Thursday, July 30, 2009

in praise of stems

i mean stems of words. all words in all languages have origins, but in most, the stem or root is buried in the modern word or eroded to a new form: looking at "good bye" one cannot know that the root of "good" here is actually "god," and "bye" is a mashing together of "be with ye."

but languages whose vocabulary branches out from ancient units, which one must know in order to use a dictionary, allow one to glimpse more easily the accretion of meanings. we still need a scholar to tell us exactly how one meaning evolved to another, but at least we can enjoy that sense of layering, like looking at the steps of building an old building: the old boards and mortar inside the modern wall.

using the arabic dictionary, for all its hassles (trying to divine roots from words is not always easy), has this pleasure. today i came across another one. i looked up the word (heard on a tv program) "qurud." i looked up the root "qarada" and there it was: it meant "loans." glancing at the stem qarada, i saw it meant "to gnaw, nibble, corrode, to loan money."

what a poetic evolution. you can really see, or imagine you see, the logic behind the evolution.

private loans in recent decades have become more chomping than gnawing. in the late 70s the US government decided usury was OK, and now it is common to see interest rates of 20 percent or more. it is immoral and shows how the people of this country are casually sacrificed for the profits of the powerful.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the girls who went away

this is the kind of book that gets me every time: devastatingly intense stories of suffering.

the book is the stories of women who gave up their babies for adoption in the 50s and 60s, before abortion was legal. 'gave up' is misleading -- they were almost never given a choice in the matter, forced by parents and the maternity home staff to give in to protect everyone's false, fragile sense of propriety. it is painful, brutal reading: how these traumas influenced these women all their lives.

one interesting historical tidbit: these maternity homes were originally religious institutions, devoted to "saving fallen women." they acted as refuges and supports, even if their philosophy and attitude was patronizing. they did not try to separate babies and mothers. they felt that women's fallen ways were related to their social background and environment.

ironically, the professional, social-science-oriented people who supplanted them in the 40s and 50s were absurdly off-base, scientifically and humanistically, as compared to these religious workers. the professional types saw out of wedlock births as a social disease to be treated. part of this treatment was to remove babies from the girls as a way to encourage them to wipe the slate clean and be proper members of society. as if such a thing were possible. as one such woman says in the book, adoption "amputates families."

the greatest numbers of shunned young women were from the striving middle classes, the Leave it to Beaver types obsessed with a proper performance. this cruel, inhuman, false suburban myth sacrificed these girls' interests. not one of them wanted to give their babies up; many fought; none were supported or even queried as to what they wanted. they were stigmatized and told they had shamed everyone.

from this perspective those good religious people of 90 or 100 years ago had it much more right than the social "scientists" of mid-century. these latter were no more than handmaidens to cruel, inhumane policies. they were handmaidens to power.

Grampa Lian, you've come back!

Sara tells me that this was how Nationalist Party chairman Lian Zhan was ceremonially welcomed when he made his first trip to China in 2005. A young girl raised her arm with a flourish and cried out, "Lian Yeye, ni huilai le!" Her artificial tone made this statement a hit with ironic cell phone users in Taiwan, many of whom used it as a ring tone for their phones.

Today I found a piece of calligraphy given to me by a man in Luzhou, Sichuan, in 2005. It commemorates the Flying Tigers, one of whose squadrons was based at Luzhou. It is funny that the only reason this man felt able to write that message was because Lian Zhan had visited China and therefore the Chinese media, overnight, "legitimated" all the previously not-talked about history of the Nationalist era. the flying tigers were officially part of the Republic of China (headed by the Nationalists) Air Force. Men in tea houses brought up the Flying Tigers with me.

the state decides so much, opening vistas for us and closing them at will.

Friday, July 10, 2009

1941, the year that keeps returning

in the ny review of books i read a review of a powerful book, not yet in english, by a croatian editor and journalist. goldstein wrote about the events of 1941, when croatia was taken, with nazi german help, by a fascist ultra-nationalist movement called the 'ustasha.' they put into motion a bloody plan that disturbed even the SS and the italians who were their allies, to wipe out the 1.8 million serbs in their midst. they 'only' got to 400,000 of them (this number includes many jews and gypsies as well); their insane brutality collapsed on itself when serbs and jews simply began fleeing for their lives, and joining up with geurilla movements that fought the regime.

his father was imprisoned and killed. for me, this story is how easily states can sway 'normal' people to engage in, or at least tolerate, murder. previously, serbs and croats had lived alongside each other. but this evil regime, a tiny number of people, was able to recruit thugs willing to go into towns and villages and drag non-croats out of their homes and march them off to killing camps in the woods. even though most of the perpetrators were not killing their own neighbors, these acts destroyed existing relations as those wiped out, the survivors anyhow, carried a grudge that would be satisfied afterwards. so, 1941 kept returning because: it stimulated an ethnic serb nationalist movement aiming at revenge against croats, the chetnik, and in the early 1990s, its memory fuelled ethnic cleansing of first croats and then serbs from the two countries' respective borderlands (i forget which happened first). the communists to their credit did not exploit national hatreds, aiming not at croats in general, but the ustasha, hence allowing non-implicated croats to join the national (or transnational) movement.

the lid came off in the 90s. the review also quotes a very moving letter from the father to the son before the father was killed. he writes about the lessons of prison life and his hopes for his son.

lewontin on darwin

i learned something very interesting in reading this review essay on books about darwin in a recent new york review of books (i like this magazine because it lets me 'read' dozens of books on the cheap, by simply reading their reviews, which always include the best or worst parts). i had always heard that political philosophy in the late 19th century borrowed from darwin's theories of evolution, to create the notion of "social darwinism," a corruption of his theories. lewontin argues pretty persuasively that it was the other way around: darwin grabbed hold of prevailing political and social assumptions about society, that under industrial capitalism the strong were getting stronger and the weak, weaker, and translated it into biological terms. this resonance explains the massive and immediate popularity of his major work, 'the origin of species.' "the perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built. one can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the industrial revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy."

he also asserts that the theory ought to be called "darwin-wallace-mendelism." without mendel, a german monk, the theory lacked an explanation of inheritance. darwin and wallace thought of organisms combining as a mixture of liquids, with the offspring being the average of the parents. but this leads to the ironing out of all extremes and variations. mendel saw genetics as a matter not of liquids but of little bits of something that retained their variety even after combination.

investors against genocide

at our latest amnesty international meeting here in madison, eric cohen, a co-founder of the group, spoke to us. apparently they are able to exert moral pressure through New Deal-era financial regulations, requiring companies and mutual funds to allow shareholders to present proposals for a vote. in other countries these laws don't exist, so what they are doing here is not possible. what they are doing is looking for volunteers who are investors in mutual funds (at least 2,000 dollars) to submit an IAG proposal in their name calling on the company to divest from companies that support genocide.

their specific targets are the big 3 mutual funds, vanguard, fidelity, and american funds, which invest heavily in sinopec and another chinese oil company. these two companies fund the sudanese government. they have so far refused to divest, though some smaller ones have. votes have gotten up to 30 percent support, which is pretty good considering most people don't even read proposals, just ignore them.

i am not sure i agree with the use of the word "genocide," but i do agree that government ought to come under pressure for it's brutal, rather one-sided civil war.

i am surprised to find that with all the publicity about darfur, these mainstream companies are so blithely invested in these blood-drenched oil companies. their response to calls to divest are that they are "legally obligated" to find the maximum return to investors. legally obligated? wow. so if they divest from genocide-enablers, they are liable to lawsuits?