February 29, 2008
Chris Hedges Contra The New Atheism
At Video Nation:
Why Hasn't AIDS Led to a Political Crisis in Africa?
This book argues that African governments ,civil society organizations and international institutions have proved remarkably effective at managing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a way that minimizes political threats. In doing so, they have adopted a model of response to AIDS that focuses on process rather than outcome – chiefly the smooth and coordinated functioning of their own institutions,but also adherence to certain principles, some of which are based on evidence,and some on faith.These process indicators, such as UNAIDS’s ‘three ones’, are rigorously assessed . Encouragingly for democrats, this process emphasizes human rights and the participation of civil society leaders,and it has thereby ensured that democracy in African is not threatened by the epidemic and may even be strengthened. With a few important exceptions where different intersecting stresses come together,AIDS is unlikely to cause socio-political crisis.
Another Boycott Debate
Over at Reset DOC, Mitchell Cohen, Andrew Arato, Ernesto Ferrero, Mohamed Salmawy and Daniele Castellani Perelli debate the boycott the Book Fair in Turin for asking Israel to be its guest of honour. Cohen:
This campaign is wrong-headed, often slanderous, and betrays the best ideals of the left and democracy.
I say this, indeed I would insist on this, as an American leftist who has in fact opposed many Israeli policies, especially the settlements, for decades. When these anti-Israeli campaigners hiss at “the Zionists,” they remind me of American neo-conservatives hissing at “leftists.” The hiss itself should tell you that there is something wrong. And note the fact that attempts in Britain to boycott Israeli universities were thwarted because they contravened anti-discrimination laws. From a political point of view, the efforts were also ridiculous. Israeli universities have been major bastions of dovish sentiment. Israel’s 60th anniversary should be celebrated and Israeli-Palestinian peace should be sought at the same time.
This was not the right time to make Israel the guest of honor at a book fair, unless Israeli Jewish and Arab writers were put into the center of attention. With that said, the boycott is stupid. Why boycott precisely the writers who are critical of government policies? Yes, let us support the Israel's right to exist. But a state is a people, a territory and a coercive organization. There is no question about the identity of the coercive organization, and we should accept it as such. But should we all accept every Jew (by the very uncertain standards of the Law of Return and subsequent interpretations) to be part of the people of Israel, wherever they live, whatever their religion, when people born in the present borders (1948, 1967, 2008) cannot be because of their ethnicity or religion?
Israeli Reactions to Obama
Bernard Avishai over at Jewcy:
[Obama] He asked if we can hope to move peace forward or secure Israel if we cannot look for solutions that are “non-military or non-belligerent.” He said he admires the debate in Israel, he said, where views of the Palestinians are often “more nuanced” than in the US. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community,” Obama lamented, “that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you're anti-Israel. And that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”
YOU’D THINK OBAMA’S stance would be welcomed in Israel, and by the peace camp especially, but even the liberal Haaretz can’t hide its anxiety. The paper’s Washington correspondent, Shmuel Rosner, is exercised by Obama’s insinuation that he would, of all things, find it difficult to work with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom most of the paper’s columnists otherwise revile. It could be interpreted “as meddling in Israel's internal politics,” Rosner wrote, immediately adding (and as if to add to the incoherence of his misgivings) that Bill Clinton had problems with Netanyahu, too, while Israelis have themselves meddled in American electoral politics.
But this reflects a more general disquiet, which is not simply about a suspect foreign policy team, or the allegedly tortured relations between African-Americans and Jewish Americans. For most Israelis, even liberal Israelis, things have always boiled down to a single question which their politicians and diplomats have posed since Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state over the objections of his Secretary of State, George Marshall. Is this American a friend of Israel?
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
Kosovo, Democracy and Ethnic Cleansing
It is difficult to shake off the feeling that the birth of Kosovo is really the culmination of a series of old and unhealthy trends in global politics. Major powers of Europe seem to relish the fact that for the first time a small Muslim majority state has been carved out in Europe, thus testifying to Europe’s progress. But the truth is that the birth of Kosovo is also a profound testament of the failure of the nation state form in Europe to accommodate ethnic diversity. As Michael Mann, in an important article on the “Dark Side of Democracy” had noted, modern European history has built in an irrevocable drive towards ethnic homogenisation within the nation state.
In the 19th century, there was a memorable debate between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. John Stuart Mill had argued, in a text that was to become the bible for separatists all over, including Jinnah and Savarkar, that democracy functions best in a mono-ethnic societies. Lord Acton had replied that a consequence of this belief would be bloodletting and migration on an unprecedented scale; it was more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy. It was this link that Woodrow Wilson elevated to a simple-minded defence of self-determination. The result, as Mann demonstrated with great empirical rigour, was that European nation states, 150 years later, were far more ethnically homogenous than they were in the 19th century; most EU countries were more than 85 per cent mono-ethnic.
Most of this homogeneity was produced by horrendous violence, of which Milosevic’s marauding henchmen were only the latest incarnation. This homogeneity was complicated somewhat by migration from some former colonies. But very few nation states in Europe remained zones where indigenous multi-ethnicity could be accommodated.
Martin Luther King, Jr (1929-1968)
It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighborhoods.
Three decades after King was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., he is still regarded mainly as the black leader of a movement for black equality. That assessment, while accurate, is far too restrictive. For all King did to free blacks from the yoke of segregation, whites may owe him the greatest debt, for liberating them from the burden of America's centuries-old hypocrisy about race. It is only because of King and the movement that he led that the U.S. can claim to be the leader of the "free world" without inviting smirks of disdain and disbelief. Had he and the blacks and whites who marched beside him failed, vast regions of the U.S. would have remained morally indistinguishable from South Africa under apartheid, with terrible consequences for America's standing among nations. How could America have convincingly inveighed against the Iron Curtain while an equally oppressive Cotton Curtain remained draped across the South?
Even after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954, what the world now calls human-rights offenses were both law and custom in much of America. Before King and his movement, a tired and thoroughly respectable Negro seamstress like Rosa Parks could be thrown into jail and fined simply because she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus so a white man could sit down. A six-year-old black girl like Ruby Bridges could be hectored and spit on by a white New Orleans mob simply because she wanted to go to the same school as white children. A 14-year-old black boy like Emmett Till could be hunted down and murdered by a Mississippi gang simply because he had supposedly made suggestive remarks to a white woman. Even highly educated blacks were routinely denied the right to vote or serve on juries. They could not eat at lunch counters, register in motels or use whites-only rest rooms; they could not buy or rent a home wherever they chose. In some rural enclaves in the South, they were even compelled to get off the sidewalk and stand in the street if a Caucasian walked by.
The movement that King led swept all that away. Its victory was so complete that even though those outrages took place within the living memory of the baby boomers, they seem like ancient history. And though this revolution was the product of two centuries of agitation by thousands upon thousands of courageous men and women, King was its culmination. It is impossible to think of the movement unfolding as it did without him at its helm. He was, as the cliche has it, the right man at the right time.
Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family's long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished Negro institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.
In 1954, Martin Luther King accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank.
In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. and inspiring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a manifesto of the Negro revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Negroes as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, "l Have a Dream", he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.
"I Have a Dream" is the popular name given to the historic public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he spoke of his desire for a future where blacks and whites among others would coexist harmoniously as equals. King's delivery of the speech on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. Delivered to over two hundred thousand civil rights supporters, the speech is often considered to be one of the greatest and most notable speeches in history and was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century by a 1999 poll of scholars of public address. According to U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who also spoke that day as the President of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, "Dr. King had the power, the ability and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."
At the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme of "I have a dream", possibly prompted by Mahalia Jackson's cry "Tell them about the dream, Martin!". He had delivered a speech incorporating some of the same sections in Detroit in June 1963, when he marched on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and had rehearsed other parts.
For the complete text and video of "I have a dream speech", go here:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE LIKE THE EYE
A Talk with Nicholas A. Christakis: It is customary to think about fashions in things like clothes or music as spreading in a social network. But it turns out that all kinds of things, many of them quite unexpected, can flow through social networks, and this process obeys certain rules we are seeking to discover. We've been investigating the spread of obesity through a network, the spread of smoking cessation through a network, the spread of happiness through a network, the spread of loneliness through a network, the spread of altruism through a network. And we have been thinking about these kinds of things while also keeping an eye on the fact that networks do not just arise from nothing or for nothing. Very interesting rules determine their structure.
Recently, Harvard professor and sociologist Nicholas Christakis has shown that there's more to think about regarding social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and Twitter than considerations of advertising and revenue models.
Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to Facebook.com to accumulate "friends," compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research. To study how personal tastes, habits and values affect the formation of social relationships (and how social relationships affect tastes, habits and values), a team of researchers from Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles, are monitoring the Facebook profiles of an entire class of students at one college, which they declined to name because it could compromise the integrity of their research.
February 28, 2008
SpaceSunsetLiving the Scientific Life) .
Cohen and Fried on Liberals, Conservatives and Modern Liberty
Speaking of liberals, Joshua Cohen talks to Charles Fried:
Speciation Among Liberals and Conservatives
David Sloan Wilson in The Huffington Post (via bookforum):
Thousands of American high school students had participated nationwide by providing extensive background information and being beeped for a week, for roughly 50 snapshots of their individual experience.
With this as our "field study," we began to think about altruism and other do-good behaviors as a strategy that can succeed in some environments but not others. That story is recounted in a chapter titled "The Ecology of Good and Evil" in my book Evolution for Everyone. Then, with my graduate student Ingrid Storm, we decided to make an even finer comparison between youth belonging to liberal and conservative Protestant denominations.
Get this: Everyone in our sample was an American, a teenager, and belonged to the same major religious tradition of Protestantism. In these respects they were culturally uniform. But some belonged to conservative denominations such as Pentecostal and others to liberal denominations such as Episcopalian. As Ingrid combed through the data, which involved tedious hours in front of the computer, the differences that began to emerge were astounding. It was as if these conservative and liberal religious youth were--different species.
For example, two questions that were asked as part of the background information were "Do you think of yourself as a religious person?" and "In your family, do you express opinions even when they differ?" The more liberals agreed with the first question, the more they agreed with the second. The more conservatives agreed with the first question, the less they agreed with the second. Their religions were pulling them in completely different directions.
Paul Berman on Style and Passion in Tocqueville
About the people in democratic nations, Tocqueville writes: “Perceiving the human race as a single thing, they easily conceive that a single such design presides over their destinies, and, in the actions of each individual, they are pushed to recognize the truth of the general and consistent plan according to which God governs the species.”
It has become fashionable today to argue that theological reforms are a main source of democratic liberty, and that, absent such reforms, democratic liberty can never be achieved. But Tocqueville also argued the opposite. He saw in democratic liberty a source of theological reform—a tendency that was going to lead not to a watered-down view of God but to a grander view than ever before. Whitman entertained the same idea. And, to be sure, in acknowledgment of the poetic nature of this particular thought, Tocqueville went on to say, in a one-sentence paragraph in the chapter on poetry: “This again could be considered as an abundant source of poetry, which emerges through the centuries.”
Questioning Value-Free Science
Lisa Gannett reviews Harold Kincaid, John Dupré, and Alison Wylie (eds.), Value-Free Science? Ideals and Illusions at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
Elliott Sober's "Evidence and Value Freedom" (Chapter Five) and Heather Douglas' "Rejecting the Ideal of Value-Free Science" (Chapter Six) take opposing positions on the role of values in scientific reasoning.
Sober contends that an outright dismissal of the ideal of value-free science risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Sober argues that value-free science is properly defended by the assertion that the truth of a proposition can be determined independently of knowledge of the ethical and political consequences of belief in the proposition, and not, as the ideal's defenders frequently assume, by rejection of the view that the ethical and political consequences of belief in a proposition provide evidence for its truth. This holds in some cases, as does its entailed symmetrical claim: even if James is right that believing in God improves people's lives, these ethical consequences do not provide evidence that God exists; conversely, the theist's well-being depends only on her belief in God and not God's actual existence. But there are counter-examples: when a physician believes a drug is safe and prescribes it to her patients, their well-being depends on the drug's actual safety -- hence, the ethical consequences of the physician's decision are evidential. Nevertheless, an asymmetry between facts and values persists: the drug's safety can be discovered by scientific investigation alone, whereas the ethical judgment cannot be made without this knowledge.
Douglas reaches the opposite conclusion -- that nonepistemic values are logically necessary for scientific reasoning. Douglas emphasizes that scientists make many choices in the course of their research: what methods to use, how to delineate data, how to interpret findings. In policy-directed scientific research, where uncertainties exist and errors come with consequences, these choices will be influenced by the interplay of epistemic and nonepistemic values in weighing potential risks.
Incarceration in America
I've post on incarceration in America from time to time, but this figure in today's NYT is real reason to be ashamed of ourselves:
For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are.
But taking the argument to another level there is this from the American Poetry Foundation's website:
"...to help readers discover (or rediscover) our archive, poetryfoundation.org has invited some of today’s most vital graphic novelists to interpret a poem of their choice from the more than 4,500 poems in our archive, reaching from Beowulf o the present.
Heightened language—one possible or partial definition of poetry—isn’t the first thing one associates with comics. Yet comic book artists take into account the way words appear on the page to a degree poets will find familiar. How many lines should accompany each image? How high should the dialogue balloon float? The ratio of printed words to blank space plays a role in whether a poem or strip succeeds."
Following is a poem by A.E.Stallings without graphic assistance. And here it is decked out by graphic novelist R. Kikuo in comic book finery.
Every night, we couldn’t sleep.
Our upstairs neighbors had to keep
Dropping something down the hall—
A barbell or a bowling ball,
And from the window by the bed,
Echoing inside my head,
Alley cats expended breath
In arias of love and death.
Dawn again, across the street,
Jackhammers began to beat
Like hangovers, and you would frown—
That well-built house, why tear it down?
Noon, the radiator grill
Groaned, gave off a lesser chill
So that we could take off our coats.
The pipes coughed to clear their throats.
Our nerves were frayed like ravelled sleeves,
We cherished each our minor griefs
To keep them warm until the night,
When it was time again to fight;
But we were young, did not need much
To make us laugh instead, and touch,
And could not hear ourselves above
The arias of death and love.
Toni Morrison (1931-)
From The New York Times:
What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? "Beloved," by Toni Morrison was chosen as the best American fiction of the last 25 years. Runners up were: Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Don DeLillo.
Toni Morrison on Beloved:
The novel is not about slavery. ''Slavery is very predictable,'' she said. ''There it is, and there's some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don't. It can't be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.''
''There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,'' she said, ''and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you're writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it's the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.''
For those who haven't read it, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who has resettled to the outskirts of Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Near the beginning of the book, the two are joined by Paul D, once Sethe's fellow slave on a Kentucky plantation called "Sweet Home." (After years of thankless yearning, Paul D has at last become Sethe's lover.) It's 1873, the Civil War has been fought, and though slavery as a legal institution is over, it has only started its haunting of the African-American psyche. This Morrison dramatizes with the actual haunting of Sethe's house by Sethe's deceased baby daughter. We never learn that baby's given name, but in exchange for sex, Sethe has had a headstone carved for her girl, bearing the single word "Beloved." Paul D exorcises the house of the ghost, but later, upon returning from a carefree day spent at a carnival, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D discover a young woman sleeping near the front door of their house. The young woman goes by the name Beloved, and from all appearances she is a revenant, the embodied spirit of Sethe's dead daughter.
Morrison presents Sethe's turbulent inner life through a process both Morrison and Sethe herself call "rememory," a kind of psychic haunting in which the specifics of a traumatic incident are told and retold, even as the teller tries to block their full emergence into the conscious mind. The central traumatic episode of Beloved, to which the narrative returns again and again, is an infanticide: Twenty years earlier, Sethe beheaded her baby Beloved with a handsaw rather than allow her return to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison perfected a mode of narration, entirely her own but with roots in everything from the African griot to As I Lay Dying, built out of compulsive repetition, in which the onion, as it were, is constantly being both peeled and reconstituted; in which memories are constantly being both exhumed and buried; and in which the mind of the storyteller is both imprisoned and set free in the act of retelling. And so, like the return of Beloved, and the enduring curse of slavery itself, rememory is both a reconciliation and a vexation, both a healing and a wounding.
Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.
In her work Toni Morrison has explored the experience and roles of black women in a racist and male dominated society. In the center of her complex and multilayered narratives is the unique cultural inheritance of African-Americans. Morrison has been a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
'"Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company."' (from Nobel Lecture, 1993)
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, where her parents had moved to escape the problems of southern racism. Her family were migrants, sharecroppers on both sides. Morrison grew up in the black community of Lorain. She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read voraciously, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison's father, George Wofford, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., America's most distinguished black college. There she changed her name from "Chloe" to "Toni", explaining once that people found "Chloe" too difficult to pronounce. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Morrison wrote her thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, receiving her M.A. in 1955.
During 1955-57 Morrison was an instructor in English at Texas Southern University, at Houston, and taught in the English department at Howard. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor. After eighteen months she was transferred to the New York headquarters of Random House. There she edited books by such black authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also continued to teach at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany, where she nurtured young writers through two-year fellowships.
While teaching at Howard University and caring for her two children, Morrison wrote her first novel, THE BLUEST EYE (1970). With its publication, Morrison also established her new identity, which she later in 1992 rejected: "I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That's who I am. I have been writing under this other person's name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye". The story is set in the community of a small, Midwestern town. Its characters are all black. The book was partly based on Morrison's story written for a writers' group in 1966, which she joined after her six years marriage with the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison broke up. Pecola Breedlove, the central character, prays each night for the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple. She believes everything would be all right if only she had beautiful blue eyes. The narrator, Claudia MacTeer, tries to understand the destruction of Pecola. Until 1983, Morrison did not publish short stories. 'Recitatif', about cross-racial friendship, appeared first in Imamu Amiri and Amina Baraka's Confirmation (1983), an anthology consisting of black women's writing.
SULA (1973) depicted two black woman friends and their community of Medallion, Ohio. It follows the lives of Sula, a free spirit, who is considered a threat against the community, and her cherished friend Nel, from their childhood to maturity and to death. The novel won the National Book Critics Award. With the publication of SONG OF SOLOMON (1977), a family chronicle compared to Alex Haley's Roots, Morrison gained an international attention. It was the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the first novel by a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1949. Written from a male point of view, the story dealt with Milkman Dead's efforts to recover his "ancient properties", a cache of gold.
After the success of Song of Solomon Morrison bought a four-story house near Nyack, N.Y. She was named in 1987 Robert F. Goheen Professor in the council of the humanities at Princeton University. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel BELOVED (1987), after an open letter, signed by forty-eight prominent black writers, was published in the New York Time Book Review in January. However, the novel failed to win the National Book Award in 1987, and writers protested that Morrison had never been honoured with either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.
Beloved was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped with her husband Robert from a Kentucky plantation, and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby, in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. Morrison later told that "I thought at first it couldn't be written, but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art." The protagonist, Sethe, tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the unnamed infant, "Beloved." The name is written on the child's tombstone, Sethe did not have enough money to pay for the text ''Dearly Beloved.'' Sethe's house, where she lives with her teenage daughter, Denver, is haunted by the dead baby daughter. "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?" Sethe thinks. Paul D., whom Sethe knew in slavery, comes to visit her, and manages to drive the ghost out for a while. "For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a crocker sack, well, maybe you'd have little love left over for the next one." Time passes and Paul D. is seduced by Beloved, who becomes more violent. Denver leaves the house. Sethe is found at the farm, with the naked body of a very pregnant Beloved. The spell breaks, and Beloved disappears. Paul D. returns to take care of Sethe. The film version of the book from 1998 was directed by Jonathan Demme, who used much special effects and was interested in the horror aspects. Oprah Winfrey portrayed Sethe; she had optioned the book rights immediately after its publication. Three writers worked on the script: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. "If ever a film was burdened under the strain of its own portentousness, it's Beloved. Even the music by composer Rachel Portman, dominated by an interminably moaning solo voice, is mired in its own sincerity. As for Winfrey, it was an unabashed labor of love, and she threw all the resources of her television programs and her international celebrity into its promotion." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
In JAZZ (1992) Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcas in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. Morrison's first novel since the Nobel Prize was PARADISE (1998). Again Morrison set story in a small community, this time in Ruby, Oklahoma. Nine men attack a former girls' school nicknamed "the Convent," now occupied by unconventional women fleeing from abusive husbands or lovers, or otherwise unhappy pasts. Moving freely between eras, Morrison explores the founding of Ruby, an all-black township and the backgrounds of the convent women and the men determined to kill them. "The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who belongs in it," Morrison said in an interview The New York Times (January 8, 1998). "All paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when we are assaulted."
LOVE (2003), Morrison's eight novel, moves freely in time as Paradise. It portrays Bill Cosey, a charismatic hotel owner, dead for many years but not forgotten, and two woman, his widow and his granddaughter, who live in his mansion. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times (October 31, 2003), that "the story as a whole reads like a gothic soap opera, peopled by scheming, bitter women and selfish, predatory men: women engaged in cartoon-violent catfights; men catting around and going to cathouses." Jonathan Yardley complained in the Washington Post (October 26, 2003) that the novel has "Major Statement written all over it" - a point of view to which the politically conscious author answered already in an interview in 1974. "I don't believe any real artists have ever been non-political," she said. "They may have been insensitive to this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political because that's what an artist is - a politician."
The Medicated Americans: Antidepressant Prescriptions on the Rise
From Scientific American:
It is Sunday night. The Medicated American—let’s call her Julie, and let’s place her in Winterset, Iowa—is getting ready for bed. Monday morning and its attendant pressures—the rush to get out of the house, the long commute, the bustle of the office—loom. She opens the cabinet of the bathroom vanity, removes a medicine bottle and taps a pill into her palm. She fills a glass of water, places the colorful pill in her mouth and swallows. The little pill could be any one of 30 available drugs used as antidepressants—such as Prozac or Zoloft or Paxil or Celexa or Lexapro or Luvox or Buspar or Nardil or Elavil or Sinequan or Pamelor or Serzone or Desyrel or Norpramin or Tofranil or Adapin or Vivactil or Ludiomil or Endep or Parnate or Remeron. The pill makes a slight flutter as it passes down her throat.
Julie examines her face in the mirror and sighs. She hopes that by some Monday morning in the future—if not tomorrow morning, then some mythical, brilliant and shimmering Monday morning a month from now, or two months from now, or three—the pills will have worked some kind of inexorable magic. Corrected a chemical imbalance, or something, as the Zoloft commercial had said. “Zoloft, a prescription medicine, can help. It works to correct chemical imbalances in the brain,” the voiceover on the ad had intoned. Julie didn’t know she had a chemical imbalance, nor does she actually know what one is, and it had never really occurred to her that she could have a mental illness (could she?). But she does hope, fervently, that her life will become a little easier, a little less stressed—soon. She hopes, desperately, that the pills will make her feel better—that the little white powder hidden in the green capsule will dissolve in her stomach, enter her bloodstream, travel to her brain and do something. Brushing her teeth, she hopes that one day she will simply feel better.
The Truth About Autism
David Wolman in Wired (I highly recommend watching the video):
The YouTube clip opens with a woman facing away from the camera, rocking back and forth, flapping her hands awkwardly, and emitting an eerie hum. She then performs strange repetitive behaviors: slapping a piece of paper against a window, running a hand lengthwise over a computer keyboard, twisting the knob of a drawer. She bats a necklace with her hand and nuzzles her face against the pages of a book. And you find yourself thinking: Who's shooting this footage of the handicapped lady, and why do I always get sucked into watching the latest viral video?
But then the words "A Translation" appear on a black screen, and for the next five minutes, 27-year-old Amanda Baggs — who is autistic and doesn't speak — describes in vivid and articulate terms what's going on inside her head as she carries out these seemingly bizarre actions. In a synthesized voice generated by a software application, she explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a "constant conversation" with her surroundings. These forms of nonverbal stimuli constitute her "native language," Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language. Yet her failure to speak is seen as a deficit, she says, while other people's failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.
And you find yourself thinking: She might have a point.
More here. [Thanks to Harry Walsh.]
February 27, 2008
State Subsidized Gender Reassignment Surgery, In Iran
In Foreign Policy:
Last fall, Passport noted that more sex-change surgeries are performed in Iran than in any other country except Thailand. Ayatollah Khomeini approved them for "diagnosed transsexuals" 25 years ago, and today the Iranian government will pay up to half the cost for those in financial need. Former FP researcher David Francis wrote, "In a country that shuns homosexuality, this makes perverse sense, as after a sex-change operation, one technically isn't attracted to one's own sex and therefore isn't gay."
For more, see here.
[H/t: Jonathan Kramnick]
On Open Minds and Equal Time
My old professor Akeel Bilgrami once remarked that he didn't get the fetish of being "open minded." "I don't keep an open mind on whether the Earth is flat," he said to drive the point home. This isn't that bad, but Sean Carroll spells out a similar problem with the fetish of "equal time."
Arts & Letters Daily is a useful website, sort of a proto-blog, that brings together links to all sorts of interesting articles about, you know, arts and letters. If you follow it just a little bit, a decided political bent becomes clear, as you read headlines like “Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?” and “Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…” The site’s impresario, Denis Dutton, is a right-tilting philosopher and entrepreneur, who occasionally enjoys ranting against the postmodern obscurantism of the left-tilting academy.
But Prof. Dutton has apparently discovered that a touch of relativist anything-goes-ism can be useful in certain circumstances: in particular, when science is telling you something you don’t want to hear. These days, science is telling us that we are bollixing up the planet by dumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The very idea that the unchecked engines of capitalism could somehow lead to something bad, rather than all-pervading and unalloyed good, offends Prof. Dutton’s free-market sensibilities. So he has launched Climate Debate Daily, where both “Calls to Action” and “Dissenting Voices” are given equal time in a different free market, this one of ideas.
William F. Buckley, 1925-2008
He was someone I disagreed with on almost everything and many of his ideas horrify me. Yet, in the wake of O'Reilly and Hannity, I do find myself missing Firing Line, to my own shock, which I suppose is something to be shocked by. In the NYT:
Here, Buckley v. Vidal, and Buckley v. Chomsky:
Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.
To Mr. Buckley’s enormous delight, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the historian, termed him “the scourge of liberalism.”
In remarks at National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his biweekly edition — “without the wrapper.”
“You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism,” Mr. Reagan said.
“And then, as if that weren’t enough,” the president continued, “you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”
Déjà vu in belgrade
Driving down the Danube side of the city to my lunch appointment I saw the only Belgrade mosque, damaged by fire in a nationalist attack in 2004 and since restored, sternly guarded by a police division that had closed the entire street at both ends with a full bus of police reinforcement in anti-riot gear on stand by. Entering the nearby Theatre Museum, I remembered how I had been scheduled to give a lecture there in 1988 or 1989, on a day when Milosevic called another mass anti-Albanian protest in front of the parliament building. In the morning, I'd panicked when I could not buy milk for my baby daughter – all the stores were closed in the morning and the employees forced to march to the rally - and in the afternoon I had lectured on the history of Shakespeare productions through the centuries to some 30 people who sought sanity and diversion in the museum, while the echo of a huge angry mob could be heard outside, only a kilometre or so away. Now Belgrade was experiencing a re-run of the same hate-inducing theatrics, the same mis-en-scene of protest and destruction, the same careful orchestration of nationalist anger and the same outpouring of rabble-raising rhetoric by politicians, Orthodox bishops, academics and artists alike, filmmaker Emir Kusturica inevitably among their ranks.
more from Sign and Sight here.
art and the albatross
There’s Yves Klein’s blue, Anselm Kiefer’s black, and Jasper Johns’ gray. Dare one say that Klein’s blue is gloriously French, Kiefer’s black is dismally German, and Johns’ gray derives from the flag of the defeated Confederacy, of which Johns, being from South Carolina, is a native son? No doubt it’s an all too naïve and simplistic interpretation, but it suggests the point I want to make: Johns’ gray is about self-defeat -- the self-defeat of modernism, its dead-ending in a hallucinatory whimper. Wearing the vestment of gray, it becomes what Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner called "the Night-mare Life-in-Death." Johns is an ancient modernist mariner: corroded by gray, his alphabet, flags, maps and numbers decay into hallucinatory oblivion even as they remain charged with nightmarish life by his painterliness.
It is an increasingly rancid, ruthless painterliness: John Coplans once said to me that there was not a gesture of Johns’ that was not full of contempt. But I think it is the angry indifference (and pessimism) of Duchamp, which Johns celebrated as "hilarious" -- ironic comedy: Duchamp plus gesturalism -- intellectualism plus impulsiveness (Idea Art plus Abstract Expressionism) -- is the formula of Johns’ art.
more from artnet here.
james wood on fugitive lives
Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have all heard a lot about “the Professor,” the chilling anarchist in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” who walks around with a bomb strapped to himself and one hand on the detonator. Far more attention has been paid to this ruthless fanatic—unsuggestively reprised by Cormac McCarthy as Anton Chigurh, in “No Country for Old Men”—than to Verloc, the harried, soft, pithless entity who is the novel’s actual protagonist. But Verloc is more interesting than the Professor because he is so much less confident. The Professor is an arrow; Verloc is a target, helplessly bearing the gouges of the various assaults made on him. He works for the anarchists, but he also works against them, as a double agent; he is despised by his handler at the embassy, and feels bullied into following the diplomat’s order to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a job that he fatally bungles; he is a minor London shopkeeper, who sells pornography under the table; he moves through his shabby domestic existence sluggishly, as if under water.
more from The New Yorker here.
Dear Irrational Reader: Close the Door!
Yesterday Azra posted a fascinating article which seems to have been largely ignored, at least judging from the lack of comments on it, so I invite you to have another look:
John Tierney in the New York Times:
Let’s make a deal: Door Number 1? Door Number 2? Or Door Number 3?
The choice is yours when you try to rack up points in an experiment being run by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at M.I.T. — who, by the way, is not trying to bring back Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make A Deal ” TV show. This is a different three-door game and does not have any new cars or donkeys behind the doors. It takes just a couple of minutes, and you’ll get your score at the end.
To play, click here. I’ll write about the experiment in my Findings column this coming Tuesday. [Ed note: That was yesterday.]
First try playing the game by clicking the link above, then go here for Tierney's comments.
Larry Lessig and the Creative Commons
If you want to know more about this fascinating area, watch this longer talk:
Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical
David Biello in Scientific American:
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a ubiquitous compound in plastics. First synthesized in 1891, the chemical has become a key building block of plastics from polycarbonate to polyester; in the U.S. alone more than 2.3 billion pounds (1.04 million metric tons) of the stuff is manufactured annually.
Since at least 1936 it has been known that BPA mimics estrogens, binding to the same receptors throughout the human body as natural female hormones. And tests have shown that the chemical can promote human breast cancer cell growth as well as decrease sperm count in rats, among other effects. These findings have raised questions about the potential health risks of BPA, especially in the wake of hosts of studies showing that it leaches from plastics and resins when they are exposed to hard use or high temperatures (as in microwaves or dishwashers).
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in nearly all of the urine samples it collected in 2004 as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body.
Ted Kennedy on Torture
From the Brennan Center for Justice:
The Bush administration's approach to torture has betrayed everything America stands for. Its implausible reinterpretations and repeated violations of prohibitions against torture undermine our commitment to the rule of law. Its refusal even to disclose its practices to Congress undermines our commitment to checks and balances. Its dishonest claims to have rejected torture undermine our commitment to government accountability.
By passing the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005 and the Army Field Manual provision yesterday, the Senate has registered its clear opposition to these policies. I introduced legislation to apply the Field Manual's interrogation standards government-wide in August, and I've worked since then with a broad coalition of Senators and outside groups to make this reform a reality. Particularly notable was the leadership of our current military leaders, Judge Advocates General, and retired generals in explaining-through personal meetings and through the media-why the Field Manual approach is the most realistic way to develop a lawful and effective interrogation policy.
Congress was moved to act when Attorney General Mukasey refused during his confirmation process to acknowledge that waterboarding is unlawful. The outrage increased when the Director of National Intelligence said that waterboarding would be torture if used against him, but then refused to say that it would be unlawful if used against others. The last straw was the President's astonishing claim that waterboarding is lawful and might be used again.
Malcolm X (1925-1964)
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louis Norton Little, was a homemaker occupied with the family's eight children. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Earl's civil rights activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm's fourth birthday. Regardless of the Little's efforts to elude the Legion, in 1929 their Lansing, Michigan home was burned to the ground, and two years later Earl's mutilated body was found lying across the town's trolley tracks. Police ruled both accidents, but the Little's were certain that members of the Black Legion were responsible. Louise had an emotional breakdown several years after the death of her husband and was committed to a mental institution. Her children were split up amongst various foster homes and orphanages.
Malcolm was a smart, focused student and graduated from junior high at the top of his class. However, when a favorite teacher told Malcolm his dream of becoming a lawyer was "no realistic goal for a nigger," Malcolm lost interest in school. He dropped out, spent some time in Boston, Massachusetts working various odd jobs, and then traveled to Harlem, New York where he committed petty crimes. By 1942 Malcolm was coordinating various narcotic, prostitution and gambling rings.
Eventually Malcolm and his buddy, Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis, moved back to Boston, where they were arrested and convicted on burglary charges in 1946. Malcolm placated himself by using the seven-year prison sentence to further his education. It was during this period of self-enlightenment that Malcolm's brother Reginald visited and discussed his recent conversion to the Muslim religious organization the Nation of Islam. Intrigued, Malcolm studied the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad taught that white society actively worked to keep African-Americans from empowering themselves and achieving political, economic and social success. Among other goals, the Nation of Islam fought for a state of their own, separate from one inhabited by white people. By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted follower with the new surname "X." He considered "Little" a slave name and chose the "X" to signify his lost tribal name.
Intelligent and articulate, Malcolm was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad also charged him with establishing new mosques in cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Harlem, New York. Malcolm utilized newspaper columns, radio and television to communicate the Nation of Islam's message across the United States. His charisma, drive and conviction attracted an astounding number of new members. Malcolm was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.
The crowds and controversy surrounding Malcolm made him a media magnet. He was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace in 1959, The Hate That Hate Produced, that explored fundamentals of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm's emergence as one of its most important leaders. After the special, Malcolm was faced with the uncomfortable reality that his fame had eclipsed that of his mentor Elijah Muhammad.
Racial tensions ran increasingly high during the early 1960s. In addition to the media, Malcolm's vivid personality had captured the government's attention. As membership in the Nation of Islam continued to grow, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents infiltrated the organization (one even acted at Malcolm's bodyguard) and secretly placed bugs, wiretaps and cameras surveillance equipment to monitor the group's activities.
Malcolm's faith was dealt a crushing blow at the height of the civil rights movement in 1963. He learned that Elijah Muhammad was secretly having relations with as many as six women in the Nation of Islam, some of which had resulted in children. Since his conversion Malcolm had strictly adhered to the teachings of Muhammad, including remaining celibate until his marriage to Betty Shabazz in 1958. Malcolm refused Muhammad's request to keep the matter quiet. He was deeply hurt by the deception of Muhammad, whom he had considered a prophet, and felt guilty about the masses he had lead into what he now felt was a fraudulent organization.
When Malcolm received criticism after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for saying, "[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon," Muhammad "silenced" him for 90 days. Malcolm suspected he was silenced for another reason. In March 1964 he terminated his relationship with the Nation of Islam and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
That same year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The trip proved life altering, as Malcolm met "blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers." He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration. This time, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.
Relations between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam had become volatile after he renounced Elijah Muhammad. Informants working in the Nation of Islam warned that Malcolm had been marked for assassination (one man had even been ordered to help plant a bomb in his car). After repeated attempts on his life, Malcolm rarely traveled anywhere without bodyguards. On February 14, 1965 the home where Malcolm, Betty and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York was firebombed (the family escaped physical injury).
At a speaking engagement in the Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 three gunmen rushed Malcolm onstage and shot him 15 times at close range. The 39-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Fifteen hundred people attended Malcolm's funeral in Harlem at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ on February 27, 1965. After the ceremony, friends took the shovels from the gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves. Later that year, Betty gave birth to their twin daughters. Malcolm's assassins, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. The three men were all members of the Nation of Islam.
The legacy of Malcolm X has moved through generations as the subject of numerous documentaries, books and movies. A tremendous resurgence of interest occurred in 1992 when director Spike Lee released the acclaimed Malcolm X movie. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design. Malcolm X is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Fertile wives find single men sexy
Women beware: instinctive preferences might up the odds of getting pregnant when cheating on a partner. In a study looking at the ever-interesting (and ever-mysterious) question of why women are attracted to certain men, researchers found that sexual interest shifts with a partnered woman’s menstrual cycle. When fertile, women in relationships are most attracted to single men; when infertile their attraction shifts to coupled men.
The reason, the researchers suggest, is that coupled women who are thinking of having an affair (even when asked to think about it by researchers) subconsciously select a man who is more likely to be a willing partner when they are fertile. Courting a coupled man may be both a waste of time — as he is less likely to participate in an affair — and hazardous, as there is a greater chance of getting caught. “Ancestral women who felt more attracted to a single man than to an already coupled one would have been more likely than others to succeed and transmit this preference to their daughters,” says Paola Bressan of the University of Padua in Italy. “These subconscious preferences are apparently still with us.”
February 26, 2008
A Bollywood-y Homage to Barak Obama
[H/t: Hasan Siddiqui]
Poverty and Brain Development
Mauricio Delgado over at the Scientific American blog:
Membership in a high social class is thought to contribute to good mental well-being and physical health. Low socioeconomic status, in contrast, increases one's vulnerability for developing psychiatric or chronic medical conditions, research suggests. Various aspects of socioeconomic status could affect personal health in different ways, but most scientific attention has focused on the role of stress. Surprisingly, the most stressful part of being of lower socieconomic status might not be feelings of deprivation, as might be expected, but rather the subjective perception of our lower social standing.
Although epidemiological associations between low socioeconomic status and stress, and their consequences on mental health have been well documented, there have been fewer attempts to understand the neural pathways through which status and stress may interact in human society. That is the goal of the intriguing study by Peter Gianaros and colleagues entitled "Perigenual anterior cingulate morphology covaries with perceived social standing." Gianaros and colleagues take advantage of the idea that the subjective perception of low socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of future health. They use a computational structural neuroimaging method to investigate if brain volume of neural substrates linked to stress varies according to perceived social standing.
Act Responsibly: Don’t Vote!
Wendy McElroy on why (via Crooked Timber):
Act Responsibly: Don’t Vote! That’s not a bumper sticker you’re likely to see in coming weeks. Instead the ballot will be revered like a religious object and voting will be declared a duty. But what if the ballot is just one more government form to fill out? What if the most politically powerful act is to say "no" by tearing the form in half?
This November, most people won’t "do it" in the voting booth despite attempts to shame them. They will spend the time on activities that enrich their lives: buying groceries, playing with children, catching up on work. Even the recent primary, which was supposed to reflect a galvanized and outraged Democratic Party, drew only about 11.4 percent of those eligible to vote. The Republican primary fared worse with a record low turnout of about 6.6 percent.
If war itself can’t motivate people to put a checkmark in a box, it is time to consider non-voting from a radically different perspective. Maybe non-voters are right.
Social Networks Are Like The Eye
Over at Edge, Nicholas Christakis:
There is a well-known example in evolutionary biology about whether the eye was designed, or is “just so” because it evolved and arose for a reason. How could this incredibly complicated thing come into being? It seems to serve an incredibly complicated purpose, and the eye is often used in debates about evolution precisely because it is so complex and seems to serve such a specialized and critical function.
For me, social networks are like the eye. They are incredibly complex and beautiful, and looking at them begs the question of why they exist, and why they come to pass. Do we need a kind of just-so story to explain them? Do they just happen to be there, for no particular reason? Or do they serve some purpose — some ontological and also pragmatic purpose?
Does Everyone Watch the Same Show When They Watch The Wire?
Brian Cook in In These Times:
In a recent story in The Nation, Chris Hayes used 2,200-plus words to argue why progressives should back Sen. Barack Obama. I’ll use only seven: Obama’s favorite TV show is “The Wire.” It’s certainly true, as Hayes noted, that Obama, like every presidential candidate, won’t be saying one word about the prison-industrial complex or the disastrous consequences of the “war on drugs.” But it’s heartening to think that at least he’s tuning in to one of the few public forums that fiercely drags such issues into our consciousness.
Throughout its five seasons on HBO, “The Wire” has created riveting fictional drama out of the residents living, policing and selling dope on the streets of Baltimore. Described by its co-creator David Simon as the ultimate “anti-cop show, a rebellion … against the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television,” “The Wire” obliterates easy dichotomies of “good cops” and “bad drug dealers.” Instead, it builds morally complex characters on both sides of the law whose individual decisions are largely shaped by political and economic forces outside their control. After detailing the ravages of the drug trade in its first season, the show broadened its scope in each subsequent season, examining the city’s collapsing industrial sector (and unions), political system, public schools and, finally, journalistic institutions.
looking back at raymond williams
In The Country and The City, Raymond Williams brought to bear, against the well- entrenched, dominant conception of the English “country house” poetic tradition, a sense of historical context, and an understanding of the complex interplay between text and society, so powerful that it is simply not possible, ever again, to read it in the old way. Characteristically, this was no simple act of literary revaluation. The poems and their cultural settings are not downgraded, but re-claimed and re-ordered by the turning on to them of this penetrating critical- historical gaze. We weigh them differently. They are re-positioned in our imagination and understanding. The mystification of “agrarianism”, which still sustains the “Heritage” impulse in contemporary English cultural life, is slowly dissolved and becomes, in its suffocatingly philistine-civilised forms, untenable as a serious intellectual proposition.
more from The New Statesman here.
Young Gershom, awkward, arrogant, melancholic, and constantly seeking refuge in a rapidly moving kaleidoscope of ideas, was his parents' fourth, most rebellious son. (The third, Werner, briefly a follower of Rosa Luxembourg, was murdered by the Nazis in 1940 in Buchenwald.) Arthur Scholem, a tough, successful printer, was a member of neither the German Jewish elite nor the German establishment but, like many German Jews of his generation, deluded himself into believing that there was no difference between himself and German Gentiles — that there was no anti-Semitism in Germany.
Gershom shrewdly observed that despite his father's pretensions, the Germans with whom he did business did not mix socially with the Scholems, and Gershom fought bitterly with his father over the elder Scholem's indifference to Jewish tradition and misguided attempt to be an unquestioning German patriot. Gershom flirted with anarchism, then perused his own very individual brand of Zionism, and emigrated in 1923 to Jerusalem, where he became the first Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a huge force at making that subject — and the study of the Kabbalah — a serious scholarly enterprise.
more from The NY Sun here.
The human brain, research suggests, isn't built for objectivity
SCIENTISTS AT CALTECH and Stanford recently published the results of a peculiar wine tasting. They provided people with cabernet sauvignons at various price points, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the tasters were told that all the wines were different, the scientists were in fact presenting the same wines at different prices.
The subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better, even when they were actually identical to cheaper wines.
The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner - the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes - that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects' brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near,
Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Jazz Legend. Jazz composer, bandleader and pianist, often reffered to as America's most prolific composer of the twentieth century. His written contributions are almost innumerable: thousands of songs and dozens of works in symphonic form, as well as complete scores for ballet, theater and film. His artistic development and sustained achievement are among the most spectacular in the history of music. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in April of 1899 into a black middle-class family in Washington, D.C. he was nicknamed "Duke" because of the flashy way he liked to dress. Ellington studied piano as a child but showed no particular ability until he was enrolled into the Armstrong Manual Training School. He learned to read music, worked on his technique, and began playing at clubs and cafes.
In 1917, Ellington formed his first group, the Duke's Serenaders and in 1923, they moved to New York, renamed themselves the Washingtonians working off and on four years at the Kentucky Club before moving on to become the house band of Harlem's renowned Cotton Club (1927-1932). From 1924, when he put his name on the band-Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians produced a great quanity of music for exactly fifty years. And through that bands ranks passed some of the greatest instrumentalists who ever played jazz. Ellington spent much of his professional career in motion-traveling with his band from one performance to the next, composing aboard trains, planes, automobiles and living out of suitcases in an endless series of hotel rooms as he took his music to audiences across the globe. Ellington composed many works specifically to feature the distinctive sounds of such soloists as clarinetist Barney Bigard, Saxophonists Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cottie Williams. Ellington's popular favorites included "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "Sophisticated Lady," "In A Sentimental Mood," "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," "Black, Brown and Beige," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "Come Sunday". The end of the big-band era in the 1940's took its toll on the Ellington orchestra, and as worked dried up Ellington was forced to turn to royalties from his popular songs to keep the band afloat, a situation which was later reversed. Ellington also appeared in numerous films and was the first African-American composer to write a film score (for Anatomy of a Murder).
When he reached his sixties, an age at which many contemplate retirement, Ellington kept up the relentless schedule of composing, performing, recording and traveling he had followed for over thirty years. During this time Ellington was deservedly showered with awards, prizes, sixteen honary degrees and celebrated both at home and abroad for his musical achievements. These awards included the presentation of the keys to the city of Los Angeles in 1936, the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1959, The President's Gold Medal by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1966), the Pied Piper Award (1968), the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon (1969), the Legion of Honor by the country of France (the countries highest award), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6535 Hollywood Blvd.) and thirteen Grammy's. Duke Ellington and his band remained popular until his death in New York on May 24, 1974 at the age of 75.
The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors
From The New York Times:
Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships. He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames. But General Xiang Yu would be vindicated, both on the battlefield and in the annals of social science research.
He is one of the role models in Dan Ariely’s new book, “Predictably Irrational,” an entertaining look at human foibles like the penchant for keeping too many options open. General Xiang Yu was a rare exception to the norm, a warrior who conquered by being unpredictably rational. Most people can’t make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the MIT, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren’t even asked to burn anything). The experiments involved a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go.. In the real world, we can always tell ourselves that it’s good to keep options open.
February 25, 2008
Temporary Columns: OBAMA, UNGER AND I
I sat in on a class that Obama also attended at Harvard Law School. I believe it was the Spring or Fall of 1991. The class was called “Re-inventing Democracy”. It was taught by Roberto Unger, who dresses like an undertaker, lectures like a prophet, and thinks like a philosopher in a hurry. At the time, I was doing my doctorate in political science at MIT. Students at MIT and Harvard were permitted to take classes at each other’s institution.
Unger is now the “minister of strategic affairs” in Lula’s government in Brazil. His colleagues call him “the minister of ideas”. Unger belonged to what is known as the critical legal studies movement in law. They are leftish, foucauldian, postmodernish, multiculturalist critics of how law has traditionally been approached in the academic (primarily), professional and political worlds. Critical legal scholars have had more success with changing academia than the "real world". Still, their views are important to understand the role of power (racial, class, gender, heterosexual, among others) in law. In fact Unger’s first (and I believe his best) book is called Politics and Knowledge.
Roberto Unger’s own work goes beyond critical legal studies. He has been describing a new world full of political possibilities and economic opportunities for quite some time. He described this world then as an alternative to liberalism and Marxism. While the world he describes remains the same, the alternatives he critiques have changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe. He goes after neo-liberalism on the right, and on the left he attacks what he calls - “the populist authoritative nationalist version of Latin America” associated with Chavez, and the “well behaved version of Western Europe” associated with social democratic parties of the north Atlantic. He criticises both lefts for stifling individual and institutional creativity.
He argues instead for a world of economic and political experimentation, where the state’s function is to first provide the social and political tools (including insurance for individual and collective failures) to encourage innovation, and then to get out of the way. Innovate and experiment, till things get stuck, either because the strategy has failed, or you have come to a fork in the political road. Then let the people decide how to get unstuck through a plebiscite. The heroic class of his theory are the petty bourgeoisie, dismissed by marxists, and disregarded by liberals. He believes they are the wellspring of innovation as the classic boundary crossing group – finding new ways of surviving in an institutional and ideological environment that is inhospitable to them. But their innovations are disregarded, dismissed or suppressed by a combination of ignorance (among those who seek emancipation through Marxism) and enmity (among those who seek wealth through capitalism). The result is a failure to harness and increase innovations that can help society progress. Instead, Unger argues those dissatisfied with the world moving towards a divide between rich, fat and comfortable white people, and poor, hungry and uncomfortable black ones – are left with authoritarian Third Worldism and phlegmatic North Atlantic social democracy as the only available alternatives.
While it is easy to be sceptical about Unger's capacity to translate his ideas into practical policies, there is no doubt that his work captures the disaffection many of us feel with the failures of the dominant neo-liberal model, and the uninspiring alternatives that have been presented to us. It says something appealing about Obama, that he attended this class, instead of one on say corporate tax law that many other Harvard law students planning to pursue another career route probably did. Dissatisfied with the world we inhabited, he too was struggling with ideas for a better future one.
One day in the midst of all this high minded theorising, students in this class staged a (mini) "revolt" against Unger. I do not recall exactly what sparked it off, but a student (planned or unplanned) took on Unger’s own commitment to democracy. Since this was a class about re-inventing democracy in radically new ways – Unger did not discourage challenges to his ideas and queries about his approach. This attack, however, went beyond the realm of Unger’s ideas, but to his personal commitment to implementing them in the very sphere he had control over – the class room. The attack was that while Unger talked about re-inventing democracy in the world, the class was taught in a hierarchical manner, like any other. In short, his class was run like a Latin American fiefdom, while he posed as a radical democrat.
He behaved like he knew more than we did, so the critique went. He taught by lecturing, and we – the students – learned by trying to digest what he said. The point – at least to the extent I can recall one - was that Unger was not engaging the class in a manner that enabled them to participate more fully. He set the agenda, the content and the tenor of the discussion. And the students had to fall in line. More over, those revolting charged that some students seemed to speak more than others, implying that Unger was permitting a select few to domineer class discussion. And so one student after another piled on repeating variations of the same critical theme and accusing Unger of hypocrisy. The class ended in the middle of the uproar.
I was bemused by the whole incident walking back. And by the time I got to my flat the supercilious attitude I had assumed towards my fellow students – rich and privileged members of the corporate elite-in-waiting who were posing at radicalism – had turned into disdain. What do they expect – they teach and the professor listens? How could these students be so naïve about what a classroom is? Or who a professor is? How else is he to teach other than lecture in a class with seventy odd students? And they are the ultimate hypocrites – taking a class on re-inventing democracy, while interviewing for jobs with corporate law firms.
I had never felt that Unger or for that matter any other professor – however authoritarian and hierarchical in the class room – was necessarily smarter than me – just by being my professor. Certainly, I acknowledged that some were. But the reason they were the professor and I the student, was more pragmatic. They had already struggled with questions I was struggling with. And they (probably) had read far more books than I had, in doing so. So their experience and possibly wisdom might help me navigate a little quicker my own struggle with ideas. Did this mean that they were smarter? I was loathe to admit it of those who were, and happy to deny it of those who weren’t.
The following week, I returned to class expectantly for the second act in the drama. I was not the only one. There were many new faces in class, along side the regulars. Word had spread there was going to be a showdown in Unger’s classroom. So the cheap stalls were full. And Unger began – as he always uncannily did – from the very word where he left off the previous week. He acknowledged the mini revolt and then proceeded to express his disagreement with its rationale.
He said that for him the “form” of the class was dictated by practical aspects. He disagreed that just because a professor lectured and students listened, they ought to feel less smart or agree with his views. In fact, he claimed that he always did think he was smarter than his lecturers even though he had to listen to them. And as a student who never spoke in class, he certainly felt that those who did usually made fools of themselves, rather than actually dominate discussion. He also argued there was nothing about the nature of the classroom that precluded students from disagreeing with his ideas, forming their own, or simply dismissing his altogether. And finally he came up with the most brilliant summary of teaching approaches (in a large lecture classroom) I had heard. Here is what he said:
“There are three forms of pedagogical discourse. The first is the no-holds-barred philosophical discourse. The chief requirements of which are infinite amounts of time and a willingness to waste it. The second is the pseudo socratic method, with the illusion of freedom and the reality of structure. Here the professor asks a question. Joe responds – wrongly in the view of the professor. The professor says that was a very interesting answer Joe – now can we please get on with the discussion. The third is what I do. I present my own ideas. You then develop and sharpen your own, by arguing against and critiquing mine. I do not expect that the outcome of this process will be that you come over to mine.”
Unger then opened up the class for more comments and suggestions about what to do. He had a little trick up his sleeve, but he wanted to first give everyone hankering for a showdown an opportunity to have a say. One supporter piped in from the gallery saying that Unger should not be discouraged (as if he were when he was quite enjoying himself), but that “he should know, in the words of Nixon, that a silent majority was with him”. After the tumult had settled down a bit, Obama took the stage. He captured the mood of the outspoken minority in the class – idealistic (even if naïve) outrage about hierarchy in the university. Without losing the realistic view of why we go there in the first place – there are people who know more than we do about books at a University and spend more time thinking abut them than most others. He was good, really good. Though not succinct, he was eloquent. Students quietened down and listened. So did I. For a moment I even suspended my cynicism about Harvard law students in the class, as corporate elite-in-waiting posing as radical democrats. He finally ended his speech. There were few other comments afterwards. But they seemed superfluous after Obama’s.
Finally Unger came in with his denouement. He invited the students to take over the class. He asked any interested group of students to develop a syllabus, an agenda and a reading list, and visit his office and discuss it with him. He assured them that he would not just consider this input but actually work with it. It may have been this that put students off. But in any case, anyone who has had to teach knows that developing an agenda and content for a class in a coherent, interesting and pedagogically useful way takes time and/or experience. The students had neither. None showed up in his office and we returned the next week to business as usual, much to my relief.
This minor episode (or at least my reaction to it) prefigures my response to Obama as a Presidential candidate sixteen years later. I recall verbatim Unger’s brilliantly succinct summary of pedagogical approaches. While I remember the tenor of, I struggle to recall, a single word in Obama’s eloquent intervention. He is inspiring as a speaker on change. But, however much I would like to, I cannot quite shake off my doubts about him as a maker of it.
monday musing: black history month, nwa
It sounds like it might be a baritone sax. One note repeated over and over underneath the song. Low and nasty. The beat is driving and has a funky edge, set off by the little guitar riff looped over the top. The whole sound is there from the first note. No build. No games. Within the first second you're hearing the lyrics, which come hard and relentless…
Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off
It is hard to explain the way that song makes you feel when you first hear it: Los Angeles, 1988, coming out of the giant speakers of a low-slung Oldsmobile rolling down Pico Boulevard just after sunset. Bad Ass. Rock and Roll died that day. Whatever its other virtues, Rock and Roll was driven and sustained by one thing… badassness. But that summer in LA in the late 80s was the final straw. Bad Ass moved to Compton.
The first two songs from the album Straight Outta Compton hit the NWA formula perfectly. The sound and the mix were put together by Dr. Dre. It was mean and gritty but it always managed to stay light. Hip-hop wasn't plodding anymore, it was leaping around like Bizet, plus a growl. Then you get the lyrical triumvirate: Ice Cube, Ren, Eazy-E. Ice Cube always had the strongest voice and the solid rhymes. You start with Ice Cube. Then Ren comes in and picks up where Ice Cube left off with a slight twist, different emphasis, stranger thoughts. And then, just when it seems that you know what to expect, comes Eazy-E. Eazy-E has a crazy high-pitched voice. It comes out of nowhere. It's evil and funny at the same time. Plus nobody in NWA was a Bad Ass quite like Eazy-E. His first lines from Straight Outta Compton are legendary…
...straight outta Compton
is a brotha that'll smother yo' mother
and make ya sister think I love her
Dangerous motherfucker raises hell
He's like a maniac from some ghetto nightmare. Unbelievable. Brilliant. He is going to kill your mother and he's going to treat your sister badly. Bad Ass. Same thing on Fuck Tha Police, the second song off the album. You get excited by Ice Cube and Ren but you're secretly waiting for Eazy-E. And then, after a slight pause, the Eazy-E madness kicks in.
I'm tired of the muthafuckin jackin
Sweatin my gang while I'm chillin in the shackin
Shining tha light in my face, and for what
Maybe it's because I kick so much butt
I kick ass, or maybe cuz I blast
On a stupid assed nigga when I'm playin with the trigga
Of an Uzi or an AK
Cuz the police always got somethin stupid to say
He is in extra Eazy-E whine mode for these lines and really works himself into a stunning sing-songy rhythm for the lines "cuz I blast / on a stupid assed nigga when I'm playin with the trigga." Nobody ever had more fun than Eazy-E being an inexcusably awful person. That's the nature of a Bad Ass. Done right, there are no excuses. There can't be. It isn't a moral position. It isn't something that can be argued about, for, and against. That was what was so silly about all the debates around gangster rap. The defenses missed the point every bit as much as the denouncements did.
NWA was not great because the music "directed our attention to the real conditions in the inner city" or any such twaddle. And every attempt to attack NWA for glorifying crime and violence simply added another six figures in the "albums sold" category. You can't beat Bad Ass with logic or politics or ethics. Bad Ass is an aesthetic category. It's inimical to discourse. Bad Asses don't explain themselves because there is nothing to explain.
That begs the question, I guess, as to why we ever cared about Bad Asses in the first place. Why are we thrilled and excited by them, if even despite ourselves. The answer is not a definitive one, I suspect, and the matter can't be looked at dispassionately. Maybe you're sitting on a stoop somewhere, any half-assed bungalow in the southland on a dry night with the Santa Ana winds blowing just so. You're young and the world seems new enough still that something different might just happen. But probably it won't. There's the dull ache of empty desire and the vague scent of a wild fire burning itself out in one of the canyons. And then you hear the sound again, from a boom box or a car radio. The bounce of that sound, the drive in it, the thump and the relentless lyrics. Bad Ass.
NWA is satisfying in the same way as a James M. Cain novel or maybe Byron's Don Juan. It isn't pretty and isn't meant to be. It's something else. But anybody who isn't drawn to the Bad Ass in some way is missing an essential human bone. You can't listen to those NWA songs without feeling a moment of thrill, when the beat comes, when the lyrics blast out, whenever. It is Bad Ass pure and simple, stamped and sealed and impossible to ignore. We want the Bad Ass to blast the world apart, if only for a moment, or to deny it just for the sake of denying it. We don't want to take up the task of being the Bad Ass ourselves, but we want somebody to be it, we want some Bad Ass out there to say fuck it all, every single bit of it.
Perceptions: of identity
James Brown. Untitled.
Thanks to Kuniko and Cliff Weber for introducing me to this artist, who is so obscure I cannot find anything worth linking to about him on the internet.
Posted by Sughra Raza at 12:29 AM | Permalink
Looking for Evidence
Forever dissed by people-of-the-book,
he rummaged through bins of bones
flinging one after another
over his shoulder
looking for a missing link.
Femurs and fibulas went flying.
Knuckles and kneecaps rained.
Disks —the pride of vertebrates—
hit walls and ricocheted like pucks
slap-shot by blood-thirsty Bruins.
The thud of ulnas and clavicles
drummed rhythms on wallboard as they hit.
They landed here and there in the dusty landscape
only to be buried again in the sands of time,
found by future anthropologists,
and dismissed once more (no matter what)
by latter-day people-of-the-book.
It's gotta be here somewhere, murmured
Charles. Everything else so elegantly fits.
Meanwhile, at a bin to Darwin's right
marked "Creation, Myths, and Miracles"
Reverend Pat dug in too.
He tossed a leather-bound edition
of the Epic of Gilgamesh
onto a heap in the corner which
nudged a volume of the Enuma Elish
that slid to the floor and settled
beside a story of how a flower
grew from Vishnu's navel.
Junk, grumbled Pat . Absurd junk
that can't hold a candle to a talking snake.
He'd been hoping for a scrap
of Genesis notarized by God
but found only a sheepskin note
inscribed "Adam and Eve
are the apples of the old man's eye."
Good enough for me, said Pat
and ducked as the skull of a chimp
The Continuity Wars
by Frans B. M. de Waal
For a long time, we’ve been used to scientists who believe we’re totally unique. They simply don’t see humans as part of the animal kingdom, are uninterested in evolution, and indeed uninterested in any meaningful cross-species comparison. They just react with horror to any hairy creature that looks like them, the way Queen Victoria declared the apes displayed, in 1835, at the London Zoo "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human."
It is different now. We’re dealing with scientists who believe in evolution, claim an interest in it, and sometimes even have great expertise, yet balk at accepting mental continuity between humans and their closest relatives. Admittedly, most of them have a background in the social sciences, such as anthropology or psychology, not biology, which may explain why they argue that Charles Darwin was actually mistaken on this issue and that the cognitive gap between a human and an ape is in fact so wide that it may exceed that between an ape and a beetle.
A beetle? Have they ever seen a beetle brain next to a chimp’s?
Darwin could not have been clearer, saying in The Descent of Man: “… the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” The evolutionary framework simply has no room for saltationist arguments. Like Darwin, I am not claiming that humans possess absolutely no unique mental capacities – I am sure they do - but these capacities are merely the tip of the iceberg, and I prefer to look at the whole “berg.”
Except for a few differences at the microscopic level, the human brain is barely distinguishable from the ape brain. Its structure, neurotransmitters, and functional connections are all the same. Even our much-heralded frontal cortex turns out to be about the same size as an ape’s relative to the rest of the brain. Since we don’t assume that the human heart or liver work any differently than those of other animals, why shouldn’t this apply to the stuff between our ears? Yes, the human brain is three times larger, but this only means that it can do more, or do certain things better.
We now seem to have two schools of primate researchers. The “gradualists,” who follow Darwin on both counts (evolution and continuity), and the “exceptionalists,” who follow only half the theory. They propose major mental and behavioral differences, often focusing on just one that they feel explains everything that makes our species unique. Even the major scientific journals are taking sides, with Nature publishing more gradualist papers and Science more exceptionalist ones. Entire research institutes are split, such as two directors at the Leipzig Max-Planck for Evolutionary Anthropology, with one director publicly criticizing another on this issue.
Claims and counter-claims arrive at a pace that must be hard to follow for the outside world. For example, a recent exceptionalist paper on how altruism is sadly absent in the apes, hence must be uniquely human, was soon followed by a gradualist correction about how altruism is alive and well in chimpanzees (see my commentary on both). Or a recent prominent paper about highly developed social learning in chimpanzees was forgotten, and in fact unmentioned, when Science published a report about the limits of chimpanzee social cognition. This prompted our recent commentary in Science - which the journal published four months later - about the best way to compare human and ape cognition.
Our main critique was that if both children and apes are tested by human experimenters, this is unfair to the apes. On the surface, the procedures look identical, but the apes are the only ones facing a species barrier. They obviously don’t relate as well to adult humans as children do. Another difference is that children often sit on or next to their parent during testing, meaning that the parent can give all sort of unintentional clues that assist performance, whereas the apes lack this advantage. In fact, apes have been tested for decades in ways that almost guarantee underperformance.
We do have solutions to this problem. A recent study on dog cognition was conducted in the pet owner’s presence, but with the owner blindfolded. This way, they excluded unwanted influences known as “Clever Hans” effects. Shouldn’t children, too, be tested in a way that cancels parental influence?
I do think there is room for careful human/ape comparisons, and that most of the time (but not always) these will come out in favor of the primate with the larger brain. Humans are different, but not as drastically as claimed. The bigger task that we face is not to assign the gold, silver, and bronze medals of smartness in the animal kingdom, but to see what kind of processes underlie all cognition, both human and animal. Evolutionarily speaking, the more parsimonious assumption is that related species will handle similar problems in similar ways, using the same brain areas, (mirror) neurons, and connectivity.
This is something to keep in mind when the next paper comes along postulating a huge human vs. ape difference. My bet is always on the similarities, and indeed over my lifetime I have seen tons of claimed differences fall by the wayside, but rarely a claimed similarity.
A nice illustration is the work on imitation by Vicky Horner and others. Even though everyone uses the word “aping” for imitation, it was until recently held that apes are actually not good at it. Apes were said to lack “true” imitation based on the fact that, most of the time, they refuse to follow the human example. When we removed the human experimenter from the picture, however, and looked at imitation from ape to ape, all of a sudden they turned out to be excellent, faithful copiers of behavior. So, apes actually do ape!
This won’t deter the exceptionalists, however. They have already begun to turn their attention to the next major difference.
The most amusing one I have ever seen occurred in a Dutch newspaper by a serious philosopher writing about man’s place in nature. He proposed that humans differ from all other animals in that only we go on vacation. A sea lion may lie on the beach, he wrote, but not with the purpose of relaxation. Only we set aside time for this.
Perhaps we should just grant him his little distinction, and not fight it, so that we can finally close this line of argument and move on to more important matters.
Trained as an ethologist and biologist, the Dutch-born Frans B. M. de Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology and Director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
February 24, 2008
A writer’s house
PD Smith at Kafka's Mouse:
Do the houses once lived in by famous writers tell us anything about their work? After the Great War, Virginia Woolf and her husband paid £700 for Monk’s House in the Sussex village of Rodmell. It’s a simple, weather-boarded cottage beside a country lane.
Behind it was a garden and an orchard of overgrown pear and apple trees, with views over the flats of the Ouse valley. When they bought it, Monk’s House had no bath, no toilet, no hot water and just brick floors. Its previous owner had gone mad and starved himself to death. Virginia wrote: “We went to Rodmell, and the gale blew at us all day; off arctic fields; so we spent our time attending to the fire.” One morning they had to get up at 4 am to chase mice out of their bed. Today, few would put up with such conditions. But not Virginia; she loved the cottage and her “soft grey walks” in the surrounding countryside.
A Chat With George W. Bush’s Conscience
Francis Wilkinson in Discover:
As a former chairman of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass is well acquainted with controversy, and with the treacherous terrain at the nexus of science and politics. The council, tasked with advising the president on such hot-button issues as stem cell research and cloning, has sometimes been dismissed as a vehicle for the right wing of the Republican Party. But although some of his views comport with those of hard-liners, Kass, a physician with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is hard to pigeonhole. “I do not come from a school of thought, nor do I have an ideology,” he says.
An old-fashioned moralist, he holds some views that are remarkably unfashionable—even premodern. He still employs the term bastard to describe the children of unwed parents, and he has written despairingly about the loss of “female modesty” in our culture. At the same time, he has misgivings about the effects of global capitalism and believes in integration, tolerance, and inclusiveness. In the end, what really rankles many scientists is Kass’s belief that society has a duty to regulate research, and his frequent warnings about the dehumanizing effects of some technologies.
The recommendations of the Council on Bioethics, though substantive and scholarly, have by and large not been put into practice by policymakers, and the group’s prominence has faded as the debate about stem cell research has ground to a standoff. Kass left the council in September and currently is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, where his office is a few paces from Lynne Cheney’s. He sat down with DISCOVER to reflect on his tenure and discuss his beliefs, his influences, and his concerns for the future.
In Thriving India, Wedding Sleuths Find Their Niche
Emily Wax in the Washington Post:
Like a lot of young Indian couples, they met on a matrimonial Web site and within a matter of weeks were picking out the wedding invitations, reserving the horse-drawn carriages and having the bride fitted for a pearl- and gold-encrusted sari.
Judging by his online profile, the groom was suitable and eager to be a good spouse: a quiet, stay-at-home kind of guy who never drank and worked as a successful software engineer. Perfect, thought the bride, a shy 27-year-old computer engineer.
Too perfect, according to Bhavna Paliwal, one of India's wedding detectives, who are being hired here in growing numbers to ferret out the truth about prospective mates.
More here. [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]
A Moment of Hope
Mohsin Hamid in Time:
It has been some time since I was as happy as I was on the night after Pakistan's Feb. 18 general election. Mine was perhaps a reckless joy, temporarily distracting me from the very real troubles that Pakistan faces. But as I spoke to friends and acquaintances, both here in London and in my hometown of Lahore, I realized that the sense of euphoria I was feeling was widespread.
Pakistan is sometimes described by the international media as the most dangerous place on the planet. That has always seemed to me to be an irresponsible exaggeration: there are other countries whose citizens are far more likely to die of violent causes. But certainly Pakistan is a troubled land, suffering from illiteracy, poverty, terrorism and the bite of rapidly increasing prices, especially of food. The Feb. 18 election has not solved those problems. Yet Pakistanis are justified in allowing themselves a sigh of relief. Indeed, the entire world should be breathing a little easier now, for Pakistan suddenly looks a lot less frightening than it did.