Thursday, August 20, 2009

concentration camp origin

one of the few interesting facts learned from "the long recessional," a busy, but somehow empty biography of rudyard kipling, is this: the term (and method) "concentration camps" came from spanish military efforts to push civilian populations into "campos de reconcentracion" during the struggles of the late 1890s.

a few years later, in 1900, british general Kitchener decided to move Dutch-speaking civilians into camps while fighting the Boer War. this move shocked both left and right in England. Kipling and other conservatives railed against a policy that let Boer fighters act like "apaches . . . having the time of their lives" while knowing their wives and kids were being looked after.

but camp conditions were bad. two radical MPs (unnamed in the book) borrowed the spanish term and called them "concentration camps" meant for "extermination."

this little slice of history ties together Geronimo (subdued only a decade before), the end of Spanish rule in Cuba, and the consolidation of English rule in South Africa. apparently later, Nazi propaganda claimed England had invented the term and practice.

concentration camps are literally meant to concentrate populations: hence, the US concentration of japanese-americans in 1942 deserves this term. while these camps were not extermination camps, they are inarguably concentration camps.


Senator Max Baucus reported that some members of the town hall audience he faced in recent days were "holding Youtubes." what he meant was "holding cameras," but the slip shows something essentially true: hand held digital video cameras are basically broadcast platforms for YouTube. i thought the slip was hilarious. imagine a crime bass saying a suspected informant is wearing an "FBI" on his body (rather than a wire).

apparently Nadya Suleman has trademarked the name "Octomom" for herself. what a miserable form of child exploitation!

the internet has impacted inane, beer-fuelled conversations in complex ways. part of these conversations' fun is their resistance to other people's attempts to prove one wrong. you can argue on and on as long as the laughs keep coming from everyone's efforts to one up everyone else. last week we had a party which revealed these changes. a discussion of a nasty form of weasel, the "fisher cat," went on hilariously until someone decided to google it. a most horrific photo came up of a grizzly-like face on a small body. we hooted and howled. so the net did not kill our joy.

later we got onto the endlessly potential topic of testicle transplants. "what if you could have like seven of em?" was one comment. "but if i had a kid the black and the white nuts would beat out the asian nut," was another. once again, someone gave in and went appealing to a higher power. this time the research cast a pall on the atmosphere. the graphic mind's eye images of doctors in 1911 sticking ape testicles into human scrotums and the like sobered me up considerably. but then later lorri looked at the name of the website scott had been consulting:
howls of laughter like a fisher cat's devilish screams.

well, maybe it wasn't all a downer.

i wish google could tell me how we got onto that topic. i better watch what i wish for. . .maybe in 20 years google will be recording human interaction and archiving it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

the belgian mom and the iraqi grandma. . .

i was amazed at this coincidence: a belgian woman and an iraqi woman were talking at the party we had last saturday here. abdul, the two year old, was hiccuping. the belgian woman said, 'my mom used to tell me when i hiccup that my heart is growing.'

'my grandma used to tell me that too,' said the iraqi woman. somehow, across thousands of miles, these two cultures share a tiny sliver of commonality. not the general commonalities of most cultures, but something so specific it is hard to believe. and between the two countries there is no common history or colonialism or conflict, the usual catalyst for sharing in modern times. a coincidence, pure and simple?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


1885–90; < F, orig. brou, ha, ha! exclamation used by characters representing the devil in the 16th-cent. drama; perh. < Heb, distortion of the recited phrase bārūkh habbā (beshēm ădhōnai) “blessed is he who comes (in the name of the Lord)” (Ps. 118:26)

another funny note: in spanish, garlic is measured in "teeth," as in "dos dientes de ajo." seen on a morning cooking show.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

rich attack poor

at the end of vasily grossman's war notebooks (see post just below) he notes the bewilderment of soviet troops as they encountered the prosperity of the german landscape.

"our soldiers have seen the two story suburban houses with electricity, gas, bathrooms, and beautifully tended gardens. our people have seen the villas of the rich bourgeoisie in berlin, the unbelievable luxury of castles, estates, and mansions. and thousands of soldiers repeat these angry questions when they look around them in germany: 'but why did they come to us? what did they want?'"

when a certain rich country i know well attacked a certain impoverished country far away from it several years ago, i had the same feeling: why do people living in a material heaven feel impelled to attack countries whose people are living in hell?

it makes so little sense, i can only conclude that many people living in rich countries are completely insensate to reality, particularly the reality of poor people living far away. their imaginations are easily swayed by pro-war propaganda, which builds up dictators into all-powerful devils capable of destroying countries a thousand times more powerful than their own. people in rich countries, even while able to access much information, do not necessarily do so, and so, cut off from suffering by their own comfort, are susceptible to fantasies and paranoid visions. and so they accede to war against people who can scarcely bear it.

a few days ago i saw "the hurt locker," the first mainstream film to show americans the hell of the iraq war. the film is about americans, but in the background are those whose country was destroyed by the war. and we see how awful the landscape is: the trash on the streets, the lack of rain, the cement block houses. i wonder if americans watching the film think to themselves: why did we, with our sprinkler-fed lawns and thick trees and gardens, attack this miserable place?

because the collective psyche allowed itself to be focused on the devilish figure of the dictator, at the exclusion of the tens of millions of people who would bear all the suffering for our moral failure.

vasily grossman

i just finished a book called "A Writer at War," featuring the war time notebooks of Soviet writer Grossman. it offered vivid snippets of grossman's experience of the front during world war II. the snippets were contextualized by the editors, who explained where he was and what he was doing when he wrote his notes.

his notebook was like an artist's sketchbook. he was constantly describing people met along the road -- generals and peasants, soldiers and secretaries. i recall his description of village women running to german trenches after the germans retreated to take back all the quilts and pillows the germans seized.

i recall villagers' descriptions of germans breaking into peasant households in the dead of winter, shivering violently, shouting at the residents to hurry and build up the fire.

i recall the way soviet troops propped up frozen german corpses for a joke; troops surrounding a german soldier and shouting for him to surrender only to find he was a corpse.

i recall his 1941 description -- that year being the year germany attacked, driving back soviet forces all along the front -- of german fighter planes at night appearing like "lice darting among the stars."

he tried to capture the special ways of talking and acting of various specialized soldiers, from fighter pilots to tank men (or "tankists").

he was always attuned to the natural beauty of the world, and how oddly it contrasted with the death and destruction being wrought. he noticed how people laughed and played even in horrific circumstances: the wounded german soldier and the young woman sitting on a bench after the fall of berlin, embracing for several hours.

he wrote heartbreakingly about treblinka, where almost a million people, mostly jews, were killed.