Monthly Archives: July 2013

THE BAD GUYS

Black hat, not handsome, never gets the girl. A stereotype, a Hollywood cutout of a character, that half-crouching paper figure cops shoot at when they take target practice. Not to be found in the real world, or even in a serious movie or novel.

Until recently. Now we hear the phrase from journalists and Congressmen, from talk show hosts and presidents alike. It’s like hearing them suddenly regress to the speech and moral vision of their earliest childhood. We tell our children to watch out for bad people, people who might want to touch them in bad ways or lure them into their cars and do bad things to them. Children need that kind of simplification just as later in their lives (though not that much later) they need to understand a more complex version of human behavior without sacrificing their own safety.

To that older child, a child of twelve or thirteen, to speak of “bad guys” should cause them to look at you twice as if you had just reverted to baby-talk. It’s an insult to speak to them that simplistically, and they know it. Yet we adults now accept that phrase from our highest political officials and most respected media analysts without batting an eye.

Why? Is it just a kind of shorthand, a way of saving time? Or did it start out that way and then start to serve another, less innocent purpose? Its use implies that speaker and audience know who the bad guys are: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, muggers and rapists and anyone who should be dead or behind bars. But now I hear government officials and  journalists (who certainly should know better) use the phrase to designate anyone whose telephone conversation or emails might possibly indicate they intend to do the rest of us Good Guys some harm. And therefore those officials must monitor all our communications to see which of us are in fact bad guys masquerading as good guys.

I get tired of hearing Orwell quoted every day, but isn’t this exactly what he had in mind when he wrote about how language molds thinking, which molds politics? And do we really need to be reminded of this by a man dead more than sixty years ago? Is it not something we can work out for ourselves?

Yet, we don’t. We listen to our senators and mayors, not to mention our police commissioners, refer to “bad guys” as if there really were such a sub-species of humanity instead of individual persons who do what they do for reasons as rational and, from their point of view, as moral as anything we ourselves do. And then we applaud a pope for saying he doesn’t condemn homosexuals, i.e. for no longer referring to them as bad guys — “sinners,” to use the term of art in that world.

Go figure.

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Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-ling?

My latest at Eclectica.org.

I take a while to get there, but the title is what the piece is really about. Who likes death? Who doesn’t fear it or feel cheated if they think this is it, the end, nothing more?

The Ancient Art of Backscratching

A recent discovery in an Anatolian (modern southern Turkey) cave has shed some light on the recent controversy about modern authors reviewing each other’s books, something those in the know have been aware of at least since Herbert Gold put himself on the lit-crit establishment’s blacklist back in the 1950s when he revealed how authors mutually back-scratch each other with favorable blurbs and notices.

The truth is, authors have always sought out good notices, especially from other writers whose reputation was at least as great as their own. The ancient scrolls found in that cave in modern-day Izafake only shows the practice goes back to ancient times.

The following is one of the first attempts at a translation at those scrolls, which apparently document a correspondence between an author in ancient Israel and one based on a Greek island in the Aegean. Some of the scrolls only exist as fragments, and some have parts too deteriorated to decipher. Where there is a gap the translator — Marc Eugenides at the University of Southwest Attica — indicates the missing text with points of ellipsis.

Greetings from the east bank (alas) of the Jordan to … most esteemed Hellenic brother.

It was with the greatest pleasure I read the manuscript you sent me. I am happy and honored to be the first to review it. We authors must support one another, especially these days when every other Philistine thinks he has a book inside him screaming to get out. I know all too well the frustration that comes of putting your heart and … into a creation, even one divinely inspired (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with books not so inspired), only to see it trashed by that small coterie of literary gatekeepers known as the scribal class.

My first book, a long saga recounting the early wanderings of Abraham, met such a fate. “Overwritten,” they complained. “Been done and done better,” was another barb they threw at it, though the truth was they were referring to Sumerian … of the story… which are, of course, not accessible to most people. But, count on the lit-crits to praise anything out of Mesopotamia rather than give a leg-up to a home-grown talent.

I think you’ll find the accompanying review satisfactory, though I did have a few cavils. No one takes seriously a review that is unreservedly laudatory, and in any case I personally believe the best review is one that is … and honest. That way the reader has the impression the reviewer has no bone to pick or back to scratch and is more likely to take the reviewer at his …

Your hero is great. Reminds me of that Gilgamesh character in the goyish epic that’s been rattling around this part of the world since way back when. Ditto for his Trojan counterpart, the “Trainer of Horses” (great epithet, but what’s a “horse?”). Great battle scenes. Great psychology. Fantastic use of dactylic … [probably] hexameter–why can’t Semites write in that meter?

But I do have a problem with your polytheism, my friend. Athena. Zeus. Hera. Aphrodite. And dozens more. I couldn’t keep them all straight. Why not just combine them into one all-powerful deity like our YHWH? Saves so much time and …

There’s a lot of smiting in your book. That’s good. My YHWH smites a good deal too. But your gods and heroes finish off the men okay but sell the women and … [children?] into slavery. Now, slavery is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But you know some of those women and children are going to end up having kids by their masters, which means you’re literally going to bed with the enemy and helping him to …  It’s not done that way in my part of the world. Over here everybody smites everything that moves, including farm animals.  We do it. Our enemies do it. It makes sense.

Okay, that’s enough for now. As I said in my review, you’ve got a hell of a book there, H. I wouldn’t mind seeing my own … on it (not really, they’d drum me even further out of Israel than I am already; hence my use of a pseudonym for my review). I wish I could be there to hear your scribe proclaim it in the market place. Mazel tov! as we say.

P.S. I’m taking this opportunity to send you a … of my own little opus, an account of the tribes of Jacob from the creation of the world up to the time when they were delivered from bondage in Egypt and entered the Promised Land (not by me, as it turned out). Part history, part something else. If you don’t find it too much of a bore, I’d be very grateful for any … words you can find to say about it. I’ve decided this is my last attempt at a literary career. If they don’t like this book (five “books,” actually; is that too much?) it’s back to my brick factory and Israel can kiss my you-know-what.

Homer the Poet to his dear friend and colleague MSS of Israel.

Many thanks, old man, for your review. The book is doing nicely, though, as I expected, it’s being pirated and sold to guys from the mainland who memorize it and make a nice piece of change declaiming it to the bumpkins up in the hills, while I get squat for my …

I love your “Torah.” It’s got all the elements of a great piece of …  An angry — I mean, really angry — deity, heroes, great female characters and a narrative that doesn’t stop holding your interest. I definitely think Genesis and Exodus are the best of it. In fact, you could devote a book of its own to each of the characters you just sketch out  in Genesis. But maybe I’m just expressing my prejudice as a Greek for … We can spin out hundreds of lines about a minor … that you would scarcely mention. But, like they say, that’s what makes the world go round (I hear it actually does go round; who knew?).

Okay. But I have a few negatives (not in my review either, of course). What’s with this circumcision thing? I thought at first, I must be reading it wrong (like you, I have to depend on my scribe’s … as a translator). But it comes up again and again. Sorry, but that would never fly over here. In fact, I’d advise you drop it from any future books. The Red Sea thing I was fine with. The plague of frogs, the sticks turning into snakes. That’s all very portable. But you’d be run out of town if you tried to make a case for cutting someone’s … I don’t even want to think about it.

I have some problems with the pork thing too (have you ever tasted roast boar?) Ditto with the garments made of two … fibers (we should be so lucky). The stoning thing also not so nice, but I could live with it. But the anti-homosexual thing is also a no-no in these parts. We like our boys. You’d be laughed out of town for that one. Better than being stoned, I guess.

But none of these issues are in … , of course. Anyway, I hope your Torah flies. You’re a hell of a writer, MSS. If they don’t like it, you should consider thumbing your nose at the bastards and come up here to live. We know how to show a guy like you a good time. You could even help me with the new book I’ve started about one of the heroes from the Trojan war who gets lost on his way home and has all sorts of adventures with witches and monsters and Zeus knows what else. We could have a blast.

Keep in touch. My best to the wife and kids.