Friday, November 30, 2007

on pluralism: sontag, berlin, and gray

I've been reading John Gray and Susan Sontag.

Gray is interesting because he's an outspoken maverick. He's a public intellectual with a good track record in showing how actions that seem good play out badly in the end. He's done this at the time Communism fell apart in 1989, with the growth of globilization and faith in free markets, in the contradictions of the "war on terror," and with the attempt to impose democracy by force in Iraq. His method is simple. As was Thomas Hobbes, he's a pessimist and a skeptic, deeply studied and highly articulate. His guiding principal is that when people take action "the ideas and consequences are rarely those intended, and never only those."

Gray delights in telling us how frequently our preconceptions are wrong. He's best known for pointing to the tragic outcomes -- a couple centuries after the fact -- of the Enlightenment faith in reason and improvement (whether economic, social, cultural, or political). The events themselves are plain enough: There are many advances celebrated in high school history texts -- such as the harnessing of steam power and then electricity, the shrinking of distance via rail, advances in communication, the ascendancy of democracy and democratic ideals in much of the world, the abolition of slavery, the revolution in agriculture. We, most of us I think, unconsciously accept these as instances of progress -- the betterment of mankind or at least some subset of peopledom. But, Gray asks us, don't we also recognize that none -- practically none -- of these advances are unaccompanied by dreadful events: from the horrors of exploitation in the agricultural and industrial revolutions through to the mass slaughters of the 20th and 21st centuries, the plague of AIDs, the injustices of globalization, and tragic failures in ham-fisted efforts to spread democracy. To see what I mean about Gray's single-minded determination to show us the downside of "progress," take a look at any of the many short books he's published, or maybe just scan his articles in the New Statesman.

Gray appreciates Sontag as a fellow-contrarian. Like him, she said that modern civilization is deeply flawed. To quote wikipedia:
Sontag drew fire for writing that "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." (Partisan Review, Winter 1967, p. 57.) ([2]) Sontag later offered an ironic apology for the remark, saying it was insensitive to cancer victims.
Also like him, she delighted in questioning widely-held assumptions, even those held by intellectuals like herself. The obit in the New York Times calls attention to this side of her:
Ms. Sontag had a knack - or perhaps a penchant - for getting into trouble. She could be provocative to the point of being inflammatory, as when she championed the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a 1965 essay; she would revise her position some years later. She celebrated the communist societies of Cuba and North Vietnam; just as provocatively, she later denounced communism as a form of fascism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she wrote in The New Yorker, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

Despite these similarities, there's a wide gulf in the writings of Gray and Sontag. He's persistent in pushing one big idea -- the pernicious working out of Enlightenment ideals over the centuries since it took hold. While she doesn't pretend to any all-inclusive overview and you can't find an intellectual thread which permeates her writings. There's no doubt about her credentials as a member of the intelligentsia, but she was not dogmatic and she believed that our understanding of the world, the quest to achieve wisdom, isn't wholly the product of our intellects, but just as much a matter of intuition.

Gray understands this anti-intellectual force, but uses it mainly to reinforce his anti-Enlightenment thesis. Note here his emphasis on the power of religion as a countervailing force and his use of the useful phrase "works of clairvoyant speculation" in a review of books in a series devoted to worked that altered history (Battle of the books):
The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.

All this leads me to a consideration of Gray's take on Isaiah Berlin. Gray knew Berlin personally and in some ways his writings reinforce the pluralist point of view that Berlin consistently advocated. Berlin would certainly agree with Gray's attacks on the fundamentalist point of view and in fact all sources of motivation that are founded on faith in simple, basic, naive beliefs (whether political -- as in the neo-con faith in exporting democracy via warfare, economic -- as in the industrial world's faith in a globalized form of "free-enterprise," or other). But Gray tries to fit Berlin himself into a simple intellectual structure. He says Berlin's philosophy is dominated by a belief in incommensurability: that diverse human values cannot be reconciled with one another (see here for an explanation of this). And in this I believe he's wrong. Berlin's writings warn us against simplistic analyses of complex events and they say you cannot assume there to be a single human nature that all people share and have always shared. But he was not so pessimistic as to write that values cannot be reconciled, must always be in opposition. Unlike Gray he was proud to be both a pluralist and a liberal.

Gray believes "we are ultimately powerless over both our individual and collective destinies, which leads to our nonsensical faith in progress." Berlin believed that individuals and groups can effect change and can overcome conflicts in order to improve their lot. He had a fundamental belief in human decency and he was optimistic about the power of decent people to effect change for the good.

Gray seems to be saying that some core values are inately true. You can't question the basic rules of morality. They are universally true. That belief he shares with Berlin. But they differ when Gray goes on to say there's nothing you can do about the problem of evil -- a failure to act in accordance with these ethical values.

Berlin, like Sontag, believed that intellectuals shouldn't just be skeptics. He believed that people can and should make ethical choices, that conflicting value systems can be reconciled -- at least some of the time, and that a pragmatic outlook coupled with understanding and imagination, can lead to improvements in peoples' lives. As Sontag put it, "I don't want to express alienation. It isn't what I feel. I'm interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says, be serious, be passionate, wake up."

I conclude that, ironically, Gray, who espouses a kind of pluralism, has a monist flaw. In Berlin's terms, he's at core a hedgehog and not a fox, while Berlin himself, and Sontag, are undoubtedly in the fox's den.


1. Here's Berlin's famous statement about hedgehogs and foxes:
The Hedgehog and the Fox - Isaiah Berlin (excerpt)
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

2. Here's a link to a good introduction to Berlin's ideas. I urge you to read it. From the book, The Power of Ideas, by Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy: MY INTELLECTUAL PATH Chapter I (Also available as pdf

3. Here's a link to Sontag's excellent essay on appreciating beauty (pdf).

4. There was a good interview article on Gray in The Independent a few years back. It explains some of Gray's appeal, much like that of Christopher Hitchins, Here's a paragraph:
Gray is very good at his destruct jobs. Here he is on Post-Modernism: 'Just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.'; on atheism: 'Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.'; on environmentalism: 'A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible, but it is humanly unimaginable.'; on Buddhism 'This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.' As you can see, this is not some work of middle brow, Alain de Bottonesque consolation, philosophy viewed as an antiseptic sticking plaster for the fevered mind. This is the full monte, with isms falling right left and centre, free will savagely downsized and morality revealed as a perennial but threadbare attempt to market white as the new black.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Sometimes the news makes you feel good. For instance:

Undercover restorers fix Paris landmark's clock
'Cultural guerrillas' cleared of lawbreaking over secret workshop in Pantheon
Emilie Boyer King in Paris
Monday November 26, 2007
The Guardian

Four members of an underground "cultural guerrilla" movement known as the Untergunther, whose purpose is to restore France's cultural heritage, were cleared on Friday of breaking into the 18th-century monument in a plot worthy of Dan Brown or Umberto Eco.

Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s.

"When we had finished the repairs, we had a big debate on whether we should let the Panthéon's officials know or not," said Lazar Klausmann, a spokesperson for the Untergunther. "We decided to tell them in the end so that they would know to wind the clock up so it would still work."

Klausmann and his crew are connoisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine.

"We would like to be able to replace the state in the areas it is incompetent," said Klausmann. "But our means are limited and we can only do a fraction of what needs to be done. There's so much to do in Paris that we won't manage in our lifetime."
Addendum: I've been reading John Gray lately. Not the Mars and Venus guy, but the guy who has activated Isaiah Berlin's philosophy (willy-nilly). Gray might not approve of UX, but he should. The Times (UK) has a readable introduction to himself and his thought. Other sources: wikipedia, Granta, NYRB, The Guardian, publications list.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

save the bones for henry jones

I should have posted this on Thanksgiving. In an interview with Nancy Grace, Hettie Jones says she used to sing a Johnny Mercer tune, "Save the bones for Henry Jones, 'cause Henry don't eat no meat."

For $0.89 Amazon will sell you an mp3 of the song as performed by Johnny Mercer and Nat King Cole. Here are details: Original Release Date: April 6, 1942; MP3 Release Date: January 12, 1999; Label: Capitol; Song Length: 3:04 minutes.

Here's a recent, abbreviated version by the Jumpin' Joz Trio.

The song was written by Danny Barker and Vernon Lee and the version most people know is performed by Nat King Cole & Johnny Mercer.

Here's the full lyric

(Danny Barker / Vernon Lee aka Michael H. Goldson)
Nat King Cole & Johnny Mercer

We’re gonna have a supper
We’ll eat some food that’s rare
And at the head of the table
We’ll place brother Henry’s chair
Invite all the local big dogs
We’ll laugh and talk and eat
But we’ll save the bones for Henry Jones
‘Cause Henry don’t eat no meat

Today I’ll go to market
Buy up a lotta fish
Well, that will thrill brother Henry
‘Cause fish is his special dish
Get a large can of molasses
Have something really sweet
But we’ll save the bones for Henry Jones
‘Cause Henry don’t eat no meat

Henry is not a drinker
He rarely takes a nip
He don’t need a napkin
‘Cause the things he eats don’t drip – blip!
One day we had a banquet
It really was a bake
They started off with short ribs
Then finished off with steak
But when the feast was over
Brother Henry just kept his seat
And we served the bones to Henry Jones
‘Cause Henry don’t eat no meat

Our banquet was most proper
Right down to demitasse
From soup to lox and bagels
And pheasant under glass – class!
We thought the chops were mellow
He said his chops were beat – reet!
We served the bones to Henry Jones
‘Cause Henry don’t eat no meat
He’s an egg man
Henry don’t eat no meat
He loves a pullet
Henry don’t eat no meat
A vegetarian
Coming mother!
Soup’s on
Here's the Q & A from the interview of Jones:
NG: Do you think your own poetry and fiction somehow manifests, as does some other Beat poetry and literature, the black street language of the time? For example, there's some in your memoir, but not as much as, say, what we see in Diane di Prima's early poetry,.

Jones: Yeah, I don't mean to accuse Diane wrongly, but think I wouldn't have done it that way. She was just being hip. I feel that hers was really an adaptation, in a way. Mine comes out of the language of my young adulthood that I have always used. I'm always surprised that people laugh at the things I say. For instance, once in response to a friend of mine I said, "Yeah, you just ain't bumpin' your gums!" And she said, "What? What is that? Did you learn that from your children?" But, no, that was just an old 40s expression that became a part of my language. I also know and am more intimately involved with what we-I guess-call black culture than most adults of my age. I was at a conference last week, and began to sing, "Save the bones for Henry Jones, 'cause Henry don't eat no meat." And people looked at me like I just stone crazy! "What is that" they said. And I said, "It's a song from the 40s." Then I told this story to an older black man, and he laughed and laughed. He understood. So, that's that what I know, and it comes out in my language. I don't feel it as an adaptation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

two women

I've wanted to write about Cathy Wilkerson and Hettie Jones, separately or together, but while my subconscious genie was pleased to send this little mania, it didn't give me a clue what to do with it. So this post starts out without an end in view. I'm eager to see where it takes me.

Some three-to-four decades past, Cathy was a couple classes behind me at college and Hettie worked at the nonprofit where I volunteered. My knowledge of each was infinitessimal and hardly more extensive now. They both stand for something: a test of the notion that a person can, by intention, achieve something large in the world. For Cathy this something large was to participate in a chivalric destruction of the Establishment's exploitation of weak, poor, and despised minorities in the US. For Hettie it was to help people who were members of these weak, poor, and despised minorities understand that they needed to break free of their servitude through their own initiative, and to help them learn how to do this. Cathy now admits that her attempt was a total failure. In Hettie's case, I think it's not clear whether things have changed for the better since her time: maybe they have, maybe not. I think it's safe to say we both wish it so.

So what did they do? You'll probably recall that Wilkerson made the newspapers when she and companions managed to blow up her parents Greenwich Village townhouse back in 1970. (Put your cursor over the dot on W 11th St in this map of the Radical Big Apple.) The group was going to use the bomb to blow up some soldiers at Ft. Dix in NJ.

{Click to view full size: This is Cathy today, outside the place she helped destroy. Photo credits: AP & NYT}

Jones did not make the news. She married a newsworthy man, gave birth to children, watched him go out and away from her and them, and moved on with her life.

The two women have in common a passion for righting society's wrongs. Both are literate, middle-class, and white. Both have endured and attempted to overcome male dominance within groups dedicated to overthrowing racial, class, and political injustices. Both have written memoirs.

But Wilkerson born in 1943, grew up in a prosperous Quaker home in Connecticut, while Jones (born Cohen), 9 years older, grew up in a less prosperous Jewish one in Queens.

Wilkerson says she was totally innocent of radical politics until 1962 when she entered college.
Swarthmore was a real hot bed of intellectual discussion. I mean the classes were peripheral and what happened amongst the students was more important to most of the students than what happened in the classes. And there were also people from every political sect on the left there. I had never met anyone from the left. I mean there were red diaper babies, there were Trots, there were Social Democrats, there were everything. ... My freshman year, I went to a couple of meetings ... I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying about anything. And no women ever spoke. But the spring of my freshman year they organized trips to go down to Cambridge, Maryland, to participate in the demonstrations that were going on down there. ... If there’s one event that changed my life, that’s what it was. I don’t remember the demonstrations really clearly. But I remember, I think there were dogs and it was, you know, Southern, very Southern. ... It was big and intense and heavy. It just completely blew my mind, and nothing was ever the same again.*
After that for her it was SDS and then the Weather Underground, and the rest is history. She became single-minded, dogmatic, and driven by the notion that the ends justify the means. As she says,
Rather than listening closely to what people had said, I tried to manipulate them into adopting the organization's current perspective, into carrying out the organization's wishes in order to protect my own standing. Rather than facing the complexity of problems, I had settled for simplistic solutions and for the fiction that we, the authors of those solutions, were somehow superior to those we sought to guide.**
The transitions of Jones's life were less sudden, momentous, or radical.
{Click image at right to view full size: The cover of Hettie's memoir shows her in youth and middle age. Photo credit:}

A quiet rebellion took her away from straight-laced, homogeneous Queens into the publishing and jazz scene of Manhattan. She says,
By 1951, the year we were labeled the Silent Generation, I'd been recommended to silence often. Men had little use for an outspoken woman, I'd been warned. What I wanted, I was told, was security and upward mobility, which might be mine if I learned to shut my mouth. Myself I simply expected, by force of will, to assume a new shape in the future. Unlike any woman in my family or anyone I'd ever actually known, I was going to become -- something, anything, whatever that meant. To accomplish this I felt the need to cloister myself for a while, away from the usual expectations, at what was knows as an "all-girls college." Accepted at Vassar I chose instead Mary Washington, the woman's college of the University of Virginia.
She went there because it was cheaper and, she thought, less snobbish than Vassar, but she knew nothing about the place. For the first time in her life she was among Christians and, even more frighteningly, immersed in the culture of the ladies of the American South.
These were the people of white gloves and horse breeds, who had patterns of culture officially, including formal dinners and vespers.... I felt very much the Yankee Jew from New York. In the dining room, with a kind of tense awe, I was asked, "Are you Puerto Rican?" ... I seemed unique. In my dorm a black woman who worked as a maid sometimes picked up extra money ironing. As I had with my mother, I ironed beside her. She seemed to understand, smiled when she saw me coming, and showed me how to handle the tucks in my blouses. Apart from her, I met no other black people regularly.
A drama major, she had only one role in a college production, but performed many times for in the classrooms of backwoods schools and in the meeting rooms of Veterans' Hospitals. On graduating, she moved into Manhattan, taking menial jobs to get by. She listed to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord, read Whitman in Riverside Park, and studied Brecht at Columbia in a class taught by Eric Bentley.

Her life-changing event was wholly unlike Wilkerson's. She had been dating men of other races, religions, and cultures and so it's not entirely surprising to find that meeting Leroi Jones was transformational for her. She was working as a clerk in a Greenwich Village record store at the time. Here is her description of the encounter:
Nearby, running half the length of a cluttered storefront office, is a six-foot-high row of wooden milk crates, housing old 78 rpm jazz records in crumbling paper sleeves. Flakes of this yellow-brown stuff drift down and settle like snow on the dirty linoleum, and the smell of it masks the casual funk from a darker back room, where Richard (Dick) Hadlock, editor of the Record Changer, the magazine published here, sleeps whenever he's not with his girlfriend.

But he's with her now--or somewhere--leaving me: Hettie Cohen. a small, dark, twenty-two-year-old Jew from Laurelton, Queens, with a paperback book in my hand, Kafka's Amerika. I'm the Subscription Manager and I'm about to interview an applicant for the job of Shipping Manager. It's March 1957 in Greenwich Village. A haphazard pile of boxes, holding unsold issues, partly obscures the unwashed front (and only) window of the store. From time to time I glance toward this pale daylight, up from Amerika, waiting.

The applicant, arrived on a gust of sweet afternoon, turned out to be a young black man, no surprise. It was he who was surprised. "You're reading Kafka!" he said happily. He was small and wiry, with a widow's peak that sharpened his closecut hair, and a mustache and goatee to match. Yet the rakishness of all these triangles was set back, made reticent, by a button-down shirt and Clark's shoes. A Brooks Brothers look. I sat him down and we started to talk. He was smart, and very direct, and for emphasis stabbed the air with his third -- not index --finger, an affectation to notice, of course. But his movements were easy, those of man at home not only in skin but in muscle and bone. And he led with his head. What had started with Kafka just went on going. An hour later, when Dick arrived, we were still talking. "Did you tell him about the job?" Dick asked me. "The.job?" I echoed, and blushed. Left responsible and gone derelict. No interview. I see myself, now, as the heat invades my face, a hand up to my open, astonished mouth. On the left is my subscription corner, the typewriter, unanswered mail. And on my right LeRoi Jones--square-jawed, pointy-browed, grinning at me shyly, and still, I think, a little surprised I'd had so much to say.
She stuck with Roi as she called him from then on. They stuck to each other, that is, until he unstuck himself. By then, she'd been through an abortion, wedding, and birth of two children. She wrote with him, edited a magazine with him, and supported their kids -- with no help from him -- after he left. She did not waver in her faith that she -- and anyone else -- could breach barriers of race, religion, ethnic origin, and the like by making a conscious effort to learn, understand, and honor the differences among people and treat none as simply a member of some group, whatever the group or its stereotype. When the path of my life briefly intersected with hers, she had helped design the innovative Head Start Program in which I worked, one which paid women on welfare to take care of the children of other women on welfare, freeing the women to work their way out of poverty and giving their children a high quality preschool education. While the money to support the program lasted, it worked well, but the money didn't last long enough for it to achieve its aims. She was a leader in what was, in the 1960s, a controversial effort to give people tools to overcome poverty. Accounts have since said the effort was bound to fail since as poor people began to exert influence in local affairs, they provoked insuperable resentment in their local jurisdictions -- the local power structure.

Hettie is still an author and now also teaches writing to others, including -- no surprise -- people incarcerated in state and federal prisons. You can read her academic curriculum vitae on The New School web site.

Cathy Wilkerson's memoir is Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. Seven Stories Press, 2007. Hettie Jones' is How I Became Hettie Jones, Dutton, 1990. As well as showing their opposite approaches to making the world a better place (narrow-focussed and exclusive vs. broad-based and inclusive), the memoirs demonstrate the difficulties faced by women radicals during the 1960s and '70s.

You can read about Wilkerson's memoir in many places. I noticed it in a review by Scott McLemee in Newsday which I recommend. You can get yourself a second-hand copy of Jones' memoir very cheaply and it's widely available in academic libraries.

Some addenda:

1. Though closer in age to Wilkerson than Jones, I'm tempermentally more sympathetic to the latter. I envy her for being able to experience the cultural transformation effected by the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village of the '50s and '60s. (More on this here.) Her memoir uses a quote from Beat poet which is pertinent to her life: "The idea ... is to change first of our own volition and according to our own inner promptings before they impose completely arbitrary changes on us." (Janes Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, 1943). This faith in self-actualization through self-realization contrasts strongly with Wilkerson's tragic yielding to the rage she felt on encountering the repression of people poor, uneducated, and inarticulate.

2. Jones' husband is a subject all his own. Born Everette L. Jones, he re-made himself first to LeRoi Jones, then Imamu Amiri Baraka. The wikipedia article on him describes his transformations pretty well. I know him best as the author of the book Blues People.

3. Note that all three of these interesting people have mingled intellectual and activist pursuits in their lives. All three write. All three have produced readable memoirs.

4. I thought maybe one of the three might have released some writings into the internet under a Creative Commons license, but their idealism does not seem to take them that direction.

5. While researching this post, I came across an article on SDS at Swarthmore which quotes my friend and classmate Paul Booth.

6. Hettie Jones answered questions about her memoir in an interview entitled Women of the Beat Generation: Conversations with Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mulberry Street 1900

This photograph gives entry into the amazing vitality of Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. It was taken in 1900 when the nation took all comers and millions accepted the invitation.

{Click image to view larger version.}
It's from the archives of the Detroit Publishing Co. The photographer and occasion for the photograph are not given.

Here is a link to the full photograph in all its glory; it's very large. Retrieve uncompressed archival TIFF version. Look at it now.

And here are some crops from the photo. I'll let them speak for themselves. Apart from the third one and the last, you can see a larger view by clicking on the image.

We may all remember "And to Think that I saw it on Mulberry Street," the book by Dr. Suess.

My memory is of a street on the Lower East Side not far from where I worked as a VISTA volunteer in 1967-68. I mentioned this work in a blog post recently.

At that time I lived on East 5th near Tompkins Square Park. The building is just out of view, mid-right in this photo:

Strangely, the portion of Mulberry Street I remember was a vibrant neighborhood of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and their descendants while the portion shown in the photo, shows a teeming portion of Little Italy.

This map shows where I lived, where I worked, and the two ethnically different parts of Mulberry Street. The blue arrow at right points to the building where I lived in a walk-up fourth floor studio. The middle blue arrow points to the approximate location of Mobilization for Youth, home base for the work I did (which work took me to many places in Manhattan and Brooklyn). The left arrow points to the Mulberry Street I remember and the red arrow points to Mulberry Street in Little Italy.

{Click to see larger version. Credit:}

Here is a link to the catalog entry for this photograph in LS's Prints and Photographs catalog.

The catalog gives links to the various states of the photograph:

color film copy transparency
Medium resolution JPEG version (71 kilobytes)
Retrieve higher resolution JPEG version (229 kilobytes)
Retrieve uncompressed archival TIFF version (65 megabytes)

color film copy neg.
Medium resolution JPEG version (78 kilobytes)
Retrieve higher resolution JPEG version (287 kilobytes)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Vélibers in the Paris transportation strike

France is in the second day of its transportation strike. There's plenty of news coverage (Washington Post, BBC). As predicted, Paris' Vélib bicycle system has been popular. Although the system started big and has been growing, it was overtaxed by new users on day one.

MetroFrance uploaded this video showing the Vélib experience some Parisians new to the system. It's from the DailyMotion web site. The descriptive tag says "Parisians are discovering Vélib on day one of the big transportation strike."

The BBC gives a personal narrative (from which comes the photo at top) which says: "French drivers are sometimes not the most polite of people but there was a certain sense of solidarity on the Parisian roads this morning. Angry horns gave way to politeness as cars edged into reverse to let pedestrians and cyclists cut across the jams. Everyone understood this was not a normal day. 'No worries', smiled the cyclist whose rear tyre I shunted accidentally in trying to squeeze my own bike through the narrow gap between the van and the pavement. It soon became clear the best way to make progress was to filter down the middle lane and be swept along with the motorbikes and rollerblades."

Photo caption: "A man using a Velib bicycle on the Champs Elysees in Paris (14 November 2007)"

Monday, November 12, 2007

Joost and his team

[Update: Chris Selden has an summary of the Rasmussen inquiry and its outcome on Pez Cycling News.] I haven't written about Joost Posthuma for a few weeks.

Late in September, he crashed during the individual time trial in the World Cycling Chamionships, but wasn't badly hurt and has since recovered. His web site says it started raining while he was on the course. He went too fast around a corner and slipped. At the time he was doing very well and, but for the crash, might have achieved a finish within the top ten.

Early in October he re-injured his hip during the Paris Tours race. He hasn't raced since then, but he reports that he has signed up for another two years with the team and is now taking a holiday in Egypt with his family.

There's been plenty of news about the Rabobank Team itself. They sacked their leader during the Tour de France while he was in first place with good expectation of achieving the overall win. At the time they explained that he had missed two drug tests in the weeks before the race and had lied about his whereabouts. The Rabo site, the cycling press, and Rasmussen's own web site now have reports of an official inquiry into the incident.

Rasmussen says the team knew where he was all the time, he didn't take performance-enhancing drugs,* and he lied about his location for private reasons. The private reasons have to do with his family, specifically his wife, and he asks the press to respect his desire for privacy.

The press says that the ruling body of cycle racing, the UCI, does not accept Rasmussen's account as an acceptible explanation. They say that the fact that he lied is enough to bar him from the sport.

Two reports on the Rabo site say that the executive board of the group that runs Rabo cycling commissioned the inquiry and supports its conclusions. They admit that they had information about Rasmussen's whereabouts, knew that he lied, and had contact him at least some of the time while he was in Italy and France when he said he was in Mexico. (There had already been a partial admission of Rabo compicity. Without giving details, the Rabo cycling director admitted wrong-doing and resigned right after the Tour de France last July.)

As I see this, the good news is that Rabo do admit they made serious mistakes, they did sack Rasmussen, though they should not even have let him start the race, and they can say they are clean: there has been no allegation nor any evidence that the team, its sports staff, or its medical staff had anything to do with illegal drugs.

Here's a link to Rabo's report of the matter. A brief extract: "The Executive Board commissioned the committee to conduct an independent inquiry into the course of events surrounding the Rasmussen affair. The main conclusion of the report is that Rasmussen was rightly expelled from the competition and later dismissed. He demonstrably lied about and tampered with his whereabouts. There is no evidence that Rasmussen used doping. ... Serious errors of judgement were clearly made, primarily by the Chairman of the Board of Directors. ... It is patently obvious from the information known now that Rasmussen should not have been allowed to start in the Tour de France."

* Rasmussen doesn't say he never took any drugs, but rather "I have never during my career taken EPO or Dynepo." However, to his credit, his web site gives a table showing the dope tests he took and their results from March 2005 through October 2007. Here are the concluding paragraphs on the subject on his web site:
In order to steer clear of speculations concerning what went on in Italy and whether he has complied with the doping regulations Michael Rasmussen presents his so called ‘biological passport’ in terms of tests from the previous 3 years. All the values show normal variations which should give absolutely no cause for suspicion about manipulation. These values are of course known by the UCI.

“In this connection I would like to stress that I have violated the whereabouts regulations but I have never missed a doping control performed by the UCI. From this point on I will obey all UCI rules and I am still available for control. Thus, I can also tell you that after the Tour de France I have had two further out of competition tests from the UCI with no remarks,” says Michael Rasmussen.

“My greatest wish right now is to ensure clarity about this matter and be able to return to professional cycling,” Michael Rasmussen says.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Sunday Washington Post Book World has long had a poet's corner. Currently occupied by Robert Pinsky, it's sometimes the best thing the section has to offer. Last week, Pinsky offered up two by Reed Whittemore, one of which, "The Mind," is lyrical about the quiet dignity that can accompany old age. Here are excerpts.
The mind wears many hats . . .
It knows not what it knows deep.
. . . one kind of mind whose vision
Is steady as the sphinx's, and whose mold
Is rock against all sea and salt and season.
Such a mind, soul, have the old.
. . .
I know a mind, soul, whose time now leads it
Shoreward to silence.
Not long ago it chattered like half a school,
And bade the desert dance.
On the Sunday before Hallowe'en, Pinsky gave us Robert Bridges' "Low Barometer," pointing out its scary imagry of old terrors loosed when gale-blown clouds cross the moon and ghosts "creep from their caves to life again."

Now I read a letter about this in the Book World section taking Pinsky to task for limiting his comment to the All Hallows Eve connotations. Here's the letter. It's nicely full of restrained jubilation at one-upping the Post's chosen guide to things poetic.
Robert Pinsky's choice of "Low Barometer" by Robert Bridges (Poet's Choice, Book World, Oct. 28) brought a very evocative poem to our attention. Pinsky commented on Bridges's use of archaic language, but did not mention that such a word as "unhouseld" strongly summons up Shakespeare, as in the ghost of Hamlet's father complaining that he was sent to his death "unhouseld, disappointed, unaneld." There are many other Shakespearean references in the poem. "On such a night" is a direct quote from "The Merchant of Venice," and the lines "the pack'd/Pollution and remorse of time" have the swing and cadence of "What see'st thou else In the dark backward and abysm of Time?" from "The Tempest." And the entire fifth stanza rephrases the lines in "Julius Caesar" in which the fearful citizens exchange their dire news about the supernatural events seen in Rome after the death of Caesar.

Altogether Bridges's fine poem is wonderfully resonant of Shakespeare's words, and Shakespeare's frequent use of ghosts and supernatural occurrences. I can only marvel that Pinsky did not comment further on this marvelous entwining.

Arlington, Va.
Christopher Ricks, admirer of allusion and all the tricks of the poetic trade, mentions this not. I don't doubt Judson's findings all the same, nor doubt that the witty Ricks would enjoy the letter she wrote.

It seems sometimes that culture advances more from competition than cooperation. Intellectuals have always taken pleasure in one-upping each other. There's frequently more than a cheap thrill in the conflict itself. Even when there's no clear outcome, positions are often sharped by the process of debate, and besting an adversary can sometimes bring tangible rewards. This goes back at least to medieval times when academic advancement and currying favor with a patron might hinge on taking on an intellectual adversary and besting him in some way (as mathematicians would challenge each other to solve complex problems going back to antiquity).

Mary Beard sums it up in a question: 'Isn't intellectual life about having an argument?'

And here's the poem:
Low Barometer, by Robert Bridges

The south-wind strengthens to a gale,
Across the moon the clouds fly fast,
The house is smitten as with a flail,
The chimney shudders to the blast.

On such a night, when Air has loosed
Its guardian grasp on blood and brain,
Old terrors then of god or ghost
Creep from their caves to life again;

And Reason kens he herits in
A haunted house. Tenants unknown
Assert their squalid lease of sin
With earlier title than his own.

Unbodied presences, the packed
Pollution and remorse of Time,
Slipped from oblivion re-enact
The horrors of unhousehold crime.

Some men would quell the thing with prayer
Whose sightless footsteps pad the floor,
Whose fearful trespass mounts the stair
Or burst the locked forbidden door.

Some have seen corpses long interred
Escape from hallowing control,
Pale charnel forms - nay even have heard
The shrilling of a troubled soul,

That wanders till the dawn has crossed
The dolorous dark, or Earth has wound
Closer her storm-spread cloak, and thrust
The baleful phantoms underground.

case study

Norman Mailer died the other day. Somehow he managed to survive to his 83rd year, ever trying to transmute himself into something better, or a least different, from the person he was in his youth.

He was a feisty celebrity; a self-indulgent romantic, kin to Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, though himself from a world opposite to theirs. I compare him to Amiri Baraka, chameleon revolutionist, poet, and chronicler of The Blues.*

Noting the dozens and more of appreciations that Mailer's death generated,** I spent a fruitless hour yesterday trying to find a record of what was obvious to me when I was a neo-grad student many years ago: Mailer modeled the characters in his debut novel, The Naked and The Dead, on potted neo-Freudian case studies contained in many an academic psych text book.

I did not find any account that mentioned this borrowing, though it was so flagrant, it seemed to me, as to be recognized and condemned as plagiarism if attempted by a college student. Only one comes close. Roger Kimball, who is sort of a professional contrarian, writes:
From 1944 to 1946, he [Mailer] served with the U.S. Army in the Philippines and Japan.

In 1948, when he was only twenty-five, Mailer’s war novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published. For most critics of war fiction, The Naked and the Dead ranks somewhere between the novels of Herman Wouk (e.g., The Caine Mutiny) and James Jones (From Here to Eternity). It is more pretentious, but less well-crafted, and its narrative develops less momentum. Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing.
I knew about Mailer's unacknowledged borrowing because I'd used a text book in college that outlined the various psyches of the characters in Mailer's novel with pretty much word-for-word accuracy. I don't have either that text or the novel handy and cannot demonstrate what I say, but have a vivid memory of the time I made I put this 2 plus 2 together. It's 1965. I'm studying British History, and my girlfriend, who's is doing a paper on Naked and Dead, asks me to look at what she's got. I give her to low-down on the case-study connection. She gets an A. I notice, yet again, how much easier it is to work on someone else's assignments than on one's own.

*Why Behan, Thomas, and Baraka? Give me time and I will explain, but not today.

**Here are a bunch (courtesy ALD): NYT ... AP
... LAT ... Nation ... Guardian ... Reuters ... Telegraph ... Salon ... Chic Trib ... BBC ... Newsday ... Boston Globe ... NPR ... Time ... CNN ... NYT ... USAToday ... Wash Post ... London Times ... LAT ... Salon ... SF Chron ... Independent

Friday, November 09, 2007

some Jacobean prose from an Elizabethan hold-over

My friend Catherine says (with wit) that she wonders where Musharraf gets off pretending to be Henry VI.

As it happens I was reading last night Sir Walter Raleigh's caustic account of the wrongs done by English monarchs. Raleigh does not mention Joan of Arc (to whom Catherine alludes), but does boldly chronicle the brutality of kings and nobles. {Update/correction: Catherine says: "Actually, I was going for 'first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,' but it seems the allegory works more levels than I'd thought."}

Here are some extracts:
Among our kings of the Norman race, we have no sooner passed over the violence of the Norman Conquest, than we encounter with a singular and most remarkable example of God's justice, upon the children of Henry the First. For that King, when both by force, craft, and cruelty, he had dispossessed, overreached, and lastly made blind and destroyed his elder brother Robert Duke of Normandy, to make his own sons lords of this land: God cast them all, male and female, nephews and nieces (Maud excepted) into the bottom of the sea, with above a hundred and fifty others that attended them; whereof a great many were noble and of the King dearly beloved. . . .

To pass over the rest, till we come to Edward the Second; it is certain, that. after the murder of that King, the issue of blood then made, though it had some times of stay and stopping, did again break out, and that so often and in such abundance, as all our princes of the masculine race ( very few excepted) died of the same disease.

Richard the Second, who saw both his Treasurers, his Chancellor, and his Steward, with divers others of his counsellors, some of them slaughtered by the people, others in his absence executed by his enemies, yet he always took himself for over-wise to be taught by examples. The Earls of Huntingdon and Kent, Montagu and Spencer, who thought themselves as great politicians in those days as others have done in these: hoping to please the King, and to secure themselves, by the murder of Gloucester; died soon after, with many other their adherents, by the like violent hands; and far more shamefully than did that duke. And as for the King himself (who in regard of many deeds, unworthy of his greatness, cannot be excused, as the disavowing himself by breach of faith, charters, pardons, and patents) : he was in the prime of his youth deposed, and murdered by his cousin-german and vassal, Henry of Lancaster, afterwards Henry the Fourth. . . .

Now for Henry the Sixth, upon whom the great storm of his grandfather's grievous faults fell, as it formerly had done upon Richard the grandchild of Edward: although he was generally esteemed for a gentle and innocent prince, yet as he refused the daughter of Armagnac, of the House of Navarre, the greatest of the Princes of France, to whom he was affianced (by which match he might have defended his inheritance in France) and married the daughter of Anjou, (by which he lost all that he had in France) so in condescending to the unworthy death of his uncle of Gloucester, the main and strong pillar of the House of Lancaster; he drew on himself and this kingdom the greatest joint-loss and dishonor, that ever it sustained since the Norman Conquest. Of whom it may truly be said which a counsellor of his own spake of Henry the Third of France, " Qu'il estait une fort gentile Prince; mais son reigne est advenu en une fort mauvais temps:" " He was a very gentle Prince; but his reign happened in a very unfortunate season." . . .

Edward the Fourth (to omit more than many of his other cruelties) beheld and allowed the slaughter which Gloucester, Dorset, Hastings, and others, made of Edward the Prince in his own presence; of which tragical actors, there was not one that escaped the judgment of God in the same kind. And he, which (besides the execution of his brother Clarence, for none other offence than he himself had formed in his own imagination) instructed Gloucester to kill Henry the Sixth, his predecessor; taught him also by the same art to kill his own sons and successors, Edward and Richard.

Those kings which have sold the blood of others at a low rate; have but made the market for their own enemies, to buy of theirs at the same price.
At the end of the preface, Raleigh explains why he did not write a history of his own times, saying he knows he would write the truth as he saw it and that the truth would be injurious to his health. (As it happens he was beheaded only a couple of years after he wrote this, though not for its writing.)
I know that it will be said by many, that I might have been more pleasing to the reader, if I had written the story of mine own times, having been permitted to draw water as near the well-head as another. To this I answer, that whosoever in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth. There is no mistress or guide, that hath led her followers and servants into greater miseries. He that goes after her too far off, loseth her sight, and loseth himself: and he that walks after her at a middle distance: I know not whether I should call that kind of course, temper or baseness. It is true, that I never travelled after men's opinions, when I might have made the best use of them: and I have now too few days remaining, to imitate those, that either out of extreme ambition, or of extreme cowardice, or both, do yet (when death hath them on his shoulders) flatter the world, between the bed and the grave. It is enough for me (being in that state I am) to write of the eldest times: wherein also why may it not be said, that in speaking of the past, I point at the present, and tax the vices of those that are yet living, in their persons that are long since dead; and have it laid to my charge ? But this I cannot help, though innocent. And certainly, if there be any, that finding themselves spotted like the tigers of old time, shall find fault with me for painting them over anew, they shall therein accuse themselves justly, and me falsely.
My source: Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books, vol 39 in the Harvard Classics series, which you can download from Google Book Search if you wish.

Addendum: Musharraf is not a monarch and his tyranny does not conform to the murderous pattern of eliminating real and imagined rivals that Raleigh describes. There's plenty of violence associated with his rule, but it isn't alleged that he offed opponents in rising to, or staying in power.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


On October 21, 1967, I was at the Pentagon when Allen Ginsberg attempted to levitate it. There were many other people present -- anti-war demonstrators like myself, Federal Marshals, Military Police, National Guardsmen, representatives of the media, ....

{A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. By S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson, Arlington, Virginia, October 21, 1967. National Archives and Records Administration}

I was going to do a blog post about this back in October, the 10th anniversary of that March on Washington, but couldn't make sense of my memories.

I recalled traveling to DC for the March on Washington with my friend Haasch on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The bike was a Sportster hybrid with a CH engine on a K frame. It looked something like this, but had the long seat to accommodate a passenger. We rode from Madison WI to DC, stopping off for an overnight stay with parents of my college roommate in Shaker Heights OH, alternating as driver/passenger. Typically unforesightful, we suffered from wet and cold, only a little helped by thin plastic rain coats our overnight hosts gave us.

That memorable trip couldn't have taken place in 1967, however, because I lived in Wisconsin from '64 to '65 and was living in New York City in '67. So the bike trip must have been to the 1965 March, not the '67 one. Wikipedia says it took place November 27 (which accounts, I guess, for our being cold on the ride).

I sorted out my memories by finding diaries I kept in those years. In the fall of '65 I was a second year grad student, trying to cope with the demands of my classes and thesis work, to work out a plan for PhD work in the UK,to divine what chances I had of maintaining a draft deferment, to keep active in the local anti-war movement, and to enjoy student life, as best I could. I found a diary that I kept in 1966 which shows these activities, plans, and concerns, but none for '65.

I did find one for 1967 and have scanned the pages surrounding the Saturday on which the effort to levitate the Pentagon took place. You can see the scans below. They have a sort of aesthetic antiquarian appeal: worn and water-stained; full of names, phone numbers, shopping lists; marking birthdays, friends' weddings, and reminders of things that needed to be done. For two years from July 1966 I was a VISTA volunteer, serving a year or so at a Neighborhood Opportunity Center in East St. Louis, and another at Mobilization for Youth on Houston St. in New York City.

The scans begin with a Friday the 13th. From the notes they contain you can infer some of my duties as assistant to the director of an MFY program for early childhood education. The agency had won an innovative grant for setting up a Head Start program to be run out of neighborhood centers through the city. The program trained women on welfare to care for the children of other women on welfare, thus freeing the latter to work full-time jobs and, more importantly, giving the children a high-quality pre-school education. I helped set up and run training sessions for the women and coordinate with the neighborhood centers. I also kept contact, via home visits, with the women as they carried out their work. I did my work at MFY headquarters on the Lower East Side, in Central- and East-Harlem in Manhattan, in Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and other locations. One of my favorite sites was Riverside Church on the Upper West Side which somtetimes provided us with training space.

The scans also show that I liked to go to classical concerts, that I spent small reimbursible sums during my work (20 cents here, 40 cents there), and that I had an occasional dinner engagement. Not on these sheets, but close by, I find that I had to continually remind myself to do small tasks -- I think "buy typewriter ribbon" shows up in 4 places over a couple of weeks, that I sought out many of the free cultural things that an improvident young man could do in Manhattan back then, that I discovered lots of cheap food in the ethnic neighborhoods I came to know, and that I spent time in the New York libraries, particularly the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

As you can see, all they say on the fateful day itself, October 21, 1967, is "Washington, DC."

Addendum: Some highlights of the diaries for 1966-67 via topic list:
Spring 1966: Applications for Ph.D study in the UK*
Spring 1966: Scholarship applications
June 10, 1966: "Vista acceptance"
June 16, 1966: "draft physical" (pre-induction physical exam; I almost got drafted)
June 24, 1966: flight to Wisconsin to begin VISTA training**
June 24, 1966: fingerprinting and photo for intake into VISTA
August 8, 1966: First day in East St. Louis, IL, in south-side NOC
August 30, 1967: Signed lease for studio apartment in NYC for $65 a month
Sept. 1, 1967: Started at MFY

The '67 diary also says that VISTA paid me $90.75 every two weeks, little enough so that I qualified for Medicaid support to get a new pair of glasses.

Another addendum: I didn't have much gut sympathy with flower power and Yippee acting-out, like the levitation street theater, and felt more in tune with the cool, beat generation which immediately preceded my own, one which -- paradoxically I think -- had Alan Ginsberg as prominent member:

{Bob Donlin, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Robert La Vigne and Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside the City Lights bookstore in 1956. A site called Beat Scene is a good place to start for information about these guys. Photograph: Allen Ginsberg/Corbis, Guardian}

Here are the diary scans. Click to view full size.


* My applications were accepted by Trinity College, Dublin; the University of Edinburgh; and a couple of other UK schools. I couldn't attend because my draft board wouldn't give a student deferment for study abroad. When I said I would be stuck in the US for two years until I turned 26, only the London School of Economics wrote back to say that I would be welcome to come whenever I was able. (And that's where I did go in the fall of '68.)

**About half way from my parents' house to the airport, my father asked whether I had my plane ticket. I did not, but we'd left the house early enough so that I still made the flight on time despite the extra time spent returning home to retrieve it. I was absent minded back then, but this forgetting shows more than that; something of the crazy turbulence of those tense and uncertain years for Americans in general and draft-age men particularly.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

vélib girls

I've written about innovative bike rental programs in European cities. Vélib, the high-profile, system in Paris continues to thrive. An article in Businessweek, glommed from SpiegelOnline, provides a useful update though not mentioning Montreal's plans for a large-scale bike rental sceme, nor Washington DC's pitifully inadequate trial. (There's information on plans for DC and competing plans for Arlington VA, with a lot of other stuff, here.) One DC blog has a charming little post on how Vélib demand is now exceeding supply in Paris, despite the enormous number of bikes and rental stations and despite its contstant growth.

All that's preamble to the Flickr photos that appear below. I searched them out after reading an entertaining article from Canada's Calgary Herald on how Riding a 'velo' in Paris is tres fashionable. The author, Lisa Pasold, says, "French women ride bicycles in high-heeled boots and miniskirts; they ride bicycles wearing flouncy shifts and platforms, overalls and gladiator sandals -- and that's just what I've noticed this week. Parisians never wear lycra cycling gear. They wouldn't be caught dead in waterproof MEC. (They also don't wear helmets -- with all the cigarette smoke we inhale over here, longevity isn't a big issue.)"

Click images to view full size.

{As you can see, this last lady isn't on a Vélib, though the gent is. Photo credits: all come from a Flickr search for "velib girls"}

a crime and its outcome

I've been meaning to do a post about my bicycle commute: my accident a week or so ago, my encounters with wildlife, the effects on me of the weather transition we're going through, how I cope with age-related pain in lower back and hips, other bicyclists, ....

Yesterday morning, while this intention was still pretty vague, I saw the flashing blue and red lights of emergency vehicles a few blocks ahead as I rode down 11th St leaving the Mt. Pleasant area and entering Shaw and the vicinity of Howard University and Logan Circle. Closing in on the activity, I saw that it was all police cruisers and noticed that there was a police helicopter overhead with its search light beaming down on a neighborhood a bit to the south. I never stop and gawk at scenes where lots of blue shirts are gathered. Neither do the others out on the street. Where there are guns, I think we all agree it's best to keep in motion.

Usually if I chance to check local news for the event, I learn nothing about it. Either it was not newsworthy or the news media couldn't get on top of it for one reason or another (I think sometimes they don't cover events when there's no visual component, for example.)

Yesterday, was different. It was newsworthy because a police officer was struck by a stolen vehicle, because the event was caught on closed-circuit tv, and because the video was made available for viewing.

Here's a map showing my route, north to south, down 11th St. The block with all the action is shown in blue. The gas station where the hit-and-run occurred is in green.

{click to view full size - credit: Mapblast}

Here are some extracts from the DC Police account of the event. There's a link to a video at the end. Do view this video. If you look carefully, you can observe what occurred at the gas station pretty much as described in the police report.
November 2, 2007
Police-Involved Shooting in the 2800 Block of Sherman Avenue, NW

Shortly after 5:00 this morning, Friday, November 2, 2007, officers from the department's Third District Substation were investigating the report of a stolen vehicle in the 2800 block of Sherman Avenue, NW. Officers were able to locate a 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer matching the description of the vehicle being sought at the Apex Gas Station located at 2830 Sherman Avenue, NW. That vehicle was being occupied by one male subject in the driver's seat while two other male subjects had apparently exited the vehicle. Officers subsequently attempted to approach the suspect vehicle when one of the officers exiting his marked unit was struck by the suspect vehicle as the operator apparently rammed the officer in an effort to escape. The impact threw the officer upon the hood of the moving vehicle, injuring the officer and forcing him to fire his service weapon in fear of his life as it appeared the vehicle could run him over.

A short time later, the Trailblazer was located unoccupied, after witnesses reportedly observed a male suspect running from that vehicle. A subsequent investigation eventually located the suspect inside of an apartment building ... suffering from an apparent gunshot wound to the chest. He was taken to an area hospital and admitted in stable condition. His wounds are not believed to be life threatening. He is currently being charged with one count of Assault on a Police Officer; however other charges may be pending. Investigators are attempting to determine if the suspect was wounded as a result of police gunfire.

One of the other suspects was apprehended at the gas station without incident. The third suspect in this case apparently made good his escape.

* Download a video of the incident (Must have Windows Media Player to view this WMV file)
Thinking about this now, I'm intrigued by a number of things: (1) The event occurred only about half an hour before I rode by the scene, (2) the DC Police web site had this account up the same day, (3) the video was captured on a Police CCTV camera, one of many that have been set up in crime neighborhoods, and (4) although the helicopter, a large Police presence on the ground, and the CCTV were used to help locate the driver of the stolen car, it was information given by witnesses that enabled Police to find first the car and (presumably) then the man himself, holed up in an apartment building.

I hadn't been aware that the Police used CCTV video cams as much as they do. There seem to be 90 or 100 in place now. Here's a link from the Police web site: locations of the CCTV cameras designed to combat crime in DC neighborhoods. Many are in areas where high-profile events take place (anti-war and anti-globalization demonstrations, for example), but many also are in residential neighborhoods, including ones like the Shaw/Howard/Logan Circle area, which are known for their drug-related crime activity. CCTV makes me uneasy, but it's comforting to know that it's used in low-income areas and not just the big-money, high-power districts. It's also a bit comforting to discover that the DC Police are able to get a full account of a crime on their web site not much later than the local media give their coverage to it. There are many ways to combat crime, including better education in the schools of low-income areas, more job opportunities for poorly-educated people, improvements in the welfare system, and the like. I believe good policing is as important as any of the others in this list.

It's also comforting to know that witnesses are willing to help police. We're often told that witnesses keep silent out of fear of retaliation. As in this case, the suspects are often from the same neighborhood as the witnesses and there's good chance the former can learn the identity of the latter.

Addendum: It took me quite a bit of searching to find out about the videocam that caught the action. I checked all the traffic cams and couldn't find one at the right location. Only searching within the MetroPolice site itself eventually brought forward information about the CCTV cameras they operate. I was a little surprised to see the locations listed but didn't do any further research on the politics of their deployment or public disclosure.

Another addendum: I like riding down 11th St. Traffic is very light at 5:45 am as I come through and it's an easy part of the ride (fairly straight, fairly level). When, from a distance, I saw the flashing lights at the Harvard St. intersection I was intrigued by the broad splash of blue, not intense and focused but more like a fan-shaped spray -- hard to describe but quite fascinating at the time -- something like the Northern Lights but of course more concentrated. As I got closer the light source became apparent and the display resolved to a more normal-looking flash, flash, flash.