Joan Didion, Californian

thelastlovesongJoan Didion seized my attention early, before I wrote for myself.  Assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in high school, I read with amazement her cool, detached descriptions of things I recognized growing up in California.  I graduated quickly to “The White Album” and it was there she was the first to suggest my life had literary merit: her description of my hometown as being some place she passed through, from the North Bay to the East Bay, because there was no place there to return a rental car as she suffered an emotional breakdown.    This implied to me, at age 18, everything and more than I wanted to know about growing up.

Her acute sensitivity to detail connected directly with the skeptical eye of the adolescent.  I admired her method of careful observation, finding revealed truth in the everyday that we adults take for granted, unchanging, and immutable.  But her method as it appealed to me when I was young marked me: the often passive but meticulous attention to the obvious or overlooked that other people in their haste or misdirection miss is useful (and lacking) in adulthood.  “Didionesque” became both a description and a model to emulate for my friends and me in our writing.

Her sensibility as a Californian and Westerner also endured.  After reading the great American writers of the South and the East (which from our perspective took in everything east of the Rockies), it was always pleasurable to return and read something that reflected my own surroundings and upbringing.   (For example, only a Northern Californian can truly appreciate her revelation that Huey Newton was “a Kaiser,” that is, a member of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization.  Who knew that the Black Panthers had a group medical plan?)

Only later did it occur to me that Didion’s public acclaim but lack of establishment laurels – she never won a Pulitzer Prize – suggested that her voice and regionalism could seem alien, even bizarre, to anyone not raised in my home state.  I am no doubt proved right in my intuition that Didion’s late memoir about the death and illness of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Quintana Roo, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was her first to win a National Book Award.  In her straightforward, literal and full-disclosure accounting of the trauma and dislocation of that year, it is her least Didionesque book.

The new biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daughtery, is haunted by death from the last pages.   We know, if we know Joan Didion, how the story ends.  But the most powerful and quietly devastating real-life manifestation of Didion’s flattening fear of catastrophe comes about half-way through the book, accounted for and tossed away.  Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, hired a young girl from Central America to look after their daughter.  The girl had a baby, who was then raised in the Dunnes’ house, which was kept obsessively clean to protect their own daughter.  When the mother and baby returned home to visit relatives, the infant’s unpracticed immune system collapsed, she contracted a fever, and died.

Didion feared not just the prospect of immediate disaster – the fatal illness, the heart attack, the life changed in the instant – but would have recognized the crushing, tragic irony of protecting a child so well that it kills her.  That this story is simply mentioned in passing in the first comprehensive biography of Joan Didion is just one of its many flaws but by no means its least.  (Like others, I’ve been annoyed by the author’s attempt to mimic Didion’s fictional style.)  Still, it’s important to note that we now have a fully developed narrative of Didion’s life to better understand her influences and her impact on American culture.

Death stalked Didion as the mysterious stranger killed acquaintances, friends, and loved ones as he closes in on those closest to her: her daughter and husband.  She is surrounded by horror which more than accounts for her desiccated dread.  Her niece was murdered, her agent died in his 50s, leukemia killed her sister-in-law, suicide claimed her brother-in-law, and some of the Manson victims she numbered among her friends.  Indeed, given how many people died in her life it is strange to realize that her memoir of her upbringing, “Where I Was From,” was written after her mother died around the turn of the millennium.

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Joan Didion, Malibu 1976.  Photo bi/via Nancy Ellison.

That memoir achieved a pinnacle in a theme she has explored since the 1960s.  “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote at the beginning of “The White Album”.  This may seem like overstatement until we recognize that we understand our own experience, history and public life through a series of stories rather than the longer, infinitely more voluminous series of details and events of our actual experience.  Storytelling saturates every aspect of adult consciousness, from the explanations we tell our children to the 30-second spots on television.  Storytelling is so pervasive that we mistake it for reality because there is no other, easily graspable way to communicate our experience.  But narrative, or story-telling, is not the same thing as experience.  Narrative is not reality: it is a way of picking out the most important and relevant details of our life and finding a common sentient thread to string through them in a way that makes sense.  Without this organizing principle, our lives would be incoherent.

For non-writers, and even for many writers, there is something spooky and slippery about narrative.  Some stories work themselves at a deep, almost subconscious level – the endurance of the gothic and Grimm fairy tales goes far to explain this and so does the “heroic journey”.  But what makes a “good” or “compelling” story is not something easily taught and takes some time for even professionals to learn.  Any newspaper cub reporter can tell you what it’s like to finally come up with a “great story” in a budget meeting, but she might be hard-pressed to explain why beyond a series of compelling elements lacking elsewhere.

Nonetheless the self-critical writer recognizes at some point that narrative can distort reality beyond recognition.  Didion’s dry, scathing views of San Francisco hippies, or young marrying couples in Las Vegas, or even those running the California aquaduct and Los Angeles freeway system, would not recognize themselves in her reporting.  They tell themselves different stories.  A good story can lead to the narrative version of sample bias, where we mistake the compelling exception for the rule.  And I’ve always worried that the drive for the “good story” means we may miss the profundity in the mundane.  Didion hammers at this, most tragically, in her reporting on the Central Park Jogger case: what makes the story of a lone, white, “attractive” victim so much more compelling than any of the other 3,254 reported cases of rape in New York City in 1989?  To the tabloid journalist – indeed, all of New York, it seemed at the time – the answer is obvious, beyond explanation.  But Didion shifted that spotlight to expose the even darker corners of New York – as well as our own bias and indifference – in one of her best essays.

Didion never goes so far as to explain explicitly what she means by story-telling or narrative.  At the beginning of “The White Album” she uses some peculiar analogies:  “The princess is caged in the consulate.  The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.  The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which”.  That can seem unintelligible to even the most sophisticated reader.

This question is the foundation for virtually all of her future reporting, from presidential races and the Central Park Jogger to her own background in “Where I Was From”.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Daughtery meticulously accounts, the narratives of public life irremediably fractured.  She no longer could recognize or understand events – her account of the five-year-old girl found clinging to a fence on Interstate 5 is one searing example – as she had traditionally.  These commonly accepted narratives, she wrote, were replaced by the sheer insanity of Vietnam, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and almost inevitably, the Manson murders.

Narrative had a particular relevance to Didion’s writing about politics, which she turned to in the 1980s and 1990s.  As I began to work in politics I found this writing less and less compelling, but her idea that narrative drives politics remains one of the most useful and penetrating critiques as it is practiced today.  Nevertheless I found Didion’s flat, skeptical ear when turned to the professional vocabulary of politics – always in quotes: “trade-offs” and “programs” and “policy” and “play” – could be easily turned to any other profession.   (Indeed, I can imply the same cynicism very easily with  Daughtery’s writing about the Dunne-Didion health crises which he unhelpfully leaves unexplained in layman’s terms: “hemodynamically significant lesion,” and “angioplasty,” and “congential defect of the aortic valve” and “radio-frequency ablation of the atrial-ventricular node”.)

Instead of revealing systemic cynicism, she has exposed the technical vocabulary of a committed if exotic profession.  It wouldn’t have made sense for her to explain it, since the exclusionary vocabulary was the point.  But what she found to be exclusive I found to be a specialist’s way to describe the work I did.  All professions are this way.  Perhaps she was yearning for a purer, amateur politics as reflective of the kind of fundamental American innocence we all seek in our political life.  But that doesn’t make her insight particularly extraordinary.

But in the beginning and the end, Joan Didion is a Californian.  It’s hard to overstate, as a native Californian, how much she writes for and about California and Californians.  The state’s uniqueness – climatological, social, cultural – has been plumbed for generations. But Didion was raised in its heart and writes about this state of mind from within.  She was born in Sacramento to fourth-generation Californians who can track their lineage back to and through the Donner Party that perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847.  Indeed, both Didion and Daughtery use this oft-told warning fable of hubris, tragedy and anthropophagia as a sort of talisman, the root of all fatal human folly.

But for the later arrivals – which includes most of the state and me – the settler narrative does not resound as profoundly as Didion’s depiction of an Eden whose compact with the snake in the garden includes the hot winds, the fires, the droughts and earthquakes, and a culture that seems unhinged, prone to murder.  Californians understand what it means to bear the Santa Ana, to watch the incinerated oak leaves fall from the sky, to dive under school desks when the building begins to shake.  The cults and random madness seem to be less immediate concerns.

Unlike observers from elsewhere, who write about these phenomena as freakish, exotic events, Didion wrote about them for what they were: permanent features of the landscape, an inescapable part of life in the garden.

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The Power of Babel

Tower of Babel, woodcut, M.C. Escher, 1928. Via Wikipedia.

For most of the last nine months I have had the extraordinary benefit of intensive foreign language training.  I had resources, faculty, structure and time all to my benefit: online and computer resources, a diverse faculty from many countries to learn different accents and idioms, day-long small group classroom work and and intensive one-on-one training.  That I speak a new foreign language at all I owe to my instructors.  But the undeniable fact that I am not native, or even fluent, I can blame only on myself.

I can’t blame everything entirely on myself, but rather, on mysterious components of myself that seem to be beyond my conscious control.  I found that the most difficult, most unfathomable, most unpredictable aspects of my training came entirely from the cubic foot of space inside my head.

Your brain is not your friend

Perhaps the most astounding and frustrating aspect of language training was the involuntary reaction my brain had to responding to this new input.  In short, I found myself inadvertently speaking or substituting prior languages I had learned for the new language I was trying to learn.  This could be as vague as mispronouncing homonyms or cognates or as physical as substituting the word with the rudimentary sign language I learned 15 years ago.  It seemed, then, that my brain was resisting the “overwrite” my previous non-native languages, or confused anything “non-native” in my head.  I was not alone.  For anyone with previous language instruction, however old it was, the brain had a tendency to reach back and substitute old French, say, or Italian, for the new language.

This goes quite against everything I had heard or thought about new language acquisition, at least when I was much younger.  Knowing a foreign language helps acquire new foreign languages.  Indeed, the friends and family who speak many languages find it considerably easier — or they at least learn more successfully — to acquire more.  And for myself this is true as far as it goes: my prior language provided a context for understanding structure and grammar, recognizing cognates, memorizing words and verb tables, and so on.

It goes without saying that I never contended with the active opposition of my own brain to absorb a new language.

Immersion is a myth

This may be the result of being a native anglophone in a world that increasingly uses English as a common second language.  I benefited from intense, immersion-like training  during which my colleagues spoke nothing but the foreign language for hours.  This helped, as far as it goes.  Because once we left class, we were back in our native language environment.  I feel like there is a switch in my brain that toggles between “native” and “foreign” languages and it is thrown one way or another depending on my environment.  When the switch is off, I’m not learning.

It’s certainly easier to learn when the switch is always on “foreign” and indeed the gold standard is simply living, learning and speaking in the country you expect to travel to.  But now that I am abroad again, I see how difficult it is to achieve a totally immersive environment.  English is used everywhere, on the radio, on billboards, in magazines, songs and movies.  Every time I recognize a new word in English, that switch in my head gets flipped back from “foreign” to “native”.

There is no substitute for long, hard work…

In the end, unless you are innately gifted, acquiring a new language takes long hours of concentrated effort.  It is a methodical and slow process.  There is nothing quick or simple about it, and those language schools that promise acquisition in six weeks strike me as fraudulent.   I never could see progress from week to week.  Day to day was worse — fall-backs and regressions more than outnumbered the minor triumphs.  That’s because real progress comes over months.  For example, one day, about three months into my training, I realized I could recognize all the individual words in a foreign language broadcast.  That helped my verbal acquisition (not to mention confidence) immeasurably, but I had to work a long time to get there.

…except using your language in a real context every day

That said, there is nothing like using your new language in real-life context every day.  Real life forces you to do things you never trained for in the classroom.  It is virtually impossible to explain the difference, particularly to those slogging through the middle part of their language training, but using your language in a real context is both liberating and more challenging than the classroom.  That is as it should be.

People are forgiving

One of my favorite stories about foreign language acquisition involves Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  His wife’s family is Chinese and he made a concerted effort to learn Mandarin.  He deployed his new language before a Chinese audience in Beijing in 2014.  The reaction of the audience struck me — they were delighted that he made the effort.  More importantly, when he persisted in speaking Chinese, the interviewer and the audience adapted and eagerly helped him where he struggled.  The interviewer kept the questions simple.  The audience shouted out words to Zuckerberg when he got stuck, urging him on.  The audience was clearly deeply flattered (and entertained) that he completed the 30-minute interview in Mandarin.

I hope this story provides some solace to my colleagues who learned Mandarin.  But I’ve found that, again, real life mirrors this story.  When you learn a new language and are struggling to use it, people recognize the effort and try to help.  People are forgiving.  In the end, the real goal is not a perfect, grammatically correct, fluently pronounced sentence but understanding.  Understanding always involves at least two people and in my experience most people want to understand and will help you reach that ultimate goal.

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What matters most

Via Grist magazine.

A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate.  We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror.  I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign.  On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country.  On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.

It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters.  But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others.  The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things?  Why don’t we all think the same way?

This is a substantial issue.  I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris.  I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people.  But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.

This was not a matter of self-justification.  When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply.  I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts.  The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me.  More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I.  This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.

My initial query stands:  why do we feel differently about these things?  Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children?  Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues?  When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.

But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society.  There are more than enough problems we face to go around.  It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time.  While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time.  That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality.  Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions.  Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress.  Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.

What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective.  It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances.  But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence.  It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists.  That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed.  Imagine if they worked together.

More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life.  We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.

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What LEGO Taught Me

Benny’s Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP!

For my birthday my wife bought me the LEGO kit Benny’s Spaceship.  For anyone who’s seen The Lego Movie you’ll get the joke. It’s the outrageous monster outer space cruiser the little blue 1980s LEGO astronaut with the busted helmet finally can unleash his manic creative energy to build in a fit of frenzied, 9-to-14-year-old glee near the end of the movie.  Watching that moment in the movie, and holding the box, I felt the rekindling of that same mania, dull and dormant since it last animated me 30 years ago.

It was then when I realized I had essentially failed that younger version of myself.  Because if I had been true to my 12-year-old ambition, I would be working at LEGO right now or I would have worked on The Lego Movie.  Or, at least, I would have visited Legoland somewhere in the world.

But I had Benny’s Spaceship and I found the visceral pleasure of assembling it did not fade with age.  At the same time I happily watched a switch flip in the mind of my four-year-old son.  What had been a jumble of abstract multi-colored DUPLO blocks now took solid form in his mind.  He began to assemble cars, airplanes, helicopters out of the pure form.  And then, inspired by his favorite television show, he began to “transform” them.  Snapping a few pieces into different positions, he turned his vehicles into robots.

It took me years to do something like that.  I received my first LEGO kit, a train set, from Japanese friends when I was about five years old.  From then on, LEGO was, with the possible exception of plastique models, my favorite things to play with growing up.  I rarely bought blocks for their own sake and always built the pre-designed kits, but they eventually became something else entirely – ships, planes, submarines, spacecraft, battlefields, the whole populated physiography of a boy’s imagination.  Considering how expensive the kits were (and continue to be) they are probably the most cost-efficient toy on the market.  You can make them into almost anything you want.

At the risk of putting down the pure joy of childhood creativity with the needle of an adult’s hindsight, it’s been interesting to see how the same processes I cultivated on the floor of my bedroom as a child evolved into grown-up habits and skills.

Lord Business and Master Builders Need Each Other

The Lego Movie sets up a rigid dichotomy between the instruction-following if happy-go-lucky automatons and the rebellious, anarchic Master Builders.  But any organization needs both to succeed; indeed any person needs both creativity and attention to detail in order to function in modern life.  It may surprise my friends and family to find me poring over a LEGO instruction manual (or any manual for that matter).  Following instructions and conforming to rules are not my strength, but even as a pre-teen I would regularly do so in order to get the product shown on the box.  That attention to detail – an ability to focus and work precisely, behaviors not engrained in my character – may have been all I needed to get through school and my first few jobs.

But once I completed the kit I could break it down and use the new pieces to build other things.  I could build almost anything I could imagine or – a different notion entirely – a model of something else.   I had a whole fleet’s-worth of space-faring warships of my own design, but I found these to be less difficult to build because the problem set was more flexible – it could be whatever I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, trying to build a scale model of some real (or pre-existing) object was a much greater challenge.  Because the greater the fidelity, the greater the achievement – and with the blocky, finite resolution of the LEGO bricks, that was quite a challenge.

Creativity Is More Necessary – and Harder to Understand – Than You Think

I recently found a book published by LEGO diving into the design of it Architecture series which explores this concept in some detail.  Replicating the  Eiffel Tower, the White House or the Taj Mahal to high fidelity at 1/25th scale in a place like Legoland is impressive but, given the size, relatively easily done — and especially so after seeing how The LEGO Movie was designed.  But what about at a scale that will fit in a box on a shelf?  The Architecture book explores the engineers’ iterative process to find the right design, scale and parts to faithfully replicate these icons.  I went through a similar process as a child and tried to do the same thing as I started building again as an adult – replicating the ships from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” say, and seeing if my children could recognize them when I finished.

LEGO Architecture – The Visual Guide

This was (and is) a significant life lesson in engineering and problem-solving.  Engineers like to say that their job is about what can be – that is, solving real-world problems in real time for real people.  The situation, tools, and equipment will always be inadequate but your goal is to get the best outcome and improve for the next time.  I learned almost too late that creativity is a tremendous part of the sheer physical aspect of getting things made, fixed and done.  Without creativity, the greatest achievements in science, technology and engineering would have never left the chalkboards of theory.  I have applied a creative, half-now-is-better-whole-later approach to problem-solving most of my life.

But creativity has a curious double edge.  I tried once again to model the venerable Enterprise from Star Trek – introducing my children to yet another commercial franchise – and I was as disappointed with my effort now as I was as a boy.  I instantly recalled a good friend who was a LEGO prodigy.  I remember his uncanny ability to assemble the Enterprise on virtually any scale — as an inch-long model or a foot-long version — with incredible fidelity.  When I was younger I was jealous and confused by his ability – as I was by those who could do other creative things “better” than me.  They could draw, sing, play music, and paint better than I could.  I didn’t understand what this “better” was – why, in a group of people, one object would necessarily be valued more than another.  I was confronting a fundamental question of aesthetic philosophy that I would never be able answer but one that fundamentally separates an art from kitsch.

Play is Mindfulness

Rifling my hand through the bricks I felt like I was back on my bike again.  Thirty years had passed but very little had changed.  I remembered their proportions, how pieces fit together, recognized their limitations, delighted to find new blocks and tools.  There was something intensely familiar and calming about the focus on what I was building.  And unlike work or writing, I didn’t feel any tension when my focus was broken by distractions, such as when my son would triumphantly display his latest LEGO transformer creation.  Happily we could enjoy this activity together.

Today we call this a mindful activity, also at the risk of killing off the pure notion of play.  It is interesting that I don’t feel my mind wander, I don’t use the time to think about other things, I don’t worry (usually) about other things I have to do.  But when I am building, I am focused and happy.  I am usually  pleased with the “good-enough” outcome I produce.  I can play with my children.   It is a finite activity that I can start and complete within an hour or so.

I have boxes of my old LEGO bricks piled in the basement.  I hesitate to bring them into the mix.  They are decades old, undoubtedly creased, worn, and dirty.   I like the shiny new bricks and the new parts and gears that came with Benny’s Spaceship.  I suppose I worry most about the memories they will evoke and the fact that they are, in fact, children’s playthings.  I shouldn’t be embarrassed by that and I’m probably half-justifying the sheer pleasure and enjoyment I have “playing” – which doesn’t quite capture what I’m doing – with them by writing about how LEGO affected my development as an adult.  I guess I just don’t want to think about them never being a part of me.

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Benny’s Spaceship, assembled.

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New Book Review: “Through a Screen Darkly”

I’m happy to post my review of Martha Bayles’ recent book on public diplomacy, Through a Screen Darklypublished this month in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy by Clingendael in The Netherlands.  The article is behind a pay wall but should be available in most libraries.

I take issue with Bayles’ central argument about the liability of American culture abroad. But I found much of her reportage and proposals to share commonality with arguments and observations I made in my own book. Moreover, Bayles’ book is an exhaustive overview of public diplomacy in the second decade after September 11, 2001.

I send my thanks to The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Clingendael and especially editor Jan Melissen for agreeing to publish my review.

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A Patent Omission

Soviet Buran (left) and US space shuttle (right)

A recent story by the Planet Money team at NPR posed the question: what would happen to business and innovation if there were no patents?

For those who don’t follow the rise and flow of intellectual property law, this has been a trendy subject in recent years. Driven in large part by the complex — and aggressive — litigation between Apple, Google and Samsung over smart phone and software design, many smart people have posited that instead of protecting intellectual property and innovation in market economies, patents and other intellectual property protections have built fortresses around technology and impeded both creativity and economic growth.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for intellectual property reform. (For example, there’s a strange coincidence that copyright protections keep getting extended every time Mickey Mouse stands on the verge of entering the public domain.) But the Planet Money team skips that argument, probably because it would put to sleep their listeners, already bored by their overlong story of 15 minutes. Instead, they pose the much bigger question about no patents at all.

Patents are issued on machines and processes (trademarks and copyrights are on brand designs and creative products) and are issued by every major economy in the world. They provide limited protection to the innovator from unlicensed copying. These are especially important, as Planet Money notes, in software and pharmaceuticals, where development costs are high and production costs are low. Patents have been issued as early as the 15th century and are written into the U.S. Constitution specifically “to promote science and the useful arts”. So the fringe intellectuals who oppose patents, as quoted by Planet Money, believe that every advanced industrial economy that has provided patent protection has been wrong for more than 500 years.

That’s all well and good. But patent opponents are essentially arguing for a case that does not now exist. True, we do that routinely in political (and economic) debate. Try this, we say, it will be better my way. It’s hard to make solid economic arguments using only models because we can’t predict the future. But that’s what the opponents of patents are doing: Trust us.

Except there are several examples from history that the Planet Money team could have explored for the effect of patent-less economies. They simply ignored them. That’s too bad, because the debate over patents seems to come in waves of every 50 years or so. For example, the Netherlands specifically abandoned patents in 1869 but reinstated them in 1912. Germany didn’t adopt patents until 1877, Switzerland until 1907. How did this state of affairs affect these countries’ development? Planet Money doesn’t seem interested.

But probably the best example of a patent-less economy is the Soviet Union. From about 1922 until the collapse of communism 70 years later, the Soviet Union abolished all intellectual property protections. It was a socialist economy — the state owned everything, including ideas. Instead, the government issued “certificates of invention”, a sort of “Hero of Soviet Labor” for innovators that included a small stipend. That way we can measure creativity and innovation in the world’s largest socialist economy.

The results are stark. With the exception of sloped armor, a minor advance in antibiotics, and the AK-47 (for which I can find no record Mikhail Kalashnikov received a certificate of invention), the Soviet Union produced almost nothing new for 70 years. Virtually every major advance the nation built was stolen — aircraft (Tu-4), weapons (atomic and hydrogen bombs), computers and software (5e series, Agat, MOS) and spacecraft (Buran, see above). When the country opened up in the early 1990s, it was clear the advanced parts of the economy trailed the West by 30-40 years. The rest of the country was still living in the 19th century. Socialism was an economic calamity and had its worst effect on the innovative sector. Russia adopted intellectual property protections immediately.

That’s not to say the Soviets didn’t try. As the patent-less nations of the 19th century also did, Soviet innovators sought patent protection abroad for their innovations. The Soviet Union filed for 7,000 patents in the United States during the 20th century — comparable, one observer notes, to an advanced country like Belgium or Austria. (The observer fails to note both countries have a fraction of the Soviet Union’s population). But more importantly, there is little evidence that these patents led to commercialization. That is, despite the recognition of innovation by an advanced economy, the Soviet Union could not market the products — the results of these innovations — in advanced Western economies.

Perhaps Planet Money ignored the Soviet example because the effects of socialism were too distorting. Or maybe its results are so stark it simply pours cold water on the argument that patents hinder innovation and economic development. But it is important to look at this example in part because many patent opponents view them as market inhibitors. Yet in a socialist economy without patent inhibitions — indeed, in the worker’s paradise where the laborer owned the means of production — creativity and innovation died. Lesson learned?

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A Divisive Concept

Islamic State fighters in January 2014 (Mohammed Jalil/EPA via Al Jazeera America)

With Iraq on the edge of calamity, a hoary, dangerously stupid idea has again been floated by people smart enough to know better. With primarily Sunni extremists breathing down the Tigris and Euphrates river valley toward Baghdad and the mainly Kurdish north taking local advantage of the resulting power vacuum, the time has come these observers say to cut up Iraq into independent regions based on ethnicity.

This idea has been floated at least since the insurgency of 2005-2006 if not earlier. Critics and some Iraqis complain that the borders were artificially drawn by European colonial officers that ignored ethnic, linguistic and tribal realities. The result was a series of artificial hotchpotch polyglot countries designed to be politically unstable. So of course it makes sense that they should be carved up again — again by those doing it by armchair mapmakers removed from the region — into something that looks like Europe where the French have France and Germans have Germany — Kurdistan for the Kurds, a large Sunni state for the Sunni Arabs, a large Shiite Arab state, and so on.

Iraq ethnic map (pluralities excluded) (Globalsecurity.org)

Except there are a couple of large, demonstrable problems if we think this through. First, it ignores the ethnic reality of the region, which is marbled and faded rather than neatly divided into segregated blocks of mutually opposed antagonists. Ignorant observers see monoethnic polarities (above) where plural blending actually occurs (see below) and conveniently or blithely ignore the same problems that face us today in the current crisis, just in different configurations and proportions: different people figuring out how to order themselves and get along. The U.S. domestic equivalent would be taking the electoral college results from the last election, determining there is no reconciling the two, and then literally dividing the United States along red and blue states after simply ignoring that each election was contested and forgetting the political pluralities contained therein.

Iraq ethnic makeup (pluralities included) (Kurdish Academy)

This leads me to the second problem. There has never been a single, unitary, state with one ethnic group and one language predominating, ever. Every state, even the most red and most blue, is at some level purple. All countries everywhere throughout history have had to cope with ethnic, linguistic and political pluralities. It is the nature of humanity and political order for people to be different. If we weren’t, we would have no politics, simply “the administration of things”. As long as there has been open communication and trade between nations, different people have lived close to one another and states have had to govern how we live together.  (It is why the tower of Babel figures so prominently in the Old Testament.) Even in the modern European nation-state, governments must contend with ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. We do not entirely segregate ourselves. We cannot be so neatly divided. Only the fanatics — ethnic, religious, and political — believe we can be separated and purified.

Dividing a country like Iraq does two things. First, it essentially cedes to the extremists of the so-called Islamic State its territorial demands.  They win. Congratulations. Anyone with the monopoly of violence gets what they want. And second, we give license to the inevitable ethnic cleansing that follows as they force out, or people are compelled to leave, anyone who does not conform to their rule.

I know this to be true because it already happened in the Balkans. A map of Bosnia-Herzegovina shows what occurred before and after the war driven during the 1990s by the Serb-dominated Federal Yugoslav Army. What had been a pluralistic, marbled multi-ethnic state became — with the full consent of the international community as ratified by the Dayton Peace Accords — a radically segregated federation of three largely monoethnic cantons. The country’s federal governing system — championed by many for Iraq — is a corrupt, ethnically myopic hash still under the paternalistic protectorate of the European Union. Bosnians themselves are chafing under its weight and have finally had enough.

(National Geographic)

By contrast in Iraq during 2005-2006, when faced with the apocalyptic bloodletting particularly of Sunni minorities in Baghdad, the surge of U.S. forces effectively stopped the violence and, in effect, compelled the communities to live with each other. I am not yet convinced of the ethnic nature of the current conflict in Iraq — I see it for now primarily as a power struggle between a group of religious fanatics backed by former regime elements and the weak central government they are targeting — so we should not fall for this false narrative. But the strength of national and political unity is all the more important when facing this outside threat — whether it is a political or ethnic insurgency.

All the more reason, too, since in a political context people can be led to live with one another just as much as they can be agitated to kill one another. I am inclined to believe most ethnic conflict is primarily political conflict and requires as much leadership and organization as any other political effort. People do not spontaneously murder their neighbors en masse.  They must be mobilized and compelled to do these terrible deeds — witness the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Burma or anywhere else “ancient hatreds” are alleged to erupt.

The only course when confronted with these centrifugal forces — political, ethnic or otherwise — is to counteract with centripetal force. We have no choice among ourselves than to live with one another, so why would we ask anything less from somebody else? We can help and aid the governments and countries and civil organizations of our friends to build the institutions and societies that will help plural nations to survive and prosper. There are other ways to defeat organizations like the Islamic State. But dismembering a country like Iraq or any other would be an essential loss in the struggle against extremism.  Because they are fighting for the same arbitrary and pure abstractions that do not not exist in humanity and do not exist on any map.

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To Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

Not far outside Paris stands one of the many monuments to the almost innumerable dead of World War I. This one is not unusual marking the graves of the many Americans who fought and died on European soil during that conflict. But it is unique for the remarkable attributes of those who remain there: they are Americans who died serving France, not the United States. This is the monument to the Escadrille Lafayette, U.S. aviators who flew the skies over the Western front defending France against German imperial fighters before the United States entered the war in 1917.

The monument to the Escadrille Lafayette near Versailles.

In the post-WWII era of American preeminence we in the United States are accustomed to being “first to fight”. Although this feeling has changed after 13 years of war, it is still interesting, indeed jarring, to remember a time long ago when Americans were far more reluctant to entangle themselves abroad. The United States was dragged quite in spite of itself into both World Wars. So Americans who wanted to fight first — for personal, moral or ideological reasons — had to find other ways to get into combat.

Most famous among these, of course, were the irregular Lincoln Brigades in Spain prior to the outbreak of World War II. Famously socialist but cynically manipulated by Moscow, they were heroic but largely ineffective against Franco’s fascism. During the expanded war in Europe Americans more often than not joined the Canadian forces because it was easy to cross the border and volunteer. Americans especially joined the Royal Canadian Air Forces (RCAF). In fact, probably the most famous poem about flying ever written, “High Flight,” was composed by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator with the RCAF.

More than 9,000 Americans joined the RCAF before the United States entered the war. Canada, as a dominion of the United Kingdom, fought on the side of the Allies following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the United States did not join them until Pearl Harbor more than two years later. More than 840 Americans died in Canadian service.

Canada wasn’t the only country Americans served with. They also served with the British forces, particularly the Royal Air Force. Americans have joined the famous French Foreign Legion. (Americans of German descent also volunteered for the Wehrmacht, a fact dramatized by the excellent miniseries Band of Brothers — not mentioned in the book — and about which the less said the better.)

In this way, these Americans have much in common with the tens of thousands of colonial forces who volunteered or were press-ganged into service for the crown or Champs Elysees.  In both World Wars, all the imperial countries — France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany — drew on colonial possessions in North and West Africa, Central Africa, South Asia, and East Africa respectively.

And these Americans, like many of the colonial forces, have been not recognized here at home as having lost their lives in the service of the United States. Presumably their families never received benefits from the United States government for their death, either. But as you can read in this Toronto Star article, their service is beginning to be recognized here at home.

It’s important to remember that many of these Americans saw what Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did: the inevitability of war with Hitler and the unity of interest particularly with Great Britain and the Allies. As on American who served with the RCAF noted in a letter home during the war, he felt that his service with the Canadian forces was in the direct interest of the United States: “[T]here is no question of serving Canada to the neglect of my mother country. He who serves Great Britain or any of its Dominions also serves the U.S. and vice-versa. Our differences are in arbitrary boundary lines only.”

John Gillespie Magee (via Bomber Command Museum Canada)

Nevertheless the tragedy of war and lost youth that is an inevitable collateral of Memorial Day is all the more poignant when considering these young Americans who served, and died, in a noble cause so far from home and wearing the flag of a foreign nation. Magee is a special case in point. Happily, he is known by every pilot in the English-speaking world for one poem he wrote. But it is worth imagining what verse he might have contributed had he survived the war.  As it is he is buried in aptly named Lincolnshire, England. He died in a training accident having never seen combat. But he “touched the face of God” before he was even 20 years old.

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What I Learned Studying the Qur’an (II)

(Read Part I Here)

This winter, during a period of unemployment, I studied the Qur’an at the Howard University School of Divinity. Here’s more of what I learned.

The Book is a Conversation

I can attest for those of us on the outside without cultural knowledge or language ability that Islam and the Qur’an can appear like an idée fixe – a series of received edicts reinforced by conservative understandings that are consulted as an unchanging body of law. This distorted picture is the result of innocent isolation, hoary media narrative, or stone-cold ignorance. But it is a cultural fact that must be overcome.

Even attempts to learn through nuanced reporting and scholarship can give a sense of a diverse, if static, political and theological world instead of the roiling plurality of political reality. We would — and I do — feel aggrieved if foreign audiences saw a single, monolithic “America,” or even a simplistic black and white, or red and blue, “United States”. Growing up and living here you know that our country is in a constant state of defining itself. It is the same anywhere and with anyone else.

So to read the Qur’an, and to discover within it an early community debating itself, was a bracing shift from dusty received wisdom.  Much of the book is structured as a series of responses from God through the Prophet to His followers.  This is a  departure from the diktat we are used to in the Old Testament – an angry God wiping out his creation, testing His faithful, or sending down orders to His people (although there are plenty of reminders of these past events in the Qur’an). The Old Testament has the feeling of an ancient tragedy. Structurally, the Qur’an also differs from the Gospels, which read like individual set pieces in which Christ acts opposite people who accompany him, as if in a BBC period drama. In many parts of the Qur’an, God responds almost directly to questions posed from beyond the fourth wall. He is engaging the community directly in conversation.

This may explain why I was flummoxed when I first tried to read the Qur’an unaided. The text shifts between a familiar third-person narrative and an omniscient first-person-plural (“we”) voice speaking directly to somebody who is perpetually unheard off-stage. Who is speaking? To whom? What is the subject? There is minimal exposition. In these one-sided conversations there is little of the epistolary form or parable-telling that populates the Christian Bible.

The Qur’an invites a conversation – in Dr. Alwani’s term, a dialogue – with the text, and with God, about a good life well-spent. The Qur’an repeatedly invokes that God “is all-seeing and wise” but He does not meddle directly in the affairs of mortals.  This is a Kantian universe of free choice where God provides guidance, proscription and the model of His Prophet but we the people are left to debate and apply these counsel to our own lives.  This is why Islam is a living belief and not a dead letter.

Occasionally the book employs the parable, or moral-telling story, and these are some of the most thought-provoking in the book.  The story of Joseph (Yusuf, Qur’an 12), for example, is the only surah dedicated entirely to an Old Testament prophet and largely retells this well-known story. Here it reads as a profound meditation on faith, suffering, fidelity and forgiveness.

But the story, like much of the book – indeed as with any complex test – demands interrogation.  What lessons are we intended to draw from this story? How are we supposed to treat others? How do we live our lives? Once we begin to interrogate the text, it immediately becomes clear that the book is not a series of simple rules or dictates as the extremists would like us to believe, but a series of questions about the moral nature of human existence.

The book is a continuation

It may surprise someone who has not read the Qur’an that Joseph features prominently in the book in addition to Jesus and Mary, or Joseph, or Moses. Some may recall the recent prohibition of the film “Noah” in some Islamic countries, by government or clerical fiat. It is true that the Qur’an broadly discourages idol worship, including that of prophets and saints, to avoid intercessors in the relationship with God. (This has resulted in part in the distinctive and extraordinary geometric art forms in the Islamic world.) But importantly this is not a uniform assessment held by all scholars and all communities. Here again is evidence of an ongoing interrogation of the text and an active debate within the Islamic community itself.

Russel Crowe in “Noah”.

It should be clear by now that I am not a religious scholar. So most of what follows is based on intuition and aspiration. And I am, happily, not the first or only one to assert this. Nevertheless I found it impossible to read the Qur’an and not see a single intellectual and theosophical thread running from Adam and Abraham through Jesus and Muhammad. All of the texts refer forward and backward to one another and rely on one another’s prophetic tradition and sacred texts. I would not want to take away the cultural traditions, national heritage, language and law of Jews, Muslims and Christians. But I have also seen how the individual traditions are illuminated in relief and contrast to the other Abrahamic traditions, enough to see the possibility of a single golden braid of belief.

The concept of a Judeo-Christian civilization or tradition is largely a modern idea. This assertion is by no means an attempt to undermine it. It is just to note that not long ago Jews and Christians culturally and politically were a world apart and it took concerted political and intellectual effort to bring the traditions together. Much longer ago the three belief traditions lived together under one political order or another and then were driven apart. Reading the original texts and understanding the broad edicts of belief in the same God, spiritual devotion, forbearance towards one another, and charity to the less fortunate, a way toward a unified Abrahamic tradition becomes clear. That may seem naive and idealistic right now, but we have witnessed events at least as idealistic in our own lifetime.

Church and mosque, Urosevac/Ferizaj, Kosovo.

Indeed, this has been the most pleasurable and intellectually stimulating aspect of my interfaith sojourn: to make new friends and see how learning about others lights up and invigorates their own belief. A Muslim friend has studied the Torah. A rabbi makes compassion and understanding his personal jihad. The prison chaplain’s son told us he could work better with his father, who ministered to Muslim converts behind bars, after taking Dr. Alwani’s course. All the students thought her course should be required, not an elective, at the divinity school. Remembering with amusement my father’s tales of his dreaded Saturday morning theology courses in college, I wondered why religion courses were no longer required in (most) American undergraduate schools. How could such a religious country, one founded on the principles of religious freedom, get so far from the intellectual curiosity of the founding families who included the great Islamic civilizations in their vast surveys of models for our republican government?

Still, my introduction was only that: a beginning. Dr. Alwani, the Howard divinity students and my new friends taught me that while this experience may start someplace, it never really ends. We don’t stop learning. We are always coming back to great books like the Qur’an and the Bible for knowledge, guidance, illumination and wisdom over the course of our lives. The religious scholar Karen Armstrong calls the philosophers and prophets she has studied her friends, and I find that fits for me, too.  I have far greater understanding and confidence now that I have been shown this vast new library. With the help of all my new friends, I hope to use it wisely.

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What I Learned Studying the Qur’an (I)

This winter, during a period of unemployment, I studied the Qur’an at the Howard University School of Divinity. I have the course instructor, Dr. Zainab Alwani, to thank first, followed by her students and Howard University, for this extraordinary opportunity.  I am profoundly grateful to them and to the many generous friends who have guided and encouraged me along this illuminating interfaith journey. How I came to Dr. Alwani’s class is a good story worth telling, but not here. Suffice it to say my friends tell me it is no coincidence that I was without work when the opportunity presented itself.

Anyone approaching the Qur’an recognizes that it is a daunting volume. For those who don’t speak Arabic – which includes the majority of Muslims – the book is usually read in translation. This should not be an obstacle until we realize that the Christian Bible has been translated into European languages from its original languages for more than a millennium. The oldest English Bibles predate the Norman Conquest and the Tyndale and King James translations have had centuries to pervade our language. By contrast, the earliest English translation of the Qur’an dates from the 17th century and translations do not occur nearly as frequently as the Bible. Consequently, its influence on Western and Anglophone culture was less profoundly absorbed, even setting aside the political conflicts dating from the Crusades onward.

The first English translation of the Qur’an, completed by George Sale, 1734

The Qur’an’s rhetorical structure may not be immediately familiar to the late, modern or Christian reader. It is interesting how much even secular Westerners accept without notice being raised in the Church and Christian-influenced culture. The Qur’an, for someone not raised with it and steeped in the culture it has influenced, requires a strategy. Attempting to read it alone and unaided, I had none, which led me in large measure to Dr. Alwani’s class.

The Book is the Miracle

I joined Dr. Alwani’s seminar in upper northeast Washington, D.C.  The Howard University School of Divinity is a small, quiet, bucolic campus near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land.  I had never taken a religion course before and now I would sit in a class with master’s students who were Christian scholars.  The seminar was small, about five students, among them a prison pastor’s son, a retired Air Force officer working for the Veteran’s Administration, and an accountant who could quote Bible verse at will.

I quickly realized an introduction to such a book was like an introduction to Constitutional law, or the Bible, or moral philosophy.  The Qur’an is an intellectual and spiritual universe and there was no conceivable way we could capture its entirety or plumb deeply the entire book or even explore single themes, surahs (chapters) or characters in great depth.  Indeed – to provide a sense of scale in this endeavor – Dr. Alwani told us, “Every word in the Qur’an is a concept.” If my friend in Sarajevo, who had set me down this path by inviting me into her intellectual and spiritual home, in this survey course Dr. Alwani had invited us into a library – a vast civilizational Alexandria, with the surahs of the Qur’an marking the stacks.

Nevertheless, I was not daunted or dismayed. In fact, I was invigorated. I had been discouraged when a friend’s gift of a book (The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad) revealed to me the profound gulf that existed, quite in spite of my efforts, between my knowledge and the vast range of Islamic scholarship available in English. Now, Dr. Alwani was laying out guideposts that would become more familiar as I moved through the Qur’an.

This was a different way of thinking. By way of example, one of the early questions for the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was why, if he was delivering the word of God, he should not perform miracles like his predecessors. Indeed, the notion of miracles is so ingrained in American, Christian and even secular Western society that we may not know that unlike most prophets of Judeo-Christian tradition, few miracles are attributed to Muhammad.(1)  The Qur’an reveals that the message is the marvel – that (Dr. Alwani, striking a pose like Charleton Heston, her Qur’an held aloft for emphasis) the book is the miracle.

I found this profoundly satisfactory but I had to think about it to understand why. Partly, I realized, was the fundamental humility of the assertion. The focus of the Qur’an, while clearly aspiring to the hereafter, is nonetheless on questions of how to live in the here and now. The book is stripped of all supernatural trappings save the revelation itself. It draws the reader’s attention to its word, message and actions rather than the “magic” of the super-endowed ur-humans Westerners are accustomed to as our prophets – parting seas, walking on water, healing the sick, and the rest. Without these distractions, we can concentrate on what is important: our behavior towards one another.

But much more of my personal satisfaction is rooted in language. I write; I live through and in language. We are immersed in language. The Qur’an as we comprehend it now – written down, printed, and bound in a book or transmitted by electronic means (six translations are available free on my smart phone) – existed before the means to record it. Indeed, as Dr. Alwani noted, this points directly to the notion that the words existed before the revelation and that they are one and the same with God. They are eternal and exist quite separately from the “book” itself. This illuminates one of the most famous lines from the New Testament, indeed, in all of English: “In the beginning, the word was with God, and the word was God.”  (John 1:1)

The Qur’an itself means “the recitation,” and the thrilling first words of the revelation to the Prophet – “Recite!” (Qur’an 96:1) – is a divine exhortation to public language.

Muhammad recited for 20 years until his death. His Companions, at that time, memorized the recitation. This is important to contemplate for a moment. I recalled the oral traditions of the early epic poems such as the Odyssey or Iliad, which existed in large measure in the mind of the bards who recited them. I also remembered the ending of Fahrenheit 451, when the hero joins a band of other men who have memorized whole volumes that have been destroyed by burning. Literature, indeed language as we know it, began in the mind and was transmitted in the spoken word. This is how the Qur’an was first communicated and preserved. That alone seems miracle enough.

But of course that is not the miracle Dr. Alwani was speaking of. The Qur’an asserts it is the direct word of God without intermediation. Only when reading in translation is there something lost, although it is clear in its reading, and reading the tafsir (exegesis) and Islamic jurisprudence, that the original language leaves much to interpret. (We who must read the Qur’an in language other than Arabic are at a further disadvantage.) Nevertheless, it is both comforting and awe-inspiring to hold the book and know that God’s revelation is contained between the covers.

For anyone remaining skeptical that the text is miraculous in either the divine or human sense, Dr. Alwani shared with us the tradition of tajweed, or beautiful recitation of the Qur’an. For Muslims this is taken as given; the nearest modern analogy for Christians I can think of is devotional music such as G.F. Handel’s Messiah, in which Biblical verses are set to music. In tajweed, the Qur’an itself is sung. Here is an example, made all the more astonishing for the spectacle of children memorizing the entire Qur’an and reciting ayah, or verses, in tajweed:

I believe I can speak for the other students who were spellbound listening to the children, many of whom did not speak Arabic. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of music to recognize the beauty of tajweed, which lies at the very heart of the Qur’an and Islamic belief. Tajweed is by necessity bound up with the language of Arabic and Arabic script. My father remembers a colleague who expressed the three-fold beauty of Qur’anic inscriptions that illuminate mosques the world over: “The writing is beautiful, the sound is beautiful, and the thoughts are beautiful.”

Detail of Qur’anic inscription from the interior of the Blue Mosque of Herat, Afghanistan. Photo by Mark Schlagel

Again I thought of how much my own belief was directly affected by language (specifically and necessarily English); how much I enjoyed reading scripture when bored by homilies during Mass; the ecstatic feeling I experienced joining hundreds singing Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus; Wynton Marsalis describing the sacred music of J.S. Bach, “like God entering the room”; how so many forge a relationship to the divine through music whether it is Cantor Helfgot’s or Ali Khan’s or John Coltrane’s.

NEXT: The Book is a Conversation.

(1) This is not without debate, of course. Islamic scholars attribute many miracles and miraculous aspects to Muhammad. Qur’an 54:1-2 relates the miracle of “splitting of the moon” in the presence of the Prophet and the rest of the surah enumerates the scourges of the Old Testament (significantly, this surah names the Qur’an as a miracle several times. The Qur’an (17:1) also notes Muhammad’s miraculous miraj to Jerusalem.

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