December 31, 2008
The editors of Seed select the year's outstanding books
Goodbye to 2008 with one last list:
Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
By Paul A. Offit (Columbia University Press)
In a perfect world, the public's knowledge would mirror the scientific consensus. In Autism's False Prophets, vaccine expert Offit dissects how shady lawyers, suspect science, self-interested politicians, and equivocating journalists have derailed this hope, convincing millions that vaccines cause autism even as the scientific community has proven the theory false. More than a book about a disease, it is an ode to uncorrupted science and a cautionary tale that data alone is never enough. Buy
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
By Mary Roach (W.W. Norton)
There are many humorous science books. There are not many hilarious science books. With Bonk, a review of science's study of sexual behavior, Mary Roach has written a volume so viscerally funny, it's easy to overlook how obsessively she researched her subject. But Roach's tales of a day with pig inseminators, a hands-on experience with penile implants, and a romp under an ultrasound machine serve as not-so-subtle reminders of her commitment to writing the first-ever comprehensive book on sex research. Buy
Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony
Robert Fisk in The Independent:
That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza.
But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.
Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said back in the 1990s that they wished Gaza would just go away, drop into the sea, and you can see why. The existence of Gaza is a permanent reminder of those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes to Israel, who fled or were driven out through fear or Israeli ethnic cleansing 60 years ago, when tidal waves of refugees had washed over Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and when a bunch of Arabs kicked out of their property didn't worry the world.
Well, the world should worry now.
happy new year
There is an ungainly German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that has no equivalent in the English language. It means "coming to terms with past," and it was coined to refer to the efforts of German intellectuals, journalists, and even some politicians who, over the past half century, insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country's history was both a moral and political necessity. As a result of these efforts, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has become part of the core political culture of contemporary Germany.
A new German movie that has attracted considerable attention in Europe is part of this tradition--albeit in an unusual way. While Vergangenheitsbewältigung generally refers to examination of the Nazi era, this film looks at another chapter in German history: the rise, during the 1970s, of a radical left-wing group called the Red Army Faction (or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof). Obviously, the group's crimes were in no way analogous to those of the Nazis; the RAF ultimately murdered 34 people, while the Nazis murdered millions. Still, an honest reckoning with the past is exactly what the movie attempts. And, in providing a frank and unsentimental depiction of the brutal excesses associated with 1960s radicalism, it sets an example that Hollywood would do well to follow.
more from TNR here.
the year in maps
IN THE EARLY Middle Ages, if an educated Westerner set out to make a standard map of the world, here is what he would do: draw a circle, then a horizontal band across that circle, then a vertical band dividing the bottom half of the circle in two. The result resembled a hood ornament with a "T" in the middle. The semicircle at the top was Asia; the identical quarter-circles below were Europe and Africa. Today, it's easy to feel superior to a society that thought Europe and Africa looked like matching slices of pizza, but we shouldn't. That medieval map said very little about how the world was shaped, but it had a lot of information: For starters, it told you that God's creation was symmetrical, and thus perfect, and that its apex was Jerusalem. In a deeply religious society in which most people never made it more than a few miles from home, this was understood to be far more important than knowing the exact contours of the Mediterranean. Thanks to satellites, surveying, and ever-increasing computing power, mapping has become geographically accurate beyond the dreams of a medieval mind. But many of those same technological advances have also brought us full circle: Maps have increasingly become vehicles not just for telling us how the world looks, but for organizing and representing all sorts of information.more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
New Year Poem
New Year Poem 2009
How d’ya feel about the new year, chum?
I’m just glad the old one’s gone.
Not gone –can't you see it’s a continuum?
I can, but ‘scuse my circumspection.
All time is one.
It’s true, all years are frames in a projection.
Yeah, but, some are very stark and stand out.
Some are good, some glum.
Too bad how this one’s panned out.
So, we gonna celebrate and drink up?
What for? What’s new?
Let’s just toast that there aren’t more
disasters we can think up.
Shame of the House of Saud: Shadows over Mecca
Daniel Howden in The Independent:
Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to help protect the holy sites, says the case of the grave of Amina bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet, found in 1998, is typical of what has happened. "It was bulldozed in Abwa and gasoline was poured on it. Even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action."
Today there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. The litany of this lost history includes the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.
Yet the same oil-rich dynasty that pumped money into the Taliban regime as they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan six years ago has so far avoided international criticism for similar acts of vandalism at home. Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam, said it was time for other Muslim governments to ignore the al-Sauds' oil wealth and clout and speak out. "What is alarming about this is that the world doesn't question the al-Sauds' custodianship of Islam's two holy places. These are the sites that are of such importance to over one billion Muslims and yet their destruction is being ignored," she said. "When the Prophet was insulted by Danish cartoonists thousands of people went into the streets to protest. The sites related to the Prophet are part of their heritage and religion but we see no concern from Muslims."
The first part in this video playlist is five minutes of clips from the documentary Occupation 101. The whole film (about 90 minutes) is presented in ten parts after that. You can skip to the beginning of the film by clicking the right-arrow once. Each part should follow the previous one automatically.
What to Do About the Torturers?
David Cole in the New York Review of Books:
The story of America's descent into torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been told now by many writers. Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, and Ron Suskind have written brilliant expositions of the facts, showing how the drive to prevent the next attack led the administration's highest officials to seek ways around the legal restrictions on coercive interrogation of suspects. After the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, the military itself commissioned three detailed investigative reports, including highly critical ones by Major General Antonio Taguba and by a panel led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger. Among other factors, they blamed ambiguity in the standards governing interrogation—an ambiguity ultimately attributable to the attempts at evasion directed from the top. Congressional committees have held numerous public hearings into the use of coercive interrogation tactics at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the ACLU, and the NYU Center on Law and Security have each published collections of official documents, which effectively indict the government using its own words.
But undoubtedly the most unusual and deeply revealing take on the subject is the work of the British lawyer and law professor Philippe Sands. As Alexis de Tocqueville showed long ago, sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to show us ourselves. Sands, a leading international lawyer and a professor at University College London, took it upon himself to conduct his own personal investigation of one aspect of the torture policy—the Army's adoption of coercive tactics to interrogate suspects at Guantánamo.
SELF AWARENESS: THE LAST FRONTIER
V.S. Ramachandran in The Edge:
One of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness. The human brain—a mere lump of jelly inside your cranial vault—can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space and grapple with concepts such as zero and infinity. Even more remarkably it can ask disquieting questions about the meaning of its own existence. "Who am I" is arguably the most fundamental of all questions. It really breaks down into two problems—the problem of qualia and the problem of the self. My colleagues, the late Francis Crick and Christof Koch have done a valuable service in pointing out that consciousness might be an empirical rather than philosophical problem, and have offered some ingenious suggestions. But I would disagree with their position that the qualia problem is simpler and should be addressed first before we tackle the "Self." I think the very opposite is true. I have every confidence that the problem of self will be solved within the lifetimes of most readers of this essay. But not qualia.
The qualia problem is well known. Assume I am an intellectually highly advanced, color-blind martian. I study your brain and completely figure out down to every last detail what happens in your brain—all the physico-chemical events—when you see red light of wavelength 600 and say "red". You know that my scientific description, although complete from my point of view, leaves out something ineffable and essentially non-communicable, namely your actual experience of redness. There is no way you can communicate the ineffable quality of redness to me short of hooking up your brain directly to mine without air waves intervening (Bill Hirstein and I call this the qualia-cable; it will work only if my color blindness is caused by missing receptor pigments in my eye, with brain circuitry for color being intact.) We can define qualia as that aspect of your experience that is left out by me—the color-blind Martian.
Still Paging Mr. Salinger
From The New York Times:
On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.
Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.
More here. (Thanks to Alia Raza)
December 30, 2008
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
Matthew Price in The National:
Like many cultural conventions, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity.
Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote of “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” but that only takes us so far. There is a cloudy, if universal agreement – a convenient fiction, really – that such an elevated category exists, but there are not, and never will be, fixed criteria for determining those books that are entitled to the sobriquet “great”.
Greatness may be bestowed by a kind of collective acclaim, in the accretion of hundreds of years of opinion from critics, academics, writers and thinkers. And it is ultimately the authority of cultural elites that forms the boundaries of what we keep in the canon – by reading it, teaching it, writing about it – and what falls by the wayside. Taking this measure – the wisdom of crowds, if you will – one could define the canon of great books in an expansive sense: it includes those works that have, over time, been esteemed as great. This was the approach taken in 2006 by the New York Times, which polled “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” in an attempt to crown the best American novel of the last quarter-century. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner.) In this conception, the canon is a fluid, living thing: its boundaries ebb and flow as new works emerge and older books fall out of favour.
But this descriptive approach strikes a certain kind of mandarin as far too permissive – and there remains always a temptation to prescribe a list instead: to pin down, once and for all, a definitive and precise list of imperishable works that speak to all ages and eras, monuments of aesthetic accomplishment; not just those books we do still read, but what we should read.
What Babies Tell Us About Cognitive Development, Math and Racism
Doctor Doom: Global Stag-Deflation Has Arrived
The return rate on gifts and the cashing of gift cards is up considerably. Elsewhere holiday gift cards from places like Wal-Mart are increasingly being used for food purchases. Things are looking worse and worse. Roubini in Project Syndicate:
Traditionally, central banks have been the lenders of last resort, but now they are becoming the lenders of first and only resort. As banks curtail lending to each other, to other financial institutions, and to the corporate sector, central banks are becoming the only lenders around.
Likewise, with household consumption and business investment collapsing, governments will soon become the spenders of first and only resort, stimulating demand and rescuing banks, firms, and households. The long-term consequences of the resulting surge in fiscal deficits are serious. If the deficits are monetized by central banks, inflation will follow the short-term deflationary pressures; if they are financed by debt, the long-term solvency of some governments may be at stake unless medium-term fiscal discipline is restored.
Nevertheless, in the short run, very aggressive monetary and fiscal policy actions – both traditional and non-traditional – must be undertaken to ensure that the inevitable stag-deflation of 2009 does not persist into 2010 and beyond. So far, the US response appears to be more aggressive than that of the euro zone, as the European Central Bank falls behind the curve on interest rates and the EU’s fiscal stance remains weak.
Given the severity of this economic and financial crisis, financial markets will not mend for a while. The downside risks to the prices of a wide variety of risky assets (equities, corporate bonds, commodities, housing, and emerging-market asset classes) will remain until there are true signs – towards the end of 2009 – that the global economy may recover in 2010.
Gideon Levy on the Assault on Gaza
Israel did not exhaust the diplomatic processes before embarking yesterday on another dreadful campaign of killing and ruin. The Qassams that rained down on the communities near Gaza turned intolerable, even though they did not sow death. But the response to them needs to be fundamentally different: diplomatic efforts to restore the cease-fire - the same one that was initially breached, one should remember, by Israel when it unnecessarily bombed a tunnel - and then, if those efforts fail, a measured, gradual military response.
But no. It's all or nothing. The IDF launched a war yesterday whose end, as usual, is hoping someone watches over us.
Blood will now flow like water. Besieged and impoverished Gaza, the city of refugees, will pay the main price. But blood will also be unnecessarily spilled on our side. In its foolishness, Hamas brought this on itself and on its people, but this does not excuse Israel's overreaction.
The history of the Middle East is repeating itself with despairing precision. Just the frequency is increasing. If we enjoyed nine years of quiet between the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, now we launch wars every two years. As such, Israel proves that there is no connection between its public relations talking points that speak of peace, and its belligerent conduct.
Israel also proves that it has not internalized the lessons of the previous war. Once again, this war was preceded by a frighteningly uniform public dialogue in which only one voice was heard - that which called for striking, destroying, starving and killing, that which incited and prodded for the commission of war crimes.
We have no words left
Ali Abunimah in The Guardian:
"I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing." Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas "terrorists". In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.
Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the "bigger shoah" Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?
Israel says it is acting in "retaliation" for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people - mostly refugees and children - caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.
Palestine's Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood
Mustafa Barghouti in the Huffington Post:
While Israel has indeed removed the settlements from the tiny coastal Strip, they have in no way ended the occupation. They remained in control of the borders, the airspace and the waterways of Gaza, and have carried out frequent raids and targeted assassinations since the disengagement.
Furthermore, since 2006 Israel has imposed a comprehensive siege on the Strip. For over two years, Gazans have lived on the edge of starvation and without the most basic necessities of human life, such as cooking or heating oil and basic medications. This siege has already caused a humanitarian catastrophe which has only been exacerbated by the dramatic increase in Israeli military aggression.
2. Israel claims that Hamas violated the cease-fire and pulled out of it unilaterally.
Hamas indeed respected their side of the ceasefire, except on those occasions early on when Israel carried out major offensives in the West Bank. In the last two months, the ceasefire broke down with Israelis killing several Palestinians and resulting in the response of Hamas. In other words, Hamas has not carried out an unprovoked attack throughout the period of the cease-fire.
Israel, however, did not live up to any of its obligations of ending the siege and allowing vital humanitarian aid to resume in Gaza. Rather than the average of 450 trucks per day being allowed across the border, on the best days, only eighty have been allowed in - with the border remaining hermetically sealed 70% of the time. Throughout the supposed 'cease-fire' Gazans have been forced to live like animals, with a total of 262 dying due to the inaccessibility of proper medical care.
Real Ways to Stand With the People of Gaza
Tom J in Daily Kos:
1. Stay informed
An increasingly invaluable resource is The Electronic Intifada. Listen to Palestinian voices and solidarity activists who are on the ground in Gaza. Listen to listener sponsored radio, like KPFA. Flashpoints has excellent interviews with people on the ground. You will not hear much from the military generals , for that you have CNN.
2. Donate so that the people of Gaza may live
Israel's starvation "diet" is causing a humanitarian catastrophe, and may actually cause more casualties, in a quiet way, than the US-supplied bombs that fall in city centers in Gaza. Children are especially vulnerable. There is also a dire situation of lack of medical supplies, as Israel restricts the amount of aid allowed into Gaza. Now with thousands of massacre casualties, i can't imagine what this can be like. You can make a difference. Join the Middle East Children's Alliance in sending much needed medical aid to Gaza. It would be cool to let them know Daily Kos sent you.
3. Advocate for a new US policy in the Middle East
Our political work must not end on election nights. Politicians, with few exceptions, will do nothing for human rights unless they are pushed, prodded, and forced to do so. When Congressman Ron Dellums was first elected to Congress, he offered at every congressional session a bill to impose sanctions on the Apartheid system in South Africa. For many years, only a handful of congresspeople joined him. All that changed when a strong movement started on the street demanding change. How much more so is our work needed now for a change in US policy.
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman's hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!
Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!
Salman Rushdie: provoking people is in my DNA
From The Telegraph:
A car pulls up outside a Georgian house in Soho. Out steps Salman Rushdie. He's dressed entirely in black – black overcoat, black scarf, black jacket, black sweater, trousers, shoes... The only thing not completely black is his shirt and that's only because it's got a few white stripes on it. He looks – actually, he looks just like a hit-man. In his hand he carries a polythene bag full of books. When he comes upstairs, I find myself peering through the opaque plastic trying to make out the titles. One of them turns out to be the French version of his last novel, The Enchantress of Florence – now out in paperback. The book, declares Rushdie with satisfaction, has done terrifically well in France, getting 'the sort of rave reviews you find yourself making up in the bath'.
Over here, it had a more mixed reception, but then, as Rushdie says of himself, 'I'm not the sort of writer who ever gets five out of 10 reviews. I tend to get 11 out of 10, or minus one out of 10. That's all right, though; it shows that people are having strong reactions.' The reactions to Rushdie have been so strong in certain sections of the British press that you might expect him to be wary of interviews – hostile even. In fact, he's relaxed, genial and prone to bursts of Mutley-like chuckling. Plopping one Canderel into his cup of tea, he sets his BlackBerry down on the table beside him. Over the next hour it regularly chugs with incoming emails.
Darwin's Living Legacy--Evolutionary Theory 150 Years Later
From Scientific American:
When the 26-year-old Charles Darwin sailed into the Galápagos Islands in 1835 onboard the HMS Beagle, he took little notice of a collection of birds that are now intimately associated with his name. The naturalist, in fact, misclassified as grosbeaks some of the birds that are now known as Darwin’s finches. After Darwin returned to England, ornithologist and artist John Gould began to make illustrations of a group of preserved bird specimens brought back in the Beagle’s hold, and the artist recognized them all to be different species of finches. From Gould’s work, Darwin, the self-taught naturalist, came to understand how the finches’ beak size must have changed over the generations to accommodate differences in the size of seeds or insects consumed on the various islands. “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends,” he noted in The Voyage of The Beagle, published after his return in 1839.
Twenty years later Darwin would translate his understanding of finch adaptation to conditions on different islands into a fully formed theory of evolution, one emphasizing the power of natural selection to ensure that more favorable traits endure in successive generations. Darwin’s theory, core features of which have withstood critical scrutiny from scientific and religious critics, constituted only the starting point for an endlessly rich set of research questions that continue to inspire present-day scientists. Biologists are still seeking experimental results that address how natural selection proceeds at the molecular level—and how it affects the development of new species.
December 29, 2008
This flag of Palestine is here to symbolize our solidarity with the innocents being massacred and maimed in unbelievable numbers in Gaza. All justifications for the brutal Israeli assault are utter nonsense.
Interpretations: Blood Studies
by Anjuli Raza Kolb
For me, moving into adulthood was and continues to be a series of amplifying revulsions as I find out more and more about what goes on in grown-ups’ secret lives. If this sounds peevish and stufepyingly lacking in empathy, it is. But I think it’s the reason that I am especially moved by stories that shuttle us to the outermost limits of what is morally and viscerally incorporable—can I love this person who likes Radiohead (no)? Can I love this person who is deceiving his affianced (yes)? Can I love this person who eats in this fashion, tongue preceding lips and teeth? Whose eyes change color? Who scales ice-cold hospital walls in an unseasonably light nightie with bare feet? Who, in sleepless hungry nights, kills middle-aged men to guzzle their blood and in the ensuing froth might be incapable of not also drinking me dry? Yes please.
Horror stories, and vampire tales in particular, are almost always read according to a series of circulating paranoias that range from the intensely personal to the anxious social. Disquiet about chastity, virginity, invasion of the domestic space, and contagion occupy the more intimate chambers of such paranoias. Xenophobia is one of the most obvious of the latter, more social agitations. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the paradigm for such interpretations, obsessively detailing cultural and psychological difference through letters, physicians’ diaries, shipping bills, and journals. In what is perhaps the imprisoned solicitor Jonathan Harker’s most uncanny discovery in Castle Dracula, he learns that the Count is applying himself rigorously to the study of English culture and idiom, revealing not only the monster’s focus and drive, but also the promise of an unidentifiable and dangerous assimilation about to take place—an intimate and secret invasion that activates all the more personal, antigenic panics on the other end of the spectrum.
What’s interesting to me about vampire stories is how they cut two paths around a particularly feminine adolescent narcissism with which I am uncomfortably familiar. On the front side, they model a generosity of spirit and a maternal instinct that allows especially sensitive, brainy, outsidery beauties to fantasize about what amounts to gestating and/or breast-feeding (neck-feeding? blood-nursing? lactation station at the blood bank?) anemic boys at the expense of their own strength. Like Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, and more recently Stephanie Meyer’s Isabella Swan from the Twilight series, these often-female subjects, defined by their independence and smarts, find themselves moved by the idea of becoming providers, life-lines. The failers-to-thrive they thusly nurse or dream of nursing—and herein lies the seduction for at least a century’s worth of voracious female readers—are paradoxically capable of puncturing the taut skin of their defenses, at throat and hotly thither.
At the back, there’s the promise that whatever ontological distance exists between two people can, if necessity or passion should force our hand, be eliminated by the quick and dirty trick of sharing a blood supply. In other words, a more thanatophilic version of my favorite flea from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets who unites the speaker’s blood with his reluctant lover’s in its promiscuous gut to render them “more than married.” This sanguine exchange is, I think, equally heady to both vampire and victim because for each it can expeditiously turn the other into a version of the self, or at least a separate being infected with the self. Victims become vampires, and vampires make the blood of their prey circulate through their own veins becoming fully inhabited, at least until the next meal—a solution to solitude not entirely different from the tried and true umbilical connection between mother and foetus.
This season has two opposite approaches to bloodsuckers that both feed on their troubled attraction to and repulsion from the strict rules of the genre: Catherine Hardwicke’s record-breaking Twilight and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Both of these movies—one art house camp, one maybe accidentally so—are witty and loving manipulations of the conventions not only of vampire flicks, but also of teen exclusion dramas that end in triumphant normalizing scenes in the gym or at the dance. The relationship they forge to their predecessors is both familiar and estranged, concordant and provocative, not unlike a good and brutal teenage love affair that is always an utterly original repetition.
Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, as visually poetic a film as I’ve seen in a long time, is set on the outskirts of Stockholm and centers on the emotional life of Oskar, an insubstantial and slightly effeminate twelve-year-old bully-target who lives with his single mother. On the other side of Oskar’s bedroom wall is the little vampire Eli and her beleaguered father or guardian, or perhaps former lover, a hunter/bleeder indentured to his “daughter’s” unusual appetites. Eli is starving, a chalk green little girl with stringy black hair running around the snowy courtyard in ratty nightclothes and anachronistic sweaters.
She is overtly different—intense, secretive, solitary—but so is Oskar in his way, and it’s this that binds them to each other. Their friendship is in many ways ordinary. They are close, she disappears, he keeps secrets. She angers and frightens him, he insults her and makes her nervous. They do their awkward distant dance of thinking each other’s thoughts and betraying each other by turns. In one of the film’s most tender moments, Oskar buys Eli some candies. She accepts a tiny wafer wearily to please him, even though she can only eat human blood. Moments later we see her wasting body heaving and vomiting at the bottom of a perfectly still and expansive shot of the back of the candy store. Oskar watches, then hugs her furiously. She asks if he’d still like her if she wasn’t a girl. As a premonition of a future scene of quotidian domestic drama—a girl made sick by an unexpected intimacy, perhaps a pregnancy—it’s about as moving as her many murderous feasts are repellent.
Oskar is not without his own violent vengeful traits, and for him loving Eli is complicated but not impossible. In a film of emotionally distant long shots, Alfredson occasionally fills frames with the pair’s otherworldly faces and steaming breath, as if to suggest the disorienting and uncommon fullness they feel with each other. But eating, marriage, and death rites have long been anthropologist’s most basic ways of describing cultural difference. Eli is unincorporable in all these senses. Oskar slices his hand with his favorite knife—“we’re going to mix!” he says joyously—and she laps his blood off a concrete floor. He accidentally spies her Henry Darger-esque blank genitalia and delivers a satisfyingly cartoonish gasp in response. Like all vampires, she is immortal and doesn’t age. Eli is also starving and poor. As an exhausted and underfed child without a socially acceptable avenue for relief, she’s pushed into dark informal economies of theft and consumption she obviously abhors. Thinking back to Dracula and its legacy, this impoverishment also makes Eli a potentially interesting foil for Sweden’s present population of struggling and monstrously different new arrivals from afar, who new liberal immigration and labor policies have made even more ubiquitous not only in the cities but beyond.
The second paranoiac strains of vampire stories—racial terror and miscegenation-panic—stalk closely behind the xenophobic, but are concerned more with virginity, the erotics of encounter, the swapping of and exposure to bodily fluids, the allure of the stranger or the outsider. Let the Right One In is obsessively concerned with incommensurability—though not in an overtly sexual way, since its lovers are just twelve—but its ending ultimately advances an argument for a generous reaching-across as Oskar smuggles Eli away from her final crime scene in a tiny box aboard a train. Twilight, while it takes the easy out by making its vampire family, the Cullens, “vegetarian” (they only drink the blood of animals), fully wallows in the dangerous sexual politics of mixing, first between boys and girls, and second between girls and vampires. Stephanie Meyer, the author of the novels on which the film was based, has said in an interview that the Book of Mormon is the most significant book in her life, a fact which can’t but have some bearing on the film’s relentless projection of sex as a guarantee for death or—worse!—immortality, which I guess is bad because it’s against God’s plan?
Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, takes some distance from Meyer’s moralizing, but preserves a good deal of the vampire paradox of desire and estrangement, which probably has something to do with the movie’s insane success at the box office, even despite its female fan base, which is not traditionally too reliable. Bella Swan (ha x infinity!) and Edward Cullen find each other in school; she’s the new girl from Arizona, he’s part of a pale-skinned, quiet rebel clan. Everyone thinks he’s fucking hot, in a lupine kind of way. Oh and he’s rich, too. Bella is such a tasty smelling lab-partner that Edward retches and reels. He tries to transfer out of her biology class. After a few lusty looks across the parking lot, he starts turning up to rescue her from assorted perils (a near-rape!) with superhuman strength, pouts, and a fast Volvo. He’s always in the right place at the right time, stalking her, as she points out a heartbeat before she lets herself fall for him.
The story is perfectly vacuous and yet utterly convincing; in part because the film’s cinematography and location in the fog-veiled Pacific Northwest are as lush and as imperfect as Let the Right One In’s are spare and meticulous. Twilight is often sloppy, obvious, it gives itself away, at least on the plot level—it is a parable for the uncontrolled, ill-advised granting of access that teenage girls are always being warned about, which is also why, as a film, it’s a pretty good feminist story. Bella keeps a tenuous hold on control (at least in terms of being eaten), but Hardwicke doesn’t. She drops trou and lets you roam around in the movie, have your way with it.
If Let the Right One In plays with the vampire rules, it does so with ultra-refinement. Vampires must be invited in, or else they begin to seep blood out of their eyes and ears and have to put on a clean dress. Sparkling snowy dusts herald their arrival. Eli is a girl, which seems surprising, but everyone from Stoker to Interview With The Vampire plays with the sexual politics of vampirism too. One of the women who’s been bit by Eli—a leftover—spontaneously combusts in a hospital bed where she’s being treated for what we can only assume is vampirism, given that it’s exposure to the sun that causes her to go up in comic flames. The scene is hilarious, but also cold, ironic, self-referential.
The reason I think Twilight is great is because, in spite of the novel’s annoyingly pious motivation for exploring youthful desire as necessarily non-consummatable and its NONONO stance on interspecies mixing, Hardwicke as a director manages to mix metaphors in a completely unanxious and un-anxiety provoking way. So, as in Let the Right One In, the vampire stuff gets messed around. Hardwicke riffs archly on vampires' non-ageing: Bella notes an art installation of graduation mortarboards in her vampire boyfriend’s house. “We matriculate a lot,” heartthrob vampire says, concisely articulating the total horrorshow/wet dream of being in high school forever. More to the point, though, Hardwicke manipulates teen-movie rules deftly. The final scene finds Bella and Edward at prom—traditionally a Saturnalia of reckoning, revenge, and comeuppance in teen movies. Bella, of course, didn’t even want to attend, but Edward convinces her to go in spite of Officer Swan’s really really menacing discouragements (“Do you have your pepper spray?” hahahaha!) Having survived vampire faceoffs, multi-state chases, and biology field-trips, the too-cool-for-high-school-love-
They dance, in fact, alone in a gazebo, outside of the Casino-themed prom hall, to negotiate a contract of irrevocable possession. Their language throughout the perfectly ordinarily-shot slow dance casts only the most gossamer veil on the hackneyed talk of losing one’s virginity on prom night: Bella asks Edward why, when he had the chance (she was transforming and he had to suck vampire venom out of an open wound in her wrist), he didn’t just let her become a vampire so they could stay together for all eternity? Won’t he just bite her now, commit the crime and imprint the promise it entails? He stalls her at least until the sequel, and she seems hungrily satisfied with his abeyant response. This last exchange, then, embodies the third—the erotic personal level—of vamparanoia I began with: the slow abdominal unseaming that arrives as it becomes clear that the person who loves you is capable of and probably wants to suck every last drop of proper self out of you. That there is a hellish violence being held at bay because you’re so effing special, and also weird enough to be able to speak its language.
Alfredson’s film culminates on this note, too. Eli, who has been gone awhile, rescues Oskar from a near-drowning (he is working out, bulking up in the gym) in a storm of campy gore: from underwater, we see little feet skim the surface of the pool, followed by bullies’ severed limbs, a head, and rusty clouds of blood. Earlier in the film, Eli leaves Oskar a note that reads: “I must be gone and live or stay and die.” Oskar runs away with her anyway, knowing full well that if she’s starving, as she often is, he’d be her only source of food. It is the blatantly erotic, preposterously romantic wish that runs through all these works, and the one Bella delivers with tragic, trite stupidity when she realizes she’s in danger: “I’d rather die than stay away from you.” Ha! Srsly, but. The dialogue in the movie is atrocious.
Still, to want to be a source of sustenance in this self-annihilating way is one of the strangest and earliest experiences we have of the quick-cutting back and forth between being cared for by our parents and falling in love in an exogenous way: something all four of these characters experience. To be held in that suspension for a fictional moment reminds us of the shock and freedom that comes when what we thought was unincorporable becomes suddenly necessary. When my fiancé walked out on me a couple of years ago, he referred me to that other brutal Scandinavian, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in Either/or that when two people fall in love and suspect they are made for each other, the thing is to have the courage to break it off, for by continuing they only have everything to lose and nothing to gain. This kind of sentiment is of course inoperable and infantile. But some skinnier, more roiling part of me maintains a more than academic interest in why it is that me and those innumerable voracious readers of vampiralia want to dwell, as a form of leisure! in that kind of impossible feeling.
What makes both Twilight and Let the Right One In pitch perfect is their undying, unjudging conviction that those desires we nursed in the parking lot by the cafeteria and on moony late night trudges around Walden pond—to love forever and yet be kept apart, to rip to shreds and ingest the pieces of the one we love—are still, with equal parts embarrassment and longing, some of the strongest we get to experience.
Paris, Paranoia, the CIA, Humes
by Bryant Urstadt
Here’s Harold L. Humes again, back from the dead this time, rising from the boiling mists of time like The Swamp Thing, dripping muddy secrets and forgotten brilliance and true madness. Nothing new about that, in a way. He was always showing up with his own invite, overstaying a welcome he had extended to himself. His appearance in a PBS documentary making the rounds of local public stations this winter is among the least strange of his drop-ins.
He appeared at James Jones’ funeral in 1978, with a boulder in the back of his station wagon, which required three men to unload. Jones was the author of From Here to Eternity, just the kind of bright literary lamp Humes would introduce himself to when he was alive. The boulder is still on the lawn in Bridgehampton. Fine, but… Humes had never met Jones.
He showed up at Random House in the mid-Fifties with a stellar novel, just moved in with his manuscript and his toothbrush and his motorcycle, which he wheeled into the lobby of the office of founder Bennett Cerf, when Random was located in the more motorcycle-friendly Villard Mansion, just behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue.
“You didn’t just meet Humes,” remembers Random House editor Bob Loomis, who edited Humes’ second novel, Men Die.
Loomis, now 80, is the embodiment of the legend of Random, having worked with everyone from William Styron to Toni Morrison, and he lobbied hard within Random to allow for last springs’ reissue of Men Die and Humes’ longer, better novel The Underground City. “He kind of entered your life. He used to sleep in our offices. He helped me move. He just became part of your day.”
Humes swept into the cafes of Paris in the late forties and early fifties, inserting himself into a crowd that included Irwin Shaw, James Baldwin, and everyone else, it sometimes seemed, who would otherwise have been living in Greenwich Village. Humes was at Le Dome in Paris one night in 1951, probably wearing the black velvet cape and carrying the silver-handled cane for which he became known in those days, tapping a 24-year-old Peter Matthiessen on the shoulder and introducing himself, and soon after teaming up with him to start Paris Review.
And now Humes, dead for 16 years, crashes 2008, his books up for reevaluation after forty years in the cooler of history; the subject of Doc, the documentary by daughter Immy Humes; and shedding awkward news about Matthiessen, who used Humes and their Paris Review as a front for his work with the CIA. (It was deeper than that, of course; in a way, it can be argued that Matthiessen was using the CIA as a front for living as a novelist in Paris.) Humes now is a weird Banquo pounding the literary table, asking us to listen, listen, to the story of his life, his work, and the birth of one of the country’s most important literary magazines.
Humes was called “Doc” for most of life, a nickname he was given by his high school classmates in Princeton. He earned it by being smarter than everyone else, and most everyone who knew him has described him, roughly, as an infuriating genius. He went on to MIT, but dropped out after two years, spent some time in the Navy, and ended up working for the Marshall Plan in Paris in 1948, which led him directly into the second great migration of Americans to Paris, the cafes and then to Matthiessen, whom he recruited as the literary editor for a magazine he had just started, the Paris News Post. It has been described as a “fourth-rate” version of the New Yorker, and by Matthiessen himself as a Parisian version of Cue, the old listings magazine which was eventually folded into the back pages of New York. But it was more than that, with its own charm and style, and a distinctly literary bent. At some point, the two decided to start a second, less mundane magazine, and drew up plans for the Paris Review.
Humes and Matthiessen began work in earnest over the summer of 1952, drafting Plimpton, who had gone to grade school with Matthiessen at St. Bernard’s in New York. Plimpton came over with his own cape and a tiny fedora and everything else that would set him atop New York’s social world for the next fifty years. Humes, true to himself—infuriating and a genius—rather than buckling down to the work of laying out a magazine, took off for a sojourn in a villa with girls in the south of France with William Styron while Plimpton, Matthiessen, and others sweated out the details of the first issue. Humes took the magazine’s typewriter with him, too, leaving Matthiessen to complain frequently in handwritten notes that he was running a magazine with no typewriter. And then Humes went off to Harvard, to study literature with Archibald MacLeish.
Humes’s disappearance, among other things, temporarily lost him his spot on the masthead, and the magazine would take off without him. It was a stellar first issue, like one of those fireworks whose tracers reach far from the initial explosion. Within the pages of that first issue was a tremendous display of talent, almost too much to list, but including William Styron, Donald Hall, Terry Southern, Robert Bly, Matthiessen, of course, and finally, Plimpton, the longtime editor, and one of a handful of American writers to step into the imagination of the general public.
Plimpton, Matthiessen, and the others involved have offered many stories over the years about who really came up with the idea for the Paris Review, but none is as odd as the description offered by Humes himself in a letter which has sat for more than fifty years in an envelope marked “Private.” It’s at the back of a box marked “unprocessed” in the Morgan Library, which took ownership of the complete files of the Review in 1999 and 2005.
In the letter, dated February 25, 1953, Humes argues that the Review was his idea from the start, challenging Plimpton to check with James Baldwin, with whom he discussed it in the summer of 1950 at the Metro Café on the Rue de Four, a year before Matthiessen would arrive. Humes not only claims that the magazine was his idea alone, but that he caused Matthiessen to suggest to him. It takes a little explaining, a task Humes never seemed to duck. In his letter, he describes some management techniques he had learned while working for William Sheppard on the Marshall Plan in Paris. Among “Sheppard’s Rules” were instructions on how to convince colleagues to advance your own ideas as theirs. Humes claims he worked on Matthiessen in this regard for some time, writing, “Do you think it is an easy thing to build up steam for the idea of the Paris-American Review in Peter Matthiessen’s cold, New England boilers?” and then reaching a fever pitch:
“No one can know the organizing dream, the planning, the scheming, the long conversations, the step-by-step learning, which had to precede the event. No one ever saw me step into the dark street and click my heels in the air in a mad little dance one morning at 5 a.m. That was the night that Peter had first suggested that maybe we should junk the Paris News Post and start a new magazine…. I played reluctant, unconvinced. It was necessary – for Peter to convince me, before he’d really convinced himself.”
In the letter, he offers as proof the fact that he registered the name the Paris American Review with the French publishing authorities on October 3, 1951, and there is in fact a little document, all neat and French, containing the “official” declaration of “un journal ayant pour titre PARIS-AMERICAN REVIEW,” and registered to Humes himself.
Adding a penthouse to the many floors of manipulation was the fact that Peter Matthiessen had arrived in Paris as a new CIA recruit, something Matthiessen hasn’t spoken about publicly about until Immy Humes “cajoled” him into doing so. There were times when his silence might have been a practical decision: While working on his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which argued for the overturn of the decision against Leonard Peltier, the Native American serving two life terms for the murder of two FBI agents, Matthiessen certainly would not have been helped with the ghost of a CIA badge around his neck. But discussing the CIA may have been personally difficult as well, for he had been working undercover alongside a close friend with an historic case of paranoia, and it created an unsolvable problem.
When they first met, Matthiessen was looking for cover, and likely primed for Humes’ developed techniques of suggestion. The Paris News Post had been an adequate start, but the Paris Review would be much better. “It strengthened the cover I was supposed to set up,” he told me from his home in Sagaponack. “I had been using the Paris News Post but it was shaky. I was looking for something more stable.”
Matthiessen had graduated in 1948 from Yale, the veritable birthplace of the CIA, where he was recruited by a graduate school professor. Many of his classmates had joined, and it was, as he notes in the movie, “kind of the thing to do.” He lasted about two years, writing up reports on activity in the city. Matthiessen quit the CIA “abruptly” in March of 1953, having been asked to befriend and inform on several figures in the French intellectual left. “It was no go. My politics were veering left and fast,” Matthiessen told me. “I wasn’t sympathetic, and they couldn’t trust me anymore.” As for Humes, who, as his letter suggests, was a conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, he would not find out about Matthiessen’s role until the worst possible time, during a nervous breakdown twelve years later.
Over two years in the late fifties, Doc banged out two novels that excuse much of his later antics. He wrote the first, The Underground City, in 1957. Set amid the French Resistance during and just after the second World War, it at times digresses in a way that would impress a subway preacher, but it is, overall, the kind of book that ones finishes and closes with the satisfaction of having lived through something, from hiding out in basements to ambushing German prison guards to burying an armored car to waiting in a dark field for a shipment of arms to arrive by plane. It is also filled with conflicting loyalties, cross-purposes, deceptive behavior and conspiracy.
As Matthiessen told me, Humes wrote it on a dare, in about two months. “He had showed up at my house, unannounced, as he often did, and he was ranting about literature. I challenged him, saying ‘Why don’t you write your own book?’” and he said, ‘Well, Goddamn it, I will,’ and about two months later he was at Bennett Cerf’s office saying you had better read this book, because it’s brilliant.”
It is a particularly astonishing feat due to the book’s length, an imposing and practically archaic 755 pages. “I don’t know how he did it,” says Matthiessen, “unless he had been secretly typing on the side. He might have been. He loved that kind of thing. He loved staging things.”
The novel appeared to incredible response. Random House told Humes that it was the most widely-read and best-received debut novel they had published. (It is a poignant requiem for letters in America to page through Immy Humes’ scrapbook of clipped reviews, with tiny papers across the nation publishing their own opinions on the literature of their time.) Men Die, a smaller but nearly as accomplished book about doomed men building an arms cache on an island during the War, appeared the next year, also to acclaim. It also marked the end of Humes’s literary career.
Humes cracked up in 1965, and afterwards claimed that even trying to write made him ill. There was never another finished novel. In the years before his breakdown, however, Humes had been everywhere. He managed Norman Mailer’s first aborted campaign for mayor, and was in the kitchen the night Mailer stabbed his wife. He built a paper house of his own design at George Plimpton’s parents house in Huntington – cheap and weather-resistant, it was meant to house the poor. He prepared a wooden boat for an ocean crossing. He had four daughters, including Immy. But paranoia, always a part of his personality, was expanding its hold, taking over after Timothy Leary—with whom he had been doing acid since Harvard—left Humes alone in a house in London with way too much LSD. Acid was a subject Humes took seriously. He kept notes of his “research” with the drug, even taking the addled care to note that the research had gone way out of control. He began talking to the Queen, through his bedpost, which he believed was bugged. He was sure he was being watched. Institutionalized, he would tell friends in confidence that he had averted a world war by mediating talks between the CIA and the KGB via a tabletop radio.
Matthiessen and Humes had grown close over the years, but with a conspiracy-obsessed friend desperately in need of help, he was in a bind. Humes was suffering from delusions that might have been right for the wrong reasons, and Matthiessen naturally imagined that the only thing worse than telling him might have been him finding out some other way. Matthiessen had told Plimpton years earlier about his involvement with the agency, and feels it really shook him.
“George was outraged,” Matthiessen told me. “Here was his baby and it turns out to be a front.” In any event, Matthiessen and Plimpton agreed at that time, according to Matthiessen, that Humes “simply could not handle it.”
Even after decades, Plimpton seems uneasy discussing the matter in the film. “None of us knew,” says Plimpton, “that the magazine was….” he pauses, clearly at a loss and goes on to say, “I guess some people might call it a front.”
When Humes broke down, Matthiessen and Plimpton discussed again what to do about their friend, and agreed that it would be best to tell him, as a way of clearing a way toward Humes’ recovery. It was a hard decision and turned out perhaps only a little better than the alternative.
Or as Plimpton puts it in the film, “It was the worst conceivable therapy.”
“It didn’t help,” Matthiessen told me, in response to Immy’s film, which he feels places too much blame on him for Humes’ breakdown, “but it didn’t hurt either. He had already been institutionalized. I remember telling him as we walked down a London street. I remember the scene so well. ‘I want to tell you something,’ I said. I think he already knew. We had a very agreeable evening afterwards. He came back to my hotel room and spent the night. I suggested he take a bath, which he sorely needed, and he did. But he wasn’t outraged. George says that he was outraged, I guess this was George’s way of expressing outrage. He was the outraged one.”
There may have been enough outrage to go around, however, and enough generosity on all sides to somehow accept it. In a letter owned by Immy Humes, Doc Humes wrote Plimpton in March of 1966, letting him know what Peter told him, and threatening to resign unless Matthiessen publicly confessed, writing: “Since this was apparently a formal arrangement, involving his being trained in a New York safe house and being paid through a cover name… our hapless magazine was created and used as an engine in the damned cold war… It still shocks me that Peter, again in his own words, used you as he used me and frankly I am still sore as hell about it. More precisely, I’m hurt….”
And yet Humes, as Matthiessen argues, seems to have taken his comments in stride, writing, “far from blaming Peter I think at this juncture he deserves full marks for having had the guts to speak up.”
Plimpton would write a calming letter to Humes in response, sprinkling it liberally with soothing charm, pleading that Humes not resign, unless it was over the poetry, which, he admitted, had seemed bad lately, and noted that he didn’t accept resignations anyway.
CIA rumors would dog the Review for years, far out of proportion to the magazine’s actual participation in any “missions.” As late as the anniversary issue in 1980, Plimpton was still dispelling the notion that the Review had been a tool of the CIA. And in fact it was not, in the sense that the CIA had or cared to have any control over its content. It merely allowed Matthiessen to continue work for a style of government he would later, as a mature and important American writer, struggle against.
Humes would never be the same. He never wrote again, for all practical purposes, and his ideas flowed with equal intensity but lesser relevance. He became a student of massage as a cure for everything, up to and including heroin addiction. He grew a Methuselah beard and became an apostle of pot. He embarked on a fifteen year long talking tour of the campuses of the northeast, finding an ear in the students of the early seventies, who were at a high point in history for their tolerance of esoteric anti-establishment jibber-jabber. With two of these students, he a son; that is, two sons of two different students. He saw his daughters irregularly. When he inherited a few thousand dollars from his father in 1969, he gave it away on the Columbia campus in fifties and hundreds, hoping to bring down capitalism by overwhelming it with irrational and inefficient generosity, or something like that. Columbia would ask him to leave. He moved up to Harvard, producing long answers to questions no one had asked. He interpreted cloud formations and described international cabals of scientists. Harvard would ask him to leave. He blamed that on the C.I.A. He died of prostate cancer at a rest home in New York in 1992.
Humes has been gone for years, but the Review survives. It has even flourished of late, under editor Philip Gourevitch, who took over in 2004. Circulation has doubled, to nearly 15,000, and a redesign, more faithful in many ways to the earliest issues, has created a magazine as pleasant to hold as to read. The offices have moved from Plimpton’s apartment to a business-like loft in SoHo.
Plimpton is gone, too, of course, leaving behind numberless bookworms who saw his death as particularly sad, as it meant they would never be able to attend one of his legendary parties. There is a young group trying to get a statue of him built somewhere in the city. Not long before his death, Plimpton called the Paris Review the best thing to ever happen to him, and he certainly would be diminished, and perhaps even largely forgotten, had he merely been a writer of funny sports books, fine as they are.
In a way, Humes is like the Tim Paterson of literature. Very few have heard of Tim Paterson. He sold an operating system to Bill Gates in 1980, who needed something for IBM, with whom he had just signed a contract to supply the software which most of us use today. Humes gave birth to an institution, too, and like Paterson, Humes held the door open to history for many, but will likely never pass through himself. It’s good to see him again, if only for a short time.
What shall the meek inherit? The case of Guinea
"The natives are restless" -- I used to get indignant when I heard that paternalistic, sometimes cynical phrase. Now I try to smile. For one, I hear it a lot in my line of work, and it gets tiresome to always think ill of someone whose diction deceives her intentions. But mostly I smile because I want the cliché to mean something else, a portent for positive change, the end of calamitous rule, a new era for the meek. So when the meek turn restless, it should mean that justice is around the corner.
With last week's passing of Guinea's senile dictator, Lansana Conté, and the military coup that followed, the country is marking no deviation from a well-rehearsed choreography, enacted repeatedly since independence from the French in 1958. The dance moves are economical, simple for new generations of political elites to learn.
A leader emerges, accedes power bolstered by populist rhetoric, buys off the military, installs single-party rule. Cronyism flourishes, rule of law evaporates, the military shores up the trappings of statehood. Decades pass; the population languishes. Leader then dies, military resumes control until a new leader-puppet is found. For nine million Guineans, the spectacle and squalor continue.
Conté down for the count
Conté belonged to a dwindling species of wizened and paranoid leaders-for-life, whose ranks include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Bongo of Gabon. Once hailed as liberators and visionaries, they became pathetic parables of 'absolute power corrupting absolutely'. The psychological path from flamboyant liberator to murderous despot is dramatic stuff, and was ably fictionalized in The Last King of Scotland. An excellent non-fiction account of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rise and fall is Mobutu, Roi du Zaire, by Thierry Michel.
Not so for Conté. A diabetic chain-smoker who rarely appeared in public, Conté was a garden-variety despot whose life and career will be quickly forgotten, even by Guineans. In the murky hours after Conté’s death, a military junta declared power. Western powers demanded an immediate return to civilian rule; a rote bit of finger wagging that has surely never produced a single result.
Alluding to the high propensity for carnage in this West African neighborhood, Senegalese President Wade recently appealed for acceptance of Guinea’s new military junta. Although highly predatory and wholly opportunistic, the Guinean national military arguably prevented the country from sliding into the chaos of its neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, for whom Guinea served for years as a place of refuge.
The intent of Wade’s appeal is ambiguous. Another leader-for-life in the making and no friend of opposition parties or the free press, Wade's point may be that civilian rule and democracy are over-rated, and that in such places security is primordial. He may also be a proponent of 'negative solidarity', as my Burundian friends call it, between African leaders who defend one another till the bitter end. Witness the deafening silence from African leaders regarding Mugabe.
Amazonian propaganda and guided missiles
Still, it is all deeply disappointing and predictable. Decades of syphilitic, jack-booted rule finally falls flat in the dust, and a unified populace stares blankly while an army faction takes control. Is it that foreign occupiers are enough to mobilize popular resistance (e.g., anti-colonialism) but when the oppressor is your brother you sit on your hands?
Compared to the colonial era, today’s absence of constructive, popular political agency in the world’s poorest countries is mystifying and exasperating. Back then, Sekou Toure led Guinea to independence and stood proud on the world stage, with adulation from Kennedy and visits from Castro.
[ST’s political compass is clear in these photos: star worship for Castro and distraction with Kennedy.]
Like Mugabe and other liberators, it didn’t take long for Sekou Toure to relish the pleasures of despotism. Conté took him down in 1984 and lived to repeat the tale. Sekou Toure did leave one legacy of note, a massive musical propaganda machine, similar to that created and cultivated by Mobutu in Zaire. Of the dozens of propaganda bands still playing in Guinea, most notable are the Amazones de Guinée, an all female troupe pictured here.
A tidy description of all these different bands, with audio/video footage, can be found here.
Today, any damn idiot can fill a political vacuum in a place like Guinea, and there are dozens of Guineas in Africa. Coups flourish, generally over control of resources, led by marginalized power bases organized along ethnic lines. Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, wrote an op-ed earlier this year “in praise of coups,” suggesting that the West get back to its once successful business of engineering political putsches where it needed an ally. Only this time, Collier argued, we should do it in favor of better governance by capable partners, and put an end to kleptocracies run by mandarins-cum-raving despots.
Responses to the article were predictable: a fantastical notion; there are no such ‘guided missiles’ in politics. As a dream, though, I understand the appeal of Collier’s idea. Social engineering doesn’t sound so evil when the outcome is a guaranteed net gain. And most people grasp that freedom without structure is a desert, so they might welcome the trade-off. For the meek who get nothing and have nothing, I wonder what they might say to Collier, or anyone who just wants Africa to work.
Like me, Joe Plumbers in Africa want little to do with politics; they just want politicians to do their jobs. Their government’s failings are not their own. So when the ship starts sinking, no one’s interested in going down with it. Who would be? That’s when the jack-boots and ammo cartridges are at their most frenzied.
The Jennifer Aniston in All of Us
by Jeff Strabone
It would be easy to laugh off Jennifer Aniston's problems. She's rich, famous, and able to have her pick of nearly all the men of the world and all the scripts of Hollywood. And what she's famous for is being funny. Her television sitcom ran for ten years, her movie comedies are big money-makers, and, for what it's worth, there was even a hairstyle named after one of her characters. But something about her disturbs me deeply. To put it simply, Jennifer Aniston represents one of the worst traits of the human race: the inability to forget.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote important statements on forgetting, but I prefer the simplicity of Rodgers and Hart's 1935 classic 'It's Easy to Remember'. Imagine it in Frank Sinatra's 1957 recording on his Close to You LP, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle:
Your sweet expression,
The smile you gave me,
The way you looked when we met,
It's easy to remember, but so hard to forget.
I hear you whisper,
'I'll always love you.'
I know it's over and yet,
It's easy to remember, but so hard to forget.
It is hard to forget, and all the more so when we fight it. Who wants to forget the way a lover's skin tastes, or the sounds she made, once the relationship ends and those sensations are no longer possible? Perhaps one reason we resist forgetting lovers, the special ones at least, is that we come to believe that we were better people with that person than we could be otherwise. It's not so much about losing them as it is about losing all that we were when we loved them. Without that special object of our affection, we fear lapsing into a heap of selfishness again.
But what if we had stayed together? Wouldn't we change anyway? Wouldn't we eventually forget, to paraphrase another great song from the 30's, why we ever tolerated the way he held his knife or the way she insisted on dancing 'til three? Love, unlike television, should not go out on a high note. When it does, it creates the illusion that one's bliss would have known no vicissitudes and that it can never be matched. Only by forgetting can we make ourselves available to what may come next and what, however inconceivable, may be even better.
For all the claims about the value and necessity of forgetting, there is also a counter-tradition that says, 'Never forget', a phrase that has become an anti-genocide and anti- terrorism refrain. Google yielded 1,730,000 hits when I searched for 'never forget' and '9/11'. There is a lot invested in never forgetting—monuments, museums, foundations—with the hope that appropriate commemoration will somehow prevent repetition. I leave it to the reader to decide how well we are succeeding in that regard.
Despite the imperative of 'Never forget', most of what we do after a large-scale trauma is designed to make us forget the intensity of our suffering. The point of war crimes tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions is to enable societies to feel a sense of closure and to move on. Laws are written, courts convened, judgments passed, and justice served so that we can forget the screaming barbarity of having to endure acute injustice. Even without justice, forgetting brings relief. Could any New Yorker go on living here without forgetting what September 11, 2001 felt like? It would be debilitating to freak out every time an aeroplane flies overhead. I knew that I had begun forgetting when I noticed that I had stopped noticing the city's sirens.
Is it facile to talk about forgetting love affairs in the same breath as genocides and mass murder? Alain Resnais did it to profound effect in his impossibly great film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Written by Marguerite Duras, it is one of the few monuments to forgetting. In my own life, it was the film that showed me, a few heartbreaks ago, that what we must do in the event of emergency is to break the glass of memory.
In the film, Emmanuelle Riva's unnamed character says: 'Just as the illusion exists in love, the illusion you can never forget, so I was under the illusion I would never forget Hiroshima. Just like with love.' How sad she was, as an eighteen-year-old Française in love with a young German occupier, when her town was liberated and her lover shot dead. The only way to move on was to forget, just as she will inevitably forget her romantic encounter fourteen years later in Hiroshima: 'Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents. Otherwise we'd suffocate.'
In our era of modern psychology, we underestimate the value of forgetting, and not just forgetting but repression, too. Repression got a bad rap in the twentieth century, yet it is a valid strategy for dealing with the things one cannot change. Today, repression is a defense mechanism in need of a strong defense.
What is Jennifer Aniston's connection to all of this? She wears her inability to forget like a second skin, even when she's baring her first skin to the world. At this point, my primary association with her is that her husband, Brad Pitt, dumped her nearly four years ago and that she still talks about it. Even when posing for the January 2009 issue of GQ magazine with nothing but a smile and a necktie, she seems to be saying, Watch me smile through the pain of losing my husband to Angelina Jolie. It doesn't bother me one bit, as you can clearly see in the exaggerated smile I have forced upon my face.
Aniston filed for divorce in early 2005, yet the causes and circumstances are still fresh on her mind. GQ interviewer Mark Kirby tells us that when he asked her about a recent, fairly benign remark by Jolie,
It takes her seven days to fully answer. First she says, "Well, you know, that was definitely a confirmation for me of something that wasn't quite confirmed at the time. But listen…you sit there and you… No. No daggers through the heart. I laugh. Am I surprised? Well, how do I say this?" Then she goes off-the-record for several minutes. Finally, a week later, she calls to deliver an on-the-record statement that's brief but not without bite: "Considering the source, nothing surprises me." She then spends a good deal of time talking about how hard she's finding it to talk about Jolie after years of silence, this despite having given her now infamous (if hilariously understated) "That was really uncool" comment to Vogue a few weeks earlier.
What is really uncool is clinging to heartbreak and suffering, but can we help it? Kierkegaard said in Either/Or that forgetting is an 'art that must be practiced beforehand'. On the same subject, Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals that
it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration.
The case of Jennifer Aniston shows us the shortcomings of both statements, for no matter how much we practice Kierkegaard's 'art' and no matter how universal Nietzsche's 'ability' or 'capacity' may be, we may not have that capacity when we need it most. And if that happens, we will be helpless.
There seems to be little rhyme or reason to what we can forget and what we can't. What accounts for the difference? There are cases all around us, and in our own experience perhaps, of the things we most needed to forget and simply could not. Some people have walked away from the horrors of war with hardly a mental scratch while others have collapsed irrecoverably from a dashed romantic hope, and vice versa. As much as we need to forget some things and as hard as we try, there is no telling which things any one individual will be utterly unable to forget.
Who has more opportunity and resources to aid forgetting than Jennifer Aniston? Yet she is the case par excellence of the inability to forget. It's depressing to know that, when we need that capacity or art or whatever it is, it may not be there. Does each of us have a peculiar susceptibility that only wants the proper event to break us for good?
What will Jennifer Aniston's story turn out to be? Will it be a Humpty Dumpty narrative where all the Vince Vaughns and all the John Mayers cannot put Jen back together again? What makes the difference between recovering from one trauma and not another? Why do we remember some things and forget others?
The spectacle of Aniston's suffering raises all of these questions. We miss a valuable opportunity to reflect on our nature by mistaking her drama for a common tabloid row. Her case poses important questions, possibly unanswerable, that remind us of our own helplessness in the face of the unforgettable, however peculiar it may be.
The more I think about it, the scarier it gets. With all that we know about memory and forgetting, we have little control over either. I hope that Jennifer Aniston gets over her lost love and finds a new one. If the tabloids and gossip magazines are to be believed, she's clearly trying but to no avail thus far. If she prevails, by finding a new love and forgetting the old—which can be measured by the Billy Bob test, i.e., never griping about one's past husband—it may simply be her good fortune and nothing more. Trying has not made the difference, and that's what's really scary. Some things we just don't get over and some things we do. As much as we need the gift of comedy, perhaps Jennifer Aniston's greatest gift to the world will prove to be the example of her suffering and what it can teach us about ourselves.
Shirin Neshat. Rapture. 1999.
In Another city another me is writing; Another thought is unwinding
In Another city another me is writing; Another thought is unwinding.
When we think of minds we think of intentions. Intentions that lie behind acts, acts that unfold at the recourse of agents: agents with minds. In short, when we look out at the world we see objects that are acted upon and entities that do the acting. This clear cut distinction between the 'done upon' and the 'doer' appears stable, but it hides one of the mightiest constraints of our world view. A logical stand-off that threatens to undermine the logical systems upon which it is based.
In Another city all matter pulses like a living organ, where time imposes significance upon the most dilapidated dwelling or murky gutter.
Take this article, for example. It is an unwinding spring of phonic sounds, encoded into a series of arbitrary symbols, stretching from left to right within an imaginary frame projected onto the surface of your computer screen. Here lies the perfect example of an artefact with intention behind it. A series of artefacts in fact, positioned by my mind and placed within a certain context (i.e. 3QD: a fascinating and widely read blog). As a collection, as an article, its intention is easy to distinguish. I wanted to say something, so I wrote an article, which I hoped would be read by a certain audience. But what of the intention of each individual object within the whole? What was the original intention of the letter 'A' for example? Do we decide that the intention is connected to all speakers of the English language, perhaps? Or maybe all literate members of the human race? Or maybe the human race as a whole?
Another city begins at the out-stretched tip of a human finger and ends as artefacts gathered from the dust. It is a spider-web, a precious ball of dung, a bare and crimson backside glinting in the jungle sun.
It would be short-sighted to claim that the letter 'A' is intention-less. At some point the shape of the letter 'A' was attached to the phonic value for the sound 'ay'. At some point the letter 'A' was placed at the front of a 26 letter string of arbitrary symbols. A separate, but connected artefact, later to be called 'The Alphabet'. There was intention behind these acts, and these acts were perpetrated by people or persons who - we hope - believed that their decisive acts mattered. The difference between my artifact - the one you now find yourself reading - and the letter 'A' is one of time, distance and - most importantly - appropriation. The alphabet is omnipresent, it is everyone's. It has become disconnected from the very idea of mind and intention. We have appropriated it into our sense of what being human is; into the scaffolding of our reality. Of course we still have to learn how to read, whether it be with the Western syllabic alphabet or the Chinese pictographic/logographic system. But we treat our writing system as an extension of language, of ourselves, and we do this quite naturally. For not one second do we question the intention behind the alphabet, even less so the letter 'A'.
Another city is more than a place; a space; a vision. Another city is a mechanism; a grand technology; a thought unwinding. Where the sum of human knowledge may be travelled, mapped or conquered; where one may lose one's way.
The letter 'A' is part of the thinking apparatus of every person reading this article. It is a portion of every mind which understands in English, and countless billions of other minds for whom the Latin alphabet is their foremost mode of representing language. It is an artefact of our minds, our culture, of where the human ends and the world begins. Mundane artefacts such as the letter 'A', clothes or statues and more complex artefacts such as laws, dreams or cities are all becoming of our identities. Each artefact was manifest by a mind or by minds, and each artefact is incorporate in the pattern of our thoughts. To consider myself in a modern manner I usually consider myself as a free individual. One with rights, one whose separateness matters. But could I have conceived of this identity without the modern laws of the state? Without a law of human rights one has no apparatus upon which to consider oneself as capable of rights. Human rights were conceived of, they were drafted and manifested. Now they ebb and flow as part of our thoughts. They were thought of; they think us; we think through them.
In Another city thought is studied by cartographers, whose intricate maps plot out the lay of love and location of doubt. It is considered dangerous to daydream, in Another city, in case a highway transforms into a mountain, or a rail station folds away to reveal a giant oak - its roots impelled to strangle the loiterers on platform 13.
To grasp ourselves as composite wholes we need to incorporate our material culture inside ourselves. My mind may begin at the base of my spine - an emergent consequence of a four pound lump of inert matter encased inside a calcium shell - but it ends far beyond the limits of my body. I think with the Hubble Telescope's latest image, a foaming cloud of hydrogen gas 200 light years across and over a million light years away. I conceive with the substance of my DNA. A string of amino acids, conceived and mapped by computers, laboratories and a million scientists - their collective work affecting me from a past before my birth. The article I now write exists at the tethered end of my extended mind: a writing desk, a notepad, a computer, a piece of software and my fingers tapping the letter 'A', tapping into the material mind of my surroundings. How this article affects your mind depends upon the material world you encounter it through. The cultural and material world that made our minds now exists within them, and our minds, interacting with the cultural and material world, span outwards via every act we intend and every intention we act. Each artefact is a thought; each thought and act another artefact.
Another city has never been designed. It will never exist as a single place which one may visit. Six billion inhabitants move through Another city; six billion notions; six billion minds; six billion cities striving beyond the map towards the whole.
(At present) Western science and philosophy is limited by its own structure. In science every premise precedes a conclusion, every cause has its effect, every effect is - by definition - predictable. Yet to understand the realm of the atom science has had to break with its tradition, to posit a world where cause may have no effect; a world where intentions may change the very thing being acted upon. Quantum physicists speak a language of riddles, as regards the rhetoric of Western rationalism. The quantum physicist may peer upon one half of a pair of entangled atoms and instantly impact upon its other half: a separate atom located a thousand miles away. This kind of "action at a distance" appears to break the standard laws of physics (Einstein was famously flummoxed by it). Yet action at a distance is a consequence of the very sort of extended mind I have been talking about. A sort of mind that need only be considered in a slightly different way. A world full of artefacts that are always connected to intentions.
Another City speaks for all Other cities. It warns that one will always stand at the city’s centre; that to build the horizon is impossible. It begs its reader to consider every city a universe; to posit the universe itself as a vast metropolis without end. It asks that each imagined city be explored, not merely imagined. And that as each Another city is traversed, one must lay a golden trail of thread.
The Leftist and The Leader
An imagined conversation between Tariq Ali and Benazir Bhutto.
By Maniza Naqvi
Act I: The Leftist and the Leader:
Scene/Stage: There is a screen at the back of the stage which plays the clip, of General Zia-ul-Haq, declaring Martial Law, on July 5, 1977.
When the speech ends, two spot lights have searched, found and trained themselves on two people on the stage. Two actors playing Tariq Ali and Benazir Bhutto stand a couple of feet apart from each other. They are a young Tariq Ali, in jeans and a young Benazir Bhutto also in jeans. Tariq Ali, stands, legs apart, and grabs his head in anger and frustration. Benazir crouches---holds her head and then reaches out her arms as though reaching for someone in grief and pain.
Lights go up. In the middle of the stage, there are two podiums at a short distance from one another. Tariq Ali stands at one and Benazir at the other. Benazir wears a white dupatta covering her head –and a green colored shalwar-kameez. Tariq Ali is dressed the same way as before, in jeans. They have their backs to the audience and they face two screens at the back of the stage. In the foreground there is a single chair.
The screen in front of Benazir shows one of her typical political rallies. There are massive jubilant crowds of people waving banners and chanting slogans. The screen in front of Tariq Ali shows either a clip of a talk, or Tariq Ali leading the February 2003 anti war demonstrations.
There is the sound of people cheering and shouting her name. Her fists punch the air she makes movements that show that she is delivering an impassioned speech. There are cheers and slogans in both crowds. Benazir and Tariq Ali turn away from the screens and look at the audience and then turn around to face each other. They stand for a moment just looking at each other. Benazir adjusts her dupatta, in her characteristic way with both her hands. She moves forward away from the podium waving. A flash goes off-from a camera—then another and another. With each pop of the flash, the sound gets louder, till it segues into the sounds of explosions and gunshots.
Tariq Ali on his side of the stage instinctively ducks. Sound dies. Silence.
Benazir stands straight and still—---She leaves the podium and makes her way to a chair in the foreground of the stage. Tariq Ali, shakes his head as he watches her go. He stays where he is but reaches out one arm in a futile gesture of trying to reach out to catch her. Then he stands his head bowed for a moment (a longish moment) before he looks across at her. He approaches her and stands gazing at her. She looks at him.
TA: Take that damn thing of your head, will you. Why do you wear it?
BB: (She looks at him slides it back from her head and smiles, and says in a forlorn voice): I’m afraid they won’t recognize me without it.
TA: Would you?
BB: You have the white head of hair—I have the white scarf---Moses and the Madonna.
BB: Why don’t you cut that gorgeous shock of white hair-- that instant gravitas? And while you’re at it, shave the macho moustache!
TA: You know what I mean.
BB: No, I don’t! It’s branding—It makes us look wise. Virtuous. Interesting—Believable. Worship-able. Adorable.
TA: Hypocrisy. Tarting it up.
BB: Tarting it up! (she laughs) Yes! The camera loves it—Loves me! Just as much me as it does you. Am I right? C’mon give me this. You know I’m on to something. Tariq, there were thousands of people marching with you when you got started in University in Lahore and then back in 1967 when you protested against the Vietnam war outside the American Embassy in London. How come it’s your photographs that are its icons? Why not someone else’s photo?
TA: (grins) Hmmm You could be-----, right, well yes, you could be. Alright. Right.
BB: Tell me, don’t you worry just a bit that if you were to go bald-they may not listen?
TA: You’ve changed.
TA: You were just a kid then……..
BB: Yes—but I had to grow up fast.
TA: Remember that tiny flat in London? Where we would endlessly discuss the future of the country?
BB: Remember all the tea I made and the keema?
TA: I gave you lectures. And, you agreed with everything I said. You agreed that land reforms, mass education programs, a health service and an independent foreign policy were positive constructive aims and crucial if the country was to be saved from the vultures in and out of uniform. I was proud of you. The poor were proud of you.
BB: They are proud of me. Yes, they are so proud of me. They are my constituency. The Poor! And I am proud of that.
BB: I still am!
TA: Then you changed again. You became Prime Minister.
BB: Yes. Wasn’t that something! That first time! (She touches her duputta, smoothens her kameez) That was something.
BB: All these complaints! Such numerous complaints Tariq!The world had changed. We must not be on the wrong side of history. I wasn’t going to make that mistake—the same mistake.
TA: Why are you so afraid? Why do you say you can’t be on the wrong side" of history?
BB: Washington! That’s why! —Washington makes the rules. They decide history! Arrogance won’t do! They make horrible examples of those that defy them. I learnt that. You know that. Remember what Kissinger said to my father? For his defiance of Washington? “We will make a horrible example of you!” I must make peace with them, Tariq. If, we are to rule? Everyone has, the Russians have for gods-sakes, the Chinese have. Gaddafi has—Arafat had! And you—you Tariq! You seem to have made your peace—Given your calendar and lecture circuit—you seem to be all over America. So, then why not me?
BB: Same difference! And you will be. It’s a matter of time.
TA: Please! You should have had courage Benazir!
TA Yes! Courage!—Courage to not make a deal. It was political suicide!.
BB: How many times have I told you, how many times must I tell you I don’t fear death. And what you call deals—those are just a way to move the process forward—There is nothing to be gained by these lines drawn in the sand.
TA: You should have been afraid, Benazir—it would have kept you in good stead.
BB: Tell me Tariq have you ever even been to jail? Not even in your university days in Pakistan? Am I right? Never been to jail, even? For all, the Leftist dangerous talk? —How? Ah yes! Of course the uncle, the one who was the head of the intelligence agency! Connections! And you grudge me mine! Of course mine took me to jail all the time. Well that explains something.
TA: That’s unfair and not true!
BB: Really? Wouldn’t they have ended you a long time ago, if it were not true. Never mind. But if you had gone to jail—like I had, Tariq----and survived---you would not be afraid. You would be like me. Being in jail, that way—well—Death becomes just another day. It’s a good cure for cowards.
TA: What? Jail?
BB: Yes. And, of course, death. Death, cures all cowards.
TA: What you consider a coward ----could be a brave person. Cowardice is not a vice. It’s wisdom.
BB: Convenient for you to say that. The brave, Tariq are killed. The brave…..
TA: You go on about being brave. The world will go on and on about your being brave. But all that you are…..All-----You are selfish and you are wrong.
BB: Selfish? Wrong? It must be cozy sitting in your flat--writing about this and writing abut that. Mostly this. (She gestures, to the frozen image of a rally on the screen behind her).
TA: Yes this. Though, nothing cozy about that. Struggle-----Struggle---- is difficult.
BB: Really? What struggle would that be?--Lectures, speeches, street marches---protest marches---demonstrations, book readings?
BB: Struggle. Try watching your father tried and executed! Try seeing your mother wounded! Try a jail! Try being raped! Try seeing two brothers dead! Murdered! Try being accused! Try being threatened all the time, try that! Try getting killed!
TA is silent.
BB: Now don't go silent on me---How am I supposed to respond to your silence--you have to oppose me! Say something! If you don't how can I respond? How can I rise to the occasion?
TA: How can you shine…
BB: Oh dear friend! Do you think I need You—in order for me to shine---
TA: You had such promise--you could have done so much more than to be just an Icon.
BB: Icon? It's been your lifelong—what is it that you called it, yes, struggle---your struggle to be an icon.
TA: You could have been a politician of great possibilities.
BB: I am a great politician. You do not know, Tariq, what politics means, what it is! It is the art of the possible.
TA: And how did that work out for you? If you had struggled, if you had had the patience for struggle.
BB: Do not presume to preach to me about struggle!....Anti war demonstrations, sloganeering in central London--that's struggle?
TA: See--just listen to yourself---can you hear yourself---the tone----You can't get past your arrogance! It’s in the bloodline.
BB: And your's? Can you hear yourself? Don’t preach to me about bloodlines---yours are as blue blooded as mine.
TA: Far more, I’m sure, my lady, then yours.
BB: I am a leader---not a bleeding heart leftist Trotsykite, International Marxist Group; swanning around at World Forums with your misguided pride in a history not your own—lamenting under the shadow of a pomegranate tree--you think you are the Marxist Salahidin-----The Rolling Stones write a song about you---
TA: Sorry that Candle in the Wind has already been done---
TA: The rewrite for Diana is what I was going for..
BB: Grow up!
TA: When you do..your Highness.
BB: (hurt) Is that what you think?
TA: Well dynasties usually do require that don't they?
BB: Ah yes—the leftist sarcasm.
TA: I come from a communist family--
BB: And a few military officers too. Intelligence? Right? Uncle was the head of intelligence? Right? In fact, yes. I know.
TA: What does that have to do with me?
BB: You seem to have no problem about talking about my feudal background! Holding my background, my associations against me!
TA: Well, you are right, I have a few of those in my family. I am sure you do too...You must have some who are in the military or intelligence...
BB: As a matter of fact, Tariq, no I don’t. No, military in my family. Just those who the military murders. A drawback you see of Sindhis—don’t go into the military much. Pity----otherwise I doubt that two Prime Ministers would’ve been killed and flown back to Sindh…..
TA: Yes--but that's the family business isn't it ---bloodletting is required to be a Bhutto. You are nothing but a spoilt girl with lots of courage, convent educated, sent off to Oxford, Wellesley--the little princess--riding on your Dad's coat tails and Dad's money to get you through.
BB: And you are nothing but a spoilt boy---living in Highgate and talking about the proletariat!---Exeter, Oxford. How did you manage that, what were you doing? Were you paying your way through school? Please we are Pakistanis upper crust! The Left is a luxury. Jealous that I was President of the Oxford Debating team too? Not just you?
TA: That's just the role for us--gift of the gab Pakis. The gift of the gab got us Pakistan. Thanks to the great big eloquence of a lawyer—Jinnah. And the gift of the gab got your father killed.
BB: Perhaps. But don't sit in judgment of me.
TA: How can I not? Every single decision of yours—steeped in stupidity.
BB: Stupidity? Stupidity! That’s what you are saying to me……
TA: Yes! Tell me what will you be known for? For, ALL, your arranged marriages!
BB: Correction! Marriage! In case you didn’t notice—I married for keeps.
TA: I noticed that fatal flaw of yours. And yes, I meant exactly what I said: arranged marriages. Marriages. The one arranged by the creeps you kept around you—the hideous deal with a military dictator and with Washington DC and their neo-cons. And the arranged marriage with that two bit feudal buffoonish thug!
BB: Yes, it was arranged. It was what was expected of me. It was arranged!
TA: Can you hear yourself--You who is supposed to be the leader for choice--for democracy! Trying to sound like a helpless girl.
BB: I married out of a sense of duty! I think with my head and my heart not with my ...not with my….
TA: Dick? Still the convent girl, I see can’t bring herself to even utter a naughty word can you?
BB:.....and he is younger too--I break the norms NOT you.
BB: Oh c'mon--tell me how old is your latest one---24 years younger then you?---Its all ideology is it? Older man--girl child for consort . Do you know how many men out there---are like you---arm chair revolutionaries sending others to their deaths and preying on the simpering swooning school girls. Please! You talk about conviction---I married for conviction. You can't do anything for it--you use it--for the Babes.
TA: Well that's below the belt!
BB: Oh please don't make it so easy. And a feminist too, I bet! Has to be! Because nothing attracts a feminist more than a solid misogynist.
TA: Speak for yourself and She IS Leftist—
BB: And what makes you think my husband isn't PPP? I can just see you and your woman---the great ideal partnership of virtue a bunch of feminists and misogynists having great sex on the fundamental principle that opposites attract. When the only thing they have in common is arrogance towards others and hatred of everyone else!
TA: Right and you and that thug you’ve married—have mandates and manifestos in common? Please--if you think it was bread, clothing and shelter—that whole sloganeering jargon of roti, kapra or makan—that he was thinking of when he married you. You are right it was---Minister of Investments indeed!
BB: Is that' all you think of me?
TA: That's not the point.
BB: Who should I have married?
TA: Anyone--an activist, a journalist, a teacher, anyone, someone older, wiser--someone not interested in personal gain--
BB: Who would have married me? Huh? Who would have married me?
BB: Someone in my position…..
TA: Your position?--What was that? –Are you saying that you being a rich feudal; that in that position, you could not marry beneath you? You mean----
BB: No. Who should I have married---Tariq-----Who would have married me? (Plaintive voice)
TA: Oh please! You could have done anything you wanted--
BB: Did you ever...
TA: (Pause) Did I ever?---- Of course! I always have done what I wanted.
BB: I don't even know what that means--I wanted--I did what I was asked to do.
TA: That's stupid.
BB: No, Tariq. That's brave.
TA: That’s ridiculous! Brave? You shouldn’t have married at all! That would have been brave.
BB: And then how would I have been the leader in Pakistan? An unmarried “girl” most had heard of all sorts of stories around my treatment in jail---my character---I don’t have to explain this to you…..
TA: You were the leader---the moment He died...you showed your steel.
BB: I thought you were against dynasties....
TA: You were more than that.
BB: I thought just now we were talking about marriage.
TA: I’m talking about your responsibility to the party.
BB: I married the party.
TA: Nonsense! I’m talking about creating Political organizations
BB: What political organization do you have? I have the PPP
TA: I have the Left...
BB: ---Oh please leave it be...The Left has left!.....I have people, I have my father's name, my own name in my own right--I have everything that I suffered for, that I sacrificed for.
TA: You have destroyed it all for the future---
BB: I have destroyed it? I have destroyed it? Have you forgotten Zia!
TA: I’ll give you that and for that time of political crisis—You were necessary. The Bhutto name was necessary—But, to be dependent on a person or a family may be necessary at certain times, but it is a structural weakness, not a strength for a political organization.
BB: I am human--it is my strength.
TA: I am not merely talking about you!
BB: What are you talking about? You? You are nothing--a political organization? Is that what you are?
BB: I've got it! Parties are not run the way you think they are---
TA: Pakistan needs…..
BB: Me. You don’t know Pakistan—you know Trotsky and the streets of London —and classrooms and publishing houses. Ideologies—Tariq---are done. They are there—and they are on shelves catching dust. You need a person to make an idea come alive.
BB: I am an idea!—I am an ideology!—Bhutto! You go on about Marx and Trotsky. Well, I am Bhutto! I am Bhuttoism.. That means something. If it didn’t then why is the PPP important! Go start another party!—Take the PPP manifesto! —Go ahead! Have your democratic internal elections! Pick someone to run that party. Let’s see how far you get without the Bhutto name. See how far you get. As long as there is memory in Pakistan—Bhutto will mean something. It will mean leader. Leadership. Commitment-Conviction—cause! I am a leader---I show by example. I live by principle—I die for my principle. What do you do? What do you do but persecute me? That is your single idea—the persecution of leaders.
TA: …and then there is the matter of the murder of Murtaza
BB: So you can’t intellectually or morally stand up to what I just said---and instead you come back with that? --You accuse me of my brother’s death? I was devastated!
TA: I am sure you were--is that why the inquiry was stopped?
BB: God preserve you and keep you from ever facing the death of family Tariq.
TA: Oh don't be coy with me! You’ve lost your way...lost your principles.
BB: It must be so good, Tariq----so good, to have principles as your true and only family. God preserve you from ever seeing the death of them. I won’t even wish the death of your principles upon you!
TA: You have a good turn of phrase. You know that! I give you that.
BB: I'll give you that too.
TA: You should have stood on principle and never taken power in 1988. Compromised that way with the military calling all the shots.
BB: I had to take a chance.
TA: You could see they wouldn't let you rule.
BB: I had to give it a chance. Keep the process moving forward.
TA: Moving forward! You killed the party.
BB: I gave it life--
TA: You became nothing but a pregnant, fat--wife.
BB: Prime Minister! The first woman Prime Minister in a Muslim Country.
TA: Yes! Oh yes, that! Perpetually, pregnant , prime minister. P-P-P indeed.
BB: I am human!! And Pakistani...
TA: Oh don't...give me....
TA: And the corruption….the cases!
BB: All fabricated lies-----not a single case proven!
TA: Not a single case proven?? Are you in a state of denial still!
BB: All propaganda—all misinformation—all character assassinations!
TA: Prove it!
BB: I did! I have! Do you think I needed to come back—If I was so rich—and if that’s what it was about—diamond necklaces and estates in England—do you think I needed that! If that’s what it was all about—then we had made all the money we needed—why come back!
TA: For more!---And because you are nothing but a political animal.
BB: You are calling me names. Is that what I came back for? Ask yourself? Try being honest? Try not to be glib—and gloss over the facts-----Is that what I was? Corrupt? I know one thing Tariq. I will be known for myself. And you, Tariq, you will be known for writing about my father and me.
TA: I am known for other things.
BB: You would be nothing if it were not your eternal whining about whether we would survive.
TA: Whether Pakistan would survive—not whether you would survive.
BB: Same difference! And you know it!
TA: You could have been so much. But you lacked the political courage to defy Washington.
BB: There you go again! I lacked courage?
TA: You had plenty of physical courage, and you did refuse to be cowed down by threats from local opponents. But political courage-----
BB: That’s what counts. Courage.
TA: No!—No, not without wisdom it counts for much less! You are a tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy.
BB: I am.
TA: You are too----but I was talking about Pakistan.
BB: Same thing.
TA: There will be despair now. But the PPP must be democratically rebuilt.
BB: It has a central executive committee.
TA: Most of them most of your PPP inner circle consists of spineless timeservers leading frustrated and melancholy lives.
BB: There you go, with that talent for turning a phrase. They were faithful to my father—they have paid a heavy price.
TA: That is no excuse. Benazir, the party could be transformed if inner-party democracy was implemented. There is a tiny layer of incorruptible and principled politicians inside the party, but they have been sidelined. Dynastic politics is a sign of weakness, not strength.
BB: But look at the Nehru family---look at the Kennedys—look at the Clintons, the Bushes---Look at Bandernaike, Look at….Ang Sang Sui Chi….
TA: You are fond of comparing your family to the Kennedys, but you chose to ignore that the Democratic Party, despite an addiction to big money, was not the instrument of any one family.
BB: It’s getting dark in here, Tariq—Won’t you light a candle for me?
(Tariq Ali reaches into his breast pocket---gets a candle and match).
TA: I must get to the writing.
BB: Go on Tariq, light it.
TA: What has happened is a multilayered tragedy. It's a tragedy for a country on a road to more disasters. Torrents and foaming cataracts lie ahead. ….(pause). And it is a personal tragedy. (Falters)-----The house of Bhutto has lost another member. Father, two sons and now-------------- a daughter have all died unnatural deaths. My heart bleeds. (Pause). For Pakistan. Because it deserves better than this –she dies and leaves the party to her husband and her son---It’s a grotesque feudal charade. …(He walks back towards Benazir and stands besides her). The Pakistan People's Party is being treated as a family heirloom, a property to be disposed of at the will of its leader. Nothing more, nothing less. Poor Pakistan. Poor People's Party supporters. Both deserve better than this disgusting, medieval charade.
BB: You want to stop this? You think the Bhutto name means nothing to the people of Pakistan? You think we are just individuals who lived and died? ----Nothing more? Well go start a party—take the PPP manifesto—have your democratic internal party elections do that—see what happens. See if you can defeat my memory. See if you can defeat my father’s memory.
TA: Why should anyone forget your father? Or you? Remembering and ruining are not the same thing. Such a horrific death should give everyone pause for reflection. Horrific death. To be dependent on a person….
BB: Now what will you do without me?
TA: To be dependent on a person or a family may be necessary at certain times, but it is a structural weakness,
BB: Go ahead Tariq, shed a tear; …after all….
TA: To be dependent is not a strength for a political organization. A political organization—that’s what I’m talking about.
BB: You're talking about me Tariq. Shed a tear....
TA: The People's party needs to be re-founded as a modern and democratic organization, open to honest debate and discussion, defending social and human rights, uniting the many disparate groups and individuals in Pakistan desperate for any halfway decent alternative, and coming forward with concrete proposals to stabilize occupied and war-torn Afghanistan. This can and should be done. The Bhutto family should not be asked for any more sacrifices.
BB: Is that what we have to do? Then go ahead and do it. Just go ahead. Meet somewhere with all your right minded leftists and do it. Form that ideal party. Go ahead Tariq shed a tear….For now shed a tear.
TA: How can Pakistan today be anything but a conflagration of despair?
BB: Is that all you will say—how can Pakistan—democracy. What about me? Shed a tear Tariq. Stop attacking me. Shed a tear.
TA: You are a silly woman. You do not understand. The issue of democracy is enormously important in a country that has been governed by the military for over half of its life. Pakistan is not a "failed state" It is a dysfunctional state and has been in this situation for almost four decades.
BB: Ok so not a failure, just dysfunctional. All political. Nothing personal Tariq? Cry a little. Cry a little for me.
TA: You are DEAD!
BB: Yes. It was unavoidable. Leaders must live by example.
TA: All this could have been avoided, but the deadly angel who guided you when you were alive who was, alas, not too concerned with democracy. And now he is in effect the leader of the party.
BB: You will see—all that will pass.
TA: At the heart of this dysfunctionality is the domination by the army and each period of military rule has made things worse. It is this that has prevented political stability and the emergence of stable institutions. Here the US bears direct responsibility, since it has always regarded the military as the only institution it can do business with and, unfortunately, still does so. This is the rock that has focused choppy waters into a headlong torrent. Meanwhile there is a country in crisis.
TA: It has now been made public that, when you asked the US for a Karzai-style privately contracted former US Marine bodyguards, the suggestion was contemptuously rejected by the Pakistan government, which saw it as a breach of sovereignty.
BB: And if I had Blackwater guards,—If, I had actually gotten them----what would you have said? You, who is now accusing me of everything from corruption to dynastic ambitions. You would have been the first to have screamed accusations at me--- of bringing in Blackwater guards—neo liberalism and neo colonialism, you would have howled in protest, all bloody murder! I would have never heard the end of it!
TA: But that was a done deal!—I was already screaming at you!----After that what did it matter how much I screamed! You should have gotten the guards! You would have been alive! You stupid cow! You should have protected yourself! If you had made the deal then why didn’t you get the guards! Why did you think you could survive if you didn’t go the whole package!
BB: That’s something you will have to live with---If I made a deal then why didn’t I get the guards? So what deal did I make? Why didn’t I get the guards? Could it be that I was always true and faithful? Could it be that I would choose being amongst by own people in my own land, facing everything courageously even if it would be for just a fleeting moment, that I would chose that over a lifetime-a long, long life of distance and fear? Could that be true? Could it be that I had no other way of being? That, perhaps this was all that I knew how to be? Could it be that I knew something Tariq, that you will never know? Do you think that I thought that I would survive? Ask yourself Tariq. Don’t ask me. Cry! You are in a crisis.
TA: You made a deal. That’s that! I won’t have it any other way. It makes perfect sense. You were simply double crossed. And now we are here. In this mess. A solution to the crisis is available. This would require Mr Musharraf's replacement by a less contentious figure, an all-party government of unity to prepare the basis for genuine elections within six months, and the reinstatement of the sacked Supreme Court judges to investigate your murder without fear or favor. It would be a start. Who murdered you?!
BB: It won’t bring me back, Tariq. Light that candle. Who murdered me? Some will blame me for my death—The deal I should not have made. The SUV sun roof—that I shouldn’t have popped my head out of. And the photographer, the American photographer the one right in front of my car? You know the one whose lens I could not resist? Some will say I was dying for a photo op—And then Tariq some will say, I had to prove YOU wrong----So think about that. The Left, sends people to their death, people who want to earn YOUR respect. When all you do is abuse and heap accusations, calling people corrupt, fat, arrogant, liars, disappointments. Leaders are those who don’t disappoint the Left. Leaders never disappoint the Left. Leaders are those who act. The Left just reacts. The Left writes, reads, and is READ. Leaders act, do, die. Tell me Tariq did you ever suffer? Did you ever go to jail? Did you?--Remind me—when—for how long? But tell me Tariq, how many did you send to their jail sentences? To their deaths? How many died reading you? So Tariq, I lead----You are read. Live Tariq. Live long---with that. And this.
TA: Selfish and wrong—that’s what you are. So many choices to do things differently and you didn’t.
BB: No Tariq—you have that wrong—I am a leader I have no choices. You think that leaders have choices? They have none. They are where they are because they give up the luxury of having choices. What choices did I have? We are all where we are because of who we are! Some may be able to choose. Should I have chosen after my father’s hanging?—It was not possible you see. You know that. If I had a choice I wouldn’t have been the leader—through that dark night of hopelessness. I stepped up to a duty. Even you needed me. You weren’t hanging out with me then because I was unimportant, unneeded. I was needed to lead and I did. If I had choice—I would have been something else. I was and I am, who I am. I am my father’s daughter. I may not have been anything else, but that much no one will ever doubt. And when I see him in heaven and when he asks me what I did—I’ll say to him “Like you, my beloved father, I left them weeping for me. That’s what leaders do Tariq, they leave you to weep.
Act II: The Leftist and the Left
Stage: A mound of rose petals—six feet in length and two feet in width. A man and a woman weep at its edges—The man puts his arms across the mound and lies prostrate weeping and sobbing in convulsions. Tariq leans against a pillar of the mausoleum watching him weep. Then he walks around the grave and comes back and leans against the pillar again.
TA: Oh! Stop weeping!
The Weeper: What do you mean stop weeping—I will weep till the end of my days—they’ve killed her—they’ve taken away our only hope.
TA: What did she ever give you beyond hope—you need jobs, you need self respect, you need education!
The Weeper: Without her—there is no hope for that! They have taken away my hope for all that!—She was my leader, she was my hope, she was everything. We have no choice, nothing, nothing left but to weep.
TA: Have some hope!
The Weeper: Hope! Hope? She was my faith—Her father was my faith---My hope. Bhutto is our political religion—This place, is my political Kaaba.
TA: Oh for gods-sake!
The Weeper: All my life as long as I live I will pray for her—I will pray for her father!
TA: You have a choice—either you can lie there in this pathetic manner—weeping and sobbing over her grave---with nothing gained other than a futile, meaningless exhibition of grief and loyalty for the dead---Or you can get up and bring a meaningful change. Its your decision—do you want Pakistan to be ruled by the dead—from the grave—those who were murdered?----Or do you want to rule Pakistan and make sure that murderers are put away—and that this place, this land rejoices, instead of being steeped in these useless painful rivers of tears? Decide. Make your choice.
December 28, 2008
If Gaza falls . . .
Sara Roy in the London Review of Books:
Israel’s siege of Gaza began on 5 November, the day after an Israeli attack inside the strip, no doubt designed finally to undermine the truce between Israel and Hamas established last June. Although both sides had violated the agreement before, this incursion was on a different scale. Hamas responded by firing rockets into Israel and the violence has not abated since then. Israel’s siege has two fundamental goals. One is to ensure that the Palestinians there are seen merely as a humanitarian problem, beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims. The second is to foist Gaza onto Egypt. That is why the Israelis tolerate the hundreds of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt around which an informal but increasingly regulated commercial sector has begun to form. The overwhelming majority of Gazans are impoverished and officially 49.1 per cent are unemployed. In fact the prospect of steady employment is rapidly disappearing for the majority of the population.
On 5 November the Israeli government sealed all the ways into and out of Gaza. Food, medicine, fuel, parts for water and sanitation systems, fertiliser, plastic sheeting, phones, paper, glue, shoes and even teacups are no longer getting through in sufficient quantities or at all. According to Oxfam only 137 trucks of food were allowed into Gaza in November. This means that an average of 4.6 trucks per day entered the strip compared to an average of 123 in October this year and 564 in December 2005.
Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption
Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books:
Recently Senator Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has been looking into financial ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the academic physicians who largely determine the market value of prescription drugs. He hasn't had to look very hard.
Take the case of Dr. Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital. Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.
Legally, physicians may use drugs that have already been approved for a particular purpose for any other purpose they choose, but such use should be based on good published scientific evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Biederman's own studies of the drugs he advocates to treat childhood bipolar disorder were, as The New York Times summarized the opinions of its expert sources, "so small and loosely designed that they were largely inconclusive."
In June, Senator Grassley revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007. Two of his colleagues received similar amounts. After the revelation, the president of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the chairman of its physician organization sent a letter to the hospital's physicians expressing not shock over the enormity of the conflicts of interest, but sympathy for the beneficiaries: "We know this is an incredibly painful time for these doctors and their families, and our hearts go out to them."
More here. [Thanks to Tasnim Raza.]
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in The Atlantic:
In a country where 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day, Amit Kumar—nicknamed “Dr. Horror” by the Indian media after his arrest last winter for heading an illicit global kidney-transplant ring—had little trouble finding homegrown organ donors. One favorite hunting ground was a strip of restaurants, shops, and hovels near an Islamic shrine, or dargah, in Mahim, a predominantly Muslim precinct of Mumbai. Devotees of the dargah, which attracts people of all faiths, donate money to restaurants to help feed the beggars who cluster there. Last June, walking past one such restaurant whose kitchen extends to the sidewalk, I saw a dozen or so men huddled within scorching distance of giant cauldrons in which meat and potatoes simmered. Expressions glazed and clothing in tatters, the men watched, motionless and silent, their patience unwavering. I felt as if I were looking at a still photo.
Kumar, who’s now on trial, has told officials that he sent his agents to offer such men anywhere from $500 to $2,500 for a kidney. Elsewhere, in the fast-growing towns of states like Haryāna and Uttar Pradesh, Kumar’s ring also went after newly arrived migrant workers seeking jobs.
“Working Sisters” The everyday lives of migrant women in China’s world factories
From Harvard Magazine:
The massive rural-to-urban labor migration that has been transforming China since the late 1980s—an estimated 130 million people—is unprecedented in that nation’s history. Unprompted by direct ecological or political factors such as famine, war, or the forced relocation of population groups under draconian state policy, migration in post-Mao China is more likely to be instead the result of structural forces (economic need and consequences of agricultural reform) that are beyond the control of individual farmers. Motivated by the search for opportunities to improve their own lives, rural people have taken the initiative, making decisions to shape their own destinies—and fostering unforeseen entrepreneurial individualism in the process. Above all, restless young village women have assumed a major role in the current population shift, establishing a brand-new identity as dagongmei (literally, “working sisters”) in the booming industrial cities in China’s coastal areas, contributing to what sociologists call the “feminization of the global workforce.”
In Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, Leslie T. Chang ’91, who spent a decade in China as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, delivers a vivid portrayal both of the dynamics of this internal migration and of women migrants as active players in globalization and local social and economic change.
Am I Still Here? Looking for validation in a wired world
From Orion Magazine:
“We fall in love, we drink hard, we run to and fro upon the earth like frightened sheep,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “And now you are to ask yourself if, when all is done, you would not have been better to sit by the fire at home, and be happy thinking.”
Do we like sitting by the fire?
Does it make us happy to think? It does. For a while. But pretty soon don’t we start worrying, now that we’ve stepped away from the world, that the world is slipping past without us? Don’t we wonder, when we come back, Am I still here?
Oh, the strange mix of revulsion and pleasure Z and I felt when we returned from five days under the sky in the middle of Idaho and watched the e-mail counter piling up: 21, 32, 58, 74 e-mails! Z has 74 e-mails! Z is indeed part of it all! Z was missed! Z exists!
What's All the Flap About?
Fenella Saunders in American Scientist:
It’s not just poetic alliteration that makes the pat phrase “a butterfly fluttered by” so appropriate. The insects, although not always that speedy, often take a flight path that involves so many erratic dips and turns that they almost look out of control. But it’s not because they can’t do any better: Such unpredictable flight is how butterflies evade birds and other predators. However, most butterflies are brightly colored, which would seem to counter their evasiveness by making them easier to spot and track. “The question always bothered me,” says Thomas Eisner, a biologist at Cornell University. “Why are butterflies flaunting their visibility?” As Eisner and Benjamin Jantzen, a doctoral candidate now at Carnegie Mellon University, report in the October 28 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a butterfly’s ability to evade and its blatant pigmentation may go hand in hand.
The first step was to find out what physical feature of butterflies allows them to move so erratically. It’s been known for about a century that the front wings in butterflies are the ones driven by the insect’s muscles; the hind wings are passively coupled to the front ones. Eisner decided to investigate just what the back wings were doing by trimming them away bit by bit. To his surprise, he found that if he removed the entire hind wing, the insects had no problem flying. Indeed, when Eisner went on to test an extensive list of butterfly and moth species, he found that without exception they were all capable of sustained flight with only their front wings. “It is pretty startling that they’re that overendowed with lifting surface,” says Jantzen.
Scientific illiteracy all the rage among the glitterati
Steve Conner in The Independent:
Closer to home, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith faltered on the science of food, while Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all get roastings for scientific illiteracy.
The Celebrities and Science Review 2008, prepared by the group Sense About Science, identifies some of the worst examples of scientific illiteracy among those who profess to know better – including top politicians.
Mr Obama and John McCain blundered into the MMR vaccine row during their presidential campaigns. "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said.
His words were echoed by Mr McCain. "It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it," he said. "There's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in the vaccines."
Exhaustive research has failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives. The rise in autism is thought to be due to an increased awareness of the condition.
Waltz with Bashir
A. O. Scott in the New York Times:
“Waltz With Bashir” is a memoir, a history lesson, a combat picture, a piece of investigative journalism and an altogether amazing film.Directed by Ari Folman, an Israeli filmmaker whose struggle to make sense of his experience as a soldier in the Lebanon war of 1982 shapes its story, “Waltz” is by no means the world’s only animated documentary, a phrase that sounds at first like a cinematic oxymoron. Movies like Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10” have used animation to make reality seem more vivid and more strange, producing odd and fascinating experiments.
But Mr. Folman has gone further, creating something that is not only unique but also exemplary, a work of astonishing aesthetic integrity and searing moral power.
That it is also a cartoon is not incidental to this achievement.
Oh the humanity
Robyn Creswell contemplates the provocations of Faisal Devji, whose fascinating new book upturns conventional accounts of al Qa’eda by investigating ‘the rich inner life of jihad’.
From The National:
The field of jihadi studies, situated at the crossroads of policy-making, intelligence work, journalism and academic research, sprang up almost overnight following the attacks of September 11. It now boasts all the infrastructure that comes with the discovery of a glittering new frontier, as fascinating in its way as superstrings or Martian ice. Conferences, courses and research centres are devoted to explaining the intricacies of holy war. Amidst this mushroom patch of interlocking institutions and individuals, the work of Faisal Devji – an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – sticks out like a rare flower. Devji’s studies, which focus on the doings and sayings of al Qa’eda, are so at odds with what passes for common sense in this field that one sometimes wonders if he isn’t merely thumbing his nose at received wisdom. In his latest book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, he suggests that al Qa’eda has in some sense inherited the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. He also argues that the ideology of jihad is a “humanitarian” one, and that the militants of al Qa’eda are “the intellectual peers” of environmentalists and pacifists. What does he mean by such provocations?
Abuelo, Answers and Questions
Maurice Kilwein Guevara
Abuelo, why are there flies?
They're reporters for the dead, mi joven bestia.
What do they report?
If the millionarios won or lost.
Abuelo, who puts the scorpion in my bed when I'm asleep?
Why, is it there when you wake?
Don't worry, the dead don't sting.
How old am I?
Almost five years old.
How old are you?
Old as bones. When the moon was born,
I was already eight years old. . . .
When I was a boy, I lived on the coast of Colombia
and rode the fins of blue whales at night
from Barranquilla to Nantucket Island
and back, before dawn.
Abuelo, why do I have steel hooves?
To kick truth in the ass.
Abuelo, why do I have shiny hooves?
To dance a little cumbia. To play with mirrors.
Abuelo, why do I have hooves?
Because they run in the family.
December 27, 2008
The Lives They Lived
From the New York Times Magazine:
You really must read . . .
From The Guardian:
Barack Obama's grandly titled The Audacity of Hope (Canongate) was first published in 2006. But he's now taken on a new importance. The book acts both as a personal statement - his reflections on faith, family and race - and as a considered analysis of the political system. Will his high-minded ideals be compromised by the messy practicalities of the American political process?
Judt's Reappraisals (Heinemann), about our collective cultural amnesia, is an excellent anthology of essays on writers, humanists and Marxist intellectuals. Judt is enlightening on the political milieu of European nations, America's last half-century and Israel. Steve Toltz's Booker-shortlisted debut, A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton), is an elegantly written novel about a family of émigrés in Australia.
TOP TEN SPACE PHOTOS: Most Viewed of 2008
From The National Geographic:
The heavens smiled down on Earth Monday in a rare celestial trifecta of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon. The planets aligned—an event known as a conjunction—Sunday night, and were joined by a thin sliver of moon on Monday. (Related: "Sky Show December 1: Jupiter, Venus, Moon Make 'Frown'" [December 1, 2008].) The rare planetary meeting was visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities such as Hong Kong and New York.
People in Asia witnessed a smiley face (above, photographed from Manila, Philippines), while skywatchers in the United States saw a frown. The three brightest objects in the sky were so tightly gathered that one could eclipse them with a thumb, according to NASA's Web site. The next visible Venus-Jupiter conjunction will be on the evening of March 14, 2012, but the two planets will appear farther apart in the sky.
One may measure and measure after a listening look
but never without troubling the flow. –Li Chen
Man and Camel
On the eve of my fortieth birthday
I sat on the porch having a smoke
when out of the blue a man and a camel
happened by. Neither uttered a sound
at first, but as they drifted up the street
and out of town the two of them began to sing.
Yet what they sang is still a mystery to me —
the words were indistinct and the tune
too ornamental to recall. Into the desert
they went and as they went their voices
rose as one above the sifting sound
of windblown sand. The wonder of their singing,
its elusive blend of man and camel, seemed
an ideal image for all uncommon couples.
Was this the night that I had waited for
so long? I wanted to believe it was,
but just as they were vanishing, the man
and camel ceased to sing, and galloped
back to town. They stood before my porch,
staring at me with beady eyes, and said:
"You ruined it. You ruined it forever."
Louder than bombs
Andrew Exum in The National:
Israeli officials, led by defense minister and Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, have been talking since the summer about the “disproportionate” punishment they intend to inflict on Lebanon in the event of another war. News reports suggest that the Israeli Defense Forces are training for a large-scale ground campaign backed by punishing air and artillery strikes. “In the last war, we made a distinction between Hizbollah targets and Lebanese national targets,” a senior IDF general told The Jerusalem Post last month, adding that “there is no longer a reason to make this distinction.”
The head of the IDF’s Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, left no doubt about Israel’s aims when he told an Israeli paper that the army had devised a “Dahiyeh Doctrine” – in which Israel would level large swathes of the mostly-Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hizbollah maintains many of their offices and enjoys overwhelming support from the local population.
“We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he said. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorised.”
Violens' "Spectator & Pupil" music video directed by Alia Raza
Paul Lester in The Guardian:
There are bad New Bands, there are promising ones, there are even a few great ones. And then there are those who you just know are going to dominate the scene for the next few months at least. Many of the agenda-setting new bands we've praised in this column over the last year have been American - Fleet Foxes, MGMT, Black Kids, Boy Crisis, Hockey, Amazing Baby, Chairlift - which somewhat makes a mockery of, or renders redundant, the notion of British-only music awards like the Brits and the Mercury Prize. How can geography be a criterion when you're measuring musical worth?
Violens, to be geographically precise, belong in the pantheon of Great New New York Bands. They only formed last winter, but already they're responsible for some highly accomplished and beautifully realised music, with the emphasis on the "beautiful". We say that because we assumed from their name (pronounced vy-lenz) that they were going to be some sort of sub-Sonic Youth art-drone collective, when actually their breezy psychedelia recalls the late-60s sunshine-pop heyday of The Zombies, The Left Banke and their ilk, only with a shiny 80s production. Some of it really is rather lovely, but then if you see their name as a conflation of "violence" and "violins" it makes sense, and suits these lushly orchestrated songs about nightmares, the passage of time, speculations on spiritual messages and accounts of drug-induced hallucinations.
Have a Thermodynamically Consistent Christmas
Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
The important event this Dec. 25 isn’t celebrating the birthday of Isaac Newton or other historical figures, it’s the release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt and based on the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As you all know, it’s a story based on the device of incompatible arrows of time: Benjamin is born old and ages backwards into youth (physically, not mentally), while the rest of the world behaves normally. Some have pretended that scientific interest in the movie centers on issues of aging and longevity, but of course it’s thermodynamics and entropy that take center stage. While entropy increases and the Second Law is respected in the rest of the world, Benjamin Button’s body seems to be magically decreasing in entropy. (Which does not, strictly speaking, violate the Second Law, since his body isn’t a closed system, but it sure is weird.)
It’s a great opportunity to address an old chestnut: why do arrows of time have to be compatible? Why can’t we imagine ever discovering another galaxy in which entropy increased toward (what we call) the past instead of the future, as in Greg Egan’s story, “The Hundred Light-Year Diary”? Or why can’t a body age backwards in time?
First we need to decide what the hell we mean. Let’s put aside for the moment sticky questions about collapsing wave functions, and presume that the fundamental laws of physics are perfectly reversible. In that case, given the precise state of the entire universe (or any closed system) at any one moment in time, we can use those laws to determine what the state will be at any future time, or what it was at any past time. That’s just how awesome the laws of physics are. (Of course we don’t know the laws, nor the state of the entire universe, nor could we actually carry out the relevant calculation even if we did, but we’re doing thought experiments here.) We usually take that time to be the “initial” time, but in principle we could choose any time — and in the present context, when we’re worried about arrows of time pointing in different directions, there is no time that is initial for everything. So what we mean is: Why is it difficult/impossible to choose a state of the universe with the property that, as we evolve it forward in time, some parts of it have increasing entropy and some parts have decreasing entropy?
Slumdog Millionaire's Bollywood Ancestors
Amitava Kumar in Vanity Fair:
Slumdog Millionaire has a pedigree. Its director, Danny Boyle, says there are at least three Bollywood films that inspired him directly. Those films were themselves influenced by a long family tree that stretches back to the last days of the nineteenth century.
Here, then, is a list of Slumdog’s ten most flamboyant and influential Bollywood ancestors:
Black Friday (2004). This film, by young director Anurag Kashyap depicts the March 1993 bomb blasts that tore apart Bombay (as Mumbai used to be called). It was based on a book by journalist S. Hussain Zaidi and filmed in an edgy, realistic style. A famous sequence from the film, a 12-minute police chase through the crowded Dharavi slum, is mimicked by Danny Boyle in the opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire, where truant slum-kids take the place of Black Friday’s militants.
The 10 Best Foods You Aren't Eating
Jonny Bowden at ABC News:
Why it's healthy: One cup of chopped cabbage has just 22 calories, and it's loaded with valuable nutrients. At the top of the list is sulforaphane, a chemical that increases your body's production of enzymes that disarm cell-damaging free radicals and reduce your risk of cancer. In fact, Stanford University scientists determined that sulforaphane boosts your levels of these cancer-fighting enzymes higher than any other plant chemical.
How to eat it: Put cabbage on your burgers to add a satisfying crunch. Or, for an even better sandwich topping or side salad, try an Asian-style slaw. Here's what you'll need:
4 Tbsp peanut or canola oil
Juice of two limes
1 Tbsp sriracha, an Asian chili sauce you can find in the international section of your grocery store
1 head napa cabbage, finely chopped or shredded
1/4 cup toasted peanuts
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Whisk together the oil, lime juice, and sriracha. Combine the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and toss with the dressing to coat. Refrigerate for 20 minutes before serving. The slaw will keep in your fridge for 2 days.
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
Birds are like nothing else on Earth–in the sense that they have lots of traits in common that are not found in quite the same package in other animals. All birds have feathers, for example, and they can either fly or have evolved birds that did fly. You don’t see some feathered reptile running around on all fours. But that distinctness is merely an artefact of extinctions. The closest living relatives of birds today are alligators and crocs, and they share a common ancestor that lived some 250 million years ago. All of the species on the lineage that led from that ancestor to birds are extinct. The ground-running dinosaurs disappeared. There are fossils of birds that could fly 120 million years ago, but they became extinct too. To see how birds became so unique, scientists have to burrow down the evolutionary tree, and burrow into the ground.
I’ve written here about some of the things they’ve discovered in the process, such as flightless dinosaurs that probably used feathers to show off to the opposite sex. Feathered dinosaurs also laid eggs in nests and incubated them much as birds do today. And today (as in, this particulary day of the week), David Varricchio of Montana State and his colleagues are reporting that it was the father dinosaurs who were sitting on the eggs.
December 26, 2008
How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:
Foreign affairs had no more than a small part in Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the Middle East peace process only a fraction of that. Yet the sorry prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians make a break with past US policy on this matter imperative, regardless of the new administration's priorities.
The need for a move away from the lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of George W. Bush's presidency is hard to dispute. That is not all that needs breaking away from. Some observers have welcomed the past year's surge of older-style US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's multiple visits to the region, efforts to build Palestinian institutions and security forces, and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a final status agreement. Yet spin aside, these efforts hardly can be deemed successful. Realities on the ground—from settlement construction to deepening divisions within Palestinian and Israeli societies to growing disillusionment with a two-state solution—render the possibility of a peace accord increasingly remote.
The failings of Bush's efforts have also revived nostalgia for President Clinton's. But it is a nostalgia born as much of anger with the present as of longing for the past. The 1990s were a time of US activism on behalf of peace, yet there is a record to contend with. It is not as forgiving. On this issue, Clinton's term concluded in failure, and it is a failure that bears at least some relation to the policies so lamented today.