March 31, 2011
Paris, Home of the Avant-Garde
Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian:
I suppose I should worry that the French and military codeword avant-garde still seduces me. This word, after all, can conceal so much snobisme. But then: there's no reason to dismiss something just because it's impure, and this idea of the avant-garde, in its essence, is a noble ideal. The avant-garde is wildness: a wildness of content, and a wildness of form.
And this is one reason why I harbour another complicated attraction. My idea of the avant-garde is so often Parisian.
This isn't, of course, entirely a form of romance. In the bourgeois 19th century, Paris was where the avant-garde was invented. But even then, the ideal of wildness was precarious. It was Walter Benjamin who observed how the association of art and isolation was "all the more dangerous because, as it flatters the self-esteem of the productive person, it effectively guards the interests of a social order that is hostile to him". And he sardonically quoted Marx: "The bourgeois have very good reasons for imputing supernatural creative power to labour . . ."
As for now: well, you know it. You take the Eurostar to the avant-garde and you end up shopping. The avant-garde is much more likely to be found in Hamra. Paris, I think, can still be useful – but an imaginary, historical Paris: a jukebox of wild examples.
Because you can rehearse the usual arguments about how impossible it might be for writing to be avant-garde, in this era when everything can be recuperated as orthodoxy. Or, say, you can consider the ambiguous pleasures of the trial in Paris in 1956, to determine whether to allow the republication of four novels by the Marquis de Sade. Among the witnesses for the defence were two famous literary figures: Jean Paulhan and Georges Bataille.
When the judge asked Paulhan if he didn't find Sade's dismantling of moral values dangerous, Paulhan sadly agreed. "I knew a young girl who entered a convent after reading Sade's works, and because she had read them." Was entering a convent, he was asked, such a bad result? "I note that it's a result," shrugged Paulhan.
And then Bataille came to the stand. Bataille was a man who, in his novel Story of the Eye, had imagined scenes with bull testicles, pissing, the whole shemozzle. Now, 30 years later, in a courtroom, he soberly observed that he couldn't see how Sade's works could be harmful to the public. "I have to say," he added solemnly, "that I have a lot of confidence in human nature." To which the judge replied: "I congratulate you, Monsieur. Your optimism does you honour."
Football as Before
Dushko Petrovich in n+1:
Before he became famous for headbutting, Zinadine Zidane was actually known for his composure. At Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, his hallmarks as a midfielder were Spartan efficiency of movement, incisive passing, and magnetic control of the ball in tight circumstances. Unlike Pele or Maradona (the greats who came before him) and Chrisiano Ronaldo (probably the most outstanding player since), Zidane wasn’t particularly flashy. When France won the ’98 World Cup, he didn’t even score until the final, against Brazil, when he converted two corner kicks with unfussy, short-range headers to make it 2-0 by halftime. He was known to complete the occasional 360-degree turn, and he did have some smart footwork, but overall, he was more metronome than drum solo. His way of controlling the game was to control—and then suddenly change—the tempo.
In this sense, the real-time structure of Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s 2006 movie, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, was somewhat suited to the Frenchman. With the ninety-minute montage (assembled from seventeen cameras placed around the 80,000-person capacity Santiago Bernabeu stadium) focusing entirely on Zidane, even soccer aficionados suffered through spells of cinematic stasis that exceeded the sport’s native tedium. Interrupted only by a few clips from the original TV broadcast, and occasionally augmented by the pleasing Mogwai soundtrack, the iconic image of Zidane himself—sometimes grunting, sometimes sprinting, but mainly just jogging and looking around—was meant to sustain viewers for the full hour and a half.
Usually citing the cool music, or Zidane’s gladiatorial good looks, people uninterested in soccer have often told me the movie exceeded their expectations. For die-hard fans, on the other hand, the film was something of a disappointment. It was hard to put your finger on, but something was missing. It wasn’t only the lack of suspense that came from knowing that Real Madrid would beat Villareal—many of us happily watch taped replays, tributes to past legends, countless YouTube clips. And it wasn’t exactly that we couldn’t see the other players—in fact, David Beckham and Juan Carlos both had entertaining cameos, coaxing laughter from the otherwise stoical Zidane. And there was no lack of sporting drama: Zidane chipped the ball to Ronaldo for a crucial goal, and curiously, in the closing minutes of the April 23, 2005 match Gordon and Parreno happened to record, the leading man was sent off for brawling.
But even before the portentous red card, Zidane’s essence as a player was omitted from the film.
Richard Moore in Guernica:
I’m ready to return to Israel through the Erez Crossing, the northern exit from Gaza. As the afternoon meeting wears on, I start to check the time, increasingly anxious about getting to Erez. I never know whether the crossing itself will take an hour, or three, or even days. Since Erez is subject to closing without notice, I ask my secretary to check just before I leave, trying to ensure I’ll be able to cross.
As the expatriate director of the largest maternal and child health project in the West Bank and Gaza, I come to Gaza at least once every month. The Gaza Strip is forty-five kilometers long and ranges from five to twelve kilometers in width. It is bounded by Israel in the north and east, by Egypt in the south, and in the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Approximately one and a half million mostly impoverished Palestinians live within its mere three hundred and sixty square kilometers, about twice the area of Washington, DC. More than half of the population is made up of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Entrance to and exit from the strip—for Palestinians or anyone else—is strictly controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). All entries and exits occur only through the few surface checkpoints. This is only one of the draconian Israeli policies involving Gaza. Others include controlling the amount of food and medicines and other essentials that can enter the Strip, as well as restrictions on fishing and exporting. The only cars I ever saw entering Gaza had UNRWA markings, or belonged to other UN or aid agencies. Most people cannot drive from one side to the other. Instead, they have to leave their cars or taxis and walk through one of the checkpoints.
Perry Anderson in the LRB:
From the start, Lula had been committed to helping the poor. Accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, but misery had to be tackled more seriously than in the past. His first attempt, a Zero Hunger scheme to assure minimum sustenance to every Brazilian, was a mismanaged fiasco. In his second year, however, consolidating various pre-existent partial schemes and expanding their coverage, he launched the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. The payments are very small – currently $12 per child, or an average $35 a month. But they are made directly by the federal government, cutting out local malversation, and now reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The effective cost of the programme is a trifle. But its political impact has been huge. This is not only because it has helped, however modestly, to reduce poverty and stimulate demand in the worst afflicted regions of the country. No less important has been the symbolic message it delivers: that the state cares for the lot of every Brazilian, no matter how wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights in their country. Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset.
Materially, a succession of substantial increases in the minimum wage was to be of much greater significance. These began just as the corruption scandals were breaking. In 2005, the rise was double that of the previous year in real terms. In the election year of 2006, the rise was still greater. By 2010, the cumulative increase in the rate was 50 per cent. At about $300 a month, it remains well below the earnings of virtually any worker in formal employment. But since pensions are indexed to the minimum wage, its steady increase has directly benefited at least 18 million people – the Statute of the Elderly, passed under Lula, consolidating their gains. Indirectly, too, it has encouraged workers in the informal sector not covered by the official rate, who make up the majority of the Brazilian workforce, to use the minimum as a benchmark to improve what they can get from their employers. Reinforcing these effects was the introduction early on of crédito consignado: bank loans for household purchases to those who had never before had bank accounts, with repayment automatically deducted from monthly wages or pensions. Together, conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and novel access to credit set off a sustained rise in popular consumption, and an expansion of the domestic market that finally, after a long drought, created more jobs.
Crime and Punishment in Bahrain
Justin Gengler over at Religion and Politics in Bahrain [h/t: Alex Cooley]:
While the United States is busy providing air cover for government opponents in Libya, its friends in the Arab Gulf have nearly finished mopping the floor with theirs. Backed by some 2,000 ground troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, along with a Kuwaiti naval detachment, the Bahraini government has all but stamped out the Shi‘a-led pro-democracy movement that had brought this small island nation to a standstill since mid-February.
In the violent crackdown that followed only one day after the arrival of the “Peninsula Shield” force, more than a dozen people were killed, hundreds were injured, and still more remain missing. The leaders of all but one of the main opposition groups were arrested in turn. The military “liberated” Bahrain’s main hospital, where relatives of those killed and injured had been camped. At last, martial law was declared and the symbol of the entire uprising--the Pearl monument--was unceremoniously demolished. If it’s gone that means nothing ever happened, right?
While no one is likely soon to forget the patch of barren land that just two weeks ago was “Martyrs’ Square,” life in Bahrain is indeed slowly returning to normal. Curfews have been shortened. Roads have been reopened. First elementary and now middle school students have returned to classes. Malls, hit hard by the turmoil as has Bahrain’s entire economy, have been keen to bring back shoppers, advertising their hours on Twitter and Facebook. And, most telling of all, the thousands who gathered last Friday for the sermon of Bahrain’s highest Shi‘a religious authority, Sheikh ‘Isa Qasim, did not continue on to a customary post-prayer rally; they simply returned home.
At the same time, however, untouched by this outward improvement remains Bahrain’s underlying political conflict, which today is no closer to resolution than when protests began.
The Great Debate - What is Life?
Over at The Science Network:
Richard Dawkins, J. Craig Venter, Nobel laureates Sidney Altman and Leland Hartwell, Chris McKay, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham discuss the origins of life, the possibility of finding life elsewhere, and the latest development in synthetic biology.
Tunisia: What comes next?
From Prospect Magazine:
Tunis is oddly calm and normal for the capital of a country that has just triggered the greatest upheaval in the Arab world since the end of the first world war. Nor would you guess from the current provisional government that the revolution was driven by frustrated young people using the latest networking technologies; the combined ages of the new Tunisian president and prime minister is 161 years. But the two old men are bridging the generation gap and, for now, keeping the show on the road. The attention of the world has of course moved elsewhere since Tunisia, much to its own amazement, lit the torch at the end of December. But on a recent trip to Tunis I discovered that the Tunisians have not been idle since the president of 23 years, Ben Ali, fled the country on 14th January.
They are now on to their third government, having got rid of Ben Ali’s unpopular prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, at the end of February. The new prime minister, 84-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran of the 1950s independence movement and largely untainted by the Ben Ali regime, announced elections on 24th July for an assembly to draw up a new constitution. From not having had a proper election, ever, Tunisia is poised to have three in quick succession—culminating with elections for a new president and parliament, perhaps at the end of the year. This modest former French colony could now set the pattern for the next, trickier stage of Arab democratic reform. “We can be the test-bed for the whole Arab world, but we must not rush,” says Raoudha Ben Othman, professor of linguistics at Tunis University.
galloping in the pitch
of the waves, in the pearly
fields of the sea,
they leap toward us,
they rise, sparkling, and vanish, and rise sparkling,
they breathe little clouds of mist, they lift perpetual smile,
they slap their tails on the waves, grandmothers and grandfathers
enjoying the old jokes,
they circle around us,
they swim with us -
a hundred white-sided dolphins
on a summer day,
each one, as God himself
could not appear more acceptable
a hundred times,
in a body blue and black threading through
the sea foam,
and lifting himself up from the opened
tents of the waves on his fishtail,
with the moon of his eye
into my heart,
and find there
pure, sudden, steep, sharp, painful
that falls -
I don't know - either
or the pale, bearable hand
on my neck,
from the boat's plain plank seat
into the world's
It is my sixty-third summer on earth
and, for a moment, I have almost vanished
into the body of the dolphin,
into the moon-eye of God,
into the white fan that lies at the bottom of the sea
that ever was, or ever will be,
supple, wild, rising on flank or fishtail -
singing or whistling or breathing damply through blowhole
at top of head. Then, in our little boat, the dolphins suddenly gone,
we sailed on through the brisk, cheerful day.
by Mary Oliver
from What Do We Know
© Da Capo Press, 2002
Dying for a long life
A chemical dye that lights up the protein clumps characteristic of Alzheimer's disease also slows ageing in worms. The lifespan-boosting effects of the dye — called Thioflavin T or Basic Yellow 1 — support the idea that the build-up of misshapen proteins underlies ageing. Drugs that recognize such toxic detritus and alert the cell's natural repair and protein-recycling systems could, therefore, be used to treat diseases of old age, says Gordon Lithgow, a molecular geneticist at the Buck Institute in Novato, California, who led the study, published today in Nature1.
Proteins are essential for almost everything a cell does, from communicating with other cells to generating energy. But sometimes proteins form the wrong three-dimensional shapes. Misfolded proteins don't function properly and, worse, tend to accumulate and gum up other cellular systems. To prevent this from happening, cells deploy 'chaperones', whose job it is to refold misshapen proteins. In more extreme cases, cells can degrade these potentially dangerous proteins. "There's a growing appreciation that protein misfolding may be one of the very fundamental events of ageing," says Richard Morimoto, a molecular biologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved with the study. Worms genetically engineered to have a revved-up protein-recycling system, for instance, live longer than normal worms23.
March 30, 2011
India beat Pakistan to reach World Cup final
From Times of India:
Twenty-eight long years after that magical Indian summer in England, the Men in Blue are one victory away from proving that India is truly cricket’s superpower, not just commercially but also on the field. One victory away from being world No.1 in ODIs, in addition to Tests. One victory away from giving the ultimate thank you gift to the greatest cricketer since Don Bradman, and a fitting farewell to a coach who has contributed so much to their rise. And one victory away from giving millions of young Indians born after 1983 - including several members of the present team - the joy of knowing what it actually feels like to have your squad lift the Cup that counts before your jubilant eyes. Kumar Sangakkara - Sanga to millions of fans - is waiting with his formidable Lankans. But so is the opportunity of a lifetime for Dhoni’s Daredevils.
The Wish to be Generous
All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.
worrying about the singularity
If you’ve got any spare change, the Lifeboat Foundation of Minden, Nevada, has a worthy cause for your consideration. Sometime this century, probably sooner than you think, scientists will likely succeed in creating an artificial intelligence, or AI, greater than our own. What happens after that is anyone’s guess — we’re simply not smart enough to understand, let alone predict, what a superhuman intelligence will choose to do. But there’s a reasonable chance that the AI will eradicate humanity, either out of malevolence or through a clumsily misguided attempt to be helpful. The Lifeboat Foundation’s AIShield Fund seeks to head off this calamity by developing “Friendly AI,” and thus, as its website points out, “will benefit an almost uncountable number of intelligent entities.” As of February 9, the fund has raised a grand total of $2,010; donations are fully tax deductible in the United States. The date of this coming “Technological Singularity,” as mathematician and computer scientist Vernor Vinge dubbed the moment of machine ascendance in a seminal 1983 article, remains uncertain. He initially predicted that the Singularity (sometimes referred to, in less reverential tones, as the “Rapture of the nerds”) would arrive before 2030. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose book The Singularity Is Near was turned into a movie last year, places it in 2045. Those predictions are too conservative for Canadian science fiction juggernaut Robert J. Sawyer: in his WWW trilogy, whose third volume, Wonder, appears in April, the Singularity arrives in the autumn of 2012.more from Alex Hutchinson at The Walrus here.
night and day
Night and Day, a literary magazine founded and run by Graham Greene in the early 20th century, survived for six months. The fact that it is remembered at all is testament to the extraordinary hold that small magazines are capable of exerting on the memories of publishers and writers alike. It's odd, after all, that a publication that wobbled into existence so briefly should prompt two 21st-century publishers to declare that they intend to re-launch it "to celebrate our imprints' rich and illustrious history"; to "bring forth... the vagaries of publishing life and an enviable slice of literary heritage". But what is this history, and why is it worth celebrating?more from Aime Williams at The New Statesman here.
one of history's most unsuccessful utopias ever
In June 1843, Bronson Alcott, his small family, and three of his Transcendental disciples from Alcott House in England - Charles Lane, who financed the project, his eleven-year-old son William, and their friend Henry Gardiner Wright - went to live in a utopian commune in Massachusetts called Fruitlands. Their six-month effort at being a 'Consociate Family' was traumatic and almost tragic. The philosophers knew nothing about agriculture, disapproved of the use of 'noxious' manure, and did not wish to oppress animals by ploughing the fields. They were extreme vegetarians (what we would call vegans), and by the winter were half-starving on a diet of apples, water and rough bread. For some of the thirteen members, Fruitlands was too fanatical; for others it was not fanatical enough. Gradually some decamped to more sociable environments, while the Lanes went off to a stricter Shaker community nearby, who later did not want to release William: as a celibate community, they needed every child they could get. The Alcotts soldiered on alone - father, mother Abigail ('Abba'), and the four daughters Louisa, Anna, Elizabeth and May - until Bronson had a severe, almost suicidal breakdown. The entire enterprise was a disaster, what Richard Francis calls 'one of history's most unsuccessful utopias ever'.more from Elaine Showalter at Literary Review here.
Why We Read ‘Don Quixote’
From The Paris Review:
What does it mean to be “quixotic” today? Are street-corner preachers quixotic? Is Bono? What about film directors who dementedly pursue the unlikely grail of adapting a difficult book for the screen? The word endures because its source endures. Don Quixote de la Mancha is the first modern novel, and two weeks ago I found myself on the Upper East Side, at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, tracing the word part of the way toward its origin. In the inevitable absence of Miguel de Cervantes, it was left to the book’s most recent English translator, Edith Grossman, the publisher, Andrew Hoyem, and the artist, William T. Wiley to explain the book’s riverine significance. The Quixote Delta has proved fertile ground for world literature, branching off into numerous tributaries, irrigating any number of national traditions and, finally, trickling down into the work of some of the most singular figures in world literature, from Nabokov to Borges, Fielding to Garcia Marquez.
But doesn’t quixotic threaten to swamp Quixote? Aren’t these words, which get coined in tribute to an author or a book, almost always treacherous? Can all the possibilities and implications of a character, or even—more ambitiously—a life’s work, be contained within the semantic boundaries of just one word? We think of Orwellian as adjectival shorthand for a state apparatus of terror and surveillance, but what if we also took it to mean window-pane clarity of expression or even a marked aversion to the poetry of Stephen Spender? In the same way, Don Quixote is not only a cautionary tale about the perils of idealism: among other things, it is also the first great book about books, a visionary parable about the responsibilities of reading and writing fiction that arrived early on in the age of printing. The river feeds into an ocean.
Khan Academy aims to reinvent education through video
The problems with basic education, both in the US and other countries, are complex, but one website may have the ability to improve education on a global scale. The Khan Academy, whose mission is to "provide a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere," currently has 2,200 video tutorials on subjects ranging from math to science to history. Not only could the free educational videos help individual students learn better, but the concept could also reform schools by redefining the teacher’s role and laying the foundations for a global classroom.
Since the site was launched in 2006, the videos have been viewed millions of times. The videos have received positive reviews from viewers due to their clear, conversation-style approach and simple drawings, which are made in SmoothDraw. But, as founder Salman Khan explained at a TED conference earlier this month, he thinks the Khan Academy could do a lot more. Khan wants to increase the academy’s video library to tens of thousands of video tutorials - each about 10 minutes long - that students would watch in the evening as “homework.” Then the next day in class, the students would work on homework-like assignments, where they could ask the teacher questions and work with their peers. In essence, by “flipping the classroom,” students could watch a video lecture as many times as they like, at their own pace, and then have time in class to ask specific questions.
Leonardo da Vinci's Mathematical Slip-Up
Dirk Huylebrouk in Scientific American:
Artist, inventor and philosopher Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was without a doubt a genius. Yet, there is some criticism. In his book 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (William Morrow, 2008) British author and retired submarine commander Gavin Menzies claims that da Vinci swiped most of his ideas from the Chinese. Menzies's theory was poorly received by the world of science. Besides, isn't da Vinci's brilliance beyond question? Definitely, but the Dutch mathematician and artist Rinus Roelofs did find an error in one of the Renaissance man's drawings (at right).
A clue can be found in a portrait (below) of Luca Pacioli, a mathematician who, like his contemporary da Vinci, worked at the court of the Duke of Milan. The polyhedron in the left upper corner, hanging from a string, is called a rhombicuboctahedron: a polyhedron with an equilateral triangle that is always surrounded by squares. Leonardo illustrated it separately in Pacioli's book.
The rhombicuboctahedron can also be found in the star-shaped figures, at least if we put a pointed protrusion on each side surface—that is, a pyramid with a triangular or quadrangular base.
How a Differential Gear Works
Why a Battle with Bat and Ball Is Exactly What India and Pakistan Need
Omar Waraich in Time:
It is difficult to exaggerate the excitement built up on both sides of the border, with anticipation of the match having dominated the news cycle for days now on a subcontinent obsessed with the sport. Hundreds of millions of viewers are expected to watch the match on television, with absenteeism at work likely to reach record highs. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who will be at the match, has announced that government offices will close two hours before the opening ball is bowled.
Cricket is a rare source of cohesion in an increasingly fractured Pakistani society in which passion for the game is as widespread and embedded in the national identity as the embrace of Islam is. But whereas religion has proved to be a violent source of division in recent years, cricket unites Pakistanis across the dangerous fissures of ethnicity, sect and social class. But the violent fanaticism that cloaks itself in religion impinged on the sanctity of cricket when, in March 2009, the visiting Sri Lankan team was attacked by terrorists. No foreign team has toured there since. Were it not for the terror threat, Pakistan would be co-hosting the World Cup. Some say it is better that Pakistan was spared the embarrassment of hosting matches at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium, named in honor of the Libyan dictator for his support of Pakistan's clandestine nuclear weapons pursuit.
March 29, 2011
Jeremy Harding on Hitchens
In the LRB:
Hitchens’s strong, almost gamey opinions produce a whiff of well-hung grouse in the reactions he provokes, and it tends to linger in the house. Stefan Collini, for the opposition, imagines Hitchens ‘as twilight gathers and the fields fall silent, lying face down in his own bullshit’ (LRB, 23 January 2003). Colin MacCabe, for the friends, tells us that passages of the memoir, Hitch-22, are ‘among the most affecting writing that I know in English’ (New Statesman, 17 November 2010). That’s a pungent claim and it bears repeating, or MacCabe must have thought so. Last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he recalled telling Hitchens that the first two chapters of the memoir were ‘among the most affecting prose that I had ever read in English’. Hitchens, it seems, seldom meets with moderation and when he does, it’s apt to give way to exasperation. And so John Barrell, reviewing his book on Tom Paine (LRB, 30 November 2006):
Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke … was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled. According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing.
Hitchens’s fans are prepared to overlook the odd slip in favour of the flow (or the ‘words’, as Chris Corner goes on to say in his lugubrious ode):
Your words will live in us
Explosive, fresh and wise
But which words? ‘Wise’ he’s never done. And ‘fresh’? His flirtatious, boom-boody-boom examination of Tony Blair at close quarters is the best contender. Dr Hitchens says of the appealing patient who followed him into the deserts of Mesopotamia: ‘There is a moral pulse to be detected here and it’s quite a strong one’ (Vanity Fair, February). Hitchens in ‘explosive’ mode is hard to monitor: he is a one-man North Korea. For timeless insanity – and ‘timeless’, I guess, means anything either side of the long happy hour – one goes to the vexed sentence in the book on Paine that amused Barrell after a morning’s irritation: ‘Just as Paine’s joke about dress and lost innocence was intended to remind his audience of a mythical Eden, so his appeal to a lost but golden and innocent past was a trope that Milton and Blake knew very well.’
Juan Cole and Vijay Prashad Debate U.S. Military Intervention in Libya
Blind Spot: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It
From Harvard Magazine:
Could the financial crisis have been solved by giving all individuals involved more ethics training? If the training resembled that which has historically and is currently being used, the answer to that question is no. Ethics interventions have failed and will continue to fail because they are predicated on a false assumption: that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when it is presented to them. Ethics training presumes that emphasizing the moral components of decisions will inspire executives to choose the moral path. But the common assumption this training is based on—that executives make explicit trade-offs between behaving ethically and earning profits for their organizations—is incomplete. This paradigm fails to acknowledge our innate psychological responses when faced with an ethical dilemma.Findings from the emerging field of behavioral ethics—a field that seeks to understand how people actually behave when confronted with ethical dilemmas—offer insights that can round out our understanding of why we often behave contrary to our best ethical intentions. Our ethical behavior is often inconsistent, at times even hypocritical. Consider that people have the innate ability to maintain a belief while acting contrary to it. Moral hypocrisy occurs when individuals’ evaluations of their own moral transgressions differ substantially from their evaluations of the same transgressions committed by others.
Top six India-Pakistan thrillers
From the Hindustan Times:
March 22, 1985 | Sharjah India won by 38 runs - Pakistani paceman Imran Khan had virtually put his team in a winning position when he grabbed 6-14 off 10 overs to bowl India out for a paltry 125 in a Four-Nations Cup match. But India, led by fast bowler Kapil Dev (3-17), dismissed Pakistan for 87 to clinch a low-scoring thriller.
April 18, 1986 | Sharjah Pakistan won by one wicket - The match will always be remembered for Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad's last-ball match-winning six off Indian seamer Chetan Sharma. Pakistan needed four runs to win off the last delivery before Miandad (116 not out) broke Indian hearts with one memorable blow.
Maybe the eyes of a dragon or goddess
glare from its prow.
More likely it leaks, loses an oar,
and reeks of rainbows awash on a sheen
of gutted salmon and gasoline.
If it’s a liner, we lash ourselves
to whatever will float or sell.
No matter which. We choose. We’re aboard,
icebergs or no, as we plow
through the songs of the siren stars—
one boat, black water, dark whispering below.
by Paul Fisher
All roads lead to Mohali for “mother of all contests”
NEW DELHI: A tiny north Indian city has overnight become a hottest tourist destination, drawing Prime Ministers, corporate czars, showbiz celebrities and passionate fans for what is touted as the “mother of all cricket contests”.
Nothing gets bigger in this part of the globe than a cricket match featuring India and Pakistan, who fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947.
The rivalry would be renewed in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final in Mohali in the state of Punjab and the city administration is already bracing for a logistical nightmare. Many government and cricket officials fear the match could be a potential tinderbox given the emotions involved and some have urged the fans and the media not to hype what is essentially a cricket contest.
“It’s like any other match. The media hype around the match, I think, is totally unnecessary,” Pakistan team manager Intikhab Alam told CNN-IBN channel.
“We have come here to play cricket. This is not war field or anything. I’m sure you will see a great game of cricket,” said the former Pakistan captain, who has coached the Punjab team in Ranji trophy.
Even South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis hoped the high-profile match would pass without anything untoward.
From Scientific American:
Early in his new book, Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer (Crown Business, 2011), Duncan Watts tells a story about the late sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, who once described an intriguing research result: Soldiers from a rural background were happier during World War II than their urban comrades. Lazarsfeld imagined that on reflection people would find the result so self-evident that it didn't merit an elaborate study, because everyone knew that rural men were more used to grueling labor and harsh living standards. But there was a twist, the study he described showed the opposite pattern; it was urban conscripts who had adjusted better to wartime conditions. The rural effect was a pedagogical hoax designed to expose our uncanny ability to make up retrospective explanations for what we already believed to be true. Though Lazarsfeld was writing 60 years ago, 20/20 hindsight is still very much with us. Contemporary psychologists call this tendency to view the past as more predictable than it actually was "the hindsight bias." Watts, a Yahoo! Labs scientist best known for his research on social networks and his earlier book, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (W. W. Norton, 2003), argues that this tendency is a greatly underappreciated problem, one that not only causes us to make up just-so stories to explain any conceivable outcome—but to delude ourselves that we can predict the future by learning from the past. (Just because we can create a plausible account of why a book became a bestseller doesn't mean we can tell which new book will be a hit.)
Predictability is elusive because randomness holds much more sway than most of us would like to believe. Drawing on his own research, Watts shows that messages on Twitter don't spread through a predictable set of influential hubs. Similarly, when you ask large numbers of people to relay an e-mail to a stranger through someone they know, there turn out to be no star intermediaries through whom most e-mails find their way. "When we hear about a large forest fire, we don't think that there must have been anything special about the spark that started it," Watts wrote. "Yet when we see something special happen in the social world, we are instantly drawn to the idea that whoever started it must have been special also."
The Ethics of David Foster Wallace
Leland de la Durantaye in the Boston Review:
Ships as far as the eye can see. The rising sun glittering on the Aegean. Wind rippling the sails, water lapping the bows, fear, excitement, vengeance, glory, the favor of the gods, the order contemplated, the order given.
Or, expressed differently:
Since obviously under any analysis I have to do either O or O´ (since O´ is not-O), that is, since □(O v O´); and since by (I-4) it is either not possible that I do O or not possible that I do O´, (~◊O v ~◊O´), which is equivalent to (~◊~~O v ~◊~O), which is equivalent to (□~O v □O), we are left with □ (□O v □~O); so that it is necessary that whatever I do, O or O´, I do necessarily, and cannot do otherwise.
Both of these remarks are about fate and free will, necessity and contingency. The first is the scene Aristotle sets; the second is David Foster Wallace’s reformulation of it in his exceptionally promising, and sole, contribution to technical philosophy: his senior honors thesis, newly published in a volume entitled Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.
In On Interpretation Aristotle defends a view about fate, free will, necessity, and contingency that is at once logical, metaphysical, and naval:
A sea battle must either take place tomorrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place tomorrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place, yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place tomorrow.
This seems clear enough, and is. Nothing in Aristotle’s example is necessary except that something take place or not take place; a sea battle, after all, cannot both happen and not happen. But what of the metaphysical implications of this logical necessity? How should we speak of contingency and potentiality, if such things truly exist? Is the general free to give the order for battle, or is all foreordained to happen, fixed in future place by natural law and supernatural will?
Middle Eastern upheaval and the promise of American life
Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:
When the inspiring images of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian men and women demanding their freedom at enormous personal risk first appeared and everybody was talking about whether that revolution would spark similar revolutions in nearby countries, I found myself saying to friends, "What about here? Maybe the example of their courageous actions will shake the American people out of their long apathetic stupor." Inevitably I was met with laughter. Sometimes I felt a friend's laughter was conspiratorial—the exhilaration of imagining together that things could be different from what they are. Other times, I knew it was a response to what a friend found absurd, ridiculous, in my proposition. "We already had our revolution in 1776. Sure, things are bad, people are out of work, but we're not living in a police state like Egypt. I don't see you out on the street." And then there were the times when the laughter sounded nervous, a friend made uncomfortable by such talk, insisting that it couldn't happen here. I reminded these skeptical/cynical/realist friends (take your pick) that no one imagined that revolutions could happen in Tunisia or in Egypt and certainly not through the highly disciplined tactics of non-violent resistance. Or that the Soviet Union would collapse or that the Berlin Wall would be dismantled.
Magic Moments of India vs Pakistan cricket
For Pakistan and India, war is actually just cricket by other means
My friend Feisal Naqvi came up with the brilliant observation that is the title of this post. Here's more on one of the most anticipated cricket matches of all time (the Indian prime minister has invited his Pakistani counterpart to attend and he has accepted), from Dileep Premachandran in Dawn:
The numbers suggest a Pakistan win. After all, they’ve beaten India 17 of 26 times on Indian soil. They’ve also won the two previous encounters at Mohali, chasing down 321 to win in November 2007. Cricketing logic though suggests an Indian success. By late March, most subcontinent pitches are tired, slow and lifeless. There won’t be much turn and the ball’s unlikely to come on to the bat. In such conditions, the stronger batting side usually wins. In this case, that’s India, with a top seven all capable of run-a-ball hundreds.
But when it comes to such intense rivalries, numbers and logic mean nothing. It’s invariably about which team can keep composure in tight situations. Often, it’s the experienced hands that experience the most tremors. In 1996, Waqar Younis’s final spell and Aamer Sohail’s focus on the verbals cost Pakistan dearly. In 2003, it was one over from Shoaib Akhtar that caused a huge momentum shift India’s way.
Pakistan have enjoyed plenty of success with spin in this competition but against India, it might be wiser to strengthen the pace options. Bringing back Shoaib is a gamble and if the team management is reluctant to, they could do worse than blood Junaid Khan. Mohammad Amir’s dismissal of Tendulkar at the Champions Trophy in 2009 illustrated the value of unleashing a young and hungry player in a big game.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir certainly won’t treat Afridi’s bowling with the deference that other teams have and if the Indians get away to a flyer, Pakistan cannot afford to unravel as they did in the final stages against New Zealand. If this Indian line- up has shown an Achilles Heel, it’s been in pushing on after fabulous starts.
March 28, 2011
When Buildings Stopped Talking to God
by Justin E. H. Smith
Having recently read Sheldon Pollock's astoundingly good book, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, I've been thinking a good deal about his distinction between the process of 'literization', on the one hand, and that of 'literarization' on the other. I don't have the book with me, and I don't want to misrepresent his account, but as I recall according to him in South Asia it was very common to find Sanskrit inscriptions on monuments in regions where it took several subsequent centuries for a proper Sanskrit literature to appear: epic poems and so on. Inscriptions on buildings and monuments may thus be seen as a first stage of literate civilization (with, I suppose --independently of Pollock-- other strands of full literacy, such as record-keeping, and the use of units of measurement, developing in other spheres of the same society).
One problematic aspect of the spread of Sanskrit inscriptions, which eventually extended through much of Southeast Asia, even as far as the island of Java in Indonesia, is that often they appeared completely independently of any subsequent process of Sanskrit literarization. In Cambodia, in particular, Sanskrit inscriptions were abundant for several centuries, even though the rest of the culture remained entirely Khmer (though with a high percentage of Sanskrit loan-words in the Khmer language). An intepretative problem consequently arose among Indologists in the 20th century as to what these inscriptions were for. If I recall correctly, Pollock challenges what had been until then the prevailing view, that these were inscriptions for the gods, that their being written was not conceived as a communication of information to fellow humans, but was conceived somewhat more like an inscriptional equivalent of prayer. (Of course, much writing until the modern period had this character. Scandinavian runes are an obvious example; a survival of this sort of writing can be seen in the 'prayer notes' that Jews place in the Western Wall of Old Jerusalem.)
Now this is as close as I am ever going to get to holding forth on what is called the 'philosophy of architecture' --a subject for which I've always disavowed any interest--, but it seems to me that beyond inscriptions there are a number of ways in which early monuments were made to speak to the gods through hidden messages, through built-in elements that could not be seen from the outside, but that nonetheless were held to charge the construction with a different sort of spirit than any externally identical, mere arrangement of stones could have. The most obvious example of this is the insertion of sacrificed bodies between building stones, a common Mesoamerican practice: bodies which would eventually turn to skeletons, invisible to all who enter, even if they know the bones are there, and they know that the gods know.
Even when human sacrifice is impermissible or rare, the interment of the dead between the stones of houses has been a common practice, and for the remains of royalty the practice continued until very recently, with numerous historical examples on display at tourist-ready castles throughout Europe. Archaeologists working throughout Eurasia often take the form of corpse-disposal --either between the stones of houses, or beyond the bounds of the community, out in a field or grove somewhere-- as a basic distinction between two different ways of organizing society. One incorporates the spirits of the dead into its architecture --a form of reincarnation, even if the entities being incarnated are not the familar candidates from, e.g., Greek and Indian metempsychosis--, the other just wants to get rid of the dead.
Who was this for? It was not a written message, and it is not clear that it was meant to bring about propitiation of the gods (though in the Mesoamerican case it seems that this is in fact what it was for, at least in part). But it was meant to charge buildings, anyway, with a spirit that no one today expects them to have, not even the most high-flying, conceptual architects, not even Daniel Libeskind with the Jewish Museum of Berlin, for which one supposes everyone but Libeskind himself needs to take the audioguide option in order to understand what every little angle and every pillar and material is meant to represent.
In spite of his best intentions, the resulting edifice feels more like a play-room in reverse, a sombre activities zone, much less powerful or transformative than a simple slab over a mass grave, commemmorating what's underneath. It's the bones that make the difference, that make the site sacred. A conceptual un-fun-house like Libeskind's museum isn't talking to God. Maybe that's the point: that it can't, that it has to remain merely conceptual --it can only engage all' unsre Vernunft without any hope of attaining to der Friede Gottes-- in order not in turn to implicate itself in the violence it is supposed to be abhorring.
We have veered to speak of buildings with unseen corpses that serve as hidden, unwritten messages, that charge the buildings with a sort of life and place them within a sociocosmic context that includes the gods. There are also corpses with unseen written messages: Etruscan mummies, for example, are wrapped in strips of cloth covered in text, but the text faces inward, towards the corpse, so that it can only be read if it is unwrapped, which is never supposed to happen. Again, an example --not architectural this time, but strictly funereal-- of inscriptions not meant to be read by humans. It is difficult to make sense of this today, because we suppose we are the only beings in the cosmos that know how to read, the only beings for whom inscriptions are worth the trouble. The invocational or magical character of writing is as foreign to us as the sacralization of buildings by hidden bones or unreadable text.
This is just a blog post, written from memory in a hotel room, without footnotes or any apparatus that deserves to be called scholarly in any way. It arises simply from some reflexions of mine that have been triggered during my walk today around the old-town of Hannover. In Lower Saxony it is very common to see Stockwerk houses (I forget the English term: I have in mind houses built with thick slabs of wood, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, and with concrete in between the slabs) with plattdeutsch or archaic German phrases carved or painted into the wood, phrases that may be lines of prayer, but more generally are expressions of folk piety, such as the contrast between peace in God and the finiteness of our rational faculty. If pressed, one could only say that these inscriptions are for God and for mortals at the same time. They are there to remind the people to be pious, and to assure God, on the presumption that he is paying attention, that these houses are inhabited by pious people.
It seems to me most pious writing is like this. When I think about it --and I admit I am no Cambodianist-- it's hard to understand what an inscription intended for a god alone would be like. Even if the inscription contains no practical information, even if it addresses a god as thou, even if the vulgar are meant to feel in reading it that they are reading something they aren't meant to read, still, it seems, inscriptions are for people. Addressed to God or the gods, perhaps, but meant to be noticed by mortals.
But maybe my saying this has to do with the fact that I was born in a very different sort of historical era than the one that first gave us the Stockwerk inscriptions: a historical era that now sought to project a very different sort of message on the façades of its buildings. The image to the right, for example, which I assume is a renovated building from the late 19th century, announces that it is a business partner of the Liebig Bouillon Company. It is safe, to say the least, to assume that this is a message intended for mortals, and not for the gods.
There are countless ways of describing the famous disenchantment of the modern world, first diagnosed by Max Weber and bemoaned by many after him. But perhaps it is best understood through illustration, and perhaps the best illustration of it is in the façades of buildings: the modern world is characterized by the fact that the inscriptions on buildings are meant to project industry rather than piety; not only are they not meant directly for God, they aren't even supposed to be noticed by God par hasard. Hell, what God?
It's hard to imagine what the future's counterparts to today's Indologists, trying to make sense of ancient Cambodian Sanskrit monuments, will for their part make of the shift from piety to commerce in our buildings' inscriptions. It might not be all that easy for them to detect the shift as we suppose. From a certain cultural distance, a building's reference to extract of meat might not immediately appear as prima facie non-religious, as contrasting directly with the folk piety of preceding centuries. Perhaps they will assume that a cult of animal sacrifice reemerged within the history of Christianity.
One striking similarity of our modern inscriptions --'advertisements', they're called-- to the Sanskrit inscriptions described by Pollock is that they often seem to be of no place. It is said that the Sanskrit cultural sphere differed from, say, the Roman Empire, in that in the South Asian case there was no center to which all roads led; the center could be reproduced anywhere the same cultural symbols were projected (thus the Mekong River derives its name from a Khmer transformation of the Sanskrit for 'Mother Ganges'; it made no difference that it was not actually the same river, and it was not perceived as a copy or derivative, but rather as a full-fledged instance).
And similarly, are we not at the center of the action today wherever brand name snacks and clothes are advertised, sold, and consumed? Wasn't that the whole function of Coca-Cola, for example, during the era of the Pax Americana: to convince any third-world peasant who might see an ad for it in town and who might hope to possess a bottle of it that he was in some sense already in America, and that this was far better than whatever cheap knock-offs the Soviets could hope to offer? How could there be a successful third-world International within the cultural-geographical space of Coke?
In any case there will be a lot of interpretive work to be done, and making sense of the messages of capitalism, who they are really for and what they really mean, could in retrospect offer up a mystery as great as that of the Cambodian monuments.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
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A skeptic’s guide to reincarnation
by Hartosh Singh Bal
The Karmapa sits cross-legged on a throne facing several rows of monks, mostly Tibetan and male, arrayed on the floor according to rank. The rows behind the monks are the lay deity, most Western and female, gathered here to hear him preach during his annual sojourn at Sarnath, just a few miles from Benares. A life-size picture of the Dalai Lama looks down on him, above and beyond golden against the vivid blue, yellow and oranges of the murals on the monastery walls a giant statue of the Buddha dwarfs them both.
He is speaking at the Vajra meditation centre, across the road from the centre is the boundary wall of the deer park where the Budha first preached the dhamma almost 2,500 years ago. I am in the audience because a series of ham-handed interventions by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, the state where the Dalai Lama has dwelt in India after his flight from Tibet in 1959, have managed to rather implausibly brand the Karmapa a Chinese spy, the others in the audience, pained as they are by the charges, are here because they believe the 26-year-old seated before them is seventeenth in the line of reincarnations that date back to the first Karmapa born in 1110.
Since then, they believe, each Karmapa has left a message foretelling where he would be reborn, and senior Lamas of the Kagyu sect (one of the four important schools of Tibetan Buddhism including the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school that attained political power in Tibet in the seventeenth century with some help from the Mongols) have set out in search each time a Karmapa has died. The idea became central to Tibetan Buddhism and was slowly imitated by other schools. The Dalai Lama lineage starts hundreds of years later, which is why the current Dalai Lama is but the fourteenth in the chain of reincarnations.
The system has given rise to an elaborate web of interrelated reincarnations comprising the important lamas of the various sects. When a young boy is identified as a reincarnation based on a set of signs and portents, he is brought to be trained at a monastery, usually by the very men who had been taught by his predecessor, and when they die it is he who will identify their reincarnations. Unlike a western observer, the concept is not alien to me, quite the contrary. Among my people, the Sikhs, it is the tenth guru – Gobind Singh who brought the line of living gurus to an end by vesting that spiritual power in a book that is largely a compilation of their writings. Writing of the lineage of gurus, he said:
Guru Nanak spread dharma in the iron age,
And put seekers on the path
Nanak transformed himself to Angad,
And spread dharma in the world,
He was called Amar Das in the next transformation,
A lamp was lighted from the lamp
The people on the whole considered them separate,
But there were a few who knew them to be one and the same,
Those who recognized them so,
They were the ones successful on the spiritual plane
The images he uses are not alien to Buddhism or for that matter Hinduism – a lamp lit from the lamp, the path of dharma.
The Buddha himself said, ``With the mind thus composed, quite purified, quite clarified, without blemish, without defilement, grown soft and workable, fixed, immovable, I directed my mind to the knowledge and recollections of former habitations. I remembered a variety of former habitations, thus: one birth, two births … or fifty or a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand births; or many an aeon of integration, disintegration, integration-disintegration; such a one was I by name, having such and such a clan, such and such a colour, so was I nourished, such and such pleasant and painful experiences were mine, so did the span of life end. Passing away from this, I came to be in another state where I was such a one by name…so did the span of life end. Passing away from this, I arose here. Thus I remember diverse former habitations in all their modes and details.’’
In this sense reincarnation is the very basis for the explanation offered by the vast majority of subcontinental religions for the dilemmas of existence. Religions as disparate as Sikhism and Buddhism – in contrast to a Buddhist a Sikh must live in this world, must marry and is permitted violence against injustice if other means have failed – both begin with this idea.
In a practical sense I myself have no faith in the idea, but that does not preclude me from being attracted by its logical power. I have always been perplexed by the labels of fatalism and determinism that are often ascribed to the chain of life that reincarnation describes. In each life we lead, we earn merit or demerit through our actions and inactions, this then determines the circumstances of our next life, not our actions. Think of it as a promotion or demotion in an office, this may influence but it does not determine how I perform my new job.
Where the religions of the subcontinent diverge is in an elaboration of this basic idea. Merit or demerit accrues according to our acts but for this to happen the acts must be judged against a certain set of standards. For a Buddhist killing when done with the intention of killing brings demerit, for a Sikh if killing is a necessity imposed by injustice no such demerit accrues. For many sects of Hinduism such as Purva Mimasa sacrifice of animals as enjoined in the Vedas would bring merit, for a Buddhist or a Jain it would not.
Thus, reincarnation comes with set of ethical principles that differ from religion to religion. The differences do not end with the set of ethical principles, the very fact that somewhere in the universe the accumulation of merit or demerit is recorded and weighed enjoins some sort of entity that/who vastly exceeds our capacity of remembrance. In some sects of Hinduism such as Poorva Mimasa this entity termed Apoorva is no more than that, a passive databank that records our acts and bestows results based on an evaluation determined by the performance of Vedic acts. In Sikhism the entity is all powerful and unknowable, Buddhism remains silent on the question.
However, palatable the idea is to me in theory in my few days in Benares I find myself lost in an alternate universe. Neither Sikhism nor Hinduism force me to deal with the idea of reincarnation on a daily basis. Among the followers of the Karmapa there is no way to do anything but confront this reality. I find myself noting down what one of the Karmapa’s teachers says about the Tulkus (reincarnate high ranking Lamas, which today number in the thousands), explaining the ease with which they learn the texts to the fact they may have mastered the same text in their last birth or may have even authored them a few reincarnations before.
Such a system of locating and training Lamas has served Tibetan Buddhism well. It has kept alive the transmission and exegesis of Buddhist texts that have long been lost in India and the Dalai Lama is proof that it produces some exceptional individuals. As I sit among the audience with the Karmapa leading his followers through a session of questions and answers on topics ranging from living a good life (seek to understand our interdependence on others even for the food we eat, the air we breathe) to the killing of animals to prevent their suffering (the intent of killing is wrong, what we do not allow for humans we should not allow for animals) I find it possible in some measure to understand the extraordinary power of individual presence in religious life.
Sitting there an idea of Douglas Hofstadter plays in my mind. The part of his book I Am a Strange Loop where he talks of the death of his wife has stayed with me. If I remember correctly, Hofstadter seeks to understand whether we as patterns in time, patterns that dissipates in death, can hope to survive in some measure after our death. His answer is that we do, in the minds of those we leave behind, in the mind of a spouse, and to some extent in our children and close friends. We survive not just in their memory but in their very being, in how they conduct themselves. And then I think of what happens if we take a young, intelligent child and let him be taught by the very people who have spent a lifetime imbibing the learning of a man who is now dead, would it not be possible to recreate in some measure the same patterns of thought? Is that then what constitutes a reincarnate Lama?
Pakistan: Failed state or Weimar Republic?
I recently wrote an article with this title that was triggered by a comment from a friend in Pakistan. He wrote that Pakistan felt to him like the Weimar Republic: An anarchic and poorly managed democracy with some real freedoms and an explosion of artistic creativity, but also with a dangerous fascist ideology attracting more and more adherents as people tire of economic hardship and social disorder and yearn for a savior. While the Weimar comparison was new to me, the “failed state” tag is now commonplace and many commentators have described Pakistan as either a failed state or a failing state. So which is it? Is Pakistan the Weimar republic of the day or is it a failed state? For my initial answer, you can read the article in the News, but when that article was circulated among friends, it triggered some feedback that the blog format allows me to use as a hook for some further discussion and clarification.
Some friends disagreed with my contention that Weimar Germany was too different to be a useful comparison. Germany and Pakistan may indeed be apples and (very underdeveloped) oranges, but the point of the analogy was that the current artistic and creative ferment in Pakistan is not sustainable and just as the Weimar Republic fell to fascism (not to state collapse), Pakistan’s current anarchic spring is a prelude to fascism.
It’s a fair point, but I think the crucial difference between Pakistan and Weimar Germany that I should have highlighted is the decentralized and broken up nature of the polity, with so many competing power centers that it is very hard to imagine a relatively modern fascist takeover (which, I assume, is the danger we are being warned against).
To make this point clearer, let’s look at the power that is supposed to be the agency of incipient fascism in Pakistan; Liberals who fear a fascist takeover almost universally regard the military high command as the center of this fascist network. They may regard the Jamat e Islami, with its long history of organizing thuggish student and labor wings, its close alliance with the jihadist faction of the army, and its systematic (islamicized) fascist ideology, as the ideological center of such a takeover. But they expect the army and its intelligence agencies to be the actual executors of Pakistani fascism. Thus, they point towards army apologists like Ahmed Qureshi and Zaid Hamid as propagandists who are preparing the ground for this supposed takeover.
But a closer look reveals a vast gulf between anarchic and incompetent reality and slickly presented “paknationalist” propaganda. The army’s “Islamist-fascist” wing has been pushed back by 10 years of American vetting of the high command that makes it hard to imagine a successful Islamist version of fascism. Of course, some leftists accept that, but believe that the threat was never from “Islamo-fascism”, but from good old fashioned fascism in the German and Italian mode, led by army officers in Western uniforms, not by the beards and their gangs. But that leads to two other problems; one is ideological, i.e. what will be the ideology of this fascist takeover? In Germany and Italy it was German and Italian nationalism, but Pakistani nationalism minus Islam is still too incoherent to be useful for this purpose (which is why the small sliver of educated westernized paknationalists who flock around army websites are so ineffectual and confused). But the critical missing component is not ideology (which can be created from very thin gruel if needed), the critical missing component is capacity; the army cannot even control its own agents in the tribal areas and South Punjab. It could not fix the electrical grid after running the system unchallenged by civilians for almost ten years. Its ministers and trouble-shooters ran a semi-functional Pakistan Railways into the ground during a similar period of direct military control. Even during martial law, they are forced to make deals with corrupt and useless politicians to keep other corrupt and useless politicians at bay. This, in short, is the gang that cannot shoot straight. They may be more capable in some areas than their detractors imagine (witness the efficient handling of the Raymond Davis families by the ISI or their ability to make nuclear bombs or advanced aircraft) but they really cannot make the trains run on time even if they do take over again. Their strong points are limited to a few areas (very good at milking their foreign patrons, for example) but their weak points are far too many and are getting worse. The threat is less serious than imagined.
A lot of feedback comes from the opposite extreme: the people who are convinced that Pakistan is on an unstoppable slide to disaster. To these people, the army is less capable than I indicated. Since they believe that all other institutions have already become junk, the army is the last wall standing between the current disorder and total state collapse, and the army is not immune to decay. Since the army has been ruling the country in one form or the other for decades, it has become politicized and discipline, morale and professional competence are deteriorating. Add to that the fact that the army is now fighting a civil war against the very elements it created and lionized for years and is doing so without any ideological framework beyond conspiracy theories about Hinjews and CIA agents. This situation is not sustainable and the army itself will crash and burn at some point, with horrific consequences. Meanwhile, the country is splitting further on ethnic and sectarian lines and is always one step away from economic chaos. No one, not the army, not the mainstream political parties, not the intelligentsia, has a coherent framework in which they can disengage from Islamist millenarian dreams and rebuild the country as a more normal country “developing” country.
Again, some of the points are fair points, but I think the doom and gloom may be exaggerated. First of all, it is very hard to break up a modern post-colonial state. It’s been done, but it is not easy and it is not the default setting. The modern world system is heavily invested in the integrity of nation states and while some states do fail in spite of that, this international consensus makes it difficult to get agreement on any rearrangement of borders. In most cases, distant powers as well as surrounding neighbors find it more convenient to find ways to compromise within existing borders. Even a spectacular failure, like the collapse of the Soviet empire, actually ends up validating already existing borders rather than creating entirely new ones. The supranational structure of the Soviet Union collapsed, but its component nations remained almost entirely within their existing borders. In this sense, Pakistan does not have 4 separate ethnically and culturally distinct units joined by weak supra-national bonds. Even an extremely unhappy component like Baluchistan is not uniformly Baloch. In fact, Balochis are probably no more than half the population of that province. Sindh contains large and very powerful Mohajir enclaves that do not easily make common cause with rural Sindh. More Pakhtoons live in Karachi than in the Pakhtoonkhwa capital of Peshawar. Economic and cultural links (especially the electronic media) unite more than they divide. If nothing else, cricket unites the nation. In addition, the reach of modern schooling and brainwashing is not to be underestimated. Even in far flung areas, many young people have grown up in a world where Pakistani nationalism is the default setting.
Economically, the country is always in dire straits, but agribusiness and textiles are powerful sectors with real potential. More advanced sectors can easily take off if law and order improves a little and irrational barriers with India are lowered a little bit. The nation state is not as weak as it sometimes appears to be.
So much for the optimistic version. Since this is a post about Pakistan, it cannot end without some pessimism. The most dangerous element in Pakistan today is not the Islamist fanatics. It is the rise of China. Not because the rise of China threatens Pakistan or because Chinese hyper-capitalism or cheap Chinese products threaten our industry or our social peace or any such thing, but because it may inflate the egos of the military high command to the point that they lose contact with reality and try a high jump for which we are not yet ready (and may never be ready). It’s not that the high jump will get anywhere, but that the attempt may lead us into more trouble than we can handle.
I say this because GHQ, for all its pragmatic pretensions, has been known to overestimate their skill and underestimate their opponents. If China was not truly a rising power, and if Pakistan did not have some real assets and advantages, we might have been safer in the long run. But since there is an element of truth in the paknationalists notions about China and the changing global balance of power, they may lose their balance. All I am saying is GHQ is prone to flying off on a self-generated hot air pocket even when the situation does not encourage such optimism. When the situation actually has some positive aspects, there may be no restraining them. But, I remain an optimist. I think our own weaknesses may protect us from the fate of a much stronger and more capable country (Germany in 1940).
By Jenny White
My grandmother’s kitchen had a single window that flung open in one great wing of glass. It looked out over the tiled roof of the apartment building in which she lived, down onto the slices of soil allotted to each resident, then into the valley beyond where a church steeple rose from the heart of the district. Over by the river, vineyards clambered up steep hillsides, their flinty soil the source of Franconia’s famously dry wines. Unlike her neighbor who let his allotment run to grass, my grandmother’s garden was neatly divided into beds that alternated flowers and vegetables. A rabbit hutch, much used during the war, now housed tools. A metal drum acted as a well, filled by a tap rising up mysteriously from the soil. When I submerged the tin watering can, it gulped the water, becoming heavier and heavier as it filled. Hauling the full can at last from beneath the surface of the water was both difficult and satisfying. Above the garden fence, you could see the back of the grade school I attended and through the big mullioned windows watch the children on the climbing bars in the gymnasium. The view in spring was partially blocked by a radiantly blooming cherry tree that my grandmother had planted when her youngest daughter was born fifty years earlier -- after the war, when joy might have seemed appropriate again. Pigeons gathered on the tiles before my grandmother’s window to eat the crumbs of stale bread she spread for them. They murmured and cooed, their toes skittering on the clay.
The street was lined on both sides with worker’s housing complexes, neat, unimaginative blocks of apartments, each set within a grassy area that had iron stands for beating carpets and lines to hang the laundry. The women in the apartments took turns boiling, scrubbing and beating their shirts and shifts on worn wooden tables in the basement wash kitchens. When my grandfather landed a job delivering coal on a horse-drawn cart for the Neckermann company, he gained the right to move his family into a tiny two-bedroom apartment under the roof of number eleven with no bathtub and no hot running water. He and his wife raised six children there and, long after the war, two grandchildren. I grew up turning the heavy, old-fashioned key in the skull-shaped locks. The scent of fresh wax, applied by weekly rota, was heavy on the stairs.
Of the train trip to the coast when I was seven, I remember only the regular flash of poles behind my face mirrored in the night window. I clutched a marzipan pig someone had given me for luck. Of the voyage on the SS Berlin, my mother’s china in crates, I remember little. What remains of that time is an image of a flaming orange sky blanketing the ocean, the crew hustling us beneath decks, a great storm that swayed the ship. Then New York harbor and an extended cavalcade of cars and interiors. A rooming house in New Rochelle: the sound of pigeons comforted me, their feathers rustling outside the peaked window. I snuck into the communal kitchen to steal Hershey’s Syrup from another resident’s cabinet. I didn’t speak English; I suspect I didn’t even know where I was. The pigeons were a settling back into place, a rabbit rushing behind a bush in the rooming house yard, blooms in spring. The taste of chocolate. Even here. My report card from the local school gave no grades, only the cryptic “making progress.” The teacher also wrote “doesn’t obey instructions”, but that’s another story. I don’t remember the school.
When my grandmother was ninety-one, only two other women on the street remained from the early days. Whenever I visited from America, Frau Dorsch in Apartment Six would waylay me on the stairs and hand me a box of Weinbrandtbohnen, chocolates filled with brandy. Only once in all those years did I enter her apartment, when she was too weak to hobble out to the landing. What I saw was not the white antiseptic space of a woman who had never traveled beyond her neighborhood, but the chair where a firebomb had landed during the war. Dropped from a plane, the incendiary bomb had burned its way through the roof, the attic, and Frau Dorsch’s ceiling, settling on a chair in her kitchen, perhaps the very one on which she was now sitting. Like the bomb, the story had burned its way into my brain over the years through repeated tellings. My grandfather had saved the building, the story goes, by racing up from the root cellar where the families were huddled while the city was being devastated by British bombers. He dashed a bucket of water onto the bomb before it could set the rest of the house on fire.
My grandmother’s kitchen was painted shiny pastel green to chest level, the rest a creamy white. A cross with a pale, haggard-looking Jesus hung near the window, decorated with a purple cloth orchid and cattails. The kitchen was always warm from cooking, with a faint smell of caraway and browned butter. For a long time it was the only room in the apartment that was heated in the cold winters. At night my grandmother put a tin container of hot water shaped like a loaf beneath my featherbed in the small bedroom where once my mother had slept. The bed shared space with a refrigerator and a pantry cabinet. In the morning I was loath to emerge into the chill air, which meant I would have to run to the narrow bathroom to splash my face with icy cold water, then rush into the kitchen and collapse on the daybed in the alcove beside the stove, shivering. I developed a reputation as a sleepyhead and someone insufficiently “hardened off”, both of which I was ready to accept in return for staying warm.
The white lacquered cabinet in the kitchen was my uncle’s Meisterstück, the piece he made to prove himself as a master cabinetmaker before he and his family emigrated to Canada. The glassed-in doors held my grandmother’s mismatched china and its sturdy drawers were subdivided by slats that separated deep-bowled spoons and forks with long, useful tines from knives with business-like grips. At the back were five silver teaspoons someone had dug from the rubble of the city.
Behind the door at one end of the cabinet my grandmother kept a pot of clarified butter, tins of flour and sugar. She reached in with a practiced thumb and pulled out the ingredients for potato dumplings. She held the hot potatoes in her hand to peel them, hardened beyond sentiment by a childhood working on a farm, two world wars and eight children raised in an attic on sparrows, gleanings, and stolen cabbages. All but the last two children, born into post-war plenitude, were sent into the harvested fields outside the city to glean remnants of grain that could be milled into flour, gather up crumbs of coal, and find snatches of grass in the denuded city for the rabbits in the backyard hutch that also housed sparrows my grandmother trapped to eat. She punished her daughter, my mother, for opening their cage one day and setting them free. In the basement, my grandmother made soap by boiling lye and fat to barter to the farmers in outlying areas for food. They walked for hours between the fields, one of her children pulling the cart laden with soap one way and with potatoes coming home. She stood watch while my uncle ran into a field and stole a cabbage, hiding it under the potatoes. The field guard gave chase once, but my grandmother stood in his way and lambasted him for chasing her son while my uncle hightailed it down the road with the cart.
All of her daughters had to knit. Once a relative sent the fleece of a sheep from the village, a boon that had to be scraped, carded, and made into wool that could produce socks and sweaters to clothe her children. One day an SS officer came up the stairs as far as the landing below my grandmother’s door. Why, he demanded, was she not knitting for the front? “I have four children to knit for and two sons at the front,” my grandmother responded tartly. “When I’m done knitting for them, I’ll knit for you.” She slammed the door shut, sending a tremor of fear through her family. When it was my turn much later, I brought her skeins of colored wool from the wool shop in town and she knitted for me red socks, black socks, white socks, a lifetime of socks.
Four days before the official end of the war, residents were alarmed by the drone of many bombers and a frightening spectacle of “Christmas tree lights” that exploded like fireworks in the sky to show the bombers the way. Like others in the city, my grandparents and the four children ran up into the vineyards and lay face down between the stocks as bombs fell around them. My grandmother lay on top of her youngest daughter. When they tell me of that night, their eyes turn inward and they live it again: The scream of bombs, blasting explosions and hellish fire raking the vineyards and below them in the city; the screams of thousands of people, the din of desperate prayers rising from the vineyards all around them as the city of Würzburg was annihilated in a firestorm of bombs that lit the sky like daylight.
I line them up: silver spoons, the last pair of white knitted socks, my grandmother’s featherbed cover, its cloth buttons unforgivably frayed. A set of tinted cognac glasses, fragile as air, that survived the voyage on the SS Berlin. I rarely use them, afraid that after so much travail, I would be the one to break them.
Vik Muniz. Death of Marat; after David. 2005
Thanks to Lauren Shaw for reminding me of his film Wasteland.
What Do We Deserve?
By Namit Arora
I often think of the good life I have. By most common measures—say, type of work, income, health, leisure, and social status—I’m doing well. Despite the adage, ‘call no man happy until he is dead’, I wonder no less often: How much of my good life do I really deserve? Why me and not so many others?
The dominant narrative has it that I was a bright student, worked harder than most, and competed fairly to gain admission to an Indian Institute of Technology, where my promise was recognized with financial aid from a U.S. university. When I took a chance after graduate school and came to Silicon Valley, I was justly rewarded for my knowledge and labor with a measure of financial security and social status. While many happily accept this narrative, my problem is that I don’t buy it. I believe that much of my socioeconomic station in life was not realized by my own doing, but was accidental or due to my being in the right place at the right time.
A pivotal question in market-based societies is ‘What do we deserve?’ In other words, for our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements are just? How much of what we bring home is fair or unfair, and why? To chase these questions is to be drawn into the thickets of political philosophy and theories of justice. In this short essay, inspired by American political philosopher Michael Sandel’s Justice, I’ve tried to synthesize a few thoughts on the matter by reviewing three major approaches to distributive economic justice: libertarian, meritocratic, and egalitarian, undermining en route the dominant narrative on my own well-being.
Three Models of Distributive Justice
The libertarian model of distributive justice favors a free market with well-defined rules that apply to all. ‘Citizens are assured equal basic liberties, and the distribution of income and wealth is determined by the free market.’ It offers a formal equality of opportunity—making it a clear advance over feudal or caste arrangements—so anyone can, in theory, strive to compete and win. But in practice, people don’t have real equality of opportunity due to various disadvantages, for example, of family income, social class, gender, race, caste, etc. So while the racetrack may look nice and shiny, the runners don’t begin at the same starting point. What does it mean to say that the first to cross the finish line deserves his or her victory? Isn’t the contest rigged from the start, based on factors that are arbitrary and derive from accidents of birth?
Take my own example. I was born into the upper-caste, riding on eons of unearned privilege over 80 percent of Indians. I was a boy raised in a society that lavished far more attention on boys. My parents fell closer to the upper-middle class, had university degrees, and valued education and success—both my grandfathers had risen up to claim senior state government posts. I lived in a kid-friendly neighborhood with parks, playgrounds, and a staff clubhouse. I had role models and access to the right schools and books, the right coaching classes, and peers aspiring for professional careers. My background greatly shaped my ambition and self-confidence and no doubt put me ahead of perhaps 96 percent of other Indians—the odds that I would perform extremely well on standardized academic tests were huge from the start.
The meritocratic model, often associated with the United States, recognizes such inequities and tries to correct for socioeconomic disadvantages. At its best, meritocracy takes real equality of opportunity seriously and tries to achieve it through various means: Head Start programs, education and job training, subsidized healthcare and housing, and so forth. Meritocrats admit that market-based distribution of rewards is just only to the extent to which we can reduce endemic socioeconomic disadvantages and bring everyone to comparable starting points. But thereafter, they believe that we are the authors of our own destiny and whoever wins the race is morally deserving of the rewards they obtain from the market—and its flip side, that we morally deserve our failure too, and its consequences. Swiss writer Alain de Botton looked at this phenomenon in the United States in his 2004 documentary film, Status Anxiety.
But is this entirely fair? Even if we somehow leveled socioeconomic disparities, the winners of the race would still be the fastest runners, due in part to a natural lottery. People are often born with certain talents and attributes—for instance, oratory, musical acumen, physical beauty and health, athleticism, good memory and cognition, extroversion, and so forth—that give them unearned advantages. Are their wins not as arbitrary from a moral standpoint as of those born with silver spoons in their mouths? Further, is it not our dumb luck that our society happens to value certain aptitudes we may have—such as the leap and hand-eye coordination of Michael Jordan, sound-byte witticisms of talk show hosts like Jay Leno, or the algorithmic wizardry of Sergey Brin in the Internet age? A millennium ago, society valued other aptitudes, such as sculpting bronze in Chola India, equine archery on the Mongolian steppes, or reciting epigrammatic verse in Arabia. My own aptitude for science and math served me well in an India looking to industrialize and a United States facing a shortfall of engineers. I might have done less well in an earlier age where the best opportunities were perhaps in mercantile pursuits or the bureaucracy of government.
But how can a system of distributive justice compensate for random natural gifts that happen to be valued in a time and place? We can’t level natural gifts across people, can we? The mere thought is bizarre. The American political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) had much to say about this in his landmark 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, in which he developed his egalitarian model. Since we can’t undo the inequities of the natural lottery, he writes, we must find a way to address the differences in the rewards that result from them. We should certainly encourage people to hone and exercise their aptitudes, he says, but we should be clear that they do not morally deserve the rewards their aptitudes earn from the market. Since their natural gifts aren’t their own doing, and are moreover profitable only in light of the value a community places on them, they must share the rewards with the community.
One might object here: Wait a minute, what about the role of the personal drive and effort we put into cultivating our talents? Don’t we deserve the rewards that come from our striving? Not really, says Rawls. Countless factors beyond our choosing influence our ambition and effort, such as our upbringing, our family’s work ethic, our childhood experiences, subconscious insecurities, social milieu, career fads, role models, parental and peer pressure, available life paths, lucky breaks, and other contingent factors. It isn’t clear how much of it is our own doing, however militantly we may hold the illusion that we create our own life story (an illusion not without psychological and practical payoffs). Even the accident of being firstborn among siblings can be a factor in how hard we strive. Each year, Sandel reports, 75-80 percent of his freshman class at Harvard are firstborns. Besides, effort may be a virtue but even the meritocrats don’t think it deserves rewards independent of results or achievement. So, in short, we can’t claim to deserve the rewards on the basis of effort either.
Rawls deflates the idea that we morally deserve the rewards of meritocracy. If we accept this, it follows that the house of distributive justice cannot be built on the sands of moral desert (which, in simple terms, is a condition in which we are deserving of something, whether good or bad), but must be built on other grounds.  Notably, however, Rawls doesn’t make a case for equal rewards. Instead, Rawls speaks of the ‘Difference Principle’ in dealing with the inequities of the natural lottery. This principle, says Sandel, ‘permits income inequalities for the sake of incentives, provided the incentives are needed to improve the lot of the least advantaged.’ In other words, income inequality is justified only to the extent to which it improves the lot of the most disadvantaged when compared to an equal income arrangement. Only if society is better off as a whole does favoring inequality seem fair.
Choosing the Rules of the Game
One might ask: Why should we uphold the Difference Principle at all? Is it not an arbitrary construct? No, says Rawls, and invites us to a thought experiment on creating ‘a hypothetical social contract in an original position of equality’. Imagine, he says, that ‘when we gather to chose the principles [for governing ourselves], we don’t know where we will wind up in society. Imagine that we choose behind a "veil of ignorance" that temporarily prevents us from knowing anything about who we are’, including our race, gender, class, talents, intelligence, wealth, religion, etc. What principles would we then choose to order our society? Rawls makes a powerful case that simply out of a desire to minimize our odds of suffering, we will always choose political equality, fair equal opportunity, and the Difference Principle.
Some have argued that the Difference Principle may not get chosen as is, not unless it has a clause to address the unfairness of propping up those who willfully make bad choices or act irresponsibly. Further, is it desirable, or even possible, to choose a social contract from behind the so-called ‘veil of ignorance’, as if, in Rawls’ words, ‘from the perspective of eternity’ with scant regard for context?  Doesn’t Rawls implicitly presuppose a people who already value political equality, individualism, and resolving claims through public deliberation? Rawls later downplayed its universality but, argues Sandel, even in the United States, Rawls’ thought experiment supports an arid secular public space detached from so much that is central to our identities. This includes historical, moral, and religious discourses, which, if squeezed out, often pop up elsewhere in worse forms, such as the religious right. If the point is to enhance the social contract, Sandel adds, political progressives should do so not by asking people to leave their deepest beliefs at home but by engaging them in the public sphere.
Sandel’s basic critique here is that Rawls’ concern with the distribution of primary goods—which Rawls defines as ‘things that every rational man is presumed to want’—is necessary but not sufficient for a social contract. As purposive beings, we should also consider the telos of our choices, such as our common ends as a community, the areas of life worth shielding from the market, the space we should accord to loyalty and patriotism, ties of blood, marriage, and tradition, etc. Still, Rawls’ thought experiment retains a powerful moral force and continues to inspire liberals. His theory of justice, writes Sandel, ‘represents the most compelling case for a more equal society that American political philosophy has yet produced.’
Theories of justice may clarify and guide our thoughts, but we still have to figure out how to change the game we want to play and where to draw the lines on the playing field. An open society does this through vigorous public debate. As British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote, ‘people who want to govern themselves must choose how much liberty, equality, and justice they seek and how much they can let go. The price of a free society is that sometimes, perhaps often, we make bad choices.’ Thereafter, when the rules are in place, ‘we are entitled to the benefits the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents’. It is the rules, says Sandel, and not anything outside them, that create ‘entitlements to legitimate expectations’. Entitlements only arise after we have chosen the rules of the competition. Only in this context can we say we deserve something, whether admission to a law school, a certain bonus, or a pension.
In Rawlsian terms, the problem in the United States is not that a minority has grown super rich, but that for decades now, it has done so to the detriment of the lower social classes. The big question is: why does the majority in a seemingly free society tolerate this, and even happily vote against its own economic interests? A plausible answer is that it is under a self-destructive meritocratic spell that sees social outcomes as moral desert—a spell at least as old as the American frontier but long since repurposed by the corporate control of public institutions and the media: news, film, TV, publishing, and so forth. Rather than move towards greater fairness and egalitarianism, it promotes a libertarian gospel of the free market with minimal regulation, taxation, and public safety nets. What would it take to break this spell?
A slightly expanded version of this essay appeared in the Humanist, May/Jun 2011, which was then also included in three college anthologies from Sage Publications, McGraw-Hill, and Bedford/St. Martin's, and a fourth anthology forthcoming in Sept, 2013.
More writing by Namit Arora?
- Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael Sandel, 2009, p. 153.
- Some philosophers disagree. Look up Robert Nozick, for instance, for a libertarian critique.
- Sandel, pp. 157-8.
- Does this approach diminish the role of human agency and free will when it comes to moral desert? Some say it does, yet the claim seems modest enough, that our achievements have many ingredients, and the contributions from agency/free will are intertwined with the contributions from social and random factors—to the point that it seems unreasonable to give by default all credit to agency/free will, which libertarians try to do in order to justify the rewards of the market. However, some philosophers find an unresolved tension in Rawls’ approach to setting up the Difference Principle. See, for instance, Egalitarianism, Free Will, and Ultimate Injustice by Saul Smilansky.
- Sandel, p. 141.
- See Communitarianism by Daniel A. Bell, SEP, 2009, for an introduction to communitarianism and its critique of Rawls. A different kind of critique comes from the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who finds a tension between Rawls’ liberal idea of justice and ‘the pluralism of reasons for justice.’ See Justice and Its Critics, Adam Kirsch, City Journal, September 2009.
- The NS Profile: Michael Sandel, by Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman, 04 June 2009.
- Sandel, p. 166.
- ibid., p. 163.
- See Jonathan Chait’s article in Democarcy, The Triumph of Taxophobia.
Images (in the order of appeareance):
- George Vincent Cole, Still Life With Pineapple, ca. 1890, oil on canvas. Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art.
- Milton Friedman. Other famous libertarians include Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Alan Greenspan.
- John Rawls.
- Michael Sandel.
Going up a hill
by Haider Shahbaz
The first was happy to observe. The second wanted to create. The third was always mimicking. The first one, Mike, tall and thin with bushy Jewish hair was wrapped in a blanket that reminded you of your last LSD trip: colourful, torn and full of bunnies. The second, Dario, with his round face, generous smile and serious eyes was in a tweed coat. Of course, he was in a tweed coat. The third, Danyal, singing and smoking, creating rap songs from conversations, was wearing sandals and a huge shawl. He liked to show that he was ethnic. They were walking – walking on roads that led nowhere. That led from night to day and day to night.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. I still have to finish the essay that was due last week.”
“Calm down. You’re always panicking about work. It’s your American blood. Do you still have some of Tony’s stuff left?”
“Yeah I brought it with me. We’ll smoke it when we get up there.”
Danyal, in the background, was rapping. He knew Mike too well. He always complains. He makes a resolution every morning, only to meet Tony that night, or a bottle of cheap rum. And then, ends up with ugly chicks. Just like that girl last week who he met in a party when he was horny and drunk and admittedly insecure. She was ugly; he knew it. Damn it, he knew it.
“Will you stop that?”
Dario didn’t like rapping. He only liked Rilke. And sometimes, Dadaists and Mayakovsky too, when he had to pretend he wasn’t attached to the canon and Harold Bloom as much as he was. But nothing got him more excited than talk of modernity and post-modernity and other such dangerous passions.
“Okay Okay. Chill. So what’s our plan?”
“We’re going up that small hill. It should take us about an hour. We’ll watch the sunrise and then come back and sleep.”
“What happened to catching a train to New York and acting like beatniks?”
“We can’t drink on the train.”
“Are we drinking now?”
“Can you ever be sober? Mike said he has Tony’s stuff.”
“Mike! Can you tell Dario not to be an asshole. I think he wants to start talking about modernity again.”
Mike changed the conversation.
“You know the tracks are right here. For all your pseudo hobo-ism, Danyal, we should come here and jump on some cargo railways.”
“Man, that ‘Into the Wild’ stuff is bullshit. Anyways, we decided last night that Day-Lewis kicks the shit out of Sean Penn any day. We need to run to the oil fields, not to Alaska. Let’s see some real America, huh? You’re always telling me to go see more of America before I start abusing your people. What do you say, Mike? This spring break: let’s go cross-country.”
“Yeah, maybe. My brother is finally going to be back home so I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The road, unwinding, lazily wrapped itself around the hill. It was four in the morning, pitch dark and slightly cold. Dario was scared. Mike was talking. Danyal was listening.
“I should take a gap year; go back to Guatemala and farm. It was warm there. I went right after high school.”
“Why did you ever come back? To go to fucking college?”
“I don’t know. Father stopped sending money.”
Dario was still scared when they reached the top. But he was, also, euphoric. They all were. They felt meaningful and accomplished. They were smiling, widely too. They lit a joint and told stories. Mike told one from the New Testament; Dario about tea with a professor emeritus; Danyal was too stoned and couldn’t think, he recounted Snoop Dogg’s interview with Larry King. They all laughed. But, really, at the top of the hill there was nothing. They waited, silently and earnestly, for someone to whisper from across the road, the block, the city, the seas and the winds. Whisper, they knew. Someone will whisper. They waited because amidst cyber smatterings and language sputters and accidental bumps and deliberate kisses they still had not heard what they were waiting for. And in their anxiety, they danced and smoked and waited and said:
“Fuck the gap year. We’ll drop out. All three of us. Like the sixties. We will trip and travel. Roam the world.”
They talked and waited for another second. And another. And another. But nobody whispered and the sun never rose.
Read the Label Before You Buy
by Wayne Ferrier
I was driving home from the gym and stopped at the convenience store to grab a power drink, a crunchy snack, and dinner for the cat. I'm being hypothetical here, I don't really work out at the gym, and I rarely buy snacks at the convenience store, but for the sake of this story indulge me please. I looked around at the myriad of choices, not feeling compelled to comparison shop—it's a convenience store remember—so I grabbed what seemed the most appealing and headed to the cash register. What I had chosen was a bottle of POWERADE, COMBOS and a can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté for the cat. Cats are so suave aren’t they? We eat COMBOS and they have pâté. I had skipped dinner so I would have time to go to the gym. I want to be healthy you know.
Back in the car I tore open the bag and downed a fistful of COMBOS and had a swig of POWERADE. Having gotten my initial fix, I took a moment to glance at the nutritional information that is on the food label. The first ingredients listed on food labels are the primary ingredients in that product. The first two or three are the ones you want to look at closely. Ingredients at the bottom of the list may be in smaller amounts than the first ingredients that are listed.
By now most consumers should be aware of what to look for and what to look out for. Experts have been telling us for years to eat whole grains. But my bag of COMBOS listed Wheat Flour as the first ingredient. That's not whole grain. Well that's to be expected. Maybe this snack food wasn't the best choice to get my daily fiber. So what was the second ingredient? It said Palm Kernel, Palm Oil and/or Hydrogenated Palm Oil.
Hmm, it may or may not have Trans Fat, yet this is the second ingredient. Isn't Hydrogenated Oil supposed to be really bad for you? Doesn’t it supposedly contribute to coronary heart disease and other health problems? And why won't they just tell me if it's in there or not? The third and fourth ingredients are Maltodextrin, and Food Starch-Modified. I don’t know what Food Starch-Modified is but Maltodextrin is supposedly a natural product. It is believed to be more easily metabolized than other kinds of carbohydrates, making it popular with athletes and bodybuilders who want quick energy. It is used as a filler and thickening agent making it a popular ingredient for dieters, because it makes you feel full and therefore you don't eat so much. It also may be good for diabetics who may benefit from Maltodextrin being processed easily by the body, assisting in the regulation of metabolic functions. But that's where the positive info ends and the warning is that in small amounts Maltodextrin is perhaps harmless, maybe even healthy. Long term consumption of Maltodextrin, however, we just don't know for sure. This is not too bad information. I was feeling better.
Moving down the list I saw a host of food dyes including Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, and Blue 1 Lake. To me consuming food dyes is like playing Russian roulette, the consensus is that we think some may be benign, others we think might be carcinogenic, and many we just don't know very much at all what they might do. I drove home. Curious now, I booted my computer, and logged onto the COMBOS website. This is when I really got concerned, perhaps even a little frightened. Upon entering the site I was greeted with this message:
Find your inner self. Hint: It’s not at the dinner table. Congratulations on your first step towards the Combivore lifestyle, where hearty snacks are always the right choice. Remember being a Combivore isn’t about trendy eating or fad foods, it’s a way of life.
I’m not sure what that means. The way it comes across to me is the company who makes COMBOS knows my inner self, and it ought not to be eating healthy, well balanced meals with my family at the dinner table. My inner self is a brute, a creature whose main diet isn't meat, nor fruits and vegetables. I'm a Combivore, to whom snacks are all that matters. I'm not to pay attention to the latest fads; health fads? Okay, I will admit to you that what was left in the COMBOS bag went straight into the garbage. But what about the POWERADE, that has to be healthy right, with all those electrolytes and all? So here we go. The first ingredient is water. I guess that makes sense. Here’s what was next: High Fructose Corn Syrup, citric acid, and salt. Further down the list are food dyes, namely Blue 1, which is really an intense blue, not like those pale looking colors you see in GATORADE.
I did a quick search on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and found that the American Medical Association (AMA) insists that it is no better and no worse than any other commonly used sweeteners. Again I was feeling better. Then I went and checked what Andrew Weil says because I respect his opinion and he is definitely against it. I also checked out Dr. Oz to see what he had to say and he agrees with Weil. The low down is that HFCS is a relatively recent invention and consumption of HFCS in the United States has increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990. HCFS may promote weight gain because it behaves in the body closer to fat than to glucose. According to Weil, there is some evidence to suggest that fructose might disturb the normal function of the liver, and unlike glucose, doesn't seem to trigger the process where our bodies tell us that we are full. Oz further clarifies this by saying that High Fructose Corn Syrup is not recognized by our brains as real food, so we never feel satiated and we keep eating more and more. The result is our blood sugar level keeps rising, and abnormal amounts of insulin are needed to metabolize it, and then we crash and are hungry again. Not recognized by our brains as food!
Oh great! I just ate half a bag of COMBOS with Maltodextrin which gave me the feeling of being full. Then I drank POWERADE, which leaves me feeling perpetually hungry? But what really worries me are those insidious food dyes. They don't draw much attention. I'm no expert, but they really concern me. We really don't know what they are or what they are doing for us or to us. Natural and artificial flavors, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1, etc. I just don't like the sound of them.
Here's a bit of evolutionary rumination. We evolved to prefer certain nutrients in certain forms. Young primates normally avoid bitter tasting food because many toxic plants contain alkaloids which have a bitter flavor, while sweetness in natural foods is usually an indication of ripe, health-giving fruits and vegetables. Over time adult primates, through trial and error, become savvy consumers knowing which bitter plants are good to eat and which are not. Primitive peoples are often just as discerning about what are good or useful alkaloids from those which are bad and dangerous. Even in modern society drinking coffee, tea, beer, and eating spicy foods and bland vegetables are acquired tastes.
But many food manufactures, it seems, are colluding to keep us perpetually naive, bombarding us with mega amounts of sweeteners and easily digestible carbohydrates. Why sit at the dinner table eating healthy food, which takes time to digest, when you can get what you want quick and cheap at the convenience store? Unfortunately these perpetually available sweets and carbs are also loaded with other man-made substances, which we know very little about.
Rats cannot vomit. That’s a weird fact but true. When a rat eats something it has to digest it, it cannot throw it up. A rat encountering an unfamiliar flavor the first time will nibble then walk away. After a number of hours if it doesn’t get sick, the rat might return and finish its meal. The rat does this to see if what it is eating is poisonous. Manufacturers of rat poison have to make their products appealing to rats yet not be so toxic so that the rat comes back for seconds or so toxic it gets them on the first nibble.
In humans smell and taste might have evolved to give us the ability to identify good food from poison. If it is acidic the food might be spoiled, if it is bitter it could be potentially toxic. Carbohydrates and other simple sugars provide quick energy for primates on the go. Associating sweetness with energy may be behind our present addiction to processed food. Food that was once hard to find is now overly abundant and the rule of nature is that too much of a good thing can be harmful, even dangerous. The very definition of pollution is too high of a concentration of anything. Our supermarkets are cesspools of too much of what we crave. Abundant sources of easily digestible carbs are difficult to find in nature, salt is equally scarce. Food manufacturers have caught on to this and create processed food with the right combination of the goods we want: salt, sugar, fat, etc. The food doesn’t even have to taste good; if the right combination is there people will buy it and consume it.
And that can of FRISKIES? Just for the shock value I would love to tell you that it beats human food hands down but I can't. The ingredients in that can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté are Meat By-Products, artificial and natural flavors, and the omnipresent food dyes are there too. Nobody really knows what Meat By-Products are except the manufacturer. To conjure up images of what Meat-By Products are exactly sounds too much like a horror flick to me, so I'll leave it at that.
We are a society that is caught in the middle of a battle between exploitative marketing and a raging health-kick movement. I am constantly being reminded of the dangers of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. I see the word “cancer” mentioned dozens of times per day on television, in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet—every form of media. Even my Facebook friends are constantly posting warnings and reminders of these maladies and asking me to post them too. Eventually one of these killers is going to get me, but preferably later than sooner. The fear and threat of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes is fed to me so many times a week I just can't get them out of my head. I really think we need a break from it as it seems that's all we think about these days! We've really become quite a paranoid culture.
Yet a quick trip to the supermarket reveals that there are still a lot of companies out there that have resisted changing the quality of the ingredients in their products. Other companies are bent on fooling us, making us think that their products are healthier when they are really not. Read the labels please, and then don't worry so much about the dangers. I already know the dangers. If a company is making crap why don't we just stop buying it? And if we're not sure what an ingredient is then let us take a lesson from the rats. Wait until the verdict is in, scientific investigations conclusive, and meanwhile choose something else on the way to the cash register.
Anslem Kiefer: Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen - White Cube, Hoxton, London
By Sue Hubbard
In 1969 the German artist Anslem Kiefer compiled a book, Unfruchtbare Landschaften that brought together two disparate elements: landscapes and the pages of a medical textbook dealing with contraception. Placing the IUDs out of context on top of the landscapes seemed to imply sterility. Wrenched from their purpose and context these now alien objects brought with them not only traces of their own history but took on new metaphorical meanings. The beauty of the gesture of these juxtapositions lay in the attempt to say something beyond language.
Kiefer is one of the most significant and serious artists of the post war generation. Born in Donaueschinger in South Germany in 1945, in 1966 he left his law studies at the University of Freiburg to study art. A student of Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s he began to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity in a muscular visual language. His paintings, oversized books and performance art draw from literature, art and music, philosophy and folklore. Borrowing from Teutonic myth he has conducted investigations into the recent past, particularly the era of the Third Reich, exploring a post Nietzschian desire to establish meaning in a brutal Godless world. His painted landscapes of the ploughed and rutted German countryside, incorporating straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, have become metaphors for the tragedy of recent European history. Engaged in an endless interrogation of the devastation and horror that his country wrought, he implies that the tragedy was a product of Germany’s intellectual and cultural heritage, a view endorsed in Michael Haneke's superb yet disturbing film, The White Ribbon, based on life in pre-first world war Germany.
Kiefer has been accused of being that which he criticises: monumental, aggrandising, grand, even bombastic but to read his work in this way is to fail completely to understand that to enter the heart of darkness is not to embrace its legacy. As a student in the late 1960s he travelled round France, Switzerland and Italy where he was photographed giving the Nazi salute outside prominent buildings. His degree show, Occupations (Bezetzung), provoked both incomprehension and anger for daring to confront the taboos that had disfigured Europe.
Characterised by a monochromatic palette, stressed, depressive surfaces and monumental formats Kiefer’s explorations can be interpreted as a form of archaeological excavation. He digs deep into the collective unconscious of a nation, into the sub strata of fears that have all too often been concealed, as in his great painting Margarethe (oil and straw on canvas) inspired by Paul Celan’s extraordinary poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), which highlights the fate of the blonde Aryan Margarethe and the dark-haired Semitic Shulamith. Poetry, along with the language of alchemy, the Hebrew Kabbalah and Egyptian history, has been a central catalyst.
Now Kiefer has a new show at White Cube, London and there is an uncanny synchronicity about the images. The turbulent waves and apocalyptic mass of water seem horribly familiar to those who recently watched the unfolding horror of the Japanese tsunami on their TV screens. The title Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love), taken from a play by the nineteenth-century Austrian writer and poet Franz Grilparzer, re-tells the Greek myth of Hero and her lover, Leander, who swam the Hellespont for nightly trysts, before eventually drowning. It is a tale that has inspired writers and artists from Marlowe and Keats to Rubens and Turner, but for Kiefer the meaning is somewhat elusive. The vastness and ubiquity of the ocean seems to suggest not only timelessness but an inchoate element in which man is searching for meaning.
Twenty-four panoramic seascapes have been hung three deep like an ancient frieze on the walls of the main gallery. The huge scale evokes the sublimity of the ocean; the subject of many paintings such as Théodore Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, where human life is shown abandoned to its fate on a sea that is both terrifying, as well as a thing of great beauty. For Kiefer the ocean suggests a primal, amniotic, pre-linguistic space, something without beginning or end, where time and space take on cosmological and existential meanings familiar from quantum physics. Based on photographs - which have been subjected to various forms of transformation, including electrolysis - each work is an attempt at a moment of fixity in the continuous flux of the ocean. Gynaecological instruments superimposed on the surface of the works disrupt traditional Romantic readings and imply a desire for human intervention in the timeless cycles of birth and death.
Many of the works include hand written texts, often the title of the poem scrawled like a repeated mantra across the surface. Kiefer has said that poems are “like buoys on the high seas. I swim from one to another, and with them I would be lost in the middle of the ocean. Poems are moorings in the infinite void where something emerges from the accumulation of interstellar dust: a bit of matter in an abyss of anti-matter.” His oceans are infinite spaces where numerous meanings intersect. Elsewhere sketchbooks have been laid out in glass vitrines. Covered in Euclidean geometrical forms, like the workings of some desperate alchemist, they seem to be attempting to impose meaning on what is random and chaotic.
Upstairs is a separate but connected series of small scale works that takes its title I hold all the Indias in my hand from the seventeenth-century poet Spanish poet Fransisco de Quevedo, in which the poet writes of a man holding a ring that contains the portrait of his lover. Here Kiefer places himself centre stage and can be seen a lone bobbing figure cast adrift in a vast expanse of ocean as if liberated from any moral or spiritual limits. It is as if he is literally ‘at sea’, the centre of his own perceived universe, but of little more importance than a single atom or a grain of sand. Borders have been swept away leaving only an eternal void. In the most poignant work we see his arm disappearing below the surface of the waves as if in a final supplication.
In The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin explored how artistic reproduction simulates industrial production. The fabricated work of art does not merely mimic the mass-produced object but actually becomes a commercial product whose worth resides in its exchange value as in Warhol’s silk-screened photographs or Damien Hirst’s multi-editions of spot paintings. Here all is surface and no depth. There are no shadows, no darkness; meaning is contained in commercial power rather than in metaphorical depth.
Kiefer has said that: “in all the pictures in my mind, not even the most expert analyst could discover anything like a general idea or the God of living things. And without that, there is nothing.” He has been criticised for being theatrical - and it is a dangerous line that he walks - for there is always the possibility of falling into bombast and bathos. Yet in this increasingly frightening and unfettered world we need artists like Kiefer; artists with a seriousness of intent and vision who dare to look at the dark undercurrents of the human psyche, who are prepared to face what is tragic rather than endlessly celebrating what is glib, slick and ephemeral. In his essay Reframing postmodernisms (1) Mark C. Taylor argues that abstraction in art, following Greenberg’s dictates on painterly purity, gradually became empty formalism, which through Pop art and other commercialised movements lead to ‘the death of God’, or to put it in a more secular way, the erasure of the Sublime from art. It is this territory that Kiefer investigates. Yet it is as if, in this postmodern, ironic world, we are all too often embarrassed by his earnestness.
- Reframing Postmodernisms. Mark C. Taylor from Shadow of Spirit Postmodernism and Religion. Routledge London and New York, 1992
Anselm Kiefer, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, 2011. Mixed media and gynaecological instrument on photographic paper. 42 1/8 x 128 3/4 x 3 15/16 in. (107 x 327 x 10 cm) © the artist. Photo: Charles Duprat. Courtesy White Cube
Anselm Kiefer, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, 2011.Mixed media and gynaecological instrument on photographic paper. 42 1/8 x 128 3/4 x 3 15/16 in. (107 x 327 x 10 cm) © the artist.Photo: Charles Duprat.Courtesy White Cube
Anselm Kiefer, I hold all the Indias in my hand, 2011.Mixed media on photographic paper.40 15/16 x 63 x 3 15/16 in. (104 x 160 x 10 cm) © the artist. Photo: Charles Duprat. Courtesy White Cube
Anselm Kiefer, I hold all the Indias in my hand, 2011.Mixed media on photographic paper. 40 15/16 x 63 x 3 15/16 in. (104 x 160 x 10 cm)© the artist. Photo: Charles Duprat. Courtesy White Cube
Willie Noir and the Consequences of Sin
By Fred Zackel
Didja hear that Senator John Ensign, the two-term Nevada Republican caught up in a sex and ethics inquiry, won’t run again?
As Carl Hulse of The New York Times reported it, “As I have learned through the mistake that I made, there are consequences to sin,” Mr. Ensign, 52, said at a news conference in Las Vegas as his wife, Darlene, stood at his side.
Hulse continued, saying:
“Once considered a future presidential contender, Mr. Ensign has seen his political fortunes plummet since he admitted in 2009 to an affair with a former campaign staffer who was also the wife of a top aide. A Senate Ethics Committee investigation, still under way, began after disclosures that Mr. Ensign’s parents paid $96,000 to the aide, Douglas Hampton, who also said the senator had helped him line up lobbying clients after Mr. Hampton left his Senate job.”
Like a lot of folks, I love reading noir. Watching interesting people make one dumb decision after another. Like watching them falling down a staircase, going faster and faster until they go splat.
Noir is Inexorable and doom is Inevitable.
Methinks, a noir protagonist thinks with his willie, or rather lets his willie think for him, and that dooms him.
“Heaven be damned! I’m gonna think with my willie!”
A small film crew went down to the Tough Town, the toughest part of the Cold City; they were slumming, hoping to get some gripping footage to shock and awe the straights who lived Uptown.
Blondie Fatale, femme lead in this low-budget indie flick, got snatched by some ignorant savages who needed a patsy to get the heat off them, and she got tossed into the dark shadows.
Harry Dick, the toughest monkey in Tough Town, saw her and fell for her goldie locks. Now, Harry Dick lacked all self-control; he'd kill you just as soon as look at you; he took what he wanted when he wanted it; he had zero morals, too; he was that kind of guy.
Anyway, he didn't rescue her. No, he snatched her up, didn't cut her loose, man-handled her and kept her in shackles, and took her to his pad to do with her whatever he wanted.
Before he gets to let his animal nature run amuck, she cuts herself free during the night and escapes, and then he goes after her.
Meanwhile some big teeth baddies are chasing her, too.
Only when he has to rescue her from some big-teeth baddies does he realize, hey, I like this Blondie Fatale. I want to set up housekeeping with her.
Her buddies from film school save her butt, and bring down Harry Dick, knock him flat on his keister, helpless, and then they decide to show him off to the straights that live Uptown.
But Harry Dick busts free, snatches the Blondie Fatale again, and wastes a bunch of straights on his way out of Uptown.
But the cops are on to him, too.
Cornered by John Law, Harry Dick gets blown away, and Blonde Fatale gets free.
King Kong is noir.
The moral of the story: The biggest testicles have the smallest brains.
Ask any woman. As the bumper sticker in Wyoming states, “If it’s got tires or testicles, you’re going to have trouble with it.”
Recently Matt Lauer of America’s The Today Show was publically accused by his Dutch-born model wife of having cheated on his wife. And the National Enquirer reports that the 52-year-old Lauer, the father of three, has moved out of the family home.
Bones star David Boreanaz, 40, is just one of the more recent Hollywood stars to confess that he has been unfaithful to his wife of nearly nine years, Jaime Bergman. Meanwhile an extra is suing that he made Promises to get her on the Casting Couch.
What’s going wrong?
Our society celebrates -– DEMANDS -- male self-control.
And noir is a morality tale about men who can’t control themselves.
A man enters the Universe of Noir when he lets his willie do his thinking for him.
Think Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Mark Foley. Newt Gingrich. John Edwards. Jesse James. And what was the name of that Congressman? Whadda mean, which one? The one the other day. No, yesterday’s. And now John Ensign throws in the towel.
Tiger Wood anybody?
Remember Tiger Woods’ “Confession?”
“I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.
“Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week, my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives. The stories in particular that physical violence played any role in the car accident were utterly false and malicious.
“But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions.”
The NY Times ran this transcript and within 36 hours the public made … 11,896 comments at the NYT website.
I sorta figured Tiger was just going through the Evolutionary Mandate: score with as many women as possible to pass on as many sets of his genes. Things today are different. Maybe Evolution got bumped by The Pill.
Just imagine: for the past dozen years, in every clubhouse across the country, some guy at the bar was leaning over to the next barstool, crudely saying, "If I were Tiger Woods, I'd be getting every piece of tail there was in the world!"
Guess what: Tiger was.
Now he's just one of the guys. Except he's a billionaire. Which means even with a bad pre-nupt agreement, he's okay for retirement. Hey, he can retire and move to Florida and spend every day playing golf.
Oh. Right. That’s what he’s doing now.
Oh, and the "pundits" in the media? Oh, they're routering his crotch like, like, like ... he committed a crime. Which ... he didn't. Unless adultery with a dozen or women is a crime.
What he did was a sin. In some people's eyes, anyways.
Now & then I get .... sorta religious. I always liked Jesus telling the adulterous woman, "Don't do it again, okay?" Just nobody here practices my form of Christianity. Oh well.
I'll bet not a single guy in this country envies Tiger today.
The most important part of these Clinton-Letterman-Woods-Ensign stories is not that these guys thought with their willie wonkas. Not that they thought they could get away with it, either.
The most important part is that they thought they could trust the Other Woman. Twitter twitter twitter ... iggle giggle wink wink nudge nudge.
"My life would have been so different if I hadn't taken off my underwear."
Eamon Casey, the former Archbishop of Galway, didn’t actually say that. But I bet he thought it.
For giggles, google Casey. He gives you good faith in religion as a moral compass, speaking of loose gimbals.
Check out the journalism book, “Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-The-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford,” by journalist Thomas DeFrank.
DeFrank writes, "(Jerry Ford) thought Bill Clinton had a serious addiction here and he needed help."
Bubba let his willie do his thinking in the White House.
What the hell was he thinking? Well, he wasn’t.
What was he thinking with? Ah, there’s the rub.
True fact: Monica never knew Bill was married. He never told him, the cad. That’s why Monica showed him her thong in the Oval Office. If she had known he was a married man--
Wait! Was the whole deal a set-up? Did the Femme Fatale frame Bill’s Willie?
How hard-boiled are you to hang onto a semen-stained dress?
How soon do you stop looking like an innocent and more like a blackmailer?
OMG! HER MOTHER WAS IN ON IT WITH HER!
Naw, that’s not how it happened.
The femme fatale is fatal to the willie.
Yoko Ono was a femme fatale. She broke up the band, right? She got John Lennon to pose naked for an album cover.
Noir is about morality, as John Ensign came to realize. The inevitability of the Denouement is, well, Judgment Day. I look at noir writers, and I see old-fashioned Old Testament religion oozing from them like January maple syrup.
Dashiell Hammett was a former Catholic, James Cain was a gloating Catholic, Mickey Spillane created the (Mike) Hammer of God, and so forth.
The Maltese Falcon is not at center a whodunnit, but a novel about people -- about one man, Sam Spade, especially -- caught up in a world of crime. It offers a peculiar point of view to accompany this vision, the detached-viewpoint story, where we never get into the head of any character. We are simply floating, invisible observers, and the narrator has disappeared.
We see and hear the events as they take place, as if we are present, but invisible in the room. This is not quite "the camera's eye." That's where the reader is allowed to see and hear only what a camera sees and a microphone hears. In The Maltese Falcon there are comments and interpretations. We become invisible observers in the room.
In The Maltese Falcon, murder is still represented as a game of Good versus Evil (although most of the violence is off-stage). The gamester here is the Ace of Spades, Sam himself. The ambiguity of his character is central to the story. In this world where all is corrupt, where all can be corrupted, Sam Spade knows the score.
"Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken."
Hammett created Spade, a blonde devil. Spade is also Sisyphus before Camus tinkered with the myth. The Falcon begins with Spade in his office and ends with Spade in his office.
And when Miles Archer, his partner, is killed, Sam Spade pushes himself squarely into the center arena and the struggle for the Black Bird (i.e., temptation.) He wheedles and cajoles and threatens and lies and taunts and bluffs to find out who killed Miles Archer.
Hammett's misdirection is marvelous. Archer's death very quickly becomes a subplot. Finding the Black Bird becomes the main plot. And yet once the Bird is found, Archer's death is resolved.
Spade describes his dead partner Archer:
"He was a sucker for women. His record shows that—the only falls he took were over women. And once a chump, always a chump."
The leopard can't change his spots.
Fantasy is about power. For men, it's the sword battle with the Dragon over the Maiden in Distress. Very Freudian. The dragon is the Authority Figure, the Maiden represents the Sexual Conquest, and the sword is the penis. The Quest is about getting your first sexual experience.
Women tell Quest stories, too, although minus the sword. The Bridal Quest. Wherein the woman watches (“witnesses”) the Male Quest to see if he might be suitable marriage material.
Probably the most obvious example of this was the 1985 movie Witness with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGinnis. Once we realize she is “witnessing” which suitor (Harrison Ford’s character or Alexander Godunov’s Amish counterpart) will be best for her and her eight-year-old boy.
Fifty percent of all books sold in the USA are romances. And I mean that in the old 13th century definitions. Adventures with marriage at the end of the book. Women are on the Bridal Quest to find a monogamous mate.
Pornography is about power, too. Male fantasies are great equalizers. Their "swords" perform with legendary adeptness. And the women in porn are dumb enough to agree: "Oh, how long your sword is!"
In real life most women recognize the irrational, unreasoning power of the fantasy, and they justifiably feel the threat.
(For a variation on the theme read a batch of the Coyote stories from Native Americans -- very anchored in sexual adventures and misadventures. See Coyote as Yuppie Stud: "Wanna see my sensitive side?" And the Old Women laugh at him. "Oh, that's just Coyote playing his tricks!")
But consider another ubiquitous fantasy, the Cinderella story: That fairytale has over 750 variations and is told in every culture in the world. You'll notice the Cinderella story is the secret story behind almost all of Oprah's monthly Book Club Choices. Hmmm. Wonder why??? Do you think Oprah sees herself as a Cinderella?
The story goes like this: Once upon a time -- that means it happened once in all time and will never happen this way again -- a girl relegated to being a Kitchen Bitch for her entire life gets help from her Fairy Godmother -- an old crone witch who befriends lonely single girls -- and Cinderella can now "bewitch" a Prince Charming -- who is so stupid, the only way he can tell women apart is by seeing their shoe size.
Think of Prince Charming. He wants a woman who fits the glass slipper.
In the original French version, the glass slipper was fur.
The furry slipper. Can she get her foot into the furry slipper?
He never saw his True Love’s face? What was he looking at?
Prince Charming is so dumb, he can't tell two women apart except by their feet?
Cinderella gets rich, moves to the castle, where she harasses all the Kitchen Bitches who didn't get lucky and find the Right Guy.
Look at the Maltese Falcon story again. Brigit O'S thought she was Cinderella. She thought all Prince Charmings are stupid fools who would walk up Burritt Alley with their tongues hanging out of their trousers.
Spade -- the Blonde Devil -- The Warlock? The Gamester? The Trickster? -- almost fell for it too.
Compare Brigit's description with the Woman playing dice with Death in the second boat of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They are identical! Both are archetypical. Both are myth.
"Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold,
Her skin was white as leprosy.
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thick's man's blood with cold."
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Imagine Sisyphus with a gun.
Is that a gun in your hand or do you love me?
Camus wrote The Stranger after he read The Postman Always Rings twice.
Spade's only moment of freedom is sending Brigit over. Archer was doomed; he thought with his willie. But Spade can transcend his willie. Temporarily.
Brigit counted upon Spade being just another guy who never stopped thinking with his willie.
How smart was Spade fouling his own nest by balling his partner's wife? Spade is nuts about pussy but a real wussy around women. Anytime he needs advice, he asks Effie first.
Spade KNOWS the only reason Archer died in Burritt Alley is because Archer talked faster than he did into taking on the new client and following her scent across the city.
Ah, the scent of a woman right up a blind alley.
Spade goes after Archer's killer because he recognizes HE should been the poor dumb slob dead with his gun in his holster.
Spade knows he is no match for a hungry Cinderella.
He strip-searches Brigit to see if she's carrying weapons.
Well, of course she is; all women got them.
Sam Spade's comment at the end: "Next, I've no reason in God's world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you'd have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to."
Oh, he's sweating, afraid, and desperate all right.
The ancient Greeks had a story about the wolf and the farmer's dogs. The wolf comes by the farmer's place, sees the farmer's dogs all running wild and jumping around the meadow, having the time of their lives, partying like crazy. The dogs see the wolf, come running over. "See how free and wild we are," the dogs all tell the wolf. The wolf doesn't say anything.
In truth, the wolf sees the collars on the dogs' necks.
The last lines of The Maltese Falcon read:
"Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost impreceptably. 'Yes,' he said, and shivered. "Well, send her in.'"
And the last thing Spade does in the book is "shudder" 'cause Archer's wife wants to see him. After that we get The Silence of the Lambs from Spade.
I think it was Esquire magazine some years ago who claimed Sam Spade was murdered on the very next page. Iva, of course.
Spade, the lone wolf. Thinking with his willie once too often.
That's noir, man.
Let’s turn on the news.
Let’s see who’s next to discover the consequences of sin.
How’s Tiger doing this weekend?
Maybe he just needs to get lucky.
New ways of looking at fossils
“You can see a lot just by looking.” --Yogi Berra
by George Wilkinson
The formation of a large body fossil is a complicated process involving rapid burial of the remains and chemical and physical interaction of the body with the forming rock bed. The final, discovered, fossil contains an amalgamation of chemical signatures of the original creature and of the bedrock in which it is embedded. Recent application of imaging methods derived from analytical chemistry has accentuated the composite nature of these fossil objects. If the fossilization process preserves the analyte in question, these methods can reveal structures that are not apparent in visible light, show the distribution of trace metals or biogenic compounds-- and of course, a positive result reflects on the fossilization process itself. These palaeometric methods further allow the team to map fossils non-destructively, which means they can take a fresh look at even precious or fragile specimens.
Ultraviolet light has been used for analysis of organic compounds and microscopic fossils for some time. Fossils from some rock beds will fluoresce under UV illumination, yielding a much greater contrast with the surrounding rock compared to visible wavelengths. Improvements in the ultraviolet illumination and in fluorescence detection have allowed the use of UV light to detect otherwise hidden features of fossils, including traces of soft tissues. In the example at the link, ultraviolet light imaging of a feathered non-avian dinosaur fossil was able to show preserved attachments between flight like feathers and the legs, raising the possibility that this creature glided using all four limbs. A great profile of Helmut Tischlinger, the scientist behind many ultraviolet spectrum images, is here.
Another of my favorite recent examples used synchrotron generated X-ray imaging to confirm that the fossilized impression of Archeopteryx feathers contains chemical residue of the feathers themselves. The outlines of the feathers were previously simply conceived of as deformations of the rock matrix, but these areas in fact have residual chemical signatures consistent with known composition of modern bird feathers. The shafts of the feathers show readily detectable phosphorous and iron signatures.
Finally, infrared imaging can reveal the presence of amides and thiols, remnants of proteins, within well preserved samples. Fossilized reptilian skin, but not fossilized leaves from the same rock bed, shows characteristic infrared absorption peaks—as does skin from modern amphibians.
The attractiveness of this body of work for me comes from both its analytical advances and its ability to render the resultant data in pictorial form. The idea of unsuspected information hiding in plain sight is intrinsically glamorous, whether in a detective show or a Dan Brown . Beyond that, the heavy presence of metaphors for sight and seeing in the language of discovery touches on an important feature of the human intellect.
Figure: Synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) map of the phosphorous distribution in an Archaeopteryx fossil. This map shows the splay of the rachises from the flight feathers (Blue Arrows) and the reconstructed areas (Yellow Arrows). Open access image from Bergmann et al. (see reference below).
Bergmann, U., Morton, R. W., Manning, P. L., Sellers, W. I., Farrar, S., Huntley, K. G., Wogelius, R. A. and Larson, P. Archaeopteryx feathers and bone chemistry fully revealed via synchrotron imaging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107, 9060-5.
Edwards, N. P., Barden, H. E., van Dongen, B. E., Manning, P. L., Larson, P. L., Bergmann, U., Sellers, W. I. and Wogelius, R. A. Infrared mapping resolves soft tissue preservation in 50 million year-old reptile skin. Proc Biol Sci.
Hone, D. W., Tischlinger, H., Xu, X. and Zhang, F. The extent of the preserved feathers on the four-winged dinosaur Microraptor gui under ultraviolet light. PLoS One 5, e9223.
Spoken For: On Dictation, Desire and an Elephant
by Mara Jebsen
" I deface the classroom walls and abuse french verse"
There's a shadowy black-and-white room crammed with schoolboys in Francois Truffaut's film 400 Blows. You've got to keep your eye on the boy who is not the principle character; the boy who is squinch-faced and clench-knuckled; the irrepressibly clumsy one whose inkpen just exploded. He rips out page after page of inky, sloppy copy and hides them beneath his desk. But all around, hypnotized, elbows crooked at identical angles, the other boys’ pens move in steady waves, drawn forward by the pull of the schoolmaster's voice.
At some point I'm about thirty and standing in a tweed skirt in front of a classroom in New York with a poem in my hands. "Stop all the clocks/Cut off the telephone" I say. W.H. Auden first penned these lines in England at least 40 years ago. Now, fifteen hands move in unison, following my voice and Auden's beautiful, long-dead mind.
I used to hate dictation. The first time someone tried to educate me that way it was in Lome, Togo, on the coast of West Africa, and in French, an impossible language I barely spoke. I was fourteen and I was introduced to the process not long after my American mother married a Togolese professor and we abandoned our apartment in Philadelphia to start life anew in Lome. The way I felt about French and dictation got mixed up in my mind with a conviction that something was horribly askew with all the grownups I met. Jokey, warm and tough, my new Togolese family seemed nevertheless to all have a headache. It was like they had had a headache since before I was born.
My teachers were similarly afflicted. I wish I could describe the expression of my French professor when she came upon my first page of dictation. She seemed offended right down in her gut by my panicky, phonetically interpretive loops! By the haphazard perversions of good french verse she’d so carefully delivered!
But now I like dictation. In a classroom, dictation can have a lovely, hypnotic effect. There's a respectful intimacy as all parties can find themselves possessed by the voice of a dead poet. A body begins painlessly to remember as it transcribes. In other contexts, dictation can be sexy. Think Madmen, all those secretaries. Dostoevsky, after all, married his stenographer. . .
Already, here is the elephant in the room. I didn't set out, at all, to write this this way. It’s all a mistake. I haven’t meant to talk about dictations at all, but about dictators. You see it is very difficult to interest others in a failed movement in West Africa in 1992!
But that is when mysterious forces set fires to buildings in Lome, and then suddenly my school, Ecole Montesquieu, shut down. The incident involved a certain Elephant, a dictator named Eyadema, whose puffy smug face I began to spot with increasing disfavor in the post offices, banks, shops, then everywhere. Really everywhere. He looked more like a bullfrog, but he got his name because it seemed he would live forever, and he was known not to forget.
Togo, by the way, is a little sliver of a country between Ghana and Benin which ought to be more infamous than it is, for it holds this title—it is the site of the first African coup and the site of the longest 'rule' by any African leader, a rule that began in 1967, not long after a beloved leader was shot by Eyadema.
By the time I arrived in 1992, pubescent, grumpy and homesick for central Philly, the Togolese people had really had enough. So the whole country went on strike.
I'll tell you very quickly what happened next. This is almost like a poem full of white spaces because there's not much I can write:
The Cancelled Year/ The White Year
1) Then the unpaved streets, and the paved ones, all went ghosty and hushed as every establishment, even the markets and orange-sellers, closed shop.
2) Civil disobedience was the model. Martin Luther King was invoked and it made sense.Families left the house fresh and tense for marches, candle-light vigils, only to be beaten with clubs and sprayed with tear gas.
3) Eight months passed like that.
4) European faces appeared on television, announcing the results of an election: "The Elephant" had been chosen by his subjects, who, it was to be supposed, must love him.
5) Ballot boxes on the side of the road, burning.
The thing I figured out even as a kid was that there weren't cameras like at the civil rights movement. No one could be brought to care, and so within a year, the dead were buried, hopes for real democracy in Togo suffered one of what was a series of thudding, horrible checks, and everything went back to the way it had been before. Except things felt creakier and heavier, and one could barely go an hour without thinking of that man.
I had the option to leave Togo when I was eighteen and I did. In was in New York when The Elephant died of natural causes and was replaced by his son. That was around the time I learned a trick to play with the dictating of poems from a friend. There was a twist. We played it like a game. You left out a word in the poem, and guessed, with your ear, what word went there. “Auden taught like this” he said. We could write the poem alongside Auden; compose with him. I was delighted. It was like dictation, but you could kind of talk back.
In “The Prolific and the Devourer" Auden says that a fascist's best trick is to convince the man-on-the-street that he's part of a family. This helps me understand why a dictator, through his attempts to forge an illusory personal relation, comes to remind you of that lover; the one who demands relentless assertions of loyalty, fear, and desire. He wants to imagine his people need his words, adore his very omniscience. He must be reassured he controls the imaginations, voices, pens, even the movements of the bodies of his subjects--and he insists, with a mania, to be indulged in the fantasy that they even like it.
People often ask me what it was like to live in Togo as a kid—particularly, I guess its interesting because I am white, and almost nobody else in that country is white. But I rarely get asked what it is like to grow up under the shadow of an Elephant. I keep trying to answer, anyway. I keep trying to write it down and this is all I’ve got so far:
Its like dictation gone wrong. Like being forced every day, every hour, to learn a script that your mind, your arm, your whole body resists. To take give or to take dictation is intimate--it is to speak for, to speak through and to be ‘spoken for’. The perversion of that intimacy, the way a ruler gets in the minds of his people and makes himself unforgettable, makes that great achey shadow that lies over Togo.
I've heard it said that memory is a minefield, but that seems dramatic. I'd say that a daily life can be booby-trapped. A panicky boy in a French film on Netflix, a lesson in dictation, and sometimes, news about other countries struggling for democracy, perhaps hoping for cameras and attention, all have the power to fling me back into the White Year, hard. I get the eerie sensation that though I think I've forgotten The Elephant, he has not forgotten me!
And when you dip into a prolonged memory of your childhood, looking up into your new life gives the world around a surreal edge. When I finish teaching, and rattle across the bridge into Brooklyn at night, Manhattan's identical rows of dazzling rectangles look like a picture pasted against the windows of the train; like a film being run alongside the subway car--and I have the spooky feeling that if I put my hand out the window, I'd puncture the screen. There'd be nothing there to touch.
by Kelly Amis
I was volunteering at a day-in-the-country event for low-income D.C. kids; Malik was one of many who had climbed on a bus that morning to spend a day chasing ducks, dipping his feet in a pool and eating lunch on a vast green lawn.
Malik had just turned five. He was ridiculously cute, with a round little head and huge dark-brown eyes. We hit it off, and at the end of the day the event director asked if I would be interested in becoming Malik’s “big buddy.” A short time later, it was official. We were buddies.
For the next few years, I spent two or three Sundays a month taking Malik, and usually his two sisters, all over the city, to parks, movies, the occasional heavily-negotiated museum. I had been a teacher and tutor before becoming Malik’s “big buddy,” but this program was less about academics and more about getting kids out of their neighborhood to have some fun and new experiences.
I had never thought to visit Malik’s school or meet his teachers, and was angry with myself for not doing so when I learned that he was in a special education class at school. I only discovered this because he happened to show me his class photo: there were only five or six children in it (a regular class would have had 24 or more) and one of them had Down’s Syndrome.
I tried to hide my dismay from Malik. I knew the Washington, DC school district was notorious for over-identifying students—especially black boys—as “special ed” but it had never occurred to me that Malik might be one of them. Why was this perfectly intelligent and capable little boy in what appeared to be a special-education-only class?
Malik’s mother (who assumed the school was doing what was best for him) gave me permission to investigate and helped me set up a meeting with his teacher.
The teacher was not thrilled to see me. With a folder that was clearly Malik’s sitting on the table beside her, she told me with a straight face that she hadn’t been able to access his files. She was very sorry, but she wouldn’t be able to tell me what Malik’s disability was or when it was identified. However, I should feel confident that the school only had Malik’s best interests at heart.
As she spoke, a teacher’s aide pulled up a chair, grabbed the folder and started silently flipping through it.
Finally I got up to leave; the conversation was going nowhere. I thanked the teacher for her time while I mentally planned to contact the district’s Special Education Office. The aide then closed the file, looked up at me and said, “You're right.” Malik had never been identified with a disability.
Malik was transferred into a regular classroom the next week. The story doesn’t end there, unfortunately, but I am sharing only this first chapter as an example of how African-American boys are treated by our education system, including by being regularly and disproportionately shifted into “special ed” instead of being properly taught and held to the same expectations as their peers. (Read here and here for grim statistics.)
It was random chance that I met Malik and had enough experience working in schools to see the red flag waving from that photo. Many other black boys remain trapped by the lower expectations our system holds for them.
See how this translates to the international context with our breakdown of recent PISA reading scores:
March 27, 2011
An Open Letter to the Left on Libya
Juan Cole in Informed Comment:
As I expected, now that Qaddafi’s advantage in armor and heavy weapons is being neutralized by the UN allies’ air campaign, the liberation movement is regaining lost territory. Liberators took back Ajdabiya and Brega (Marsa al-Burayqa), key oil towns, on Saturday into Sunday morning, and seemed set to head further West. This rapid advance is almost certainly made possible in part by the hatred of Qaddafi among the majority of the people of these cities. The Buraiqa Basin contains much of Libya’s oil wealth, and the Transitional Government in Benghazi will soon again control 80 percent of this resource, an advantage in their struggle with Qaddafi.
I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.
The United Nations-authorized intervention in Libya has pitched ethical issues of the highest importance, and has split progressives in unfortunate ways. I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here.
that old real sh*t
blood of a poet
Eighteen: Portraits of young Arabs living in Israel
Natan Dvir, an Israeli Jewish man, photographed and talked with 18-year-old men and women who are part of the minority Arab population that continues to live within a country that is largely defined by opposing religious beliefs.
Although I grew up and spent most of my photographic career in Israel, I came to realize I did not truly know or understand its Arab society — over a fifth of the population consisting of hundreds of thousands of families who stayed within Israel's borders after it was established in 1948. This large minority, which is currently experiencing a challenging identity crisis, has been somewhat forgotten amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a highly political environment, I became interested in the stories of these people living as a minority in a country defined by its majority's religion. I wish to confront and dispute the widespread misconceptions and stereotypes of the people within my own country who I was brought up to consider more as foes rather than as allies. I decided to focus on Arab men and women at the age of eighteen, a crucial turning point in their lives, when they complete school, become legal adults, and earn the right to vote. Yet unlike their Jewish peers, most do not join the military. By photographing and portraying my so-called “enemy”, I hope to highlight the impact that cultural and internal conflict have had on these young men and women both individually and collectively.
Feeling angry? Say a prayer and the wrath fades away
A series of studies showed that people who were provoked by insulting comments from a stranger showed less anger and aggression soon afterwards if they prayed for another person in the meantime. The benefits of prayer identified in this study don't rely on divine intervention: they probably occur because the act of praying changed the way people think about a negative situation, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. "People often turn to prayer when they're feeling negative emotions, including anger," he said. "We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally."
The power of prayer also didn't rely on people being particularly religious, or attending church regularly, Bushman emphasized. Results showed prayer helped calm people regardless of their religious affiliation, or how often they attended church services or prayed in daily life. Bushman noted that the studies didn't examine whether prayer had any effect on the people who were prayed for. The research focused entirely on those who do the praying. Bushman said these are the first experimental studies to examine the effects of prayer on anger and aggression. He conducted the research with Ryan Bremner of the University of Michigan and Sander Koole of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It appears online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and will be published in a future print edition.
The ‘A-Word’ in Hebron
Letty Cottin Pogrebin in Forward:
Since the 1970s, radical settlers have been reclaiming properties in Hebron that were owned by Jews prior to the establishment of the state in 1948. Today, there are signs everywhere proclaiming the settlers’ God-given right to the city, citing the words of the Torah (“The children have returned to their own border.” Jeremiah 31:17) and recalling the 1929 massacre of 66 Jews by their Arab neighbors.
I saw no mention of the 1994 massacre that took place at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli doctor, opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125. When the streets of Hebron erupted with rage, the Israel Defense Forces imposed a curfew on the Palestinians, confining them to their homes for all but a few hours a day to buy food.
First we’re massacred, then we’re punished, was the incensed Palestinian response. Why not put the Jewish extremists under curfew? Why does the burden of Jewish security always fall on us?