Saturday, March 13, 2010


I’ve been much interested in Adam Curtis’ pastiches. Words AND vids, maybe the original Vooks, which now are evolving into something else: image-only essays with occasional titles. They certainly are not silent -- music is sometimes a big part of his argument and other time a potent irony. And these are not slowly mimed scenes invented for the camera: they are bits of real life thrown together in flashes so tachistoscopically brief that only a modern eye can follow. But it helps to know what he’s probably driving at. And some of them are familiar images.

Here’s the take-home quote:

“And as the Taliban took control of the cities they began their experiment. All they cared about was morality so the only organisation they created was called - "The Organisation for the Commanding of Good and the Hunting Down of Evil". Otherwise they had no interest in any social or political institutions. They just got rid of them all.”

These narratives are so dramatic, so full of gossip and extraordinary personalities and slam-you-on-the-head scenery, that it’s hard to know how to evaluate them. Anyway, no one short of a university professor has the kind of education that could pull apart the pop-it beads of logic. This morning I read through the tale of Afghanistan, which has always been as convoluted, dark and dubious as it is today. Which you may or may not find reassuring.

There was one passage that was actually taken from some historical account that made me raise my eyebrows. It was about some major figure who may or may not have been who he said he was, who was reportedly passing through the mountains on a camel when he heard and saw a little critter looking at him beady-eyes from the tumbled rocks. He asked what it was and they said it was a marmot. Reportedly, he was so taken with it that he put it in his pocket and carried it along.

Well! First of all, a marmot is a kind of woodchuck, a big fat twenty-pound rodent that would not fit in any of MY pockets. Beyond that, they are bad-tempered and have teeth like chisels. And they are not willing to be caught, which is why their burrows go way back in under the rocks. The only practical thing to do is set up a trap, which this tale doesn’t say anything about. Otherwise, there will be a half-day’s labor moving rocks and digging.

When I want to insult my cats, I call them marmots.

This is my own real-life experience, and about the only overlap I have with all the coups and murders and triumphs in this strand of events. Since the marmot story is pretty unlikely, it gives me skepticism about the whole thing, esp. since it is “clearly” and frankly highly ambiguous. Go to Adam Curtis’ blog and watch his videos to check it out. The odd thing is that I'm often persuaded.

Just about every source of news we have is ambiguous, all the time protesting that in fact they KNOW. Or at least the politicians will say they know. Every day when I hear what are said-to-be-shocking unemployment figures, I recall standing in an elevator in Helena behind two state employees in 1982. One asked, “What do you figure the REAL unemployment figure is right now?” The other said casually, “Oh, maybe one-third of the population.” Every number is cooked, compromised, and relativized.

So how do we make decisions? How do we know where the vote should go? How can we be sure it will even go there?

While I was mulling all this, “This American Life” came on the radio. It was a piece about an annual panel debate at some university that was supposed to prove which university discipline was most important in terms of saving the world or at least your own life. They call it the “Lifeboat” debate -- you know, “if the boat were sinking and you could only save one discipline, which one would it be?” The story described how the professors chosen to defend their fields all used gimmicks: one came in on a motorcycle, one had composed a poem and they were all very clever and funny as though all professors were Robin Williams. But they had totally lost sight of the purpose of the debate, which is actually pretty serious these days, not least because you could argue that the disciplines themselves need to be radically reconfigured.

This panel always builds in a “devil’s advocate,” and this particular one was an English teacher who was up to the task. He discarded his script and spoke from his heart, describing the ten-year drift from serious thought to wacky stunts meant to make everyone laugh. Saying it went back to a woman who had argued that since communications were necessary for sex, the crucial discipline was sociology. Then he threw in a laugh by saying that sociology wasn’t even a real discipline! He was fairly good-natured about it, but in the end he won the debate by discrediting the debaters. He took them on the Taliban-tainted ground of morality, of not taking the task seriously.

What has gone missing from so many of today’s debates is the rationality that ought to be the thick middle between killing all dissenters and mocking the whole event. Obama hangs onto logic for dear life even as he gets shoved both ways. (The Rawness said that when he posted about Obama, he lost 49 followers. I don’t even know whether he said right wing or left wing things, but putting one’s fingers in one’s ears at a debate is a strategy that almost always turns out badly.)

Philosophical debate interests me a lot more than political debate, though I suppose they intertwine. I like to get back to the actual, the perceptible, the things inside my experience, like a marmot. In fact, I rather like taking the marmot for a role model, since I seem to be acquiring a marmot silhouette and temperament. This little house isn’t much of a burrow -- in some ways a city apartment would be safer -- but I can whistle all I want. Come to think of it, Afghanistan’s terrain and politics is not all that different from Montana’s, right down to the interference from international forces. I had not known they had marmots, too.

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