The CIA on Effective Arrests

My current research project revolves around the use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror”—and I’m uncovering a wealth of astonishing, depressing material, much of it compliments of the U.S. government.

Here is a page from a top secret CIA manual on “Human Resource Exploitation,” distributed by CIA trainers in Latin America in the seventies and eighties (the full manual, along with its precursor, the notorious “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual from 1963, are available at the excellent National Security Archive). If you click the image for a larger version, you can read the CIA’s suggestions for the best way to arrest individuals hostile to the current government (say, labor organizers in Honduras):

The manner and timing of arrest should be planned to achieve surprise and the maximum amount of mental discomfort. He should therefore be arrested at a moment when he least suspects it and when his mental and physical resistance is at its lowest. Ideally in the early hours of the morning. When arrested at this time, most subjects experience intense feelings of shock, insecurity, and psychological stress and for the most part have great difficulty adjusting to the situation. It is also important that the arresting party behave in such a manner as to impress the subject with their efficiency.

Wow. This wouldn’t be out of place in some Gestapo training manual, would it? The CIA’s advised method–strike at dawn, be efficient, disorient your victim–reminds me of the so-called Dew Breakers of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s ruthless regime in Haiti, the secret police who would come shortly before dawn (thus breaking the dew) to arrest and torture anyone who dared speak out against Duvalier. (Edwidge Danticat eloquently writes about one such officer of the Tonton Macoutes in her novel The Dew Breaker.)

My hats off to the CIA for their insights and inspiration to all those aspiring fascists out there. Way to export democracy, guys.

Falling Down in Mother Goose


After another week of reading Mother Goose to my son, it’s become obvious that he has a clear preference for a certain kind of nursery rhyme. Namely, one in which people (or in one case, an egg) fall down.

And there’s a lot of falling down in Mother Goose.

We all know about Jack and Jill, and the hush-a-bye baby whose cradle fell down, and of course there’s Humpty Dumpty. But what about Blue Bell Boy (“in coal scuttle fell he / up to his little chin”)? And the poor two gray kittens (“the bridge broke down / they all fell in”)? And the Man with bandy legs (“I met a man with bandy legs / bandy legs and crooked toes / I tripped up on his heels and he fell on his nose”)?

And then there’s the metaphorical falls. Jenny Wren fell sick. Molly, my sister and I fell out. Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep.

So what’s with all this falling down in Mother Goose? There’s the audience of course, little children, who love the fact that gravity works, and works well.

I think there’s also the hint of the peril in the everyday, the 18th century equivalent of danger in the suburbs: downed power lines, fatal swing sets, strangers with candy.

Consider “Three Children on the Ice”:

Three children sliding on the ice
Upon a summer’s day,
As it fell out, they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.

Oh, had these children been at school,
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny
They had not then been drowned.

Ye parents who have children dear,
And ye, too, who have none,
If you would keep them safe abroad
Pray keep them safe at home.

This tragic nursery rhyme offers a stern warning to parents: keep your children “safe at home.”

I can imagine a modern PSA with essentially the same message, just replace “ice” with “local gravel pit.” Or even better for my small town, “infill construction lot.”

Goodbye 2006, Goodbye US Airways

It’s been one long fall. And it’s finally come to a close. Late December is when everyone comes out with their “best of” or “worst of” lists, so I thought I’d throw together a few lists. There’s no best and no worst, simply a snapshot of some of the things that made life as a commuting professor so grueling these past five months (and which explains why I haven’t posted in weeks). Come to think of it, this is more like a Harper’s Index than a proper list…

Number of novels read and taught since the beginning of August: 13

Number of those novels featuring characters named Asa: 2

Estimated average length, in pages, of each novel: 400

Estimated number of student papers read, in pages: 1,950

Estimated time spent grading those papers, in hours: 975

Percentage of students who “stopped attending” (as the registrar puts it) but were still registered for my classes: 8

Frequent flier miles earned since August: 54,484

Number of peanut butter jars confiscated by TSA screeners under the “no liquid” ban: 1

Percentage of successful smuggling attempts of lip balm aboard aircraft: 100

Number of times the 9 volt battery, digital watch, stress ball, and random twist-tie in my carry on baggage were mistaken for bomb components: 1

The Crowd

I discovered a gem tonight in Gustave Le Bon’s classic 1895 study of crowds, La Psychologie des foules. “Civilisations as yet,” Le Bon writes, “have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

I like the tone of this. All fire and brimstone and presciently tapped into the mob psychology of the Facists. Such a welcome counterpoint to the current oh-the-masses-are-so-wise thinking that dominates the networked era.

Le Bon goes on, in his quaint 19th century French manner, to discuss Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and how Napoleon, though he possessed a “marvellous insight into the psychology of the masses of the country over which he reigned,” had somehow “completely misunderstood the psychology of crowds belonging to other races” (i.e. the Spanish). And then, in a witty footnote that would be comical were it not for its uncanny resonance with the present, Le Bon comments that Napoleon’s

most subtle advisers, moreover, did not understand this psychology any better. Talleyrand wrote him that “Spain would receive his soldiers as liberators.” It received them as beasts of prey.

Now, where I have heard that before? Soldiers greeted as liberators? Sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it. And the second part, about being received as “beasts of prey”? Again, that vaguely seems hazily to be something foggily that is very nearly barely on the tip of my tongue. But I rack my brains and I can’t come up with it.

Le Bon continues in his footnote, “A psychologist acquainted with the hereditory insticts of the Spanish race would have easily foreseen this reception.” Le Bon frames in terms of instinct and race what is better understand in terms of culture and context: invaders are not liberators, occupiers are not liberators, and, when strategic natural resources are involved–whether it’s control of Atlantic shipping in the early 19th century or Mideast oil in the early 21st–the soldiers are indeed seen by the aggrieved crowds as beasts of prey.

The Last Jihad

Okay, so today I venture halfheartedly to Starbucks, because it’s the only coffee shop within walking distance (though there must be 8 billion within driving distance in Northern Virginia), and at the table across from me, there is some guy going on and on about how there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and what a bad baddie Saddam Hussein was and how great we took him out. Through some not so difficult eavesdropping (made fairly easy by the booming, energetic voice) I determined that this man was a novelist of some renown and that he had in fact some of his books right there on the table with him.

Through some inspired cloak and dagger misdirection involving a wink, a stubbed toe, and a penguin, I was able to see, upon leaving Starbucks, exactly what novel was on the table, thus determining what novelist was at the table.

I felt I needed to do this, because I am a professor of contemporary American literature, and I had no idea who this guy was talking so animatedly about Hussein’s secret plans to blow up the west with his nuclear arsenal. Here was a contemporary American novelist, and it was my professional duty to find out which one.

Turns out it was okay I hadn’t heard of him.

Because I don’t usually read evangelical Christian conspiracy thrillers.

The man was Joel C. Rosenberg, most famous for his NY Times bestseller, The Last Jihad. As the Publishers Weekly review of The Last Jihad on Amazon says:

In the wake of September 11, popular American president James MacPherson has spearheaded an international effort to destroy terrorist training camps in the Middle East and North Africa. Osama bin Laden has been killed, but Saddam Hussein continues to plot against the West.

Cool!

I’ve since discovered that Rosenberg’s follow-up novel, The Ezekiel Option, is, despite its Ludlumesque title, essentially a kind of Left Behind novel about the Last Days. You know, the rise of Babylon, the Antichrist, and a lot of shit blowing apart

A real neo-con ex-Orthodox Jew Christian evangelical hawkish apocalyptic novelist, right here, in my very own Starbucks!!

I should buy him a double skinny no fun triple latte frappo mocha.

Fall 2006 Courses

For a lack of anything else intelligent to say at this hour, I’m posting descriptions for two of the undergrad courses that I’m teaching next fall:

21st Century American Fiction
(ENGL 429:001)

What innovative directions is American fiction taking in the new millennium? How have novelists and other writers reacted to the dominant events of the past few years: the dot-com bust and ensuing recession; the 9/11 terrorist attacksand the War on Terror; the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its impact at home and abroad; and the ascendancy of the virtual world? In this advanced literature course we will examine the trends, assumptions, and anxieties reflected in an assortment of recent fiction, published by both rising stars and well established writers.

—————

Apocalyptic Thought in American Fiction
(ENGL 202:004)

There is a long history of apocalyptic thought in American fiction, and in this class we will examine the relationship between visions of the end and the social and historical contexts that give rise to those visions. We will consider the literary renderings of both religious apocalyptic scenarios (Doomsday, the Rapture, the Second Coming) and secular apocalyptic scenarios (environmental, biological, nuclear). The final portion of the class will consider the Journey into the Wilderness–a long-standing tradition in apocalyptic literature. We will treat the fiction we read as exactly that: fiction. In other words, we are not studying the apocalypse, but rather, representations of the apocalypse. As such, these representations reveal more about our anxieties and concerns with the present world than about any deeply held belief we hold about the end of the universe.

Don Quijote “Statue”

Or “Donkey-te” as my son says. This is another street performer on Calle Postas in Madrid. Drop a few coins in the chute and he bounces on “Rocinante” or jousts at imaginary windmills (i.e. pedestrians).

My son goes crazy everytime he sees Donkey-te, and he woke up in the middle of the night last night asking for him. It took a while to convince him that Don Quijote was asleep and he should be too.

Baby’s First ATM

So yesterday my wife, son, and I ventured for the first time into Kids-R-Us, home of the well-behaved toddler, destination of choice for the stark raving mad parent. Our visit deserves a separate post of its own (suffice it to say that it ended with the purchase of 100 plastic balls, each the size of a grapefruit), but what really needs to be said is this: why does a child need a play ATM machine?

Here you see an image (Larger Image) of what the proud parent ahead of me in the checkout line bought their little girl: the YOUniverse ATM toy, complete with a plastic ATM card, an alphanumeric keypad, a functioning screen, a slot that accepts bills, and Baby’s first PIN number. WTF? Seriously, a PIN number.

It’s true that many toys are nothing but thinly disguised training tools, preparing our children for the drudgery of adult labor–play kitchens, play vacuums, play tools–but I think the play banking machine is a different beast altogether.

The machine takes for granted an idea that I will go to my deathbed resisting: that our electronic lives–our database selves composed of PINs, account numbers, credit records, virtually every transaction of our day-to-day lives, stored and aggregated in corporate datawarehouses–are essentially our whole identity.

Without that PIN, we’re nothing.

I am reminded of a scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, in which our hero Jack Gladney visits an ATM machine:

In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automatic teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval….What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. (White Noise 46)

Written over twenty years ago, this passage still seems fresh–if only we stop to think about it. Automatic Teller Machines have become such a part of our daily life that we forget. “Automatic” now describes us as much as it does the machines themselves.

DeLillo continues, “the system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.” I think Baby’s First ATM functions as an innoculation to the more disquieting, unsettling aspects of our second, database selves. It’s not a conscious effort by the banking industry, of course (I am not that conspiracy minded). Rather, I think it’s the absurd, logical extension of the reduction of our lives to sets of data owned by corporations.

A Fleeting Thought on Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is one of the enduring keywords of academia in the past decade. I’ve been hearing it praised for so long now and seeing so little actual evidence of it, that I’m beginning to think all the praise is simply wish-fulfillment. And like most wishes, the wisher probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if it ever came true.

In the humanities, the closest we come to interdisciplinarity is arranging a panel which brings together a literary scholar, a historian, and maybe an artist, all talking about something entirely different. But they’re all on the same panel. And that’s interdisciplinarity.

It seems to me that if interdisciplinarity is happening at all at the university level, it is in the sciences. Chemists, physicists, and biologists have a lot more to say to each other–and work to produce together–than we in the humanities will ever admit to ourselves.

I wonder, what true interdisciplinary projects could bring together scholars and researchers from different fields in the humanities? What would such a project look like?

KOAN: A professor of poststructuralist literary theory, 17th century Armenian history, and Greek epic poetry walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the three and says, what is this, some kind of joke?

Harry Potter, the first 100 pages

Okay, I admit it, I advance-ordered Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from Amazon, and, as promised, Amazon had UPS deliver my copy first thing Saturday morning, the day of the long-awaited novel’s release.

I have serious mixed feelings about the Potter series. I’ve read all the books–twice, even–so it’s obvious that they bring me pleasure. Yet, the books are definitely flawed. The first several had too rigid a structure, the narrative lines following the school schedule of Hogwarts: beginning in the late summer with the predictably awful Dursleys torturing Harry, ending the following summer with Harry’s return to their wretched house, and in between there are midterms, Christmas breaks, and finals. As a result, the first three books seemed to me a bit repetitive.

I’ve read the first hundred pages or so of the new novel, and I have to say that so far, it’s moving along at a slow crawl. Unlike The Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry was tormented by Dementors very early in the novel, even before he left the Dursleys, nothing dangerous has happened yet–at least to Harry and his friends. Just a lot of hints of danger, happening on the sidelines.

I know that all the headlines are saying this is the darkest book yet, so I should suspend judgment until I get farther in the book.

Which brings me to another point. In the past, I’ve essentially devoured the novels. They’re easy reads and I usually finished them within 48 hours. In the past I couldn’t make any claims about my impression of the first hundred pages, simply because I read them so quickly that by the time I stopped to assess things, I was already deep, deep, deep, into the novel, maybe even finished. Now, because of work and family and other circumstances, I’m going to have to dip in and out The Half-Blood Prince. So I’ll have much more time between readings to reflect on what’s going on. And in this case, what’s going on, so far, is almost nothing.

Suburbia: The Unspeakable Peril in the Everyday

All this thinking about the dangers of suburbia reminds me of a passage from Joan Didion’s great 1970 novel Play It As It Lays. Maria Wyeth, the washed-up, strung-out actress in the novel exists in a near catatonic state.

For days during the rain she did not speak out loud or read a newspaper. She could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from the page: the four-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday. (Play It As It Lays, pp. 99-100)

This peril in the everyday is the ghost anxiety that haunts many of the signs in my subdivision. Notice in how many of them children are at risk.

Because her own child is somehow brain damaged — and she aborts another fetus — Maria keys into this societal fear of children at risk. But she (ironically, considering her decidedly non-nurturing lifestyle) localizes the fear as a mother’s concern for her child, thereby depoliticizing what I see as a symptom of larger social anxieties:

She grew faint as the processions swept before her, the children alive when last scolded, dead when next seen, the children in the locked car burning, the little faces, helpless screams. The mothers were always reported to be under sedation. In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril. (Play It As It Lays, p. 100)

Instantaneous peril, or at least the imagined threat of instantaneous peril, what role does it play in our lives? In our decision-making? In our policies and politics, both locally, here in my own subdivision, and nationally, in an America where our greatest living enemy is supposedly some intangible capital-T Terror?

Search Inside This Book

Like many avid readers and scholars I am thoroughly enamored of Amazon.com’s Search Inside the Book feature. The feature debuted October 23, 2003 with the complete text of more than 120,000 books. I can’t find any recent data on how large the digital archive has grown in the past several months, but the folks at Amazon have said they would eventually like to have their entire catalog full-text searchable.

Gary Wolf explores the different dimensions of such a huge undertaking in “The Great Library of Amazonia”, an article in this past December’s Wired. As much as I agree with Wolf (“We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web”), there is one aspect of the whole project I find troubling. And that is, who performs the actual labor of digitizing these thousands of books? It sounds counter-intuitive, but publishers must send Amazon a physical copy of every book to be included in the database. And then some person, somewhere, manually turns and scans every page of that book.

There are machines that will automate the scanning process, like the Kirtas APT BookScan 1200, which costs a cool $150,000 and can scan 1,200 pages in one hour. But Wolf reports that Amazon.com has sent shipments of books to India to be scanned by human workers. There, according to a related Wired article, the workers turn pages by hand and make 40 cents an hour.

So, it is an unsettling fact of this global economy that I can search Amazon’s catalog for a book with the phrase “imperialist lackeys and running dogs” and then buy that book for $11.20–an exorbitant sum for that worker in India, about 28 hours’ worth of work. The only consolation is that however little 40 cents an hour is, it is still twice India’s average daily wage. Of course, this speaks more to the inequities of global capitalism than to the generosity of Amazon.com.

UPDATE (23 July 2009)

In the years since I wrote this post, I’ve created a number of assignments that use Amazon’s full-text search feature, such as this writing assignment for Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle.