Ray Davis, Editor & Publisher

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. . . 2001-09-22

Despite the FBI's early report that none of the email messages they've found were encrypted, a majority of recent survey-takers somehow got the impression that legal restrictions on encryption would have prevented last week's hijackings.

I don't get it. If the hijackers weren't under surveillance (and I've seen nothing to indicate that they were), it doesn't matter how they communicated with each other -- encrypted text over the Internet, coded letters by courier, scrambled phone calls, postcards in Farsi, get-togethers over a latte grande at Starbucks.... There's no way that government authorities could've learned about their plans without first knowing that these were the guys who needed watching.

How do you figure out which guys to watch (aside from the telltale turbans, of course)? Terrorist actions are largely funded by spendthrift millionaires, so one obvious (if not foolproof) way is to follow the money. Unfortunately, our national corporate guardians become uncharacteristically concerned with civil liberties when it comes to money laundering. No one wants that "October Surprise" business brought up again, especially once the statute of limitations is eliminated!

. . . 2001-09-24


A treasured tipped cow responds:

Hey! You took down the title image! I loved that image. Aw, man...
... and then goes on to add:
  • kitten+porn+FAQ
  • "gay jesus theatre" + "kentucky moonshine"
  • i+am+strong,+but+i+love+flowers
Well, that particular branch of the Hotsy Totsy Club was located on 42nd Street, and is closed for the duration.

And in general I just haven't had that hotsy-totsy feeling lately.

Fig. 1: Something missing
Son of Paleface
"... Got a hotsy-totsy feeling..."

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Fig. 2: Dhalgren first edition (detail)
"to wound the autumnal city."
  I obtained the domain name "" in August, planning to rename this log accordingly after moving to a new site host.

In Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, the city's newspaper of record is the "Bellona Times": the vanity publishing venture of an arbitrary and eccentric megalomaniac. And, although another Delany novel, Trouble on Triton, is set in a different city also named "Bellona," that was pretty much it as far as the reference went.

But instead it's become another one of those coincidences that look so eery to us now and will look so trivial in the future.

Bellona was the Roman goddess of war.

And Dhalgren's Bellona is a city full of fire and wreckage and ashes, of catastrophe's leavings and rumors of catastrophe -- the familiar recurrent nightmares of late 1960s urban life, assassinations and rioting, but also this, which always seemed oddly out of place:

Someone was shouting, among others shouting: "You hear them planes? You hear all them planes?" (It couldn't have been planes.) "Them planes are awfully low! They gonna crash! You hear --" at which point the building face across the street cracked, all up and down, and bellied out so slow I wondered how....
And so forth.

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All these calls for us to choose which side you're on....

For starters, we can probably agree that in an emergency one should work to save people.

If not that (or after that), then one should witness. (And, clicking to one shut-down site after another, I only now realize that I should've been mirroring all these witnesses from the start, rather than letting them be silenced by their ISPs' inflexible contracts and our insatiable hunger for witness: a new social obligation to keep in mind, like attacking hijackers en masse.)
[Reaching back for role models to the USA's last fully justified military action, there's the active witnessing of Bill Mauldin or Ernie Pyle...]

If one has nothing to witness and no expertise to offer, one might as well deal with one's own despair as quietly as possible and continue with one's existing duties as effectively as possible.
[... the enduringly humane, determinedly oblique paths of E. B. White and George Herriman, as opposed to the brayings of Hearst's and Harper's forgotten editorializers...]

Repugnant -- but probably harmless except as example -- is to treat that evil as an opportunity for shoring up one's own fatuity. For example, perennial Profile-in-Repellence John Updike progressing at the speed of castor oil from "I wonder if what I do is really worthwhile?" through "Why, of course it's worthwhile!" to "Say, I bet I can get a honey of an essay out of this."

Downright vicious is to seize upon a great evil to advance one's own agenda and career, to judge and exhort without knowledge or risk, to profiteer literally or figuratively -- the low path of the professional politician, the professional pundit, and the professional zealot.

Those who correspondingly fight such viciousness play an unsavory but necessary role.

Disheartening when not numbing -- but otherwise rarely worthy of notice -- is weakness before the temptation of fallacious "engagement": the inability to turn away when one can neither act or witness. For natural joiners, such weakness might be expressed in flag-waving (whether red-white-and-blue or rainbow) and "FUCK BIN LADEN" or "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE" T-shirts and tuneless warbling of Kate Smith or John Lennon hits, while the natural non-joiners will instead be heard carping and nattering to themselves like so many nervous rodents.

For myself, when not pressed side-down against the silent velvety muck of dead bottom, I've stayed bobbing around that very low level of discourse. And I'm not at all proud of having added my dim lights to what Paul Ford correctly calls "a pinpoint of triteness."

But, see, I can't think through anything without speaking or writing it out. And politics and media -- the news that doesn't stay news -- are pretty much everything I've been able to think about since the 11th. (If you think what's here is depressingly pointless, you should see the thousands of words I couldn't bring myself to post.)

I hope other -- less important and thus more useful -- concerns will re-insinuate themselves soon.

+ + +

Meanwhile, some excellent object lessons in how not to handle transitions between the urgent and the mundane are being provided by the East Bay Express. (For those outside the area, the Express is a even dumber, even uglier sibling of the SF Weekly. Way back in olden times, when Dave Eggers was just a lousy cartoonist, the SF Weekly and East Bay Express were separate, independent, free weeklies. Then free-weekly-conglomorate New Times bought the SF Weekly, dropped most of its strongest points, inflated most of its weakest, and otherwise New-Times-ized it. And just this year, New Times went on to do pretty much the same to the East Bay Express, which, being a slightly weaker paper to begin with, now plays UPN to the Weekly's WB. I can't imagine why they bothered -- they'd already inundated the East Bay with SF Weekly boxes -- unless for the sadistic pleasure of firing Lynda Barry one more time....)

This week's letters pages were filled with long angry reactions to last week's cover, which showed the late Judi Bari wearing an "Earth First!" T-shirt and holding an Uzi ("The article is a wretched, wretched mess"), closed off by the following:


Last week's cover story ("The Unsolved Mysteries of Judi Bari") misidentified Brian Willson as a former Beach Boy. The Brian Willson that Judi Bari was referring to is a peace activist who had both his legs severed by a train during a protest.

While this week's cover manages to be even more tasteless:

Fig. 3: East Bay Express, Sept. 19
Best of the East Bay

(On "Page 9," by the way, the reader will find only an editorial -- not even a "Long-Time Berkeley Resident Feared Missing" headline.)

. . . 2001-09-27

Dashiell Hammett: tubercular veteran of two world wars, political target
I started thinking about the following topic while reading Dashiell Hammett's letters a month or two ago, back when I was one of the only people I knew who would've described themselves as "patriotic."

Nowadays there's a lot more of that going around, but it still seems worth bringing up. Flag-waving (link via Electrolite) is an easy and transient exercise; worthier of scrutiny are less strictly symbolic acts, such as legislation. Our current national leaders have a history of opportunism, and they've been handed a splendid opportunity.

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No one's really bothered to pick it up yet, but over the past two decades, right-wing Republicans have had to discard what used to be one of their favorite political weapons: patriotism. (A narrow form of xenophobia is still wielded in especially racist states such as California, but America, being a nation of immigrants, doesn't lend itself to ethnically-based nationalism.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Republicans were able to push the patriotism button pretty heavily. Left-of-liberals muddied domestic waters by dopey idealization of the Soviet Union or China, southern Democrats still saluted nothing but Dixie, and opposition to government involvement in Vietnam easily slued into attacks on the military itself.

Well, there are essentially no more left-of-liberals, no one outside the executive suite has much good to say for China, the military budget has been devoted to frivolous weapons research while ignoring personnel, and the dominant wing of the Republican party doesn't have a red, white, and blue pot to piss in.

Reaganesque anti-federal propaganda brought a plague of do-nothings who move into political office on corporate support, interfere with or dismantle useful services, re-route tax money to corporations, and then move back into cushy corporate positions. (I might not exactly enjoy the thought of sewage, but that doesn't make me want to hire a high-priced plumber to remove all the pipes.) Their allegiances are pledged to two special interest groups:

  1. Global corporations, who are dedicated by law to the profits of their shareholders and by inclination to the financial security of their upper management. Legally speaking, nothing else can be allowed to take precedence. A corporation cannot afford to instead emphasize, for example, scrupulous service -- which is why, for example, you wouldn't want one to be responsible for your health care. And certainly it can't afford to consider the good of the nation. That's why it's global, right? Corporations maximize profits by taking jobs away from American citizens and by taking taxes away from the American government. They have no interest in improving American life or in defending American freedoms.

  2. Fundamentalist demagogues, who, like fundamentalist demagogues elsewhere in the world, are avowed enemies of the secular democracy set up by the Constitution of the United States and avowed proponents of its replacement by rule of their interpretation of their sacred texts. Frequently supporters of domestic terrorism (although I assume Ashcroft is trying to ensure that bombing birth control clinics and murdering doctors won't fall under his expanded definition of the term), they're one step away from being traitors, and often seem none too particular about that step.
Republican leaders idealize only (their) money and (their) church. They have no workable concept of country.

"Big-spending" "bleeding-heart" liberals, by definition, believe that the American system of government is good and capable, that the American people are worthy of defense and respect, and that America can be both a haven and a promise of limitless possibilities. That gives them access to a heap of rhetorical tools that've proven very useful in the past, and which might as well get used.

. . . 2001-09-28

Henry Adams responds to yesterday's buried-in-FDR's-clenched-jaws pipe dream, via his 1870 essay, "The New York Gold Conspiracy":

"Nevertheless, sooner or later the last traces of the disturbing influence of war... will disappear in America, as they have sooner or later disappeared in every other country which has passed through the same evils.... Yet though the regular process of development may be depended upon, in its ordinary and established course, to purge American society of the worst agents of an exceptionally corrupt time, the history of the Erie corporation offers one point in regard to which modern society everywhere is directly interested. For the first time since the creation of these enormous corporate bodies, one of them has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than the Erie -- swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of private citizens, controlled by single men like Vanderbilt, or by combinations of men like Fisk, Gould, and Lane, after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption -- will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporations, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law, -- and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute central government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape, and thus destroy the limits of its power only in order to make corruption omnipotent. Nor is this danger confined to America alone. The corporation is in its nature a threat against the popular institutions spreading so rapidly over the whole world. Wherever a popular and limited government exists this difficulty will be found in its path; and unless some satisfactory solution of the problem can be reached, popular institutions may yet find their existence endangered."

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Speaking of Henry Adams, please welcome the latest addition to the Bellona Times Repress. By way of introduction:

The book variously titled in its two small self-published editions Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, or Memoirs of Arii Taimai was a collaboration between the American historian Henry Adams and two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai (positioned as the first-person narrator of the work) and her daughter, Marau Taaroa.

After his wife's suicide in December 1885, Adams lost himself in the massive job of finishing his history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. After it was done, he came close to losing himself in nothing at all.

In 1890, he set out with a friend, the fashionable painter John La Farge, for an indefinite voyage into the Pacific. His purported list of goals included tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King's example and falling madly in lust with exotic nekkid native girls, and attaining Enlightenment.

John La Farge, "Afterglow, Tautira river," 1891
Henry Adams, "Afterglow in the Tautira valley," 1891

Predictably, all these pseudo-hopes were frustrated: the durian was a "shameful disgrace to humanity" (although the mango and mangosteen comforted), and intellectual bemusement ran stronger than either bodily or spiritual lust. But the unspoken purpose -- to somehow re-learn survival -- was gained: Adams started the trip in an almost catatonic depression and ended it sparkling with bitches and moans in high pissant form.

During the travellers' five months in Tahiti, Adams grew bored with passive tourism:

Lovely as it is, it gets on my nerves at last -- this eternal charm of middle-aged melancholy. If I could only paint it, or express it in poetry or prose, or do anything with it, or even shake it out of its exasperating repose, the feeling would be a pleasant one, and I should fall in love with the very wrinkles of my venerable and spiritual Taïtian grandmother; but when one has nothing else to look at, one rebels at being forever smiled upon by a grandmother whose complexion is absolutely divine, and whose attitude indicates the highest breeding, while she suggests no end of charm of conversation, yet refuses to do anything but smile in a sort of sad way that may mean much or mean nothing. Either she or I come near to being a fool.
After searching the coral reef for confirmation or refutation of Darwin, he became close friends with the family of "the last Queen of Tahiti," Marau Taaroa:
... she is greatly interested in Taïti history, poetry, legends and traditions, and as for ghost-stories, she tells them by the hour with evident belief.... She always seems to me to be quite capable of doing anything strange, out of abstraction; as she might mistake me for her small child, and sling me on her arm without noticing the difference, such as it is, in size.
... and especially attached to Arii Tamai, described in an early letter as "the hereditary chiefess of the Tevas, the grandest dame in Tahiti, the widow of Salmon, the London Jew." (The psychologically speculative might wonder whether Adams was attracted by the contrast between her warm-heartedness and the frankly cold aggression of his own family of faded nation-rulers.) On May 10, 1891, he wrote:
By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook's time.
And a week later:
Luckily I am rather amused and occupied. My "Memoirs of Marau, Queen of Tahiti" give me a sort of excuse for doing nothing. Whenever Marau comes to town, I get from her a lot of notes, which I understand very little, and she not much; then I write them out; then find they are all wrong; then dispute with her till she becomes energetic and goes as far as the next room to ask her mother. The dear old lady has been quite unwell. The other evening I was taken in to see her, and found her sitting on her mat on an inner verandah. When I sat down beside her, she drew me to her and kissed me so affectionately that the tears stood in my eyes.... La Farge is not in love with her as I am; he takes more to Marau and the girls; but I think the Hinarii is worth them all.
At the beginning of June:
Marau is to go on with her memoirs, and send them to Washington. So she says, with her ferocious air of determination, half Tahitian and half Hebrew; and if she keeps her word, I shall have a little occupation which will amuse you too, for I have begged her to put in all the scandal she can, and the devil knows that she can put in plenty.
And on leaving Tahiti a few days later:
... we had a gay breakfast; but I cared much less for the gaiety than I did for the parting with the dear old lady, who kissed me on both cheeks -- after all, she is barely seventy, va! -- and made us a little speech, with such dignity and feeling, that though it was in native, and I did not understand a word of it, I quite broke down. I shall never see her again, but I have learned from her what the archaic woman was. If Marau only completes the memoirs, you will see; and I left Marau dead bent on doing it.
The work did continue after Adams's return to America -- part of a letter from December 1892 survives in which Adams presses Marau at scholarly length on dozens of points of genealogy and geography -- finally achieving what would be its final form in a privately printed edition of 1901.

It's a decidedly odd form, certainly not the personal memoirs originally described: Marau shows up not at all, and the supposed narrator has turned into Arii Tamai. The mix of scholarly history, ethnographic reportage, and primary source material hasn't been worked into a organic voice or structure.

The book wouldn't make a good introduction to Henry Adams, then. But as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island's annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between "civilized" and "primitive" cultures, it deserves wider access than it's attained to date.

Tahiti - Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams

. . . 2001-09-29


It's hard to be sure with something so completely content-free, but my guess is that the SF Examiner's front-page editorializer is struggling towards something like the righteous anger of Christopher Hitchens and reasonable colleagues like Brain Dump, who in turn are responding to the righteous anger of Noam Chomsky and reasonable colleagues like Ethel.

Since none of those involved in the dispute have any political influence, I can only imagine that its heat results from the continued absence of more clearly useful targets for our hostility. And some of it, I think, is due to a confusion instilled early on by -- what else? -- TV coverage, whose second most-looped footage was that of some cheery Palestinians. I'm not disputing the footage's authenticity, but it's a shame that it got stuck on repeat and that it wasn't put into any context. If it had been treated in accordance with the actual power wielded by those it depicted, it would've been shown once then shelved, unless someone later on decided to compare-and-contrast with American frat boy celebrations during the Gulf Wars....

Instead we saw explosions; cheery Palestinians; explosions; cheery Palestinians.... With no one taking credit for the hijackings, the impression was imprinted early on that these cheery Palestinians had somehow been responsible. Our enemies were no longer faceless!

Which is, of course, nonsense. But, intentionally or not, what the networks produced was effective propaganda: people reacted as if a nonsensical premise was true without even noticing its existence, and from newspapers, the net, and in-the-flesh individuals came a kneejerk response that the (celebrating) monsters deserved extermination.

So the rhetorical muddle continues: When the so-called "Blame America" crowd try to explain why "they" hate America, the "they" being talked about seem to have more in common with those briefly cheery Palestinians than with, say, bin Laden the billionaire's son. When the America-Blamer Blamers counter, they seem to be concentrating on those who likely engineered the hijackings. Plenty of insights from both camps, none of it contradictory once you red-pencil the inciting....

(Not that my opinion matters a jot, but personally I was surprised by how little America-hating went on worldwide after the attacks. Made me feel a little naive -- in a good way, like how my old Missouri cohorts might've felt watching the much-despised New Yorkers....)

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Essays We Never Bothered Finishing Dept.

Does anybody read James Thurber anymore? A New Yorker humorist from the first half of the century, he mostly wrote "casuals," short, curious, cranky, occasionally funny nonfiction bits -- literate bathroom reading -- that found a home in the magazine's Talk of the Town section. Collections of these brief, memoir-y things were best-sellers in their day, but like spindrift, they've proved too lightweight to settle and survive. Thurber's reputation rests on the strength of one sturdy little 1947 story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"....
- Taylor Antrim in the Bay Guardian's "Lit" section

It's weird but I actually do seem to remember James Thurber -- it's Taylor Antrim that I'm having trouble placing....

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2001 Ray Davis.