When Veterans Day Was Controversial

When Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1954, it wasn’t just that the day honored all veterans instead of just those who served in World War I. There was a distinct shift in tone, too. November 11th became less a sacred celebration of peace and more a celebration of the glories of war. According to The Week, “Veterans for Peace, an anti-war group, holds regular ‘Reclaim Armistice Day’ events on November 11 …”

According to The Economist‘s Erasmus (paywall)the Church of England, as the UK’s official organ of solemnity, has long been walking this fine line between remembering the dead and the honor due them, and also calling attention to the evils of war itself and the militaristic nationalism which drives it.

As the leaders of Germany, France, the UK, and the United States gathered in Paris this morning, I found myself thinking of all the parallels between the Belle Epoque that preceded the first world war and our own age. There is a great Anglophone empire which seems to be ceding international control to a rising power (once the UK and the US, now the US and China), a roiling Middle East connected like a cat’s cradle to delicate Great Power alliances, accelerating new media and industrial technologies wiping out old professions with incredible speed, all while multinational corporations make the claim that economic interdependence will make war a thing of the past. Not to mention an entrenched aristocracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is my great hope that this new century does not see another global conflict. May you enjoy this day in peace.

Short Story Review: Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth

Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges is less than seven pages long, yet I remember it more vividly than entire novels I’ve read.

It starts on a blustery English coast with two young literary gentlemen discussing a local legend, and unfolds from there into a story that is part fairy tale, part murder mystery, part friendship chronicle, and part fever dream. The main location and central image is a labyrinth, constructed on a hilltop in England by an exiled king as a home and a refuge from a terrible vengeance.

The story shifts on every page, in nearly every sentence, like jewel in a ray of light. Just when you think you’ve seen every facet, another one slides into view, betraying the incompleteness of what you saw before. Like Iain Pear’s masterpiece of misdirection, An Instance of the Fingerpost, this little tale delightfully puts you off balance from the first word to the last.

I mention it here because I reread it as part of my short fiction binge this autumn. It falls solidly into the category of stories which seem to achieve as much as novels, and which also achieve what only short stories can, relying on a density of sensory impression and a strangeness it would be impossible to sustain for more than a few pages.

And for me, the spooky season is pretty much year-round, though my craving for the gothic is strongest from the autumn to the spring equinoxes.

Any good spooky short story recommendations?

Arthur Machen, the HG Wells of Horror

The Great God Pan, a short story by Arthur Machen about the intrusion into Edwardian London of a great evil, is one of the few genuinely disturbing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s disturbing in the way that a horror film can spook you, or even a personal trauma. The story sets on you only after you’ve finished it and are putting the pieces together.

I was heartened to see this appreciation of Machen over at The Paris Review. If you don’t have time to read Machen, but want to understand his importance to the modern literature of the uncanny (an ever more important mode of expression for our literary mainstream), then the piece is worth your time.

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!

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.