What to do about Syria

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian government forces patrol the Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs, mid-2013. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

You would think that, having stayed in Cairo for much of the last year, I would feel closer than in New York or Boston to the Syrian catastrophe taking place only a few borders away. But it doesn’t work that way. Egypt has enough of its own problems: massacres, mass arrests, one dictator on trial, another one running for president; these aren’t as replete with murder but they fill the mind as blood fills the brain after a hemorrhage, and expunge thought. You imagine Aleppo for a second and flinch: There’s enough not to think about without not thinking about that. 

To be sure, Syria is here, in the form of thousands of refugees who have fled the killing. (The UN says there are almost 150,000 in Egypt; some estimates run double; in any case, Lebanon hosts many times that, more than a million.) But neighbors harass them, police persecute them, they stay out of sight. Many Egyptians are conscious of the influx mainly because of the Syrian restaurants that have sprung up here and there, succulent roast chicken splayed on the plate, mehshi and manakish that scarcely taste of dispossession. The food’s good; why isn’t everybody happy?

When I visited Cairo in 2011 I met and became friends with Razan Ghazzawi, the fierce feminist and Pasionaria of the resistance, who in a short time taught me a great deal about the revolution’s dreams. The war had been going on for just four months then, and already it had worn down everybody’s psyches; she’d come to Cairo for six weeks to meet Egypt’s own revolutionaries and replenish her energies, at a time when events on the Nile still seemed in the vanguard of change. Now my closest Syrian friend here is a gentle refugee who shares my house; I’ll call him Youssef. He supports Assad, not militantly but with the vague erasing nostalgia traditional to exiles, threadbare asperities who fled France with the Bourbons, beggared bourgeois on the run from Bolsheviks. He interviewed Bashar once for a Syrian paper, while Assad Senior still lived, and can go on at length about his unassuming manners. We don’t talk politics much, since I disagree with most everything he says. Still his affection for the regime — which isn’t ancien yet, rather quondam et futurusis barely political; rather it’s a memory of stability, secularism, and calm, and an amnesia about their foundations in blood. He and Razan wouldn’t abide each other if they ever met, but they have some things in common. Razan’s vision of what freedom meant was clear as if it were etched in fire, and very much a product of Syria’s splintered map: a place where people could realize their differences without shame or fear. Stability and calm were preconditions for that. Youssef’s gauzed vision of the placid days of old includes the notion that you were at liberty to be yourself then — with the unspoken caveats of privilege and discretion; but making sure everybody, not just the lucky, could live free of surveillance and enjoy the sweet seclusions of security and privacy also preoccupied the original revolutionary dream. The overwhelming violence has made their imaginations definitively incompatible. Violence breaks bodies, but it also murders dreaming.

The violence also stamps out efforts to imagine a solution. Increasingly the Syrian state’s violence is matched by the violence of political Islamists who oppose almost all the original revolutionaries’ democratic ideals. Syria has become “a magnet for jihadist recruits,” writes Peter Neumann. Like many, he blames Assad for fostering these movements, then allowing them to slip from his control. But it’s also clear that this burgeoning radicalism owes plenty to American policy, and American allies. For one thing, the United States’ left hand keeps unravelling what its right hand does. As Adam Shatz notes,”the American government is fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq, while its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are arming the same Sunni extremists in Syria.”

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra ((Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

Fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front for the People of Levant) kills captured Syrian government soldiers, 2013

More broadly, though, every successive American intervention in the region has backfired, creating more of the violence it was supposed to stop.  And this makes it even harder for well-meaning Americans facing the Syrian horrors to figure out what to do.

The swashbuckling American military adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to counter the Russian invasion, helped create both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the former now controls large swatches of the country once again. The American incursion in Saudi Arabia in 1991, to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, helped refocus the embryonic al-Qaeda’s attention on the US, while turning it from a regional annoyance to a global franchise. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part by lies that Saddam Hussein supported al-Qaeda, aimed to extirpate radicalism of all kinds from the Middle East; instead, eleven years later, a significant part of Iraq’s Sunni population has been thoroughly radicalized and supports al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now fighting in Syria, in its new incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). On top of that, the American campaign in Libya failed to build a functional state; but, like the long American involvement in Afghanistan, it stirred up a spillover of arms and fighters that destabilizes surrounding countries, from Mali to Lebanon. (Seymour Hersh maintains that the US has been sending Libya’s spare weaponry to Syria’s rebels through Turkey.) Patrick Cockburn summarizes much of this grim history of incompetence:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hardcore jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

Western interventions in the broader Middle East – from the Maghreb to Pakistan – have done nothing to stop extremism. Instead, they’ve created and spread it.

There are principled and abstract reasons for Western leftists to resist the cult of liberal interventionism. But this history furnishes a pragmatic and specific argument for opposing it in Syria. A moral consciousness, however — one not content to concentrate on the restaurant menus while ignoring the dead and refugees — still gropes for some kind of answer. It’s natural for leftists facing the naked reality of mass murder to want some scope for action, some space where the Enlightenment ideal of thought informing practice can recover its aptitude.

Hmm. Banner from the  sixth annual Marx Conference,  “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism," Tel Aviv, 2012

Hmm. Banner from the sixth annual Marx Conference, “Left Perspectives on the International Crisis of Capitalism,” Tel Aviv, 2012

It’s in this light that I read a new piece by Danny Postel, which is all over Twitter these days.  Its title promises “Alternative Left Perspectives on Syria.”

Postel contends that “The responses of most leftists to the Syrian uprising” have been “deeply disappointing.” The Left’s inadequacies “fall into three main categories:”

1. explicit support for the Assad regime
2. monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
3. general silence caused by deep confusion

But wait: there’s hope.

There is a fourth camp, however: a small but growing group of progressives who embrace the goals of the Syrian revolution. There are several shades within this camp – it includes Marxists, pacifists, feminists, Third Worldists and leftists of various sorts. Some support the armed struggle in Syria, others do not, standing instead with the nonviolence activists in Syria. But what unites this camp is its solidarity with the Syrian struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination.

The writings of this vanguard “directly challenge the dominant narratives on the Left about Syria and offer a critical alternative to it.” And Postel gives us a ladder of links: “collected in one place, some of the key texts of this dissident left camp.”

To call these leftists “dissidents” is self-congratulatory. Certainly there are some on the left who support Assad, but they’re hardly hegemonic; they strike me as marginal and devoid of influence.

Just as certainly there’s a larger body of leftists who are uncertain, after military intervention seems to have proven its uselessness but no other form of action presents itself. So when an “alternative” steps loudly to the fore, a Fourth Way, one plausibly expects that it will proffer a guide to the perplexed: that it will tell the hesitant what they can do to help.

What’s notable about the “body of writings and arguments” Postel presents is that it does nothing of the kind.

I’ve read almost all the texts he links to. Few of the writers outline strategies, or offer innovative ways to assist the revolution. For the most part they just describe how they feel, a repertory of emotion that runs the limited gamut from sympathy and solidarity to moral agonizing to self-congratulation. These are legitimate sensations, but more existential than political. It would be hard to call them constructive. Is this the new pathway for the left? In fact, I think the writings Postel posts do point out something about the left, but nothing as bold or hopeful as he imagines.

solidarity-of-labour

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

Postel links to almost no proposals that are both concrete and in any way practical. I count three exceptions. The admirable Gilbert Achcar opposes intervention but urges arming the (liberal) rebels (it seems, though, that the US has been doing this covertly for some time).  Mary Kaldor invokes international law: “The first step,” also the only one she mentions, “would be to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.” She notes that, since Syria never signed on to the ICC, this requires a vote by the UN Security Council. Russia has repeatedly voted no, but “the current context might change things.” Might. It’s also possible that Vladimir Putin might hand Crimea back to the Ukrainians and retire. It’s not very responsible, however, to make this kind of outcome seem easy.

Finally, the always-brilliant Richard Falk, after painstakingly dissecting the inadequacy of existing options, calls (but not optimistically) for a renewed commitment to negotiation.

Just as doing nothing is unacceptable, mounting a military intervention is unrealistic, and perhaps undesirable, and for now politically impossible.

What is left to fill the gap between the unacceptable and the unrealistic is diplomacy, which has proved to be futile up to this point, but hanging on to the slim possibility that it might yet somehow produce positive results, is the only conceivable way forward with respect to the Syrian situation. It is easy to deride Kofi Annan and the frustrations arising from the repeated failures of Damascus to comply with the agreed framework, but it remains impossible to  find preferable alternatives.

This is glum, but realistic.

But that’s it.  Nobody else has much to propose. The 2011 open letter from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy has a lot of well-known signatories (Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky) but I don’t know why Postel thinks it “challenges a dominant narrative.”

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy expresses its deep admiration for the amazing courage shown by the people of Syria, struggling for democratic reforms in the face of horrific repression. … We stand with the people of Syria in their remarkable struggle for democracy.

The open letter, often published in the New York Review of Books, used to be a distinct literary genre among the New York intellectuals; it’s no one’s fault if it seems dated as a Baroque eclogue. “Standing with” the oppressed and slaughtered is still a noble gesture. It’s churlish, but perhaps nonetheless important, to point out that while Syrians die, the standers remain standing.

But is there a plan beyond the posture? Two years later, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy – the CPD’s co-directors, both peace activists with long and distinguished records – produced a personal statement, of which Postel also approves. I have huge admiration for the authors, but this text leaves more questions than answers.

The fate of Syria must not be decided by foreign powers or forces … Equally, we condemn the attempts by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states to manipulate the Syrian revolution by promoting reactionary Islamist forces within its ranks … Consistent with our strong opposition to any kind of military intervention in Syria by the U.S., or other foreign powers, we also oppose providing air cover or establishing no fly zones.

All right, but what are you for?

We stand for full democracy, an independent labor movement, and complete equality for women, sexual minorities, religions and ethnic groups everywhere.

And:

We will do everything we can to support Syrian groups and individuals who share this democratic vision, and we call on people throughout the world to do the same.

But what is “everything you can”? What are you going to do?

Are you sure?

Are you sure?

In some cases, the writers wrestle tangibly with their inability to find answers, and the result can be moving. Mohammed al-Attar, an exiled Syrian playwright, confesses:

During an open debate organized by London’s Royal Court Theatre at the end of August 2011, I was asked: “How can we support the Syrian people in their revolution without inevitably serving the interests of political agendas?” I was silent for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, before tentatively replying: “I’ve no doubt that it is still possible to separate the fundamental justice of the protestors’ cause from the distortions of politicians and the media.”

Much has changed since then but the same question continues to be put forward, and I have no clearer answer than that my brief and improvised one which I provided at the Royal Court Theatre.

Al-Attar’s piece is well worth reading, but it is not clear why Postel regards it not as an analysis of the trauma of political commitment in a divided world, but as a clear prescription for action.

But more often the pieces Postel praises just read like leftists exalting their own superiority to other leftists, because they have deeper moral feelings. Thus Bill Weinberg accuses the left in general of

treason against our natural allies in Syria—the secular, progressive forces in the opposition to the Assad regime, now besieged by ruthless armed actors on all sides. … Our natural allies in Syria are in this democratic resistance (not in the dictatorship!), and they will need solidarity whether the US intervenes or not.

But what are we going to do for them? We don’t know.

Heeding these voices does not mean we have to support Obama’s intervention. But it does mean (at least) that we have to find ways to oppose it that do not betray and alienate Syrians who have for over two years been fighting for freedom and are now fighting for their very lives.

What ways? Apparently we’ll start writing a lot about our intense moral commitment, a strategy that probably won’t alienate anybody, except perhaps the few people who pay attention — but won’t help anybody either.

Then there’s Postel himself. He calls for a “New Internationalism.” This entails lots of rhetoric:

But for progressives, especially ones who profess the values of solidarity and internationalism, the story surely can’t end at America’s shores. Struggles around the world for justice and dignity matter to us. We believe that we have a stake in them and their outcomes. We take sides.

How do we take sides? By “supporting and sympathizing with popular struggles against authoritarianism and for human dignity.” Well, sympathizing, at least. We good leftists are not afraid to restate the tough questions; we’re just afraid to answer them.

Where does [the peace movement] stand on the struggle to topple Assad’s murderous dictatorship? How does it propose the bloodshed be brought to an end? What is to be done?

There are no obvious, clear-cut answers to these questions … These are vexing problems. … But only having a position on what shouldn’t be done, while avoiding the question of what should be done, is a copout – and a betrayal of the tradition of internationalism. The question of what should be done is much thornier, to be sure — it requires more thinking, analysis, reflection, even soul-searching.

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I'll change the world later

Feuerbach, Schmeuerbach: I’ll change the world later

Postel never tells us what is to be done, but searching our souls is, in fact, an end in itself. Marx stands inverted: we may not be able to change the world, but we can think about it. “The point is to place the plight of the Syrian people front and center on the agenda and to think seriously about how to resolve it.” Postel concludes:

What if progressives devoted just a fraction of the energy and effort that went into mobilizing against a US military strike to the cause of bringing Syria’s nightmare to an end? It might not make a concrete difference – all the efforts to resolve the conflict thus far, including those of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have come to naught … But the effort would at least be an expression of solidarity and internationalism. Factoring the Syrian people – who have been largely absent from the progressive discussion – prominently into the equation would represent a welcome departure from the solipsistic, US-centric tendencies of the American peace movement.

We will not “make a concrete difference”; but we will express ourselves, and thus feel like the heroic internationalists of olden times. Postel seems unaware that this is not an alternative to solipsism, but an example of it. He gives no clue what you could do to end the “nightmare,” no suggestion how the “energy and effort” should be directed, just faith that we’ll be morally better if we expend it. Absent some proposal for a concrete solidarity more substantive than a warm, mushlike emotion, Postel hasn’t factored “the Syrian people” into an equation here at all, except as spectators of our own catharsis.

It’s easy to make fun of this Fourth Way, this brave alternative, which enters with a flourish of trumpets and exits with something between apology and sigh. But I don’t want to make fun. These writers are honest, and a lot of them are very smart, Postel included. Their failure to deliver what Postel promised is instructive.

The lesson they teach is that we on the left aren’t exempt from the diseases of the imperial ego. Leftists may opposite liberal interventionism, but its animating fantasies are ones to which they’re not immune. The basic idea that we in our powerful we-ness ought to be able to change the world; that our good intentions have the authority to make reality malleable; that injustice is friable before the force of our desires — that basic idea is pretty much the same, regardless of whether it’s armed with drones and aircraft carriers, or open letters and petitions. The brand of internationalism for which Postel feels such acute nostalgia was always predicated on a naive faith in morality combined with power. It’s painful for leftists to come to terms with a case where “solidarity” is difficult, where there aren’t easily intelligible solutions, and where any action risks making the unbearable worse. The proposition that there are limits to what you can do is intolerable to Westerners. The more this is brought home to you, the more you fall back on believing that “expressing solidarity” is action, that there is a magical power in the very intensity of one’s moral agonizing that must, inevitably, find a pliant answer in reality, must bend politics to its will.

You're sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010,

You’re sounding multipolar. Take your medicine. Leaders of the BRICS blog (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), 2010.

The spirit of disenchantment is more and more characteristic of our world. Geopolitics used to be so comfortably bi- or unipolar. Human RIghts Watch, where I worked, was founded in the confidence that there were few things you couldn’t fix by getting the United States government to act. Washington was the fulcrum of their advocacy for decades; this peculiar dispensation where Beijing, Moscow, and even Brasilia and Pretoria are independent actors has brought about a grating and harsh adjustment. Even for more uncompromising leftists, it was reassuring to think that opposing America could put you on the right side of most of the world’s wrongs. These days, responsibility is strewn too promiscuously around. And after Iraq, after Rumsfeld and his known unknowns, awareness of power’s limitations has become too general for comfort. Twenty years ago we were taught to say “never again” to Rwanda. But how can you cope with somebody like Alan Kuperman, whose detailed study of the Rwandan genocide found that, with utmost political will and celerity of action, the West could not have prevented more than a quarter of the deaths? The idea that our solidarity is not a cure for everything comes hard.

I hate to see moral solemnity go to waste, though. There are practical things that an earnest leftist could do about Syria, if she wants to, rather than sitting around expressing solidarity to the void.

Here are some suggestions.

1) Go to war. I’m serious. Everybody wants to be George Orwell these days, a fearless deflater of hypocrisies. Christopher Hitchens thought he was Orwell. Paul Berman thinks he is Orwell. Even young Jamie Kirchick dons the Orwell drag, though he ends up looking more like a cross between Enoch Powell and Evelyn Waugh. But if you ask these ersatz Orwells what they’ve done for their causes, they’ll sound more like Flaubert: “I stayed at home and wrote.”

Orwell didn’t. Is Syria the Spanish Civil War of our generation, a crossroads of profound moral choice? Then choose. Orwell went to Spain. So did Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Willy Brandt. So did Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim

Wounded British volunteers in Republican Spain return to the front following convalescence at Benicàssim, 1937

That war is memorialized in poetry, more perhaps than any other of the twentieth century’s wars. Why? Because the Thirties really was a moment when individual choice took on a communal meaning – stopped being existential and became political.

The Anschluss, Guernica — all the names
At which those poets thrilled, or were afraid

– they still resonate, because history turned personal in them. That’s the burden of Edgell Rickword‘s lines, which every lefty schoolboy used to rattle off:

From small beginnings mighty ends:
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught in public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and Britain wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles.

Or there’s John Cornford, poet and Communist, killed on the Madrid front in 1936, at the age of 21. He wrote to his distant lover before he died:

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn’s near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.

How different people were then! There are parts of that poem that an agonizing moralist or a muscular liberal, a fan of Hitchens or a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, might sympathize with. But they could never write the line “I am afraid of my fear” — because they’d feel it, too deeply.

I’m indulging in an excuse to quote poetry here: sentimental of me. But the poems say better than I can what I’m trying to say. Nobody on the left wants to put his own life on the line anymore. If “internationalism” requires a sacrifice, we expect the State to do the sacrificing for us. If comes to intervention, or policing, or punishing the guilty or protecting the good, the State will furnish the bodies, and they won’t be ours. When did we become so dependent on the powers we once wanted to overturn?

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Member of the International Brigades at Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 25, 1938: photo by Robert Capa

Those damn fool romantics in the Thirties took things personally, instead. If their governments wouldn’t stand up and say no, if their polities or parties were run by those “Whose suave compliance sealed the fate / Of thousands left to Franco’s hate,” they stepped up themselves; they went to Spain. They took up a weapon like Orwell or drove an ambulance like Auden, they acted. “They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes. All presented their lives.” More than 40,000 people joined the International Brigades in some capacity, combat or no.

What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.

The only ones who shoulder this kind of responsibility today are the jihadists, people still used perforce to thinking of principles outside the State’s compass. The secular leftists sit at home and express their solidarity from the sofa’s safety.

Of course, even setting aside the serious and principled pacifists, there are perfectly decent reasons not to go to Syria. For one thing, governments have cracked down harshly on the jihadists who travel there and on their allies who recruit; they call it terrorism. Moazzam Begg, for instance, the heroic survivor of Guantanamo, is now in jail in the UK, charged with trying to train people for Syria. The same officials might start confusing foreign leftists with foreign jihadists, a terrible mistake since the jihadists actually do something, or might apply the same provisions for consistency’s sake. For another thing, there’s no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don’t speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault.

So maybe I should expand my point a bit. Though violence in Syria has metastasized like a cancer, the struggle in Syria is not waged just through violence. And there’s work you could support or even participate in from outside Syria’s borders. I can name just a few Syrian organizations carrying on the fight on the front of human rights: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Violation Documentation Center (VDC), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCSyria), Syrian Women for the Syrian Intifada (SANAD); there are more. (Please add others in the comments if you like.) There are companion projects outside Syria which try to use the documentation such groups collect to raise humanitarian resources, like the #100000Names Oral Memorial for Syria. It is arduous to determine whether you can actually help any such efforts rather than getting in the way; it’s a terrible thing, the risk of realizing one’s own superfluity. That’s a danger you don’t encounter on the couch. But an individual commitment is better than an abstract solidarity.

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

Spanish Republican poster, 1937

2. Remember the refugee. A leftist who wants to cast off the shackles of the quotidian and go engage in meaningful action need not look for Syrians in Syria; that is one consequence of the war. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 2,700,000 Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. They calculate more than half of these are under 17 years old; 38% are younger than 11.

Those figures reflect only Syrians who have gone to the UN for assistance; hundreds of thousands more are unregistered and underground. Estimates for the total in flight go as high as 9 million, out of a total Syrian population of less than 23 million.

There is plenty to be done. A dedicated leftist might settle herself in Beirut, or in Cairo, or in Turkey near the southern border, and attach herself to one of the organizations working with refugees, whether in cities or in camps. In Egypt, Syrians face xenophobia and violence from a population propagandized into thinking they are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police pick them up on pretexts; some are deported. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now number 30% of the country’s population. They suffer arbitrary curfews, police harassment, physical assault.

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

Syrian refugee in a tent compound in Boynuyogun, Turkey, near the Syrian border. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

And if the exhausting labor of daily humanitarian work seems overwhelming, there’s advocacy needed as well, to change the hearts, minds, and laws of wealthy nations that don’t want to let refugees in. European and American migration policy — the politics of the closed door — means there is nowhere to resettle most of these people; they will remain in unsafe countries and conditions, in semi-permanent limbo. The West would much rather pay money to keep Syrians in tents than offer them a final destination in Detroit or Turin. Sweden, the most generous European state, has taken in just over 14,000 Syrian refugees, and given them permanent residency. France has accepted under five thousand. That’s still better than the United States. In August 2013, the US agreed to resettle 2000 Syrian refugees, though later in the year the Washington Post reported that “nobody’s actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.” Already prejudice is at play. A right-wing US website warned, “Sure most people just see refugees, but Democrats see voters …  If the Muslim Brotherhood Jihadists lose in Syria, their leaders will flee to Europe and America where they will suborn, undermine and plan acts of terror. … Obama isn’t all that interested in Christian refugees.”

All these numbers are trivial against the appalling figures of three million people externally displaced. Even the UNHCR, confronting the recalcitrance of countries unwilling to accept supplicants, has set its sights absurdly small.

UNHCR is proposing that countries admit up to 30,000 Syrian refugees on resettlement, humanitarian admission, or other programmes by the end of 2014, with a focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, in light of the growing needs of the Syrian refugee population, this goal represents only the first benchmark in securing solutions for this group. … UNHCR has called upon States to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. [emphasis added]

That makes just 130,000 refugees the UNHCR hopes — with little likelihood of success — to resettle in the next three years, out of at least three million. Less than five percent.

Serious leftists are prone to dismissing humanitarian work as merely palliative. They imagine it’s a bandage not a cure, an evasion of the “real” issues within Syria itself. It’s not. Work with refugees gets to the heart of how states define citizens, how they value lives, how they decide who belongs and who is cast out. Leil-Zahra Mortada, an Arab activist living in Spain, writes:

There is so much to be done. And it is not charity we are talking about, nor the corrupting relief mentality. It is radical and revolutionary work that is needed. It is stepping out of the narrow Eurocentric vision of semantics into political action. It is not only Assad and the Islamists who are killing the Syrian people, it is international systems like the EU border regime and the international relief mafias to name but a few. This is not about Syria, and this is not “just a faraway civil war”. They are dying right here, on EU borders, and they are in EU immigrant detention camps. If it is not for Syria, and out of belief in the Syrian revolution, or even in the right for every people, wether they meet our shades of color or not, to rebel, it should be out of coherence with our political beliefs. Our fight on the EU front is needed. This is a people who has risen against a brutal dictatorship, only to see that they have a whole world to overcome. A world of international meddling, whether in the form of Islamist militias, or international relief, or leftist patronization. A world of closed borders and complicit governments that once again put their profit over life. A world of apathy. This is what the Syrians and the Palestinians in Syria are facing. Questions that are not only related to Syria, but related to international and intertwined local struggles.

3. FIght for diplomacy. Finally, if, for understandable reasons, you don’t want to lobby your government for military action, you need to fight to make a diplomatic solution possible.

If you don’t believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out left. And diplomacy these days is as messy as war, though less bloody. It’s messy because that unipolar world we used to live in, convenient as it was, is gone. It’s messy because Syria has become a vast playground of the polarities, a prone place where different countries pursue and divvy up their divergent interests. Obama funnels a few arms to the Free Syrian Army; Russia and China and Iran vocally and materially support Assad; the Gulf monarchies shower largesse on the jihadists.

A place at the table: Sign from Kaffranbel, Syria, 2013

A place at the table: Sign from Kafranbel, Syria, 2013

It’s not enough, then, to push the American administration or the EU to do this or that. Pressure needs to fall as well on the oil-soaked leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on Putin and Rouhani.

It’s hard to say what, for a Western leftist, this might mean. Effective advocacy for peace would be internationalist, but not in the easy sense of announcing prefab solidarities. It would mean listening across a lot of borders. It would mean trying to acquaint yourself with what’s left of the left in Russia or Iran, or with civil societies that aren’t of the left at all, and seeing if they have any practical concern with ending violence in Syria, or even ways to speak about it. It would mean reacquainting yourself with negotiation and compromise, which are always painful. It might mean recognizing your powerlessness, which is even more so.

That path lies beyond the scope of what I’m writing here. Our left critiques power, and is abstemious about engaging with it. That’s part of its genius, and its virtue. But something more is needed now, if you’re serious about Syria, than proclaiming sympathy or oneness. A more rigorous engagement requires putting something at risk — if not your life then your self-image at least, your private drama, your unquestioned faith in your purity and your efficacy. Action is dangerous. Hannah Arendt wrote:

Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries … To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin.  It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.

This is different to but not incommensurate with what the poet said:

Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.

"Syrian women, revolt against all authority!" Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

“Syrian women, revolt against all authority!” Poster by the Syrian People Know Their Way collective, from http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/razan-ghazzawi/seeing-women-in-revolutionary-syria

 

Two poems about blackbirds, for World Poetry Day

"Little Blackbird,"  by Randy Aquilizan

“Little Blackbird,” by Randy Aquilizan

It’s World Poetry Day!  Like so many holidays — the ones dedicated to Love, for instance, and Generosity, and Peace on Earth, and People Who Are Different – this one commemorates a quality that most of us expel from our lives rigorously the other 364 days of the year. In this light I am moved to think of R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), a poet I have been fond of ever since discovering a volume of his in an office in Budapest some twenty years ago. A religious and mystical and yet intransigently worldly writer, he is the least musical and, in that sense, the least poetic of poets. What he writes makes no effort to seduce you; it shows you its raw bones like a gnawed fish, it forces you into considering what actually makes something poetry, and whether you like his work or not will depend on whether you can think that through and what quality of thought you bring to the enterprise. In being unmusical he is also very un-Welsh, Wales being his native country and the object of his intermittent patriotism. I have a lot of Welsh blood — my great-grandfather was named Harper, a profession as Welsh as one could wish — so I claim the right to quote Evelyn Waugh’s immortal diatribe on the Welsh nation and its accomplishments (from Decline and Fall):

“The Welsh character is an interesting study,” said Dr. Fagan. “I have often considered writing a little monograph on the subject, but I was afraid it might make me unpopular in the village. The ignorant speak of them as Celts, which is of course wholly erroneous. They are of pure Iberian stock– the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe who survive only in Portugal and the Basque district. Celts readily intermarry with their neighbours and absorb them. From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with human-kind except their own blood relations. …

“I often think,” he continued, “that we can trace almost all the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales. Think of Edward of Carnarvon, the first Prince of Wales, a perverse life and an unseemly death, then the Tudors and the dissolution of the Church, then Lloyd George, the temperance movement, Nonconformity and lust stalking hand in hand through the country, wasting and ravaging. But perhaps you think I exaggerate? I have a certain rhetorical tendency, I admit.”

“No, no,” said Paul.

“The Welsh,” said the Doctor, “are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing,” he said with disgust, “sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver….”

Except for the bit about not mating with humankind (he did have a wife, but one senses he regarded the species’ reproduction as one of God’s more lasting errors) that is not R. S. Thomas.

Here are two marvelous poems about blackbirds. The second, it will be noted, makes mincemeat of the easy lyricism of Wallace Stevens.

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

"Blackbirds flying," by Kathleen Westkaemper

“Blackbirds flying,” by Kathleen Westkaemper

Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man

1

It is calm.
It is as though
we lived in a garden
that had not yet arrived
at the knowledge of
good and evil.
But there is a man in it.

2

There will be
rain falling vertically
from an indifferent
sky. There will stare out
from behind its
bars the face of the man
who is not enjoying it.

3

Nothing higher
than a blackberry
bush. As the sun comes up
fresh, what is the darkness
stretching from horizon
to horizon? It is the shadow
here of the forked man.

4

We have eaten
the blackberries and spat out
the seeds, but they lie
glittering like the eyes of a man.

5

After we have stopped
singing, the garden is disturbed
by echoes; it is
the man whistling, expecting
everything to come to him.

6

We wipe our beaks
on the branches
wasting the dawn’s
jewellery to get rid
of the taste of a man.

7

Neverthless,
which is not the case
with a man, our
bills give us no trouble.

8

Who said the
number was unlucky?
It was a man, who,
trying to pass us,
had his licence endorsed
thirteen times.

9

In the cool
of the day the garden
seems given over
to blackbirds. Yet
we know also that somewhere
there is a man in hiding.

10

To us there are
eggs and there are
blackbirds. But there is the man,
too, trying without feathers
to incubate a solution.

11

We spread our
wings, reticulating
our air-space. A man stands
under us and worries
at his ability to do the same.

12

When night comes
like a visitor
from outer space
we stop our ears
lest we should hear tell
of the man in the moon.

13

Summer is
at an end. The migrants
depart. When they return
in spring to the garden,
will there be a man among them?

Favim.com-36134

On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood – to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ‘embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

Poem of the day

whauden2Wystan Hugh Auden died forty years ago, on September 29, 1973, in his sleep after a poetry reading in Vienna, Austria. He was 66. I read his obituary in Time Magazine a few weeks later; I was ten years old. Discovering Auden for me was the discovery of — I meant to write, what you could do with language, but I realize I want to say something else: what language could do with you, an impersonal power coursing through the husks of words that, freed, could shock you to delirium, or wring you and your attempts at meanings like a wet rag. That chasms of mood so jagged, sinister, and deep could open after shuffling a few sounds struck me as an appalling secret underneath the world, as though Hagia Sofia or the Alhambra, which haunted my imagination though I’d never seen them, could be constructed out of matchsticks. All through my teenage years an old paperback of his Collected Poems sat on the floor near my bed. Even today to think of its cover, stark green letters on white like an Icelandic landscape, gives me a sense of companionship coupled with fear and awe. No other writer except Nabokov has ever affected me so much.

Here are three poems from the sonnet cycle In Time of War, written on a visit to China during the Japanese invasion, in 1938. The first alludes to another great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suddenly recovered his powers after long depression during a stay in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland in 1922; in a few weeks, he completed the Duino Elegies. In a letter he wrote that, having finished the work, “I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which had protected it and me and finally granted it, as if it were a large old animal.”

When all the apparatus of report 
Confirms the triumph of our enemies;
Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat, 
Violence successful like a new disease, 

And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited; 
When we regret that we were ever born: 
Let us remember all who seemed deserted.
To-night in China let me think of one

Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all:

And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great animal.

๛ ๛ 

No, not their names. It was the others who built
Each great coercive avenue and square,
Where men can only recollect and stare,
The really lonely with the sense of guilt

Who wanted to persist like that for ever;
The unloved had to leave material traces:
But these need nothing but our better faces,
And dwell in them, and know that we shall never

Remember who we are nor why we’re needed.
Earth grew them as a bay grows fishermen
Or hills a shepherd; they grew ripe and seeded;

And the seeds clung to us; even our blood
Was able to revive them; and they grew again;
Happy their wish and mild to flower and flood.

๛ ๛ 

Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice,
Again and again we sigh for an ancient South,
For the warm nude ages of instinctive poise,
For the taste of joy in the innocent mouth.

Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
In the glorious balls of the future; each intricate maze
Has a plan, and the disciplined movements of the heart
Can follow for ever and ever its harmless ways.

We envy streams and houses that are sure:
But we are articled to error; we
Were never nude and calm like a great door,

And never will be perfect like the fountains;
We live in freedom by necessity,
A mountain people dwelling among mountains.

Poems of the day

Mr Bleaney, by John William Waters

Mr Bleaney, by John William Waters

Two poems by Gottfried Benn:

People Met

I have met people who, asked what their names were,
Apologetically, as if they had no right to claim one’s attention
Even with an appellation, would answer,
“Miss Vivian,” then add, “just like the Christian name”;
They wanted to make things easier, no complicated names
Like Popkiss or Umpleby-Dunball—
“Just like the Christian name” – so please do not burden your memory!

I have met people who grew up in a single room together with
Parents and four brothers and sisters; they studied by night,
Their fingers in their ears, beside the kitchen range;
They became eminent,
Outwardly beautiful, veritable grandes dames, and
Inwardly gentle and active as Nausicaa,
With brows clear as angels’ brows.

Often I have asked myself, but found no answer,
Where gentleness and goodness can possibly come from;
Even today I can’t tell, and it’s time to be gone.

(translated by Christopher Middleton)

Listen

Listen, this is what the last evening will be like
when you’re still capable of going out; you’re smoking your Junos,
quaffing your three pints of Wurzburger Hofbrau
and reading about the UN as reflected in the pages of the Spiegel;

You’re sitting alone at your little table, the least possible company
beside the radiator, because you crave warmth.
All round you mankind and its mewling,
the couple and their loathsome hound.

That’s all you are, you’ve no house or hill
to call your own, to dream in a sunny landscape,
from your birth to this evening
the walls around you were pretty tightly drawn.

That’s all you were, but Zeus and all the immortals,
the great souls, the cosmos and all the suns
were there for you, spun and fed through you,
that’s all you were, finished as begun –
your last evening – good night.

(translated by Michael Hoffmann)

VOTE on SF Pride! Do you want a) an anti-war whistleblower, or b) a pro-war, bomb-promoting, racist, rape-inciting float in your Parade?

DECISION 2013The God’s honest truth is, I forgot that the Bradley Manning fiasco isn’t the first time I have been irritated by San Francisco Pride. A year ago I wrote about this really remarkable float that materialized in the Parade:

We must take all measures necessary to stop Iran from obtaining dildos NOW: Iran180 float at SF Pride, 2012

We must take all measures necessary to stop Iran from obtaining dildos NOW: “Iran 180″ float at SF Pride, 2012

That racist, rape-excusing representation of a leather queen forcibly sodomizing an Iranian politician decked a float which was crowbarred into the 2012 festivities by the neocon, astroturf, pro-war front group Iran 180. After I described it, the image began to haunt my dreams so intensely and disturbingly that only a truckload of sleeping pills and a botched prefrontal lobotomy could excise Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the nuclear-tipped dildo from my fantasies.

But now I remember; now I see. It’s OK in the eyes of SF Pride officials to embrace a float indulging in racist stereotyping, promoting war, and inciting sexual assault. What’s not OK is to invite an antiwar activist who exposed US human rights abuses and lies. Kapish!

Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday about all the corporate miscreants whom Pride welcomes while barring Bradley Manning, because, after all, unlike Manning, they have money. But I think the Rape Float is in its own special category.

No doubt the honchos of Pride would insist that they don’t actually censor floats at the Parade; just Grand Marshals. First off, I don’t believe them. If the God-hates-fags fanatics at Westboro Baptist Church tried to fit a float in the procession, would the Board agree? If the KKK offered its decorative services, would they be gratefully accepted? Doubtful; It’s just anti-Iranian racism that in the current circumstances passes muster. And second: Bradley Manning was elected Grand Marshal of the 2013 Parade, by a somewhat larger electorate than the nine-member Board. Nobody voted for the Ahmadinejad grotesquerie, except the paid flacks and propagandists of Iran 180 and their funders.

US Special Forces patrol the sector of Market Street near Duboce Ave., just outside the SF Pride headquarters

They free us for our hatreds: US Special Forces patrol the sector of Market Street near Duboce Ave., just outside the SF Pride headquarters

SF Pride, however, has promised a new Dawn of Democracy in the Bay Area, possibly facilitated by US military occupation of its offices. The official statement by Lisa Williams, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Board of Directors of SF Pride, condemned

a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community’s highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. … [A]s an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination.

The Purple Revolution comes to the Castro: You should see my other organs

The Purple Revolution comes to the Castro: You should see my other organs

Great!  Since the Board of Directors is suddenly conscious of its “responsibility to the broader community,” I suggest the broader community help it out by practicing that most elemental of democratic freedoms, the one the US promotes with such success from Florida to Fallujah: Voting.  Cast your ballots now! The question is:

Would you rather have Bradley Manning at Pride — an antiwar activist who exposed US secrets and is certainly controversial? Or a rerun of the Rape Float — from a secretive group claiming falsely to be “grassroots,” promoting war and inciting dildo-wielding racial hatred, and uncontroversial only because from its comfy PR offices it takes easy shots at politically easy targets?

You can cast your votes by writing SF Pride at info@sfpride.org;  social@sfpride.org; and donations@sfpride.org. Or you can call them at +01 (415) 864-0831.

Send them your vote now!  After all, as even Binyamin Netanyahu knows, when it comes to our tools — sexual and otherwise — our choices are the most important thing.

Netanyahu-bomb-9-1

Poem of the day

Painting on the junta's Qasr al-Aini wall, Cairo, via @GSquare86

Auden wrote this in 1945 after serving in occupied Germany. It’s a useful reminder for wall-builders and wall-destroyers alike.

From Memorial for the City (by W. H. Auden, 1907-1973)

Across the square,
Between the burnt-out Law Courts and Police Headquarters,
Past the Cathedral far too damaged to repair,
Around the Grand Hotel patched up to hold reporters,
Near huts of some Emergency Committee,
The barbed wire runs through the abolished City.

Across the plains,
Between two hills, two villages, two trees, two friends,
The barbed wire runs which neither argues nor explains
But where it likes a place, a path, a railroad ends,
The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Across our sleep
The barbed wire also runs: It trips us so we fall
And white ships sail without us though the others weep,
It makes our sorry fig-leaf at the Sneerers’ Ball,
It ties the smiler to the double bed,
It keeps on growing from the witch’s head.

Behind the wire
Which is behind the mirror, our Image is the same,
Awake or dreaming: It has no image to admire,
No age, no sex, no memory, no creed, no name,
It can be counted, multiplied, destroyed
In any place, at any time destroyed.

Is it our friend?
No: that is our hope; that we weep and It does not grieve;
That for it the wire and the ruins are not the end;
This is the flesh we are but never would believe,
The flesh we die but it is death to pity;
This is Adam waiting for his city.

Poem of the day

Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889

Late Ripeness (by Czeslaw Miłosz, 1911-2004) 

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget  — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago -
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

A who’s who of the Iranian firewall

A friend from Iran sent me this link tonight; it’s amusing, in a disturbed and disturbing sort of way.   The “Iran Firewall Test” allows you to “use the Internet in Iran in real time” to explore what people in the country can access or not through ordinary Web means. What’s blocked, and what’s not? Enter your favorite website, and see.

There are already mysteries I’ve stumbled on in five minutes of playing with it. Why is Salon blocked while Slate isn’t?  Why does the New Republic lie afoul of the firewall but not — get this — Commentary? Barack Obama’s reelection effort isn’t censored; the White House is. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is open to any Iranian to view; perhaps the ultimate step in his political evolution is to succeed Ahmadinejad. So, too, World Net Daily, the rabid right-wing Christian page (“American’s Independent News Network”) can be perused by the most militant of Teheranis. But you can’t get Wonkette.  Iranians will never learn the true meaning of Santorum.” Dan Savage’s column is blocked, and so is Dr. Ruth, and so is Rex Wockner’s blog. But neither COYOTE in LA nor SWEAT in South Africa — both of them sex workers’ advocacy organizations — is. You can get to the Ford Foundation but not the Soros Foundation. You can get the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, but not Saturday Night Live.

This little blog is unblocked, at the moment, a dubious honor; if you want anything read in Iran, just let me know and I’ll facilitate it.  One feels like reciting Brecht’s poem:

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

Poem of the day

The Midnight Skaters (by Edmund Blunden,1896-1974)

The hop-poles stand in cones,
The icy pond lurks under,
The pole-tops steeple to the thrones
Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;
But not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
Earth’s heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
Use him as though you love him;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.