magnificent speech by Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties

In my previous post I discussed certain unhealthy effects of our current highly politicized culture, and my own relationship to these. I ended by mentioning one particular question I do happen to be (somewhat) following, this being the progressive abridgement of the core civil liberties which are at the heart of the American enterprise.

In the embedded video below filmed at Brown University in 2011, Glenn Greenwald gives an exceptionally clear and eloquent presentation (using no notes!) of the subject. Here is a brief summary:

He begins by enumerating four features of our Bill of Rights often forgotten today:

1) It is meant to be understood in an absolute sense. Other aspects of our political system involve compromise, necessarily; but this was explicitly placed beyond that realm. To be a defender of the Bill of Rights is perforce to be a civil liberties “extremist,” as it were;

2) It was intentionally set up to be anti-democratic, to protect against the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” The example Greenwald gives is that of Fred Phelps. As he says, pretty much no one likes Fred Phelps, or at least what he has to say, but all the same that 99.9% majority is not allowed to curtail his self-expression;

3) It makes no distinction between wartime and peacetime, contrary to what is often asserted. Certain other aspects of the Constitution mention war powers, but the Bill of Rights is not so delimited. (Greenwald acknowledges that precise meanings of the enumerated rights are up for discussion – for example, what an “unreasonable” search and seizure is – but not their absolute status.);

4) It simply makes no distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

He goes on to make three points about why we should all care, and care deeply, about the health of the Bill of Rights, even if we think we are “the good guys” who could never be affected by current developments:

1) History makes very clear that abridgements of liberty, while they may begin as narrowly defined, inevitably broaden out to encompass larger groups of people;

2) More immediately, said abridgments create a climate of fear which over time ends up actually changing the culture. Greenwald gives several concrete examples of this: he speaks of how innumerable people have said or written to him that they support what Wikileaks does and would like to donate to it (freedom of association), but are afraid they might end up on a government list somewhere and so have refrained. Furthermore, that nearly all of the European members of Wikileaks he knows of have either already left the organization or are contemplating doing so, not because of fears related to their own governments but rather that the United States might find a way to bring them back one day, where they will have no guarantees of due process, might end up tortured, in a cage in solitary confinement for months or years without being convicted of anything at all – like Bradley Manning – or in permanent limbo in a place like Guantanamo.

The world today knows that the US – in tragically flagrant violation of the document that is its soul – asserts limitless power over anyone they simply claim to be somehow involved in “terrorism.” And this generalized climate of fear then creates a situation of increasing self-censorship, a degraded and very dangerous state of affairs.

3) Finally, I can do no better than simply to transcribe Greenwald here (I have emphasized certain points):

The last point I want to make about why civil liberty infringements are crucial to care about even if you’re not being directly targeted by them or if you think that the only people who are are people who deserve it, is that there’s one proposition that I think history demonstrates fairly conclusively – I would even say indisputably – which is that there really is no such thing as “legitimate certainty.” By which I mean that it’s always the case in every single society that there are certain opinions, certain propositions that are deemed to be unquestionably true, and then there are other propositions that are always deemed to be unquestionably false. And the ones that are deemed unquestionably false are the ones that you’re simply not permitted to express and that have traditionally been punished if they have been expressed.

And what always happens – not sometimes, not usually, not most of the time, what always happens to every society – is that certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably correct turn out to be completely erroneous, even evil. And certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably erroneous and pernicious turn out to be absolutely right. And nobody, as a result, should be so hubristic that they believe that certainty is warranted or legitimate when it comes to empowering the government: empowering the government to ban certain opinions, empowering the government to imprison certain people who just seem definitely guilty, without due process. This certainty is completely unwarranted by even a casual review of history. And that is ultimately what civil liberties are about, is preventing the government from exerting power without checks: checks that are necessary to prevent these kinds of errors.

So we accepted the idea that it was okay to put huge numbers of Muslims into cages without due process because even those of us who kind of thought it wasn’t the right thing to do deep down believed that these people were probably guilty, because where there’s smoke there’s fire. That we didn’t just pluck them off the street randomly, that they probably, if not being the kind of terrorist mastermind that they might have been accused of being, probably on some level were kind of guilty of something and therefore belong there. And it may be objectionable in theory, but not really passionately wrong that they were being imprisoned without due process. And yet as it turns out, the vast majority of them, people who spent time in Guantanamo, have turned out to be guilty of absolutely nothing. Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson said that not only were the majority of them guilty of nothing but the Bush administration knew they were guilty of nothing but kept them there anyway to prevent the realization that they were imprisoning innocent people and to prevent people at Guantanamo from publicizing what had been done to them.

And ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 said that Guantanamo detainees have the right to habeas corpus review, the right to get into a court and ask a court to review the circumstances and validity of their detention, the Obama administration went in in each one of these cases and told the court, “we have overwhelming evidence that these people are terrorists and that they belong in Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced, just like the Bush administration announced, that there’s no reason to worry about the lack of due process at Guantanamo – these are the worst of the worst. And yet when courts finally were allowed to review the actual so-called evidence against the people who were there, the evidence justifying the accusations, the courts found in 75% of the cases – that’s the current statistic – that there was no credible evidence to justify their detention. And many of them had been in prison for 5, 6, 7, and 8 years with what our own courts found were no credible evidence. And these are the people about whom the government was saying are the absolutely clearly, unquestionably guilty ones, the worst of the worst.

Certainty is not something that anybody should believe exists. That’s why all people, but especially people with power, and the more power the more this is true, need checks, need scrutiny, need accountability. And ultimately that’s what civil liberties are designed to do. So even if you think the government is acting correctly in a certain case and are therefore willing to acquiesce to the transgression of civil liberties, the mere fact that certainty is never warranted by itself ought to lead you to find that objectionable.

Greenwald went on to document how the Obama administration not only has not rolled back the civil liberties violations of the Bush administration but in certain respects has expanded them.

The remaining 45 minutes or so are a Q-and-A.

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the tyranny of the political

I intentionally don’t engage in “politics” as such in this journal, at least in the more usual, narrow sense of that word. In part this is because I don’t follow the subject. I never look at newspapers, don’t own a TV, and try as best I can to bypass “news” as such online – for example by avoiding those day-to-day, minute-by-minute kinds of news sites as much as possible. In spite of this, such is the state of things that I always seem to know most of what is “going on.”

Many would say this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the practical inability to avoid all kinds of news, much of which is quite disturbing and most of which we are powerless to affect, does not make for a healthy environment in which to live our lives. An inherent bias towards negative news, reported negatively, certainly is an important part of this.

I submit that we humans don’t thrive very well in a climate drenched in the political. “Politics” should only ever have been a somewhat peripheral concern: the process of coming to communal decisions of various kinds. It’s everything else that is really the point of it all: the cultivation of health; the taming and training of mind; the expansion of the heart; the nurturing of others; the study of life and human culture; and creative expression of all kinds. Even the “communal decisions” I referred to oughtn’t to be different in kind from all other forms of personal relationship we maintain.

Today, however, the political seems to have swallowed up our culture. Not only has everything become politicized, but this has occurred within the context of extreme polarization and thus stagnation. When a realm of human experience gets politicized, it’s often the case that everything colorful and multi-dimensional and cool about it gets sucked out, its inner life papered over in predictable patterns of grey. Beyond this, I experience never-ending “news” as an attempt to draw my mind through a sieve leading to blinkered, tiny vision and a permanent state of agitation and panic.

So I prefer to engage with these kinds of “political” questions at one remove, by not following the unfolding of events day-by-day or even necessarily week-by-week but rather waiting until we have some kind of larger perspective on the more important of these. And even then, I choose to pay attention only to those “issues” which I can relate to deeper concerns of mine, ones which I feel capable of thinking through properly and communicating something about which hopefully has some kind of clarity.

One of these happens to be very much in the forefront at the present time: the question of civil liberties and their serious abridgement in the name of a seemingly never-ending “war.” A subject for the next post.

dream fragment

Some contemporary writer (Jonathan Franzen?) has as one of his guidelines for fiction to refrain from bringing in dreams, presumably because he doesn’t feel they are interesting except to the people who dream them. Personally I find a compelling dream as compelling as anything else. In any event I’m about to break that rule (or would be doing so if this post were a piece of fiction), for…

I am in a kitchen, opening the fridge, searching for something to eat. Almost everything I see or open contains carrots and peas in some form or other. I give up for the time being, turn, and start walking out of the room. As I pass the sink I notice some kind of insect moving from the counter down into the sink and thence the drain, and then another. The third one however is blocked from doing so by a very fast-moving critter coming from nowhere, who catches up to the other and sort of taps it, whereupon it crumples. Peering more closely I see that the attacker is … a miniature moose! A moose the size of an insect. I wake up.

Now, as soon as this little vignette ends I’m asking myself, of course: huh? And three sources quickly come to mind, all condensed into that single image.

grasshopper editMost immediately, I am unfortunately in the midst of dealing with an insect situation in my bathroom. The water people uprooted the meter in there, to replace it with something external that can be read remotely, and I think it must have disturbed the local ecology.  It has been a bit of an ordeal for the past week or so, with several different species suddenly appearing out of nowhere to surprise me in the middle of the night…

mulholland drive image editSecondly, I’d just written a post about David Lynch, including my favorite of his films and one of my favorite films of all, Mulholland Drive, which includes a scene – viewers will vividly remember – of an elderly couple suddenly miniaturizing and passing under the door of a room.

mooseAnd thirdly, the moose is an animal one must watch out for on Vermont roads, as running into one is more-or-less like hitting another car head-on. That particular fear is lodged in my unconscious, for sure, and just a couple days ago in the neighborhood where I live a young deer suddenly appeared at the side of the road, about to cross, saw me, stopped, and scurried back into the woods.

So, some neat condensation going on there, it seemed to me.

The carrots and peas?  I’d just bought some in frozen form.  Also, it was the first vegetable combination I learned how to make into a curry…

lentil and zucchini cakes with rice pilav at Mint

Yesterday evening at Mint Restaurant in Waitsfield (Vermont) I had something especially delicious. The photo below unfortunately doesn’t do the colors justice at all as it was an overcast sky: the harissa sauce is much more vivid in reality, a deep, just slightly orangey red; the green sauce (which looked similar to traditional Indian mint chutney but was in fact made of spinach, subtly sweetened with agave) came out a little garish in the automatic flash; and the cakes (lentil, zucchini, onion, and spices) and rice pilav lack a lot of the warm colors of the real thing. But I thought I’d add my photo in any case to give a hint of what the dish looked like. It was wonderful: the cakes and rice pilav each moist and richly flavorful in complementary ways, the harissa adding a lovely, bright heat, the spinach sauce balancing it with its fresh coolness and dab of sweetness.

A starter of butternut squash soup with leeks, coconut cream thyme, pumpkin seeds, and (for flavor, not so much for sweetness) pears, completed the meal, along with a summery salad with lots of sweet basil.

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I reviewed Mint earlier here. It continues to be my favorite place to go to get nourished and inspired at the same time. All the more now that the weather is warm and I can sit outdoors (see below – though again not our more typical Vermont clear summer sky!):

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And while I’m at it, here’s another meal I had there earlier in the summer, a mezze plate with the best falafel I’ve ever had – light, soft, and deliciously herby in the middle. (And everything else was as good as it looks too…)

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“The Lady” – Sandy Denny

I’ve always loved this song, both for the expressive beauty of Sandy Denny’s voice and the exceptional elegance of the lyrics.

It’s a song that basically contains a single, simple event: a woman is singing at dawn. That’s it. But out of this comes something really special.

There are three stanzas, with each of the first two introducing two parallel images. We have a silver tongue – whose sole purpose is to sing – and a golden heart – whose sole purpose is to love. And we have the experience of silence descending, and the sun ascending.

the lady she had a silver tongue
for to sing she said, and maybe that’s all
wait for the dawn and we will have that song
when it ends it will seem … that we hear silence fall

the lady she had a golden heart
for to love she said, and she did not lie
wait for the dawn and we’ll watch for the sun
as we turn it will seem … to arise in the sky

My ellipses above don’t indicate gaps in the lyrics. I put them in to indicate both the fact that she stretches out the word “seem” in both cases (“seeeem” would look strange), and also to point to yet another gorgeously economical device of the song: these first two stanzas reference “seeming,” have a mirage-like quality, while the last declares a real-live, luminous event.

So here, in just four further lines, she manages to bring together each of these parallels so brilliantly. The final stanza’s first line references the images of line 3 in each of the first two stanzas, and its third line then references line 4 in each of the others.

Meanwhile, lines 2 and 4 here turn mirage/”seeming” into the blazing warmth of a new day, while the silver of the lady’s capacity to sing and the gold of her capacity to love are transformed into the very essence of that day, the silver and gold of “a beautiful morning.” Isn’t that so great? Very unusual in my experience for a song lyric to be genuinely dazzling like this.

we heard that song while watching the sky
oh the sound it rang so clear through the cold
then silence fell and the sun did arise
on a beautiful morning … of silver and gold

But now, forget all of that, and just listen…

Jon Stewart in Egypt, talking satire

I found this interview between Jon Stewart and his Egyptian counterpart of sorts, Bassem Youssef, somehow a little encouraging. One of the remarkable things about Jon is his ability to make substantive points in areas and venues where most others would founder. Part of this stems from the disarming capacity of good comedy, but obviously this isn’t enough. Genuineness is needed too, and sharp intelligence, and together they produce his mastery of tone and tact, in evidence here for instance at 10:26:

I’ll tell you this: it [satire] doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into. I get in trouble, but nowhere near what happens to you. … I do Bassem’s job in a country that has carved out already – it is settled law, satire is settled law. Governments have realized that … if your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime. [wild applause]

Because … you have to be able to handle anything – a joke is a joke. You may say that is an insult, and they say, you know, there’s an expression – I don’t know if you have it – “adding insult to injury.” Yes, maybe it is an insult, but it is not an injury. A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas into a group of people in a park. It’s just talk. [applause]

So … what Bassem is doing, and this is what is so inspiring to me – [to Bassem] and I know you don’t like it when I talk like this – he is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, is the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. It’s just the opportunity to be heard, and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it. [applause] This is what you do.

Just after this, Bassem brings up his experience of living in America and becoming acquainted with Fox News: “I was wondering in which pit of hell they do their editorials…. The amount of hate, and stereotyping, and profiling …”

But Jon interrupts, saying: “But I always see it as fear. I always see it for what it is…. It’s fear. Everything is conspiracy, there [are] monsters around every corner.”

And I think this in fact is one of his secrets, why so many public figures far from him in political views enjoy coming onto his show: he maintains a fundamental, genuine respect for people he disagrees with. Being able, for example, to see the fear beneath manifestations of aggression or even hatred, he protects himself from falling into aggression and hatred in turn. Instead, you can see in such interactions some kind of basic empathy still operating, which he uses to explore further where such negative thoughts and actions are coming from. This is one of the things that really sets Jon Stewart apart for me.

All of which enables, too, the heartwarming moment when the Jewish Stewart is praised by Bassem Youssef, on Egyptian television, for being known as a defender of the human rights of Muslims.

extensive interview with David Lynch by Mark Cousins

What a strange, inscrutable genius is David Lynch. There is no artist like him in the world, not even close. His mind has generated so many scenes of such visceral demented horror that sometimes you can’t help but wonder a little about the soundness of their creator … but then – later in the same film – suddenly a moment, or a stretch, of unimaginable beauty. Above all his films display an endlessly astonishing inventiveness that keeps me riveted to them even when they are – as they often are – exceptionally uncomfortable to watch. And a degree of almost unmatched cinematic purity which makes talking about them seem almost sacrilegious.

Certain scenes in Lost Highway or the Twin Peaks series, very much including the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and one scene in particular in Inland Empire (I think those who have seen it will know which one I mean) have terrified me more than just about anything I’ve witnessed on the screen.

At the same time, Mulholland Drive (also not without its heartpounding moments and atmospheric dread) is one of the most extraordinary and thoroughly fascinating movies I will ever see: inexhaustibly rich on multiple levels, exquisitely designed and filmed down to the last detail, still not quite (after seven or eight viewings) 100% narratively explainable, yet all the more satisfying for that. A luscious, deeply mysterious, ultimately sacred journey for me – and at least once every time its beauty reduces me to tears (very often during the scene at Club Silenzio, for example).

I can’t say I love everything of his. Lost Highway is one disturbing nightmare… Full of brilliance, no question, but also about as deranging a cinematic experience as one can have. Blue Velvet is another work of real artistry but I always walk away from it feeling a little queasy, if that’s the right word. The nastiness is so vivid while the 50s-esque small-town-American innocence with which it is contrasted never convinces to the same degree, so I’m invariably left with a sense of vertigo at the end – of a manichaean world tilted the wrong way, as it were. Whereas at the end of Mulholland Drive, which for me is unquestionably his masterpiece, I emerge in awestruck wonder at a perfectly realized artistic vision.

Then there is Eraserhead … and Inland Empire … about which I still can’t say much (having seen each only twice thus far) because they are both sui generis and so unutterably, stupendously weird – even for Lynch! – that they almost defy commentary. (For anyone interested in a superb – though ultimately, inevitably, inadequate – Lacanian perspective on Lynch’s whole oeuvre, I can recommend Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, though this was published before Inland Empire came out.)

Then there is the tenderness and warmth of The Elephant Man, unlike anything else Lynch has produced apart from The Straight Story. But contrast that with a recent music video he has released for his own song “Crazy Clown Time” (and yes that is his own eerie singing), and I find myself wondering about him all over again, because, I’m afraid, that video is one of the creepiest, most nihilistic things I’ve seen in quite awhile… (Such cognitive dissonance watching that a second time: can this man I know to be a great artist really be producing something so pointless and seemingly juvenile, or am I truly missing something somewhere?)

So who on earth is this guy? From time to time I try to find out more with some biographical querying, but he remains an enigma. An extra on the Inland Empire DVD films him preparing one of his favorite meals (quinoa and broccoli, which I’ve made by the way and can recommend, although you have to reduce the amount of vegetable bouillon down to about an eighth of what he suggests unless you really, really, really love the taste of salt…). A nice homey insight into his daily life you might think, except that even that ends up being rather spooky to watch!

However, I was pleased to just discover a long interview he did in 1999 with Mark Cousins (and yes, that fish tank, presumably in Lynch’s own home, is full of sharks). Famously averse to talking about his films, he says more there about them than I’ve ever come across, so if you are a big Lynch fan like me you are in for a treat…