Friday, September 29, 2006

Friday Poetry: Arthur Guiterman

The frustrations of my paltry efforts at urban composting combined with responsibility to neighbors and enclosed spaces (read: the juice of rotting vegetables leaking all over my back landing and down the stairs, to my neighbors' landings, and my cleanup efforts bringing the scent strongly into my apartment, where air does not circulate tremendously well, and a number of worms being inadvertently killed in various ways during the process) have led my thoughts to this poem.

Oh for a backyard.

Arthur Guiterman
Strictly Germ-Proof

The Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup
Were playing in the Garden when the Bunny gamboled up.
They looked upon the creature with a loathing Undisguised:
It wasn't Disinfected and it wasn't Sterilized.

They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
They steamed it in a Vapor of a thousand-odd degrees,
They froze it in a Freezer that was cold as Banished Hope,
And washed it in Permengenate with Carbolated Soap.

In Sulphurated Hydrogen they steeped its wiggly ears,
They trimmed its frisky whiskers with a pair of hard-boiled shears;
They donned their Rubber Mittens and they took it by the hand
And 'lected it a member of the Fumigated Band.

There's not a Micrococcus in the Garden where they play:
They bathe in pure iodoform a dozen times a day,
And each imbibes his Rations from a Hygienic Cup,
The Bunny and the Baby and the Prophylactic Pup.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

From Moment to Moment

And by "tomorrow," I clearly meant "Wednesday."

A couple of months ago I got into a bar argument over Dale Wasserman's theatrical and cinematic adaptations of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Yes, I actually *do* get into bar arguments like that.) Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of my favorite novels in the world, but its adaptations are, in my view, miserable failures, making the novel into a simple martyr tale without the added, necessary distortion of Chief Bromden's schizophrenic narration, which not only generates incredible imagery and perspective but also calls the values in the narrative into question, skillfully and necessarily so. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an incredibly misogynistic novel, in that it identifies as despotic all forms of female power not consisting solely of sex, believes somehow that despotic power is indeed at the helm of the world for all those who deviate even slightly from the beaten path of masculinity, and shows that it is that masculinity itself that can save us. And yes, it's also my favorite book. I addressed the topic of misogynism with an individual who's planning to direct Wasserman's play come spring, and he asked, "Well, what if at one point that's just your experience of women, though? I know I've had times in my life where that was my experience." Putting aside for a moment the absurdity of that statement, since we were both drunk enough at the time that I didn't notice it, my counter-argument was that theater has to be more than the truth of the moment. He asked me why, and I spent the rest of the night desperate for an answer, then, naturally, haven't seen the guy since. Still the question has remained.

So why does theater, or art in general, need to be more than the truth of the moment?

William Wordsworth described poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility"; Gwendolyn Brooks defined it as "life distilled." I would expand these definitions to apply to all art of a non-improvisatory nature. My training's not in improv, so I can't speak to the amount of distillation that does or does not occur in performing it, except to say that a good improvisation is rarely either solo or completely extempore: it, too, requires training, requires chemistry among performers—a rapport often developed over time—and knowledge and experience in relating to audiences. That is to say, what you know in the moment is by no means the extent of one's knowledge. Does the extent of your knowledge have to go into your art? No, but the extent of your knowledge of the art you are doing has to go into your art. It's tautological, but it's also true. As creatures of memory, art in particular being something that builds upon and by its nature integrates memory, theater all the more so, our knowledge includes what goes back beyond where we are now, and good art takes some kind of stretch into what will be.

I'm not sure if the distinction between "good art" and "art" is necessary here. As far as I'm concerned, everyone doing art owes it to themselves to make it good art. The problem in many cases is that their definition of good art doesn't fit with mine, something I'm still struggling and will continue struggling to reconcile. Obviously, you can do art that is simply the truth of your moment—Jonathan Larson, for example, did that, and it's different from and not as bad as something that's straight-out dishonest. Unexamined and dishonest are different and distinguishable things. And many people get away with unexamined, because so much of their audience won't examine the art or themselves. I'm talking about being pretty stringent here. But I think it's form/content; it's knowing that the examination really is part of the art, that that's on some level why you're doing it.

Fundamentally, if art *didn't* need to be more than the truth of the moment, why would we rehearse? Or edit, or rewrite, or sketch? What differentiates art from the simple sharing of emotion or relation of a narrative is craft. Craft takes time, takes tranquility and distillation. And if you're going to take time to work on it, the truth(s) you're seeking to interact with through that work must be hardy enough to survive through that time.

Works of art often become dated, and I'm wary of making a statement like "the best works of art are universal" or "the best works of art can outlast the constraints of time." I'm not sure it's true. It is true that I can see a work of art and like it very much and then encounter it later in life, as with Patrick Marber's unfortunate play and even more unfortunate screenplay Closer, and be consumed with contempt not only for the piece as I encounter it now, but for the fact that I ever liked it. Which is not really a productive line of thought; it matters where a piece arrives in your life as an audience member too. If I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the first time as an adult feminist, rather than as an eighth-grader desparate for independence, I might not have felt the same, and the truth was I didn't have anywhere near the problems I now have with Rent when I first saw it—though companions in my high school musical theater class did. The best works of art are not universal; however, the best works of art have considered their own universe, have in some ways created and defined their own universe. Creation being the truth of the moment, definition being the contextualization. When a work of art becomes dated, it's because it didn't feel the need to define its universe, assuming we all—its audience—knew it. In its use of the schizophrenic narrator, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I feel, defined its universe, allowed the journey of the piece to be, in part, Chief Bromden's journey out of his own labyrinthine head. Lose that, and you've got a very cliched journey and have to consider, in a different way, why that journey matters in this context.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Help Me, I Can't Shut Up About This Movie

Got this from Tyromaven. And spoilers are all of Paul Haggis's films and a couple of Neil LaBute's works.

I don't want to even imagine what the Iraq War will become in the throttling hands of Paul Haggis. Or Against All Enemies, for that matter, not that I've read it yet. I just know that Paul Haggis feels more and more dangerous to me the more I think about him. He's a purveyor of complacence and self-satisfaction, and somehow thinks he's doing something better than that. And everyone else wants to go along with him, because then they don't really have to look at their own actions, since it's impossible that they'd be as bad as the people in the movies, because guess what? Most people aren't. Way to pat yourselves on the back, Los Angelenos.

How does Haggis create that when other people making outrageous films don't? Why am I so angry at him? I mean, Million Dollar Baby certainly wasn't that bad, though it wasn't that good either. Clint Eastwood is a godawful actor, and worse since the plastic surgery restricted his already limited ability to form facial expressions, but Hilary Swank can carry a lot, and there were some moments of nice, visceral directing. The movie's not that good, and the screenplay's certainly not, but I don't have objections to its being honored any more than I do about, say, Good Will Hunting. Hollywood honors subpar stuff a lot; I've mostly gotten over it. It's only Crash that's sticking to me like this. Perhaps because, lately, I've been trying to think more specifically about race and racism, my own and those of other people. Perhaps because Haggis really did nothing to acknowledge, oh, say, skewed power dynamics between races, or the depths of relationships required to create actual emotional vulnerabilities, or, you know, subtlety.

Haggis is dangerous, in my view, because he doesn't really leave questions. He takes on—and by takes on, I mean "takes on"—brutal sociopolitical issues and expects that by the end of a film he will have answered them. I don't want to go quite as far as Augusto Boal right now and say that catharsis is by its very nature politically dangerous, but Paul Haggis is certainly evidence for Boal's case. Even in Million Dollar Baby it is (amazingly enough) more complicated than that: by the definitions set in the film, only dumb hicks wouldn't allow Maggie to die. The only complex relationship is the one with the viewpoint Haggis endorses, just as only one love in Crash—daddy-daughter love, as skillfully portrayed by one Michael Peña—is uncorrupted. He equalizes the corruption, erases other perspectives, balances his stupid stories so carefully that there's no real way to make a choice about whose views you share or what can be done. Perhaps intending to equalize, Haggis neutralizes.

I'm feeling similarly frustrated with playwright Neil LaBute, in particular his play This Is How It Goes, which I just finished reading. Once you've read enough of his work, LaBute's consistent, raging misogyny and misanthropy have the same deadening effect as Haggis's barrage of shallow stories. In This Is How It Goes he extends the same complacence to cover racism. And by "cover" I mean "acknowledge the existence of." And again, it deadens the actual challenges involved in combating it, makes them too overwhelming to be worth it. Which is what happens when you're writing from hate, I think. Or contempt, which is closer to what Haggis does. I think Crash might not have intended to go that way, but because Haggis failed to develop the characters, they're nothing but a convergence of hateful circumstances. LaBute actually hates people, and thinks their demise inevitable, and really makes me wonder why he bothers to pretend to explore them. Then again, he's good at it—his craft is much better than Haggis's. But, while I'm not asking for redemption per se, you never know why you were made to suffer through LaBute's work. You start out hating people, even if you're vaguely charmed by them; you end up with a deeper, more complex hatred.

I'm sick of defeatism among writers, and I'm sick of defeatists being hailed as darlings.

Well. That's enough. Tomorrow I promise you a post that is not in any way shape or form about Crash.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday Poetry: William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
Sonnet CXXI

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteem'd,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deem'd
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my offenses reckon up their own;
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

But Wait, There's More!

Apparently my comments on Neither Liberty Nor Safety trump the mistakes I made in the original post.

It's a pretty interesting debate and set of alterations going on down there, and I think I'll do a couple of more posts based on 'em.

So read 'em.

That is all.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Poetry: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood
The Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Neither Liberty Nor Safety

So, five years ago, a group of Middle Eastern Muslim men successfully pulled off a creative and devastating terrorist attack in which airplanes crashed into buildings of national significance—the Pentagon, the World Trade Towers—and eventually caused the towers to collapse, killing thousands, crippling lower Manhattan, crippling me for a long time (I know I don't count in any real way, but I *am* the one writing the blog), and inspiring an intensive program of control, fear, and surveillance on the part of the U.S. government. About a month ago, a number of Muslim men of varying ethnic heritage were arrested in England for plotting, unsuccessfully, to blow up a number of transatlantic flights using everyday products that could be combined using everyday objects to create potent explosives. In Indiana a few days ago, a Muslim storekeeper was murdered in what police are assuming was a hate crime inspired by today's anniversary.

Tyromaven sent me this. To summarize, though you should read the article, an Iraqi activist living in America was removed from a domestic flight at the request of other passengers because he wore a T-shirt with Arabic lettering. Airline officials demanded that he remove the T-shirt or be removed from the flight. Those Arabic letters read "We will not be silent."

I told this story to one of my co-workers, and she responded that she had "a better one": a woman was removed from a plane, again at the request of other passengers, for wearing a T-shirt that read "Meet the Fuckers" and pictured Bush and Cheney.

That's not actually a better one. Sorry, Pat. Not that either situation is promising, but at least the complainants in the latter situation had some idea of the offending shirt's content.

Any decent liberal human being, and any person who loves people of a race other than her own, condemns racial profiling. And so I do, but I don't want to do it only offhandedly, and only viscerally. I owe the problem more consideration than that, because it *could* be my best friends; it *could* be their families; it *could* be my students. And as much as anything five years later, it is part of what I, as a white American, have become, both on my own and by force.

It's logical. That's the first thing we have to acknowledge about racial profiling. We on the left try to fight that fact, and we can't. Right now, the vast majority of those engaged in guerrilla combat (or plotting said combat) against the United States and its allies are Muslims, many to most Muslims are of Middle Eastern descent, and it stands to reason that those engaged in make sense to look at those groups more closely. Yes, Timothy McVeigh existed and so will any number of white terrorists in the future, particularly if the legal trend of prosecuting actual or potential school shooters as terrorists continues, but that's not where the meat of the argument lies. It makes sense, by means of pure logic without ethical or broader philosophical dimensions, that we would move to protect ourselves from what has in our perception become the greatest threat, and for terrorism against American citizens in the last decade that threat has been fundamentalist Islamic extremists. The vast majority of Americans exist in a world far enough from Islam that the distinction between the fundamentalist sects and the more mainstream is virtually meaningless, and therefore that majority perceives Islam as the threat. Most of the Muslims of whom this majority is aware are speakers of Arabic; hence, Arabic is a threat.

All I mean to clarify above is that it's likely the passengers on Raed Jarrar's flight were not acting out of malice per se—I consider it far more likely that the passengers on the plane Pat mentioned were. The part of the problem that is malice, we cannot control (a theorem I intend to prove as this post goes on). The part of the problem that is ignorance, or lack of empathy, or lack of depth, perhaps we can. Perhaps not. But Jarrar's fellow passengers, as far as it's acceptable to consider them his fellows, honestly believed they were acting in their own best interests, out of self-protection.

What are we protecting by means of racial profiling? Do we intend to keep ourselves safe? Who are "we"? "We" are the most often white, always relatively or more-than-relatively financially privileged Americans who somehow believe that protecting our position—not simply ourselves, but our surroundings and our privileges and our current state—is possible. I remember September 11 far more vividly and viscerally than anyone requesting that Raed Jarrar be removed from that plane, I guarantee it and am comfortable playing that card. And it's going to fucking well happen again, because the world is boiling over with that much anger. The facts are that simple and that real. Safety exists, but as Tyromaven and I have elucidated in conversation after conversation, it is at its best elusive and is impossible to manufacture. Time and time again we're shocked to see that fact proven. Yet, is it indeed a fact? Time and time again, as I said, we're shocked that It Can Happen Here, be it in America, in the small towns of Mormon Utah, in the suburbs away from the criminal activity and ferocity of the city, in our home with an alarm system and a panic room, in this day-care center, this high school, this demographic and religion and nation. Of course it can happen here. Yet the terrorists who penetrated our panic room have not yet managed to compromise our means of building a new one. Can they, will they? They can kill us; can they kill our privilege? Are terrorists fighting harder and better than we are because they have less to lose? Octavia Butler, in Parable of the Talents (which Biblical story itself is an interesting meditation on the concept of privilege), capitalizes on this distinction. Everyone can suffer loss under a tyrant, and the tyrant will himself eventually suffer loss of his leadership as well. But unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have in abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. It is, it remains, much, much easier to make those who are already suffering suffer more. It Can Happen Here, but I honestly don't know how hard you have to work to take away what we have in abundance. I assume there is a way, because I assume it's coming, but I don't know if terrorism is the way it will arrive.

Benjamin Franklin, more of an iconoclast than we're wont to give him credit for, said "Them that will give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety." If safety cannot exist in any permanent or binding way, can liberty? For this, I must return again to Myron from Louis Sachar's Wayside School Is Falling Down. A bird named Oddly visits the windowsill beside Myron's desk in Mrs. Jewls's class, and Myron is envious of his freedom. He feels stuck in his desk, thinking of it as a cage. Instead of returning to their thirtieth-story classroom with the rest of his class, Myron goes down to the basement of Wayside School, feeling his way through the complete darkness and throwing his shoe at the noises he hears behind him. A light comes on and a bald man with an attaché case and two men with mustaches appear, holding his shoe.

"I just wanted to be free," chirped Myron. "Please don't hurt me. If you let me go back to Mrs. Jewls's room, I'll never come down here again."

"Well, do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?" asked the bald man.

"Huh?" asked Myron.

"You can't have it both ways," said the bald man.

"Do you want to be safe?" asked one of the men with a mustache. "Do you want to sit in the same chair every day, and go up and down the stairs every time the bell rings?"

"You'll have to go to school five days a week," said the other man with a mustache. "And you'll have to go to bed at the same time every day."

"But first you'll have to brush your teeth," said the other man with a mustache.

"And you won't be allowed to watch TV until you finish your homework," said the other man with a mustache.

"You'll have to go inside when it rains," said the other man with a mustache.

"But first you'll have to wipe your feet," said the other man with a mustache.

"Or you can be free," said the bald man.

The man took a pencil and a piece of paper out of his attaché case. "So do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?"

Myron looked at the three men. "I want to be free," he said bravely.

The man with the attaché case wrote something on the piece of paper and gave it to Myron. "Sign here," he said.

When we're safe—which as the United States defines it means exactly, and only, what Sachar's above description implies— the risks remain present. We can go to bed at the same time every night, brushing our teeth first, and while no one will be able to catch us awake at an hour we're unaccustomed to and are therefore unaware of its possible dangers, and still a car could crash through the window of our bedroom, on purpose or accidentally, the second we've turned out the light. Fuck, a car could plow through the picture window in the living room. And to think, we didn't know it was even *possible* for cars to leave the road, much less move at that speed! When we're free, at the very least, we know that cars can move at that speed. We're no further from the possibilities—in some ways, we may even be a little closer for a while—but it's the knowledge, and the freedom to have the knowledge, that can allow us to prepare for the possibilities and make choices about them. There's no explanation of freedom in Sachar's chapter, because there's no one thing that freedom automatically is. It's the freedom to make it something.

I want to extend the car metaphor here, but I don't think I can. Racial profiling isn't a belief that since several houses have been hit by blue cars only blue cars will hit you; it's not a matter of keeping cars of specific colors or shapes on the road. It genuinely is more complicated than that. The question in racial profiling is about pulling the lens back. Are Muslims of Middle Eastern descent more likely to commit terrorist acts against the United States than people who are neither Muslims nor of Middle Eastern descent? As we're defining terrorism now, yes. Is profiling them actually going to prevent terrorist attacks? Particular ones, perhaps, but attacks are going to happen, and they're going to get worse, because that is the nature of safety. But racial profiling is mostly-white Americans raging against that fact, and allowing our prejudice, our logical anxiety, to become the illusion of action. Terrorism, itself, is never going to end, because a few people are always going to be that angry and that desperate and that forceful. If the supposed war on terror genuinely aims to eradicate, it cannot be won. Terrorism can be decreased, but that involves more long-term, more thorough and considered change and growth. Racial profiling changes nothing on a larger scale. Is it ethically wrong simply because it changes nothing? When it's a distraction, yes. When we are channeling energies into racial profiling that could be used elsewhere and to better ends, yes. When racial profiling is actively damaging to some and completely useless to others, yes, absolutely. And in "completely useless" I include "makes them/us feel safe." Franklin's statement is redundant; there exists no safety that isn't temporary. Liberty that isn't temporary can be made. It isn't being made now.

This essay still isn't good enough. But "If you see something, say something," say advertisements on public transit encouraging the report of suspicious packages and suspicious characters—an encouragement that no doubt played a role in Jarrar's ousting. What I see, then, is an America paralyzed by delusions coddled in logic. And if we—"we" this time being the people who don't want to remain paralyzed—are to change it, we must be part of pulling the lens back further. And that's not an easy task.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday Poetry: James Tate

James Tate

I heard something coming,
something like a motorcycle,
something horrible with pistons awry,
with camshafts about to fill the air
with redhot razory shrapnel.
At the window, I see nothing.
Correction: I see two girls

playing tennis, they have no
voices, only the muted thump
of the ball kissing the racket,
the sound of a snowball
hitting a snowman, the sound

of a snowman's head rolling
into the river, a snowman with
an alarm clock for a heart
deep inside him. Listen:
someone is breathing.

Someone has a problem
breathing. Someone is blowing
smoke through a straw.
Someone has stopped breathing.
Amazing. Someone broke
his wrist this morning,
broke it into powder.
He did it intentionally.
He had an accident

while breathing. He was exhaling
when his wrist broke.

it's a woman breathing.
She's not even thinking
about it. She's thinking
about something else.

Oh, The Headlines: #2

On the front page of today's Chicago Tribune:

Bush plan vague on torture, evidence

As my co-worker Annie said, that's kind of like saying, "Democrats vague on plan, alternatives."


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Hunter Hunted

There's an interesting debate going on at Treehugger regarding whether the late Steve Irwin, killed last Monday by a stingray barb to the heart, should be considered an environmentalist and his memory honored as such.

Now, coincidentally, only two weeks ago I gathered with a group of friends for "Croc Movie Night." The first piece of the evening's entertainment was The Crocodile Hunter: The Movie, and I've had few more visceral cinematic experiences in my time. Irwin was an entertainer, perfectly well aware that we were at the edge of our seats as he casually directed the venemous snake he held by the tail away from his ankle, as he aimed a miniscule lasso around the jaws of a crocodile leaping out of the water to snap at the 20-foot motorboat that held himself, his wife, and his dog. Certainly there must be more efficient, if not necessarily cost-effective, ways to trap a crocodile and move him to a safer environment (always Iriwn's intention in the film). Certainly a woman digging through a packed truck, containing medical equipment for every imaginable species of Australian wildlife and a crocodile in a crate, in search of a bag in which to store the most venemous snake in Australia and thereby get it off the road away from cars is as much for comic relief as for actual practical purposes. Irwin's trademark "Crikey!", delivered head-on into the camera, demonstrated his willingness to make a mockery of himself and his background. And why not? The Crocodile Hunter was a TV show that appealed to millions of viewers, unusual for the Discovery Channel's programming. To do that, you need a showman, and in Irwin the Discovery Channel found a showman who both thought and taught.

Irwin consistently preached respect for the animals with which he interacted. Perhaps that's a little contradictory given the fact that he swung snakes around by the tail, but not to fling them over his head like so many cinematic heroes (Samuel L. Jackson among them); rather, he intended to provide information about why he thought so highly of this creature, why it was worthy of our respect and protection. He and his wife founded a wildlife park; Irwin always made sure his work was educational and informative, and certainly the best teachers are perfomers. The much-touted incident in which he held his baby while feeding a crocodile shows his own respect for the creatures that made him famous, since he, an adult man, was at least as much of a threat to the crocodile as the crocodile was to the baby. Okay, yes, Irwin was also clearly insane. And we can't fight the hilarious irony of his dying while filming an episode entitled Things in the Sea That Can Kill You. But he wouldn't have wanted anyone to fight that irony. He wanted his death filmed, and it was—ethics is stopping his friends at the network from airing it, and for this we are all very grateful, but Irwin's eccentricity and off-kilter-ness are evident in this desire. However, the world is swimming in people who are addicted both to risk and to cameras, and few of them managed to do as much for people/creatures other than themselves as Steve Irwin did, or even aimed to.

Of course the Crocodile Hunter was a showman. It's what made him a success. And most political movements, environmentalism to campaign finance reform could use a few more showmen like him: well-informed people who are not afraid to get ridiculous.

We've got to mourn his passage: his children are eight and three. We can hope this will teach them not to be as completely, absurdly fearless as their father was, or we can hope they inherit and admire their father's passion. We can even do both if we feel like it.

I can say of Irwin only what I've said before: he died as he lived. And for that, I think we're fully within our rights both to mock and to honor him.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Friday Poetry: Frank O'Hara

And now for something completely different.

Frank O'Hara

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

Blood Money

This post isn't about any of the things I said I'd write about before the end of August. Those are going to start popping up sometime in this glorious month that is September. They're sitting half-finished in my Blogger dashboard. Please forgive me; I'm a new bunny-mama, I'm looking to add a new/different roommate to my household, and I'm looking for further and/or (preferably) new employment. But I like to write things too.

Anyway, the post is about this article. Or it starts that way, and then goes off on its own direction.

I learned a great deal about South African warfare in all its terrifying forms when I was in South Africa, and when I read Philip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda and Dan Bergner's In the Land of Magic Soldiers, both of which I recommend highly, I read about the role of South African mercenaries in both keeping order and creating chaos in already war-torn nations. But somehow, because I'm clearly more of an orientalist than I knew I still was and thought somehow that such practices were kept to war-torn African nations, it didn't occur to me that South African mercenaries would be contracted for American conflicts, or that such thorough mercenary armies existed in the United States. Gives a new meaning to "offshore corporations."

When I think about it, I know paid assassins and mercenaries have been around for centuries. Goods for services, using your skills to earn your living. Some people are good at killing. And it is a skill: think first of the volumes of unsolved, or even unacknowledged, murders littering the country, think of how many heinous acts serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jr., manage before their capture. That they're captured does nothing to change this. Think even of Grosse Pointe Blank, of the precise, skill-based practices in which John Cusack's character engages. But mercenaries are different, in that they're not simply part of a conflict, they're superimposed over warfare. Warfare that is (almost) always supposed to be political/ethical/ideological, and is (almost) always financial, at least in its larger goals, but is nevertheless between/among political actors, is compounded by, for lack of a better phrase, the private sector.

What happens, then, to war crimes? I admit I don't know much about this or how it might work, but what if a private security company, rather than the United States Military, were running Guantanamo? Would we have anywhere to look for accountability, even less than the ridiculously narrow alleys we're offered right now? The way we approach war crimes is limited right now, of course, and with money and connections to America you can buy your way out of pretty much anything, at least until America changes its mind. But still, the idea of the mercenary armies forming in America, acquiring their guns in Texas and training in the Phillippines are enough to set me on edge. Eventually, they have to go to the highest bidder, and I shudder to think of who the highest bidders are.

There are levels on which guerrillas, even terrorism, are a relief, on the simple level that something's not about money. An ideological relief, anyway; certainly the possible presence of suicide bombers, or anyone running around with an easily made, cheap, hobbyist pipe bomb, is not reassuring in terms of the security of one's own life. But nor are the hair-trigger nuclear weapons everybody with nuclear ability has got aimed at one another, really. Is one more threatening than another? Certainly the nuclear weapons have much more destructive ability, but that makes them that much less likely to be used.

All of this is leading me, weirdly, into Harry Potter, in particular the creation of Horcruxes and the general discussions of death in Books 5 and 6. Horace Slughorn explains that one's soul is split (the necessary precondition for creating a Horcrux) "by committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart." Albus Dumbledore emphasizes that "killing is not nearly so easy as the innocent believe," which both makes me hope that in Book 7 we'll find out who he killed and makes me curious about the way the serial is hell-bent on Voldemort's annihilation at Harry's hands. Harry's righteous killing is obviously different from Voldemort, hell-bent himself on the simple prospect of destruction, greedy with power, cheating death. From Harry Potter, we're to understand Rowling's clear distinction between killing and murder, the path of the realist righteous as opposed to those with their heads in the sand or those bent on fulfilling unrealistic fantasies driven by greed. Death Eaters are, then, mercenaries, particularly those Death Eaters who defected when Voldemort fell from power. They go to the highest bidder.

And then for another perspective on mercenaries, we have our beloved A.E. Housman. (You get *two* Friday poems today! And how privileged you are!)

A.E. Housman
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Therein lies the contradiction. The South African mercenary that Bergner follows through Sierra Leone in In the Land of Magic Soldiers *is* consistently putting himself at risk of life and limb, *is* bound to his work and the people he is, in his own way, protecting. Citizens of Sierra Leone, and Bergner writing about him, have some respect for his work and believe he is, or could be, part of progress. I don't doubt that heroic deeds have been performed by mercenaries of any and every nationality in any and every war. But the sum of things remains "for pay," not for any other end.

The real problem with privatization, from school vouchers to paid assassins, is that there's no useful way of predicting who will be the highest bidder. Ethics, ideals, logic, while not fixed per se, allow room for argument, negotiation, compromise, and comprehensible rebellion. Money, the highest bidder, mercenary callings, leave us dealing in absolutes. And while war must in some ways be an engagement of absolutes—countless war novelists have emphasized the bottom line, that either you die or you don't—the use of absolutes for the sake of encouraging absolutes causes still more pain.