Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Art History May Say about Political Perspective

My second year in the Williams College/Clark Art Institute Graduate Program in the History of Art we had as a visiting occupant of the Clark Chair a feisty, diminutive, brilliant, skirt-chasing polio survivor, the Englishman and retired Chair of the Art History Department at Bryn Mawr College,  Charles Mitchell.  Prof. Mitchell stood about 5'4," maybe 5'6" with his one good hand raised in the air to make a rhetorical point, as he often did.  He tended to accompany those points, especially emphatic negatives, with a shrill glissando through the entire tessitura of his rather sharp tenor voice.  Those brief but piercing performances had an unmistakably breathtaking--literally--effect on his audiences, as he well knew.  

He first put on such a performance for us in his seminar on Raphael in the second or third class of the semester.  I recall my colleagues beginning to champ at the bit for us to get on with Raphael after Mitchell's rather extended preliminaries to begin the term, including his insistence that we pick the topic of our seminar papers before doing anything else.  So this particular class meeting began with a combined sigh of relief and ratcheting up of our powers of concentration.  Mitchell had finally put up a slide of a painting, fancy that.

It quickly became clear that he had an agenda that both included and went well beyond the particular painting he had on the screen.  He asked us to describe it.  In a seminar of about six or seven students, three of us had a strong background in the Italian Renaissance, and two of us continued our studies in the Renaissance after Williams.  We took the bait first, using the picture as a scrim on which to project all our knowledge of Renaissance studio practice, iconography, and perspective--for the angels Raphael had reversed his cartoon, a drawing enlarged by a craftsman to the scale of the painting itself, to get two angels from one drawing, even though scripture makes no mention of angels at the Crucifixion, the subject of this painting.  That sort of thing; I don't remember whether we got to the scriptural question or not.

And suddenly he'd had enough.  "NNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooo," in Oxonian inflection (he had his Ph. D in philosophy from Oxford and had picked up art history teaching in London at the Warburg).  None of us in that room will ever forget it; one of my classmates does a brilliant imitation of it, despite his baritone voice and Texas twang.  Mitchell wanted us not to forget it.  He wanted to shock us into remembering something crucial.

What, after all, had we done the last ten minutes or however long he gave us to hang ourselves?We had named the subject and produced some details of how Raphael made the picture and whether his making corresponded to the primary literary sources; we may even have gotten into later medieval tradition.  All well and good, but none necessary and certainly not sufficient (Occam's razor), the sort of thing one does with a picture after doing the one necessary--and to some, though not to Mitchell, sufficient--thing:  looking at, taking in, and describing the whole picture.  He wanted us to strip away the title and the names, not even allowing us the shorthand of "cross," insisting instead on "two beams of wood set at ninety degrees to each other, the horizontal about ninety percent of the way up the vertical," and so on, until we'd sufficiently reminded ourselves of the building-blocks of the image that we could never take any of them for granted as we moved into questions of iconography, patronage, or whatever we subjected images to in our seminar papers.  

That moment had a profound influence on me.  I admired the tenacity not just of the rhetorical intervention but of the intellectual persistence that lay behind it.  Mitchell always had a flair for the theatrical and even manipulative.  It annoyed most of my classmates, who saw the skirt-chasing long before I did.  He angled two of us into working on slices of a project he'd had in mind for a long time; I'd started out with a very different topic which he quickly whisked away like a gnat.  He made me feel he had a much more important idea, and me feel flattered that he wanted me to work on it.  It became the greatest learning experience of my academic life, except perhaps for Ph. D. orals some years later.  

While researching my seminar paper for Mitchell I had a series of conversations with him, one over scotch at his rented home, one in seminar as I presented my paper.  He began to pick it apart, and I responded aggressively and with evidence in perhaps the best argument I've ever had with a professor, both on the level of intensity and in the matter of my having done my homework well enough to have answers to his objections.  That moment, too, had a great influence, though an unfortunate afterglow.  I never worked with anyone thereafter willing to challenge me and to suffer challenge to that degree.  He didn't suffer it, he thrived on it, sought it out, cherished it, grabbed it the way one grabs the air to applaud a brilliant performance in an opera, a courageous put-out at home plate, a speech that makes a kind of sense you haven't heard in a generation.  I think a British education explains part of the exuberant aggressiveness, and the combativeness required to survive polio and World War II at once, but that does not explain all of it.

I have digressed longer than I meant to do, but we've neared the point.  Mitchell's big project concerned his suspicion, confirmed by no documentary sources per se, that a series of papal commissions from the rooms on which my Texan friend and I worked--he had one room, I had all four--which Raphael and his assistants painted under the direction of three successive popes, culminating decades later in the placement of an ancient monolith in St. Peter's Square, constituted essentially one collective and unitary commission.  Their subject:  the achievement, elaboration, and sacred condoning of papal power.  

Get past the different painters and their various styles, even within Raphael's own shop, ignore the difference between stone and fresco.  Consider what they all had to say, what they all represented, that they could have said and represented other things in the century of the Reformation, though their emphasis of papal power has an almost obvious--too obvious, some would say, debunking the unitary commission theory--relevance in light of the threat to Rome of Luther, Calvin, and their Protestant brethren.  Go beyond the small-bore objections, the sort of material I used against him and still find it tempting to marshal.  See the small, but move through it to the larger perspective.  Only then will you see the issue--any issue--well enough to understand it.

Now we're there.  Thinking nostalgically this morning while walking my dog Abby about how much I've given up in leaving academia and perhaps given up on--this the influence of the Kennedy eulogies this weekend--it suddenly occurred to me that Mitchell's method offers a metaphor for what has happened and needs to happen in the health care reform debate in Washington.  All involved need to cast aside their ideological screens that prevent them from seeing the issues in all their stark clarity--the nearly naked young man with brown hair attached to two beams of wood, apparently by nails at the hands and feet, etc.--work through the detail-slogging their staffs have done for them, as generations of us did for Mitchell, and arrive at the large picture.  Health care reform, as many have noted, encompasses the term of a number of presidents.  Obama can lay claim only to a resolve to address a larger piece of the problem than anyone else had the historic opportunity, some degree of consensus, to battle in the halls of Congress and the forum of public opinion.

We have small minds on both sides of this issue.  Those crying "socialized medicine" need to shut up and see what socialized medicine has accomplished, and to admit that Obama and the Congress have set their sights on more modest change.  Those screaming about the president's willingness to negotiate on such things as the "public option," i.e. socialized medicine, need to take a strong-tasting medicine called "the possible."  Left and right, we've lost civility, as so many noted by implication in the Kennedy eulogies, and we've lost perspective.  

Go ahead, have vigorous debate.  Get your facts in order.  Know the problem.  See it in the small and then stand on those building-blocks to see it large.   Then hammer it out.  Yell at each other, if necessary, but with civility, for the salutary effect of forcing each other closer to the solution.  I only wish that at some point, if and as this debate veers off course, we had Charlie Mitchell to walk into the committee rooms and the House chamber and the well of the Senate, to grab a microphone from a stunned senator, and give them all one last, piercing, grating, salutary "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooo."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I had planned a very different post today, but it can wait.  The wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the responses to them of governments and NGOs alike will remain.  The question of martyrdom will linger.  The freshness of Senator Edward Moore (Teddy) Kennedy's death will not.

In the last couple of hours I have read and heard a great deal about the man known as the "Lion of the Senate."  His colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate miss the role he could have played in pushing through the necessary compromises to accomplish meaningful health care reform.  Some, like Orrin Hatch, remember respectful battles royal in committee debate.  Journalists, of course, feel compelled to mention the scandals of Chappaquiddick and Palm Beach.  None can overlook his eulogies for his brother Robert F. Kennedy, "a good and decent man," and his nephew, John F. Kennedy, Jr., who all had hoped "would live to comb grey hair."

Familiar if moving stuff, all that.  One hesitates to wade into it, not knowing what one can add. Some of the subtleties fade to the background at a time like this, such as the point a journalist made recently that Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency in the run-up to Super Tuesday because of his outrage over the Clintons' race-infected campaigning in the South Carolina primary.  I admire him for that, for the preservation of his family's association with decency and respect in race relations going back to the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which concluded an effort his deceased brother Jack had begun.

All moving.  I found myself crying most openly, though, at a small detail in a piece on NPR's "All Things Considered" this morning posted on their website.  Kennedy had reached out to the victims of 9/11, as had many politicians.  He had shown considerable kindness to a woman who had lost her husband, as I recall.  Two years later, she got a phone call from Kennedy's office.  Did she have any plans that weekend?  Would she like to go sailing with the senator?  By 2003 he knew that such a gesture would do her more good than it could ever do him.

Any of us who have admired the Kennedys feel some grief at this loss.  We know the failings, at least the public ones, and the fact that so many cannot overlook them.  My supervisor at work last fall expressed his utter unwillingness to forgive Kennedy for Chappaquiddick and perhaps even more for "getting away with it."  The precise meaning of "it"we will leave open.  My pointing out that Jesse Helms, a particular hero of my boss, worked closely with Kennedy, as did Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative's conservative, had no impact on him.  

We overlook his faults perhaps because we know our own, and know we could not have accomplished what Ted Kennedy did, family money or no.  His privilege helped and he freely acknowledged it.  He worked harder for the poor precisely because of the perspective afforded him from his hospital bed recovering from a broken back in 1964, wondering how fellow patients paid their enormous bills.  That experience made him a champion of health care reform, which he remained until last night in Hyannis Port.  

We grieve him for another reason, a more important one, at least those born before 1960 or so do.  The Kennedys have always stood in liberal Democratic circles for a brand of reforming idealism that asserted the ability to transform the world.  Ever major figure in Democratic politics since then--even Carter, who would probably profusely deny it out of personal animus--has benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the prestige the Kennedys have lent reformist liberal politics.  Certainly the Clintons, disappointed as they were by Ted's turning on them last spring, and above all Obama, would not deny it.

Grief comes from loss.  Losing Ted Kennedy for some of us means losing the last link not just to the glamor and cliche of Camelot, but to a time in our lives when we believed in the heroic as not merely the survival of war's horrors, but the courage to rethink how we face opponents.  In this, we risk idealizing.  Jack and Bobby Kennedy woke up late to the horrors of racism, and Bobby came late to seeing Vietnam as a disaster.  In both cases, however, once they saw, they acted.  Ted Kennedy's broken back from a plane crash probably had a more profound effect on the history of health care in this country than any other single event.

We will rely on others now.  Indeed, as a senator, Ted Kennedy has not held the center of our attention as much as have the Clintons and Obama for some time.  That, too, causes us to grieve.  As we watched his gradual acceptance of a quieter role, and then his precipitous decline and now decease, we see a mirror and anticipation of our own.  We grieve for Ted Kennedy as a surrogate for our own griefs--in my case, a father gone whose mother did political ward-heeling for Kennedy's grandfather in Boston--but also as a lightning-rod for our own fears and dreads.

Requiescat (requiescamurque) in pace--may he rest in peace, and we with him.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"We Have Nothing to Fear but..."

F. D. R. spoke to a time rich in parallels to ours.  People committed suicide in the Crash (admittedly on Hoover's watch), died in the Dustbowl and starved in the cities in the 1930s, literally fearing for both their welfare and their lives.  Then came first the prospect and then the reality of war in both Europe and the Pacific.  The Nazis had their sights on Lebensraum and that meant the Czechs, Poles, Russians, and other Eastern and then Western Europeans, as well.  But they focused particularly on the Jews, as do, quite literally, Hezbollah and Hamas.  

When we speak of racial profiling these days, we generally mean the singling out of African-Americans, but we could mean Arabs and Persians, as well.  Honestly, can you distinguish an Iranian from a Syrian on sight?  (Hint:  Arabs tend to have straighter noses, but cosmetic surgery in Iran has eliminated that difference for many Persian women, much to the displeasure of Ayatollah Khamenei, who fears such Western perversions.)  Does that inability to tell a difference worry you?  Would it make you likelier, as a law enforcement officer, to just go ahead and arrest, or at least question, both of them?  And what emotion would impel you to take that action:  fear, perhaps?

Some years ago in a class on how massage therapy makes use of psychological information, the teacher drew a very clear distinction between fear and anger, insisting that they have very different somatic sources and therefore no relation to each other.  We debated that assertion for a few minutes, a process that teacher always tended to oversee with a sort of brittle condescension.  Objections smitten by the force of superior knowledge--this is not quite the caricature it may seem, though it probably is as mean-spirited, for which I ask forgiveness but cannot quite resist including the scene, anyway--he started to move on to the next set of unsubstantiated assertions.  

I leaned to the classmate immediately to my right, an African-American I.C.U. nurse, someone who grew up in a different sub-culture than I did and might not necessarily agree on questions of how to handle emotions.  I would have the same doubts of people from almost any ethnic group other than my own, and even other subsets of Irish-Americans, as frequent readers of this blog will have suspected.  Admittedly, the foregoing debate had led me to suspect firm ground.  I looked at C. and said quietly, "When I'm angry, the first thing I try to do is ask what's frightened me."  She nodded in agreement, as much as to say, "Why is this news?"

These thoughts come to me because of the vortex of fear and anger into which the debate over health care reform has thrust us.  If "[t]ruth is the first casualty of war," it has begun to rot amid the piles of mangled lies produced in this "debate," if we dare dignify the current national screaming-match with such a label.  I have to watch my own fear and anger in this process.  I have no health insurance and a pre-existing condition.  When Sarah Palin--who we all know has plenty to fear--launched her "death panels" ICBM (maybe she borrowed one from her neighbors, the Russians), I had a very visceral response.  She has gone for me from breath of fresh air--June, '07--to "Oh, no, she's a demagogue, and a pretty good one"--the Republican Convention--to "what was McCain thinking (if anything)?"--the Gibson and especially the Couric interviews--to just plain rabble-rouser of late, not quite as good as Goebbels, but nearly as hateful.  If there is a politician I would like to see caught in an ethical net and hoisted on her own pitard, I can't think of a better candidate (and don't believe this stuff about retirement, she is a candidate).

I don't know how many of us can engage in the health-care debate dispassionately.  Members of Congress have good health insurance, but no job security past the end of their present term.  Others with good health insurance have a hard time hearing--for lack of effort?--when the President assures them they will not lose it.  Some have seen this debate as an apt time to raise the issue of the right to bear arms, and if the role of fear has emerged, I can think of  no more frightening way.  But the logic-buster for the ages:  the frightened elderly who don't want government in health care because they depend on their Medicare.  Even Republicans have felt compelled to point out to such misinformed constituents the illogic of such a canard.

I don't remember ever seeing us so frightened as a country since the race riots of 1967 and the aftermath of 9/11 eight years ago.  The inability of people to reason clearly concerns one enough, but this issue matters more than any legislation since the ill-conceived Patriot Act and the equally idiotic No Child Left Behind.  Health care reform now can affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people and give us the means to address the serious failings in our health care delivery system.  The "patriots" who insist we have the best health care should be forced to bring a near-term pregnant relative to a hospital with a significantly higher-than average infant mortality rate.  I used to live in Lynchburg, Virginia, which at the time had an alarmingly high infant mortality rate.  Friends gave birth there successfully, and one saw lots of children, but obviously somebody had reason not to feel good about their pre- and post-natal care.

What bothers me most is how lunatic some of the rhetoric and behavior has become.  It reminds me of an episode from the 2004 presidential campaign.  I worked the phones for a couple of days for the Collier County Democratic Party in East Naples, Florida.  The point was to identify Kerry voters--yes, they existed, poor outnumbered dears--and see if they planned to vote, whether they needed a ride, and whether they had any questions.  I prefer pre-election data entry and election-day canvassing to pre-election phone canvassing.  By election day people know what they intend to do, rationally or no, but campaigns spawn wacky ideas faster than Apple can build i-pods.  I called a woman who seemed to want to vote for Kerry, but felt afraid to do so.  Asked why, she said someone had told her Bush would have him assassinated if he won.  A whopper?  Sure, but Bush and Cheney worked on such fears; Palin, McConnell, Cantor and Co. see no reason not to follow suit.  

If ever we have needed Obama's message of hope, now is that time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making Sense of the Other

On a Sunday afternoon in June, 1984 in Rome, I went for a walk.  My girlfriend at the time and I lived in the first of two places where we stayed that summer.  Somehow, though both of us sympathized with the left politically and she had leftist friends there, her contacts had found us apartments in  neighborhoods she considered neo-fascist, one a legal sublet in a working-class area, one illegal and on a famous and tony boulevard, the Viale Parioli, behind the embassy district.  The first apartment occupied part of a floor of a modernist apartment building in the so-called "quartiere Africa," so-named because all the streets and squares memorialized the "conquests" of Mussolini's troops in the years before World War II:  Viale Libia, Viale Eritrea, Largo Somalia (where we lived).

On weekdays I made a point of buying the Communist Party's newspaper, "L'Unita," probably more to make a point--the vendor had it on sale, after all--than to make a serious attempt to decode the notoriously byzantine politics of Italy, irrespective of the lens through which one views them.  I learned that the center-left "La Repubblica" did the decoding better.  This Sunday afternoon, though, I headed up the hill, across the viale, and continued on absent-mindedly for a few blocks in the relative cool of a late Roman afternoon.  I knew there had been some obscure neo-fascist terrorist activity, a kind of pushback to the operations of the Brigate Rosse and smaller terrorist organizations of the left.  A young man had been killed, a neo-fascist hero-martyr, and the neo-fascists seethed at the way the Carabinieri (think hybrid of State Police and FBI, but operating with the run of cities) had handled the matter.  This about covers my understanding of the background.

Suddenly, a block downhill from me to my right, I saw a group of thuggish-looking, working-class young men standing in front of a building, just feet from the curb.  They maintained perfect silence:  no signs, no gestures, no proclaimed manifestoes, though I may have missed that part.  Their anger felt palpable, but also magnetic.  One had no idea exactly what it meant, though a vague idea of at least one of the references involved, their dead comrade-in-arms.  I stood watching them for several minutes, then, intrigued, began walking downhill toward them.

All around me the silent chorus had drawn in an audience.  On Sundays afternoons, after all, every couple in Italy goes for a "passeggiata," a leisurely, sociable, often rather voluble, generally well-mannered walk.  Some of the strollers kept right on strolling, but some stopped. This evidently worried the Carabinieri, because suddenly they started buzzing around in their Lancias at speeds a great deal higher than indicated either by circumstances or the tightness of corners on those side streets, even in the modern Africa quarter.  One, filled with three or four young carabinieri, with whom my girlfriend had warned me not to risk contact owing to their reputation as a reckless law unto themselves, suddenly slowed down fifteen feet from me.  A young carabiniere looked at me, asked me what I thought I was doing there, I said I was an American, and merely watching, and with a gesture at once dismissive and threatening indicated that I should move away from there, back up the hill.  Shaken, I did just that, looking back, Lot-like, just once.  Nobody had turned into pillars of salt just yet.  

Political theater, especially somebody else's, can easily contain that combination of vaguely understood motivations, obscure if riveting actions, and glowering authorities reminding outsiders to stick to fights in which they have, if not a dog as in the old phrase, then at least an interest, which says the same thing less colorfully.  Make no mistake, the streets and courtrooms with show trials and backrooms of mullahs and stadiums filled with faithful for Friday prayers in Tehran and throughout Iran, even the courageous speeches of some opposition parliamentarians in the majlis represents political theater at a high level. The intensity, the bloodletting, the thuggery of the Basiji and the brutality of the Revolutionary Guards, contrasted with the humane restraint of some police, has captured the imagination and sympathy of many of us in the West.  At least one of my friends chided me on Facebook for the degree to which I'd fallen prey to the drama of it all, the inhumanity of it all.  The zenith, of course, came with the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, videos of whose death went viral on YouTube almost two months ago and within hours of the event.  That day I had either my computer or CNN on almost non-stop from mid-afternoon past midnight.

I must admit I've begun walking back up the hill a bit, though no Basij has gotten close enough to bully me into such a posture.  We've known from interviews Mir Hossain Mousavi gave before the election that he insits on Iran's right to its nuclear program.  Clearly, one can negotiate far more easily with him than with Ahmadinejad, but to what conclusion?  Some reading in "Foreign Affairs," "The Guardian," some academic conference papers, and other sources suggests both a situation more complex than even some of my Iranian expatriate Facebook friends seem to understand, and a quagmire of no rapid solution.  For all that our hearts go out to people chanting "Allahu Aqbar" (God is Great) in sinister imitation of the Islamic Revolution against the Shah, some of those people remain faithful to that revolution, but feel betrayed by its current flame-bearers.  Some, possibly not even among the chanters, seek by means none of them have succeeded in making clear to me the overthrow of the entire system itself, replaced by some sort of vague--and disappointingly provincial-- projection of Iran into full membership in the Muslim world, as though the rest poses merely an incovenience, gnats like Sarkozy, horseflies like the International Atomic Energy Agency, mosquitoes like Obama.  A writer in another thread took Iran's right to possess nuclear arms as a right.

The provincialism and narrowness of that vision, as expressed on a Facebook thread the other day, turned me at least partway back up the hill, though from this distance I have the leisure to turn around at will.  Marxism gets invoked in various ways, some almost pathetically--one wants to say hilariously, were the stakes not so high--call for the Americans to intervene, though some more sensibly recognize the absurdity of Obama riding into Tehran and Qom on a white charger to do--what, exactly?--as patently absurd.  A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, who recognized that America has no role to play here, pointed out that the younger generation does not know the horrors of what he saw in 1983.  Otherwise one repeatedly comes up against expressions of Persian pride in ancient empire, the fissuring of a theocracy which will not unravel easily, if at all, and the aspirations of youth to live in the modern world, not the medieval one of strict adherence to the Q'uran and Shariah, or Islamic Law, without any clear glue to hold it all together.  One of my Facebook friends all but calls Moussavi a stooge, a placeholder, as teh next generation surges by him to a wildly abstract declaration of their aims.

If any of us have expected anything permanently relieving to come out of all this, the time has come, for me, anyway, to plead guilty to naivete.  I will continue to look at YouTube links on my Iranian Facebook friends' pages--including Moussavi's and his wife's.  I saw a remarkable argument put forward on a video of a televised round-table the other day, urging the necessity of engaging the west, though I could not tell where the forum took place; I hope the speaker has stayed out of prison.  I will even check in on the occasional thread.  But part of my fascination that Sunday in Rome amounted to a recognition that here I saw something I didn't know and could only partly identify, which held my attention not because of anything attractive about it--like the insistent faith and anger of those who chant "Allahu Aqbar"--but precisely because it frightened me.  It just happened that on that Sunday they chose a form of protest that contained in immobility and silence the violence one feared, in marked contrast to the then-recent bombing of the Bologna train station.

Iran has reversed the equation.  The violence, even the non-violent and at times silent marching shows a courage to take on a system we fear, and we have taken heart from that fearlessness.   The technical advances of YouTube and Facebook fool us into forgetting that all the empathy we may feel in this time of struggle will mean little to at least some of the strugglers in the unlikely event they achieve their aims.  The genie has gotten out of the bottle, and those aims seem a lot harder to characterize now than two months ago. We can do nothing for the defendants in what a tv commentator a couple of evenings ago referred to as essentially a re-run of Stalin's show-trials of the 1930s.  We need to prepare ourselves for the moment when we walk up the hill, turn the corner, and support a process of diplomacy that will of necessity get very aggressive, and inflict hardship on those we have watched on YouTube.  Let us only hope this remains a diplomatic struggle.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Middle of Nowhere Does Not Exist

Early in the summer of 1990 I took a needed break from the intense months-long "zone" I'd lived in writing my dissertation.  As I weighed the relative advantages of the Catskills and northeastern Vermont, a little African -American girl sitting on the floor with her older sister in the New Haven Public Library made my decision for me.  Her ejaculative "Mr. Moose!" decided me on the spot, and led me to find a Vermont guide book to hiking trails--an old Vermont guide book, as it turned out.  

Hiking a trail from its pages, and ignoring the overgrown grass at the trailhead, after several hours of complete human solitude I discovered bear scat on the way down.  The probable source of said scat emerged charging loudly through seriously tangled underbrush a few minutes later, on a course that in 40 yards or so would have landed it squarely on me.  This adult black bear, 400'ish lbs., possessed a beauty I did not comprehend until it stopped, smelled the air, saw me with nostrils widened in shock, and turned to run from me in a tight circle, muscles rippling under black-brown fur, approximately as afraid of me as I of it.  

When I asked back at my lodgings how commonly one saw bears in the area, the owner asked where I'd seen the bear.  To my answer, he incredulously responded:  "What the hell were you were doing there?  Nobody's maintained that trail for years."  Only then did I check the date on my fourteen year-old guide book, the first thing one does with a scholarly resource.  I'd made a mistake unthinkable on my dissertation, but in circumstances that, had things gone badly enough, could have cost me my life, something my dissertation would unlikely ever do.  Fortunately my instincts--to stand stock still and silent, though a dragged heel may have caught the bear's attention in the first place, and possibly just as well--corresponded precisely to the appropriate response.  

That afternoon I went biking, at the advice of locals, at a remote lake known for its population of moose, but the bear had spooked me.  I had visions of a bull moose charging me, and turned back a couple of miles down the access road, itself absent of human contact.  My long-cherished hope of seeing a moose would have to wait.  

Later that same trip, and far less frighteningly, I drove up to the southern tip of Lake Memphremagog (Magog, for short), and decided to ride my bike into Canada, Quebec for the sake of precision.  There I experienced a phenomenon I had noticed before, that borders sometimes make a difference.  Kathleen Norris writes about the absolute trasnparency of the border between South and North Dakota, which she can see looking north from her yard in Lemmon, SD.  Many of the borders out west result from surveyors, both American and British, simply extending a line along a parallel of latitude.  

In the eastern U.S. and Canada, though, those lines seem far less arbitrary.  When I crossed the international border at Beebe Plain, having dealt with an incredibly nice customs agent who agreed I had the perfect day for a bike ride, the landscape changed immediately.  Within a mile the heavily forested Vermont landscape--I hadn't seen a farm in miles, though I'd ridden past a couple the day before--opened up into a rolling farmland cleared for miles in either direction.  The distant White Mountains and disappeared.  I had crossed not just just a border but a boundary.  

The French Riviera to the Italian; far northeastern Italy (past Udine) into Austria; Poland into Slovakia; the Romanian provinces of Maru Mures into Moldova/Bukovina through the Carpathians.  All these offer recognizable, if sometimes subtle, transitions.  For all these, though, one can think of transitions without any clear marker:  Tuscany to Umbria, Tuscany to Lombardy (until one has penetrated well inside either region), Connecticut to Massachusetts.  Often borders yield their secrets, as in a couple of the examples given, only after one has passed them for some time.

Now, traveling near the borders of countries with which we have no diplomatic relations lends one a different responsibility than that of a casual tourist or business traveler in a car or on a train.  Either of those will more than likely take you to a customs station, unless the car traveler specifically wants to dodge customs on obscure roads, at which point they bear clear responsibility for whatever happens.

Al Gore's journalists, and the free-lancers now presumably in Iranian detention, appear to have made a mistake more like mine when I used a badly out-of-date map.  I don't know that a good up-to-date map exists for northeastern Iraqi Kurdistan.  A careful journalist probably would have wanted to leave a margin for error, or a bigger one.  Journalism, however, at its roots stems from curiosity.  Foreign correspondents in war zones take risks before they've brushed their teeth in the morning that most of us will never take in our lives, forget about what they've done by dinnertime.  Free-lancers have less backup than those working full-time for major news organizations, but even the latter take risks that would make most of our hair stand on end.

We won't know the full story until and unless the journalists and their companion in the Kurdistan case gain release, if they do.  Bill Clinton received a welcome in N. Korea--in fact gain entrance at all--because he has dealt with them before, and has their respect.  He and the Obama administration probably made the release of Al Gore's employees from detention a precondition of his trip.  To whom can we turn with such credentials to deal with the Iranians?

But these questions beg the more important one.  If borders can offer such blurred distinctions, or none at all, as in the cases of the Kurdish-Iranian and Chinese-North Korean borders, why do countries invest such charged stakes in them?  Central Americans in southern Texas clearly do not want to stay there.  Kurdistan, however, seems to offer a rather remote, difficult, long, and ultimately very vulnerable route into Iran.  Two journalists operating openly with camera crews on the Chinese-N. Korean border hardly seem to have acted with the subtlety one associates with espionage.  These two countries, Iran and North Korea, have one thing in common beyond their nuclear ambitions:  fear.  Our power frightens them, dwarfing theirs.  Our culture frightens them, threatening their discipline.   More than anything, though, contact frightens them, even in the case of a young Arabic speaker who does not know Farsi.

Borders matter to both countries; they have in many places a semi-sacred quality.  Since the Iranians consider the Kurds apostate, perhaps one can say sacred without exaggerating.  An unmarried couple traveling together offends and frightens the Iranians; westernized Chinese-Americans signal a way of life banned in North Korea, despite Kim Jong Il's fascination with it.  Both countries fear any sign of American espionage at a very fragile moment.  What look to us like attractive young professional women and some slightly disoriented if not foolish young free-lancers and their traveling companion, look to the North Koreans and the Iranians as frightening as the bear and I looked to each other that noontime in the woods overlooking Lake Willoughby.