Geoffrey Fox

Unsolicited Comments (1998 – 2002)

Index Unsolicited Comments 2002

Lord of the Rings –Curious to see what all the fuss was about, the accomplice & I rented Part I, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” from our neighborhood Tower Video — 208 minutes. The first cassette ends with Frodo and his companions trudging through the snow and no closer to their goal than when they’d started, and we decided we’d seen enough.

There were two problems: First, nothing much happens. That is, there are lots of events — a party in Hobbit-ville, pursuit by wraiths, a galloping elf princess, and so on — but they don’t lead anywhere, obey no rules (whenever a new challenge presents itself, some new form of magic appears), and so just slow down the quest. Second, there are no believable, multidimensional characters, just types. Thus I couldn’t care at all about their fates. Well, I suspect the books are altogether different, and the fantasy anthropology (the habits of the Hobbits, and so on), rather than the action is the real point. Unfortunately (for me), this was made as an action movie with far too little attention to Tolkien’s ingenious anthopological speculations. 02/12/29

Christmas message — 02/12/24 7:02 PM – For those of you who are Christians, I wish you much joy in this day of celebration of your god! And for those of you who worship other gods, may they return to you all the power you attribute to them. My own gods are mostly modest chaps (you can see some of them on my “bio” page), and they and I shall celebrate together by renewing our bonds and goals.Magic of fiction: Napoleon and the Grande Armée took many months to march from Paris to Moscow, but you and I have just done it in one sentence. David Markson is one author who makes us aware of such powers of language, but I was really paraphrasing (and correcting historically) a remark that the late poet Kenneth Koch made in an interview (in Poets & Writers, Sept-Oct 2002): that in language, “you can do in a second what it takes months and years and a lot of pain to do in the world. Like, ‘The Russian Army walked across France’ — just a second to say it.”Of course, now that we’ve marched to Moscow in a sentence, it might take us considerably longer — volumes and volumes, perhaps — to get back. That is, if the writer so chooses. Do take a look at Markson.

Movie review: “Ararat”: A terribly important story peeks through the tangled confusion of this film. The story is of the atrocities inflicted by Turkish troops on the Armenians living around Lake Van, in Eastern Anatolia, in 1915. Unfortunately filmmaker Atom Egoyan couldn’t decide the best way to tell it, and so interweaves a mix of documented and fictional episodes from the life of painter Arshile Gorky, with scenes taken from the book by American eye-witness Dr. Clarence Ussher (head of the U.S. Legation in Van at the time), a production of a contemporary film (a little like the one we’re watching) based on these things, and two complicated and implausible parent-son conflicts. Modern Turks need to acknowledge that such atrocities occurred, but it will be hard for them to recognize themselves in the sole Turkish character who is portrayed, the utterly sinister officer played by Elias Koteas. 021125 (For more on film, see Ararat)


A distressing thought has occurred to me. I hope I am mistaken. What I fear is that around the globe, we have entered a period of de-urbanization. If we think of “urban” geographically, as size and density of population, that notion will seem nonsensical. But what I mean, and what most writers have always meant by “urban” and “urbane” is a certain kind of culture, including an open attitude toward life (anything can happen and nobody’s “truth” is absolute), an alertness to new possibilities, flexibility, tolerance, hurry. And no doubt many other things, as described in Georg Simmel’s famous essay “Metropolis and Mental Life,” or works by Louis Wirth, Scott Greer, Jane Jacobs and countless other observers.

Today, though, urban migration is making cities grow so rapidly that the newcomers don’t need to become urbanized. Instead, they ruralize the city, especially those parts of it — often on newly invaded land on the outskirts — where they reconstruct their village patterns. And city-generated culture and technology, from jeeps to VCRS, even though it penetrates more and more deeply into rural areas, does not make the recipients more urbane. It may instead give them more powerful means to defend what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life” ­ ignorance, superstition, unwillingness to deviate from tradition. Or so it seems to me. I hope I’m wrong. 021120

Quote from Research Group on the Global Future (Forschungsgruppe Zukunftsfragen), Munich:

Urbanization is a sign of modernization, industrialization and mobility. It stands for a transformation in the social environment, political organization and division of work. On the other hand urbanization (especially in the developing world) poses various challenges: poverty, low social care and criminality, as well as problems of waste disposal and pollution.

On insults and animal names:

“Title XXX. Concerning Insults” of the Salic Law of Clovis (481-511), king of the Salian Franks in Strasbourg, includes these penalties:

3. If any one, man or woman, shall have called a woman harlot, and shall not have been able to prove it, he shall be sentenced to 1800 denars, which make 45 shillings.

4. If any person shall have called another “fox,” he shall be sentenced to 3 shillings. …

The empire’s last stand? — I can recommend a good book to read as we contemplate Donald Rumsfeld’s proposed high-tech war against Iraq: Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. New York: Harper & Row, 1984, about Custer’s last stand. . We should never underestimate our adversaries.

Three Books I Promise Not to Write 2002/10/2 11:11 AM – Joseph Epstein created a stir recently with his op-ed in the NY Times advising would-be authors to forget it: both they and the world would be better off if some books were never written. I’ve decided he’s right, and I have reconsidered some of my book ideas. I now promise not to impose on the world any of the following:

The Welcome Collapse of U.S. Hegemony. I thought I had a brilliantly original idea for a book, until dinner with some better-read friends showed me that it was already a cliché. One of said friends could even cite the article where a much more developed version of the argument had appeared. My idea was that the collapse of US world dominance began as soon as the only serious counterforce, the Soviet bloc, disintegrated in 1989. From that point on, there was no compelling reason for the countries of Western Europe, or any other part of the world except maybe our real dependencies in Latin America, to support the US on every issue. My second idea was that the arrogance and contempt for international law of the G. W. Bush administration was going to accelerate the collapse, which in the long-run might be a good thing – we would become a “normal” country, powerful but not overwhelming, and have to learn to get along with our neighbors. All of that may be true, but the only reason I thought it was a new idea was my ignorance of the literature, so if somebody’s going to write this book, it won’t be me.

I Wed Three Wives. At one time I thought this was a clever title for a memoir, but I suspect few potential readers are alive who remember the old TV series “I Led Three Lives” (about the FBI operative who infiltrated the Communist Party). Anyway, though it happens to be true, lots of people have married more often than that, so who cares? And why was I even thinking about a memoir? I haven’t yet done all the things I want to be remembered for. So, forget it.

Mediocrity: Letting It Work For You. This was to be a how-to book for underachievers, with examples of the many mediocrities who have acquired fame and riches. Now that one of our nation’s greatest mediocrities is installed in the White House, this theme is getting overworked by columnists and humor writers, so I’ll let it go.

Bush and Hitler: Condoleezza and Ari Fleischer are absolutely right: It is absurd to compare Adolf Hitler to George W. Bush. Hitler was smart. (For more on how smart, cf. Stackelberg.) 020925

June Jordan, artists and audiences: Last Sunday night, I went to a tribute to June Jordan, who died earlier this year of breast cancer. Sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Writers Union and held at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, the event featured readings of some of JJ’s most mordant, passionate and always subversive verse — including some I hadn’t known — plus work by other Black poet who had been inspired by her. Really good stuff. It made me rush out the next day to buy two of JJ’s collections so I could reread and share them. Oddly, one of her most subversive poems was not among those read that Sunday: “Kissing God Goodbye” (in a collection by the same name). Probably too subversive for St. Peter’s Church.

I thank the organizers for renewing my acquaintance with her voice, and I congratulate the other fine poets who shared their work. They made me ask myself why African American (and Latino) poetry seems so much more vigorous, pleasing and exciting to hear than most American poetry these days. The answer must be that great art requires dialogue with great audiences; by speaking to the real concerns and in the cadences of the people they address, June Jordan, George Edward Tait, Jacqueline Johnson, Martín Espada, Miguel Algarín and many others have helped construct the audiences they need. 020925

September 11 — This morning my partner & I stood at the same spot where, exactly one year ago, we watched the flames flickering in the North Tower. We keep hearing over and over again that the world has changed forever. Maybe, but it hasn’t changed enough. Despite the evidence of 19 men with box cutters, the US Government still thinks it can keep this country safe by deploying bigger weapons, and our memorial to the victims of violence will be — unless we can stop the mad bombers in the White House — another war. 2002-09-11

Survive or prevail? –– The US Government leaders skipped the Sustainable Development Conference in Johannesburg, because as they see their mission, it is not to save the planet but to exploit it. This attitude reminds me, sadly, of the terrible contradiction in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he said “Man will not only survive; he will prevail.” The problem is that we can’t do both, but that’s hard for Americans to accept. 2002-09-07

On Israel, againKatha Pollit in this week’s The Nation expresses my sentiments exactly, and maybe more clearly than I’ve managed in previous notes. I used to think that Sharon’s policy of massive counterstrikes in Palestinian territory was hugely self-defeating ­ because, naïvely, I thought his aim was to reduce suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilians. I no longer believe that he has, or ever had, much concern for the lives of Israeli civilians. He appears quite willing to sacrifice them for his larger goal, of making a functioning Palestinian state impossible. In that, he has so far succeeded. 02/08/03(See also my earlier comment, The self-destruction of Israel.)

My ‘Ankara’ — 2002/07/28 11:16 PM ­ Today is the 600th anniversary of the battle of Ankara, which changed European and world history much more directly and obviously than any butterfly in Australia. The defeat of Sultan “Thunderbolt” (Yildirim) Bayezid of the Ottomans by Timur-i- Link (“Tamerlane”) on the plain of Çubukovasi (just outside Ankara) on July 28, 1402, delayed the capitulation of Constantinople by half a century and spurred the Ottomanization of the Balkans ­ which is where the defeated Ottomans fled. And today I have worked out the ending of a novel in which these events are central. So, I am celebrating the now imminent completion of the draft.

“Under God” and under the weather: It’s been too hot here in New York to burn up brain cells on serious thoughts, so I’ll just say I’m puzzled by all the fuss about the “under God” phrase. It was slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance back when I was in grade school, and it seemed nonsensical then, and it seems so now. It implies that every American of whatever faith worships the same ecumenical, all-American divinity. This de-deifies God, draining Him (or Her, or It) of the power that particular tribal gods enjoy because of their quirks — Ganesh with his elephant head, Jehovah with his peculiar way of inseminating virgins, Jove with his capacity to shift shapes, Ishtar with her irresistible hips, and so on. The God of the pledge is an emasculated divinity (literally, because we’re not supposed to picture it as male), which brings up a second weird image. What does it mean to be “under” such a god? Sounds like being smothered by a eunuch.

Me, for now I’ll pledge allegiance to Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and thunder, in hopes of better weather. But I dedicate this page to Thoth, god of magic words and writing. 020707 (This seems to be an obsessive theme with me. Compare “Under God”? from October, 2001; God-fearing atheism, 00.09.01)

Last night I saw Gabriel García Márquez twice

2002/6/10 9:29 AM ­ Last night I saw Gabriel García Márquez twice, on the subway, or maybe it was an elevated train like in the Bronx & parts of Brooklyn. He was sitting in a forward-facing seat, and I sat next to him, and we chatted like the old friends we were. He was maybe 40-something, and lean, and I was somewhat younger. I got off at my stop and waved to him. After taking care of whatever my business was ­ I was on some necessary errand ­ some time later I went back to the platform for the return trip, and I was surprised to see GGM again, and again he had an empty seat next to him for me. I was surprised and pleased by this coincidence. He seemed surprised, too, and amused.

Later, I think (though the dream gave me no markers to know what was happening when), I was one of the people leading a discussion-exploration of literature. We were all writers, working on fiction of our own. Someone, me I think, proposed that the most interesting writers, the ones I would most like to emulate, focused on the immediate experience. I think I was remembering Zorba’s amazement when he looked at a donkey, and became fully aware of how wonderful it was ­ “Look, Boss!” I remember him saying. What I didn’t say in the dream, but think now, is that I love writing that makes us aware of how strange the familiar is. This usually means looking at, touching, smelling, maybe hearing and really listening to what is nearest at hand. The “all other” category includes those writers ­ H. G. Wells, for example ­ whose overriding interest is the tale, and give us only enough sensual information to let us identify the objects that are in motion. This one wears a certain kind of clothes, that one has a slouch, and so on. The pieces are not important; it’s the game.

Someone else in our discussion group said there were two kinds of writers who focused on the immediate experience: those who tried to decipher its intellectual, mathematical meaning, and those like the ones I described, enraptured by the “itness” of it, the immediate sense experience. I didn’t understand this remark ­ What authors could he have had in mind? ­ but maybe there’s something to it.
Later (I think) I passed by a little crowd of men standing before a store window, watching a game on big screen TV. American football, maybe. I started to walk around them when I spotted a big piece of lemon cake with gooey lemon topping that had fallen to the sidewalk in front of me. I bent over to examine it. Another, somewhat younger man came up to the crowd. He wanted to see the TV screen in the store window, but I must have been in his way. I felt him ­ he didn’t push, so much as nudge for attention ­ and I heard him say, in an exasperated, ironic tone, “You lost? Uninterested? Or just clueless?”

It was a revelatory moment. Yes, of course, he and I were both clueless, in complementary ways. I hadn’t a clue to what the game was on TV, or what it represented, and wasn’t even curious about it; for him the spilled cake and its history had no meaning or interest. But someone had made it, and someone had brought it to this point and, though it must have been desired by someone ­ fancy cakes with fruit toppings are made to satisfy desires, not physical hungers ­ someone had dropped it. There was a story there.
They felt like good dreams. I woke up pleased and ready to write.

Phony transactions:
1) “Reliant Resources, Inc., one of the country’s biggest electricity traders, said yesterday that it had conducted fake transactions with four power companies that inflated its revenue by 10 percent over the last three years.” (NYT, Tues, May 14) Reliant would sell electricity to Company X for an inflated price per megawatt, simultaneously buying back the same amount at the same price. Why? Well, it looks like a sale, and thus tends to push up the general market price.

2) “Bush and Putin to sign pact to cut nuclear warheads.” (Also from NYT, Tues, May 14) The US isn’t bound to destroy the warheads, just dismantle them and store them where they can be reassembled, and it doesn’t have to do that until 2012 — the year the pact expires. And meanwhile the treaty permits the US to increase its arsenal if it chooses. Why bother? Well, it looks like a peace gesture, and may boost Bush’s poll ratings. 020514

Letter to a Palestinian friend: Dr. Khalil Nakhleh, an anthropologist working in Ramallah, has been sending frequent e-mails about living and trying to work during the Israeli re-occupation. He and I have known each other for over 20 years.

2002 May 5

Khalil: I look forward to having a chance to discuss these issues with you. The piece by Ron Unz sounded completely nuts — I hope you’re not endorsing it. Building a fence? [“Mideast: What’s really going on there: Sharon sacrifices Jewish lives for a Greater Israel,” by Ron Unz — Special to The Bee. Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Sunday, April 28, 2002]. The piece you sent earlier, by Kathleen Christison [why the continued Israeli settlements drive Palestinians to rage and why the assumption of moral superiority of Israelis over Palestinians is untenable and dangerous], made a lot of sense.

Yesterday I had a chance for a long discussion of these issues with three Israeli friends, all university professors — two in Israel and one in Princeton — and the two men both veterans of the 1967 war. They were very disturbed by recent events but reacting in surprisingly different ways — considering that the two who disagreed most strongly are married to each other. The man was appalled by the wanton IDF destruction of property in Jenin, but more especially in Ramallah; his wife said “better property than lives,” implying that the property didn’t matter, which started a major argument. The other man describes himself as an “optimist,” because he sees hope for a viable 2-state solution emerging from the rubble left by two opposing intransigences. He believes that the Israeli public is desperate for some signal of peace, and that there are savvy Palestinian leaders who understand this and will know what signals to give, and that the next time they sit down to negotiate they will be able to work out a much more satisfactory map than the one Barak presented — one with contiguous borders, to start with.

While my friend doubts that either Sharon or Arafat is to be trusted, he thinks Sharon will be willing to make compromises because he wants to go down in history as the man who brought peace to Israel, whereas he thinks Arafat will resist to the end going down in history as the man who made concessions. I’m not sure that that’s relevant — it may be that as soon as Sharon begins making concessions he’ll be pushed aside by Netanyahu. Israeli politics seems so volatile that many other configurations are imaginable, so I think there is some hope there, and likely responsiveness to Palestinian gestures. I think there are several wise, far-seeing humanists among the Palestinians, too — Sari Nussebeih is frequently mentioned, and there must be others in the leadership. However, it doesn’t appear that Arafat will let them prevail. That’s what it looks like from here.

Your friend,
Geoff (New York)
(cf. The self-destruction of Israel 020310)

“Democratic Capitalism” –My friend in Minnesota says that the system he favors is “democratic capitalism,” as described in a book by that title by Michael Novak and as practiced (according to my friend) in Sweden. This is a formula hard to take seriously. If capitalism were democratic — that is, if the people affected by the system participated in the critical decisions governing it — it would be called socialism.

The Swedish effort (they called it “democratic socialism”) is barely hanging on against the assault of real international capitalism, which as far as I can see operates just the way [Ellen Meiksins] Wood describes. Social democrats have lost every recent election in Europe, including the big one this weekend in France, and may not hang on in Germany. Their compromise system doesn’t give enough of the nation’s wealth away to satisfy voracious international capital, and doesn’t keep enough for the people for these parties to retain mass loyalty.

The real argument against capitalism is that it is a mammoth failure, not just for the 4/5 of the world outside its heartland, but even in the US, where it can’t permit even such elemental social goods as basic health care for everybody or decent public education. People operating under its principles continue spoiling the air, privatizing the water, desertifying China (and many other places), wasting public resources for private gain, and stimulating wasteful consumption so that they can expand their production of everything useless from land mines to Wonder Bras.

The first question is: How much democracy can capitalism tolerate? We saw the limits in Florida in the last presidential election — when the wrong candidate had the votes, capital found a way to unelect him. Just two weeks ago in Venezuela, international capital — especially US capital — was delighted to see an elected president overthrown by a military coup, and now must be dismayed that he is now back in the presidential palace of Miraflores.

The other question is: How much capitalism can democracy tolerate?

The formula “democratic capitalism” assumes that democracy can restrain the destructive tendencies of capitalism. Sometimes, in some places, it can, but the relationship is always unstable. Democracy has to be premised on values of solidarity as I said in a previous comment; capitalism is premised on solidarity’s opposite, competition. There will always be tension between them.

Well, socialism in its Soviet version was also a pretty big failure. We’re going to have to try something else, involving greater participation from below and greater responsiveness from leadership. At a minimum, it will have to be dedicated to protecting our physical environment, education and health — the essentials of any concept of the “collective good.” I don’t know what it will look like, or if it will want to call itself “socialism,” but I think I see signs of it emerging in democratic collectives in many places around the world. I hope to say more about that soon. 020423 (cf. Capitalism – Letter to a friend, 2002 April 2)

Coup, Uncoup – Venezuela gets back on its constitutional track. It’s been a very exciting weekend in Venezuela, too exciting. International oil interests and their allies did everything they could to overthrow the government, and it looked for several hours as though they had succeeded. But Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian” movement, with its promise and reality of dignity, has so stirred the passions of its adherents that they risked all to restore him to the Palacio Miraflores, and ¡caramba! They did it! Chávez himself has said he is “estupefacto” at the sudden success of the “contracontrarrevolución.” Congratulations, Venezuela. Chávez and his movement have their faults, but they can probably be cured, and the coup-plotters represented the worst and most reactionary tendencies in the country. (See my earlier notes: Turmoil in Venezuela (2001 March 17), Bolivarian Democracy (2000.08.01), and for background, my book on Venezuela (1990). 020415

Capitalism – Letter to a friend, 2002 April 2
Dear Sy:

I’ve had your letter on my desk for almost two months now. What gave me the most trouble was imagining how to respond to your statement, “Capitalism, I believe, is the best system.”

In such a short sentence, you’ve managed to confound me three times. I don’t know what you mean by “capitalism,” “best” or “system.”

I’ll take Ellen Meiksins Wood’s definition of capitalism as “a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life.”

If that’s what you mean, and you think it’s the best possible system, you take a very pessimistic view of our race. Making competition and profit maximization the fundamental rules of life is so contrary to impulses of solidarity, and so disruptive of social patterns based on other kinds of loyalties and concerns, that it drives people to desperate acts. It is this kind of system people have in mind when they rail against “globalization.” Linking this to my current “comment” [020402] on my website, it is the expansion of this sort of system that is driving terrorism, from Sri Lanka to Utah.

But maybe you didn’t mean “best of all possible systems.” Maybe what you meant was “the best we can hope for right now,” or something like that. Well, maybe. It will never be uncontested, and its triumphs are never stable.

So then the question is, is “capitalism” a system at all? It seems more like a powerful tendency, which always meets and gets distorted by impulses of solidarity and self-protection that seem to be part of human nature. The French have never fully accepted it, and even the British, who invented it, can’t win over all their populace to it. We are always inventing fraternities, old boys’ clubs, families and so forth to subvert its effects. Even those who embrace profit maximization as their ruling value are forever inventing devices like “soft money,” tax havens and loopholes to escape the consequences of fair market competition. It is just too harsh a rule for almost anybody.


Geoff (posted 020407) (cf. “Democratic Capitalism” 020423)

Poverty & terror — At the international conference on development in Monterrey, Mexico two weeks ago, one of the arguments made for rich countries to help poor countries overcome poverty was to eliminate terrorism. This won’t work.

Poverty has been always with us. Terrorism breaks out at intervals in world history, and fluctuations in the depth and breadth of poverty do not correlate highly with periods of widespread, non-state-sponsored violence against persons and property ­ which is what we usually mean be “terrorism.” (When the violence is state-sponsored, even when directed against civilians, it obeys different rules, and it is more instructive to call it “war.” But that’s an argument for another comment.)

If poverty does not breed terrorism, what does? One of the most famous terrorist groups was the “Assassins” (from “hashish”), who would get high and then murder ­ “assassinate” ­ specifically targeted individuals in 14th century Persia. Timur (“Tamerlane”) finally wiped them out, after he had lost too many of his generals to their knife attacks. The “Thuggees” of India were another, the “Molly Maguires” in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 19th century, the Red Brigades in Italy in the 1970s (and perhaps again today), the “Shining Path” of recent and continuing history in Peru, “Al Qaeda” ­ what do they have in common?

All of them were devoted to some cause. In none of them were the leaders poor by local standards and only rarely (the Molly Maguires might be the exception in my list) has the struggle against material poverty been foremost in their rhetoric. Terrorism is not about overcoming poverty, but about transcending humiliation.

It breaks out not when the poor get suddenly poorer ­ as for example, after a great flood, or drought, or plague, or other disaster ­ but when the established social order is in upheaval. It is led (in every case I can think of) by the relatively privileged, those who are or think they should be the local elite. They instigate violence when they see the basis for their claims to privilege being undermined ­ when, for example, a foreign power or enterprise or a new economic system destabilizes their caste, class, religious or professional hierarchy.

The actual agents of terror ­ the man with the knife, the woman with a bomb strapped to her abdomen — are mostly from among those who would have been their subordinates in normal, stable times. They are willing to risk or even sacrifice their lives because they are panicked by sudden changes in everything they had been taught to believe and expect. Others may join the movement (I’m thinking now of some of the activists in anarchist and socialist movements in Europe and America a hundred years ago, or in supposedly religious “fundamentalisms” today) because they have been made cynical by the crumbling of the old values and see an opportunity to impose their own visions of pure, shining new ones ­ what el Presidente Gonzalo in Peru called the “Shining Path.”

Reducing poverty or, to put it another way, enriching people’s lives is certainly a good thing and will surely always be a goal. Since “poverty” is relative, it can never be abolished (somebody’s always going to be richer than somebody else). But reducing hunger and lengthening life-spans will not directly reduce terrorism. More likely, such developments will spark an increase of terrorism in the short run, because the measures taken to achieve these effects — whether the education of women in male-dominated societies, or the introduction of modern industry in peasant societies, or the exploitation of oil or mineral wealth ­ always undermine the old social order.

So let’s not fool ourselves. Terrorism can’t be stamped out — stamping just makes terrorists mad. The end of terrorism will come only when and where the social order reaches a new equilibrium, in which leaders are able to fulfill their commitments and where the ordinary citizens’ sense of justice has re-adapted to the new reality. That will almost certainly be a world with less hunger than today’s, but we are going to have to muddle through much more turbulence to get there. 2002/04/01

Dying for a mirage ­ Yesterday I saw Ellen McLaughlin’s play “Helen,” based on Euripides’ play of the same name (at the Public Theatre in New York). It’s a hoot, and when you have a classics scholar sitting beside you, as I did, and she clues you in to all the in-jokes from Homer and Aeschylus, it’s both a hoot and a holler ­ a long, mournful holler for the folly of ambitious men.

The premise is that the real Helen never got to Troy, having been whisked off and deposited in Egypt by the gods, who stuck an immortal simulacrum of her ­ a sort of Olympian robot ­ on Paris’ ship. The real Helen has been languishing in her Egyptian hotel room for 17 years, waiting to be reclaimed by her husband Menelaus. Suddenly, the goddess Athena comes up the elevator into her hotel room to tell her how things really stand. And so she learns that the war ended seven years ago, was horribly bloody, and that all those men died not for her but for an illusion, an idea of Helen. Now it’s the simulacrum that the survivors want and not the real flesh-and-blood woman (who, after all, is a mere mortal and is getting older, unlike the eternal illusion). Just like in real life, the bloodiest wars are fought for things that exist only in men’s minds: “eternal Israel,” “free Palestine,” “jihad,” “Tamil homeland,” “Aryan supremacy,” “the American way of life,” etc. Pretty perceptive, that Euripides. I hope he writes some more. 020324

Turmoil in Venezuela: I met Hugo Chávez — president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — recently, when he came to speak at New York University, and to my surprise I had the opportunity of an intense, nose-to-nose discussion with him. He’s very quick-witted, passionate, and a voracious consumer of historical and social knowledge. I gave him a copy of my book on Venezuela, and I’ll bet he’ll read it — although he may have to struggle because it’s in English.

I have a theory as to why he happened, and I think it’s a theory he might even share — we did agree on one key element, when I told him I believed there had been a deliberate demobilization of the Venezuelan masses following the revolution of January 23, 1958. He elaborated on that, with further detail. I’m not a whole-hearted supporter of what he calls “Bolivarian democracy,” which is basically plebiscitary democracy, but it’s better than the corrupt charade (where votes really didn’t matter at all) of his immediate predecessors. The forces against him and his policies are enormous: internally, big business with foreign ties and old political machines that he’s disrupted; externally, the US and its instruments, World Bank & IMF. At least some parts of his program are very good for the country, and I hope he and his movement succeed in carrying them out before they’re overthrown. 020317

The self-destruction of Israel: I should have spoken out earlier, but the death toll and social rending are just too appalling for words. What is obvious is that on the Palestinian side, there is no effective central leadership — what little there was has been made utterly powerless by the Israeli attacks. Therefore, regardless of the moral issues of who “should” do what, only the Israelis have the power to alter the dynamic. Instead, they’re making it worse.

The real “suicide bombers” are Sharon and the forces he commands. But rather than blowing themselves up personally and individually, like the Palestinian assassins, they are blowing up their entire country’s chances for survival — not just its moral survival, as a humanistic, democratic society (which seems to be of no concern to Ariel Sharon anyway), but its absolute physical survival where it is outnumbered, both within and around its amorphous borders, by people they are driving to a rage beyond fear. 020310 (cf. Letter to a Palestinian friend, 2002 May 5)

Comic relief — In this time of intense nationwide anxiety, our leadership is giving us just what we need: comic relief. (Bush’s ‘State of the Union’) 2002 February