The Dutch call New Years Eve Oudejaarsavond, or Old Year’s Evening. I like this because for me, the last day of the year feels somber somehow, in a sacred kind of way. It’s the last day of a whole year you lived through, a year that you will never get back. Without getting into the sweet, sappy, only very rarely crappy details of my personal life, I thought I would compile a post of news stories, journalism, art, etc. that were on my mind in 2014.
1. Undermining Democracy: Noam Chomsky on how the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad
At 85 years-old, Chomsky’s ability to see past what the big powers want us to see is striking. In my linguistics classes, I’ve learned a lot more about his universal grammar than about his political perspectives. But sitting around the campfire in the Nicolet National Forest, I read this interview in the June 2014 issue of The Sun and it stayed with me. Revisiting it again makes me think about the news of 2014, my first full year of watching America gun it out from across the sea.
Barsamian: How can people begin to see through the received wisdom about international and domestic affairs?
Chomsky: The main requirements are an open, critical mind and a willingness to question dogma and repressive institutions. Once you’ve got those, you can start reading the news and asking: Is the U.S. really dedicated to democracy? Is Iran really the greatest threat to world peace? Can this economy be sustained? Most of all you have to ask, Is it true? A pretty good criterion is that if some doctrine is widely accepted without question, it’s probably false.
“The world is a very puzzling place. If you are not willing to be puzzled, you just become a replica of someone else’s mind.”
-Chomsky, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy
I also went to this documentary one rainy Sunday night by myself at the CineClub Pully, a wonderful independent cinema in Lausanne. The way that Michel Gondry prods and pokes Chomsky in charming broken French, all the while hyper-aware of the fact that he himself is no philosopher, gives me courage to ask bigger questions.
2. Excerpts from Wendall Berry: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front Manifesto
“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery anymore.
Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all of the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap for power,
please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
3.Years of Rape and “Utter Contempt” in England
This disgusting story of over 1,400 girls in ENGLAND being groomed for gang rape did not receive near the press it deserved. We are talking about the motherland, the land of the most lauded monarchy in the world, a country that spent centuries “civilizing” everyone else… how could this have happened? When you have police brushing off the complaints of terrified teenage girls, of the very few who had the courage to report the crimes against them, you do not have a civilized society. If this is happening in England, it could be happening anywhere. Apparently, you have to carry a mattress on your back to make a point– but then, we can’t all go to Columbia can we? Is it 2015 or is it 2015?
4. Deb Roy, The Birth of a Word
This Deb Roy TED talk is from 2011, but I saw it in 2014, a year I spent a lot of time up on a mountain with one increasingly precocious three year old. Deb Roy maps the development of his son’s first word, showing how his environment and the frequency of certain words in the house allow him to absorb absorb absorb and one fine day, to produce the word himself. This video changed the way I view child intelligence and the overwhelming beauty of language acquisition.
5. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
A dear friend working in a public charter school in New Orleans passed me this book and it completely changed the way that I look at children and education. Even though I find Gatto a bit extreme in his hate for the American school system and sometimes overly pessimistic, his utmost respect for the child as a capable, complex, and creative being is so so so right on.
Photo by Sally Man, At Twelve
“I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my thirty years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic — it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.”
“Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of them all: we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what my kids must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions, which I then enforce.”
-John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down
Gatto’s philosophy aligns with what they are doing at these “free” playgrounds: creating a no-parents-no-rules space where children can make their own forts, move things around, invent their own games, and feel that envigorating sense of danger that they are so deprived of in our child-proof world.
6. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” It is ironic that Murakami says this in his book, considering that it is the most popular piece of young adult literature of all time in most asian countries. It tells the story of Watanabe, a university student in 1960s Tokyo with complicated love affairs with two women at the same. I liked this book. I more than liked it. The characters broke my heart in the most complicated ways and I felt grateful to them. It’s a strange feeling, being grateful to book characters. I also read the book differently now that I am studying literary translation. My translator mentor pointed out exactly what was so troubling about Kafka on the Shore: “Why do I feel like the main character is a boy from Brooklyn?” I now ask myself the same kinds of questions about other translated contemporary fiction.
Self-portrait by Hiroshi Sugimoto
7. Death of Pete Seeger, father of American Folk Music and Civil Rights
Pete Seeger died at age 94 on Jan. 27, 2014. Amy sent me an email that morning that simply said, “Yes, he was a force.” His music brought people together and those people became the movement for social change. You could say (I do say) that he sparked the American Civil Rights Movement by making people, all kinds of people, believe that We Shall Overcome and singing them into the self-conviction that no matter what, the world would Turn! Turn! Turn! This documentary on his life and philosophy is overwhelming. Pete is a trunk that they all somehow branch from: Woodie, Bob, Janis, Carole, Stevie, Jodee, Cash, Iris, Dolly, Gillian…
This movie is a masterpiece. Not in some loony, cosmic, “tour de force,” wins-all-the-oscars-even-though-nobody-really-liked-it-kind-of-way, no. I mean like a real masterpiece. The film traces the life of a boy (and his sister) through preadolescence to early adult hood using the same actors over 12 years. What’s so remarkable about it though is how it tells a story that doesn’t feel like a story. You know, the way real life is a story that doesn’t feel like a story. Director Richard Linklater let the kids write much of the script, asking them to simply do what they do, to react how they would react. It shows us how complicated teenagers lives are and maintains a profound respect for their troubles, some of which are very real and others which are only real to them. And by god, if the mom, Patricia Arquette, doesn’t win the Oscar for best actress, I’m never watching the Academy Awards again!