Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Jacques Dutronc "Et moi, et moi, et moi"
In Disobedient Rooms: China Mieville on J.G. BallardIn The Nation:
The publication of any book by J.G. Ballard at this moment--let alone so colossal and career-spanning a volume as The Complete Stories, running to nearly 1,200 pages--is an occurrence that can only be about more than itself. All writers are writers of their time, of course, but Ballard, who after a fight with cancer died in April 2009, feels somehow uniquely, precisely so. This book marks the fact that we are all post-Ballard now: it's not that we've gotten beyond him but rather that we remain ineluctably defined by him. Completists have pointed out that, its title notwithstanding, this volume is not a truly comprehensive collection of all Ballard's published short fiction. Those few omissions are a disappointment. Nevertheless, they are few, and despite them the book is indispensable.
The volume's ninety-eight stories (including two written for this edition) are printed in chronological order of publication, which illuminates Ballard's trajectory. There is something fascinating and poignant about watching various obsessions appear, reappear or come gradually or suddenly into focus: birds, flying machines, ruins, beaches, obscure geometric designs, the often-noted empty swimming pools. That the earlier stories are on the whole less compelling than the later, and more numerous, suggests a career-long process of distillation, a rendering-down. Both in facility and insight, early works such as the wincingly punning "Prima Belladonna"--the first of many journeys to Vermilion Sands, an artists' colony-cum-fading seaside resort supposedly somewhere in the real world though full of impossibilities and dream technologies--or "Now: Zero" and "Track 12," rather overwrought Dahl-esque tales of the unexpected, are slight compared with the later dense and strange forensics. Many of the stories function as testing grounds for Ballard's novels. For the admirer of his longer work there is the slightly disconcerting pleasure of déjà vu, of stumbling into précis and dry runs. Here are various aspects of Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Crystal World. This book is a valedictory, an event, the ground-laying for investigations.
The Fate of Angkor as Told by Tree Rings
Ed Yong over at his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science:
Today, the city of Angkor in Cambodia lies in ruins. But a thousand years ago, life there was very different. Then, Angkor was the heart of the Khmer empire and the largest preindustrial city of its day. It had a population of a million and an area that rivalled modern Los Angeles. And the key to this vast urban sprawl was water.
Radar images of the city by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) revealed that Angkor was carefully designed to collect, store and distribute water. The “Hydraulic City” included miles of canals and dikes, irrigation channels for supplying crops, overflow channels to cope with a monsoon, massive storage areas (the largest of which was 16km2 in area), and even a river diverted into a reservoir. Water was the city’s most precious resource, allowing it to thrive in the most unlikely of locations – the middle of a tropical forest.
But water, or rather a lack of it, may have been part of Angkor’s downfall. Brendan Buckley from Columbia University has reconstructed the climate of Angkor over the last 750 years, encompassing the final centuries of the Khmer Empire. The records show that Angkor was hit by two ferocious droughts in the mid-14th and early-15th century, each lasting for a few decades. Without a reliable source of water, the Hydraulic City’s aquatic network dried up. It may have been the coup de grace for a civilisation that was already in severe decline.
Many theories have been put forward for the downfall of Angkor, from war with the Siamese to erosion of the state religion. All of these ideas have proved difficult to back up, despite a century of research. Partly, that’s because the area hasn’t yielded much in the way of historical texts after the 13th century. But texts aren’t the only way of studying Angkor’s history. Buckley’s reconstruction relies on a very different but more telling source of information – Fujian cypress trees.
Scientists Explain How Males Evolved From A Self-Fertilizing "Third Sex"Annalee Newitz over at io9:
Most creatures on Earth have one sex that fertilizes and one that gets fertilized. Not so with olive trees. Last week scientists described how these trees evolved a system of males and a third sex which can go both ways.
The sexual system these trees have is called androdioecy: It includes males and a third "hermaphrodite" sex. A group of French researchers last week explained how such a setup could evolve from a pure hermaphrodite system. Initially, the trees were probably all able to pollinate or be pollinated. But over time, some of the trees mutated and lost their female functionality. Now, a very sizable male population exists among the olive trees.
But how? You'd think that males, who can only reproduce by pollinating, would have a strong disadvantage in a system where their competitors can reproduce either by pollinating or being pollinated.
However, among the olive trees these scientists studied, the androdioecy had reached a stable state.
Bill Brown on Whether the Web is Killing Criticism
Perhaps the greatest illusion that we, people of the democratic opposition, had laboured under was our conviction that we lived in societies comprising honest and noble people who had simply been silenced. We believed we were the voice of those who had been silenced and that is why our rebellion was fundamentally a moral one. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn told us “not to live the lie”. Leszek Kołakowski asked us to "live with dignity”. John Paul II exhorted us: “Don’t be afraid!” and he promised that “truth would set us free”. Václav Havel believed in the “power of the powerless”. For us, dissidents, this ethical motivation strengthened our morale but it also turned us into elitists. Being a dissident required being in open conflict with the dictatorship and everything it entailed: oppression, loss of opportunities, exclusion and often imprisonment. Yet our conviction that our voice was the voice of the enslaved nation was only part of the truth. In defending the historical truth and religious and civil liberties we articulated the collective consciousness. Yet our call for active resistence and for breaking the barriers of fear and apathy remained unheard. The ethical perfectionism of a Sakharov, a Havel or a Kuroń simply could not be shared by everyone, certainly not by the majority. The majority stayed silent and we assumed this was out of fear. Yet fear was not the only reason for the silence of the majority.more from Adam Michnik at Salon) here.
Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren is—like Moby-Dick, Naked Lunch, or “Chocolate Rain”—an essential monument both to, and of, American craziness. It doesn’t just document our craziness, it documents our craziness crazily: 800 epic pages of gorgeous, profound, clumsy, rambling, violent, randy, visionary, goofy, postapocalyptic sci-fi prose poetry. The book is set in Bellona, a middle-American city struggling in the aftermath of an unspecified cataclysm. Phones and TVs are out; electricity is spotty; money is obsolete. Riots and fires have cut the population down to a thousand. Gangsters roam the streets hidden inside menacing holograms of dragons and griffins and giant praying mantises. The paper arrives every morning bearing arbitrary dates: 1837, 1984, 2022. Buildings burn, then repair themselves, then burn again. The smoke clears, occasionally, to reveal celestial impossibilities: two moons, a giant swollen sun. To top it off, this craziness trickles down to us through the consciousness of a character who is, himself, very likely crazy: a disoriented outsider who arrives in Bellona with no memory of his name, wearing only one sandal, and who proceeds to spend most of his time either having graphic sex with fellow refugees or writing inscrutable poems in a notebook—a notebook that also happens to contain actual passages of Dhalgren itself. The book forms a Finnegans Wake–style loop—its opening and closing sentences feed into one another—so the whole thing just keeps going and going forever. It’s like Gertrude Stein: Beyond Thunderdome. It seems to have been written by an insane person in a tantric blurt of automatic writing.more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.
Welcome to my shiny world
There is an aspect of the American aesthetic that approaches design like a child. There’s a giddy lack of propriety, a joyful dismissal of taste, a love of big colors and sparkle. It’s connected to our attitude toward wealth, which often equates beauty with prosperity. In other words, if it looks rich, it must be beautiful. The shinier the better. This aesthetic of bling, though, is not simply about playacting at wealth; it’s about becoming lost in a fantasy of layers upon layers of artificiality and imitation. The Versailles that Larry Hart imitated in the Hartland Mansion (Versailles itself the classic contribution to Artifice) was not even the actual Versailles, but an idea of Versailles based on pictures of Versailles in a book and created with the mass-produced materials available to him at craft and hardware stores. All craft is imitation. There are cultures that imitate things they find in nature, or gods, or traditions that go back thousands of years. In America, imitation isn’t just about copying other essential things; imitation is the essential thing, the basis for whatever it is that “American craft” is. Sure, you’ve got exceptions like the Shakers, who designed elegant originals such as the flat-bottomed broom (which is an amazing thing, truly) and the clothespin. But the clothespin never screamed AMERICA! until Claes Oldenburg made a supersized imitation of it in downtown Philly.more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.
...."We saw reindeer
browsing," a friend who'd been in Lapland, said:
"finding their own food; they are adapted
....to scant reino
or pasture, yet they can run eleven
miles in fifty minutes; the feet spread when
....the snow is soft,
and act as snow-shoes. They are rigorists,
however handsomely cutwork artists
....of Lapland and
Siberia elaborate the trace
or saddle-girth with saw-tooth leather lace.
....One looked at us
with its firm face part brown, part white,—a queen
of alpine flowers. Santa Claus' reindeer, seen
....at last, had grey-
brown fur, with a neck like edelweiss or
lion's foot,— leontopodium more
this candelabrum-headed ornament
for a place where ornaments are scarce, sent
was a gift preventing the extinction
of the Esquimo. The battle was won
....by a quiet man,
Sheldon Jackson, evangel to that race
whose reprieve he read in the reindeer's face
by Marianne Moore
from News of the Universe;
Sierra Club Books, 1995
Addicted to Fat: Overeating May Alter the Brain as Much as Hard Drugs
From Scientific American:
Like many people, rats are happy to gorge themselves on tasty, high-fat treats. Bacon, sausage, chocolate and even cheesecake quickly became favorites of laboratory rats that recently were given access to these human indulgences—so much so that the animals came to depend on high quantities to feel good, like drug users who need to up their intake to get high. A new study, published online March 28 in Nature Neuroscience, describes these rats' indulgent tribulations, adding to research literature on the how excess food intake can trigger changes in the brain, alterations that seem to create a neurochemical dependency in the eater—or user. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Preliminary findings from the work were presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in October 2009.
Like many pleasurable behaviors—including sex and drug use—eating can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. This internal chemical reward, in turn, increases the likelihood that the associated action will eventually become habitual through positive reinforcement conditioning. If activated by overeating, these neurochemical patterns can make the behavior tough to shake—a result seen in many human cases, notes Paul Kenny, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics at The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla., and co-author of the new study. "Most people who are overweight would say, 'I would like to control my weight and my eating,' but they find it very hard to control their feeding behavior," he says. Despite a growing body of research, it has been unclear whether extreme overeating was initiated by a chemical irregularity in the brain or if the behavior itself was changing the brain's biochemical makeup. The new research by Kenny and his colleague Paul Johnson, a graduate student, shows that both conditions are possible.
The face in the Shroud
Does the Shroud of Turin show the "real face of Jesus"? That claim is impossible to judge, even though it serves the title of a documentary about the 3-D analysis of the Shroud of Turin premiering tonight on the History Channel. What can be said is that the centuries-old image wasn’t just painted freehand. Computer analysis of the imprint on the shroud suggests that it had to be left behind by someone draped in cloth. "Is this the artifact of a real person or not? Definitely it is," Ray Downing, the digital illustrator at the center of the show, told me today. Downing worked with specialists on the shroud to come up with a photorealistic representation of the man whose body's imprint appears faintly on a famous 14-foot-long length of linen. For some Christians, the stain serves as the miraculous snapshot of their risen Lord. For most scientists, it is a cleverly done fake from the 13th or 14th century, but nothing more. Back in 1988, carbon-14 dating tests were conducted on a sample from the shroud in an effort to determine whether the cloth was created in Jesus' time. The verdict from three laboratories was that the cloth was produced in medieval times. But the shroud's fans have insisted that the sample was actually taken from a patch, rather than from the original linen. Just this month, a chemist proposed a new series of non-destructive dating tests that would give an estimate for the entire cloth.
From a marketing perspective, the timing of the History Channel show couldn't be better: Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Christian holy days that mark Jesus' death and resurrection, are just a few days away. What's more, the shroud is due to go on display for six weeks at Turin Cathedral, starting April 10. The last time the relic was exhibited, a decade ago, more than 3 million people came to Turin to see it. More than a million reservations have been received already for next month's viewing. Have scientists been wrong about the shroud? Downing noted that historical records referring to the shroud predate the current carbon-14 estimate. "We know the carbon-14 [test] is wrong," he said. "The question is, how wrong are they? The further back you go, the less likely it is that anybody could have faked it."
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
The Chomsky Left and the Krugman LeftMichael Bérubé in Dissent:
Earlier this year I had a lively email exchange with an exceptionally bright young Chomsky admirer who was deeply annoyed by my book, The Left At War. Part of the exchange was frustrating, insofar as he seemed to believe that if you give up ye olde “false consciousness” explanation for people’s behavior you have no effective way of saying that they are just flat-out wrong. But after a week or so of back-and-forth, we hit upon something that (for me, anyway) shed a nice bright light on what was at stake in the discussion.
He adduced this 2009 essay, “The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia,” as an example of why he regards Chomsky as so valuable (his word) to a critical understanding of U.S. policy...
My interlocutor explained that whenever he lapses into a merely-liberal Krugman-like faith in American ideals, he finds Chomsky to be a bracing reminder that those ideals have routinely been traduced, and that the justification of torture by American officials is nothing new. And that’s why he’s vexed by left criticism of Chomsky, which he thinks is really “liberal” rather than properly “left.”
It cannot be denied that we have often traduced our ideals. And Chomsky’s essay is in many respects quite good, especially with regard to the history of how “in ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries.” (Though I can do without the ritual repetition of “The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction.” I still find it impossible to read those words without hearing, “and it was about time.” And his attempt to construe the extermination of Native Americans as a “humanitarian intervention” is yet another form of doubling down on his hands-off-the-Balkans position.) But I had two other responses to this young man.
Girls Gone Anti-FeministSusan Douglas in In These Times:
This was the Spice Girls moment, and debate: Were these frosted cupcakes really a vehicle for feminism? And how much reversion back to the glory days of prefeminism should girls and women accept—even celebrate—given that we now allegedly had it all? Despite their Wonderbras and bare thighs, the Spice Girls advocated “girl power.” They demanded, in their colossal, intercontinental hit “Wannabe,” that boys treat them with respect or take a hike. Their boldfaced liner notes claimed that “The Future Is Female” and suggested that they and their fans were “Freedom Fighters.” They made Margaret Thatcher an honorary Spice Girl. “We’re freshening up feminism for the nineties,” they told the Guardian. “Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a ’90s way of saying it.”
Fast-forward to 2008. Talk about girl power! One woman ran for president and another for vice president. Millions of women and men voted for each of them. The one who ran for vice president had five children, one of them an infant, yet it was verboten to even ask whether she could handle the job while tending to a baby. At the same time we had a female secretary of state, and the woman who had run for president became her high-profile successor. And we have Lady Gaga, power girl of the new millennium. Feminism? Who needs feminism anymore? Aren’t we, like, so done here? Okay, so some women moaned about the sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton, but picky, picky, picky.
Indeed, eight years earlier, career antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers huffed in her book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, that girls were getting way too much attention and, as a result, were going to college in greater numbers and much more likely to succeed while boys were getting sent to detention, dropping out of high school, destined for careers behind fast-food counters, and so beaten down they were about to become the nation’s new “second sex.” Other books like The Myth of Male Power and The Decline of Males followed suit, with annual panics about the new “crisis” for boys. Girl power? Gone way too far.
Sam Harris vs. Sean Carroll, Round IIFirst Sam Harris in Project Reason:
Sean Carroll's rejoinder:
[M]any people strongly objected to my claim that values (and hence morality) relate to facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. My critics seem to think that consciousness and its states hold no special place where values are concerned, or that any state of consciousness stands the same chance of being valued as any other. While maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures may be what I value, other people are perfectly free to define their values differently, and there will be no rational or scientific basis to argue with them. Thus, by starting my talk with the assertion that values depend upon actual or potential changes in consciousness, and that some changes are better than others, I merely assumed what I set out to prove. This is what philosophers call “begging the question.” I am, therefore, an idiot. And given that my notion of objective values must be a mere product of my own personal and cultural biases, and these led me to disparage traditional religious values from the stage at TED, I am also a bigot. While these charges are often leveled separately, they are actually connected.
I’ve now had these basic objections hurled at me a thousand different ways—from YouTube comments that end by calling me “a Mossad agent” to scarcely more serious efforts by scientists like Sean Carroll which attempt to debunk my reasoning as circular or otherwise based on unwarranted assumptions. Many of my critics piously cite Hume’s is/ought distinction as though it were well known to be the last word on the subject of morality until the end of time. Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume’s lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth:Attempts to derive ought from is [values from facts] are like attempts to reach an odd number by adding together even numbers. If someone claims that they’ve done it, you don’t have to check their math; you know that they’ve made a mistake.
This is an amazingly wrongheaded response coming from a very smart scientist. I wonder how Carroll would react if I breezily dismissed his physics with a reference to something Robert Oppenheimer once wrote, on the assumption that it was now an unmovable object around which all future human thought must flow. Happily, that’s not how physics works. But neither is it how philosophy works. Frankly, it’s not how anything that works, works.
Carroll appears to be confused about the foundations of human knowledge. For instance, he clearly misunderstands the relationship between scientific truth and scientific consensus. He imagines that scientific consensus signifies the existence of scientific truth (while scientific controversy just means that there is more work to be done). And yet, he takes moral controversy to mean that there is no such thing as moral truth (while moral consensus just means that people are deeply conditioned for certain preferences). This is a double standard that I pointed out in my talk, and it clearly rigs the game against moral truth.
I wanted to try to clarify my own view on two particular points, so I put them below the fold. I went on longer than I intended to (funny how that happens). The whole thing was written in a matter of minutes — have to get back to real work — so grains of salt are prescribed.
First, the role of consensus. In formal reasoning, we all recognize the difference between axioms and deductions. We start by assuming some axioms, and the laws of logic allow us to draw certain conclusions from them. It’s not helpful to argue that the axioms are “wrong” — all we are saying is that if these assumptions hold, then we can safely draw certain conclusions.
A similar (although not precisely analogous) situation holds in other areas of human reason, including both science and morality. Within a certain community of like-minded reasoners, a set of assumptions is taken for granted, from which we can draw conclusions.
Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?
Toward the end of John Banville’s new novel, “The Infinities” (Knopf; $25.95), a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside, a snooty character to whom someone is describing an “updated” production of a play about the parents of Hercules declares that he “does not approve of the classics being tampered with”: the Greeks, he says, “knew what they were doing, after all.” The joke is that the pretentious young man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The play in question, “Amphitryon”—whose themes, of adultery, confused identities, and improbable Olympian interventions, are actually the model for Banville’s novel—isn’t Greek at all. Rather, it’s an early-nineteenth-century German reworking of late-seventeenth-century French and English rewritings of a second-century-B.C. tragicomedy written in Latin. And that was just then. In the twentieth century alone, the Amphitryon myth has been adapted by a French novelist, two German playwrights, an opera composer, an anti-Nazi filmmaker, and Cole Porter. Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?more from Daniel Mendelsohn at The New Yorker here.
dreyfus still an affair
The 20th century dawned not on the first day of 1900 (or, for purists, 1901) but on a September evening in 1894, when a cleaner at the German embassy in Paris found a torn-up letter in the military attaché’s wastebasket. The cleaner was working for French intelligence, and the letter, once reassembled, was found to contain military secrets being offered by an unnamed French Army officer. After a cursory investigation, authorities arrested Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain working at General Staff headquarters. Thus began the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent man was unjustly convicted, amid rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and sent off to rot on a deserted island in South America. A vigorous public campaign against the howling injustice of the affair raged for more than a decade before the captain’s final vindication, which divided France into warring camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, republicans and traditionalists. Dreyfus’s ordeal was the first big test of a modern justice system, and it defined one of the central issues of democracy: should the rule of law be applied consistently, or are there cases in which it should be bent to fit a current crisis or pressing national concern? Even today, hardly a month passes without an alleged misstep of justice somewhere in the world being labelled a “new Dreyfus Affair”.more from Donald Morrison at the FT here.
Contra Krugman on China's Renminbi Exchange Rate PolicyYiping Huang in Vox:
Most economists would agree with Krugman that the renminbi is probably undervalued. But the extent of misalignment remains a controversial subject. For instance, applying a purchasing power parity approach, Menzie Chinn of University of Wisconsin at Madison and his collaborators estimated an undervaluation of about 40%. But after the World Bank’s 40% downward revision of Chinese GDP in PPP terms, that undervaluation disappeared completely. Nick Lardy and Morris Goldstein of the Peterson Institute of International Economics suggested that the renminbi was probably only undervalued by 12-16% at the end of 2008. My colleague Yang Yao and his collaborator at the Peking University found even less misalignment.
The renminbi exchange rate is but one, and perhaps not even the most important, factor behind China’s large trade and current account surpluses. Among other factors, economic studies have attributed the recent surge in China’s external imbalances to the unique population dividend and the relocation of industries from other Asian economies. My own research has also highlighted the importance of distortions in domestic factor markets, which were largely legacies of the pre-reform economic systems of central planning.
To resolve the global imbalance problem, China, the US, and other countries will need to work together and adopt more comprehensive reform packages, focusing not only on the exchange rate regime but also on domestic structural reforms in their respective countries. Exclusive focus on the renminbi exchange rate issue is likely to be both ineffective and counter-productive. Between mid-2005 and mid-2008, the renminbi appreciated by 22% against the dollar and by 16% in real effective terms. But China’s external imbalances continued to widen rapidly.
The US started to lose manufacturing jobs way before China emerged as a global manufacturing centre. China’s current account surplus increased after 2004. But America’s current account deficits mushroomed from around the turn of the century. There is no denying that China and the US should work together to resolve the imbalance problem. But to say that China’s surplus caused America’s deficits, which emerged much earlier, is simply at odds with common sense.
So what would happen were the Obama administration to follow Krugman’s advice?
An Interview with Péter EsterházyIn The Millions:
The Millions: Your acrobatic sentences may remind contemporary American readers of Donald Barthelme, or even of Diane Williams, but I’m guessing that when you turned to novel-writing during the Kádár era, such linguistic self-consciousness was sui generis. Can you tell us a bit about how your style developed, and how it fit into the social, political, and aesthetic climate of Budapest in the ’70s?
Péter Esterházy: My admittedly conscious use of language, I think, was not conscious. It was my hand or my stomach that knew. In short, I didn’t approach writing from the vantage point of theory, but from the side of practice – much like a stonemason. A stonemason is brick-centered, too. At the time this was considered marginal, but at the time marginality seemed the natural state of being. The center is suspect. Everything that is official is suspect. Except, in essence, it’s basically the official that exists. This is what we call a dictatorship.
TM: Did you feel yourself to be part of a broader movement of younger writers or artists, or did you have a sense of doing something quite radical? And how did your academic training as a mathematician inform your approach to fiction?
PE: I think that as far as my reflexes are concerned I would have liked to have been a so-called l’art pour l’art writer. But in a dictatorship everything takes on political coloring, and though a writer may declare, or rather practice, that a text is a text is a text (and a rose), still all this ends up in a pronounced moral sphere, it takes on social function; in fact, whether the writer intends it or not, that’s the role it plays. But that’s all right. It is what happened to my books as well.
At first I noticed similar aspirations among contemporary poets (Dezső Tandori, Imre Oravecz). Clearly, the same thing comes off as a sort of radicalism in prose. But my temperament is less radical than it is consistent.
Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran. The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them. But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.more from Drake Bennett at The Boston Globe here.
forgive me if i laugh
you are so sure of love
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.
the rain exploding
in the air is love
the grass excreting her
green wax is love
and stones remembering
past steps is love,
but you. you are too young
and i too old.
once. what does it matter
when or who, i knew
i fixed my body
under his and went
to sleep in love
all trace of me
was wiped away
forgive me if I smile
young heiress of a naked dream
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.
by Sonia Sanchez
Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:
This weekend, a sad scene is playing itself out on a busy west London high street. The Kilburn Bookshop, which has served readers for 30 years, is closing its doors for the last time. Many factors are involved – the recession and rent increases among them – but the bookshop’s manager, Simon-Peter Trimarco, believes there are deeper reasons for the closure. One problem is that browsers now rarely put their hand in their pocket. “Only one in 10 customers will end up buying a book.” They find what they want and then go to Tesco or Amazon where there are heavy discounts. (There is even an iPhone app that lets you scan a book’s bar code and find the cheapest price.) The Kilburn Bookshop is friendly and has something of a literary pedigree: “Zadie Smith came in as a little girl,” Trimarco says. If this shop can’t survive, then which can? Very few, it seems. Last year, one in 10 independent bookshops closed, at a rate of three a week. “I’m despairing,” Trimarco says.
The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive.
No Matter What, We Pay for Others’ Bad Habits
Sandeep Jauhar in The New York Times:
“I’m tired of paying for everyone else’s stupidity,” is a comment I read on the Internet last week after the health care bill was passed. It summed up the views of many Americans worried about shelling out higher premiums and taxes to cover the uninsured. Why should we pick up the tab when so much disease in our country stems from unhealthy behavior like smoking and overeating?
In fact, the majority of Americans say it is fair to ask people with unhealthy lifestyles to pay more for health insurance. We believe in the concept of personal responsibility. You hear it in doctors’ lounges and in coffee shops, among the white collar and blue collar alike. Even President Obama has said, “We’ve got to have the American people doing something about their own care.” But personal responsibility is a complex notion, especially when it comes to health. Individual choices always take place within a broader, messy context. When people advocate the need for personal accountability, they presuppose more control over health and sickness than really exists.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Joothan: A Dalit's Life
By Namit Arora
A review of a memoir by an ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s in rural Uttar Pradesh, India.
(This review won the top award in the 3 Quarks Daily 2011 Arts & Literature Contest. Read more about it here.)
I grew up in the central Indian city of Gwalior until I left home for college. This was the 70s and 80s. My father worked as a textile engineer in a company town owned by the Birla Group, where we lived in a middle class residential quarter for the professional staff and their families. Our 3-BR house had a small front lawn and a vegetable patch behind. Domestic helpers, such as a washerwoman and a dishwashing woman, entered our house via the front door—all except one, who came in via the rear door. This was the latrine cleaning woman, or her husband at times. As in most traditional homes, our squat toilet was near the rear door, across an open courtyard. She also brought along a couple of scrawny kids, who waited by the vegetable patch while their mother worked.
My mother often gave them dinner leftovers, and sometimes tea. But unlike other domestic helpers, they were not served in our utensils, nor did the latrine cleaners expect to be. They brought their own utensils and placed them on the floor; my mother served them while they stood apart. When my mother turned away, they quietly picked up the food and left. To my young eyes this seemed like the natural order of things. These were the mehtars, among the lowest of the so-called ‘untouchables’. They worked all around us, yet were ‘invisible’ to me, as if part of the stage props. I neither gave them much thought during my school years, nor recognized my prejudices as such. I, and the kids in my circle, even used ‘untouchable’ caste names as playful epithets, calling each other chamaar and bhangi.
It’s possible that I first reflected on the idea of untouchability only in college, through art house cinema. Even so, upper caste Indian liberals made these films and it was their viewpoint I saw. It is hardly a stretch to say that the way even the most sensitive white liberals in the United States knew and described the black experience of America is partly why one had to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other black authors. A similar parallel holds for Native Americans, immigrants, and women, as well as the ‘untouchables,’ now called Dalits (‘the oppressed’), numbering one out of six Indians. For some years now, they have been telling their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Theirs is not only a powerful new current of Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt.
Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki is one such work of Dalit literature, first published in Hindi in 1997 and translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee in 2003 (she added an excellent introduction in the 2007 edition). It is a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s outside a typical village in Uttar Pradesh. Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic.
Valmiki was born into the Chuhra caste (aka Bhangi), whose ordained job it was to sweep the roads, clean the cattle barns, get shit off the floor, dispose off dead animals, work the fields during harvests, and perform other physical labor for upper caste people, including the Tyagi Brahmins. The Tyagis didn’t address them by name, only called out, ‘Oe Chuhre’ or ‘Abey Chuhre.’ It was alright to touch cows and stray dogs but touching a Chuhra inflicted instant ‘pollution’ on the Tyagis. During his boyhood, his entire family worked hard, yet they ‘didn’t manage to get two decent meals a day,’ not the least because they often didn’t get paid for their labor and instead ‘got sworn at and abused.’
The Chuhras were forced to live outside the village reserved for upper caste people. A high wall and a pond segregated their brick houses in the village from the Chuhra basti, or cluster of shanties. Upper caste men and women of all ages came out and used the edge of the pond as an open-air lavatory, squatting across from the Chuhra homes in broad daylight with their private parts exposed. ‘There was muck strewn everywhere,’ writes Valmiki. ‘The stench was so overpowering that one would choke within a minute. The pigs wandering in narrow lanes, naked children, dogs, daily fights, this was the environment of my childhood.’
In the rainy season, these narrow lanes of the basti filled up with muddy water mixed-in with pigs’ excrement; flies and mosquitoes thrived. Everybody’s arms and legs became mangy and developed itchy sores. There was one drinking well in their basti for about thirty families, and despite a guard wall around it, it became full of long worms during the rainy season. They had no choice but to drink that water, as they were not permitted to use the well of the upper caste folks. Their homes were made of clay that sprang leaks all over. During heavy rains, the ceilings or walls often collapsed, as it did for Valmiki’s house more than once. One season most of their homes collapsed; as always, there was no outside help or insurance, and they had to rebuild on their own.
What Valmiki had going for him was a headstrong set of parents, determined to give him a better future. In 1955, despite Gandhi’s work on ‘upliftment’ and the new anti-discrimination laws on the books, his father had a hard time getting him admission into a primary school. When the boy finally got in, he was not allowed to sit on the benches but on the floor, away from the upper caste boys, at the back by the door, from where he couldn’t see the blackboard well. Other boys hurled epithets and beat him casually, turning him into a cowering introverted kid. Even the teachers looked for excuses to punish him, he writes, ‘so that I would run away from the school and take up the kind of work for which I was born.’ In fourth grade, a new headmaster arrived, who thrashed him almost daily and one day asked him to take a broom and sweep all the rooms and the playground in school. The hapless boy spent two full days sweeping, hoping it would soon be over.
The third day I went to the class and sat down quietly. After a few minutes the headmaster’s loud thundering was heard: ‘Abey Chuhre ke, motherfucker, where are you hiding … your mother …’ I had begun to shake uncontrollably. A Tyagi boy shouted, ‘Master Saheb, there he is, sitting in the corner.’
The headmaster had pounced on my neck. The pressure of his fingers was increasing. As a wolf grabs a lamb by the neck, he dragged me out of the class and threw me on the ground. He screamed: ‘Go sweep the whole playground … Otherwise I will shove chillies up your arse and throw you out of school.’
Frightened, I picked up the three-day-old broom [now only a cluster of] thin sticks. Tears were falling from my eyes. I started to sweep the compound while my tears fell. From the doors and windows of the schoolrooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle. Each pore of my body was submerged in an abyss of anguish.
As it turned out, his father was passing by that day and saw him sweeping the grounds. Sobbing and overcome by hiccups, the boy told him the story. Father snatched the broom and with eyes blazing, began to scream, ‘Who is that teacher, that progeny of Dronacharya, who forces my son to sweep?’  All the teachers stepped out, including the headmaster, who called his father names and roared back, ‘Take him away from here … The Chuhra wants him educated … Go, go … Otherwise I will have your bones broken.’
On his way out, his father declared in a loud voice, ‘I am leaving now … but this Chuhre ka will study right here … In this school. And not just him, but there will be more coming after him.’ His father’s courage and fortitude left a deep and decisive mark on the boy’s personality. His father knocked on the doors of other upper caste men he had worked for, hoping they would support him against the headmaster, but the response was the opposite. He was plainly told: ‘What is the point of sending him to school?’ ‘When has a crow become a swan?’ ‘Hey, if he asked a Chuhra’s progeny to sweep, what is the big deal in that?’ When his father had all but given up, one village elder yielded to his tearful beseeching and intervened to get the boy reinstated. A close call, else he would have ended up illiterate like the rest of his family.
Most of his family worked at harvest time. For a hard day’s labor, which included harvesting lentils, cutting sheaves of wheat in the midday sun, and transporting them via bullock carts, each person got one out of 21 parts produced—about two pounds of wheat—as wages. For the rest of their labor in the cowshed, they got paid in grain and a leftover roti each day (‘made by mixing the flour with the husk since it was for the chuhras’), and at times scraps of leftovers from their employer’s plates, or joothan.
The Hindi word joothan, explains Mukherjee, ‘literally means food left on an eater’s plate, usually destined for the garbage pail in a middle class, urban home. However, such food would only be characterized ‘joothan’ if someone else besides the original eater were to eat it. The word carries the connotations of ritual purity and pollution as ‘jootha’ means polluted.’ Words like ‘leftovers’ and ‘leavings’ don’t substitute well, ‘scraps’ and ‘slops’ work better, though ‘they are associated more with pigs than with humans.’ Joothan is also unfit for consumption by anyone in the eater’s family or in his own community. Mukherjee writes:
The title encapsulates the pain, humiliation and poverty of Valmiki’s community, which not only had to rely on joothan but also relished it. Valmiki gives a detailed description of collecting, preserving and eating joothan. His memories of being assigned to guard the drying joothan from crows and chickens, and of his relishing the dried and reprocessed joothan burn him with renewed pain and humiliation in the present.
The word actually carries a lot of historical baggage. Both Ambedkar and Gandhi advised untouchables to stop accepting joothan. Ambedkar, an indefatigable documenter of atrocities against Dalits [and an ‘untouchable’ himself], shows how the high caste villagers could not tolerate the fact that Dalits did not want to accept their joothan anymore and threatened them with violence if they refused it.
Valmiki describes one such incident, among the most powerful in the text. His community looked forward to marriage feasts in the village when they would gather outside with big baskets. After the guests had eaten, ‘the dirty pattals, or leaf plates, were put in the Chuhras’ baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan sticking to them.’ At the end of one such marriage feast, Valmiki’s mother requested the Brahmin host for additional food for her children, only to be humiliated and told to mind her place, be satisfied with what she already had collected, and to get going. Valmiki writes:
That night the Mother Goddess Durga entered my mother’s eyes. It was the first time I saw my mother so angry. She emptied the basket right there. She said to Sukhdev Singh, ‘Pick it up and put it inside your house. Feed it to the baratis [marriage guests] tomorrow morning.’ She gathered me and my sister and left like an arrow. Sukhdev Singh had pounced on her to hit her, but my mother had confronted him like a lioness. Without being afraid.
His family fell on even harder times when his oldest brother and wage earner got a high fever, and without access to a clinic, died. Valmiki had finished fifth grade but their deepening poverty—they didn’t even have enough food—meant that he could not continue with school. He dropped out and began tending buffaloes in the field, watching with a heavy heart his schoolmates going to school. Over the protests of others, his brother’s widow pawned the only piece of jewelry she had, a silver anklet, to pay for Valmiki’s school—yet another close call.
Back in school, Valmiki continued to face severe discrimination. Though he consistently did well in his studies, his memories of school are suffused with pain and humiliation: from taunts and beatings by schoolmates and teachers in a ‘terror-filled environment’, to his exclusion from extracurricular activities like school plays; during exams, he was not allowed to drink water from a glass when thirsty. He had to cup his hands, and ‘the peon would pour water from way high up, lest our hands touch the glass.’ At times, he writes, ‘I feel I have grown up in a cruel and barbaric civilization.’ He does remember fondly a couple of boys who befriended him and didn’t let caste come between them.
Remarkably enough, Valmiki was determined to make full use of the school library; by the time he reached eighth grade, he had read Saratchandra, Premchand, and Rabindranath Tagore, and relates this poignant vignette.
I had begun to read novels and short stories to my mother in the faint light of the wick lamp. Who knows how often Saratchandra’s characters have made a mother and son cry together? This was the beginning of my literary sensibility. Starting from Alha, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to Sur Sagar, Prem Sagar, Premchand’s stories, Kissa Tota Maina … whatever I found, I, the son of an untouchable illiterate family, read to my mother.
He studied in the light of a lantern in his intensely noisy neighborhood. ‘I was the first student of my caste,’ writes Valmiki, ‘not just from my basti but from all the surrounding villages of the area, appearing for the high school exams,’ and he felt the pressure that came from their pride in him. His graduation became an occasion for a feast in his community. He remembers that even one of the Tyagi Brahmins came to his basti to offer congratulations, and later took him home and fed him lunch in their own dishes while sitting next to him. Valmiki’s example inspired other children to show more interest in education, and for a while he even ran evening classes in his basti.
Unlike in the dominant Hindu tradition—which Valmiki pointedly denigrates and wants no part of—widow remarriage was even in the 60s an accepted norm in his community. He describes in some detail how their gods were utterly different from Hindu gods and how different their religious rituals were.  He also describes lots of family drama and interpersonal politics in his community, not shying from reproach where it is due, especially on their rank superstitions. He writes about their jobs, suffering, and everyday struggle for dignity, acknowledging that the women had an even rawer deal than men.
Many Hindi writers and poets had written about the charms of village life, observes Valmiki, but its ‘real truth,’ depicting the ‘terrible suffering of village life has not even been touched upon by the epic poets of Hindi.’ He also recounts other changes that were beginning to take place. The young men of his community had begun to refuse to work without wages. This soon escalated into an open confrontation with the upper caste men who couldn’t tolerate their nerve, and even got the local police to beat them up. Valmiki calls this a turning point of sorts; young men began departing from their basti to nearby towns and cities.
Valmiki too left to pursue college education in the city of Dehradun, where his brother and uncle worked. They all shared a single room in a Bhangi basti. It was here that he encountered the works of Ambedkar, which shook him up; he ‘spent many days and nights in great turmoil.’ He grew more restless; his ‘stone-like silence’ began to melt, and ‘an anti-establishment consciousness became strong’ in him. Ambedkar’s books, he writes, ‘had given voice to my muteness,’ and raised his self-confidence. His rage grew sharper and he became more active in college events, until his penury made him quit college and seek technical training in an ordnance factory, with its promise of a shop floor job that would judge him only for his work. But quitting college made no dent whatsoever in his love of reading.
After a year of training, he got posted to the city of Jabalpur in 1968, moving in the ensuing years to Bombay and Chandrapur, Maharashtra. The last third of his memoir is on this phase of his life. Now he really came into his own: he met a bunch of Marxists, read Chekov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Hemmingway, Zola, and other Western writers. He joined a local theater group, saw Vijay Tendulkar’s plays, ‘read the entire works of Tagore and Kalidasa,’ was drawn to the Buddha’s teachings, and discovered Marathi Dalit literature, the most sophisticated in all of India, which energized him and forged his literary consciousness. He began to publish poems and write a column in a local weekly, later also plays and short stories. Almost two decades later, he published Joothan. In its last two paragraphs, he anticipates his critics:
Times have changed. But there is something somewhere that continues to irk. I have asked many scholars to tell me why Savarnas [caste Hindus] hate Dalits and Shudras so much? The Hindus who worship trees and plants, beasts and birds, why are they so intolerant of Dalits? Today caste remains a pre-eminent factor in social life. As long as people don’t know that you are a Dalit, things are fine. The moment they find out your caste, everything changes. The whispers slash your veins like knives. Poverty, illiteracy, broken lives, the pain of standing outside the door, how would the civilized Savarna Hindus know it?
Why is my caste my only identity? Many friends hint at the loudness and arrogance of my writings. They insinuate that I have imprisoned myself in a narrow circle. They say that literary expression should be focused on the universal; a writer ought not to limit himself to a narrow, confined terrain of life. That is, my being Dalit and arriving at a point of view according to my environment and my socioeconomic situation is being arrogant. Because in their eyes, I am only an SC, the one who stands outside the door.
Valmiki’s narrative voice brims with a quiet sense of outrage at what he had to endure as a human. Indeed, I’m inclined to see his memoir as a form of Satyagraha: in reflecting back to others their own violence and injustice, it attempts to shame them into introspection. This is the kind of book that becomes ‘the axe for the frozen sea inside us.’ More Indians ought to read it and let its hard edges get to work inside them.
(Also consider reading my companion piece, The Blight of Hindustan, which provides a brisk overview of the Indian caste system—its origins, spread, and some historical attitudes and debates.)
1. Arun Prabha Mukherjee notes that ‘Valmiki places his and his Dalit friends’ encounters with upper caste teachers in the context of the Brahmin teacher Dronacharya tricking his low caste disciple Eklavya into cutting his thumb and presenting it to him as part of his gurudakshina, or teacher’s tribute. This is a famous incident in the Mahabharata. By doing this, Dronacharya ensured that Eklavya, the better student of archery, could never compete against Arjun, the Kshtriya disciple. Indeed, having lost his thumb, Eklavya could no longer perform archery. In high caste telling, the popular story presents a casteless Eklavya as the exemplar of an obedient disciple rather than the Brahmin Dronacharya as a perfidious and biased teacher. When Valmiki’s father goes to the school and calls the headmaster a Dronacharya, he links the twentieth-century caste relations to those that prevailed two thousand years ago.’
2. Kancha Ilaiah attempts a more systematic exposition on the sociocultural differences between the caste Hindus and the Shudras and Dalits in his trenchant book, ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’.
3. SC stands for Scheduled Caste, the neutral-sounding administrative term for the lowest castes, including the ‘untouchables’.
More writing by Namit Arora?
A Dialogue on the Death Penalty
Gerald Dworkin and Justin E. H. Smith
Jerry and I began this dialogue after he, in the process of preparing an ethics course on the topic of capital punishment, happened upon some pieces I wrote a few years ago at various activist venues (they are archived here, here, here, here, and here). The articles are polemical rather than scholarly, and I never expected the issue of capital punishment would someday get any attention from me qua philosopher (as opposed to qua polemicist). But Jerry found some of the issues I raised in them worthy of attention, and in turn has raised for me a number of issues that I never really worked through before in my very visceral opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful for this, and I think what has resulted is a discussion that should be of interest to reformers and philosophers alike (as well as to those who belong in both of these camps.) --JEHS.
Gerald Dworkin: Justin and I agree that capital punishment as currently administered in the United States, and in the absence of convincing evidence that it deters more than a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LIWP) for any crime, should be abolished. Where we may disagree --I put it this way because I am not sure what view I will emerge with at the end of this discussion-- is whether there is an argument for abolition that does not depend on contingent facts, such as that it does not deter, or that as currently administered the selection of who gets executed is both arbitrary (chance and luck play an enormous role) and unjust (the poor and racial minorities are executed at higher rates that those with money and those blacks who kill whites). For, as Justin points out elsewhere, believing that the facts are as they are is compatible with believing that in a world where deterrence is established and fairness reigns CP is justifiable. This position could be true even if one believed that as a matter of contingent fact our system will never be sufficiently just, and the evidence for deterrence will never be sufficiently strong so as to warrant CP. The first thing I want to do is see if Justin and I agree on a more rigorous definition of the issue. For it is, as I shall argue later, very important exactly how the problem is framed.
I propose that what the defender of what I shall call the non-contingent wrongness of CP must show is the following:
• There is no successful argument for the legitimacy of CP which survives empirical and normative scrutiny.• In addition to this via negativa there is a valid positive argument whose conclusion is that CP is illegitimate which does not rely in an essential way on contingent matters of fact.
This last claim is difficult to formulate accurately. Does an argument which involves the premise “death is different” (whatever that may mean) rely on the fact that once we die we don’t come back to life? That, presumably, is a contingent fact. Does an argument which says that CP is “cruel” rely on some characteristic of CP that makes it cruel? But maybe that characteristic is not an empirical one. If one defines cruelty as acting in a way which is intended to cause great suffering to another person for its own sake then, although it is a contingent fact, whether or not CP is designed or justified by reference to this feature, if it is then it is not a contingent fact that it is cruel.
Justin Smith: Jerry's initial characterization of my position is right on. I do not yet know whether there is an argument against CP that is not based on contingent facts, though I am quite certain that it is not a contingent fact that CP is cruel. I believe that CP is indissociably rooted in a social practice that until very recently was explicitly cruel: one of its principal reasons for being was to set an example of the infinite power of the state over the lives of its subjects. It is thus not surprising that in most of the Western world, the practice of CP died away along with the shift to democracy, and even more definitively with the somewhat later shift to a conception of the ultimate end of the penal system as a corrective one.
It is interesting that in many countries, such as Great Britain and France, the last vestiges of it survived as the form of punishment reserved for treason alone: this seems to me to have to do with the fact that under earlier, absolutist systems, CP, even though it was employed for all sorts of crimes, including murder, was in essence political, again in the sense that it demonstrated the power of the sovereign over the subjects. Long after murder and like crimes came to be seen as merely a criminal matter in Western Europe, and not a matter of state, direct crimes against the state could still be punished by death. The rest of the Western world eradicated CP by the late 20th century, even for treason, while somehow it managed to survive in the United States. Indeed it underwent a revival in the 1970s after some decades of desuetude, and in spite of a parallel commitment to individual rights at the political level, and to an understanding (which since the 1970s we may fear is only vestigial) of centers of punishment as 'correctional' institutions.
I apologize for starting off with genealogy, when the topic is whether there are any a priori arguments available against CP. I'm inclined to think that there is such an abundance of a posteriori problems with CP as actually practiced, and that these problems are so unlikely to be resolved, that the importance for any critic of CP of finding an a priori argument is not great. I do think however that there is at least one, so to speak conditional a priori argument against CP: if punishment is supposed to be correctional, then the death penalty is at odds with the purposes of punishment. Now a defender of CP might argue that there is a 'correction' of sorts that happens in the application of the death penalty: the wrongdoing is being corrected, or made right or absolved, by the death of the criminal. But of course this is not what our system of punishment claims to be in the business of correcting, nor is this kind of correction at all compatible with the rest of the legal and penal philosophy that our society claims to uphold.
Very broadly, it seems to me that the survival of CP in the United States leaves us with the impossible task of making two different conceptions of justice fit together: one that is based on the absolution of cruelty through an equal measure of cruelty (this is an ancient conception, and it implies a cosmology few people would explicitly assent to if pushed), and one that rejects cruel and unusual punishment out of hand in view of the fact that it is not conducive to the improvement of the individual criminal. This, then, is my first stab at meeting criterion (2) above. Death is different because it requires the destruction of the target of correction (it also requires the destruction of evidence, which is strictly prohibited in all other cases, a fact I might have occasion to return to later). But our system of punishment is a correctional system, not a restorer of cosmic balance through ritual sacrifice. Trying to be both at the same time leads to absurd results, as illustrated most vividly, I think, in the practice of swabbing the prisoner's arm with rubbing alcohol in order to sterilize it before lethal injection. As for criterion (1), perhaps Jerry can say a bit more about what would have to be shown in order to meet it.
G.D. I certainly agree that there are sufficient practical difficulties with the existing system of CP that we do not need an apriori argument to justify immediate abolition. Why then should I care if there is an apriori (I prefer non-contingent) argument as well? Qua reformer I do not. Qua philosopher that’s the business I am in. I want to know whether there is something about the very nature of CP which justifies its abolition. By analogy, it may very well be that eating animals is bad for us, both in terms of health and in terms of its ecological effects. But, while I am not (yet) a vegetarian, were I one I would want to say that there is something wrong with killing animals, even if this practice in fact made us slightly healthier and was ecologically sound. I am looking for an argument which says that even if we had reliable evidence that for each murderer executed we would prevent eight murders, and even if the process could be administered in a fair and equitable fashion, it would nevertheless be required that we abolish CP.
Justin presents a conditional argument: if the justification for CP is some kind of corrective notion, then CP cannot be corrective. True enough. Others have argued that even if the conditional is, "If the justification for CP is retributive, i.e. its function is see that people get what they deserve, then CP cannot be retributive." Although this sounds somewhat paradoxical I accept this claim as well. For it requires showing that what murderers deserve is to be killed, as opposed to LIWP at the lesser-punishment end or torture followed by execution at the greater-punishment end. Although I don’t have the space to argue it here I believe that there are a number of reasons for thinking this cannot be established. But what I am looking for is an argument that there can’t be a successful argument of the form, “If the justification of CP is X, then for any x, the conclusion cannot be that CP can be justifiable on the basis of x.” I want to know why for any reasonable theory of punishment --and unless we are abolitionists about punishment itself there must be one-- it turns out that LIWP is permissible (or some lesser sentence if you prefer) but death is nor permissible. Now there are some punishments that do fit this model. To take a widely disparate set of cases: punishing the spouse of the murderer; cutting off the murderer’s arms and legs; daily torture instead of execution; killing the murderer in order to salvage his organs for people who would otherwise die.
One needs in each of these cases an explanation of why the punishment is impermissible, and I believe I can give (different) explanations. My problem is that none of these explanations seems to rule out execution.J.S. Interesting that Jerry should mention vegetarianism, because I too think this is a very revealing parallel case. And here, as with CP, I think the most one can hope to find is a conditional a priori argument in favor of it: if you are, say, a hunter-gatherer, I am not prepared to say that your killing of animals is wrong; if you are, like me, a member of a consumer society with fully nourishing plant-based foods available to you that allow you to avoid complicity in the gruesome system of factory farming (gruesome in a way that traditional spear- or bow-hunting is not), then you should be a vegetarian. I share the philosophers' desire to find non-contingent reasons for avoiding certain practices, but I'm fairly convinced that as concerns both meat-eating and capital punishment, one searches for them in vain. The kind of contingent circumstances I'm focusing on are however relatively wider-scoped than the ones that are usually adduced against CP (fails to deter, is administered unfairly, and so on). I am saying that it fails to cohere with other values to which we are supposedly committed, and that even if it did deter, could be administered fairly, could result in the prevention of eight other murders, and so on, it would still be wrong for the reason that it conflicts with these other values.
What are these other values? One, which I've already mentioned, is a commitment to the penal philosophy of correction. This only became orthodoxy in the 19th century, and has been rapidly eroding since the 1970s. Another (in the United States, anyway) is the commitment to upholding the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. There has of course been a great deal of controversy over what this phrase means, and whether any instance of CP is by definition a violation of this prohibition. In actual fact, the US justice system has consistently taken seriously the argument of the defense that a given method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual. This is in part what is responsible for the continual migration from one method to another, even though each (starting with the guillotine) is introduced as the new and improved humane way of carrying the punishment out. What this shows is that there seems to be general agreement that there is a difference between the taking away of a criminal's life, on the one hand, and the killing of the criminal on the other. These are conceptually distinct, even if the one always implies the other. The general line of thinking in the US has been that the first of these is not in principle cruel and unusual, yet it has nonetheless proven impossible so far to find a way of carrying out the second that is not cruel and unusual. I am strongly inclined to believe, however, that taking away a life is cruel, if not unusual, whatever the method of killing, and whatever the crime for which it is punishment (mutatis mutandis, I similarly do not believe that free-range cultivation of beef or lamb takes away all of the moral concerns about carnivorism). Why do I think it is cruel? Because it is motivated by a desire to see the criminal suffer in the way that his victim has suffered (the fact that we can't really flagrantly make him suffer by, say, torturing him to death, results from the conflict between the two conceptions of justice of which I've already spoken), and I just don't know what cruelty could be other than the desire to see suffer.
No other currently legal form of punishment is motivated by this desire. Amputation or daily torture, as Jerry mentions, are not permissible, and Jerry already believes there are good reasons for this. I believe that the reasons for keeping torture illegal are not much more compelling than the reasons to ban CP: both are motivated by the desire to see suffer, to which our society, in its constitutional ban on cruelty, has a contingent --they did not have to bring this up in the Constitution at all-- but pretty deep --this part of the Constitution stems from an earnest attempt to reflect the principles of natural justice, so far as we can tell what those are-- opposition.LIWP, in turn, is the default punishment not because it is commensurate with the crime --no non-cruel punishment could possibly be that-- but because it prevents the criminal from committing more murders and, one hopes, gives him the rest of his natural life to seek absolution by changing his heart and his deeds. This means that, in effect, commensurateness to the crime is not a viable principle of punishment in a system that forbids cruel punishment. Criminal deeds, after all, are cruel. But cruel punishment is forbidden. Therefore punishment cannot be commensurate to the crime. This leaves us with LIWP, which might not be emotionally satisfying to many affected by the crime, but at least is not in conflict with other of our society's basic commitments. We could of course just scrap those commitments, and reverse the ban on cruelty. What we can't do, coherentl y, is to try to uphold the two together.
In sum, so far: no non-contingent arguments against capital punishment found, but some --I hope-- philosophically interesting discussion of the sources of the contingency involved.
G.D. First, I like the idea of wide-scoped vs. narrow scoped contingent circumstances. But I am not sure that Justin’s argument above is not a non-contingent argument. For if CP is, in its nature, cruel, and if cruelty is always ruled out normatively, then it looks as if this is the argument we are looking for. So what we need is a conception of cruelty which 1) is inherent in CP and 2) is ruled out on normative grounds. With respect to the second point we need not say that it is always ruled out. Philosophers are good at coming up with weird cases which show that there are exceptions to everything. But at least the connection should be almost universal.
The analysis of cruelty Justin gives is the following: "I just don't know what cruelty could be other than the desire to see suffer." I have a number of problems with this. I think it is important to keep separate (sometimes) questions of motivation from questions of justification. I may be motivated to save the drowning child because his father is rich and I hope for a large reward. I am not a very nice person. But, surely, my saving the drowning child was justified.
So the issue is really: must a justification of CP have as an essential component a reference to the suffering that death causes? Well, undoubtedly some do. Any retributive justification does make reference to seeing to it that the offender gets what he deserves. And in this case death must be what he deserves. But there is a sense in which any theory of punishment assumes that what happens to the convicted is something that they do not want to happen, that they find unpleasant. For a deterrence theorist that feature is required to explain why the threat of punishment deters. But the point or purpose of the institution is not to make the guilty suffer. It is to deter. So at most suffering enters as a means to the end of deterrence. If that relation to suffering makes CP cruel it makes any punishment cruel. That is a reductio ad absurdum.
The phrase 'desires to see suffer' is misleading because it suggests that suffering is desired for its own sake. And that is not the case for the deterrence theorist. If, for some strange reason, sending convicted felons to Hawaii to lie on the beach were to deter future potential murderers from killing a deterrence theorist would be delighted. So I suggest that what Justin really means is that the desire for people to suffer for its own sake is cruel. And this seems to me a plausible idea. But on this conception CP is not inherently cruel on any justification. Only on very special ones, namely, very strong versions of retributivism.I am however intrigued by another point Justin makes. He thinks our prohibition against torture is on the grounds of cruelty. And that seems right. I said that my reason for prohibiting torture did not extend to CP. But if I believe that then I must have some other reason for the prohibition of torture. Or think that there is a conception of torture on which it comes out as cruel but CP does not.
J.S. Now what I'm about to say might sound pretty close to what has been described as 'punishment abolitionism', but if that is the case, so be it. I do not think that a theory of punishment that holds that its unpleasantness is an essential part of it is a good theory of punishment, or at least I do not think that the unpleasantness of the punishment should be part of the reason of the punishment, even if it always accompanies the punishment. The reason for the punishment is correction. By comparison, I think that unpleasantness might be an ineliminable part of coronary bypass surgery, but the surgery does not exist for the sake of its unpleasantness. So on my account the retributivist approach is the wrong one with respect to any punishment. This is as true for, say, white-collar crimes as it is for murder. Here my point is not that I think retribution is wrong, but that it conflicts with the fundamental commitments of our society's explicit penal philosophy (which I endorse, but even if I didn't endorse it this would not change the fact that retribution is incompatible with it). So that is how we can deal with the retribution theorists. As for the deterrence theorists, I had thought that what we were looking for here was a non-contingent argument against CP, which is to say in part an argument that would stand up whether CP in fact deters or not. Now, whether it does or not is a contingent question, but while we are on the subject of contingencies it is worth pointing out that CP does not, in fact, deter. States in the US in which CP is legal have higher murder rates, on average, than states in which it is not legal. (Then again, other countries in which CP is legal, such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, have relatively low murder rates, but it is almost certainly not the case that this is because of the deterrent effect of CP.) In any case, if we are speaking to the deterrence theorist on his own terms, it seems to me that we can only speak in terms of contingencies, and as it happens in the US context deterrence-based arguments are ungrounded.
So retributivism and deterrence theory are dispatched, and the remaining questions I need to deal with, I think, concern, first, my claim that the desire to see someone suffer is inherently cruel, and, second, whether CP is itself inherently cruel even if some people defend it because of a cruel desire to see people suffer. I said in my last volley that 'I just don't know what else cruelty could be than the desire to see suffer'. I was hoping, by putting it like this, to let it pass as a not-further-arguable intuition. If an argument is required, it will be one that gets us back to genealogy, to a consideration of the kinds of practices from which I take CP to descend. My thinking here is greatly indebted to Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity (and, though I hate his positive conclusions, to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality), and perhaps in a subsequent round I'll have occasion to say more about this, but for now I think it takes us pretty far afield from our narrower task. Now, supposing that one of the motivations for defending CP is the desire to see suffer, and supposing this is in fact cruel, does it follow that CP itself is cruel? I think we are dealing with a case here that is essentially very different than that of the man who saves the child because of the child's rich father, in which we can clearly separate the character of the act from the motivation for the act. I do not think that you can find, in the current American context, a non-deterrence-based argument in favor of CP that does not base itself largely on the fact that it provides 'closure' to the victim's family. And I don't know what this closure could be other than the (partial) satisfaction of a desire for revenge, which might also be accompanied by some folk-cosmological assumptions about the way the second death 'balances out' the first one. So here the desire for infliction of suffering is not at all incidental, in the way that the desire for a reward is incidental to the saving of the rich man's child.
G.D. Let me summarize our agreements and disagreements at this point. We agree (1) that there is no evidence CP deters with respect to LIWP, and hence no deterrence argument can work; (2) that it is worthwhile to look for a non-contingent argument; (3) that there is an argument from the cruelty of CP where cruelty is defined as the desire to see another suffer; (4) that cruelty is necessarily wrong. We disagree (1) on the definition of cruelty. According to me, it has two interpretations; on one, I do not accept that CP is cruel; on the other I accept that CP is cruel but disagree that cruelty is necessarily wrong. We also disagree (2) on the question whether any deterrence theory must have as part of its reason for CP that it makes people suffer. I do not believe that it must.
Since we are looking for a non-contingent argument against CP I am going to assume, for the sake of argument, that CP does deter differentially. In particular, since assuming is cheap, I am going to assume that for each murderer executed eight potential murder victims are spared. (The number is not competely arbitrary. The recent study that Cass Sunstein --a distinguished legal theorist-- thinks is fairly plausible claims this figure. I take no view as to whether he is right about its plausibility).
Justin's argument is that, even so, CP must be abolished because it is cruel. But if cruelty means that the deterrence theorist must desire for its own sake that murderers suffer then I disagree. Classic deterence theorists from Bentham on have always insisted that the suffering of the murderer is a bad thing, that it must be minimized, and that if we could deter without making offenders suffer that would be the best state of affairs.
Deterrence theorists accept that murderers must be made to suffer in the same way that --in your example-- the heart surgeon accepts that his patient will suffer in performing a coronory bypass. It is an (unfortunately) necessary means to a good end. Just as you do not think the surgeon is cruel, or the operation is cruel, so I think that CP is not cruel if one's justification is deterrent.
Do you, Justin, agree with the above? If you do, is there another notion of cruelty?
J.S. Now I think our agreements and disagreements are starting to come clear. I'm afraid the list of disagreements is a little bit longer than the one Jerry gives above. First, I don't think cruelty is necessarily wrong, or at least I don't have any argument that could prove that it is. What I do think is that if a society is committed to not being cruel, then it cannot be a society that employs the death penalty. I have already said that I do not know what cruelty could be, other than the desire to see suffer. This was deemed insufficient, so I will add that, coming at the question from a different direction, a punishment is cruel that rules out the possibility of a criminal's rehabilitation over the course of his natural life (even if this rehabilitation were not to result in exemption from LIWHP, there are still many ways in which prisoners serving life sentences have been able to 'make something of themselves' within the very limited confines of prison life). Why? Because it lacks mercy. I might be accused of trying to import a religious virtue into a discussion in which this sort of consideration can have no place. But I think as an un-argued-for assumption, 'mercy is good' is at least as sturdy as 'cruelty is bad'.
It dawns on me that if we want something more than this sort of smuggled assumption, the thing to do would be to look at the history of legal reasoning about cruel and unusual punishment. Beyond our intuitions about what is cruel --and my intuition has proven less than universal-- I don't think conceptual analysis alone can bring us to any shared conclusions about what cruelty is. The boundaries of the predicate '...is cruel' as actually used seem to me both vague and flexible, and the closest thing we can find to a definitive answer as to the range of this predicate's application would be to consult the tradition on which current jurisprudence is based.
One passing observation about the Sunstein-sanctioned study showing that eight murders are deterred for every one execution. I'm sure this is dealt with somewhere in the literature, but I'm wondering how one might respond to the concern that deterrence-based reasoning seems to open up the possibility of, or at least go one step further down the path towards, preemptive punishment of the sort envisioned in Philip K. Dick's excellent short story, The Minority Report. What if executing one man who, say, shows signs in adolescence of incipient violent psychopathy could, per implausibile, save eight hundred lives? It seems that on a deterrence-based justification of CP, the punishment is no longer really a punishment for the murder carried out by the particular criminal, but rather a punishment carried out in advance of any potential future murders. But here any justification of deterrence-based punishment would seem to hold up even when the person punished is not in fact guilty of a crime. (I suspect, by the way, that this is not so far from how CP actually works, and explains why it is applied so grossly disproportionately to a certain group in the United States whose members, historically, have been 'kept in their place' by violent means, whether the individual members of the group are in fact guilty of any crime or not.)
G.D. I think that the new premise that Justin introduces, the claims that no form of punishment which precludes the possibility of an offender's rehabilitation is justifiable, is an interesting one to explore further. My only objection is that labeling it 'cruel' may simply be a way of saying that it is wrong rather than bringing it under one particular way of being wrong with its own special features.
The other point I want to make is that any plausible deterrence-based justification of punishment will have components which are constraints on the ways in which the goal of deterrence will be pursued. This part of the theory will address issues such as the one Justin raises about whether preventive punishment is legitimate. Notice that, although it is not punishment and that is important, we do have preventive detention as part of our civil law, e.g., quarantine of infectious people and civil commitment of dangerous people.
Let me try another, non-contingent, argument against CP. It is an objection mainly to general deterrence, i.e. that we are entitled to kill those convicted of murder to deter others from committing future murders. Special deterrence, i.e. killing murderers to prevent them from killing again does not fall prey to this attack, but special deterrence has always seemed a rather weak rationale even on deterrent grounds. Someone serving LIWP is not going to kill anyone outside of prison --barring prison breaks-- and while it might seem obvious that a prisoner serving a life sentence has nothing to fear from killing a guard or a fellow prisoner since there is no harsher sentence in the absence of CP, in fact there are many ways of making a life sentence much more unpleasant --complete lockdown, loss of all privileges, etc.-- so that it is not surprising to find the empirical evidence comparing states which have CP with those which do not does not support a higher rate of assaults or killings within prison in the latter.
The argument against general deterrence is that our justification for killing convicted murderers is that we need to do so to achieve a desirable end --reducing the number of total murders-- and that this is simply to treat each murderer as a means to promoting good consequences. His death is justified only by its being part of a causal process which deters others from killing. Treating people simply as a means is the well-known Kantian objection to all consequentialist views which justify failing to respect the rational agency of one person in order to achieve some --otherwise valuable-- end.
Suppose that the murderer about to die asks, “What justifies you in taking my life?” The answer cannot simply be, “You have murdered someone,” as it would be on a retributive view. It has to be , “You have murdered someone and our threats to punish murderers cannot be credible unless we carry out the sentence. We need your death as part of a credible system of threats which we believe deters other murderers.” Now the right type of argument against this response --right in the sense that it is a non-contingent argument, which applies even if CP is an effective deterrent and even if the process of administration is fair-- claims that there is an intrinsic feature of CP, use of persons as simply a means, which, if a certain normative theory is correct (Kant), forbids CP.
I have two objections to this theory. First, it is not true that CP uses convicted murderers simply as a means. Second, if the theory were true, it would apply as much to LIWP as CP. With respect to the first point I want to set out why a certain kind of deterrence view need not fall victim to the Kantian objection. This theory is an amalgam of various proposals that exist in the philosophical literature. In particular Phillip Montague and Daniel Farrell have put forward key elements.
Start out from the idea that (almost) all abolitionists accept that it is legitimate to use deadly force if that is the only way of stopping an aggressor from killing oneself or others. One plausible way of explaining this is the following principle: When X has unjustly created a situation such that either X or Y will die (X is about to kill Y) then it is fair that the death falls on X rather than Y. Call this the 'Shifting of Harm' principle.
Now turn to the institution of punishment. Assume that we live in a world in which some class of people will unjustly kill others. Assume that by setting up a system of threats --murderers will be executed-- we can in fact deter some people who would otherwise murder. Note that there may well be normative restrictions on the kinds of threats that are permissible. For example, we are not allowed to threaten the children of offenders. We are not allowed to threaten people who are doing perfectly acceptable things, like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, with punishment if they continue to do so.
We announce this threat in advance. All that citizens must do to avoid the punishment is to not unjustly kill other people. In effect, we have adopted the Shifting of Harm principle to a set of (unknown) people who are not imminent threats. We say to them that the members of their group --the potential murderers-- have created a situation in which either some of them will die as a result of our carrying out our threat, or some of us will die by failing to carry out the threats, and it is fair that the harm should fall on them.Notice that this argument does, in effect, extend the liability to harm for the individual (who is always liable for his own harm) to the class of all potential murderers. It says that each offender is paying a price not only for his crimes but for the crimes of others. But this is not simply treating the executed murderer as a means to the good end of murder reduction. If he has had a fair opportunity to avoid being part of the group creating the risk of death to others, if he has been warned that this is what will happen, if the harm that is produced by the punishment --death-- is really required to achieve the protection of others, then he has no complaint. Just as the aggressor about to stick his knife into you has no complaint that he is being treated simply as a means when you use deadly force against him.
As for the second objection above --that the argument, if valid, applies to any prison term as much as to CP-- simply note that the objection is not specific to any particular penalty. It says that if the purpose of any punishment is general deterrence, i.e. preventing future crimes, then we are using the convicted to prevent the crimes of others and that is wrong. It would be just as wrong to lock burglars up to deter others from burglary. In short, this argument does not work but, if it did, would prove too much.
Let me summarize my position. I believe we ought to abolish the death penalty because we have no reason to think it deters and it is administered in an arbitrary and unjust manner. I am open to the possibility that there is a non-contingent argument against CP which would justify abolition even if it did deter and was administered fairly. I have not yet been presented with such an argument that I regard as plausible.
J.S. Well it looks like Jerry saved his lethal blows for the very end. He considers a fairly strong non-contingent argument against CP (that is, not a cherry-picked one), and proceeds to knock it down. The argument takes up Kant's principle that a human being should always to be treated as an end and not as a means, and says that any deterrence-centered defence of CP necessarily violates this principle. Jerry offers two major objections to this argument: first, that deterrence-based CP might be seen as a legitimate application of the Shifting of Harm principle rather than as a violation of the Kantian ban on using human beings as ends; second, he notes that, if the argument were to stand against CP, an analogous argument against any punishment for any crime would be just as strong.
As for the second line of attack, I say so much the worse for deterrence-based application of punishment (whatever the crime). If using human beings as ends is wrong, and punishment for the sake of deterrence uses human beings as ends, then deterrence-driven imprisonment for burglary is just as wrong as CP for murder. But does punishment for the sake of deterrence necessarily violate the Kantian principle? I think Jerry's invocation of the Shifting of Harm principle here is fairly sound, in that I definitely think it's legitimate to suspend the usual rule about not treating a human being as a means to an end if that human being is coming at me with a knife, and it could be the case that the state's threat to potential future murderers is just a somewhat more complicated application of this same principle. But I wonder whether there isn't something about the immediacy of the threat that gives the Shifting of Harm principle its legitimacy. After all, when a dude comes at me with a knife, I don't run through the arguments of the Critique of Practical Reason in order to decide what I should do. So my suspension of the no-men-are-means principle isn't really a suspension of a principle at all, so much as a failure (whether laudable or blameworthy) to uphold it in certain circumstances. But to extend the Shifting of Harm principle to potential future murderers is in effect to say: we intend to fail to live up to something to which we are otherwise committed.
Mutatis mutandis, my uneasiness with this reminds me of one of the objections, from whom I do not recall, to Alan Dershowitz's horrible proposal that the government start issuing 'torture warrants' to federal agents who found themselves in situations in which they could, by getting cruelly and unusually rough, extract information that might save the lives of hundreds or thousands. The objection went as follows: it is perhaps not that agents will never find themselves in such a situation, and perhaps if they do they should just go ahead and start torturing. But what we don't want is to enshrine into law the possibility of suspending what are otherwise our deep moral commitments.
This last point leads me to a concluding thought I have about CP. I think some people almost certainly do deserve to die, but for better or for worse there simply is no person or body that can be entrusted with the grave responsibility of killing them. For me, one of the strongest arguments against CP has not to do with what it does to the criminal who is punished, but what it does to those involved in the application of the punishment. It makes it possible for killing to be the normal carrying out of a bureaucratic procedure, rather than a transgression or a suspension of our ordinary commitments. That to me is more terrifying than the murder to which the punishment is a response: the murder was plainly a transgression, whereas the compensatory execution is allowed for in our books of law. This means that to uphold CP is to make killing normal, something that it is not even for the great majority of murderers.
To sum up: I agree with Jerry that no compelling non-contingent arguments against CP are to be found. This negative conclusion, I think, is of less significance to me than it is to Jerry. I, unlike Jerry, am not an ethicist, and my interest in CP is, as my earlier pieces on it reveal, far from academic. As a non-ethicist, it never crossed my mind before to look for a non-contingent argument against CP. As a contextualist historian of philosophy, throughout this dialogue on the possibility of a non-contingent argument against CP, I've found myself returning again and again to the questions: what could even count as a non-contingent argument? The closest thing we've got to such an argument here is one that relies on a certain normative theory (Kant's), but that seems very much to me like something that one could either accept or reject, and accepting it seems to have a lot to do with what kind of society one lives in, and when. So I just don't know where any deeper non-contingency is supposed to come from, though I recognize that my perplexity here could very well arise from the fact that specialists in different domains of philosophy are trained to look for different things. Perhaps whether there really is such a thing as a completely non-contingent argument as to what it is human beings ought to be doing could serve as the starting point for another dialogue...
Spilling Ink on Africa's Fires
By Tolu Ogunlesi
Every time I find myself at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed International Airport, a glance at the foreigners’ queue makes me wonder how many of those sweating Caucasians are there on a mission to spill ink on Africa’s endless fires.
It is of course an open secret that the continent teems with ‘anonymous’ white men and women destined to build enviable reputations from material from the ruins of what the Economist Magazine once proudly termed “The Hopeless Continent”. In recent months I have become deeply fascinated by the possibilities of assembling images of Africa as painted by outsiders – the Gospel of Africa according to Saints Blixen, Kapuściński, Forsyth, Dowden, Maier, Wrong; to mention just a few.
“For the last 20 years the news from Africa has been unremittingly bad,” the second line of Anthony Daniels’ essay Not as black as it’s painted, (originally published in The Spectator) declares.
Daniels is to a significant extent correct. This was 1987. Twenty years before then would have been 1967, the year that the Nigerian Civil War kicked off. In those two decades Nigeria, self-acclaimed Giant of Africa, saw 30 months of civil war, four coup d’états, and one horribly mismanaged oil boom.
But he soon strays into dubious territory, adopting that deadly attitude (a potent mix of condescension and incontrovertibility) that the colonial adventure seemed to implant deep into the European DNA. A few sentences later, after a litany of peculiarly African woes – desertification, population explosion, AIDS – Daniels jokes: “Perhaps most depressing of all, one is now grateful for a President who, however dictatorial, does not actually eat his opponents.”
And then the guns emerge, blazing. Four examples:
“As I remarked, no doubt cruelly, to several young African radicals, even if Africa were to unite economically, it would still scarcely amount to Switzerland.”
“Africa is so technically backward that it would be cheaper to ship things from Mars than to produce them on the continent. An arms embargo on South Africa has produced an arms industry; an arms embargo on the rest of Africa would produce bows and arrows.”
“There is little in traditional African culture that is compatible with a modern economy, and much that is inimical to it.”
“Very few Africans have – can have – the faintest notion of the depth of the cultural and scientific tradition necessary to produce a Mercedes, or even a simple light bulb.”
There is no doubt that ours is a continent that teems with stories; many of which are plain depressing. But in my opinion, redemption lies in the 'deserving-ness' of all our stories - The Good, The Sad, The Wobbly - to be given equal attention. Chimamanda Adichie has spoken often about the danger of “the single story”, the single perspective. And I recall the brilliant words of the novelist, John Berger, that “never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”
There are those stories simply waiting to be unearthed. There are many that have already been unearthed, but are now forgotten, abandoned to gather dust. There are the ones that have been polished half-heartedly, so that the sheen they give off is a dull one. Africa’s stories are like its population, constantly exploding. But they all need to be told or retold; the untold, half-told and mis-told.
The earliest stories I read about Africa were of course told by outsiders who had come to assume the position of insiders. I remember King Solomon’s mines. The tales that made their way to me, told by Africans, tended to feature hyper-intelligent animals – the tortoise and the hare. The ones that had human beings were uni-dimensional: Wise, kind kings under whose rule kingdoms expanded, and who were succeeded by weak, evil sons under whom things fell apart; evil stepmothers who attempted to poison the innocent children of innocent co-wives: the Dark Continent expressed in Black and White.
The other black beings of my childhood were the golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s stories. In Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satire, How to write about Africa (essentially a guide for foreign journalists) he advises: “Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
Wainaina adds: “Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with.”
In other words: Abandon Complexity All Ye Who Enter Here.
[PS. That mention of “prostitutes” makes me remember a name I failed to include earlier: Paul Theroux, another ‘veteran’ of Africa.]
Anthony Daniels remarked in his essay that “[e]xpressing pessimism about Africa is …the order of the day.” This was twenty three years ago. Nothing wrong with pessimism, if you ask me. My continent – littered as it is with Amins and Mugabes and Zumas and Gaddafis and Mubaraks – has by default always inspired pessimism. And pessimism – with its potential for colour – far more easily than optimism, makes for great literature. (Recall the famous quotation: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)
Even African writers are generally agreed that their land is a rich mine of unsettling stories. In his 1975 essay, Morning Yet on Creation Day, Chinua Achebe wrote: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.”
Achebe was honest enough to admit the “imperfections” of his land. Chimamanda Adichie has written about how Things Fall Apart opened her eyes to the possibility that fully-formed Africans could inhabit fictional worlds. In a similar vein Zimbabwean writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu has spoken of Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger. None of those books is a flattering portrait of Africa, none is meant to be a starry-eyed depictions of paradisiacal bliss.
Therein lies the key to the kind of books that Africa needs – those ones patient enough to navigate the contested territory between the continent’s “imperfections” and the “savagery” that perfunctory observation would seek to impute to the continent. Even the cruel, condescending Daniels admits that Africa’s depressing character “is profoundly misleading if it is taken to mean that Africa is a continent of unrelieved gloom and misery.”