Terrorism & Justice

If just one caucasian Christian kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “murder.”

If just one caucasian anti-Semite kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “murder.”

If just one black Muslim kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “terrorism.”

But if many Muslims kill others because of radical ideology, it’s called “an act of war.”

Institutional, systemic bias is bound to influence public opinion and policy. And if you repeatedly frame the news in certain ways, you should not be surprised when your audience takes your cues and makes them explicit (reap what you sow, etc.)

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George Tiller, etc.

In light of Tiller’s assassination it’s worth reading this 2004 essay by Gretchen Voss about her heartwrenching decision to have a late-term abortion. Voss’ story is sad, “pro-life” terrorism is sad, and “pro-life” hatred is sad. It’s terribly glib for anyone to assume that repealing Roe v. Wade will make this difficult issue any less thornier for all involved.

Speaking of old articles, here’s a bizarre fifteen-year-old one from the New York Times Magazine: “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal”. It’s a really interesting piece on the wild pseudo-science of somatotypes that gets weirder with every paragraph. 

Lastly, here’s why kids should talk back to their parents; or, why teaching classical rhetoric to your children may improve relations (and make your kid a smarmy snot). Except, as usual, mythos gets short shrift (also: where’s Gorgias?). So other than logos, ethos, and pathos, you can also persuade by telling a story. Even fat ol’ Plato injected his philosophy with stories to better make a point.

Constantine’s Sword

Last night I watched Constantine’s Sword, based off the James Carroll book of the same name from seven years ago. It chronicles Christianity’s role in perpetuating antisemitism and our disgraceful ties to violent regimes.

The story and critique is mostly clear-eyed, and powerful when it takes a personal bent (Carroll has led a very interesting life). I’m uncomfortable, however, with how much antisemitism he reads into the Gospel accounts themselves. He intones, at one point, “At every Good Friday service, with the reading of that Passion narrative: ‘The Jews, the Jews, the Jews’… it really hits the ear. And Jesus is against the Jews. And I don’t know how else Christians can hear this story.

This strikes me as odd, for I’ve only ever read this story in one way. How else do I hear this story? I hear the Gospels blaming me. Who crucified Jesus? I did.

There’s a Goethe quote that I take quite seriously — he says something like “There is no crime so heinous that I cannot also imagine myself committing it.” This is good theology, and this is ignored theology. It requires hideous, uncomfortable self-awareness.

Our human tendency is to always marginalize, to “otherize.” I am not like that one or those people. When, in fact, the truth is much more disturbing. “It is a simple tenet of human nature,” writes Dave Grossman, “that it is difficult to believe and accept that anyone we like and identify with is capable of these acts against our fellow human beings. And this simple, naive tendency to disbelieve or look the other way is, possibly more than any other factor, responsible for the perpetuation of atrocity and horror in our world today.”

There’s a poignant moment in Constantine’s Sword where Carroll is at Auschwitz-Birkenau and while contemplating the past nightmares but present-day beauty, the guide fills the void by simply saying: “There is no meaning… only Auschwitz… only butterflies… silence.”

What drives me crazy is the American pretension at moral authority. Dresden alone wiped out whatever supposed moral capital we’d accumulated in fighting the Nazis, not to mention our unspeakable atrocities inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I think the point is that none of us personally have any moral capital either. My heart is totally bankrupt. At the end of Jesus’ famous quip in Luke 6, I read in an extra clause:: “…and in reality, you will never be able to remove the log from your own eye.”

Of course, this hints at the missing piece here that was filled in for us by a murderous Judeofascist extremist who had a blinding encounter with a Jewish carpenter. It changed his life. And this is the crux: “While we were still terrorists, Christ died for us.”

An Alternate History

For some time now I’ve been trying to compose the speech President Bush should’ve given on 9/11/01. Someone much wiser beat me to it:

My fellow Americans: We have been hit. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have damaged every one of us. We are filled with anger and rage, for in 200 years our country has never experienced such an attack from the outside.So everything in us cries out for revenge. Should we give in to this cry? It would be the easier way. And I am sure you would support me if I mobilized our troops to hunt down the terrorists and those who helped them wherever they are hiding.

But I propose to take another route. It may baffle you, even infuriate you, at first hearing. But I ask that you consider it with care. (more…)

A defense of John Vanderslice

September 11 by Gerhard Richter
Chief among the faults of my decrepit Mazda is the almost complete lack of a sound system. After 18 years, all that’s left is the right front speaker, a speaker that was undoubtedly pretty cruddy even its prime. Now it’s fairly staticky and to hear anything while driving (especially over my roaring engine… what exhaust pipe?) you have to crank the volume until distortion and fuzz is pretty much the norm. So on the one hand, it completely sucks. But there’s a certain charm, especially since “fuzzy” describes a lot of good music anyway (shoegazer, etc). It gives rock ‘n roll a certain raw sound, an immediacy that has some lo-fi appeal to me. If you need to hear clear highs and sharp lows… well forget it. So, great for The White Stripes but not so hot for jazz or most classical.

Listening to John Vanderslice’s Emerald City often reminds me of music in my Mazda. Describing Emerald City, Jason Lymangrover says “audiophiles may be disturbed by the overdriven acoustic guitars… that give an unnerving sensation of blown speaker cones.” This sums up a lot of what I love about the album though, since it’s the way I hear almost all music in my car and since I’ve come to afford a certain fondness for that over-amplified acoustic style.

There’s another major reason I love Emerald City and it has to do with Vanderslice’s themes of dread, angst, and general malaise mostly stemming from September 11th. I agree with David Raposa that the “concluding thesis ‘looks like September won once again’ hangs over the entire album.” Except I consider this a great thing, whereas Raposa finds this to be Vanderslice’s primary problem. I think Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible is a post-9/11 album as well and consider these two of the very best albums of 2007. Musically, Raposa concedes that “Vanderslice is on top of his game” and calls the writing “eloquent.” But where Metacritic scores Emerald City an 8.2 and I’m liable to push for a 9, Raposa and Pitchfork settle for a pretty weak 6.2. I feel justified in bitching because Raposa’s review is a nice lesson in missing the point. He never explains why obsessing over 9/11 should be considered a weakness.

Heath pointed me to The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. It’s a short but supremely wise book, applicable to more than just poetry. In chapter 2 there’s a relevant discussion:

If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions. It doesn’t bother me that the word “stone” appears more than thirty times in my third book, nor that “wind” and “gray” appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. [Robert] Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew he it couldn’t be.

Likewise, I do not mind that “lightning” plays the same role for Vanderslice, nor do I think it a fault that the poem he continuously writes is one about September 11th and how to deal/confront/understand that day and its aftermath. For me, further complicating emotions are wrapped up in 9/11 because of where I was in my life then: barely graduated from high school, days away from starting college. Throw in a new country with a new president, and “time of transition” seems like an understatement. If 9/11 does not loom large in Raposa’s conciousness, it is not a shortcoming or failing (I’m not charging him with being callous or uncaring), just one more way of making our way in this world. To criticize an entire album on this one point is fairly suspect in my opinion. If Raposa would prefer different vocabularies, different stories, different themes then he might simply pass on reviewing an album he’s pre-disposed to dislike.

Of course, all this discussion of 9/11 may lead you to falsely believe Emerald City is nothing but heavy-handed references to crashing planes. There is not a single weak song on the album, but “White Dove” (mp3) is a clear standout for me and does not even obliquely mention the Twin Towers. In it Vanderslice tells the story (comprised of truthiness no doubt) of a conversation with his elderly neighbor. She apparently had an eight-year-old daughter who was kidnapped and then brutally slaughtered even after they paid the ransom. It’s a truly heartbreaking song, told in tones reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” Except here the anger is even closer to boiling over, and the song is poignant for the juxtaposition of the fact of violence with the metaphor of peace (white dove) — Vanderslice rightly points out that in the face of extreme evil, simple questions of justice, mercy, and forgiveness suddenly take on new, complicated/ing dimensions.

Hello Sunshine

Relatively Clean Rivers – Hello Sunshine mp3Phil Pearlman Gadahn circa 2004

“Listen up and I’ll tell a story / about an artist growing old,” sings Daniel Johnston, presumably referring to himself. Tonight these lyrics remind me of Phil Pearlman instead. The two men aren’t even wholly dissimilar: both are outsider musicians, both are legendary figures in certain limited circles, and both have led extreme lives (though in very different ways). In fact, extremes run through the Pearlman story in many ways.

Philip Pearlman was born in 1947 to a Jewish urologist and Protestant housewife, but was apparently raised pretty agnostic. He started playing music early and became your stereotypical Californian hippie: protesting the Vietnam war and playing in various musical “happenings” — groovyspeak for jam sessions. The most famous of these was called Beat of the Earth, a loose collective that recorded epic psychedelia in loose, unorganized gatherings. Their self-titled 1967 debut is essentially just two, 60-minute tracks and is now a prized collector item — if your specialty is obscure 60’s psych-folk of course. Pearlman’s next effort was The Electronic Hole in 1970, an interesting experimental musical grandfather to more modern psychedelic groups like Elephant 6.

Nearer to the mid-seventies, the story takes a slightly more unconventional turn. As the story goes, Pearlman is walking along the beach (maybe high, maybe not) and finds a Bible on a bench. Reading it gives him a spiritual epiphany and he promptly converts to Christianity. It’s just after this, in 1975, that he records Relatively Clean Rivers, celebrating his born again life and new perspective. It’s another album that’s attained cult-like status within a peculiar underground scene. Some have compared it, perhaps oddly, to the Velvet Underground. In retrospect it seems a misguided comparison save for one fact: both groups inspired a lot of other people to make music. It’s through one of these fans, Jeff Tweedy, that I first heard of Relatively Clean Rivers, starting down my Pearlman rabbit hole via Wilco.

Relatively Clean Rivers – Easy Ride mp3

Thing is, after Relatively Clean Rivers, that was pretty much it for Pearlman. He married, settled down, and had four kids. Except Pearlman really took the hippie aesthetic to heart: he moved out to a rural country farm with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Phil Pearlman changed his name to Phil Gadahn (a play on “Gideon”) and started raising and slaughtering goats. He claims to have invented a “humane” way to kill the goats, which he then sold to the Muslim butchers down the road who appreciated his approach. This is where the story could, maybe should, end. Typical hippie musician shuns our materialistic, consumerist, warmongering society and leads extremely stripped-down existence in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe sell the story this way: tortured artist finds God, records masterpiece, disappears into wilderness and obscurity. I have no doubt that Phil Pearlman would still be remembered in 2007 simply because of his musical legacy. Except in many ways, Phil Pearlman is now most famous, in the mainstream at least, for who he fathered.

The story of families are almost always more interesting than any single, isolated life. It’s why we love Oedipus Rex and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of father-son sagas, it might be hard to beat King David and his murderous, long-haired son Absalom. But lately I’ve preferred the Phil Pearlman and Adam Gadahn story.1 Because as it turns out, one of the four children Pearlman raised on that goat farm in California, one of the four kids who would illicitly crowd around a small battery-powered TV against their hippie father’s wishes, would later end up becoming Azzam al-Amriki: radical Islamic fundamentalist, al-Qaeda operative, and, as of 2004, the first American convicted of treason since 1952.

How do you go from the son of humble Christian goat-farming beatkniks to a top suspect on the FBI’s Most Wanted list? There are no quick quips here, no relatively clean answers. Born in 1978, Gadahn did perhaps have a pretty atypical childhood. Homeschooled out there on the farm with his siblings until 16, he then moved in with relatives in the city where he developed an intense, year-long obsession with death metal music. Like his father, young Gadahn also recorded some epic 60-minute songs, though his feature slightly more screaming and atonal gothic chants.

In 1995 it all ended however, and fairly abruptly. While browsing AOL at his grandparent’s house, he began reading up on Islam and became more and more convinced of its truth. Gadahn undoubtedly remembered the neighborhood butchers his father sold goats to. He would later describe these Muslims as completely unlike the monstrous murderers the media portrayed. He officially converted under Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, then imam at Islamic Society of Orange County. This is the same Dr. Siddiqi who presented President Bush with a Koran after 9/11 and made clear to Bush that the peace-loving religion of Islam in no way condones such brutal attacks. This is tragically ironic in that one of Siddiqi’s former students – the son of a Christian hippie, former death metal obsessive is now an Islamic extremist absolutely convinced that flying planes into buildings is a completely reasonable way to express disagreement. For after staying with the Islamic Society of Orange County, the now-renamed Yahiye Gadahn got involved with followers of a fundamentalist, and violent, strain of Islam.

A trip to Pakistan in 1998 seems to have completely sealed the deal. He married an Afghan refugee and, after starting low, worked his way up the al Qaeda ladder. In more recent years he’s been the face for messages from Osama. Now known as Azzam the American, he’s the bearded white kid you’ve no doubt seen on TV: with finger raised for effect, Azzam’s always condemning us, urging converts, and promising the complete annihilation of the American way of life.

The typical American way of life, it should be noted, is something Azzam/Adam never really had. But you can’t pin his radicalism on that no more than you can tie it to his love of death metal. I think it’s natural to feel a lot of sympathy for his parents. The last time his mother spoke to Adam on the phone, she asked him about his accented English. He flatly informed her that he hadn’t spoken English in 8 months. Neither parent really grants interviews anymore. I don’t blame them.

It seems obvious that to some, Phil Pearlman is a pretty unusual character. He did, after all, homeschool his kids on a goat farm that didn’t have electricity. On the other hand, I can’t help but still see Phil Pearlman as just one more beat dude who lived his ideals. He dropped out to get away, like many of us have desired, to rebel against a lot of what actually is wrong with this world. But unlike his wayward son, Dad never wanted to actually kill all those yuppies in LA with fancy cars and homes, and their slavish pursuit of the almighty dollar. The contrast between peace-loving father and radically violent son couldn’t be starker.

For his sake, I still think of Phil Pearlman as a happenin’ psych-folk musician and not in the ignominious terms of heartbroken father to Azzam al-Amriki, America’s most wanted terrorist traitor. I, for example, really love the groovy Phil Pearlman of Relatively Clean Rivers. An optimist who inscribed the record jacket with these words:

“Here’s a story I hope you’ve all been waiting to hear it’s about
L.A. skies, tsetse flies, alibis,
And a European-Oriental-Asian-Caucasian-Negro-African-American
Soldier, sitting in a ditch somewhere, near a Sigh-Gone city or farm
Somewhere, wanting to drain the malaria out of some
Crocodile infested swamp maybe,
Hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews,
And melt down weapons into water sprinklers,
Tractors, shovels and hoes,
Irrigation pipes…”

Relatively Clean Rivers – Journey Through the Valley of 0 mp3


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1
As for brothers, lately I’ve also been really intrigued by the story of Edwin Booth, highly-revered Shakespearean actor, and John Wilkes Booth, deluded assassin of our greatest president.

Sources:

  • Azzam the American
  • Radical Conversion
  • Beat of the Earth
  • Becoming Muslim
  • Peace, Love, and Death Metal
  • God’s gonna cut down the taserfiends

    Go watch this video of a UCLA student being repeatedly tasered because he forgot his student ID while using the campus library. It’s so fucking disgusting. Good thing this doesn’t happen at Cedarville… OH WAIT why is it that I’ve already heard two stories this year of students being assaulted by Cedarville police or CUCS? Just wait until they get tasers. Violating curfew will have never been so painful. You know a recent Cedars unwittingly included a sarcastic comment of mine: “Cedarville is the safest place I’ve ever lived.” Which actually may be true, but simply because it’s the tiniest place I’ve ever lived. The fact is that the CUPD and CUCS combine to create the most oppressive police force I’ve ever encountered. I attribute it, quite simply, to small-town boredom. Anyways, search Google News if you want more details on the UCLA tasering. While we’re on the subject, here’s the LAPD brutality video if you haven’t seen it already. It’s popularity on YouTube actually led the FBI to initiate an investigation.

    I hadn’t originally intended to make an all-video post but too late now: the angriest kittah vid on Google. I love this cat so much, I really want to meet him. He reminds of Trix’s cat who is a lot of fun to provoke.

    Can somebody please explain the video for Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down — great song, baffling video. “Johnny Cash always identified with the poor and downtrodden”… so obviously we’ll make a video jammed full of millionaires? Is the complete irony totally lost on the video’s participants? The majority of those featured are probably the very same people Cash says God is gonna cut down.

    Ok last but not least: Kiwi! I think this is supposed to be vaguely inspirational but to me it’s just so, so sad.