Departments

(Before Gustav)

I live in southeastern Louisiana, where we are at present dreading the possible arrival of Hurricane Gustav. As I have clearing and battening to do, I likely won't be heard from for the next few days. Should the hurricane strike, we will probably lose power and Internet access for some time; nonetheless, I plan to find a way to announce my survival here. If nothing appear, check WelcomeHomeSoldier as well.

We who rode out Katrina have learned from it and are as prepared as possible.

Hopefully, in a few days I will be laughing at my failure to predict the hurricane's sudden swerve for Australia.

Fable of the Mouse and the Johnny Rooks

[The striated caracara, is, as the Internet says, endangered, and a very beautiful bird. It is also, as the Internet generally omits, a very hard bird to like: its group behavior reproduces that of human bullies with a fidelity that makes it difficult not to imagine them consciously vicious.]

On a small, rocky island, a gang of Johnny Rooks found by the water a little half-drowned creature. It was small, furry, and gray, with a thin, naked tail.

"What is it?" one Johnny Rook asked another.

That bird nudged it. "It's little, weak, mousy—it's a mouse!"

"Are you a mouse?" The bird pecked it. "A mouse, a little mousy mouse?" He pecked it again, harder, drawing blood. It half-woke as it curled up.

"A mouse, a mousy mouse!" chattered the rest of the birds as one of their number lifted it off the ground to let it drop. It landed hard, rose quick and scuttled. But there was nowhere for it to hide among the smooth rocks of the shore.

"Mousy mouse!" was the call as the birds lifted and carried to drop and peck. It staggered beaten, on broken toes, half-blind and bleeding. But the birds had carried it far from the shore: and with a dash it found shelter in a crevice of the rough rock of the island's summit.

The Johnny Rooks, entertained enough, forgot the little creature. Meanwhile, among the crevices, the little creature grew—not longer—fatter with the weight of her children. She did not long survive their delivery, and hers was the first stuff her little ones grew on. How they grew—they grew long and sleek—they grew black and hungry—they grew fast and silent.

They grew until they were rats. They ate all the birds' eggs, and the day hunters never caught them; they ate all the bird's eggs, and the island was theirs.

Moral: Cruelty breeds enemies.

Nondefinition #16

Magnolia. A fragrant, flowering tree. A lying tree, frequently found conspiring with moonlight. In combination with sultry summers may bring on political Reaction, with acute fervor.

Financial Innovation

[Hedge funds, of course, do not advertise; and if they did, they would not do so in the following manner of a fly-by-night brokerage. But this is only parody; cast it as you will, with people or personifications.]


He asks the cold caller: "Why on earth would I want to put any more money in a hedge fund now?"

"Qwant isn't just any hedge fun. We've been working with MontéBank to solve the credit crisis."

"How are you going to do that?"

"We've had a team of top minds from the Endower Institute working on the problem for months. They've developed a completely new securitization model—the LBS. It's a complete drop-in replacement for the MBS. Nobody else know how to do this yet—this is opportunity knocking."

"An MBS, that's a—"

"Mortgage-backed security. The LBS is completely different—it's a whole new way of thinking about the problem. None of the dangers of the MBS."

"No risk of homeowners defaulting, you mean?"

"None at all—returns are guaranteed with volume. This has nothing to do with homeowners or mortgages. It's a sure thing."

"So there's no debt involved?"

"Oh, well, yeah, sure it's a securitized debt—but there's no risk of default."

"How does that work?"

"Well, I don't want to get into the mathematics, but you can trust me on this one. Some very smart people put this together."

"But just how does it work?"

"Well, sure, I could give you a lecture, but I've got a lot of calls to make, so are you in or out?"

"What's your name?"

"Ben."

"Well, Ben, I just have a few qustions. LBS—that's a something-backed security, right?"

"Right."

"So what's the L stand for?"

"You want me to put it in a nutshell for you?"

"Yes."

"It's like a microloan."

"So it's for developing nations?"

"No, no. This is all domestic."

"So then what are the microloans for?"

"OK." Cough. "These micro-loans are made to eligible parties throughout the country in order to purchase diverse kinds of government debt instruments."

"You mean Treasuries?"

"No—Treasuries are no way to get rich."

"What kind of bond then?"

"No. Bonds are old hat. We're breaking new ground here."

"Can't you just explain it to me?"

"OK." Cough. "We deploy advanced computer modelling on complex statistical datasets to ensure a high overall rate of return."

"Statistical? What kind of government debt is statistical?"

"Well, there's always ratios of risk and return to be calculated for any investment."

"So . . . this is some kind of investment with a good—what's it called—beta?"

"Oh yeah. Almost completely uncorrelated with the stock market."

"So it follows interest rates."

"No correlation there either. This is a total market-beater."

"It's not interest-bearing?"

"This is independent of the Fed."

"So what the hell is it?"

"It's the future, and you've got the chance to get in on the ground floor. Now I think I've explained this to you pretty thoroughly. I'm going to need your decision or I'll have to move on."

"So. Government debt . . . no interest . . . statistical . . . microloans—no, you can't be—"

"Don't be small-minded, sir. The numbers are good. There's always a payout, and we always get our cut."

"I don't care about the math. I'm not putting money into that."

"Look, sir, don't be afraid of a name. Sure, I could say 'lottery-backed security,' but what matters—"

Tone.

Laugh at the devil

To laugh at others can do them good. All minds have a well of strange notions which it is the use of laughter to filter. For beings as imaginative and perverse as we, laughter is a prerequisite of communication: sometimes the shock of being laughed at, always the fear of being laughed at, keep our private languages and worldviews mutually sychronized. To be laughed at now and then is the discipline of sanity.

But any tool with an edge is also a weapon; thus it is a commonplace that to choose always to laugh at a tyrant or would-be tyrant is to defeat him by inches. And in a common saying laugh replaces resist as the cause of the devil's flight in Scripture. Is this true? Can good men and women simply laugh down the devil?

Sometime between The Great Dictator and Der Führer's Face, the Allied propagandists made Hitler the most laughed-at man in history. That was good for the Allies; laughing at him brought them together and gave them courage. But it did not hurt Hitler; he had been laughed at his whole career. Making him laughable was an easy task—that sweaty, lank-haired, squirming, spastic, little tantrum of a man with a mustache pinned on the middle of his face like a punch line. But we were not the first to laugh at him; and before, being laughed at had given him strength—had bought him time.

We laughed at Hitler and the Reich, not Germans; but while we laughed at Tojo we also (see any poster) laughed at his nation of yellow monkey-men. That also helped bring us together, once our population of that kind was out of the way. But do we want more of that kind of help?

The history of humor has brilliant moments when wit has shown up the folly and vanity of tyranny. But, measured honestly, the preponderance of that history comprises the worst of human nature. Laughter can be a means for change; but it has more often been the immune system of complacency. Here humor helped keep blacks in chains, keep immigrants disposable. And though tyrants are easy to laugh at, they are even easier to laugh with. No one laughs harder, or with harder laughter, than the ignorant and the cruel when their ignorance is reasurred by the humiliation of the thoughtful—mocked as effete, despised as misled (seduced by vanity away from pure and pliable simplicity), cursed as seducers of helpless youth—and when their cruelty is indulged and whetted by the public abuse and punishment of anyone who dares insult them by defying their expectation or deserving their notice.

To pick up any weapon is to be reborn as one of the armed, and in this rebirth we are often as senseless and heedless as children. If you pick up a weapon to do good with it, remember that instinct is not to be trusted, for more evil has been done by arms than good—though were it not for that little good, that greater evil would be far greater. You who would laugh at the devil, remember that the devil also laughs, and that one who is always armed with laughter begins laughing as a human being, but ends laughing as a devil.

Nondefinition #14

Think tanks. The distinctive institutions that make modern life modern; the jewels in the watch case—all-important, but self-contained. Most of your rhetorical questions, the ones you let slide with a sigh, staring out the window—"How did we get here?" or "What were we thinking?" or "Whose bright idea was that?"—do, in fact, have an answer: think tanks. Thinks tanks are to secret societies as airplanes are to railroads—smaller, with less tonnage; faster and entirely out of reach.

Compassion

Too much respect for suffering discourages compassion. It is weak to say, "I can't imagine"; it is foolish to say, "You can't imagine"—for if I cannot imagine, then I have no reason to care, no basis for compassion; and if you cannot imagine, then my suffering is redoubled, because I am alone in it.

Suffering is not holiness; to have suffered is not enlightenment. To have suffered is to be trapped in the moment of suffering, for there is no escape from memory, and ever after all joy has some quality of Dostoyevsky's victim of torture by hope—let loose only until the moment he begins to believe he may be free, then thrown back into his cell. Wisdom sounds cheap except when bought with suffering; but there is no new wisdom, and if you listen you will hear that the wisdom taught by suffering sounds no different than the wisdom written in books. Wisdom for suffering is a real exchange, but no bargain. By trying to probe wounds for wisdom, we only keep them open. The wisdom of the wound is the warning of the wound: see what can happen? Don't let this happen to you. Don't let this happen again. Suffering does not teach; suffering does not ennoble; for what selves are made of does not grow back.

There can be no compassion without imagination; but I cannot say that there can be no virtue without compassion. Selfishness can be made the basis of any virtue, where society is properly arranged to treat us as we treat others. Society, however, is not always properly arranged. The most startling realization of adulthood—the one that really ends childhood—is how much freedom we have to do evil—how much we can get away with.

This descent is familiar. It is so easy to be cruel, and people just take it. It is so easy to break the rules, and people don't complain. It is so easy to twist the rules for your side, and people don't cry out. How disgusting the weak are—how unworthy of life—so pathetic that they won't stand up for themselves: you have the right to use them as you please. How little trust it takes before you can abuse it and keep it. How little seeming to respect the rules before you can break them. And if no one will stop you—then they deserve it.

Conscience is just habit. The pangs of conscience are easier to ignore than a nicotine craving. It is compassion which is the basis our moral restraint. (Those who would say that we have no moral restraint are simply those without the imagination to see how much worse things could be.) And the basis for compassion is imagination. By imagination, I do not mean "I will be good to this person, because I may be in that situation someday"; I mean, "I will be good to this person, because I might have been in that situation." Few people are able, unassisted by some personification, to see how little their lives have been guided by their own choices: and if religion did no other good, this aid alone might be enough to justify it.

Minor sufferings—annoyances, irritations, frustrations—are unique and self-contained; they come, (sometimes) they go, and we are not remade by them. But major sufferings—tragedies, horrors, defeats—are, in a way, alike; within one life, each recalls and involves all the others. It is not mockery for you to use the worst thing that has happened to you as the basis for understanding something much worse that has happened to someone else. There are only so many slots in the human mind. A person who has only narrowly overcome the temptation of suicide over some idle-youth tragedy has not found their limit on some absolute scale of mettle, to be broken by their first real tragedy; rather, that person has proved the strength not to be broken by the worst; though what the worst really is, they must yet learn.

Compassion is easy to mock. There is even something satisfying in seeing it rebuked. An exchange like this could appear in a comedy:

"My girlfriend left me, I don't know how I can go on."

"Don't whine at me. My wife died in a car crash."

Imagine the reaction shot.

But this is inhumane. There is always some third whose sufferings could shut them both up. We fragile and unassured creatures only worsen our state when we try to compare and rate the various ways in which our worlds fall apart. What is broken is broken; what is in pieces is in pieces; and if one person's world has only broken in half, and another's has been ground to powder, they are both still naked to the same wind.

Nondefinition #13

Socks. Here is one way the world could end. Not too long from now, when video cameras and wireless transmitters have become so cheap as to be effectively disposable, so tiny as to be unnoticeable, some clever young fellow will get the idea to discover where his socks vanish to, and clip tiny camera-transmitters to each one. Once a few have disappeared he will sit down at his computer, pick up his slice of pizza, click the video feed open, and see—

The Blues Country

[I tried once to write an essay about the blues, and ended up with a story; I tried twice and ended up with a poem.]

I followed the old dirt road on down
Into the blues country, where the trees
Grow thick, and the rivers are many and thin.
On the map in my pocket they spread out like fingers,
Grasping and squeezing the overcast country.
Each river was crossed by many bridges,
And none of the bridges were lonely. For each
An old man is in charge, whose job
Is giving directions: the maps from the highway
Are drawn with the rivers, never the roads.

The old man at the first bridge sat,
Watching me while I walked to him.
He said to me: “Walk on, young man,
Don’t sit or rest, just keep on walking,
Don’t look behind you, that shadow ain’t yours,
I know this country, I was born in the town,
Trust me and walk on, don’t linger or rest.”
The sun was so faint that I took off my hat
And threw it down to float on the river,
Hoping that I might meet it again.

I came to the second bridge and heard:
“Now sit a spell, it’ll do you good,
I see you’re tired, your legs must ache.
Sit down and talk, don’t walk in vain.
Stay here and take it easy a while.
I was born in this country, don’t bother to hurry,
There’s plenty of time, just stay and talk.”
But I saw my hat was floating by,
So I said that I had to follow it on.
He only nodded, and sighed when I passed.

Before I saw him up ahead
I heard the old man was shouting,
But his voice was too hoarse to understand.
Once I was close enough he said:
“I told you already to turn on back.
You can see there’s no more road from here,
Don’t walk in the woods, there’s no way on,
I was born near here, I love this place,
I tell you now, take it from me,
There’s no way out but the way you came.”
But before I could turn, my hat went past
And I had to go on after it.
He said: “Go on, I’ll cry for you.”

At the fourth bridge my old hat was waiting.
It was stuck in the rushes. I squeezed it dry,
Then beat off the dirt, then covered my face
While I sat and slept, till someone came
Walked up through the woods, all covered in scratches.
I said: “Now where do you think you’re going?
You have to find another way.
You’ve come the wrong way and I know,
Trust me, I know, I was born in this country.
I know all the ways, don’t cross my bridge,
Just double back, you still have time.
I warn you: find another way.”
But he said: “It’s late, I have to go.”
He crossed my bridge and I cursed his back,
Saying: “You stupid tourist, I said
I was born in this country, I know it well,
You ought to heed me, don’t go that way.”