An old paper on Islamic Democracy

In the current climate of international politics, there is a great deal of speculation regarding the governance of Islamic states. Many traditionally Muslim states have operated under theocratic rule, a difficult concept for the West to swallow. The American control of Iraq is purportedly only to hold the place of power until a democratically elected regime can take the place of the occupying force. But is there, as some critics have speculated, some aspect of Islam that makes it inherently hostile and incompatible with Western notions of democratic rule? This is the question which John Esposito and John Voll have tried to examine in their book Islam and Democracy. Published in 1996, this book explores the different ways in which Islam relates to democratic principles and ideas. Arguing against previously held explanations about the nature of Islam and the very definition of democracy, this book explores several cases where Islamic movements operate to a varying degree of success in the area of popular representation. Continue reading…

“Words are spells against demons.” –Nelson Mandela

 

I want to study literature because I don’t know how not to. I am fascinated with stories and narrative, as well as the foundation stone upon which they are built: language. Mandela’s quote is a simple truth, or more accurately, a truth simply stated. At some level, I have always had an innate understanding of this but I could never elucidate it fully. Nelson Mandela’s address to the University of Cape Town opened with this succinct, poetic description. I was lucky enough to catch the speech during the tail end of my tenure as an ambassadorial scholar in South Africa. Mr. Mandela’s aphorism struck a chord with me, resonating at a deep, barely quantified level.

Language fascinated me from an early age. In some form or another, the quest to understand the way it works has been the underlying motivation driving much of my personal and academic life. The world is a chaotic and frightening place, rife with danger and mystery. Humans find ourselves with the unenviable task of having to make sense of the confusion. Words are the tools we use to do this. It’s a story as old as the book of Genesis, when God gifted man with the ability to name (or assign words to) the rest of creation. It may be the one uniquely human trait, a self-reflexive means of examining the way we experience the world by describing it. Continue reading…

The Space Monkey

I’m feeling a strong urge to shave my head today. I’m not sure why. Yes, it is growing to lengths that require me to actually groom it rather than give my head a quick rub which adds to my valuable cereal eating time each morning. Aesthetically, I prefer a short haircut, a taper or white-boy fade. I got one last time because I felt it made me look more professional (read employable) than the close cropped shaved look I often sport. But I have a job now and my electric clippers are calling my name softly from the darkness under the sink.

I go in cycles. Sometimes I shave my head and then let it grow out for months before shaving it again. The act of shaving one’s head is immeasurably more pleasing when the hair is of adequate length. Its a solitary joy, a ritual I enact by myself. There’s a purifying element about it that I find psychologically useful. Its almost like an extraordinarily miniature rebirth. By shedding my follicular protection, I am preparing to face the world anew. The old, shaggy haired me dies little by little as big clumps of my hair fall to the bathroom floor. Plus it makes me feel sleeker and more aerodynamic. With a freshly shorn pate, I feel like I could run or swim approximately 34% faster. And then there are the tactile pleasures. I enjoy rubbing my own head after a fresh shave, going with and against the grain to locate any strays who avoided the clippers’ pass. The feeling of the water on my head the first time I take a shower afterwards is always a pleasant surprise, even though I know its coming. Plus I have to use less shampoo.

I promise this will be the only post I ever make dedicated to my hairstyle.

Waste of money.

Rant/ This past weekend, I hit the road. I journeyed to Santa Rosa in search of cathartic violence and the (vicarious) thrill of the fight at Caged Combat. All in all, I don’t think its an event I’ll be returning to any time soon. The fights were all pretty good, as near as I could tell. The venue was piss poor. The cage was not very high, and the seating was on level ground. All of that wouldn’t be too bad, except the promoters hadn’t seen fit to shell out the extra dough for a screen on which people could watch the action when the fight rolled out of view (which was often). As it was, unless you had ringside seats it was next to impossible to see the action when the fight went to the ground. Anyone who has ever seen a mixed martial arts fight knows that the ground is where most of the action is. Frustrating me further was the fact that I had bought floor seats, since the ticketmaster floor plan made it look much more attractive than the bleachers. Turns out, the bleachers had the best view. But it really didn’t matter, because once you were in the door, nobody checked your ticket for anything. People who paid for bleacher tickets could sit on the floor, poor schmucks like me who paid (almost double!) for floor tickets could sit in the bleachers. And none of us could see the fights. \rant

We follow the Hawk: Borat Movie Review

This Friday Night at the Movies, I sat myself down for Borat: Culutral Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. What the film lacks in titular brevity, it more than compensates for with faux anti-semitism and creepily hairy homo-eroticism. At times, it seems like the Sasha Baron Cohen takes the easy way out, resorting to scatological humor and relying on variations of a Yakov Smirnoff-esque caricature of the socially and technologically backwards Kazakhstan. For the most part, though, the movie stays on track. Interview subjects are generally disarmed by Borat’s “ignorant foreigner” questioning style and as they gently condescend, they are unable to see that they’re the butt of the joke. There’s not much depth to the narrative. The bare bones of a story revolves around Borat’s cross-country quest to find Pamela Anderson and enclose her in his “marriage sack.” As he travels he makes some new friends, learns some life lessons, and maybe, just maybe, finds true love along the way.

The movie is quite funny, and the audience seemed really into it. There were many attempts to mimic Borat’s accent outside the theatre as I waited in the impossibly long line. The only thing that deeply irks me about the film is that I see it becoming the next cultural milestone. I can already hear the stupid frat boys yelling “Jagshemash!” at lame keg parties instead of doing Ron Burgundy’s dialogue from Anchorman. I don’t know if it will reach Napoleon Dynamite levels of cultural saturation, but I know I’ll get sick of it before too long.

What I’m reading on the bus: The Disappointment Artist

Its an essay collection, ostensibly covering a variety of pop-cultural ephemera. But Lethem doesn’t just talk about the importance of Star Wars on the macro-cultural level. He explores the importance of Star Wars to him by discussing what was going on in his life the summer it first came out, when he watched the movie 21 times. The central theme driving the book is that movies and music, the novels we read and everything else that goes in to our entertainment becomes inextricably linked with the tumult of our lives. In Lethem’s case, the recurring motif is growing up in a bohemian family in Brooklyn in the late seventies/early eighties, and the loss of his mother to cancer. Tied in with his musings on The Searchers and crash course survey of Phillip K. Dick are his memories of trying to escape the grief he felt. In trying too escape his loss, Lethem succeeded primarily in linking it to his own cultural milestones.

It was interesting to see a more overt autobiography from Lethem, who obscured some of the more personal revelations with magical realism and poetic license in his novel Fortress of Solitude(which I enjoyed immensely.) There’s a surface similarity to Chuck Klosterman, in as much as both authors discuss Star Wars and their musical inclinations at great length. Like Klosterman, Lethem doesn’t shy away from subjects many authors would deem too trivial for contemplation. Both authors are adept at sifting through the detritus of pop culture and using it as springboards for introspection. It doesn’t hurt that I share many of the same obsessions and predilections of both authors: comic books, novels, science fiction, indie films, etc. If discussing the importance of Jack Kirby’s Return to Marvel work doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I’d advise you to stay away from this book. But Lethem is infinitely more focused on the personal than Klosterman, and as such he offers more insights into the mind of the writer and the relationship between art and loss. It’s a relationship that Lethem, like the rest of us, can’t shake off.

Oh, the hubris!

So since I told my friends that I’ve started blogging, I’ve noticed that they tend to react in one of two ways. They either:

1. Kinda nod their heads in the complete opposite of surprise as though it were only a matter of time and ask “Why?” Then they ask me what I write about. Or:

 

2. They raise their eyebrows in consternation and ask “Why?” Then they ask me what I write about.

The variation in response seems to correspond with how well the person knows me, and how acquainted they are with my ego. They “why?” of the first type seems to be more of a “why now?” as opposed to the more existential question of the second type. They seem to be undaunted by my desire to bore other people with my opinions and commentaries. The ones who know me best realize it was only a matter of time. Those who respond in surprise question the value of writing for an audience of none. Or worse yet, being the sort of solipsistic egomaniac who feels the need to expose my every waking thought and story to the entire Internet. There is a certain amount of egotism in the act of writing. Whether it’s a novel or a blog post about a new restaurant, the writer has to have a healthy self-confidence to put his words and ideas out there. Whether its true or not, the writer has to believe that there are people out there who care what he has to say. It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest writers of all time were rampaging narcissists. If they weren’t, they could never have summoned the courage to type the first word on the page.

There is one (and only one) fundamental characteristic that makes a writer different from everybody else. Writers write. Most people do not. Maybe I haven’t quite figured out how this whole thing will fit together yet, but I’m starting to enjoy having a reason to write again. Maybe if nothing else this blog will be the dojo where I hone my literary techniques to a lethal sharpness, perfecting the emotional/intellectual jiu-jitsu that I’ll need to face the enemies every writer has to fight: the white page with its virgin promise, and the fuzziness that make clear ideas hard to make out.

Or maybe I subscribe to the Socratic notion that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. Maybe this is Proustian attempt to find deeper meaning and significance in the minutiae of everyday life. Perhaps if I write about trips to the movies and the books I happen to be reading as I take the bus home from work I’ll be casting myself as a Bloom-esque Everyman, the hero of my own epic of the mundane. By shouting into the vast empty cave that is the blogosphere, I’ll be able to glean some insight from the echoes. In that case, my blog will be a place for me to find out how I think and feel about things by writing about them. There really is no better way.

 

In either case I have to answer the second question with an “I’m not sure, yet.”

An illusion, an act of prestidigitation…

So I went to see The Prestige last night, having waited nearly a week after it opened because I am a good and dutiful boyfriend and my significant other could not see it with me until now. I thought the movie was, as they say, awesome. But I might have approached it in a less than objective manner. A confession: I really like magic. While I am fascinated by the Chris Angel/David Blaine types of today, my real fondness is for the tuxedo-wearing, rabbit-from-a-top-hat illusionists of the golden age. Houdini, Carter, Thurston, etc. I can’t say precisely what it is about this niche of storytelling that captivates me, but I suppose it has something to do with the childish sense of wonder the audience gets from the best performers.

As an afficianado of turn-of-the-century magician fiction (an admittedly tiny sub-genre) I read The Prestige some time ago. Making comparisons between a film and its source book is, in my opinion, less productive than masturbation so I will refrain from doing so in public. But I think having read the book may have primed me for the film in a unique way. I don’t think its giving anything away to say that the there is a “twist” in the film. Christopher Nolan has gone out of his way to structure the film as his own personal magic trick, and as such there has to a moment of reveal that goes against audience expectations. Although the plot structure varies from the novel, having read it, I had a pretty good idea what the titular Prestige was going to be. This freed me up to admire the craftmanship of how Nolan gets us there. Knowing the ending (or at least having a good idea of its basics), I could see how every line of dialogue that sets it up echoes the deneoumont.

A friend who saw it with me didn’t like it at all. He felt that the twist was too obvious. He could see the end coming a mile away and was therefore disappointed when it turned out to be exactly what he thought it was. While I agree that the ending is somewhat telegraphed, I think it was the only way to approach the dualistic, twisting narrative and still play fair with the audience. Perhaps the director could have struck a finer balance between giving the audience enough information to figure things out and misdirecting their attention for a shocking finale. Still, I feel there were enough twists in the rivalry between these two men and the lengths that they will go to in order to top one another to play as a character study in obsession and rivalry. I also liked the structural tricks Nolan uses. The non-linear narrative comes across in a series of nested flashbacks that slowly reveal the events in the frame tale before pushing forward to the conclusion. In addition to being a sucker for magic, I love complicated narratives. All in all, The Prestige is an enjoyable film and I can think of worse ways to spend ten bucks.