Thursday, February 28, 2008


Is it paradoxical that I start this post with the concept of paradox even as I confess that I have given up on Roy Sorenson's A Brief History of the Paradox? I always feel a little guilty when I abandon a book mid-read, but alas this sweet little tour of the history of Western logical theory began to feel a little too theological and not quite as paradoxical as I had hoped ... by theological I mean that theology is bunk but the history of religion is fascinating, and that is true of philosophy too in my particular view ... philosophy is oh such a yawn, but the history of ideas has no bottom to its depth. Sorenson's review tends to lard a thick layer of philosophical musing on a thin skeleton of known philosophical history, and it left me in its dust. This raises both the sidebar question of whether lard and dust should ever be used in the same sentence, and the more central question of whether there is any utility to philosophy.

The answers would be no and yes, and it is paradoxical that while I answer no and yes, my practice in the event was yes and no. To whit, I did use lard and dust in one sentence, but I did not find any utility in this case for philosophy.

Sorenson argues that paradox is a question that has too many answers. I think of paradox as the poor sister of dialectic ... poor by reason of its having been stripped of context and content. Take the engaging paradox of the heap ... if you have a heap of sand, and you take away one grain, is it still a heap? Repeat this process. What is the line between heap and not-heap? In real life, people answer that I know a heap when I see one. And this suffices for everyday purposes, but it does not give us a grasp of deeper or inner reality. In that sense, every paradox points to the paradox of gawd and the stone. If gawd is all powerful, then he can create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift. But is he cannot lift it, he is not all-powerful. Is the everyday answer to that conundrum this: I know a gawd when I see one? Well, not quite. (I remind the irregular reader that I figure, as a die hard atheist, that the name of gawd is irrelevant given his omnipotence so I spell him however strikes my fancy, no matter how puerile such a conceit might appear to the religious.)

I prefer the notion of dialectic ... as simply put as I can try, dialectic is the notion that counterposed forces in history through their engagement with each other create new oppositions related to but not identical to those which spawned them. That such forces are incompatible does not prevent them from engaging, and it does not prevent a synthesis which contains the evolution of both even as it spins a new contradiction composed of but not identical to the opposition which generated it. It's not that paradox isn't fun and profitable especially during the latter stages of drinking parties ... no, it is that dialectic is the fascination that keeps on fascinating.

So I reluctantly left Sorenson's book in the dust (well, actually, I am still carrying it around in my man purse in case I change my mind and give it a reprieve), and I turned to Tom Reiss' The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the story of a Jew born in Azerbaijan who masqueraded as a Muslim prince in the gathering gloom of Nazi Germany. A great read, recommended. It interests me here because it draws attention to the difference between paradox and dialectic. Lev Nussenbaum, the hero of the tale, is certainly paradoxical in the sense that he cannot be all or each of what he claims. But more to the point, his career draws its potency from its involvement in the most compelling contradictions of the period in which he lived, 1905-1942, or the first Russian Revolution through the middle of the worst war of all.

It reminds me of the paradox of the set of sets which do not contain themselves. Imagine a set of all things red ... I derive this from an interview with Sorenson on NPR ... because a set has no color, the set of all things red does not contain itself. So the set of all things red is a member of the set of sets that do not contain themselves. But is the set of all sets that do not contain themselves a part of itself? If yes, then no; if no, then yes. In other words, if the set of sets that do not contain themselves does contain itself, then it does not contain itself. But if it does not contain itself, then it does contain itself.

The impostor, the rake, the poseur, all are like the set that does not contain itself, for if they are who they are, then they are not, and if they are not who they are, then they are. The poseur's life in itself is only passing interesting, but the era which is his playground and which is the force behind his fraud, that is what we can view through the lens of the indissoluble contradiction that is his life. Reiss does a good job of revealing all of that, and so the dialectic that he explicates keeps me much more spellbound than the equally estimable efforts of Dr. Sorenson.

Photos by Arod of street art in downtown San Francisco, sometime last summer.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Good News

A couple of pieces of heartwarming news in the New York Times. First off, it seems that fewer and fewer 16-year-olds are getting licenses. I've long held that we have the age of consent laws all backwards ... it should be free to have sex at 16, free to drink at 18, free to drive at 21 ... and free to have a cell phone at 30 ... ooops, too cranky. Demographics may be looking after the first three.

And more Americans are giving up golf, the world's most environmentally destructive game. If golf were played more as it was when it was invented ... unmanicured fairways, everybody has to walk and carry their own clubs ... it would not be such a blight, stealing parkland for the few and shedding toxic runoff.

So the planet may be heading for a broiling hell, but in the meanwhile a couple of happy indicators. La de da.

Friday, February 22, 2008


The cartoon is courtesy of the blog you can reach by clicking on it and recommended by my dear friend Dodge who complains that I do not mention her enough in here. So I will take this moment to say that I desperately want a DVD of the biggest versions of all the fabulous pictures of our shared, lost youth that she has recently been scanning and uploading to Flickr. How about a cool dinner on me in exchange next time I am in Vancouver or you are here ... been a long time since you've been in fabulous San Francisco. And in that vein, to contextualize a few of those shots that I have brazenly appropriated ...

Dodge and I met at the Vancouver Vocational Institute (VVI) on Pender Street in Vancouver in 1975 when we both took a two-year course in printing technology. She got a job straight out of the program and has held it ever since ... the classic indispensable employee who basically owns the place. We discovered in each not only kindred spirits, but also, and more practically, inveterate indefatigable walkers. We used to perform a stunt called formation walking in which we walked as quickly as we could always abreast through the crowded underground Granville Mall while gandying about at lunchtime from VVI. We still have walks whenever we see each other ... either a long ramble through Stanley Park or particular "stations of the cross" type walk in North Beach. We missed each other last time I was in Vancouver.

Dodge also taught me photography ... she sold me my first Pentax SLR (which a long while later Gary accidentally left on our doorstep on Market Street in San Francisco from which it quickly disappeared into the ether.) Those were the days, kids, when cameras had film in them ... and film was expensive and time-consuming (we developed and printed our own B&Ws) ... so we had to be careful about shots. We shot each other a lot, and there are not a lot of photos of us together, so I guess this one will have to do. Gawd noze what foolishness led to this pose ... not even sure where this was taken.

We ended up living across the hall from each other in the still fabulous Banffshire on Jervis near the waterfront in Vancouver. We had what I would call a famous friendship ... not famous in the sense of Hollywood but in the sense of brilliant, celebrated, grand, peerless, splendid. I was a politically involuted (by which I refer to Clifford Geertz's notion of Javanese agriculatural involution as an intensifying of agriculture such that the continual addition of new mouths did not reduce per capita productivity ... the left was like that ... plenty of churn, faces added and subtracted, but the output remained the same both, paradoxically both per capita and in toto ... this is an idiotic digression born of my current reading of Roy Sorenson's A Brief History of the Paradox) so, back to it, I was a politically involuted gay activist and Dodge was a decidedly liberal non-politico. So our friendship was always a romp, an escape from the world-weary enthusiasms of the movement, and a space for being and reflecting and learning and loving.

I nicknamed her Dodge ... not sure why, but there was an car dealership called Plimley Dodge, and I started calling her Plimley and that eventually morphed into Dodge. She drove a small white truck (back in the days when small trucks were actually small), and I used to claim that you could actually count the putt-putts that it made as Dodge drove it ... we used to watch from the window of our apartment in the Banffshire as she drove up the alley ... and you could have a cup of coffee in the time it took her to drive a block. Not in a hurry behind the wheel, for damned sure.

Still not sure why I came up with the Plimley and Dodge nicknames, but they stuck. Leastwise the Dodge one did ... I used to string it out a little ... Dodge truck and wheel, Dodge duck and deal, and what not. No real meaning there either ... I just like doggerel and like applying it to friends.

Dodge and I were together through every great moment in our lives during those years, including the one pictured below when my parents and assorted siblings arrived one winter. This photo is my Dad, my lover of the time Gary, and Dodge crammed into the nether end of our tiny railway-shaped kitchen.

We had great trips too ... to Seattle a few times and to Victoria. Never made is to Saskatchewan whence Dodge originated ... she was a horsey person in her youth, and explained everything that I presently know about horses to me ... I think of you, Dodge, sometimes in the morning when the train stops at Hillside station which is right beside Bay Meadows race track, and the trainers are out giving the horses their daily dose of air and running and life as a horse should live.

But mostly we just walked and talked and talked and walked ... and entertained and sat around and talked. We had a great party one New Year's that actually had some undercover cop scope it out ... I recently stumbled across the leaflet we produced for that, and it is a real period piece. I'll try to scan it and upload it here at some point.

I used to joke that Dodge was the only person who bought tomatoes by the slice ... always frugal and never one to waste anything ... other than time spent wandering and wondering.

Vancouver and Dodge were my 20s ... funny how blurry-eyed we get thinking about the heroic periods of our lives ... and that is mostly our 20s. And anyone who mowed through Blogging Vancouver knows just how blurry-eyed one can get.

I miss you, Dodge. We gotta see each other more often. Photo below of two most beautiful people, Gary and Dodge.

Photos by Dodge or by someone else with Dodge's camera.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I mentioned two posts ago that I had a big presentation at MRU, the fabulous Major Research University at which I toil away day by day. I was fudgin' actually, since I did not have a presentation, but was rather the impressario for a big meeting with 6 presentations. All went well, as it is wont to do when you fret and worry and obsess about every little detail.

The 6th of these 6 presentations was one which I have seen before by one of my colleagues who overseas student computing services. He has put together a challenging presentation designed, so I would suspect, to jar middle-aged bureaucrats into a deeper encounter with how the tech-native students of today see the world.

One slide in particular struck me, and I trust that the student computing expert, RH, will forgive my brazenly appropriating it for this discussion ...

With reference to my argument in that same post mentioned above concerning Hodgson's argument about the constitutive differences in social outlook between the European high Middle Ages and Islamic early middle period, this slide instantly appeared to present a reversal. (For reference, Hodgson argues that in the Middle Ages, European society was corporative in which every person had a place and Islamic society was contractual in which broadly equal and relatively mobile people could make what they could of the common Islamic compromise of Shariah-mindedness. I argue that we need to start with that counterposition in coming to grips with why Europe exploded in freedom and creativity while the Muslim world ossified into torpor and thick-hidedness, a subject to which I plan to return severally in the future.)

Look at these oppositions ... I'll see tomorrow if I can make this into a little html table that will look so much prettier ...

Stable, physical artifacts <=> dynamic digital assets & databases

Expert gatekeepers <=> communities of practice, dispersion of authority

Working alone <=> sharing, collaborating

Discrete activities <=> recursivity of discovery, remediation, authoring, production, publication

"Stable, expert, alone, discrete" ... the paradigms of a corporatist world in which the person is tied charismatically to where he started out.

"Dynamic, communities, collaborating, recursivity" ... precisely what marked the flat, communitarian approach to religious law and practice in the long middle period of Islam in which religious discourse provided the medium through which those with sufficient initiative to break out of the millennia-long family trap (at least relatively "break out" by reference to their vastly more numerous stationery bretheren and sistern) could wander from place to place and yet still be at home.

Remember rule three ... any force given long enough turns into its opposite ... and then remember that that is a rule which continually turns back on itself.

It was the corporatist view of the person in the Middle Ages, I would argue, that provided the groundwork for the essential Protestant construction of the individual before gawd ... BTW, I know that it is juvenile to misspell god, so perhaps Huckabee will sue me ... and it was this individuation of the penitent before a really mean, nasty gawd that was the groundwork for the Enlightement, and for modernity ... but I get ahead of myself.

Meanwhile, the contractual character of Islamic society, and especially its thinking urban elites combined with its long dualist pattern of urban elite/military conqueror (which Hodgson calls the a'yan/amir complex, and which forms the core of the great historian Ibn Khaldun's 14th-century work) left it vulnerable to the heavier hand of the Turkic and Mongol hordes that slaughtered its cities in the 13th and subsequent centuries. (It is curious that our ever-present post-colonialists like to blame the British for everything ... but it is the Mongols who reduced what are now the 'stans to their decrepitude by a level of slaughter that colonialists could only dream about in drunken clubbish revelries.) It is that heavy hand whose long shadow has prevented the once realatively open society from re-realizing openness in the present period.

Our collaboration-savvy younger generation is awfully earnest ... and as a formerly undoubtedly annoyingly earnest youth, I must beware of complaining ... but there is a penalty for everything in this dialectical world, and the penalty for butter-does-not-melt-in-my-mouth collaboration may be unexpected and higher than one thinks. If youth can think on their feet in the future as fast as they appear to be thinking now ... perhaps, we'll be okay. But conversations about paradigm shifts need to be transparent, and they should avoid enthusiasm. Because history bites back!

All that said, the current challenges facing the species are such that lateral collaboration based on an incipient contractualism is likely to produce solutions to the problems to which a hierarchized and sometimes atomized individuation has mightily contributed here. But, say in China, it is precisely the lateral contractualism and lack of individuation that has led to a terrifying ecological brinksmanship. No simple answers, but thinking in terms of oppositions like this gives the opportunity to understand the unfolding history of our era and its epochal paradigm shifts.

Gotta think this out more clearly, and I will return to it ... but for now, the chicken is ready and I must uncork the wine.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Warriors

Watching the Suns and the Warriors, my two favorite NBA teams ... favorite because they play to score and move and drive. I loathe the defensive thuggery of all of the East and too much of the West. The NBA needs to have more Suns and Warriors ... and many more Don Nelsons!

Warriors win!!

I think that a lot of the defensive emphasis is a fear of losing rather than a lust for victory, and the NBA feeds the fear by its defensiveness in the face of its fade from primacy in the US sports market. David Stern is an old goat, and he needs to be put out to pasture.

Monta Ellis is a super star ... a real one, somebody who burns the nets and makes magic happen. And he just not "cool" ... not self-absorbed, not into himself ... not too proud to be excited.

Now for the angle behind the angle ... I love Steve Nash ... he just so damned sexy ... and the way he moves the ball and commands the floor ... well, it makes me proud to be a Canuck ... get me a bag ...

... and Kelenna Azubuike is the sexiest black guy in the league, bar none. If the Warriors keep making dumb personnel moves like picking up Chris (time out) Webber, we'll see less of him, and that would be a drag.

Photos from the web.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I hate leaving a cranky or lugubrious post at the top of the blog like the one below, and that tends to send me to writing more quickly. And this evening is devoted to laptoping on the bed with, at least for now, American Idol on the boobtubery in the background ... devoted to the laptop because I have a big presentation at MRU tomorrow, and I need to practice.

So a break from practicing ...

The photo above is of pond that we flash by daily on Caltrain, and the face is a guy who I find vaguely alluring who sits near me often enough. I lift up my head from whatever long-past century is populating my morning reading, and wonder what thoughts are passing through his, or some other soul's, head. Who knows.

The last few days of train travel to work have been devoted to the culminating chapter 7 (pages 329-368) in book 3 of Volume 2 of Marshall Hodgson's Venture of Islam; the chapter is called "Cultural Patterning in Islamdom and the Occident". Hodgson is the consummate big historian ... the sweep of history, its broad lines and the deep and enduring and irreducible contradictions that drive it. In this chapter, he confronts the deep lines of approach differentiating the peak of Islamic history in its great middle period from the earliest stirrings of the rise of the West in the high middle ages.

His general thesis is to counterpose the corporatism of the Western middle ages against the contractualism of the middle period of Islam. Reduced as much as I can, it counterposes the corporatist notion that a man's place is fixed by reason of his origins and his associations with corporate bodies such as the church or the feudatory as against the contractual notion of society in which everyone is broadly equal under the flattening religious compromise of the Shariah and in which social and political success is based upon the ability to command it within the terms provided. Social movement in medieval Europe was nearly impossible but there was a certain safety in knowing where you belonged. Islamic society provided for mobility by reason of its broadly applicable social rules, but nothing was guaranteed.

700 years later, the terms seem switched. Middle Eastern Islamic society is frozen, albeit still with a relatively flat application of religious legal standards across a variety of cultures, while European society is as open as any society has ever been with more possibility of movement than anyone in previous centuries could possibly imagine.

This fascinates me about history, how terms switch and retreat and transform. And how people soldier on regardless, fundamentally similar despite differences that makes them incomprehensible to each other.

What motivates a person as he moves about his society? Why does the man in the window above go to work? Does he see himself fixed in a web beyond his control; does that relax him, make him feel that at least there is something certain? Or, does he create an inner reality that bears no relation to what he actually experiences all day long? Is that fantasy a frustration or a motivation?

And how do we assess how a similar person in past eras constructed his life, and thought about his prospects and where he was headed?

So I'm thinking about these matters these days in the train and when I walk the dog, and whenever. I wonder about my prospects, and what I will leave behind. I wonder who I am and whether any of the people I think about would understand me. I wonder about the man reflected in the window, and I wonder about the pond on the other side, and I wonder about all the people who have ever wondered while gazing blankly, introspectively, at a pond and the birds who move about as if we do even exist.

Photo by Arod.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I promised some time ago to upload a photo of the old toad who died so unexpectedly a while back ... and here it is. He was certainly an old friend ... he sat unperturbed on various of the rocks in his tank by the front door and stared back at me for more than a decade. I still miss him.

I have the animal thing in spades. I watch out of the window of the train in the morning and try to count egrets and herons on the big pond right aroud South San Francisco. Today in Golden Gate Park, I sat the dog down and he and I both were transfixed by the bison who were munching away no more than 15 feet away, albeit separated from us by a pair of fences. I say hello aloud to sparrows and crows and whatever unhappy small mammal manages not to hide himself from me. I have a dozen tanks in the house, fish and amphibians. Over the years, I have kept various crustaceans and gastropods as well, though the only such beings I have now are piggy-backers and stowaways.

The problem with keeping animals is that eventually they die. Like people. Perhaps my later life habit of keeping animals relates to all the men I lost to AIDS. While they live, I relish them. When they die, I mourn ... and, in mourning, remember mourning.

Driving around yesterday ... warm day, too many human beings out and about for my taste, but there was no way out of it because I absolutely could not wait any longer to buy new work shoes ... some character on NPR rambling on about how research has shown that people who lie about embarassing things tend to be more successful in life than those who tell the truth. They did a study ... that line is always humorous to me ... and asked people embarassing questions like "Have you every fantasized about raping someone or being raped by someone" and "do you enjoy your ... shall we call them ... movements" ... and then correlated their answers to their success in assorted endeavors in life. They asked a bunch of college athletes before a big swim meet, and the ones who wouldn't admit to embarassing stuff tended to end up being the winners.

Tonight on 60 Minutes, Katie (hand me a bag) Couric kept pestering Hillary with a bunch of inane questions about whether she has doubts, and Hillary just said that winners never think negatively (this is a considerable reduction). Hillary is right, I suppose, and I suppose we really do want a President who is and thinks she is a winner. But that ain't me, no way. I recently confessed to my big boss (by "big" I mean two or more leaps above me in the chain of command) that I always start a project by imagining complete, abject failure. That seems to calm me, because once I have live through that nightmare, I am the more at home with imagining success.

But that is not where I started to go here ... I was thinking about reliving the grief of dead friends through the death of long-time captive animal friends. It must say something about a low-bore depressive/contemplative personality that I surround myself with tiny creatures that, no matter how much delight they provide me, will eventually pass on and leave me at least passing empty.

This is too depressing. Especially after a weekend with two long beautiful walks in urban nature.

So, a propos of nothing ... and I think I have raised this before ... why is it that the Tai Chi/Falun Gong people who crowd the park weekends have not learned that cheap boom boxes and poorly recorded tapes have been superseded by very cheap and high quality digital recordings? Are there no Tai Chi people with iPods? I do find these little gluts of quasi-military physical reciters a little annoying ... I don't mind the ancient Chinese ladies, but the males under 50 bug me, and the old guys who, even when not waving their arms, studiously ignore my existence ... they bug me too.

But if you are going to walk in the park and enjoy the experience, you have to let such self-absorbed irritations be fleeting and minor ... and so it is ... and turn it quickly to self-mocking at how persnickety one would be if one did not rein in impulse and reaction.

So too I reined in impulse on another score. Recently in the park, they installed a "disk golf course" in an old forest that had long been typically empty of humanity except for a few dog walkers vainly seeking solitude. Yech, I said, and I vowed petulantly and angrily that I would not let them interfere with me with their frisbees and what I assumed would be their arrogance. Well, the "frisbee golf course" finished, now the disc-golf-tribe is out and about in little groupings ... and it turns out that they are a harmless lot obviously, uninterested in interfering with cranky middle-aged dog walkers feigning a scowl the better to chase away encounter. They wander about typically in fours ... the stoner underdressed equivalents of golfers, I suppose. It turns out that disc warriors need multiple discs to play their game, and each one of them carries a squarish bag to bear the tools of their sport ... and their pot and beer, one suspects. All middle-aged white guys, ill clad, and slumping as they walk and talk in low tones. There was one woman, but I had to look quite closely to determine that she was in fact a she ... she was not so much mannish or frumpy as evidently preferring dumpster-diving fashion.

So I will accept them as I accept the Tai Chi mafia ... everyone in the park resents everyone else ... sort of like culture vulture tourists in Bali ... as if the experience would be the more genuine if only I were the only one who knew about it.

Cranky, cranky. I feel a little like my old toad pictured at the top of this ramble.

Photo by Arod.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Brokeback Mountain

It came out today that Heath Ledger died of a foolish overindulgence in downers. This tragic death reminded me of an exchange that my friend J.C. Gaither had with Roger Ebert when the Oscars snubbed the obvious winner of their award two years ago. I asked Jim if I could run his letter here as I have long admired it, and he agreed.

He was responding to an article by Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times defending the selection of Crash over Brokeback Mountain. Ebert responded, and when I get a copy of that response, I will add it below. Here's Jim:


March 9, 2006

Dear Mr. Ebert:

I am taking the extraordinary step, for me, of writing to you concerning Sunday night's Academy Awards. I saw your appearance on Leno Monday night and read your response (in the Chicago Sun-Times) to the backlash over the "Crash" Best Picture win. I, too, believe that you, and other like-minded critics, are dead wrong in your appraisal of the relative merits and lasting importance of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crash." I hope that you will indulge me briefly while I put my thoughts about these two movies into my own personal context:

I was born in 1944 and graduated from high school in 1962. My father was a ranch-hand and I grew up on a series of citrus and walnut ranches in Ventura County--before it had become simply a bedroom community for L.A. My life on those ranches was filled with the usual experiences of a rural childhood: caring for a range of livestock and learning to operate farm machinery long before I could legally drive on the road. Unlike Ennis and Jack, I benefitted from an excellent public school education and was able to enter U.C. Berkeley in the autumn of '62. Despite living in San Francisco, continuously since 1969, I did not come out as a gay man (to myself first, then to family and friends) until I was thirty years old.

In the years since my coming out, I have patiently waited for an affirmative representation of a "regular" gay man in a quality film and have not found it--until now. To be sure, there are any number of gay "presences" in film: the limpwristed, lisping stereotypes that straight America is so fond of--or, more accurately, so comfortable with. If the characters aren't of the requisite swishy clown variety, then they are most likely dying of AIDS, or in the case of the equally popular "gay psychopath," seeing to it that other people are dying. Finally, a movie appears that portrays the gay world as I know it through personal experience. My gay world, over the years, has been peopled by military officers and enlisted men, gardeners and Greyhound bus drivers, military and civilian pilots and the full range of professionals from all fields. And, yes, one real, live cattle rancher from Montana! Never, along the way, have I hung out with the makeup artists, hairdressers and choreographers that seem to exclusively populate the psyches of standup comedians--and many movie critics.

The easy acceptance of Philip Seymour Hoffman's excellence as the drug-addled, profoundly flawed Truman Capote stands in stark contrast to the simultaneous slighting of Heath Ledger's superb, understated performance as a gay man "passing" and trapped in a mutually unsatisfying heterosexual marriage. It is evidence of an ugly truth of today's society: American entertainment will tolerate, and even reward, portrayals of gay characters so long as they stay in their traditional roles. Stray from those roles and, to paraphrase Ennis, you're dead!

It is no longer socially acceptable, in "civilized" circles, to blatantly denigrate black people in the television and movie industries. It is highly acceptable to viciously caricature and demean gay people. The hallowed tradition of "coon" humor in popular entertainment has been replaced by "fag" humor--and it is unrelenting in its ubiquity and viciousness. It is in this prevailing atmosphere of socially-sanctioned gay-bashing that Leno, Letterman, et al. reduced the heartrending tragedy of "Brokeback" to the nightly smutty joke and sold the false characterization of the movie as nothing more than "cowpokes in chiffon." The absolute nadir of this pile-on was staged by none other than the (apparently) deeply troubled and self-loathing Nathan Lane with his "Brokeback Mountain--the Musical" skit on Letterman. Well, the campaign of ridicule seems to have paid off--at least as reflected in the voting of a majority--however slim--of the Academy voters.

I have a question or two for you: Were the Best Picture Awards bestowed in Venice, Berlin and at the BAFTA Awards simply "political correctness" in response to some nebulous pressure exerted by the "gay agenda" aspirations of gay Americans? Do you really believe that the "message" of "Crash"--that we are all, no matter our racial or ethnic affiliations, capable of the same blind, prejudicial assumptions about all others who are not "us" and are thus, alike, capable of great, unthinking cruelty and injustice to one another--is fresh, unexplored territory? I submit that anyone who has lived in a multiracial, multiethnic community like San Francisco--or Chicago--knows all of this only too well. The theme, in one form or another, frequently appears in movies and on television. For me, "Crash" is a totally topical and transient commentary on our particular time and place and will have a very brief shelflife. On the other hand, "Brokeback Mountain" is a story not set in our time and one that I believe will prove to be timeless.

The reason that it resonates so strongly with those who have bothered to see it (listen up, Larry David) is that its portrayal of the importance of "following one's heart," even in the face of certain societal disapproval, is one that audiences of all sexual orientations can understand and respond to with profound emotion. The utter, hopeless aridity that life offers Ennis at the end of the movie is a "message" that most people can, and do, respond to at every screening and in every venue. Long after "Crash" has joined the ranks of "Traffic" as a forgotten movie of the week, "plucked from today's headlines," "Brokeback Mountain" will go on, breaking hearts and illuminating the dark, sad places to which frightened self-denial can lead us all.

Best regards,

J.C. Gaither
San Francisco, CA

Quick Note

I'm writing another post, but I have a discussion called "Extreme Challenges: The Next Four Years" on CNET with Anderson Cooper, David Gergen, and Fareed Zakaria. For news commentators, that's pretty much as good as it gets. Each of them consistently actually say something. Gergen is very level, and I like his manner. But more to the point, he makes points. And Zakaria is able to give perspective on how others see us in a way that is intelligent but not condescending.

Much better than the usual horde of giggling pretty women and scowling angry men ... the odd scowling woman and the odd giggling man. You know who they are ... and we news junkies are just stuck with them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Dooper

Don't ask me what that photo means ... I just blew around my iPhoto for a while till something struck me.

The Democrats are staging the most fascinating electoral competition that I can remember. It seems like it has to go to the convention ... and the upside of that is that two electorally untested potential nominees will continue to strut their stuff in that long interlude in the ludicrous American Presidential process. Here's what's at issue: the difference between them in total votes yesterday is less the .04%! Something has to give, and nobody knows right now what it will be.

I watched both of their victory speeches. Hillary read her speech as if she had a cab waiting with the meter running. I saw no inflection ... nice writing, but no punches, no crescendos, no lead-ins. Meanwhile, the low-bore Dr. King method of Obama again revealed no content ... no policies, no slogans that pointed to policies. There were a bunch of, pardon me, black church ladies behind him ... mark my words, next time he has national TV coverage, his people will make for a more rainbow-like look.

I admit, like so many liberals, to having been a little longer on the fence that I prefer to admit. I have long felt that Obama would be more of a problem for presumptive 'publican McCain, but I also feel that Clinton in office would be tougher and more real. Last night's Obama performance seemed so canned, so coached, so performed that I was not moved. But coaching and performing are necessary, and it is hard to hold that against him.

A curiosity in California ... so many people sent in mailed ballots that this almost certainly helped Clinton. The move to Obama has occurred very recently, and those early voters gave up their ability to change their minds. On balance, I am against mail ballots ... I think it is a fundamental breach of the secret ballot, and it downplays the importance of campaigning and the march of events. But that ship has sailed ... like so many others in these late days of democracy.

And of course it means that John Edwards got something like 8% of the vote. My good friend LB has wanted me to say something about Edwards, and so what I have to say is hardly original ... Edwards was the policy conscience of the race. He is one who forced the other two to get a policy on health care, he was the one who injected the grave doubts that most Americans have about the "bipartisan" embrace of globalization. It is a shame that Edwards is gone from the campaign irrespective of whether or not he would have won. Imagine if he has the swing 10% of the votes at the convention! That is what politics is actually about ... using your advantages to press advantages beyond what you can command outright. Not the way this system works.

The demographics are very curious. Obama clearly is attracting young voters, and that is obviously a growth zone in which otherwise non-voters can be drawn into activity. He also, curiously, too white male Democrats. Meanwhile, Clinton is drawing Hispanics who have not shown an ability to impact national elections in the past, and she polls well among the old who definitely vote.

Obama is hardly as pure as he like to pretend, of course. My friend JG drew my attention to an old incident in San Francisco that still rankles. Obama attended a fundraiser in San Francisco on the specific proviso that he not be photographed with gay-marriage-mayor Newsom. His campaign denies it, but it is well-established. Of course, in 2004 the reactionaries in Illinois could have buried Obama with a pic of him and thin, neat and single Newsom. But where's the "hope" in that? Is that the new politics he speaks of? Yes, it rankles, but in the end I am not one to damn for one flaw, especially when the enemy makes Attila the Hun look like a compassionate progressive.

It all comes down to who can beat the bastards.

Toss-up. Yes, huzzah for the tossup.

Meanwhile, the 'publicans. It is so obvious that it is all about McCain. But only Toobin on CNN was willing to say that, to round laughter of the other "pundits." (Again this Bolger woman is a complete moron ... listen to her ... she says absolutely nothing. When she starts blathering, I switch back to ESPN and check the latest scores.) So a bunch of troglodytes in the airless reaches of the Southern states back the Byzantine Huckabee ... the man doesn't believe in evolution, for crying out loud. And Romney is a phony ... phony phony phony ... the fact the 20-something percent of the people who still think that dubya is doing a good job decide to vote for him has no more significance than the fact that a dead skunk smells worse than a live one.

The most laughable part of the 'publican race is the notion that McCain is not a conservative ... good grief ... the man is a reactionary in absolutely any place on the face of the planet except the darker regions of Alabama or Rush Limbaugh's decidedly puny mind. He would be a disaster of a president, lamely pursuing failure on the grounds that "it's my turn" and "I deserve it."

The media slobber on Republicans like a brain-damaged poodle begging mistress for another crumb. Huckabee was all over the place parsing the relative conservativeness of his opponents. Chris Matthews, grinnin like a fool, listened as Huckabee stated that Americans wanted a president who told them the truth ... that Americans can take bad news as long as they are being told the truth. Ummm ... Huckabee's man, now in the White House, is the most mendacious president in history. Why doesn't Matthews quote the recent 935-lies report about Iraq to Huckabee and ask what he thinks about that? No way ... too journalistic. He just grins some more, congratulates him on his hollow victory and wishes him well. Everyone seems to be fantasizing about Huckabee the VP. Makes rational people want to retch.

Both Clinton and Obama at least made some oblique reference to global warming last night. The only warming in McCain is in his carotid artery.

I don't know why, but check this out if you have a taste for the obscure and the bizarre. 'nuff sed.

Photo by Arod of some sort of ad in a salon window ... I cannot remember if they are selling skin product or hair product, but what the hell does it matter, really.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Things You Should Know about Islam: Number One

I continually intend to post notes on what I am reading, but almost always ruminate too long until I have moved onto a new topic. That isn't working. There is an anarchy to the thought process in blogging ... say what's tickling you enough times and eventually you figure out the joke.

So in that spirit ...

My reading patterns have a distinct tendency to circle back, and the point of no return often ends up being the early years of Islam and the Arab Empire. So, in December I read a new book, The Heirs of Muhammad: Islam's First Century and the Origins of the Sunni-Shia Split by Barnaby Rogerson as preparation for re-reading the 1970s classics that redefined the study of early Islam.

So, first things first, Rogerson doesn't live up to his title. He is not a scholar, doesn't speak Arabic, and has no particular background in the subject. In his introduction he notes the eye-rolling skepticism he inspired in any number of Muslims he consulted on the project. Naturally, a man writing a popular reduction of the epochal issues that only just began to develop during the early caliphate (conventionally, 632-661 C.E., but there are deep problems with those dates) has to watch his step for there is all manner of incipient rage and riots waiting to greet the unwary. For some reason, scholars have tended to avoid being the subjects of riots, but the writers of for-profit writings have not been so lucky.

Well, by Rogerson, all the early folks of Islam were just peachy nice ... occasionally stern, occasionally cranky, but always genteel and devoted. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was a kindly old man; Umar, the second, was stern; Uthman a tad muddled; and Ali just plain too bloody good for his good. This is not history, alas, and it is at bottom boring. But I ploughed through if only because I thought it probably presented the most conventional, in modern popular Islamic terms,Western-oriented presentation of the first four caliphs that I had ever read. Because ... I cannot avoid it ... I just prefer the intricate fulminations of professional scholars.

So I moved on to a re-read of the strident and compelling two volume Islamic History: A New Interpretation by M.A. Shaban, published in 1971 and 1976 respectively. I'll address Shaban at some point, but it is worth noting that the first of these volumes is essential reading for understanding just how it happened, in the event, that Muhammad ended up being one of the half dozen or so prophets who founded a religion that stuck.

Shaban's decidedly economic/tribal/military approach demands a return to the font ... Marshal G.S. Hodgson's magisterial three-volume The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson is concerned about world history, about great movements, and about the refraction of history through the the life of the mind, and the refraction of religion through history.

Hodgson's work played a big role in my graduate career and I have never left him behind. (He tragically died at 46 in 1968, a great scholarly life cut untimely short.) His first volume concerns the High Caliphal period of Islam (let's call it 632-945 C.E.), which came to a close, with a whimper and not a bang somewhere between 837 and 945 ... you pick which band of Turks sufficiently reduced the Abbasid caliphs to impotence that they could no longer be considered as actual rulers. So that will suffice as the first thing everyone should know about Islam ...first only in the sense that it is the first thing that I am writing about ... that the caliphate was captured and domesticated by the Turks about 200 years after the prophet died.

This fact is actually more significant for Arab history than Islamic history ... and that points to a deep misconception about the history of Islam. It started, certainly, as an Arab religion, but after the embers of the Arab conquests had cooled down, Islam became the consummate expression of what Hodgson calls the "Irano-Semitic" religious complex. This is not a desert religion, but a religion of the urban merchant classes. More properly, it is a religion that embodies in its constitutive contradictions that enduring contradiction of life in the middle of the Eurasian continent, to whit the long struggle between the urban elites or notables against the assorted marshal forces, whether imperial or nomadic-tribal, who dominated them politically.

Hodgson calls this the "a'yan-amir" complex, where a'yan is urban notable and amir is tribal military commander.

One of the great myths that we hear repeated ad nauseam is that there is no separation of church and state in Islam, and that Christianity differs thereby in allowing such a differentiation. It is not just that this is a reduction to the point of silliness ... it is rather that at every point in religious history, the relationship with the state is what drives the dynamic. In Islam, all the struggles ultimately are about the state. The Shia/Sunni split is about the state, and the Sunni compromise that dominates the Muslim world is based precisely on the separation of church and state ... or more properly, religion and state. (There is an excellent review of precisely this issue in L. Carl Brown's Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics.)

It was in the High Caliphal period that the separation of religion and politics in the consummate religion of oneness developed its broad lines. But it was in the long middle period of fractured rule and universalized civilization that the terms which ported to modern reality developed. This is the period of Islamic history which earnest liberals like to point to as being so much more developed and cosmopolitan than the corresponding period of Catholic dominated recalcitrance in Europe. But it turns out that neither caricature is precisely true, and in reaction to this long period, one civilization ultimately developed a flexibility that came to rule the world, while the other devolved drip by drip into a period of steadily more stultifying calcification. Why?

No simple answer to that, and I think that accident and happenstance have something of a role. But there is an critical role to the patterns of rulership and its struggle with religion that came to provide fertile ground on the one hand and barren on the other. Neither party in either case liked the terms, and it took centuries to play out.

I shall return to this theme regularly, and I will always mark these posts at least under the tag "Horses and Peoples" for ease of reference.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Blogging the Super Bowl

This is an interminable post ... perhaps less insightful than most ... certainly I would hope so ... and only the most dogged will plough through it. I have tried to include some italic headlines in case you want to scroll down. Despite appearances, it is not merely a paean to sweet sweet Eli. Oh well, perhaps it is. I have a few more photos to add, but is being a little cranky with the uploads.

So let's blog the Super Bowl ... the most hyped but rarely the best game in American sports. Year in and year out, the best game in American sports is the men's NCAA final basketball game. But that's not on today ... so let's start with ...

... Puppy Bowl IV ... my favorite show on television. Beyond cute, and so much better than the overhyped Super Bowl commercials. When they switch to commercials, I switch to the Puppy Bowl!

I don't really follow football. Baseball is my game. But like any spurts nut, a game is a game, and I end up watching a bunch of football games, mostly only partially. I think the only game I watched beginning to end this year was the Big Game, in which my alma mater Cal laid down and died before a spunky but nearly as good Stanford team.

The National Anthem
As a Canuck in the rapidly warming southland, I gotta say that the American national anthem always sends chills down my spine. A true anthem ... stirring, martial, difficult. This year it will be sung by American Idol, Jordan Sparks, evidently the daughter of a former NFL player.

Alas, she, like so many before her, seems to think it's a ballad. I think it should be sung like you are sitting on the deck of that ship watching the bombs bursting perilous near ... no need for ornaments ... just the stirring of a great nation's birth pains.

Pretty voice, though, and not a missed note. We'll have to settle for that.

Dell Discovers Cool
Swell, Apple did it a couple of decades ago, but never too late to join the party, I guess. Two commercials so far that I count.

The Quarterback Bowl

So, again, not really the sort of football fan who knows who's who. But it seems that this year the game is about two quarterbacks ... Mr. Smooth and the mama's boy. I'm for the mama's boy. I guess I am your basic queer sports dood ... I love the games, the strategy, the intensity of the competition. I try to learn the inner game, to see more than momentum and the score. But I can never take my eyes off the guys. In this sense ... if Eli baby decides he wants to "go gay" with a fifty-something old fag who has an eclectic streak and makes great conversation ... drop me a line! As for Brady ... hot dude ... stick with the ladies for all I care. [Smile]

3rd and 6, Giants ... on the money "pitch and catch" pass ... nice. Looking sharp so far.

When Eli first started with Giants, I got the impression that his heart was not in the game ... that he was a quarterback because he was a Manning and because he was gifted with gawd-given talent ... well at least Archie-given talent. The congenitally impatient New Yorkers hated him. But great athletes are human, which means they are complex. Great athletes are, with barely any exceptions, very intelligent as well. Intelligence has a habit of arriving with issues. And so great athletes achieve their greatness with complexity, over time. Is Eli great? We shall see. But today, he has arrived.

Nice first drive. Cooking on all cylinders.

Diet Pepsi Max
With ginseng and more caffeine ... give me a bag and make me barf ... cute commercial though. (I guess I was dissimulating about the Puppy Bowl above.) Americans are so cheap ... as if a smidge of ginseng undoes the deleterious effects of a flood of high frustose corn syrup. This is an example of ... we're going to hell.

Let's start with ... I can't stand Joe Buck. At least this is football, but he massacres baseball, and is openly bored by the game. I don't actually know who the color guy is as we speak ... but that will become apparent as time goes on. (Ooooops, I guess it's Troy Aikman.)

3rd and 3 Patriots, a floater from Brady for a first down. Not seeing the Giants pressure on the QB we were expecting just now.

Back to the talkers ... from time to time, I'll just italicize various inane assaults on logic and the English language ... like this one ...

"... he's gonna do what he does"

or ... "you can't double everybody."

Big mistake in the end zone ... pass interference apparently caused by a missed defensive doubling assignment. Of such little things are championships made and lost. Leads to a touchdown that did not have to be. 7-3.

Indian Gaming
Wow! The stakes in the current Indian Gaming ballot initiatives are obviously high ... and pricey. An anti-prop ad! That's a lot of money talking.

Back to the game
3rd and 7, Giants ... big heave by Eli, great catch by Toomer after what looked like pass interference. (On review, it looks like Toomer pushed off ... great no call [smile].)

3rd and 5 Giants, butterfingers doesn't haul in the pass and it flips to a Patriot for an interception that didn't need to be. Eli sharp, but some fuzziness around the edges with his teammates.

Tom Petty and Heartbreakers lend their name to tires ... how low can you sink. Again, give me a bag and a private moment because this makes me sick. (Turns out Tom Petty is the half-time show, sponsored by the tire-maker ... still, no excuse.)

3rd and 1 Patriots, and the Giants stuff the run for the second consecutive play. Giants winning the ball control zone, but not the game just now. The ensuing possession, though, is a mess ... sack, fumble on the handoff because the running back wasn't paying atteniont, screen that didn't happen. Patriots back with the ball.

Giants' front line now showing what we were looking for ... suffed the run and then sack followed by a sack ... consecutive 3-and-outs. But for that dumb penalty in the end-zone this is the Giants' game so far.

Giants moving the football and making some runs too.

3rd and 4 Giants, Manning loses the football, but the Giants recover it beyond the first down line. But a penalty sends them back 10 yards. 3rd and 18. Nearly picked off ... red zone, no points.

Canadian Rules
So the Giants kicker pooches the punt and it lands inside the 20. Had he kicked it hard, the Patriots would have had a touchback and got the ball at the 20 free of charge. In Canadian football, they would have lost a point. I think that is more fair. I like Canadian football because it is faster and more wide open. I like the single points, and the 20 yard end zone that comes into play a lot more. Taking a knee in the end zone is for sissies. [Smile.]

Feeble looking final drive of the half for the Patriots starts to get some gas. Brady finally looking like the man he is ... and then he coughs it up and the Giants recover. Nobody has quite seized this game by the throat ... which at least suggests a good second half. Pretty poor showing by the Patriots' offense, but the Giants seem to shot themselves in the foot on offense. Notwithstanding the low score, it is a quarterbacks game.

No go on the Manning Hail Mary ... so I'm heading off to do anything but watch the half time show. 7-3, Patriots.

A heck of a football game because the Giants are playing good football on both sides of the football.

Second Half
Good opening drive for Brady, but the Giants are getting penetration on every play. Brady is throwing earlier. Now 3rd and 5 ... but the catch is short of the first down. Giants defense defining the game right now.

Notwithstanding that, there is challenge that a Giants player, Chase Blackburn, did not get off the field in time for the punt, and that would be a penalty that gives the Patriots a first down. The challenge is the ultimate proof that football is, in George Will's terms, the worst of American life ... "mindless violence punctuated by committee meetings". (I quote from memory.) So now the flow of a tense game is interrupted by a committee meeting that is not even on the field ... some guy in a booth second-guesses the worst officials in sports ... and the challenge is upheld and the Patriots keep the ball. At least that wouldn't happen in baseball.

Giants killing themselves. Missed tackle leads to a first down on 3rd and 13. But another sack on 3rd down and hurry and misfire on 4th ends the drive.

BTW, Aikman actually doing a nice as color commentator ... seeing what is not obvious. Color guys who just talk about momentum or repeat what the play-by-play guy just said are useless.

Couple of sharp passes into coverage by Manning to Amante Toomer who's got sticky hands tonight.

3rd and 6 Giants, Manning almost hits his man, but no cigar. It seems like it has been 3rd and 6 all night. Nice coverage, but this thing is still a stalemate with the Patriots, like snakes, always coiled and seemingly ready to end it when they set their minds to it.

The Patriots Wes Welker is a real gamer ... short and stubby and comes up with the ball when you need it ... he just got them out of 2nd and 15 at their own 5.

The 3rd quarter comes to an end with either team quite ready to wrassle this thing to the ground.

"Tundra ... the truck that's changing it all" ... yeah, changing our world into post-apocalyptic hell. Congrats, and thanks. Back to the Puppy Bowl for the rest of this commercial break.

So Manning has the ball again to start the fourth ... c'mon, boy. Take control!

Yeah, big pass to Kevin Boss! 45 yards. That's what I'm talking about.

Big 3rd and 4 to Smith. As Aikman says, the offensive line giving Manning time, and he's finding his men. And TOUCHDOWN! Over the middle to David Tyrene, threading the needle. 10-7 Giants.

The first legitimate score ... by which I mean, the first score entirely commanded by an offense. Yeah, Eli. Peyton likes it. Nice to see some bro on bro action.

Coca-Cola Ad ... James Carville and some Republican who escapes my memory ... "let's see it from a different point-of-view." Strange! Gotta think about this one. (It's the doctor ... what's his name ... former majority leader fallen far and fast ... oh, yeah, Bill Frist. This is a little like resurrecting the dead ... smile.)

Brady's Charge ... not
Sweet pass to Randy Moss, but only the second completion to the great receiver ... this is where they have to rise up and be the champions if they want it, and where the Giants defense has to prove that all the preamble meant something.

Good game.

Brady overthrows Moss. Then 3 and out, almost intercepted. All because of the blitz.

Then, Manning misses Plaxico ... although Aikman says that Plaxico let up early ... we haven't heard Plaxico's name a lot. That's Plaxico Burress. Next, Amante Toomer a yard shy of a first down. (I don't swear to spelling these names correctly, but will check tomorrow.) A bad 3 and out.

The Patriots seem like the San Antonio Spurs of football ... boring but effective. They've pulled out a lot of games in their hitherto perfect season because the other team seemd to let them in the end. Now they are manufacturing a drive easily when a field goal would tie the game. Maybe the Giants defense is gassed. They have to rise up. Aikman says that "now you are finally seeing the Patriots get into some kind of rhythm." Still a lot of time. Another ig catch and run by Welker. If the Patriots win, he might be the MVP because he has been consistent all the way through. First down Moss inside the 20. This drive like cutting warm butter. Now inside the 10 with Kevin Faulk. First and goal.

Buck sez, "So much left to be determined in this game" ... yeah, like the winner. Brady misses Moss in the end zone. Another miss. 3rd and goal. Brady to Moss. Touchdown. Like cutting butter. 14-10 Patriots with 2:42 to go.

"A methodical drive put together by the game's best."

Eli's Moment
First down to Toomer. Eli looks cool. Aikman says that he shines in the no huddle because he is a good play caller. Misses Plaxico Burress. Aikman definitely sees it like a QB. Missed Plaxico again ... 3rd and 10 at the 2-minute warning. Didn't seem like the play came together at all, and Manning was just lucky he didn't underthrow it a little because there was lots of coverage.

Toomer is shy by a half yard on the 3rd down play. Big 4th down play ... surely they won't punt ... No ... going for it ... the moment ... ... ... Jacobs just made it.

Manning scrambles for 5 yards dangling the ball ... keep it tight, baby. 1:20 to go, 2nd and 5. Almost intercepted. 3rd and 5. Eli under pressure, HUGE CATCH by Tyree. How'd Eli escape, and then how did he find David Tyree. Huge play.

1st and 10 at the 24. Sacked at the line of scrimmage ... final time out with 50 seconds. He's got 3 or 4 shots to get it in the end zone. Stomach churning. Broken play ... pressure on Manning ... Tyree missed it but it wouldn't have been much of a gain. 3rd and 11 ... Steve Smith makes the first down and gets out of bounds.

Tight, baby.

Sweet pass to a wide open Plaxico Burress in the end zone. Man, he did it! That is huge. 17-14 Giants! It's Plaxico! That is totally sweet.

Isn't Plaxico Burress one of the truly greatest sports names? After the game, he credits gwd and all that, which is basically tedious. But he is a great receiver ... one of those unsung great athletes who come and go but who make viewing the charge that it is.

Brady's Last Ditch Drive
The longest 29 seconds of Eli Manning's life, sez Aikman. He should know.

Bad throw on first. Sacked on second. Misses Moss in heavy coverage on 3rd. 4th down, misses someone on a long pass.

One second left ... you gotta play it ... this is sports as high bureaucracy ... everybody is ignoring the bureaucrats. No one from new England is on the field. As a professional bureaucrat ... this gives me a charge. They have one secnd to go and nobody is paying attention.

Wow! Great game. I am going to skip all the post-game nonsense. It's not about the falderal ... it's about the game.

They get off the last snap ... and Eli is big time ... for real.

Photos, except for the one of the Manning family, from Arod's TV.