Sunday, August 31, 2003
I am getting more tolerant in my old age. The kind of people you see at game conventions tend to be, shall we say, less affect-conscious than most people. They will, for example, spend a half-hour talking to you about their current D&D character if you let them. This used to irritate me a bit (though not enough that I stopped doing shows, of course, or got out of this silly industry), but I guess I've finally gotten used to it, though not used to it enough to be able to actually converse in any coherent way. And also, I find that these days my sister does more or less the same damn thing with her Everquest characters, so I can't avoid it.
Saturday, August 30, 2003
We are selling lots of quirky stuff that the other dealers don't have--the idea is to avoid carrying exactly what other dealers are likely to have, because in that case there is an almost overwhelming temptation to start discounting, and we don't discount, so we can't win that war and wouldn't want to. We are doing well with little standalone card games, and with the German-style boardgames that the other dealers have neglected. And we irritated someone who walked away from our booth muttering about how "evil" a game Lunch Money was. But, I tried to explain, that game was the story of my life....
Anyway, I am in a good mood for two days in a row. Alert the media.
Friday, August 29, 2003
I arrived a little late at the Clarion (the Shorecon venue this year), all set for 11 hours of boredom and meager sales. I brought books.
And what the hell: We kicked ass.
We not only made back our table fee the first day (always a joyous event for the convention dealer), we did almost as much today as we did at the entire same show two years ago, our first. I was so excited I drove back to the store to tell Bob (in the process avoiding a return trip through smelly SW Philly), and it turned out he had had a great Friday at the store.
So, for once, content.
Thursday, August 28, 2003
Wednesday, August 27, 2003
No, that is NOT me in the Santa suit.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
"Dennehy is never going to refute what we say. And now he's dead, so he isn't going to argue with me at all."
We see Bliss working the angles like an Elmore Leonard character. "Even if we had to kind of make some things look a little better than they are, that can save us." One of the most interesting remarks in connection with the case was from Bobby Knight, who said that Bliss was the smartest assistant he ever had. But then, Macbeth was a pretty sharp cookie too.
Monday, August 25, 2003
But what I love most about this movie are the ideas and emotions always on display. It's "about" a lot of things: Entropy, optimism, the creative process, lower middle class life, and unconventional love. The performances are wonderful, but the film belongs to Hope Davis as Pekar's wife Joyce.
This is one of my favorite films of the year so far.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
But we didn't talk about the NFL at all. All Dave wanted to talk about was military history of all things. He has just published a book collecting his great-grandfather's newly-discovered Civil War letters and he gave me a copy. We talked for an hour about Gettysburg and General Sherman and Victor Davis Hanson and things which most of the population couldn't care less about, and had a great time.
Today I went to Quan's birthday party at her friend's house in Upper Darby, a few minutes away from my house. I greeted her with something unforgivable: "Happy 33rd, Quannie!" And of course she shooshed me, since she lies about her age to everyone, given the cultural pressures that unmarried Asian women have in their thirties. But she looked great, the first time I'd seen her as a blonde, and she was her usual bubbly self.
I spent most of my time at the party with her cousins, just hanging out, smoking cigars (I love a good cigar occasionally), pretending to drink beer (I nursed the one I had into infinity), and arguing about which entrepreneurial taxes sucked the most. It was great fun. One of them is the adoptive son of
a certain former congressman who is currently in jail for scamming people out of millions of dollars, and I found out all about the white collar prison he is currently in in Florida, and it sounded so nice I wanted to move in.
I loved the party though. Homemade spring rolls, chicken satay with peanut sauce, and cigars. You cannot beat that.
Saturday, August 23, 2003
Friday, August 22, 2003
This story has got me thinking about Hell.
Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian Muslim cleric accused of leading the terrorist group blamed for the Bali bombings, broke down in tears yesterday and warned judges at his treason trial that they would "go to hell" if they convicted him.
[brief digression from Ed: I have never had a problem with men crying, but tears of self-pity from anyone, especially a man, who has gotten caught doing something as monstrous as this, and is suddenly overcome by how cruel the nasty old world is to him, is spectacularly contemptible. End of digression.]
The concept of physical Hell has been given something of a new lease on life with the higher profile of Islamic fundamentalism. The Bible gives us only tiny glimpses of what a physical Hell looks like, mostly at the end of the Book of Revelations, which even the most extreme fundamentalist Christians are forced to admit is all metaphor/allegory anyway.
The Koran, on the other hand, simply revels in the elaborate tortures to be given to the unfaithful in the next world, giving copious detail about what is in store for unbelievers in the next world. And, since the whole premise of Islamic fundamentalism is that every word in the Koran is literally true, we are left with the disturbing thought that hundreds of millions of people are cheerfully anticipating that everyone who doesn’t think like them will be the victims at a kind of eternal torture party, with nary a safety word in sight:
- We have in store for the unbelievers heavy fetters and a blazing fire, choking food and harrowing torment [al-Muzammil 73:12]
..The fruit of the Zaqqum tree shall be the unbelievers's fruit. Like dregs of oil, like scalding water, it shall simmer in his belly. A voice will cry: 'Seize him and drag him into the depths of Hell. Then pour out scalding water over his head, saying: "Taste this, illustrious and honourable man! This is the punishment which you have doubted." [ad-Dukhan 44:40-49]
Even today, I think, most Muslims still consider these tortures as metaphorical representations of the pain of separation from God. But for the fundamentalists, it's an article of faith that people who disagree with them deserve to have boiling water poured in their faces, over and over, until eternity. And that is scary.
Even at my most unquestioning when I was a kid, the concept of a physical Hell bothered me. I understand the concept of segregation—like Robert Schuller says, I don’t want to bunk next to Hitler in the next world—but the eternal vindictiveness puzzles me. What is to be gained from torturing someone else into infinity? What’s the point?
I've been rereading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and today I went through the wonderful "Season of Mists" story arc. This is the story where Lucifer tires of ruling Hell and turns over the keys to the title character, who must then choose between all of the different contending god pantheons who want to rule Hell in Lucifer’s absence. And who ends up surprising everyone by choosing to turn it over to a group of unfallen angels so that Hell can be ruled directly by Heaven.
The story ends as the angels gently instruct the demons who are there flaying the damned, that the eternal torment they are inflicting on their victims is not for the purposes of punishment, but rather for the victims’ own good. Nothing will change, but now, the angels tell themselves, the torture has a purpose.
The flames of Hell, Remiel muses, have become refining fires, burning away the dross, leaving purity and repentance and good. Remiel hears the screams, and it smiles.
Gaiman’s point here, smothered in his usual mordant irony, is the fundamental absurdity of the idea of a physical Hell. Eternal torment has no purpose, and any attempt to create one only makes the concept more and more ridiculous.
And I’ve always felt that way, even after September 11th, when I in fact wished that there was a physical Hell. I never thought that God was vindictive that way. The afterlife, I have always thought, was for whatever little spark of the divine, the decent, the kind, resides in all of us. For the rest—for the irredeemable few, the murderers, the child molesters—God simply gives them the eternal nonexistence they crave.
Or we can just agree with Sartre that Hell is other people. I find myself nodding my head at that one from time to time.
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
But it's nice that the world still has stuff for me to do. Posting my resume on Monster up to now has generated little but serious messages from earnest Nigerians offering me once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Dinner tonight at Hibachi with Bill, the usual all-you-can-eat sushi experience. We got to chatting with our sushi chef (we always sit at the bar because it cuts down on the time that it takes for the softshell crab rolls to get to us). I love talking to Vietnamese who came to this country around 1980, as Choi did, because they are the most grateful and least cynical of Americans. Their experiences are remarkably similar: All of them have terrifying boat journey stories, all of them spent years in Thailand dreaming only of living in America. There are certain people who make my cynical impulses melt away when I talk to them, and they are often people for whom terms like "freedom" and "slavery" are not political slogans but real experiences.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
Monday, August 18, 2003
The two little stories are from 1978 or so. The poem is from 1982.
The discarded pupa of a former caterpillar retains its consciousness and watches the newly-hatched butterfly floating off. Ugly shade of gold, thinks the rotting shred of membrane.
Albert and I were committed to the task of pronouncing every possible word within the range of the human larynx. Already we were up to three syllables.
"Sneeleeblit," he said calmly, and transcribed it immediately.
"Narhardar," I enunciated.
"Chunflocklick," said Albert, sharply accenting the last syllable for some reason.
"Charkarlar," I said, and Albert smiled at me in acknowledgement of the forming pattern. "Zarparvar," he said.
"Parwarlar," I said.
"Sharblarstar," he said.
"Cheebskuntwig," he said, breaking the pattern. He always liked to be first in doing that. So did I.
"Shakflitskein," I said.
Then he said: "Lakbrotstut."
My mouth opened, and dried. I felt a surge of adrenalin in my chest. I sprung forward, reached back, and slapped him across the face. My hands trembled. He began to laugh evilly.
Now we are speeding through all the possible words. I am looking for a word that will have that effect on him, and Albert is looking for another one that will have that effect on me. I look him in the eye and pronounce every word clearly. I want to hurt him as badly as he wants to hurt me. Why else would we have begun the experiment?
PAIN FOR SALE
When all pain is gone from the world,
far in the future,
someone will begin
to market the world's newest
Pain will come in different sizes
and two varieties:
Physical, and Emotional.
It will be eaten.
(Its taste will be minty,
and not unpleasant. Other flavors
are sure to follow.)
Pain will come in bar form
with the brand-name imprinted
as on soap. Pain will be
except for children's doses
(which will feature
smiling cartoon animals).
Pain will be wrapped
in whatever they use for paper then.
On every bar
will be featured
one prominent word:
There will be Pain
in every household.
People will ask,
How did we ever live without it?
No one will be able to tell them.
of emotional Pain
will be introduced:
And also physical:
Migraines, Arthritis, and
(by prescription only)
Some will start
taking other products
to counteract the Pain.
Some will not.
They will sit there,
chewing on Agony Appetizers,
Saturday, August 16, 2003
Today, just for the hell of it, I went to an open casting call for extras for M. Night Shyamalan's next movie The Woods at a VFW hall in Downingtown. It was an even more boring experience than it sounds, but it had some interesting moments. The experience definitely separated the people who want to be in a movie from those who are only casual about it, as it involved standing in the rain for 2 1/2 hours. Probably there were 800-1000 people altogether who applied. The call was for people to look like turn of the century rural European-stock villagers from ages 3-63.
We passed the boredom by settling into groups, and I ended up in a little group of five people: Two college-age kids, a lawyer, and then I hit the Small World Award when the other person turned out to be Gretchen, who writes for the Daily Local and is related to me by marriage (her son Billy is married to my sister's daughter Anne). We passed the time in the rain stoically enough, watching the crowd. Surprisingly, there were absolutely no SCA period-costume people. But there were lots of stage moms with their kids, an amazing amount, possibly half the crowd.
Finally we got into the building and heard the speech by Deedee Ricketts, who is in charge of extras casting on this movie. (There was also an assistant director there whose name I didn't catch, and M. Night was not there). The production will begin in mid-October in a specially built small town somewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania. She didn't identify where exactly the village is, but triangulating the two places where they are having calls for extras (Downingtown and Wilmington, DE) tends to point to southern Chester County, PA, probably somewhere around Oxford or Jennersville. They are looking for an ensemble group of extras to work multiple days in set roles: Blacksmiths, farmers, seamstresses, etc.
The film seems to be a supernatural romance set in rural Pennsylvania in 1897, and I like the cast very much with one exception. Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, and Ashton Kutcher are signed for it. The lead was set to be Kirsten Dunst, but she changed her mind and now it's Ron Howard's unknown daughter Bryce Dallas Howard.
Everyone filled out a card with contact information and sizes, including head sizes (since in 1897 everyone wore hats), which required everyone to look silly and wrap tape measures around our heads. No one was hired or rejected; people who get hired will be phoned up. But by the end of the day I was all cheerful, imagining myself a movie blacksmith, of all things.
Friday, August 15, 2003
At every opportunity, FvJ nods to its genre conventions without trying to be postmodern the way the Scream movies did. It lovingly serves up cliches 100% irony-free, including my favorite, the bit where lumbering Jason somehow overtakes teenagers running away from him at full speed, even when he's on fire. Many male viewers will appreciate another, ahem, notable convention: the lengthy, elaborate, shot-from-multiple-angles shower taken at the most inconvenient possible time by the woman with the best body in the film (Katherine Isabelle), as well as the pneumatically-tight sweaters worn by the virginal heroine (Monica Keena).
The virginal business leads us to the most interesting conventions of slasher films: The rigorous, almost medieval morality plays that the films act out for us. We watch, chastened, as "virtue" is rewarded with continued life, while "vice"--drinking, smoking, drugs, and, especially, pretty much any kind of sexual activity--is grounds for having one's innards ripped out with a machete. At one point, FvJ invites us to empathize with Jason's homicidal rage in the rave scene where two mean, pot-smoking teens cruelly taunt him: It's fiercely satisfying for the audience when Jason does his famous head twist on the one guy. Many critics have remarked on the moralistic subtexts in slasher movies; The contrast between the in-your-face sex and extreme violence in these films and the almost Puritanical messages behind them is as compelling as ever in FvJ.
At the heart of the film are the lengthy, Itchy-vs.-Scratchy battles between Freddy and Jason. And I liked the surprising wit displayed by the script, even the "Freudian Ebonic" scene with Kelly Rowland, even if no one else did.
I found the whole thing captivating and it's very fun if you're in the right mood for it.
Thursday, August 14, 2003
American Splendor. I knew going in this would be the best comic book movie of the year.
Girl with a Pearl Earring. I love period biopics to begin with (Shakespeare in Love, I should point out, was not a biopic but a hallucination). But Colin Firth as Vermeer, absolutely.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I am looking forward to this one, the third in the El Mariachi series. The great, sexy chemistry between Hayek and Banderas and the usual frenetic, over-the-top gun battles would be enough to get me to see it, but this one has a very interesting guest cast with Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp as villains.
Under the Tuscan Sun. I will go see any feature filmed in Tuscany, even the most painfully chick-flicky Diane Lane vehicle such as this. It does have Raoul Bova, one of my favorite Italian actors, though.
Matchstick Men. I'll see anything Ridley Scott, even atypical Scott, in this case a gentle comedy. And I'm looking forward to seeing a full-of-nervous-tics Nicholas Cage.
Underworld. Kate Beckinsale in, basically, Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves.
Cabin Fever. This one is getting great advance reviews for what, from the plot, sounds like a very standard teenagers-in-a-cabin-in-the-forest horror movie. Flesh eating bacteria sound like a kind of abstract villain, but I'm willing to go along.
Love, Actually. I can't resist Richard Curtis's London yuppie stories, even as the yuppies get older and older. This one looks especially nice, promising ten different interwoven stories and a very large ensemble cast highlighted by people I will see in anything, like Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, and Alan Rickman.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It seems to me that a $135 million movie about naval warfare in the Napoleonic era is a bit of a risk, but I'll see anything Peter Weir does, and I am already a Patrick O'Brien fan.
Kill Bill Part One. Love the trailer.
Cold Mountain. Not a Nicole Kidman fan especially, and Anthony Minghella is a little precious for me, but the concept--Ulysses in the Civil War--is irresistible. I loved the book.
Mona Lisa Smile. Normally I am not captivated by Julia Shows Them All films, but this time it doesn't sound like the usual JR vanity production. For once she is part of a real ensemble of A-list actresses (Julia Styles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. If we had the extra $ to risk, I'd have the store sponsor a midnight showing, just so I could see it earlier.
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
The current Esquire has one of the most extraordinary 9/11 articles I have ever read, Tom Junod's "The Falling Man," which is about the human being who is the subject of this famous photograph. It's the story of AP photographer Richard Drew, who took the picture, and the person who forever inhabits it. Earlier press reports had identified the Falling Man as Windows on the World pastry chef Norberto Hernandez, but Junod makes a good case that he is another WotW worker, a light-skinned black man named Jonathan Briley.
The article is not available online, but I will type out Junod's exquisite, terrible first paragraph:
In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear to be intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet. In all the other pictures, the people who did what he did--who jumped--appear to be struggling against horrific discrepancies of scale. They are made puny by the backdrop of the towers, which loom like colossi, and then by the event itself. Some of them are shirtless; their shoes fly off as they flail and fall; they look confused, as though trying to swim down the side of a mountain. The man in the picture, in contrast, is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else--something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man's posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 A.M. EST, the moment the picture is taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.
Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy, or are you gonna bite?
Gee, that was really exciting. I bet you're a big Lee Marvin fan, aren't you?
All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you aren't going to get.
I don't give a good f--- what you know or don't know, I'm going to torture you anyway.
How about a little fire, Scarecrow.
[into Marvin's severed ear:] Hey, Can you hear that?
Monday, August 11, 2003
Sunday, August 10, 2003
I loved that job precisely because I was so motivated that I furiously banged numbers into desk calculators when necessary. I could get motivated because I could see the results of hard work on the immediate bottom line--as opposed to, say, my recent employment at Deloitte, where it felt like I could earn or lose a million dollars for them and no one would notice. And I got way bored as a result. To correct Frank Herbert, ennui, not fear, is the mind-killer.
Friday, August 08, 2003
I had seen it in bits and pieces on late night TV, heavily cut of course, and I hadn't been impressed. Its heavily edited small-screen version seemed a relic of the era when Hollywood was deeply in love with the fascinating possibilities of the blood squib. But the theatrical viewing was a revelation for me. On the big screen, it was, simply, a feast. There are so many glorious things about this movie:
- The opening shot of a scorpion fighting and being devoured by a horde of ants, while children giggle at the sight, waiting to set them all on fire. That metaphor is one of my favorites, being equal parts profound and disturbing.
The breathtaking action sequences that open and close the film. In editing, cinematography, and camera angles, they are beyond influential: Watch these scenes and you can all but see John Woo, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino suckling at the teats of this movie.
William Holden’s final "Let's go" to his crew is shockingly minimalist when viewed from an age where everything has to be spelled out for the lowest common audience denominator, especially in “action” films. Rarely have two delivered words in a screenplay simultaneously conveyed so many concepts and emotional states: Courage, camaraderie, despair, anger, commitment, supreme confidence, loyalty. This and the immediately following scenes—featuring “The Walk” where the heavily-armed Pike and his men tramp resolutely into an armed encampment in full view of everyone, knowing they won’t be coming back—reminded me of lines from the last page of my favorite Solzhenitsyn novel, The First Circle:
But there was peace in their hearts.
The peace known only to those who have lost everything.
The very important things the film has to say about honor and ethics. The Wild Bunch is hardly a moral film in the conventional sense of the word. Pike’s crew are violent, bank-robbing, cursing [yet another way this was a breakthrough Western], whoring, hard-drinking, occasionally murderous and frequently disloyal outlaws: And these are the good guys.
For me, the overriding message of the film is that the moral imperative is, well, imperative. In a chaotic, nihilistic world where even the children are brutal and sadistic—especially in such a world—the only real transcendencies are the absolute rules of honor that cannot be broken, the principles that cannot be sacrificed. Even in a savagely immoral world, men seek moral certainties as much as they seek food or oxygen. In this case Pike and his men take their strength in the highest concept left in their awful universe: Personal loyalty. "When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal - you're finished! We're finished! All of us!"
The uncut final seven-minute battle between Pike’s gang and thousands of Mexican Federales is one of the most violent scenes in cinema history and takes pre-CGI warfare imagery to its furthest limits, and even today feels remarkably liberating and cathartic.
There are those who say that The Wild Bunch is the best movie ever made, and there are days when I can’t disagree with them.
Thursday, August 07, 2003
One of the consequences of the Republican party's huge advantage in hard-money fundraising is that the Democrats are forced to rely on so-called soft money contributions, often raised thorough independent interest groups. Both parties are obviously strongly influenced by special interest groups, but there is a difference in the way they are influenced.
The Republicans' bread and butter is the individual hard-money $1000-per person contribution. The Democrats live on larger contributions, often funneled through interest groups. As a result, the direct influence of special-interest groups is much more acutely felt in the Democratic party. Republicans are equally in the thrall of their own special-interest groups, but because of their much wider fundraising base, they are not in my opinion as publicly answerable to them.
This all came to mind after I read two two recent news stories:
1) The recent Joe Lieberman appearance at the NAACP convention, where he was permitted a five-minute appearance for a "public apology and explanation" for not attending sooner. "In not coming Monday I was wrong. I regret it and apologize for it....I'm sorry I was late in coming." Bascially, Lieberman checked every bit of gonadal material at the door.
2) The Howard Dean appearance at the AFL-CIO convention, where, after being badgered, he announced that "I have never favored Social Security at age of 70, nor do I favor one of 68." But of course someone immediately produced a 1995 CNN tape where he says that "America must increase the retirement age." Dean was made to look ridiculous.
The problem isn't political doubletalk, which is of course common to both parties. The problem is the direct influence of the Democratic special interest groups. All political interest groups, Republican and Democrat alike, demand certain policy positions. But the Democratic ones require something else: Groveling public demonstrations of obeisance reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And this is a problem for the political process.
If the public humiliation of candidates like Lieberman and Dean is unpleasant for even a Republican like me to watch, then it must be even more so to disinterested independent voters. It trivializes and ultimately hurts the political process. It can't be good for American voters to see their candidates publicly have to jump through hoops in this way. I'm not a Democrat, but in all objectivity this is a problem that the Democrats need to fix, for their own good.
I have no idea what I would have said to him.
Wednesday, August 06, 2003
Herewith, a story I wrote in 1975, and had published in the WCU literary magazine.
It was late morning when I went inside. The young day was unseasonably warm, if only slightly so. It was more the humidity, because the greenness of everything was still obscured by dew. Particularly the smaller shrubs.
I asked, "Hey, what time is it?"
"Eleven thirty," enunciated my father, hardly moving from his supine position on the sofa.
"I've got quarter after ten," said my mother, sitting next to the doorway where I stood.
It's ten of one," said my younger sister in an annoyed tone.
"Five minutes to nine," declared my oldest brother.
"Don't ask me," put in my twin brother, "I don't give a shit."
One of my older brothers jumped up. "It's three o'clock!"
"Shut up!" yelled another sister. "It's two fifteen."
"No!" retorted somebody. "You're all wrong."
Several fistfights broke out.
"You didn't have to start this," someone screamed at me, "Bastard!"
I went outside again. The night sky was somewhat cloudy, although several stars could be clearly seen. Despite the chilly air, I watched with interest the progress of one cloud against the stars. It had an odd, sort of purplish color.
Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Morimoto wasn't there, but another famous TV chef who I had also never heard of, Mario Batali was at a table across the room.
Monday, August 04, 2003
I'm writing a book on the effect of one particular World War One propaganda story and its absorption into the culture after the war as a sort of urban legend, and the consequences of it. It's fun to write, but the difficult part is cataloguing every appearance of the story in print, especially in newspapers. Newspapers are archived haphazardly around the country, and the Library of Congress is really the only central depository of nearly every old newspaper in America.
The problem is that except for a very few, newspapers are not indexed ever, so looking for specific things in them is extraordinarily difficult. It's like looking for one specific phrase in a novel, over and over and over. Today I was looking for editorial reactions to the story around the time it broke, and there were several major newspapers which apparently never mentioned the story at all, which sucks for the purpose of my research. But I did find some brilliant stuff, including a 3-part editorial in the Baltimore Sun that fits my purposes perfectly.
Primary sources. Sigh. I love primary sources.
Inadvertently on the way down I listened to one of the NPR stations and got to hear Anne Garrelts reporting from Iraq, telling us the "satellite dishes are literally flying off the shelves." Which conjured up diverting images of satellite dishes sneaking out of their cages and zooming up to the ceilings of the local Best Buy, while exasperated clerks try to net them. That's what I get for listening to NPR.
Saturday, August 02, 2003
It includes my awful photography, as well as the bad link to our store's home page that got in there because I'd used an old text. By the time I realized my mistake, the item had already been bid on and in those cases ebay doesn't let you correct the link, only submit a second corrected link. However, I was on the ball enough to add a link to our online store, which has already generated one new online customer for us.
This column will appear in Against the Odds #6.
LAWRENCE KEELEY KNOWS THAT PEOPLE ARE NO DAMN GOOD, AND IT’S ABOUT TIME YOU DID
There are two distinct types of non-controversial books. The first type is innocuous, and simply says nothing that people need to get worked up about. The vast majority of all published nonfiction falls into this category.
The second type—extremely rare of course—is the book that tends to clear the field. These are the books that raise the slaughterhouse mallet and club the sacred cows to death. Books which don’t change the debate as much as end it.
The clearest example of this latter type of book I can think of in the last few years has been Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization (Oxford University Press, 1996). It is far less known than it deserves to be, precisely because it is so utterly uncontroversial.
The prevailing idea before Keeley, based on the powerful influence of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was that war is an adjunct of civilization; before civilization, primitive man lived in a pristine state of peace. After Rousseau, the belief was nurtured in the 20th century by the increasingly influential discipline of anthropology. In 1940 Margaret Mead wrote, “War is only an invention, not a biological necessity.” The implication was that, like all the other inventions, war was a product of civilization.
And this became the accepted wisdom: Civilization (especially Western Civilization) = war. Precivilization = perfect peace. “Less by sustained argument than by studied silence or fashionable reinterpretation,” notes Keeley, “prehistorians have increasingly pacified the past.” Rousseau ruled the day.
Now nominally, Rousseau had been thrown to the wolves some time before. In the 1970s some on the Left insisted that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (with their million-plus death toll in Cambodia) were not in fact Marxists, but rather “radical followers of Rousseau.” Clearly this was a pained attempt to rescue the badly listing Marx rather than a serious criticism of Rousseau; The Rousseau vision of a peaceful precivilized world remained the official standard, even if Rousseau’s name wasn’t attached to it.
In the prevailing academic point of view, all evidence of precivilized military activity—weapons, shields, fortifications—became “ritual objects” or “status symbols” But Keeley describes the circumstances in which military artifacts have been found, and leaves absolutely no doubt in the reader’s mind what they were for.
Keeley’s thesis was not especially new to those familiar with the “killer apes” of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz from the 1960s. But Ardrey and Lorenz were theorists in the realm of evolutionary psychology—while Keeley, with 40 more years of discoveries in his belt, is specifically and bluntly archaeological. He quotes chapter and verse from irrefutable instance after irrefutable instance of violent prehistoric warfare, and the cumulative effect on the “peaceful savage” construct is devastating.
At one point Keeley has fun with his opponents:
…copper and bronze axes from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, formerly referred to as battle axes, are no longer classified as weapons [by academics] but are considered a form of money. The 5,000-year-old Austrian glacier mummy recently reported in the news was found with one of these moneys mischievously hafted as an ax. He also had with him a dagger, a bow, and some arrows; presumably these were his small change. [emphasis added]
Later forensic research confirmed Keeley’s skepticism about the Oetzi mummy (as he has come to be called). The March 2003 issue of the medical journal Radiology revealed that Oetzi had vascular damage from an arrowhead in his left shoulder, a wound which almost certainly contributed to his death. This discovery could have shocked absolutely no one who was paying attention.
In fact, pretty much every single archaeological find in the last seven years has tended to buttress Keeley and eviscerate the Rousseauians. Most notable have been the recent discoveries about the Anasazi Indians in southwestern Colorado, and our now-near-certainty of the manner in which they disappeared (hint: think fava beans and Chianti), and the methods used to take them:
“There was evidence of trauma in excess of what you’d need to process a body,” says an archaeologist. “One child was hit so hard in the mouth — probably with a stone or a club — that teeth had been broken off. Something more than simple starvation was going on. This was more along the lines of raiding.”
The human myoglobins found in preserved human feces at the Cowboy Wash archaeological site in Colorado and reported in Nature in September 2000 have largely (though not totally) ended the Anasazi cannibalism controversy. But the assumption that the Anasazi were eaten because they lost a battle, or a war, is no longer seriously challenged.
“There is a cherished belief among archaeologists and anthropologists that Puebloan people were peaceful farmers,” said one archaeologist. “It was closely related to the view of American Indians as noble savages. It’s not what archaeologists wanted to believe at the time.” The 1999 publication of two monographs about the Anasazi, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest by Christy and Jacqueline Turner, and Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest by University of Southern California Professor Steven LeBlanc, reconfirmed the Keeley thesis.
Keeley’s conclusions seem to have been accepted across the board; his book has been praised in both National Review and The Nation. Reviewers used terms like “groundbreaking” and “devastating” to describe it. The best hostile reviewers could come up with was a feeble attack on Keeley’s motives, that Keeley was replacing one myth with another: “The evidence,” said one, “suggests that the truth lies somewhere between the myth of the peaceful savage and the myth of the warlike savage.” But a meek argument like this only surrenders the field to Keeley.
So, in the end, what does it mean for us if Keeley is right and Rousseau is wrong? If we are born with violence in our hearts—and right now it’s really looking that way—where does that leave us?
Religions have never denied the innate human tendency towards violence, and at this point it looks like they were ahead of the curve. Their explanation for it—declared or implied original sin—makes as much sense as anything else, in my opinion. I would prefer to be optimistic about the future and believe that if civilization is not the cause of warfare, then maybe someday it can be its solution.
The alternative would then be something like the pulpy cynicism of Robert E. Howard’s famous lines: "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. And barbarism must ultimately triumph." And I would rather not believe that.
In any case, it serves us well to remember what Keeley reminds us: That military historians are often the most profound psychologists among us, and that people are no damn good.