Charles Shere: 2003 Blog

Charles and Lindsey Shere: homepage

CS in Cadiz: photo: Eve Monrad
6/15/03: New Sammy
6/13/03: On to Ashland
6/11/03: McCloud
6/10/03: You can't count on it
6/5/03: Recent activity
4/13/03: War; Mercy; Security; Reconstruction
2/26-28/03: The American agenda
2/25/03: Burning flesh
2/22/03: Tolerance, Context, Empire
2/17/03: Old Europe, New Europe
2/13/03: Why weren't we warned?
2/3/03: Lou Harrison
2/2/03: Salaries
2/1/03: Good resolutions

Healdsburg, April 15, 2016 —

You remember what it was like driving down toward Susa from the Moncenisio pass — I always recall that when driving down from Mt. Shasta through Redding and onto the Central Valley, leaving the snow and mist behind, as if there were a choice in the matter, and coming out to a warmer day, further advanced in the season.

The mood was enhanced yesterday, when the radio finally found a noncommercial station amongst all the inter-station hiss it had coped with up in the mountains. What a lucky break the Chico campus wasn’t damaged during the attacks! Mozart was on. Not only Mozart; the Coronation Concerto, played with spirit and wit by Alfred Brendel. The sunlight-and-shadow effect of the minor-key passages in the finale exactly matched the skies below Redding, reminding me to stop at what’s left of the old outlet shops near Corning, to visit the Mozart Mall.

I’d been closing in on my complete collection while up in Portland, where there’s any number of used CD stores. At one of them I heard about the Mozart Mall. Who could believe it? A shop devoted to the greatest musical genius of all time, except perhaps for Cage...

The shop had begun in the town of Mt. Shasta ten years ago, before the Intensification, during the Mozart Semiquincentennial, or maybe the following year, I’m not sure. Someone ran it out of her living room for a few months, just as a hobby and to entertain a group of friends. It was one of them, I think, who had the idea of setting it up in the mall, when so many outlets and franchises went bust after the crash of 2010, leaving the malls with empty shops for years.

Anyway it seems to be thriving now, partly because of the economic recovery following the Reorganization, partly because of the discovery a couple of years ago of the missing pages of the Requiem, just in time for the funeral obsequies of President Bush III. It’s a curious place, with its old-fashioned espresso machines and its sofas. It even has a set of loudspeakers, which make it necessary to share your listening with other people, even total strangers. It isn’t obligatory, though, thank the muses, and we hooked ourselves up to headcaps.

It’s very comfortable. The woman who runs the shop was lucky to have both time and a decent computer back in 2006, when she cruised the Internet — how I miss it — and downloaded all the Mozart she could find, sound files, images, and text. She’s found old-style motherboards and memory and managed to re-create a hard-wired version of the Internet, or at least a lot of the Mozart part of it, right in her shop.

Her partner is a theater director, and she’s contributed a wonderful dimension to the shop — a virtual theater allowing you to sample old videodiscs of Mozart operas, as well as that one promising experiment in historical reconstruction, the one the Salzburg Festival produced in 2009, just before the Final Intensification. I’d forgotten how persuasive it was; I don’t see how musical performance can get more real, short of using real musicians and real instruments — unthinkable, of course, today.

Unfortunately the accelerated time mode is no longer available — technology like that is gone, along with all the weapons, and it’s probably a good thing — so we were content with just part of one of the quartets, but it was a pleasure to see Mozart on the viola and Haydn playing violin. I never did learn much German, let alone the 18th-century Vienna vernacular, so the joking went past me, but the winks and nudges between them during the “Dissonant” finale were pure pleasure.

MallMozart is part museum, too. They have almost the complete Collected Mozart Edition on shelves, real original paper copies. And they even sell DVDs of the scores, including the autographs, and searchable DVD versions of the Internet sites that used to be available through the airwaves. I don’t know how they got permission for all this.

I met Khalila, the woman who runs the place — the daughter, I think, of one of the founders. She said the idea came from the old coffeehouse concept; that’s why they still have that espresso machine. There’s even an idea to franchise a series of MallMozarts throughout the entire country, from Medford down to Carmel. It’s a great idea, of course: it’s time to begin developing a national cultural sense.

We’re back on the road; I’ll send this the next time I can make a connection, probably at the next hydrocell stop. Hope you’re well and having fun!

April 2— A beautiful spring day, quite breezy, clear and sunny here in Berkeley. Up at seven in Gilbert’s apartment to lose my glasses after breakfast; fortunately he avoided stepping on them as he went out the door a little later, and brought them to me.

We’re off for Portland after dinner, staying tonight at the good old Cedar Lodge in Dunsmuir, where there used to be an aviary full of noisy shade-loving birds, and where we woke up once to find our car under a blanket of snow — I do not think that will be the case tomorrow; I only hope I’ll have my glasses.

Yesterday we stopped in at the Jack Jeffferson show at the Hackett Freedman Gallery, 250 Sutter St, San Francisco. I wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue. Jefferson was in my opinion the San Francisco painter of his generation par excellence. The paintings remain strong, moving, lyrical, august, magnificent.

Then a fabulous twentieth birthday party last night in the Café Chez Panisse, full of handsome and interesting people, Russ’s menu inventive and subtle as always, and downstairs, eating at the Special Table for Two in the kitchen, Willie Bishop! Jeremiah’s sous-chef in the old days, looking dapper and healthy and having a ball.

It seems odd to write so in such tumultuous times. But when most of the world is far from ready for enlightened self-government, and our own country is so hopelessly misguided, perhaps the only logical thing to do is to make each day as pleasant, as comfortable, and as harmless as possible, on an individual basis. That’s what Russ does, what Jeff did, what Mozart did.

March 6, 2004 (Political): I have just finished reading a book I meant to read forty years ago, Luigi Barzini’s The Italians. It is a fascinating book, perhaps a little the more so having recently returned from a month in Rome, but fascinating even apart from its applicability to Rome and Italy. It was written shortly after World War II, and I suppose at the time one might have thought it remarkable chiefly for itts explanation of the mess Italy was in at that moment, an explanation greatly rooted in the long history of the Italian peninsula.

Some of Barzini’s writing now seems dated -- a word here, a phrase there. Most of what he writes seems more apposite than ever. The odd thing is, he seems to me to describe not only The Italians but also The New Romans -- I mean the citizens of George Bush’s New Empire. Read these pages, from the beginning of Barzini’s next-to-last chapter,


WHAT happened to Italy is what usually happens to old ladies who were once famous beauties. Just as they relinquish only reluctantly the gestures, curls, witticisms and fashions of their sunset years, Italy still clings to the manners and ideals of the two centuries which followed the coronation of Charles V. … Italian reality is generally still a Baroque reality.

Baroque is a mysterious term… the term came to be used metaphorically to describe anything pointlessly complicated, otiose, capricious and eccentric. similar to rarely used syllogisms or irregularly bulging pearls: twisted theories, elliptical and over-ornate poetry, elaborate and gaudy architecture. Later it came to define a whole period in history, the Baroque era, in which Baroque men thought Baroque thoughts, led Baroque lives, surrounded by Baroque art. The age had a more than casual resemblance to our own.

With the Baroque era, all kinds of things which had been lax, spontaneous, comfortable and haphazard before, became rigid, uniform and somewhat inhuman all over Europe. Absolute monarchs flattened out all rivals and ruled practically without opposition; great kings joined in vast but changing alliances, a slow game of dynastic musical chairs. The minor principalities and republics were left without real responsibility and autonomy. They were robbed of their dignity and became impotent, unwilling and embittered vassals. The danger of little wars decreased but the fear of vast conflagrations involving the whole world was ever present. Centralized power developed the instruments for efficient rule: laws were codified and enforced, bureaucracy became powerful and quickly proliferated, with its archives, forms to fill in, rites, and the authority to punish all those who did not submit to it. …

All economic activities which were not prohibited were strictly controlled. The king held monopolies of the main indispensable products, which he alone could export or import. Taxes rained down with unprecedented severity to support the armies and the heavy machinery of government. Stable and pyramidal hierarchies were established in all fields. The armies, no longer amateur collections of men chosen at random, happily bent on arson, pillage and rape, acquired organizational charts, uniforms, an iron discipline and a well-defined chain of command. Authorities determined once and for all the only correct spelling of words and rules of grammar, as well as the unbending etiquette of court and private life. Cities were no longer the spontaneous and untidy products of man's needs, passions and tastes: they were designed by the king's architects. The king demanded straight and wide avenues and large squares. Of course, he wanted the Baroque prestige of a great and ornate capital, but also easy passage for his troops to quell riots. Beauty itself, the most elusive of all qualities, was codified down to minutiae. Religious life was strictly regimented. Gone were the wild debates and revolts of the preceding age… Morality was imposed, dogmas and principles were defined, rites standardized. In both camps orthodoxy was sternly defended.…

Society appeared formed of two main layers. At the top there were a few grands seigneurs. At the bottom the vast ragged, picturesque and powerless crowds. The grands seigneurs derived their power mostly from the favours of the king and from the revenue of their land. They were encouraged to live lavishly, on their estates or at court, and not to dabble in trade, banking, politics, or scholarly pursuits … The nobility cut off from responsibilities inevitably became overbearing, inept and dull. The populace was kept ignorant, poor, superstitious, harassed by tax-collectors, religious authorities, bureaucrats and soldiers. At times the poor broke out in bloody but short-lived and unprofitable riots. Most of the time, they were kept happy in their misery by the distribution of alms, the sale of cheap flour, the splendid performance of public spectacles and the clubs of policemen.…

Behind the splendour, the agitation, the shouting, the roll of drums, the flutter of flags and the roar of guns, under the impeccably rational order of the era, lay a heavy feeling of futility and tedium. Men took refuge in distractions which took many forms: secret revolts against all conformism, open or invisible struggles for liberty or its substitutes, the search for free expression of man's unemployed talents in some interstice between forbidden fields. Men travelled to the far end of the world, fought savages, founded colonies, entertained dangerous political thoughts, volunteered in their own or other people's armies, joined new religious cults, the more outlandish and persecuted the better. Others lived, outside all known laws, lives of licentiousness, violence, profligacy, debauch and crime. This is the other face of the Baroque era, the more Baroque face of Baroque life.

The situation grew more and more explosive as the decades passed. The people… found themselves with but a few narrow and secondary fields in which to give vent to their energies. The rulers… were more avaricious, dull-witted and ignorant than most other rulers, but also more insecure and frightened; nowhere was the populace purposely kept more hungry, superstitious and illiterate; nowhere else was it entertained more lavishly with spectacles and dazzled more expensively with ostentatious architecture. Nowhere else, at the same time, were so many people plagued by a feeling of futility, more anxious to take revenge on their oppressors, more desperately eager to explore unusual ways to escape.
--Luigi Barzini: The Italians (New York: Atheneum, 1965), pp. 299-303

Yes. Well, I was recounting earlier today, in conversation with Tom and Elizabeth McNamee, Matt Matsuda's concept (in The Memory of the Modern, a very provocative book about the nature of the century we've just traversed) of acceleration, which he considers the inevitable and unreventable nature of every culture. Matsuda would have us believe (and has persuaded me) that every culture accelerates itself to death, shakes itself apart in a pitiless determination to be ever quicker, faster, more impatient.

Yet that month in Rome, and this reading of The Italians, suggests that this acceleration takes its place beside a concurrent stasis. The more things hurry the more they are the same: perhaps it is the very awareness of the impossibility of changing, of shaking the innate impossibility of improvement, that drives the fatal frenzy, the frenzied attempt to escape the determinate curse of the past. Barzini's Italians live out the results of the decisions taken by their medieval ancestors, who were only continuing to express the quasi-genetic flaws of their Imperial Roman ancestors that much further back into antiquity.

This may have something to do with the present American conundrum: how did the American people, descended from fiercely evasive and independent and exploratory people intent on making their own world for themselves, suddenly find themselves repeating the mistake of the post-Revolutionary French, who thought themselves responsble for the liberation of all humanity from the monarchists? How can we be comfortable imposing freedoms on people of other cultures?

Not to introduce too much complexity: it seems to me this has something to do with another concept I've been meditating lately:


One of our more liberal legislators, John Burton, is apparently about to introduce a bill banning the production and sale of foie gras in California, motivated I suppose by a solicitous concern for the comfort of ducks and geese. It is said that the "forced" feeding of poultry for the production of foie gras imposes a discomfort.

Of course the raising and slaughter of meat animals involves serious questions, questions of life and death, and it's good that we consider these questions. But two items come immedieately to mind:

• Concern about legal confrontation of practisces cruel to animals should be met by legislatiion dealing with precisely that matter: cruelty to animals. Presumably such legislation has long been in force.

• The right of any one political constituency to impose its own values on another should be given very long and careful consideration.

The word "ethics" has, my friend Douglas Leedy points out, "a rather remarkable etymology, which I'll add here:

ethos… in Greek originally meant habits or haunts (one's habitual place), then the character of a people in its habitual place, then a moral quality of people.

A vexing problem arises from the fact that a sense of place is fundamental to the concept of ethics, because in today's world the very concept of "place" is no longer locative or geographical. We all simply move about too much, either vicrariously through the entertainment and cultural media or in reality thanks to modern transportation, for that to be the case.

In fact the situation has become reversed. Torn from the literal grounding provided by a continuous sense of place, we are mostly all of us now namadic; and like the wndering Jew and homeless Romany we take solace in our portable but still distinguishing subcultures. Ethos , how we feel we should conduct our lives, is, more than ever, grounded in ethnos , what it is that distinguishes us from others. Where once we were the products of our place, now we are beginning to make place the expression of ourselves, wherever we are.

That much the more important, it seems to me, the social and political right to a free cultural expression. I don't see that a vegetarian has any more right to insist the Spanish give up bullfights, to take one example, than that the Methodists have a right to insist the Polynesians give up lewd dancing.

Obviously animals suffer, and obviously that's a different level of concern than, say, grass skirts. But human conduct, and the political and legal regulation of human conduct, is not about geese; it is about humans.

Ultimately the crux is the old Zen problem: how can a good and just person live in a fallible and cruel society? By being good and just himself, and not carrying his neighbor's problems on his own back. One may hope Spain will eventually give up the bullfight. I do not insist on your eating foie gras. But I do ask you to allow me the God-given right to my own sinfulness. If there is to be cultural pluralism, there must be relative morality.

February 2004: We're back from Rome, catching up with deferred maintenance, but you can still read those reports on my Rome page.

December 21, 2003: Still thinking about painting

Partly because I’ve just finished a catalog essay about the San Francisco painter Jack Jefferson, partly because I wrote yesterday about Fred Martin’s show at the Oakland Museum, I find myself still thinking about a very interesting property of paintings.

They hang on the wall.

This came to my attention most recently after I’d written a paragraph or two about a Jefferson painting in mixed media on paper, going into a description of it in some detail, only to find out later that the photograph I’d been working from showed the painting upside-down. Not much of my paragraph could withstand that discovery, so I had to re-write it.

In fact the work in question still looks “better” to me — more reseolved, I mean — oriented as I’d first encountered it. And I have every reason to believe Jefferson worked on these pieces flat, turning them occasionally. Charlie Strong tells me he did that even with his earlier oil paintings: the proof is that drips run in more than one direction.

Jackson Pollack was perhaps the first of the modern masters to state this new approach to painting. I’m not aware, away from books and notes, of any deliberate intent on the part of Cubists or Constructivists to disavow vertical orientation among the critical aspects of painterly composition.

(I do recall however a minor hoo-ha caused by the unacknowegedly upside-down reproduction of Picasso’s great Cubist tondo Le point de l’ile de la cité in Douglas Cooper’s supposedly definitive catalogue of a major Picasso show, back in the 1970s.)

To my mind certain paintings are meant to be trays, not windows, and Jefferson’s untitled work from the early ’70s is one of these. (I wish I could reproduce it here: perhaps in time I’ll post an expanded version of the catalog essay on this site.)

Most paintings of course are windows, whether they’re representational or not. They hang on the wall; you look both at them and through them. The convention of illusionist painting went out of fashion early in the last century, partly it’s conventionally said owing to the discovery by European painters of Japanese pictorial conventions. But even when paintings grew as flat as a late Mondrian they function, to my thinking, when they hang on walls, as windows.

Windows themselves were luxuries, at least in cold climates, until fairly recently. We take them for granted. The “picture window” is almost obligatory in the usual American house, and I suppose by far the most glances through those windows are inattentive, automatic. There’s an old joke played on people who have been seen to consult a wristwatch: ask them immediately what time it is and they generally consult the watch again, though they’ve just looked at it. I bet if you ask me what I saw out the window last time I looked I’d have no idea.

We look at paintings this way too. Maybe that’s why a recent darling of the international art scene painted people upside down in his canvases, to startle the viewer into actually paying attention.

December 20, 2003 : Looking at/Thinking about Fred Martin

The dates don’t matter, and I don’t have them handy. Well, one date does: you have until January 6 (Epiphany!) 2004 to see the Fred Martin retrospective at the Oakland Museum of Art.

A survey of Martin’s work is a rare thing — the only other one I know of was back in the 1970s at the San Francisco Museum of Art, when it was on Van Ness Avenue, and before it insisted on the word “Modern” in its name. (Nothing more dated, now, on the art scene, than anything pre-Postmodern.)

That was a magnifent show, that first retrospective. It filled a number of galleries as I recall it, following the painter’s journey -- “evolution” is entirely the wrong word — from his early urban landscapes of the late 1950s, the Beat Generation years, to the big abstract acrylic-and-pastel kaleidoscopic largely one-color canvases of the early 1970s.

In between he had responded to the “Funk” movement of the late 1960s (think William Wiley), had explored a kind of new Romantic nature-and-nourishment mythology inspired by friends’ farms in Sonoma and Napa counties, had continued to read widely and to meditate publicly in his writing, and had travelled around the world. In other words, by the mid-’70s he had become one of the very archetypes of northern California artist-thinkers.

He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, wrote for ArtWeek, and worked in his studio — my God, he worked in his studio. I bet he could turn out a dozen paintings in a night if he wanted.

Two anecdotes concerning Fred Martin:

1) In the SFMA retrospective he showed among other things one hundred drawings in ink on rough oatmeal paper. These were hung on a single wall, as I remember it, maybe on more than one, edge to edge, as if they were tiles in a mosaic. No one was “better” than the next, and they were all magnificent. They represented, to Martin, two or three simple elemental forces, Man, Woman, House, Nature: but to me they were simply great objective visual things, clearly symbolic but completely abstract.

Later on, quite a bit later on, their memory so haunted me that I asked him if I could buy one. Sure; come on over and choose one. Virtually the first that came to hand jumped into my life. I read it at the time as a couple of snow-capped mountains alone but for one another, an existential portrait of a marriage, perhaps, perhaps my marriage.

I chose it immediately, of course, and he rolled it up for me. I asked how much it was. He seemed a little embarassed, a little surprised. Oh, I think they go for around a hundred dollars, he said. A bargain, I said, and paid him. Yesterday at the Oakland Museum Phil Linhares said they were selling for a dollar apiece at the time he painted them. If they continue to appreciate at that rate I may sell mine, but I doubt it.

2} At about the time he painted those big abstract acrylic-and-pastel kaleidoscopic largely one-color canvases mentioned previously, in other words when they were still new and I think otherwise unexhibited, Martin submitted one to the giant juried exhibition the SFAI used to give. This must have been about 1970. It was the last of those shows, which were truly huge — paintings, sculpture, prints, mixed media work, each categorie juried by its own juror or jury and, because traditionally they wound up including so many works, shown at a different venue.

This was the show that caused a great deal of controversy when the sculptor Carl Andre, who had been asked to jury the sculpture, came out from New York and, in essence, refused to do his job, saying he had no right to decide what was art and what was not, beauty was everywhere. (A friend pointed out the error: beauty is everywhere, but art is not, and he was asked to judge art, not beauty.)

At the time I was working on a television show for KQED about the process of the painting jury, and every day for three or four days I went with a cameraman to the Art Institute to watch a student haul canvases out of a storeroom and parade them past the two men who served as jury: Walter Hopps and Richard Diebenkorn. I watched silently: these were Great Men and I had nothing to say or to ask that could possibly be of interest to them.

The student brought out the canvases, and the jurors said Out or In, or, in rare cases, Set it aside. Sometimes one said Out when the other said In, and those too were set aside.

I recognized Martin’s canvas when it first came out and sort of held my breath. He taught there, after all, and he was a man to contend with. But this jurying was of course blind; the jurors didn’t know who had painted it. They looked at it for a while and ordered it set aside. I looked at the student who was holding the canvas; he grinned at me, then took the painting away.

Next day same thing.

Third day it came out again, one of the few to remain undecided. “I don’t know what’s going on in this painting,” one of the jurors said, I don’t recall which at the moment. “Me either,” said the other, “ it doesn’t make any sense to me.” They agreed to reject it.

Now what I think is that if the San Francisco art scene of the time, by which I mean curators, collectors, dealers, and critics, had had any sense they would have seen that Fred Martin was virtually a one-man embodiment of the art of his time and place, and he should have been celebrated, honored, and seen and heard. But an art scene in a democratic republic is a complex tissue of jobs, committees, wealth inherited or earned, an uneasy awareness and relation to art history, ditto toward the perceived cultural authorities of the country, ditto toward the perennial questions of Class, Education, and Cultural Orientation in our pluralistic society.

And Fred Martin is, well, a mandarin, an intellectual, a mystic, a pixie, a chameleon — not an easy artist to pigeonhole, to summarize. His paintings (and his drawings, his prints, his collages) are almost invariably beautiful obects to look at: color is rich, line is supple, composition balanced even when dynamic. Their content is clear and allusive, intriguing, familiar, even accessible when it is representational; arresting, bold, emotional when it is expressive. But no painting taken individually cleary states what it is to be a work by Fred Martin; there is no representative work.

He knows this, of course; and he knows too that his paintings grow in meaning and effect when they’re allowed to converse among themselves. This is why he wants his exhibitions hung the old-fashioned way, close, double-ranked, and without interrupting wall labels.

In short one of the most difficult aspects of Martin’s presence on the art scene is his very variety. In exploring so many sides of what it is to be human and alive in our time and place he continully leaves viewers, collectors, curators and critics a step or two behind.

Another matter: Martin is far more than a painter. The Word is as significant to him, and to an understanding of his work, as is the Image.

Another anecdote: I gave a lecture at the Art Institute a number of years ago — for reasons I now forget, it was a response to The Necessary Angel, in which the poet Wallace Stevens meditates on the utility of artists in such a society as ours.

(My lecture, “Painters, Peasants, and Postmodernism: a reading of Wallace Stevens,” can be read in , even recent cultural history, a difficult book to find but available from Frog Peak.)

Fred Martin sat in the front row of the audience and seemed to be taking extensive notes during my lecture. Later, though, he gave me a collage-drawing, his response to the lecture. It involved rubber-stamp imagery and drawing and a page from his notebook, in which he wrote of the lecture — among other things — too dense, too dense. Alas the collage was light-fugitive and has faded to virtual invisibility. I like the implications.

The point is, Martin thinks, and writes as well as he paints. He writes about art, and he writes about his art. The Oakland Museum retrospective includes a vitrine containing a number of his notebooks; they should all be published.

In fact one of them has been: or, rather, Martin published a book version of that world tour of the early 1970s. It was one of the first artist’s books to be published by Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press. It seems only a few years ago this marvelous production came off the press, but I see looking at the colophon that it was in fact nearly thirty years ago.

Fred Martin continues to paint, to write, to think, to see, to feel, dividing his time now between the Bay Area and Montreal. For years he has been one of the most significant of the human treasures of our immensely rich and significant country, Northern California I mean, and this retrospective of his is something that should not go unmentioned. I’m sorry it took me so long to get to it; I hope you have a chance to see it in the next week or so. It’s a gift to us all.

Fred Martin's Website

December 17, 2003: Helen Gustafson

Another friend gone. Helen Gustafson, a memorable woman of great character, a beauty, and a wit, died Sunday evening (Dec. 14) — “after a valiant battle with a long illness”, as the cliché has it: but in this case the cliché is literally true, and while Helen must have been an adversary to contend with, the illness is implacable.

I met Helen when she was a hostess in the café at Chez Panisse, a number of years ago. I wish I could say we were close. I suppose we were, in fact; we shared some pretty poignantly intimate moments having to do with similar brushes with ill health. But we didn't see one another as often as I'd have liked.

I remember once visiting her and her Gus on the ancient farm in eastern South Dakota where they summered. It was years ago, but it was fragrant with ancient memories of many years earlier yet: blades were missing from the old rusty Aermotor windmill out back; dust scented the ancient dotted Swiss curtained air in the parlor; old roses yielded their sweet musty fragrance to the twilight garden.

She went on from hostessing to become the Doyenne of Tea at Chez Panisse, and in the realm of Tea her enthusiasm, her knowledge, and her opinion — let’s simply say her whim— was Law. She knew how hot the water must be, how long the steeping, what sort the pot, and there was no argument with any of this.

Yet she was open-minded, and recognized authority elsewhere. Lindsey and I told her about Mariage Frères in Paris, and she went, and was captivated by the colonial correctness of it all, the silent pretty boys in white who never failed to brew the tea precisely five minutes — she timed them surreptitiously — even though they seemed to have their minds elsewhere than on the pots.

We never visited the Saturday outdoor market in Apeldoorn without buying a couple of those authentic Dutch farmer's bandanas, the red ones with the fanciful white designs, one for me, one for Helen; as handkerchieves were another of her enthusiasms. One of her reasons for battling as she did was to cultivate and, more important I think, to share such enthusiasms, and she lived to see her last book, Hanky Panky.

It's on the coffeetable now, along with the tea book, The Agony of the Leaves. I'll have more to say about Helen one day, and about that unforgettable day we drove together out to Mt. Diablo to see a shaman. Just now I think I'd like to close simply by quoting her, from the last page of Hanky Panky:

Sometimes when I close my eyes now, I see handkerchiefs floating down from the sky. I also see a little French child reaching for his security handkerchief, what the French call the dou dou. I see bandits in old movies robbing stagecoaches, their faces masked with black bandanas. I see martyrs and revolutionaries awaiting execution, their eyes shielded from their impending death by a brave white handkerchief. I see lovers using their handkerchiefs to flirt and entice, to send silent messages of devotion and desire. I see the groom removing the handkerchief from the wedding contract to signify his willingness to assume responsibility for his bride, and I see the newlyweds dancing their wedding dance, each holding one end of a handkerchief as symbol of the new bond between them.

And in a small village, in the twilight, I see a circle of chidren playing the ancient game of Drop the Handkerchief, their shouts filling the air as one child chases another around the outside of the circle. I do hope one of them remembers to take the handkerchief home. I hate losing handkerchiefs.

Her dedication of that book, to Winifred Yen Wood, states Helen's family credo: Kind words can never die. I see, without even closing my eyes, Helen and her handkerchiefs, Helen and her teapot, Helen and her Gus. She was a brave, funny, gallant, high-style woman, tall and leggy, with nice little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. For a long time now I will think of her every time I have a cup of tea, or take a folded handkerchief from its drawer. The world is a better place for having known her.
Books by Helen Gustafson:

The Agony of the Leaves: the ecstasy of my life with tea. Preface by Samuel H.G. Twining, O.B.E. Illustrated by Mark Cagnon. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Hanky Panky: an intimate history of the handkerchief. With photographs by Jonathan Chester. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002.

other books available online.

December 15, 2003: Thinking about Saddam

I can only think he is insane, and has been for several years. How else explain his mania for ostentation, his contempt for his own land, his brutality?

And now look at him, deprived and disoriented, reportedly incoherent at times. At his humiliating capture he reminds me of Mussolini, an early precursor. Let’s hope he is not temporarily freed, or finally lynched, as Mussolini was.

What to do with him? I suppose he must be tried: that seems to be the prevailing usage, clothing vengeance in the civilized trappings of “justice,” the justice, our president instructs us, that he denied his own people.

It’s precisely at moments like this, when the crimes and the criminals are unimaginably exaggerated, that the very concept of justice seems wholly inadequate — and therefore itself irrational.

I think he is insane, and should be confined for the rest of his life, and examined as closely as possible. How does such a man develop? What is wrong with his wiring, and how did it go wrong? Are there early signs that such a personality is building?

These are medical questions, I suppose. But there are anthropological questions, philosophical ones, spiritual ones. I would like to see a great playwright put Saddam Hussein and George Bush in a play, with antropologists and philosophers and theologians on the sidelines. I want to hear mothers and wives query these men too.

Somewhere behind the Ottoman Empire, the colonisation of the Arab world, the visions of Mohammed, the resentment of a boy raised among men without a mother, the aridity of the desert -- somewhere behind these and God knows how many other insults and amazements, all of them intersecting with the modern world, the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the American and French Revolutions, the entitlements of world trade, and the power of industrialized materialism — somewhere among all this there must be something that can be studied.

I hope such a humanistic examination will not be prevented by rush to justice.

December 7, 2003: long time no see

Much water over the dam: a car crash, a hospitalization, the finish of our walk across the Netherlands, a trip to Lindsey's roots in Chicago and Wisconsin, a week in Portland, and another jaunt to Glendale to see theater. I'll take them backward: so far, I've written up the Glendale trip.

November 15 2003: on “Intellectual Property” and the recompense for downloads

Eben Moglen has some useful comments and good ideas in his recent article (“Pay Artists, not ‘Owners’”, The Nation, Oct. 27 2003), but he does not go far enough.

His issue is with the music industry’s insistence on the concept of intellectual property rights to music distributed on the internet. His point, and a very good point it is, is that the conventions now in force governing copyright are inherited from an age of print, and no longer apply in an age of digital distribution.

There remain two immediate problems for artists and writers: how they can or should be recompensed for their intellectual creativity, and how their intellectual creations can be safeguarded from distortion or plagiarism. Moglen does not address the second problem in his article, though perhaps he will in the book he is working on, “about the death of intellectual property” (The Nation, op. cit., footer).

As to the former problem Moglen suggests the development of technology allowing payments directly to musicians to be made, presumably at the moment sound files are downloaded from the Internet.

Moglen reveals the nut of the problem in a single sentence:

“If those of us who can afford it were to set up our computers to pay a quarter automatically to the artist for each song we get by sharing and decide to keep, musicians would earn enough to repay everyone in the creative chain (songwriters, producers, engineers) while keeping more than the pittance the ‘owners’ condescend to award them now.”

Perhaps a BMI-ASCAP model could be applied to the distribution such repayment would require: this would substitute a nonprofit organization, preferably an international one, for the present recording conglomerates; and that might help overcome the inherent unfairness (and culturally limiting) effects of the market-driven solution Moglen suggests.

For he is a little short of the mark when he writes “In fact, of course, musicians and other artists thrived before Edison turned culture into commodities.” Tell that to Mozart; and tell it to any number of “musicians and other artists” who have failed to thrive since Edison: poets, composers, philosophers.

What the Internet makes possible is the storage and distribution of intellectual and artistic work regardless of its market value, and this is extremely important to keep in mind. The eventual value of apparently abstruse science and mathematics is rarely in doubt, and the same attitude should prevail toward the arts.

Artists and intellectuals, and their work, should be valued and rewarded quite apart from immediate utility and prolificacy. Artists and intellectuals are essentially motivated by generosity: they have an urge to contribute. The response of society should be motivated by gratitude: the contributions enrich the human condition.

Concepts of ownership, property, and recompense are essentially irrelevant. What is needed is a way of guaranteeing every living person the ability to express this generosity and gratitude. That is the pressing social concern. It involves a proper distribution of wealth and employment, not an accountant’s tracking of sound-files.

June 27, 2003: home again

Back, finally, from nearly three weeks on the road. Lindsey was off to Chicago and Wisconsin, via train, with Giovanna, touring, watching the Cubs beat the Yankees in Wrigley Field, and attending a gathering of her mother's family.

I was off to Berkeley for three days of concerts -- Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, and a fascinating improvisation concert, all at Hertz Hall at the University: nice to see such concerts in that venue!

And then a two-day tour of northern California with a friend, and then a week of theater-going in Ashland.

You can read about the concerts here; about the plays here; and about the trip here .

And now to work on two new projects: the Duchamp lecture, to be given in Utrecht this September; and (really not new but dusted off) The Making of Lou Harrison, perhaps for publication this fall or winter.

June 15: New Sammy

Dinner at New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, oh my.

Thursday night Leedy and I took our seats in the cabinet semi-particulier; it has only two tables, and we got the larger one, hooray. (The other seats two; ours was meant for four.)

Now one of us is a vegetarian, and I'm always a little concerned introducing a person of that distinction to a Fine Restaurant. But Sammy's is very accommodating.

After the little amuse-gueule -- chickenliver paté for me, dunno what for him -- we both had a boletus and fava bean appetizer, but it's not that simple, nothing is at this deceptive place; there was also chervil and garlic and very good salt and who knows what else to make a dish with deep and complex flavors and textures. And with it a sparkling red Bugey that couldn't have been more refreshing.

And then I had salmon from Copper River, a thirtyfive pound fish, Charlene the chef told me, filleted out and poached to perfection, and served with little garden peas and morels and more.

We split the chocolate cake, as good as I've had, and when I say that it means something.

Last night we were there again. Leedy's gone home, but I'm here with three couples, seeing plays and talking and playing games and generally just knocking back, and every year we take one dinner the bunch of us at Sammy's, and last night was the dinner. I asked for the Bugey but Thursday we'd drunk the last one, so we had a fine little Moselle instead, and I started with resonant kale and garlic and mozarella, and then went on to a lamb chop that pretty much said everything you need to know about lamb, and was accompanied by two lamb sausages wrapped in, oh, kale again I think, that was one of the most penetrating and complex things I've eaten recently.

New Sammy's hasn't changed. There's still no sign: you'd never guess this place is a restaurant. But it is, and one of the best I know. There are two pages of teas, many of them quite rare; the wine list goes on forever; the food is hand-selected (much of it grown on the premises) and cooked by a genius, a deft and patient one, and the service is attentive, engaged, but not distracting. Some people find the place too eccentric for perfect comfort, but not any of us.

Three plays in the last two days, but reports will have to wait for the next dispatch. Hope you're all eating as healthily as I am!

June 13: On to Ashland

I've figured out a way we can drive all the way to Ashland without going on a freeway, Leedy said. And first thing, we'll be able to see the Wye.

This won't mean much to those few of you who aren't railfans, but it meant a lot to me. The Southern Pacific used to go north to Seattle by way of Ashland. Later a route was added by way of Klamath Falls. The Wye is where the tracks diverge: three arcs of circles the tightest radius the locomotives could negotiate.

But first we stopped off at the Sisson Museum, right next to the Fish Hatchery, west of the town of Mt. Shasta. We parked in front of a nice big lawn scattered about with swing sets and picnic tables and set off by a very large sign:

FROM 1933 TO 1969

Inside, the museum was really quite interesting, with old photos and maps of the large convoluted areas through which we'd driven the previous two days, installations re-creating typical kitchens and salons of home of a century ago, fine baskets made by the first inhabitants of the area, and so on.

There was a big collection of cameras, which made me think of the library in ancient Alexandria, formed by a local law requiring anyone passing through town to leave behind any books he had: they were copied, and the traveller went off with the copy.

We went off without my camera, but I quickly realized it and went back for it. Then we hit the road, the old road parallelling the highway, for the Wye, but the AAA let us down: even though we were using the current map, the road clearly indicated had been long since closed with what the Dutch call a "slagboom," a long steel pole pivoted at one end, padlocked at the other. So we retraced our road and took the freeway for a quarter-mile or so, resuming the slagboomed road on the other side.

I don't know if you feel as I do about the romance of abandoned roads. They've enchanted me since I was a kid: small bridges unaccountably alone out in cow-pastures or oak groves; traces high above the highway skirting hillsides; faint tracks in the desert; occasional narrow ribbons of cracked concrete along the road you're driving, with weeds growing up through cracks.

We were on one of these, and it was clearly the old Highway 99. It ended soon, though, at a pile of pumice and sand, a discarded television set lying on one side of the road, a beat-up refrigerator and some peeling tires on the other. Our road was a thick overlay of worn and patchy asphalt above a much thicker pad of concrete: I wondered how much work, time, money, and material there was, laid down like this throughout the country; and I got that nostalgic and faintly discouraged feeling I always get, that there was a time when workers were here full of optimism and good cheer about what they were doing, that they were making money and improving their world, and now it's all crumbling back into the soil.

It's a Chekhovian mood, I suppose, enhanced this time by the awareness of theater to come the next day. We never found the Wye, of course, but we did stop in the town of Weed, for a cup of tea, and discovered the Weed Bakery, just beyond the steel arch that introduces the two or three blocks left of the old town center. The Bakery's in trouble with authorities that want it to conform to present-day standards. They're being told to paint parts of the oven, for example -- a fine huge old brick double oven that's been in use the better part of a century. I didn't taste any of the bakery products myself, except for a delicious doughnut which of course has nothing to do with baking, but the techniques and equipment I saw there suggest a fine traditional bakery, and it's been in the same Italian-American family for nearly forty years, so it's clearly something to treasure. I hope they withstand these insane governmental assaults.

Then on toward, but short of, Klamath Falls, turning west to the desparate little town of Keno with its long-closed shops, and further along the Klamath River, stopping at a shoreline park and picnic area for leg stretches, and on down highway 66 climbing and descending and twisting and turning along a fine road that had me reaching for the Fernet to ward off the travelsickness demon, and down to Ashland and our marvelous weeklong theater party -- about which more next time.


June 11: McCloud

Odd, how exhausting it can be simply to sit on the wrong side of the front seat of a car for a few hours. Exhausting, but engrossing. I'd got up early enough to see the remnants of rosy-fingered dawn -- her fingertips, you might say -- coloring the clouds hovering across Mount Shasta, and walked up to Has Beans, my favorite place in town, for a cup of real coffee before braving the breakfast installation at this formerly cozy, now merely commercially ingratiating motel, Strawberry Valley Inn.

Then we set out for McCloud. This is a former lumber town, with the requisite lookalike company houses on the lower expanses, bigger, sometimes grand ones higher up under the trees. At least one of the houses is in the Wyntoon style of Hearst's local estate, great unpeeled logs and wide porticos under low eaves.

There's a hotel in town that will be our future substitute for Strawberry Valley. It's a little kitschy, but authentic enough to overcome its cuteness. The television set is banished to a smallish lounge, leaving the lobby dominated by its stone fireplace, with comfortable chairs and tables set about, offering chess sets, books, and the promise of a glass of sherry. Outside the gardens offer their own chairs and tables, and the prices start lower than this motel -- off season, at $89!

Across the street is the Dinner Train yard, where on weekends in summer you can catch a three-hour train serving what I suppose is an elaborate dinner, also at $89. But we will likely drive back into Mt. Shasta for dinner, as the eats otherwise in McCloud are not promising.

The chief local restaurant, an Italian bourbon-and-fettucine model, is braving the sale of the old hotel it occupies. A tight-lipped kid in livery who was vacuuming the lounge handled my inquiries: This place for sale? Euh. Is the restaurant still open? Euh. You open tonight? Euh. Maybe everyone in McCloud is of Scottish sympathies.

We had a cup of cocoa in an enormous, rather desultorily malled-up building that was once the company store -- you can still see where the old meat-racks and ice-rooms were, though an espresso machine, a huge selection of prepackaged candies, and a small café have tried to soften and postmodernize the facility.

Tonight is graduation night in Mt. Shasta. Leedy overheard a guy describing the projected nocturnal activities to a buddy: The ceremony's at seven, and then we'll have dinner, and then we'll go out, I guess, and shoot some guns.

We got sandwiches at the local deli, made by a maternal, lanternjawed, feisty woman who, when I kidded her about something, said Oh I get it and punched me on the shoulder, and then drove out of town on the McCloud Loop, which takes in a number of forest service camps and at least three waterfalls.

Here we were still in Middle America. A fresh-faced twelve-year-old boy all rigged up in Eddie Bauer finery out fishing with his dad. A fat lady out driving her handicapped mother back to Idaho. A park ranger in a hard hat sauntering across the parking lot, his wheel chock carefully set a couple of feet from the nearest wheel.

We drove quite far into the interior, ten miles on paved road to the reservoir -- why did they dam this river? What possible use was there in going to all that expense? And then another ten miles on graded road, now and then degenerating into scree and rubble, Leedy's faithful Cressida handling it all quite gracefully.

At the end we came to the Conservancy Preserve -- I think that's what it's called -- parked, and tramped down the trail to the river. A couple of fishermen pulled at Sierra Nevada ales. Another two or three prepared to truck a few days' groceries down the trail to a cabin that remained forever out of sight.

We sat on a boulder and soaked up the sounds, the rushing waters, the wind, the birdsong, and then retraced our steps, up the dusty trail to the car, up the road past the brilliant turquoise reservoir, down past the amazing whites and blues and lavenders and greys of the ceanothus, toward a looming thunderhead snaking up out of clouds hovering over the distant Trinity Alps.

Dinner? Mediocre, in a Christian Italian joint on main street. Then back to the motel to catch up on some reading, and watch Comedy Central, and maybe listen later to some guns. And tomorrow back to the highway to Ashland, and dinner at New Sammy's.


Mt Shasta, June 10: you can't count on it

A long and beautiful drive today, up highway 101 from home to near Arcata, then out 299 and up 96 along the Klamath river -- a drive I've wanted to take for many years. We drove, or rather Leedy drove and I rode, for close to 400 miles. What beautiful country California is! The coast ranges falling away on each side of 101, the redwoods, the surprising broad rivers -- Eel, Van Duzen, Klamath, Trinity.

It's true, the towns leave some things to be desired. The small ones are scrappy and in some ways desperate, unable to find relevance in a high-tech and low-expectation economy. The biggest of them, Eureka, drags on for miles of sprawl and clutter. But between them there are still those long vistas, ridge behind ridge, clearcut forests healing over, and the flowers -- poppies, blue and yellow lupine, purpleblue vetch, white daisies and ceanothus, blue ceanothus, and the startling reds of paintbrush and fireweed, with here and there fading mauve-pink farewell-to-spring.

And along so much of the drive, after leaving the coast, the Klamath river, fast and unboated, with graceful old steel or concrete bridges tossed airily across them.

We stopped at the Indian Creek Cafe in Happy Camp, and I had apple pie and coffee -- it seemed like the right thing to do. Is that pie made here, I asked; No, they admitted; In that case I'll have a piece, I said. It was good: the apples were canned or frozen, but that's okay, you can't likely get good cooking apples here this time of year: and in any case the pie crust was delicious, tasting of flour, salt, and shortening, and tender and flaky and baked to just the right color. And even the coffee was good.

But here in Mt Shasta the restaurant we were banking on, the Trinity Cafe, turns out to have been sold, and while the new chef knows how to turn out an acceptable duck breast salad, the place seems to lack some component that made the place a destination before. I kidded the hostess that if we didn't like it we'd drive down to the next town for dinner at Cafe Maddalena, except that it was closed Tuesdays, and she said Oh that's where the previous owner has gone, he bought it, Maddalena has gone back to Italy.

That's sad news: Maddalena was a favorite restaurant of mine. But the former Trinity people may do okay there, and the new Trinity people may well rise to the challenge set by the ancien regime. It's hard to say.

In the meantime Mt. Shasta itself, the only Cascade peak to retain a native name, Leedy informs me, is white and massive yet oddly graceful and feminine. We drove up the Everett Memorial road after dinner, to watch the sunset. We couldn't get up further than seven thousand feet; there's still quite a bit of snow above that level. But we watched some delicate alpenglow tinge the peak, and the setting sun reveal the profile of the Castle Crags and the snow-capped Trinity Alps beyond, and silhouette the oddly menacing Black Butte just before us.

All around birds were singing to one another from the heights of fir trees. I wish I knew what they were: they sounded a little like meadowlarks, but their song was both quieter and more melancholy. The sound of their voices defined the distances between the snow-isolated trees, and between their heights in those trees and us, so far below, so dwarfed by the mountain, the distances, the still, and the gathering dusk.

photos of the Klamath River trip

June 5, 2003: Recent activity

Friday night we saw Chekhov's The Three Sisters at A.C.T. in San Francisco. Lindsey's off to Wisconsin with three of her sisters to a family reunion, so it seemed the logical thing to do.

Lindsey's family is of course not Russian, and not trapped in the hinterland (at least not all of them), and there are certain other distinctions to be drawn. Still it was fascinating to me as an outsider to see Chekhov's play, which does so subtly capture the interrelationships among these sisters, subtly I say because that aspect is to such an extent subtended to the obviously chief effect, which is lassitude in the presence of rusticity.

This is an interesting dynamic in our own family: of the five sisters of whom Lindsey is the oldest, all but one live in a rural setting. At least primarily. This produces certain disconnects among them, at least to my observation. Cultural assumptions -- I mean the most basic assumptions governing what one does during the day, who one confronts, how the air feels -- these assumptions are quite different from one person to the next, and form quite different sensibilities, and therefore ways of interacting with not only the environment but also one's intimate friends and relations. Yet these differing assumptions are rarely consciously considered.

My own life is, now, rustic. I was on the phone today to a dear old friend who lives in New York, and it was difficult to imagine his context. Let me try to indicate the rural style of life here:

Today's newspaper -- the Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise, and Scimitar -- carries a page one story about the third-grade class in Alexander Valley Elementary School, who have emptied their piggy banks to counter the state deficit, giving half their money to their own school, the other half to the state budget. They came up with a total of $100. It won't go far tothe $38.2 billion deficit, says the governor's press secretary, but it will help.

What else. Transent workers are camping out along the creek, as usual. They aren't being hassled by the authorities, as usual. A few weeks ago a friend who raises tangerines in Ojai told us he'd tried to mount a one-day general strike of all undocumented workers in California, just to show how important they are in the state's economy. But of course it's hard to organize the undocumented, and he didn't swing it. Here they are doing our work, keeping our economy going, what's left of it, and they have to live in improvised shelters along railroad tracks.

There are some problems. "They defecate, they urinate," says one local businessman. "Do I wish they'd go away? Yes I do."

Well, it's too bad, but we all defecate and urinate. Maybe we should provide more facilities for these people.

I guess I haven't posted here since we got back from Glendale. In the meantime we've been gardening. The weather is fabulous. The rains are behind us, but they continued later than usual, dumping lots of nitrogen on our garden, which has been amazing -- the iris and, especially, the roses, turning this place into a park.

That from today's "travel dispatch" to those on my e-mail list for such posts, which I try to send when I'm out on the road.

All, of course, is not ideal here, though I did some months back refer to our setting as a paradise on earth. We went last Saturday to a general meeting devoted to news about the plans our neighbor city, Santa Rosa, has for "impacting" us with her sewage. The plan is, we're told, the biggest single wastewater treatment plan ever, excuse me, floated. It involves injecting millions of gallons into live geysers, never mind the proof already gathered that earthquake activity rises in direct relation to such injections.

Santa Rosa was shaken a week or so ago by a 4.3 Richter quake, which cost a friend nearly $200 in damages to her hot water heater; perhaps she should rely henceforth on the geyser.)

Other recent cultural news: A fabulous performance of Ned Rorem's opera Three Sisters who are not sisters , to the Gertrude Stein play (maybe that's what led me to go to the Chekhov), at Oakland Opera Theater: this is an enterprising black-box theater near Jack London Square where we had last year seen a marvelous production of Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts. These people combine acting, sets, video projection, and a great deal of both heart and intelligence to bring these pieces to life: if you're anywhere near you should not fail to look in on them. [Oakland Metro]

They began the evening with a series of art songs to Stein texts, music by Rorem and Thomson, with in one case an accompanying film, all of this staged; then went on to the opera, performed on an impossibly raked stage, marvelously, by three sopranos, a tenor, a baritone, and a pianist: you can get their names from a review found at their website.


April 13, 2003: War; Mercy; Security; Reconstruction

A friend forwards Robert Fisk's report on the destruction of Baghdad's Museum of Antiquities [].

I must say that the moment I saw Saddam's statues falling I had an uneasy feeling. The Taliban's destruction of the two gigantic Buddhas in Afghanistan came immediately to mind. It did not help the next day to see the American flag, upside down, momentarily veiling Saddam's head in a symbolic decapitation.

True, it was almost immediately replaced by an Iraqui flag: and then the statue pulled down. But something about the angles, the flags, the mobs, brought to mind Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People -- an image lingering in the French mind, no doubt conditioning their recent reservations about the morality of war.

I believe the vandalism in the Museum is related to the toppling of Saddam's statues. As usual, the texture and context is complex. One strand may well be the fundamentalist Muslim attitude toward icons of any kind. Another is sheer resentment. It wouldn't be surprising to find that the vandals -- how badly etymology works in this case! -- were Saddam loyalists, bent on destroying any past not large enough to house their leader among his historical and legendary predecessors.

A third element is the whole concept of history. The present destroys the past in this act of pillage, as the present had no patience for the future in the American administration's rush to the war that precipitate the pillage. Perhaps Fukuyama was right: perhaps we do live at the end of history. And if Fukuyama was right, perhaps so too was Revelation: last days are at hand in the desert sands of the middle east. Last days, not for the patient Earth, but for the societies of its most highly evolved animal inhabitants. (I write ironically, of course.)

At immediate issue, though, is the question of the security of Baghdad, of its legacy, and of Iraq, its present and its future. And here it's hard to ignore the equivocation of those who, like Fisk, blame the Americans for failing to police the people they have vanquished -- while at the same time condemning the invading army for turning now to occupation; or for converting the hated Saddamite enemy into police.

Clearly two separate but equally competent forces are needed simultaneously, now and for the foreseeable future, as long as armies are sent into wars like that now apparently winding down in Iraq. One is a security force to guard against pillaged museums -- and, worse in many minds, looted hospitals. The other is a mercy force, able to supply water, food, energy, and medical supplies. We have learned, in the last few days, that the American administration -- the "coalition of the willing" -- failed to see that the priority and scale of security and mercy would equal, at the least, the scale of the armed force that would conduct the war.

The Security Council should address this matter immediately, perhaps requiring the coalition to provide materiel and money to security and mercy forces while mobilizing needed personnel from those countries who wisely refused to participate in the warfare.

After security and mercy, of course, will come the final engagement in this sorry business: reconstruction. The American administration's intentions are pretty clear here, and pretty cynical. Here too the United Nations should step in, and quickly. I don't think it's too soon to begin to think in terms of reparations, and I don't mean from Iraq to the coalition.

The war was relatively easy, though far from cheap. We lost about a hundred men; we killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. But the war was only the first of these four engagements. Security and mercy are needed immediately; reconstruction -- physical, economic, cultural, and political -- must immediately be addressed. These are more intricate, in terms both practical and conceptual (I think of ethics, and cultural relativism), than the military issues. The United States has spent years and billions developing its military machine. It's time for it to demonstrate a similar commitment to the consequences of its military adventurousness.


February 26-28: The American Agenda

A friend writes:

It is useful to remember Plato's criticism of democracies was that they necessarily degenerated into tyrannies. The argument could be made that his understanding of democracy was different from our understanding of democracy, but it is also worth remembering we only have two hundred years to judge our democracy by.

Two hundred years is a short time for history, but a long time for a government. Our government is an old one. Only Great Britain, on the "big five" of the Security Council, is an older government.

Our government exists through the vote of its citizens, through elected representatives, for its Constitution, which establishes three independent and equally authoritative branches: Judicial, Legislative, Executive.

Curiously, the Constitution made no provision for the statement of any kind of national agenda. It was probably taken for granted. The national agenda was, at the time, simple enough: to establish independence from England, to construct a nation whose administration would interfere as little as possible with individual citizens, and with the local administrations in which they lived.

Our nation was founded on the notion that individuals -- shopkeepers, farmers, hunters and trappers, manufacturers -- should be free to pursue their individual agendas. And out of those individual agendas the national agenda developed -- inflected, "leveraged" you might say, by the tremendous riches of our silver and gold, and by the empowerment of the industry we based on our mechanical and, later, electronic savvy.

A society, like an individual, needs two conflicting conditions: a sense of comfort and a sense of purpose. Security and prosperity suffice for the former. The latter is what I'm writing about now: the "agenda," the sense of mission. On the individual level family accounts for much of this, which is why childless couples always seem to those of us with children to have something missing in their lives. But there are many other ways of fulfilling this sense of mission. Just now, for example, concern for the environment.

Societally, religion, or politics, or ethics, can constitute this agenda. Many of the first settlers of the New World came precisely in order to fulfill a religious agenda, and we should not forget the lasting contribution they made to the evolving American temperament.

* * *

I write today and tomorrow and the next day (and it will be long; I'm sorry to impose) in response to a number of items brought to my attention by e-correspondents responding to these musings of mine. Let me list them:
• Theodore Dalrymple: The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris

• Elliott Colla: Interest, Influence, Intervention: US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

• Jay Bookman: The President's Real Goal in Iraq

Dalrymple describes the horrendous situation faced by France, with a large number of unemployed, disaffected, and resentful young people in the public-housing projects of her large cities. "There are now an estimated 8 or 9 million people of North and West African origin in France... and at least 5 million of them are Muslims. Demographic projections... suggest that their descendants will number 35 million before this century is out, more than a third of the likely total population of France."

This is the inheritance of French colonialism in Africa, of course; but more directly it is the result of the need for imported low-cost labor "during France's great industrial expansion from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the unemployment rate was 2 percent and cheap labor was much in demand. By the late eighties, however, the demand had evaporated, but the people whose labor had satisfied it had not..."

These immigrants were carefully *not* assimilated into the French mainstream. There are several reasons for this, and the discussion would be distracting here: but the result was to leave a large number of young unemployed people culturally abandoned (except occasionally by radical-chic seekers of the exotic, but I'm already getting disitracted). Sullenly many of these youth turn to hip-hop, drugs, and defiance.

Dalrymple goes on to speak of entitlement and abandonment and what might seem a uniquely French attitude toward juggling these opposed conditions. But what strikes me reading his essay is how well this fits our own country. Our ancestors imported lots of cheap labor from Africa, and we have been working through the deferred price of this labor since the Emancipation Proclamation. (John McWhorter's writings, by the way, are worth considering in this respect.)

I am struck, too, by the idea that what Dalrymple is writing about here is the confict between Nation and Globe, between the urge toward a complacent homogenous culture and a vitalized international one -- in fact, between Comfort and Purpose.

Well: the French are aware of all this, at least a wing of the French intellectual elite are, and it is they who advise caution in the urge to Do Something about the various problems that beset the West at the moment.

I mentioned this some days ago, and that's why someone sent me the Dalrymple article. Many of you readers have questioned French motives at the Security Council: the French have contracts with Iraq; they have armed the Palestinians; etc., etc. All that is true. But we should not confuse agenda with motivation, and we should not allow cynicism to blinker our inspection of the issues. A man may sell a gun to a burglar; that doesn't mean he can have no valuable advice on how to speak to the burglar.

* * *

The implications of Dalrymple's piece go even further, for the France he describes is an analogue of all Western Civilization, and the lost generation of unemployed minorities within her housing projects are an analogue of what we used to call the Third World. And that begins to explain why we are at a historically critical moment, and why some people in positions of great power think it necessary to adopt and push a national agenda that amounts to imperialism.

But I have reached a thousand words, and will have to continue this tomorrow.



The American Agenda, 2

I wrote two days ago about the conflict between comfort and mission, contentment and agenda, nation and globe. The idea is that there seems built in to the human animal, once it has satisfied basic drives to survive, a need to accomplish something more. (There is speculation that this has been conventionally more true of the male than the female, and that it reflects an urge to avoid death. I got this from a fifteen-year-old movie seen tonight, “Moonstruck.”)

Perhaps this restlessness is the only thing separating us from the other animals. It is channeled intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, physically: and so at various times it has taken various forms among various people and peoples: religion, art, magic, war, education, philosophy, athletics, industry.

Families, tribes, communities, and nations seem equally driven by these restlessnesses, sometimes to what seem now to have been glorious achievements, sometimes to absurdity, sometimes horror.

Does the United States government now have a sense of mission? Clearly the answer is yes. I believe it is at least tripartite, involving business, religion, and political theory. And I believe there is even an official national agenda for the furtherance of that mission.

But if the agenda is national its reach is global. The evangelical urge that has always been central to the Christian religion -- the urge that distinguished it from the religions it supplanted -- animates the other two wings of the official American mission, which are to develop markets and suppliers abroad and when possible to install or support governments which have some formal semblance to our own.

It animates the agenda itself, which can hardly be considered less than imperialism. This is why I took for my epigraph a comment sent recently by a friend: “Plato's criticism of democracies was that they necessarily degenerated into tyrannies.” The finest, kindest policy at home becomes tyrannical when forced upon unwilling subjects abroad. Indeed our war of independence from England was based on the common appeal of this truth.

What is the American agenda? Jay Bookman lays it out clearly in a think piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The President's Real Goal in Iraq” (
Bookman quotes from “a report issued in September 2000 by the Project for the New American Century”:

“At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals,” the report said, stated two years ago [now getting on toward three--C.S.]. “The challenge of this coming century is to preserve and enhance this ‘American peace’.”

Bookman cites enough fascinating correspondences between details of this report and post-9/11 Bush policy to persuade me that the Administration is, in fact, hewing to the vision of this Policy Report. I know this sounds paranoid; it recalls whispers about the Trilateral Commission and so on -- I can’t help it. The details are persuasive.

One may dissent from some of Bookman’s sweeping pronouncements.

“The lure of empire is ancient and powerful, and over the millennia it has driven men to commit terrible crimes on its behalf. But with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the soviet Union, a global empire was essentially laid at the feet of the United States. To the chagrin of some, we did not seize it at the time, in large part because the American people have never been comfortable with themselves as a New Rome...

“If we do decide to seize empire, we should make that decision knowingly, as a democracy. The price of maintaining an empire is always high. Kagan and others argue that the price of rejecting it would be higher still.”

And who is Kagan? Donald Kagan, a professor of classical Greek history at Yale University, and a co-chairman of the 2000 Project for the New American Century. Which brings us back to Plato.

“Empire” is a strong word, but much in currency lately. The first example that came to my attention appeared nearly a year ago, in a piece written by Amitav Ghosh in The Nation, May 27, 2002: “The idea of empire, once so effectively used by Ronald Reagan to discredit the Soviet Union, has recently undergone a strange rehabilitation in the United States. .” Ghosh points out that Empire is spoken of positively by members of the Left and the Right alike, and “has recently been embraced by Britain’s Labour Party.”
“The idea of empire may seem too antiquated to be worth combating. But it is always the ideas that appeal to both ends of the spectrum that stand the best chance of precipitating an unspoken consensus...”

Ghosh contrasts Empire -- which “cannot be the object of universal human aspirations” since it requires that some people be rulers, others be ruled -- with Nation, which “can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere. The proposition that every human being should belong to a nation and that all nations should be equal is not a contradiction in terms...”

Ghosh warns that “an imperium... generates an unstoppable rush toward overreach, which is one of the reasons it is a charter for destabilization.” Two reasons: “an empire’s inherent tendency to expand,” and the incentive it provides “for lesser players to provoke intervention.”

* * *

I think it entirely credible that there are idealistic as well as cynical motivations behind this policy of imperialism. Let’s look at previous American agendas:

• Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the drive to fill our borders.

• After the War Between the States, Reconstruction and the perfection of the Industrial Revolution.

• From the Spanish-American War until 1916, isolationism resting on the exclusion of European influence from the Americas.

• During the 1930s, the struggle against the Depression.

• World War II and, afterward, the reconstruction of Japan and Europe. (This will be important: it is the model for both charity and market-seeding.)

• Afterward, the Cold War and the containment of the “Godless,” “Evil” Soviet “Empire.” That takes us through Korea and Vietnam.

I know nothing about economics, but it seems to me that the boom times of the 1920s were connected to a new awareness of international marketing and banking, and that the Great Depression reinforced the lesson that economy was from now on inevitably a global concern. After World War I we tried briefly to return to isolationism -- we walked away from the peace conference, allowing the ruinous penalties against Germany; and our Congress scuttled the League of Nations. But an isolated United States could not solve its own economic collapse; it took a new global war to set things right again -- because only a cataclysmic war could apply the necessary discipline to the freedom-loving American public.

Well, here we are again, new century, new millennium even, and same old problems: a collapsed economy, a search for scapegoats, a chaotic Europe, a menace -- real or perceived -- in that centuries-old source of exotic threat, The Mysterious East.

What’s changed? The American mentality, now firmly divided, almost fifty-fifty, between two established parties; made cynical by the media, the criminality of big business and banking, and the hypocrisy and secretiveness of the government. The extent of political and international awareness of the electorate, shaky throughout American history but more confused than ever today. The sense of entitlement among Americans both privileged and not. The devotion of the pubic to commodities, even now as it approaches satiety.

And, of course, technology, itself amazingly evolved in two totally opposed directions: the magnificently sophisticated weapons and intelligence apparatus of the US, and the magnificently opportunist and everyday armamentarium of the invisible terrorist.

There seem to me to be two ways out. The Bush administration is devoted to one of them: exportation of everything American; imposition of American values throughout the world; development of markets for American-dominated banking and industry everywhere. Imposition of Nation, in other words, on Globe.

Or... but I am well beyond my thousand words. I’ll try to conclude this tomorrow or the next day.
But, in fact, I did not get back to this contemplation of The American Agenda, for the administration's execution of the agenda crowded it out of my mind.


February 25: Burning Flesh

At about the time of my nineteenth birthday I was living alone in a small cabin. On morning I woke up, pulled on a pair of pants, and lit a cigarette. I was amazed to see a globe of flame surrounding my hand. The next thing I knew I was outside, the skin of my arms turned inside out and hanging like long gloves from my fingertips.

Then I was on an operating table, looking up at the masked faces of doctors and nurses. One doctor said I wouldn't make it: I remember thinking I'd show him, and then it was a few days later.

I smelled burned flesh for weeks afterward. It took months to recover. I am lucky to be alive. So I was particularly upset seeing the television coverage of that nightclub fire in Rhode Island, where nearly a hundred people died horrible deaths, horrible and needless deaths.

Iraq, I am told, is a country of about 22 million people, forty percent of whom are less than fifteen years old. Children. Probably two million of those children live in Baghdad (pop. 4,478,000).

Not many of them will be in nightclubs, of course. But as I looked at that West Warwick nightclub scene I was thinking of the TV coverage of the Gulf War, and imagining the coverage to come of the proposed new Iraq War.

If you were saddened, sickened, or angered by the idiocy of that nightclub fire, how will you feel about the many more people, many of them children, who will probably die similar deaths if we allow this proposed attack to take place?

Tomorrow I will be asking my senators this question, courtesy of the "virtual demonstration" organized my You can participate too: go to


February 22: Tolerance, Context, Empire

An e-friend writes to a mailing list we subscribe to about

... the importance of permitting abuse of a freedom in order to preserve the same freedom for matters of real substance and great consequence.

I did not mean to say that America bashing was a bad thing or a good thing - I was trying to say that it deserves the same examination of motives, facts and truth as any other position. ...

I *think* that an intellectual position should be thought through - and that it should welcome and invite criticism. I *think* that when it comes to matters of faith, morals, heart-felt convictions and feelings - that the greatest of tolerance should exist.

I find this a magnificent statement, whether describing rational and effective positioning in the face of personal relationships, which is in fact its context; or whether taken by extension to address global politics. It is precisely what I have been trying to say for the last week or so in my own hasty and ill-stated musings here. We must learn as individuals and as nations to do our best, think the best, tolerate other views -- while, certainly, disapproving "rogue" behavior, no matter who the perpetrator.

Another quote, if I may, from Alistaire Horne's Seven Ages of Paris (he is writing about Occupied Paris, 1940-1944):
The story of the Occupation is so unredeemingly terrible that an Anglo-Saxon historian writing about the glories of la ville lumiere is faced with difficulties, when trying to encapsulate what is the unhappiest period in all her 2,000 years' history. How, anyway, can an Anglo-Saxon begin to comprehend the pressures and stresses imposed on both collaborators and members of the Resistance -- we who, thank God, were never occupied? Does our lack of experience entitle us to pass judgment: "It couldn't have happened here"? I often wonder which of us would have been collaborators... Smugly we think Drancy and the deportations of the Jews couldn't happen here, but can we be sure?

Another friend has sent me the text of a lecture he is giving in a few days at Brown University, where he teaches Arabic literature in the Department of Comparative Literature, and is a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report.

His lecture is called "Interest, Influence, Intervention: US Foreign Policy in the Middle East." He begins by quoting Richard Perle, on of the top advisors to Presdident Bush on Middle East policy (as quoted by Robert Fisk in The Independent, Jan. 4, 2003): "Terrorism must be decontextualized."

I hope I can persuade my friend to let me post his lecture to my website; I'd like you all to read it. (At 9,000 words, it's too long to send as e-mail.) He begins by insisting on the need to examine terrorism precisely in context. "If we decontextualize terrorism," my friend points out, "then it follows, a war on terrorism can also be liberated from history and context. Decontextualization is the logic behind Rumsfeld and Cheney's decision to attack iraq in the first hours following September 11, even though it was patently clear that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with those crimes."

My friend's lecture insists on examining the context of the Iraq policy, knowing that "When government officials declare a policy of decontextualization, the study of historical context suddenly becomes a political act." He traces, of course, the changing attitudes of official U.S. policies toward support or disapproval of this Middle Eastern regime or that. He divides countries in the area into three types:
. allies which comply with, gain from, and even exert influence upon the rules of American power;

. Moderates... which are willing to comply but have trouble convincing their publics to accept the equation of US power; and

. rogue states which openly criticize or resist the regional termis of US power.

My friend (I await his permission to identify him) discusses the three largest economic interests we (the U.S.) have in the area: oil, arms, and markets. He discusses the geopolitical concerns of U.S. influence and intervention. He considers "Who stands to gain from an occupation of Iraq". He considers the asymmetry of U.S. treatment of Israel ($5 billion per year in aid, or $1,250 per capita, not counting forgiven loans) and, for example, Egypt ($2 billion in aid last year, or $30 per capita; in the form of loans used by the Egyptian military to buy weapons from the U.S.).

And he ends with a few paragraphs on the possibilities of local resistance to Middle Eastern administrations.

It was interesting to read my friend's lecture in the wake of George Monbiot's article "Too much of a good thing: Underlying the US drive to war is a thirst to open up new opportunities for surplus capital," from the Feb. 18 issue of The Guardian. (This was sent by another friend: you can still find it, I hope, at,3858,4608021,00.html)

Monbiot's position is that the American surpluses of capital and labor have to find an outlet, and that none is now left but war. It's an interesting point and persuasively argued, supplying an economic context for the discussion. My friend sent a reply he'd got from another correspondent, who has consulted to the World Bank for several years, and who teaches Public Policy in a well-known university:

We think that the analysis is very good, and correctly captures the capital accumulation problem today in the U.S.
In our opinion, there was a failed attempt to move from dominating capital markets to establishing domination through information technology in the 1990's. But, the companies couldn't figure out how to make money...
We also agree that in the US today, the military is the only area where large amounts of money can be spent without political problems. The problem is that capitalism has progressed from blatent control, i.e. invasion, and repressive forms of organization in the workplace, towards more subtle forms of control.
In the international realm, control of international lending, the media in Third World counties, and ultimately the election process is very common today.
An example is the election process in Vedat's country, Turkey, where a government which was not favorable to US plans, was thrown out through early elections induced by the US in favor of one that is more dependent on US support, in time for US war plans.

I have also read the talk Norman Mailer gave two days ago (Feb. 20) at the (San Francisco) Commonwealth Club, where he discusses, rather broadly, the motives behind what he sees as President Bush's drive toward an American Imperialism. It is fascinating the extent to which the discussion is moving to just that topic: an American Empire. Mailer seizes on American Christian righteousness as a principle actor in this, and that looks right on the money to me: I believe that much of this activity is motivated idealistically, not cynically -- it's just that the ideals involved are not my ideals, or for that matter those of the Founding Fathers, or any author of any declaration of human rights.

Mailer says, anent American intent to install "democracy" in other lands:

There's nothing more beautiful than democracy. But you can't play with it. You can't assume we're going to go over to show them what a great system we have. This is monstrous arrogance.

Because democracy is noble, it is always endangered. Nobility, indeed, is always in danger. Democracy is perishable... To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.

Which brings us full circle to

the importance of permitting abuse of a freedom in order to preserve the same freedom for matters of real substance and great consequence.

I hope we continue to have time and liberty to discuss these matters in a state of some civility.

19: Sovereignty or Sustainability?

An unknown correspondent writes in response to my last letter, the one about Louis Philippe:

Does that explain the French government selling Iraq a Nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade uranium? And when the Israelis protested, they told them to mind their own business. It is the French "capitalistic" morals that gave Saddam the idea that he could always buy his way into the mass destruction club.

As you can see, I do not think very much of France.

Well, no, the unwise French war on Prussia, the cruel response, and the civil war that followed -- that doesn't explain France selling Iraq a reactor. Although there is a connection. Louis Philippe was concerned about an imbalance of power: the Germans threatened to surround France if they gained control of Spain.

The French sold the reactor for the same reasons, I suppose, that the United States armed Israel. There are two reasons: to make money, and to balance powers.

The concept of sovereignty requires a balance of power. The only alternative is a united front at the expense of a common enemy. That is what drove the Crusades. Absent such foreign involvement, domestic security requires balance of power -- balance of terror.

Sovereignty is a foreign notion, it seems to me, to much of the traditional Arab world, which was essentially tribal until it was taken over by Europe on the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. There is some consternation here because the terrorist enemy -- al Qaeda and whatever others there may be -- is not a national enemy, but a nationless network of like-minded armed and trained combatants. In short, a kind of tribe.

So for decades we, we Americans and Europeans, have been arming societies behind which stand not only governments of sovereign nations -- Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Turkey -- but also organizations of tribes, loosely speaking: al Qaeda, Hamas, Taliban, God knows who. And even the "sovereign nations" I've mentioned maintain their identity through uneasy governments who must constantly appease or suppress powerful dissident factions.

Europe moved beyond this state of affairs a millennium ago, allowing for lingering problems popping up now and again down to the Paris Commune. But we are wrong, in the United States and Europe, to think the rest of the world has made the same journey. (Or, indeed, that such a political evolution is necessarily progressive.)

Apart from the horror of the war itself -- its murder and its mayhem, and the danger it will convince a generation that might is right -- there are two or three other dangers present.

One is what seems to be the historical inevitability that exported armaments come back to bite us.

Another is the assumption that Anglamerica knows best for Iraq, or indeed for anyone, when it comes to national values or motivations. We have seen the results of British nation-building and they are not persuasive. The current motivation of American foreign policy isn't much more promising.

A third is that our government seems bent on continuing to rely on oil, arms, and marketing, depending on whether the context is war or peace, to articulate domestic and foreign policy.

Given the speed, complexity, and murderousness of contemporary war, the only global activity that seems sustainable lies in alternative to war. The proper response to September 11 would have been an immediate change of American policy. It would have been something of the scope and morality of the NRA, the WPA, the Marshall Plan. It would have seen a governmentally organized and funded assault on disease and poverty and ignorance and violence everywhere. Such an undertaking would have to be maintained in the face of temporary setbacks, ingratitude, and misuse. Instead of reactors we should fund solar collectors; instead of arms, farming apparatus.

Police work would of course continue to be necessary: but it would be easier to convince the United Nations, all of them, of the rightness of any such police work were our own values and operations more clearly in the service of life rather than profit, sustainability rather than exploitation.

It would not be hard, I think, to convince other nations to join such an undertaking. This would be a "crusade" not against a scorned and hated rival religion but against enemies common to all people. A growing number of developed countries united against disease and poverty would have a common purpose, and perhaps in time would learn that as sovereign nations they have more to hope for than to fear from one another -- and, ultimately, from the world they are making.


February 17: Old Europe, New Europe

I've been reading Alistair Horne's book Seven Ages of Paris , and I think I see what the French are thinking of when they caution against a rush to war.

A little over a hundred years ago the head of the French government, was faced with a failing economy at home, less than cordial foreign relations, rampant health problems among his citizenry due to sexually transmitted diseases, and a number of other problems.

He did his best, "establishing institutions of maternal welfare, societies of mutual assistance, workers' cities and homes for injured workers; he proposed shorter working hours and health legislation, and he got rid of the degrading prison hulks and granted the right to strike."

But good as his intentions were things didn't take hold. "Many of Louis Napoleon's more progressive ideas, however, were stymied by the selfishness of the new bourgeoisie and the conservatism of the provinces, circumstances which did not escape the attention of the [working classes] in the capital."

He needed a distraction, and it was provided by a growing threat from a country to the east -- a country which had exhibited weapons of mass destruction at France's own World's Fair of 1867. France saw this country as a threat, and many of the French saw an easy war here, one which would defuse the threat and reconfirm the French position as a leader of the world.

So France declared war on Prussia; Prussia put together a coalition; the resulting German army was of unprecedented numbers and well armed; Paris was besieged (the first European capital to be starved by seige in centuries); Louis Napoleon's Empire fell; thousands of Parisians starved or were destroyed by heavy artillery (the beginning of modern acceptance of collateral damage).

And it didn't end there. The poor of Paris had given the last of their money and nearly the last of their energy to the doomed French imperialism, and they were furious at their leadership for losing the war. They rebelled. Civil war broke out between the citizenry and the provisional government, by then removed to Versailles, of all places. And when it was all over perhaps 25,000 Parisians had been killed by their own "government," hundreds of them executed in the streets and tossed into public graves made ready at the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

And then came the anarchists and their political assassinations. The first victim was Tsar Alexander II, in 1881, and he was followed by others. Brittanica Encyclopedia: "between 1890 and 1901, a series of symbolic murders was enacted; the victims included King Umberto I of Italy, the empress Elizabeth of Austria, President Carnot of France, President McKinley of the United States, and Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, the prime minister of Spain. ...

"During the 1890s, especially in France, anarchism was adopted as a philosophy by avant-garde painters and writers. Gustave Courbet had already been a disciple of Proudhon; among those who in the 1890s accepted an anarchist philosophy were Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Paul Adam, Octave Mirbeau, Laurent Tailhade, and, at least as a strong sympathizer, Stéphane Mallarmé. At the same time in England, Oscar Wilde declared himself an anarchist and, under Kropotkin's inspiration, wrote his libertarian essay, 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' (1891)."

It would be an exaggeration to say that this happened within living memory, but most of us over fifty have known people who could have participated; who perhaps did.

I'm sure the heads of European states think about those events of little more than a century ago, and of the events to which they led -- the two bitter wars between France and Germany that followed, and that involved all those "old Europe" nations as they reconfigured themselves following the loss of their own empires, victims of internal rot and no longer sustainable global commitments.

The heads of our own State do not perhaps give any of this much thought. We are a little cocky at the moment, perhaps as a means of saving face after September 11. Some of our "leaders" dismiss "old Europe" as somehow irrelevant, as fixated on the past, as hypocritical providers of arms to Iraq (though the United States is just as guilty).

NATO and the United States looks eagerly toward a "new Europe" embracing the former Soviet bloc, as if the Czechs had never sold arms, or the Ukranians knew where theirs were; and the relatively stable governements of "old" Europe, France and Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands (if the Dutch only had a government!), look on and see the U.S. apparently driving a wedge within the European heartland. Which is a subject for another day.


February 13, 2003:


Fifty-eight years ago less two months my brother was born during a violent thunderstorm, just as the news came that President Roosevelt had died. My mother was not unhappy; she detested his domestic policies. My father was torn among emotions: sadness at the President's death; concern for my mother; optimism about the war, then winding down; hope and anxiety as to the postwar life to come.

I was ten years old; I comprehended next to nothing of all this. And now I wonder if soon I won't comprehend it much more fully. It seems nothing can stop this rush to war. For so long so many of us have wondered about the Germans during the rise of Hitler: how could they sit by? What might they have done?

Yet it is obvious that by far the majority of ordinary citizens throughout the world we know -- North America and Europe, I mean, I can't speak for those in Asia and South America -- are opposed to this coming war. We don't like it on several accounts, of which I'll mention only three:
•It is wrong to attack pre-emptively, especially when civil damage is inescapable.
•The hostilities seem doomed to spread, and will certainly precipitate more terror attacks.
•The economy, stupid.

We heard yesterday, from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that we here on the West Coast are subject to nuclear attack. He was asked if North Korea had the means to deliver nuclear bombs to the United States. He asked an aide if the answer to the question was "declassified," then turned to answer the question:

"The declassified answer is Yes."

Setting aside the hateful possibility that this news is entirely spurious, distributed by an American government wanting to fan war-mindedness among its not-yet convinced public --- and I cannot bring myself to believe such a scenario -- it is amazing to me that this information was ever classified.

I understand one rationale: that we cannot let Korea, or others, know how much we know, lest they find out how we come to know. But what information could be more vital to the American citizen than that he is threatened with the fact and the means of nuclear attack?

Perhaps the information was withheld in order to lessen the significance of the North Korean threat vis-a-vis that of Iraq. I am convinced that Saddam Hussein's arms production could well threaten the United States via export to terrorists, and I can see that the Bush administration is in a difficult place prioritizing such threats.

But the United States is a representative democracy, and such global issues as these are supposed to be discussed by an informed citizenry.

I have resisted arguments that the Bush administration is bent on installing autocracy or oligarchy in place of the government our Constitution creates -- surely Bush himself, and even his advisors, are not revolutionaries.

I don't like the word "paternalism"; it is now too fraught with sexual politics. But the best construction to put on this administration's behavior is that it is paternalistic: that it has the good of the American public in mind, but lacks confidence in that public's ability to learn, to understand, to discuss and weigh the complex difficulties now facing us.

This is of course a way of muting the anti-war movement. The very fact that such complex issues as these have to be reduced to simple bipolar expressions -- pro-war, anti-war -- could be itself an indication that such paternalistic thinking is right -- except that the administration gives us no indication that it has any other response than war to the present situation.

I have ideas as to what other responses we could be working on, and I hope to get around to posting them -- though at the moment I am anxious as I have rarely been since that stormy morning fifty-eight years ago, when I knew that something was pending but knew not what it would bring.

In the meantime, then, one plea to my government -- which I of course had little to do with electing: Please, give us all the information, and listen to us as we respond to it, and do not patronize either our ability or our willingness to participate in this terrible moment. ______________ I've just telephoned my senators to urge them to support Senate Resolution 32, calling for another Congressional vote before going to war. I took advantage of the moment to register my opposition to the war. You can do this by calling 1-800-839-5276 or 202-224-3121. To see the text of the resolution, go to and type in "SRes 32" (no quotes) in the box for the bill number. And thanks to the woman who sent me this suggestion.


February 3, 2002: Lou Harrison

It's sad to hear that Lou Harrison died last night. He was traveling to performances in hs honor at Ohio State. He'd taken the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, with his companion Todd Burlingame; there they were met by two Ohio State students who were driving them on. They stopped in Lafayette, Indiana, to have dinner -- at a Denny's, of all places! -- and Lou stumbled, apparently having a heart attack. He was taken to hospital but could not be revived.

I hadn't seen Lou for a few months. A friend reports that in a telephone conversation a week or two ago Lou's voice sounded wispy. He would have been 86 years old in May.

Coincidentally, just a couple of days ago another friend sent me a copy of Jonathan Williams's book A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (Boston: David R. Godine, 2002). In it there is a remarkable photoportrait of Lou, with a page of commentary by Williams, who asked Lou where he would place his own work in the continuum of Western music. Lou said:

I can only say, Lou Harrison is an old man who had a lot of fun.

Jonathan Williams is a remarkable poet, photographer, and publisher: his Jargon Press brought out Lou's book of poems, Joys and Perplexities, in 1992. It is sad to lose Lou, who was, in the cliché, larger than life; but it is good to recall that there are a few yet left, and Williams is one of them.

I asked Lou once what life was all about, and he told me what Virgil Thomson had told him when he asked a similar question:

We're here to entertain one another with stories on our common way to the grave.

Lou was gentle, irascible, big, modest, generous, avid, prolific, painstaking, brilliant, moody; he was generous and grateful. His motto was:

Cherish. Consider. Conserve. Create


February 2, 2002: According to Kathleen Pender (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 29 2003, B1) our Senator Barbara Boxer has “co-sponsored an amendment that would limit the salaries of federal employees and comissioners to no more than the president’s pay.”
Bad idea: this could kite the President’s salary. A better idea: limit any and all federal salaries to no more than twelve times the minimum wage. While we’re at it, limit corporate executives to no more than, say, twenty times their corporation’s lowest salary.


February 1, 2003: It's a long time since I updated this site. In the meantime there were three trips to Europe, the death of a very close friend, a disappointing midterm election, nearly a thousand photographs taken, the publication of a new little book, a month in Portland, and the birth of a new grandson.

And now we are poised on the beginning of a war. It seems clear the momentum is irreversable. What is unclear -- in addition to the casualties, likely to be considerable -- is the outcome. Even if the damage is minor, and assuming the "regime change" is accomplished, the placement of a new government is going to be difficult.

What is clear is this: we are presented with yet another overdue bill, run up by centuries of Western Colonialism. The European powers were unable to resist preying on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britiain and France carved up those deserts, nearly 200 years ago, in the wake of the failure of Napoleon; Great Britain and the United States turned back the German attempt to control the oil subsequently found under those sands, 50 years ago.

Now there is a new threat: the region may actually become dominated from within, by a fully armed Iraq. And that in the context of a chilling and surreal revenant: a new Crusade. This one begun not by Christians, whether kings or children, cynics or fools; but by terrorists claiming a new religion, a jihad against what they see Christianity has become after two thousand years: decadent, materialistic, greedy, arrogant, imperious.

I believe we are in a historic position not experienced for centuries. This is not Berlin in the 1930s; it is Spain in the 15th century. What is most notably different, of course, is the technology and the immediacy. Their threat, and the historic opportunity to correct the wrongs of colonialism, require sober and visionary action by men and women of good minds and strong hearts in all nations.

Homepage rev.: February 2003 © 2003, Charles Shere