Carelessness Kills

After initially denying responsibility for scores of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Mosul Jidideh on March 17, the senior United States commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, has acknowledged that the U.S. “probably had a role in these casualties.”

Amnesty International said as many as 150 people may have died in the strike. Hundreds of other civilians have been killed in their homes by airstrikes, the group said.

Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Photo by Felipe Dana/Associated Press.

“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who carried out field investigations in Mosul.

In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of United States Central Command, said new procedures have made it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers.

As a consequence, some groups contend that US coalition strikes are now causing more civilian casualties than strikes by Russia are causing in Syria. Russia was accused of war crimes for its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, last year. There have been more than 1,300 reports of civilian deaths in airstrikes in March alone, around three times as many as were reported in February.

Is this part of a trend? It sure looks that way. Just yesterday President Trump relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia.

This new level of carelessness in conducting airstrikes is both callous and counterproductive. A strike supposedly aimed at the enemy which kills scores of civilians instead is an instant recruiting tool for ISIS. Not to mention wasteful, counterproductive and demoralizing for the United States and its allies. It’s also deeply immoral, in some cases veering extremely close, if not over, the line defining war crimes.

It’s just one more instance in which the new president’s “I don’t give a shit” attitude is producing widespread damage, this time producing a stark rise in innocent (and preventable, with more care taken) civilian deaths.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Global Humanitarian Crises

While the United States wrestles with its self-inflicted wounds regarding health care and other moral imperatives, the world at large is experiencing the worst humanitarian crises since 1945. Bad as Trumpcare promises to be, it’s not going to result in mass starvation (even if millions of poor Americans will have less money for food and healthcare alike). Yet some 20 million people around the world face imminent starvation and death, more than at any time since the end of World War Two.

Two thirds of the people of Yemen are at immediate risk.
Yemen, where two thirds of the population is in desperate need of aid and seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Photo: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency.

America seems intent on tearing itself apart while much the world is coming apart, in ways that most of us cannot imagine.

Without collective and coordinated global efforts, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease,” Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York yesterday.

Of course the UN has long been anathema to “conservative” Americans—one can easily imagine Bannon and Trump attempting to kick its New York headquarters out of the country. Yet for all its dysfunction, the world’s intergovernmental organization still provides a moral call to action that is genuinely altruistic and meaningful. U. S. “conservatives,” on the other hand, hate and fear the Other, both in this country and abroad. Twenty million people starving to death in Yemen and Africa? So what?

Yet the other half of America, the half trying to resist the destructive Trump takeover, still does care, by and large. Might I suggest a short pause from town hall confrontations and resistance marches, at least one long enough to write a check which will prevent a number of people from dying in the next week or so? The largest need is in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. And there is plenty of need elsewhere around the world as well, including the massive, ongoing refugee crisis.

Let’s not permit the mass starvation of 20 million people to become part of the world’s “new normal.” Please visit this page to select an aid organization and donate to do your part to help.

Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

License to Kill

Jeff Sessions, the unreconstructed right-wing Senator from Alabama with a seriously spotty civil rights record who has managed to become the U. S. Attorney General, announced yesterday that he will be “pulling back” on federal monitoring of police violence and civil rights violations. He said that such monitoring was “undermining” police effectiveness, by generating a lack of respect for the police and making their jobs more difficult.

In light of the conspicuous killings of unarmed people by the police captured on video in recent years, Sessions’s action is a gigantic step backwards. The action was not unexpected, however. Sessions had already gone on record as questioning Justice Department reports on policing in Chicago and Ferguson, MO, among other places. David Cole, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who testified in the Senate against Mr. Sessions’s nomination, said that “thus far, all signs are that Sessions is playing to type.”

Autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald
An autopsy drawing of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times, including several times in the back. Cook County Medical Examiner.

In Chicago, where the police were found to maintain their own interrogation “black site,” and where a white police officer shot a black teenager (who was armed with a small pocket knife and walking away from the police) 16 times, law professor Craig Futterman said the city “lacks a combination of will and the ability … to address those civil rights violations on their own.”

And it’s not just Chicago. Across the United States, whenever a police officer goes on trial for murder (this charge is rare) or manslaughter, the result is inevitably acquittal. Cops are venerated by much of the country and deified on the right; they can do no wrong. As soon as Black Lives Matter arose in response to numerous documented police killings of unarmed black people, it was swiftly countered with “Blue Lives Matter” and then “All Lives Matter.” And Black Lives Matter was widely blamed for harming police morale.

The lack of police accountability is harmful, even dangerous. Policing is an occupation that attracts more than its fair share of sociopaths and every department of any size is going to have cops who relish inflicting violence on the defenseless. The automatic acquittals whenever police officers do go on trial foster an air of immunity. Sessions’s withdrawal of federal oversight is only going to make matters worse.

The New Face of America?

Who is the man in the photo below? Is he us? And by “us,” I mean the half of the country that, with the assistance of a foreign power, ruthless gerrymandering and big, dark money—not to mention a last-minute assist from the FBI director—put the present administration in office.

His name is Adam W. Purinton and judging by his photo (and why not? Don’t we always make snap judgments about whole classes of people based on their looks?) he is a poster boy for what we used to term “poor white trash”: ugly, mean-looking and radiating ignorance and hostility.

Adam Purinton
Who is this? Is he us? Photo: Henry County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press.

Last Wednesday evening, at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Purington verbally assaulted two immigrants from India who had been working here legally for many years, using racial slurs and telling the men to “get out of my country.” Both worked as engineers for Garmin, a GPS navigation and communications device company and a maker of highly regarded professional running watches. When customers complained about Purington’s obnoxious behavior, he was kicked out of the bar. He returned later and shot both Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok R. Madasani, as well as an American who came to their defense, Ian P. Grillot. Kuchibhotla was killed and the other two men were wounded. Purington fled to neighboring Missouri where he was soon captured.

Purinton has been charged with murder and the federal government has launched an investigation to determine if the shooting was a hate crime. Well, d’uh.

People in India don’t seem to be in any doubt, where the attack dominated news media and the top American diplomat in the country was compelled to issue a statement condemning what she described as a “tragic and senseless act.”

Is Purinton the new face America is showing to the world? This is still ostensibly one country, and the government response here in the U.S. has been both dishonest and inadequate. White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed it was absurd to suggest President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could be linked to the Kansas violence.

There is one belated bright spot: a GoFundMe campaign set up to help the family of the murdered man has raised more than $625,000 to date.

Is this the way it’s going to be in Trump’s hate-mongering America? Decent people left trying to atone for the mindless violence the administration has unleashed?

Darkness Visible

Amnesty International released its 2016/2017 “State of the World’s Human Rights” report yesterday and it paints a dark picture. The global human rights organization noted that toxic fear-mongering by anti-establishment politicians, including President Trump, is contributing to a worldwide drive to roll back human rights.

Amnesty described 2016 as “the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs. them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s.”

The watchdog group named Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte among leaders it said are “wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.”

Trump’s “poisonous” rhetoric exemplified “the global trend of angrier and more divisive politics,” Amnesty said.

Donald Trump
Trump photo © Huffington Post.

The day before Amnesty’s report was released, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a pair of memos intended to expedite the removal of millions of U. S. immigrants far more quickly, with far fewer checks and far less balance. Kelly wants to hire 10,000 more ICE officers and 5,000 more Border Patrol agents, in addition to enlisting police departments around the U. S. to assist in immigrant roundups.

Yesterday, the Amnesty report noted that “The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia. The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the crosshairs.”

The White House had no comment on the report.

Can Facebook Save the World?

I won’t try to cover the absurd press conference conducted by our so-called President yesterday, as it’s already been done quite effectively (Steven Colbert stands out here). Laughter is a natural response, and many progressives take heart from the fact that every such fiasco undermines Trump further.

But I don’t share this optimism. Even if Trump fails to last a full term, as many pundits are predicting, we’re still left with Pence and an amoral Republican Congress intent on undermining every bit of social progress the country has made in decades.

Well, the pendulum will swing back, others say. And to that I respond, so what? Let’s say we manage to elect a Democratic President and control the Senate again in 2020. We will still be left with the ignorant, misguided and/or malevolent citizens who voted Trump into office last year. So how much lasting progress can really be made? The pendulum is swinging more slowly now, and the clock is winding down.

The country’s two-party system, with its electoral college and other quaint artifacts, is broken beyond repair. Universal suffrage is no cure when half the electorate is uninformed and unqualified by temperament, education and upbringing to make rational decisions. (The Republicans have done their best to increase this pool of unqualified voters through effective gerrymandering.)

All of which brings me to a surprising statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, yesterday: “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

Facebook
Can Facebook help create global harmony? Logo © Facebook.

This is absolutely true. Both climate change and nuclear weapons, to cite just two examples, are terrifying threats that only a global response can meet effectively. But how do we get there? Somehow I think Facebook alone is not the answer. But maybe it can help, if it does more to curtail the ignorance promulgated on its network and more to help people break out of their tight little groups and constant posting as an end in itself to take part in organizing change in the real world.

Zuckerberg has raised a very important issue and I admire him for speaking out in today’s nationalistic, close-minded environment. How do people of intelligence and good will come together to make genuine progress? That is the question more of us need to address today, regardless of national boundaries or Trump’s latest tweet.

Music for Our Times

With the Grammys coming up tomorrow, I thought I’d cast my vote in the Dance/Electronic category for Underworld’s phenomenal Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future. While I follow classical music and jazz more than popular music these days, there are some noteworthy exceptions and Underworld is one of them.

Underworld: Barbara Barbara we face a shining future
Music for today.

Back in the 90s, the group had some of the best and most popular dance/electronic albums of the day. Two of their songs featured in Danny Boyle’s controversial but widely acclaimed film Trainspotting, and the albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants were blasting people into a kind of dancing nirvana in clubs everywhere.

Barbara, Barbara is different—it’s very much of this time. From the opening track on, the album seems concerned with finding solace and inspiration where one can in the midst of confusion and darkness. The opening track, “I Exhale,” tells an abstract story of forward motion that opens out into “the lights aglow over the horizon.” It makes you feel those lights, and believe they are cause for hope.

Likewise with the other tracks on the album. “If rah,” the second track, has a line proclaiming “Life isn’t shit.” “Low Burn” urges listeners to “Be bold, Be beautiful, Free, Totally Unlimited.”“Motorhome” counsels us to “Keep away from the dark side.” And “Nylon Strung” closes the album with:

“Sliding between the dust of a scorched earth
Open me up
I wanna hold you, laugh for you
(Carry me).”

This is music for today. Barbara, Barbara deserves a Grammy.

The Writers Studio

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

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