Photographed by Stefania Zamparelli

Billy Bang: Violence, Veternas, and Violins

A discussion with jazz master Billy Bang.

Interview by Erich Christiansen, 2010.

Billy Bang first came to prominence in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, as one of the few jazz musicians playing the violin. He co-founded the acclaimed String Trio of New York, then went on to make a number of records under his own name, always a vital member of New York’s downtown improvisational scene. His career gained new attention in 2001, when he released the first of two albums that dealt with an aspect of his life that until then had not been touched in his music: his time in the Vietnam War.

Born William Vincent Walker in 1947, Billy’s family moved to the Bronx when he was an infant. As a child, he was first able to play music at a school he attended in Harlem. Students there were assigned instruments according to their size; so being of slight build, Billy received a violin rather than his preference, the saxophone or drums. He later earned a scholarship to a prep school in Massachusetts, where he not only gave up playing the violin, but also encountered racism and class disparities with his privileged classmates. He returned to the Bronx, and at the age of 18, received his draft notice. Billy served in the infantry, including in the Tet Offensive, attaining the rank of sergeant during the course of a tour of duty. After being mustered out, he dealt with a number of war-related psychological problems that the Veterans’ Administration of that time was seemingly ill-equipped to address. He briefly studied law at Queens College, before becoming involved with a mysterious revolutionary group who called upon his military expertise to help them buy guns. On one such buying trip to Baltimore, he instead bought violins from the pawnshop he was visiting—and thus his life in music was reborn.

In his subsequent twenty-five years as a musician, Billy has made two Vietnam-themed albums, both on Canada’s Justin Time label: 2001’s Vietnam: the Aftermath (on which he played with musicians who were mostly fellow veterans) and 2004’s Vietnam: Reflections, which included contributions from Vietnamese musicians.

Pulse: I’m going to start off with sort of an abstract question, but that’ll get us rolling, anyway. How would you characterize the relationship between music and traumatic events, whether personal or political? In your view, what is music’s role in healing?

Billy Bang: Speaking from a very personal point of view, since I have been playing music, it seems to have helped my personal traumatic event, my time in the war, in Vietnam. I believe it culminated to more of a formidable help for me when I started writing about the experience through music. In other words, I had to think more about it, and bring it to the forefront of my mind. I’d been avoiding it, not wanting to face that part of my life, and it’d been stewing in me like a cancer. But once I was obligated, in 2000, to deal with it directly, that’s when I saw a big change in my own personal healing.

You address this in the liner notes to Vietnam: the Aftermath when you write: “This project has been in my mind for at least thirty years. My inability to confront my personal demons, my experiences in Vietnam, has been a continuous struggle.” And a little later, you say that because of this: “At night I would experience severe nightmares of death and destruction, and during the day, I lived a kind of undefined ambiguous daydream.” I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that, about the ways that not confronting this, of not expressing it, affected your life during that time.

Well, I think it really hurt a lot of my life between the time I came home and the time I wrote Vietnam: the Aftermath. The years seemed to just go by like a fog. When people were speaking with me, or to me, I didn’t know if I was really speaking to them, or hearing them. I was trying to avoid a lot of things. I didn’t want to face the reality of the problem I had. I tried to seek help, though. I went to see different psychologists, through the Veterans’ Administration, the hospital, but for some reason I didn’t seem to relate to the psychologists themselves. I couldn’t understand how they [could] wear my shoes during that time and understand what I [was] dealing with. They had all the books in the world to help them understand me, but I just could not relate to them, not living like I had lived, coming up in the ghetto, coming up with a single mom, and onto Vietnam. So I dismissed what they said, I just dismissed it. I never stayed long enough to get any real help. Maybe I never gave people the proper chance or opportunity.

I think a lot of it was my fault. I did well, bringing up a family, but I think I could have done a lot better. It’s difficult to differentiate the problems; I don’t always know if I’m having a personal problem with a person, or if Vietnam is haunting me at that moment. Honestly, it wasn’t until 2000 that I felt that I was reborn to the innocence that I remember when I was 17 years old. As though I lived through 30 years of my life—and anything in between was a big fog for me.

You say also in those liner notes that the project finally happened only when it was suggested by Jean-Pierre Leduc of your record label, Justin Time. Do you think you would have eventually done an album like this anyway, or did it take an outside catalyst like that to make it happen?

I’ve always wanted to do this. But I didn’t have the finances or the courage to try. “Bien Hoa Blues,” which is on the CD, was written 20 years earlier. That had always been in my mind. But I was under the gun when he offered it to me. I had just moved back from Berlin, back to America. I was at my daughter’s house, and I’m sure her and her husband were getting sick of me. I needed finances badly. But even when they suggested that project, I didn’t take it; I told them I would get back to them. To me, it was too personal to put in public. I never wanted to talk about it; most veterans don’t talk about Vietnam. Most veterans from any war don’t talk about it.

That’s true. Both of my grandfathers were in the Second World War, and they would tell stories about their military service, but about the actual fighting, they would never say anything.

Right. When you have these horrible incidents and nightmares, you’re not proud of them, you don’t even want to talk about them, you know? I never wanted to publicly think about it. I was under the gun though, as I said, I needed the money badly. So I tried to reverse it on them and make some demands, ask them for X amount of dollars up front. I told them it would allow me to concentrate on the music and not have to make me hustle and work for rent and food; I could just focus on this project, and get it done in a reasonable time. They agreed, so the ball was back in my court.

You mentioned a minute ago the other vets and others who have gone through this experience, and I saw in one interview that you said, “We weren’t really fighting for any nationalistic cause. We were fighting to get the hell out of there, at least I was.“

Right. And get back home in one piece. Hopefully.

Was that attitude widespread?

No it was not widespread. Maybe [among] a lot of the minority cats. But no, there was a lotta guys over there from the John Wayne syndrome, people who were fighting for America. It’s really hard for a black American to think of oneself as an American. We’d just started voting – we were still seeing dogs and water-hoses being put on us—this was right during the Civil Rights movement.

It seems that over the years most of the media images of the Vietnam War centered on the experiences of white soldiers. What was it like being a black soldier during this time?

I don’t know why it was centered on white soldiers; although we make up 20% of the population, I think we probably made up 40% of that war. But statistics are not my thing. We were drafted. And it was that, or go to jail for five years. It was just pretty much the lesser of the two evils. It was not like, “Wow, let me go join this conflict because, whoa, we gotta save our country.” There are some people who might’ve believed that. “Let’s go fight communism,” or something. It was only after I came out of the war that I found out it was basically being fought for multiple conglomerates with capitalistic concepts. I didn’t know these things before I went into the war. The Pentagon Papers coming out really spelled that out for everybody. Yeah, but you see, I went in the service in ’66; a lot of people became a bit more educated in the early seventies. Even I did. In the late sixties, I was in a neighborhood where the elderly black folk were still under the concept of people such as W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP. Their concept was to go into the army – it’s only good for a person – rather than being out in the streets, doing nothing. That was the general concept.

But if I would have looked further into Dubois… he went back on his own word about “closed ranks.” In 1917 he wrote this article, about Blacks should join the army for World War I… And the year that they came home after the war, 1919, was called the red summer; that was the time of the most lynchings this country has ever seen. If I had been knowledgeable of these things, then I would have had a way to make an opinion based on factual things, based on the yin and the yang of education, or balance. I had just the one, straight ahead, narrow minded type concept that I was getting from everybody. Everybody except my mother, I have to tell you that. She’s the one who made me sit in front of the t.v. so I could watch Malcolm X; she’s the one who showed me this black person being handcuffed because he resisted the war. She was the one who was trying to turn me to [avoiding the war by going to] Montreal. She was the only person that would point me in that direction. And I regret it to this day that I didn’t listen to her.

You spoke a minute ago about coming into that situation from the Civil Rights movement. Many people see this time as also having a profound influence on the music being made. One example is how jazz had become freer and more exploratory during the ‘60’s, a time when black people were fighting for their freedom in the Civil Rights movement.

It was all under the banner of liberation. Liberation in the struggle, liberation through the music. It’s probably why I went to that style of music, because it was radical and it was against the system, it was something very new in our heads. Even then, the elder black folks in the neighborhood did not like John Coltrane: couldn’t stand him. And they didn’t like the later recordings of Miles Davis; he was also considered an enemy. We were going to our local candy store and we had a Coltrane tape up loud—not super loud, like the way kids have today—but where you could hear it. And the guy said, “Turn that off. Get that outta my store. Don’t ever come back in here again with that awful blah, blah, blah.” He was into, maybe, Charlie Parker, or something like that. But even those guys were radical for their time. So everyone has their different points, but once you get settled and satisfied in your area, it’s hard to move on to newer things. And that’s true for everybody; that’s beyond ethnicity and religion and things. Once you become comfortable in your area, it’s hard to move on. I never became comfortable, I was always looking, searching.

Do I have it right that you didn’t play any music during the war?

No, not at all. God, no. Not one note. The only music I played was the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. Music was the furthest thing from my mind.

So you didn’t get to hear any of the Vietnamese music either, then?

Not that I remember. I remember hearing it only in Saigon, which I very rarely went to, because it was off limits for us, but we had to pass through there to go to R&R. It was only after the war that I made a conscious effort to try to seek it out because I felt very guilty about trying to hurt people who never did anything to hurt me. I tried to learn more about the people who I was badly misinformed about, tried to share, or learn from them so I can share, in the future, and understand. Because it’s misunderstanding and ignorance that brings us to war and to hate. I thought the more I could learn and understand, the less ignorance I would have and the less hatred I would have, especially [concerning] the people I was forced to fight.

Can you give us any insight on what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on what you went through?

I see the same problem today as we did then. I think it’s worse today, though, to be honest. Because it’s beyond nationalism, it’s a religious situation now. It’s jihad for them, for the Afghans and the Iraqis. They feel people tramping on their religion, on their life, on their whole being. So they’re fighting with every tooth and nail to counteract that. And I think even the Vietnamese didn’t have that much counteraction in them. And also the style of war is different. We didn’t have that many explosives on the road, , I.E.D.’s. There were a lot of booby traps that were meant to kill, but these folks are dealing with so many explosives; there’s so much maiming going on. So it’s a more horrific type war, I think. And for those who are not being hit, just watching this and experiencing this, I think their nightmares are much more traumatic. All wars are bad, but I somehow think the one today is even worse. Cause I can fight a guy about money, but I wouldn’t want to fight a guy about his religion.

I’ve read that you first started playing the violin by chance, since in your school’s orchestra you were each assigned instruments based on your size. But you’ve stuck with it over the decades, even relearning it after not playing for years.

When I came out of Vietnam, I really wanted to play music. I thought that was the safest and the purest thing I could do without hurting another person in life. Maybe there’s something I can do to bring some happiness and some joy. I tried the flute, but I just couldn’t get it under my grasp; the only instrument I truly know something about is the violin. I know it’s not jazz; but I believe you can take any instrument and get your inner thoughts and your inner feelings to come out through that instrument. It’s a vehicle. So I went back to the violin. I just dedicated my life to trying to play music. I left the materialistic world. I didn’t have to drive a big, bright red Cadillac around the streets of Harlem, and have nice, shiny alligator shoes and a silk suit. I didn’t care about those things anymore. I just wanted to try to bring some peace and harmony into the world, because it would redeem my own soul.

I don’t really know how much this has been made public knowledge yet, so I ask on behalf of our readers who don’t know, but I know from having been talking to you that you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, and are going through some pretty intensive treatments for it. How are you doing?

Not so great. I’m just hoping I can get through this and hopefully I can lick it and it won’t come back, but I’m not quite sure. Because it is a process. It’s actually lung cancer I’m dealing with. That doesn’t seem so positive to me, but… I do all I can out here. But maybe I’ve done all I could for the world. There’s not much I can say about it; it’s just God’s way, you know.

And this cancer is due to exposure to Agent Orange—am I right about that?

Well, I also smoked cigarettes for all this time, but I started in Vietnam. So that’s part of it. And the other part, too, is that they believe it was because I was exposed to the Agent Orange in Vietnam.

So your time in Vietnam is still profoundly affecting you, in life-changing ways, even after all these years?

Sure, that’s true. Yes, that’s really true. I gave up on trying to fight it, and now I just have to accept that it’s going to be this way.


Photograph by Stefania Zamparelli


Chris Hedges: War as a Force of Meaning

Interview by Andrea Hiott, Princeton, NJ, 2009.

Christopher Hedges is an American journalist, author, and war correspondent. After first earning a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. in English Literature from Colgate University, he began his journalistic career reporting on the conflict in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. He then learned Arabic and lived in the Middle East for seven years, mainly serving as the Middle East Bureau Chief for ‘The New York Times’. In 1995, he went to Sarajevo to cover the war in Bosnia. He has also covered the war in Kosovo, and has investigated and written on issues of terrorism. In 2002, he received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Among his many and varied books are the bestselling ‘War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning’ and ‘What Every Person Should Know About War’.

Pulse: In your writing, you take the stand that war is inevitable. Do you believe war will always be a part of our lives?

Chris Hedges: It’s not a matter of what I believe or don’t believe. It’s a matter of human history and human nature. There’s nothing in human history or human nature to indicate that war is not a near constant in human existence. I’m not interested in utopianism; I’m interested in what’s real. I have lived through many conflicts and watched how almost everyone in a society signs on for the intoxicating dark elixir of nationalism and war.

Is this because we are searching for meaning? Does war tempt us with this immediacy?

It’s the attraction of Thánatos: it’s the power of death, the seduction of death. Nationalism is a form of self-exaltation and racism. In wartime, you suddenly feel part of the collective. Instead of being alienated and alone and atomized, you feel like suddenly everyone has become your brother or sister. It’s a false kind of camaraderie but the feelings are seductive; you feel that you’ve been elevated to a kind of nobility, called to work for a noble cause. You get off on violence. There are many dark, atavistic forces that go into seducing people to support a war. It’s difficult for most people to remain rational.

Is another tempting aspect of war the moral lines it claims to draw? The command to do something ‘for the good of the country’?

War reduces or destroys the anxiety of moral choice. You’re told by the state that it is now legal to murder. Everything in defense of the state or the group becomes moral no matter how heinous it is, and that’s a great relief to most people because they don’t have to think anymore.

Do people see this differently once they experience war?

It depends on where you are. If you are in a wartime society but not in a conflict, you think in one way. If you’re actually in combat, you think in another. If you are in combat, it’s the lust or eroticism of violence that you might feel. Adrenaline rushes. It’s like ingesting drugs.
When it comes to the reasoning behind war, once you are in a war, you can’t believe the national myths anymore. You realize how dirty it is. If you’re at home, away from the actual conflict, then you continue to imbibe the myths. That’s why there’s a huge disconnect between people who come back from the battlefield and listen to this patriotic cant and know it’s shit, and people who continue to get off on it because it’s about self-adulation. In the end that’s what the patriotic stuff is really about: it’s about exalting “us”.

Because people want to believe they’re on the right side?

It’s more than being on the right side. It’s that we want to feel we’re engaged in a noble cause, a crusade; we’re making the world safe for democracy; we’re overthrowing tyranny, we’re bringing liberty. We have all these wonderful abstract ideals and we get to identify with those ideals; we fall into this false belief that somehow a projection of our own power will make those ideals realized.

And the reality of war never does that?

War is always tragic; violence is always tragic. It doesn’t save you- – even in support of a supposedly justifiable cause — from the pernicious effects of violence. The real tragedy of war is that there are times when people are faced with a choice between their own extinction or the use of violence to protect themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, their city, or their nation. When you’re in a war, you’re in it. When you’re in a city getting hit with 2000 shells a day and constant sniper fire and there’s no food and they’re trying to extinguish you and you’re hanging on by your fingertips, that’s when you confront reality. That’s why I say I’m not a pacifist because I know there are moments — very rarely but they do happen — when you must choose between your own annihilation and the use of violence to survive.

Once the conflict is over, if one hasn’t experienced it firsthand, then doesn’t one forget the pain of it? Otherwise, how would war regenerate so soon?

It’s more than forgetting. We have powerful social and political organs that romanticize war. Every generation seems to have to learn the truth of war on its own.

Can a government ever see war honestly?

All governments lie. Most people in power seek the perpetuation and expanse of their own power. That’s why they do it.

And that requires lying?

In every government I’ve ever covered, it does.

Is it real power though, this traditional political kind?

Well it’s power to the extent that you let it be power. For most people it works. Most people are fearful of such power. Most people obey the rules. Even when those societies embark on heinous enterprises.

Do you think Stalin or Hitler felt real power? Didn’t they show their lack of real power in their very desperation to sustain it with so much death?

That’s like Richard the Third. What they find is that they don’t control power, power controls them. They become its servant. The only way you have power is when you’re not frightened of power, when it doesn’t have the ability to control you.

Do you believe in progress when it comes to historical processes surrounding conflict?

No. Progress doesn’t exist. Time is not linear; time is cyclical. Societies mature, degenerate, and die. That’s history. The whole concept of linear progress is a myth. It doesn’t exist. And it’s what is used to anesthetize a population so that they just agree to everything the technocrats and those in power tell them. It’s not real. We don’t morally evolve. The tools change, but we don’t. The belief in moral progress is the great curse of the Enlightenment.

Moral progress doesn’t exist?

Well, we can make moral progressions both as individuals and societies. But we also make moral reverses. The idea that we are the culmination of something, that we’re moving towards something, that there is such a thing as collective moral progress is a myth. And once you believe in collective moral progress (that our generation is the culmination of what came before), you become Utopian, and once you wed that belief to violence, you become criminal. Which is what the war in Iraq is: it’s a Utopian venture. Utopianism is very dangerous because it’s not based in reality. Every genocide in human history was carried out by idealists, people who were going to remove human impediments to progress, which is what we think we’re doing in the Muslim world.

You write that war is always manufactured by people in society for their own purposes. Do people consciously create war for their own benefit?

Certainly. People like Karl Rove are consciously doing this. They know very well the manipulation that they are engaging in and the effects of it. One of the most important books — one of the most frightening manuals for the manufacturing of consent — is Walter Lippman’s book from 1922 called ‚Public Opinion‘. He writes quite openly in this book that he is providing the elite with a manual for the manufacturing or creation of mass opinion. His book is only one: there are many more such books. These people know damn well what they’re doing, and it works. That’s what advertising is about.

What if people became aware of the tools that are used to manipulate them? Do you think the manipulation would change?

No, because facts are irrelevant. People don’t respond to facts; people respond to emotions. Emotion always trumps reason; reason comes later. We have this Enlightenment idea that reason is paramount. It’s not. All sorts of great writers in the 20th century have obliterated that idea, people like Beckett, Joyce, Proust, Jung, Adler – but we still cling to this naïve belief that we are rational beings and that reason moves us to make decisions. Reason never moves us to make decisions. And that’s what the manipulators of information understand.

Are you saying that emotion is a negative force?

No, I think the problem with the opponents of militarism and the consumer society is that they don’t understand the importance of rhetoric. In ancient Greece, if you were training a philosopher you taught them in rhetoric first. The problem with opposition movements — just look at one turgid human rights reporter after another — is that they don’t understand, in the way the corporate state does understand, that rhetoric is paramount, that rhetoric is what moves people. The question is ‘how do you marshal that rhetoric?’ Once you control the airwaves, you can saturate people with such rhetoric. Most people think in clichés, including most intellectuals.

You’re saying that people pick up on these sound bites and then use them as facts without questioning them?

I’ll give you some examples. Before the Iraqi war, I tried to explain how, with the occupation of Iraq, we were not going to be greeted as liberators. I spent 7 years of my life in the Middle East, I speak Arabic. Based on that understanding, I tried to explain that democracy is not going to be implanted and then emanate outwards across the Middle East. People would then say to me in response, “Well, Saddam Hussein killed his own people”. That’s a perfect example of what the writer Robert Lifton coined a ‘thought-terminating cliché’. All discussion ends once a cliché like this gets used. People use sentences such as “Saddam Hussein killed his own people” to thwart any kind of real thought.
Another example: I just had a dinner here in Princeton with a bunch of Princeton professors at which I got into a terrible argument over the war in Afghanistan. They said: “The Taliban throws acid in women’s faces,” and immediately that became another thought-terminating cliché, paralyzing real discussion. When you have these kinds of slogans and clichés pumped out over the airwaves day in and day out, they control how you think, or they become so overpowering that you can’t think. They give you the language by which you speak. So even if you have disquiet about something, you’ve been robbed of the language to express that disquiet. As soon as you start using the phrase “War on Terror”, for instance, you’ve already allowed them to create the linguistic paradigms through which you understand a situation.

Who is the “them” here? Everyone in the media? Where are people to get their information, or even know what they’re up against?

From books. There’s no comparison between reading Karl Popper and going on the Internet. It’s the difference between an image-based culture and a print-based culture.

Going to the source takes a lot of time and effort. In the short term, it’s much easier to just let yourself be manipulated.

Which is why most people are manipulated. Even at this table of highly educated nationally known Princeton academics that I mentioned earlier, I thought every single one of them had had their brain shut down.

So drastic?

Well, yeah. As if the fact that a bunch of psychopaths going around throwing acid in people’s faces was enough to characterize a whole people–

But it’s understandable. Don’t you think it’s understandable that it would be the most horrific act that would become the cliché? One can never underestimate fear.

Fear is a potent force. These people work overtime to make us afraid. The capacity not to be afraid is the first step. I think it was Aristotle who said that courage is the most important virtue because without courage, you can’t practice any of the other virtues.

But is talking about the media as our enemy really any better than saying Afghanistan is a place where “the Taliban throw acid in women’s faces”? Isn’t there a way in which, over time, things change by learning about “the enemy” from a face-to-face perspective rather than by dealing in the abstractions that come from fear? Your books seem to suggest the importance of such nuance, simply through your own view and the depth of your experience. Is contact the factor that really changes relations between cultures or countries?

It is extremely important to cross cultural lines, which means you have to learn the language and you have to live in the culture. Truly stepping into another culture challenges a lot of your own assumptions; it allows you to stand in the shoes of people on another divide and look at your own society. It’s a very useful tool or mechanism for breaking down stereotypes, but it creates a kind of existential crisis because you begin to understand that your nation is not a nation that’s been blessed by God or that is somehow more virtuous than others. Certain foundations begin to give way.

Why is that so difficult to take in?

Because it’s scary. Because you end up like Beckett: language itself becomes a kind of lie. There is no beginning, middle, or end. The self, as Proust grasped, constantly mutates: the self that we were, we are not. Most of the time we don’t know the forces that are driving us, we don’t understand them, we don’t even name them because we can’t. Once you descend to that level, it does produce a kind of terror, because you destroy the capacity for order and you begin to grasp the utter chaos of life and the fact that the universe is morally neutral.

But in the end, is facing that reality the only road to true communion, to any real connection with another human being?

The one thing that connects us and the thing that is most subversive to all systems of power is human kindness, compassion. The more you express that kindness to people who are defined within your culture as ‘the enemy’, the more subversive that becomes to those who wield power. That is the true essence of meaning in human existence. Life is not a battle between the forces of good and evil; it’s the battle between small, blind, dumb acts of human kindness and a great overarching evil. I think hope comes from the fact that none of the inquisitors and clergy and dictators have ever been able to crush it. And that’s the secret of human immortality, that love. Not a sentimental kind of love, but a capacity to have empathy in spite of everything. It exists. The more you try to organize it, the more fleeting and elusive it becomes, but it’s there.

Do you believe in forgiveness?

I had a great theology professor who said: ‚Only God can forgive‘.

Well…. Then there’s Einstein who said: ‘I want to know how God thinks; the rest is detail’. How come God can forgive and we can’t?

There are things I can’t forgive. In the Torah it says that of all the sins murder is the one for which you can never be sure of forgiveness, because the only person who has the capacity to forgive is the murdered victim.

What does this un-forgiveness do though?

It’s not a choice.

You don’t believe in free will?

I do believe in free will, though we are biologically determined more than we’d like to admit. I am saying: I’ve seen terrible crimes, and I can’t forgive the people who’ve committed them.

I’m not saying one should forgive, or can. I’m just trying to understand what that lack of forgiveness does.

It’s like asking the people who came out of Auschwitz if they can forgive their guards.

Can they?

No. I think you can understand, as Primo Levi did, the humanity of your guards. But reaching that point and knowing how easy it is to become a killer if the roles were reversed, how hard it is to resist – that destroys what most victims do which is sanctify victimhood, which I’m against. But once you reach that point, as Levi did, where you can see yourself in your own tormentors, then life becomes very hard to bear. That’s not the same as forgiveness, but it takes a great deal of moral courage.

Maybe we have to accept these things about ourselves, collectively, in order to find a way of no longer being at the mercy of them.

Most people don’t accept that about themselves. And if we were in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, you wouldn’t ask those questions. Because literally, by walking out this door, people would be trying to kill you.

That’s true. Talking about this would be ridiculous in the midst of any war situation itself. Still, something led to that situation. It didn’t just happen; it didn’t just occur.

Well things did lead to it but it wasn’t the fault of the Muslims; it was the fault of the Serbs. Slobodan Milosevic decided to use the whole Yugoslav army to create greater Serbia. That’s the difference between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel let Slovakia succeed and didn’t try and stop it by force, and so the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now next to each other. Milosevic wouldn’t allow that, and when Croatia tried to secede, he started a war.

What I’m trying to see is the cumulative context that allowed those two different conditions to happen. To say Havel is a hero and Milosevic is a monster might be true. But there is a context to all of it that allows for something like clarity in contrast to one that only allows for violence and pain. I’m trying to see the difference there.

There are external forces that create conditions that precipitate violence over which you have very little control. Once you experience trauma, it controls you; you don’t control it. Repeated trauma changes the physical composition of your brain. There’s nothing you can do. I’ve lived this. It’s not a matter of not wanting it. I’ve spent most of my time trying to forget it. Unfortunately when you go to bed you often have nightmares which are really the re-visitation of trauma. It’s not a nightmare; it’s trauma that you keep buried in this cotton wool of forgetfulness. And it’s exhausting to fight against it. It’s brutal. That is the very real, palpable struggle of people who suffer from trauma and for someone to turn to them and say you should forgive is laughable if it weren’t so insensitive to what it is they are undergoing.

Perhaps violence perpetuates itself until it is fully seen. Violence can look like its own cure, can‘t it? To try and suppress such things is a covert kind of violence against oneself. Perhaps, on some level, such suppression is out of one’s control though.

It’s the difference between being intellectually aware and emotionally aware: they’re two different things. One can understand the affects of trauma, but one can’t understand trauma. Understanding the effects is useful. It’s the difference between somebody who’s been raped, and someone who is describing a rape.

You’re right, of course. Asking someone to forgive such trauma is like talking to the mind about something that the body remembers. But can we talk to the body instead?

There are certainly ways you can cope. But that’s just coping; it’s still there. You don’t overcome it; you can’t. I’ve interviewed combat veterans who are 80 years old and if you push the right buttons, they start to cry.

Once you feel connection with human beings – once you know love – don‘t you see that while it doesn’t necessarily heal these wounds, it does open up a whole new space where one can breathe freely, regardless of what one has experienced? It‘s not a matter or either/or, is it? I don’t think love dismisses any experience of pain. Don‘t both these things exist, always?

Evil is as much a part of human existence as love. I have seen how random death is, and how people who perpetuate acts of evil can live without being punished or harmed. This is reality.

And yet you still have faith. You still write that ‘To survive as a human being is possible only through love’. You also still believe in God. How?

Because God is a verb, it’s not a noun. The whole point of having faith is that it doesn’t make sense. The whole point of having faith is that the tangible reality around you argues against it. That’s what faith is. If the tangible reality made faith logical, it wouldn’t be faith.


Brandon Boyd & Andrea Hiott: Creativity And Intention

Interview from 2009.

Brandon Boyd, lead singer of Incubus, discusses the ways truth can be a form of liberation

pulse: You’re most well known for your music, but you’ve recently published your second book of drawings and writings, From the Murks of the Sultry Abyss. How is this book connected to the other work you do?

Brandon Boyd: The intentions I had in making the book are the same ones I have when I’m writing or creating music: I’m doing it because it’s what feels right, creating and expressing, letting my experiences and my individual life come out in whatever form or medium they want to take. When I was really young, it was always in drawing that I found that expression. Then I started playing music and writing when I was a teenager… It’s always been this kind of natural progression.

It sounds like it’s easy for you to trust that creative impulse in yourself?

Yeah, most of the time it is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t second-guess myself. I think that’s sort of part and parcel to creativity though, that vulnerability, that moment before you give it over, where you’re like ‘Ok I’m going to publish it now’ or ‘I’m going to put this out as a record’, that moment where you start second-guessing everything and thinking ‘This might be the worst thing I’ve ever done!’

Taking those kinds of risks seems to have been rewarding for you; How do you think your creative process, or your way of accessing that internal creative place, has changed in the midst of so much fanfare and praise?

I don’t think I ever really anticipated that anyone would like anything I’d created. I really started out doing it for merely self-indulgent  purposes. A lot of it I did because it almost felt like a necessity, especially with writing, I felt like if I didn’t write these things down they were going to consume me and force me into some kind of tough shell that I wouldn’t be able to crack out of. In that sense, a lot of the writing has been therapeutic, me just trying to get my ideas out. When the praise starts to come I try to just look at it as surface flattery; I try not to take it any deeper. I have a pretty good understanding of the fleeting nature of these things, of the fleeting nature of success, and so I understand that our fame is merely a moment in time and soon someone else will take that place.

But have you always had that perspective? Or was that something you had to learn through experience?

Somehow I think I always kind of knew that fame was something temporary. As a kid I was always fascinated by artists and by music; so by looking at these people’s lives it was pretty easy for me to come to the understanding that if fame did come to me it would probably be fleeting. We’ve had so many teachers before us – whether it’s rockstars or artists or authors – these people who’ve gone completely off the deep end believing in the praise and become megalomaniacs in their approach to life. When you look at these people you can see that it’s usually when they start believing in all that stuff people are saying about them that their art, or whatever it is they’re creating, really starts to suck. (laughing)

Right. Sometimes there’s a blurry line between having the determination and confidence to follow your dreams and, on the other hand, that possibility that you’re taking yourself and your whole place in the world a bit too seriously. Is that a harder place to negotiate once you start to get a lot of attention?

Well I guess there are certain people who get involved in creative forms because they want to be creative and expressive and they want to have truth and purity in their lives; people who do it because they want to be able to continually express themselves. Then there are other people who are attracted to creative forms because they want to be famous.

So maybe it’s more about intention?

In my opinion, so much of it is really about what you had in mind when you got into it: was it only that you wanted to be a rockstar and see your name in lights? I never really had those kinds of dreams. I knew I loved music and I knew that when I sang in a certain way it made my chest and my whole stomach tickle and I liked it. It still does that same thing to me; I know I’m doing it right when it makes my core tingle a little bit. I get the same feeling when I’m painting a picture or when I get into that almost hypnotic state of writing – those things are incredible and those are the kinds of things that attract me to creativity. Which reminds me of a second thing I wanted to say in response to your question, and that’s that there are all kinds of psychologies inherent in all of this that play a big role as well. You have to consider the way people were brought up for instance, their birth order or their rivalry with their siblings, because all of these things also matter. They can all add up to either inflated egos or deflated egos. It’s not really ever black and white or one way or the other when it comes to what makes a person creative or what makes a life creative or true.

I just had this discussion with a bioethics professor and he said that about half of our personality is stuff that we’re just born with, then about 25% is environmental and psychological, like you were saying, and then the rest of it is just kind of open, it’s what we make of it.

Which is really fascinating because it’s that whole idea of ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’. I mean, you could bring a child up in the most creative and wonderfully expressive environment and all signs would point to them being a creative and expressive individual as well, but then there are these certain factors that you just can’t control; there’s always this chaos. So it’s really just a question that’s different for every individual. We have to ask what’s true for our own individual self.

Right. I always wonder how much control we have in that sense. For instance, if I have some kind of gene in my family that says I’m going to be an alcoholic, can I beat that? I want to believe most of us can; but it’s so much harder for some people than for others.

It depends on where you’re at in all those chemical and environmental percentages I guess. And I think that can be said not only about addictive behavior but also about behavior in general. Depending on our environment and our parents and the way we were raised it’s probably more likely than not that we’re going to repeat certain forms of our parents behavior and our parents’ parents behavior and so on. There are certain things, certain very basic psychological precepts, which are true maybe 96% of the time, but that doesn’t mean 100% of the time you’re going to repeat those patterns. You always have the chance to step out on your own and break the chain — sorry if I’m sounding cliché here — but it really is like there’s a chain of events that people usually follow through in their lives without really paying that close of attention to what’s actually happening. But every once in a while there’ll be this rogue who’s like ‘Fuck that’ or ‘I’m not going to let my boyfriend hit me’ or ‘I’m not going to be an alcoholic’ and the great thing is that once that cycle is broken it doesn’t repeat itself again; the kids those people have are going to be much more likely to live without those harmful patterns.

I wonder what it takes to be a rogue though, seriously, because sometimes I think it’s just a matter of information and option. Of course it’s also willpower, but isn’t some of it just being aware there are other options?

Well there are probably a lot of people who wouldn’t behave the way they did if they knew there was another option, if they had access to some kind of creativity, just to a typewriter or a paper or a canvas or some kind of way of expression. If people had more access to those parts of themselves they probably wouldn’t be as full of rage as they are about something in their lives right now. It’d give them another way, which might be all they’d need in the end to get to the truth of things, just a different perspective or some other angle or place where they could take a different look at things…


Simon Blackburn: No Absolute Truth?

Some think that we have collectively agreed that already, perhaps not unanimously but by a large enough margin. Many of those think the result is a catastrophic relativism: the sort that Pope Benedikt preached against on the eve of his elevation to the throne of St. Peter. Other think it is a good thing: a liberation from a tyranny almost as irritating as that of our parents once was, or that of God, or the Pope. They think that by jettisoning absolute truth, we enter a new kind of liberation, in which a plurality of opinions are allowed to flourish, and all claims to unique authority are finally banished.

My own view is that there is such a thing as truth, and that the word “absolute” is best left out. By saying that there is such a thing as truth, I just mean that various things are true. It is true that Berlin is east of London, that it is further from Frankfurt to Sydney than it is to Delhi, that in cities tigers are best kept locked up, and that steel is better for bridge building than straw. Anyone saying otherwise is wrong.

Are these things absolutely true? Well, they are good candidates for being certain. I would not like to hear that my airline does not believe the first two, the police disagree abut the third, or our road engineers about the last. After that, I don’t know what might be meant by saying that they are not “absolutely” true. If it implies some kind of scepticism, then I would offer philosopher G.E. Moore’s response, that these things, and thousands of others, are more certain than any philosophical argument for scepticism.

So is there nothing to be said for the pluralist or relativist side? Well, not all questions are cut and dried. Some words are slippery, and mean different things to different people, and sometimes our categories feel inadequate (was Mozart a Romantic? Is mathematics an art?) Some questions resist unique answers. Big moral questions and big historical questions can’t be answered shortly, or in just one way (was colonialism a bad thing? Is modernity working?). There are many ways of telling the history of a period, with different shadows and highlights.

All this should give us a proper sense of toleration. Different opinions must often be heard. Our first ways of framing a question may not be the best. But there is a big difference between proper respect for different voices, and “anything goes” relativism. The first is a good thing. But respect must be earned. Nobody would respect my singing voice if I strolled onto the stage of La Scala. To earn respect, different voices need practiceand training, and when we start saying things, that means respect for evidence and truth. Lose that, and the barbarians come back.

– Simon Blackburn

Si mon Blackburn ist Autor des Bestsellers Wahrheit. Ei n Wegweiser für Skeptiker (2005). Er ist derzeit Dozent für Philosophie an der Cambrid ge University. Weitere viel beachtete Veröffentlichungen von ihm sind: Ruling Passions (1998), Denken (1999), Gut sein (2001) und Lust (2004). Blackburn veröffentlicht regelmässig Beiträge auf der Website Philosophy Bi tes und war Herausgeber der Zeitschrift Mind Gesellschaft, wenn wir erkennen würden,

Simon Blackburn is the author of the bestseller Truth: A Guid e for the Perplexed (2005). He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Other notable books of his include Ruling Passions (1998), Think (1999), Being Good (2001), and Lust (2004). Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Philosophy Bites and former editor of the journal Mi nd.


Elizabeth Royte: Petrucibles and a Paradigm Shift

Interview, Brooklyn, 2008, by Andrea Hiott.

Royte is the author of „The Tapir‘s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest“, „Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash“, and „Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It“

Pulse: You’ve been writing about the environment for quite a few years now. Do you think the way people think about their trash has changed? Are we really becoming more aware?

Elizabeth Royte: Many people do pay much more attention to it now. It’s new for us to think about our waste at all. One reason for this is because trash itself has changed so much. A hundred years ago, our garbage was either organic products like food scraps – things that could be given to animals or used as fertilizer – or it was inorganic substances, like ash, that came from cooking and heating our homes. That changed in the 1950s with the consumer boom and mass production, when we started to have what they call “product waste” or “single- use disposables,” things that can be toxic when burned or buried. As we’ve become more aware of the possible afterlife of our stuff – whether it’s polluting the air or the water or the soil – some people have started watching and measuring their waste. I’ve heard of people keeping it in their garages or basements for a year, just to see how much waste they generate, or people going a year without buying plastic. People are coming at it from the policy level too, trying to restructure the ways we deal with garbage as communities, making manufacturers more responsible for their products. Local governments are realizing that they subsidize waste by paying to haul it to landfills, and that they’ll pay again if the landfill leaks or the incinerator causes pollutants to be released in the air.

As your work points out, any big change has to be a collective effort. Your books Garbage Land and Bottlemania feel like quests, as though you and the readers are going on a mission for the truth together. Did you think of them this way as you were writing them?

I did think of the garbage book that way. I had the idea of going on this journey, of following my garbage. While paddling in the Gowanus Canal, I began to see all the different streams of waste dumped there, and I realized that the canal was a microcosm of the larger world of waste. I decided to follow each stream to its final resting place. That gave me the narrative line.

Your books make me very aware of everything I use and come into contact with: I go to get a coffee and I wonder where the sugar packet is going to go, or what will happen to the little wooden stick I’m using to stir in the sugar. By bringing our attention to these everyday moments, your books inspire mindfulness. And yet that mindfulness seems to take longer to seep into the bigger picture. How is it that we continue to sanction things such as mountaintop mining even as the consequences are clear? Is it inertia? Laziness?

I think it’s a matter of there being powerful lobbyists in the industry. And also a lack of awareness and confidence; there’s the feeling that we are not powerful enough to stop it. It’s a no-brainer when you explain it to someone (someone who isn’t making vast amounts of money from the practice) on a personal level, when you tell him or her we’re destroying streams and polluting our drinking water. When people really understand these things, they react viscerally. It’s always the personal repercussions that are the first lever of change. It’s talking to people about the air their children breathe or the water they drink. When it’s somewhat removed from their daily experience, something like mountaintop mining or declining polar bear populations, people don’t seem to connect enough to get motivated.

It often takes one extreme to get to the other.

Right. I’m afraid we need high energy prices to get people to change how they live.

It does seem to be happening though, doesn’t it? Hasn’t some sort of shift occurred in the past years?

I do think it’s happening, and I think that’s because it’s hitting people in their pocketbooks. You could show them pictures of dying polar bears all day but the change will only really happen when they drive up to the gas pump and can no longer afford to fill their tank. It’s the same with bottled water: many people are giving it up, not for environmental reasons but because they can no longer afford it.

It all comes down to money. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we realize that money is a sign of where our attention is going. In that sense, has your own attention changed since you began writing about environmental issues? Did you also experience a change once these things were made personal?

Since writing these books, I do think more often now about where the things I’m using come from. When I thought of the natural world before, I was thinking of the world without us, and now I think about it with us in it. I see it as more integrated. My interests have mirrored the environmental movement in that they’ve shifted to more of an urban focus rather than focusing on remote creatures or far away places in the world. But the way I live hasn’t changed that much. I’ve never been a big consumer. Living in a small apartment in the city sets up a lower-impact lifestyle. As much as I would love to have outdoor space and be surrounded by nature, I don’t see myself in the foreseeable future moving to a place where I would have to rely on a car, for instance, or where I would no longer be sharing my walls and heat with neighbors, as we do here in Brooklyn, or where I didn’t get my food from a co-op.

I want to talk about the word “organic” – is there any way in which all materials could eventually be broken down and regurgitated? Even plastics?

William McDonough, in Cradle to Cradle, talks about a future in which consumables, things like containers and furniture and goods not meant to last forever, are made from biological nutrients – plant-based materials — that can be composted at the end of their useful life. Chemists are working on new kinds of plastics made from plants that will easily compost (unlike the current generation of corn plastic, which can take months to break down in a backyard compost bin). In Garbage Land, I explain that plastic made from oil doesn’t really biodegrade; it photo-degrades into much tinier pieces that will be around for a very long time. These tiny pieces end up in waterways, where they’re taken up by plankton and move up the food chain to fish and birds.

What if we banned plastic and we all became vegetarians?

I don’t think we can ban plastic. It’s too useful. And even if we did, we would use more fossil fuel hauling around glass and driving heavier cars. Plastic is too important in terms of medical equipment and the role it plays in health care to think of banning it.

So it’s a necessary negative?

Well, maybe not in its current form. I have great hope that green chemists and engineers will come up with an easily compostable bio-based material that doesn’t take vast quantities of fossil fuel to grow. But even though I see the value of plastic today, I still think we can use a whole lot less of it. So much of it is just fulfilling our desire for something quick and easy and affordable and disposable. That’s the stuff that we have a choice about. And it’s a pretty easy choice if we think about it clearly.

So what we really need is a shift in what is important to us, a shift of values.

Yes. Definitely. A paradigm shift.

But it isn’t about “saving” anything so much as about finding a more efficient process for changing it.

Well this word “saving” is tricky because it sounds like we’re trying to get back to some perfect condition, but what is it we are trying to go back to? Of course there is the idea of keeping resources in place, like keeping the water clean or keeping old-growth trees in our forests. That makes sense. But as far as going back to some perfect state, I don’t know what that would look like, not with our current population.

What is your feeling about balance and abundance? Do you think on a global scale we actually have everything we need and that if we could only figure out a way to balance it both physically and mentally, then it would work?

I think we would need negative population growth for that. People say there is enough water on the planet to serve our needs now, but it’s not always in the right place at the right time and it’s just a matter of apportioning it. But even so, if we continue to expand as we are, those resources are not going to be enough.

How does having a deeper understanding of these issues contribute to changing them?

Understanding is the key. No one will change just by hearing a slogan like “Save the Earth”. Hearing such things too often can even make them meaningless. The real change comes when you make a personal connection and see and feel what your lifestyle is doing to the planet. For instance, I interviewed a world-champion snowboarder once, a teenager who was really excited because she had just won a big SUV as a prize in competition. We were supposed to photograph her snowboarding but the snow never came and the story was killed. I know you can’t directly link the lack of snow to global warming, but the change in plans did give us a chance to have a conversation about how competitive snowboarding, this activity that was so important to her and made her so happy, was dependent on certain weather patterns, and that how we live could actually cause those patterns to change. I was trying to talk to her at the level that was most real for her. I could see she was thinking about it; I could see that she was starting to connect it all. For someone like her to come out and say “I don’t want this gas-guzzling, emission-spewing SUV” would have made a big difference – a lot of kids really looked up to her. But at that time, having a kickass SUV was the ultimate thing.

And it was for me when I was 16 too. I mean, it wasn’t something I dreamed about. But it was cool in my small little world of friends to have an SUV and I didn’t think about it outside of that. I didn’t even know there was another way to think about it. I guess that’s another reason why understanding and awareness is so important. It’s like we’re all just doing the best we can with whatever information we have at that time.

Right. Which is why it is so important to me to write about these issues, and why it’s also important to have all these other ways of introducing people to new ideas, having people that these young people pay attention to – whether it’s musicians or moviestars or whomever – be aware of these issues too and present them in a real way to their admirers, their fans, whatever.

Maybe it has to become something trendy and cool if it’s ever going to work.

Just like what is happening now with water bottles. It’s become trendy not to use water bottles these days. You’re suddenly aware of how you look on the street when you’re carrying a disposable water bottle.

It seems these moods pervade culture before people are aware of them: sometimes we start doing something or acting in a certain way even before we’ve thought about why we’re doing that.

People have studied why people change their behavior and peer pressure is always a top reason. Social scientists did a study in hotels: they put out the little signs that said, “We use a lot of laundry detergent and water to wash these towels. If you want to keep your towel for the next day, please let us know by hanging it up after use.” And then they made another sign that said, “Four out of five people at this hotel chose not to wash their towels everyday.” And of course it was this latter message that was more effective: people were less likely to have their towels washed everyday if they knew most other guests were doing the same thing.

So we’re all looking to each other to figure out what’s “right” and “wrong” and at the same time we’re all creating what’s “right” and “wrong” together. Maybe that’s why there are always emotions like shame and guilt and outrage tied to environmental issues. Writing Garbage Land, did you start to feel this way about your trash?

I did come to see my garbage as a kind of failure after a while. After really spending time with these ideas and realizing how many trees were saved by recycling paper or how much mining was avoided by these small actions, I came to think of everything I threw out as a sign of failure, because I hadn’t avoided the packaging or product in the first place, or I’d failed to find another use for it. Putting any kind of food in the garbage now kills me because I know it’s a biological material that has a higher use; I know it could be composted and returned to the earth as fertilizer, and I also know that it’s going to generate methane when it’s buried in the landfill.

One thing your books do is point out how interconnected we all are. Your writing even seems to hint that realizing this interconnection, not only between people but between products as well, might be the best path to an answer. Not only because it leads us to think of the world in a different way, but also because these associations can open up new ways to proceed. Is this a valid interpretation of your work?

When I wrote the garbage book, I thought it was a simple matter of following things downstream, tracking them once we had used them and let them go. But I learned that what goes on downstream is only the tip of the iceberg, environmentally speaking: there’s far more going on upstream that has a huge impact too, in terms of the actual manufacturing of all these things we consume. It’s not as simple as looking at a metal can or a plastic bottle and tracking it through the waste and recycling systems; you also have to think about where the raw materials for that object came from and how they were moved around through the manufacturing process and then transported to end users. Looking at it this way, you see that the real value of recycling, or being aware of what you buy and throw away, is much broader than it at first seems.

Because you can’t change downstream without changing upstream too?

Right. I think connecting people with this idea is what makes the biggest difference, realizing that when they use a ceramic cup instead of a paper cup, for instance, the effect is a lot bigger than just keeping some paper from the landfill. It’s about avoiding the production of that paper cup in the first place. Part of the buying process should be knowing where that product came from and where it will eventually go. Some people want labels on products that tell you how much recycled content is in it, or how many trees were saved. In England, they’re already putting food miles on labels, showing how far it has traveled. It’s a bit controversial. Maybe we should also have a way of showing how much waste making a particular product generated, or how much energy was consumed, and that would give you a much bigger picture of its true impact.

It sounds like a similar mentality to the one we are all getting so used to because of the internet, the way you can move from link to link indefinitely, hopefully learning as you go.

If people could trace their products that way, if they did know the whole story of where their products came from and went, they might think twice about buying as much as they do.

We would have to find a way to give products a better story.

That would mean changing our expectations, and changing the way we make things.

Maybe we can. It does seem like we’re ready for a shift, or that a shift is coming whether we‘re ready or not.

Yes, it’s certainly an important moment in history. It might just take a while before we understand exactly why.


Jonah Lehrer: On the Brain, and Truth

Interview by Andrea Hiott, Boston, 2008.

Jonah Lehrer thought he was going to be a neuroscientist. He thought he’d wear a white lab coat and study the brain. Then he discovered that he wasn’t very good in the lab. His Nobel Prize-winning friend and mentor Eric Kandel jokes that Jonah “excelled at experimental failure”. But it wasn’t intelligence Jonah was lacking – he was a Rhodes Scholar after all – it was that he found it hard to satisfactorily answer questions like “How does memory work?” by experiments involving the neurons of a sea slug alone: One could learn a lot about the brain from studying sea slugs, but one could also learn a lot about it by reading the work of Walt Whitman and Marcel Proust. Lehrer was interested in the way memory worked, and he was open to learning more about it from whatever source available, be that science or art.

Today, in scientific articles for SEED Magazine and in books like ‚Proust was a Neuroscientist‘, Jonah Lehrer writes about the ways two seemingly distinct pursuits – science and art, for instance – actually touch and overlap. It isn’t a matter of one being better than the other; it’s a matter of how to learn something from looking at both. When it comes to subjects such as memory and language, the literature of George Eliot or Gertrude Stein opens up perspectives not traditionally thought about in a scientific lab. Likewise, when looking into the inspiration of writers and painters like Virginia Woolf and Cezanne, one finds science catalyzing their work. There has always been a dialogue between disciplines, and Lehrer brings this out in his books, opening up a new space for thought and debate about learning itself. Not everyone agrees there is anything to be gained from such an interdisciplinary exploration, and yet Lehrer’s work has hit a chord. His books and articles are popular with a new generation, a group of people comfortable with questioning and noticing the connections between diverse things.

Have you encountered any resistance to your work?

Jonah Lehrer: Yes. There’s been a little bit of push back, criticism, some of it deserved, but I think for the most part I’ve been really gratified. Many scientists are intrigued by the idea that Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf were interested in how the mind works. People are surprised by just how serious these artists took their investigations into the mind, about the fact that they didn’t think of themselves as just making pretty stuff or writing lovely sentences, but that they saw themselves as doing something true and tangible. George Eliot described it as “a set of experiences in real life”.

Do you think artists and scientists are ultimately looking for the same thing?

I do. I think truth is a vague word but nevertheless I think they are all looking for the truth. A work of fiction is very different from a controlled experiment, but I think in the end they both want to capture the texture of mind, how the mind works. If you asked Gertrude Stein what she was trying to capture in her art, she’d say ‚the mind‘ — she was trying to capture the essence of language in the same way Noam Chomsky does. Virginia Woolf is very explicit about this, she says “I wanted to capture the atoms of thought”. The flow of consciousness. She wanted to write so that people would read and understand right away this feeling of the mind at work, the processing that goes on.

Is it this same inclination in our society that has created “popular science”?

I think science is popular because it has this accepted authority. It smacks of truth. It comes with these acronyms that are intimidating and, because they are intimidating, seem even truer. Because science feels inaccessible, it also feels even truer in some paradoxical way.

And how does that relate to art?

I think it’s very different with art. I think the reason we read Virginia Woolf in large part is because her novels feel true to us. She shows us our own thought processes. The first time I read Woolf, I had this shock of “Yes, this is how I think.” I’d never seen my own thought process described so perfectly on the page before. The same with Joyce: I remember the first time I read ‚Ulysses‘, the feeling of it was almost painfully accurate. What makes the brain interesting to me is the fact that there isn’t just one way to talk about it, or just one way to describe it. We can look at it on multiple levels. You don’t necessarily have to dissect it and break it apart. You can also lie in bed like Proust and study your memory that way.

Reading instigates a kind of awareness. And because each reader is different, the text is open to an infinite amount of interpretations. In science, however, it seems the opposite is true. In science, isn’t there the feeling that interpretation can be a dangerous thing?

Well, the results of science are so easy to take out of context. I’m sure there are many scientists who have horror stories of how a reporter took something they said and used it to write a terrible headline. That said, however, I do think it’s important for scientists to be public intellectuals and to see part of their job as not just producing facts but also explaining why those facts are so important. It’s not just a matter of translating the conclusions; I think scientists should also be trying to translate the process. Too often the media treats science like a list of facts that just magically appear every day. I don’t think science writers or scientists themselves always do a good job at explaining how we got those facts, why those facts might be a little bit ambiguous, or why those facts might not be as transparent as they seem. Facts are not simply found or plucked from thin air. Facts are made and manufactured, and I think a part of any real science writing is conveying that process.

To speak to this idea of scientific fact, it’s often assumed that facts are like tools the scientist uses to tell us things. It’s more like the scientist is creating the tools even as he or she uses them. I like that you say it’s important to “convey the process” – if we could think of science more as a process than a fact-producing machine, do you think we might be more productive?

Yes. And we can even apply that same idea to the language of science itself. When you read a science paper, everything is passive, in the passive voice, passive tense. It’s as if the person wasn’t actually doing anything, as if these tools were magically working on their own, as if the bacteria were magically engineering themselves. But I think when you realize that there is actually a lot of human work there, years of labor trying to get these answers that go into scientific papers, you realize that science then isn’t quite so different from the process of artistic creation. They both involve people searching. A lot of it is experimentation. There’s a rigorous, active process. To change the way we think about these two cultures would be to change the way scientists write these papers. Why is there never a first person in a scientific paper, for example? Why is there never an “I”?

I remember the first time we had to write up one of those peer review papers when I was studying neuroscience. It felt so inaccurate to use the standard scientific language. It felt like a really phony way to describe what I’d just done for the past two years. It wasn’t dishonest, what we wrote, but you had to fit this formula and the formula was, inherently, just a bit deceptive. It’s like an agreed upon deception. You don’t talk about all the experiments that didn’t work, things like that. It’s ultimately a little misleading.

This seems to spread to all kinds of areas of society though, this way we try and present something everyone knows is “doctored” into looking true. And yet we go along with it because everyone else is going along with it, these agreed upon conventions. At some point, you have to ask why we’re all doing this? What’s the point?

It’s so hard to have a genuine sincere dialogue across disciplines or across cultures – it’s very difficult and very rare to have a real one.

Even though everyone is craving it?

It just takes a lot more work to go to that place than it does to rely on a social cliché or a social convention.

In a way, your work is attempting to do this.

I don’t think it’s as bold as that.

You talk about needing a new view in science, and I think whatever that new view is, it’s partly tied up in this idea of being honest and direct. I also think a lot of people are ready to see these topics and their connections in a different way.

Well, at least within neuroscience there is the feeling that this paradigm they’ve been relying on for decades – this idea that we can understand the brain and consciousness and all these other complex problems by this very rigorous science alone, by studying sea slugs or talking about synaptic proteins or neurotransmitters – people are realizing that this method has inherent limitations. To realize this is no longer a radical or an esoteric view. It’s kind of an emerging conventional wisdom, you might even say. There’s more receptivity to looking at thorny questions like consciousness from other views. People can accept that Virginia Woolf had some success too, and that maybe we can learn something from that. Not that Woolf is going to do your experiment for you, or Proust is going to tell you how to get to something like Prozac, but they can teach you how to ask better questions and how to think of these things in more complex ways.

Do you think that being open to learning the “languages” of other disciplines strengthens your own?

Absolutely. After all, you study Latin in junior high so that your English grammar and your overall understanding of language will improve, not because you’re ever going to need to speak Latin. I think it’s the same way with different disciplines. I first started thinking of this in the lab when we were studying sea slugs. We were trying to figure out how sea slugs remember by doing all these artificial paradigms where you have to poke the sea slug over and over again until it “habituates”, which basically means you just poke it till it doesn’t resist you anymore, until it just hates you so much that it‘s in this state of existential despair from a sea slug perspective. Then we call that “memory” because at that point, apparently, the sea slug has stopped resisting you because it remembers your touch. Then you pull out its neurons and you see how they were different before and after the poking. So that’s interesting. You’ve learned something interesting about how these neurons respond. But then as I was doing this, I was also reading this other guy Proust. And I was shocked at his whole novel about the resurfacing of memories he thought he’d forgotten. These were memories that hadn’t been reinforced. No one was poking him with a needle. In the book, he hasn’t thought about these memories in thirty years and yet he dips the Madeline cookies into the tea and suddenly all these things come flooding back to him. This made me wonder: how do memories work when they haven’t been reinforced? Proust had another way of looking at this.

We place such an emphasis on where the facts come from and if they fit the proper form. To fit social conventions, it oftentimes can only be true if it comes in the form of an acronym. If it’s in the form of a novel, according to this way of thinking, then it might be interesting or pretty but it’s not true. I think the model of truth I’m trying to suggest is the pragmatist model of William James which says it’s true if it’s useful, if it somehow fits your experience and can be applied.

It reminds me of the Richard Rorty quote that you use about the fact that just because there’s no one truth, that doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple truths.

Right. The idea that we should get over this fixation with saying it can only be true if fits these five criteria, because science is full of facts that might later turn out to be complete bullshit. No form is perfect, which is I think what Rorty was trying to get at with a lot of his career.

All of these old systems have served us though, like training wheels, and now we’re trying to ride without them, create some new form. But it can be really disorienting to imagine truth in this way we’re talking about now, as a changing process. It’s much more comforting to think there’s an objective thing called Truth and science has discovered it, or is discovering it.

There is something very reassuring about this idea of the guys in white lab coats who are doing this job, who will come up with this pill to fix this, or the truth to fix that, or who will eventually solve the riddle of consciousness. There’s also something a little daunting about the fact that anyone lying in bed, like Proust in his books, or anyone writing a novel, can look into their mind and understand things about how it works. To think of it that way is a scary idea for a lot of people, the idea that you don’t need fancy tools, you don’t need a graduate degree, you just need to be sensitive and you can learn so many things.

But that’s part of the knowledge that comes from artists and writers and musicians. They are telling us we can discover these things for ourselves. They walk these roads so that then we can walk them. It’s a way of changing what is possible.

Exactly. Virginia Woolf can show you your own thoughts. When she first starting writing that way, people thought it was atrocious, terrible. The idea of a stream of consciousness was a radical idea: people thought our thoughts were ordered and linear and clear and connected. It was radical then, but now it’s a scientific cliché: Everyone talks about the disordered nature of consciousness, how thoughts are buzzing about. So that’s an example of art inventing this whole new way of thinking that then became a scientific cliché. Another thing art does is take our simple models and show us how complex they really are.

„Every work of art starts with an act of imagination“, you write in ‚Proust Was A Neuroscientist‘. But you also seem to be implying that science is an act of the imagination as well.

That’s true in the sense that I think great science is about learning to see the world in a new way. It’s being able to take a phenomenon that everyone has experienced and saying maybe it’s being caused by this – that’s the idea, the act of imagination, and then you go out and test it. But scientific imagination is a bit more constrained than the artistic imagination and so that’s why art can help us when it comes to those initial ideas.

You often touch on the idea of paradox in your book. What are your thoughts about paradox?

I always think of that great Niehls Bohr quote that goes something like: “The test of any profound truth is that the opposite is also true.”

Do you think that’s where progression comes from? By allowing two contradictory things to be true? By opening up that space and being able to hold two things like that at once?

I think it is, but we’re terrible at doing it. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance involved when you try to accept that there are lots of different ways of looking at a problem. For me the ultimate paradox, and one of the great themes of scientific history, is that there is this linear march towards a unified equation, towards a complete knowledge of everything, and I think in reality, as we’ve searched, we’ve only found more and more questions. We thought we were closer to the final equation a hundred years ago. Now we don’t even know what Dark Matter is, even though we know it’s half the fucking universe. The mystery is even more mysterious. We don’t even pretend to have answers any more. The one reality that science can’t describe is the one reality that we will ever know. Which is this, drinking coffee in a café as we’re doing now: if you describe this in terms of neurons, you’ve somehow missed what it’s really like.

There’s a line in your book about how all great works of art exceed their materials. It’s as though we’re actually always throwing the universe out in front of us as we go. We’re always creating it and changing it even as we look at it and discover it.

Absolutely, but that’s not how most people think of it. I think there are lots of false assumptions behind that, one being this linear march towards one truth that we all have in mind. There’s also this fixation to come up with new facts and new ways of categorizing old experiences but just because it’s new doesn’t make it better. There might be new ways of looking at something but that doesn’t necessarily mean those new ways are getting us any closer to an ultimate truth.

For example there was an assumption that the Human Genome Project was going to make it possible to do all these things like solve schizophrenia and diabetes. But now, after these billions spent on it, the reality is that it’s rather astonishingly useless. We might have the vocabulary for the text, but the way our genomes interpret it depends on who is doing the interpreting and where we are and a million other things. The brain isn’t a static thing and your genes aren’t a static text.

The best metaphor for this is actually a work of literature. The way you read a work of literature depends on if you just broke up with your girlfriend or your boyfriend, or if you’re happy or sad. Who you are at that moment you read the book defines how you read it. That’s what makes a work of art great. There are these things that are deep enough and real enough and plastic enough to affect you in different ways at different times in your life, and to effect different people in different ways. The genome is the same way. And that’s the great gift of the human mind: here’s this text that actually allows us to exceed it, to get beyond it so that we’re not just a text. That’s what makes human nature interesting. Because if we were just a text, just a list of hardwired genes we got form our parents, we’d be very boring creatures, we’d be very easy to solve.

Do you think that gives us some sort of way of creating our own reality?

Oh, yeah, literally.

Individually? Together?

Culture profoundly affects the way the brain parses the world, but it’s a very conventional neuroscientific idea that the imaginations are multiplied into perception. That may seem radical or metaphysical, but that’s just how the brain works. One of the best examples that I talk about in the book is that we all have a blind spot in the middle of our field of vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina. And yet we’re blind to our own blind spot because the brain just fills it in, automatically. All these forms we take for granted in reality and are convinced are so real are actually just figments of the brain, hallucinations. It doesn’t mean reality doesn’t exist, it just means that what we think it looks like is a by-product of all kinds of mental processes, things like space and depth projection and color, these are calculations made by the brain. So, yes, we literally invent our own reality.

So we could even say that science and literature are two parts of the same thing, tools we use to create our own reality?

In that sense, yes, they are doing a very similar thing.


Darryl Pinckney & President Obama

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2008

Pulse: You called Barack Obama a ruthless politician in your New York Review article that everyone is reading. You clearly acknowledge that he knows the game, but you also seem to be suggesting that he knows another reality too.

Darryl Pinckney: He knows that there is something else. And I think this is a knowledge he gets from his mother.

What knowledge? And why from his mother?

His mother’s social vision is also his, the vision of an integrated America, a civil rights America. That’s not a legacy that he got from his African father but rather from his white American mother. It’s not only an idea of America that she gave him; she also gave him an idea of being black. It’s very moving when you think about it, how imaginative and fierce she was about that.

So much so that Obama was even embarrassed by it as a child. Still, wasn’t it the father who created this situation in the first place?

The father was completely absent – he was hardly there for a moment of Obama’s life – and yet his mother wasn’t bitter. This is a remarkable woman. She didn’t denounce his father, or Africa, or social justice. Obama’s absence of bitterness as a black guy isn’t just because he had these white grandparents and this white mother who loved him, it’s also because he had a mother who wasn’t bitter that she’d been left. He would not be the same man he is today had he not seen this example of it as a child, this guy who’s like Nelson Mandela, coming out of prison, but not angry about it at all.

Interesting you bring up Mandela. I wanted to ask if there was another moment in history that you can compare to this.

Well, there are two. On the personal note, yes, it’s Mandela. Obama is still a young man compared to Mandela, but this young man and this great elder have one thing in common and that’s that when you look at them you have the feeling that what you see is real; you don’t have the impression that you’re looking at a mask. You feel you can trust what they are telling you.

In voting for Obama, it’s as though the country has chosen a new level of accountability. We seem to want to stop pretending, even if most of us don’t know how to do that quite yet.

That’s because we can’t afford to pretend anymore. It costs too much to pretend.

Even on a personal level?

In every way. It’s a real generational change. We don’t want to pretend and we don’t want to feel guilty. Just as in Berlin, the Berlin Wall being the second moment I’d compare this to, there are many young people who don’t carry the burdens that their parents did, many white Americans your age aren’t racist in the ways that their grandparents were.

But doesn’t it go even farther than just not being racist. Isn’t it also that there are now actually positive qualities associated with being black?

One of the ways black people have challenged or conquered definitions of blackness has always been by embracing the negative qualities that a society says are black and projecting those qualities as positive instead. In the late 19th century white supremacists said that blacks were primitive, lazy, and only interested in sex and having a good time. Then after the killing fields of WWI, the Harlem Renaissance said these same qualities of black people actually started to look like social values: instead of being committed to the mechanistic society that can only figure out how to kill people, black people could show the world how to appreciate life and music and culture. In the post WWII days, everyone said that black people were very dangerous, aggressive, criminals, this kind of thing – the Black Militants of the 60s took all those qualities and made themselves into revolutionaries, standing up to the power structure and this and that. Black people have always embraced these ‘negative’ things people say about them and turned those things into virtues instead. This is happening again now. One more time.

I see that. And yet there also seems to be something very different going on here. Obama is like an empty vessel in a way, a place where just about anyone can see themselves or the qualities they admire reflected. He’s white. He’s black. He’s eloquent. He’s ordinary.

He can be very street. He can be very refined.

And it doesn’t seem there’s a whole lot of ego there. He seems to always try to get out of his own way. Not that he’s perfect in doing that, but at least he’s aware.

Well after these white politicians have lied to us, people are ready to trust the black guy. And so it reverts to another image of the black in society, which is the one person who will tell you the truth, the guy who has nothing to lose and will be honest with you.

Do you really think there is that kind of archetype at play?

I do think it’s buried there. Every white person in the south had a black person who was a friend. It’s like Zola Neale Hurston and the pet Negro system: She talks about how every white person in the south had one Negro who was considered to be the exception to the rule of everything she or he had thought of black people. In my generation of integration, people used to say to me “I don’t think of you as black; I see you as a person” and they thought that was a compliment. Being black still had a lot of negative connotations then. Now for most kids it’s not a big deal. Being black is just one identity among many. It seems normal to be black now. So the new message, what this election has really told us, is that the mainstream has been reconfigured. The mainstream isn’t just the white guy anymore. It’s women, Latinos, blacks. Obama sort of named them all in his speech. He even said gay. He’s not for same sex marriage, but he said it, “gay straight everyone came out to vote” so there’s a new mainstream in that definition, a new majority. Obama’s campaign made it impossible to play the race card anymore, to use that old derogatory tone, even though race has been a factor working in favor of the Republicans since Richard Nixon. All these years it’s been possible to exploit the fear of race and the fear of black anger and retribution, but that just won’t work now; it’s gone.

That’s a huge change! 

It is a huge change. It’s an idea that governed American politics for over a hundred years. But now white supremacy and the lawlessness associated with it have been repudiated: the Republicans simply couldn’t get any traction from trying to arouse people’s “fear of the black man” in this election; it just didn’t work because Obama was just so unassailable. There was something so unassailable about him.

He seemed to quietly rise higher and higher the more others tried to bring him down. I think he was growing a lot, even as the election was happening.

He kept his calm. There was that moment when people like Arianna Huffington and others were saying “He’s not fighting hard enough”, as if he were being passive, but that might be exactly the reason he won. He was doing the right thing even if a lot of people couldn’t see it at the time. He was being consistent. He wasn’t the angry black guy; he never played that role.

He took a risk in being quiet and consistent and having faith that Americans would eventually see the truth in that. Perhaps the more remarkable thing is that we actually did!

He showed us that those attacks didn’t matter. He couldn’t be baited. He couldn’t be rattled. And he didn’t care if people called him names. He ran his campaign on his own terms, and McCain ran his campaign in the old way, in the terms of Karl Rove.

It’s been said that McCain sold his soul. The unusual thing is that selling your soul no longer works, not even in the short term, as it has in politics of the past.

He did sell his soul. And he did quickly pay the price. Much more quickly. This huge majority has disappeared, this elite that no longer is. They seem like a rump party, a bit like Labor blowing out the Conservatives in England; the Conservatives haven’t been able to put it back together since.

Does Barack Obama having been elected give those who dislike Bush a reason to be thankful for him? If we’d had Kerry in the White House, would we have still voted for Barack Obama?

It’s not a reason to be thankful for Bush. And it’s impossible to know the answer to that question. Certainly Bush being so bad and unpopular contributed to Obama’s success in the sense that many people who were nervous about this unknown young black guy were willing to listen because they knew something had to be done.

But it does seem there is something to this dialectical pattern where the mood has to swing so far one way before people wake up enough to change directions and see another side. It’s as if there is a certain lucidity that only dawns on us in an emergency.

I can see what you mean. I think certainly the Bush years being so terrible galvanized those people who were committed to change through the electoral process. As much as McCain tried to distance himself from Bush and the Republican party, it never really worked. The difference was too clear. Obama is a much more reconciling figure.

He also seems to think that the best way to change something is to do it quietly, a bit like the speech he gave about race. Everyone was screaming about Reverend Wright, but Obama didn’t absorb that energy at all; instead he gave this very long and sober speech, one that was honest and drama-diffusing at the same time.

He stopped the campaign to have a conversation about race with that speech. I think for a lot of black people the things he said weren’t so extraordinary. But the fact that people were so amazed by it – Gary Wills even compared it to Lincoln’s second Inaugural address – showed how long it had been since this version of America’s racial reality had been spoken about in the mainstream without being attacked as liberal. Obama speaks in a way that defeats the static, in a way that silences the harping talk. His integrity comes through when he speaks. His thoughtfulness and the way he talks to the public is something we’ve been hungering for. We don’t want to be talked down to, or spoken to like we’re idiots, or manipulated anymore, even by politicians that we like. Playing along with all that manipulation has gotten old. This direct communication from Obama is something we recognize: no matter what medium he’s speaking through, he’s very direct, or at least we feel he’s trying.

That says something about the change that is happening in America though, doesn’t it? That we would respond to a man such as this?

I think it says something about how we’ve changed, about how technology has changed us: a lot of people are not dependent on the mainstream media anymore. Sources of information are varied and more and more people these days are getting most of their information from the web. Obama is perfect for that sort of audience and environment. He’s at home in this diversified media age. He’s very cool, which is very good for television, whereas McCain is a bit too hot.

In the Marshall McCluhan sense, yes, right.

Everything about Obama is perfect for that. He wears clothes well. He moves well. He speaks well. He photographs well.

He’s elegant without being someone others are jealous of. 

And he’s not trying to have a beer with us. You can see that his privacy matters to him. And that we don’t know him. And aren’t likely to. He’s as mysterious as JFK, if not more.

Isn’t there also a kind of stubbornness there? A persistence?

Well, it could be that his admiration of Lincoln is very much to the point. Which is to say that no matter what the issue is, somehow he will be free to say, “I didn’t want to do it this way – I didn’t want to free the slaves – but actually there’s no other way to save the union. It has to be this way.” So it’s the Lincoln who’s not an abolitionist.

Rather, he’s practical.

Right. He’s the practical guy that can accomplish abolitionist goals just by using his reluctance and therefore can appeal to the union and bring them with him step by step. He’s not a zealot. He’s not a radical. But he can accomplish radical goals. He’ll bring in everybody if he finds a way to respect everybody.

I don’t see him as having an investment in having power and control on a psychological level, especially not in the way some people in the past administration did. I don’t think he’ll be running for office his whole first term, or playing to the gallery. I don’t think he’ll be looking for political points. Because actually he’s done all that. Something else is happening. I really think that the change we believe we can detect in him over this campaign and these years is someone who is taking his encounter with history very seriously.

Do you feel like he’s sort of surrendered to his…


Yes. Does he see himself as in truly in service of the country at this point?

Yes. He sees himself as an instrument of something, so his decisions are coming from a perspective that he takes responsibility for, but not credit.

Which maybe explains that gigantic presence of his.

Even so, it may come as a shock to some of the people who voted for him to realize they are to the left of Obama. I think he is really a social conservative at heart.

But is he really rooted to that? Or is he still deciding these things every day? 

I think he is ready to go further, but I think he understands that the country isn’t. I think that he concedes much more to Regeanism than I would, as far as what it did for the way the country felt. And also when he says things like Turn off the TV and spend time with your children, this is sort of echoing Bill Cosby. It says something about his belief in traditional American ideals.

Which can be a positive thing, give meaning. What do think is meaningful in our country right now, what really matters to us in this moment after the election?

I think it’s the feeling that we’ve gotten past something, or come through something, that we are unified as one nation again. That’s the part that is very much like the Berlin Wall. In the same way people then rediscovered their identities, we’re rediscovering American-ness again and that it’s not a right wing thing. Definitions of being American have escaped right wing connotations in the same way that being German suddenly wasn’t being a neo-Nazi or even someone with a secret longing for the past.

This is idealistic, I know, but could Obama be the first World’s president? Or at least someone who is close to being able to represent more of us in the world than anyone else has? Because it’s hard to define Obama as any one word, even “black”. 

I think that could be the case. So many things go into the making of him.

He’s an outsider. Which makes him an insider in the world today. Maybe McCain wasn’t capable of understanding what it feels like to be the outsider in that sense.

And he didn’t seem to think it was important to understand that. Which is what I mean when I say that there is a new mainstream, that these experiences you’re describing are more normal for more people, are common among Americans now and somehow it was reflected in their understanding of the candidates: they identified with the guy who knew what it was like to be an Outsider more than they did with the guy who’s always been on the inside.

Its funny we only now realize such a thing because by definition, we’ve always been a country of Outsiders.

We have, but we’ve always deferred to a political class. That idea is sort of gone with this new presidency. More of the reality is represented. Obama is at the center of a lot of cultural flow that has been going on and that just hadn’t really been named or recognized politically the way it already was in many other areas of American society. He illuminates a lot that had only been dimly apprehended or glimpsed momentarily before. He does seem to cast a very real light. It’s not crazy to say so. But who knows what we’ll be feeling a year from now?

Maybe we’ll be feeling even better than we do right now.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.


Stefan Niggemeier of

Bild blog is dedicated to investigating the articles of the BILD-Zeitung. The BILD-Zeitung is the largest daily newspaper in Europe with a circulation of 3.5 million readers. Its articles influence public opinion on topics ranging from politics to entertainment, yet many feel that the paper contains misleading and exaggerated information. People read the Bild as though it were a tabloid, but they also read it to get their news. This blurred co-existence of truth and fiction can give the Bild an unusual freedom in terms of the slant of its articles. Finding this ambiguity and exaggeration irresponsible,Niggemeier and his colleagues began doing their own investigations of Bild’s articles and then publishing what they found at Since it’s inception 3 years ago, the BILDblog has become the largest blog in Germany, now with a daily subscription of about 50,000 readers. As technology allows for more checks and balances by the masses, BILDblog may be a harbinger of how future media sources will be held accountable for the truth.

Pulse: Was the initial idea of BILDblog to uncover exaggerations and discrepancies? Did you set out to become ‘the watchdog of the BILD-Zeitung’?

Stefan Niggemeier: When we first started, the BILDblog was more of a commentary on the Bild’s practices and articles. It evolved as we began to investigate those articles and compare them with what other news agencies were saying. We also invited our readers to send us tips when they discovered something they thought was wrong. The readers responded in surprising numbers. We get to hear from experts in certain fields or subjects, people who notice things that we wouldn’t necessarily see on our own because we don’t have that specialized knowledge.

So the blog becomes a way for readers to pool their skills and get closer to the truth.

Which is amazing. And it works. Not only in terms of specialized fields, but also with languages. For instance, quite early on we found a story that the Bild wrote about a Spanish woman who had died in a dramatic way. The Bild wrote that she was barbecued, that’s the words they used, and they kind of made this whole story into a joke. We couldn’t find any sources for this article so we went online and asked if there was someone out there who could speak Spanish and who could maybe look into this. Within a really short amount of time, we got emails from people saying ‘Yes I speak Spanish and I found this article and it’s actually quite different from what the Bild has said’. In the end, it turned out that the Bild had told the it the wrong way around, but it was our readers who played the biggest role in figuring out the true story.

By opening yourself to so many voices and perspectives, isn’t it sometimes difficult to call any one thing ‘the truth’? It is. And because there are often many angles to a story, we sometimes have a question of what we should write. We don’t want to criticize the Bild from an ideological point of view; we do that rarely. Sometimes if they are really campaigning for something we get into that, but we try to focus on the facts rather than having to distinguish between opinions. People sometimes write to us saying the Bild misquoted them or didn’t understand them or present their story correctly. This gets quite difficult. We usually don’t write about these things because we’re journalists as well and we know how it works when you interview someone and later they don’t like what they said to you. You might never get to the truth is those stories. What I do know, or what is easier to say, is that there are definitely things which are not true. We’ve become quite good at finding out what is false. Sometimes there are accepted facts and sometimes it’s a matter of having three reliable sources say the one thing while the Bild is writing something totally different. We don’t actually like to use the term ‘truth’ very much; we’re very careful with it because as you start looking into things you find all kinds of contradictions and differing versions. It isn’t always possible to say which is correct, but it is possible to say when something is wrong or distorted. This is what one can easily discuss.

Why do you think the Bild is so prone to distortions or exaggerations? Is it part of a prevailing mood in media, or do you think it’s a conscious decision?

It’s the whole system. I think most often it’s done out of a drive to have a better story. To make it more exciting. To make it bigger. More sensational. To catch your eye. To sell more newspapers by topping the most interesting stories. The stories may be wrong but they sound much more interesting. And of course sometimes they distort things for their own political agenda, which is even worse. One thing that is very specific to the Bild is that they have very obvious distinctions between their friends and enemies. They have people who work with them and cooperate with them and others who they don’t like and tend to disparage. Those attitudes change how they shape the story. It’s very old-fashioned in a way, very black and white.

In many ways, your blog and the Bild are enemies; and yet in another way, you might also be beneficial to one another. You might strengthen each other’s readerships. There is also the fact that the BILDblog quite literally needs the BILDZeitung in order to exist.

It’s a dangerous comparison for me to make, but I think what you’re saying is true only in the sense that the police need criminals in order to exist. I don’t want to compare them to criminals, but you get the point. It’s like trying to say that Greenpeace needs people who destroy the environment. But yes, to be honest, a part of why we’re so successful and popular is because the Bild is so successful and popular. Do you do this kind of work because you want to initiate some kind of change? Do you want to raise the standards of the media in some way?

It always sounds so full of pathos to say you want to change the world but that kind of inclination does have something to do with it. I don’t mean I’m out to change the world in nay kind of revolutionary sense — I don’t have the attitude of I’ll write this and it will save the world — but I do think that every little thing a person writes does influence people. It does have the chance to make them see things that maybe they wouldn’t have seen before. The realizations can be very small; it doesn’t always have to be on some big level. It can be as banal as writing about a TV show and telling people it’s worth their time to watch it. So in those terms, the BILDblog is the most visible way I’ve ever influenced people. You can see it at work. People write to us and tell us that their parents have been reading the Bild for years, and now the children are printing out our articles and their parents are reading them as well. Of course we are tiny compared to the Bild and we won’t make it go away, but we are changing the perception of Bild in some small way. There was a time when people read the Bild as a joke without understanding that there were real people behind those stories. People didn’t realize that what they are reading is not just a funny headline; there’s someone’s life behind that as well.

Are you trying to suggest a more collective responsibility for what is accepted as news? Is teh news becoming more of a democracy?

It works in so many different ways. I think we are trying to educate people to be critical when they read any newspaper and not to always believe what they first read. We want them to have a critical mind. But it’s true, the level of responsibility does change the easier it becomes to get everyone involved and checking on what journalists are doing. I think every newspaper and media outlet has to be accountable and realize what’s going on in those terms as much as possible.

Do you think this changes the role of the journalist?

Yes. Journalists used to have the monopoly on these things. Journalists were the ones who knew what was happening and who were sharing that information for the first time with everyone else. Now there are so many sources that the journalist no longer has the monopoly. If that journalist doesn’t tell you, you’ll learn what happened from somewhere else. This means the journalist has to talk to the audience in a different way, keeping this in mind. But I don’t think it changes the fundametnal things that a journalist does, which is to explain what is happening in the world, to havea background in the subject, to have sources which make him well-informed, to have learned his language so he can get the message across to his readers. None of that has changed. I don’t think journalists need to be afraid of the internet and new technology, of the democracy of it, as you called it. I don’t think journalists have to be afraid because the core of what they do is still as important as it ever was. It’s just the role that has changed. You’re suddenly not lecturing people anymore. You have to talk to with them.

Do you think people also still want to be awed by a story? Do we want drama as much as we want truth?

It’s about the same feeling that happens when there’s a plane crash and no one knows how many people are dead. There’s something exciting there. There’s some kind of feeling like ‚this could be big‘ and even though you wouldn’t wish harm on anyone and you don’t want the death toll to be high, the possibility of that is the reason you’re still watching. I do think there is some kind of longing for excitement on that level. People want to be able to say they witnessed something really big and bad — even if they only witnessed it on television.

Maybe they also want something they can share with everyone around them, something to talk about.

People have always wanted that. A person sees something on the street and they immediately run home to tell their parents or whomever is there. And of course when they are retelling the story, they probably tend to exaggerate. You don’t need media for that. It’s not just the big bad media; a lot of it is just human nature. But that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

Now that your blog has become so popular, do you ever feel tempted towards that same kind of commercialization or exaggeration as a way to maintain your fame?

We sometimes wonder what we should do to attract more readers, and then we wonder if we should even think in those terms at all. We wonder if we should write the things that we know will be popular with our readers or only write about the things that feel authentic for us, that we find important. We make those decisions every day. We always endlessly discuss everything we write about. Those questions are part of the process. We watch out for each other and stop each other on things like that. In the end, we all know why we’re doing this. It’s about the message we want to get across. And that keeps us grounded.


Earl Barnes: The Fountain Poet

street poems from our friend Earl, the Fountain Poet of Savannah


Tall Pines

As you stretch across the forest

The Mighty Redwoods you’re called

the towering sight.

Evergreens, a Christmas Tree

Covered in snow. December and the

Nativity, a star begins to glow,

Like the rainforest you provide oxygen

For all. Take them away and man will


Growing from the dirt a stick with

Leaves and a seed. In this race

You are the one who leads.


Life is Death

Rejoice for them that sleep

They are souls that belong to God,

Souls he will keep

In order for a seed to grow

It must die. In the dirt, the body.

But the spirit to the sky

All must go, then the judgment

But death is first, we must die

To self in order to quench our

Spiritual thirst.


Sitting Around The Water Fountain

While sitting watching the fountain flow

Tourists come, taking pictures that glow

I beg to take one picture for small change

Knowing if the police would catch me,

I would be taken from this watery range

Homeless I am, shoes torn apart,

But as artist to writer,

the fountain caught my sight.

A wishing well, I thought, may be a new day

Perhaps the watery fountain has shown me the way.


My Personal Statement/ My Story
by Earl Barnes, the Fountain Poet

I was born in a little town called Sylvania, Georgia in Screven County. I was raised by my maternal aunt, Mary Ellen Bryant. She took my three sisters and I in because my mother wasn’t able to take care of us. She introduced us to church, but as a young man my life was full of trouble. Childhood molestation, not knowing my real father, and poverty led me to depression. My life seemed to stand still for a long time. Years later up in Ohio, I somehow managed to get married but after ten years it was over. I broke down. I cried. I found myself struggling to live for the next twenty years as a man who is homeless. But God (through my poetry) has found me in the streets and has brought me back to life. If it had not been for the Lord, I would be lost. (Amen).

I first started writing poetry in the summer of 1972 in Savannah, GA. I felt the call to write to the Latter Day Children, the children of today. (Amen).

At that time, I decided to call the book “The Ghetto Child” because I felt that God had handed something down to me – he’d handed something down to us to share. My grandfather “Uncle Merit” saw it in a vision of hope at the “old gray shack” in Sylvania, Georgia, my hometown.

My intention is to spread these mystical words all around the world, to try to reach as many of these Latter Day Children as I can, to help the poor and to bring this to the church. (Amen).

I thank God for those he placed in my life. Earlene, Catherine, Jaunita, Mary Bryant, Adell Williams, St. Paul shelter, Bull Street Baptist Church youth department, and the 1:00pm church without walls on Sunday. May the God of peace bless all of you for your contribution. (Amen).


Maryanne Wolf: Deep Reading

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Maryanne Wolf is not against new technology. Ms. Wolf, the somewhat controversial author of Proust and the Squid, merely wants us to be careful. Technology is a convenience we need not relinquish, she says. Still, sometimes in our rush to jump from desire to fulfillment, we miss the very thing we are looking for in the first place — the meaning.

Reading deeply does not mean being miserable. Quite the opposite: it means deepening one’s capacity for pleasure. Reading has implications on our brains that result in the ways we see and navigate our world, ultimately opening our lives to a richness and quality hard to quantify in charts or graphs. Wolf‘s work ultimately asks us to slow down long enough to realize this immense gift we‘ve developed, and thus to strengthen this capacity within our brains, rather than to become lazy and let it go.

Pulse: Why do you think some people have difficulty agreeing with your book, even as they feel compelled to discuss it?

Maryanne Wolf: Part of the reason people don’t always understand what I’m trying to say in the book is because of the tendency to think in a binary way of “either/or” rather than with the complexity that is the nature of knowledge. A complex way of thinking that holds both the “either” and the “or” at the same time has always been a necessary part of arriving at any real knowledge, but now that our awareness is expanding, this is an absolutely essential idea in a way it never was before.

You mean that to be able to see both sides of any issue without judging either of them has indeed become almost an urgent skill for us now? It’s not a new idea. I think of Emerson when he says…

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Right. Or think of F. Scott Fitzgerald who says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think that expresses very well one of the things that in academic life I’m always butting my head against. We deal with contradictory pieces of information all the time and we must navigate our own intellectual vessel through those contradictions rather than only go with the maelstrom.

Like how you say our brains were never made to read, and yet reading has become one of the most important things. How has reading changed, or how is it changing, our brains?

Our brain has beautiful genetic programs for all the basic organs of the body and for our basic structures which organize how we receive information and how we organize it. When I say basic structures, I mean things like vision, memory, auditory processes, and language – it’s all in there. But there’s nothing in there for reading. There’s not a gene and there’s not an organ. Instead, what you have in the brain is this miraculous capacity to take those older structures and create a new circuit, a new pathway, which results in reading.

So parts of our brain are communicating with other parts in new ways?

No matter what you do, both sides of your brain are communicating. I’ll use music as an example. When you deal with music you are using some aspects (she hums a little tune called Ode to Joy). When I first started whistling just then, you were using your right hemisphere because it was just a fun thing, you were just listening to a whistle. But then very quickly you heard the melody, and with that you started trying to place it, and then there were associations, maybe “Berlin”, then “Beethoven”, then “Ode to Joy, 9th Symphony” – and with such association, you were using your left hemisphere. So all of this information is easily integrated even in the act of listening to just a simple thing like a whistle. With reading, you use the left and the right for a few milliseconds because the right hemisphere visual sends it across to the left hemisphere and that connects it up with language and then, once you have become a fluent reader, there are many different parts of your brain being activated at the same time.

Can our brains create new neurons? Can we change our brains not only by establishing new connections between existing neurons but also by having totally new ones come into play?

Yes. It’s true. When I was going to school, it was considered impossible to create new neurons but we now know that isn’t true. One of my friends was very involved in work on the hippocampus which is a part of the brain that is heavily involved in memory and they suddenly found ‘oh my god the hippocampus is getting new neurons, this is not possible’ and of course that was the beginning of our understanding of how changeable the brain really can be.

Can we do this consciously yet? Can we consciously change our brain?

Everything changes your brain, but that’s different from neurons being developed. So you can change your brain in all kinds of ways when it comes to neural pathways between existing neurons. A five-year-olds brain when its first beginning to read and getting all this information is sort of firing in all directions – it doesn’t know what to use so it uses all these different parts at first — but as it goes along and gets better and fluent, things become automatic and certain paths get put down in the brain. Soon, it uses less to produce more. The important thing to understand is: once it is pruned, there’s actually even more comprehension.

Is that what you mean when you say that the most important contribution of reading is that it provides us with more time?

That’s it. When we are children, it takes us a very long time to decode a word. You might have one image that goes with various sounds, but basically you’re using a lot of brain activity to get that image. You haven’t gotten to that rich semantic process where “bat” can have multiple meanings. But let’s say you’re nine or ten and you’ve done some of this pruning so that now you have this basic idea of “bat” decoded. Well now you have time to comprehend all the other ways this word can be used – it’s multiple definitions, its ability to be both a noun or a verb, to become Batwoman or Batman or whatever. You begin to have time to connect all the variations of that word and then you can use it in a sentence and connect it to prior experiences and knowledge: in essence, you now have time to think. If you don’t have to think, you will not be able to proceed. And that’s a very basic problem with digital. It’s not that you don’t have the potential to have time, but it’s that the medium itself prevents you from using that time to think. There’s so much passivity that goes on because you’re receiving so much that you don’t actually pause and use those extra milliseconds for the richness that would otherwise become a part of the brain, as it does in traditional reading.

So it’s not a matter of not using the technology; rather, it‘s a matter of using it in a way that still allows for resonance. It’s about being aware enough to appreciate the experience itself.

Right. Being aware enough to notice the rest of the picture. And “the rest of the picture”, as you read, becomes what’s activated from that point on. So let’s just go back to “bat”: If you learn all this stuff about “bat”, every time you read that word, it’s all activated. So that means that it’s additive, it’s this cumulative brain that just keeps adding associations. Reading literally enriches the brain and that’s why there’s this paradox, this thing that requires you to hold to opposing ideas at once – it both prunes and makes you more knowledgeable and faster. It makes you faster for the purpose of richness, so that you have the time to bring together all the things you know about whatever the word or subject might be. When this happens, every time that part of your brain is activated, you get this extraordinary, embroidered, complex of association around any concept or word.

Can time in the sense that you use it be the same thing as awareness, so that you’re not only thinking, you’re also thinking about thinking? Does it give you the space to be aware of your thoughts? Is that part of learning as well?

In the sense of attention, focusing the attention, yes. Awareness is similar but I’ll use “attention” because it’s more cognitively precise in my research world. Time allows you the ability to focus your attention more broadly or more deeply or more narrowly and what you do with it is in some ways reliant on the medium. If the medium like a book permits and even invites you to go even more deeply, then that actually invites deeper contemplative processes. If the medium, like my computer, invites me to speed up, I’ll somehow end up focusing less deeply. My attention is then being drawn very quickly to the next and then the next and then the next.

Maybe I’m not expressing this clearly but what I mean is the difference between „having your attention taken by something“ and „being aware of what your attention is on“.

I see. Interesting.

Because then it makes sense for me when I hear you say that you want to get people to think about how the expectation of the medium affects the quality of their days or lives.

Technologies are like anything else. They’re a tool, and they can be used for good or for bad. I’m saying: we must understand more about the tool than we do right now.

You want us to take the time to understand the relationship between thought and technology rather than just –

To lurch. We tend to lurch into these things. My hope is that we will take the time necessary to think through the implications of what each medium promotes and fosters and threatens. I think where we are now is kind of a dangerous moment in time because we have it within us to be very thoughtful. And the capacity for just the opposite. Because of the research I do on the preciousness of the reading brain, I smell a great threat and I want to alert everyone to the possibility for good and ill when it comes to this precious commodity, reading, and our new digital culture.

I don’t think we can live without the arts, and without what I think “reading” for you represents. It’s how we learn what is possible. I think everyone knows this but doesn’t think about it. You’re trying to get us to think about it. This is necessary. And I understand your worry, but I don’t think these things can go away. Change, yes, but not disappear.

I hope you’re right. But I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes “deep reading” processes. He used this term “deep reading” in his article. As a result, the encyclopedia Britannica had a Blog on this topic and people wrote things like “Who cares about War and Peace? Who cares about Tolstoy? This is too long and we don’t need it. It’s boring.” So the kinds of responses to these questions were more often than I would ever have believed possible, reductionistic, a thought bite and sound bite mentality and not appreciating what you are now saying about how important art and writing are for our culture. I could not agree with you more. That’s what I believe too. But I’m seeing evidence that a portion of society that believes that it can get along very well without it.

Point taken. But I would suggest that it’s actually not that the idea that we’ve just expressed that has changed but rather the sources. Young people still need books, they still crave stories. Think Harry Potter. Think Twilight. Now this isn’t exactly heady stuff. But there’s heady stuff out there too. And some of the heady stuff of the past wasn’t considered so heady either when it first came out.

It’s very true. There’s a lot of it there. My question though, is whether the richness that we talked about in the beginning of the interview is being reduced.

It‘s true we can get so caught up in wanting the next hit, the next high or the next stimulating point, so that we have no idea what we’re really reading or experiencing at all. That’s one level. The level I think you say is dangerous. But then there’s another way to live today, too, isn‘t there? We can step back and see all this in a wider way and then anything that comes in can be read quite deeply, can‘t it? Harry Potter or War and Peace.

That‘s true. But about whom is that true? And is the percentage for whom that’s true narrowing in our societies? I have been accused in this whole discussion of being an elitist. On these radio shows and whatever, people say to me “Well you’re talking about a very small percentage of the population and who cares because these people will always be reading these books” and my evolving response to that is: I’m really wanting the next generation to be better than us. I’m not thinking about percentages. I’m thinking about the young. I’m thinking of how we can develop more and more of the potential of more and more of the young. So to talk about elitism is merely missing the point. I want the best for every person and that means a lot of diversity. When when people talk about deep reading being possible in these other forms such as graphic novels, I can understand. My son Ben (who is dyslexic) is an artist and for him, the narrative is visual. He and I couldn’t be more different. He is a product of a beautiful feature of human species and organization which has diverse brain organization possibilities. I think the digital and literate cultures reflect some of that diversity. And what I don’t want to have is some of that diversity thrown to the side or discarded.

Do you ever think when people tell you things like “your views are elitist” that it’s coming from fear? The same fear that we’ve always had, that we’re not smart enough or that because we haven’t read all these classic books we’re somehow unworthy? If they really understood what you meant by “deep reading” they would probably feel a real sense of common purpose with you on it.

Right. It’s probably not that the things we want are different, we’re just speaking different languages. If I were to really sit and talk with them, it might come out. If I were to ask them what they truly want for their children. They would want their children to experience the fullness and the richness that is possible in life. I think what you’re also expressing is the fact that there are anti-intellectual forces always about and that’s part of the diversity but I would just want to talk to the person who seems anti-intellectual and eliminate the fear factor or the inferiority factor and just try to make it clear that we could all work together to make the best for the next generation. That’s the point.

photo credit: Tufts University


Noam Gonick: Manitoba Arson

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a filmmaker named Noam Gonick is pushing the borders of film. Stryker is one of his most well-known works. Stryker was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival in 2007, and was reviewed in everything from the local Winnipeg papers to the New York Times. Unfortunately, people in the states aren’t aware of the strange tone and rhythm of the Native language in Manitoba and so they attributed this slow speech in the film as bad acting. The truth is quite the opposite actually: the acting is good, maybe too good. And yet the film is difficult, odd, flamboyant: it crosses into physical, emotional, ideological and sexual places that most films, even indie or avant-garde films, rarely dare to go. It’s a bizarre mythological feast of discomfort, offset by the soothing, stunning cinematography of Ed Lachman.

Stryker is the story of Native gangs in Winnipeg, specifically the Indian Posse and the Asian Bomb Squad. At the center of the film is a quiet 14-year-old boy called Stryker. Stryker comes to Winnipeg from Brokenhead First Nation, a nearby Aboriginal reserve. In the opening sequence he sets fire to a church, and then flees, riding on the top of a train from Brokenhead to Winnipeg’s North End. When he arrives in Winnipeg, Stryker immediately finds himself in the midst of two warring gangs, unsettling them both, setting fire (literally and metaphorically) to whatever he sees. The film takes place in a part of Winnipeg that was once full of Jewish immigrants but is today mostly comprised of Natives and Asians. Many consider it to be the poorest and most violent part of town. Gonick found inspiration for the story of his film in many places, especially in the history of Winnipeg itself.

Pulse: In the 1990s, there was a problem with arsons in Winnipeg. Could you give me a really quick overview of what happened and how it was perceived?

NOAM GONICK: It was a time when Winnipeg was really whipped up into a panic about Native kids burning the whole city to the ground. There were a lot of abandoned houses that were torched, also garbage fires. A few really high profile arsons were pinned on Native youth and later ended up being the work of middle aged schizophrenics, or in the case of the Alexander Steam Baths and Barber Shop, disaffected gay flight attendants. But at that time, every out of control BBQ was deemed to be the work of the Indian Posse.

What is this story about the “7th Generation”?

It’s a Mohawk prophecy that states that after seven generations of contact with white people, the new generation of Native youth would save Mother Earth, righting wrongs & settle the score with their oppressors. There’s also birds falling from the skies and stone creatures that emerge from underground. With “Stryker” I romantically equated these Winnipeg firebugs (who were predominantly Cree & Ojibwe tribally, not Mohawk) with this seventh generation idea, and posited that the burning of the city was a moment of reckoning for the generations of genocide they’d been born into.

In the film, how does everyone immediately know that Stryker is from Brokenhead? Is it something about the way he looks? And how do they all know to call him Stryker already? It’s like they’ve been expecting him….

Daisy recognizes him because she’s also from there. When Mama Ceece sees him she mistakenly calls him a “swampy Cree boy”, which is wrong – Brokenhead is from the Ojibwe Nation. Kids like that, in their early teens, arrive off of reservations all the time to try life in the big city of Winnipeg. Some of them meet a very brutal end quite quickly, so I was interested in documenting that voyage. I wanted to imbue Stryker with a mythic aspect, like a lone gunslinger from a Western who comes into town to raise hell. Just by being in the shadows, he causes strange things to happen to those around him. The name Stryker is a generic title given to any kid who wants to join a gang, it’s the entry-level position. Our character plays both sides, seemingly working for both gangs in the North End turf war, but in the end he’s flying solo, like avenging angels tend to do.

Do you know this quote by Spinoza: “All things excellent are difficult as they are rare”? I think that is what your film is: excellent, rare, and thus, difficult.

I don’t know the quote, but I’ll take it as a compliment – at times I have also felt like an excommunicated Jew. It was a difficult film to make, and difficult for many to contend with as viewers. It wasn’t the most politically astute move on my part – Canadians are very sensitive about the way Native reality is depicted on screen, owing to the fact that this county’s existence depends on our brutal history of conquest, the results of which are so omnipotent in Winnipeg, which it’s large First Nations population. Many commentators didn’t appreciate a non-Native filmmaker foraying into this terrain but I liken the situation to living in apartheid or the occupied West Bank – if you are a witness to state repression, even if it’s not directed at you personally, how can you be blind to it?

Is the mythology of Manitoba a native mythology? Does Canada have a connection to mythology? Because I think there is something of the myth or fairy tale about your film…not the happy ending Hollywood version, but more like Greek or Brothers Grimm, where what is strange and boundary-stretching and jarring and uncomfortable turns out to be what is most transformative for you in the end.

Manitoba means the place of spirit in Cree. I own an artwork by Jake Kosciuk that inverts the map of our province which, with a little bit of doctoring, looks a lot like a twisted windigo mask. Manitoba was born out of an uprising of the mixed blood (Aboriginal and French) Métis people, led by Louis Riel, a bit of a madman anarchist who predicted that a new Vatican would rise out of the Saint Vital neighborhood on the south side of Winnipeg. Another one of his prophecies was that his people would rise again in a hundred years, led by artists. The graphic novelist Chester Brown posits that the Canadian government used this rebellion to fund the national railroad system, first as a means of troop transport, and then for settling the prairies. There is still war booty in southern Ontario, in the form of church bells, brought home by returning soldiers. As to the boundary stretching transformative, its inevitable when someone like me takes on a the street gang genre – it’s gonna come out a funky hybrid. My concern wasn’t to make traditional urban entertainment, even if I sometimes like to frame the movie that way. It’s like a red herring to lure the audience into a tale of that not only encompasses the usual tropes: drug wars, juvie hall, et al – but also walks down the trannie stroll, asks tough questions about Native reality, openly fetishes thugs and finds humour in areas where we’re conditioned to tsk and shake our heads at the sad reality. In the final scene when Stryker returns to face the city again after being dumped by the police in a snow bank on the outskirts of town, I really wanted him to rise to that god-like level in Greek myth, where you don’t know if he’s alive or dead, if he’s going to destroy the city.

Have you watched many Baz Luhrman films? There’s something about the pace and timing that reminds me of some of them….

I’ve seen Australia, Moulin Rouge! and my favourite: Romeo + Juliet. I really loved that scene when Des’ree sings “I’m Kissing You” through the fish tank (and come to think of it, we’ve both used fish tank cinematography). We work on different scales, but I did manage to elevate Aboriginal issues to a Wagnerian level. With Australia he broached the aboriginal adoption issue in his home country, and David Gulpilil who played King George was great to see on screen again, I’ve missed him since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).

I’m interested in the native idea that disrobing can be a way of “shucking off the body” or “uncovering the soul”. There are also native tribes who believe that disrobing in a dream is a sign of approaching death, not necessarily a physical death, maybe the death of some old way of seeing, old way of life… In many aboriginal societies (not necessarily Canadian), there is also a lot of talk of “intercourse” – of all things having the most physical interaction, of the sun itself having intercourse with the earth (as Australian aboriginals believed). Did you find anything about this in the research you were doing before the film?

I didn’t come across “shucking off of the body” in my research, but your description of the sun and earth in intercourse reminds me of some ancient Egyptian beliefs I’ve studied. There has been the allegation of Queer tricksterism going on with our inclusion of transgendered sex trade workers. But Native trannie, or “two spirited” people as they call themselves, are a genuine phenomena in the Winnipeg underworld that needed to be depicted. In the pre-contact era, cross-dressing men and women were revered by their tribes as medicine people, given positions of respect and power. All that was repressed by the church, where same-sex encounters resurfaced in abusive power relationships between priests and children. The hustler stroll in Winnipeg is comprised of mostly Native teens, many with gang affiliations. When you mix in the federal penitentiary where Native people are also overrepresented, where a senior Indian Posse overlord was nearly bludgeoned to death by a mob of his underlings for forcing younger inmates to fellate him, you see that these worlds really do interconnect, this isn’t just the fevered imaginings of a queer filmmaker with an obsession for hoodlums. Mama Ceece’s butch lesbian depiction has also been corroborated by auditioning actresses from the hood who informed us that in reality there were several Mama Ceeces who controlled different aspects of the underworld, car theft rings, etc. Scripting a dyke who’s in charge of the Indian Posse with a gaggle of Native trannies was challenging for audiences who wanted a movie with standard gender role representations found in mainstream gang genre films. I wouldn’t deliver that type of fare to the viewer because the truth is that street life has always meant the meeting of these worlds: sexual outlaws and criminal outlaws find commonality. Someone once said about the film, that it feels like everyone wants to fuck everyone else, which made me remember the words of Divine in her disco hit “Native Love (Step by Step)”: ‘This Native Love is Restless/And I’m Just Not Satisfied.”

Also, in much of traditional native culture, a vision quest is the decision to meet one’s self. Stryker is on a kind of vision quest turned inside out isn’t he? Because by looking at him, other people seem to meet themselves for the first time. Are you wanting the audience to have to wake up? Wordsworth said that “Habits rule the unreflecting herd.” Are you trying to wake people out of their habits?

The character of Stryker was written as a catalyst for the people he met in the hood, causing each of them to transform or curve further along their individual path. Ideally we wanted audiences to feel what its like to walk in to torn sneakers of a teenaged arsonist. The film is a stiff slap in the face for a certain audiences, there’s a certain brutality that isn’t coated in morality, but young Native people have seen the humour, the local references, characters they recognize but don’t find on screen.

Have you found this film doesn’t fit into the usual modes of discourse about native subjects? Has it been hard for you to take responsibility for this film? Has it been hard for others to see their own “human-ness” reflected by to them? 

The film is an audience splitter. It takes a special viewer to go the whole distance with us. But I have seen people really moved by the work, crying at the end, or really worked up and angry in the aftermath – both reactions that I was going for. When a film causes debate: some people not able to handle the LGBT curve balls I’ve tossed, some people taking a firm anti-gang stance against the film, I think that’s positive – these irritants should generate discussion. As I alluded above, Aboriginal representation is severely vetted in our national cinema. As a state-funded apparatus, its rare to find a film about the underbelly of First Nations experience that doesn’t advocate disaffected youth buying into the society at-large, casting aside juvenile anti-social associations and affiliations. I came out publicly in defense of the Indian Posse vis-à-vis my seventh generation reading of the situation. That was something a lot of people didn’t want to see, a backwards way of looking at things. The notion that a work of art can glamorize gang life and serve to pump up membership was something that came up from a vocal minority in that class, and it’s something we’ve heard before in the area of ‘taking responsibility’ for the film. If representing something forbidden equates to glamorizing it, than I suppose I’m guilty as charged. I am not at all averse to the allegation of glamour. We could all use a little more of that in our lives, not just the beaded gown, gold tipped cigarette variety. But the film isn’t perfect (I don’t strive for perfection), so I have stopped chalking up critical resistance to a refusal to face one’s human-ness reflected back at them. The film very much wants to push the viewer and if the viewer opts to push back, who am I to squawk?

Are you less interested in “giving people hope” than you are in being an instigator? In forcing people to get so uncomfortable that they must move, act?

There’s a polemical Argentine film from the 60’s called the ‘Hour of the Furnaces’ that was extremely critical of the social structure at the time and the last title card is an entreaty to the audience to turn around and discuss the issues amongst themselves. I like that idea and would aspire towards it. If the images and narratives stoke fires in some viewers I think that’s a form of hope, if it inspires their own creativity and empowers through representation.

In literature, the Outsider is often the one who is interested in extreme states, the one who either consciously or subconsciously searches for true balance by unleashing his own hunger in full force. There are extremes in your work in terms of drugs, sex, violence, even extremes when it comes to sanity. Do you think that it’s usually at the physical, mental and emotional extremes that people are able to experience some kind of alchemical change? Or is it the opposite: are people using these things to numb themselves from reality, because reality itself is too much for them?

I am attracted to extreme personalities, if I look at some of the lovers I’ve had or the muses I’ve taken on, and underdog or outsider has, in a political sense, has also been a character I’ve advocated for in the work. In terms of drugs, they’re useful in allowing one to voyage outside the normally prescribed behavior patterns. There are also a few very sexy schizophrenics whom I’ve known for a long time, predating their condition, and as difficult as they can be for friends, I’m at times susceptible to their altered reality and conspiracy theories. The alchemy is that reality is fairly elastic and in my reckoning drugs, sex, psychic states and violence are all useful tools in shaping or destroying (for the purposes of rebuilding) one’s own environment.

Your film is about fire, and fire is an extreme, something that can change the physical form of something, rearrange its parts completely….

And of course pyromaniacs get a sexual thrill from their craft. I recently heard that watching fire intently is very good for the eyes. In my previous feature, “Hey, Happy!” (2001) sexuality and libidinousness are the primary traits of the star, Sabu. And he uses his quest the for bedding of two thousand men as a means to not only search inward, but also to affect the world around him. It was a pro-libertine film at a time when young fags were being herded in the opposite direction: marriage, anti-sex panic monogamy, or abstinence.

With your work, you make people uncomfortable, push them beyond their comfort zone. In making this film, did you also have to push yourself in this way?

Working with a cast that were for the most part the real thing, i.e. young aboriginal hip-hoppers or Asian thugs, meant finding a language and meeting ground where we could collaborate in making a film together. Coming from a different place wasn’t much of a challenge for me – I’m a fairly sociable person and as a director you have to be able to relate to the people you’re depicting, even if they’re outside your milieu – that’s also part of the fun. In the aftermath of the film I have great contacts in the criminal underworld of Winnipeg who are very proud of the legendary status participating in the project generated. The set was rife with crew discontent, the hours were long and the indie film spirit was running thin in the wake of a few big budget Hollywood films preceding mine and setting the bar high in terms of comfort and payment. It was a difficult film physically, shooting in winter and taking on the weight of the topic. Becoming a conduit for the story took its toll on me, but no one else was going to tell the story and once I signed on I didn’t really stop until the red carpet at Venice.

Have your most basic, natural desires ever been a source or reason that you’ve felt like an outsider in Winnipeg? If so, do you think this gives you a way of understanding someone like Stryker? Are the experiences of someone of differing race or class or sexual desires really so different when it comes to the way it feels and the way one must find his or her own confidence and social poise?

I don’t really feel like an outsider in Winnipeg, as much as I’ve been called out on Stryker, I think the majority of people here support ruminations on difficult subjects. Perhaps queerness informs my empathy for the outsider, but I would also ascribe it to my father’s politics as one of Canada’s foremost Marxists, the kind of indoctrination I cottoned on to at an early age, coupled with my mother’s stories as a community mental health worker focusing on the underclass, really sensitized me to social injustice. Ed Lachman, the cinematographer on the film, used to say that all cinema is about relationships, be they gay or straight, about the connection between people. But getting back to homosexuality… the kind of homosexual practice I’ve maintained has allowed me a passport into so many worlds. Beyond the enjoyment of multiple partners, it’s the stories and rooms that you’re given access to which is great fodder for filmmaking.

For instance, in the moving scene where Stryker and Daisy first meet and seem to really connect, isn’t it this outsider understanding that is at the heart of that unlikely connection/friendship?

For me that moment is about finding commonality across difference. About a basic human instinct for warmth and caring, for doing the right thing, helping a roughed up trannie with a ripped fur coat out of the snow bank and taking away her matches so she doesn’t burn herself, lighting her smoke. When we were doing the sound mix on that sequence, we discovered a very beautiful ambient tone, like a distant whirring drone, in that moment when Stryker hands her keys back to her. I always felt like that was angels crying at the beauty of that moment.

It’s amazing to me that the native way of talking about transvestites is to call them “Two Spirited People”. I think this reflects some kind of understanding of the fact that by being “different” one has to wake up more fully than those around him or her, and thus, once he or she is comfortable with that “strangeness”, he or she has even more to give.

It is like being doubly blessed with twice the amount of spirit that everyone else gets.

At the end of the film, Omar asks Kyle’s character “Who the fuck are you?” But he’s really asking himself “Who am I?” This is also the ultimate question of the Outsider because the Outsider by definition is one who has come to question his own place in the larger picture, seeing that things don’t quite fit, questioning the whole system, bringing that question into all his interactions as Stryker so silently does. Do you think people are afraid of asking this kind of questioning? Is that part of the problem?

Well there aren’t too many reassuring images of whites in the movie where white audience members can gain entry and say: “that’s me up there”. That might be part of the problem, if there is a problem. The film requires a bit of work soul searching, and “who am I?” (or, “who are we?”) is perhaps not the best question for selling popcorn. But if I’ve done my job, the film is watchable enough that those tough questions seem in unconsciously and the outsider’s lament infects the viewer over the longterm. If the film suffers from distribution gatekeepers or homophobic word of mouth, I think both these things add to its mystique, and judging by the thousands of downloads and youtube hits, the burnt copies I’ve heard about across the Canadian arctic on Native reservations, I’m satisfied that it’s finding an audience and doing it’s work.

Why do you think people have such a hard time with the sexual and homoerotic parts of the film? Is there any relation to this inability for people to be comfortable with the most basic parts and drives of themselves and their inability to see the aboriginal people in a true way?

It’s not the most obvious choice of hybrid hyphenate in the gang war genre “street thug –slash – trannie flick. But my remit compels me to push the medium forward and put things together in new and unlikely ways. How else can we develop as a culture, as people? But as I’ve alluded above, the tainted reputation that the queer content gives the movie one of the most entertaining aspects. As much as people want to resist the homosocial in the work, we know its just a performance of rejection, and in their deepest darkest nights, either in the cell block or on the internet, they’re not as close minded as they’d lead us to believe.

Do you really believe the native people should “take back what is theirs”?

Yes, I support Native self-government and at a recent election for National Grand Chief one of the nominees, the chief of Kyle Henry (who played Stryker)’s Roseau reservation, Terry Nelson, proposed that the Northern territories negotiate joining the United States to put them in a better bargaining position with Ottawa.

Did you grow up feeling / do you feel now / any guilt in relation to the native communities in Canada?

No, only fascination.

In what ways do you feel thankful to the native community in Manitoba?

I am thankful for their connection to Mother Earth, to the natural environment, to magic. I am thankful because they are sometimes amazing lovers, generally well endowed. There are moments of deep yet instant connection. And that the two-spirited traditional has survived residential schools and the church, providing a key to unlocking the mysteries of human sexuality.

How did your own views/feelings about First Nation people change in the course of researching and making and then talking about this film?

One observation is that there is no ‘one’ Native voice or opinion. I’ve met Native artists who’ve hired me to produce their work in the wake of Stryker, and aboriginal critics who’ve championed the film, and there are just as many who won’t look me in the eye.

Do you think monetary retribution to First Nation people really helps?

Until the fall of Capitalism, money helps. Send some.


Roberto Ferri: The Still Cycle

Roberto Ferri first came to NYC to attend film school. He was born in Italy, and by the time he moved to NYC he already had a degree a degree in film from the National Film School. Robi first started making films when he was only 14 years old. Those first films, and the films he made while in school, were more traditional narratives. In NYC, however, the narratives turned into The Still Cycle, a group of videos where the center of the action is a person who, in the midst of the normal movement and chaos of a day, remains still. The contrast is more shocking than it sounds: this still presence at the center suddenly causes one to see normal activity and movement in a very new way.

The first “Still video” that Robi made came as surprise even to him. It lasted as long as a typical workday, a video of a young man standing completely still in front of a camera in his room. It was a spontaneous gesture that came one morning after his father called from Italy to tell Robi it was time “to get busy, to make something of himself, to do some real work”. When he hung up the phone, Roberto’s immediate reaction was to turn on his camera and for the next eight hours, to only stand still. From there, the cycle has expanded into the streets and cultural institutions of New York City and other cities around the world. Roberto and I met in the West Village one winter day to discuss how he came to making such videos, and what The Still Cycle really means to him.

Pulse: What kind of movies are you generally drawn to watch?

Roberto Ferri: I’ve always liked to watch movies that reflected the pace of real life, that had a similar timing to the way we experience the world. I’ve been watching a lot of Andrei Tarkovsky lately, and I think he’s someone who often does this. There’s also the work of people like Bill Viola or Bruce Neumann, where the medium of film is as much about timing and an element of silence than it is about story or plot. I’m interested in films that do not try to escape the loneliness, silence, and melancholy that I experience in real life.

It sounds like you’re interested in the space between things. Which, in a way, is the same thing as being interested in the space that holds things, in the background, in the canvas, in the pause. 

Yes, exactly. I’m interested in the paradox of the silence that is necessary for the noise. I’m interested in the way the pause is mixed up with the activity. I think that interest stems from my childhood. I grew up in a very middle class household where a lot of emphasis was put on activity. My parents thought it was very important to always be active, to be a good student, to wake up early, to always do your homework, to be sure and have lots of friends, to have a steady girlfriend. And yet, in a lot of ways, I was naturally inclined to the opposite of all of that. I spent a lot of time alone, watching movies and reading and my parents were confused by this, always wondering why I was “wasting so much time” with all these boring movies when I was just a kid. They didn’t think it was healthy. They wanted me to be like someone in an American movie – always active and moving and go, go, go. So basically I eventually gave in to their pleas and I tried to do this, I went against myself to try and live this way and keep busy. I pushed myself because I thought it was the right thing to do because my family was so concerned about this. I was a good son. I went out a lot. I was a good student. I didn’t make a lot of trouble for my family. But there wasn’t something about me that was lost in all that. So I think that’s an important point for my work now. I think that’s how I got pushed to that moment where I woke up and decided that all I was going to do was stand sill.

Did you feel like you were breaking away from your old life by doing that?

I felt like I was stopping time for a bit. If you imagine your life as a timeline, you are born and you die and you should fill all this space between with as many things as possible. You’re not able to think about consequences at first. You are too young. You just follow it. You just try and fill it up. You stuff your time as full as you can. At least that’s what I did. There was always something before and after school to do. There was soccer practice. There was getting a job. There was university. And on and on. It never finishes. There’s no end to this. And day by day, you lose yourself.

Do you mean that by stuffing our days so much we lose an awareness of who we really are?

You don’t let yourself be there long enough to be aware. You feel like something is wrong because you haven’t given any thought or space to whatever is really you, is really real, but you think it’s crazy to feel that way and you keep doing things to fill your time, as if that will be the thing that defines you. But the more you don’t follow yourself and the more you follow something else instead, the more insecure you feel and the more guilt you feel and the more you feel like you have to do even more to make up for that. So it’s this big circle and you get really confused in that. You never just step back to see how you really want to live your life. You just pack the timeline full of things. I was doing this, but day by day I realized that this timeline doesn’t even belong to me. None of that stuff on there was even mine. And I didn’t know what I was.

And it took that extreme action of just standing still for eight hours to break through and realize all of that?

I’m a kind of masochist. I like to go to the place that I hate the most or that is the hardest for me because that’s where I can see new things. I have to confront all this in myself in those places. I have to make something out of it, be creative. I came to NYC with this hope that maybe I could solve myself here, but I was even more stressed when I got here and realized it wasn’t any better; in fact, it was worse. I wasn’t able to do anything. I just stayed in my room without windows, reading. I hardly even went to school. I realized I was just filling my time with sadness again. I was still following the timeline and I didn’t know how to step away. So that morning when I was really sad in my room all alone and my father called me and said “What are you doing with your life?” – I couldn’t lie to him. I told him I was sad and that I had no idea what to do. And he had his usual response which was to say things like “I told you not to go to NYC. You’re always wasting time.” After that phone call the pain was so extreme that I just turned on the camera and stood there without moving again for the next eight hours. I don’t know where that came form but I just suddenly had to do it. I just had to have that response. And I did it every day for one week. Like a job. Every day I woke up at 8 o’clock and I prepared the camera and I stood still for eight hours.

It’s like you pushed yourself over the edge.

Yes. I needed to do this. It was necessary. I don’t know how to explain it. But it was so unnatural for my body, it actually really hurt my body. For three or four hours it would be quite painful but there was something in that too, in forcing myself to bear it and stand still through it. It was a serious process. I wanted it. I felt it was really good for me to do this. To stay still. To just wait. To just be there. To see what happened.

What has changed from doing this?

Well, it changed everything and nothing. It’s this same paradox I was talking about earlier. After I did this, it was a whole new world and it was the same world. I’m not the same person as before I did this, and I am. It’s like if you imagine that timeline again, the stillness was like getting back to the zero point, the point where there is no activity, no movement. I just got back to the space, the pause, everything that is not the activity. None of the things that stress me were in that space. I can still go to that place, and all the stress is gone there… So I don’t know what that really solves but I know it is a good thing, a healing thing, to reach this zero point, this place that is still. This is something good for me. Even if I can’t say exactly why.

But isn’t that space you’re talking about always there?

Yes. It’s always there. At any moment.

Does the stillness, or even just knowing the stillness is there, change the way you feel when you aren’t being still, when you’re back in the timeline, when you’re active?

It makes me aware of how I spend my time. It helps me to accept it for what it is, or to stop it. I don’t think about the results. I’m just in the process. The whole point of being still is that I’m not thinking about the past or the future; it’s not about the past or the future. I’m the same person I was before I started this. Sometimes I even have the same stress. But I’m aware that there is also something else. So the important thing for me is this knowledge that comes with the stillness, knowledge about myself and the people and the life around me. At first, it was just me in this room standing still alone. But in the films after that, I’ve put myself in the society, in the middle of the city, and I am still there. It’s not a kind of religious awareness or the stillness of a monk who is alone and prays all day. It’s important for me to relate the stillness in my video to the movement of the society as a whole.

You want to show this contrast?

The contrast is important. To see these two things being there together at once. The stillness is what makes the activity clear. You wouldn’t notice the activity in the same way if there wasn’t this figure in the frame being totally still. There are all these timelines around me in the videos, being active, moving. And then there is the zero point. When you watch the video, it is as though there is something wrong, you feel like something is wrong because this one figure is not moving at all in the midst of all this other movement. It draws your attention to the stillness, and so you can’t help but notice this really typical street scene in a different way.

In being still for hours in the midst of a busy NYC scene, are you protesting all that movement? Or is this your way of saying “I accept this”?

I am accepting it. I don’t want to change it. I just want to see it as it is. I’m not resisting anything. I’m just stopping, just being there. It’s a place of timelessness. It’s the space in between the space. And I don’t know why I want to stay in this zero point, but I want to experience this.

It’s like by learning how to be with yourself alone, you found a way to really connect with the world again.

Once someone asked Tarkovsky what advice he would like to give the younger generation and he said the only thing he could say was that they should learn to be able to be alone with themselves, to learn how to feel the space and just be there with themselves. We are social animals and we cannot, nor should we, try to escape each other, but a society can’t do anything together if the people who create it aren’t comfortable enough to be alone with themselves first.


Interview by Andrea Hiott, New York City, 2009


Anna Rohleder: Cashing In

At the end of my Wednesday afternoon yoga lesson, I presented a blue 500-rupee note to Masterji as usual. He took out a tan-colored 100 from his desk drawer, and paused.

“Have you got change for the autorickshaw?” he asked, eyebrows lifting in an expression of grandfatherly concern. “You should not be paying those rascals any more than 30 rupees – 40 only if they take the ring road!”

I knew Masterji was probably right, but 30 rupees still felt like an impossibly small amount of money to pay for the half-hour ride in the little three-wheeled tuk-tuk, or autorickshaw, from my neighbourhood in Bangalore to Masterji‘s place. After all, 50 rupees was only the equivalent of a dollar. That was one reason I had such a hard time bargaining with the drivers. Whether they detected my own vague guilt at „exploiting“ them or simply my lack of familiarity with the system, they were usually the ones to make a final offer in our transactions.

But I was too embarrassed to tell Masterji I had never paid less than 60 rupees one way. Instead, I showed him I had no change in my wallet, only a few other large notes.

“Come,” he said, unfolding his legs from a lotus position and rising fluidly from the chair, very much in the mode of a yoga guru.

Exhorting his other students to keep up their efforts in his absence – the asthmatic boy doing knee-bends, the overweight housewives rolling back and forth on their bellies – Masterji led me out of his rooftop yoga studio and down a steep set of winding metal stairs into the interior of his home. In a spare bedroom, next to a computer reposing under a dust cover, he took out a metal box. When he opened the lid, I had to stifle a gasp at the contents. It was full of change. From peach-colored tens and red twenties to the less commonly encountered, violet-tinted 50, Masterji had such a large hoard of small bills that I wondered briefly whether he alone might be responsible for the shortage of change I had been experiencing on a daily basis since coming to Bangalore.

Six months into my stay, I experienced nearly every variation of the change problem. No matter if I was trying to buy a cup of tea from a roadside chaiwallah or a bar of soap from an air-conditioned „departmental store“ at the mall, big bills had proven to be chronic deal breakers. The mere sight of them struck even the most loquacious and head-bobbling “Yes, yes, no problem, madam!” sort of merchant into a dull, aphasic stare. Cashiers tended to freeze in apprehension, shake their heads and sigh before opening a register drawer that was already full of other large notes. The clerks at my local grocery store had sometimes resorted to giving me change out of their own pockets. At the ubiquitous little stalls that sold a bit of everything – mini-sachets of shampoo, single cigarettes, cookies from a glass jar – I had, on occasion, been given my change in candy or even cough drops.

All the tongue-clucking and other sounds of exasperation that were triggered by holding out a one- or five-hundred rupee note made me feel as though I had transgressed against an unspoken local custom. But until I saw Masterji‘s stash of small bills, I didn‘t understand that it was because you could not just expect that more change would be available in the world “out there.” Instead, you were supposed to hold on to what you had.

Previously, I’d assumed that the Indian economy in general and money in particular worked the same way as in the West: one of those public utilities, like water, power, or the sewage system, that are as available and reliable as the air we breathe, and just as invisible in its workings. The analogy was unexpectedly apt. In the same way that the electricity went out during the hottest part of the day and the water tap sometimes produced only dry hissing, the supply of rupees was also a shared resource prone to sudden shortfalls.

In a country of one-billion-plus, there wasn’t enough of anything to go around, and that distorted the way economics was supposed to work. Whereas in the States, money was the soil upon which intangible ideas, dreams and desires took root and blossomed into material objects or experiences such as movie tickets, cell phones or a meal at a fashionable restaurant, this process seemed to turn back in on itself in India. During my stay in Bangalore and New Delhi in the mid-2000s, for example, there were a number of stories in the local media about criminal coin-melting operations in the eastern part of the country. The modus operandi of these gangs was to melt down huge quantities of steel 1-rupee coins, recast them as razor blades, and sell them over the border in Bangladesh for several times their original value.

Economies where coins have a greater value as metal than as money would be considered pre-modern by definition, and almost certainly unable to participate in the global economy of the 21st century as we know it, where most commerce is conducted on the basis of data or other digital equivalents rather than in specie. Yet India enjoyed a prominent role among other “emerging economies” in global trade while I was there from 2005-2007, and throughout the rest of the decade. Middle-class Indians were investing en masse in the stock market, real estate and other things whose worth relied on an abstract consensus of value. However, those same people were, like Masterji, simultaneously building up stockpiles of cash in their own homes the same way they filled up their own private water tanks from the municipal water line.

Masterji was a skilful hoarder, and I now appreciated his resourcefulness in that regard. Like one of the big software companies I had followed in my previous life as an IT industry analyst – software companies being the great Indian success story of the time — Masterji‘s relentless acquisition strategy had given him a competitive position in the market.

He fanned out an array of crisp tens and twenties.

„Where did you get these?“ I couldn‘t help asking.

The normal condition of most ten and twenty-rupee bills was less like paper than soiled, over-rubbed velvet. As the smallest banknotes that could buy something reasonably substantial, on the order of a newspaper, a pack of gum, or a cold drink, they were handled so frequently and so thoroughly (often emerging from people‘s clothing or shoes at the time of payment) that they also degraded fast. Despite the change shortage, some bills were even rejected outright by merchants. Yet it was rarely the notes I would have guessed might be refused, such as bills that had been taped together or had a lacy pattern of holes in the middle. For me this was confusing enough in itself, and it compounded the overall currency supply problem further. What was “good” small change? And how did people get a reliable supply of it?

Masterji chuckled. “I sent my wife to the bank yesterday.”

I found this hard to believe.


“Madam, hello, please come!”

Standing in front of his shop in the main market, Rehman called out to me. He was wearing his usual outfit (in fact, the only pair of clothes I had ever seen him in): a blue polo shirt, a pair of grey trousers and black sandals he would step out of when he came to my apartment to drop off a new 10-liter jug of bottled water. I walked over to his little shop: called „Dew Drops,“ it sold cold drinks, ice cream, long-distance phone calls, time on the internet and a variety of desktop publishing services. Its crammed interior felt cozy to me. Often when Rehman saw me walk past, he would beckon me over with an invitation to drink tea. I was only too glad to accept. The moment I slipped inside the dim shop, I escaped the spotlight of stares and giggling that followed me everywhere, and could become a spectator instead, watching the housewives, hawkers, school kids, delivery vans, motorcycles and cows all going about their ambling business in the market. Usually tea with Rehman didn’t involve conversation. I just took my place on the bench alongside the men in untucked shirts and loose trousers who seemed to be as much permanent fixtures of Dew Drops as the phone booth, ice cream freezer, and copy machines, and we all sat in silence, sipping our hot chai. Today, however, Rehman had a question.

“Madam, you are from America, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“I want to know what is your largest currency note.”

Rehman was a youthful guy, with an open, affable face and a high giggle that punctuated his conversation, but this didn’t feel like the set-up to a joke. Nor was it like the questions I had gotten about the United States from other people. On previous occasions, Indians had asked me whether there were monkeys in America, if everyone owned a car, and why people had voted for George Bush. I could answer most of those questions. But this one had me stumped. Our largest currency note? I had no idea. My official reason for leaving the States was framed as an escape from the rat race, though for me this had been less a struggle to escape the stresses of working and spending than to understand the purpose of „paying my dues“ in the system. But still, money is the one thing we Americans are supposed to have factual knowledge about, especially our own money — so I decided to bluff.

“A $500 bill,” I ventured.

“Not one million?”

“Oh no!“ I laughed with relief. “Definitely not a million.”

Rehman looked puzzled. “But my friend, he was gifted a one million dollar note, from America!”

“That’s not possible,” I said.

“Madam, I have seen it!”

Rehman fixed his gaze on me. Indicted by my own ignorance, I tried to think of other possibilities, however improbable. “Was it small and green, or very large – like a poster?” I held my arms open wide. (Could his friend have won a lottery of the sort that involves a giant mock-up check?)

“There is a certificate. I will get copies,“ he said. He turned to move off, and then turned back. „Like to have tea?“ he asked belatedly.

I went to my accustomed spot on the bench. The men already sitting there shifted to make room for me.

A barefoot little boy appeared, carrying a tray of plastic cups of tea. I reached out for one, pondering Rehman‘s question. Was there any way this could be real? I wondered. A million-dollar bill seemed a very unlikely proposition. But then he seemed so sure of himself.

“Can I see the photocopies?” I asked.

Rehman waggled his head. “I am just bringing them.”

Edging past the row of tea-drinkers on the bench, Rehman made his way over to his sole employee, a guy in tight trousers and slicked-back hair, who seemed to spend all his time chatting on Instant Messenger. Rehman leaned in to his employee’s ear, and the guy got up from his station, taking a set of keys from the desk. Dragging out a dented grey scooter from the forest of other scooters, motorbikes and bicycles that grew up in front of the shops in the market every afternoon, he kicked it into life and sped off.

When he returned a short time later, he gave Rehman a large plastic envelope.

Smiling, Rehman took out a sheaf of papers. “There, madam, you see?” he said, handing them to me.

The first sheet was a stamped and sealed attestation which stated that his friend, the proprietor of a Muslim charity near Mysore, had not stolen, coerced or obtained by any other fraudulent means the donation in question. Then came a series of documents setting out the organization’s legal basis as a charity. Finally there was a photocopy, a certificate of authenticity, and the name and address of the donor in Florida.

The photocopy showed an engraved typeface reading ONE MILLION US DOLLARS along the bottom edge. A large image of the Statue of Liberty on the front occupied the center position of the note, where a President normally presided. And on the back was a statement saying: “This certificate is backed and secured only by confidence in the American dream.” The accompanying certificate announced, “This document confers membership in the Millionaire’s Club.”

When I read that, my stomach did a sick flip-flop. I kept looking at the certificate so I didn‘t have to meet Rehman’s eyes. What kind of person would send a fake million-dollar bill to a charity in India? Was this Florida resident the sort of bitter old man who might hand wads of Monopoly money to homeless people just so he could rasp, “Go get yourself a nice place on Boardwalk”? Had he searched out a Muslim charity to send his little Trojan horse on purpose?

Or was it possible to attribute a less mean-spirited motive to my fellow American, a kind of lazy charity? Maybe for him, a millionaire’s club membership was like a bag of old clothing he thought he could donate to people in the Third World, the joke-money equivalent of t-shirts and track pants.

Suddenly Rehman blurted out his real concern. “What I am thinking is how to deposit so much of money without government taking a tax. It would be a very high rate – at least 30 percent! And my friend says if I can find a way of doing without tax he will give me 20 lakhs as reward. I am hardly sleeping the last two nights, thinking what I will do with 20 lakhs!” he grinned.

Twenty lakhs was two million rupees (about forty thousand dollars at the time). In Rehman‘s mind, he had already joined the millionaire‘s club. And although I didn’t know him well, I could imagine the kinds of windfall fantasies that were keeping him up at night: some of the money would go to pay off the loan he’d taken to buy a color copier for his shop in hopes it would increase business; some would be added as a supplement to the remittances he already sent to his family in Bangladesh; while the largest portion would probably be set aside for the many-many things, from bangles and sari fabric to the security deposit on a larger apartment, needed to entice the pretty girl he’d met online (whose laminated picture he showed everyone) into becoming his fiancée.

I handed him back the papers. There was no good way to break the news. “Rehman, this is not real,” I said.

“What?” his brow furrowed.

“It’s just for fun – see here,“ I said, pointing to the line about the American dream. “Not backed by the American government.”

He said nothing for a moment as his millionaire dreams changed back into the more familiar shape of his everyday worries. Then his grin returned. “Oho, wait until I tell my friend!” he giggled. “I will tell him he must wash your feet and then drink the water!”

I bit my lip, unable to smile back. I hoped it really wasn’t a big deal for Rehman. As for me, I felt personally implicated by the fake note – maybe even exposed. If the bill was counterfeit, then so, by extension, was the American dream that backed it.

And wasn’t that the real reason I was in India?


Josh Grossberg: On New Orleans

a 2007 interview with the director of A Bridge Life

Josh Grossberg’s documentary A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home From Katrina chronicles the actions of a man named Dan Sheffer as he travels to Houston in the wake of the 2005 hurricane in the United States. In the midst of the national disaster, Sheffer’s goal is to get as many evacuees as possible out of the Houston Astrodome, a place where more than 30,000 survivors were sent after being evacuated from New Orleans. Dan’s idea is to gather as many people as he can afford to bring back to Florida with him, take them away from the bedlam of the Astrodome, and give them the money and resources they need to restart. As the movie progresses and the men and women start their new lives, it soon becomes clear that not everyone Dan has taken back with him is the same person that he or she first seemed. Things get complicated as the evacuees face various obstacles in trying to start over and rebuild their lives. Dan is forced to face the realization that despite all his good intentions, perhaps not everyone can be saved, and perhaps the final outcome has never been in his control in any case. The film is moving and at times heartbreaking, but at the center of „A Bridge Life“ is the idea that what binds us together is ultimately our need for communion and community, and because of that shared need, when life appears to be at its worst, a simple act of compassion always has the power to make things right again.

Pulse: How did you end up at the Houston Astrodome during the hurricane? Did you go there with the intent to make this film?

Josh Grossberg: I watched the aftermath of Katrina on TV like everyone else in America and I felt a sense of helplessness. Several days had gone by since the storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf and little was being done to help those caught in its wake, save the extraordinary efforts of the US Coast Guard in rescuing hundreds trapped on rooftops from the flood. I had to do something and saw an email sent out by the Hillel Jewish group at NYU where I was attending grad school at the time. It was an announcement that was seeking volunteers to travel to the Houston Astrodome where thousands of Katrina survivors were being bussed to by authorities after their rescue. Organizers weren‘t sure exactly what the volunteers would be doing. All we knew was that Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagrams Ltd and onetime chairman of MGM Studios, had agreed to sponsor the trip and pay for flights down there to lend a hand. I went to the Hillel meeting and put my name in as interested in joining them. Not three hours after attending, I get a call from one of the organizers asking me if I wanted to go to Houston to volunteer. I said yes and the next thing I knew, I was joining the other nine volunteers and two administrators on a flight down to Texas. Whether fulfilling such simple tasks as handing out water bottles or arranging clothing donations or just comforting the victims, jobs were plentiful once we got to the Astrodome. Many of the people there looked like they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. A majority of them had very little in the way of belongings, a great number only the clothes on their back. Some were wearing t-shirts donated to them, the only clothes they had after being plucked from the flood and taken to communal showers. One woman I distinctly remember had on a Shell t-shirt. She told me she escaped from the flood just barely but as she was swimming through the muck a plank of wood hit her square in the teeth, knocking out the center ones. She was a cab driver with a thick Cajun accent. And she was just dying to tell anyone who would listen her story of survival.

I’d brought along my digital video camera just in case and when many evacuees saw it, they would come up to me wanting to share what they had just went through. So in answer to your question, no, I didn’t come there with the intent to make this film. But I quickly realized that instead of handing out water bottles, perhaps it was my purpose while I was there to record as much of their stories as possible, not only for posterity‘s sake but also because it was very therapeutic for survivors to discuss their ordeal. It made them feel like someone was listening, and that meant almost as much as anything at the time. After all of this, after interviewing one traumatized person after another, I knew I had an obligation to do something to make sure these peoples‘ voices would be heard, even if it took me several years to do so. And that’s what became this film.

One man you met there, Dan Sheffer, the man you call the Good Samaritan, becomes the center of your film. Why do you think Dan was on such a mission to save these people?

While most people felt satisfied sending a donation to the Red Cross or other relief organizations, Dan wasn‘t sure such action would make a difference. He wanted to get more involved because he felt, as I did, helpless to the point of almost being paralyzed. He was also angry at the lack of response on the part of the government. He’d also admit that a tiny part of him wanted to make up for the allegations of racism in the aftermath of Katrina. Some might speculate he had a bit of a white man‘s burden complex but I would say it was more that he wanted to reach out and extend a helping hand to strangers because as a kid, growing up as an army brat in Guam, he had seen firsthand how hurricanes had devastated the lives of his Guamanian friends. Perhaps this was his way of stepping up and doing his part now as an adult. It was Dan‘s war, if you will — that is, his dad was a Navy doctor who served during the end of the Vietnam War, but since Dan never followed him into the armed forces, this was his opportunity to make a difference: He launched his own one-man operation, military in its efficiency, to bring aid and comfort to those Katrina evacuees in need. He went there with the plan to bring these people back to Florida with him and help them get back on their feet again. He was determined to do something real and immediate to help.

Dan’s motives really were pure, but it’s still hard for a lot of people to understand why he would go and help all these people he didn’t know. People don’t always understand that anyone could find themselves in a terrible situation rivaling or even exceeding Katrina, and in that situation, the only thing you can depend on is the kindness of strangers. In the end, if we don‘t have that, what do we have? Dan‘s idea was so spontaneous and hair-brained when looking at it from the outside, that it was easy to express cynicism, and many of his friends and co-workers certainly did. But that‘s what is special about Dan‘s story and the story of his evacuees. It‘s like a Rorschach test. It brings to light people‘s own views and, at times, even prejudices. I‘ve had people here and there express surprise at how the story turns out. And they quickly look within themselves and see their own cynicism. It’s interesting what our expectations can tell us about ourselves.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t lack my own prejudices. The events of this trip made me question an uneasiness I found in myself as I meandered among people of lower socio-economic status, particularly those of color. I felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment at how New Orleans‘ African-American population was being treated, particularly by a mainstream media and this country‘s white elite establishment that viewed many of their actions of survival as „looting.“ As I talked to evacuees on cots and saw what little many of them possessed—normally plastic bags filled with family pictures, trinkets, love letters and whatever precious memento they‘d rather die than part with—I became angry. As I listened to their stories and looked at how they viewed me without judgment, not judging me by my own white skin tone, but just seeing me as a fellow human being no different than themselves, I felt as if all the stereotypes generated by the media and our society at large were swept away in an instant. I felt connected to them as a human being. And that feeling emboldened me to forego my initial intimidation about approaching evacuees. At first, I kept my emotional distance out of respect and sensitivity to what I believed was the racism they suffered at the hands of their own government. But I soon realized that putting up such a barrier only played into such divisions. I was letting my own internalized prejudices limit what help I could give them. This was a liberating experience personally for it proved that despite our different skin tones and even educational background, we‘re all the same underneath. We‘re all cut from the same cloth.

It sounds like this was almost a spiritual journey you were all on there together.

In a lot of respects, one of the most memorable realizations I know we all had — I’m talking volunteers and evacuees alike — was that in the midst of this terrible catastrophe, we were all experiencing a powerful spiritual renewal. I can‘t tell you how many times not only did I hear myself but others say, ‚despite how tragic this all is, it‘s beautiful to see so many people coming together to help each other in such dire times.‘ That communal spirit, that vibe that we‘re all in this together, was very prevalent in those days of Katrina‘s aftermath. It gave us all hope that maybe we as human beings could learn something out of this. That we‘re better as a people when we look out for each other, then when we‘re on our own. What I‘m saying isn‘t an indictment of capitalist America entirely, but it is an indictment about how the system is rigged by those seeking to subjugate others for their benefit. Racism and classism are merely by-products of such machinations. So for me, the beautiful part of taking on this project as a filmmaker was that it forced me to reach across the racial and class divide to tell their stories, enabling me to shed whatever preconceived notions I had that society had ingrained in me ever since I was old enough to walk.

And I think that’s what Dan was doing too. He wasn‘t a prophet. He was just simply trying to fulfill Jesus‘ Great Commandment, „love your neighbor as yourself“. Isn‘t that what the Bible teaches us? And yet, modern society looks upon such acts as bizarre. Dan‘s not even a particularly religious man. Far from it in fact. But his ability to love the stranger—while anathema to people in his own social circle—enabled him to overcome the skepticism necessary to get evacuees to come to Florida and find temporary homes and jobs. He gave them a unique opportunity to start their life anew with a kind of support many had never seen before. The fascinating thing about the film is how very different were all of their reactions. Dan provided this ‚bridge life‘ for these people – a life that eventually included free condos, food, clothing, financial support and help getting jobs and transportation—all the ingredients needed to help them on their way. And yet that didn’t mean that it was a success story for everyone involved. As you see in the movie, the results were mixed, ranging from exultant to tragic at times. Some took advantage of the opportunity while others made some bad choices, which took them down a different, darker path.

Dan says in the beginning that he had five stories of success and one tragedy and that he finds those to be pretty good. Do you think the results of his efforts somehow mirror other things about our society?

I think Dan‘s group is a microcosm of society in that it really brings together a group of strangers of varying racial and economic backgrounds and shows that when stripped of all the trappings that our consumerist life has to offer, in the end what we have is each other. The tragedy that occurs in the movie is an unfortunate twist, but it doesn‘t overshadow all the good that happens, and it’s also this tragedy that leaves many having to reconsider their own initial expectations as they viewed the film. If anything it reminds us of the choices we make and the unpredictable hand that life can sometimes deal us. That in turn allows us to appreciate all the good that came out of Dan and his evacuees‘ journey and makes it all the more powerful. The pay-it-forward mindset that he represents, that legacy of giving, is the glue that makes our society a stronger and happier place. If this film accomplishes anything, I hope it allows people, particularly those living lives of privilege and convenience, the feeling of what it might be like to suddenly one day lose everything you own, and in some cases, even lose family members, and have nothing but the clothes ON your back and have to start over. A person can learn a lot about himself and how he reacts in a crisis living through such trauma.

Incidents such as Katrina remind us of our capacity to love, empathize and create positive change. It‘s up to us to recognize those opportunities and take advantage of them. And in a sense politically at least we have taken a step in that direction by electing Barack Obama. In a way, I think this film is the perfect story for this new era we‘re entering. I love the irony that people keep mentioning—the fact that America had to live through eight years of hell under President Bush for people to consciously decide to elect this man to the nation‘s highest office. Sometimes progress means going two steps back and three steps forward. Of course, the pragmatics of the Obama presidency and wielding power will undoubtedly dull our expectations at some point, but there‘s no denying our desire to usher in rapid change, to find something meaningful. And that‘s a beautiful thing. Hopefully this film holds up a mirror to show what people really want in the coming years, a renewal of community and the American spirit.