Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Critical Mom’s Summer Reading

  We are on a boat somewhere among Norwegian fjords—a ship with elevators, to be precise, but even in our little cabin on the ninth floor—whose only drawback is the loudspeaker we can’t turn off, so that as the captain announces in his booming voice that the ship will give us the best possible view of the “Seven Sisters” waterfall by making a three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn, thereby loudly interrupting our own three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shindig--we can feel the Atlantic rolling beneath, and yes, gently rocking us to sleep.   When not standing in the elevator answering questions like, “Daddy, Mommy, do you think it’s possible that some day, like maybe in twenty years, people might actually get paid to fart?” or having my sleeping face blown on by a child who “just wanted to show you something, Mommy!” or giving in to the urge to have that second (free!) piña colada, thereby succumbing to the hazy summery alcohol-and-sunny-breeze-on-a-deck-chair nap, the nicest kind, since children are occupied, I read.  And can highly recommend the following:

Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (Free Press, 2010).  I spotted this at the American Bookstore in Amsterdam and thought it would be perfect background for a course I intend to teach to university students in American Studies on madness memoirs (and why Americans write so many of them, my theory being that the seemingly endless production of such memoirs is spurred by Puritan self-examination, the sense of ourselves as building a city on a hill that everyone is always watching, which naturally makes us crazy already, plus the popularity of confession via Freudian psychoanalysis).  “Going Crazy in America” is the title of my course, and reading Watters, I see that Americans go crazy in a different way from the rest of the world, plus think they have the best cures, and like the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread, dispense those cures with the thoroughness and subtlety of crop dusters. 
What happens, for instance, when an American psychologist happens to vacation in Sri Lanka in 2004 during the Tsunami waves that wiped out hundreds of thousands of people, erasing land and property in the process?  That psychologist was clearly traumatized in a very Western way: seeing people run in advance of the wave and be overtaken and swept away, she said, “It was like you were watching these things from outside yourself.  I wasn’t really grasping what was going on.”
The American “I” took center stage in her own reactions and in those she prescribed—treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, American style, the idea being that each survivor should “come to terms” with his or her trauma by remembering and repeating each horrific detail in order to get over it—each sufferer should “express their feelings.”  What got overlooked was the cultural and religious beliefs that rendered the experience of the Sri Lankans communal, not individual, and these systems were disrupted by Western, and especially by American, ideas of individual suffering, vulnerability, and individual healing.
            Watters has gotten a few snippy reviews from psychiatrists on Amazon, and no wonder—he’s exposing psychiatric insensitivity to other cultures and the belief that America can be counted upon to offer superior psychiatric and psychological treatments.  But he’s extremely readable, his research seems impeccable, and his laconic air stays with you. His wife is a psychiatrist too . . .  I'm sure she sharpens his perspective.
Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (Norton, 2008)

Like your scholarship with sauce and a champagne-bubble humor that pops up on every page and especially in footnotes you actually long to read?  (“Oh, goody, another one of her footnotes,” I heard myself murmuring—to the discontent of the dour person in the deck chair next door, who edged away).  Or maybe it was just the constant peals of loud laughter coming from me every two minutes.
Mary Roach is the doyenne of the unusual, having written well-researched books on cadavers (Stiff), on ideas of the afterlife, (Spook) and now the funniest and most informative book about sex I’ve ever read.  (Better than Freud?  Better than Masters and Johnson?  Better than Kinsey? Yes, yes, yes!) 
Once upon a time I wrote a biography of a world-famous sexual rebel.  I love biographies, and thought it would be fun to do some reviews of other biographies, so I informed literary journals that I’d appreciate being signed on as a reviewer of biographies.  These journals don’t pay, of course, except for giving you the book you’ve got to review, and I just couldn’t wait to chow down on all those biographies I couldn’t afford to buy.
Well, you don’t get to review biographies when you write about world famous sexual rebels, no matter the strength of their literary work, the impact of their personality on history and culture, or the quality of your own prose.  You get to review books covering any and all forms of rebellious sexuality.  If it’s kinky, you get it.  I got histories of sexuality, autobiographies of transsexuals, tomes parsing transgressive gender identity, articles about horrible anti-masturbatory contraptions and about the infamous Isaac Baker Brown, slicer-offer of clitorises in 19th-century London . . . a gutful of the extreme.  Even stuff I’d never heard about, and more than a dollop of pathos and peculiarity.  But Mary Roach delivers even more, wearing her learning lightly—as the cover copy says: “her lab coat is unbuttoned,” literally:  in the interests of science, she talks her husband into having sex in an MRI tube, investigates cosmetic testicles for pets who have been neutered, visits Alfred Kinsey’s attic, and—but you’ll have to read it; I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of An Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003)
Here we have something Obama ought to be reading, if not re-reading.  Telling democrats to vote against restricting NSA powers?  Come on.  I prefer to think he’s delusional rather than bowing to the probability that he is defending his castle from the ramparts and shooting down anything that gets in his way.  Like Edward Snowden, whose current status, as far as I’ve been able to assess it in my internet-deprived condition, involves the possibility of his being traded by the U.S. for a Russian arms dealer—like a bad imitation of a scene from White Nights.  Back in the 1930s, an historian whom nobody remembers, but who did win the Pulitzer Prize, James Truslow Adams, wanted to title a book “The American Dream,” but his publisher thought nobody would buy it.  A pity, since Adams nailed a definition for this notoriously oblique term, so broad nowadays as to encompass any dream that is tenuously connected with the United States, including especially nightmares. Adams elaborated it as the dream of “a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank,” adding something of immense political significance today:  “Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it.”  (my italics) He further clarified in his 1931 The Epic of America: “not a struggle of revolutionists against the established order, but of the ordinary man to hold fast to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which were vouchsafed to us in the past in vision and on parchment.”
            I am among those believing that Snowden is the classic American underdog struggling against immense political and economic interests whose greedy goals undermine these classic liberties.  But that’s another story.
            The one Cullen outlines is the evolution of the term in response to various groups—the Puritans, who unwittingly spawned it, created a society believing in hope, specifically the hope of fulfilling some dream thought to be unfulfillable.  Cullen calls them “people who imagined a destiny for themselves,” similarly, what Alexis de Toqueville called “the charm of anticipated success,” by the 1830s.  This optimistic state of mind is the essence of the American dream.  In the twenty-first century it remains, Cullen believes, a “major element” of our national identity even as the notion of nation is increasingly challenged by transnational corporations, transnational economies, transnational immigration, and now transnational surveillance.  The Declaration of Independence, Cullen suggests, charters the dream, which takes different forms in each era.  Although upward mobility is the form that dominates up through Abraham Lincoln, the dream of equality, the dream of home ownership, and the dream of personal fulfillment, follow.  What all these forms of the dream rest on, he points out, is “the notion of agency, the idea that individuals have control over the course of their lives,” and in turn, “Agency is . . . the bedrock premise upon which all else depends.”   Lying here in the land of the midnight sun at the northernmost point in Europe, I wonder if we have even half a hope of retaining, or regaining, that agency.  If the dream began with folks who thought they did not have that agency and wanted a world in which you could take it for granted—the way Americans want to believe they can take “human rights” for granted—it would be an irony if it evaporates in the illusion that we still have that agency, when clearly, with PRISM and the curious stance of Obama in this mess, we don’t.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Will We Someday Celebrate Edward Snowden Day?

It remains unusual for a young man to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize while Michael Hayden, the former CIA director compares him to Benedict Arnold and darkly warns that this "betrayal" will become the costliest to American intelligence and American security:

Hayden overestimates Snowden's foresight, calling it arrogance, and underestimates his abilities, insisting that the contents of Snowden's laptop "must" have been harvested by the Russians and the Chinese.  

You mean the man who made it to Hong Kong and Moscow with the NSA in his pocket couldn't hide or destroy compromising data if he wanted to?

That's just the thing about which no one seems to be able to agree.

Jimmy Carter seems to be one of Snowden's supporters:

Dick Cheney wants him "hunted to the ends of the earth."  No surprises there.

A worst-case scenario says that Snowden's judgement is abysmal.  Alternatively, he's planned everything brilliantly, and the lengthy stopover in the Moscow airport is all going just as expected.

Or he's winging it while hoping to land on his feet as the good whistleblower.

Every time I Google Snowden, I find at least one journalist calling him "mind-bogglingly naïve" and another calling him a manipulative, Machiavellian so-and-so.

I am sure he is working for greater appreciation of privacy in a world of people who don't understand what the loss of privacy means.

A Russian friend is sure he must now be working for Putin.

Edward Snowden may be our newest Rorschach test.  But that test showed more about the test maker than the testee. 

I wonder about the pressures on Snowden and about how resilient he is; I applaud his bravery, and I think both his actions and those of the U.S. government and the NSA are part of a long, Puritan-inspired tradition of self-examination and exceptionalism that routinely produce bouts of paranoia far more harmful than the situations they were intended to control.*

The U.S. Government and the NSA operate under the assumption that rigorous surveillance makes possible the prevention of attack.  But it is, Artistotle said, "a part of probability that many improbable things will happen." (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, sect. 2, 1139b).

Some disasters can be prevented, some bad guys can be caught in the nick of time, just like in a James Bond movie.  Some, despite or because of the best intentions, cannot.  The United States has a pronounced history of destructive overreaction to perceived threats.   Every tyrant creates his or her worst enemies, and what America has done to Arab-Americans will cause, at the most optimistic, several generations worth of problems.  Just as the Japanese-Americans are beginning to heal . . .

So, is Snowden's legacy going to be that he is a "costly leaker of secrets?" Or that he bravely defended privacy?  I'm with the Germans on this--I think he's both.  He's costing the U.S. money, power and prestige without having any impact whatsoever upon actual national security, in the sense of the safety of American citizens.   He is defending our need to decide what we keep to ourselves and what we show to the world.

And I'll let him have the last word:

* Here is my favorite statement on political paranoia:

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Guinea Pig Housing Development and The Critical Mom

In these turbulent political times, one thing I rely on for solace is the sight of my guinea pigs, Harry and Ginny, grazing in their outdoor cage or sniffing around their indoor palace--a three-story wooden carved piece of extraordinarily expensive piggy real estate.  If these pigs were living in Manhattan they'd be paying a rent equivalent to Donald Trump's. 
I like to watch them and imagine what goes through their little furry heads:

"Mmm, the grass feels nice on my feet."
"Grass pokes into my mouth and my teeth chew it.  Yum."
"Give me that dandelion leaf!"
"No, I want it all."
"Yes, dear."

After they eat, they nap for fifteen minutes.  Then eat for another fifteen.  Nap.  Eat.  Nap. Eat.  Nap. Eat. Nap. Eat.  You can clock them.  Fifteen minutes of sniffing and grazing; fifteen minutes of lying on their gorged little sides, panting. 

Then Harry gets ideas.  He chases Ginny, who squeals in the most forlorn, desperate, "I-am-a-battered-wife" way, and runs away from him until he stops chasing her.  Then she waits for him to chase her again, and runs up and down and all around so he can't catch her.  But eventually he does catch her.  Then he climbs on top of her and there's a noise from both of them like a buzz saw.

You would think there's a lot of piggy rights violation going on . . . I even thought of separating them . . . until I noticed that when Harry squeals and Ginny is definitely not interested (as opposed to the game of "Not tonight honey: I have a headache") she just swats him across the jaw and he looks mortified for a moment before going back to grazing.

So yes, Virginia!  There is such a thing as piggy foreplay.

I watch it in the garden when I am supposed to be doing the laundry, making a grilled cheese sandwich, or reading whatever it is I am teaching next semester.  It soothes me to see the two of them squeaking at each other  and crunching on their food.  They appear to me to live utterly peaceful lives, and from time to time I imagine that they are reincarnations of some relatives of mine.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Bastille Day: Edward Snowden and the Hegelian Germans

Americans seems to believe that Edward Snowden is either a hero or a villain, a whistleblower or a traitor, a thief or a Robin Hood, a this or a that.  They think that if he's a good guy he can't possibly be a bad guy, and vice versa.  Call it our cowboys-and-indians sensibility:  the posse only chases the bad guys.  They never sit down with them and have a drink and a smoke, unless it's not really a western but a film noire (the category is already French, not American.) 
Take Bastille Day:  it's a symbol of freedom, the myth remaining that the good guys stormed the ugly prison and released the other good guys.  But the prison was almost empty and the event lives on as a symbol of the way the equally indecisive midnight ride of Paul Revere lives on in the stirring, but inaccurate, Longfellow poem.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen followed the storming of the Bastille, but so did the guillotine.  Le Roi est mort, feudalism aussi, but terror erupted when the democracy-seekers siezed power.  Can one separate the good guys from the bad?  "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton.   Enough terrorizing chaos, and you get a balance of power eventually.  Unfortunately, PRISM has refracted our balance of power--distorted it, corrupted it.
The German perspective--captured by Der Spiegel--remains the idea that Snowden is a hero and a traitor.   If Americans find that hard to wrap their brains around, maybe it's because Hegel's way of thinking isn't part of the American national heritage.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century German philosopher, loved to pose a "thesis" against its opposite or "antithesis" in order to get a new thesis, a synthesis.  He didn't think the thesis knocked the antithesis dead, or vice versa.  He thought that through their struggle, they produced a new truth--the synthesis--the child of these two opposing parents.  Here's an example:  

Thesis:  Marriages are made in heaven

Antithesis:  Divorces are made in hell

Synthesis:  Divorces are made in heaven

Well, more or less.  That's Hegel via Oscar Wilde, whose mother translated a number of works from German into English, and once remarked that "the Germans have ideas of freeing mankind on a vast scale too vast to be altogether practical. We have no idea how a crusade of nations would work."  Well, Lady Wilde, maybe now we do, now that the notion of nation is changing.  

If the Germans pose a thesis and its antithesis on the cover of Der Spiegel (Hero or Traitor?) then they feel that Snowden is the synthesis--a new category of thinker, who knows that a betrayal of "national security"is really only a betrayal of national paranoia and hysteria.
So who is Edward Snowden, really?  That depends on whether you're asking 

(1) an American woman my age, who reads The New York Times with, well, a sense of betrayal.  (Are they just angry that Snowden didn't give them the exclusives?) I'm someone who'd like to protect him the way I would protect my sons.  Or, 

(2) alternatively, an American man who expresses on an earlier post of mine his hope "that somebody kicks that fucker, Snowden's, ass!" Or,

(3) a German, who tends to feel that nobody can betray without protecting, or vice versa. 

 Snowden is protecting the right to privacy and betraying the desire of the state to have its nose in your love affairs, medical records, chosen websites, marriages, divorces, children (schooling of, health of, friends of, problems of).  Some cyberfile contains more information about me than the journals I've been writing since I was fourteen years old.  Whatever I forgot all about is stored electronically.  
This abuse of my privacy excuses itself as a weapon against terrorism.  How many times has America fought some presumed threat to national security by betraying its citizens?  McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, the plight of Japanese-Americans, Vietnam, Iraq, the plight of Arab-Americans . . .  much more harm than good was done by the "good guys."  The Snowden case almost makes me want to change my citizenship, but something--and it may only be sentimentality, but it may be the dream that I can still improve the situation as an American--holds me back.  He really is brave and he really has fought an honorable battle, and continues to fight, apparently aware that safe passage to some country willing to take him can only be achieved through major compromises.  He does not want to make those compromises--he's not going to work for the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else.  He's David pitching a stone at Goliath's forehead, and I hope he hits his mark.  
It is America's blessing and its curse to imagine itself as a "city that is set upon a hill" that "cannot be hidden," and America watches other countries as much as it watches itself.  America exists in the idea of its exceptionalism, but that always seemed to me to be predicated on its adolescence.  It's the adolescent who knows that the eyes of the world are upon him or her.  And the eyes of the world are on those traits that seem attractive--coca cola, promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  If we lose the right to privacy--or fail to regain it--we lose these fundamental Jeffersonian rights.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Is Edward Snowden Celebrating the Fourth of July?

The Egyptians will either be celebrating the third of July as the day democracy really began or they'll look back to the grim date as the moment things devolved into dictatorship and worse.  Meanwhile, somewhere in Quito, Ecuador, American expatriates are dreaming of inviting Edward for dinner.  I imagine he's wondering if he'll have to become a Luddite after he moves there and experiences an internet speed with a "mañana" attitude and a world where, as the NY Times observes, people still think the BlackBerry is really cool. . . that would certainly represent the worst punishment, not to mention a waste of amazing talent.  
On this day traditionally devoted to freedom from tyranny, I have only the freedom of my own mind in which to indulge.  No money--my credit card will crack in half if I use it again--and no turning back the clock and adding days to my life, which, now that I'm in my fifties, seems for the very first time limited.
Here is a Fourth of July dream:  Edward J. Snowden is sitting in a well-hidden office with a window overlooking a field upon which bunny rabbits hop.  He is smiling and writing computer programs.  Or he is smiling and reading other people's computer programs.  He is still highly paid, in fact, he's taken quite a pay increase, and he's working for Obama's people.  But the deal is, the guy who's sitting behind some tarp at the Moscow airport and who has been surgically or cosmetically altered so that he's a dead ringer for Espionage Ed--this guy has to endure a couple of perp walks and a trial, a televised trial, naturally.  He'll be well paid.  It will be the beginning of his acting career, even though he can't put it on his C.V.  The money will buy him freedom to do summer stock and a few commercials til he hits the big time. 
The real Edward, meanwhile, will go into a witness protection program, or get surgically and chemically altered to resemble somebody else.  Maybe they'll change his height or his race, too.  Certainly his name.  And a new star will rise in the N.S.A., and he'll cut some deal too, a deal involving transparency.  Both sides will understand that they are and are not talking about the same thing, that spying on everything but the thought I am thinking right now is currently the norm, and pretty soon that'll be gone, too.  
But not if Ed has anything to do with it.  I watch the video, below, and I think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That Edward Snowden speaks with honesty and a strong sense of justice remains obvious.  That those who abuse power will hate him for his best qualities is  inevitable.  I can imagine Obama trying to pull a Prince Hal, throwing out Snowden as if he were Falstaff.  But Snowden is no Falstaff.  Snowden holds the mirror up to the N.S.A. and the Obama administration.  What they see is Caliban.  Small wonder they hate him.
Anyone trying to change the ways of the world is naïve but we are all the better for Snowden's effort if he is successful.
As you fire up the barbecue and shoot off the fireworks, think about what the "nation" in "national security" means these days.  In--or should I say until the end of--the 19th century, a "nation state" seemed like an innovation, a good one, a way of consolidating power and establishing a healthy economy.  In the U.S. the Puritan notion of the city upon a hill, ultimately America as the example to the world, worked fine when folks were running scared:  "We better be good, we better look good, because God is watching us."  Once the idea that America as a chosen nation, exceptional in its politics and people, began to emerge, the sense of entitlement . . . that frontier is ours to push, and it's our destiny to push it, because we are bringing them Christinity, or democracy, or our big fat Western egos, then the nation state was already on the way out, an aggressive rather than a creative force.  We walk a tightrope between protector and patronizer, and technology knows no nation.  In a global world, some new, undreamed of form or forms of government will develop.  
Happy Fourth of July, if we can still celebrate, and Edward, you are, at the moment, our national fireworks.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Saint Edward, Barracuda Barack, and the Media

One look at the July 1, 2013 edition of Der Spiegel had me remembering the New Yorker cover of Obama as the black Thomas Jefferson.   But nobody could live up to Jefferson, least of all Jefferson.  The brilliant author of the Declaration, the Notes on the State of Virginia, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (just to name my favorites) owned slaves, bullied his daughters, tried to steal at least one other guy's wife (at least he was in love with her) and handled his finances disastrously.  Whaddaya expect of a genius?  That he be a mature, wise, consistent man?  
Obama is or was an advocate of exactly the kind of transparency Ed Snowden is demanding.  I wonder how Snowden is doing.  I keep remembering the Tom Hanks film about the guy stuck at the airport terminal because his country is in the middle of a revolution.  So are we.  In human understanding of how even as I sit right here typing something of little interest to anyone but myself, some dude is being paid to monitor my subversive desire to support Ed Snowden in any way I can.  Because I don't think Snowden threatened American national security.  I think he embarrassed the president and the N.S.A.
On the cover of the Spiegel, a photo montage portrays Snowden in a white light--only his halo is missing--and lurking in the background, with angry, shifty eyes, an Obama whom one expects to sprout vampire fangs--they look like they're already there under his lip.   "ALLEIN GEGEN AMERIKA" blares the headline ("ALONE AGAINST AMERICA") adding, "Edward Snowden: Held Und Verräter."  Hero and Traitor.  (No either-or for these Germans.  Let's get complicated is the name of the game in these parts.)
With whom would Jefferson have taken sides?  I want to say Ed! But the truth is probably that it would have depended on the day--and on Jefferson's mood.  "I am of a sect by myself as far as I know," he remarked about religion--an area in which his tastes changed with remarkable speed, and he did cut apart the Bible and rearrange it as he saw fit.  When he wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that the law should “comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination [sic],” he wasn't just granting equal protection to unbelievers, he was outing himself as "the Infidel of every denomination."  He seems to have enjoyed changing his mind and protecting those with equally volatile minds.   He liked underdogs, and a Jeffersonian democracy remains one that protects them.  I believe that Snowden is exactly the kind of underdog that Obama should take under his wing.  That undignified sweep-search of the Bolivian president's plane used resources that would have been better spent on the Boston bombers.    At the moment everything's reduced to--for lack of a less vulgar phrase--a pissing contest.  Ed won.  He made his point.  He's smart.  Hand him his passport and let him work for you, Mr. President.  No one has a better sense of national security than Ed Snowden.