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Saturday, June 26, 2010

A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair

by John MacBeath Watkins

As almost no one knows, I was born in Louisiana and haven't been back since. However, my mother, who was born in Oregon and has frequently returned, picked up some songs in Louisiana that have stayed with me. I remember as a child she sang for me St. James Infirmary Blues, the bluest of the blues, and Shortnin' Bread. But most of all, I remember Blues in the Night, and an odd lyric, "a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair."

That last turns out to be a Kipling lyric, from The Vampire.

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)


I suspect Mom didn't know that, she always sang it as a blues lyric. She would sing it, in fact, with the Lois Armstrong version of Blues in the Night, the version she sang to me as a child.

Blues in the Night
is a song I always associated with Lois Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, but it was written by Harold Arlen (born Chaim Arluck) and Johnny Mercer. So in fact, it was written by a Jew and a Southern white of Scottish descent, Mercer being the great-grandson of a Confederate general. Mercer and Arlen had learned about the blues from African-American culture, especially Mercer, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, where he hunted for the records of Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey. Mercer got involved in musicals and married a girl from the chorus line, Ginger Meehan, but didn't tell his parents until after the wedding, probably because Ginger was Jewish.

So at least one of those blues songs my mother would sing me to sleep with was not so much African American as mongrel American, an example of how much Whites learned from Blacks long before that was supposed to be happening, and since my mother associated it with Louis Armstrong, it reached me because it was popularized by an African-American artist.

Is this a great country, or what?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Singularity we Fear -- Morlocks, Eloi, and the post-human future

by John MacBeath Watkins

An American soldier named Morlock was recently charged with murder. My immediate reaction to this was, "The army is hiring Morlocks? Didn't H.G. Wells mention something about them killing and eating people from a different ethnic group in the far distant future?"

As of this writing, Spec. Jeremy Morlock has not been tried, so I will suspend judgment on him. But by my usual serpentine path through the labyrinthine ways of my mind, this led me to the literary archetypes behind some of the current iterations of technological optimism. Ray Kurzweil, for example, thinks it reasonable to suppose he might live hundreds of years as humans transcend biology. He supposes that there will be technological 'haves,' possessed of superior intellect and able to live for centuries, and 'have-nots,' the latter failing to transcend biology and merge with machines.

Morlocks and Eloi. The Morlocks are able to work the technology, while the Eloi wander around being pretty and useless. Power in such a situation would naturally be in the furry hands of the technologically savvy Morlocks, who come to see the Eloi as a different species, useful only as cattle.

The best science fiction is the literature of ideas. Wells saw the world around him becoming more and more dependent on technology, and foresaw a day when those who mastered it could dominate those who did not. The technology has changed, the post-human future has a different flavor, but Wells, a child of the British Empire who had knowledge of what happens when those possessing superior technology meet the 'have-nots,' looked on that divide with foreboding.

Actually, the meetings between technological haves and have-nots has seldom been as benign as the balance between the Morlocks and Eloi. At worst, it could go the way modern humans invading Europe went for the Neanderthal, or the way the European settlement of Tasmania when for its aboriginal inhabitants. There comes stage where the gulf is so wide that those possessing superior technology fail to see those without it as human.

Which brings us to the archetype of the superman. Intellectuals have long been fascinated by this idea, which justifies regarding those with superior intellect and education as more deserving than the less intellectually fortunate. Long before Ayn Rand, before Nietzsche had published a word, Dostoevsky explored the superman idea in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov wants to believe that he is the superman, not subject to the same moral constraints as other people. His crime seems senseless, a murder aimed only at proving that he is free of these constraints.

The book does a wonderful job of exploring how destructive this idea is to Raskolnikov's humanity and his sanity. Seeing himself as a superman deprives both him and his victim of their humanity. He recovers his humanity by falling in love and confessing his crime.

Perhaps those who dream of post-human superiority should read and contemplate that book before embracing their Morlock future.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Longing for Predation

by John MacBeath Watkins

I watch my cats, who are watching a bird
ascending in the airway between the bricks
where I have an alley view through
the screen window that looks out
on the Dumpsters, and the crows who
mind their garbage, and sometimes
ascend like disheveled angels in the view
of cats who dream of feathers between their teeth
longing for predation like unrequited love.

And I love their wild desire
And I love their dreaming loss
And I love the way their ears stand up
And their sleek and furry gloss.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Shelf inspectors and the politics of bookselling

by John MacBeath Watkins

Bookselling is a political activity, even if you don't have a political agenda. People come into my store to make sure I carry certain kinds of books, such as books on creationism or The Shack, a Christian novel. Not that those inspecting my store to see that I have such books actually want to buy them. Their mission has more to do with the conservative sort of political correctness. I think of them as shelf inspectors.

As it happens, my bookstore is located in Seattle's University District, and at my location such books don't sell, even when steeply discounted. I subscribe to the notion that a good book is a book that sells, with few exceptions. There is a fellow who writes books about his fake cancer cures. He is not allowed to sell the cures themselves anymore because as it happens, it's illegal to sell cancer cures that don't work while claiming they do; books recommending fake cancer cures are protected by the first amendment. Selling a book that would cause someone to abandon proven cures and adopt "cures" that have been shown not to work strikes me as immoral. I suppose for all of us, there is a limit on what speech we will transmit. When John Milton wrote the definitive defense of free speech, the Areopagitica, the thing that went too far for him was Catholicism. For me, it's things like fake cancer cures and kiddie porn, which can do active harm. But then, that's how Milton felt about Catholicism.

But I would happily sell books on creationism, books by Rush Limbaugh, or other tomes loved only by the right, if only I had a market for them. Robust political controversy is fine by me. I've even sold copies of The Turner Diaries, which actually does sell to people interested in what motivated the Oklahoma City bombing. I do not, however, wish to tie up my shelf space and my capital with books I have no market for.

I personally think Che Guevara was a Stalinist whose misguided ideas are anathema to anyone who values free speech, but I'm happy to put his books in the window because they attract customers (the most popular is The Motorcycle Diaries, written before his ideas ossified into Stalinist orthodoxy.) A person of my moderate political disposition finds little to agree with in None Dare Call it Treason, but people love a conspiracy theory, so John Stormer's book has a market. It is also a nearly perfect example of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics.

It is the pure opinion sort of conservative book that doesn't sell for me, like Michael Savage's books. Noam Chomsky's left-wing diatribes fly out the door. One might think, from looking at my window or my shelves, that I am far to the left, but in truth, I'm more of a Lollard than a lefty. I want books available, and believe that discussion will, in the end, allow the best ideas to become evident. Which was Milton's argument back in 1643. Of course, the suppression of the Wycliffe Bible and the Lollards were a more recent memory then. Now, when you talk of free speech, people think you're being trite.