September 30, 2010
Iran's Interrupted Lives
Haleh Esfandiari in the New York Review of Books:
Sponsored by the Abdorrhaman Boroumand Foundation and the Georgetown chapter of Amnesty International, the exhibition was organized by two sisters, Ladan and Roya Boroumand. Their father, after whom the foundation was named, was an Iranian lawyer and democracy activist who was assassinated in Paris in 1991, almost certainly by Iranian agents. Among other valuable work, the Boroumands have created a database of some 12,000 executions carried out in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
The display at Georgetown included three small school desks, the kind in which political detainees in Iran are required to sit to write responses during interrogations and, once they are broken, to put on paper their “confessions.” Roya Boroumand, who takes me through the exhibition, asks if I want my picture taken sitting behind one of these desks. I shudder and refuse. I have no desire to relive the long hours, days and months I spent under interrogation and writing answers to questions at Evin Prison.
The exhibition is aptly named “interrupted lives.” These young men and women, you think, should be playing soccer and basketball, could have gone to graduate school, might have been lawyers and doctors. Instead, jail and exile, and aborted schooling and careers, have been their fate. Manuchehr Es’haqi was arrested at age 13 and spent ten years in jail for “corruption on earth.” He now repairs coffee machines in Sweden. He looks at the camera through haunted eyes. “I am still not really living. Nothing makes me really happy,” the small inscription quotes him as saying.
Hamed Ruhinejad, a university student arrested after the 2009 elections, lingers in jail, despite multiple sclerosis and the loss of sight in his right eye. Bahareh Hedayat, the well-known human rights and women’s rights activist and a leading member of the Office for Fostering Unity, a student organization, has been in and out of jail since 2006. Only 25, she was sentenced in May to nine-and-a half years for speaking out on rights issues.
I'm reading about fireflies, remembering
the joy these tiny beetles have given me in fields
when I thought I was alone, and the first one came on
and then another.
By the shadows of wild carrots, in weeds,
on the bark of maples, they shine with cold light
after months, years without wings. Only nothing, hunger
in the sticky body, a tiny white groove in the earth,
sleeping and waking in darkness.
They wait until the end of their lives to glow
a sexual fire, a signal
so the female will know where the male is among
redolent grasses and runaway clover.
They come to their senses and die.
And then more lights flicker near the stone heaps
of ancient fences, over the ridges my shoes make at dusk.
How plain they were in the jam jar, brought in, examined
beneath the porcelain light in the kitchen. Grandmother
was not an old woman then, she turned the gold
lid with five straight fingers, all this excitement
over brown wings and a simple body. I'm thinking
about fireflies. The more I know of them,
the happier I am without wings or fire,
with the heat my body creates when I stand with my back
to the stars, wrists in shadow, knees chilled
by a cool wind. And lonely, I speak to
the flickering, white, umber, green
with a dark and human voice.
by Rita Gabis
from The Wild Fields;
Alice James Books, 1990
Why the revolution will not be tweeted
Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker:
The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”
These are strong, and puzzling, claims. Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet? Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all? As for Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution, Evgeny Morozov, a scholar at Stanford who has been the most persistent of digital evangelism’s critics, points out that Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.
From The Telegraph:
While contemporary Africa is to all intents and purposes chaotic, corrupt, medieval and constantly engaged in civil wars, it is also a wild and thrilling theatre for those who wish to engage with life a little more vividly than we do in the more ordered and “civilised” West. It is this combination of danger and adventure that draws disgruntled, dissatisfied Westerners to it like moths to a flame.
Tony Fitzjohn, Fitz as he is known to his friends, fits the bill almost to the point of caricature. He grew up in suburban north London, a tetchy, rebellious foster child disappointed with the greyness of post-war Britain. Then, through a combination of wanderlust and a series of accidental meetings, he found his place on the planet in a raw and remote patch of African bushveld called Kora in Kenya, raising lions with George Adamson of Born Free fame. He worked as Adamson’s assistant from 1970 until 1989, living on a diet of bully beef, fresh vegetables, beer and gin in circumstances that we in the West would regard as somewhat marginal. For Fitzjohn this was nirvana.
How cheaper genomes fuel science
The cost of whole-genome sequencing is dropping like a rock, and that’s fueling a “renaissance of activity” for scientific sleuths tracking down the genetic causes of disease, a pioneer in the field says. Harvard geneticist George Church provided a status report on the genome market, and its implications for medical research, during this week's "Open Questions in Neuroscience" symposium in Seattle, sponsored by the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Church is not only a Harvard professor and research, but also the founder of the Knome commercial venture for genome-sequencing.
Thanks to competition in the sequencing field, the price of decoding a complete human genome has been following an affordability curve that looks like Moore's Law on steroids. The cost of the federal Human Genome Project, which issued its first draft in 2000 and a complete genome sequence in 2003, was estimated at $2.7 billion in 1991 dollars. But that price tag has been falling by as much as an order of magnitude per year, and today the going rate for whole-genome sequencing is edging below $10,000 (counseling costs extra). The cost of materials — that is, the chemical reagents required to do the tests — is merely $1,000, Church said in June.
History is something that cannot be hurried
One of the main themes of the Valdai Club this year was coming to terms with Russia’s twentieth-century history, or rather the ghastly period between the revolution of 1917 and the death of Stalin in 1953. This forms part of a push by Russian establishment liberals who support President Dmitri Medvedev to galvanize Russian reform and bring about a clear break with the Soviet past. Remembering the crimes of Stalinism was also a natural accompaniment to our trip by boat along parts of the White Sea Canal, constructed under Stalin in the 1930s by political prisoners at an appalling cost in human life and suffering, from cold, hunger and mass executions. This and so many other mass atrocities committed under Stalin and Lenin are only to a very limited degree officially remembered or commemorated in the Russia of today, although Russians formed a majority of their victims. This is a subject on which non-Russians have a limited moral right to speak except where their own fellow countrymen were among the mass of victims (as with Stalin’s mass murder of Polish prisoners at Katyn)—and even then, they must be very careful to acknowledge both that this was a crime of a Communist and not a Russian national state, and that innumerable Russians were also among the mass of victims.more from Anatol Lieven at The National Interest here.
mostly brain dead ab ex
“Abstract Expressionist New York,” the huge new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is three-quarters brain dead. That is better than entirely brain dead. My advice is to begin with the strongest material, which you will find in galleries on the second and third floors at MoMA. Walking through “Rock Paper Scissors” and “’Ideas Not Theories’: Artists and The Club, 1942–1962”—with their excitable mix of works in multiple media by midcentury painters, sculptors, and architects—you can feel the gritty romantic spirit of downtown Manhattan in the years during and after World War II. The Museum of Modern Art is more than justified in saluting the artistic forces at play in New York City in that period, even if an accompanying book, Abstract Expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art, makes the museum’s relationship with the city’s avant-garde appear considerably less rocky than it actually was. In our recession-conscious times the idea of a major show drawn exclusively from the museum’s outstanding holdings is not a bad thing. Done with some zest and adventuresomeness, as it is in the smaller installations on the second and third floors, the result is museumgoing of a very high order. As for the fourth floor, much of it filled with signature works by Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Kline, and Newman, there is surely a great deal of wonderful material here, but the installation is so uninspired and predictable a presentation of blue-chip stuff that a visitor may be left wondering what Ann Temkin, the curator in charge, could possibly have had in mind.more from Jed Perl at TNR here.
Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he's earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!" If you haven't heard of Rajinikanth before, you will on Oct. 1, when his movie Enthiran (The Robot) opens around the world. It's the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It's getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It's a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn't just some film they're releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film.more from Grady Hendrix at Slate here (via Aditya).
Mark Blyth, besides being a close friend and occasional 3QD writer, is an international political economist and a professor at Brown University. He is writing a book, tentatively titled "Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea," investigating the return to prominence of the idea of a financial orthodoxy following the global financial crisis. The book is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Watch this video. It's very cool. (By the way, the best cook of Indian food that I know is Robin Varghese. When I once asked him whom he learned to cook Indian food from, he replied, "Mark Blyth." Mark is a man of many talents!)
The Group: On George Price
Miriam Markowitz in The Nation:
George Price was born a Jewish half-breed to parents who kept his Semitic side a secret; lived much of his life an aggressive atheist and skeptic of the supernatural; and died a Christian, twice converted, albeit, to his mind, a defeated one. Several years before he abandoned his career in a mission to shelter and comfort homeless alcoholics, he made a number of extraordinary contributions to evolutionary biology, a field in which he had no training. Educated as a chemist, Price had worked previously for the Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment, helped develop radiation therapy for cancer, invented computer-aided design with IBM and dabbled in journalism.
Shortly after Christmas 1974, Price slashed his carotid artery with a pair of tailor's scissors in his room in a London squat. John Maynard Smith, with whom Price published a paper that applied game theory to natural selection, was one of the few people, along with some of those homeless alcoholics, to attend his funeral. Also present was William Hamilton, the father of kin selection, which proposed that self-sacrificing behavior was able to evolve between related organisms because of the advantages conferred to their shared genes. Price used Hamilton's ideas about kin selection to derive his own equation, one that could explain selection at multiple levels of organization—the genetic level, as well as among individuals in kin groups and populations of unrelated others. The equation marked a breakthrough in the field: Price had provided a working mathematical model for the emergence of altruism in a theory of the world that took dogmatic self-interest as its first principle.
September 29, 2010
An Interview with Jessica Valenti
Over at Big Think:
Katherine Bouton in the New York Times:
What can we learn from the bees? Honeybees practice a kind of consensus democracy similar to what happens at a New England town meeting, says Thomas D. Seeley, author of “Honeybee Democracy.” A group comes to a decision through a consideration of options and a process of elimination.
The bees are making a life-and-death decision: where to establish a new hive. Choosing a site that is too exposed, too small or too close to the ground can be fatal. Swarms don’t always do it right, but they do succeed a remarkable amount of the time, with 10,000 or more bees following the advice and signals of a few hundred leaders to re-establish themselves in a new location every spring. Along the way they have to make sure the precious queen, fatter and more sluggish than the others and prone to take a rest stop, is not lost...
In the spring, when the hive’s stores are depleted and the virgin queens are still in their queen cups, peanut-shaped cells in the comb, being nurtured with a nutrient-rich secretion called royal jelly, about two-thirds of the hive detaches itself and flies off en masse, settling somewhere nearby, on a branch or a mailbox, in the familiar beard shape of a honeybee scrum. At this point a few hundred scouts take off in all directions, checking out several dozen potential new sites. They return to the hive one by one, indicating, by a waggle dance first analyzed by Martin Lindauer 60 years ago, both the location and the quality of the site.
Dr. Seeley and his colleagues have meticulously observed the process of decision making that follows, and his research reveals an astonishingly effective system.
Wednesday PoemNot Whiskey
At dusk—west of Patch Grove—
two bison become an electric fence,
a fox, a question about crossing the street,
yellow circles of fallen leaves, a flower
arrangement that turns love again to lust.
Four hundred miles east the bison,
lost in wandering, witness a son
bankrupt a bar, bust the town of Black Wolf,
fold the farm as metal folds in train wrecks.
The bison, alone again in wandering,
are not box knives, not crows,
not a soiled sheet, a trailer-park-storm.
They do not go into the woods alone.
They are not a last dance, drunk,
not a blue jay, not whiskey, not a time clock.
by Drew Blanchard
When Baghdad was centre of the scientific world
Exactly 1,200 years after its foundation, I was born in Karradat Mariam, a Shia district of Baghdad with a large Christian community, a stone's throw away from today's Green Zone and a few miles south of the spot where one of Baghdad's most famous rulers was born in 786. His name was Abū Ja'far al-Ma'mūn. Half Arab, half Persian, this enigmatic caliph was destined to become the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers, and the person responsible for initiating the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece. By the eighth century, with western Europe languishing in its dark ages, the Islamic empire covered an area larger in expanse than either the Roman empire at its height or all the lands conquered and ruled by Alexander the Great. So powerful and influential was this empire that, for a period stretching over 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic.
The teenage prince Ma'mūn would have known Baghdad at the height of its glory: a vast, beautiful city characterised by the domes and archways of its famously intricate Abbasid architecture. It had grown to become the world's largest city just 50 years after the first brick was laid, with some estimates putting its population at more than 1 million. Ma'mūn was not the only caliph to support scholarship and science, but he was certainly the most cultured, passionate and enthusiastic. As a young man, he memorised the Qur'an, studied the history of early Islam, recited poetry and mastered the newly maturing discipline of Arabic grammar. He also studied arithmetic and its applications in the calculation of taxes. Most importantly, he was a brilliant student of philosophy and theology, or more specifically what is referred to in Arabic as kalam, which is a form of dialectic debate and argument. The early Muslim theologians found that the techniques of kalam enabled them to hold their own in theological discussions with the Christian and Jewish scholars who lived alongside them, and who had had a head start of several centuries to hone their debating skills by studying the writings of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – historical figures from ancient Greece whose names would certainly have been known to the young Ma'mūn. It is even quite likely that by the early 9th century, some of their work had already been translated into Arabic.
Surprise diagnoses for research volunteers
People may volunteer for a study simply to advance science, but a large fraction of them could wind up receiving unnerving news. A paper published today1 reports finding that 40% of participants in imaging experiments had clinical anomalies beyond the scope of the investigation, and that, of these cases, 6% provoked subsequent medical intervention.
Radiologists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, appraise images from research examinations daily and report any potential problems that they spot to physicians. An expert panel of physicians, radiologists and bioethicists assessed the benefits and burdens of radiologists' findings for research examinations taken over three months in 2004 by studying individuals' medical records over a follow-up period of three years. Out of a total of 1,426 examinations, 567 revealed at least one anomaly, and the total tally of anomalies across this subset was more than 1,000.
More here. (Note: For my radiologist sister Ga who has told me of this phenomenon for years!)
cosmology is the new alchemy
Why is cosmology so popular? Books by writers such as Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking on fine-tuning or the multiverse routinely become bestsellers. They’re good writers, of course. And there’s the aesthetic appeal of cosmology too, offering a ceaseless stream of heavenly images at which to wonder and gaze. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. After all, many other branches of physics are progressing as fast, and arguably have a bigger impact upon our daily lives. But when did you last pick up a paperback on solid state physics, one of the largest contemporary research fields? Or who would choose a book about optics over one about the Big Bang? Chaos theory gets a look in, as does quantum theory — though that’s very close to cosmology, as the history of universe turns on the physics of the very small. So here’s a possibility. Cosmology is so popular, not just because of the science, but because it allows us to ask the big questions — where we come from, who we are, where we’re going. It’s metaphysics by other means. If the Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages liked to speculate about the number of angels on the heads of pins, we today like to speculate about the number of dimensions wrapped up in string theory. The activities are similar insofar as they feed the delight we find in awe-inspiring wonder.more from Mark Vernon at Big Questions Online here.
the city of funny buildings
In 1965, a hotel owner named Jay Sarno began construction on a new hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, and decided to set his creation apart from the competition by modelling it on a Roman palace. Caesars Palace was really no different from any other big hotel, but the Roman arches and columns stuck on its façade, not to mention the tunic-clad cocktail waitresses inside, were such a hit that the place spawned a generation of imitations, each aiming to outdo the last in eye-popping extravagance. Las Vegas became the world’s largest theme park, with hotels intended to make you feel that you are in Venice, or Paris, or Egypt, or New York, or Bellagio, or on a pirate’s island, or among King Arthur and his knights. Or—given that these weird simulacra have become famous in their own right—that you are, quite simply, in Vegas. Sarno’s palace was vulgar and crude, but his achievement is one that even the most accomplished architects can only envy: he defined a city’s style. But it’s been clear for a while that Las Vegas has been running out of themes. The trouble is that its effects rely entirely on dazzlement, an over-the-top gigantism that gets old fast. By this point, you could do a hotel that reproduced Angkor Wat or the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and no one would raise an eyebrow. And as Las Vegas has grown—until the recession, its expansion had helped make Nevada the fastest-growing state in the nation—the city has started to feel a little uncomfortable about its reputation as a place where developers spend billions of dollars on funny buildings.more from Paul Goldberger at The New Yorker here.
Mao, King Kong, and the Future of the Book
In 2004, Bob Stein founded the Institute for the Future of the Book, with the goal of finding new models for publishing as it moved from the page to the screen, from the enclosed world of the individual reader to the networked one of the Internet. While innovative for its own time, the Institute’s mission built on Stein’s decades of experience exploring the frontiers of electronic publishing, whether with Atari, the Criterion Collection, or Voyager. Long before the popularization of the Internet, the tools that Stein developed for publishing with floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and LaserDiscs laid the groundwork for dramatic shifts in how we interact with (formerly) printed media. Much of his work proposed hybrid formats, combining the referential nature of books with the visual appeal of films, using computers to turn texts into what Stein was already calling, in the mid-’80s, “user-driven media.” Today these hybrids seem natural, but the history of publishing and technology prior to the Web, which has largely gone unrecorded, suggests that the evolution of the medium was not prescribed, but rather spurred by the experiments of Stein and his cohorts.more from an interview with Bob Stein at Triple Canopy here.
On what toxic landfill does the city stand as the embodiment of its ennobling cognate, civilization?
Lewis Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:
The density of the immigrant swarm on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, more than 2,600 people per acre, equaled in its misery but exceeded the crowding then prevalent in the slums of Bombay. In the years since, most of the alien labor has been sanitized or outsourced, but the comforts of the city’s rich still depend on the abundance of its poor, the municipal wealth and well-being as unevenly distributed as in the good old days of the Gilded Age. When seen at a height or a distance, from across the Hudson River or from the roof of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan meets the definitions of the sublime. At ground level Manhattan is a stockyard, the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in the manner of cattle chutes, the tenements and storefronts uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory or a warehouse. The modus vivendi under the boot of the modus operandi. The commercial imperative comes with no apology. Like most other American cities, New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.
Moral Totalitarianism: A Reply to Tauriq Moosa on Adoption
As Nietzsche constantly reminds us, morality owes a great deal, including its own existence, to the fact that it is not obeyed. It can seem to achieve closure on its own absolute kind of value only because the space in which it operates has been created, historically, socially and psychologically, by kinds of impulse that it rejects.
Tauriq Moosa is a person I usually agree with, which is why I was surprised to discover how much I disagreed with Tauriq's recent article, "How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours, Too". Doubtless, the breezy, polemic piece was meant to provoke rather than permanently convince, but I think that it is nonetheless quite definitely wrong. I also think an examination of why it is wrong can illuminate some very interesting, possibly disturbing things about the way certain people want us to view our actions and choices.
I take Moosa's argument to be quite simple. Human society depends vitally on procreation and on parenting. Without these, we literally have no future. Procreation is a given: children inevitably spring up all over the world for reasons that most of us understand quite well. Parenting involves the love and care of children. It does not necessarily involve the love and care of one's biological children. Given that countless needy orphans exist all over the world, a well-off person in the industrialized world is acting selfishly by having their own children. They ought to just adopt the less fortunate children.
Now, one might engage critically with this argument on several factual or practical fronts. Yet, what is most troubling about it is its uncritical acceptance of a certain form of ethical reasoning, one where our choices are evaluated from a "zoomed out" or objective perspective, one that ignores how and why individual people actually make these kinds of decisions. We see this ideology--that is what it is--at work in the idea that a child is an object into which love and care must be poured. Since young, unsocialized children are all morally interchangeable, there is no important difference between biological procreation and adoption. Potential parents are therefore morally obligated to choose the option which is better for the world in general: adoption.
To bring out the absurdity of this position, let us begin by imagining a young woman who has decided to have a child. We can imagine that she has committed, with her partner, to conceive via an act of love, to carry the zygote-fetus-child to to term, to endure the life-changing pain of labour, and to emerge from this experience holding a baby in her arms that she has quite literally grown. And we, (falsely) flying the banner of "philosophy", are now informing her that she might just as well adopt a newborn infant from an orphanage in Africa, that there is no relevant difference in her doing so. For after all, the only important thing is that a child, any child, must be loved and cared for.
Well, from the woman's perspective, this will seem quite absurd. She is being asked to believe that the act of love, nine months of growth, and eventual childbirth are all quite irrelevant to the meaning and justification of her decision. Surely our not-so-hypothetical woman may respond by saying that she does not wish to love or care for a child, she wishes to love and care for her child. Otherwise she is just running a small kindergarten for free.
What makes for this special relationship at which she is aiming? For some, adoption is itself a special choice, an act of commitment that creates a unique sort of bond. More power to them. For others, many of whom are importantly female, the act of conception and the processes of pregnancy and childbirth create a parent-child relation that cannot be replaced without a significant loss. There is no human relation even remotely comparable to it.
Moosa's "philosophy", it turns out, is utterly unable to make sense of the importance of this particular kind of relation between parent and child, because it has already "zoomed out" to the big picture and decided that procreation and parenting in general are all that matters, and that any other considerations must therefore be irrational, or worse, "selfish".
(By the way, I hope that keen feminist ears are paying very close attention here to the deployment of ideology in ways which denigrate certain experiences and perspectives particular to women.)
What ought to disturb us about Moosa's argument is that at no point does he attempt to address or engage with the reasons parents actually have for wanting to have a child they can call their own. Instead, the world in general is to be improved, even if the perspectives of those who actually have to make the improvements are steamrolled, denigrated, or rendered senseless. For this reason, I think the label "moral totalitarianism", with all its negative political and historical associations, is entirely appropriate.
Now, let's finish by imagining a strange person wandering into a hospital nursery and randomly switching the similar-looking infants around. What's wrong with this? After all, so long as existent children receive love and care, what does it matter who they are, and what does it matter which particular historical relationship they happen to share with which particular adult?
I leave this conclusion, and all of its ridiculousness, as an invitation for the reader to reflect on the troubling ways in which we are expected, today, to view our choices and our lives.
"Mind Shift" by World Order
How to write about Pakistan
From the current issue of Granta devoted to Pakistan:
Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece from Granta 92, ‘How to Write About Africa’, is the most popular article on our website. When we were digitizing our archive, Binyavanga gave us permission to put his article up, but only on the condition that it remain free to read and not behind a paywall. ‘Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title’, it begins – and goes on to send up every imaginable cliché of writing about Africa.
An equivalent for Pakistan seemed only appropriate for our current issue. Below, four contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie – tell you, in case you’re thinking of starting out, How to Write About Pakistan.
This is one of the four bits:
Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.
When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand.
I know I don’t need to reiterate here what brand Pakistan stands for, but since my future income-stream is tied up with what you all do with it, I’m going to do so anyway. Brand Pakistan is a horror brand. It’s like the Friday the 13th series. Or if you’re into humor, like Scary Movie. Or Jaws, if nature-writing is your thing.
Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the WorldTM.
It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.
September 28, 2010
HARVARD AND PERETZ
Robert Paul Wolff in The Philosopher's Stone:
The events at Harvard on Saturday were fascinating, distressing, and exhausting. Today, I am going to write about the controversy surrounding the remarks of Martin Peretz and Harvard's decision to accept the $650,000 or so donated for a scholarship fund in his honor. Tomorrow, I will write about a number of ways in which I found the experience personally illuminating and instructive.
The event was a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard, Social Studies, of which I was the first Head Tutor in 1960-61. The program was stocked with eminent people -- Adele Simmons, former president of Hampshire College and also of the MacArthur Foundation, Amy Gutman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Walzer, world-famous political theorist now at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Seyla Benhabib, Professor of :Political Science and Philosophy at Yale, E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, and so forth. The program consisted of a morning panel, a lunch at which I was listed as "principal speaker," an afternoon panel chaired by Walzer, and then a lecture by Amy Gutman, who was introduced by her opposite number, Drew Faust, president of Harvard. There was an evening reception that Susie and I skipped because it was too far for Susie to walk.
The entire event was accompanied by a very vocal protest by a large number of Harvard students carrying beautifully made signs on which were printed a selection of the ugly and appalling things Peretz has said and published over the years. A great video of the protest is already up on YouTube, and I encourage everyone to view it.
Readers of this blog know that I anguished a good deal about whether I should even attend the event. In the end, I decided to do so because the program was altered so that no announcement of the scholarship fund would be made at the lunch at which I was scheduled to speak. I learned on Sunday morning that there was a small dinner Friday evening at which the honoring of Peretz was done. I was not invited to it.
Tuesday PoemGod's Small Beings
in the Order of the Prophet
an invisible singer of my faith
in the Order of Love
only the caprice of a gulp and
this tiny hyacinth entwines my crystal body.
Man, sinks in the mirror
.................. grows up in the mirror.
a reverse beginning
on the way of lost voyagers of dreams.
....... a burnt stub
....... her heart lost to
....................... the powder compact.
When the grey curtain of the nights
from the verdant stature of panicles
the Meteor of lust
............................................. was also
bare feet, his heart
........................... man moved through life,
..................... woman had already arrived.
by Robab Moheb
from ânâme kuchàke xodâ
publisher: Libris, Teheran, 1996
translation: 2008, Sam Vaseghi
More of God's Small Beings
Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
Johann Hari in The Independent:
Gideon Levy is the most hated man in Israel – and perhaps the most heroic. This “good Tel Aviv boy” – a sober, serious child of the Jewish state – has been shot at repeatedly by the Israeli Defence Force, been threatened with being “beaten to a pulp” on the country’s streets, and faced demands from government ministers that he be tightly monitored as “a security risk.” This is because he has done something very simple, and something that almost no other Israeli has done. Nearly every week for three decades, he has travelled to the Occupied Territories and described what he sees, plainly and without propaganda. “My modest mission,” he says, “is to prevent a situation in which many Israelis will be able to say, ‘We didn’t know.’” And for that, many people want him silenced.
The story of Gideon Levy – and the attempt to deride, suppress or deny his words – is the story of Israel distilled. If he loses, Israel itself is lost.
I meet him in a hotel bar in Scotland, as part of his European tour to promote his new book, ‘The Punishment of Gaza’. The 57 year-old looks like an Eastern European intellectual on a day off – tall and broad and dressed in black, speaking accented English in a lyrical baritone. He seems so at home in the world of book festivals and black coffee that it is hard, at first, to picture him on the last occasion he was in Gaza – in November, 2006, before the Israeli government changed the law to stop him going.
He reported that day on a killing, another of the hundreds he has documented over the years. As twenty little children pulled up in their school bus at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, their 20 year-old teacher, Najawa Khalif, waved to them – and an Israel shell hit her and she was blasted to pieces in front of them. He arrived a day later, to find the shaking children drawing pictures of the chunks of her corpse. The children were “astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they had ever seen were soldiers and settlers.”
The Human Hard Drive: How We Make (And Lose) Memories
David Hirschman in Big Think:
Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Southern California who has studied the neural systems behind memory for years, says that memory is actually a complex process where the brain scatters information across its neurons and then reconnects it using sequential cues. Our brains are not at all like video cameras, he says; they don't have the capacity to keep exact film-like representations of everything that happens in our lives. Instead, the brain records conjunctions of details and events in what Damasio calls "convergence/divergence zones." When we experience something, our neurons create a code to represent a series of disparate facts about the scene or idea that live in different areas of our brains. Recalling specific events or "memories" is actually a process of pulling together these details to essentially reconstruct a version of reality.
"When you are asked to remember a certain experience that you had today in which you’re talking with person A, listening to the person’s voice, but you also are in a certain context, B, which is the context of a certain room in a certain building," says Damasio, as an example. "You are going to have the separate recordings of the voice of the person, the sight of the person, the place—but those recordings are going to be reactivated only if another recording of the simultaneity of the event has been made in a convergence/divergence zone."
More, including video, here.
The Ancient Dream
Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review:
At the time of their nuptials, Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy], by then a recognized writer, was a 34-year-old count who had lived a good fifteen years with the contradictions of character familiar to all readers of literature: on the one hand, he was a gambler, a drinker, a whoremaster; on the other, a breast-beating penitent who preached love, poverty, and humility, but made his family miserable, lived in luxury, and couldn’t get enough of his own growing fame. For the mass of Russians he would become a saint; for church and state, a devil; for Maxim Gorki, a figure of genius and disgust whose humility was “hypocritical and his desire to suffer... offensive!” In his early 30s, Tolstoy already wanted desperately to be saved from himself.
Sophia Andreyevna Behrs was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Andrey Behrs, a court doctor, and Lyubov Alexandrovna Behrs, a childhood classmate of Tolstoy’s. As full of intelligent high spirits as the Natasha of War and Peace, Sophia read, dreamed, larked about, loved music passionately, and fantasized conquering the world through marriage to a Great Man. Sonya (as she was known) could, in fact, have grown into a woman of sensibility and character had she ever had some real work to do. As it was, all she ever did have was the inherent sturm-und-drang of being married to Lev Nikolayevich. This would become not only her subject, but her organizing principle, her all-encompassing reality: the circumstance that nourished a richly talented arrest.
Some antidepressants alter peoples' moral judgement
The new research, by scientists at the University of Cambridge's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, discovered that healthy volunteers given drugs which increase their serotonin, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), have an increased aversion to harming others, viewing such actions as morally forbidden.
Ms Molly Crockett of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (a Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust funded initiative) is the lead author of the paper. She said: "Our study suggests that these medications can affect people's sense of right and wrong, which influences the choices they make in everyday life. "Interestingly, the drug's effects were strongest in people who were naturally high in empathy, suggesting that serotonin could enhance people's concern for others by making the prospect of harming them feel worse." Antidepressants, which include SSRIs like the one used in the study, are among the most widely prescribed drugs worldwide. In the United States and the UK, an estimated ten per cent of the population take antidepressants for a range of psychiatric and medical conditions.
Mysteries That Howl and Hunt
From The New York Times:
With a chorus of howls and yips wild enough to fill a vast night sky, the coyote has ignited the imagination of one culture after another. In many American Indian mythologies, it is celebrated as the Trickster, a figure by turns godlike, idiotic and astoundingly sexually perverse. In the Navajo tradition the coyote is revered as God’s dog. When European colonists encountered the species, they were of two minds, heralding it as an icon of the expansive West and vilifying it as the ultimate varmint, the bloodthirsty bane of sheep and cattle ranchers. Mark Twain was so struck when he first saw that “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it” that he called it “a living, breathing allegory of Want.” And Twain’s description itself was so vivid, it inspired the animator Chuck Jones to create that perennial failure known to cartoon-loving children everywhere, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner-hating fame.
Yet as familiar as the coyote seems, these animals remain remarkably poorly understood. They have remained elusive despite fantastic ecological success that has been described as “a story of unparalleled range expansion,” as they have moved over the last century from the constrictions of their prairie haunts to colonize every habitat from wild to urban, from coast to coast. And they have retained their mystery even as interest has intensified with increasing coyote-human interactions — including incidents of coyotes dragging off small dogs and cats, and even (extremely rarely) attacks on people, from Los Angeles to the northern suburbs of New York City, where four children were attacked in separate incidents this summer.
Ricky Gervais African Appeal
Critics would likely seize upon the sight to observe that popular approval does not equal artistic quality, especially when the art in question is insufficiently socially aware. Certainly that’s the view of Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, who in reviewing the show derided Rockwell as the cowardly, “aw, shucks” epitome of Middle America. Rockwell “doesn’t challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes,” wrote Gopnik. “From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.” This perception of the artist’s work as soothing sentiment for the masses is nothing new, but “Telling Stories” proves it simplistic. The show, drawn from the collections of fellow storytellers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, confirms that Rockwell had a deep understanding of America’s character and a masterly ability to convey it to canvas. True, his vision focused on our virtues, not our sins. But only in the self-loathing landscape of contemporary intellectual thought would that be cause for criticism.more from Ryan L. Cole at City Journal here.
When it comes to flavor, I am drawn to the Old World. I like liquor with hard-to-define tastes: the bitter complexity of Italian amari, the ancient herbs of Chartreuse, the primal maltiness of Dutch genever. And I'm also drawn to the wilder, untamed parts of the New World: the agave bite of real tequila; the earthy, rustic edge to Brazilian cachaca; the strange, dry conundrum of Peruvian pisco. I don't know why. I guess it's the same reason I like stinky cheeses, funky wines, wild game and yeasty beers. I'm of a similar mind to A.J. Liebling, who wrote in his classic food memoir, "Between Meals": "I like tastes that know their own minds." Whatever it is, this impulse, this search for flavor is in response to the relatively bland tastes that defined my upbringing. There is much more going on in the glass when we sit down to drink a particularly profound spirit: a smoky 1928 rum from Fidel Castro's cellar; a cognac that was bottled before the 19th-century phylloxera plague destroyed acres of Europe's vineyards; one of the only vintage Calvados to have survived the German occupation of Normandy. And it's about more than just being rare and obscure for the sake of being rare and obscure.more from Jason Wilson at the Washington Post here.
alterman on the hitch
HAS THERE ever been anyone quite like Christopher Hitchens? As a writer and a thinker, Hitchens may be the greatest performance artist the profession has ever produced. He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor). What he is not, however, is the author of lasting works of reportage, criticism, philosophy, or, dare I say it, literature. Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”more from Eric Alterman at Dissent here.
September 27, 2010
by Akeel Bilgrami
The notion of a miscellany fetches no particular interest, except in the light of its contrasting ideal of integrity. I don’t mean integrity in the moral sense--a person’s action keeping faith with her principles-- but in the stricter sense of things being of a piece, being integrated rather than miscellaneous.
The intellectual pleasures offered by literature tend to be inherently miscellaneous, while science and philosophy are marked by a drive towards integrity, towards eliminating the element of miscellany. For someone given to both literature and philosophy, as I have been from an early age, each of these contrasting satisfactions can provide a sort of relief and release from the other.
It is often asked: what is the difference between imaginative literature and other sorts of intellectual endeavor? Are there any kinds of knowledge uniquely available, say, from novels and poems? Why do we read them when we could read books in psychology, sociology, moral philosophy--especially if these are illustrated with vivid examples of ethical, psychological, and social experience? There are many possible answers to such a question, and I want to explore only one of them, the one that has to do with the contrast between the miscellaneous and the integrated.
But first I need to address a larger theme --the special forms of knowledge that can accompany emotions. More often than any other form of intellectual enterprise, the writing of a poem or novel is expressive rather than ratiocinative; and the notion of expression places special significance on the states of mind we call emotions. We tend to say: we ‘express’ emotions, while we ‘present’ our thoughts. We could say that we ‘express our thoughts’ when we speak them, but that use of the word ‘express’ is innocuous. It might just as easily be replaced by the verb ‘present.’ But if we try to make the same substitution when we talk of ‘expressing our emotions,’ a crucial remainder is left out. That remainder is what gives a special character to literature. We can present and represent and study the emotions in our psychological and philosophical and other treatises, but we don’t, at least not without bending genres, express them there. It is not merely that the language is more literary when emotions are expressed rather than presented --a different set of expectations is created in the reader because a different set of pleasures is offered.
This is not the tired duality between rational thought and irrational emotions. As T. S. Eliot saw, that dualism is disastrous for literature. For one thing, expression should not be assumed to require spontaneity, as the multiple revisions that lie under the surface of serious literature demonstrate. More important, in expressing one’s emotions, indeed in possessing them, one is in fact often given a way of perceiving what one thinks and what one’s intellectual and moral commitments are. But it is a very special way of perceiving them.
Let me illustrate this form of perception with an analogy.
It is plausible to think that pain is a way of perceiving different parts of our body. We perceive our body in the usual ways. One can put a finger on a tooth and perceive it by touch. One can go to the mirror, unfurl a lip, and perceive a tooth visually. But one can also perceive it more internally and less voluntarily by (and here we have no felicitous way of putting it because we have no simple verb like ‘seeing’ and ‘touching’) ‘paining’ it. A toothache, then, is a form of perception of one’s tooth.
Something like this is true of emotions, though the perceptual target is thought, not the body. Take anger at someone’s harmful actions towards oneself. Aristotle said that anger presupposes that someone has done one harm. But that is not always right. Very often, one’s understanding that someone has done one harm is not all in place before one feels the anger. Rather, one’s anger at him is one’s way of perceiving that he has done one harm. That is why, when literature expresses emotions, in doing so it articulates nothing less than the writer’s and readers’ thoughts, their norms, their commitments, and their understanding of themselves and others around them. A work in philosophy or psychology also articulates all of these things, but it does not, at least not typically, do it in this expressive mode. If Plato’s dialogues sometimes seem to refute such a claim, it is only because when they do so, they have turned into literature. Far from refuting the claim, they confirm it.
So, the perceptual function of emotions and the expressive aspects of literature go hand in hand. Such a view of things, allows one to see literature as special, as standing apart from other cognitive endeavors such as philosophy and science, while at the same time –because it insists that emotions are a way of perceiving our own thoughts— it disallows the duality between feeling and thought. To understand what is special about literature is not to delegate the emotions to literature while retaining thought for philosophy and science. The idea is to find in the distinctly expressive function of literature, a refusal of that tired dualism.
The recognition that literature promotes a special kind of perception illuminates the contrast between miscellany and integrity. Modern science generates a general intellectual tendency to subsume particular phenomena, under general laws. We acquire this disposition from an early age. When a child dissects a tadpole in a school laboratory, she is taught that the interest is not in that creature, but in coming to an understanding of the anatomy of tadpoles in general, of all tadpoles. Were she to rest with the thought that she has come to know something just about that particular tadpole, she would be seen to suffer from an intellectual defect. (My friend Stelios Vasilakis insightfully reminds me of the recent turn to the particular in genetics --we seek now to identify the genetic make up of each particular person. But here too, I think, the sights are eventually on finding the general links between particular genetic configurations and disease or endowment. The interest is not intrinsically particularistic.)
The point is not simply to bring particular objects under general laws --it is also to bring lower level laws under more general laws of the more fundamental sciences. To be sure, the dream of bringing the laws of all the special sciences under the laws of physics has fallen prey to skeptical questions, but the retreat from grandiose claims has not discredited the tendency to subsume specific under general. It still is often considered desirable, even within this scepticism, that the lower level generalizations of, say, psychology, will at least eventually be brought under generalizations in biology; and so on. And, in any case, it is enough for the point I am making to notice that when any phenomena resist subsumption of this kind, this is considered to be something of a defeat. Successful subsumption remains the implicit hope. If the world’s recalcitrance prevents it, that is nothing to celebrate. Failure prompts a disappointment that reflects the nobility of the aspiration.
Philosophy aspires to something similar. I spent some eighteen years thinking towards the writing of a book called “Self-Knowledge and Resentment,” which argues that four different questions in philosophy were, at bottom, really the same question. The four questions were, “What is the place of freedom in a deterministic universe? What is the relation of mind to body or more particularly to the central nervous system? What makes self-knowledge different from all other knowledge? And what is the place of values in a world of nature? I tried to show that these apparently miscellaneous questions--long viewed as vexing mysteries for philosophy--were really one mystery. “I Love a Mystery” is not a slogan for philosophers. We think that if we have reduced four mysteries to one, that is a form of progress.
Such an urge for intellectual integration is by no means restricted to science and philosophy. One finds it in the law as well. For years there was puzzlement and debate and controversy about pornography. It still continues, but not long ago it was suggested that the entire question be subsumed in the legal system under a law or principle of higher generality, the principle of free speech, the first freedom. This brought a kind of clarity about how to think about pornography. It was not as if the controversy had been laid to rest. But the subsumption made clear that if one was now opposed to the publication or sale of pornography, one was taking on the universal applicability of a much more general law of the land, the principle of free speech. Some year ago there was a quite ludicrous controversy in my university, which provides a gorgeous illustration of the point I am making. There had been a report in newspapers all over the world that my late colleague Edward Said had thrown a stone near a recently liberated site in Lebanon in the direction of a building far away housing some Israeli guards. He was with his son, and he did so in order to let off steam and express some satisfaction at the liberation of an area, which the occupying Israeli forces had evacuated. Some professors and students at Columbia University demanded that action be taken against Said for a violent public act, suggesting that he even be asked to leave the university. There was a lot of discussion and much controversy was exchanged in the student newspaper. Now, even if one thinks as I do that the demand was idiotic and that the whole fuss was farcical (though I am sure it did not seem particularly farcical to poor Edward Said who was harassed –as he so often was -- by the most disagreeably malicious and false propaganda about it), it was interesting to see what a lot of calm and clarity was brought even among those making the preposterous demand, when the Provost wrote in the newspaper to say that Said’s throwing the stone is to be subsumed under the principle of free expression. A similar subsumption with similarly clarifying effects was made when the controversy about abortion was subsumed under more general laws of privacy. Now, of course, I know that the term ‘law’ means something very different in science than it does in legislation. One’s function is to explain phenomena, the other’s to regulate society and provide for peaceable governance. But that is why I find it, in a sense, even more remarkable and interesting that –despite this distinction between these two notions of ‘law’-- we have this proclivity for integration built into both.
Literature has no such aspiration. A literary person, were she to find a tadpole alluring, would likely visit her attentions upon that one creature. Love, a theme more common than God (and not always unrelated) in literature, is typically the love of someone. A poet may have general opinions she presents about the nature of love and about which qualities are lovable and which not, but when she is not in this way being a philosopher manqué in passing, when she is most doing what a poet does, her work is expressing or conveying the expression of the love that someone has for another. That is the link between the expressive aspects of literature that I began with and the inescapable miscellany of particulars that litter a literary work, particulars that in science or philosophy would be viewed as confusion, clutter, failure.
When the two large claims I have made--the frequently expressive rather than representational cast of literature, the particularity and miscellany of its landscape compared to the generalizing integrations of other intellectual pursuits—are each seen as owing to the other, they are mutually and surprisingly illuminated. And even considered independently they are more complex than they seem. One loves another person in her singularity; that is a banality. But it is also misleading. To say that one loves someone in her singularity has misled philosophers into thinking that one does not love someone for her qualities because, after all, others might have those qualities (her intelligence or her independence, or her wit). But the idea of such a singular loved object is absurd. If someone were to tell me that she loved me, not because of any qualities I possessed, but just simply the superlatively singular ME, I think I would feel a little left out of it.
How can a proposition that seemed so obvious and banal so quickly become false and absurd? The issues are thorny. As I have it so far, we have something of a dilemma. On the one hand, we need to find a way of thinking of the objects that literature focuses on as being individuals with qualities. If we failed to do that we would be landed with the absurdity I just mentioned of extreme deixis, the ME without qualities, which could not be loved by anyone, any more than that love could be expressed by anyone in a novel or a poem. But then, on the other hand, this raises a difficulty: if the loved one is loved for the qualities that she possesses, then others too can possess those qualities, so we are in danger now of losing the singularity. What one needs is a way of thinking of individuals as possessing qualities but we need also to find those properties to be inseparable from the individual who possesses them. This is not to say that no one else can possess the qualities I possess. It is to say something rather more fine. Even if others may possess the qualities that I possess, my qualities are to be thought of as in some deep way tied to me in a way that disallows them to float free from me. Thus ‘quality and individual’ form a coupling that cannot be pried apart, at least not while emotions and writing are the subject. You pry them apart at the risk of changing that subject, from literature to philosophy or psychology. Literature, unlike philosophy and other such disciplines, alone deals with the miscellanies of individuals, so conceived, resistant to integration under more generally conceived qualities (that is, qualities pried apart from their rooted location) that other individuals also possess.
Another way of saying this is to say that literature cannot conceive of its subjects and objects as the sort of things that become obsolete. They cannot be surpassed or replaced. If they become obsolete, that is because they are not good literature, not because literature conceives of them that way. This contrasts with a familiar utilitarian way of thinking about value: some object possesses some property that we value, but the property is something that floats free from the object, so that if another object comes along which has more of that quality or value, then it replaces (and should replace) the initial object. When one conceives of value in this way, when one allows it to be free of the object in which it inheres, one has sanctioned a utilitarian conception of value --one has planned for obsolescence. Literature does not conceive of its objects in this way because it does not conceive of value in this way. Its objects are not so singular as to make their qualities irrelevant. But they are nevertheless objects whose qualities are conceived in such a way, that the objects which possess them cannot be replaced in the name of improvement, and therefore cannot become obsolete. By contrast, objects as studied by the sciences are of interest only because of the qualities they share with other similar objects, so that one can come to understand, in a far more cognitive sense of understanding, truths about the nature of objects of that general kind.
This distinction is reflected in a central fact of our existence: someone cannot feel regret –as he might, for instance, if he ceased to love someone he once greatly loved-- if he ceased to believe what he once believed to be true, say, that the earth was flat. It is the nature of cognitive truth, the kind of truth that is pursued in natural and social science, that one applauds the shedding of one’s false beliefs. I may say, “I regret the passing of some of my Communist beliefs”, but that really is shorthand for saying other things --that I regret the passing of the kind of person I was when I once held those beliefs to be true, or the kind of life I led when I held them…Someone might say, “I liked things better when I believed that the earth is flat” but that too does not speak to the cognitive element of truth and falsity, it too is shorthand for saying things like, “I felt things were more reassuring psychologically in this or that respect, when I thought that the earth was flat”; it does not mean that I regret that I have come to believe something that is true and ceased to believe something that is false --though, of course, if I value truth less than I value that feeling of reassurance, there will be some sort of regret. Perhaps my point should be put in the form of a conditional: To the extent that one values truth in the cognitive sense (that science and philosophy pursue), then to that extent, one cannot regret the shedding of a false belief. To regret the loss of a false belief would be to fail to understand the nature and point of inquiry into truth, as cognitively conceived. Literature, typically, has no particular mind for truths, conceived in these cognitive terms, truths suited to presentation and representation rather than expression. That is why literature so often contains expression of regret for loss. One would have to search hard in philosophy for such a thing and would find it only where it is most self-consciously styled on literary forms –perhaps on confessional sites, as in Augustine or Kierkegaard.
It is a fond thought that literature, in giving us pleasures that are miscellaneous --rather than the satisfaction of the deep integrities of scientific and philosophical thought-- is like life itself. It is natural to think that the pleasures of life are indeed miscellaneous, more like those of literature than of philosophy because literature is an outgrowth of life while philosophy is an abstraction from it. But if literature is inherently miscellaneous, and if miscellany depends on singular objects tied to qualities that preempt obsolescence, then life all around us seems to resist any resemblance to literature. Take a look at Shanghai or Mumbai. Whatever euphoria those places generate, it is unlikely that they will retain much of their miscellany. And, we are told, that it is Shanghai and Mumbai that reflect the lives in our ‘global’ future, not Varanasi, not Rome.
That puts a great burden on literature. It is an increasingly rare conserving site. Unlike life, literature cannot remain literature if it plans for the obsolescence of its objects. For this uniquely attractive form of conservatism (I honestly don’t know of any other attractive form of conservatism), it is hard not to feel grateful.
Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.
Opposition to the “Mosque”: An Atheist Perspective
by Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin
We, the authors, are atheists. Some will no doubt hold that since atheists abhor religion in all its forms, consistency demands that they oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which in fact is neither a mosque nor at ground zero). The thought is that atheists must oppose the building of any new building devoted to religious observance. But this view about what atheists must believe is false. Abhorrence of religion does not entail abhorrence of the freedom to practice religion. Atheists indeed affirm freedom of conscience, even though they oppose the views to which many are led by their consciences.
We atheists are particularly well placed to speak to public matters concerning religious tolerance. As we have no religion of our own, atheists are especially well practiced at tolerating religion. More importantly, atheists are also keenly attuned to the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for a democratic society. And the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a clash over these very principles. Our view is that those who oppose the Mosque have abandoned fundamental principles at the core of the form of constitutional democracy originated by the United States.
First, consider some facts. America is home to nearly two million Muslims. The vast majority of them obey the law, respect the Constitution, serve their country, pledge allegiance to the United States of America, pay taxes, love their children, live peacefully with their neighbors, give generously to charities, contribute to their communities, work hard, and so on. A considerable number of Muslim citizens were killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11; and many have died since then, courageously serving America in the War on Terror.
Muslim citizens and their families suffered the attacks on 9/11 and their aftermath right along with the rest of America. Thus the most common way of framing the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”-- in terms of “them” and “us”-- is entirely wrongheaded. Some of “us” are devout Muslims, and Muslims in America are particularly keen to affirm an understanding of their religion that contradicts the view of Islam propagated by the extremists who perpetrated the attacks on 9/11. Insofar as the country embraces the view of Islam that the terrorists promote, it capitulates to the terrorists and insults its Muslim citizens. Those who have adopted the terrorists’ view of Islam basically say to nearly two million of their fellow citizens, “You claim that your religion is peaceful, and even though your behavior confirms this, we do not believe you. We believe the terrorists instead.” This attitude is simply unacceptable. Consider: No one rushes to equate Christianity with the religious views of extremist Christians who murder doctors and nurses, bomb buildings, protest at the funerals of our fallen soldiers, and so on. When committed in the name of Christianity, such acts are called “extremist” not only because they’re extremely immoral and unjust, but also because they rely upon an extreme and hence distorted conception of the Christian faith.
By calling the terrorist acts of 9/11 “extremist,” we in part affirm that they were based on a distorted conception of the Muslim faith. People who oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” deny this; again, they accept the terrorists’ conception of Islam. In doing so, they adopt a crucial component of the terrorists’ view of the world, namely, that a just and peaceful society of persons of different, and even opposed, religious faiths is not possible. Once that position is accepted, the foundation of constitutional democracy is abandoned, and theocracy-- the view that social justice and peace is possible only among a people living under a single religious authority-- is embraced. Popular opposition to the so-called Mosque, though most frequently portrayed as an expression of uncompromising patriotism, actually requires a betrayal of core commitments of American democracy. What a disgrace.
To be sure, not everyone formulates their opposition in this overtly anti-American way. Some invoke the age-old distinction between the right and the good, claiming that building a mosque at ground zero is unquestionably allowed by law, yet “insensitive” and thus morally wrong. This view looks like a principled stance that affirms the legal rights of Muslims, while also making a moral plea against the so-called Mosque. Yet those who formulate their opposition in this way nevertheless adopt the terrorists’ view of the matter. To say that those who plan to build the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” have the right to build it, but are morally wrong to do so, leaves completely intact the terrorists’ premise that people who adopt distinct and even opposed religious commitments cannot live together peacefully as equals. It is to say, in effect, that the corrupt view of Islam explicitly endorsed by the terrorists and adopted by ignorant non-Muslim citizens in the US entails special moral restrictions on Muslim citizens concerning how and where they can congregate as a community; it is to assert that non-Muslim citizens are permitted to place upon Muslim citizens moral burdens that members of other faiths need not bear. It is thus to embrace the terrorists’ understanding of Islam and to affirm their theocratic vision.
To put the matter in a different way, those who say that building the Mosque would be morally unacceptable because “insensitive,” are actually mired in a contradiction. The call to be “sensitive” makes sense only if it is admitted that Muslim citizens are equal members of our society; for only those who are part of the “us” that is making the request for sensitivity should be moved by considerations concerning which acts are insensitive. But then the view affirms that it is the terrorists’ conception of Islam that ought to prevail in America, thereby revoking the affirmation of equal membership upon which the request for sensitivity rests. In short, if Muslim citizens are equal members of our society, they have the right to build a Mosque wherever it is legal for them to do so, and it is not a matter concerning which non-Muslim citizens should attempt to exert moral coercion. If, on the other hand, the exertion of moral coercion is justified, then it must be that Muslims are not equal members of our society. And that’s the view of the terrorists.
There is a third way in which popular opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is formulated. Some say that because Christian churches are forbidden in certain parts of the Muslim world, there is reason to restrict the building of mosques in the United States. But this is pure rationalization masquerading as reasoning. Such a view affirms that the scope of religious freedom should be determined by foreign powers, in this case, leaders of the most intolerant and strident theocracies. Those who adopt this argument would allow those who openly oppose freedom to set the example for America. This is to concede crucial ground to the terrorists; in fact, it is, again, to affirm the terrorists’ view of the place of religion in society.
In short, those who oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in any of these ways have abandoned one of the most precious commitments at the heart of American constitutional democracy. But the problem is not merely that a crucial principle has been abandoned. The opponents have in addition unwittingly-- at least we hope it’s unwitting-- embraced an alternate principle that is, in the end, at the core of the theocratic view promoted by the terrorists. Once again, opposition to the so-called Mosque adopts the terrorists’ view of Islam and joins the terrorists in denying that persons of different and even opposed religious faiths can nonetheless live together as equals in a tolerant, just, and stable society.
While it is true that the kind of atheism we, the authors, endorse asserts that the central and distinctive commitments of the world’s most popular religions are all false, we nonetheless uphold freedoms of conscience and religious exercise. And we endorse these freedoms not merely as legal formalities or as regrettably necessary obstacles to tyranny. The freedom to live in accordance with one’s deep-seated convictions about the Big Questions of human life is not a mere luxury; it is a fundamental component of human dignity. Opposition to the Mosque refuses to recognize the dignity of a religious community in New York City that is committed to acting in ways designed to forcefully reclaim their faith from those who have distorted it.
Robert B. Talisse is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Democracy and Moral Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Scott F. Aikin is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of The Regress Problem in Epistemology (Routledge, 2010). Talisse and Aikin are co-authors of the forthcoming book Reasonable Atheism (Prometheus Books).
Of Ants and Men (part 3)
A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson
A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.
Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”
Sam Kean: Do you think your career or your scientific work have been different if you’d done a novel very early on as opposed to a later stage?
EW: That’s an unanswerable question because it would never have occurred to me to write a novel early on. I never would have had any ambition like that. All my hopes, all my dreams were to be a scientist. I didn’t even get into popular nonfiction until—I think the earliest date you could put on it would be 1978. That would be On Human Nature. That’s the first time I ever wrote a book for a popular audience, a broad audience.
EW: Oh, that was much easier. Nonfiction is a lot easier than fiction. Or I should say, good fiction is a lot harder to write than good nonfiction.
SK: Do you think you would have persisted with the novel if, like with many aspiring novelists, it would have taken five or ten years to get it published?
EW: I knew that my novel would be published immediately because it was the publisher and my editor who urged me to write it. So it never entered my head. I can’t even answer the question of how I’d feel about it if it was going to be delayed that long.
SK: Did you ever worry that someone would criticize you for, I guess for lack of a better term, “cutting in line.” Getting a story published in the New Yorker, for instance, is very prestigious, very hard for a writer to do.
EW: True. It’s certainly a good thing to happen to a fiction writer. But no, I think it deserved to be in the New Yorker. After it was published, the response to that piece was nationwide. It was tremendous. It quickly rose to I think the third position in terms of letters to the editor to the New Yorker—virtually all of which were highly favorable.
SK: Third all time?
EW: No, over a three-week period. It was the only fiction in the top five, so that’s the kind of response it got. So I feel it was well-placed, with that response.
SK: You mentioned another book you have. Do you have any “big” books coming out soon, anything you really feel is big or new or different?
EW: With Bert Hölldobler, I’m bringing out a book on the leaf-cutter ants, and the subtitle tells you a lot. It’ll be out late in 2010. This is nonfiction. The title is, The Leaf-Cutter Ants. And the subtitle is Civilization by instinct. Because the leaf-cutter ants are the ultimate superorganism, they have the most advanced civilization by instinct. They have the most complex societies, not just among insects, but I guess you would say among all animals, among non-human creatures. They’re also among the most heavily studied.
SK: Where did you come up with the name for the protagonist, Raphael Semmes Cody?
EW: Raphael Semmes is a famous figure in Civil War history. He was the Confederacy’s, the South’s, naval hero, and he sank a lot of northern shipping before he was finally trapped and his ship was sunk. So he’s a heroic figure. I chose his name primarily because a main theme in the book—I have several themes like this, but this is one of them—is the conflict between his mother and his father. His mother is a Semmes. She’s a Mobile Semmes, and I made the Semmes in them the upper part of the moneyed class of Mobile.
SK: Do you yourself know some Semmes?
EW: Yes. But I made sure there were no Semmes listed in the Mobile directory today, so there couldn’t be any resemblance.
At any rate, the mother is a Semmes. She falls in love, too soon and before her family wakes up and can do anything about it, with a redneck, with a working-class guy. Who was not the best possible person even within redneck circles to be a husband. Although he does okay. He gets on okay.
His name is Cody—that’s a good, solid, working class name. So by having the mother name her son after the great Confederate naval hero, she preserves in him her hopes. Preserving her hopes of getting back into the upper reaches and into its privileges and comforts. She realizes too late that she made a mistake and she can’t get out of it. So she really sees in her son, the only hope she has of re-establishing herself, and she does that partly by the name.
And of course by the end of the book she has substantially succeeded. She’s accepted back within to the family within Mobile, and within Marybelle, the old mansion. And Cyrus, her brother, who’s head of the family now, he wants Raphael to get into that upper level as badly as his mother does. So there you go—that’s the reason for that choice.
SK: Okay. I wondered if it had anything to do with the archangel Raphael, you know, sort of revenge for sins.
EW: Oh, no. Raphael Semmes is just the great naval hero. There’s no symbolic or other meaning to it. Except that I wanted it to be a very southern U.S. name, and I wanted it to be the label that the mother put on her hopes of re-attaining her status. Because I use the book to distinguish classes now existing in the white society and the conflicts between them, and how this plays out with reference to obtaining a true land ethic in the south.
It’s often the moneyed class—the big-time developers and ambitious businessmen, like his Uncle Cyrus. He just wants to create a continuous suburban area through there. They are among the ones who are the worst. They have the strong potential to block proper land management. But they’re changing. I even have a scene with the book’s “black knight,” the head of Sunderland Associates. Finally Raphael wins him over by saying, “Look, this is the future. Not just cutting the forest and building more and more houses—but preservation is the future.” He brings him over, and Mr. Sutherland says to him, “To tell the truth”—he goes through a conversion—“To tell you the truth, Raff,” he says, “I never really did want to cover that beautiful place with a bunch of tacky little houses.”
SK: Personally, do you feel the need that we have to compromise a little bit in preserving pristine land, and maybe put up some houses in an area, just to make sure that somebody’s there? Or would you rather just block it off, like Raphael had hoped?
EW: Good for you. Good for you for catching that. Of course, the best thing would have been for the state of Alabama or for a very wealthy person to donate in the range of $15 million or $20 million to buy it and set it aside. And incidentally, if you note the names of the two men to whom I dedicate this book [M.C. Davis and Sam Shine], they do just that kind of thing independently. Two very wealthy men, natives to that area, who have large fortunes and have been putting big chunks of it into buying land that could be made into reserves.
But failing that, I knew there had to be a middle way, and I used the book to illustrate how that middle way would go. Is it a compromise? No question. Part of the most interesting part of the land in the book, along the shore, is going to be altered. But most of the Nokobee track [the disputed land in the novel] is going to be saved as a nature reserve.
And I didn’t want to have some further scene of conflict, where there’s a “smack down” as we call these wrestling matches, and a small war, and finally the environmentalists win. That’s not how those people are down there. That’s not real. What’s real is the way I did it. I wanted to show these extremely difficult situations. You may remember the talk that Raphael has with the professor of environmental law at Harvard, and the guy just throws his hands up and says, “I don’t know you you’re going to settle this [dispute over Nokobee], Raff!” And Raff knows—that how he develops—Raff knows he’s got to get the right people on his side, not just the greens coming up, but he has to get the developers themselves to do it in their self-interest.
And the result is a compromise: A fair chunk of Nokobee gets altered. But it’s going to be put in the hands of people who are buying that property because they are anxious to keep it as it is. That’s a major movement now in the United States, a conservation movement. Wealthy landowners build their second or thirds homes, or even their retirement homes, in places where they have access to nature. Not all of them want to be on the edge of a golf course. More and more numbers of them are coming into areas like Nokobee, trying to find a place that’s beautiful, a natural environment.
SK: Well, that was all the questions I had.
EW: Well, you asked a lot. You covered everything—you exhausted that novel!
But one more aspect of the novel: It’s one more way to press, the way that I could contribute...
My favorite story along these lines has to do with this great evangelist of the 1920s. I heard a record of him. What’s his name... ? It’s gone out of my head. Anyway, I heard a record of him giving one these hellfire sermons of the kind that’s typical of Southern evangelicals. And here’s what he said, and here’s the accent—I can do it real well, having grown up with it.
[Wilson drops in a comically exaggerated drawl...]
I’ma agains’ sin. I hayte sin sooo much, I’ma gonna fight it ‘til I cain’t move my airms no more.
[Wilson flops down dramatically in his chair, arms limp]
And when I cain’t move my airms no more, I’ma a gonna byte sin.
[He snaps his jaws.]
And when all my teeth falls out, I’ma gonna gum it.
[Laughs] I love that. That’s what I’m doing. I’m gumming it.
Oil on canvas.
Thanks to Max for introducing me to his work!
India Now and Then
A Review by Ahmad Saidullah
I. Approaching India
Written in the 1980s and 90s, Sudipta Kaviraj’s eight essays on the intellectual history of politics and culture in India, with their heavy overlay of theory, are not meant for the casual reader.
He covers various topics: the specific nature of Indian democracy; aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's regimes; political culture in independent India; the construction of colonial power; the relationship between state, society, and discourse; the structure of nationalist discourse; language and identity formation in Indian contexts; the links between development and democracy; and the interactions among religion, politics, and modernity in South Asia.
In investigating the specificities of Indian history, Kaviraj who is Professor of Indian Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia presents himself as an outsider, a social theorist wary of rushing in where “historians, the most well-informed group about colonial societies” fear to tread.
Kaviraj has been associated with marxist and subaltern approaches to studying India's social and political life. These views have challenged the historical presentation of European colonialism as the great story of the triumph of western reason, science, and modernity. This narrative of modernity influenced Indian nationalists, the writing of nationalist histories, and the developments of the postcolony itself. “The external character of modernity is inscribed on every move, every object, every proposal, every legislative act, each line of causality including the externality of the historical project,” Kaviraj notes.
Like his colleague Partha Chatterjee at Columbia, Kaviraj prefaces his essays by acknowledging the limitations of these counter-approaches. Some forms of marxist thought reduce the history of rationalism to an economistic account of extractive capitalism. Others, in their attempts to draw a picture of society, seek to bring forward “an alternative epistemology of the subaltern classes…a hard task under any circumstance but particularly difficult for intellectuals drawn from the middle class.”
He examines Indian politics through western political philosophy and the perspectives of Indian history and indigenous political thought. Kaviraj is interested in India as a cultural entity with a diverse history and culture. His work is shaped by a belief in the plasticity of Indian politics in reflecting and shaping the world in which people live. He is keen on investigating whether the concepts used by historians of all stripes are adequate for understanding the culture and politics of India.
As colonialism ruptures the self–relations of a society through time, he sets out to find fundamental histories of epistemological concepts embedded in social practices that can enable scholars of Indian society to draw legitimate interconnections between the “world, nation and self.”
II. Gadamer and history
Kaviraj notes “the immense cognitive indebtedness of Indian nationalist history to the academic conventions of British empiricist historiography.” Many Indian historians who followed this model implicitly accepted the epistemological program of British empiricist social sciences.
Applying Gadamer’s criticisms of method to histories of India, Kaviraj suggests that the proper understanding of Indian politics comes through accurate interpretations of the nation’s social life and culture, through its humanity. This project lies beyond the usual compass of British empiricist historiography, limited as it is by the inductive reasoning of the natural sciences. In empiricist histories, there is a splitting of human consciousness between subject and object. The latter is alienated and controlled. Concepts are often presented as facts.
Kaviraj aspires to a “reasoned historical self-understanding,” to use Gadamer’s phrase. Kaviraj follows Gadamer’s concept of Bildung which implies a unifying movement towards universal consciousness achieved through education and cultural refinement. Bildung, common sense, judgment, and taste form the “guiding concepts of humanism.”
Kaviraj’s critical approach implies the need for a second-order discourse in histories which unearths such concepts in history writing. For him, narrativization and history can be understood in two senses, first as stories and accounts but equally importantly as colligatory, higher-order accounts of conceptual spaces or relations between discrete events in the past. Kaviraj says that, among the many “factual” narratives that resist theoritization, “the rationalist history of Europe was about as trustworthy as the European history of India.”
The choice of narratives remains a political act which necessitates self-awareness. The history of politics in India should be willing to step outside itself and become its own object of criticism. In Kaviraj’s words, “the historical discipline, cautious and measured about facts, has to become more hospitable to more risky theoretical generalizations.”
He studies concepts, categories, theories, social practices, conventions and languages to help us make sense of a society whose accounts of itself, its social formations, and ways of thinking have been changed or interpreted by colonial history. He examines the field of these ideas to see what they have meant to their various audiences, how they have been used or enacted, and whether they have the capacity for framing a proper understanding of India.
III. Colonialism and politics
An example of this critical-historical approach of spaces and difference is expressed through Hegel’s metaphor of circle of circles when Kaviraj describes the traditional social forms of Hindu community organization before contact with the British. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, Kaviraj says that while “capitalist societies are structurally similar, each type of pre-capitalist society is traditional in its own way.”
Although the caste system (varna) was rigidly hierarchical, power in its ceremonial, political, epistemological, economic and social forms was decentred and segmented among loosely organized or “fuzzy” religious communities (jati/samaj), a permanent social order where identities were various, communitarian, and fluid. The innermost circle was the site of the ceremonial state concerned with exacting rent and revenues. It did not play a role in changing or structuring the existing social organization or interfere with daily living.
As a result of this distributed dominance, rebellions were rare and sporadic although Buddhism, Jainism and Bhakti cults posed strong challenges to Hindu orthodoxy and religious organization. Islam in India was doctrinally more egalitarian than Hinduism but the Mughals understood the world in the same terms. For the four hundred years of their rule, they did not greatly change the traditional social forms.
As their first contact was with traders, not directly with the state, the rajahs, badshahs and nawabs saw the British as partners and allies rather than as a threat. Their shared structures of consciousness (what Kaviraj calls “the conceptual grid”) left the Muslim and Hindu rulers of India “conceptually unprepared” for the British takeover of India which followed the 1857 insurrection and spelled the end of the Mughal empire.
“Despite the venerable antiquity of a cultural sense of India,” says Kaviraj, “the construction of a political India is rather recent.” Kaviraj’s focus is partly on how “the power of European capitalist empires entered pre-colonial Indian society and transformed it, eventually establishing the peculiar institutions of the British Indian colonial state.”
After nationalizing the East India Company, the Crown took over the administration of India. Initially, it kept the form of the Mughal state for extracting rent and revenue but that changed slowly as it laid securer foundations for its rule. At first, it acted with restraint. Social change was slow, except in response to pressure from native reformers.
The political alterations of deep socio-cultural and economic arrangements by the colonial state after 1857 using the rhetoric of modernity created a new society that changed cognitive structures in India. The colonial state reconstituted “common sense through channels of encouragement, emulation, pressure, control” to enable it to rule more effectively.
Early barriers to colonial rule arose from custom, religious orthodoxy and ritual interdictions. However, while the English used orientalist scholarship and literature to secure its foothold in the east, Kaviraj shows in a brilliant intellectual biography how the indigenist thinker Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, not as well known as Bankim, reversed orientalist concepts to oppose colonial rule.
Although India is constitutionally a secular democracy, Kaviraj points out that there were other forms of nationalism in the colonial era than Nehru’s secular nationalism. The history of Indian nationalism is complex and not easily periodized but Kaviraj agrees with Chatterjee’s view that the right-wing ideology of Hindu nationalists emerged as part of the elite’s consensus with British imperialism.
A class of acquiescent English-educated Hindu elite in Bengal, created by the British to help colonial rule, was complicit in re-imagining India to exclude Muslims, a legitimation device for the British conquest of India. This politicized self-awareness of religious identities is an “unhappy consciousness” (Hegel’s phrase). Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, a leading positivist in the mid-nineteenth century, urban, middle-class, English-educated phenomenon known as the Bengal Renaissance, exemplified this in his earlier writings.
The elite was also contemptuous of the masses. Excepting Derozio’s Young Bengalis, most Bengali intellectuals did not support the 1857 or the indigo rebellions. In a country with mass illiteracy, the colonial state promoted and codified, with the help of missionaries, the elite’s Calcutta dialect as the written standard for Bengali. Mutually intelligible Bengali and Oriya speakers were separated into two political states. There was a decision to ignore vernaculars such as Khadi Boli when choosing norm languages. Demotic speech, along with Arabic, Urdu, Hindustani and Farsi, were devalued. The gap between elite high culture and the masses’ subaltern culture grew. The heteroglossia of India diminished into the diglossia of the elite.
The colonial state used the printing press and other tools of print capitalism to produce “a new world of maps, boundary lines, divisions, numbers and statistics.” Regions, resources, languages, practices, castes, majorities, minorities, institutions and other categories of identity were enumerated in ways that were “norm-setting and hierarchical.” Many of these changes have endured to this day.
By counting “Muslims against Hindus,” the colonial state pitted the two major Indian religious communities against each other. While censuses may have given communities a sense of the size of their collective self and enabled them to coalesce and “imagine” the nation, they also spurred the growth of Hindu majoritarianism which became politically rampant in the 1990s.
The discursive structures and strategies the British used to control the social world changed over time. Early colonial discourse focused on the British as the heirs of ancient Greeks and Romans with a unique civilizational mission (Engels termed them “civilization mongers.”) Their justificatory narrative of modernity and progress developed and shaped a new language of authority. Europe’s conquest of India was seen as a consequence of its scientific advance.
Kaviraj points out that the British worked in a dual context. They had two publics for their discourses and actions: the governed in India, now individual subjects of the Crown, and citizens in England. Kaviraj notes that “Britain could not, without infringing the laws of colonialism, introduce forms of political rule current in Europe.”
While liberal states enshrine the legal and property rights of every citizen, Indian nationalists who were covetous of European history and “the cultural meaning of Europe” felt, from their utilitarian perspectives, that they had equal rights to the narrative of reason. They soon discovered that, in practice, they did not. The same political concepts produced entirely different meanings and results in India than they did in England.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi and Bankim in his later writings were sceptical of the claims of rationalism and modernity. In some of his court appearances for his activities against British India, Gandhi used his legal training to exaggerate the punishments for his acts under such a “rational” system of justice. Indians also became aware of dissenting strands of thought in Europe—marxist, romantic, even orientalist—that challenged this narrative of rationalism.
Ultimately, nationalists accepted that colonialism “hindered politico-economic development in the direction of capitalism, liberalism, modernity.” Democracy and modernity—a paradox in the logic of capitalism—would be possible only under self-rule but mobilizing opposition against the colonial state proved difficult. Because of the new linguistic and social divides between the elites and the masses, the new vocabulary of rights and entitlements could not be easily popularized.
“Subaltern cultures remained private and confidential” with few dialogic connections to the elite or their rulers. Further, the impersonal structure of the state hid from the people the real targets of political opposition. Gandhi, with his brilliant use of populist symbolism, alone “bridged the gulf between the two sides,” and “kept the values, objectives and conceptions of the world of the two sides intelligible to each other.”
IV. Independent India
After independence, the deaths of Vallabbhai Patel and Gandhi meant that Nehru, who, according to Kaviraj, did not understand the importance of Indian culture in political life, was able to chart his modernist version of a Keynesian path for independent India as a developmental state. Predictably, the discourses and the institutions of the modernist state failed to reach most Indians.
Unfortunately, despite or because of a vast bureaucracy, described by Kaviraj as an “unreconstructed colonialist bureaucratic style, wholly monological, primarily wasteful, utterly irresponsible and unresponsive to public sensitivity,” the state failed to engage most of its citizens. Nonetheless, Nehru developed strong regional authorities by devolving powers to state governments. Expert groups were given the task of planning public goods and services.
However, it was under Nehru that the country began “the greatest experiment with democracy in the history of the world.” A commitment to secularism, social justice and welfare, affirmative action measures, minority rights, modern nationalism, industrial modernity, education, democracy, official recognition of major languages, centralized planning, institutions, and impersonal power are some themes of the new India.
Ironically, Indira Gandhi’s government spread its messages of social and economic justice, however cynically, more effectively to the masses. Unlike her father, she centralized power, strengthened the party, and weakened the country while galvanizing and engaging the electorate. The popular groundswell of opposition to her suspension of democratic rights under the Emergency showed how strong grassroots political movements, had become in India, even among the subaltern classes. The bureaucracy began to include “the lower orders” in its ranks but its inefficiencies and corruption increased.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s flirtation with communalism (as religious intolerance is known in South Asia) on the Babri Masjid issue in Ayodhya, VP Singh’s Janata Dal government promoted affirmative action plans for “lower castes,” creating a split along caste lines in the Hindu majoritarian cause. Kaviraj credits PV Narasimha Rao, building on Rajiv Gandhi’s interests in modernization and science and technology, with effecting the most radical economic reforms and liberalizing trade, the blueprint for India’s economic boom today.
Kaviraj analyses the 1990 elections in which the right-wing BJP won a majority. The BJP election set into motion violent, regressive social forces against Muslims and other Indian minorities and called into question the Indian constitution itself. Kaviraj notes “I cannot hide my anxiety that this [Nehruvian] discursive justification of pluralist nationalism has been failing in recent years…there is no guarantee that the more civilized positions will win out.”
V. Concluding remarks
His pessimism has to be guarded against, given the power wielded now by “lower-caste” parties in the decades not covered in this volume. The Imaginary Institution of India is the first of three planned volumes of Kaviraj’s writings. Coalition-building among minority, “lower-order” groups and lower-caste-specific parties are political realities in India. Social and economic mobility have elided the high culture-subaltern divide. Kaviraj says that democracy, despite many shortcomings, has succeeded in India in the Tocquevillan sense. It has transformed everyday, fundamental social relations even among the traditionally less empowered.
One can question Kaviraj’s investment in Gadamer’s approach to understanding. His hermeneutics is grounded in Bildung, defined by Herder as “the reaching up to humanity.” The Bildung tradition was an elite, sometimes bourgeois, practice in Germany and Austria and not necessarily a means for understanding other cultures, particularly “lower” cultures. Bildung refers to a “rounded” humanist education for achieving high culture through the refinement of common sense, taste, judgment, insight, self-consciousness, and freedom from bias.
Further, such a totalizing enterprise as Gadamer’s is easier to recuperate in smaller, linguistically uniform European states than in India with its tremendous religious, linguistic, and cultural complexities. While Kaviraj bravely references Bengali, Sanskrit, Brajbhasha, Khadi Boli and English in his essays, a truly reasoned self-understanding of Indian social life must remain fragmentary or composite because of this.
Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008. It was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. A French translation of the book by the University of Ottawa Press will be published in 2011. Ahmad lives in Toronto, Canada.
How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours, Too
Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.
- George Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What?
Philosophy, its oldest practitioners proclaimed, begins in wonder. Yet the wonder often directed at it appears with a furrowed brow and a patronising frown, a finger tapping against a chin. What is it good for, how will impact on my life? This question seems to dog the pursuits of philosophers sometimes above their colleagues in other disciplines: my physicists friends are rarely asked how ‘their’ black holes could affect the average citizen (aside from destroying you before annihilating you?); my film and art friends rarely focus on the use of film or theatre in a world filled with suffering (perhaps highlighting a powerful portrayal of that suffering so we actually do something about it?). And so we could go on. No doubt there are also some single sentences to counter the claim made at philosophers, but others have done this before; I wish to show something immediate for me. The reader wanting an answer need only search for them from those who are professionals, perhaps starting with Bertrand Russell’s famous final chapter, ‘The Value of Philosophy’, in The Problems of Philosophy (a very boring work aside from its clarity and this final defence), and the first chapters of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (two mostly opposed books on the subject of moral philosophy).
As I said, instead of answering the question directly, I wish to provide a personal demonstration: Philosophy has thoroughly annihilated my children – or rather, stopped me harbouring any thoughts of creating children. It has ceased any joy, wonder, amazement from being created in little human beings with my eyes, hair or smile; it has severed any form of biological paternal ‘duty’. Philosophy grabbed hold of procreation stemming from me and thoroughly buried it beneath reasonable argument. I present to you one of many tombstones of axiomatic acceptance in my life.
How did philosophy do this?
Let us consider the overall consideration more broadly. An important part of philosophy is to shove axioms into a stretched, contorted mirror. The reflection casts the creature in a new light, forcing us who are reflecting on the axiom to reassess how it came to its original structure, which we held for so long. Topics we take for granted today were assumed ‘natural’, ‘part of tradition’, or ‘as it’s always been’: the lower place of women, slavery, the existence of gods, the power of priests. Nowadays the better sex, in modern democracies, is to some degree equal; slavery was justified and abolished thanks to people able to quote-mine from the Bible, and who were and are moved because of the need to emancipate our fellow humans from the shackles of barbarism and servility; priests were dislocated from the state-body, as demonstrated by the hard fight of the Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, and the Enlightenment project as a whole. And we all know the demolishing of god’s stilts made of nonsense that held him above all forms of criticism.
The point being: all this is a central task of philosophy, itself, or what might be considered critical engagement with the world; our history fighting for rights and liberties has been one of overturning generally accepted axioms that took root in various places in our lives (cf: A.C. Grayling, Toward the Light). Now our collective lives are perhaps better. To diminish the sphere to myself, overturning certain axioms resulted in reconsidering the entire basis of parenthood. For many people, overturning axioms is like overturning furniture in an occupied room; we don’t do it because things have their place, as it’s always been, as our parents did it, etc. We must not mistake stability for morality: just because it’s always been this way does not mean it should be. Just so with some of the brief examples I sketched above. Parenthood is an accepted part of our society. What I want to offer is that, whilst parenthood is essential and I think ethical, creating children is not.
The world is filled with orphaned children, who through neglect or disease or war, have lost their biological parents. Most of us are aware of the incredible work done by various organisations and individuals, religious and secular, to help these estranged orphans. The idea of the orphan has indeed turned into a cliché, used to bolster empathic feelings. The helplessness of children is magnified by the property of orphans lacking biological parents.
Africa is a place desperately in need of reconsideration from this level. The amount of children, orphaned because of AIDS (and indeed not discounting the 5,000 HIV-Positive babies born every month) , is staggering: at the current estimate it is estimated at around 15 million . In Africa, surveying the countries Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 15% of all children under the age 15 have lost parents, either one or both, and more than 20% of these 15-year old children are orphans. In South Africa, there is an estimated 2.3 million AIDS-orphans. These AIDS-orphans are significantly less likely to gain an education , are more likely to be involved in further health risks and themselves be victims of violence. UNAIDS has shown consistently, too, that 40% of countries with an AIDS pandemic do not have national policies involving these orphans, due to a number of factors, including the sheer volume of orphans.
Many people look on this with sympathetic sighs and throw up their hands: What can we do? Perhaps we can donate, perhaps we can volunteer at orphanages, shelters, and so on. But, I think an answer is needed that is more permanent, moral and protective of these children: Stop creating children, start raising them.
Why create beings to look after, when all around the world, like Africa, there are places packed to the ceilings with cries and outstretched hands and tears of those without paternal love? No doubt people genuinely want an outlet for their own parental feelings, of love, compassion, caring.
Friends or lovers, for example, cannot of course be the vessels into which we pour these feelings. French Renaissance writer François Rabelais said something similar, noting our different feelings when it came to children: ‘A child is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit.’ What’s needed for our specific parental feelings is of course something 'smaller', something growing, a being who we can help shape to be a better people than we are, whose mistakes we can more easily solve having experienced some ourselves. This is a very human need – explicable in various capacities, no doubt most powerfully through evolution – but it remains ethical. Ethical because it involves primarily reducing the suffering of another being, one who is dependent on us in nearly every way. But here is the most important question of all: do beings like this exist already or do we have to create them?
The descriptive answer is obvious: there are beings that already exist who need our love, caring and attention, who need that parental duty aimed at them. I have highlighted them above. The mistake people make is, when considering the previous paragraph’s outline of beings to love, they assume these beings must be created. That is, these beings must be biologically related to us in order to receive the love and attention we wish to show. But this is a non-sequituur: why do they have to be biologically-related, or have 'our genes', in order for us to convey this love?
We also face problems of overpopulation in many areas of the globe, if not on the globe itself. Why do we need to create more people? I have not read any good defence or reason for us to create people, especially when this is compounded by the fact that there already exist beings requiring love and attention; love and attention many of us are giving to beings not yet born.
Non-existent beings do not experience joy or suffering, they do not lose out or gain. Non-existent beings, by definition, do not exist. To not have children is not to kill children; killing is taking away the existence of a living thing, but these beings are neither living nor existing. What is killed is the idea of having children and what is birthed is the ethical obligation we have to look after those who need that love and attention so many of us are willing to suffer for by undergoing expensive fertility-treatments, hours in labour, stillbirths, and therapy instead of simply taking stock of our fellow creatures and acknowledging an open gap so long ignored, so long passed over, for the selfish reason to create miniature images of ourselves.
For most couples, every child you create to love means another child you pass over for love. We do not care about these others because they are not made from our genes - we might consider it a kind of prejudice based on genes: genecism (pronounced jin-NEH-sism). Ignore the neologism if you wish, but consider prospective parents who spend hours, months or years and ludicrous amounts of money on fertility treatments, yet ignore the plight of children all over the world who need basic housing, health and nutrition. Children without parents but needing parents. How about taking all that money you would use on fertility treatments and giving it to a child who does exist, or perhaps investing in an adoption agency to acquire a child who is already on this planet? (To many, this seems the classical utilitarian failure: it asks too much. This does not apply in this instance, since it is actually asking for something less demanding. You will still have a child, but not one that has come about through struggle, time, therapy and failure.) Every time I pass a parent knowing they have created a child, I see nothing but double-standards, prejudice, and immorality. On what basis are we ignoring the plight of those who need our help? Why do we continue to create people, when there are people who need our attention?
There are a number of responses I have encountered.
If we all started adopting, there would not be any new children and the human race would die out.
Firstly, not everyone would qualify for adoption policies. Ironically, it is adoptive parents who face sometimes more hardships to qualify as parents, not those turning themselves into baby-factories. Any of us, if our required organs functioned ‘correctly’, could become parents; the question then is whether we should be or whether we can be. This is a deeper issue, not one I am going to explore here. Secondly, as the astronomer Sir Marin Rees has eloquently highlighted, the creatures watching the death of our sun in a few billion years will not be us. But we need not even think that far: According to some estimates, there will be no biological life on the planet in 500 million years. The point being, the human ‘race’ – such an ugly word – will not be here forever. We are part of the natural world, we have arisen through natural means, and we will continue to adapt to our environment. The great Jerry Coyne has answered in the affirmative that we are still evolving, for example, meaning this species will adapt to the point where we will no longer be defined as homo Sapiens.
The human race therefore, as it is now, will die out one way or another. Whether it is destroyed through warfare, disease, heavenly bodies, or changed via adaptation that gave rise to us in the first place, our species will almost beyond all doubt cease to exist. This will happen anyway. As we face it now, we have questions about how we deal with suffering and what we can do to alleviate that suffering. (I am ignoring science-porn examples of freezing ourselves, curing death, etc.)
This does not answer my claim, nor does it explain something even more fundamental. What is so special about our species that we ought to keep it going? When I read John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, about a post-apocalyptic world in which most people are blinded and everyone is hunted by giant, man-eating plants, I was struck by one of the first points of focus for the survivors: continuing the human ‘race’. It disgusted me because the central committee decreed that women would now have to submit to the awful lecherousness of men inserting themselves into these women, out of some sense of anthropocentric ‘duty’. The race must continue!
But why? It is so automatic in assumptions there are even horrid jokes about: ‘If I was the last man and you were the last women, would you sleep with me?’ – as if being the Anti-Adam and Anti-Eve means you have some duty to continue the species. No you don’t. We are not special. There is no cosmic purpose to us being here, nor is there some cosmic purpose we are fulfilling by continuing to exist or making horrid laws chaining women’s organs to the desires of men for more humans. The worst part of course is that this is not as fictional as we would like to believe: women are treated this way, sometimes even in modern Western democracies. Sometimes they also treat themselves this way, which seems to ignite the idiocy completely: the human species must continue, so I will have bagfuls of children.
This is perhaps the most fundamental reason people, I think, will continue to create children. Making people seems to push the horizon of death or at least complete non-existence further back. I will return to this point shortly.
How about I have one child of my own and one adopted child?
I call this fence-sitting: either be proud of not wanting to adopt, ignoring the plight of the desperate, or adopt. This argument has been made by so many people at me (as opposed ‘to’ me) that it needs to be answered. I am not sure why people find this answer appealing, other than emotionally it seems to satisfy the claims I posed as well as their own: It satisfies the charge that it is irrational to create a being to love when there are beings who need that love; and it satisfies the need to procreate for completely egocentric and bad selfish reasons. But it does not answer my charge from before: every child you create to love means another child you pass over for love (for many of us). Nor does it answer my other charge that we must start focusing on those who do exist who can benefit from care and attention, instead of creating beings to receive it.
The ‘fence-sitter’ response does not work because, even if you have that one biological child and an adopted one, you have removed a spot which could be filled with a child needing a home, love, and a parental guide. The fact that you already have an adopted child seems is at first glance an indication you are a capable potential parent for adoption agencies. You have taken that spot away from an existing being and given it to one who you brought into existence (maybe after extensive fertility-treatments, for example?).
I want my line to pass on. That way I will be immortal. I do not want my genes to die out with me.
This is the most obvious bad selfish reason, but at least it is honest. It is, however, flagrantly stupid and self-centred. It is prejudiced against those who are not your kin, the claim of genecism I posed before. Genecism says ‘I am only going to care about those who are related to me’ or 'only those of close genetic relation are worthy of my moral concern'. This is of course nonsense: even descriptively, we do care about those who are not genetically closely related to us, like friends, adopted children, patients, etc. To say that we will only care about children who are related to us is to throw away our abilities to forge long, wonderful, love-filled relationships with those not related to us; it is to be prejudiced. This is a nonsense claim and, along with all prejudice, irrational, stupid and bigoted. It makes no more sense than racist or misogynist claims. I do not think people explicitly make this claim, but it is told through their actions of discounting the moral worth of non-related children who do exist for related children who they would rather bring into existence.
Death is the great subject. To me, it is central to all problems and conflicts, lying like a snake in the long-grass of politics and philosophy, in the waters of power and corruption, and in the mud of daily existence. We must grow-up, realise we will die, that no one will remember us at some point. Most of us will be forgotten in decades or centuries; few make it as ‘legends’ – whether for good or ill. You might take offence that Hitler will be remembered longer than you, but just think of what he did to get there. Better to be sand in the landscape of human remembrance than volcanoes.
Genetics only takes us so far. We now accept that nurture influences sometimes as much as nature – the field of epigenetics is proving fantastically wondrous in these kinds of implications, for example. The point being, how we raise our children matters (sometimes) more than how much of our genes is inside them. Adopted children can testify to the feelings of love and devotion they reciprocated to their now deceased adoptive parents. Here, these people do live on in the minds and love of their adopted children, as they do in friends and close associates. What is so essential that we need to continue to exist solely in our genes?
It is ludicrous. We are not confined to the whims of our genes (using contraceptives for example destroys the chain of genetic servility). This argument, even if expressed, can be shown to be selfish and stupid; but it can also be overcome by simply observing the impact people have on others as they live.
Sure, we can’t all be a Thomas Jefferson but many can settle for being good parents or at least good people. Those who think ‘That’s not good enough!’ have their work cut out for them; nor is turning farmer of your seed solving the problem. In fact, that would heighten the problem and show up your selfishness, bigotry, idiocy and immorality.
People believe that by continuing their genetic line, they somehow achieve a sense of immortality. I have never understood what this means: surely, if immortality was wanted, it would apply to who we are as individual persons, not aspects of our genetic make-up? We might as well cut-off a finger-nail and preserve it. At least that way we know it will be around for longer, because who knows how long our descendants will live – long enough to continue the line or die before they can produce children? I simply see no reason to have parts of myself continue after I am dead. My eyes are not so beautiful they must be in another little person, nor my walk, smile, and so on. Who really cares about my physical continuation as opposed to the tributaries of actions aimed at helping the world? If you want some lasting legacy, leave it in the shape of aiding sentient species – human and non-human. Leave it in aiding in the environment, in creating wondrous works of art: music, literature or painting. Leave it inscribed into how you treated others, how you looked after the children you helped out of their poverty-stricken environment to treat them like human beings deserving not only of love but respect. Leave your legacy etched into the fabric of the world, shaping it so it more easily bends to the suffering of others, more easily creates gateways of autonomy.
Laziness begets the denial of these. Apathy means just spreading your immortality in an unimpressive, unhelpful and perhaps damaging way: creating offspring. The world is open to you making an impact on those who need it. If you want to leave a legacy, look to the world not to your genes. This is how philosophical thinking or at least critical engagement impacted my life directly, affectively and forever denying me the ‘luxury’ of breeding for the sake of selfishness.
UPDATE October 2010
Mr Nick Smyth has penned a well-written, albeit unconvincing reply to me (Smyth has corresponded with me personally, which a far better expression of his counter-arguments. I hope he will publish his thoughts.).
I have responded to Mr Smyth and recurring criticisms, too.
Some excellent resources on adoption can simply be Googled. But I do recommend:
1. The website for Adoptive Families - 'Adoptive Families, the award-winning national adoption magazine, is the leading adoption information source for families before, during, and after adoption.'
2. Andrew John Dutton 'How Adoption Works'
3. HowStuffWorks on Adoption - I know it is from a US-bent but still highly informative.
Please let me know if these resources are fraudulent or suspicious.
Case, Anne, Christina Paxson, and Joseph Ableidinger. "Orphans in Africa: Parental Death, Poverty, and School Enrollment." Demography 41, no. 3 (August 2004): 483-508.
Cluver, Lucie, Frances Gardner, and Don Operario. "Psychological distress amongst AIDS-orphaned children in urban South Africa." Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 48, no. 8 (August 2007): 755-763.
Johnson, R. W. South Africa's Brave New World: the Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Kürzinger, M L, J Pagnier, J G Kahn, R Hampshire, T Wakabi, and T D V Dye. "Education status among orphans and non-orphans in communities affected by AIDS in Tanzania." AIDS Care 20, no. 6 (July 2008): 726-732.
Lunar Refractions: An Abecedarium
When life lacks character, you have to actively seek it out. For me, it usually returns in the form of characters themselves—letters, scrawlings, and texts of all sorts. This past summer I co-organized a brief, intense trip through northeastern Italy to look at a broad variety of lettering with a group called Legacy of Letters. I'm preparing a lengthier article on the experience, but with 3,000+ images and a lot of notes to sort through, it's taking its own time. Meanwhile, for those who've asked, those who know of the tour, and others who love letters, here's a small sampling of what we saw.
These snippets—robbed of their proper scale and context—can only convey so much. But alongside their morphology, the stories that accompany them speak volumes. In addition to examples by anonymous letterers, we saw work by Giambattista Bodoni, Francesco Griffo (whose Y is above), Aldus Manutius, Giovanni Mardersteig, Bob Noorda (D), Aldo Novarese, Carlo Scarpa, Bartolomeo Sanvito, and several others—including the contemporary calligrapher Luca Barcellona (K). Until the next installment, thanks for looking, and I'll return with more next month.
Are Our Writers As Lousy As Our Bankers?
You know: the mind of you and me, dear 3QD reader -- the NPR listener, the New Yorker reader, the English major, the filmgoer who laps up subtitles, the gallery-goer who can tell a Koons from a Hirst.
This art is superior to the cascading pile of blockbuster kitsch-dreck-crap that passes for pop culture, but only superior by a few pips.
This art sure ain't Picasso, or Joyce, or Rossellini, or the Beatles, or even Sondheim. It's more Woody Allen than Ingmar Bergman, more Joyce Carol Oates than James Joyce, more Jeff Koons than Duchamp, more Arcade Fire than the Beatles.
It does not expand the borders of art or wreck the tyranny of the possible or enlarge our hungry little minds.
It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts.
For want of a better label, here's a suggested honorific for this kind of art:
Urban Intellectual Fodder.
Neither original nor path-breaking, this art is derivative hommage; postmodern commentary around the edges of art.
It is art born of attitude, not passion. It is art that postures but doesn't grip. It is art created by those who are more passionate about a career in art than about art itself.
1. The indie rock spawned in urban art ghettoes.
2. The visual art spelonked in Williamsburg.
3. The movies sputtered by independents hoping to get into Sundance.
4. The novels spritzed by creative writing majors from Iowa University and other environs.
1. THE ART OF THE SMART
What distinguishes this art from actual art?
Primarily, this is art that thinks about art. Art of the intellect, not the heart. Art done to bring us the smart, not the art.
The artists of Urban Intellectual Fodder act like art critics doing art -- they're better about their art than with it, better on their art than in it. Their art is done to show their smarts, and that's primarily what one gets from their art.
Smart art: in America, the land of anti-intellectualism, it's perhaps inevitable that our art should devolve into a screech against the national celebration of the dumb.
Unfortunately, this art does the smart thing to the detriment of the other things that art can do. It does the soothing, lulling thing, because it is art to make the viewer feel smart. The audience I'm talking about wants only that from art: to be made to feel smart. So they get their art of the brain, for the brain and by the brain. Art that panders with its braininess.
Urban Intellectual Fodder is the prozac of the American intelligentsia.
It's studiedly smart; it's properly elliptical; it's quite self-aware and often very meta; it is extensively footnoted, either actually or mentally; its distance from its material is either ironically remote or uncomfortably close-up; it is intensely minimal or wordy or effects-ridden, in either a refined or extravagant way; it specializes in conceits, and sometimes its conceit is to be devoid of one; and it makes its small points, and sometimes its big obvious ones, in either a very guarded or rather grandiosely ironical way.
Critic James Wood coined a name for it: “hysterical realism.” Dale Peck had a name for it, too: “recherche postmodernism.” Both ain't half bad.
You know who and what I mean: everyone you imbibe by book, CD, movie or artwork creates Urban Intellectual Fodder.
All it does is put a sheen of high-brow smarts on art that is actually middle-brow. And comes out bloodless.
But what then is actual art, whose heights Urban Intellectual Fodder so deliberately ducks -- real art, high art, art for art's sake?
2. ACTUAL ART
The art I'm talking about, the art that blows your mind, is something you feel with more than your mind. It makes your hair stand on end. It takes your head off. It has a physical effect, like some kind of vicious blow that makes you jitter with excitement, or some kind of fierce cloud that enfolds you in a hard, clammy grip. It's like getting a kick up the spine with a cosmic boot, or having your senses garroted by an expert assassin, or suddenly being plunged into water so cold it shocks you to death. Kafka's “ax that breaks the frozen sea inside us” springs to mind.
My brilliant poet girlfriend once said to me: “I want to write poetry that makes people cry, because it's so beautiful.” That might be a mite plain-spokenly bathetic, but that's more or less what I'm talking about: an effect on the mind that gets to the heart and the body.
It's what I felt when I saw my first painting by Francis Bacon, or the sliced animals of Damien Hirst; when I saw Buried Child by Sam Shepard in downtown New York; when I read Lolita for the fourth time; when I saw all of Matisse at MOMA; when I first heard John Lennon nose his way through A Day In the Life; when I went to the bathroom one night reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and didn't get up from the toilet until I had finished reading it the next morning, with a semi-permanent indentation in my bum.
You know what I mean. You've had those experiences, and like me, you can probably count them on one or two hands at best.
I'm talking art of the first order. Art for the ages. Art that belongs in the top 100 novels of all time, the top 100 albums of all time, the top 100 paintings of all time, the top 100 movies of all time.
Compare this art to the book you read the past month, or the movie you saw this week, the play you saw, the contemporary art show you took in.
Compare this actual art to your steady diet of Urban Intellectual Fodder.
Compare this actual art to the art that comes off the assembly line of wise-ass Ivy League educated privileged kids: the kind of art that uses its tools with studious deliberateness, because they've been picked up for their strategic value from creative writing workshops. These tools are used to shout the significance of a burp out loud to heaven's resounding, and draw cosmic import from as pedestrian an event as a man brushing his upper molars or a woman scooping the poop off her baby's bum. Or they're wielded to burrow deep into some fashionable dysfunctional relationship, where this art will lay its various impotent eggs of quiet insight.
3. ON BEING A SNOTNOSE
From where I read, my sweet confrere, this stuff sucks. At best it pulls the wool over enough reviewers' eyes to sell nine thousand copies, or even two hundred thousand, or even get into your local movie art-house, or be played on your local college radio station, or turn up at a gallery, or be feted in the blogosphere.
I'm not too hip on the new movies or CDs or artworks, but I am a big reader of novels, so the current output of literary fiction concerns me.
I must admit to a few biases here. I'm a bit of a snot-nose when it comes to literature.
I mostly read and reread classic novels published in the 19th century, and on my rare forays into the 20th century, only the absolute masters: J.M. Coetzee, Faulkner, Nabokov.
I think my fellow country woman Nadine Gordimer is OK, but she doesn't blow my mind, and neither does Philip Roth or John Updike. The Great Gatsby does, and Lolita, and Ulysses. Of D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers blows my mind completely, but his other stuff doesn't. To me, Margaret Atwood is light reading.
So I'm a total snob as a reader.
Every now and then, I will pick up a book by a contemporary writer, mostly because they've passed the Michiko Kakutani test, since a writer has to be quite good to get a nod from this Manhattan Chainsaw Massacre reviewer for the New York Times.
So I'll read Philip Roth's American Pastoral or Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles or whatever.
And invariably, I'll be disappointed.
The only contemporary novels I've read that I consider truly great, are The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Beloved by Toni Morrison. They're both worth reading more than once. So are four of J.M. Coetzee's books.
And that's it. That's my actual sum total of novels written in the last twenty years that are worth reading.
Yes, I know there's plenty of good stuff around, but I'm talking great. And great art for the ages just ain't a-comin' from the dull, dim vastness stamped out by protean hives of Iowa Writing School graduates and other creative writing programs.
4. BERGMAN AND THE BEATLES
Am I saying I've been born into an art-barren age?
Not at all. After all, I had acquired my snot-nosed mind when the Beatles made their albums, and Ingmar Bergman made his movies, and Bob Dylan came out of nowhere. Back in that day, I was practically breathless awaiting every new Beatles album and every new Bergman movie, and here was the thing: they never disappointed.
Do you remember when Rubber Soul came out? And Sergeant Peppers? And the White Album? You'd think Eleanor Rigby was the most beautiful song ever, and out they'd come with Hey Jude. It was incredible to be young in the sixties, and to have your ears stroked like that.
Do you remember when Bergman's The Seventh Seal blazed off the screen? And The Virgin Spring? And just when you thought it would be impossible for Ingmar to reach the level of The Silence, Shame and Persona ever again, up he pops with his first color movie, Cries and Whispers.
I saw Cries and Whispers with a lady friend in London when it came out in the early nineteen seventies. It left us literally speechless. We were together for the whole of the rest of the afternoon and that evening, and we started speaking to each other only after three hours of total silence had passed between us, so blasted-out-of-and-into-our-skulls were we.
I'm sorry, but The Departed just didn't do that for me. Yeah, yeah, it gets a best picture Oscar for Marty Scorcese, but it's just another excellent crime movie, and not even as good as De Palma's Scarface. I won't even talk about Slum Dog Millionaire -- that's just a Rocky for Occidentals who like their condescension towards Orientals to come back at them with a happy ending. The Hurt Locker was excellent, but not Godard. Or even Pialat.
Today's movies are as uninspiring as today's novels. There are enough indie and specialty films coming out to render the most diligent reviewer bleary-eyed. But of what quality, pray tell? The best commercial movie of recent memory, Revolutionary Road directed by Sam Mendez, as wonderful as it was, is no way near Billy Wilder's best, or Kubrick's best. The only movie I've seen in the last five years that was good enough to blow my mind was a movie called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu directed by Cristi Piui. And that was because of its artless, naturalistic style, which was so devoid of flash as to be revolutionary. The camera simply attended to what was happening. It was so uninterested in impressing the viewer with artistry, its non-style came across as a newly invented special effect.
How sweet it was to be alive when giants like Bergman and the Beatles were strutting their stuff. The poor kids of today: they have to live off the gruel-thin scraps of Arcade Fire and Sofia Coppola. What a thrill it was to enjoy the work of Bergman and the Beatles as they made their masterpieces, to follow them as touchstones to one's own life. The only comparable experience I can imagine in the 20th century would've been to be alive when Picasso was showing his work in the gallery around the corner from wherever you were living in Paris in the twenties and thirties and forties. Or to have got that Faulkner was one of the best writers ever, and to have waited in awe for every new novel he published. What an amazing experience it must have been to go and pick up Absalom Absalom at your local bookstore the week it came out.
5. NO, I'M NOT JADED
So what do we have today? Not a giant in sight. J.M. Coetzee has delivered us his masterpieces already; he's been treading water for the last few years.
Is it just me? Am I jaded? I don't think so. I read Edith Wharton's House of Mirth for the first time four years ago, and it rocked me from my cerebellum to my toes. I have to tell you here and now, and I may be upsetting a lot of people: there is a clear difference of quality between House of Mirth and American Pastoral. House of Mirth is a great novel from a great mind; American Pastoral is an OK novel from an OK mind. Edith Wharton wrote for the ages, the shadow of George Elliot upon her; Philip Roth is writing for our time, and maybe feeding off Updike, and revered because he's the marginally best of a pretty bad lot.
If you know of a piece of magnificent current English literature I've missed, please enlighten me. I might be writing this for the sole reason of scaring up a great contemporary writer who has escaped my jaundiced eye. By now Midnight's Children is not contemporary anymore, and Salman Rushdie's later stuff is to Midnight's Children what Paul McCartney's last two albums are to Rubber Soul. Rushdie wrote Midnight's Children with the depth of his genius, but the rest of his stuff with the tips of his fingers. Who else is there? White Noise was magnificently smart and funny and readable, but every Dom DeLillo since then that I've read has been a slog through sticky mud arranged in precise, meticulous, magisterial steps towards some ever-receding insight. It's like slipping on great texture over a vast hollowness. It's like being in the presence of something great but when you look it's just your nephew.
6. SOME USUAL SUSPECTS
When I think of the exemplars of this kind of art -- the artists who are good at our current boulevardier type of smart art -- the following names inevitably spring to mind:
In movies, Woody Allen. There's a mind there, sure, and an original one, too. But how much else? Ironically, Woody's hero is Ingmar Bergman, and would that Woody tried to swing that hard for the fences. Maybe the lad has it in him, and we should be patient: Crimes and Misdemeanors was a worthy attempt.
In visual art, Matthew Barney and Jeff Koons. They're showmen, they'll go down in art history, but are we talking the revolutions of Picasso, Matisse, even Andy Warhol? Hardly. Theirs is the art of gesture and drama and not much else, like a grammar without a language.
In rock 'n roll, the usual suspects. Arcade Fire, The Shins, The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeah, the Decembrists, etc. etc. Are we talking the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin? Hardly. These bands don't even measure up to the second rank of U2, REM and other placeholders. Jesus, they're not even as good as the Zombies, for chrissake. (As for rap, I draw a blank. I loved the first rappers -- Run DMC, Planet Rock, that shit -- but heck, I just don't have an ear for what everyone else proclaims as clever rhyme. Yeats it ain't. It ain't even Bob Dylan. Rap strikes me as on a level somewhat below Ogden Nash, without the urban sophistication. Eminem is to Bob Dylan as Nancy Drew is to Sherlock Holmes.)
In novels, well, I'm at a bit of a loss here. There's that Brooklyn McSweeney McSmugley lot. Very smart, for sure. Kind of like unripe Woody Allen. Philip Roth is still at it, like a gray-haired beaver, but don't expect him to turn into Dickens or George Elliot all of a sudden. That much life the wily bugger doesn't have in him.
Jonathan Franzen? WTF? He doesn't write novels; he writes prose. Holding up a middle-brow mirror to middle-brow America: that's not going to be interesting two decades from now. Franzen is today's James Gould Cozzens. Of course he'll always be an Oprah Winfrey pick.
So what do we have? Between Woody Allen, Philip Roth, a few indie bands, Jeff Koons et al, we have what one might call a batch of mini-Masters of the mini-genre of Smart Art as mini-purposed Urban Intellectual Fodder. And they're the pick of the crop. As for the rest, ugh.
7. OUR VACUUM ABHORS ART
Here I am, a guy who has written seven novels about life in my 20th and 21st century (and has had five agents sell none of them), and I find less than seven contemporary novels worth reading about my time on earth. (The Road is about a blasted future. Beloved is about a blasted past.)
I'm operating in a vacuum. All my really big hero writers are long dead. All my models hail from two centuries ago. My unpublished epic saga about the struggle for freedom in South Africa, Love and Gravity, a novel that spans fifty years, is seven-books long, way longer than the Bible. I can't even find enough contemporary books worth reading that add up to that length.
My sister is my severest critic, and here's what she said about this big blob of an epic I wrote: "Evert, it's better than Nadine Gordimer, but I don't want to hurt your feelings, it's not as good as J.M. Coetzee." Heck, I don't mind playing second fiddle to Coetzee at all, because I happen to think Waiting for the Barbarians, The Life and Times of Joseph K, Age of Iron and perhaps even Disgrace are unbelievable masterpieces that orchestrate a marriage between two favorites, Samuel Beckett and Michel Tournier, and resound louder in my mind than the bells of a thousand Notre Dames. Plus, I'm pretty sure the sex I get from my brilliant girlfriend beats whatever J.M. Coetzee gets. And who knows, maybe there are three or four other unpublished writers out there, and we could start ourselves a publishing company.
But that won't solve my reading problem. When I walk into a bookstore, and I open the latest novel hailed on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and I'm bored after seven sentences, I get a twinge.
And here is the nature of my twinge. It's not the twinge you think, the one that says, "Jeez, how come this dude is out there getting good reviews, and all I've got is a letter from a publisher that says I'm the new Terry Southern but my book is not for them."
No. I'm standing in the bookstore, driven there by an ecstatic review yet let down on page one -- I, a major market of one for literary fiction, with the hard cash to fork over to get my mind bent -- and my twinge goes like this: “Why in heaven's name can't I find a great book to read this week by someone who is actually alive today? What is going on? Are our novelists as lousy as our bankers?”
Listen, you living writers out there. Write us a masterpiece or two, for chrissake. We need something more solid than Urban Intellectual Fodder. What's with you -- do you want us to die from starvation?
A Simple Desultory Philippic
I'll give one thing to the demagogues – they sure know something about basic human psychology. For those of us waterboarded by the economy, we're close to Depression desperation. It's a commonplace that depression is "anger focused inward"; and the cheap-and-easy way out, if you're too cash-strapped for the shrink or the meds, is to displace that anger outward to the nearest, easiest target.
O America, if there's anything we suck at, it's adequate self-reflection. Oh sure, we love looking at ourselves, we paragons of self-flattery on the flat screen; but thinking about ourselves (by which we mean, interrogating history) – well, that's injurious to our self-esteem. After all, we tried it a couple times: Jimmy Carter, and what the right-wing called the "politics of resentment" in the "radical left-wing" academy of the '80s and '90s. Reagan's "Morning in America," and the Neoconservative revels after Communism's collapse, sure showed those liberal pantywaists. The power of positive thinking. Huh.
I've thought a lot about the acolytes of that cipher, George W. Bush, as the last decade broke and darkened. And I thought of my father, who, as I was growing up, could do almost anything but admit he was wrong. I thought about hard-line Communists in the Politburo, as the Soviet Union dissolved: what happens when everything you've believed in is a lie?
When the economy collapses and your phallus is your finances, you're getting kicked in the nuts. Pretty humiliating.
So you can actually feel really embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed – and pledge to reform, and actually reform – but that involves a lot of thinking, and gee, there's so much to think about already. On the other hand, you can get angry. Throw that anger away from yourself, as far as you possibly can: to the Other: socialists, terrorists, illegal immigrants, and the mythical chimaera of all three, the President of the United States of America.
In Britain, August is "the silly season"; in America, we scapegoat. It's a necessary action, according to the Old Testament – all the sins of the Israelites, placed upon a goat's head, which is then thrown off a cliff or banished to the wilderness. It's the prerequisite to Atonement, which Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck pantomimed before the giant of Lincoln, in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Only then, after the scapegoat is cast out, and the ceremony of Atonement is complete, can you re-establish the Covenant, and be written into the Book of Life again, as the new Republican Pledge attempts.
Tragedy is the goat's song.
I'm theorizing here, with no more or less credence than the Beck himself. (Heck,he made bank off his conspiracy theories; why can't I?) I'm only trying to dig into the deep substrata of our national mythologies, attempting to discover any rationale for America's persistent avoidance of self-knowledge: that we were taken for fools. Every day, we are confronted by our own financially fatal gullibility and the deceit of our neighbors. The litany is so omnipresent, so perpetual, that we are apt to plug our fingers in our ears and shout "LA LA LA!" In the last month alone, I'm appalled to read about Nevin Shapiro, who pled guilty to defrauding investors across America of $880 million; George L. Theodule, "man of God," who stole at least $4 million (and as much as $23 million) from his Haitian-American church congregation; Marcia Sladish, a Giants Stadium ticket collector, who collected $15 million from a Reverend Sun-Myung Moon-afilliated church congregation and is now serving 70 months in prison; the trio of miscreants who, until recently, ran North Providence, R.I., blackmailing and cajoling bribes out of anyone who wanted to do a bit of honest business; and the entire city council of Bell, California, which ran their poverty-stricken town like malevolent lords over a provincial fiefdom.
It's pretty much the same story across the board, from John Farahi in southern California to Scott Rothstein in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale: be charismatic and charming, promise the world to your fellow believers, take their money, buy some hot cars and chic restaurants and maybe a mansion or three. Beat the Johnsons. Repeat as necessary until you're in the dock, blubbering for leniency, very LiLo-like.
And it's easy to get angry.
It's easy to be misanthropic.
It's tempting to look for easy answers.
But the fact is, many of the fraudsters who've downed our economy are being exposed due to the diligence of the Obama administration, and quite perversely, we don't like it.
As far back as 2004, the FBI was complaining that mortgage fraud was a major threat to the American economy. The Bush administration had shifted the vast majority of the FBI's manpower toward counterterrorism efforts (a fact often emphasized in The Wire), leaving the agency unable to respond to financial crimes. Each year, the FBI petitioned the Bush administration for more agents; each year, the requests were denied.
Under the Obama administration, the FBI radically stepped up investigations and prosecutions of financial fraud, according to last Wednesday's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. For a mere three-and-a-half months, the FBI's been engaged in a sweep called Operation Stolen Dreams, arresting 525 people allegedly responsible for more than $3 billion in losses. And, if you read the report, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
We, the people, are furious (according to the mainstream media); we decry "porkbarreling" and "sweetheart deals" in Congress; we are terrified that the economy will not "recover" to its "previous level." The fact is, the economy was never at its "previous level." Scuppered by our own self-aggrandizement (which we euphemize as "self-esteem") we have defrauded ourselves to believe that we are worth much more than we are. Often, we've deluded ourselves and others. Some of us have done so to a degree that is criminal. And those that have done so are guilty, and ashamed, and in denial, and are angry at themselves, and may well take shelter under the right wing of the tea partiers, who repent for us all, and champion the unbounded freedom to hoodwink us to our national ruin.
After all, one must protect one's own interests. That's the American way.
Powering Up Education
If you have children, you have probably noticed a fascinating and common phenomenon: seemingly without instruction or reading manuals, they know more about computers and cellphones, in fact most technology, than you do. They impatiently seize controls out of your hands saying, “Let me show you how to do it.” And then, you the parent, weary and old, with too many mundane details of life clogging up your brain say, “How do you know how to do that?” Then your child, whether they’re 5 or 15, rolls their eyes and says “Duh!” Children get technology, seemingly instinctively, and they love it.
Over the last 10 months or so, I’ve ruminated in this blog on two major themes that seem, at first glance, only casually to have anything do with each other: educating children for 21st century success and children’s use of social media and technology. As it happens, I think that these two topics can and should be thoroughly integrated. We can debate the value of test taking and how else students’ progress might be evaluated, discuss the virtues of rote memorization and heavily invasive teaching methods, where most of the communication is a one-way transfer (or attempt to transfer) knowledge from the teacher to the students, but I would assume there can be little argument when I say that children, everyone really, learn best when the thing they are learning about interests them, or the teaching method is enjoyable. And there is no doubt that most children find technology enjoyable. Whether computers, cellphones or video games, these clearly engage children (and adults). So why don’t we utilize technology to better effect in education?
Most schools spends a lot of time trying to stuff facts into children’s heads and then repeatedly test to see how quickly and efficiently those facts can then be pulled out again. But we have ample evidence everyday that this is not the way children really learn; they’re curious, they explore, they experiment, they learn from each other. So why do we expend so much time, money and energy trying to educate them in these other, counterintuitive ways?
As it happens, there is some interesting experimental education taking place which seeks, in one form or another, to incorporate technology into education in fun and innovative ways. As this New York Times piece on the use of video games in the classroom in a New York City public school says, “What if teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon and reconfigured the foundation upon which a century of learning has been built? What if we blurred the lines between academic subjects and re-imagined the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room or a child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket, circa 2010 — if, in other words, the slipstream of broadband and always-on technology that fuels our world became the source and organizing principle of our children’s learning? What if, instead of seeing school the way we’ve known it, we saw it for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?”
Another article explains how a summer camp integrated cellphones into science education; the camp was part of a project by the New Youth City Learning Network, “which takes as a premise that most children already exist in a digital world...children used Nexus One smartphones, and with the help of probes that zipped bluetooth signals to the phones, the children tested the air for carbon dioxide, particulate matter and noise pollution.”
Why should education be about sitting in silence in straight lines behind desks while an adult spouts facts and figures? Does anyone learn best this way? I know I don’t. When I think about the learning experiences in my life that have been the most fruitful, the ones I still remember 20 years on (and some), they are never ones where a string of facts were drilled into me. I think we do all instinctively know this, at some level - we were all students once after all. But somehow, we’ve managed to forget this and instead kid ourselves that the way that most of the children in this country are taught is the best way, the most effective way, the way most likely to serve these children as they mature into 21st Century adults.
A constant refrain when the topic of this kind of progressive education comes up is, “but how do you assess progress?” There’s no doubt that the easiest way to teach and assess is the stuffing and regurgitating of facts and standardized tests work very well, if this is the only goal. But as Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College says in a recent Op-Ed piece, “There is also scant evidence that these tests encourage teachers to become better at helping individual children; in fact, some studies show that the tests protect bad teachers by hiding their lack of skill behind narrow goals and rigid scripts. There are hardly any data to suggest that punishing schools with low test scores and rewarding schools with high ones improves anything.” According to the Washington Post, it seems that even paying teachers a bonus to improve test scores produces “no discernible difference in academic performance”.
Dr Engel suggests that a revised method of assessments “would have to measure students’ thinking skills, not whether they can select a right answer from preset options.” She discuss other possible methods of assessment whereby, “testing could be returned to its rightful place as one tool among many for improving schools, rather than serving as a weapon that degrades the experience for teachers and students alike.” She advocates coming up with assessments that “truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.”
There clearly are other methods of educating and assessing our children. There is both academic research and real-world examples to support teaching based on the way children actually best absorb knowledge; exploiting their natural curiosity while making learning fun. It is possible to integrate the technology children already know and enjoy using into the classroom in innovative ways, while assessing them in ways that measures whether they are actually getting a good, 21st Century education. There are so many voices now, in the media, in academia, in industry shouting at the top of their voices that most children in this country are not being educated or assessed for 21st Century success. Why aren’t we listening?
September 26, 2010
angels' hands, hurt feelings, and a little roman
Few players have ever glided across the field like Randy Moss. Moss is the wide receiver for the New England Patriots. I sometimes imagine him playing in slippers. He’s just gotten up from a long winter’s sleep. He is heading out in the snow to pick up the morning paper. And then, he drifts out on to the field of play, lifts up his long right arm, and into his fingers drops the oblong spherical object we call a football. He has scored a touchdown, and he hasn’t even spilled his coffee. He did that against the New York Jets. He slid down the field in his slippers and raised his arm to the heavens. In dropped the football. He didn’t even bother to use his other hand. All he needed was the gentle lift of his right arm. One or two fingers were enough. An absolute economy of motion. A beautiful thing. A beautiful thing. Like the hand of an angel. For a moment it did not bother me that the Patriots had pulled ahead 14 to 7.more from me at The Owls here.
vintage hitchens, 1988 (highly recommended)
Real AmericansWilliam Hogeland in The Boston Review:
“Save America.” “Take the country back.” “Armed and dangerous.” “Lock and load.” Such are the slogans of the right-wing populist resurgence that began in 2008.
The new populism embraces members of the Tea Party, who object to what they see as confiscatory taxation, excessive government debt, and assaults on the right to bear arms; fans of Sarah Palin, who assails the Obama administration and the Democratic Party for being out of touch with what she defines as the lives and aspirations of ordinary Americans; and some Republican elected officials. They not only reject Obama administration policies, and political liberalism in general, but also cast their rejection in questing, confrontational language as an epic battle for the soul of American democracy, which they accuse liberalism of defiling.
In the face of this rejection, liberal voices in the press largely have failed to illuminate the new right-wing movement. Frank Rich, a columnist for The New York Times, applies epithets (“cowed” Republican politicians bowing before “nutcases”), makes airy dismissals (“the natterings of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Michael Steele”), and, using scary metaphors (the grass-roots right as “political virus,” “tsunami of anger,” even “the dark side”), warns of threats to civilization itself. The historian and critic Jill Lepore, in an otherwise thoughtful New Yorker article on a Tea Party rally in Boston, becomes uncharacteristically bemused when it comes to interviewing Tea Party members directly. Chip Berlet, asking his readers to view with compassion what he and others have called right-wing American populism, reveals an even deeper prejudice.
How animals made us human
Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe:
Pets take up resources that we would otherwise spend on ourselves or our own progeny. Some pets, it’s true, do work for their owners, or are eventually eaten by them, but many simply live with us, eating the food we give them, interrupting our sleep, dictating our schedules, occasionally soiling the carpet, and giving nothing in return but companionship and often desultory affection.
What explains this yen to have animals in our lives?
An anthropologist named Pat Shipman believes she’s found the answer: Animals make us human. She means this not in a metaphorical way — that animals teach us about loyalty or nurturing or the fragility of life or anything like that — but that the unique ability to observe and control the behavior of other animals is what allowed one particular set of Pleistocene era primates to evolve into modern man. The hunting of animals and the processing of their corpses drove the creation of tools, and the need to record and relate information about animals was so important that it gave rise to the creation of language and art. Our bond with nonhuman animals has shaped us at the level of our genes, giving us the ability to drink milk into adulthood and even, Shipman argues, promoting the set of finely honed relational antennae that allowed us to create the complex societies most of us live in today. Our love of pets is an artifact of that evolutionary interdependence.
disco lives, and lives well
John Searle's Making the Social WorldSavas L. Tsohatzidis reviews John Searle's Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
This book will be useful to readers familiar with Searle's work in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, but unacquainted with, and curious to learn about, the 'philosophy of society' that he has been busy building since the mid-nineties. Such readers are offered a lengthy exposition (Chapters 1, 3, 5) of an updated version of the account of institutional facts that was the main theme of Searle's The Construction of Social Reality (1995), as well as shorter discussions (mostly drawing on material already presented in two subsequent books, 2001 and 2007) of what Searle perceives as the implications of his account of institutions on issues pertaining to rational action, free will, political power, and human rights (Chapters 6, 7, 8). The book will also be useful to readers who have developed an interest in Searle's account of institutional reality while lacking sufficient exposure to his philosophies of mind and language, since it includes brief overviews (Chapters 2, 4) of his extensive work in these fields, which he presents as providing the foundations of his account of society. Readers already familiar with Searle's major works on mind, language, and society will probably be mainly interested in considering whether the account of institutional facts he currently adopts differs significantly from the one he had originally proposed, and, if so, whether it places him in a better position than before to attain his stated goals.
Common to Searle's old and new accounts is a conception of institutional facts according to which such a fact (a) cannot exist unless a community collectively accepts it as existing; (b) requires the assignment to an entity of a "status function" (that is, of a function that an entity can only have by virtue of collective recognition, and not merely by virtue of whatever properties it might have prior to such recognition); and (c) characteristically generates, once in existence, "deontic powers" (in particular, rights and obligations) within the community whose behaviour brings it to existence.
One difference between Searle's old and new accounts is that the generation of "deontic powers" is now taken to be a universal consequence, and not merely, as was previously the case, a nearly universal consequence, of an institutional fact's creation (24). But the main difference between the old and new accounts has to do with the way in which Searle proposes to combine theses (a) and (b) above in providing an explanation of an institutional fact's creation. On the old account, the creation of institutional facts was invariably supposed to be the immediate result of the collective acceptance, within a community, of linguistically expressible "constitutive rules" that specify conditions under which status functions of various sorts are assignable to entities of various sorts.
The Correspondences Between Leni Yahil und Hannah Arendt, 1961-1971In Eurozine:
370 Riverside Drive, New York 25, N.Y.53
4 Hamaapilim St.
Dear Hannah Arendt,
The bond between us has been broken or has petered out – whatever you want to call it, and for my part I haven't done anything to re-establish it. Now your articles are forcing me – I'm almost tempted to say against my better judgment – to ask you a question. So far, I've read only 4 articles, I haven't got hold of the 5th one yet, but it is a matter of days only and it won't in principle provide anything new, just the conclusions from all the previous material. I don't want here to give you a description of the impression your attacks and portrayals are making here – I'm sure that – if you're not informed of this – you will probably be able to imagine this yourself. Nor do I want to give you my opinion, analysis, general and personal reactions – I don't know how far you're interested in that, and there's not really space for that in a letter. Nor do I want to go into your presentation of the Scandinavian events in general, and the Danish ones in particular – although I could say a great deal about this.
As I've said, I'd like to ask you a question: what was or is your own innermost intention that you were pursuing? Whom do you think you are serving in this way: Historical truth? Justice? The present or the future of the German or the Jewish people? Or do you wish to prove specifically to the latter that it isn't worthy or doesn't have the right to exist as a nation among the nations? I am asking you seriously, not polemically, I just don't understand.