Getting There

The Dying Art
of Passing Away

There are people who dream about impossible places they’d like to go to when they die. We too imagine someday resting in an improbable place: the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But just so we’re clear about it, we said ‘someday,’ not now, or tomorrow, well, who knows? In any case, once we cross that threshold, we won’t give a damn.
However, even if you do, you may be still out of luck: some places have the inconvenient rule of forbidding people from dying there. Either because your wasteful body may ruin the environment, or climate won’t decompose it, or perhaps because they just don’t like you. So your choice may be as well to remain alive. Or almost, like the walking dead of Toraja. Good luck keeping your friends close, though.
As for us, we’ll never understand this drive to stay alive at all costs. Doesn’t anyone realize how everything became incredibly expensive? Besides, who wants to last longer than our loved ones? In other words, we’re fine with the expiration date that’s part of the deal of living. Oh, and we don’t need to know the day or the way either.
About those places people imagine will be throwing a red carpet, or rather, a fluffy, white-cloud rug, and a welcoming party, we’re not so sure. It’s kind of taxing to start picturing a whole new set of realities to be faced after however long we’ll spend struggling to make sense of what’s around here. Very distracting.
But so you don’t think we’re knocking anyone’s beliefs, let’s suppose that it’d all be exactly as it is in this presumable afterlife? Why would nature go to such an extent to go after each and every one of us with everything it’s got only to let it all to continue as before just under different circumstances, then what? Oh, never mind.

In Japan, there’s an island, Itsukushima, that’s considered so sacred that they don’t want no stinking likes of you there. That is, they’ll put up if you’re still talking, and especially, walking. But go drop dead somewhere else. In fact, since 1878, no one was born or has died there, and they may kill you for even trying it.
The enforcers are a group of otherwise pious priests, who spend the days in prayer at the island’s holy shrine. But all hell may break loose at even a sight of a pregnant woman, an elderly person, or someone who’s terminally ill, although it’s not clear how would they know it. It all started with the Battle of Miyajima in 1555, after which all bodies were immediately removed from the island and the spilled blood was either cleaned or disposed of. Yeah, that kind of piety has been going on for over 400 years, just so you know.
Not so strict but still a difficult place to die at is Longyearbyen in Norway. No priests are banning the dead there, though, just the weather, still cold enough to preserve bodies indefinitely. People buried a century ago look like they’ve just fallen asleep. Which, let’s face it, it’s kind of creepy. Yes, that’s changing due to the climate emergency but just in case, get the hell away from there, fast. One never knows.
Two other places prohibit people from dying there by decree. Both (more)
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The Other Fourth

The Amendment That Ascertains
Power to This Independence Day

Dispensing all pomp and circumstance, national birthdays have a way of turning into numbing occasions for grandstanding patriotism and overindulgent gluttony. It’s no different in the U.S., even as Independence Day marks a moment of rebellion and self-sacrifice.
That being said, flags and (non-military) parades are ok, but it can’t hurt to focus on the constitutional side of that storied statement signed by the 13 colonies, which Congress adopted 243 years ago today, and whether it still holds sway as the highest law of the land.
As such, after almost two and a half centuries, it’s held up pretty well. As the nation went through its growing pains, it managed to extend the original liberal slant of its founding documents, even as it amended them, while also adding some truly lofty goals as far as individual rights are concerned. Yes, that can, and it seems to be already changing. Still.
The paradox about those high standards is that they’ve made the U.S. Constitution both an example of steely idealism committed to a set of amendments, and also a pragmatic tool, vulnerable to be waged against the very principles it vows to defend. Take now, for instance.
Despite having enjoyed a full century of world economic and military domination, without stealing land or doing away with its institutions, the past decades have presented serious challenges to its tradition of constitutionality and the rule of the law. Need to say more?
It brings no joy to mention this today, but with two long, unjust wars, thousands of American and foreign lives lost, billions of dollars wasted into the buildup of a scary military complex, the U.S. is more than ever perceived globally as a bully, with no respect to its own legal precepts. How did it come to that? Well, way before that rotten orange stench took over the White House’s lawns, that’s for sure.

The framers of the Constitution ‘did not want to rely on the promises of good motivations or good intents from the government,’ Professor of Law Jonathan Turley told the actor John Cusack in a 2013 interview. ‘They created a system where no branch had enough authority to govern alone, a system of shared and balanced powers.’
Turley blasted the Obama administration’s efforts to block prosecution of CIA operatives accused of torture during the Bush era as a flagrant infringement of international law. ‘Soon after 9/11, government officials started to talk about how the Constitution is making us weaker, how we can’t function by giving people due process.’ He was right, of course; some of them are indeed back in power.
Remember, that’s when Edward Snowden offered proof that the NSA had been spying on Americans and even foreign dignitaries for years. But as it happened with rumors (more)
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The Humanities Bill

The Anniversary of a Historic
Step in Defense of Human Rights

In hindsight, every year has its share of earth-shaking events. That said, 1948 stands out for its peculiar transcendence, at least, for armchair dilettantes like us. Gandhi’s murder, South Africa’s Apartheid, and the State of Israel are surely year highlights.
So is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 70 years ago next Monday. A plea for the new world gingerly emerging from two global wars in a row, and about to welcome the Nuclear Age, it lined up some of mankind’s most crucial precepts.
The year when the threat of authoritarianism, driven by an ‘us versus them’ mentality, set the grounds for the Cold War, was also when Eric Arthur Blair – a.k.a. George Orwell – penned 1984, a dystopian view of what could be in store for mankind.
Not two centuries before, the French Revolution had produced the defining Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, which is closely associated with the U.S. Bill of Rights. But a renewed set of principles was again necessary. And so is its remembrance today.
Even as we grew wary of commandments and words of order, thanks to tyrants and dictators who betrayed their provisions over and again, this declaration remains relevant for what it projects and to whom it addresses: ethical and compassionate beings.
A ‘standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society (…) shall strive to promote respect for these rights and freedoms (…) to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.’
Due to its similarities with the U.S. Constitution, some Americans may be jaded about its power to preside over society’s webs and flows. But

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just as any moral edit, its ability to prevent bad deeds is proportional to the willingness of citizens to stand up for it.
For ‘human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ endowed with reason to ‘act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Race, color, sex, language, religion, politics, birth or other status, are no longer acceptable excuses to ignore it.
Seven decades later, this document remains vital on its defense of freedom of speech, and right to dissent without fear of retaliation, a reason for rulers to rarely mention it on their calls to arms. It’s too threatening a script to be invoked at a stump speech.
Rather than legitimizing their rule, it democratically provides that ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security,’ no need for a father figure to treat them like kids. It recognizes the individual as the sovereign agent of his or her own destiny.
That’s why it should be recited daily by school children around the world, rather than anthems or prayers. It’s a way better tool to engage them into a lifetime defense of rights against all attempts of society, and the state, to control and use them.

Full Stop

Le Bastille & Guthrie, 
& Heartbreak in Florida

By the time you read this, Francophiles and revolutionists of all stripes are done marking Bastille Day and Woody Guthrie’s 101th birthday. It’s also been a day to cut off yet another link with the past: someone, somewhere in India, will post the world’s last telegram.
But even for those whose best Sunday plans include a pass on headline news, it was hard to ignore the shock waves that came from Travyon Martin’s murder trial. To a nation that’s beaten to a pulp so many enemies, race has proven once again to be a formidable foe.
Many will be grieving over the not-guilty verdict. But for Pete Seeger, one of Guthrie‘s best friends, the date has a poignancy of its own, as Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger, his wife and collaborator of 70 years, passed away last Tuesday. Now how this mix of milestones, trivia, and personal loss are connected, we could hardly say.
We can only offer that the French Revolution, despite all spilled blood and betrayed expectations, is still closer to the U.S. than even the 10 days separating Le Quatorze from the Fourth of July would lead to believe, as it did serve as a cautionary tale to the young American republic.
Over two centuries later, both nations are in badly need of a refresher on their ideals of equality and freedom for all. In fact, most news about a possible identify of purpose between the two come invariably infected with the pragmatism of shared intel and similar military-driven goals.
As for Guthrie and his friends, it’s startling to realize how much worse it got to be a dissenter and an outcast. Whereas no one disputes Continue reading

Natural Law

The Written Word
of a Shared Dream

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the most beautiful and profound documents ever composed about individual freedom, was adopted on Aug, 26, 1789, by France’s constituent assembly. Closely associated with the U.S. Bill of Rights signed just a few days before, it was to become the French Revolution’s definitive statement.
Along with the U.S. Constitution, it committed to words the main ideals of the Enlightenment Age, including its utopian view that a document would be enough to counter the bloodshed already in progress in France. Curiously, its principles somehow wound up working better on the other side of the ocean than in its place of birth, even if at least for a while.
In fact, it may have been pure luck that the U.S., then at war with one of the world’s biggest powers, had the right brand of leadership to be ushered to its independence relatively free of the carnage associated with the French Revolution. And that for over two hundred years, it succeed in not producing a single dictator or openly authoritarian regime.
In the meantime, within a decade, one of history’s bloodiest tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, had made his way to power in France, and from day one, made sure that all hope for a time of peace and prosperity would have to be put on hold once again. It’s hard to conceive how the French may have felt when their dreams were so spectacularly dashed.
But for a brief moment, almost as if coordinated, France and the U.S. dared to imagine that nations and politics could and should be driven by the well being of the people. And even if it didn’t quite work that Continue reading

Vive Le Crap

Happy Century, Woody Guthrie.
Happy 223rd Anniversary, France.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

A Bastille Day to make flag-wavers and phone-in idealists proud.
A time to sing La Marseillaise with the fervor of V.I.P. donors and Monday morning quarterbacks.
Go ahead, have the Riccard, the Champagne, the Bordeaux.
Soon enough, we’ll be back to the Budweisers of our discontent.
For now, though, even Fox News will mention
the Dust Bowl Troubadour and that son of a Kenyan,
in the same sentence with the socialism they’re supposed to embody.
After all, if there’s a revolution apace, it’s for the right to party.
This land may be yours, but the ground is for fracking.
The Gulf Stream is still there, but loaded with oil rigs.
Corporations are now people, my friend,
and may text you to ask for your Voter ID.
But let’s give Woody the final word of the day.
For while only a few are bound for glory,
we’ll be all better off once someone does give a damn.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway.
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Head & Shoulders

Henri IV Gets
His Skull Back

After 400 years, Henri IV’s head is finally about to rejoin the rest of his body. But this time around, it’s to rest in peace for good. Long live the French king.
Some people lose their head over anything. As grandma used to say, their blood gets hot and they do something stupid. You know what happens next: they run around like headless chickens.
Others keep them well in place. It’s a good thing if you’re, for example, a king. You make good decisions and then, when you die, your subjects remember you as an good-hearted monarch. Continue reading