May 31, 2008


Very cool image by andy emcee via Flickr Creative Commons. With the recession and all, we had a shortage of gratuitous toad pictures at Goat Rope Farm.

We apologize for the brevity of this post (if such is needed), but we believe this item will make up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

Here's the deal: while the Spousal Unit (aka La Cabra) was perusing a book on birding, she came upon a quote by Marianne Moore that has got to be the Best Definition Ever, in this case of poetry. Here goes:

Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.

Why can't I ever come up with something cool like that?


May 30, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Every so often, you hear about the dream of writing the Great American Novel. Sorry, but it is the opinion of El Cabrero that that one has already been scratched off the list for over 150 years. To quote from the great song-poem Tweeter and the Monkey Man,

There ain't no more opportunity here, everything's been done.

I am, of course, referring to Moby-Dick. I'm re-reading that jewel for the umpteenth time and it just keeps getting better and better. I'm not about to go on a long Moby-Dick jag just yet (although that probably will happen before too long), but there is a connection between that classic and the topic at hand at Goat Rope the last few weeks, i.e. violence and how we might be able to reduce it.

If you recall anything about the story, it may well be that Captain Ahab of the Pequod lost a leg to the Great White Whale in an earlier voyage and, to put it mildly, kinda took it personally.

Dr. James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, refers to the character of Ahab several times in his 1996 work in discussing the tragic nature of violence and the typical American response to it:

Probably no American novel speaks more powerfully to the tragic flaw of violence in the American character than does Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick. In the novel, Captain Ahab, who embodies the purest, most extreme example of one strain in our national character, becomes convinced that Moby-Dick, the great while whale, is the embodiment of evil. Ahab pursues Moby-Dick in the mad conviction that if only he can find him and kill him, he will have attained justice and destroyed evil. The voyage of Ahab and his men, aboard the Pequod, is the story of that tragic quest when ends in the destruction of Ahab and his entire crew, except for Ishmael; it is he alone who returns to bear witness.

Gilligan finds that of Ahab in the American drive to punishment and retributive justice, which hasn't worked all that well in practice:

When I think of the mentality that is willing to sacrifice even rational self-interest, not to mention concern for others, for the sake of some abstractly conceived notion of justice and the punishment of evil, I can only think of Captain Ahab. Like any tragic hero, Ahab was convinced that he knew the difference between good and evil, he knew that Moby-Dick was evil, and he knew that if only he could kill Moby-Dick he would destroy evil and restore justice to the world. In exactly the same way, we know that "criminals" represent and symbolize evil, that if we can only kill or immobilize them all, we will have destroyed evil and attained justice. What else are our endless, futile, and self-defeating crusades, called the "War on Crime" and the "War on Drugs," [the Gentle Reader may think of other wars as well] but our version of the voyage of the Pequod? What else has "Crime" (or "Drugs") come to symbolize, in the American mind, that wasn't already contained in Ahab's image of that symbol of absolute evil, the great white whale, Moby-Dick? And where else are we sailing our ship of state except toward exactly the same kind of tragic and self-destructive shipwreck to which Ahab sailed the Pequod?

Here's one more for the road:

What is the nature of our tragic flaw as a nation, the flaw that has resulted in our uniquely high levels of criminal violence? I think it is the same as Captain Ahab's, which is why he is the my model of our flawed American character. I would describe the flaw as a Puritanical kind of moralism and punitiveness, which is generated by the illusion that "we" have a monopoly on the knowledge of good adn evil (conveniently forgetting what happened to the last couple who ate the fruit of the tree of that name), and that we know that "we" are good and "they" are evil. And lest it be thought that since Ahab was a man he represents only the male minority in the population, it is worth remembering that unless the female majority voted as it did, the Captain Ahabs of this country would never attain power.

I would only disagree to the extent of saying that Melville's Ahab was way cooler than some of the people we've elected.

IT'S A GUY THING...the recession, that is, as Business Week reports.

BACK TO THE MONKEY MAN. Here's an interesting NY Times item on some differences between apes and humans and pros and cons of group behavior.

CLEAN COAL? Don't hold your breath.

DEFINITELY NOT AS COOL AS AHAB. Here's The Nation of former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan on the propaganda leading up to the war in Iraq.


May 29, 2008


Low income housing, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope the last two weeks has been violence, its nature, and what can be done to reduce it. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

A paradox of violence is that arguably the worst violence, or at least the kind that harms and kills the most people, is structural violence, such as the millions of preventable deaths each year due to poverty. The Gentle Reader will perhaps remember Gandhi's comment that poverty is the worst kind of violence.

And it's perfectly legal.

On the other hand, poverty is itself a powerful breeding ground for violence. If, as was discussed yesterday, James Gilligan is right in arguing that shame, humiliation, and degradation are the pathogens that lead to violence, it's no surprise that people who are poor and socially marginalized are much more likely to experience such conditions and sometimes resort to and often suffer from violence--although they are by no means the only ones who do so.

And this is the kind that gets punished, often in such a way as to lead to more violence.

Gilligan argues that relative inequalities or inequalities within a given society are more shame inducing than absolute poverty. As he put it in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,

It should be emphasized that it is not poverty or deprivation in an absolute sense that causes shame--it is not lack of material things as such--but rather, relative deprivation, which really comes down to a form of psychological rather than material deprivation, of dignity, self-respect, and pride. In other words, it is the gap or disparity between the wealth and income of those at the top and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy that is a much more powerful cause of feelings of inferiority and shame than is absolute poverty.

He notes that

When these social conditions are altered the exposure of human populations to shame is dramatically reduced--and so is violence. Those economically developed democracies all over the world that have evolved into "welfare states" since the end of the Second World War, including all of Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, offer universal and free health care, generous public housing, unemployment and family leave policies, and so on. Every one of those countries has a more equitable (and hence less shame-inducing) socio-economic system than the United States does... Our rate of violent crime (murder, rape) is from two to twenty times as high as it is in any of the other economically developed democracies. This is precisely what the theory presented in this book would predict.

Sadly, there is much more political will at the present to spend money on punishment than to reduce economic disparities. I am reminded of a great line from Thoreau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

STRESSED. Stress disorder cases in the US military jumped by 50 percent in 2007, increasing with the surge.

WAVY LINES. Another economic trend that has increased in recent years is income volativity, which refers to how it can fluctuate. Here's a snapshot on the subject from the Economic Policy Institute.

RECESSION. Economist Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research thinks the worst of the recession may be yet to come.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. And now for something cooler: giant winged dinosaurs apparently preferred to walk. The picture at the link is worth checking out.


May 28, 2008


Funakoshi's shrine in Kamakura, courtesy of wikipedia.

The venerable Okinawan karate master Gichin Funakoshi left behind the essence of his teaching in his master text, Karate-Do Kyohan. The book concludes with a chapter titled "Maxims for the Trainee," which consist of proverbs, ethical advice and sayings from ancient sources.

One line in it puzzled me for years:

A gentleman should be gentle and never be menacing; close, yet never forward; slay, but never humiliate...

I got the gentle and close part, but it took a while to digest the part about slaying but not humiliating. Obviously, he wasn't advocating slaying since he constantly preached non-aggression and respect for life, even though he taught that one should be prepared for any emergency. The saying was meant to convey not the thinkability of slaying but the unthinkability of humiliating someone.

This wasn't just idle talk--it was almost a taboo. A traditional karate dojo drums respect and courtesy into a student from the first minute they step on the floor. (The student had better bow before doing that, by the way.) Respect is even--or maybe especially--to be extended to one's opponents. And people are expected to act that way in and out of the dojo. Funakoshi's mantra was "karate begins and ends with courtesy."

It was only after I made a study of the nature of violence that I came to fully understand his wisdom. As Dr. James Gilligan argued in his 1996 book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, shaming, disrespect, degradation, and humiliation are precisely the pathogens that transmit violence:

I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo the "loss of face"--no matter how sever the punishment, even if it includes death...

The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence whether toward others or toward the self. Shame is a necessary but not sufficient cause of violence, just as the tubercle bacillus is necessary but not sufficient for the development of tuberculosis. Several preconditions have to be met before shame can lead to the full pathogenesis of violent behaviour. The pathogenic, or violence-inducing, effects of shame can be stimulated, inhibited, or redirected, both by the presence or absence of other feelings, such as guilt or innocence, and by the specific social and psychological circumstances in which shame is experienced.

The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated (caused) by the feeling of shame. The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame...

I'm presenting his conclusions rather than the case he makes to support them, so check out the book for that. I will say that he worked for decades with violent offenders in prisons and mental hospitals and has also studied the effects of structural violence such as inequality.

In my experience in trying to prevent or reduce violence, I've often noticed how the smallest incident which someone perceives as shaming can set off all kinds of consequences that can spin totally out of control and harm innocent people.

(All the carnage of the Iliad, the reader may recall, happened because someone degraded someone else by taking away his prize...)

Study and experience have convinced me of Funakoshi's wisdom. Sometimes struggles happen and when they're on, they're on. But they are more easily prevented and have more chance of eventual resolution if one refrains from humiliating one's opponents. It's a powerful preventive measure in containing the toxin that contributes to violence.

HUNGRY COUNTRY. Rising food prices are cutting the value of food stamps even as more Americans turn to them. This one is from the Washington Post.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE FOOD PANTRY, costs are climbing along with demand.

MORE CHEERY NEWS about what the Iraq war has done to global energy costs can be found here.

One more thought...our industrialized and globalized food system is based on cheap oil, both for transportation and for fertilizers.

YOU MAY NEED A WEATHERMAN. A new stuudy of climate change predicts major disruptions in water, agriculture, and forestry.

SAIL ON... El Cabrero is sad to report the death of labor folksinger and Wobbly Utah Phillips, who died in his sleep on May 23. He "taught" me several classic IWW songs, which I still occasionally plunk out on guitar when the mood strikes. Here's hoping he really does get pie in the sky.


May 27, 2008


Improvements in human longevity and physical well-being over the last hundred or so years have come more from improvements in public health than in the treatment of individual patients and diseases.

I'm just talking about the basics, like clean water and a sewage system. This is still an issue in many parts of the world. In the developing world today, diarrhea is the leading cause of child deaths--two million per year. Around six million people of all ages die from it annually.

Dr. James Gilligan, author of the 1996 Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, suggests that we take a public health approach to violence prevention and reduction at both the interpersonal and structural level.

Rather than conventional moralistic condemnations,

the only way to explain the causes of violence so that we can learn how to prevent it, is to approach violence as a problem in public health and preventive medicine, and to think of violence as a symptom of life-threatening (and often lethal) pathology which, like all forms of illness, has an etiology or cause, a pathogen. To think of violence as evil--if we confuse hat value judgment about violence with an explanation of it--can only confuse us into thinking we have an explanation when we do not.

Based on experience over 25 years in working with violent offenders, Gilligan believes that he has identified the pathogen or "virus" that causes violence. And that pathogen is shame.

More on that tomorrow.


TWO FROM THE NEW YORKER. Here's George Packer on the future of movement conservatism. And here's an item on the elusive search for a cure for the common hangover.

NIRVANA. Not the band, the state of being. Here's an interesting article about a brain scientist who experienced it by way of having a stroke.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, more and more therapists and researchers are giving Buddhist-inspired mindfulness meditation a second look.

CLOSING A GAP. Some colleges are trying to break down the barriers between the sciences and the humanities.

DEATH'S DOOR. The Rev. Carroll Pickett, for years a prison chaplain at Huntsville, Texas who witnessed 95 executions, has come to oppose the death penalty and is the subject of a new film.


May 26, 2008


Image courtesy of

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renown├ęd be thy grave!

-- William Shakespeare