readership for this, and it may be of use to scholars. Dirk C. Gibson cited the blog in his book "Legends, Monsters, or Serial Murderers?", as did William Webb in his book on Japanese serial killers, "Murder Under the Rising Sun." The library of Stetson University's College of Law posted a review in 2011 recommending the site, saying it was "written with great detail and care." 

The readers of "" are permitted to leave public comments or to send a private message to the author. (It may come as no great surprise, given the visceral impact of the material and the controversial subject matter, that the author chooses to remain anonymous.) The blog has featured "guest posts" written by others, and the author of "" has in turn guest-posted on other blogs, such as "Murder by Gaslight." The blog is a useful and growing contribution to the body of knowledge on the Internet.

Image: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 9, no. 211 (1859 Dec. 17) © Public domain Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The literary life of a pilot: Books that influenced Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was famous for being one of the first licensed female pilots, and the first one to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She was also a good student who loved books.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 8, 2013.

As a small girl, Earhart was home-schooled. She enjoyed reading — as her sister also did — especially in her grandparents’ library. She was especially interested in adventure stories and other things considered ‘tomboyish.’ Later, she went to a private prep school. She preferred science, but also appreciated poetry, according to Marilyn Rosenthal and Daniel Freeman’s book about her.

As a child, she loved horseback riding, and one of her favorite stories was Black Beauty (1877) by the English author Anna Sewell, which was about a mistreated horse. She also liked the British writers Sir Walter Scott, who wrote narrative poems and pioneered historical novels, and Charles Dickens, who wrote stories about people living in poverty, such as the novel David Copperfield.

According to Amelia Earhart: Young Aviator by Beatrice Gormley, when Earhart was young, her father surprised the family with a leather-bound set of Rudyard Kipling’s books which would have included Kim, The Jungle Book, and Captains Courageous. Kipling was a famous British writer, born in India while it was under British colonial rule. Many of his stories were set in India and have the ring of fable. Because his stories were viewed as supporting colonialism, and because the general public’s support for such political ideology was waning, his writing waned in popularity after WWI, according to John I. M. Stewart’s article for Britannica.

Richard E. Gillespie wrote for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery's "Earhart Project" that Earhart was "well versed in the liberal arts" and that she possessed "an unusually fine knowledge of the classics".

Earhart attended Columbia University’s extension program to pursue pre-medical studies for the Fall 1919 and Spring 1920 semesters. She performed well academically, but she dropped out for family reasons. Later, she said she did not want to be a doctor.

She enrolled again at Columbia briefly in 1925 but did not pass a required algebra course. Determined to succeed, she immediately took an even more difficult trigonometry course at Harvard University, where she performed well. She wanted to pursue an aeronautical degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which accepted women into its program, but they did not grant her a financial scholarship, so she could not attend.

According to, she worked as a teacher and as a social worker, and eventually she became the ‘aviation editor’ at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

In June 1928, she famously became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Newfoundland to Wales. She and Louis Gordon were co-pilots; she would later say that pilot Wilmer Stultz did all of the actual maneuvering. Still, her successful journey as a passenger earned her a celebratory ticker-tape parade in New York City. She wrote a book about her flight titled 20 Hrs. 40 Min., which was published later that year. Her promoter, George Putnam, put her on publicity tours. The two of them married in 1931.

In 1932, she completed a solo flight across the Atlantic, and she published a second book, The Fun of It, about female pilots.

Earhart disappeared in 1937 somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while trying to fly around the globe. Her husband published a collection of her assorted writings after her death which he called Last Flight. She was never found and was declared legally dead two years later. Her legacy lives on through the many women she inspired to succeed in the sciences.

Image of Amelia Earhart © San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. No known copyright restrictions. Creative Commons on Flickr.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Primo Levi’s insights into psychology at Auschwitz

Primo Levi's 1947 memoir Si questo e un uomo (translated into English in 1959 as If This is a Man, published in the US as Survival in Auschwitz) and its 1963 sequel La tregua (The Truce, published in the United States as The Reawakening) describe his experiences as an Italian Jewish prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi Germany and his long journey home to Turin following the camp's liberation in January 1945.

Focusing on the experiences of the prisoners rather than on indictments of the Nazis, the books provide a unique perspective on human psychology and behavior under duress. Among Levi's important observations are the physical and moral metamorphoses undergone by the prisoners, the randomness of the selection of who was to live and who was to die, the human inability ever to feel uncomplicated contentment or complete desperation, the freedom to live by one's own beliefs, and his anticlimactic confrontation with ordinary Germans after the war.

Auschwitz, Poland. Image by Wikimedia Commons user 'Pimke', 2006. © Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution, Poland license Wikimedia Commons.

This essay was originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 26, 2010.

The physical and moral metamorphosis

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Levi and his fellow prisoners on the train observed the camp inmates who "walked in squads, in rows of three, with an odd, embarrassed step, head dangling in front, arms rigid... This was the metamorphosis that awaited us. Tomorrow we would be like them." (Survival) Levi's cohorts, already deprived of water for days, soon had their heads and faces shaven, received their first compulsory shower, and were driven out naked into the cold. This initiated the metamorphosis on a physical level.
"When we finish, everyone remains in his own corner and we do not dare lift our eyes to look at one another. There is nowhere to look in a mirror, but our appearance stands in front of us, reflected in a hundred livid faces, in a hundred miserable and sordid puppets. We are transformed into the phantoms glimpsed yesterday evening." (Survival)

After the physical dimension, the moral dimension of this change began. One of Levi's earliest observations in this area was his own disinterest in keeping himself clean. The Nazis demanded that prisoners wash themselves, but it seemed fruitless to Levi, given that his work coated him with coal dust and the washing water was dirty anyway. A fellow prisoner advised him that he should nevertheless wash himself, not to conform to the command, but as a way of reminding himself that he was still alive and that he resisted his enslavement. Levi, who was from Italy, had trouble accepting this advice from someone who was from Prussia, since his own cultural belief was that "nothing is of greater vanity than to force oneself to swallow whole a moral system elaborated by others, under another sky." Skirting the topic of cleanliness, he questioned more broadly whether it was "really necessary to elaborate a [moral] system and put it into practice? Or would it not be better to acknowledge one's lack of a system?" (Survival)

One might think that behavioral concerns such as cleanliness constitute only a small component of one's personal moral system, especially when juxtaposed against the more pressing concern of mass murder. However, Levi explained,
"It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist." (Survival)

His distinction seems to be about whether a person has the freedom to make basic choices. When someone is imprisoned and deprived to such an extent that he cannot choose to sleep and eat in ways that meet survival needs, he is missing a foundation for his existence as a contemplative human being. According to this material definition of humanity, someone who chooses to commit evil deeds has more humanity than someone who does not have the opportunity to choose. Washing oneself is symbolic of the ability to choose to preserve a shred of dignity and of the desire to fulfill physical needs.

In the death camp, the usual understandings of right and wrong were inverted. One was expected to steal from, not to help, one's fellow prisoner. Being altruistic when one had already lost everything entailed death. Levi wrote:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager [i.e., in Auschwitz] of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (Survival)

Behavior was thus influenced not only by whether one was Italian or Prussian or of a particular individualistic leaning, but by the severe conditions in the camp that rendered existing moral codes inapplicable.

The spell was broken and the moral metamorphosis reversed in an instant (the physical wasting would take more time to correct) when the Germans abandoned the camp, leaving a few prisoners who had hidden during the chaos of the evacuation. Levi recorded that in the early stages of this freedom, specifically on the cold day of Jan. 19, 1945, some prisoners worked to repair a window and stove and the others agreed to compensate them with extra bread. "Only a day before," he wrote, "a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour', and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead." (Survival)

Who will live and who will die

Given most virtues, such as the pairs of "the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate," Levi saw room for subtlety and shading. Among free people, this gray area applies even to the question of whether one is going to live or die, because if a person encounters serious trouble, he or she can expect to receive neighborly assistance. In the death camp, however, where "everyone is desperately and ferociously alone" and cannot expect anyone to lend a hand, there was a stark distinction between "the saved and the drowned." (Survival)

The risk of annihilation without the normal hope of intervention was made even more unbearable for the prisoners by their awareness of the randomness in the selection process. Generally, the Nazis put Auschwitz prisoners to hard labor and eventually, when the laborers became emaciated or displayed wounds that would not heal, they were sent to be exterminated. However, some worked for a while and were sent to their deaths despite being in relatively good physical condition, while others were killed immediately upon arrival at the camp. As Levi explained it:
"We also know that not even this tenuous principle of discrimination between fit and unfit was always followed, and that later the simpler method was often adopted of merely opening both the doors of the wagon without warning or instructions to the new arrivals. Those who by chance climbed down on one side of the convoy entered the camp; the others went to the gas chamber." (Survival)

One usually expects reason or compassion to play a central role in decisions about who will live and who will die. In Auschwitz, they did not. The caprice in the decision process instilled its own kind of psychological horror.

Facing the question of whether one would be saved or drowned, then, meant facing the reality that one would sink or swim entirely on one's own, and furthermore that even if one managed to swim very well for months in a frozen ocean, one might nevertheless be shot.

Extremes of optimism and pessimism

In Auschwitz, Levi observed, "the single name of the major cause [of unhappiness] is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others. So that [in Auschwitz] as soon as the cold, which throughout the winter had seemed our only enemy, had ceased, we became aware of our hunger; and repeating the same error, we now say: 'If it was not for the hunger!...'" The same general psychological principle applies to people who live free and in comfort; even among these fortunates, he wrote, "one hears it said that man is never content." (Survival)

A similar principle is used in the opposite situation: as bad as life may seem, there is always a silver lining. Prisoners at hard labor in the rain in Auschwitz might think to themselves, Levi wrote, "It is lucky that it is not windy today." This sort of natural optimism allowed them to continue to live. On the other hand, when there are no possible good outcomes, then there is no meaningful distinction between optimism and pessimism. The psychological tendencies to see the most urgent stressor and the silver lining could have this perverted expression: "it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to... you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining." (Survival)

Why are people never completely happy or completely unhappy? Because of our own finite human nature, particularly our uncertainty of what the future will bring. The only thing of which we can be certain is our own eventual deaths. Mortality "places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief," while day-to-day concerns distract from the heights of happiness and unhappiness. (Survival)

Moral autonomy after the liberation

The sequel's original title, The Truce, comes from one of its concluding paragraphs: "The months just past, although hard, of wandering on the margins of civilization now seemed to us like a truce, a parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but unrepeatable gift of fate." Its newer title, The Reawakening, rests on a complex interpretation of the final paragraph in which Levi describes a recurring nightmare of an illusion of peace that ruptures into the reality of war. The final word of the book is "Wstawach," the wake-up command at Auschwitz. If "Wstawach" is the awakening, then the “reawakening” must refer to the emergence from the nightmare of Auschwitz and the re-entry into peaceful life.

For a short while, during the journey home, Levi partnered with a Greek man who had also been in Auschwitz. Mordo Nahum – or "the Greek," as Levi referred to him – had a strong and peculiar work ethic. He was an entrepreneurial merchant who was not opposed to stealing and trickery, since he believed it to be of paramount importance to support himself rather than to rely on the charity of others. While this lifestyle kept Levi from starving, he found the situation unsettling. On the subject of this foreign moral code, the Greek, Levi explained,
"was not prepared for compromise or discussion. Moral codes, all of them, are rigid by definition; they do not admit blurrings, compromises, or reciprocal contaminations. They are to be accepted or rejected en bloc. This is one of the principal reasons why man is gregarious and searches more or less consciously for the company not of his generic neighbour, but only of someone who shares his profound beliefs (or lack of them)...everyone knows how awkward it is to do business, in fact to live together, with an ideological opponent." (Reawakening)

Levi did not blame his fellow survivor for his moral differences. He rather sought to understand how the other man had formed his beliefs. After all,
"everybody's moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography. The biography of my Greek was linear; it was that of a strong and cold man...The Lager had happened to both of us; I had felt it as a monstrous upheaval, a loathsome anomaly in my history and in the history of the world; he, as a sad confirmation of things well known." (Reawakening)

As Levi noted earlier in his reflections on survival within the labor camp, the ability and opportunity to live by one's personal code is a way of expressing one's freedom and autonomy. He did not express a sense of urgency of convincing anyone else of his own beliefs, nor of allowing himself to be persuaded by others so that he might fit into a group. He seems to have believed that it was enough for each person to have the dignity of determining such matters for himself.

Confronting the enemy

At the end of the tale, Levi briefly mentions a resentment toward the Germans during his return trip to Italy.
"We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, like chess players at the end of a game. Did 'they' know about Auschwitz, about the silent daily massacre, a step away from their doors? If they did, how could they walk about, return home and look at their children, cross the threshold of a church? If they did not, they ought, as a sacred duty, to listen, to learn everything, immediately, from us, from me; I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore." (Reawakening)

He immediately tempers this sentiment with the observation that the Germans he saw near the train station in Munich were "few," "mutilated," and "dressed in rags like us." They seemed to be "deaf, blind and dumb imprisoned in their ruins, as in a fortress of wilful ignorance, still strong, still capable of hatred and contempt, still prisoners of their old tangle of pride and guilt." Levi realized that, even if a German were to apologize to him, it would be one of "the few just ones," not one of those who had committed atrocities.

As Mona Simpson wrote for The Atlantic in June 2007: "Levi’s great achievement rests on a paradox and great artifice. Who but a chronic depressive (given to the habit of self-criticism) could be sent to Auschwitz and focus on the behavior of the Jews, intricately chronicling their moral gradations of honor and corruption?" Even if one is taken aback by Levi's unusual perspective, the insights, gained through so much labor and patience, are worth contemplation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Understanding individualism and collectivism: Rick Perry on liberalism

Extreme individualism and extreme collectivism each pose their own problems. Common sense tells us to find a balance where we can work together collaboratively without succumbing either to selfish solipsism or to unthinking herd mentality.

Because political rhetoric often struggles to communicate nuance, politicians may appear to come down on one side or the other: either as individualists or collectivists. The lack of nuance may be even more pronounced in their characterization of their opponents.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 13, 2011.

A case study is the recent campaign literature by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for U.S. president in 2012. In On My Honor (2008), Perry complained that "liberals value the preservation of self-esteem above all else" and called out "counterculture activists" for "imposing a culture of self and moral relativism upon the nation." This characterizes the Left as a bunch of individualists. Not long afterward, he published Fed Up! (2010) which Newt Gingrich introduced with this comment: "The Left believes that most people are not capable of pursuing happiness and that a strong centralized government is best able to provide for them." This characterizes the Left as a bunch of collectivists.

Perry seems to have changed his mind, or at least his offensive strategy, over a short period of time. Unlike On My Honor, Fed Up! doesn't mention the terms "moral relativism" or "secular humanism" anywhere, nor does it identify individualism as a threat to "traditional values." Instead, Perry now seems to identify collectivism as a threat against the admirable virtue of individualism. For example, he is bothered by the Supreme Court's "intrusion into personal matters of morality and conscience" as well as by attempts to solve problems on a federal level when the local level usually provides better solutions "tailor[ed] our own values and perspectives."

Fed Up! contains laundry lists of the sorts of choices that Perry thinks the federal government should bow out of regulating: food, housing, healthcare, fuel, cars, guns, prayer, holidays, speech, contraception and capital punishment and everything in between. An important question remains: are these private lifestyle choices or can they be regulated by state (if not federal) law? He seems to go back and forth on the answer.

The problem presents itself in this way: Perry says that liberty requires permitting behaviors that don't hurt anyone and restricting only harmful practices. He also says that, under the idea of federalism and the Tenth Amendment, states have the authority to make their own laws. Are we to understand that there is more than one correct interpretation of liberty and more than one possible version of laws that uphold liberty? Or are some state governments mistaken in what they choose to regulate, and if so, does the Tenth Amendment nevertheless give them the right to impose their immoral law upon their citizens? This is a question involving the appropriate balance between individualism and collectivism.

Here is the same problem from another perspective: What should you do if you don't like the way your state government is being run? What if you suffer from a bungled bureaucracy, or worse, are victimized by intolerance? Should you, as a constituent who elects representatives, find a way to participate in politics to attempt to change your neighborhood for the better? On the contrary. Gov. Perry tells you that you should leave the state and go somewhere that is more to your liking. He says this multiple times in Fed Up!. He calls it "voting with your feet." He says that "the people" should call the shots to define the culture and the laws of their particular state, but at the end of the day, if you, as a political minority, remain dissatisfied, you should leave. Ultimately he seems to be saying that individual differences somehow threaten community cohesion and that people need to band together in collectives of like-minded people so that they do not rock the boat.

This is distressing for several reasons. Significantly, it assumes that the plaintiff has the ability to leave. Ill people and poor people may find relocation a hardship. Additionally, many Americans have family ties to a particular state, and telling them to leave the state is telling them that they need to choose between their values and their family. It also assumes that an individual who is bothered by a political situation should find a resolution that meets their own self-interest – moving away so that, in effect, they blind themselves to the problem by no longer having to see it directly – rather than taking the moral high road of putting personal effort into solving the problem, not only for their own sake, but on behalf of those who do not have the ability to advocate for themselves.

Deciding when to adjust our goals toward a particular side of the spectrum between individualism and collectivism, and when to tolerate, expect, or encourage dissenting input from others, is never easy. A good start is to avoid overgeneralizations about our own intentions and about the attitudes of others.