An Open Letter to all the Amanda Gignacs of the World

Dear Unfortunate Friends:

It has come under my consideration that somewhere in the great wide world, with its broad lands and long history, that perhaps, somewhere out there, there is more than one woman with the name Amanda Gignac.

To each of you I send my sincerest apologies.

I am but the messenger, but the news I bear is bad. See, the thing is, for the majority of you, you will, I'm afraid, go through life being only second best at being what you are - an Amanda Gignac, that is. And by majority, I mean, all but one of you. My reasoning on this is, sadly, ironclad, and I'm afraid that after listening to it, you'll be forced to agree.

Of course, at some level, this is TRUE of any name, right? There can only one best Farley Finklebinder, or Teresa d'Avila, or even Adolf Hitler, after all. Every name will have its champion. But with these other names, at LEAST, I believe, I could accept an argument of equality. Perhaps there have been several, equally great, say, Lucy Talbots, or Horace Waldens. Perhaps.

But Amandas... I'm sorry. You see, its a simple process of elimination. Imagine the best person possible, imagine this ideal. Who is it? Mother Theresa? Emily Dickinson? Paul McCartney? Whatever example you think of it, I'm afraid it so chances that there is an Amanda Gignac superior to the individual you are thinking of.

Wait... Paul McCartney is your ideal human being? Have you heard 'Band on the Run'?

My knowledge of the greatness of aforementioned Amanda Gignac is unparalleled - I somehow tricked her into marrying me, 12 years ago today (I find this incomprehensible as well - how could one so great be so inclined? I put it in the same category as 'how did God lose when Jacob wrestled with him?' and 'If Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had a cagefight, could either of them pay attention to the amtter at hand long enough to win?' It is an unanswerable question. Life has those). Its on account of that, in fact, that I acan say that I apologize to ALL the Amanda Gignacs of the world - one of them simply for a different reason for the others. At any rate, believe me, oh Amanda Gignacs of the world, you've been beaten. You may submit your letters of surrender to the address of aforementioned ubermanda.

Take heart, friends! There is a good chance that you do not share the Great Amanda's middle name (which will remain undisclosed). So you DO have a fair shot at being the world's best Amanda Anne Gignac. Or Amanda Imelda Gignac (though your mother was cruel with that combination). Or Amanda Garfield Gignac. Or whatever. But in the larger world of Amanda Gignacs... I'm afraid you're doomed. Don't tell all the Amandas of the world, but I'm pretty sure they're right out of the running for Best Amanda, as well. Sorry.

Best of luck to you in your second-place endeavours. Its not so bad being a middling specimen of your type - take my word for it.

Best Wishes,

Jason Gignac

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Conference Call

I give to you my voice --

My lips that press, unpress, impress upon my breath,
I keep these to myself -

But --

I give to you my voice --

My tongue that touches, traveling in susurrations, raising war against my gullet gates,
I keep this to myself -

But --

I give to you my voice --

My throat that hoards the hollows of my breath, that stitches hems along my voices edge,
I keep this to myself -

But --

I give to you my voice --

The words, yes, like a deck of slides,
Blooming stems of the inane,
Distilled to fit agendas:
A self composed of meeting minutes -

And yet, I am the long-walled, warm and humid cavern,
That you cannot see,
You cannot have, you cannot see.

My voice is a fat-threaded fustian,
And I tell you to retrieve from it the contours of the loom,
From the whispers, curled, and warbled hissings, half devoured by the copper wire.

Listen, listen close.
Listen, listen close.

(images by Double-M)

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Williamina Fleming

In 1878, in Boston Massachussets, twenty-one year old Williamina Fleming awoke on what was probably one of the hardest days of her life - her husband had left her the night before. In Scotland, where she was born, Fleming had been a teacher, but she had gone with her husband to America, and was only a few months off the boat by the time he left. Now, she was broke and alone, one of a vast sea of immigrants in Boston. On top of everything else, she was pregnant. Heavy in heart (and belly), she went out into the streets to look for work.

It was then that she happened upon the door of Edward Charles Pickering, a professor of astronomy at Harvard, who took her on as a housemaid. She worked hard, raised her child, and lived quietly. It was three years later that Pickering, frustrated at the poor quality work he got from his male research assistants, angrily declared that even his housemaid could do a better job. Little did he know how right he would end up being.

Pickering hired Fleming on to his academic work shortly thereafter, basically to do clerical labor. Soon, however, Fleming showed that she had a startling eye for detail, and an excellent head for complex scientific topics. Within a few years she was contributing significantly to astronomical research, including devising a system for classifying stars based on the amount of hydrogen they burned, using a prism to separate the light they emitted to a telescope. Her work continued for many years, and she is the discoverer of many stars and astronomical bodies, including, in 1888, the Horsehead Nebula.

By 1899, powerfully affected by Fleming's work, Pickering expanded upon his success, and ended up hiring dozens of women in the astronomy department of Harvard. Promoted now to the position of Curator of Astronomical Photographs, Fleming supervised their work.

Known as 'Pickering's Harem' or the 'Harvard Computers', the group eventually produced the first catalog of stars organized by brightness, a system still used (with some modifications, many of which where made by other members of the Harvard Computers) today. They were exceptionally poorly paid, earning little more than a factory worker, but nonetheless produced many of the greatest of the early female astronomers of the United States.

(This post was written in honor of Ada Byron Lovelace Day, 2012)

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Young ≠ Lazy, Selfish, and Stupid

If you haven't heard about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, I hope you look it up. Is it likely to fail? Sure, probably. But, just as a measure of people's spontaneous desire to try at things, its a wonderful, wonderful thing, all these young college students sitting on the sidewalks days after day, all these people finding ways to get space heaters and hot meals to them. (Note, by the way, I know there are people older than college age participating in this too - good on 'em. This isn't meant to marginalize what they're doing either).

Which made the reaction of New York Mayor Bloomberg particularly interesting to me:

We need the banks, if the banks don’t go out and make loans we will not come out of our economy problems, we will not have jobs. And so anything we can do to responsibly help the banks do that, encourage them to do that is waht we need. I think we spend much too much time worrying about how we got into problems as to how we go forward. [...] Also we always tend to blame the wrong people. We blame the banks. They were part of it, but so were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and Congress.

I see what Bloomberg is saying, I will not naively say that our entire current financial woes are the result of the Machiavellian schemings of a couple of rich men in pinstripes. The current economic crisis is a systemic problem.

What's more interesting to me was that he said there is one solution to our current problems: the banks need to make big profits, so that they're willing to go out and make loans, and that will make reinvestment and growth opportunities, and get people jobs. This is, I will not argue, one way out of our current crisis (I WOULD argue that it's not necessarily the most sustainable one - banks have been growing in profitability for the last 30 years in a  way that sure isn't directly making the average real wealth level of middle and lower class America any higher). What was interesting to me was the assumption inherent in his description, that these protesters were making a stupid, knee-jerk reaction, out of anger and ignorance: "Ah, if only you understood the banking sector as much as I do, kids, then you'd see that you're being childish."

Any time, I think, when you refute someone's opinion with the assumption that they're simply too stupid to know as much as you, there's a fair chance that you're either actively trying to marginalize them, or that you're passively assuming they are less competent than you in some ways.

I see this all the time with young people. I've recently become a manager at work, and have attended a few management training classes, a group in which I was on the lower half of the age spectrum in the group. Probably pretty close to the bottom. One of the points someone brought up in the class was that you just had to work harder to manage the current generation. To paraphrase what he said, kids today are so mollycoddled and spoiled, that they don't understand how to function in an eight hour job, aren't capable of stopping playing long enough to work, don't have the attention span to finish difficult tasks, and haven't been taught to take risks and try new things. Heads bobbed nearly universally. The MySpace generation (yes, their words, not mine) simply hasn't been taught how to be functioning members of society.

Today, Amanda and I went to a book festival, and besides being a wee bit overstimulated (thank you, notebook and a pen, how often you have saved me from loud, busy rooms), I was absolutely plucked in the heartstrings, seeing so many teenagers in one place, again. As you get older, the world repeatedly inundates you with the idea that teenagers are lazy, teenagers are brats, teenagers are selfish, teenagers are know-it-alls. A group of perhaps fifty 12-16 year olds came out at the beginning, in homemade costumes, strung through a crowd with no rehearsal in the hall they performed in, and did a remake of Michael Jackson's "Thriller", choreographed. The whole, painfully long song. I personally am not a Michael Jackson fan, but their choreography? Great, well-practiced, energetic and fun, and filled with sparkling, individual personality. This wasn't the dancing of a bunch of kids quietly obeying the instructions of a wise older teacher who shows them precisely how to move - it was kids who took a framework, and made it their own, every kid a little different, while all still keeping the synchronicity that makes choreography what it is. Lazy, imaginationless drones with no focus? Unwilling to take risks? How can people even say that?

I know, this is something every generation goes through, the process of deciding the next generation down is a lot of worthless heathens who will throw the world away, but dammit, this is my generation, and I don't want it badmouthing, say, my sister's generation, just because it can't quite put its finger on how it works. 

And that's what I don't get about Bloomberg. See, his whole thesis is basically this: "Look, kids, when there's a crisis, the banks take a while to get comfortable, and then start returning everything to the status quo, and that's how crises end." He forgets that what he's REALLY saying is 'That's how crises HAVE ended BEFORE.' That's a valid direction to look. Heck the young generation itself, these days, is harking back to the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters of World War II Britain. 

But you can't just assume that revolution has nothing to tell you, just because it will make your life a bit easier and tidier if we just do things how they've always been done. The social cohesion, the energy, the heterogeny, the beauty and spirit, and inexperienced fervor that is youth, there's a reason that we have these things. They have a value that isn't one that needs to be condescended to, its one that, sometimes, has to condescend to us, just to get to our tired, stuck little brains, and say, "Wake up! The world can, if you let it, be something else!" In a time when our problems are paralyzing us with fear - terrorism, disasters, environmental decay, poverty and economic change, employment shifts, you name it - isn't that kind of courageous optimism at least more useful than a drudging terror of doing things differently than they've always been done?

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While Their Babes Sleep On

Hand on throat and hand on hip,
Skin of gullet, skin of thigh,
Cinching fingers, Angry lips,
Stale submission, choked replies.

Fan blades over souls asunder
Rotate slow in salted air,
Humming blood through leaking laceworks,
Flesh left bruised and flesh left bare.

Sweaty teardrops, gasping mumbles,
Cinching fingers, angry lips,
Snap and tangle, Thump and tumble
Breathless throat and rigid hip.

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The Progress of Other Gods' Pilgrims

My children have for a few years now been slowly working through a best of list of literature for children, broken down by age group. My eldest is in a group of books now that has what I found to be a curious choice: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Not to say the book is inappropriate for children. Its not, it is, in fact, probably throughout history one of the books children read, depending on the time period and nation. Historical New England comes to mind. Its just that... well, its an allegory. We don't really read allegory anymore - or when we do, its been swallowed almost entirely by the self-help genre. 

Which is, after all, not so strange a thing. Pilgrim's Progress is, more or less, a self-help book, the old Protestant equivalent of, say, The Alchemist, a book that is meant to tell a story mostly only in order to keep you from being bored long enough that it can tell you what to think. I say that, and it sounds like I hate Pilgrim's Progress - I don't. I thought it was more ridiculous when I was younger. I don't know. 

The difference, I suppose, is very simple - Bunyan is so terribly, terribly earnest. I don't agree with him, no, but I think when a soul is that earnestly seeking something, its able to tell you something very interesting about the thing sought. The seeker, in some ways, knows the object of his search must better than the possessor, and honestly, I don't think Bunyan thought of himself as a possessor, yet (though he was a Calvinist, so predestination would come into play, I suppose, but I could write a whole other post on how fatalistic philosophies and individual freedom are strange but copiously affectionate bedfellows sometimes). 

I am the opposite of Bunyan in so many ways. There's the obvious ways, of course: Bunyan is a devoted Protestant, I'm not entirely sure there is a god, or if there is, if he's a loving one that I want to identify with. Bunyan was a social conservative, I tend to connect morals with the individual and their inner life, rather than society and the outer life. Bunyan, for all his idiosyncrasies, was a literary genius (and no, I'm not the only one who thinks so). And, he wore a mustache. 

But more than this, there is a fundamental difference: Bunyan was a preacher. I don't lean on the religious aspect of this, I think Lenin was a preacher in much the same way, or Malcolm X, as much as Martin Luther King. He is a declaimer. I'm not. I cannot imagine being sure of anything emotional/spiritual/political/social, so much that I could teach it. Discussing it is difficult enough, sometimes, and I'm frequently disgusted with myself enough after that enterprise. And, Christian, the Pilgrim that is Progressing in the book, is a preacher, too. So, following him is a maddening flip-flop, for my morally soft brain. 

I learned the trick of reading it, though - to stop wondering if I agree. This is a double-edged trick, and hard to wield sometimes - you're obliged to ignore both those moments when you agree and when you disagree. But for me, at least, taking approval and disapproval out of the question (as much as possible), leaves bare something purer than dogma and direction - it leaves the simple story of a man pursuing an idea to exclusion.  It hardly matters why he believes what he does, or even what he believes. The thing is simpler than that - it is a little testimony that says "Yes, a soul can follow its ideals, completely. A soul can be faithful to truth itself." With that testimony, there is, for me from hundreds of years later, a little question though: "Is that virtue?" 

Again, I mean to separate this question from the particularities of Christian. It DOES NOT MATTER what ideal he is following. In fact, just the other night my wife and I were talking about Lord Byron, and how, contrary to the idea we front of a man who was dissipate and  amoral, Lord Byron had an ideal, and whether or not you agree with it or not,  he followed it, in earnest, with greater faith and steadiness, in many ways, than some of the best of Christians followed theirs. Call the book "The Radical Romantics Progress." Enjorlas, in Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables' is another great example - a man capable of being precisely one thing, all the time. And, if you want to read a stirring, inspiring, horrifying statement of the muddled observation I'm making here, read Enjorlas and his journey from the back room of a cafe to the top of a barricade to a pool of his own blood - and then think of other men's blood he pooled into his own to get there. And realize that he meant it, every word. 

And there's the problem with being in earnest (and perhaps the fault in Pilgrim's Progress) - can you live life entirely honestly, earnestly, directly, surely, and not hurt anyone else in the process? Christian, in the progress leaves his wife and children - and the scene in which he weeps over their not listening to him and following him on the path to heaven is, for me, one of the most heartbreaking in the book. The best of earnest men, I think, are destined to fall, because at some point, they realize that their desire for purity and direction will involve someone else. Truth is a harsh lover, and at some point, always makes you choose between her and the other ones you love.

People make such an effort, of course - that's the root of monasticism, I think, in many ways. What is a monastery but a group of people who have promised each other to be glad to all suffer for the same end? Or a hermit. When I hear about the desert fathers of early Christianity, wandering into the sands of Egypt to take up abode in some broken hulk of of stone, and there to live alone, calling God, that fear of impurity is I think, as much a fear of burning up the impurity, as having it extinguish the fire. 

That's the thing about heroic journeys, though - they always end up alone. We tend to focus on the heroes, and so we feel the great stoic pain of solitude in that - Odysseus struggling against the sea alone, Harry Potter walking through the woods alone. And think of that, in Harry Potter, how hard she had to work to convince us, the audience, that yes, yes, Harry is virtuous to walk alone into the wood. Why must she spend so long in the book showing us that its the only alternative? Why must it be utterly clear that it is a choice between killing his friends or killing himself? Because we want it to be NOBLE that he's going to leave aching, bleeding holes in the supporting cast we've come to love: Ginny, Ron, Hermione, everyone. They are the ones who will suffer if he dies. It takes courage to die, but it is, at least a choice. Suffering you did not choose is, somehow, worse, at least to me. And the dying has an end. The aching doesn't. 

At one point I thought, int his vein, how wonderful it would be to be a Buddhist. The perfect Buddhist is the one who relinquishes everything - the Buddha himself stayed on earth rather than immediately ascending to Nirvana because he felt he had to fulfill duty first, to teach what he had learned. So in some sense, his whole life is no more than a long noble search for the freedom to cease being. But, at some level, I have to ask - is that, really, noble? Buddhism itself, to my understanding has grappled with this idea. The tradition of the Boddhisatva in some strains, is that these are souls who have achieved Buddhahood, but had such compassion for the world, that they choose to be the last living souls to enter Nirvana, to continue returning and returning and returning to the world to hope the rest of us on. There is an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin question there, though, that has an interesting ramification: if ten Boddhisatvas have all promised to be the last to enter Nirvana, which of them enters first when they are all that is left? In a sense, perhaps the implication here is that there will never be the opportunity for the question to be answered - that is, the answer hardly matters, because the question will never be asked. The world is composed of suffering, so there will always be more men suffering, awaiting help to free themselves from it. 

This is the sadness and beauty of the Quixotic hero - the Pilgrim travels because there is a destination, the Boddhisatva travels because there is a road, and if the road is a circle, there is always another place to step forward into. Hopeless infinity is the only hope so grand that it can consume a noble life beyond the limits of human imagination. The only quests, in some sense, worth pursuing, are those in which you're sure to fail. 

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The Death of Emily Dickinson

When Emily Dickinson fell into her final illness (Bright's Disease and its complicatons, most scholars think), she spent it in her tiny bed, in her tiny room, a few feet from the desk where she'd say and copied her poems, and pinned them into fascicles and stuffed the drawers with them. There isn't even, really, a day when you can see her illness began. Practical science,  in its current form, has an aversion to the boundless or the gradual. It wishes disease to fit into lab reports. Disease is not always like that - it can bea slow melting towards where death is in its most natural form, more like falling slowly to sleep than being knocked unconscious. There is the period of settling, the period of pondering, going over the day's events, then that strange dreamy half-state where you are half tethered to consciousness, and the tide of it pulls gently, gently, outward into sleep.

Emily had been to a few doctors, over the years. Her eyesight had been failing for a long time, and in fact, she'd been at some risk of going blind earlier in her life, and had had to make an uncomfortable, unsettling trip to the city to stay at a relative's while being treated by an oculist. But, by now, medicine had had its day. She was nursed by her sister, Lavinia. She wrote letter to friends. She slept a great deal. She felt awful. She almost certainly cried, though the record of this sort of thing is understandably scanty, kidney diseases aren't pleasant. She messed her sheets, she sweat a lot, suffered through fevers. And then, one day, in the Spring, she died.

It was in May. Emily loved the springtime, and in Massachussets, May is the crown of spring (though, to be fair, Emily's poetry shows a playful, familiar affection for March). It was warm enough, by then, that the windows would have been opened off and on, probably even more than normal to air the sick room. She would have smelled the dusty florals of the hawthorn hedge at the edge of her property, she would have smelled the rich balsam-pine smells of the trees next door, where her life-long best friend and sister-in-law lived, no doubt anxious to hear the news of her. Its a wet month, there, she may have smelled the rain. She probably, by then, was not seeing a great deal at all. Perhaps the robins came for her, as she'd written about before.

She was dressed in her own bedroom, and a white coffin was brought in to lie her in, set likely on sawhorses downstairs, in the hall. The Dickinson's gardeners, Irish I believe, would likely have been the ones to come and nail it shut.  They took it to the library, where they had a short funeral. Her long-time correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, read a poem by a different Emily: Emily Bronte. Of all those in the room, it is ironically possible that he knew her the least. Her sister-in-law wrote an obituary, that mentioned her legendary skills as a gardener.

She specifically asked that the servants, with whom she had a close, personal relationship, carry her out the back door. They crossed a meadow. The grass in it would have been high by then, flecked with wildflowers, particularly buttercups. She lay in the box, her eyes set shut, her hands gently cradling flowers she had carefully requested before her death: heliotrope, lady's slipper, wild wood violets. The scent of the heliotrope, thick and vanilla probably slipped out the interstices of the wood. The grass would have swished against the walls, the buttercups tumbled pollen onto the wood. When they arrive at her plot, the pallbearers would have had the late leftovers, perhaps, of damp about their boots and trousers.

And that was that, they lowered her down, they dropped sod into the hole, and Emily's tiny limbs and white dress would, slowly, slowly begin to dissolve into the earth. I like to believe that someone sang over her. Perhaps it was just the birds.

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O, pipe the hymn both clear and loud:
  "Come soon, thou golden dream!"
The altar sends the incense up --
  Though flesh-smoke feed the stream -
"Come quick, thou light, both clean and bright!"
  Though born a crimson gleam.
O pipe it loud! Drown out the sounds
  Of the sacrifice's scream.
Bleed out thy scream, O sacrifice,
  Thou destined cinder-grey!
The crisp of thee in sinuous stream,
  The gleam 'neath an empty vein,
The elegy of a Silver Dream,
  Keened out in Bean-sidhe lay:
Bleed out, and silence thou become -
  Now comes the break of day!

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The Problem I Had With "Plain Kate"

This morning, I finished reading 'Plain Kate' by Erin Bow, a book that Amanda assigned me for our Lovebirds Challenge, and it has been gnawing me since. I'm very glad I read it, because something about it is bothering me.

Understand, first, it was not a book. It was a pretty good one in fact. There was a few moments that lifted me out of the flow of the story in awkward ways, but not very many, and I'm oversensitive to that, and tend to demand that books be written especially for me, in some ways, especially modern ones. And aside from that, it was a well written book, tightly fairy-taled, in a way that is neither cloying or anachronistic (the two ways I usually find that fairy tales find their downfalls).

But, there was something about it that bothered me. (mild spoiler, I'll avoid the big ones). There is this cat, the main character's cat, who at one point gains the powers of speech, and becomes sort of mentally part human, because it's Kate's greatest wish - that she have a travelling companion. A friend, more succinctly.

Now, first of all, I found it a bit irritating that not 10 pages past this point, where she had been a lone and friendless the whole book, she suddenly falls in with some people with whom she starts to develop friendships. But that's neither here nor there, and only bothered me because it seems like it should have been dramatically ironic and wasn't.

What bothered me was this: her love and friendship with the cat is one of the emotional engines of the book. And yet, the cat isn't real. He is only the way he is, because she wished him to be so. He does not awaken and learn to like her, or grow from the feelings a cat would have to a master to the feelings a friend would develop for a friend, to the point of self-sacrifice. He is simply made, immediately, the Perfect Friend. This is realistic - it's what she wished for, after all, not just a talking cat, but a perfect friend, to stay with her when things become difficult.

The problem with making someone a perfect friend is the same problem, though, that love potions have: they aren't real. Or if they are real, then love and friendship are, after all, meaningless. I was talking to Amanda this morning, and made an analogy: I'm a computer programmer. So, what if I learned how to program emotions into a robot? And what if I programmed a robot, whose main directive was to love me, to be loyal to me, to care about me? I don't mean, to be a slave, just to be - a perfect friend. If I programmed this robot to be that way, would it REALLY be love? What would the feelign I felt back be? In a sense, Kate's cat isn't it's own being at all - it's just a piece of Kate. Her wish, embedded into another living thing through no will of that other thing's.

But then, what difference does that make, really? At some level, after all, all love is a complex of neurons and memories, right? An instinct. We love, because we have evolved into lovers, because love has proven to be the best way to survive. I'm not a snob about this idea, I don't think that's demeaning to the human spirit, or anyhting, that it makes us less. But, it does beg the question - if I put you to sleep, and then constructed love in your brain, when you awoke, would that love be less real than a love that developed on it's own? In a sense, it's almost like cloning - most of us have a gut level reaction of unnaturalness, when we consider the idea of producing a child without the natural process of human inter-fertilization, apart from any of the moral qualms surrounding how the technology might be used we don't like the idea of the technology, of itself. But why? If an identical child is produced one way versus another, is ther eREALLY a difference? Or isn't there? Mental Illness is another example - if someone is mentally ill, than some of their emotions are not the byproducts of the normal activity of their mind, but rather they are symptoms of an external disease. If someone is furious only because they need medicine, are they any less furious? Does their fury 'matter less'?

I can have this whole argument, but you'll notice, I'm not convinced by it, and I simply don't know why. The idea of that cat being a produced instead of a natural friend truly bothers me. To produce consciousness, that DOESN'T bother me - I do not, for instnace, have the same gut level fear of the idea of artificial intelligence. But emotion does, and I can't quite pinpoint why. It draws into something bigger, something that has to do with the purpose of life itself - in the end, after all, the material effects of life are irrelevant, right? Things don't matter, at the end, its only, as so many people have said, the experiences we've had, the memories we've shared, the love we've given and recieved. What if we only feel that this love was given? Does that make a difference? If there were no way of knowing, if it could be given equitably, if we could make it so every human on earth could receive the gift of memories and emotions, and if we could irrefutbaly show that this, in the end, would let every person mentally have lived the life they wish they could have lived, would that be wrong? And if it IS wrong, why? Is it simply because its unnatural? Is it because we would be foolish with it, and create lives that don't have any regret in them? Is it because it would be selfish, removing the reality of anything done for someone else? It's something else, something, because even if it were possible to remove all these things, it would be wrong. I do not want to be loved, I want to... have lived a love. And the idea of simple accepting the validity of the other option really bothered me.

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Hannibal Bin Laden

Sometime between the years 181 and 183 BC, in Libyssa (the city now known as Gebze on the entrance to the Black Sea), there was an old Greek palace. Libyssa was a city in the now long forgot kingdom of Bithynia (interesting, also, in the later life of Mithridates, another fascinating character), which at that time, was wrapping up a long war with the nearby kingdom of Pergamum, an ally of the Roman Empire. The war was a difficult one, and in those days, for most countries, there was no standing army of any substance, so for professional soldiers, the king, Prusias, had turned for help to mercenaries, including a man who, though in the winter of his life, was without a doubt then (and in many ways still today) the most famous military leader of all time - Hannibal Barca, the general of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War.

Most people know Hannibal for his famous march through the Alps on the backs of his famous war elephants, or perhaps know the famous phrase "Hannibal at the Gates!", meaning that danger is imminent. During his life, Hannibal was, by most Romans, the most terrifying man alive. After marching through the Alps, Hannibal proceeded to spend 16 years marching up and down the length of Italy, turning most of Rome's allies in the region to their side, and systematically beating the Romans over and over - the historical records (which several of Rome's greatest historians kept) seem unanimous: Rome was, quite simply, incapable of winning a battle against Hannibal. And Hannibal's victories were not simply crushing feats of superior manpower. In the most scathing battle, Hannibal marched into the field of Cannae, near Rome, with 50000 soldiers, against a force of 86000 Romans. Hannibals group was a ragtag mixture of a wide swath of different Celtic tribes, and a core force of Carthaginians far away from their homeland. The Romans were close to their own city, defending their families and livelihoods from what was, truly, a mortal threat. At the end of the day, about 6000 Carthaginians were dead, as opposed to 50000 Romans. And additional 5000 were captured. To put that in perspective, literally 1/5th of the male population of Rome had died, in a single battle, on a single field, on a single day. The number is large enough, for me, to really have no meaning: think of it this way - the Roman's losses on that single day, were nearly equivalent to the death count of the US Army through the entire Vietnam War. And this in a nation whose native population was about half that of the Omaha metropolitan area.

Beyond this, Hannibal's tactics were, in and of themselves, completely foreign to the Romans. The Romans learned their tactics from the Greeks, in large part, who fought, essentially, like a football line: a long row of soldiers, perhaps 10 deep, lines up in straight rows, and marches forward to smash against the other army. Hannibal did not - Hannibal took part in what we now call 'unconventional warfare'. Caught in a narrow valley at night, for instance, with Romans surrounding him on most sides, Hannibal took a herd of cattle, and lit their tails on fair, then pointed them (as much as one can point a herd of burning cattle) toward one of the passes out of the valley. The Romans, watching from the outskirts, suddenly saw a mass of fires running toward one of the exits, and of course, assumed this was the torches of Hannibal's army, trying to escape the valley, so they naturally moved their forces to block the exit the cows were approaching. Hannibal left via the other exit, now left wide open.

The Romans hatred for the Carthaginians had many roots, of course. One was the materialistic one: Carthage was a rival, with interests in Sicily, which is awfully close to Rome. This is, without a doubt, the reason the wars were fought. Aside from this, though, one of the interesting threads of the real antipathy the Romans felt for the Carthaginians was cultural and religious. The religious of the Carthaginians, to the Roman mind, was primitive, barbaric and cruel. In many ways, we would probably think of it the same way today: the Carthaginians, most infamously, would sacrifice their own children on their altars, a fact that was considered a fable made up by the Romans to demonize their enemies for a long time, but now largely confirmed by considerable archaeological evidence. And beyond this, by the time of Hannibal, their was a considerable historical antipathy - the first Punic War had, particularly for the Barca family, created a situation where the Romans dominated the Carthaginians, making of them what was, if not in name then in reality, a colony, and a fairly cruelly taxed one at that. Hannibal, as a very young man, was taken to an altar (possibly where the child sacrifices were occurring, though opinons on this differ, I am led to understand), where he placed his hand on the altar, and his father had him swear an oath to hate and fight the Romans, for the rest of his life, on principle. In short, we tell the story of Hannibal now with sufficient historical distance that we can feel like both sides have their heroic moments. There is, I would say, even a tendency to like Hannibal more - he's the underdog, and the genius, people want to cheer for that. It's difficult for us, then, to reall completely internalize how quintessentially threatening Hannibal was at the time. Hannibal was the force of destruction and dissolution, a force that felt not simply like a war enemy, but a threat to the very culture of Rome at the time, the personification of the threatening other. And this perception was not, entirely unfair - given the choice,  Hannibal's history seems to suggest, Hannibal would have been quite happy to see Rome ended, razed to the ground, the earth salted (in much the way, ironically, that Carthage was treated at the end of the Third Punic War).

I don't think it's a stretch, then, to draw parallels between Hannibal and the Carthaginians to Rome, and Osama Bin Laden and the extremist Islamic fringe in groups like Al-Qaeda to the United States. In both situations, you have a group whose cultures seem to be predisposed to clash. The variety of Islam that the extremist fringe espouses (not Islam in general, just the variety) feels, I think, to many like an attack on the best parts of modern culture (whether this is true or not, or the relationship between the perception of this difference and the actuality is irrelevant to this topic, though an interesting question on it's own). In both cases, there is a certain horror in our culture of the tactics themselves, a sort of consciously irrational feeling that the other side is 'cheating'. Of course, that's silly to some extent. Terrorism, at least from my ability to define it, is entirely a function of one's point of view. But the feeling is strong - the feelings we have about terrorism are fairly easy to match up to the feelings Rome had about Hannibals method of warfare. The feelings we have about 9/11 - a strange mixture of horror and denial and blood fury and patriotic pride at our ability to survive it - are very similar to those the Romans had after Cannae. And in many ways, the attacks on Carthage that eventually led to Hannibal's defeat and exile, are much like America's war in Afghanistan.

Particularly this is true when it comes to the results, with Hannibal himself - the object of the attack on Carthage was to defeat Hannibal, yes, certainly, much like the American object in Afghanistan was to overthrow the Taliban, but beyond this, it was for many Romans, to catch Hannibal, to drag him back to Rome, to try him, and to kill him. To see justice done, on the one hand, and to remove the man who had become the definition of secret fear for Romans, on the other. Hannibals escape, and his subsequent career of acting as a mercenary for Rome's many enemies was a crushing, terrifying thing for the Romans. Hannibals power was broken, at some practical level, of course - his home was gone, his army taken from him. But he was still there, and after all, just like we now live in a state of continual fear of devastating terrorist attack, despite the fact that there has been essentially no change in the intensity of the actual threat (its probably decreased in fact), the knowledge of the threat is sometimes worse than the threat. Terrorism, or Hannibal, or the adult equivalent of the Bogeyman - there is no situation in which the Bogeyman can be proven to not be a threat, no matter what color the threat alert light is.

So, it was, in Libyssa, that Hannibal sat, and waited, knowing the end was at hand for him. The Romans were a huge force in the world, by then, and had finally intimidated Prusias into letting them come in and take Hannibal. Hannibal was no fool, he had secret tunnels and exits throughout the home he had in Libyssa - but someone had betrayed him. Each of these exits was guarded that day. Hannibal knew what was coming, and he knew, now, finally, there was no escape. He took poison, and left a note behind, reading something that could just as well have been tauntingly offered up by Bin Laden, if he had made one final of his infamous videos, knowing that he had been surrounded:

 "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death"

I do not know what happened when Hannibal died, immediately. I could guess. I'm sure that it was heralded through Rome, that there were celebrations, that it was the talk of the empire. I'm sure there was a feeling of relief, I'm sure there was some unpleasantness.

The interesting thing to me, though, is that we have such a history of him. The history the Romans left was first written by a man named Polybius, who in fact had the family of the general who defeated Hannibal as a patron. The history was detailed, and historians believe, remarkably accurate, and the interesting part to me: it presented Hannibal as an extraordinary leader, and told much of the story following Hannibal's armies, not Rome's. Hannibal was not made into the hero of the story - he was, without a doubt, a villain, someone who had done Rome great harm, and who would have destroyed it. But, he was who he was - a human being, and a, for lack of a better term, worthy foe. A Roman, reading Polybius, could sympathize and understand Hannibal, could learn from Hannibal, and at the same time, still feel glad that, in the end, he was defeated.

Watching the last few days, since the death of Osama Bin-Laden, I've been frustrated (though not surprised) to see none of this. Osama Bin-Laden is the butt of jokes, his death is hardly even a serious thing. The painting people make of him is a coward, a madman, a monster. I don't like Osama Bin-Laden. I'm not an apologist. I think his theology and his actions are wrong, and should be opposed. I am glad that he has been caught, and while I would on principle always rather someone be captured and imprisoned than killed, I can accept with peace the manner of his death, burial, etc, as far as I understand them. This was a dangerous man. 

At the same time, I think that we, as a culture, both demean ourselves, and lose the value of this event, by simply pretending he was an inhuman monster. Osama Bin Laden was a man, a man who, I honestly believe, did not think he was being evil. HE was a man fighting for what he believed was right. He was resourceful, and intelligent, consistent in his devotion to his cause, and intellectually honest. He did what he did for a cause that I do not wish to see win out in the world, but one in which he believed, as strongly as we believe in our own causes. He was a terrible man, a man who did terrible things, but he was a man. He was, for lack of a better word, a worthy adversary, one who should inspire with his death, not an effort to denigrate him - his actions are wicked enough to denigrate themselves - but a serious searching inside of our hearts, to discover where such men come from, and why they succeed against us. This is a lesson that history has a way of repeating to us until we learn it - or fail to learn it. And its not, entirely or even mostly, a military or a political lesson. It's a human one. 

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Religious Tolerance

On May 28 of 1453, the Church of Hagia Sophia in the City of Constantinople held its last mass. The city, in it's final days, was torn by internal religious divisions. Much of the mercantile and military population of the city were Italian, particularly Venetian and Genovese. Some of the native Byzantine population were supporters of a union with the Western church. Others, particularly the monks and priests of the city, were in support of a continued orthdoxy to creed of what we now call the Greek Orthodox church. These divisions were not minor theological squabbles, but had shaped the countours of Byzantine history, and in fact, were in part responsible for its downfall the next day. But that night, there was one final mass - it was a mass praying for a miracle. The walls of the city were broken beyond repair after being patched, repatched, and rebuilt innumerable times throughout the long siege of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, the people of the city were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fighting had ceased only because of the encroaching darkness. The mass, for that one night was spoken in Greek and in Latin, the intercessory prayers begged god's mercy and blessing on the Pope in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, and the Patriarch of Constantinople. And all the schismatic groups prayed together, that night.

The next day, this unity, in it's way, lasted on. The Ottoman Turks broke down the walls, and beat back the forces of the emperor quickly, killing the emperor himself in the process. The people of the city, and the soldiers, both the Byzantines and the Italians, retreated back to beneath the walls of the Hagia Sophia, believing in the sanctity of this great and ancient church, and they waited there, sure that God would not let the 'heathens' destroy the sanctity of that holy spot. They were mistaken - the people centered on this spot were rounded up, and sold mostly into slavery. Thus fell the richest city of Christendom.

The irony of this is that the Ottoman empire - the hegemony of middle and near eastern Islam in general, in fact - was, perhaps, in many ways a product of the Byzantine Empire itself. To reduce the rise of Arabian power after the life of Mohammed to any one cause, particularly an external one, is reductionist at best, of course, but it is worth looking at some of the future heartlands of Islamic empire: Egypt, for example, or Syria. During the time of the rise of Islam, a debate had been raging through the Eastern church for some time, regarding the precise nature of Christ (specifically, whether Christ had seperate human and godly natures, or these two natures were one and the same). To us, these differences may seem pedantic - but to the Byzantines, they were cause for rebellions, and for the putting down of rebellions. The monophysites (those who believe in one nature), who were particularly strong in Egypt and Syria, were oppressed with nearly the same vigor that the original Roman empire had oppressed the Christians: heresy was, for both the Eastern and Western churches, a horrifying prospect. So, when the Arabs began to invade Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, many of the people and the clergy there actually welcomed them - because under Moslem rule, they would be permitted to practice whatever brand of Christianity they wished. The Byzantine Army was, to the Egyptians, not a defender, but an enemy, sent to oppress them, and the Arab soldiers were liberators. So the Eastern Mediterranean, which had been the strongest imperial and Christian religious power in the known world, slowly began to dissolve.

Of course, taking any moral sense out of things, one could find many counterexamples to the arguments in favor of religious tolerance. One need only, for example, turn to the opposite end of the Mediterranean, in the Iberian peninsula (which let me warn you ahead of time, I know a bit less about). When the Moors invaded Iberia all the way up to the Pyrenees, they instituted the same reforms that they had registered in Egypt - religious tolerance of the Jewish and Christian faiths (of course, in neither case was this complete tolerance: non-moslems had to pay special taxes and had certain differences in their legal rights, and of course those who believe in non-Abrahamic faiths had no tolerance at all - but still, the fact that their religions were allowed to flourish is worth attention). Spain and Portugal, then, even under the Muslim empire, retained a strong, tightly bound Catholic community. In the end, this is part of the reason that the Reconquista, when the Moors were cast from Spain, succeeded: the Moors had allowed the Christian community to flourish, but the Christian church, internally, had no such tolerance in response, so it encouraged it's membership to remain internally integrated, but culturally separate from the Muslim empire at large. Because the Christians never integrated into the culture of their Imperial masters, their Christian identity became a banner to rebel against them, rather than the banner of a community within a larger community.

It is, in fact, worth remembering that religious intolerance and/or hegemony is frequently one of the driving forces of empire. The United States, for instance, for all its talk of religious tolerance, maintained (an in many ways still maintains) a strong suspicion of faiths outside of mainline Protestantism, to the point where when Kennedy was elected, his religion was one of the major issues against him - or when Mitt Romney ran for president a few years ago. Many of the seeds of Anglo-Saxon America were remarkably intolerant: the puritans, for instance, legislated obedience to many of their dogmatic laws, and the witch trials do not, after all, speak to an open mindedness about religious practices. The Ku Klux Klan was organized not only to fight against the growing power of African Americans, but also Catholics, and much of the anti-immigrant sentiment in America was largely religious fear - there was a plethora of briskly selling polemics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding the 'Catholic Threat' from communities like the Irish and the Italians. In fact, the man who codified religious tolerance into the constitution through the bill of rights was opposed to organized religion on a general basis: Thomas Jefferson. The forces that drove our modern ideas of religious pluralism were similarly born in the 'godless' days of the Enlightenment - before that, tolerance was largely a matter of tolerance for those with a common religious enemy to one's self (Milton, for instance, believed every Christian faith in England should be allowed to practice - except Catholicism - he was Puritan. Queen Elizabeth and King James killed any Jesuits found in England on principle. Catholics repaid the favor, for instance, in the Spanish Inquisition, or the Huguenot massacres of France). 

The history that we, as Americans, are taught in school, paints the victory of religious pluralism as the result of the brave souls who stood up to the Catholics in the Reformation (and of course, their followers who founded America, something also not entirely true). The image we have is of humble Martin Luther bravely tacking his principles up on the church door in opposition to the established authorities of his time. Luther and his peers were anything but tolerant - Luther frequently referred to not only the pope but even rival Protestant reformers such as Zwingli as devils, demons, and deceivers. Many of them returned the favor. In fact, both the reformation, and the counter-reformation of the Catholic church, is little more than a history of rival varieties of religious intolerance attempting to move larger and larger parts of the world into their own camp of followers.

All this, of course, makes it sound as if religious leaders are, in herently, cruel and hateful people. This isn't true at all, in my opinion. My reading of, for instance, Luther, was that he spoke so virulently against the Pope, and his many rivals, simply because he believed they were deceiving the people - Luther was strongly concerned with the peasantry over the faith of the few rich (not that he was without imperfection in this), and the thrust of many of his arguments against catholicism in particular were that it took advantage of the simple faith of common men. He believed, I would argue, that intolerance was his godly duty. Indeed, forgetting our preconceived biases for a moment, if we knew, for a fact, that a particular religious doctrine would lead people to go to heaven, and that any other doctrine will lead them to an eternity of suffering, one can imagine how all other faiths would be, in a cosmic scale, the very definition of evil. If one is entirely sincere in one's attachment to any of these faiths, it is not difficult to argue that torture is far less an act of cruelty than heresy - torture ends, hell does not. 

Therein lies the rub: our natural instinct is to believe that any new religion would naturally have a tendency to believe in tolerance - after all, they are suffering the effects of intolerance, right? They should be able to sympathize. On the contrary, though - and even today you see this in new religions (we call them cults, now), which are quite frequently very separatist and intolerant - the fire of a new idea burns as much as it warms. 

Counterexamples to this, then, become interesting to me. The Roman Empire, for instance, was (until later in it's life) remarkably religiously tolerant (we think of it as otherwise, largely, because it's intolerance was aimed at those who eventually wrote history). More than one child in school has boggled at how the Roman and Greek pantheons match up so nicely. In fact, the city of Rome had significant religious practices in the worship of Egyptian gods, as well - the Cult of Isis was remarkably popular, for example. The Romans, basically, would move into a new area, and take the Gods that were already there and either add them to their own pantheon, or absorb them as new manifestations of existing gods. The only early example of restriction of religious principles that I know of (and there could be more) would be against the cult of Bacchus - the cult of Bacchus, in its religious practices, is reported as trying to enlist very young men, and then having wild orgies, that would spill out into the streets of the city in the middle of the night. Compared to our current restrictions on practices like, say, Polygamy in the privacy of your own home, this isn't exactly extreme. 

In fact, the problem that they had, first with the Jews and later with the Christians, was that theologically their faiths were incapable of 'tolerance' - the idea of monotheism was anathema to the early Romans, because it presumed that Yahweh, or the Trinity, were the ONLY gods, that all other gods were false, that worship of them was unacceptable. A polytheist was able to enter into the larger religious life of the empire. A monotheist kept themselves separate from it. The God of the Abrahamic faiths is, in the words of the Old Testament, a 'Jealous God', one who was unwilling to accept the idols of those who believed differently, even if he was worshipped alongside them. 

Is polytheism, then, naturally more tolerant than monotheism? I don't know. I don't think so, necessarily. I think, rather, that the idea of universal truth, applicable to all, is difficult in terms of tolerance. And at some level, truth (particularly the kinds of truths otherwise unavailable to us) are what we look for from religion - the search fro unknown truth, for the revelation of mysteries was the root of the most ancient mythologies, and still presents the core of many of the most sacred acts of religious groups today. 

Where does this leave us today, then? I don't know. People have dreamed of a harmonious future without conflict - in particular religious conflict - for a long time. But its notable that most of these dreams either have a society with a single, omnipresent faith (take, for example, the medieval idea of the Kingdom of Prester John, or Sir Francis Bacon, or the pre-Christian world in the Mists of Avalon, though it hardly admits this to itself), or a society in which religion has dissapeared, o r at least seems to have lost its currency in everyday life (the Federation in Star Trek, for example, or the dream future of the Marxist-Leninist thinkers, or Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins). Utopia is not, in our minds, a process of finding ways to live with our differences, but rather, finding a path to a glorious, harmonious homogeny. I think this is both an unrealistic and horrifying proposition when followed to its logical conclusions (after all, most Dystopias seem to have a religious or anti-religious hegemony as well).  There is no harmony in a world of belief, unless it is forced down people's throats (As it has been in history, more than once), there is only controlled bubbling in the simmering pot of conflict. There is, unless you suppose some divine intervention, no future in which people work out these differences, unless they are worked out for them, or they cease to care about or lose faith in the absolute existence of the answer. I'm not sure the latter is the right answer, either (or a sustainable one. I think current American history speaks to this). 

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Darning Darning

Darning Darning, yarn into
  The foot-sorry wear of a sock,
Little fingers push and pull
  As the chair below me rocks.
Somewhere, with trees with blossom-red leaves,
  And with wind like a soror's hands,
Somewhere, far off distant thought
  In a far-off distant land.

The warp and woof of the new-darned rough
  With the threadbare cloth interlocked,
The warp and woof pulls thick and thin
  As the chair below me rocks.
Somewhere, with clouds of dust-soft moths
  And with love seeped in with the sand,
Somewhere, far off distant thought
  In a far-off distant land.

(Image from Amazing_podgirl)

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Familiarity and Contempt (What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller)

Good god, I forgot what it's like to read a book where each page takes less than 15 minutes! It feels strange to be in the realm of books one can read as an activity instead of a journey. Not that I mean I regret Ulysses - just sometimes it's nice to simply take a day-trip to the park, rather than hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.

If you haven't read What Was She Thinking (also called Notes on a Scandal, after the title of the movie it inspired), or seen the movie, there will be spoilers in these thoughts, because I'm really not sure where to end before ruining any surprises.  So, now then, only us spoiled or spoilable folks left? Alright, then...

The very first page of the book presents for us what appears to be an easily parsed framework for interpreting Sheba, the nominal heroine of the book: she is a woman who has had an illicit affair with a 15 year old boy. She has been caught. It's a nasty business. The news has introduced this particular character type, in the real world more than once (seemingly every time it happens), and in the beginning, there is a natural tendency, I think to assume that any further story will be simply the salacious details. The narrator, Barbara (in many senses, I think, the true protagonist of the novel), is much more of a mystery - she's older. She's loyal to this woman who has done something impardonable. She is a bit cold and bitter.

By the end of the book, Barbara has done her very best to show us that Sheba is a faulty, essentially non-evil woman who committed a horrible mistake. One can (if one wishes) pity her, sympathize with her. On the other hand, unwittingly, Barbara reveals herself to be, as most people I know describe her, very creepy. Sheba let her hormones overtake her. Barbara seems to have something very distrubing wrong with her.

The interesting thing to me is this: Barbara, I think, one knows fairly well by the end of the book, and one despises her. Sheba, who one is given the opportunity to pity, one knows in many ways LESS than they did on the first page of the book. The narrator is clearly not terrifically reliable, and obviously sees Sheba in a way that suits the fantasies she needs to uphold for herself - how are we to trust that anything she says really accurately reflects on Sheba's character? Take, for a moment, the mere facts apart from the very artfully applied layers of interpretation, and one has learned very little by the end of the book, really - some details of Sheba's family life. A rough timeline of how the affair went. A highly coloured personal account of some of the day to days of the end of the affair. A frankly unreliable account of second hand knowledge that we don't know if it's even accurate. The image of Barbara, is, inadvertently, more or less an honest one. The image of Sheba is a more or less dishonest, or at least dubious, one. And it's much easier to like Sheba than Barbara.

This particularly caught my eye because the way Barbara details her life reminded me in some ways of Ulysses (sorry, I know). Barbara, perhaps because she lives alone and has no particular center or direction to her life outside of Sheba, is left, in between the periods in which she is merely reinterpreting Sheba's life, describing her life in very exacting detail. By the end, one knows how Barbara gets dressed, how she feeds the cat, the manner of cook she is, the way she keeps her bedroom and living room, her personal grooming habits, the way she sleeps even. Bloom's journey through Dublin is told in the same exacting detail (we were not, perhaps, left with a description of how Ms Barbara goes to the bathroom - but she did comment on the menstrual habits of her coworkers, so I think this was more an issue of space and first person narration than any sort of actual fastidiousness). And I've heard more than one person who read Ulysses mention how surprised they were at how much they disliked Bloom, and in much the same way that one dislikes Barbara - he's a little off, a little bit disturbing. Revolting.

In many novels one gains a certain intimacy with the characters, and understand please that the comments Im about to offer are not belittling that. But most of that intimacy is only with their inner selves - in some sense I think this is what we turn to literature for, to look at someone and be able to see something more 'real' than the everyday. Joyce turned this around and presented the everyday as the framework of the epic, and so I think that it's easy to look at his characters and think 'how disgusting', because one must see all the detritus of their daily thought patterns. I daresay that many of our hero's thought patterns would be equally ugly if we took them in unexpurgated. In part, I think this is the problem with living in Barbara's everyday world - familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt (or horror, or disgust).

I am not everyone I know, I'm only me, but I will say that a tepid toe dipped deep in the stream of my consciousness would be equally loathsome. I say this as impassively as I can. I think any number of ugly, unpleasant things, I'm plagued by a discordant, disturbing mishmash of non-cohesive patterns of internal life, most of them worn deep enoguh that the groove has gone smooth with time. This isn't, I don't think, because I'm deeply secretive - I try to fairly honest and forthcoming (not that I always have in my life). It's simply that writing about one's self naturally condenses identity into something cohesive. Maybe this is a sort of innate dishonesty, for my own benefit - I need to believe there is a self to build an identity around, instead of a raucous blend of things, most of which should be ignored or suppressed in order to function in the world. I don't know, I wonder sometimes if the feeling is more universal, if perhaps many or most of us have internal selves that stoke at a fire of contradictions.

There are two points to this. In some ways, it is a simple one: simply that knowing a person might tell us things about them we might not be glad we learned, and that we should, thus, take our knowing with a grain of salt - not becaus what we know is necessarily untrue, but because it is confusing to know a person intimately that way. The everyday has a way of bringing up the tics and highlighting them, leaving us blind, ironically, to the virtues of a person - which ironically intensifies the tics in our subject themselves, and declines the influence of virtue. Theory of PErsonality Relativity, I guess.

The other point, though, is I think it's interesting that the repulsive Barbara is, in fact, a writer herself - her manner of writingis not simply narrative, it's 'writerly' - complex, beautiful, very funny at times, poignant at others. She is not a diarist, but a novelist. And what's interesting about that to me is that she is making a novel of Sheba. The difference between the book and a real novel is simply that the ACTUAL author works so hard to see the machinations of the false author in producing the false account of the protagonist - we see, in essence, the making up of a hero from scratch, from the eyes of the novelist, without her explicit awareness of the revelation. Which makes one turn back for a moment to all the heroes in all the other novels they've seen created. Jane Eyre, for instance - it's difficult in a moment of clarity not to see how much Bronte needed her to be a hero. Or Stephen Dedalus. Or any of a thousand others. Authors write heroes, as often as not, because they need the validation of seeing someone else worship their illusions.

I don't mean this as a dig against literature - clearly I'm not opposed to Jane Eyre or Ulysses. I think that in truth of truths, though, there is no 'true portrait' of anyone. To make others feel for a character, one must describe the character artfully, art implies passion, and passion, by definition, precludes dispassionate honesty. I'm not sure it's even really a 'warning' per se. In some sense, I will admit, I believe that this lack of clarity is wonderful, because when you really look at a person, you're not looking for a catalog of their attributes - a catalog of attributes, after all, is the whole problem with knowing someone to intimately. You're looking for a story, for someone to connect little cohesive webs that let you wrap your mind around a person. Those webs can't be complete images of a person, of course - a person is made of the paints the web stretches between, not of the threads that you actually see. But something like the way an artist will use a color that is absent in nature to produce an illusion that's realistic, this sort of skewed portrayal can be far more 'honest', in some senses, than a clinical description

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Ulysses (10:30, St. Patrick's Day)

It's late in the evening of St. Patrick's. What a strange holiday it is, here in the states! I was at work today, and heard a tongue in cheek conversation in which someone stated that they don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, because they don't drink, and someone else who followed up by saying they didn't understand why we celebrated St. Patrick's anyway - why not just have a 'British People Day'? (a slight shudder chased my spine for the Irish of the world on that one) I don't know why we do - or I do know why we STARTED to, but let's start there.

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day in America is actually very old, in some ways - all the way to George Washington, in fact. In 1780, on St. Patrick's, Washington gave all his troops a holiday, in solidarity with the Irish, who struggled for freedom in much the same way, even against the same imperial power (it probably helped, as well, that a good sized contingent of his troops were of Irish extraction). The holiday pops up here and there in American history afterwards. It doesn't become the great spectacle we know today until the age of immigration - the St Patrick's Parade in New York, for instnace, began before the First World War, and even then was traceable back to the celebrations of the regiments of Irish cannon fodder that fought in the Union army during the Civil War (for a chilling image of that particular aspect of Irish history, I recommend some of the scenes from 'Gangs of New York', a film full of strange and disturbing visuals). It's interesting, because the holiday didn't become a national holiday in Ireland itself until 1905. In part, of course, this was simply because Ireland was still a colony of Great Britain (colony, protectorate, whatever, call it what you will), and displays of Irish patriotism were frankly frowned upon. 

In part I think there is more to it than that - the Irish in New York were an interesting sort of immigrant, in many ways like, say, a Palestinian today. The Irish were refugees, nominal citizens of a nation that treated them as either amusing comics or terrifying beasts - Catholics in Ireland were, until the 19th century, not even allowed to learn to read and write. So where, say, a German immigrant had chosen to leave his nation behind, the Irish immigrants to America were still looking for their country - not for America, but for Ireland. Sinn Fein and other Irish revolutionary bodies had considerable financial backing from American Irish, and much of their leadership ended up New York for extended periods of time. So the Irish, in many ways, found Ireland wherever they went - and there thick cultural cohesivity showed this. 

In good and bad ways. The reputation for St. Patrick's now as a drunken revel with no religious or cultural significance whatsoever is, in most of the states, not entirely undeserved. The only Irish products most Americans come into contact with, now, or Bushmills, Baileys, Jamesons, and Guinness. The only Irish stories they know are vague, highly distorted versions of the Leprachaun - a story which, in Ireland, was never even terribly significant really. This is completely acceptable in most of our minds, and jokes about Irish culture as being essentially concerned with alcohol are common and well-accepted - amongst those of Irish extraction even. Guinness puts up signs every year saying 'On March 17th, everyone is Irish', and that's not because they're encouraging people to read Lady Gregory. 

I finished James Joyce's Ulysses today. Joyce himself was not shy about pointing about the more irritating edges of Irish culture. Drinking, in fact, is not a small part of Ulysses, and in Finnegan's Wake, Whisky is elevated to it's celtic etymological roots: usquebaugh, literally the 'water of life. Joyce, in fact, exiled himself from Ireland in large part because of his frustration with it's culture, and said many rather unpleasant things about Ireland over the years. At the same time, I mentioned in my review of Finnegan's Wake last year, I had a friend at Pearson who was born in Dublin, and she read Ulysses because it felt so much like home. In a sense, this is the forgotten context of St. Patrick's, and perhaps, in some little ways, it's redeeming message (I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Mardi Gras feels for New Orleansers) - that yes, there is a lot of faults in a culture, any culture, but that's because it's human - to make a holiday that only celebrates an idealized, sanitized vision of identity is just as pointless. You can do either on St. Patricks, you can elegize Ireland, or treat it as an excuse to get drunk and tell dirty limericks. Either will get you a host of sympathizers. And Ireland - or what we call Ireland, which is much more, and much less, than a country, is both of these things.

I am somewhat infamous for being dubious of holidays. But, I suppose, more than anything, this is what I learned from Joyce this time around - that Ulysses, like the real, three dimensional mundanity of every-day life that it seeks to enshrine, is messy. It is neither one thing or the other, it doesn't come to any conclusions. Real life doesn't have tidy stories and pretty characters - it has people. Which is so wonderful, and so terrible all at the same time. Real history does not have heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. The sublime is ridiculous, but it's still sacred. The ribald is fun in the most wonderful, needful way, but it's also self-indulgetnt and ugly. Holidays are the same way - we mean them to celebrate these beautiful, grand ideas, btu they don't - in spite of us, they celebrate us exactly as we are. In some ways, that's very sad, and ugly. But in some ways - why celebrate angels that don't exist? Human beings are messy, but they're so, so beautiful.

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Happy Birthday, Amanda!

Today is my favorite person's birthday! We actually alll really wanted pizza yesterday, so we did a party and presents a WEE bit early, but still - HAPPY BIRTHDAY AMANDA! Go visit her over at the Zen Leaf and wish her a happy birthday.

Otherwise, sorry to have been missing the last two weeks. Will start catching up tomorrow if possible.

Happy Birthday, jewel of my heart! :)

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Human Dignity in Joyce's Ulysses

More than one description of Joyce - and particularly the one I'm reading by Declan Kiberd - focus on Ulysses as a glorification of the human spirit, a sort of paean to real people in parallel to the paeans to idealized men that were to be found in books like, well, The Odyssey. (One could have some strong words of difference about whether Odysseus is an idealized man, of course. Perhaps that's the point). Stephen is a normal man attempting to be an idealized man, and in many way, Bloom is simply a normal man trying to be what he is.

This sort of story is a difficult one to grapple on to, of course. IT is, in many ways, the biggest sacrilege in the book - our culture, through a thousand ways, builds itself around the idea that all of us should be struggling to move up from our current position. This is the definition of the American dream, and while slightly different historically, was certainly at least the stuff of fairy tales. Great souls rise above their circumstances, the words say, and become great through sheer force of will. I don't necessarily disagree with this, I do sometimes wonder at the teaching that is inextricably attached as a verso - that those who do not struggle towards our, frankly narrow, definition greatness have failed, wasted their lives. Normalcy is mediocrity - or in an odd,  twist of fate, even sub-normalcy. People who are not 'smart' are 'stupid'. People who are not 'driven' are 'lazy'.

I don't think this is the disease, per se, I think, rather, that it is a symptom. I don't know that Bloom (or necessarily even Joyce?) would agree, but reading sections four through six, where Bloom is introduced, the power he has in my eyes is that he is never struggling for primacy. The person who need not struggle for greatness is a pretty common trope, but usually this is on, say, the Mr. Miyagi vein of heroism : one has attained such mastery that struggle is no longer necessary (I will interject here as a side note that I remain dubious that this state exists in real life). Bloom, on the other hand, simply seems apart from greatness - he sees people struggling for it, just as he sees, say religion, but in both cases, he simply watches from afar. I find this, in my own brain, inconceivable, but I so WISH I didn't.

In a sense, though, this is also the troubling aspect of Joyce - Bloom is, decidedly, not great. He is not an ideal (I think Kiberd sometimes wishes to make him one, but I think Joyce is fairly realistic about his heroes limitations). This is both the horrifying and fascinating side of Joyce. Modern stories I have read frequently have these nasty, grey-moraled heroes, but one is supposed to either bitterly accept that this is the best we can get, or roll our eyes at the awful people that sit behind the masks we worship, or simply to laugh at the vanity of human pursuit of greatness. With Joyce, there is no irony, really, in his Bloom. Bloom is, simply, who he is. And so when Joyce makes him the hero of the novel, and plots his life as a parallel of the Odyssey, it's not to mock the Odyssey, and it's not to mock Bloom. Bloom is the bona fide hero. Which puts me, as a reader in an uncomfortable position. I want to, at some level, force Bloom to start 'acting heroic', I want to have a reason to admire him. And then, I'm reminded, this is the HARD work, this is the work of actually looking to discover what basic human dignity is. It's very easy to find dignity in the classic hero (though sometimes easy to find flaws as well). I would argue that it is often even fairly easy to find dignity in the extremes that are held up as the laboratories of dignity: poverty has a rich, powerful dignity much like heroism, even crime can have dignity. Homeless people in dire suffering or starving masses in third world countries, we have learned as a society, by and large, to look for dignity here (though not necessarily to do anyhting about it, sadly, or to go looking for it).  But normal, bourgeois humanity, the lifeblood of most of our day to day interactions, we have been taught is low, callous, cultureless, personalityless. A middle class advertising man in early 19th century Dublin had the same totemic soullessness in some ways that a suburban soccer mom has in a hip, trendy book today. And we ARE in love with talking about the soullessness of 'normal' people - American Beauty, the middle section of The Hours, Pleasantville, even kid's movies like Over the Hedge make no bones about making this broad generalization, for instance.

But, that's just it - this is the sort of person Bloom is, on the outside (and in some ways, inside) level - a completely unromantic hero, undistinguished, unspecial, unimportant. If he were alive today, he'd work a vaguely roled job in HR or Marketing, maybe lower middle management in some soulless corporation (see how easy it is to say that?) and live in a little McHouse in the burbs of a mid-sized city, sometimes going in to see a show, but mostly just (somewhat awkwardly) talking to his fellows about the latest action flick, ogling girls at the office, and driving his SUV home at the end of the day. But, none of this makes him less human (even though I do love movies like the middle section of the Hours, and think there's a lesson there, too). None of this makes him less deserving of human dignity - and he does not have to break that mold to merit dignity. The protagonist in 'Fight Club' is a human being, and deserves our respect as such -- but so did his boss, or the spineless coworkers he left behind (Fight Club, in some ways (and I think in some ways purposefully) actually has a great deal to say about this demonization of the mundane).

And this is what's troubling. This is what, at some level, is the deeper part of the complaints about having to read a scene where he's sitting down for his morning poop, or worrying about the soap that he left in his hip pocket that's jabbing into him, while simultaneously not wanting to be seen moving it. Yes, these things are ridiculous. They're also part of what being human is. But it's harder than one would expect to keep that in mind while reading. At least for me - hey, I was raised on Victor Hugo, remember?

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Happy Valentine's Day

So, I love my wife, and it's Valentine's Day. And I thought, man, what should I post? It's very hard to know. I mean I could have serenaded her, but all the songs I know are musicals, and Amanda doesn't like them. I could write a poem? Sometimes that can turn out bad. And my poems can have a mixed message in them, I'm afraid...

Maybe I could enlist the help of the Lord of the Underworld?

No... no, that's a really bad idea.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proteus Chapter of Ulysses

Before I get into this post, oh my friends, I must apologize ahead of time. I'm currently reading three different books: Ulysses, Ulysses Annotated (a book of annotations on the text of Ulysses), and Ulysses and Us (a book discussing why and how Ulysses is intended for the common man, instead of intellectual highbrows) I blame this on my friends who have organized Jousting With Joyce this month. But I'm having a LOT of fun. I read the book a few years ago, and I will not link to the review - it was so awful that it's the only review I've ever actually gone back and deleted content from. But I'm understanding it much better the second time. So, the short of it is: for the next month and a half, much of this channel will be devoted to Ulysses. Which I know makes some of us cringe in terror or hatred. So, I'm sorry.
But that's just the way it is.

So, before we began the book, Jill over at Fizzy Thoughts mentioned something interesting about chapter 3 of Ulysses, a chapter which Joyce titled, after the fact, Proteus - namely that this is the chapter that most people turn away at and never finish the book. And I will confess now, the first time I read Ulysses, this chapter took me, I kid you not, a month and a half. For fifteen pages. And I didn't understand a thing in it.

Well, that's not really true. I did understand something: I understood that the chapter was in stream of consciousness, and that the consciousness being streamed was confusing and... eh... just a little obnoxious. Pretentious, snotty, and a little full of itself.  Declan Kiberd in Ulysses and Us admits this up front:
Many readers drop Ulysses at this point, finding themselves unable to keep up with Stephen's remorseless and obscure pedantry...
Yeah, that pretty much gives my initial feeling of the chapter. It's what he says afterwards that really captures how I felt reading it the second time:
...but the truth is that Joyce is laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was. Nobody could understand all that Stephen says or thinks. Nobody could take all of his ideas with utter seriousness. 
No, seriously. The closing words of the chapter, dramatic and stirring:
Behind. Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.
The 'behind, perhaps there is someone'? It's because Stephen just picked his nose and wiped it on a rock because he doesn't have a handkerchief, and he's afraid someone may have caught him at it.  So, he looks over his shoulder, to see the great silent ship, deep and powerful symbol of the child Telemachus waiting for a father to come home who he has never met, silent and forboding, is all because he didn't want someone to catch him picking his nose.

This may seem facetious, or pretentious in and of itself, to write some grand sweeping complex chapter that is essentially about a stupid college kid wandering along the beach and killing time for an hour. Maybe it is, but I don't think so. It would have been much easier to just write a snarky satire of a chapter, talking about how stupid college kids are. The power of James Joyce is that he doesn't do this - instead he simply records what it feels like to be that person. There are parts of the mind that just find this bewildering, or course, let me address that first. In some sense, like Kiberd said, it is meant to be confusing. Part of Stephen's problem is his education. If you took this chapter apart, probably half of it would be a quote, an allusion, a lampoon, or a paraphrase of the words of someone else, and Joyce argues (in a different way in the previous chapter) that education, sometimes, aims for htis goal: to make people who are good at spouting at the correct bit of information at the correct time. It's a problem that is different now from Joyce's time, where rote learning was a huge measure of academic prowess, but it is a bigger problem now, perhaps, in our time when education's purpose has been narrowed to the point where it's largely presented as nothing more than a way to ensure you get a good job someday. Even so, though, part of the problem is, I would argue, intrinsic to this sort of free association thought. Some of the things in Stephen's mind are not academic esoterica: there's lyrics to pub ditties and popular songs, there's references to Hamlet in plenty, which isn't exactly obscure, there's references to the CAtholic Mass, which most of the people around Stephen would have been intimately familiar with. The problem is, anytime you enter someone else's mind, you will find that there are places foreign to you. This is perhaps amplified by the difference in time and space between Stephen and us, and by the differences in our respective educations. But at the same time I think it's partly simply the uncrossable chasm between two souls, the fact that we can peek inside someone else's head, but never truly climb in.

Apart from the bewildering nature of Stephen's head, though, there is the pretentiousness of it. And make no mistake, it is a chapter, stuffed to the gills, with pretentious. It is very easy to dislike Stephen, here. But at the same time, I don't think that is Joyce's point - in fact, I think it says a lot about us as readers, willing to seek out clues about whether to like or dislike a person so easily. Every person is a person at some level. Stephen is  young, he makes mistakes, he can be annoying, but he's a person, and in the midst of all his wandering, there are some real, powerful, and beautiful emotions. The problem is that he does not how to pick them out of the mire. He doesn't realize that as much of the beauty comes in the 'low' as the 'high' parts of his thought, that his work scribbling a poem is far less powerful and human than his yearning for someone to love him as he thinks about the shopgirl he saw the day before, or the brooding loneliness he feels as he watches the dog running along the beach. Stephen is, simply, who he is. One may dislike him, but to hate him, that takes a special force. It is easy for me to hate some characters, because there are characters. I would present that authors construct them so that they can be hated or loved, as often as not. But Stephen is not a character in the same sense - to hate him is to hate a human - a ficitonal one, yes, but we do not have the luxury in Ulysses of having simlpy a hateable side of a person before us. If we are to love or hate anyone in Ulysses, we must hate them the way we would hate another person - which reflects and teaches the reader something about how it is that they really DO love and hate, teaches them where the line lies for them.

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America and Democray: 1850 and 2010

The last week of listening to the popular uprisings in Egypt has been deeply stirring for me. As a very uneducated but passionate historian of sorts, revolution has always drawn me to it: the Russian, the French, the American, the Haitian, even the English Civil War, in a different sort of way. There is something to a people being stirred up into something that rash that makes me feel a sort of clumsy kinship.

I've also been listening to a very intriguing book: Clotel, or The President's Daughter. Published before the Civil War in London, Clotel is usually considered the first novel by an African American, and as one would expect for it's time, it's an abolitionist polemic, following the life of a woman and her two daughters (and eventual granddaughter), whom were sired by Thomas Jefferson (just the daughters. This isn't THAT kind of book). And reading this book has made me very troubled, because it tells a great deal about America. 

Thomas Jefferson, in particular is a man of deep and powerful contradictions. On the one hand he was a slave owner who did, in fact, sire children with his chattel mistress. On the other hand he not only codified the idealistic "all men are created equal", he also gave a number of very stirring speeches denouncing slavery as a crime against liberty.

It is perhaps Jefferson's most famous quote on slavery, however, that really shows where these contradictions come from. In discussing slavery, he said:
"But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
In essence, said Jefferson, we cannot let the slaves go, because we need them to be slaves, even if that's wrong. The tragedy of this statement, of course, is that it is so easy to say when you live in a home where your luxury is made possible by the hands that you keep enslaved beneath you. Perhaps, Jefferson would argue, he was a good master and treated his slaves as best he could, but then if one had told him that George had meant to be a virtuous king this would have made nary a different in whether he was a tyrant. Keeping slavery extant for another 80 years after the Revolution - and turning a blind eye to what amounted often to de facto slavery for African American through much of the rest of American history - is not morally justifiable, it's simply politically and economically expedient.

Take a look, now, at our situation today. The biggest recipients of American foreign aid (at least the last time I heard the statistics) are: Israel, and Egypt. Egypt, in large part, because it maintains an alliance with Israel. This is a debatable policy, in and of itself, but even more troubling when one considers that through most of the time in which we gave this aid, we gave it to the government of a despotic dictator. A few years ago, when we went to war in Iraq, there were three basic purposes floated for the war: to prevent Saddam Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction, to destroy a base for Al Qaida and other militant terrorist groups, and to spread democracy in the Middle East. The first two of these reasons have been more or less debunked - Hussein didn't have any real weapons development anymore, and being a secularist, Al-Qaida was none too fond of Hussein. The third... is a trickier wicket. If we WERE, then, fighting an entire war to spread democracy, assert that human beings have an inalienable right to self-determination, then why is our response to Egypt so muted as a government? Shouldn't this be a moment for celebration, and for assisting our like-minded brothers and sisters? For using the ENORMOUS levers we have in Egypt - our foreign aid, for instance - to help those who are fighting for the cause of liberty?

Instead, our government is troubled, because when democracy DOES emerge, it's almost guaranteed that a considerable mass of the Egyptian people will vote for an Islamist party, changing the chemistry of our relationships in the region. Islamist parties are, generally, not terrifically fond of the United States, or of our ally, Israel. And after all, we have every right to look after our own interests. We cannot continue to work for good in the world if we lose the position we have in the world, now, can we?

Take a step back, for a moment, to the abolitionists. There was considerable breadth and variety in the abolitionist movement, but a significant portion of the movement was directly inspired by a fiery, fundamentalist Christian doctrine, one which, quite frankly, made government uncomfortable. Abolitionists, in fact, were not only frequently seen as terrorists, but did, in fact, commit acts that we would now consider terrorism: John Brown's raid, for instance, or the fighting funded in Bloody Kansas. Do I think this was right? I don't know. I cannot say. I can't damn them for it. Violence is awful, bloody, horrible stuff. But then, so was the violence being enacted on 6 million black men women and children. Was the plight of those people less cause for revolt than the plight of the Americans in 1776, who suffered from being overtaxed? I don't mean to trivialize the Revolutionary war, but not being able to send a representative to the parliament isn't quite the same as being a slave.

Which brings one back to today. Are the people of Egypt influenced by Islam? Certainly. Is the Muslim Brotherhood and it's Islamist agenda one of the inspirations for these protests. More than likely. But to argue that the people of Egypt should keep their dictator, or change on his timetable, is to argue that government is best when it is 'of the people, by the people, for the people, unless the people do not want what we think we should', which isn't a terribly moral high ground to take. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, could very bad things happen? Perhaps - although I think that this is partly just xenophobia. One is reminded of the French Revolution, when an angry and miserable French people let themselves be let into the monstrosities of the Reign of Terror. At the same time, it's worth mentioning that the French were isolated by all of the rest of the nations of Europe, an action that probably had a good deal to do with why the people were willing to turn to such savage shepherds.

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