November 25, 2011
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha reviews Sylvia Nassar's Grand Pursuit—The Story of Economic Genius in Live Mint:
The man who first described economics as a dismal science was a defender of the slave trade. Thomas Carlyle, an English historian and writer in the 19th century, claimed that slavery was a superior institution to the market, and that the liberation of slaves in the Caribbean islands had led to the moral decline of “the Negroes”. He was attacked by economists such as John Stuart Mill for this bizarre argument. Adam Smith had written much earlier about the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher.
The human condition has been one of the central concerns of the best economists. Sylvia Nasar has chosen an opportune moment to remind us about this, at a time when economists have been criticized for being too engrossed in technical trivialities even as the world economy was rolling towards its deepest crisis in more than seven decades. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius is an ambitious book by a writer who won well-deserved praise for A Beautiful Mind, her dazzling biography of John Nash, the tormented genius who revolutionized game theory but then fell prey to schizophrenia.
Nasar starts her story with Charles Dickens rather than Adam Smith. “Political economy is a mere skeleton unless it has a little human covering and filling out,” Dickens wrote in the first issue of a magazine he edited. “A little human bloom upon it, and a little human warmth in it.” It was a call to humanize economics.
Dickens was writing at a time when economists took a dim view of human progress. The clergyman Thomas Malthus believed that extreme poverty was the inevitable situation of “nine parts in ten of the whole human race”. The sexual drive was at fault, said Malthus, as mindless procreation would ensure that the human population would tend to outstrip available food supply, with disease and famine helping to correct the imbalance. It was this dire prognosis that earned economics the moniker of being a dismal science. The economic historian James Henderson has argued that A Christmas Carol, the famous moral tale written by Dickens, with its descriptions of abundant food, is an attack on Malthus.
Habermas, the Last European
Georg Diez in Spiegel:
Jürgen Habermas is angry. He's really angry. He is nothing short of furious -- because he takes it all personally.
He leans forward. He leans backward. He arranges his fidgety hands to illustrate his tirades before allowing them to fall back to his lap. He bangs on the table and yells: "Enough already!" He simply has no desire to see Europe consigned to the dustbin of world history.
"I'm speaking here as a citizen," he says. "I would rather be sitting back home at my desk, believe me. But this is too important. Everyone has to understand that we have critical decisions facing us. That's why I'm so involved in this debate. The European project can no longer continue in elite modus."
Enough already! Europe is his project. It is the project of his generation.
Jürgen Habermas, 82, wants to get the word out. He's sitting on stage at the Goethe Institute in Paris. Next to him sits a good-natured professor who asks six or seven questions in just under two hours -- answers that take fewer than 15 minutes are not Habermas' style.
Usually he says clever things like: "In this crisis, functional and systematic imperatives collide" -- referring to sovereign debts and the pressure of the markets.
Sometimes he shakes his head in consternation and says: "It's simply unacceptable, simply unacceptable" -- referring to the EU diktat and Greece's loss of national sovereignty.
And then he's really angry again: "I condemn the political parties. Our politicians have long been incapable of aspiring to anything whatsoever other than being re-elected. They have no political substance whatsoever, no convictions."
It's in the nature of this crisis that philosophy and bar-room politics occasionally find themselves on an equal footing.
It's also in the nature of this crisis that too many people say too much, and we could definitely use someone who approaches the problems systematically, as Habermas has done in his just published book.
But above all, it is in the nature of this crisis that the longer it continues, the more confusing it gets.
Cigarettes May be Useful for Distance Runners?!? (or, How to Prove Anything with a Review Article)
Travis Saunders in Obesity Panacea:
Could smoking really be beneficial for distance runners like myself?
Here are Ken’s arguments:
1. Serum hemoglobin is related to endurance running performance. Smoking is known to enhance serum hemoglobin levels and (added bonus), alcohol may further enhance this beneficial adaptation.
2. Lung volume also correlates with running performance, and training increases lung volume. Guess what else increases lung volume? Smoking.
3. Running is a weight-bearing sport, and therefore lighter distance runners are typically faster runners. Smoking is associated with reduced body weight, especially in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (these folks require so much energy just to breath that they often lose weight).
In the discussion, Ken goes on to point out that:
Cigarette smoking has been shown to increase serum hemoglobin, increase total lung capacity and stimulate weight loss, factors that all contribute to enhanced performance in endurance sports. Despite this scientific evidence, the prevalence of smoking in elite athletes is actually many times lower than in the general population. The reasons for this are unclear; however, there has been little to no effort made on the part of national governing bodies to encourage smoking among athletes.
Now at this point I assume that people are wondering how something this insane came to be published in a respected medical journal (as of 2010, CMAJ was ranked 9th of out 40 medical journals, with an impact factor of 9). The answer, of course, is that the point of Ken’s article was to illustrate how you can fashion a review article to support almost any crazy theory if you’re willing to cherry-pick the right data.
Lynn Margulis, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 73
Bruce Weber in the New York Times:
Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose work on the origin of cells helped transform the study of evolution, died on Tuesday at her home in Amherst, Mass. She was 73.
She died five days after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, said Dorion Sagan, a son she had with her first husband, the cosmologist Carl Sagan.
Dr. Margulis had the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1988. She drew upon earlier, ridiculed ideas when she first promulgated her theory, in the late 1960s, that cells with nuclei, which are known as eukaryotes and include all the cells in the human body, evolved as a result of symbiotic relationships among bacteria.
The hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.
Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.
Post-Apocalyptic Cover Illustration | Timelapse
Letter From a Shortsighted Girl
My hushed voice cannot reach you
My shortsighted eye cannot see you.
Maybe it is better like this.
Today I didn't have too much to tell you
Just that in the afternoon I went out for a walk.
It started raining.
Kissing in the rain, what a silly cliché
I thought, as I was searching for a shelter.
If I put all my courage together I would have told you
that in the last year I have learned to miss you reasonably,
while remembering the traps of the happy days.
Otherwise, I would have spoken about traveling and books.
Once I had a dream about you.
You were writing our embraces
on a piece of my unwrinkled skin.
In the morning, you wrapped it back around my body.
Last week I bought a green sun umbrella and a lily,
and put them on the balcony, in the place where I like to read.
From there I can see the horizon, stretching its back like a cat
ready to jump into my lap.
I don't miss you. It is just me,
that I don't understand anymore.
'We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to'
From The Independent:
Daniel Kahneman, 77, is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his analyses of decision-making and uncertainty, developed with the late Amos Tversky. His work has influenced not only psychology and economics, but also medicine, philosophy, politics and the law. In his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains the ideas that have driven his career over the past five decades, providing an unrivalled insight into the workings of our own minds. Nicholas Nassim Taleb has called it "a landmark book in social thought".
"Fast" and "Slow" thinking is a distinction recognised in psychology under various names, such as system one [intuitive thought] and system two [deliberate thought]. The subtitle for my talks on the subject is: "The marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking." We act intuitively most of the time. System one learns how to navigate the world, and mostly it does so very well. But when system one doesn't have the answer to a question, it answers another, related question.
A study was done after there were terror incidents in Europe. It asked people how much they would be willing to pay for an insurance policy that covered them against death, for any reason, during a trip abroad. Another group of people were asked how much they would pay for a policy that covered them for death in a terrorist incident during the trip. People paid substantially more for the second than for the first, which is absurd. But the reason is that we're more afraid when we think of dying in a terrorist incident, than we are when we think simply of dying. You're asked how much you're willing to pay, and you answer something much simpler, which is: "How afraid am I?" Some students were asked two questions: "How happy are you?" and "How many dates did you go on last month?" If you ask the questions in that order, the answers are completely uncorrelated. But if you reverse the order, the correlation is very high. When you ask people how many dates they had last month, they have an emotional reaction: if they went on dates, then they're happier than if they went on none. So if you then ask them how happy they are, that emotional reaction is going on already, and they use it as a substitute for the answer to the question. On the most elementary level, what we feel is a story. System one generates interpretations, which are like stories. They tend to be as coherent as possible, and they tend to suppress alternatives, so that our interpretation of the world is simpler than the world really is. And that breeds overconfidence.
What Scientists Can Be Grateful for on Thanksgiving
Adam Ruben in Science:
At Thanksgiving, we identify the usual culprits. We’re thankful for family, we’re thankful for friends, we’re thankful for the food itself. We’re thankful that Farting Cousin Barry’s flight was delayed. But do we ever stop and express our appreciation for science? No, says Google: A search for “Thanksgiving science” yields only articles about whether turkey really makes you sleepy. So let’s do it now.
• We are thankful for our families who don’t flinch when we say that we need to go into the lab at midnight, even though the gist of this sentiment is that we’re choosing bacterial cultures over them.
• We are thankful that some branches of science have produced some pretty useful things, because their success allows the other branches to keep working on fun, pointless crap below the radar.
• We are thankful for the goggles that keep our eyeballs intact, albeit at the expense of long-lasting dark lines on our foreheads.
• We are thankful for the big words that make us sound smart.
• We are thankful that our profession inspires an entire branch of wonderfully inventive fiction.
• We are thankful to the funding agencies that support our research. Without them, we’d be at home experimenting on our cats.
• We are thankful for high-quality journals that allow us to share our advances with the world, like Science -- and there’s this other one, I think, a British one that starts with an “N”. Nurture? Neighbors? I don’t remember.
November 24, 2011
Religion's Truce with Science Can't Hold
One of the most tedious recurring questions in the public debate about faith has been "is religion compatible with science?" Why won't it just go away?
I'm convinced that one reason is that the standard affirmative answer is sophisticated enough to persuade those willing to be persuaded, but fishy enough for those less sure to keep sniffing away at it. That defence is that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.
The biologist Stephen Jay Gould made just this kind of move when he argued that science and religion have non-overlapping magisteria (noma). In Rock of Ages, Gould wrote that science deals with "the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry." In short, science is empirical, religion is ethical.
A version of this strategy was also adopted by the physicist John Polkinghorne and the mathematician Nicholas Beale in their book, Questions of Truth. As they put it: "Science is concerned with the question, How? – By what process do things happen? Theology is concerned with the question, Why? – Is there a meaning and purpose behind what is happening?"
It sounds like a clear enough distinction, but maintaining it proves to be very difficult indeed. Many "why" questions are really "how" questions in disguise.
The Minds of Machines
Namit Arora in Philosophy Now:
René Descartes held that science and math would one day explain everything in nature. Early AI researchers embraced Hobbes’ view that reasoning was calculating, Leibniz’s idea that all knowledge could be expressed as a set of primitives [basic ideas], and Kant’s belief that all concepts were rules. At the heart of Western rationalist metaphysics – which shares a remarkable continuity with ancient Greek and Christian metaphysics – lay Cartesian mind-body dualism. This became the dominant inspiration for early AI research. Early researchers pursued what is now known as ‘symbolic AI’. They assumed that our brain stored discrete thoughts, ideas, and memories at discrete points, and that information is ‘found’ rather than ‘evoked’ by humans. In other words, the brain was a repository of symbols and rules which mapped the external world into neural circuits. And so the problem of creating AI was thought to boil down to creating a gigantic knowledge base with efficient indexing, ie, a search engine extraordinaire. That is, the researchers thought that a machine could be made as smart as a human by storing context-free facts, and rules which would reduce the search time effectively. Marvin Minsky of MIT’s AI lab went as far as claiming that our common sense could be produced in machines by encoding ten million facts about objects and their functions.
It is one thing to feed millions of facts and rules into a computer, another to get it to recognize their significance and relevance. The ‘frame problem’, as this last problem is called, eventually became insurmountable for the ‘symbolic AI’ research paradigm. One critic, Hubert L. Dreyfus, expressed the problem thus: “If the computer is running a representation of the current state of the world and something in the world changes, how does the program determine which of its represented facts can be assumed to have stayed the same, and which might have to be updated?” (‘Why Heideggerian AI Failed and how Fixing it would Require making it more Heideggerian’).
GOFAI – Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence – as symbolic AI came to be called, soon turned into what philosophers of science call a degenerative research program – reduced to reacting to new discoveries rather than making them. It is unsettling to think how many prominent scientists and philosophers held (and continue to hold), such naïve assumptions about how human minds operate. A few tried to understand what went wrong and looked for a new paradigm for AI.
Tim Crane on Animal Minds
Over at Philosophy Bites:
What sort of thoughts can animals have? Tim Crane discusses the intriguing issue of what apes and monkeys are capable of thinking about in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.
Will Boast in The New York Times:
LAST Thanksgiving my girlfriend and I flew to Milwaukee to spend the long weekend with her parents and sister. Caitlin and I had been dating for over a year and a half, and I felt comfortable enough around her family. But things always got tough for me around the holidays, and it didn’t help that Caitlin’s family was so close, so affectionate, always hugging and teasing. Caitlin and I had just moved in together, and her mom — mildly religious and deeply sarcastic — had started referring to me as her “sin-in-law.” I’d told myself this trip was no big deal, but as soon as we set foot in the house, I started acting aloof and grouchy. At the table for the big meal, I could mumble only a brusque, impersonal thanks for “good food and hospitality.” “Lame,” Caitlin’s mom said, calling me out. “Boy, that was truly lame.” Later, doing the dishes, I dropped a glass Caitlin handed me and started shouting at her. When everyone went out to a movie, I stayed home. I went upstairs to Caitlin’s childhood room, pulled the covers over my head and sobbed.
...My family, too, was scuppered mid-journey. The summer before I went away to college, my mother was given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. When I came home for Thanksgiving, she was so far gone she didn’t even remember my name. At the table, I watched in gutsick horror as she drooled chewed-up turkey and cranberry sauce down her chin. After she died, my father and my younger brother went to war with one another, Dad threatening Rory with military academy and expulsion from the house if he didn’t shape up and quit drinking, smoking weed and staying out all night with friends. The next two Thanksgivings the three of us came together for the few hours it took to pick over a meal, but the only words I remember Dad actually addressing to Rory were “pass the bread sauce.” That winter, my brother was killed in a car accident, out with his buddies on their way to a party, and my father, shattered by grief, set to the business of drinking himself to death. Our last Thanksgiving together, just the two of us, he was too wasted to eat the meal he’d spent all day preparing. I spent the next seven holidays in seven different places, most often with friends and their families, as an extra guest at their tables, the English guy with the Midwestern accent, the guy without a family of his own.
What was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?
Today, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes any number of dishes: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. But if one were to create a historically accurate feast, consisting of only those foods that historians are certain were served at the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” there would be slimmer pickings. “Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there,” says Kathleen Wall. “These are absolutes.”
Two primary sources—the only surviving documents that reference the meal—confirm that these staples were part of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, wrote home to a friend: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.
if you're the planet's biggest dunce,
you can't repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.
I can't help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is that a flower or a rock?
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It's in its nature not to stay
Today is always gone tomorrow
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we're different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
Juan Cole: Top Ten Things Americans can be Thankful for
Juan Cole in Informed Comment:
5. Violent crime continues to decline in the United States, with violent crime and property crimes falling 6% in 2010, according to a recent FBI report. Murder, raper, robbery and other serious crimes have fallen to a 48-year low. Whatever the reason for the decline (which is country-wide, and, indeed, mirrored in Canada as well), it argues for repeal of those ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws that have filled up our prisons. The bad news: Americans say in opinion polls that they think crime is getting worse.
6. American democracy remains vital at the grass roots level, whether on the left or the right. The remarkable enthusiasm around the 2008 elections, the vitality of the 2010 congressional elections, the rise of the Tea Party and of Occupy Wall Street, student demonstrations and mobilizations for recalls and defeats of long-term incumbents– all of these developments point to a continued participatory democracy that is a good omen for the future.
7. American innovation and ingenuity remain strong in the face of challenges such as high petroleum prices and climate change from burning coal, gas and oil. Iowa now gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, and some close observers believe it could eventually go to 50% (as Denmark plans to do).
8. I know it seems as though it is a long way off, but it isn’t. India and Pakistan are taking serious steps to normalize their trade relations by the end of 2012. Anything that reduces tensions between the Asian giants is good for world peace (the US is a de facto ally of Pakistan and would likely get pulled in were relations to deteriorate).
Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Eric Idle in The New Yorker:
While it is perfectly obvious to everyone that Ben Jonson wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is less known that Ben Jonson’s plays were written by a teen-age girl in Sunderland, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of her existence, which is clear proof that she wrote them. The plays of Marlowe were actually written by a chambermaid named Marlene, who faked her own orgasm, and then her own death in a Deptford tavern brawl. Queen Elizabeth, who was obviously a man, conspired to have Shakespeare named as the author of his plays, because how could a man who had only a grammar-school education and spoke Latin and a little Greek possibly have written something as bad as “All’s Well That Ends Well”? It makes no sense. It was obviously an upper-class twit who wished to disguise his identity so that Vanessa Redgrave could get a job in her old age.
Many people believe that Richard III not only was a good man who would never hurt a fly but actually wrote “She Stoops to Conquer,” and that the so-called author, Oliver Goldsmith, found the play under a tree in 1773 while visiting Bosworth Field, now a multistory car park (clearly an attempt to cover up the evidence of the ruse). Oscar Wilde’s plays were written by a stable boy named Simon, though Wilde gave them both a good polish. Chaucer was written by a Frenchman on holiday, while Simone de Beauvoir wrote all of Balzac and a good deal of “Les Misérables,” despite the fact that she was not yet born when she did so. Beau Brummell wrote nearly all of Jane Austen, and two men and a cat wrote most of Charles Dickens, with the exception of “A Tale of Two Cities,” which Napoleon wrote while visiting St. Helena. Incidentally, Napoleon was not Napoleon but a man named Trevor Francis, who later turned up playing for Birmingham City.
More here. [Thanks to Maeve Adams.]
Frans de Waal - Morality without Religion
Pakistan: The Ally From Hell
Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic:
Much of the world, of course, is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable and violent country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. It is perfectly sensible to believe that Pakistan might not be the safest place on Earth to warehouse 100 or more nuclear weapons. These weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country (possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted Osama bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen). Western leaders have stated that a paramount goal of their counterterrorism efforts is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of jihadists.
“The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said last year at an international nuclear-security meeting in Washington. Al-Qaeda, Obama said, is “trying to secure a nuclear weapon—a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Pakistan would be an obvious place for a jihadist organization to seek a nuclear weapon or fissile material: it is the only Muslim-majority state, out of the 50 or so in the world, to have successfully developed nuclear weapons; its central government is of limited competence and has serious trouble projecting its authority into many corners of its territory (on occasion it has difficulty maintaining order even in the country’s largest city, Karachi); Pakistan’s military and security services are infiltrated by an unknown number of jihadist sympathizers; and many jihadist organizations are headquartered there already.
November 23, 2011
India in the Time of Gandhi
Dhirendra K Jha in Open the Magazine:
History, or certainly its interpretation, is always fraught with risk, but it would seem that one crucial episode of Indian history, the events leading up to the annexation of Hyderabad and the years immediately after, should have been studied well enough for there to be little reason for controversy. But the position taken by Ramachandra Guha in a recent debate with Prakash Karat that unfolded on the pages of Caravan magazine suggests that neither are the facts of the episode known well enough, nor are their interpretations anywhere near settled.
While the debate between the two has more to do with the contemporary situation of the Indian Left, Guha has managed to roil the Left with his controversial remark relating to the Communist-led peasant rebellion that swept through the Telangana portion of Hyderabad princely state at the dawn of Independence. The uprising against the Nizam’s autocratic regime began in 1946. Though the Nizam surrendered to the Union in September 1948 when the Indian Army entered Hyderabad, the peasant rebellion against landlords continued and was formally withdrawn by Communists only in October 1951. For almost a year after India’s independence, the Nizam did his utmost to block Hyderabad’s accession to the Union. Around the middle of 1947, the Nizam, fearful of losing control, sought to play the Muslim card; at his behest, Kasim Razavi, president of the Majlis-i-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, created a paramilitary body of Islamic supremacists called Razakars. The Ittehad and its corps of Razakars started a reign of terror to keep Hyderabad an independent Islamic state and the Nizam its representative and symbol of sovereignty.
What Guha wrote in his reply to Karat, published in the November 2011 issue of Caravan, was this: ‘These Islamic supremacists (Razakars) came to the fore in the middle of 1947, whereupon they advised the Nizam not to join the Indian Union. This was a demand the communists were sympathetic to, since they thought an independent Hyderabad would be more congenial to a Leninist revolution.’
The Exceptional Life and Ignominious Death of Angelo Soliman
Prospero in the Economist:
ANGELO SOLIMAN is probably best known in his fictional incarnation as the disgraced African servant boy in “The Man Without Qualities”, Robert Musil’s novel about the end of the Austrian monarchy. The real Soliman mixed in Vienna’s high society. His ignominy came in death rather than life.
Soliman, the subject of an exhibition at the Wien Museum in Vienna, arrived in Austria as a slave from western Africa, where he was born in 1721. There was a fashion for "House Moors" at this time and Soliman was apparently an exceptional man. He acted as a soldier and adviser in one princely household and then came to Vienna in 1753 to serve as a valet and tutor in another. There were some 40 African inhabitants of Vienna in the 18th century—many of them noble servants like Soliman. He successfully integrated into Austrian society, joining an elite Free Mason’s lodge to which Mozart belonged and strolling in the capital’s tree-lined Augarten with Emperor Joseph II.
In modern terms, he might be seen as the perfect immigrant. But after he died his stuffed skin was put on display in the imperial natural history collection, a fate that reflected a deep ambivalence towards nonwhites. In Vienna this ambivalence continues to this day, as illustrated in a video in the exhibition of interviews with Africans now living in the Austrian capital.
“Soliman: An African in Vienna” devotes as much attention to this racial context as to the former slave’s life. Pictures, documents and household objects from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries portray Africa and the Orient as both frightful and fascinating. African men are depicted as savages, docile servants or courageous fighters in the Ottoman armies that besieged Europe’s south-eastern flank.
The Failure Addict
It takes a special kind of self-absorption to believe that your failures will fascinate — a need to be loved not for your talents but despite them. John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and the Papas — the 1960s quartet that rode a string of deceptively sunny-seeming radio hits to become icons of hippie hedonism — exemplified this species of celebrity narcissism. Gifted but irretrievably dissolute, Phillips had always seemed more interested in romanticizing failure and squandering talent than applying his ample supply of it with any consistency. Even in his chart-ruling heyday, he seemed perversely, persistently drawn to themes of disappointment, betrayal, and regret (albeit cleverly masked by resplendent harmonies and catchy melodies). The Mamas and the Papas’ hits are preoccupied with ennui, broken relationships, and futile fantasies of escape: California dreaming on such a winter’s day. The first Mamas and the Papas album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966) went to the top of Billboard’s album chart and spawned several hits, including “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’,” which have become durable folk standards. And already, on the group’s second album, rushed out later that year to capitalize on the band’s momentum, Phillips was exuberantly singing, “I can’t wait to let you down.”more from Rob Horning at The New Inquiry here.
Why the Germans? Why the Jews?
The Prussian reforms of 1808 to 1812 granted all citizens freedom of trade, and put an end to serfdom and what until then had been utterly unchecked arbitrariness towards the Jews. The Jews were still only allowed to become public servants in exceptional cases and certainly never officers in the military, but unlike the Christian majority, they made the most of the new opportunities. They emancipated themselves and at high speed. Germany, with its half-hearted reformism, sluggish economic development (until 1870), and strong legal security provided a fertile ground. To top it all, Germany had some of the best Gymnasiums and universities in Europe, as well as some of the worst primary education. Unlike the majority of their Christian and still largely illiterate peers, Jewish boys as a rule had always been taught to read and write Hebrew. Their parents did not put silver spoons in their cradles, but all manner of educational nourishment. Jewish parents knew exactly how much cultural skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic would improve their children's chances, whereas Christian parents and clerics were still claiming, right up into the 20th century, that "reading is bad for the eyes!"more from Götz Aly at Sign and Sight here.
this quiet, vexing show
Imagine it’s 1981. You’re an artist, in love with art, smitten with art history. You’re also a woman, with almost no mentors to look to; art history just isn’t that into you. Any woman approaching art history in the early eighties was attempting to enter an almost foreign country, a restricted and exclusionary domain that spoke a private language. Merely the act of creating art while female, in this atmosphere, was insurrectionary. How to love art without killing yourself or acquiescing to the rules of the game? How to get around, burrow under, enter, or blow up those apparently impervious walls? The late painter Elizabeth Murray rightly observed, “Seeing historically belongs to the guys … The greatest part about being a woman … is that I’m not really a part of [that art history]. I can do whatever I want.” Sherrie Levine’s tightly controlled, academically stringent, sometimes stultifying survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art shows how one artist from this generation cross-examined art history, reveled in it, and smashed it against the windshield of her anger. Levine’s subtle Swiftian thrashing of and love affair with the patriarchal canon are everywhere in this show. Her strategy was simple and not entirely novel. At the time, in the wake of Warhol, Pop, and conceptual art, numerous artists were investigating appropriation and representing culture, critically, satirically, and otherwise. It was an ism that quickly ran rampant. However, instead of rummaging through movies and magazines, as her far more lauded, much higher-priced colleague Richard Prince did (and still does), Levine tunneled into the storehouse of modern-art history, making obvious copies—bigger, smaller, in different materials—of work by Courbet, Mondrian, Brancusi, Léger, and many others.more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.
Pepper Spray and the Weaponization of Food
From The Village Voice:
Sure, I'm pissed when the cops hose demonstrators with pepper spray, not only because they're setting out to illegally deprive peaceful people of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, but because they're doing it with a food product that might otherwise give culinary pleasure. What food will be used to harass us next? Here are five possibilities for weaponizable edibles.
1. Durian - Man, if you launch one of those big bumpy suckers via a giant slingshot into a peaceful sit-in, just watch as the protesters scatter, screaming and nearly vomiting. Kinda like nerve gas. And the puke will provide justification to send in the Sanitation Department again for "hygenic reasons."
2. Cabernet Sauvignon Vinegar - Put this incredibly strong acid in the hoses and point them at those OWS wusses, and they'll be weeping the moment it gets into their eyes. Save the run-off for a vinaigrette to be used by Bloomberg's private chef.
3. Okra Slime - Put this stuff in baggies, throw it at the feet of protesters. They'll be slipping and sliding, and won't be able to escape from the truncheon-swinging cops.
(Picture: An ancient Roman sling and a very ripe durian could have cleared Zuccotti Park faster and at a fraction of the cost being wasted on pepper spray.)
The psychological science behind an oops moment
Over the last week or so, the phrase “brain freeze” has taken on a new meaning and caused a bit of media frenzy – first over Rick Perry’s debate flub on television, followed immediately by Herman Cain’s floundering on a question. A moment like this can happen to the best of us, whether it is captured live on national television or in private. The media has focused extensively on these two politicians and their momentary lapses in memory, but perhaps it is time to examine the psychological science of these kinds of brain-freeze moments and why they occur. “The human memory system is characterized by a virtually unlimited storage capacity that is coupled with retrieval processes that are fallible and probabilistic; in fact, most of what is stored in our memories is not retrievable at any given time in any given situation,” says Robert A. Bjork, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. This is usually a good thing, he notes, because we need to be able to keep our memories current. “There is an adaptive side to our retrieval limitations, but retrieval failures can nonetheless be very embarrassing,” Bjork explains. Though these brain freeze moments might have evoked much laughter and ridicule, Bjork says that some sort of sympathy might be in order as memory retrieval failures occur on an increasingly frequent basis as people age – not only because there are cognitive deficits that accompany aging, but also because people constantly accumulate information as they age, thus making the task of recalling information more difficult as they become older. However, Bjork agrees that Perry’s and Cain’s memory failures are somewhat embarrassing, though for somewhat different reasons.
“In Perry’s case, it is embarrassing because eliminating those three departments is part of his platform, so his retrieving the names of those three departments and what they are responsible for should have been highly practiced. It would not have been surprising, perhaps, had he recalled an inexact—but semantically correct—name of one of those departments, but his drawing a complete blank was surprising. In Cain’s case, his memory failure was less surprising, but perhaps more embarrassing, because it appeared to reflect a lack of encoding the information in the first place,” says Bjork.
Languages, like genes, can tell evolutionary tales
Bruce Bower in Science News:
Talk is cheap, but scientific value lurks in all that gab. Words cascading out of countless flapping gums contain secrets about the evolution of language that a new breed of researchers plan to expose with statistical tools borrowed from genetics.
For more than a century, traditional linguists have spent much of their time doing fieldwork — listening to native speakers to pick up on words with similar sounds, such as mother in English and madre in Spanish, and comparing how various tongues arrange subjects, verbs, objects and other grammatical elements into sentences. Such information has allowed investigators to group related languages into families and reconstruct ancestral forms of talk. But linguists generally agree that their methods can revive languages from no more than 10,000 years ago. Borrowing of words and grammar by speakers of neighboring languages, the researchers say, erases evolutionary signals from before that time.
Now a small contingent of researchers, many of them evolutionary biologists who typically have nothing to do with linguistics, are looking at language from in front of their computers, using mathematical techniques imported from the study of DNA to wring scenarios of language evolution out of huge amounts of comparative speech data.
These data analyzers assume that words and other language units change systematically as they are passed from one generation to the next, much the way genes do. Charles Darwin similarly argued in 1871 that languages, like biological species, have evolved into a series of related forms.
And in the same way that geneticists use computerized statistical approaches to put together humankind’s family tree from the DNA of living people and a few long-dead individuals, these newcomers can generate family trees, called phylogenies, for languages.
Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Melvin Konner in the New York Review of Books:
It is possible to see Hrdy’s most recent book, Mothers and Others, as the third in a trilogy that began with The Woman That Never Evolved. It may be the most important. As she demolished, in the first, the idol of an evolved passive femininity, and in the second, the serene, always giving maternal goddess, in her third synthetic work she takes on another cultural and biological ideal: the mother who goes it alone. In our once male-dominated vision of evolution, we had the lone brave man, the hunter with his spear, and the lone enduring woman nurturing her young beneath the African sun; they made a deal, the first social contract, exchanging the services each was suited to by genetic destiny.
Hrdy has not been alone in challenging this myth. A conference and book edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, although it was called Man the Hunter, showed that women brought in half or more of the food of hunter-gatherers by collecting vegetables, fruit, and nuts.3 This meant that, given the unpredictability of hunting success and the human need for plant foods, the primordial deal between the sexes was rather more complex than we thought. It also suggested that women had power in these societies; that men listened to them and decisions were made by consensus, not by male fiat as in more complex, hierarchical societies.
Stephen Fry, Sean Penn, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Buckley, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis in a tribute to Christopher Hitchens
The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago
John Plotz in Slate:
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to read like the dead. Not just to read dead authors—something a little bit creepier. Yes, I am aware that recapturing the actual experiences of long-ago readers is impossible, like visiting Mars or traveling in time. Still, I can’t help reading inscriptions, plucking out old bookmarks, decoding faded marginalia. I catch myself wondering who was reading this a century ago, and where, and why?
So when I learned about What Middletown Read, a database that tracks the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902, I had some of the same feelings physicists probably have when new subatomic particles show up in their cloud chambers. Could you see how many times a particular book had been taken out? Could you find out when? And by whom? Yes, yes, and yes. You could also find out who those patrons were: their age, race, gender, occupation (and whether that made them blue or white collar, skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled), and their names and how they signed them.
What Middletown Read is based on an incredible trove of unprepossessing ledger books found in an attic during the renovation of Muncie’s 1904 library, and brought to light by Ball State University English Professor Frank Felsenstein. “Middletown,” if you’re wondering, is Muncie’s academic drag-queen name: Ever since the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a pathbreaking pair of books about the city (Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937) the place has been awash in social scientists studying its every move; this database is in fact part of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies.
November 22, 2011
How Italy's Democracy Leads to Financial Crisis
Jonathan Hopkin in Foreign Affairs:
The replacement of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, last week marks a new stage in the European financial crisis. Along with bond values, the crisis now seems to be wiping out democratically elected governments. Faced with unbearable market pressure, Italian politicians have opted to hand power to technocrats, expecting that they will somehow enjoy greater legitimacy as they impose painful measures on an angry population. This will not work.
On one level, Italy's problems are less acute than those facing the region's other troubled economies. Its economic structure, which is based on a large manufacturing sector focused on exporting high-value products, has more in common with Germany than with Greece. The country has unparalleled cultural riches, a highly educated population, and a strong tradition of entrepreneurship. And despite its apparently dysfunctional institutions, Italy remains the eighth-largest economy in the world. On another level, Italy's problems are huge. Its debt-to-GDP ratio is massive; it has now reached 119 percent (although no one batted an eye when the ratio was 121 percent ten years ago). The markets seem convinced that its recent sclerotic growth has made the debt level unsustainable without structural reform. External observers have come up with long lists of such reforms, which, they argue, Monti will be able to implement quickly.
If things were that simple, however, Italians would have voted for someone like Monti in the first place. If anything, the last two decades have shown that there are no quick technocratic fixes for the Italian political economy.
Weber for the 21st century
Richard Madsen reviews Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution in The Immanent Frame:
For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. There is enough complexity in Bellah’s work to generate as many academic inspirations and controversies—and, inevitably, oversimplifications and misunderstandings—as have arisen from Weber’s, but Bellah’s will have more resonance with contemporary issues than Weber’s century-old scholarship. Even more fundamental, however, is that Bellah’s new book is in style and pathos more in tune with the spirit of the early twenty-first century than Weber. What are some of the key contrasts between Bellah and Weber? First of all, having deeply absorbed the perspectives of Durkheim, Bellah is focused much more on religious practice, especially ritual practice. This puts him in line with the dominant contemporary trends in the anthropology of religion, trends that see religions mainly as ways of life rather than systems of ideas. Weber doesn’t ignore religious practices, but puts much more emphasis on the ideas that animate the great world religions. Bellah by no means ignores religious ideas, but he emphasizes how thinking about religion grows out of doing religion.
This emphasis on practice leads to a different style of exposition than Weber’s. Much more than Weber’s (or Durkheim’s or Parsons’), Bellah’s expository style is dominated by narrative. Religion in Human Evolution is a grand story, what Bellah calls a “deep history,” that extends all the way from the Big Bang to the axial age (with suggestive implications as to how the story will unfold in modern times). This leads to a much more fluid account of the origin and development of religions than Weber’s. In Bellah’s telling, religious practices emerge gradually over centuries, in constant interaction with social and political transformations.
The Euro and the Resilience-Stability Tradeoff
Ashwin Parameswaran over at Macroeconomic Resilience:
In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.
The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.
Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.
the united states of europe
Welcome to Europe, 2021. Ten years have elapsed since the great crisis of 2010-11, which claimed the scalps of no fewer than 10 governments, including Spain and France. Some things have stayed the same, but a lot has changed. The euro is still circulating, though banknotes are now seldom seen. (Indeed, the ease of electronic payments now makes some people wonder why creating a single European currency ever seemed worth the effort.) But Brussels has been abandoned as Europe's political headquarters. Vienna has been a great success. "There is something about the Habsburg legacy," explains the dynamic new Austrian Chancellor Marsha Radetzky. "It just seems to make multinational politics so much more fun." The Germans also like the new arrangements. "For some reason, we never felt very welcome in Belgium," recalls German Chancellor Reinhold Siegfried von Gotha-Dämmerung. Life is still far from easy in the peripheral states of the United States of Europe (as the euro zone is now known).more from Niall Ferguson at the WSJ here.
this last intransigence of modernism
The word ‘blur’ has come up. ‘Richter’s blur’, it is called in the literature. Again, the term may be insufficient. When one gets to the moment in the show when Richter reinvents his ‘blur’ in the context of abstract painting – the two versions of Abstraktes Bild from 1977 are particularly astonishing, and still hard to look at – it is immediately clear how far from a description of what happens in the paintings, and what its effect might be on the viewer, the monosyllable is. Critics have come up with alternatives. In the context of abstraction – that strange episode in art’s endgame – all the suggestions seem charged. Have we to do, for instance, with some kind of deliberate loss of focus or of register? Maybe with a form of willed inaccuracy on the artist’s part. Or even vagueness. This last, it might seem, is very much not a modern art value; though that might mean Richter was right to try to make it one. I like the story Richard Rorty told against himself late in life, when he heard that a philosophy department had just hired someone whose speciality was vagueness, and he raised an eyebrow. ‘Dick, you’re really out of it,’ his host said. ‘Vagueness is huge.’more from T.J. Clark at the LRB here.
deception starts with self
Deception is a very deep feature of life. Viruses practise it, as do bacteria, plants, insects and a wide range of other animals. It is everywhere. Even within our genomes, deception flourishes as selfish genetic elements use deceptive molecular techniques to over-reproduce at the expense of other genes. Deception infects all the fundamental relationships in life: parasite and host, predator and prey, plant and animal, male and female, neighbour and neighbour, parent and offspring. Viruses and bacteria often actively deceive to gain entry into their hosts: for instance, by mimicking body parts so as not to be recognised as foreign. Or, as in HIV, by changing coat proteins so often as to make mounting an enduring defence almost impossible. Predators gain from being invisible to their prey or resembling items attractive to them - a fish that dangles a part of itself like a worm to attract other fish, which it eats - while prey gain from being invisible to their predators or mimicking items noxious to the predator. Deception within species is expected in almost all relationships, and deception possesses special powers.more from Robert Trivers at The New Statesman here.
From The Weekly Standard:
As a reader who has compulsively consumed the ever-expanding body of Beatles literature for 40 years, I have trouble picking out a favorite anecdote or most memorable quote. Is it John’s “If there is such a thing as a genius, I am one”? Or the note Paul sent John one day in the waning days of the group: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot s—”? Or maybe it’s the time an airline stewardess offered George a glass of wine, not knowing he was deep in meditation. “F— off,” the spiritual Beatle replied.
I don’t know. I could go on with stories like this all day. None of them involve Ringo, by the way.
Given the vastness and variety of the literature, it would be incorrect to say that the Beatles story has been whitewashed, not when it includes so many get-even tell-alls and book-sized sumps of sensational gossip. But there is a quasi-official version of events, and when it is reissued periodically from the tireless Beatles public relations machine, the narrative does tend to take on the unblemished pallor of approved history. For 50 years the Beatles have been the rock group you could take home to meet Mom, and nobody close to their stupendous commercial enterprise seems eager to undo the image.
(no signals have been picked up yet),
as long as Earth is still unlike
the nearer and more distant planets,
of other grasses graced by other winds,
of other treetops bearing other crowns,
other animals as well-grounded as our own,
as long as only the local echo
has been known to speak in syllables,
of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons somewhere,
are still committed only between humans,
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,
still pass for the only heads so packed,
still raise voices to high heavens--
at the district-firemen's ball
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it's the ball
to end all balls.
for me this is
misery and happiness enough:
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us
by Wislawa Szymborska
from Monologue of a Dog: New Poems
translation: C. Cavanagh and S. Baranczak
A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day
Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:
The most psychologically correct holiday of the year is upon us. Thanksgiving may be the holiday from hell for nutritionists, and it produces plenty of war stories for psychiatrists dealing with drunken family meltdowns. But it has recently become the favorite feast of psychologists studying the consequences of giving thanks. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury. But what if you’re not the grateful sort? I sought guidance from the psychologists who have made gratitude a hot research topic. Here’s their advice for getting into the holiday spirit — or at least getting through dinner Thursday:
Start with “gratitude lite.” That’s the term used by Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, for the technique used in his pioneering experiments he conducted along with Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. They instructed people to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something they’d learned, a sunset they’d enjoyed. The gratitude journal was brief — just one sentence for each of the five things — and done only once a week, but after two months there were significant effects. Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.
Parrondo’s Paradox: Winning Two Games You’re Guaranteed to Lose
JM Parrondo is a casino and con artist's worst nightmare. In the 1990s, he invented two games that are sure to lose you everything. They're both mathematically designed to make you go broke, but play them one after another and you are guaranteed to win.
Parrondo's Paradox was dreamed up in the 1990s by physicist Juan Manuel Rodriguez Parrondo. It spawned a whole new approach to games — specifically, a distrustful approach to games by those who were sure the odds were stacked in their favor. The paradox is simple: two games, if played separately, will always result in you losing your shirt. They're played with a biased coin to make sure of it. If you switch off between them, though, you'll win a fortune. Suddenly, your loss turns into a win.
The first game is simple and always the same. You flip a coin, knowing that the two-faced, lying, no-good cheater you're playing against has weighted it so that your chance of winning is not fifty-fifty. Instead your chance of winning is (0.5 - x), with x being whatever the cheater dared weight it with. If you win, you get a dollar. If you lose, you lose a dollar. Since whenever "x" is more than zero you'll lose slightly more than you'll win, you are guaranteed to lose over the long run.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race
The Presidential Turkey "Pardon" as Dark Parody
Justin E. H. Smith in the New York Times:
In just a few days, we will once again endure the annual spectacle of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey that would otherwise have been fated for the Thanksgiving table. This event is typically covered in the media as a light-hearted bit of fluff — and fluff is what it might well be, if there were not actual humans on death row awaiting similar intervention. In the current American context, however, the turkey pardon is a distasteful parody of the strange power vested in politicians to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners. There is in it an implicit acknowledgment that the killing of these prisoners is a practice that bears real, non-jocular comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds for feasts.
I am not saying that this slaughter of birds for food is wrong ― not here anyway ― but only that the parallel the presidential ritual invites us to notice is revealing. To riff on Dostoyevsky’s famous line about prisoners: you can tell what a nation is like by the way it treats its turkeys. Obama’s pardoning of one randomly selected bird at Thanksgiving not only carries with it an implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. It also involves an implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged
Mona El-Ghobashy in the Boston Review:
A revolution is inherently romantic, so it’s no surprise that Egypt’s has inspired exceptional narratives. Journalists saw something fundamentally novel in the eighteen days and the subsequent small-scale protests—“a new culture of street demonstrations,” said USA Today. The uprising became the defining event of Egyptian politics, a turning point separating before and after. Before, a brutal dictatorship maintained fear and silence. After, liberated citizens poured into the streets to exercise their freedom.
Against this temptation to cast the uprising as a watershed is the equally attractive idea that Egypt was ripe for revolt. In this telling, various public ills—rising food prices, unemployment, government corruption—are strung together into a neat chain that leads inexorably to social explosion.
But neither story does the revolution justice. The first erases the uprising’s pre-history; the second overdoses on the role of the past. Both conceal the very real contingency of the event, neither inevitable nor entirely alien to Egyptian politics.
Egypt’s was no cartoon dictatorship that indiscriminately banned protests. For at least a decade before Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were doing their politics outdoors. Citizens assembled daily on highways, in factory courtyards, and in public squares to rally against their unrepresentative government. Mubarak’s regime responded with a million-man police force that alternately cajoled and crushed the demonstrators. The goal was not to ban protests, but to obstruct any attempt to unify different groups and prevent sympathetic bystanders joining them.
Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged.
November 21, 2011
Stephen M. Walt to Judge 3rd Annual 3QD Politics & Social Science Prize
UPDATE 12/19/11: The winners have been announced here.
UPDATE 12/12/11: The finalists have been announced here.
UPDATE 12/11/11: The semifinalists have been announced here.
UPDATE 12/5/11: Voting round now open. Click here to see full list of nominees and vote.
Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,
We are very honored and pleased to announce that Professor Stephen M. Walt, who was also the winner of the 3QD politics prize last year, has agreed to be the final judge for our 3rd annual prize for the best blog writing in politics & social science. (Details of the inaugural prize, judged by Tariq Ali, can be found here, and more about last year's prize, judged by Lewis H. Lapham can be found here.) Please note that we have explicitly widened the scope of possible entries to "politics & social science" so that writings in anthropology, economics, history, and sociology are also elligible.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006. He previously taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago, where he was Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, and co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.
Professor Walt is the author of numerous articles and books on international relations, security studies, and U.S. foreign policy. His books include The Origins of Alliances, which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award, and Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy, which was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber International Affairs Book Award and the Arthur Ross Book Prize. His most recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (co-authored with John J. Mearsheimer) was a New York Times best-seller and has been translated into twenty foreign languages. His daily weblog is http://walt.foreignpolicy.com
As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm EST on December 3, 2011. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Professor Walt.
The first place award, called the "Top Quark," will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the "Strange Quark," will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the "Charm Quark," along with a two hundred dollar prize.
(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)
November 21, 2011:
- The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. (Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.)
- Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are strongly discouraged, but we might make an exception if there is something truly extraordinary.
- Each person can only nominate one blog post.
- Entries must be in English.
- The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
- The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after November 20, 2010.
- You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
- Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
- Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
- Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.
December 3, 2011
- The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
- The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.
December 10, 2011
- Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).
December 19, 2011
- The winners are announced.
One Final and Important Request
If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.
Best of luck and thanks for your attention!
The Industrious God
by Gautam Pemmaraju
The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.
He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.
A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers - partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.
A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.
Scores of people visit the temple everyday, and year round. It is in fact, the most visited place of worship in the world and is one of the wealthiest (for stats see here). All kinds of people flock there – from Bollywood stars and producers, cricketers, politicians, expat Indians, to peasants, schoolteachers and lowly clerks. Every day, hundreds of people have their heads shorn ritually, thousands stand in line for hours on end to catch a glimpse of the resident god in the sanctum sanctorum, eat at the temple canteen which provides free food, and take back with them the famed Tirupati Laddu, a consecrated sweet. A few years ago, a scientist and patent rights activist in Kerala filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court against the temple trust obtaining a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag for the laddu from the Indian Patent Office. He argued that such a patent would set a precedent of “private appropriation of religious symbols”. He has also petitioned the Registrar of GIs and the Intellectual Property Appellate Board for the removal of the tag.
The temple trust runs a university in Tirupati town, an autonomous college in Delhi, and several other colleges, schools and educational institutions as well as numerous charities of various kinds (orphanages, medical help, etc).A major source of revenue for the Tirupati temple though, is the collection box or hundi, to which corrupt politicians and poor labourers alike contribute in no small measure.
The mythological story behind the collection box is, to say the very least, pretty entertaining and somewhat ironic in its contemporary parallels. The lord of the temple, Venkateshwara, Srinivasa, Govinda or Balaji as he is more commonly addressed across India, was to wed his consort Padmavati. Not having enough cash, he is said to have borrowed the money from the god of wealth, Kubera, and pledged the collections as interest repayments. And it is his divine profligacy that devotees now repay, in perpetuity.
Myth has it that the resident god of the temple is an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the holy trinity of post-Vedic “Synthetic Hinduism”. Dating back to the 1st century C.E, early Pauranic sources explains his presence in the region due to a somewhat quotidian incident – a domestic dispute, albeit divine in nature. Laxmi, the consort of Vishnu the Protector, lay resting in his chest while he assumed a restful yogic sleep. A traveling sage Bhrigu (on a mission to ascertain the most divinely steadfast of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) angered by what he saw as a serious dereliction of divine duties, kicked Vishnu in his chest, who then was quick to awaken and offer his sincere apologies. The missus however, not happy at what she perceived to be an insult and a failure of husbandly duties, left the heavenly abode in anger. Bereft of his consort, Vishnu then made inquiries as to a suitable retreat for some much needed R & R. The seven hills of Tirumala-Tirupati were where he took his abandoned divine self, eventually manifesting himself locally.
Tirupati is a bustling town at the foot of the seven hills of Tirumala, the last peak of which is Venkatadri, home to the main temple. Several other temples dedicated to both the lord and his consort speckle the hills and the area surrounding the town of Tirupati. Its origins are a matter of debate but it finds mention in scripture of antiquity, and in Classical Tamil literature, popularly known as Sangam Literature. It is said to have gained great prominence during the medieval rule of the Vijayanagara Empire, particularly during the reign of Krishnadevaraya. (Robert Sewell’s A Forgotten Empire containing accounts of Portuguese travellers Domingo Paes and Fernão Nunes is interesting.)
Most of the historical detail of the temple relies on a large number of inscriptions collected by the Devasthanam department of epigraphy during the last decade of the 19th century. This is what Krishnaswami Aiyangar relies on partly, in his two volume History of Tirupati (1939), wherein he writes of the shrine’s “probable date of foundation about the beginning of the Christian era down to practically the end of the 18th century”. Aiyangar was denied access to colonial records, he informs us. What is interesting here is Aiyangar’s source material. The inscriptions have bearing on the period of Ramanuja (10th and 11th century CE), the Vaishnava teacher, “whose connection with the temple and his actual services to it had long been a fruitful subject of controversy”, Aiyangar says. For the anterior period before Ramanuja, Aiyangar further explains, Tamil and Sanskrit sources provide references to Vengadam, the traditional name of Tirupati. Vengadam was to the north of Tamil land and beyond, we learn, was the land of the non-Tamil Vaduku, or the Telugu. The classical Tamil work of the 12 Vaishnava Alvars, who composed between 6 – 9 CE, also mentions the shrine. The classical grammar of the Tamils, or Tolkappiyam, provide us with a reference to the boundaries of Tamil land, Aiyanger explains, which lies between the hill Vengadam on the north and Southern Comorin (Kumari) on the south. Intriguingly, citing the Tamil poet Mamunalar, Aiyangar offers that in poem 311, “he refers to the good country of Pulli [a regional chieftain], and the desert past it, and describes the feature that the people were accustomed to eating rice prepared with Tamarind, on teak leaves”.
Tamarind rice is a prominent preparation across south India and is offered at the temple.
Aiyangar asserts the Vaishnava (a tradition of devotional Hinduism related to the worship of Vishnu) character of the shrine by invoking all sources, but he does point out to critical periods of dispute, particularly during Ramanuja’s time. The then patron and ruler Yadavaraya invited the theologian/thinker to present his arguments and was duly persuaded, but the dominant Saivas of the region, Aiyangar informs us, claimed prejudice against them and that the ruler was swayed not by Ramanuja’s arguments but “by some kind of an occultic influence which they actually averred Ramanuja exercised over him”.
There are a few assertions that it was originally a Buddhist shrine. Tirupati Balaji Was A Buddhist Shrine by K.Jamnadas stakes this claim by invoking the few prominent works on the history of the shrine, including Aiyangar’s account. This is a murky debate and it is suffice to say that historical sources point to competing religions during this time. What came before and what after is contested. Pointing to the fact that it was with the Vijayanagara reign that the shrine entered a ‘modern’ period, Aiyangar states that prior to that its history “would be more or less of the nature of imperfect documents” and collation of “disjecta membra of information”. Also,
Having regard to the circumstances of the time and of prevailing religious customs, we can state it with confidence that the period was one in which people were making an effort to provide for worship for the masses of people, possibly with a view to wear them from attachment to, and the attractions of, other contemporary religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.
Recently, the famous shrine has been beset with many problems and controversies. Last year, a clerk working with an officer of the trust committed suicide allegedly under pressure from higher ups. Amongst the many allegations of a wide variety of corrupt practices, including illegal ticket sales, illegal sale of gold coins made from offerings, there was most prominently the issue of missing jewels and artifacts dating back the Vijayanagara period. Internal vigilance reports had apparently pointed to the collusion of officials, and one report had specifically pointed to fake jewelry being put in place of original ones. Many point to the fact that politicians control the governing board. Prominent bureaucrats also feature and it is always a matter of speculation as to their administrative freedom and discretionary powers.
There has been a Maoist presence in the Chittoor district for quite some time, and the entire southern region of Rayalseema is famous for its factional violence, which dates back a few centuries. Country made bombs are in abundance and there is even a Telugu film genre known as ‘faction film’, which graphically mines the bloody history of the region. Thomas Munro (kids are still named after him and there is a temple ritual in his name), the collector of the ceded districts (the Nizam had ceded them to the British), is credited with breaking the power struggles between the poligars as the village chieftains were known, in the first decade of the 19th century. This factionalism has found political patronage over the decades (see this article on factionalism by Dr Gautam Pingle). There are criminalized elements in the region, all along the political spectrum, that deal in smuggling of red sanders, illegal mining, extortions, illicit liquor, land grabbing, amongst other gruesome stuff.
Earlier this month, police in the foothill town of Kalahasti arrested four men accused of throwing a bomb into the house of a fertilizer dealer last year. Apparently the men had obtained the bomb on the pretext of chasing away pigs that were ruining crops in their village, but in reality, they had hatched a plan to extort money from the dealer. On his refusal, they threw the bomb into his house, which, incredibly, only exploded when his pet dog tried to eat it.
The smuggling of red sanders in the forests surrounding the hills is an ongoing problem. Deforestation of the region is a big issue and has been pointed out time and time again. An elephant-human conflict is also ongoing. Earlier this August, a herd of 11 wild elephants ran amuck laying waste paddy fields, mango orchards, and generally, frightening the sweet local lords’ name out of the villagers.
Adding more misery in recent times has been some drug smuggling and a major strike by private taxis, which ferry passengers from the foothills to the temple-town above. The taxi men were protesting new traffic regulations, while the administration alleged reckless driving on the dangerous hill roads and fleecing of customers. The chief priest of the temple recently took on the temple administration with regard to abolished hereditary rights of the priests and other stakeholders known as mirasidars, which were supposed to have been reinstated. By all accounts, despite record collections this year during the annual Brahmotsavam festival which sees crowds of upto 500,000 everyday, there is a lot on the mind of the temple staff, the administration and other stakeholders. The resident god though, has maintained a stoic, stony divine silence.
The problems that beset the temple have never really interfered with the steady flow of devotees, the wealth and business they bring, and the hair they leave behind. Following the journey of the ritually shorn hair of a woman in Tirupati, this Der Speigel article tracks its passage through Bangalore based STDC exports on to Nepi, 50 kms from Rome’s Fiumicino airport where the world market leader in real hair extensions – Great Lengths - receives it. The temple hair floats in a depigmentation bath initially, only to be later dyed to “color tone No 1, deep black, the colour the customer from Munich has requested”. The owner David Gold and his two children are the only ones who know the secret formula of the osmosis bath apparently (see this Al Jazeera documentary on Tirupati Hair). ‘Indian Temple Hair’ has found some serious marketing in the west over the last decade. Gold says in the aforementioned piece,
This is happy hair. The people who donate it are happy to sacrifice it; the hairdressers who buy it are happy to be able to work with it; and the women who receive it are happy because they look better with it than without it. What could possibly be wrong about that?
This year, the temple has generated an income of over $ 30 million in hair sales alone. This is one hardworking god.
All across the four states of southern Indian, every morning just before sunrise, one can hear the chant in praise of the resident god of Tirupati – the Venkatasa Suprabhatam, composed by 10th century theologian and teacher Ramanuja, mentioned earlier. The version most prominent is by the late grande dame of Carnatic classical music, M.S.Subbulakshmi. The chant's ubiquitous presence not just reflects the popularity of the shrine and its god, but also the singing style, for MS Subbulakshmi is much loved and revered. Coming from a devadasi family of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, her marriage to Congressman and freedom fighter Sadavisan in 1940, and her subsequent ‘sanskritisation’ and ‘brahminisation’ that ensued, is wonderfully explored in TJS George’s excellent biography MS – A Life In Music. Her edification as a symbol of purity and piety is fascinatingly accounted for in George’s book, which contextually offers pretty incredible insight into the influence of Brahmin orthodoxy in Tamil Nadu during that period, challenged as it was by the Dravida movement.
Subbulakshmi’s background, both social and cultural, embraced a long tradition of artistic eroticism or sringara – a prominent feature of devotional bhakti. The Tirupati temple chant too offers a bit of naughty stuff, often de-eroticised by orthodoxy. In a general sense, literalism is selectively applied. When it comes to miracles and manifestations (or even flying in the air) it is fine to believe such things are possible, but when it comes to sex, it’s all clever metaphor and imagery. The second part of the chant, the Venkatasa Stotram, begins with a colourful description (excuse the pun), of how the lord Venkatesa’s dark skin is rendered red due to contact with the vermillion decoration on the breasts of his consort.
Such eroticized descriptions abound in scripture and Bhakti literature and Jayadeva’s lyrical work Gita Govinda is often cited for its highly graphic descriptions of ras-lila, or the divine love play between Krishna and Radha (see here for discussion on the music traditions of Gita Govinda; for further reading see The Divine Consort: Radha And The Goddesses of India).
There are no clear figures for the music sales of MS Subbulakshmi’s recording, first released in the 1960’s. Several music companies own licensing and distribution rights and no one has been able to make an estimate of how many units could possibly have been sold in pre-internet piracy days. The late singer had pledged the sales of the album to the temple but this data is not in public domain. It is popularly believed to be one of the most prominent and long selling recordings in India. There is a bronze stature of M.S.Subbulakshmi to be found in a prominent part of the temple town.
Devotional/spiritual and now ‘wellness’ music products is a huge category for music companies. Whatever the general trends in other categories may be, industry experts say that the sales of devotional music remain steadfast. One of the pioneers in this area is the late Gulshan Kumar, founder of the music label T-Series, who, ironically, was murdered in 1997 outside a temple in the northwestern suburb of Andheri in Bombay. Believed to be an extortion based contract killing by gangsters, investigating authorities accused a popular Bollywood music composer Nadeem, of having issued the contract. India has attempted to have him extradited from the UK, where he now lives.
Digital sales of devotional ringtones, ringback tones and mobile radio products is yet another major revenue stream.
The industrious god has been making money for a very long time now. Under the control of the Nawabs of Arcot in the 18th century, a leased management system was devised wherein the lessee Brahmin Amuldars paid a large sum in exchange for revenue collection at the temple, acquired via auction. It was next the East India Company that wrested control and secured the finances of the temple in 1748 CE. The company established newer administrative rules to streamline revenue collection. The changes that happened during the post-Vijayanagara and colonial period remained till the current temple trust was established in 1932. (See A Panorama of Indian Culture, Kusuman, KK 1990 and Burton Stein’s paper based on his doctoral research work, The Economic Functions of a Medieval South Indian Temple, 1958).
The power and influence associated with the temple is enormous. A complex blending of historic social and religious practice, the patronage of the rich and powerful, colonial administrative reform, and contemporary politics has bestowed the temple with incredible influence and power. To the faithful, it is the temple and the resident god that draws them there. Recently, the Tamil film superstar Rajnikanth offered prayers in thanksgiving following a bout of ill-health. The disgraced Kannada film actor Darshan, jailed for beating up his wife, is apparently planning a visit to alleviate his troubles. And bizarrely, the embattled ex-Samajwadi politician Amar Singh, also beset by many problems including ill-health and corruption charges, announced that he planned to ritually have his head tonsured at Tirupati to seek divine intervention on account of the fact that his astrologer had pointed out similarities with Adolf Hitler in his horoscope.
Faith is a complex matter. And a personal one. But as tales of venality and corruption appear on a daily basis, one can only wonder as to how cheaply we seek absolution. As to the surreal nature of public life in India - that's another story.
Wall Street Symbolism
by Akim Reinhardt
On the morning after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the New York City police expel the Occupy Wall Street Protestors from Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night, I wrote that the next 24-48 hours could very well be pivotal. Well, it’s now been forty-eight hours since I woke up to hear that Bloomberg had sent in riot police to clear out Zuccotti Park, supposedly in the name of a molly maid cleanup of the park; I’m writing this on Thursday morning since I will be traveling as of Friday.
The protestors have responded. Several hundred of them gathered this morning (last Thursday) and tried to prevent workers on Wall Street from working. Of course that literal action failed. But as far as this movement is concerned, it’s the symbolic actions that are most important, at least for the time being. Their presence was felt. Bloomberg’s actions have not put an end to this, far from it. And so the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street remains vital.
Why is the Occupy movement’s so important? The movement’s now famous horizontal organization, as opposed to a more typical top-down vertical structure, has created many opportunities for many people to participate. But it also means that specific agendas and specific action proposals have been sometimes slow to form. Consequently, in some way the real importance of the demonstrations thus far has been it’s ability to influence the national discourse and provide a symbolic stance against the corruptions and ethical shortcomings permeating American society.
It seems to me that of all the Occupy demonstrations that have emerged around the country, and indeed around the world (including the one right here in Baltimore where I live), that Occupy Wall Street is vitally symbolic for several reasons. Of course it was the first, the one that kicked off all the rest. But much more important than that, Occupy Wall Street is, well, at Wall Street. And I believe that matters quite a bit. To that end, Occupy Wall Street is central to the Occupy movement because nothing represents the current economic system in all its sodden disarray better than Wall Street.
And it seems that the protestors have responded. Several hundred of them gathered this morning in an effort to prevent workers on Wall Street from working. Of course that failed, but again, as far as this movement is concerned, it’s the symbolic actions that are most important, at least for the time being. Their presence was felt. Bloomberg’s actions have not put an end to this, far from it. And so the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street remains vital.
The symbolism of Wall Street, however, is just as vital and of much longer standing. For nearly four centuries, in one form or another, it has represented separation and elitism.
When the Dutch first settled on Manhattan Island in 1630, they did so starting at its very southern tip (for a nice south-facing view of the island, check the 3 Quarks Daily banner at the top of the home page). They inched their way northward then erected a large earthen wall stretching the width of the island. It went from river to river and cut across the established Indian path that would eventually become Broadway. A little league version of other failed population control walls like Hadrian’s or China’s, it served as border control on both Indians and English imperial rivals. During the 1640s, the Dictatorial Dutch governor Peter Suyvesant helped coordinate a strengthening of the wall. Both lower class free colonists and African slaves were used to raise it up to about twelve feet in height.
After the English defeated the Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch War of the 1660s, they took control of the high seas, began to dominate the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and seized some Dutch colonies, turning New Amsterdam into New York. In 1685, they added road along the inside of the wall, and in 1699 they took the wall down altogether. As the 18th century opened, all that remained of the wall was its name.
By then merchants and traders had started to gather by the wall. In addition to hawking wares, some traders bought and sold speculative items, particularly bonds and shares of business ownership. This practice continued throughout the 1700s, with a button tree that had sprouted up along the lane serving as a communal gathering spot for speculators. The 1792 Buttonwood Agreement helped formalize the market by regulating manipulations and instituting commissions.
Wall Street’s symbolism as the home of the elite took a political turn when George Washington became the first U.S. president when he was inaugurated on the balcony of its Federal Building. Washington’s intelligence has been sometimes unfairly maligned because of his quiet demeanor. In truth, he proved himself to be a brilliant politician. It’s also worth noting that he was the only founder to free his slaves, albeit after the death of himself and his wife Martha.
However, another reading of Washington is that he was an aristocratic planter who enjoyed fox hunting and held over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. And fittingly perhaps, he was also an avid and accomplished land speculator, and one of the wealthiest individuals in the new United States. Indeed, when the nation’s capital was moved south, Washington insisted that the new district to be carved out Maryland and bearing his name and, include the nearby town of Alexandria, Virginia. Why? The town was only eleven miles upstream from Mt. Vernon, Washington owned land there, and including it in the District would presumably help its value. Congress acquiesced, though they forbid the building of any public structures in the town. The new president might profit from his position, but only so much.
So in some ways then, George Washington’s first presidential inauguration on Wall Street was the symbolic dovetailing of a young nation’s reckless pursuit of wealth.
Wall Street itself rose to national power as a result of publicly funded infrastructure projects; private profits from public spending is nothing new. First came the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 and connected New York City to the Great Lakes. Since waterways were by far the most important trans-continental transportation system, farmers throughout much of the Midwest began shipping their produce to New York instead of down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Commodities trading on Wall Street exploded.
During the 1830s, the first modern big businesses rose in the form of railroad companies. The investment capital needed to get a railroad going was far beyond the scope of any individual or even syndicate of investors. Government handouts were vital. In particular, the federal government offered companies low interest loans and large grants of free land, upon some of which they could lay track while selling all the surplus, often to land speculators. But even with that, more investment capital was needed, and Wall Street played a vital role. Public stock offerings raised millions, and shares changed hands daily as investors sought fortunes on the unstable tides of these new, mammoth businesses. Many would eventually go under, and some of them would be bailed out. Sound familiar?
For nearly two centuries since, Wall Street has been the symbol of American free market capital. Whether it’s the real and imagined fortunes of profiteers ranging from robber baron Jay Gould to Daddy Warbucks, or the economic calamities of countless crashes, epitomized by apocryphal stories of distraught traders leaping to their deaths in October of 1929: Wall Street is the symbol for Americans’ unapologetic and wildly erratic pursuit of wealth.
And so to the extent that the Occupy movements have an impact through their symbolic opposition to a ferocious financial system that seems to enjoy transferring its debts to the public while privatizing its profits, the Occupy Wall Street will remain at ground zero. For Wall Street remains the world symbol for this economic system, as it has for centuries.
Rust on paper on panel.
There's No There There: Our Hollow President Obama
It's not Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. He was prepared to whittle away at all three of them in order to make a Grand Bargain with the GOP about our debt.
It's not peace: he's still fighting for no good reason in Afghanistan.
It's not the rule of law or habeas corpus: he's still got the extra-legal prison obscenity at Guantanamo Bay going.
It's not transparency: his administration goes after whistle-blowers like no other.
It's not a humane immigration policy: he deports more immigrants than any administration.
It's not justice: he didn't go after the Bushies who promoted torture, nor did he prosecute the fraudsters of Wall Street who ruined our economy.
It's not gay rights: he still doesn't agree with gay marriage.
It's not the labor movement: he never pushed for Card Check and he ignored the grassroots fight over union negotiating rights in Ohio and other heartland states (what if he had marched with them as he promised in his campaign? just imagine the galvanizing effect on labor, the Dems and himself).
It's not basic progressive principles, like Medicare for all, or at minimum a public option to give folks a real healthcare choice.
It's not even his own progressive base, who worked hard to elect him, and whom he and his acolytes disdain as "the professional left."
It's not anything. In fact, it's nothing. President Barack Obama has a shell, but not a core. He's not a man of principle. He's a man of expedience. A so-called pragmatist.
In other words, he's our first thoroughly post-modern president. There is no objective truth: everything is relative, plural and contextual. Obama mistrusts ideology from a very unique perspective: he has no ideology of his own.
1. OBAMA BELIEVES IN A FAIRY TALE
If he believes in anything, it is the paragraph that made him instantly famous:
"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America. The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
Now just stop and think for a moment how utterly meaningless this is. It sounds awful good, but it's less factual than most actresses' tits.
There's a reason we have two parties in America: the Republican Party, who disdain the poor, and the Democratic Party, who feel sorry for the poor. There's a reason the Republican Party gave us the Iraq War (which the Democrats never would have), and the Democratic Party gave us the New Deal (which the Republicans never would have).
We have the party of the clenched fist versus the party of the open hand. This is our traditional political divide.
But if you're Obama, you see no such divide. So you see no real struggle over first principles. Anything is negotiable. Republicans believe they're negotiating principles, because they have them: so they don't back down, on principle. It's easy for Obama to back down: he doesn't think he's negotiating principles, because he doesn't have them. He thinks he's negotiating details.
2. OBAMA DOESN'T FIGHT FOR ANYTHING
The reason Obama is not a fighter is that he doesn't believe in anything worth fighting for.
The other reason is that believes he has no enemies to fight against.
Yep, President Obama doesn't think he has enemies. Really, he doesn't. A great line from Shakespeare's Richard III springs to mind: "Hast thou not spirit to curse thine enemy?" Think of the great spirit with which his enemies curse Obama: you weren't even born in America, you alien socialist. Think of how Obama curses them back -- never.
Listen to FDR fighting for his re-election:
"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred."
There's some spirit for you. That's some excellent cursing. Now listen to Obama fighting for his party in the 2010 mid-term elections:
“The other side drove the economy into the ditch, and we’ve been down there and putting on our boots, and it’s muddy, and it’s hot, and there are bugs swarming, and we’ve been pushing and shoving and sweating, trying to get this car out of the ditch. And the Republicans have been standing there, sipping on a Slurpee, watching us and saying, you’re not pushing hard enough, or you’re not pushing the right way. Well, come down and help. No, no, no, you go ahead. Finally, we get the car up on level ground, and it is -- it’s kind of dinged up. I mean, it wasn’t good for the car to be driven into the ditch. And it needs some body work, it needs a tune-up, it needs a carwash, but it’s moving. Suddenly we get a tap on the shoulder and the Republicans say, ‘We want the keys back.' You can’t have the keys back. You can’t drive. That’s why we were in the ditch. And as soon as they get into power, they will throw that car right back in reverse. There’s a reason why, when you want to go forward, you put it into ‘D,’ and when you go backward, it goes into ‘R’.”
This is so good-natured, it's kind of moronic as an election strategy. You don't win elections by poking gentle fun at your opponents. You don't whip up election fervor with witty banter. Politics is a bloodsport, not a comedy slam.
FDR understood politics. Obama doesn't. He thinks deep-down, everyone is like him, with a core of sweet reasonableness. He doesn't hate his enemies.
3. OBAMA CHOSE NOT TO CRUSH THE GOP
Obama's biggest problem is his charm. He is the original Prince Charming: his charm -- pretty smile, pretty words -- got him all the way to the White House, and he thinks he can corral everyone with it as he tries to govern.
Not the GOP, buddy. Poor sap Obama doesn't recognize unreason. If he did, he would have gone to war with the Republicans from day one as President, like they did with him. If Obama understood politics, he could have used his first year in office to crush the Republican Party for 20 years. They were down and out and thoroughly discredited, and a few good stomps of the boot could've settled their hash for decades. Reagan never tired of running down Carter, and it got him re-elected. Obama could have labeled the GOP as stinkers again and again, demonized them to hell and gone, and he would have cut them like a cancer from our body politic. He could have eviscerated Fox News. He could have branded the Republicans forever as the big spending party. The wasteful people. The selfish people. The nuts. The crazies. Heck, even more than two years on, America still blames Bush, and not Obama, for our bad economy. Obama could have been a force for good in this world if, besides being President, he had acted like the leader of the Democratic Party, and used his pulpit to eviscerate the GOP on his party's behalf.
But instead, Obama went to bat for the memory of his Mom. She had had a lot of trouble with our healthcare system in her last years so, against the advice of all his advisors, he put all his energy into healthcare reform (a Republican reform plan, in which he negotiated away the public option immediately even though he acted as though he were pushing for it). After that, he had nothing left. He won one for his Mom, and shot his whole wad. That was the end of it. He'd emptied his gonads.
4. HE ACTED LIKE A DEMOCRAT ONLY THREE TIMES
I can remember only three occasions where I thought Obama acted like the semblance of a progressive, and all three of them turned out to be meaningless.
The first one was after Republican Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's safe Massachusetts seat, and in a panic, Obama trotted out Paul Volcker and said he was going to institute the "Volcker Rule," i.e. separate conventional banking from investment banking, i.e. build a wall between those who lend out money to fuel business and do something socially useful, and those who borrow money to speculate and do something useless. Didn't happen.
The second time was when he said, during the disastrous 2011 debt ceiling negotiations: “They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 30 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I am president.”
Wanna bet? You really believe it's not going to happen on his watch? You really believe the GOP can't come up with some harsher demand that will make Obama happily "negotiate" an extension of the Bush tax cuts?
The third time was the so-called "American Jobs Act" speech in September 2011, when Obama combatively promised to veto anything that doesn't include tax increases for anyone making over a million a year, the so-called "Buffett Rule." He said: "And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare BUT does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share.” (See how he's willing to trade cuts in Medicare benefits for taxes on rich people.)
Well, the "Volcker Rule" didn't happen -- so are you expecting the "Buffett Rule" to happen?
We have to face the fact that smart as he is, Obama can be awful dumb. He let the Tea Party frame the conversation about his health reform plan, for chrissake. How dumb is that? He lets others frame the game. A smart politician doesn't play the other guy's game. He changes the game. He makes his game the only game to play. Obama promised us change, and what did he do? Instead of changing the paradigm, he slotted right into it, like a prisoner raising his hands to the handcuffs.
Because of Obama's dumb political instincts, we now live in a Tea Party world. Can you imagine that? Obama let a bunch of crazies hijack the political conversation.
Obama is not the strong, bold leader we thought he would be. He doesn't lead at all, not from behind or anywhere else. Our country is rudderless.
Don't look to Obama for actual big bold action. Look to him for big bold gestures, and big bold speeches, for sure, but when it comes to on-the-ground results, he's a ninny of an incremental inch-by-inch timid cautious bent-over fuck-me-hard-don't-worry-I-won't-fuck-you-back pussy-footing pragmatist pushover. As Machiavelli argued, “fortune more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in calculating fashion.”
Truth be told, we're living in George Bush's third term. Obama is doing everything George Bush would've done. He hasn't changed a damn thing. The few health insurance changes (no more pre-existing conditions, no more kicking you out when you get sick) haven't even kicked in yet. Change you can believe in? Give me a break. What we have is no change nobody believes in.
5. OBAMA LIVES WAY UP THE BUTTS OF OUR ELITE
OK. So far I've been pulling punches. Now let's get down to two really bad things about Obama.
He's so stuck up the asses of the elite he hardly remembers how his mother worked hard for the poor in Indonesia. He has basically shat on her memory. If she were alive today, she'd give him what for. His whole life has been a classic suckup. He never had to fight for anything. He charmed himself into the elite, and he's very happy to be ensconced there. He's one of those guys who climb to the top by sucking up to everyone. Another Wall Street Sell-Out Apparatnik.
Obama has Bill Clinton's problem: he's a struggling boy whose ambition, brains and work ethic got him co-opted into the rich man's club.
Unlike some other presidents -- FDR, JFK -- Obama was not born rich and privileged. Though he did have a white grandmother and grandfather who doted on him and got him into Hawaii's most pukka high school.
FDR knew how to fight the elite, because he was born insider-privileged; they were his own kind. In fact, FDR relished taking on the smugness of his own class. Like when he said in that speech I quoted before: "They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred!”
Obama can never enjoy that special relish, because he was born outsider-struggling and aspirant. It's difficult for a kid like him to start fighting the guys who only a few years ago welcomed him into their exclusive club. The born-struggling guy is inclined to be their house slave forever, like Bill Clinton is. Stymied by his gratitude to them, relieved at his escape from his struggling origins, a guy like Clinton or Obama is happy to wear golden handcuffs.
Believe you me, before Obama launched his presidential campaign, many rich people had him over to their houses to make sure this bright young hope would serve their interests first and foremost if he ever got to be President. Goldman Sachs didn't become one of his biggest funders out of idealism. They checked him out. They had him over. He was vetted by the elite. He had to sing for his supper in the homes of the privileged. It was quid pro quo all the way. And with that many quids funneled his way, a lot of pro quos were expected and subsequently delivered.
Psychologically, Obama's up-from-nothing origins might have damned his fighting spirit. He may have used up all his fight just to get into the club.
It's not so easy to remember your community-organizer days when you're hitting the links with the rich and famous and knocking back highballs at the clubhouse. It's much easier to suggest a change in the wallpaper of the club than to move the whole damn club into the ghetto next door where the club members might actually do some good for society.
Can Obama break out of his golden prison, maybe in a second term? Can his gray childhood memories of the poor in Indonesia trump his more recent golden years at Harvard or the chewy taste of power in Washington?
Ain't happened yet. His record so far includes big victories for our embedded plutocracy, and teeny crumbs for our would-be democracy.
Basically he played us. And with his American Jobs Act, and promising to tax the rich, he's playing us yet again.
6. OBAMA IS THE BEST BULLSHITTER SINCE JESUS
Let's face it, Obama is the greatest bullshitter of them all. Remember his campaign? All that hope and change BS?
When it came to bullshitting the American people, Obama was a master.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying he's a lying son-of-a-bitch or a hypocrite or a megalomaniac or an utter phoney (if he were those things, which his enemies believe he is, then he'd be mirroring who we are as a nation; and you wouldn't want to think that now, would you?).
In fact, Obama appears to be a fairly decent chap who is intellectually quite honest, if blinded by the privileged he moves among and has himself become. At the same time, however, he's an arch-bullshitter. One can be a figure of some moral probity and still be a worldclass bullshitter.
Moreover, I mean to go further than simply say that Obama can bullshit about how great our country is, and how decent our working people are, and what heroes our troops are, blah, blah, blah. All politicians lay these banal cliches on us like gravy on meatloaf, and none better than Obama.
I mean to say this:
Put your brain in drive and ponder the fact that Obama could go on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show in his campaign days and smile that wonderfully boyish and angelic smile of his, and without dropping a blip of sweat, he would instantly corral the often-cynical Jon Stewart and the audience in the studio and viewers all over the world into his warm aura of cosy and mutual to-and-fro ping-pong Donkey Kong we're-all-in-this-together bullshit. Obama cast a mocha-miasmic spell of benign nudging and winking, of being really self-effacing, of being in a mutual admiration society with everyone, of being quite meta about his appeal and the way we soak up his appeal, and then after those few minutes of being touched by the gift of his presence, of being bathed in the meta of his charm and his smile and his eloquence, and forgetting all your cares in those moments of being beguiled and seduced, you go away with a little warm glow lighting up your insides, and then maybe you send his campaign some money, or you go and vote for him, or you believe in the greatness of your country more than ever, or you go and share your little glow with a loved one or a stranger, because with a disarming smile like that, and a self-awareness like that, with both you and him consciously or subconsciously aware that he's pulling your chain ever so gently, with all that, you are pretty sure in your happy little glowing head that yes oh yes, Obama is the one to lead us all to the promised land awash in Cherry Garcia icecream, where the rain is made of Hershey Kisses and where happy penguins sing us all to sleep, and you indulge yourself in this cheery fantasy even though most of it is bullshit, because it is bullshit that you really WANT and NEED to believe in, that you are willing to suspend all your habitual disbelief to believe in, because what with all the shitty bullshit around it's a relief to swallow such ENJOYABLE bullshit, and that's the whole point.
Yes indeed, Obama's hope-and-change mantra was powerful bullshit.
I was one of the millions who cried when I first saw him in action on TV: delivering a speech to a rapt audience. He spoke to my heart; he restored my hope in America. I had immigrated to America 30 years ago from apartheid South Africa, choosing the US over Canada, the UK and Australia. Then the Supreme Court gave the country to Bush-Cheney, and it turned out that their country was not the country I'd picked. I'd chosen the land of freedom and opportunity, of great tech and constant innovation, of brilliant entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, of magnificent and many-splendored Manhattan where one can hear more languages than anywhere else on the planet, of tough New York City women who don't take the crap from men that women take in other countries and yet give better blowjobs than women in other countries, of can-do American gals and guys who look at a problem that would scare the daylights out of other cultures and say, hey, I've got an idea how we can lick this sucker.
This America, the America I loved, was not the America that Bush-Cheney created, an America of lies and war and torture and paranoia and fraud and no-bid contracts and entitlement and privileged chuckles and macho stupidity. Eight years of Bush-Cheney plunged me into despair about America, and then, wow, here comes Obama! The One! Yes! We Can! Hail the Sweepingness of the New Broom! Watch those Washington Stables Cleaned out More Spic and Span than the Conscience of a Nun! The Time has Come for Change in America!
Obama was the dude who gave me hope and confidence that America could be decent and kind and free and full of opportunity again. I was in such Bush-Cheney despair, I wanted badly to hear another song, and Obama sang that song beautifully, and stole my heart.
That was the core of Obama's appeal: in a time of darkness, he promised hope and change, and delivered his message with a gift of eloquence the world had last seen in Dr. King. Obama fed us warm, comforting, soaring and inspiring bullshit that moved us to the very bullshitted depths of our bullshittingest souls.
Being a nation of bullshitters, we're ready to follow whoever among us proves to be the best and brightest bullshitter of them all. That guy is Obama, the finest spinner of BS since Jesus told the meek they'll inherit the earth.
Here's the thing: I absolutely LOVE being bullshitted by Obama. Today, my biggest beef with him is that he has not laid any really excellent bullshit on me since he entered the White House. Quite the contrary, in fact.
That heart he stole from me has, after a great leap forward at the Inauguration, sneaked back into my chest where it's been knocked around and kicked about and elbowed to the right and bumped to the left and bashed to the bottom and booted high in the sky, and I'm still working on how to gather the pieces and what to do when I've rearranged them in a semblance of a heart (I must say, I got a little lift when he made his speech in Tucson after the Giffords shooting, but that was hardly enough to soothe my bereft-of-Obama-BS soul).
7. OBAMA USES HIS BLACKNESS TO MASQUERADE AS A PROGRESSIVE
Here's another thing: part of Obama's disarming charm is that he is a nice black guy.
Yep. Not an angry, demanding, raging-against-the-man black guy. But a thoroughly bourgeois sweet black guy, with a sweet black family.
That accounts for a core quality of his appeal. He makes us all feel good about ourselves, and about America. Hey, here is this black dude running our country. How nice of us to give him the job. He's like Disraeli who got to run anti-semitic England.
I could go so far as to say that Obama cynically uses his blackness to masquerade as a liberal. But that could get me into big trouble. So I'm just putting it out there for you to ponder, that Obama's blackness is part of his con.
Here's a stupendous irony: do you recall Jesse Jackson with tears streaming down his face in Grant Park, when Obama made his speech after defeating John McCaine for the presidency?
Jesse, who worked alongside Dr King, was looking at a dream fulfilled. But how does Jesse feel now? Conflicted? Hey, Jesse is a progressive. Does he think Obama has furthered the progressive agenda as president? How does Jesse feel about the fact that -- after this impossible dream of a black man as president came to pass -- that maybe Obama is the greatest Uncle Tom who ever lived?
Come to think of it, Obama has done nothing for his own race, who voted for him 98%. Why? Maybe because he doesn't even believe he's a black man.
When he spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2011, he admonished them as follows: "I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do, CBC."
He sure is using his blackness there. No white politician would've dared scold his black supporters like that.
But just look at the professorial arrogance he so easily reveals under his black cover. He's talking to his black compadres like he's talking to children. He thinks of his progressive base as balky brats, giving him grief over nothing much.
8. OBAMA'S NEW MEANINGLESS COMBATIVE TONE
And he's so very, very wrong. What has Obama done for progressives? Seriously?
Now he's trying to bullshit us with his American Jobs Act, a puny political patchwork ploy of GOP-friendly pleasantries, packaged with a rallying cry to soak the rich. He's not even trying to make hay about the GOP trying to privatize Medicare with a voucher program. He took that winning strategy off the table when he defined himself as willing to bargain away Medicare benefits for compromises from the GOP. Now he's stuck with doing a "let's tax millionaires" campaign, something he has neglected to do all the time he's been in office.
He's got a new combative tone, the pundits say; he's being ballsy, and side-swiping the GOP here and there. Everyone hails his new posture.
But the man is just full of it. He has always governed to the right, and now, all of a sudden, folks think because of his changed tone, a little campaign bluster, he's all of a sudden putting on a slightly lefty hat like it's supposed to fit right between his big ears, and that this new hat will appeal to his progressive base.
Bullshit. Does he and his advisers think we're stupid?
It's safe to say we can write Obama off as a fighter for the American people. There would be very little difference between an Obama and a Romney presidency, except Romney might be more effective.
9. OBAMA SUCKS AS THE LEADER OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
One of the worst things is that Obama has totally sucked at being the leader of the Democratic Party. He led his party to defeat in the midterm elections, and I can't think of anything he could do to bring them back to power in 2012. He might save his presidency if his GOP opponent is too crazy (Perry or Cain or Gingrich) or too dull (Romney) to unseat him, but he will let the party down again.
The Democratic Party is stuck with a leader who doesn't believe in or fight for key Democratic Party principles, and is prepared to bargain any of those principles away.
The Democratic Party is stuck with a cypher as a leader, a leader who isn't a leader.
The Democratic Party needs a firebrand, and Obama ain't it.
He never will be. He is the hollow man. He is the slipperiest customer of them all. Try to put your finger on what he stands for, and you come away with an empty hand. He's like candy floss. He looks like something great and fluffy and tasty to bite into, but when you do, he vanishes in your mouth.
That's Obama. Our Candy Floss President.
There's no there there, folks. He's an empty vessel, and whatever you pour in, leaks out.
Poor us. Poor America. Washington is broken, and the cog around which the broken wheel spins, our President, is a hollow core of nothing, a big fat zero sucked into an outer-space black hole. The wheel is spinning around empty air.
It won't really matter who you vote for in 2012, unless the GOP fields one of their crazies instead of Romney. Then it might make a teensy weensy difference.
The hollow man will be better than the crazy one.
Forsooth, gadzooks and gorblimey: all that talent, all that brilliance, all that charm, all that oratory, all that fine chocolate covering up a hollow center.
At the end of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, the compromised figure of Kurtz moans about what he has seen and done:
"The horror, the horror."
As a nation, mired in our own darkness of the heart, we can whisper among ourselves about our oh-so-gifted, oh-so-hollow leader:
"The pity, the pity."
Comics Creator Column #01: Alex de Campi and "Ashes"
by Tauriq Moosa
This will be the first in, so far, a four-part series where I will be (reviewing the work of and) talking to comics creators. My aim is to provide an insight into the medium and the creative process, as well as exclusive interviews with some of the most talented people in the medium. This is mainly aimed at comic writers, rather than artists since that’s what I am (trying to be). In many instances, this is also an obvious plea for you, the readers, to help support this industry via the very creators who are doing the hard-work to produce quality. If you’re fed up with stagnant stories, stale characters and stereotypes (i.e. so much of the superhero genre), then these are the very people we need to be supporting.
The comics industry is a strange beast. Some view it as squatting in-between word-exclusive prose books and full-motion films. Lately, it has been the latter that’s been appropriating comics’ offspring – with Watchmen, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead all appearing on the silver or television screen. Yet, viewing comics as nestled in-between prose and films is too simplistic a view of the medium, which has, for too long, become entangled in the webs and capes of superheroes. Indeed, many simply equate the comic medium with the superhero genre, which is like equating fiction books with only Dan Brown’s, um, ‘writing’. This does not mean the superhero genre is bad, but that the medium is not limited to one genre. Whether it’s the horror and drama of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Alan Moore’s complex investigation into psychopathy, Jack the Ripper and the history of England in From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s fantastical Sandman, or, my current focus, Alex de Campi’s mature, dystopian and elegantly-narrated Smoke, we have amazing stories wonderfully placed utilising the full extent of sequential art and words.
Comics elicit awe and wonder in the way art as a whole is (sometimes) meant to. It can be as simple as beautiful artwork – open any page of Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch to view the genius of Dave McKean – or amazing narration – Jamie Delano’s writing in John Constantine Hellblazer is better than most novels I’ve read. But, truly, it is the mixture of the two that shows what this medium can do. Alan Moore’s work uses everything the page offers to highlight his themes. Whether we are watching the Earth from space, as the narration compares the spinning of the earth to the idea of not having a hold on life (as he did in an issue of Swamp Thing); or whether we are watching a young man read a comic about pirates while, in his reality, men of power try usurp people’s freedom (in Watchmen); Moore and his art team utilise economy of words and illustration to tell powerful stories.
The friction of words and pictures ignites many themes. The trouble is, if not used correctly, it can therefore also completely destroy them.
ALEX DE CAMPI, writer on the Eisner-nominated Smoke, “sat down” with me (i.e. replied to my annoying emails) to discuss our favourite medium, its merits and failings, and provides important insight that we new creators should take into account. We also discussed her new project, Ashes, which has gotten praise from some comics giants, like Mark Waid, Gail Simone, and David ‘Co-Creator of Watchmen’ Gibbons before it's even been completed.
TM: Let’s start at the beginning. Why should people care about comics? Why do you?
ALEX DE CAMPI: Comics are uniquely suited to external narrative: symbolism, subtext, surprise, silence. And with everyone telling us their internal narratives all the time via blogs, twitter, et cetera, it's lovely to have all that shut up and be sitting there staring at some lovely art, on the edge of your seat, wondering what is going to happen next. Comics also suit the way we consume entertainment today -- brief, serialised, exciting. Easy to pick up and become immersed immediately... to get away from whatever the world has weighed you down with, to a brighter, more exciting place. I love comics because I am a very visual person. Stories in my head come with images. Of course I also love films, but a film is a very demanding thing. It is going to tell me exactly how long I can look at things, and how fast I must progress through its narrative. The film is in control of time. In a comic, I am in control of time. I can progress slowly through a lovely or particularly meaningful page... I can go backwards. I can skim forwards to discover, in breathless anticipation, what will happen. Of course the creator can suggest how fast I move through the comic, by making more or fewer panels per page, but these are only suggestions I can ignore as I see fit. The pacing of a comic -- the density of panels, the amount of dialogue, the cliffhanger at each page turn -- is a great and subtle art and when done well lends so much to the drama and suspense of the book. There is so much to love... and as a creator, I love collaborating with an artist. It makes the creation process less lonely, less inward. And when the book is being drawn, it's like a holiday every day when you open your inbox to discover the gift of new pages, that nobody else has seen before -- your word made pictures.
TM: I know exactly that feeling of receiving art from your creative partner; and I’m sure many comics writers are nodding in agreement now. But how did you get into comics as a fan? How did you come to be a creator (published by IDW, etc.)?
ALEX: Back in the day, comics were really cheap and you could buy them in spinner racks in the drugstore. They were a great way of shutting kids up. I was a noisy child so Mom knew if she took me to the drugstore and let me pick out some comics I'd shut up for a while. I liked bad DC fantasy comics (Arion, anyone?) and the X-Men... back when there was only *one* X-men comic.
Then, when I was in my late 20s, I hadn't read comics in years when my first husband brought home a huge stack of 2000ADs and some Vertigo stuff that a friend had left behind when he moved. They were really good... the original LUCIFER mini, some PREACHER, HELLBLAZER... and I got back in to comics. I've always been very visual so I loved how a good writer/artist combo could create moods and subtext by the juxtaposition of words and images.
I'd been a writer all my life but mainly journalism and nonfiction, then I fell so in love with comics I started imagining my own four-colour stories. I actually had a fairly easy time getting published... I wrote up pitches for various stories and sent them off, and got a great number accepted: by IDW, by Tokyopop, by the French publisher Humanoids. I even had a series accepted by Marvel, but it later fell apart. Of course that was back in 2004/2005, when everyone had more money than sense and the boom was going to go on forever.
TM: Is there reason to think either the comic medium or industry is suffering?
ALEX: No. For once, it isn't. There's a large and diverse group of creators; there is more for women than ever before; and via digital, people can access comics even more easily than back in the drugstore spinner-rack days. Of course, the mainstream is still kinda poopy but then mainstream everything is kinda poopy, isn't it? In a prose publishing industry where [Nobel Prize Winner - TM] Snooki's autobiography exists (and has gotten massive marketing support), frankly the fact that the American mainstream comics are by and large misogynistic, culturally blinkered and not kid-friendly, is small beer.
There needs to be a more central place to find a lot of the good independent work, and there need to be more publishers embracing independent genre graphic novel work (which could be as successful as genre fiction like Twilight or Hunger Games, especially among young women) but that will happen. The industry is always 10 years behind the readers, it's in the nature of complex organisations to be stodgy and slow moving.
TM: Your miniseries from IDW, the Eisner-nominated Smoke, is an amazing comic. It's one of the few comics I've reread and my ammo against non-comics readers (what's the term for such people?). "This," I say, showing them comics like Smoke and Mr Punch, "is what makes comics unique and beautiful." Can you tell us about the work you've done in the past?
ALEX: The past for a writer is a land that is difficult to revisit. When I finish a story, it's like locking a pretty, ornamental box and putting it away in an attic. But I shall blow the dust off some old curiosities for you. Smoke was a short series, circa 150 pages, from IDW. It was a sci-noir, a thriller/conspiracy piece about a soldier and a journalist who become caught in a government attempt to game the oil markets. It's out of print from IDW, but you can get all three issues for a total of $2.97 from Comixology. Although looking back on Smoke there are parts of it where I feel I was trying too hard, it's a good summary of what I like to do as a writer -- fast, suspenseful thrillers with not a small amount of the Western to them, and a fair amount of pitch-black humour. Smoke was meant to be a longer series, so there are things at the end of Issue 3 that remain obscure.
I then did two series for Humanoids, a French publisher -- they ran into financial troubles so sadly neither of those series was ever completed. Messiah Complex was a great big space opera starring a teen girl who becomes a political pawn in a very great game; and Chromaland is about a little boy who accidentally is nominated as the hero who will save The Land of the Imagination. Two more series for Tokyopop -- now out of print as they had financial problems and have essentially shut down. This time, the series were for younger readers, and I did get to finish them. Kat & Mouse was a turbocharged Nancy Drew for tweens: two misfit girls solve crimes/problems in their posh east coast private school using SCIENCE. Agent Boo was just insane, it was mental sci-fi for really little kids.
There were also a few other projects that were written but never saw the light of day -- an Amazing Fantasy run for Marvel, a Batman issue for DC, an Escapist story for Dark Horse.
TM: Many are excited to hear about Smoke's sequel, Ashes. What can you tell us about it?
ALEX: Ashes is a behemoth of a thriller novel that picks up five years after Smoke ended. It has the same two lead characters -- the soldier and the journalist -- and a few supporting characters make a re-appearance, but the book is more or less stand alone. What is it? A sprawling, British, psychedelic Western. Our heroes, five years later and considerably the worse for wear, are reunited when the consciousness of a 15 year old boy with a grudge against them, is accidentally uploaded to the internet by the US Military. Complications ensue. The book itself is also quite formally ambitious as well as having an overarching metacommentary/literary theme, but frankly I don't want that to be too noticeable. It's not a work that's going to try to bang you over the head and say "Look! I Am Clever! My Author Has Read Books!", because I hate that. Don't you?
TM: Yeah! [Erases all the long-winded discourses on 17th Century Parisian architecture from latest script]
ALEX: I did steal a good joke from Edward Albee, and there is a nice reference to my favourite film (Cocteau's Orphée) but nothing really obvious.
The book is going to be a beast to draw, though. Thank goodness for Jimmy Broxton and his prodigious artistic talents! We hit it off immediately, and he is really on the same wavelength as me. We sorted out the cover design in about a day... both of us felt a comic book style cover was inappropriate for the book, so we have the red circuit map of death instead. Jimmy has to draw one section of the book like a Winnie the Pooh illustrated story... another in the vein of US illustrator Howard Pyle's King Arthur books. And then there are the sections that require being painted in oil over a text collage. And all of this works. It's for reasons in the story that [these variations] make such sense; you probably won't be overly conscious of our formalist pyrotechnics. Or if you are, we've failed.
In order to provide Jimmy with a minimal subsistence living for the year it will take him to draw the book, and to support a lovely deluxe 1,000-book print run as Kickstarter rewards, we're trying to raise $27k. We're over 50% of the way there, but pledges are slowing, and I fear we won't make it. We're asking people to spend $15 to get the book to them serialised digitally chapter by chapter as we finish it, or $30 to get the digital version plus a lovely, numbered hardback. So all we really want people to do is buy our book ahead of time. We'll ship it anywhere, for free.
Then of course there's some awesome but more expensive rewards, like 10 books with hand-drawn and hand-coloured covers (each book's cover will be unique, and we take requests!). Five pages of painted art are available (well, three are left -- two have been pledged for). This is actually pretty special, as Jimmy works entirely digitally so there are only 12 pages out of the entire book that will exist as physical objects. These dozen are from the book's climactic end, which is fully painted, in oils. Jimmy doesn't really sell his art or do conventions/take commissions, so this Kickstarter is a very unique opportunity to get some art from what hopefully will be a pretty legendary book. Oh and if you have a bunch of money, you can even be immortalised as a fictional character, with your likeness and name being given to an important secondary character. We're also quite upfront about the film rights and the trade printing rights being available for pretty much all markets. Interested in them? Contact us.
TM: In other interviews, you said that you had refused comics publishers for Ashes. Your reasoning was very sound. Could you explain it for those who are not aware?
ALEX: It's easy to get published in comics. [Er… Really? Wow. OK - TM] Getting a book made is tough (as nobody pays advances or page rates any more for indie work), but getting it published is easy. You just have to finish the book completely ahead of time, and present it to the publisher. They publish it, and send you some money six to nine months later.
However, many publishers want to take 50% of all your rights in the book (including film rights) in return for... publishing that finished book which they had no hand in making. Not in exchange for advancing you money so you can live while writing/drawing the book (they don't do that); only for taking your completed book, calling up the printers, and calling up Diamond (the US comics distributor). I don't think that's right . Lots of people accept deals like that because they are so desperate to be published, or they're young and don't know better or like 99% of comics creators they don't have an agent to protect them, but that still doesn't make it right.
The publisher is getting a very important something for nothing -- no up front expenditure or risk, or indeed commitment to the team/book. And if, heaven forefend you question those contracts, or bring in an agent or lawyer to negotiate them, the publisher just... stops.... talking. It's like they know they are wrong and are scared when an expert's eye is shone on their grubby, unfair, little contracts. I've had this same conversation with so many indie creators, and not a few agents -- the embarrassed silence one gets in response when attempting to negotiate with those comics publishers.
I'm happy with publishers not giving an advance, if they don't expect a share in rights. I'm actually happy with giving up rights, if the publisher pays for my artist and me to be able to afford food and rent while we make the book. But if you give me no cake? And no pie? Than you shall not have my book, sir.
TM: It's good to see that you'll all for independent creators, like myself and others… Or rather talented ones. Anyway, every published comic creator is faced with this question, so I'll put a disclaimer before it. Robert Kirkman's advice to new creators is to consider yourself as "sucking" at the medium first, so that you can obtain critical feedback to improve (this way, you don't start off thinking you're the next Alan Moore or Gail Simone); Alan Moore's advice is more optimistic, thinking that "someone" will notice your "hard work" (whatever that is). Concerning writers in particular, what tips do you have for aspiring comic creators in this current climate of wary (to put it politely) publishers?
ALEX: Your first thousand pages will be terrible. (Mine were. I have entire books, and four or five screenplays, that I will never allow to see the light of day). Maybe all of your pages will be terrible. But you must remember when you craft a story that it is, indeed, a craft, and you must go to labour at it every day. And first you will apprentice, and then you will be a journeyman, and maybe, just maybe, one day you will be a master. You are not above the work. Blogs, emails, and twitter do not count as writing exercise, any more than playing-card houses count as architecture -- long form fiction is a craft unto itself. Go to it, with your heart bright and glad. You are also not above criticism. In every critique, no matter how mean-spirited or (so you think) baseless, is a grain of truth. You must be sensitive enough to find that grain, and brave enough to go on despite what finding it has done to your ego.
Don't make convenient choices for the script. Write your characters into situations that you truly don't know how to get out of, then work your way out of them. Make sure your characters have real reactions to events... have the reaction you honestly would have, not the reaction you think a fictionalised better version of yourself would have. That fictionalised better version is a bullshit person who nobody will believe.
And lastly, as you write, you will -- or you should -- become aware of patterns in your stories. Why is the woman always beaten up? Why does your hero always talk in a certain way, come from a certain class, have a first name with one syllable and a surname with two syllables? Why is the bad guy always the government? Et cetera. Writing is a method of self-analysis, and you will play out in your stories certain things which disturb your subconscious. Look for those patterns, figure out what you (or your psyche) are searching for by writing them so frequently, and then write them so well and so truly that you need not visit them again. The more you write honestly, the less you dream, for the less the subconscious must toil. But be careful. Yeats was right -- "I must go down to where the ladders start / To the foul rag and bone shop of the heart". That is where stories begin. Be honest. Be hardworking. And listen... to others, to yourself.
So to reiterate, Alex de Campi’s advice for writers is:
(1) Write your nonsense stories out your system.
(2) Actually sit and write, treating it as a craft. FaceBook fighting is not writing.
(3) Take criticism as a criticism of your work and not you, despite how it feels. You are not perfect, everything can be improved. It will take someone other than yourself to usually find where you need to improve on that.
(4) Operate with realism not convenience, since the latter is detectable bullshit.
(5) Be aware of patterns in your writing.
TM: Many answer simply NO to this, but do you have a writing "process"? I've never had one myself, but I'm always interested in good writers' methods (even if it's to say they don't have one).
ALEX: I circle a story for years, turning it over in my head, jotting notes, making false starts towards it. Then one day when I am quite not expecting it, the story tugs quietly at my sleeve and says, "I am ready to be written now". Then the actual work begins, chopping a path through the uncharted jungle from the beginning, which I always know ahead of time, to the end, which I also always know ahead of time. In the middle, there be monsters.
Thanks to Ms. de Campi for the amazing insights into all aspects of comic creation. I’m sure I’m not the only one that will view this as invaluable and brilliant advice, as I attempt to integrate myself in this strange beast. You can find out more about here at her website. I think she did an amazing job in this interview.
Importantly, I hope that if you value quality and beauty in your creative mediums, that you will help Ms de Campi and artist Jimmy Broxton with their Kickstarter project for Ashes. Instead of spending money on the tripe from Hollywood or all the bad comics out there, why not invest in the actual, talented creators directly? Everyone benefits and we can, through measures like this, attempt to help our beloved medium.
November 20, 2011
Michael S. Gazzaniga Challenges Old Ideas about Free Will
Just to stick with Robin's theme-of-the-day of what neuroscience means for free will, here is Gareth Cook in Scientific American:
Do we have free will? It is an age-old question which has attracted the attention of philosophers, theologians, lawyers and political theorists. Now it is attracting the attention of neuroscience, explains Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” He spoke with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Cook: Why did you decide to tackle the question of free will?
Gazzaniga: I think the issue is on every thinking person’s mind. I can remember wondering about it 50 years ago when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time, the issue was raw and simply stated. Physics and chemistry were king and while all of us were too young to shave, we saw the implications. For me, those were back in the days when I went to Church every Sunday, and sometimes on Monday if I had an exam coming up!
Now, after 50 years of studying the brain, listening to philosophers, and most recently being slowly educated about the law, the issue is back on my front burner. The question of whether we are responsible for our actions -- or robots that respond automatically -- has been around a long time but until recently the great scholars who spoke out on the issue didn’t know modern science with its deep knowledge and implications.
Don DeLillo’s prophetic soul
Martin Amis in The New Yorker:
When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?
Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other.
I love the work of Don DeLillo.