General: January 2006 Archives

Jane and Louise Wilson Stasi City 1997 video [still from installation]

All this blithering about to execute or not to execute, for the death penalty or against - all rot, comrades. Execute! And, when necessary, without a court judgment." - Erich Mielke, GDR Minister for State Security, in a 1982 address to high-ranking Stasi officers [from "Stasiland"]

While still trying to fathom my fellow Americans' seeming indifference to extraordinary reports about our National Security Agency's domestic spying operations I've found myself reading Anna Funder's "Stasiland".

It's a terrifying story and it's incredibly depressing, even if it ultimately ends somewhat happily in 1989 - happily for those who survived. Oddly, and unfortunately, it's also a story which many Germans seem to want very much to forget.

I have to confess that even I wasn't very interested in the particulars of Stasi history until recently, in spite of having regularly and almost literally bumped into the physical relics of its power in the eastern neighborhoods of Berlin last fall. It was actually Barry's idea to order "Stasiland" from the library when we returned from Germany, having heard about its existence while we were there.

Since he was too busy with projects to begin reading it when it arrived, I took up the book myself, at first almost casually, although a somewhat dutifully, and certainly thinking it would be a bit of a drudge. Only then, when I became totally absorbed in this world I wish had only existed in the imagination of George Orwell, did I realize how relevant this brilliant account from both its victims and its perpetrators was to what was going on around me today.

Today's Germans may entertain the luxury of this selective amnesia about the very recent past, but the course of our own recent political history has made it more and more clear that we, as citizens of the nation which was so important as both model and midwife in the birth of their post-war democracy, must not.

"Stasi" was the common name for the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry of State Security). I think it's interesting that the increasingly-threatening contemporary U.S. equivalent should go by a name virtually identical to that given to the hated DDR secret police. Ministry of State Security or National Security Agency. There is only the slightest semantic difference between the two, little more than a question of style.

The German victims of an experiment gone very wrong are quite free today, but here in the land of the free and the home of the brave we seem anxious to build our own police state, or we're at least remarkably indifferent to the construction going on all around us.

If we want to get the attention of a sleeping citizenry, maybe we'll have to come up with an appropriate nickname for our own National Security Agency, a tab which could hold its own when set next to the one which described the East Germans' nightmare. My own first thought? "NASY" (with the second letter pronounced "ah" of course)

"Well, when the president decides that he can do whatever he wants in violation of the law, including detaining citizens without charges and spying on citizens without warrants, that pretty much is the definition of a police state. It's the claimed authority that matters, not the extent to which it's used." Atrios

[image from Bayerisches Rundfunk]

Voltaire: not quite an atheist, but an enemy of superstition everywhere

Even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of so much grief being felt in Mecca and all over the world today, I don't think it's unfair to ask:

When was the last time we've read about hundreds of atheists deliberately drinking poisoned Cool Aid together, or accidently trampling each other to death [again], while passionately pursuing preposterous belief?

[Jean Huber image from University of Chicago, Humanities Division]


Once again America steps up to the plate, or goalpost, to show the world that we understand what edjukation is all about.

Oklahoma State University has announced that Texas oil magnate T. Boone Pickens will donate $165 million to its athletic program.

My favorite part of the story may be the reference to the previous record for an athletic bequest to a university. It seems that the custodians of American institutions of learning don't put much store in the subject of education themselves:

The amount [of Pickens' gift] surpasses the $100 million that the Las Vegas casino owner Ralph Engelstad gave to the University of North Dakota in 1998. Half of that was initially intended to build a hockey arena, but the project eventually consumed the entire gift.
And not a penny left over for any of that boring learnin' stuff.

Before I leave this subject, even a quick check with our memories and the internet will remind us that Pickens and his money are very close to both Bush (not incidently a major funder of the Swift Boat Veterans ads) and to the tax-exempt Progress for America, currently spending tons of cash in a campaign to push Alito's case in the Senate.

For an additional lesson in the values held by this Texas billionaire takeover artist, it's interesting to see that according to Wikipedia, Pickens and employees of his BP Capital LLC [my italics] donated a realtively paltry $5 million to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. But, hey, what possible connection would the poor people of Louisiana have with the oil business? Well, I'd humbly suggest that their claim to some of his wealth is far superior to that of the beneficiaries of a redundant sports facility attached to an institution supposedly devoted to higher learning.

[Oklahoma State University logo from aggiesports]

the eyes have it

As I write this it's already the early hours of January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany and traditionally the absolute finish to the long holiday which celebrates the birth of the founder of the Christian religion.

But of course there's another story behind the seasonal image I've uploaded above.

I don't have a religious bone left in my body, but I can't ignore a pretty face. A number of years ago Barry and I were in New Mexico where we stopped at one of the more important Mexican colonial country churches. Attached to the beautiful ancient adobe stucture and just beside the sacristy was a fairly serious gift shop. We were alone in its two short aisles for a few moments, so we were able to discuss between ourselves (but still carefully sotto voce) the purchase of this delicate ceramic figure of a baby Jesus sporting some pretty amazing eye make-up.

We were both very much afraid that the middle-aged Franciscan who managed the shop might realize that our interest in the object was not wholly devotional, but the weight of experience assembled during my extended Roman Catholic childhood and our two very straight faces managed to carry the day.

Every year since that day we've placed the pretty little tyke in a thin bed of straw on a prized side table in the parlor every year around the period of the ancient pagan feasts of Yule and Saturnalia. Oh yeah, we give him a small pair of wooden dreidels to play with while he's there.

We figure Jesus needs a vacation from all the Christmas fuss. And besides, we really like kids.

This page is an archive of entries in the General category from January 2006.

previous archive: General: December 2005

next archiveGeneral: February 2006