January 31, 2012
Jonathan Haidt Decodes the Tribal Psychology of Politics
Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Haidt (pronounced like "height") made his name arguing that intuition, not reason, drives moral judgments. People are more like lawyers building a case for their gut feelings than judges reasoning toward truth. He later theorized a series of innate moral foundations that evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues—psychological bases that underlie both the individual-protecting qualities that liberals value, like care and fairness, as well as the group-binding virtues favored by conservatives, like loyalty and authority.
"He, over the last decade or so, has substantially changed how people think about moral psychology," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University.
Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry's failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that "conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals."
In March, Haidt will publish The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). By laying out the science of morality—how it binds people into "groupish righteousness" and blinds them to their own biases—he hopes to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides.
A Box of Universe
Brian Hayes in American Scientist:
Isaac Newton’s universe was a cozy, tidy place. Gathered around the sun were six planets, a handful of moons and the occasional comet, all moving against a backdrop of stationary stars. Newton provided us with the mathematical tools needed to compute the motions of these bodies. Given initial positions and velocities, we can calculate the forces acting on each object, using Newton’s law of universal gravitation. From the forces we can determine accelerations, and then update the positions and velocities for the next round of calculations. This scheme of computation is known as the n-body method. Perhaps Newton himself could have put it to work if he had had suitable computing machinery.
Today we have the computers. On the other hand, our universe is far larger and more intricate than Newton’s. Now the solar system is merely a speck in a spiral galaxy of several hundred billion stars. Our galaxy drifts among billions of others, which form clusters and superclusters and a whole hierarchy of structures extending as far as the eye (and the telescope) can see. Those objects are getting farther away all the time because the universe is expanding, and moreover the expansion is accelerating. Strangest of all, the luminous matter of the galaxies—everything we see shining in the night sky—makes up less than one-half of 1 percent of what’s out there. Most of the universe is unseen and unidentified stuff known only as “dark matter” and “dark energy.”
Given this profound change in the nature and the scale of the known universe, I find it remarkable that computer simulations of cosmic evolution can still rely on n-body algorithms rooted in the principles of Newtonian mechanics.
Are we "born that way"? Do we choose to be gay? Who cares?
E. J. Graff in The American Prospect:
I'm one of fourteen Americans who has never watched an entire episode of "Sex and the City." The high heels and extreme grooming, the squealing girl talk, the pursuit of men—booooring. Give me a rerun of The Wire any day.
So I had to be brought up to cultural speed when Cynthia Nixon, who played the show's sexy lawyer Miranda, made a little splash in The New York Times Magazine this past weekend by saying that, for her, being gay is a choice. Of course, the preferred LGBT movement line is that we were all "born this way"—and so her comments sent the Maoist portions of the LGBT thought police into an angry buzzing fury. Here's the relevant article, which is long because it is extremely thoughtful:
I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.” Her face was red and her arms were waving. “As you can tell,” she said, “I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.
I cannot tell you how much I adore Nixon for fully and wholeheartedly identifying as having chosen to be gay. (I love my bisexual friends for standing up for that despised identity, too, but Nixon is our topic today.)
On two accounts of the great Chinese famine
Xujun Eberlein in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
In July 2011, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe’s best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: “Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are — Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about.”
That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter’s book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I’m sure other languages — apparently Dikötter’s is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter’s attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an over-simplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: “To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda.”
Six Things That Are Dead, According to Harold Bloom
Austin Allen in Big Think:
Celebrated literary critic Harold Bloom turns eighty-two this year and is still publishing and teaching. In his honor, I’ve compiled a list of six things he’s outlived.
1) The Western canon.
“Unfortunately, nothing will ever be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended on people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children.…The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.” —“An Elegy for the Canon,” The Western Canon, 1994
“The battle is lost. These resentniks have destroyed the canon.” —New York Times interview, 1994
2) American education.
“American education—even in elite universities—has become a scandal, in my opinion. It has committed suicide.” —TheBrowser.com interview, 2011
[On slam poetry] “It is the death of art.” —Paris Review interview, 2000
Flying People in New York City
Pakistan’s rush for more bombs — why?
Pervez Hoodbhoy in the Express Tribune:
On January 24, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon vented his frustration at Pakistan’s determined opposition to a treaty that would limit fissile material production for use in nuclear weapons. For three years, Pakistan has single-handedly — and successfully — blocked the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva from discussing an effort that would reduce nuclear weapons globally. Consequently, within diplomatic circles, Pakistan has acquired the reputation of an outlier that opposes all efforts towards this end.
The opposition comes in the backdrop of news that Pakistan has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. This claim — which still reverberates around the world — was first published in a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report entitled “Pakistan’s nuclear forces — 2011”. The authors, Hans M Kristensen and Robert S Norris, say although the numbers of Pakistani warheads and delivery vehicles is a closely-held secret, yet “we estimate that Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile of 90-110 nuclear warheads, an increase from the estimated 70-90 warheads in 2009”. They reckon that if the expansion continues, Pakistan’s stockpile could reach 150-200 in a few years. By this count, Pakistan’s arsenal may have already exceeded India’s, and will soon rival Britain’s.
The Bulletin report has not been denied by Pakistan. Its stockpile of highly enriched uranium is increased daily by thousands of centrifuges whirring away at the Kahuta Laboratory (and possibly elsewhere). This is augmented by plutonium producing reactors at Khushab; two are already at work and a third is undergoing trials. Google Earth photos show that a fourth one is under construction. The plutonium has no commercial purpose. Instead, the goal is to produce lighter but deadlier bombs to be fitted on to missile tips.
aside from faith,
as far as you know,
you will never have another heart.
better to grow the one you were born with.
fill it with blood & love. risk.
let the strange world sneak inside.
accept all of life in your chest.
death is the end of percussion.
breathe deeply, the music
will function. listen close.
freedom thaws in your ribcage.
dance with vehemence
to feel its fast-pumping.
tempt two lips to greet your throat
& take note: your racing pulse
will laugh & kiss back. god is strong
in the clock of your desire.
every tick, my friend, divine
confirmation: you are alive. beat. yes!
you are alive.
by Lenelle Moïse
The Orchid Olympics
Orchids may be the most diverse flower family in the world, with more than 25,000 species. (Their only competition comes from daisies.) The orchid family maintains such diversity in the wild in part because individual orchid species summon only specific pollinators; the flowers thus avoid mingling their genes with those of other nearby orchids that are visited by their own pollinators. But most of the 50,000 orchids from 5,000 varieties on display at the conference do not occur in the wild; they are hybrids, created by people who have cross-fertilized orchid species, often from far-flung lands. “The joy of breeding orchids is to see if you can combine two species in order to create something even more beautiful than either of the parents,” Martin Motes, a commercial grower from Florida and conference judge, said as visitors poured into the hall and crowded around the displays. He has been breeding orchids for 40 years, and many varieties of his 500 hybrids are named after his wife, Mary. “My wife thinks I am playing God! Well, man is given dominion over the beasts of the fields and orchids of the greenhouse, I guess,” he said. An orchid breeder begins with a vision—the color, shape, size, fragrance and longevity of the desired flower—and then searches for the ideal parents. “When we craft orchids for celebrities and delegates, we also consider their tastes, personalities and occupation, said Tim Yam, a senior researcher and orchid breeder at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. “For example, the orchid named for Princess Diana was white—the color of royalty—and very fragrant. But if it’s for a prime minister or president, we might choose a deeper color and majestic spray.”
In Search of the Elusive Definition of Heterosexuality
Abigail Zuger, M.D. in The New York Times:
Scientifically, as Ms. Blank summarizes, tongue in cheek: “We don’t know much about heterosexuality. No one knows whether heterosexuality is the result of nature or nurture, caused by inaccessible subconscious developments, or just what happens when impressionable young people come under the influence of older heterosexuals.” Far more scientific firepower, in other words, has been directed at the brains, genes, hormones and general physiologic processes behind homosexual attraction, leaving heterosexuality like a silhouette, outlined only by what it is not. Yet the great behavioral descriptionists, Alfred Kinsey and others, have made it clear that sometimes it is exactly what it is not — or, rather, it is what many feel it should not be. From same-sex adults sharing a bed (for warmth? from friendship?) in the 19th century to married men “on the down low” in the 21st, self-defined heterosexuals have routinely behaved in ways that seem to contradict the basic principles.
But who wrote those principles? Who validated them? Ms. Blank points out that the standards of heterosexuality to which so many desperately aspire have largely been the work of our culture’s biggest dreamers, including the authors of 19th-century penny novels and 21st-century chick lit. Who, after all, has given us more clear-cut, universally appealing examples of suitably behaved male and female heterosexuals than Walt Disney? Meanwhile, the annals of law are now filling with all the subtleties that Disney ignores, for people who fail to fit into a binary sex/gender system still have both children and property. Empires may rise and fall, but those eternals remain. Ms. Blank offers the provocative solution that soon we will move on from our present fixation on the binary to a more fluid understanding. “If male and female are two of a variety of sexes, and masculine and feminine two of a variety of genders, then heterosexual and homosexual are two of a variety of ways to combine them,” she notes.
January 30, 2012
As Though We Were Immortal
by Namit Arora
Some travel impressions prompted by the living and the dead of Varanasi, India.
In early 2006, I was on a train to Varanasi when my mother called from Jaipur. Terrorists had just hit Varanasi with explosions at multiple sites, including at the train station; many had died. Since I was going there as a tourist, she urged me to postpone the trip and get off earlier. I was traveling with my partner and two white American friends, both on their first visit to India. They seemed rattled enough and I worried about their safety. What if Hindu-Muslim riots broke out? We were ten nighttime hours away from Varanasi, so we had to decide fast.
The reality of the event sunk in further when an NDTV reporter and her camera crew got on the train. With time to kill, she began quizzing tired and bemused passengers about their take on the news. And she did so in an overexcited style that seemed to dominate live reporting in India. When she thrust the mic at me, I could only mutter something about my worry for my companions.
I persuaded my fellow travelers to continue. The terrorists had already done their deed; Varanasi was likely the safest place to visit now. Worst case, we could stay holed up in our hotel. Truth be told, I was also drawn to this unbidden frisson of travel. When we arrived in the morning, we found a part of the train station cordoned off by the police. I could see blotches of red on the ground. The driver of the taxi we took into town had witnessed the explosions: flying body parts, screams, the ensuing melee. He had helped take the injured to the hospital. But our decision to not abort our journey turned out to be a good one—the city remained calm and we moved around freely. I felt proud of my fellow citizens for being so mature about the situation. It was my first time in Varanasi as an adult, and the place did not disappoint.
Located on the western bank of the Ganga, Varanasi (or Benares, Kashi), is among the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities and one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. Early Vedic religion took root here. It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi in the Buddha's time (6th century BCE), who gave his first post-enlightenment sermon at nearby Sarnath (he apparently avoided Varanasi, already a stronghold of Brahmanism). Varanasi has seen many reversals of fortune over the millennia, even as it retained some fame for its muslin and silk fabrics, sculpture, perfumes, and ivory art.
Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveler, visited here in c. 635 CE. The city, he wrote, "is densely populated. The families are very rich, and in the dwellings are objects of rare value. The disposition of the people is soft and humane, and they are earnestly given to study ... The climate is soft, the crops abundant, the [fruit] trees flourishing, and the underwood thick in every place." He estimated that the city had about 100 temples with 3,000 priests, who mostly honored Shiva—one of whose statues he saw as "full of grandeur and majesty". Some followers of this sect, he wrote, "cut off their hair, others tie their hair in a knot, and go naked, without clothes; they cover their bodies with ashes, and by the practice of all sorts of austerities they seek to escape from birth and death." In the early 11th century, the great Persian scholar, Al-Beruni, visited India and called Varanasi a leading center of the "Hindu sciences".
But Varanasi declined in the early centuries of Muslim rule (from 1194). It was attacked by raiders and its learned men fled to other parts of India. In the 16th century, Emperor Akbar brought relief and support to the city. In 1660, Frenchman Francois Bernier wrote about visiting this "celebrated seat of learning" and, in a letter to a friend, curiously called Varanasi the "Athens of India". He described its guru-disciple model of schooling, with 4-15 disciples per guru, who met "in private houses, and principally in the gardens of the suburbs, which the rich merchants permit them to occupy." The few who pursue such study do so "slowly, and without much to distract their attention, while eating their kichery, a mingled mess of vegetables supplied to them by the care of rich merchants". Bernier mentioned "a large hall ... entirely filled" with books on "philosophy, works on medicine written in verse, and many other kinds of books." Nevertheless, the students he met seemed to him of "indolent temper, and strangers to the excitement which the possibility of advancement in an honorable profession produces among the members of European universities."
Outsiders have long been drawn to Varanasi's ghats, which are lined with shrines, temples, dormitories, former royal houses, devotees, animals, and more. Varanasi now receives over a million pilgrims each year. Many hope to die here in old age, or at least to be cremated here. Still a center of Hindu learning—and of orthodoxy—it now also has three universities and a dozen colleges. It remains famous for its silk fabrics, including brocades with gold and silver thread-work. We visited a Muslim mohalla known for its guild of traditional weavers, who work with manual wooden looms inside their homes. They invited us in, explained the process, fed us tea; we bought some of their exquisite creations as gifts for people back home. The narrow streets bustled with children enthralled by us exotic strangers and were only too eager to be photographed.
My most memorable experience of Varanasi was the visit to its two burning ghats. The bigger one, Manikarnika, hosts up to 200 cremations a day; the other is Harishchandra. The process, as a cremation ground worker explained to me, is simple and unadorned. Above the ghats are stacks of firewood. The family of the deceased, according to their means, chooses one of the funeral packages on offer—each with a certain grade and quantity of firewood, sandalwood or its sawdust, straw, ghee (clarified butter), and other ritualistic paraphernalia—along with a priest's services. It struck me that many victims of the bomb blasts, too, must have ended up here.
Once the pyre is set up, four men close to the deceased carry the corpse in on a bamboo stretcher supported on their shoulders. They transfer the corpse, wrapped in plain cloth, onto the pyre and pay their final respects (women do so at home and traditionally do not attend funerals, but this is changing in urban India). If the deceased lived to be over eighty, there may even be muted celebration and gaiety. The priest begins the rituals and the chanting—part of the antim sanskaar, or last rites, which vary by region, caste, and other social factors.
The chief mourner, usually the eldest son or brother or the husband, sprinkles ghee on the pyre, and is then handed a torch to set it alight—an intensely emotional moment for most Hindus. The first fire, mukhagni, is ritually lit at the mouth. A funerary worker might add more ghee or straw to ensure the fire picks up and burns evenly. This worker is usually from the Dalit caste Dom (or Chandala; many of its members, like the Romani, also migrated centuries ago to the Middle-East and Europe and have a long legacy of musical acumen). When the corpse is significantly burned, an important ritual called kapal kriya is initiated: the chief mourner is given a pole for a quick jab at the skull, breaking it and releasing the atman to continue its transmigration.
If a family can afford only the cheapest funeral package—or none, in which case they rely on help from the government—the corpse is burned in stages on a small pyre: the middle part burns first; the head and the legs stick out until they are nudged in deftly by a pole after the middle part collapses. It takes about 250 Kgs of firewood and three hours to incinerate a corpse. After the burning is complete, the chief mourner and others douse the smoldering pyre with water from the river. They gather the ashes and fragments of bones in an urn, and go down the ghats to empty it in the Ganga. Dom men wait there with wire nets to sift through the remains, hoping to find bits of gold from a tooth or a nose ring.
Curiously, a subset of Hindus ought not to be cremated here—sadhus, lepers, children under five, pregnant women, and snake-bite victims are to be consigned directly to the sacred river. Their corpses, it is said, do not need further purification by fire, so they are taken in a boat to the middle of the Ganga, tied to a stone, and sunk to the bottom, becoming food for fishes and river turtles. Some of these corpses, or parts thereof, later float up to the surface, spooking unsuspecting tourists. The liturgy of death in Varanasi is not for the squeamish.
In 1984, as a much cheaper, quicker, and more eco-friendly alternative, the government installed an electric crematorium near the burning ghat but only a few use it. It has come to be seen as a poor man's choice that interferes with key rituals like kapal kriya. Funerary rites are so central to most people's religio-cultural identity that they are loathe to tinker with or abandon them—and Varanasi is not exactly rippling with tradition breakers. Moreover, the crematorium breaks down at times and is subject to the city's frequent power outages.
Watching the spectacle on the burning ghats from a balcony above, I felt a liberating calm visit me, the kind that steadies and concentrates the mind. What better way to peer into nothingness and to see our common fate, laid out evocatively in the Book of Common Prayer: from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Why, there is nothing morbid about death. It is a simple fact of life that should inform our daily choices and opinions. Yet, the greatest wonder, as Yudhisthira says in the Mahabharata, is that "each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal."
Azra Raza explains her work
by S. Abbas Raza
My sister Azra is an oncologist and one of the leading authorities in the world on Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) which refers to a group of diseases in which the body does not make enough red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. About a third of patients with MDS go on to develop leukemia. MDS afflicts around 55,000 Americans at present (but the number is increasing).
In her characteristically modest way, she did not tell me (or anyone else in the family) that about a year ago she made a number of videos that her patients can watch to get an idea of her background as well as information about the nature of MDS, what treatment options are available, what sort of current research is being done on it, etc. I happened to find the videos on YouTube yesterday as I was looking for something else, and so I have asked her if I can post them here, because I think they provide excellent insight into how scientists think in general, and her own work in particular.
There may be some bias in my infinite admiration for my sister but it is hardly as if she doesn't have admirers from outside of the family, especially among her colleagues as well as her patients. Some readers may still accuse me of promoting my own family. Yes, I am guilty as charged. If you have a sister as accomplished as mine, you should be promoting her work too! :-)
Azra Raza, M.D., is Professor of Medicine, and Director of the Myelodysplastic Syndromes Center, at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Of course, she is also a fellow editor at 3QD. The videos have been shot in her office. I hope you'll find them as interesting as I did.
Is that where wool comes from?
Sometimes, I play it straight: 1-95
Exit 16. Hang a left. In the Himalayas
My roads diverged.
Outsider in a land of outsiders
Occupy all. Not, where are you from
But, where are we going
Rafiq Kathwari is a guest poet at 3QD.
Pakistan and the Ahmedis: Headed for disaster or just more of the same?
by Omar Ali
The Ahmediya movement was started in Punjab in 19th century British India, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadiyan. He seems to have been a somewhat stereotypical prophet; a quiet, religious loner who brooded about the challenges faced by his faith and his people. The decisive military and economic superiority of Western civilization over the Islamicate world had produced a variety of efforts at reform and revitalization. They ranged from the Wahabi-influenced puritanical Jihadism of Syed Ahmed Barelvi (who led an extremely fanatical jihadist movement in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, until he was defeated by superior Sikh firepower and a reaction to his extreme views among the local Muslims) to the anglophile reformism of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (founder of Aligarh Muslim University). Mirza Ghulam Ahmed’s response was to start a movement of religious revival that was built around his own charismatic claims. Though he contradicted some mainstream Islamist claims about the finality of prophet-hood and the absolute necessity of military Jihad (military jihad as a Muslim duty is now so widely downplayed that it is hard for Westerners and even Westernized Muslims to figure out why his claim was considered so controversial), his movement was socially conservative and even puritanical. He found some support among modestly educated middle class Punjabi Muslims (including Islamist icon Allama Mohammed Iqbal, who either flirted with joining the movement or actually joined for a few years, depending on what version you believe). As his movement (and his claims regarding his own status as prophet or messiah) grew, it drew more and more orthodox opposition, especially from the dominant Sufi-oriented Barelvi Sunni sect. Ironically this branch of local Islam enjoyed some American (and world media) attention as “moderate and tolerant Muslims” in contrast to their Deobandi/Wahhabi brethren in the aftermath of 9-11 (though this attempt to fight Wahabi/Deobandi fire with Sufi-Barelvi water seems to have run into some trouble recently).This increasingly vocal opposition (complete with fatwas from Mecca declaring the Ahmedis as apostates liable to the death penalty if they did not repent) led to a sharper separation between Ahmedis and other Muslim sects, but the Ahmedis themselves always claimed to be Muslims and even made efforts to remain fully engaged in “Muslim causes”. Some Ahmedis played a prominent role in the Pakistan movement (most prominently in the person of Sir Zafrullah Khan, first foreign minister of Pakistan and Jinnah’s representative on the boundary commission that divided India) and others held prominent positions in the new state and fought for it with distinction (most famously, General Akhtar Malik in the 1965 war with India). It is likely that neither they, nor the relatively Westernized leadership of the Muslim league had a clear idea of what lay in store for them in Pakistan. Even more ironically, the Ahmedis themselves aggressively pursued “blasphemers” (e.g. Pandit Lekh Ram in Punjab in 1897). It is hard to read this Ahmedi polemic against Lekh Ram without thinking about where the Ahmedis themselves now lie in relation to the blasphemy meme.
Soon after partition, the Islamist factions in Pakistan picked up the Ahmedi issue as a wedge issue with which they could acquire power and influence in a society that was otherwise not very interested in organized political Islam. Various elite factions (and, it is sometimes alleged, the American embassy) maneuvered against each other using this movement in creative ways, until their vicious squabbles derailed Pakistan’s rudimentary democracy. Still, even though they may have been useful to some elite factions, anti-Ahmedi troublemakers were still outside the elite mainstream and remained so until 1971. During the rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, this issue was again raked up and various Islamist parties found it useful to beat up on the Ahmedis on the way to power in Islamabad. Bowing to riots and rallies, Bhutto himself undertook to officially declare the Ahmedis as non-Muslims in 1974. Having tasted blood, the Islamist parties have never looked back, with steady increase in persecution and legal restrictions on the Ahmedi community and sustained propaganda that ensures that most Pakistanis find it difficult to publicly defend the threatened community.
It is very likely that the percentage of people in Pakistan who believe Ahmedis should be killed unless they repent is larger than the percentage of Germans who, in 1933, believed that all Jews should be killed (as opposed to, say, “put in their place” or just encouraged to leave). The blasphemy law and specific laws prohibiting Ahmedis from using any Islamic symbols are regularly used to put uppity Ahmedis in their place. Prominent businesses owned by Ahmedis can be targeted for boycotts or worse, and in some cases of mistaken identity, the business has gone out of its way to prove that Ahmedis are not the owners. Property can be grabbed from Ahmedi owners by cooking up blasphemy allegations or simply threatening to do so (in which case the sane owner may decide to play ball before any public effort is launched). Of course, such methods are not restricted to Ahmedis. Once human beings find a good thing, they tend to use it more and more. Still, Ahmedis remain uniquely vulnerable.
Currently, trouble is brewing in Rawalpindi, where the local branch of the Islamic militant network is preparing to bring down a local Ahmedi “house of worship” (the word mosque would be illegal). These Islamists/militants belong to what used to be the military-mullah alliance, though the army’s role in the current kerfuffle is unknown. It may be that the military component of the military-mullah alliance is not be as unified as it used to be, but thanks to decades of secret deals and conspiracies, such things are nearly impossible to figure out with certainty in Pakistan. Anyway, things may yet get settled if the Ahmedis concerned grovel enough (some money may change hands) or they may get worse, but other episodes will undoubtedly follow.
What then will be the longer term trend? Will Pakistan gradually become a more liberal and democratic country where anti-Ahmedi discrimination will gradually lessen? Or will it become a “neo-liberal authoritarian” regime that too will have less incentive to encourage free-lance attacks on life and property? Or will the Ahmedi’s role as designated national scapegoat be taken to its logical conclusion in a systematic fashion?
I generally like to think that saner elements in the elite will eventually tone down such persecutions because they tend to become self-destructive, but if the Germans can go to hell in 12 years, isn’t it possible that we too may end up in a less disciplined and less efficient version of the same? Or will the street agitators remain under elite control, to be used as needed in its internal and external squabbles, but not accelerating into anything resembling Nazi Germany or Rwanda? In my optimistic moments, I think it is the second, but this is really an appeal for information; I want your opinion, which way will this go?
Iqbal Hussain. Family.
Oil on canvas.
Given Tender: on Naming in a Bi-Cultural Family
by Mara Jebson
My stepfather had always wanted twins. In his culture, having twins was lucky, and a sign of more luck to come. In parts of Togo it is customary to give both twins names beginning with the same letter. One would hear about Afi and Abla, Joseph and Jonathan, or Elise and Esmee.
Although my stepfather never did have twins, he gave the three children he had with my mother names beginning with the letter “V”. He never explained about the “V”. A disciplined man, rigid in his habits, he was weird about names. Family lore holds that he was once charged with taking his baby brother’s birth certificate to the official bureau for naming. Along the dusty road he must have gotten inspired. In any case, most people in Togo have French or Togolese names, but his youngest brother would go through life as Martino, the O courtesy of his brother.
His own name, Kodjo, was really quite boring. In the years after Colonialism, there were a few Africanist measures taken to try to revolt against the pervasive French influence. Togolese citizens christened with European names were required to go re-name themselves with African names. These names were easy to choose, as all Ewe also have the name that is determined by the weekday of their birth. Kodjo merely means, “born on a Monday.”
When my mother met Kodjo in graduate school in America, he used this official name, and it was his American name. When we three, along with my new sister, left Philadelphia to move to Togo in the early nineties, among the many astonishments we had in store was the fact that no one else called him Kodjo. In Togo he went by “Johnny.”
My new sister’s name began with “V”, and, he told us, meant: “it has happened.” The “it”, he said it was implied, was a something long awaited and wonderful. I don’t understand how the Ewe language works, but my stepfather understood it very well. It was the first of the five languages he spoke, and his sense of it seemed to lay at the base of much of his work in ethnography. In any case, he understood it so well that he sort of invented my sister’s name out of sounds from the Ewe language. Its meaning also had to be explained to other Ewe speakers—but when it was explained, they seemed to “get it.”
Once we’d been in Togo a few years, my mother got pregnant again. My stepfather came up with another “V” name. This one meant: “that which has two roots grows strong”—an explicit call to my next sister to appreciate her bi-racial, bicultural heritage. And finally, a few years after that, the thing that Kodjo had wanted even more than twins happened—my mother had a boy. Another “V” name. This one meant: “God has blessed us.” By then I was in college in America.
When I was a teenager in Togo, my stepfather and I did not understand one another very well. I had never had a father before, and he had never had a daughter. Neither our natural personalities nor our cultures prepared us to deal with one another. He was serious-minded, principled and orderly, and seemed to assert that in return for his protection and care, I should learn to speak his language, to cook, and honor his family. But I was too shy to engage with most of his family, too frivolous and generally un-domestic to interest myself in household tasks, and, at first, too homesick to interest myself in his culture.
When I went to college and became a poet things changed. Then, when I went to Togo for visits, we would sometimes talk about Aimee Cesaire, and the other poets of Negritude that I was studying. He would warn me that becoming a poet might make me hungry, but that when I was hungry, I should enjoy poetry even more. He had a wide romantic streak. By then, he was the father of three other children and had softened some of his assumptions about what daughters were supposed to be like.
I was in my mid-twenties when I asked for a name beginning with “V”. It had not been as difficult as some might imagine to be the only white child in my family. People rarely mentioned it, and some would say to Kodjo—“your eldest is very light-skinned!” But I wanted a “V” name.
The name he gave was Vevie. But I can’t entirely remember what it meant. I remember the sheet of paper with different names written in pencil on it; a piece of paper much like the ones he’d laboured over when each of the others was born.
“Vevie” seemed to have something to do with expensiveness, struggle. Something to do with work. I remember being confused but satisfied with my partial understanding of the name.
The word “tender” means a formal offer duly made by one party to another. One can tender amends, which is to offer compensation. To tender anything is an offer of something for acceptance.
The word “dear” seems to help me work my way towards it. When something is dear it is valued, as in: “to hold dear.” And dear means: obtained at great cost.
In the end, I can’t ask him, as he got ill many years ago and now it is too late. And because he invented these names himself, I can’t ask anyone else, either. No one has ever called me Vevie. He suggested I could use it as a poetry name, and one day I might. In any case, I think I understand it. It has something to do with me not being the daughter God gave him, but the one he had to work for, himself.
January 29, 2012
The Origins of Property: A Parable with Morals
Terrence Tomkow in his blog:
I call them a "tribe" but that name may mislead if it suggests some rigorous form of social organization. In fact, the group was about as un-organized as it is possible for people to be. There were among them no elders, chiefs, shamans or any other kind of leader with authority over his fellows. With one exception-- which we will soon discuss -- there were no laws, rules or taboos that were obeyed or enforced among them and no judges or police to enforce them.
This lack of norms was reflected in their language which (luckily for our narrative purposes) was much like modern English but which lacked any moral or legal vocabulary. The natives never spoke of 'right' or 'wrong', 'legal' or 'law'. They had no words for 'promise', or 'contract' and none for 'property' or 'ownership'.
Even so, as I just averred, there was one rule that the natives generally acknowledged and mostly conformed to. They called it "The Rule".
The Rule: No Bullying!
By 'bullying' the natives seem to have meant, roughly, hurting other people or using force or the threat of force to compel others to do what they would otherwise not do. But not every use of force or infliction of harm was regarded as bullying.
It was, for example, not considered bullying to use force or its threat to defend oneself or someone else against a bully. The Rule permitted self-defense and "other defense" and this had important consequences for all of tribal life.
To understand these upshots it is necessary to understand that the tribe's aversion to bullying did not mean that they were averse to violence or the use of force.
Dr. Terry Wahls - Minding Your Mitochondria
Harold Varmus and the Provocative Questions Project
Robert Langreth at Bloomberg News:
Why do obese people get cancer more often? How can some turtles live more than a century without ever developing tumors while mice can develop them in a year? Could treatments that hold tumor cells in check without destroying them keep people alive longer?
Answering questions like these may lead to the next big cancer breakthroughs, said Harold Varmus, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, in an interview. The Nobel Prize winner said the NCI would spend at least $15 million this year in a new initiative to answer 24 “provocative questions” that researchers have often neglected.
“In an effort to stop people from obsessing over the fact that the budget is not growing, I’ve been trying to engage them in workshops to define the great unanswered questions in cancer research,” Varmus, 72, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. “We’re trying to drive science in a novel way.”
Spending for the Bethesda, Maryland-based institute Varmus has led since July 2010 will decline to $5.07 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $5.1 billion in 2010. The provocative question project will try to create a middle ground between top- down big science projects, and relying on scientists to come up with their own ideas, according to a commentary published in Nature magazine this week by Varmus and Ed Harlow, a cancer researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston and senior adviser to Varmus.
Citizen Philosophers: Teaching Justice in Brazil
Carlos Fraenkel in Boston Review:
Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.
Most of the four million slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil were sold in Salvador, the first residence of Portugal’s colonial rulers. It’s still Brazil’s blackest city. In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.
“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable in The Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents.
To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. Voting in Brazil is obligatory, but many think it’s useless. In 2010, the largest number of votes for any member of congress went to Tiririca, a popular TV clown, who ran on the slogan, “I don’t know what a congressman does, but vote me in and I’ll tell you.” João Belmiro, another high school philosophy teacher, finds this outrageous. Philosophy, he hopes, will bring change before long.
To Name the Unnameable
Kenan Malik in Eurozine:
It is this idea of speech as intrinsically good that has been transformed. Today, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. By its very nature, many argue, speech damages basic freedoms. It is not intrinsically a good but inherently a problem because speech inevitably offends and harms. Speech, therefore, has to be restrained, not in exceptional circumstances, but all the time and everywhere, especially in diverse societies with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs. Censorship (and self-censorship) has to become the norm. "Self-censorship", as the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar put it at the height of the Rushdie affair, "is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone's – not least every Muslim's – business."
Increasingly politicians and policy makers, publishers and festival organizers, liberals and conservatives, in the East and in the West, have come to agree. Whatever may be right in principle, many now argue, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. We live in a world, so the argument runs, in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values. For such diverse societies to function and to be fair, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. Social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect. The avoidance of cultural pain has, therefore, come to be regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, "If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism." What the anti-Baals of today most fear is starting arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.
The consequence of all this has been the creation not of a less conflicted world, but of one that is more sectarian, fragmented and tribal.
The Wannsee Conference
This movie has haunted me for years, well, technically, for decades.
Hubbard insisted that the principles of Dianetics had nothing to do with ‘any mumbo-jumbo of mysticism or spiritualism or religion’. He assured readers that ‘Dianetics is a science; as such, it has no opinion about religion, for sciences are based on natural laws.’ Throughout the United States, people formed Dianetics clubs and helped each other to become ‘clear’: in this state, they would be free of all compulsions, neuroses and delusions, see colours vividly for the first time, appreciate melody, perform complex mathematical calculations and recall every moment of their lives. Hubbard was so confident of the merits of his electro-psychometer, a device used to detect hidden trauma by measuring galvanic skin response, that he asked the American Medical Association to investigate his new tool. The medical establishment showed no interest. In a review in the Nation, the kindest thing the psychiatrist Milton Sapirstein could say about Dianetics was that ‘the author seems honestly to believe what he has written.’
Hubbard took the rejection badly. When his followers were arrested for practising medicine without a licence, he complained that the United States made it ‘illegal to heal or cure anything’. He began to reconsider the distinction he’d made between psychology and spiritual practice. In a 1953 newsletter he wrote that the process of uncovering repressed memories through auditing is ‘perhaps allied with religion, perhaps a mystic practice and possibly just another form of Christian Science or plain Hubbardian nonsense’. The following year, embracing what he called the ‘religious angle’, he opened the first church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The electro-psychometer was no longer used as a diagnostic tool but became instead a ‘valid religious instrument, used in Confessionals’.
In The Church of Scientology, one of only a handful of academic treatments of the subject, Hugh Urban is less interested in the experiences of Scientologists than in the legal processes and semantic twists through which a set of beliefs becomes a religion.
NYPD Anti-Muslim Training Video Story
From The Village Voice:
Former Voice columnist and CUNY Journalist-in-Residence Tom Robbins was on the Brian Lehrer Show, talking about the fallout from the NYPD showing an anti-Muslim training video to 1,500 personnel. It was great to hear Robbins credited for breaking this story (a full year before Michael Powell's follow up in the Times) in a January, 2011 Voice column titled "NYPD Cops' Training Included an Anti-Muslim Horror Flick." Here's the full audio. Take a listen as Robbins explains to Lehrer about a cop tipping him off, NYPD spokesman Paul Brown's initial denial that the video was being shown, and Brown's full final acknowledgment that not only was it shown, but that he arranged for Commissioner Ray Kelly to sit for an extended on camera interview, even though Robbins (nor any of us at the Voice) could even get Kelly on the phone. Here is also the actual film in question, which Robbins got Brown to admit was "wacky," though he declined to admit his role in facilitating Kelly's interview in it until this week.
The Archive of Modern Conflict
The Archive of Modern Conflict is a collection of oddities (mostly photographic) pulled together from diverse sources by a very clever group of quirky collectors in the UK. As the subject areas of the collection expand, they intertwine to reveal unexpected stories about the nature of our world.
Amc2 is a brand new journal that digs into the collection to present a not-quite-random confluence of bizarre artifacts. For example, Issue 1 features time travel, cranio-restorative surgery, Belgian dog carts, hand-painted Indian portraits (shown here in Lens Culture), cake recipes, masked wrestling, early French pornography, illustrated promotional cards for cigarettes, and much more. What's so great about the people behind this ever-growing eclectic collection, is that they allow the reader to discover threads of connections between, say, hand-tinted Indian portraits from the early 1900s and the garish colors of Bollywood movie posters and something as esoteric as a Rock Hudson paper doll kit with a variety of kitschy hand-colored outfits for that movie star from the 1950s and 1960s.
June the Horse
Sleep is water. I'm an old man surging
upriver on the back of my dream horse
that I haven't seen since I was ten.
We're night riders through cities, forests, fields.
I saw Stephanie standing on the steps of Pandora's Box
on Sheridan Square in 1957. She'd never spoken
to me but this time, as a horse lover, she waved.
I saw the sow bear and two cubs. She growled
at me in 1987 when I tried to leave the cabin while her cubs
were playing with my garbage cans. I needed a drink
but I didn't need this big girl on my ass.
We swam up the Neva in St. Petersburg in 1972
where a girl sat on the bank hugging a red icon
and Raskolnikov, pissed off and whining, spat on her feet.
On the Rhône in the Camargue fighting bulls
bellowed at us from a marsh and 10,000 flamingos
took flight for Africa.
This night-riding is the finest thing I do at age seventy-two.
On my birthday evening we'll return to the original
pasture where we met and where she emerged from the pond
draped in lily pads and a coat of green algae.
We were children together and I never expected her return.
One day as a brown boy I shot a wasp nest with bow and arrow,
releasing hell. I mounted her from a stump and without
reins or saddle we rode to a clear lake where the bottom
was covered with my dreams waiting to be born.
One day I'll ride her as a bone-clacking skeleton.
We'll ride to Veracruz and Barcelona, then up to Venus.
by Jim Harrison
from Songs of Unreason
Copper Canyon Press
January 28, 2012
Jonathan Penner in the LA Review of Books:
It’s Dangerous to be an Artist
As a young upstart filmmaker I felt that you were not a real filmmaker if you didn’t write your own stuff and it should be original. And that was beyond the French version of the auteur theory which was really meant to rehabilitate the artistic credibility of guys like Howard Hawks and John Ford. The French were saying a director could work within the studio system and still be an artist and that those guys were, even though they didn’t normally write their own stuff. And for years I said, no, no you have to write your own stuff. But then I got involved with Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and it was more of a studio project, and there were five scripts that had been written, one of them by Stephen King himself, and frankly I didn’t think his script was the best of the five. In fact, I thought that if I did his script people would kill me for betraying his novel. I think what happened is that he just wanted to try something else. He wasn’t interested in just doing the novels, so he changed it quite a lot to the point where it was less like the novel than Jeffrey Boam’s script, which was actually more faithful. So I started to work with Jeffrey Boam, and I started to really enjoy the process of working with other people and on the script, and I thought, well this is interesting ‘cause what it means is, if you mix your blood with other people’s, then you will create something that you wouldn’t have done on your own, but is enough of you that it’s exciting and feels like you. It’s kind of like making children.
Beyond that, frankly, what opened the door for me doing adaptations was realizing that it doesn’t matter where the idea for the movie comes from. For me it’s really just a matter of developing every aspect that you can as an artist. Film art is so complex that it’s very rare to have someone who’s good at every aspect of it.
Is it Time for Science to Move on from Materialism, or the Return of Rupert Sheldrake
Predictably, I think the answer is a clear no, but Mark Vernon makes the case in the Guardian:
Of materialism, [Werner Heisenberg] wrote:
"[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world."
Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."
That's provocative rhetoric. Science an act of faith? Science a belief system? But then how else to explain the grip of the mechanistic, physicalist, purposeless cosmology? As Heisenberg explained, physicists among themselves have long stopped thinking of atoms as things. They exist as potentialities or possibilities, not objects or facts. And yet, materialism persists.
Heisenberg recommended staying in touch with reality as we experience it, which is to say holding a place for conceptions of mind and soul. The mechanistic view will pass, he was certain. In a way, Sheldrake's scientific career has been devoted to its overthrow. He began in a mainstream post as director of studies in cell biology at Cambridge University, though he challenged the orthodoxy when he proposed his theory of morphogenetic fields.
This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules "exploring" all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: "It would take a small protein about 10^26 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe."
As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake's particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit.
Viruses evolve new ways of making people sick
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
Viruses regularly evolve new ways of making people sick, but scientists usually do not become aware of these new strategies until years or centuries after they have evolved. In a new study published on Thursday in the journal Science, however, a team of scientists at Michigan State University describes how viruses evolved a new way of infecting cells in little more than two weeks.
The report is being published in the midst of a controversy over a deadly bird flu virus that researchers manipulated to spread from mammal to mammal. Some critics have questioned whether such a change could have happened on its own. The new research suggests that new traits based on multiple mutations can indeed occur with frightening speed.
The Michigan researchers studied a virus known as lambda. It is harmless to humans, infecting only the gut bacterium Escherichia coli. Justin Meyer, a graduate student in the biology laboratory of Richard Lenski, wondered whether lambda might be able to evolve an entirely new way of getting into its host.
After the Battle Against SOPA—What's Next?
Lawrence Lessig in The Nation:
January 18, 2012, could prove to be an incredibly important day, and not just for copyright policy or the Internet. On that day, two critically important things happened. First, with its 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder, the Supreme Court shut the door, finally and firmly, on any opportunity to meaningfully challenge a copyright statute constitutionally. Second, millions from the Internet opened the door, powerfully if briefly, on the powers that dominate policymaking in Washington, and effectively stopped Hollywood’s latest outrage to address “piracy”—a k a the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).
The constitutional battle began over a decade ago. Conservatives on the Supreme Court had long rumbled about the need to respect the “original intent” of the “framers” of our Constitution by enforcing the affirmative limits of the Constitution. In 1995, a 5-4 Court decision shocked conventional wisdom by striking a law regulating commerce because, as the Court found, it exceeded those original limits. Three years later, the Court did the same, this time with a law regulating violence against women. The Court seemed eager to read the Constitution the way the framers wrote it, regardless of how the current Congress read it.
So beginning in 1999, copyright activists started to ask the Court to apply the same reasoning to copyright law.
Amazing show on people with "Superior Autobiographical Memory"
The myth of American decline
Note: At the State of the Union on January 26, President Barack Obama argued, "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about." According to a Foreign Policy report, the president had read and been influenced by the TNR article below, discussing it at length in an off-the-record meeting on the afternoon of the speech.
Robert Kagan in The New Republic:
Is the United States in decline, as so many seem to believe these days? Or are Americans in danger of committing pre-emptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power? A great deal depends on the answer to these questions. The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it. It will be replaced by some other kind of order, reflecting the desires and the qualities of other world powers. Or perhaps it will simply collapse, as the European world order collapsed in the first half of the twentieth century. The belief, held by many, that even with diminished American power “the underlying foundations of the liberal international order will survive and thrive,” as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry has argued, is a pleasant illusion. American decline, if it is real, will mean a different world for everyone.
But how real is it? Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, that “that used to be us.”
You can go blind, waiting
except for their
Moving the sea around
Unbelievable quiet inside you, as they change
the face of water
The only other time I felt this still was watching Leif shoot up when
we were twelve
Sunlight all over his face
the surface of something
I couldn’t see
You can wait your
The Himalayas are on the move, appearing and disappearing in the snow in the Himalayas
begins to fill
the half-dead auditorium
giant step by
My grandfather walks across the front porch
spotted with cancer, smoking
a black cigar
The whales fold themselves back and back inside the long hallways of
You have to stare back at the salt
the sliding mirrors
just to see something
for the last time
By now they are asleep
some are asleep
on the bottom of the world
sucking the world in
and blowing it out
Leif laid his head back on a pillow and waiting for all the blood inside him
to flush down
After seeing whales what do you see?
The hills behind the freeway
the green sea
by Michael Dickman
from The End of the West
Copper Canyon Press, 2009
Danny Baker, Oscar Wilde and me
Chris Evans in The Telegraph:
It wasn't books at first, not straight off. My first "foreign" girlfriend (i.e. from outside Warrington) was Sara. She was four years older than me, the difference between knowing and not knowing. A journalist, sexy as hell beneath a Purdey hairdo, Sara was supremely middle-class, clever, feminist, a voracious reader and with a point of view on everything. It was undoubtedly she who began my rehabilitation, my secondary education if you like, quietly press-ganging me into seeing foreign-language films at art-house cinemas. People like me didn't "do" arty, did they? Well, yes they did and I loved it. Betty Blue. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nikita. La Dolce Vita. I couldn't get enough. From Manchester, we moved to London, where I began working alongside university graduates on a daily basis. And they were nice! "Like real people, almost," I remember thinking. Far less aloof towards me than I to them. Decent, affable human beings everywhere I looked. I continued to realise how wrong I had been. But still, the process was glacially slow. Then, alas, my redemption came to a grinding halt as my career took off. Channel Four's Big Breakfast was a hit. I was tripped up by that dreaded double act of fame and fortune. Until, that is, TFI Friday was born and I became friends with the magnificent writer and broadcaster, Danny Baker. Danny is Mr Words, Mr Books and Mr Memory. He loves the English language more than anyone I know. "You need to read some Charles Bukowski," he barked at me one day. A week later I'd read five. On another occasion, Danny threw a copy of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations at me inscribed with the message: "Dive in and dig deep, in here is everything you need to know." It was also he who gifted me my first Oscar Wilde novel – a beautiful collectors' edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. "Breathtakingly brilliant, there's no one better." And so the tide began to turn again. And I'm happy to declare it has been turning ever since. I've since even written two books of my own which some people have actually bought!
I could harp on forever as to why we need to push the little ones in to falling in love with the written word, but let's draw to a close with this. The written word has a huge advantage over what we say. By that I mean the writer gets to convey exactly what they really want, exactly how they want to convey it. And one of its many and appealing secrets is that it allows us the luxury of consideration, of almost sounding better than we really are. Of course it's still entirely us but I can't tell you how many published authors I have met who can barely string two words together. Give them a keyboard and they can take on the world.
Islam and the West Through the Eyes of Two Women
From The New York Times:
Very few of the heroes and villains made famous in the wars of the past decade are women. Of the scant exceptions, two of the most fascinating are the subjects of Deborah Scroggins’s thoughtful double biography, “Wanted Women.” One is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born thinker and neoconservative darling; the other is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who, in 2010, was sentenced to 86 years in prison for her assault on American personnel in Afghanistan. She is known as Al Qaeda’s highest-ranking female associate. The popular imagination has cast Hirsi Ali as a firebrand, clad in a satin evening gown and flanked by bodyguards as she denounces Islam. The diminutive Siddiqui is a firebrand of a different sort. She wears a burqa and totes vials of chemical weapons in her purse while denouncing the West. Yet the issue of who these self-made women actually are — and who they aren’t — remains deeply contested. In 1992, Hirsi Ali fled from Africa to the Netherlands, where she won a bid for asylum and Dutch citizenship. She was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003. Thanks to her speeches, articles and participation in a short film called “Submission,” which depicted verses of the Koran on a woman’s naked body, as well as to her two successful autobiographies, “Infidel” and “Nomad,” she has been embraced both by many feminists and many on the American right. She argues that “Islam is backward,” and that its values must be stamped out before they overwhelm the West. Her most vociferous supporters — including her husband, the historian Niall Ferguson — consider her to be one of the staunchest defenders of freedom in our time. The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “The three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” Her critics, however, claim that her views are simplistic and, more harshly, that she is an opportunist.
Siddiqui is similarly polarizing. She traveled from her home in Karachi to the United States in 1989 to pursue her education, which she did at M.I.T. and Brandeis University. She eventually married Amjad Khan, a doctor from Karachi, bore him three children and completed the requirements for her master’s degree and Ph.D. in neuroscience in less than four years. At the same time she was embracing the most millenarian principles of jihad. In 2002, after the F.B.I. had begun investigating her for links to Al Qaeda, she returned to Pakistan and soon disappeared, only to be spotted in Ghazni, Afghanistan, along with her 12-year-old son in 2008. Maps, toxic chemicals and diagrams for making bombs were found in her possession, and after a tussle with American forces during which she was shot in the stomach, she was taken into custody. Her defenders — including her family and many Pakistanis — believe she is a devout mother and martyred hero sentenced to American prison because she is a Muslim. The United States government contends she is a terrorist. In “Wanted Women,” Scroggins traces the lives of Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui from their earliest childhoods down to the present. Hirsi Ali continues to live in the United States; Siddiqui now resides in Fort Worth, Tex., where she is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center Carswell and receiving psychiatric treatment.
January 27, 2012
Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice
Stephanie Pappas at Yahoo! News:
The research finds that children with low intelligence are more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes as adults. These findings point to a vicious cycle, according to lead researcher Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, the study found. Those ideologies, in turn, stress hierarchy and resistance to change, attitudes that can contribute to prejudice, Hodson wrote in an email to LiveScience.
"Prejudice is extremely complex and multifaceted, making it critical that any factors contributing to bias are uncovered and understood," he said.
The findings combine three hot-button topics.
"They've pulled off the trifecta of controversial topics," said Brian Nosek, a social and cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the study. "When one selects intelligence, political ideology and racism and looks at any of the relationships between those three variables, it's bound to upset somebody."
Polling data and social and political science research do show that prejudice is more common in those who hold right-wing ideals that those of other political persuasions, Nosek told LiveScience.
In May of 1945, legendary Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins wrote to a young soldier serving overseas. The enlisted man had sent Perkins a short story and asked for advice about pursuing a writing career. Perkins was gently encouraging, urging the young man to take his time distilling his war experiences into fiction. By way of instruction and inspiration, he tells of visiting his author and friend Ernest Hemingway in Key West. “We went fishing every day in those many-colored waters, and then also in the deep-blue Gulf Stream. It was all completely new to me, and wonderfully interesting—there was so much to know that nobody would ever have suspected, about even fishing. I said to Hemingway, ‘Why don't you write about all this?’” Hemingway replied, “I will in time, but I couldn't do it yet.” Pointing to a pelican Perkins recalls as “clumsily flapping along,” the author added, “See that pelican? I don't know yet what his part is in the scheme of things.”more from Jennifer Acker at The Common here.
‘Without pain our life is unthinkable. With it, life is hardly to be endured’ (7). Most of us share the capacity to feel pain. We accept that having this general capacity is part of being human, yet we avoid specific experiences of pain. This is the first of our seemingly paradoxical attitudes to pain, with which Arne Johan Vetlesen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, opens his book. Secondly, we fear pain and condemn those who wantonly inflict it, though its forms and meanings fascinate us. It has a ‘Janus face’. Thirdly, we alone must endure the pain in our own bodies. Yet we readily observe pain in others and expect that they suffer from it as we do. What is privately suffered is assumed to be potentially shared. Such attitudes alert Vetlesen to the possibility that pain ‘contains something inherently desirable’. He is ‘prepared to be a spokesman for such an opposite view’ (10) – to decry a western culture that has developed ‘the most negative ever’ view of pain (8). If his opening stance impresses, it has to be conceded that his defence of pain’s desirability disappoints. So far as I can tell, this is summed up later in an aside: Being susceptible to pain means being ‘sensitive’ and so ‘able to experience what is good’. It also makes us ‘want to enrich and expand ourselves through contact with the good’ and motivates us ‘to protect everything that is good’ (92). These ideas – that the capacity for suffering is constitutively and causally related to goodness – have been explored by many who wrestle with the problem of evil. Vetlesen echoes the ideas without responding to the challenges that have been posed to them.more from Chuanfei Chin at The Berlin Review of Books here.
Why Salman Rushdie's voice was silenced in Jaipur
William Dalrymple in The Guardian:
In 2007, when literary events in Jaipur were still in their infancy, Rushdie was our first big international star, and his presence at the festival was a milestone for us. It raised our profile beyond anything we could have hoped or imagined. Rushdie came unannounced, with no bodyguards or police protection, and spoke brilliantly, sitting drinking tea and signing books for his fans, while giving avuncular advice to younger writers who had never met a writer of his stature. No objections were raised, no politicians got involved, no problems arose.
This time, however, the political situation in India is much more volatile. The 2012 festival happened to coincide with a razor-edge election in the all-important north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a poll in which the vote of the Muslim community was deemed to be crucial. It also came only four months after the Rajasthan government found itself in trouble with its Muslim voters after the Rajasthan police fired on a crowd of angry Muslim protesters at Gopalgarh, an hour's drive east of Jaipur, killing 10 people. All this meant that when, at Rushdie's request, we announced his name on our website, and when Maulana Nomani of Deoband then called for Rushdie to be banned from India, not a single Indian politician was willing to state clearly and unequivocally that he was welcome in the country in which he was born, which he loved, which he had celebrated in his fiction and to whose literature he had made such a ground-breaking contribution.
The ethics of brain boosting
The idea of a simple, cheap and widely available device that could boost brain function sounds too good to be true. Yet promising results in the lab with emerging ‘brain stimulation’ techniques, though still very preliminary, have prompted Oxford neuroscientists to team up with leading ethicists at the University to consider the issues the new technology could raise. They spoke to Radio 4's Today program this morning. Recent research in Oxford and elsewhere has shown that one type of brain stimulation in particular, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement. Critically, this is not just helping to restore function in those with impaired abilities. TDCS can be used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. Indeed, most of the research so far has been carried out in healthy adults. TDCS uses electrodes placed on the outside of the head to pass tiny currents across regions of the brain for 20 minutes or so. The currents of 1–2 mA make it easier for neurons in these brain regions to fire. It is thought that this enhances the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory. The technique is painless, all indications at the moment are that it is safe, and the effects can last over the long term.
Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who has carried out brain stimulation studies at the Department of Experimental Psychology, very definitely has a vision for how TDCS could be used in the future: "I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano," he says. The growing number of positive results in early-stage studies, led the neuroscientists Dr. Cohen Kadosh and Dr. Jacinta O’Shea to talk to Professor Neil Levy, Dr. Nick Shea and Professor Julian Savulescu in the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics about what ethical issues there may be in future widespread use of TDCS to boost abilities in healthy people.
rocks at the top pole
raised recites mantras of blue
memory on fingered glass counting
steps & the wet wind spits gravel
poised where each rock knows his name where
each check mark paints speed &
looks at the crazed wing sky bleeding
black tape over bamboo &
remembers ground time he wrapped
ethered arms around the moon & just
wrestled with her flannel & booze
breath smelling like no one's mom
& he runaway boy clicks sharp spikes
over hard cement with anger &
joy with clear eye on shining crossbar
striding with hope & grace &
with smooth hips & broad bone
of genius running with proud
heels erect & holy
by Jim Bell
from Crossing the Bar
Slate Roof Publishing Cooperative, 2005
Afghanistan: The Best Way to Peace
Anatol Lieven in the New York Review of Books:
The United States and its allies today find themselves in a position in Afghanistan similar to that of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev decided on military withdrawal by a fixed deadline. They are in a race against the clock to build up a regime and army that will survive their withdrawal, while either seeking a peace agreement with the leaders of the insurgent forces or splitting off their more moderate, pragmatic, and mercenary elements and making an agreement with them. The Soviets succeeded at least partially in some of these objectives, while failing utterly to achieve a peace settlement.
To date, that is just about true of the West as well; and while international support for the US position is much stronger than it was for the Soviets, our Afghan allies are much weaker and more fissiparous than theirs. Our Taliban enemies have been much more worn down militarily than the Afghan Mujahideen were by the Soviets during the late 1980s. But the Taliban and their allies draw on the same deep traditions of Islamist resistance to foreign “occupation” among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan as did some of the Mujahideen groups that fought against the Soviet occupation. (While Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, making up perhaps 40 percent of the population, they also make up about 15 percent of the Pakistani population and are concentrated along the Afghan border.) The Taliban have, moreover, comparatively safe bases in Pakistan to which they can withdraw. They will remain a very serious force.
Poem Forest: An audiovisual tour
Jon Cotner at the BMW Guggenheim Lab website:
Poem Forest took place November 2011 at the New York Botanical Garden, which was celebrating the renovation of its 50-acre old-growth forest. The Garden, in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America, asked me to do something poetry-related on site. This commission excited me because I wanted to pull poetry from libraries, magazines, books, etc., and put it in the world.
I’ve always felt that poetry is not an art object to be idly studied. Rather, it’s a way of life, a mode of knowing—a call to become more attentive and active. Koreans have an important proverb: “Knows his way, stops seeing.” Spanish poet Antonio Machado responds to this existential blur by advising us to “wake up as much as possible.” And before him, near the very beginnings of Greek philosophy (that moment when philosophy and poetry were still linked), Heraclitus said: “We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own.”
Machado and Heraclitus get to the heart of poetry’s power. Poetry can wake us, and in the process we create a shared world or “the commons.” But what characterizes this common world? How can we describe it? With such questions in mind, I shaped Poem Forest. A typical literary event wouldn’t work; it’s too easy to drift while others read their own prewritten material. Poem Forest needed to be more engaging. Otherwise it wouldn’t be poetic.
So I “installed” 15 lines pulled from 2,500 years of poetry along a trail through the old-growth forest. Visitors spoke each line (printed on a handout) at specific locations (marked by small orange signs) to which the lines corresponded conceptually or physically. For example, near the start of the self-guided walk, people would recite Pythagoras’s maxim “The wind is blowing; adore the wind” to clear their heads.
Robert Reich: The 7 Biggest Economic Lies
Machine Morality and Human Responsibility
Charles T. Rubin in The New Atlantis:
This year marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.
Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.
Today, some futurists are attempting to take seriously the question of how to avoid a robot apocalypse. They believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous robots will play an ever-increasing role as servants of humanity. In the near term, robots will care for the ill and aged, while AI will monitor our streets for traffic and crime. In the far term, robots will become responsible for optimizing and controlling the flows of money, energy, goods, and services, for conceiving of and carrying out new technological innovations, for strategizing and planning military defenses, and so forth — in short, for taking over the most challenging and difficult areas of human affairs.
January 26, 2012
The Art of Mastering Many Tongues
Peter Constantine in the New York Times Book Review:
Among the most surprising qualities of “Babel No More,” Michael Erard’s globe-trekking adventure in search of the world’s virtuosos of language learning, is that a book dealing with language acquisition and polyglot linguistics can be so gripping. But indeed it is — part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation, it is an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.
How is it, Erard asks, that certain people are able to accumulate what for the average person is a daunting number of languages? What are the secrets of polyglots who can master 6, 26, 96 languages? What are their quirks and attitudes? Are their brains wired differently from ours?
Erard, a journalist who writes frequently on language and whose previous book was “Um . . . : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean,” begins by visiting Bologna, Italy, the hometown of one of history’s most distinguished polyglots, the 19th-century cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti. The cardinal is said to have known 45, 50, 58 or even more languages, depending on whom you ask. Victorian travelers who met him at ecclesiastical banquets reported that he affably conversed in all directions with foreign visitors in languages ranging from French, German and Arabic to Algonquin and “Californian.” (Lord Byron, who challenged the cardinal to a multilingual contest of profanities, was not only summarily defeated but walked away from the contest having learned a number of new Cockney gibes.)
9/11 as art
THE GAMBIT OF THIS EXHIBITION about 9/11, which includes sixty-nine works by forty-two artists, is deceptively simple: to eschew any images of the attacks and any made in response to them. (As if to prove the rule, there is one exception, a 2003 proposal by Ellsworth Kelly to reconfigure Ground Zero as a giant trapezoidal park of bright green grass.) Instead, MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey writes in his brochure, “this exhibition considers the ways in which 9/11 has altered how we see and experience the world in its wake.” This is a strong thesis—one that asks to be taken seriously. As for the ban on images of 9/11, Eleey regards the attacks as an intervention in spectacle that was a spectacle in its own right: 9/11 “was made to be used,” he argues, with the Bush administration no less than Al Qaeda in mind. “Why would I want to repeat such transgression?” His catalogue essay begins with an epigraph from Wittgenstein—“A picture held us captive”—and his purported aim is to release us from this captivity, to despectacularize 9/11, a little. To this end, Eleey exhibited only work, created independently of the attacks, that, as stated in the brochure, “transcend[s] the specificities of its epoch, form, or content to uncannily address the present.” That art can resonate across time and place is a familiar notion, but often it concerns the retroactive effect of present practices on past ones, as in accounts of literary revision offered by T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) and Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Here the question is pitched differently: Might historical works foreshadow contemporary events and be changed by this unexpected connection?more from Hal Foster at Artforum here.
Agnieszka Holland is a half-Jewish director, born in Warsaw several years after the Second World War, who has had a varied and illustrious film career. She was assistant director on her mentor Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (1983), and directed films of her own in Poland, like the grim, political A Lonely Woman (1981). After 1981 most of her films, such as Olivier, Olivier (1992) and Washington Square (1997), were made elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. In recent years, she has directed episodes of David Simon’s two striking HBO series, The Wire and Treme. Holland, whose paternal grandparents were killed in the Warsaw ghetto and whose Catholic mother served in the Polish underground and helped save Jewish families, is probably best known for her Holocaust films: the psychologically penetrating Angry Harvest (1985), which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and Europa Europa (1990), her best known and critically acclaimed film. Holland has said that both Jewish and Gentile sensibilities exist within her. Consequently, all three of her Holocaust films deal with the complex relationship of victimized Jews to Gentiles in worlds—German, Polish, and Ukrainian—that either initiated or collaborated in the destruction of the Jews.more from Leonard Quart at Dissent here.
none of your fiddly french sauces
Vauxhall pleasure gardens, on the south bank of the Thames, entertained Londoners and visitors to London for 200 years. From 1729, under the management of Jonathan Tyers, property developer, impresario, patron of the arts, the gardens grew into an extraordinary business, a cradle of modern painting and architecture, and a music venue vital to the careers of Thomas Arne and George Frideric Handel: the Music for the Royal Fireworks was first played here, in a rehearsal attended by up to 12,000 paying customers. A pioneer of mass entertainment, Tyers had to become also a pioneer of mass catering, of outdoor lighting, of advertising, and of all the logistics involved in running one of the most complex and profitable business ventures of the eighteenth century in Britain. In this extraordinary work of historical reconstruction, David Coke and Alan Borg have collected a vast array of information about the gardens and somehow managed to arrange it into a compelling narrative. The book is almost too heavy to pick up, almost impossible to put down. The illustrations, some 300 in all, are sumptuous: not merely inert accompaniments to the story, they are read with a wonderfully careful attention to what they can tell us about the way, year by year, decade by decade, the gardens were changed, in search of the blend of continuity and novelty that was the secret of Tyers’s success in the glory years of Vauxhall.more from John Barrell at the TLS here.
"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." —James Joyce, The Dead
Snow and Love
On this day of burning heat, I’m waiting for snow.
I’ve been waiting for it always.
When I was a boy, I read Notes from the House of the Dead
and saw snow falling on Siberian steppes
and on the tattered coat of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I love snow because it doesn’t separate day from night
or distance heaven from the sufferings of earth.
It unites what’s separate:
the footsteps of those condemned to darkened ice
and sighs of love vanishing in the air.
One has to have a fine-tuned ear
to hear the music of falling snow, something almost silent
like the touch of an angel’s wing, assuming there are angels,
or the dying breath of a bird.
One shouldn’t wait for snow the way one waits for love.
They are different things. It’s enough to open our eyes to see the snow
falling on a deserted field. And it falls on us, cold white snow
that doesn’t burn like the flame of love.
To see love our eyes do not suffice,
nor our ears, nor our mouth, nor even our hearts
that beat in the dark with the same sound
as snow falling on the steppes
and on the roofs of darkened hovels
and on the tattered coat of Fyodor Dostoevsky.
To see love, nothing suffices. Both winter cold and searing heat
keep it from us, from our open arms
and our tormented hearts.
Faithful to my childhood, I prefer to see snow
that unites heaven and earth, night and day,
rather than be a helpless prey to love,
love that is neither white nor pure nor cold as snow.
by Lêdo Ivo
© Translation: 2010, Alexis Levitin
publisher: PIW, 2010