Monday, April 30, 2007

My 1992

Where was I when I heard the verdict in the Rodney King case? Probably in "The Coop," a rather bland eatery in UCLA's student center, over the university's low power radio. I might have listened momentarily, thinking that the verdict defied expectations, but thought no further. It was a little later, sitting in US Intellectual History, where the professor pushed aside his normal lecture in order to frame the verdict in historical context that I considered the verdict more fully. But the idea that there would be anger and outrage had not yet crossed my mind.

It was only late in the afternoon, when I reached my apartment, that I fully realized what was taking place: the outbreaks of rioting and violence. Watching the television, I was afraid and confused. The streets and neighborhoods mentioned by reporters were familiar to me only in name. They had no place in my mental maps of Los Angeles, mostly of the west side, almost oblivious to anything east of Rampart and south of Pico. Indeed, in my unfamiliarity, I could imagine the barbarians at the gate, so to speak: that organized rioters making their way up Wilshire into Westwood.

The next night the calm of Westwood intensely contrasted with the paranoia on television. My friends and I, feeling the strain of being trapped inside, met and, essentially, had a party. It seemed unlikely that such jollity could break out. Indeed, it seemed to us as if we were defying the mood of the city, claiming that the horrors happening elsewhere had no personal sway over us.

The third night, I biked several miles to jam with my band. I biked back later in the evening. I saw a few police cars. No one stopped me. In the following days we talked, but not as if the events were personal. We laughed about the friend who drove eight hours straight to get home, or the "new stereo" someone else suddenly had in their room.

With regret, I offer no powerful memories of the 1992 riots. As in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, I was surrounded by a decadence that was oblivious to the brewing storm. My actions seem self-serving.

Was I alone? There may have been many Angelenos who watched the riots on TV, who had no personal contact with it and could not understand the outrage. Geographically so close, we could not have been socially farther away. Perhaps it was because of how the city was laid out. It was easy for parts of Los Angeles to remain isolated from one another. Or perhaps we were just modern spectators, our witnessing mediated by television.

Perhaps historical memory is seldom personal memory.

I am but an indirect witness to events that happened in my own hometown. The magnitude of the riots, their context, their meaning, didn't wash over me until I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, three years later. Even now I can speak more personally about 9/11 ( I was at least on the 103 floor of one of the Twin Towers). I can't explain why the riots aren't part of my personal memories: because I was not engaged; because I could see nothing but the world around me; because I was in a world apart ... . It's only after the fact that I can talk about the worst nights in my hometown's history.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

In Justice We Trust?

Would you prefer "justice" in the place of "G-d" on coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance?

Brandon, responding to Jason Kuznicki, argues that mention of G-d in political discourse does not in and of itself constitute an endorsement of religion (and that a more objective definition of endorsement is necessary).

I often worry that the purpose to reference's to G-d in government slogans have nothing to do with endorsement: surrounding American values in an aura of absolute truth and goodness. What we "trust" is that what we do is sanctioned by G-d.

The more challenging notion--that we strive to follow the precepts and desires of a divine entity--is not in operation. No judgemental eye will be cast upon the nation. G-d is a passive witness to American exceptionalism.

More often than not, G-d is subordinate to nationalism when used in public life. In Nationalization of the Masses, George Mosse argued that nationalists appropriated the symbols and rituals of religion--both Christian and pagan--to create a "secular religion": nation as the ultimate object of faith and worship. The origin of those symbols was superfluous; their meanings were distorted beyond recognition.

From this perspective, mention of G-d does not entail endorsement. It raises new concerns about the use of religious symbols in government, and is a more powerful argument for disentangling symbols and government (for both "believers" and "atheists"). But it is a god that is subordinate, devalued, subject to the exigencies of nationalism and the national spirit.

Should a concept like justice substitute for G-d? As much as I would like "justice" to be a leading principle in public life, it might fare no better than G-d. "In Justice We Trust" would not provide anything more objective or substantive, nothing that would generate more consensus or require less of a leap of faith. It would do nothing more than say, uncritically, "we are just."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Geremek Affair

Bronislaw Geremek, French historian and Polish politicians, may lose his seat in the European Parliament: he refuses to sign a statement, per a new Polish law, declaring that he did not collaborate with secret state police during the communist era. He has resisted because, first, he already signed a statement, and second, the law is part of a larger purge of intellectual and bureaucrats in Poland:
I already made [such a declaration] in 2004, when I campaigned for the European elections, and now I feel as if I live in the country of King Ubu. . . . I believe that the law of lustration in its current form violates moral rules and threatens liberty of expression, the independence of the media nd the autonomy of the university. It engenders a form of ministry of truth and memory police. (full statement, in French)
Colleagues have rushed to defend him, noting his history resisting communism:
[Daniel Cohn-Bendit:] We have fought Stalinism with Geremek, and we will protect our colleague without hesitation from a government that behaves either in a Stalinist or fascist manner.
This affair comes as Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski, has come under scrutiny for his administrations intolerant policies, especially toward homosexuality.

[ETA:] I don't expect we'll have a "Gunter Grass" moment--information coming to light of collaboration, or that whatever meager information does come to light will be of no significance. His early membership in the communist party is known (as his involvement in Solidarity), and Geremek has not insisted that those who collaborated had not place in public life. Given that Polish governments in the 1990s decided it would not, in the country's interest, investigate such matters, Geremek's refusal seems like an honest attempt to protest the Kaczynski's turn to extremism and prevent hysteria.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Besieging the Ivory Tower: Blogs in History

Zid offers a paper that he will present soon on the future of blogs in history ("Weblogs: Workshops of the historian"). Give him some comments (it's in French, but he can read your English comments).
Because the historian entrenched in his ivory tower does not discuss with amateurs who try to reconstruct the past in their own manner; the historian entrenched in his ivory tower cannot understand the actions of genealogists, without whom access to the archives would be more difficult; the historian entrenched in his ivory tower lets the state or the [elites] respond to the negationists who attack daily life; the historian cannot entrench himself in his ivory tower. He must put his research in the service of a type of democratic humanism. And the blog allows us to communicate like never before. [My apologies to Zid for this rough translation.]

Car un historien retranché dans sa tour d'ivoire ne discutera pas avec des amateurs qui essaient de faire de la reconstitution historique à leur façon ; un historien retranché dans sa tour d'ivoire ne pourra comprendre le mouvement des généalogistes sans lesquels l'accès aux archives serait rendu encore plus difficile qu'il n'est aux chercheurs ; un historien retranché dans sa tour d'ivoire laissera l'Etat ou les grands pontes répondre aux négationnistes qui attaquent au quotidien ; un historien ne peut être retranché dans sa tour d'ivoire. C'est son devoir de chercheur au service d'un certain humanisme démocratique. Et le blog nous permet de communiquer comme jamais.

Junkers' Return

Rebuilding the castle in Berlin: the kind of architecture Berlin has in abundance.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Random Notes

Francophonic World: Words without Borders features African writers this month. Alain Mabanckou's "Blue White Red" reflects on Africans' perceptions and experiences of the mere patrie (Mabanckou recently won the Prix Goncourt):
I was one of those who thought that France was for the others. France was for those who we used to call les bouillants—the go-getters. It was that faraway country, inaccessible despite its fireworks that shimmered even in my smallest dreams, and from which I woke with a taste of honey in my mouth. True, I had been secretly working in my field of dreams on that wish to cross the Rubicon, to go there some day. It was a common wish; there was nothing special about that wish. You could hear that wish expressed from every mouth. Who of my generation had not visited France par la bouche—by mouth, as we say back home. Just one word, Paris, was enough for us to meet by magic spell in front of the Eiffel Tower, at the Arc de Triomphe, and on the Champs Elysées. Boys my age led their girls on by showering them with the serenade: I’ll be going to France soon. I’m going to live in the center of Paris. We were allowed to dream. It didn’t cost anything. No exit visa was necessary, no passport, no airline ticket. Think about it. Close your eyes. Sleep. Snore. And there we were, every night...

Reality caught up with us. The barriers were insurmountable. The first obstacle for me was my parents’ poverty. We weren’t dying of hunger, but a trip to France was nothing but an extravagance for them. We could do without it. We could live without having gone there. What’s more, the Earth continued to rotate. The sun followed its course and would visit other faraway places; we would cross paths in the same places, in our fields or at the marketplace at slaughter time or when the peanuts were harvested. My parents would be ruined for no good reason by contributing to an adventure like that.
Paroles des esclavage is a memory project of slavery in Martinique (sorry, it's in French).

Roma in Greece: Devious Diva's Roma Series has been receiving much deserved attention.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Search

Die Welt profiles a Dutch comic designed to teach the Third Reich and the Holocaust (images and critique).

Real Landscapes?

Old City of the Future

The city planner in Berlin's senate, Hans Stimmann, argues that the city must turn away from the Bauhaus-inspired "apartment blocks" and return to "the example of Anglo-Saxon townhouses," and that the left (to which he belongs) should support such contiguous development and private ownership in urban areas.

Following the development of (West) Berlin's Hansa-Viertel in the twentieth century, Stimmann sees modernist planning and architecture in the same light as Siedler and Niggemeyer--the murder of the city already devastated by allied bombing. The creation of a "city of the future" (especially as an alternative to the communist city rising in the east) was an injustice.
Everything could have been simpler: through the takeover of available municipal plots, the maintaining of as many buildings as possible, the protection of private ownership, the return of Jewish property, the reconstruction of churches and synagogues and the development of parcels with contemporary architecture. However, everything was impossible on political grounds. [Emphasis mine]
The Hansa-Viertel became an architectural curiosity; not a living space, but a collection of "rental vaults."

Good idea. America could use more rows of houses in place of the McMansions on monster plots (see Witold Rybzcynski's Why to we live in houses anyway? (HT: Ralph Luker)). But the modern style, which would dominate so many bombed-out German cities, was also a product of the political struggles that came before WWII. Worker housing was in short supply, and patrician-dominated municipal governments still resisted changes that would challenge the identity of the city and its elites. Among the reasons I admire Adenauer as a mayor is that he imagined Cologne of the future with a modern workers' quarter, but it had many of the same architectural features of the Hansa-Viertel. On the other hand, much of the effort to save the city from modernity in the 1930s and 40s was not just social, it was racial--eliminating anything that smacked of cosmopolitanism.

Aside: Eduard Fuhr has an interesting essay about ornamentation in modern urban planning.

Juifs pour Buchanan

"I have black friends," French-style: Le Pen tries to convince French Jews that it is in their interest to vote for him in the upcoming presidential elections.
I have Jewish friends, and there are Jews in my party ... Jews voted for me in 2002. They know better than me the danger this country faces due to the problem of security."
Better yet: he didn't deny the Holocaust, only claiming that the gas chambers were a minor detail. And why vote against Sarkozy, even if he is part Jewish: because he'll let in Asian and African muslims. Rich, very rich.

On the other hand, Sarkozy's "chosen immigration" is being compared to eugenics.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stop it! No, just stop it!

From Volokh:
What Exactly Is the Reason Not To Allow Professors To Carry Guns?

We'll, let's see.

In all my encounters with nutty students (there have been a few), not having one has never been a problem. Walking onto a college or university campus, I am in one of the safest environments in America.

Besides, no one should feel that there is a physical manifestation of whatever repression he or she may believe is affecting them.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Edible Presence

Sweet Jesus? Really? That's a problem for people?

I'm sure that there are plenty of people with a secular orientation who think, "lighten up." Such would be the response of anyone who would oppose religion to reason.

But I am more than befuddled that Christians, especially Catholics, would take offense. The Last Supper and Eucharist forces all Christians to confront the meaning of the body and the blood in scripture and liturgy and the meaning of eating that body and blood. Moreover, there is a long history in which this issue has been pondered (see Abendmahlstreit). Either there is a real presence and real eating, a symbolic presence and symbolic eating, a spiritual presence and spiritual eating, or no real presence and no really meaningful act. In any case, the notion of eating Christ has been regularized by all Christian denominations, and those that dismiss the Eucharist cannot claim that the notion is sacrilegious.

The controversy over Cosimo Cavallaro sculpture ought to serve as another example of where fundamentalism departs from religion. Control of symbols is at the heart of the matter. Jesus appears every week in an edible form (exposing his humanity should not shock people). Where have protesters been until now?