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Torture Defenders

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Christ Mocked, Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1490-1500 (National Gallery, London)

It’s probably just as well that I wasn’t blogging for the last two weeks. If I were, I would have written an incoherently angry post regarding the Liz Cheney-Bill Kristol attack (through Keep America Safe) on Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department for hiring lawyers who provided representation to Guantanamo detainees. I would hardly know where to begin my rant. But at this point, perhaps there is no need for it. Just wondering, though — how do we keep America safe by ignoring all of its values? And how does former Bush speechwriter Mark Thiessen get rewarded for writing a book (Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack) defending torture by becoming a Washington Post columnist, whereupon he produces a nonsensical defense of the McCarthy-esque attacks? I needn’t tear apart Thiessen’s column; Scott Horton, among others, did it pretty well last week at Harper’s.

Let me turn instead to Garry Wills’ post this morning at The New York Review of Books blog in which he reflects on the crowning of Jesus and the thoughts this must provoke in the minds of torturers who are themselves Christian. As Easter approaches, it gives all of us — Christian or not — much to think about.

The third mystery is the crowning of Jesus. This was not a prescribed part of the process. The Roman soldiers improvised a special humiliation for their prisoner, wrapping him with a mock-regal purple robe, giving him a fake scepter, and putting an “imperial” wreath of acanthus leaves on this head, to scoff at the idea of a “King of the Jews.” It was like the medieval installation of a buffoon as “Lord of Misrule.” Again, the aim was to take away any last scrap of dignity that might be left to Jesus.

Sound familiar? Our recent torture techniques seem directly linked to the treatment Jesus received. Our prisoners were stripped, subjected to head bangings and face slappings. This was not torture, according to torturologist John Yoo. It may have been painful but it did not inflict permanent damage—except to human dignity. And making prisoners wear women’s underwear on their faces, or smearing them with what they were told was menstrual blood, was breaking down their deepest ideas of worth in their own culture and their own pride. It was a derisive “crowning.”

I do not know what went through the minds of secular or non-Christian torturers. But Christian torturers might have reason to have tortured consciences themselves when or if they remember what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew (25.31ff). Asked who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who comforted him in prison. Asked who will be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who would not comfort him in prison. His listeners ask, “When were you in prison, that we came to you or did not?” He answers: “Whatever you did to any of my brothers, even the lowliest (elackistoi), you did to me.” Christians should face this sobering fact: in their treatment of the lowliest of men, they were torturing Jesus, renewing what the Roman soldiers did to him.

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Categories: Politics, Religion, Torture

British Universities in Crisis

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Marten de Vos, Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts, 1590

The Princeton scholar Anthony Grafton had a disturbing piece last week at The New York Review of Books blog on the decline of the humanities at British universities. Grafton’s opening paragraph sets the tone:

British universities face a crisis of the mind and spirit. For thirty years, Tory and Labour politicians, bureaucrats, and “managers” have hacked at the traditional foundations of academic life. Unless policies and practices change soon, the damage will be impossible to remedy.

The market pressures Grafton describes are at play in US universities as well. Increasingly, the success of a humanities department depends on some significant private gifts to supplement the base budget.
I could say more, but hardly as well as Grafton, who is both an eloquent writer and a superb humanist. One more quote:

Universities become great by investing for the long term. You choose the best scholars and teachers you can and give them the resources and the time to think problems through. …

Accept the short term as your standard—support only what students want to study right now and outside agencies want to fund right now—and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most in twenty years are often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship—like Slow Food—is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way. The British used to know that, but now they’ve streaked by us on the way to the other extreme.

Categories: Humanities

Street Food

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Cubano sandwich and tostones

[From Paladar Cubano website, courtesy of Nancy Leson, Seattle Times]

I had intended to write about a post by Joshua Hersh that appeared on the New Yorker blog two weeks ago, the day before I headed to the east coast. It was so much more interesting than anything I ever write about food. In it, Hersh wrote about his experiences eating fahsa during his recent travels in Yemen. Fahsa, Hersh explains,

is principally a lamb stew, braised with spices in a giant vat and then finished in a super-heated stone pot. The secret ingredient is fenugreek, a stalky herb that has become a popular supplement among nursing mothers, due to claims that it has breast-milk-enhancing properties. Fahsa is finished with an airy green sauce, a frothy leek-cilantro mixture—an ancient precursor to the “culinary foams” whipped up by the likes of Ferran Adria.

I ate the fahsa with a couple of Yemeni friends, sitting at a table outdoors. We dipped pieces of flatbread into shared stone pots, pausing only to pour in extra broth brought by a waiter. Soon the table was a mess of breadcrumbs, splashes of broth, and bits of lamb. It tasted phenomenal, a rich salty-sweetness that one expects only in dishes that contain sausage.

It was perhaps the most delicious thing I ate in Yemen, despite having all the visual appeal of canned cat food.

Hersh’s description of the Yemeni dining experience is also interesting: “Inside the fahsa joint, men crowded around low, communal tables in a large room that doubled as the kitchen. A frenzy of waiters ran across counters as if they were catwalks, throwing around scalding stone pots. The chefs peered into vats and fry pans, over massive gas burners. Most food I ate in Yemen was prepared in restaurants that specialize in a single dish, cooked rapidly over a fire so powerful that the roar of the gas made it impossible to hear anything else.”

Last week, Joel and I had our own street food experience, prompted by the cover story eight days ago in the Seattle Times’ Sunday supplement, Pacific Northwest magazine. In the article, former Seattle Times reporter Hugo Kugiya recounts his restaurant discoveries since returning to Seattle after spending a few years in New York. In his search, he was looking “for traditional food, borrowed from other places and transplanted here. The food did not have to be elaborate, but it had to somehow make me see this place fresh, as a stranger might.”

Kugiya is disappointed by the Cuban sandwiches at a restaurant called Paseo, but then finds Paladar Cubano.

Seattle, a forward-looking city in a New World country, serves plenty of well-prepared, creative food, but not very much traditional food. Here, most traditions have to be imported, then somehow nurtured without the benefit of large numbers, sometimes in a Chevy panel truck parked on a gravel lot.

That is where, 50 blocks north of Paseo, Pedro Vargas, a drummer raised in Bahia Honda, Cuba, serves the real Cuban sandwich. He came to Seattle years ago to perform at Jazz Alley, staying because he fell in love with a local woman. His truck, Paladar Cubano, parked at North 90th Street and Aurora Avenue North, offers just two entrees, roast pork and ropa vieja (shredded beef), both served with Moros y Cristianos (rice and black beans). The menu lists two other side dishes, tostones (fried mashed plantains) and fried yuca.

A little more research led me to an enthusiastic review of Paladar Cubano last August by Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson. The menu at Paladar Cubano’s website is much more extensive than the two entrees Kugiya mentioned, but Leson also highlighted the cubano sandwich, so that’s what Joel and I headed up there for last Wednesday afternoon.

The cubano is ham, cheese, roast pork, pickles, mustard on cuban bread. We each ordered one, supplemented by two side orders, the tostones (fried green plantains) and the maduros (fried sweet plantains). Plus, Joel ordered a can of Ironbeer. There were just a few people ahead of us, but they had at least a ten-minute wait, after which we waited another 7 or 8 minutes. And the threesome and twosome who came after us didn’t order until we got our food. It’s clearly a slow process, each sandwich cooked to order, and our order plus the orders just before us fully occupied the man and woman in the truck for nearly 20 minutes.

I’m pleased to say that the wait was worth it. The sandwiches were excellent, thanks in large part to the first-rate meat and bread. I would happily eat there regularly if they were in our neighborhood. The tostones were excellent too, but the maduros might have been a bit too much. They are so sweet that they function more as a dessert than a side dish, and we were way too full to require dessert when the time came.

We’ll be back. With Gail next time.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

I’m Back

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Not that I was gone, but I haven’t posted anything in over two weeks. I don’t know how that happened.

Well, actually, I was gone, but that was over a week ago, when I was back on the east coast for four days. Since returning, I’ve collected various items to blog about. I just haven’t followed up. And as the days pass, items that seemed worthy at the time strike me as less so now.

Worthy or not, new posts will be on their way soon.

Categories: Writing