A Closed-Casket Country in an Open-Casket World

As I write this, there is a growing discussion of whether or not the US will release images of Osama Bin Laden’s dead body. While I’m not a security expert by any means, once the news broke that US forces had killed Osama Bin Laden the first question to enter my head was: How are they going to release the photos of his dead body?

It never entered my thinking that the US wouldn’t. However, I couldn’t envision a politically and culturally “safe space” within which the US could.

The US has become a “closed-casket nation” in more ways than one. This cultural preference not only relates to how bodies are viewed/not viewed at funerals, it more broadly relates to how we as a nation view death. Despite its certainty and ubiquity, on a cultural level, we treat death as though it is unusual, rare, even shocking. We make it so by not openly dealing with and discussing it, by immunizing our visual culture from accurate depictions of it, and even by promoting a commercial perspective that we can defy it.

This national perspective has its limits, to be sure, but, for the most part, we as a nation do not deal with death in a real way. Presently, we even continue to minimize the images of death relating to our own soldiers in our various and current wars. Have you ever seen a photo of the body of a dead soldier from one of the current wars taken while he or she was already dead? When was the last time you saw a photo of a US soldier bleeding or severely wounded? When was the last time you even saw a picture of the casket bringing their body home?

And that’s one of the reasons why releasing photos immediately would have seemed shocking, almost inhumane. From both the image and sense the US has of itself, as well as the image the rest of the world has of us, an immediate release of these images would have seemed out of step and suggestive of gloating more than anything else. You might not have a problem with that as an individual (if so, I am sorry), but it does little in terms of serving the interests of so-called “national security” (which is all that really matters to those in charge).

At the same time, I fully recognize that we live in an open-casket world. No matter how people in the US view death, the rest of the world does not have the luxury of being so isolated from its presence. This isn’t necessarily a sign of wealth as much as it may be a sign of what academic’s might call the “culture of modernity.” It wasn’t too long ago that the US was an open-casket nation. Even in places that are considered the “first world,” visions of the deceased are not rare. They are integrated into the ways people collectively deal with death and heal from the sorrow of it.

In many places in the world–places where the death of Osama Bin Laden needs to be communicated (from a US diplomatic and military perspective)–death is a constant part of life. There are children who grow up seeing death and dismemberment from war and violence on a regular basis. There are places on this earth–far too many places–where you can not escape the capriciousness of human-instigated death.

The horrific and painful photo above is of three of the four children killed in a US airstrikea little more than two months ago in Afghanistan. In the two week period ending last February–when these children were killed–the Afghanistan government estimated 200 civilians had been killed as a result of the war.

In these cultures, death and the body of the deceased go hand in hand. That’s why I recognized right away that the US was going to have to release the photos, eventually.

What seems to be developing is a concerted effort by people in the Departments of Defense and State to “prime the pump” as it were and prepare for the release of the photos. If they were “leaked” then that would suggest some kind of problem within the US military or intelligence apparatus, or even the White House. But the current discussion from Washington is depicting the White House and others are “conflicted” but increasingly aware of the large “public outcry” for these images.

When they do release the images it will be seen as an acquiescence to these external pressures. The US will not come off as barbaric (quite the contrary, since they “withheld” the photos in the first place), and the military and diplomatic interests of showcasing the dead body of Osama Bin Laden to the world will be served.

At least that’s my guess.

On the death of a warmonger

Robert S. McNamara died this morning at the age of 93. If you don’t know who he is, you can read his obituary in the NY Times, the LA Times, or his Wikipedia page. For more in-depth discussions of his life and legacy you can watch the 2004 Oscar-winning film The Fog of War, or read his 1995 autobiography, In Retrospect.

My first inclination with the passing of McNamara is to say something sarcastic and mean, not out of a desire to hurt his family but out of a need to make a statement against the actions this man took in his life.  But I find myself doing what I just did in that last sentence: thinking about his family, or anyone who might be feeling loss due to the man’s passing today.


McNamara deserves to be understood as a weak and misguided man.  On the latter point, he is no different than any number of government and military officials for more than half a century who were so wedded to the myth of the “domino effect” as to be blinded by the overwhelming evidence they collected that it was nothing but metaphor.

On the first count–on his weakness–perhaps he is also linked to an “army” of so-called leaders who forget to cherish the lives of the people who put their games of war into action, in addition to the lives of those whose deaths are the objects of those games. Robert McNamara served a government in a capacity which brought him tremendous power and responsibility. But, in his crucial moments, time and time again, he traded his obligations as a human being for the exigencies of that master.

A liberal-pragmatist might say men like McNamara are necessary when we need them to do the things we cannot.  I don’t agree.  In the world we have created, in the systems we have made and rely upon to define what is possible and necessary, perhaps. But that human-made reality must always be checked by the greater responsibilities we have to humanity and to the planet on which it resides.

In some ways, he recognized his failures as a human.  His autobiography, his public opposition to further US immorality in war, all these were rooted (at least in part) in his sense that what he did was wrong.  He might have been motivated more by the need to protect his historical memory but, in so doing, he did recognize the primary challenge to that legacy would be his all too-human failings. I think that is what is keeping me from being callous in my assessment of his death.  Maybe he needed to be better and be contrite for those he left behind.  Maybe I can empathize with them.  Indeed, maybe we have the responsibility to do so.

It would be easy to call Robert McNamara “evil.”  Whether or not he was is meaningless to me. The undeniable fact is he caused more human suffering than can be measured and he did so, in the end, for nothing.  But it would also be a disservice to the millions who suffered as a result of his actions to dismiss him so casually.  He was nothing but a man, yes, but a man whose failures were almost pre-determined by a government that would have exiled anyone who struggled for true, human “success” in his position.

This understanding is not meant to be absolution for the soul of Robert S. McNamara. Rather, it should be taken as an indictment of those of us who remain, as we continue to propogate a rationale of this world that necessitates war, that dismisses the tragedy of organized human death, and that, far too often, forgets to remember.


Marvin Gaye is Still Dead

But, oh, how I wish he weren’t.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest talents in all of rhythm & blues and soul.  Marvin Gaye died on April 1, 1984, shot dead by his father.  He was one day shy of his 45th birthday.  Had he lived, then, April 2 would have been Marvin’s 70th birthday.

I don’t have much to say about the spectacular life he lived–the radically conservative church of his youth; the music (ah! the music!); the cross-dressing (oh, yes!); and all the rest.  I hope today we will all be inundated with thoughtful and diverse recollections about the man in both the mainstream and alternative presses.  Motown–the recording studio he helped make famous–is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and even they have something special planned to mark what would have been his birthday.  I encourage you to learn more about the man if you are so inclined.

I do remember the day he died.  I don’t remember where we were that day, but it was somewhere in L.A. or in East L.A.  We had just gotten home to La Puente (about 12 miles east of E.L.A.) and turned on the late afternoon news.  I was shocked.  I was early into my musical maturing process, only 12 years old at the time, and I was shocked.  Marvin had already become one of my favorites.  Wasn’t he one of everybody’s?

I want to say two things about the man and his music, one from the perspective of a huge fan and the other from that of a young person of color growing up in Chicano southern California.

He was about as good as you get, and you could feel it.  Smokey Robinson said it well when he suggested “the driving force behind Marvin Gaye’s immense talent was his pain.”  Marvin felt it all, and he made you feel it to.  From the pop-based, post-doo-wop stuff of his early career; to the stellar duets and soul inspired solos in the mid and late sixties; to his socially-conscious turn in the late sixties and seventies; and to his dirty, make you feel all kinds of hot in his later years, Marvin had the gift that is the heart of soul music.  It was pain.  It was joy.  It was relief.  It was hope.  And it was always moving.  He even made the national anthem sexy!

Finally, he was always the “real deal.”  In the places I knew as a kid, and in the places I grew to know as an adult, Marvin Gaye was loved and respected.  Black folk, and even Mexican Americans, felt his authenticity.  I heard his oldies, but also those songs you don’t hear to much on the radio, always in groups where people visibly felt the thing it was he wanted us to feel.  I remember being in an Oakland bar once, around 1997, when a live version of one of his albums started playing during the intermission of a jumping band.  The vibe went from the dance hall to the bedroom in about 10 seconds flat.  That’s what Marvin could do.

Here are some of my favorite performances of him online.  (If you are ever looking for the definitive collection of his recorded materials, I would recommend Marvin Gaye’s The Master 1961-1984, a collection which brings together the songs you know and the songs you should.)

[NOTE: Marvin’s only Grammy Award was for this song, awarded to him at this ceremony.  He was dead one year later.]

John Candy & Charles Bukowski are still dead

It’s a double shot “Still Dead” this week as we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the passing of John Candy (March 4) and Charles Bukowski (March 9).

While both men worked in “the arts,” you might not think there was too much in common between them.  But both made careers out of their individual skills honed at the expense of themselves.  Creatures of excess, they each excelled not in spite of their demons, but because of them.

Candy gained fame as part of the legendary Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV (also known as “SCTV Network” among other titles, having been renamed several times for broadcast in the US).  The cast–largely from the Second City improv stage–included Candy as well as Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas.  They were a satire of television, lampooning everything from “television greats” to the gross commercialization of the medium they saw emerging in their day.

The portly Candy stood out in many of his recurring sketches but made a bigger name for himself in movies, where he appeared in or contributed his voice to more than 50 feature films.  His movie career was marked by his stand out performances in bad to mediocre films, with only a handful of them real gems.  One critic wrote Candy “has been in more turkeys than stuffing mix, yet everyone seems to love him.”

Indeed, we did.  He had that ability to make you feel like you were watching somebody real, even in the stupidest of situations.  His work in Ron Howard’s Splash (1984) represented his big break.  For that film, Candy did what he did so well–made you laugh at him and love him at the same time.  After being the comic relief for most of his scenes, he turned it up in a serious scene toward the end.  He showed depth, as well as skill in putting himself front and center in creating his character.

The quality of films he got always bothered Candy, who took his art seriously.  But he was a star.  He was respected by comics, loved by his fans, and known professionally for being the kind of “good guy” he played so well.  In many ways he was the friendly version of Jackie Gleason, always down for a party, always social, always larger than life, and always in love with excess.  When he died of a massive heart attack at age 43, nobody could be surprised, or unmoved.

Bukowski was no Candy.  Where the Canadian used his weight struggles to inspire laughter, Bukowski used his life struggles to inspire a wide array of darker emotions and reactions.  On the surface, he was a self-loathing, womanizing, alcoholic, but Bukowski was a prolific and disciplined writer of “real L.A.”, depicting the lives of people often dismissed in the literary arts.

A German immigrant, Bukowski worked as a postal worker for much of his adult life, writing during most of that period (except during a decade of drinking spanning from his 20s to 30s).  He suffered abuse at the hands of a domineering father, who wold cut his face with a razor strap for misbehaving.  This pain and turmoil crafted the battered face of the adult Bukowski, a face Paul Ciotti described as “a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders.”  It also certainly crafted the batered voice with which he spoke.

In this clip from Barbet Shcroeder’s legendary (to Bukowski fans) series of short interviews called “The Bukowski Tapes,” the man shows some of his myth and brilliance.

He turned pain into brilliance, into filth, into humor, and even into occasional warmth.  Leading something of a life infused with addiction and the emotional remnants of survival, Bukowski achieved huge success.  Whether he was “acting the part” or not was always a question in the minds of critics.  I always thought he was, but not in the way they might have meant, not as a device to get attention and sales.  I saw him as a frail, lonely, wounded soul trying to act like a “man” in the most simplistically crafted version of what that is, an act performed as a means of survival.

For fans of the 1987 film Barfly, a loose adaptation (as was much of his work) of his life, this piece by Roger Ebert may be of interest.  It stands as something of a more human version of the drunk so many followed.


I was a college senior when both men died.  Candy was, in many ways, the symbol of my youth.  He was one of my favorite entertainers, from his early TV days to his long career in film.  Bukowski had become my entertainment of the late teens and early twenties.  His realism and “fuck-it-all” attitude were appealing to a kid just starting to read Marxist history and trying to make sense of the L.A. riots of 1992.  (I must have seen the film Barfly with my friends about once a week between 1992 and 1994.)

In my adulthood, I continue to enjoy both, though in different ways.  A John Candy movie–even a bad one–is still something I find watchable.  He has a charisma on the screen, something that shines even brighter in one of his good films (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Only the Lonely, Uncle Buck).  Candy had a way of turning formula into something special.  As for Bukowski, he is like a glass of scotch, best in small quantities on special occasions.  But even in those doses he has a knack for staying with me for a week or two.  Always a challenge, he is both simple and complicated, a lot like life.

Drugs, Death, and the Border

There is an absolutely riveting, tragic, humanistic, and brutal series of audio reports on life and death in the “border town” of Juarez.  These stories do what the best kind of NPR stories do so well: keep you centered on everyday peoples’ lives amid a complex context of powerful global/local forces.  For those of you trying to get your heads around the drug war seemingly dominating the news from Mexico, they also provide a solid introduction.

You can hear part 1, part 2, and part 3 at the NPR website.

It is imperative for people in the U.S. to realize our culpability in this current situation.  This isn’t to say Mexico does not have a lot to answer to.  Their politicians and “public servants” are the primary players in this tragedy.  But it is near impossible to dislodge those people and their institutions of power from corporate and governmental interests in the U.S.  Many of the economic changes in Mexico are shaped and, often, determined outside of their borders.

More under our control is the way U.S. demand for drugs (and cheap products) fuels a profound change in the material reality of everyday Mexicans, as much (if not more than) it does for people on this side of the border.  In this respect, we may be more like the Mexican people than different: we both find our governments doing little to serve our best interests.

Samuel P. Huntington, dead at 81

From the Los Angeles Times comes word of the death of Harvard academic Samuel P. Huntington.

He was best known for his views on the clash of civilizations. He argued that in a post-Cold War world, violent conflict would come not from ideological friction between nation states, but from cultural and religious differences among the world’s major civilizations.

He identified those major civilizations as Western (including the United States and Europe), Latin American, Islamic, African, Orthodox (with Russia as a core state), Hindu, Japanese and “Sinic” (including China, Korea and Vietnam).

He made the argument in a 1993 article in the journal Foreign Affairs and then expanded the thesis into a book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” which appeared in 1996. The book has since been translated into more than 30 languages.

While the Times summary of his work might seem noncontroversial, the man was anything but. For most of his 58 year career at Harvard he produced academic work based on simplistic and white-centered interpretations of the past and present, often with dire intellectual consequences.  For those concerened with Latinos in the Americas, Huntington was one of a small group who helped to use their positions in the ivory tower to legitimate racism and fear.

And now he’s dead.  I’m just saying…