New York, Love and Hate

Tribute in Light from Jersey City, September 11, 2004 (Tom / Wikimedia Commons).

Tribute in Light from Jersey City, September 11, 2004 (Tom / Wikimedia Commons).


GUEST BLOGGER:

Carmelo Santana Mojica

University of Puerto Rico


(The following was written as an open letter during the days following the events of September 11, 2001.)

Since the fated day, the world has showered acts of love and solidarity upon the most loved, hated and dazzling city in the world; so recent is the cloud of flesh and dust, pieces of bodies and walls, so shattering the pain, that we attend the rescue as we go to the funeral of a near relative, exclaiming: “My God, he was so good!” Even the most critical among us are careful not to place their finger on the dialectic wound of love and hate that the city of steel and gold produces, because truly we are all in pain. My own derives, I confess, from the Christian guilt of knowing that I have always hated New York, and from the human suspicion that under the present pain, my old resentment still endures. (more…)

We Fight Wars Why?

Photo taken by Brian Glanz of a Times Square billboard on 22 October 2004.  It was his contribution to A Message for Obama (https://www.flickr.com/groups/messageforobama/pool/), with the admonition:  “President Obama, do bear this in mind before you send anyone to bear arms.”

Photo taken by Brian Glanz of a Times Square billboard on 22 October 2004. It was his contribution to A Message for Obama (https://www.flickr.com/groups/messageforobama/pool/), with the admonition: “President Obama, do bear this in mind before you send anyone to bear arms.”

There are a lot of theories about why human beings make war on one another. Some postulate that the motive is primal. Others counter that it is a cultural invention. Still others insist that war is motivated by economic considerations. There is a wide array of possibilities. I’ve written elsewhere that:

Nations fight for land, vital resources, markets, independence, security, a way of life, a political system, an alliance, human rights, prestige, and power. People make the blood sacrifice for “God, country, nation, race, class, justice, honor, freedom, equality, fraternity,” and more. Truth be told, war is less a matter of strict rationality and cold calculation of strategic interests than it is an exercise in ritual, a sacrament of symbolism, and an enactment of tragic theater. (Dissent from War, p. 2)

It helps to keep the mythic function in mind when we consider any of the theories about human desires, impulses, or incentives for war. (more…)

On the Category of Evil

Variant of the jihadist black flag. This particular version is used by the "Islamic State of Iraq" and by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Variant of the jihadist black flag. This particular version is used by the “Islamic State of Iraq” and by al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The President considers what kind and how much of a military engagement the U.S. should undertake against the “cancer” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, high-ranking administration officials (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of State) characterize the Islamic State as a “barbaric” and “apocalyptic” terrorist organization that must be “contained,” “defeated,” and “destroyed” because it poses an “imminent threat.” This enemy is “beyond anything we’ve seen,” the Defense Secretary insists, “so we must prepare for everything” (The Guardian, 22 August 2014).

Columnist Richard Cohen, originally a supporter of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, says now “we are once again up against the question of evil.” The slow and painful decapitation of photojournalist James Foley in the name of the Islamic State was an act of “pure evil.” This enemy “murders with abandon. It seems to love death the way the fascists once did.” It “massacres” Shiite Muslims and kills Yazidis, taking “as plunder their women as concubines.” (more…)

Horton Foote and Charles Gordone: A Lesson in Diversity

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Back in the day, when I was director of the theater program at Texas A&M University, we invited Mr. Horton Foote to speak to our students. Foote was a distinguished playwright whose plays were compared to the plays of Anton Chekhov. He had won two Oscars as screenwriter for two outstanding films: To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. I was a great admirer of his plays, but I also felt indebted to Mr. Foote (“Please call me Horton,” were his first words to me) for his blessed Tender Mercies. The film had helped me to get through a hard time once when I was in a bad way in Albuquerque.

Besides, one of my student assistants, Ms. Kelly Roman Carter—today an educator in Texas—had recently directed three of his one-act plays as a student project, and offered to do whatever work needed to be done in order to facilitate his visit.

Mr. Charles Gordone, another distinguished playwright and theater man in his own right, was in the faculty of the English Department at A&M in those days. He was the first African-American playwright to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and had become for me a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. Horton was all Texas and all southern gentility; Charles was mid-western and had come to us from the rough and tumble of the New York and L.A. theater scenes. Horton was soft-spoken and an exquisite gentleman; Charles spoke in a low growl that intimidated his enemies, but which was only a defense for his touching vulnerability. Since I had witnessed many encounters between giant artistic personalities turn disastrous, I resolved to do my best to keep these two luminaries apart.

Charles Gordone (1925-1995). Credit: Susan Kouyomjian Gordone.

Charles Gordone (1925-1995). Credit: Susan Kouyomjian Gordone.

Upon Horton’s arrival I inquired what he wished to do during his time at A&M.

 “I’d like to meet Charles Gordone,” he said. (more…)

Over a Grave, a rumba

Movie poster for "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987). Credit Touchstone Pictures.

Movie poster for “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987). Credit Touchstone Pictures.

Sobre una tumba, una rumba. With these words, Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote the epitaph for his friend, Spanish-Cuban cinematographer Néstor Almendros on the occasion of his death. (Almendros was cinematographer for many of the films of Francois Truffaut; he won an Oscar for his camera work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.) Cabrera Infante was making reference to the title of the song made popular by legendary Cuban singer María Teresa Vera early in the twentieth century, which in turn captured the essence of a varied number of Caribbean funerary rituals.

When ancient Taíno caciques died, the bands of the tribe would gather at the gravesite to sing and dance areítos about the chief’s past deeds. In the coastal areas of Puerto Rico, when black children passed away, a feast with dance and song (the baquiné) would be celebrated, to remind family members that the child had moved on to a better life. The great Beny Moré paid homage to drummer Chano Pozo (who originated Afro-Cuban jazz with Dizzy Gillespie in 1947) in one of his plaintive songs. And at the funeral of Rafael Cortijo (one of the early progenitors of Puerto Rican salsa), a host of drummers convened to play in his honor. (more…)

God and Country

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit:  TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit: TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

It is not uncommon in the United States to see both the Christian cross and the American flag displayed in the sanctuary of Christian churches. What does it mean to place two such powerful symbols side by side when one stands for a world religion and the other is an expression of nationalism? Does the state circumscribe one’s faith, and/or does one’s religious convictions transcend national boundaries?

The tension between church and state takes various forms. (more…)

Democratic Citizenship

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Political World Map. (Credit: Ionut Cojocaru / Wikimedia Commons)

Nationalism is on the decline.   Outbursts of patriotism are the forlorn growl of chauvinism in retreat. Globalization is ascendant, and with it we face a new set of challenges and opportunities for transforming the war state.

A narrow sense of American citizenship is yesterday’s reality. As a consequence of “the global diffusion of culture and democratic governance,” argues Peter Sapiro, political community is migrating beyond the confines of the nation-state. That does not mean that our troubles are over, however. It means “citizenship can no longer be addressed in comfortable isolation.” When “the state no longer dominates identity,” we are faced with “remapping the contours” of political community (Beyond Citizenship: American Identity after Globalization, 2008, pp. 5-6, 162).

Americans have prospered in the state-based world at the expense of others, and there is no global community ready to replace the old nationalism. It is a scary proposition to contemplate the descent of American exceptionalism and the prospect of chaos. (more…)

WWI: Two Poems by Wilfred Owen

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920.

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920.

The Guns of August (Barbara Tuchman) blared 100 years ago. Out of the horror of the War to End All Wars, three artistic masterpieces arose, like warning phoenixes for all time: the poems of Wilfred Owen; Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.

Wilfred Owen once described himself as “conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.” He enlisted and was commissioned as a British officer in 1916. He won the Military Cross for his service, and was killed in battle on November 4, 1918. (The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. C. Day Lewis, New York: New Directions, 1965). (more…)

Two War Hymns Overturned

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manila, during the Philippine-American war, 1899. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1861, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard Union troops singing at a review outside Washington D.C. She composed the well-known verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” In time, the song with her words became the most recognized hymn of the Civil War. Her last stanza:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. (Civil War Heritage Trails)

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907.

In 1901, during the War in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, Mark Twain—most glorious of American Tricksters—mused that Filipinos, to whom we were extending the “Blessings of Civilization,” were surely saying to themselves: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” In Twain’s estimation, it was necessary that the Battle Hymn of the Republic be “Brought Down to Date” to conform to the kind of war the U.S. was fighting in the Pacific. (more…)

A Force for Good

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.  The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Whether or not the rhetoric is sincere, it aims to persuade us that our country is on the side of the angels. Stories to the contrary are ignored or forgotten. The simple but effective mechanism for suppressing the nation’s guilty conscience is to concoct a devil figure. If our enemy is evil, then we are a force for good. This self-serving logic is regularly recycled. It keeps bad memories in check whenever or wherever they might pop up. It works like a vaccination to immunize us from a dreaded disease. (more…)