Redskins and Indians: America Isn’t Done With the Natives Yet

Years ago, on ESPN, I saw a young African-American player on the Washington Redskins‘ roster  interviewed about the periodic controversy over his team’s name.  The interviewer asked, quite straightforwardly,  ‘Do you think the team should change its name?’ The young man, looking worried–perhaps knowing he stood a good chance of offending someone and aware of his own peculiar standing in the debate– replied quickly, ‘If they are offended, then I think we should change the name.’

The ‘they’ in that response are Native Americans, America’s most invisible community. They aren’t extinct–word has it they still exist on reservations–but you wouldn’t know it from the way the Redskins continue to hold on to their moniker. Or the Cleveland Indians their grinning, leering, feathered mascot.  You wouldn’t know it either from the drearily familiar manner in which this debate bogs down every time its embers are raked over: in one corner, those who find these teams’ names and mascots offensive and racist, and in the other, those who shriek ‘political correctness!’ and urge everyone to take the proverbial chill pill. (My posts on this blog should make clear which corner I occupy.)

There is a logic of sorts to the visible, persistent indifference of sports teams–multi-million dollar corporations, each and every one of them. Why should the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians bother? Are there any Native Americans on the boards of the corporations that sponsor them and that might initiate a withdrawal of monies? Are there any Native American Senators or Congressmen who might speak up against them? Heck, do these teams have any Native American fans who might be offended and be able to enlist political and economic support for their complaints? There is no constituency to be offended, no demographic to be consulted.

There is, in short, no commercial imperative to change. There is plenty of incentive not to: the Redskins and the Indians, might, god forbid, look like they had caved; they might look like they weren’t ‘man enough’ to resist the forces of complaint and ‘victimhood.’ Their fans, those who happily buy their tickets and merchandise, and fill their stadiums, all the while emptying their own wallets, certainly don’t care.

It says something about the lack of political visibility, power and reach of the Native American community that this debate persists, that these descriptions still pervade American sporting life. In the extensive catalog of insults directed at that community, these caricatures and derogatory terms are merely the latest entries; the cries of ‘get over it and play the game’ just the latest version of ‘keep your head down, shut up, and keep moving.’ And besides, a community confined to impoverished tracts of land, and battling with poverty, alcoholism, and some of the highest murder and rape rates in the country has much else on its mind.

From displacement to betrayal to humiliation to massacres to insults; America isn’t quite done with its indigenous people. Stick around a while folks, there may be yet another trick up its sleeve.

Reflections on Translations-VI: The Advantages to Philosophy

Over at The New York Times‘ The Stone, Hamid Dabashi writes:

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy…in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

Dabashi does not really address what might be termed the ‘linguistic problem’ of translation–the difficulties of rendering sensible specialized technical terms for instance–which often leads to the ‘impossibility’ that he notes. Rather, his concern is with translation as a means for improving access to a philosophical work. And in this dimension, he is certainly on to something. (There has been, for some time now, a possibly apocryphal story making the rounds in philosophy departments, that when the first English translations of Kant appeared, an entire generation of German scholars took up English classes so that they could read Kant in translation–the original German was too obtuse for even native speakers.)

One aspect of this improved access that Dabashi does not touch on is that a greater readership achieved via a successful translation can prompt greater study of the text in the original language. A classic example of this is Nietzsche scholarship. Many students who read him find his prose stylings visible even in translation; they are then told by those fluent in German that his style is even more prominent and pronounced in German; they often decide to learn German to find out for themselves just what the fuss is about. (I have recently come into possession of German-language edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, and my resolve to resume my education in German, interrupted many years ago, has now been considerably strengthened.)

And many serious students of a philosopher will learn a foreign language just so that they can deepen their understanding of the material and try to settle disputes in interpretation for themselves. Their access to their philosopher of interest began, of course, with a translation.

Dabashi’s point about translation giving more than it takes works best, I think, in these kinds of cases–when it sends readers back to the original. His point is compatible with an entirely plausible alternative development: that the translations take on a life of their own, and lend themselves to interpretations and applications not possible with the original, thus becoming an entirely new philosophical work.

Such a development is not to be bemoaned; the student of philosophy now has more to play with.

Hudson Crossings

Yesterday, at the World Trade Center transit station, as I took the escalator down to the PATH train, heading for an afternoon spent with a cousin living in Exchange Place, New Jersey, I made note of a little datum: I’ve been crossing the Hudson–in both directions–for over twenty-five years.  One such crossing, back in 1993, has kept me on the New York side since.

I first crossed the Hudson to arrive at graduate school, taking a combination of the Long Island Railroad and the PATH train to Newark, New Jersey. I was bewildered by the dereliction and disrepair visible in that city when I emerged–eyes blinking in the bright August sunshine–from the Newark subway station. For the next six years, as I studied and worked in New Jersey, the skyline of Manhattan was often visible, tantalizingly promising a great deal that was not present in my daily existence on this side of the Hudson. The two cities, Newark and New York, seemed so close and yet so far.

I crossed often–‘escaping’, as I sometimes described it–seeking diversions in all the ways that New York City appeared to offer them: food of all stripes, arthouse movies, live music, raucous bars. Sometimes, I took the NJ Transit trains to arrive at the stuffy, ugly, Penn Station and then headed for the subways; sometimes, the PATH trains to their steaming, malodorous Manhattan stations. (In the late 80s, the subways still featured ample displays of graffiti; these served as a garish welcome to the new urban landscape I had entered after my subterranean travels.) These were journeys that never quite lost their mysterious magic: a displacement from my weekday trials to a place of seemingly endless promise. My returns to New Jersey–after the night’s engagements were done–required expert deployment of train timetables. Or to be more precise, the times of the last train.  A delay or two entailed a sleepless, weary, return at dawn.

New York remained the diversion of choice after I began work in South Central New Jersey; I began graduate school there while commuting for night classes (at the 42nd Street site of the old CUNY Graduate Center). I continued to dream about life in ‘the city.’ Finally, in 1993, I left New Jersey, and moved across the Hudson, up the West Side to 95th Street and Westend. I sold my pickup truck, shook myself free of my ridiculously overpriced auto insurance policy, and began buying subway tokens. I was now a New Yorker.

My crossings of the Hudson though, continued; I returned to visit old friends from school and work. Sometimes barbecues, sometimes children’s birthdays, sometimes trips to the beach, sometimes a Cape May weekend, sometimes a bar hop in Hoboken. New Jersey became my Thanksgiving destination–an annual ritual, observed with some faithfulness every year in Marlboro township. I was the New Yorker friend, the one that required a pickup  from bus and train stations while the other guests arrived in their cars. I saw the state differently; I didn’t drive on its roads anymore.

The Hudson crossing is still an easy one if you don’t drive; its significance for me now resides in its reminding me of a time when I drove on New Jersey’s highways, New York’s profile looming large, just out of reach, a place that was the repository of dreams both practical and idealistic.

A Smoking Career, Suspended

A New York Times article that wonders, ‘Why Smokers Still Smoke‘ set me to thinking: Why did I smoke? For as long as I did?

I smoked my first cigarette in my teen years. My father smoked, as did many of the men–all Air Force pilots–that I idolized. There was glamour and masculinity written all over the act. I loved the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with Old Spice cologne.

Buying cigarettes was easy; the shops that sold them cared little for ID’ing their customers. Disguising the smell wasn’t, so I took refuge in sucking on mints and chewing betelnuts. But I got caught–by my mother. It didn’t stop me, of course. I still smoked the occasional cigarette in high school, and then in university, began smoking every day. My consumption hovered at the half-a-dozen a day for those years, sometimes rising to ten a day. I didn’t buy packs of cigarettes, but like most students, bought them ‘loose’, in singles or pairs. Our budgets just didn’t permit the pack. Indeed, I didn’t begin to purchase packs until after moving to the US and commencing graduate school.

Four years after moving to the US, I tried to quit smoking. I was three months short of my twenty-fifth birthday. On New Year’s Day 1991, I stopped. I stayed tobacco-free for more than two years, surviving 1991, 1992 and the first five months or so of 1993. Then, on a hike in the Himalayas, I stopped at a mountaineering expedition’s base camp and the porters, after a hearty and friendly conversation, offered me a beedi. I accepted. I don’t know why. Perhaps, at that moment, overcome by euphoria and the friendship on display, I felt I couldn’t decline. My defenses had been breached. A few weeks later, during a long train journey through India, I smoked again. I had fallen off the wagon.

But from then on, my smoking was always sporadic; I was always in between attempts at quitting. I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1993 and smoked heavily the first year, all the while regretting it. I quit in 1994 for a few weeks; I tried again in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, I succeeded again, staying off cigarettes till I had finishing my Ph.D in 2000. But on the day of my successful defense, drunk and disordered, I smoked again. I was off the wagon once more.

I moved to Australia after my Ph.D and quit several more times. Each of these episodes lasted days or weeks, never months. In 2001, I quit for a few months before starting again, as I struggled to cope with the stress of my job hunt.  In 2002, during a trip to Tokyo for a conference, an Australian graduate student urged me to throw away my half-full pack of Marlboros. I did, and stayed off cigarettes for a few months. In 2003, I began again. My girlfriend smoked.

In November 2003, we went away for a weekend to Cape May. My father’s 68th birth anniversary fell during that weekend. On that day, the two of us awoke and set out for breakfast. On the way, we stopped at a local bookstore, and I bought a biography of a US Navy pilot. As I did so, my girlfriend asked me if I was paying tribute to my father. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was probably true. A few minutes later, we arrived at our diner. In those days, you could still smoke indoors in eating establishments. Our coffees arrived, and we reached for our cigarettes. At that moment, I thought that this day seemed like as good a day as any other to quit smoking. So I did. My girlfriend–who is now my wife–quit for good a few months later.

I haven’t smoked cigarettes since.  The pattern I noticed in my quitting and restarting was that initially, I fell off the wagon because I was trying to celebrate something; later, I responded adversely to stress. But once I had tried to quit and succeeded for as long as I did, it became clear to me I didn’t want to smoke. So every cigarette from there on became a mark of failure, one I vainly attempted to disguise. It didn’t work and my compulsion to quit, even if almost always unsuccessful, remained strong.

I still fear the damage I did to my body all those years; perhaps I haven’t escaped tobacco’s cancerous embrace. For now, I’ll just hope I’ve managed to dodge the bullet.

‘Little Clouds’ and ‘Enemies of Ambition’

Children leave you little time for ‘work.’ Children are work. They displace priorities; many a career ambition runs aground on the shoals of their demands and needs. So goes an exceedingly common complaint, especially from those who consider themselves ‘creative types’: writers, artists and the like. As Cyril Connolly once noted, ‘That enemy of ambition, the pram in the hallway.’ (Wikipedia reports this quote as ‘There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’)

I think I know the feeling. Both my reading and writing have suffered ever since my daughter was born last December. A serious philosophy text looks frighteningly impenetrable, and the very thought of constructing a rigorous argument is enough to induce severe anxiety in me. The unread books pile up; the drafts remain drafts. Meanwhile, I’m reduced to reading book reviews and those books on my shelves that seem the most accessible. As for writing, all I can pull off is some dilettantish blogging. My sabbatical awaits, but how will I get any writing done in this sleep-deprived, consumed-by-baby, always-consumed-by-distraction state? I cast envious glances at those who are either free of the cares that consume me, or have, even worse, figured out, somehow, the precarious balancing act that lets them be as prolific as ever without letting their children go to seed. My academic CV isn’t a particularly distinguished one in any case, and now, it appears set to stagnate even further.  My ‘career’ seems to have come to a grinding halt.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and anxiety; I am a fine candidate to be advised to have some cheese with my whine and count my blessings. Which I do, quite often, as I think my posts on my daughter make clear. But human nature being what it is, the anxieties I relate above surface from time to time.

James Joyce‘s ‘A Little Cloud‘–a member of the Dubliners‘ collection–captures an almost pathological variant of this bundle of sensations quite well.  Its ending is worth a re-read:

A dull resentment against his life awoke within him. Could he not escape from his little house? Was it too late for him to try to live bravely like Gallaher? Could he go to London? There was the furniture still to be paid for. If he could only write a book and get it published, that might open the way for him.

A volume of Byron’s poems lay before him on the table. He opened it cautiously with his left hand lest he should waken the child and began to read the first poem in the book:

Hushed are the winds and still the evening gloom,

Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove,

Whilst I return to view my Margaret’s tomb

And scatter flowers on the dust I love.

He paused. He felt the rhythm of the verse about him in the room. How melancholy it was! Could he, too, write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse? There were so many things he wanted to describe: his sensation of a few hours before on Grattan Bridge, for example. If he could get back again into that mood. . . .

The child awoke and began to cry. He turned from the page and tried to hush it: but it would not be hushed. He began to rock it to and fro in his arms but its wailing cry grew keener. He rocked it faster while his eyes began to read the second stanza:

Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,

That clay where once . . .

It was useless. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t do anything. The wailing of the child pierced the drum of his ear. It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:


The child stopped for an instant, had a spasm of fright and began to scream. He jumped up from his chair and walked hastily up and down the room with the child in his arms. It began to sob piteously, losing its breath for four or five seconds, and then bursting out anew. The thin walls of the room echoed the sound. He tried to soothe it but it sobbed more convulsively. He looked at the contracted and quivering face of the child and began to be alarmed. He counted seven sobs without a break between them and caught the child to his breast in fright. If it died! . . .

The door was burst open and a young woman ran in, panting.

“What is it? What is it?” she cried.

The child, hearing its mother’s voice, broke out into a paroxysm of sobbing.

“It’s nothing, Annie . . . it’s nothing. . . . He began to cry . . . ”

She flung her parcels on the floor and snatched the child from him.

“What have you done to him?” she cried, glaring into his face.

Little Chandler sustained for one moment the gaze of her eyes and his heart closed together as he met the hatred in them. He began to stammer:

“It’s nothing. . . . He . . . he began to cry. . . . I couldn’t . . . I didn’t do anything. . . . What?”

Giving no heed to him she began to walk up and down the room, clasping the child tightly in her arms and murmuring:

“My little man! My little mannie! Was ‘ou frightened, love? . . . There now, love! There now! . . . Lambabaun! Mamma’s little lamb of the world! . . . There now!”

Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child’s sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes.

Amory Blaine’s Disillusionment and Enlightenment

Toward the conclusion of This Side of Paradise, as Amory Blaine as undergoes that educational disillusionment which is our common lot as we ‘mature’, F. Scott Fitzgerald steps up a ruminative commentary detailing the insights his hero is now ‘enjoying.’ These unmask crucial pretensions of the world around him:

There were no more wise men; there were no more heroes….Amory had grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing. The mystical reveries of saints that had once filled him with awe in the still hours of the night, now vaguely repelled him. The Byrons and Brookes who had defied life from mountain tops were in the end flaneurs and poseurs, at best mistaking the shadow of courage for the substance of wisdom. The pageantry of his disillusion took shape in a world-old procession of Prophets, Athenians, Martyrs, Saints, Scientists, Don Juans, Jesuits, Puritans, Fausts, Poets, Pacifists; like costumed alumni at a college reunion they streamed before him as their dreams, personalities, and creeds had in turn thrown colored lights on his soul; each had tried to express the glory of life and the tremendous significance of man; each had boasted of synchronizing before what had gone before into his own rickety generalities; each had depended after all on the set stage and the convention of the theatre, which is that man in his hunger for faith will feed his mind with the nearest and more convenient food.

In these acute remarks, there are echoes of Nietzsche‘s pronouncement that ‘every philosophy so far has been…the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’ and thus, not the result of a personal insight into the Great Secret of Being. Amory thus is brought face to face with an awesome–and perhaps terrifying–existential responsibility: he cannot rely on the wisdom of the ancients, for they knew no more than he did, that their ‘philosophies’ were their personal solutions to that which vexed them, their own fumbling gropings in the dark.

And it goes on:

Amory….began for the first time in his life to have a strong distrust of all generalities and epigrams . They were too easy, too dangerous to the public mind. Yet all thought usually reached the public after thirty years in some such form: Benson and Chesterton had popularized Huysmans and Newman; Shaw had sugar-coated Nietzsche and Ibsen and Schopenhauer. The man in the street heard the conclusions of dead genius through some one [sic] else’s clever paradoxes and didactic epigrams.

Amory here has a realization that should hopefully come to all of us. We are often surrounded by thin layerings of superficiality, delicate veneers over gaping ignorance; the complexities and struggles that await us are sought to be sandpapered over by a reliance on glib secondary knowledge; there is no substitute for a personal encounter with them.

Amory has leaned on too many crutches in his life; now he must discard them and attempt to learn to walk anew.

Note: The Nietzsche quote is from Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 1, Section 6.

Adam Phillips on Self-Knowledge and the Unconscious

Adam Phillips, psychotherapist and essayist, can be a frustratingly elliptical writer. There are allusions, suggestions, shadings and hints in every passage. (I seem to dimly remember a frustrated reviewer in the New York or London Review of Books complaining about this characteristic slipperiness.) From these though, the diligent reader can often find a perspicuous insight, and perhaps even more interestingly and appropriately–given the very indirection of the prose–raw material for speculation of his own.  The following passage is an interesting sample: sometimes direct, sometimes suggestive, sometimes inclined to a mysterious universalization:

If the Enlightenment Freud instructs us in a new science of self-knowing–of familiarizing ourselves–the post-Freudian Freud suggests that the problem of self-knowledge is itself the problem, the symptom masquerading as the cure; as though we have turned the self into an object (the project of the Enlightenment Freud), even an idol, and psychoanalysis can now help us unlearn this modern religion of self-hood. The unconscious–whatever is strange, or seems foreign about ourselves–is exactly what makes our old habits of self, like knowing and understanding, sound irrelevant, off-key. An inner revisionist, it disarms our competence, like someone suddenly pointing out to us that we have been playing chess with the rules of draughts. The unconscious, in other words, is what stops self-knowledge turning, it always does, into self-caricature (self-definition  is always complicit with self-mockery). When we make a slip of the tongue, something in us speaks out of turn. It does not speak more truthfully, but it speaks as well. And at that moment, we don’t know where it came from. It gives us pause. In psychoanalysis, as the critic Mark Edmundson says of poetry, ‘one must affirm invention at the expense of argument.’

First, the mysteries: what does it mean to say that ‘self-knowledge always turns into self-caricature’ or that ‘self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery’? Perhaps that attempts at total self-knowledge runs the risk of constructing distorted images of ourselves? But why the ‘mockery’ and the ‘caricature’? Why not idealization and praise? Phillips goes no further than the bare statements he provides us. What makes them tantalizing–or frustrating, depending on your perspective–is that Phillips had the option of making a much weaker and more plausible claim but chose not to. We are left to puzzle this out.

Second, more interestingly, a  conception of the unconscious as the grab-bag term for whatever is unknown about ourselves. Though it is not clear what is meant by the unconscious being our ‘inner revisonist’ it is transparent what role it plays in our view of ourselves: where we find mystery or inexplicability in our understandings of ourselves, where are our attempts at self-knowledge come to a grinding halt, we point to the unconscious. It is a universal explanans of sorts, one that points to the uncomfortable fact that we are strangers to ourselves and will remain so. And as the closing quote suggests, it is the unconscious that gives us grounds for being inventive about ourselves, for imagining that within us lurks far more complexity than we might have imagined, many more selves than the one(s) immediately visible.

Excerpt fromTerrors and Experts, Faber and Faber, London, 1995.