What You Don't Understand

"The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.

"We have unquestionably a great cloud-bank of ancestral blindness weighing down upon us, only transiently riven here and there by fitful revelations of the truth. It is vain to hope for this state of things to alter much. Our inner secrets must remain for the most part impenetrable by others, for beings as essentially practical as we are are necessarily short of sight. But, if we cannot gain much positive insight into one another, cannot we at least use our sense of our own blindness to make us more cautious in going over the dark places? Cannot we escape some of those hideous ancestral intolerances and cruelties, and positive reversals of the truth?"

William James, from Talks to Teachers on Psychology, etc. as excerpted in The Philosophy of William James, pp. 339-41.



If 2009 is proving to be an outlier for incredibly talented musicians releasing their best work to date, Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear is no exception. A free download from their new album Veckatimest, the dreamy track "Cheerleader", is available here.




Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers will screen his work in person this Sunday, March 22, 7:00 pm, at Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater. 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028.

Ben Rivers' film This Is My Land begins abruptly: a portrait of a cat, a few seconds of a tattered flag and then an older man, his visage partly obscured by absurdly large flora. The sound that plays over these images is fragmentary--whistling, someone humming the beginnings of songs, snippets of conversation--and at first it is impossible to guess the relationship between the sounds and the images. Like a rock skipping across water, the sound is separate from the image, moving above it, propelled forward by its brief moments of contact.

Rivers' best films all have this velocity. Velocity is perhaps a strange word to use to describe a body of work singularly obsessed with rural Northern Europe and the men that inhabit its most remote quarters, but there it is. The films proceed with force--they are fired from the projector--with the rhythm of brisk walking that anyone who does their thinking with their feet will recognize. But there is more than the peripatetic to this pace: Rivers' films also have something of an urban junk aesthetic to them. The framing is reminiscent of either Ken Jacobs or Charles Burnett, seemingly containing too much information to achieve the graceful balance each frame conveys. The cutting is also reminiscent of Ken Jacobs or else Leslie Thornton, which is telling: Rivers' countryside is not pre-industrial, it's post-apocalyptic.

Even so, if there is the slightest tinge of science-fiction to these films, it is of the older, utopian variety. The subjects of the documentaries are as unique as the documentaries themselves, living off the land in a sort of paradise of detritus.

Rivers' films don't unfold along conventional lines but instead grow, something like a Darwinian process rather than a linear one. One shot doesn't necessarily lead to the next (although there is the occasional, dazzling rhyme); instead, all of the shots lean on one another, resembling the clustered-junk dreamshacks Rivers' illustrates. There is something dreamy about these films; they are not didactic in the least. We don't even really see any of the subjects' labor or understand how they continue to live at all. They are the selves we sometimes daydream about while on a walk in the woods, carving a life out of sunlight and leisure.


An Immodest Proposal

What if we eat the rich?

Of course, I don't mean that we should literally eat them--although, idleness is known to produce the most tender meat. Rather, I was thinking that America's greatest citizens, our 347 billionaires, should volunteer to dissipate their wealth: call it a self-imposed stimulus plan, or else a ritual sacrifice, to get the economy going again.

Under my plan, these 347 billionaires, roughly worth a combined $1,041 billion--over a trillion dollars--will liquidate their assets and combine their vast fortunes into a reservoir of money. Next, they will parse this money out equally to everyone in the US, reserving enough for themselves to remain super-rich. This way, they can contribute a trillion dollars--that's $3,300 for every man woman and child in America--and still have enough left over to give themselves 11 million dollars each. I know that $11 million is a paltry sum compared to the tens of billions that a lucky few now enjoy, but it is certainly quite far from an uncomfortable existence. True, you may have to rent an island instead of constructing one of your own, but in a bad economy everyone must tighten their belts.

Now, I'm no socialist. I will not tolerate this sort of sacrifice being legislated by the unruly mob we call Congress. I expect our billionaires will realize that this is in their best interest--in a rising tide, all boats rise--and will voluntarily shower money on us like manna from heaven. By distributing their excess thousands of millions to those of us in need, our billionaires can jump start the economy's dead battery and help put the nation back on track for long-term speculative bubbles, over-leveraging and usurious lending that will no doubt help restore their own fortunes.

Now I, like you, have little faith in Big Government to solve our problems; I've long said that the only good government is a dead one. Why would we ever entrust a large part of our economy to a change-resistant, bureaucracy-bound, inefficiency-prone, politically hamstrung institution? It makes neither business nor moral sense.

Therefore I am also proposing that we decrease the defense budget to $50,000 a year. Just enough money to keep two people employed at 35 or so hours a week--have you ever imagined how much we could add to the bottom line if we got rid of veteran's benefits? These brave defenders of liberty could walk the borders armed with slingshots keeping the bad illegal immigrants out while letting the good ones--farmworkers, housekeepers and drivers--in.

This alone would save nearly $700 billion a year, which I propose could be used to refill the coffers of the selfless billionaires who--in the name of god, country and late capitalism--would otherwise be sacrificing not only their own personal fortunes, but the fortunes of their great, great grandchildren.

Billionaires of the US unite! You have nothing but a combined trillion dollars to lose.


Alienation Effect

Woody Guthrie in 1940:


This Machine Kills Fascists

The Clash play "White Riot" live in 1978:


The Arctic is More Than Aboriginal and White

One hundred years ago the North Pole was first reached by humans. A team consisting of Inuit guides Ootah, Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and American explorers Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary successfully made the journey after numerous previous attempts by Henson and Peary. Back in the U.S. the names of the Inuit guides didn't make the headlines. Neither did Matthew Henson's.

At the age of thirteen Henson was hired as a cabin boy by a sea captain. He sailed all over the world in this capacity, visiting China, Japan, North Africa, and the Black Sea. When he was eighteen the captain of his ship died, leaving him out of work. For the next two years he did odd jobs, taking whatever work he was allowed to do as a young black man. In 1886 he landed in Washington DC where he began steady employment with an exclusive furrier.

This is where he met Peary, who at the time was an officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. Peary hired Henson to travel south with him to Nicaragua on a mission of assessing the feasibility of building a shipping canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Henson jumped at the opportunity to continue his explorer lifestyle. The two men worked well together and when Peary set his aims on reaching the North Pole, Henson was his automatic choice for exploration partner.

The men spent over two decades mapping parts of the north and searching for the best route to the North Pole. In 1906 they came close to the pole, but had to turn back for a lack of food. The team that Peary assembled for what would become his successful attempt consisted of a physician, an instructor of mathematics and physical training, an engineer, an athlete, the ship's captain, and Henson and Peary. Of the whole team, only Henson wasn't white.

As the team moved north, Peary progressively sent all of the team members back to base camp, until just he, Henson, and the Inuit guides made a dash for the pole. Building the route up to the pole took more workers than could reasonably make the final trek because the farther north they went, the less supplies they could carry and maintain.

Later Peary would justify his choice of Henson as his partner for making the final leg of the journey as a prudent choice given the fact that he was the most capable member of the team (other than the Inuit). Since they had been working together in Arctic exploration for twenty years, and Henson was widely recognized by the Inuit as the most capable non-Inuit person in Arctic travel, this assertion makes sense. However, Peary is quoted later as saying that he chose Henson simply because Henson's inferior race meant that he would not be able to find his way back to the ship, therefore Peary was forced to take him all the way or essentially abandon him to death.

Scholars postulate that Peary's true reason may have been a combination of his devotion to Henson as a partner of so many years, and also Peary's recognition that as a black man, Henson would not be afforded equal recognition for their accomplishments upon their return. Indeed, Peary was honored by leading scientific organizations as the "discoverer" of the North Pole, and given the National Geographic Society's highest honor, while Henson was ignored by the white media and society.

Frustratingly, according to Henson, he was actually the first human to reach the North Pole, although not by design. Peary miscalculated the location. At that point he was being pulled in a sled because he was unable to walk, having lost all but two toes to frostbite over the years. He told Henson to stop a few miles short of the point he estimated was the pole. Peary's plan, which he had confided to Ootah, and Ootah later shared with Henson, was to make Henson wait while Peary proceeded the last few miles on his own. Instead, Henson reached the pole first because he was out in front when they actually got to the pole, although no one realized this until the next day when Peary went on and then discovered his mistake. Still, it was Peary, and not Henson, who reaped the accolades for arriving at the North Pole before any other human.
(Above information from this resource.)

This kind of revision has long been a part of Arctic history. There is a myth that continues to persist even today that people of African descent do not and have not played an integral role in shaping life in the North.

During the gold rush many black stampeders moved north to seek their fortunes, just like everyone else. They endured the harsh conditions and eeked out a living in the Yukon. Lucille and Charles Hunter emigrated from the Deep South to the Northern Frontier. They were children of slaves and were attempting to leave behind the oppression their families had suffered. Their daughter Teslin (named after a camp of the same name on the Stikine Trail) was born enroute.

Once they reached Dawson City they opened a restaurant and mined their gold and silver claims. After Charles died Lucille continued to walk the 200 kilometres from Dawson City to their claims each year to mine. When World War II broke out she moved to Whitehorse (the capital of Yukon), where she set up a laundry. Her idea was to wash the linens of the workers who had been sent north to build the Alaska Highway. It proved a brilliant business move, and she continued to make a good living until she died in 1972 at the age of 93.
(Sandiford, Katharine. "A Hidden History." Up Here. January-February 2009: 36-43.)

After Pearl Harbor was bombed the U.S. government decided that a highway must be built to ensure an access route to the western extreme of the U.S. in order to fend off a possible Japanese invasion. The 1,442 mile Alaska-Canada Military Highway was finished in a record eight months. The road crossed 100 rivers and went through 11 mountain ranges. Of the 10,000 American soldiers who built the road while battling blinding snow, muskeg (a swampy version of quicksand), and temperatures that reached 70 degrees below zero, over a third of them were black.

The African American soldiers were given the most dangerous and harsh stretches of road to build, and lacked adequate supplies. Donald W. Nolan Sr., one of the black soldiers who worked on the road describes the conditions. "Leather would freeze...We'd take galoshes, rubber galoshes -- we called them `Arctics' -- and we'd wear three, four pairs of socks. We would double up on pants. We slept on the ground in pup tents." Despite blatant racism and deadly conditions, the African American soldiers carried out an engineering feat for the good of their country.
(LoLordo, Ann. "Black GIs helped carve a road across frozen hell." The Sun. Baltimore, Md. July 4, 1992: 1A.)

Black people continue to play a pivotal role in Arctic communities today. My apartment building alone, located in downtown Yellowknife, is home to accounting executives from Ghana and Nigeria, local business owners who have grown up here, government workers, and miners, all of African and West Indian descent. Yet many remain uninformed about black peoples' historical ties to the North.

Recently I was at the airport, waiting for a flight to one of the communities on the Arctic Ocean. There were two men sitting across from me, one of whom was black. The other man asked him where he was headed.

The black man responded, "Fort Resolute [a community on one of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic Ocean]."

With confusion and a bit of skepticism in his voice the other man asked, "Why are you going there?"

The black man, clearly frustrated and having heard this line of questioning before, said forcefully, "Because that's where I live."

We would do well to remember that in 1909, exactly one hundred years ago, a black man was the very first human to reach the North Pole. Matthew Henson, Lucille and Charles Hunter, and Donald W. Nolan Sr. have always known what it would be best for the rest of us to get through our heads. The Arctic is home to many ethnicities, not just Aboriginals and Whites, and people of African descent have a long proud history here.

Song of Himself

New music and a neorealist video from Will Oldham. Click here.


Sign Of The Times (Part 3)


Sign Of The Times (Part 2)

Nation Instinctively Forms Breadline (from the good folks at The Onion).