Month: October 2018

A Witch’s Chant for Halloween

Happy Halloween from me and the poet James Hogg (whom Google decided is my twin, in an odd coincidence, which I remembered only after selecting this poem).

James evokes better than I can this night, when the border between this world and the next is blurred, and, even if we are too old to wander the world in costume, we dress up our imaginations in unusual images and wander the strange border country between daydream and nightmare.

From Hogg’s “A Witch’s Chant:”

All is not well: by dint of spell
Somewhere between the heaven and hell
There is this night a wild deray;
The spirits have wander'd from their way.

The purple drops shall tinge the moon,
As she wanders the midnight noon;
And the dawning heaven shall all be red
With blood by guilty angels shed.

...

Sleep'st thou, wakest thou, lord of the wind?
Mount thy steeds and gallop them blind;
And the long-tailed fiery dragon outfly,
The rocket of heaven, the bomb of the sky.

Over the dog-star, over the wain,
Over the cloud, and the rainbow's mane,
Over the mountain, and over the sea,
Haste - haste - haste to me!

In Context, Trump’s Comments on Khashoggi’s Murder Are Different Only In Style, Not In Substance, from U.S. Policy

It is altogether good that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has become a rallying point for press freedom and freedom itself. As U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays has said, the issue is a referendum on “whether or not America stands for anything anymore.” In the United States, a thriving press predates and props up our democracy. Supporting a journalist speaking truth against a tyrannical king would seem like an instinctual position for an American President to take. Not so for Mr. Trump, whose concern for business has hindered him from properly condemning Khashoggi’s murder. The President has called the killing a “bad concept, poorly executed,” as if the suppression of free speech by murder were merely a botched subplot of one of his reality shows.

But in adopting Realpolitik in relations with the House of Saud, the President is not unusual. He’s just more clumsy about it than his predecessors in the Oval Office.

Though the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group, were providing us with intelligence against al-Qaeda (founded by a Bin Laden, a Saudi, lest we forget), President Obama chose to back the Saudi-supported Yemeni government in their war against the Houthis. This is in keeping with the last 70-years of U.S. support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Trump has indeed chosen an awkward moment not to speak out swiftly and decisively in defense of democracy, and his sloppiness is eroding America’s soft power. But while his predecessors would have been quicker to condemn, you can be sure they would have still preserved the alliance we have with the Saudi Kingdom and the many benefits it brings us. Mr. Shays’s referendum rightly applies to more than Trump’s record alone, a fact which the rising partisanship around the midterms will obscure.

What business is Mr. Trump defending? His own real estate interests for sure, but also those of other real estate developers, who are rushing in to help the Saudi economy diversify as oil prices fall and as the oil reserves under the Kingdom’s deserts dwindle. The Saudis are still a major player in the global energy market, but they are no longer the world’s largest energy producer, and nobody knows how long they can continue to produce the amount of oil they are currently pumping out.

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Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport

Printed below in full, written by George Washington to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in 1790, as the states were still debating the ratification of the 1st amendment, which enshrines freedom of religion:

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Donate to help the survivors and the victim’s families as well as the Congregation of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh as they recover from the antisemitic attack that left eleven of their members dead. As a nation, we are more generous of heart and liberal of mind than this violence.

Short Story Review: An Inhabitant of Carcosa, by Ambrose Bierce

At barely five pages, An Inhabitant of Carcosa delivers a disproportionately powerful jolt to the imagination. It isn’t a classic ghost story, but a weird tale, the kind most associated with H. P. Lovecraft, though there is more art in this story than in almost all of Lovecraft’s fiction.

A narrator awakens on a barren plane, his consciousness catapulted there after reading a passage in a book by an obscure metaphysician. Who is he? Where is he? What is Carcosa? The echoes of the magnificiently wrought details will give you almost all the answers you need.

Ambrose Bierce, the tale’s author, was a journalist, memoirist, and spinner of tales during the Civil War and The Gilded Age. Perhaps because his stories were on my high school English syllabuses, I have long ignored them.

I’m grateful that he was included in an NYRB Classics anthology I picked up when last I was in Providence, browsing the shelves of Lovecraft Arts & Sciences. A collection of Bierce’s war reporting, short stories, and essays is now on its way to my book-haunted garret in New York City.

Next up, Bierce’s The Damned Thing, which Joyce Carol Oates selected for her anthology of American Gothic Tales.

The Latest Big Innovation In News? Human Editors

This post is a bit of a throwback to my days at The Schwartz Center at Fordham, where we spent a lot of our time investigating what was happening to the news business. We looked at the algorithmic gatekeepers that were replacing the human ones who once decided what was worthy of our attention, and we looked at the new business models that were feeding off that new locus of attention.

What seemed inevitable five or six years ago was that the future of news would be a grim collision between user generated content and dodgy social media algorithms, with the craft of journalism left out of the picture. That’s true in the darker corners of the Web, but, just as Tim Cook’s privacy speech this week showed, Apple may be charting a new, more human way forward.

Apple employs about thirty human beings with journalistic acumen to select the stories that show up in its news app, which reaches about 90 million people each week, according to this profile of the head of Apple News. You’ll never have the chance to meet the algorithm that selects the distractions in your Facebook feed–not so for Lauren Kern, Apple’s editor-in-chief.

I’d long ago deleted Apple News, preferring as I do to pay editors and writers to deliver the news to me in print each week. That’s still my preference, but for those of you who prefer thumbing through the news on an app for free, Ms. Kern’s operation may be the best option.

Dept. of Wonder: The Oldest Intact Shipwreck in the World

A few weeks ago, I marveled that less than 10% of the archeological finds in the world had been explored. Two kilometers beneath the Black Sea, that fact is on gorgeous display this week with reports of the discovery of an intact Greek trading vessel from about 400 B.C., the oldest shipwreck ever found.

Rope, coiled by the crew on a day when it is possible that Socrates and Plato were still breathing in Athens, is still where it was left on the decks of the sunken vessel. There is so much detail left that this single wreck will transform our understanding of ancient shipbuilding.

As our world above sinks further into chaos, I’m going to take some solace in knowing that there are still wonders buried in the deep places of the earth.