31 January 2007

Al Qaeda's death-metal soldier

Adam Gadahn, the first American to be charged with treason in fifty years, used to be big into death metal.

The 28-year-old is now Al Qaeda's top English-language propagandist, having converted to Islam at age 17, left his home in rural California, and trained at terrorist camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Raffi Khatchadourian's Jan. 22 profile of Gadahn is full of rich ironies, like the fact that before he joined Al Qaeda, Gadahn (featured in all photos at right) rejected evangelical Christianity because he felt alienated by its “apocalyptic ramblings.”

Check out his thoughts on family:
“Allah warns the parents, siblings, offspring, and other relatives of the Muslim that their relation to him will be of no use to them on the day of judgment, if they have not themselves died as true believers.

So don’t be complacent, or let the Devil deceive you into thinking that your connections will intercede for you on that terrible day."
I can see how rambling turns him off. Everyone knows that succinctness gets you more bang for your psychotic-metaphysical buck.

Death metal, as you probably know, is identified by downtuned rhythm guitars, fast percussion, and dark lyrics that focus, Elizabeth Kolbert-like, on nihilistic metaphors. What you may not know is that metalheads revere Cookie Monster and imitate his singing style.

'I forgethow exactly does Cookie Monster sing?'

Rocknerd explains why the growling and ümlaüts preponderate in heavy metal, but he doesn't have much to say about how young Americans "pick up the sword of the idea" and go on to attack their own societies, even martyring themselves if necessary.

In Khatchadourian's article, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman provides a profile of "homegrowns," as they're called. He finds that, as with most cults, the ideology is just window dressing for new recruits. The chief appeal seems to be finding community within a "bunch of guys."

Once within that “bunch of guys,” the men become radicalized through a process akin to oneupmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of zeal.

Sound familiar? Perhaps you see a parallel to young men who electroshock their own genitals.

Apparently, ideology and political grievance play a minimal role during the initial stages of jihadi enlistment. According to Sageman, the common thread is that "the future terrorists were isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated.”

It won't be the last time I ask this: What happened to soft drugs and acoustic guitar?

(Extra reading: "My Year Inside Radical Islam.")
(Extra watching: Gadahn and Zawahiri appeal for your conversion.)

28 January 2007

The Sensitive Atom: Panexperientialism & Human Importance

"A sparrow does not fall to the ground without God's awareness" (Matthew 10:29).
While Adam Gopnik has us on the subject of Matthew, Darwin, and human significance, let's look at another formulation of meaning and the cosmos.

Panexperientialism: the idea that everythinghumans, dogs, mosquitoes, trees, blades of grass, and atomshas feelings, or an inner life.

According to one of the "most decorated spirituality and ethics writers in North America," Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd:
"There is an intimate correlation between matter, emotion and that elusive quality we now call spirit."

"When it comes to understanding the environment, panexperientialism is also crucial. Humans develop a closer kinship with nature when they recognize that everything on the planet is ultimately made up of things that feel."

"This is not to say humans and a blade of grass are equal. Humans are infinitely more complex, possessing all sorts of emotions, thoughts and aspirations of which a blade of grass, literally, cannot dream."
I wrote him a letter.

* * *
Sun reporter Douglas Todd
Dear Douglas Todd,

I'm glad I read your column in this morning's Sun: I was dreading sitting down to my Saturday homework, but your argument about panexperientialism so alarmed me that I rushed to the computer with a cup of coffee and here I am now at 9:15 AM. Thank you.

So, divinity is "embedded in the evolutionary process, which works through a combination of chance and purpose"? That sounds like intelligent design to me. By your disclaimer, I was hoping your exploration of panexperientialism was a gesture of charity to those readers who asked for it. But you seem to think it was "the most important part" of your column, too.

The notion seems a last-ditch attempt by religious people to affirm human beings' centrality in the universe. If Christians now concede that a dominion-style relationship with the bears and sparrows, rocks and trees, as laid out in Genesis, leads to environmental rape and spoil, they have two ways to even the balance
  • Make everything meaningful
  • Make themselves meaningless
Panexperientialism is the former choice: man, assured of his own importance, magnanimously accords it to everything else.

And that would be fine, as far as it went—humans on par with the world of things. But then the ugly notion of primacy creeps back in: "This is not to say humans and a blade of grass are equal."

Do we need the special recognition for humans, Mr. Todd? Are we equal to the world or superior to it?

Here's a crazy idea: We make ourselves peers with the atom, not by making it feel, but by accepting that neither of us matters much.

Insisting on human importance will not, to use your phrase, "urge us towards beauty." Forgetting it will.

Best regards,

John Bucher

P.S. I've attached an excerpt of Adam Gopnik's recent article about Charles Darwin. It applies to this question, I think, and you both reference the same Matthew verse.

* * *
Dear John Bucher,

Thank you for your letter. We'll have to agree to disagree about panexperientialism. If you'd like, you can send your letter to the Letters section of the Sun, but I have no control over whether it gets published.

It's up to you.


Douglas Todd

25 January 2007

Deep time

Glaring and bescarfed Adam Gopnik sure sounds kinder than he looks. I caught half of his CBC Ideas lecture last night while driving into town.

In it (podcast due Feb. 5) Gopnik expounded a question he recently asked his kids: Do you prefer theatres, where you can sit? Or museums, where you can talk?

His point is that context is everything. Our experience of art, say, is "impure" because it is inseparable from our experience of the museum as a place of courting, of flirting, of surveying. Religions are the same: we can't tease the sanctified part from the ululating and the slaying of neighbors.

It's still early in this blog, so I'll be spare with terms like 'startling erudition' and 'searingly urbane,' mostly because 'sear' should always be followed by something something in a balsamic reduction. But Gopnik's got it going on. He's in the running for a golden ticket and a tour of the factory.

Luckily, I obsessed over a Darwin piece of his from October; I could see where he was cribbing it in his lecture. He read my favorite part almost word for word.

Bookworld, who also thought that section "very fine," quotes the last four paragraphs, although, for me, this part, about Time's relationship to Meaning, is the nut:
"In Darwin's work, time moves at two speeds: there is the vast abyss of time in which generations change and animals mutate and evolve; and then there is the gnat's-breath, humming-bird-heart time of creaturely existence, where our children are born and grow and, sometimes, die before us.

"The space between the tiny but heartfelt time of human life and the limitless time of Nature became Darwin's implicit subject. Religion had always reconciled quick time and deep time by pretending that the one was in some way a prelude to the other—a prelude or a prologue or a trial or a treatment. Artists of the Romantic period, in an increasingly secularized age, thought that through some vague kind of transcendence they could bridge the gap. They couldn't. Nothing could. The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much. There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows.

"The human challenge that Darwin felt, and that his work still presents, is to see both times truly—not to attempt to humanize deep time, or to dismiss quick time, but to make enough of both without overlooking either."
Brilliantly sly how, in the penultimate sentence of that second chunk, he buries the really earthshattering sentimentlife has no meaningin a slippery grammatical structure. By the time you get to the "it" you've nearly forgotten he means "everything."

Here are three big questions:
  • Are the things you love meaningful?
  • Does your loving them make them meaningful?
  • Would you love them if they were ultimately meaningless?

11 January 2007

Orhan Pamuk on why he writes

Orhan Pamuk tells us why he writes in his Nobel acceptance lecture, reprinted in the Christmas double issue.

"I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion."

The piece pivots on Pamuk's opening a suitcase of old letters of his father's. It's a bit like a Sedaris short story where an ordinary objecta boil, sayis freighted with slightly too much metaphoric import.

Kelly Spitzer and other members of her Seattle-area writers' group are inspired, though. They try their hand at Pamukian declarations:

"I write because I believe in the power of fiction, of stories and ideas, to heal the world."

I write because it makes me feel alive, it makes me feel grand and full of the world, full of language, story, the human experience."

I write because I want people to see the world the way I see it. I write so I can understand the emotional undertones of living. I write because I enjoy seeing my insides come to life."

Oh, rescue us from the purple passages, the world-healing, the cozy self-regard of writers, George Orwell! Why do you write?

1. Sheer egoism.
Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

3. Historical impulse.
Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4. Political purpose
using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

By the way, have you ever tried to make your surname an adjective? Pamukian is a mouthful of shards. I don't much like mine, eitherBucherian. Camusian? Nope.

And what the hell do you call a citizen of Dubai?

Ward the King

Stephen Ward, the big dog, the director of the School of Journalism.

I like the guy, let that be said—although it's not for peons to like kings. My feeling runs nearer to trembling awe, so different is the power we wield.

Which is why I've started compiling a list of the weird words he uses. They sound correct, but each time I hear one, I mouth it mentally to myself and promise to look it up.

There were five in our first Press and Society class:
—"issue," pronounced to rhyme with 'miss you';
—"genre," pronounced ZHAHN, like 'John' in French, without the fluttering 'r';
—"propagandic," which should be the name of a hip hair salon;
—"periodicy," which I suspect is missing a couple of letters; and
—"censorial," which I think should be "censorious"—'in a mood to censor.'

It's hard enough getting through the dense vocab in academe without your profs riffing, Miles Davis-like, on the language, no? Then again, maybe he's Cajun or something.

Let's see what the OED says.

({sm}{shti}{sh}(j)u{lm}, {sm}{shti}sju{lm}) Looks like he's on solid, if slightly poncey, ground on this one. Pushing out that 'y' sound purses your mouth. One for the bossman.

({zh}{fatatilde}r) Nope, he should definitely be licking the 'r' at the end. One-one.

(Rare) Pertaining to a propaganda or to propagandism. Bugger, thought we had him here. The more common usage is 'propagandistic,' which the OED has as "given or inclined to propagandism; devoted to the propagation of doctrines or principles."

Funny, I'd never noticed the 'pagan' right in the middle of that word. I wonder what pagan propaganda would look like. "Barbecuing ON A SPIT is a SOCIAL GOOD," maybe. Two-one, Ward.

There are no results. The nearest alphabetical match is displayed in the side-frame. Good. I think he was looking for 'periodicity,' or "the quality or character of being periodic; the quality of regular recurrence; tendency to recur at (esp. regular) intervals. {dag}2. Recurrence of a woman's periods; menstruation." Two-two.

1. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a censor; 2. Of persons: Like a censor; censorious. Wow, I was almost sure that was a mistake.

I'm undone at the end, and the professor snakes the victory, three-two.

Screw it: I've heard him say "orientate" twice. Call it a tie.

Out of the blocks

Welcome, welcome.

This blog will be unlike the two others I've begun—I'll log more than six entries. Why, John, after an explosion of energy, does your blogging fall fallow?

Trade in my opinions is slow. Faithful blogging, as I'm sure you've noticed, requires vanity and a punishing commitment to honesty. (Thankfully, I exorcised both in a mercifully brief, early twenties, wee-hours-of-the-morning romance with writing blank verse, drunk, in my parent's kitchen.) And I'm an ENTP: ingenious, decisive, spunky (not in the British way), incapable of completing tasks.

Those three characteristics have served me well getting into relationships, though obviously not out of them. And a blog is a kind of relationship. So let's sit down here on the couch and I'll pour you a glass of wine.

Whatever happens, I promise I'll call you in the morning.