Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/05/2009

Walt Whitman, Dick Cheney, Aksarben, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 9/11, and Death

Gospodi Pomului

(Daily Disclaimer: My mind sometimes functions not with but in spite of what is going on in my brain. Understanding what follows is a crap shoot, at best.)








What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
               at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed and luckier.
              —Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself VII

No seventeen-year-old can understand “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” No sixty-four-year-old can understand it either.

For three days I’ve been pondering the unfortunate (“tragic”?) waste of time and energy engendered by conspiracy theories, especially the one that posits Dick Cheney, not Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, as “mastermind” of events in New York City on September 11, 2011. I’m not thinking obsessively: I have too much end-of-semester work.

The more I think about conspiracy theories, the more bizarre they seem—but, at the same time, more understandable.

Effective arguing draws upon many aspects of reasoning, including the ability to seek out evidence and to evaluate an arguer’s claims empirically. . . .We frequently do not exercise sufficient care in evaluating theories and explanations. . . .we tend to believe any good story, even when evidence is unavailable or contradicts that story. ***

The Aksarben Coliseum (Google it) is gone. Dead. Destroyed. If  the Billy Graham Show or Frank Sinatra plays Omaha, they must book the Civic Auditorium or the Qwest Center. How can this be? The most important symbol of the social and economic fabric of Omaha is gone. Just like that! Gone.

Central High School

At seventeen, I first read Walt Whitman at Omaha Central High School, across the street from the Omaha Civic Center. For three years I rode the “Aksarben” city bus to and from school (except when I rode in the powder blue Ford Falcon my best friend’s mother sometimes let him drive; not only is Aksarben gone, Steve is dead). Aksarben (it was several blocks west of our street), to Central High School, to the Civic Center, to my first secret love (Steve—I’m still in love with him; he never married; I’ve always wondered what might have been had I not been a Baptist and he a Conservative Jew). And now Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Has Dick Cheney arranged all the changes beyond my recognition, and so much of it just plain dead? Gone. Destroyed!

Without an explanation to establish a reliable connection between cause and effect, we have no reason to believe patterns will persist. . . . if we come up with an alternative plausible story. . . .the new, competing explanation leads us to additional comparisons and tests. Lastly, the explanation’s promise of a stable connection between cause and effect improves our ability to abstract and transfer knowledge.***

I went to Aksarben three times in high school. My dad took me there for an Omaha Knights (no relation) hockey game; a friend’s father sneaked him and Steve and me and a couple other friends into the race track; and I attended the Billy Graham Show—my brother sang in the “massed choir.” I don’t remember souls being saved, but I remember one choir anthem (why an evangelical choir in Omaha sang it for the Billy Graham Show, I have no idea): Gospodi Pomilui, a Bulgarian orthodox hymn by G.V. Lvovsky. “Lord, Have Mercy.” I don’t know why my brother was in the massed choir and I wasn’t. I was the church musician. I can still sing part of that anthem from hearing my brother singing it—the words Gospodi Pomilui repeated about a hundred times, as fast as possible.

The Aksarben Coliseum is dead.

Walt Whitman’s poetry is not dead.

Mr. Simpson was careful not to discuss in class the overt sexuality (both same sex and other sex sexuality) in Whitman’s texts. Sexual connotations were, he told us, platonic, celebrating “self” not body. I’m sure he knew I was in love with Steve.

Many people seem unable to make the conceptual distinction between the explanations of mechanisms underlying claims and the evidence that helps us determine whether those claims and mechanisms really hold. . .overconfidence may arise not only because an explanation influences the search for and interpretation of evidence, but also because people believe that their explanation is evidence.***

Although I had not seen him for thirty years, I was broken-hearted five years ago when I learned Steve had died. I was mildly upset when I learned the Aksarben Coliseum died at about the same time. The fabric(s) of one’s life die(s). Whitman says, as he did when I was seventeen,

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it. . .

Death is not waiting at the end of life to arrest life? But surely Steve and the Aksarben Coliseum are dead. I need explanation. I don’t need evidence. I have the evidence. The Kings’ Hussars of Aksarben will parade elsewhere (the Qwest center?) at the 114th coronation of the Magical Kingdom of Quivira next spring. Steve no longer teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Explanation is necessary. The evidence is that people die, that landmarks from the past disappear. The explanation posits conspiracy. The explanation will become the evidence of a conspiracy to prove Whitman wrong that “there is really no death.”

The power of explanations to lead to overconfidence and error is termed the “explanation effect.” When participants generate an explanation to account for some event, the perceived probability that this event will occur increases substantially. Explanations are so influential that participants continue to give them weight even in the absence of supporting evidence or when the supporting evidence has been thoroughly discredited. . . .***

Explain for me, please, “there is really no death.” I am anxious. I fear the evidence will overwhelm any explanation you can give. Your explanation will not hold up under close scrutiny. Because, whenever death happens, it will be a surprise.

When the event is unexpected, there are three temporal periods in the traumatic experience: the pre-event state of unpreparedness, marked by an absence of anxiety; the traumatic event itself, in which temporal orientations are ruptured and confused; and the post-traumatic state, in which dreams and memories of the traumatic event haunt the traumatized sufferer.****

Death is traumatizing, unexpected. Temporal orientations are ruptured and confused. Perhaps, because “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier,” we will have dreams and memories of the traumatic event. The explanation becomes the evidence. Explain to me the 9/11 event for which you cannot give evidence. Your explanation will become the evidence.

My Knights

Explanation is what I seek, not evidence or acceptance. A conspiracy. Death, and Aksarben, and Steve, and Whitman are in it together. If you explain well enough, your explanation will become the evidence, and I will not die.

I never pretended that one can insert reality into the past and thus work backwards in time. However, one can without doubt insert there the possible, or, rather, at every moment, the possible inserts itself there. Insofar as unpredictable and new reality creates itself, its image reflects itself behind itself in the indefinite past: this new reality finds itself all the time having been possible….*****
*** Brem, Sarah K., and Lance J. Rips. “Explanation and Evidence in Informal Argument.” Cognitive Science 24.4 (2000): 573.
**** Muntean, Nick. “‘It was just like a movie’: trauma, memory, and the mediation of 9/11.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.2 (2009): 50+.
*****Bergson, Henri. Oeuvre, 1991. Quoted in Muntean.


  1. Where Aksarben stood is now part of UofNebraska campus. It probably has more life than it did as what it was.
    I thought I sang in the choir…Richard was gone by then, right?


  2. I guess better a univeristy than a race track? Not so sure. Memory is a tricky thing. College students do have summer breaks. I think that’s when the Billy Graham Show came to town.



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