Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiroshima Transfigured

August 6, 2009
Hiroshima Day

To observe "Hiroshima Day" is to acknowledge a critical fact of our existence as human beings: we have invented the means to destroy ourselves. In the glow of Hiroshima the moment of total annihilation is fully imaginable as an 'anthropogenic' after-effect of our brilliance, our capacity for invention. To acknowledge this day, then, is to acknowledge the new form or dimension of Evil that is our unprecedented capacity to wreak destruction on our entire planet and species. In using this quaint and venerable term Evil I mean to identify the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons with the much deeper human capacity to inflict pain or harm, to overpower and destroy. On this Hiroshima Day I want to invoke the specific responsibility we bear as Americans for the destruction of Hiroshima, of Nagasaki, of Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, for all the incinerated civilians (ONE MILLION of them between Jan. and Aug. 1945, says James Carroll in yesterday's Globe).

On Hiroshima Day we accept this Evil as our legacy. In this respect we are the spiritual descendants, let's say, of Ghengis Khan and the Mongol horde, of Huns and Visigoths, of Romans, crusaders, conquistadores. Heirs, just say it, to the Third Reich. (Not, of course in many essential ways, but in the specific way of industrially-scaled destructiveness, yes.) On Hiroshima Day we acknowledge our kinship with the Serbians, the Hutu, the Khmer Rouge. In the one million civilian deaths we answer for in 1945 and the millions more since, in Vietnam, in Iraq and elsewhere, we measure the depth of our Fall as human beings.

When I confront matters as weighty as this day raises, I often refer myself to the Christian gospels (as seen through a left-wing Anglican lens). In that tradition I observe that, as if by some dark prophecy, August 6 has long been observed as the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day that celebrates the bizarre anecdote recorded in all three synoptic gospels when Jesus ascends the mountain and is ... irradiated. Taken up, that is, by God-force and visibly seared with other-worldliness. You see him thus, in Raffaelo's rendition above, and in so many spectacular icons of the Transfiguration, a figure of luminous transcendence.

It is surely a scandalous fact that these observances of Hiroshima and the Transfiguration should coincide. It is perhaps true that the silhouettes of the incinerated residents of that city, radiographed onto the streets and sidewalks and preserved to us in that iconic form, bear a macabre resemblance to many of the Transfigured Jesuses you will find in Christian iconic tradition. But can the imagery of Evil and Good in their (dare I say) absolute forms be in any way conjoined? What are we to make of this outrageous coincidence?

I want to suggest that there are two ways to read Hiroshima Day as Transfiguration. One way, not mine, would understand the Bomb, and the human drive toward annihilation more generally, to represent our passage toward the biblical Apocalypse, the fulfillment of God's Plan. Hiroshima in this view prefigures the consuming fire--whether atomic, climatic, or some other catastrophe--with which we will all someday be aglow. I reject this interpretation from Rapturists and End-timers and such, in that it seems to align God absurdly with Evil. But another way is to understand Hiroshima Day as a challenge for us to transcend ourselves, to climb the mountain, to become a transfigured people. In this vision the memory of the atomic holocaust renews us in our determination to live peaceably and work together to avert or mitigate the worst effects of our destructive technologies. If we understand Hiroshima Day in this way, we can see ourselves in it, aglow with the demand for peace with justice.

Monday, August 3, 2009

What would Sarko do?

On matters of social policy I have often found it useful to look at how European governments, especially the French, address the issue in question. As it happens, the issue of internet access vs. copyright infringement was being hotly debated while I was in France last fall, as the Sarkozy government introduced a law, known as Hadopi (acronym for a 'High Authority' who would administer it), which would impose sanctions on downloaders. Alas, I found the issue pretty inscrutable at that time, with a lot of technical vocabulary, and in short I pretty much ignored it. I did notice that both the governing right-center UMP and the Socialists were having trouble creating a consensus and keeping their members in line on this hyper-sensitive question with so many competing interests in play.

So now that the Tenenbaum case has piqued my interest, I have gone back and learned a few interesting things about Hadopi:
  • First, the law as proposed is pretty tame. An infringer would receive an email warning from his provider. A second infraction would draw a warning by registered letter, and if the infringement persisted, the provider would be authorized to cut off internet connections to the offending computer for up to a year (with the user banned from changing providers in that time). That's it: no million dollar judgements, no drama. And yet ...
  • The law met with militant opposition on a number of fronts: the surveillance of computer users was deemed invasive, the penalty of interrupted service disproportionate, the role of the provider as arbiter unconstitutional.
  • In view of these objections, particularly the latter one, the French Constitutional (Supreme) Court struck down the penalty part of the law, rendering it useless. A new version is now making its way through the parliament, but I'm not sure how the problems are addressed.
Several points could be drawn from this comparison. First, this rather modest legislative attempt at remedy makes the American approach through civil litigation look extremely heavy-handed, with a vast and disproportionate degree of power vested in private interests (e.g., the recording industry) with the means to conduct expensive lawsuits. France has a totally different balance of power between individuals and corporate interests. Secondly, from what I can tell the opposition to Hadopi is deeply rooted among left-leaning citizens who, being French, make their position known in the street with large noisy protests. And third, these opponents include high-profile artists, 'creators,' who in our country are pretty well locked down by the industry but in France feel free to side with the libertarians (perhaps against their own economic interests).

One reason for this last point may well be that the French recording industry is smaller, with less at stake. On the flip side, artists may well depend more on state subsidies and less on the largesse of the industry. I'm not really sure of the present state of artistic subsidy in France, but I notice Socialist legislators pointing to this as a potential solution to the vexing question: if the new medias allow for free use, how will the artists get paid?

Well and good, you say, but public subsidy just isn't an option over here in Frontierland USA. Maybe so, but what would be our red-blooded American alternative? How about foundation support? Some are starting to see this as the solution to the journalistic crisis, as the newspapers die not through infringement but fair use. A non-profit but rigorously non-governmental support network here in the land of low taxes and 8-figure salaries might make sense for musicians as well as journalists (though one might imagine a vast divide between the artist as modestly salaried, whether by state subsidy or private grant, vs. the artist as win-the-lottery American Idol, all-or-nothing star or loser--the plot line our culture seems to prefer. Does our sensationalized star system make for better art, or just a lot of hoopla and wasted motion?  Would public subsidy produce boring official art, or a distinguished caste of socially integrated artists?  Right now in America the labels are waging (and perhaps winning) a rear-guard action to defend their status quo. Tenenbaum's case is an awkward moment in that ungainly struggle. But history is ultimately on the side of progress, not stasis, and we should all be thinking of creative ways to support creativity under the changed circumstances of rapidly evolving technologies.