The Borges Retrospective: “The Secret Miracle”

The Borges Retrospective: Part I: Intro.  (I know I said we’d begin with “The Aleph”, but how stupid a thought is that? We’ll end at the Aleph. We were always going to end at the Aleph.)


The great genuis


Think first of the carpenter who picks up a plank, and lays it perpendicular on another one. With careful skill and a substantial brutality, he hammers a cross, setting in motion thousands of years of ecstasy and pain. He unwittingly, doing a job, lays the groundwork for Pere Brébeuf ‘s agony at the roasting pole, and Kateri Tekawitha’s sublime conversion. He sets into motion dramas in lands which he could never imagine.

Think then of the builder who attaches a wooden mane on a great horse, which bears in its womb countless Greeks with a berserk desire for murder. These are the creators of our great dreams, and our great dramas. They build the stage on which we tell our tales. But in one of the greatest stories Borges ever tells, he steps back, and tells the tale not of our great builders, or our blood-covered warriors, but of a man who fell victim to Hannibal, to the Druidic gods, to the madness of Hitler. In “The Secret Miracle”, he tells the story of creation, the story of telling our stories, and makes it more sad and more heroic than any of the great tales.

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Mateen’s Terrorist Ties and the Gun Argument

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard (or made) a comment about how the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had been investigated for ties to terrorism, but was still able to buy a gun. I know I did, when I heard it: a gnashing of teeth at how easy it is to get an semi-automatic rifle, how insane it is that we have decided, as a country, that these kind of killings are the price of freedom, and just something with which we have to deal, and anger at Republicans for talking about being tough on terror but refusing to close the loophole which allows people on terrorism watchlists to buy guns. That he was investigated is true, of course. Here’s from the Times: 

The F.B.I. investigated Mr. Mateen in 2013 when he made comments to co-workers suggesting he had terrorist ties, and again the next year, for possible connections to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who became a suicide bomber in Syria, said Ronald Hopper, an assistant agent in charge of the bureau’s Tampa Division. But each time, the F.B.I. found no solid evidence that Mr. Mateen had any real connection to terrorism or had broken any laws.

But see: these aren’t real ties. A bragging 26-year old, looking to sound tough or maybe even joking, or whatever combination of swagger, anger, and insecurity a 26-yr-old will have (I barely remember). The other is that he might have possibly known someone who joined ISIS.

Even if he did know Abusalha, that isn’t enough to put him on a list. These are the kind of blanket connections that can ruin lives. You’re a Muslim, and you went to school with a Muslim who may be a bad guy, so you’re on the list. We’ll make it harder to fly, harder to rent a house, harder to do most everything. That it isn’t harder to buy guns is inhuman hypocrisy, of course, but that doesn’t mean these terrorism watch lists aren’t over-broad and inherently anti-liberal.

Mateen of course is a monster, a twisted wreck of hate and a poisoned culture- both the culture of ISIS and the rampant homophobia that still exists in the US. That he had the right to buy a gun that can easily kill dozens is a crime. That those rights exist easily for anyone is sickening. But the idea that any rights can be curtailed because of blanket suspicion and the merest whiff of connections is also a crime. Mateen isn’t innocent. But many innocent people are on these lists, and we shouldn’t just complain that they can get guns. We should be outraged by their overbroad existence.

Racism and Obama’s Legacy: African-American Turnout in 2016


Grant Park, 2008


There are few things more annoying than when a white commentator starts to talk about “the black vote”, not in terms of numbers (which can be captured objectively), but in terms of psychology, because it not only assumes a familiarity with every black voter, but assumes that they think en masse. It certainly isn’t intentional racism, but it is a thrown blanket in ways we don’t do with other groups. The “white working class” is probably the broadest market segment for non-minorities, which shows the subtle racial distinction at play. We have “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dad” and so on, and then “the black vote”, and the “Hispanic vote”.  It’s pernicious, and assumes a group mentality in the place of actual examination.

That said, there’s no way Trump is going to get the black vote.

Lauren Fox at Talking Points Memo has an article this morning exploring how analysts don’t really expect a dropoff in the African-American vote, after the highs of Obama. That’s hugely important, because it can negate Trump’s perceived advantage in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and a few other rusty states where he hopes to get high turnout among the (white) economic dispossessed.

There are a couple of reasons for this. TPM talks about how this election is also about Obama’s legacy, which is accurate in a few ways. An election is always partly about the incumbent, whether he is running for another term or finishing up. 2008 was partly a repudiation of Bush; 2000 was about Clinton’s moral failings (the majority of the country still picked Gore, but he lost 5-4), 1988 was about Reagan, etc. In this case, where Republicans have made no bones of their desire to tear down any social progress made by the President, the legacy is even starker. They want to erase everything Obama has done.

It goes slightly deeper than that: they want to erase not just his policies, but his very existence. They want to destroy the thought that there was a successful black President, to make him a footnote. That’s been their driving goal, and there is no one more suited to that than Trump.

You couldn’t have picked a better candidate to remind everyone who cares about racial justice the huge stakes of this election. Trump of course rose to political fame for being the country’s top birther. He has demanded not just to see proof that Obama was born in America, which is flagrantly racist (he’s got dark skin! He’s not one of us!) but also, even more disgustingly, waged a campaign to demand Obama’s college transcripts. In a way, that is far more racist. Obama, of course, isn’t the brilliant and hyper-intelligent person most people see him as, see? He got into college through affirmative action, taking a spot away from “someone” who deserves it. He’s just another dumb…well, you know, right folks?

That’s the kind of campaign that Trump runs, that made him famous. He’s the one who says everything that can be said, everything that people who hate Obama not-so-secretly believe. He’s negating not just Obama’s political accomplishments, but his every achievement. He’s saying, plainly, that Obama doesn’t deserve to be here, that he’s President because of affirmative action, essentially. He runs a campaign of negation, making plain what other Republicans have been trying to do for eight years.

So there is that. But there is also something that Elijah Cummings, who might know more about this than I do, told TPM. “I think Trump helps drive black voter turn out. I really do,” says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) “He has created more unforced errors than any politician I’ve ever seen…People question his judgement.”

Oh yeah, one thinks. That’s right: the “black vote” isn’t just about black issues, obviously. That’s what we were talking about up above. The “black vote” is made up of millions of humans, many of whom can see that a Trump presidency is terrifying. It isn’t just about Obama’s legacy or any of those issues. It’s about being an engaged voter. Maybe, at the end of the day, Trump’s legacy will be that we recognize that every voting bloc contains multitudes, and they can’t be reduced. That they contain humans. Humans who are horrified that such an unqualified ill-temepered racist chump could be President.

Tigers and Mirrors and Labyrinths: Borges 30 Years After His Death

(oddly fitting accompaniment to post)

30 years ago, on June 14th, 1986, in Geneva, Jorge Luis Borges slipped into one of his own infinite labyrinths, that terrifying maze without a center: death. The Argentine, one of the great writers of the century whose timespan he almost matched, was just shy of his 87th birthday. On his deathbed, one wonders, did he dream of walking on a riverbank, and coming across his younger self, and talking about the great mystery into which he was entering, treating his death as gently banal, and quoting Chesterton or an obscure Arabic medievalist? And did the younger self somehow have the same dream, that same night?

With Borges, such questions make sense. They are a reflection of his fiction, that great body of short stories, fragments of invented books, reviews of imaginary essays, tattered journals from explorers who never existed wandering lands that fall in the gap between myth and reality. They are tales of gauchos on the pampas and knife fights in dingy bars and Homer being found in the city of the immortals. They are about buying the memory of Shakespeare or seeing the tigers that inspired poets.

And they are about time. They deal with the way history repeats itself, with the same stories playing out time and again, in Greek corridors or South American battlefields. As he said, “It also occurred to him that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.”

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