July 31, 2012
Nudge, Nudge: Can Software Prod Us Into Being More Civil?
Evan Selinger in The Atlantic:
Nudging is a distinctive way to help people make good decisions. It differs from the typical ways of attempting to change behavior: rational persuasion (e.g, providing new information), coercion (e.g., using threats to ensure compliance), adjusting financial incentives (e.g., paying students to get good grades) and bans (e.g., prohibiting smoking in restaurants). And, it has a limited domain of application: contexts where decisions need to be made, but we lack adequate time, information, or emotional wherewithal to know how to act in ways that further our best interests. In these cases, nudges work by subtly tweaking the contexts within which we make choices so that, on average, we will tend to make good ones.
Take ToneCheck, the emotional analogue to a spell checking tool. It is a nudge for those of us who can't resist sending flaming emails. Applying connotative intelligence research to "automatically detect the tone" of your email," it offers the author a warning (that can prompt revision) if a draft exceeds the threshold for negative emotions (e.g., anger or sadness). The author has been nudged.
In Memoriam: Chris Marker
Richard Brody in The New Yorker:
The very subject of Chris Marker’s work is memory; his death today, at the age of ninety-one (indeed, the day after his ninety-first birthday), elicits a simulacrum of memory, in tributes such as this one, where the contrast between the immediate significance (to the protagonist in the drama and to those who know and love him) and its public reflection is stretched to absurdity. For Marker, memory isn’t passive; it’s an act of resistance—the edge that cuts a path into the future—and the effective work of memory is the very definition of art. Marker was a master of film editing—the part of the filmmaking process that Jean-Luc Godard, another master editor and memory-artist, defined as holding past, present, and future in one’s own hands—and the very possibility of remembering Marker demands a little editing, a splicing-in of excerpts from a surprising and crucial document.
Marker gave few interviews and hardly ever allowed himself to be photographed; in one of the few interviews that he did grant—in 2003, to Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire, for Libération—he explained his reticence, calling himself “publiphobic”:
At the beginning of the sixties, that was well-thought-of, now it has become literally inadmissible. I can’t help it. That way of putting the mechanism of calumny in the service of praise has always rubbed me the wrong way, although I recognize that this diabolical sponsorship sometimes offers the most beautiful images one can see on a small screen (have you seen David Lynch with blue lips?).
In this remarkable text, he provides several signal examples of what he considered abuses of the press: the silence surrounding the 2002 reissue of a 1945 book by the novelist François Vernet, a friend of his who died at Dachau; the lack of discussion of a recording of songs by Viktor Ullmann of poems by Hülderlin and Rilke (“one is seized by the truly vertiginous idea that, at that moment, nobody glorified true German culture more than this Jewish musician who would soon die at Auschwitz”).
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be: Beyond the Ivy Islands
Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
It is odd to think that we live in a time when the college model may be in the process of breaking apart. So much suggests that college has never been more successful. Record numbers of students graduate every year. Every graduating class is more diverse than the one that preceded it. Foreign students flock to American quads. Harvard economists tell us that the college degree has never been worth more, relative to the high school degree, than it is today. Bill Gates and President Obama call for a doubling of the proportion of young adults with college degrees over the next decade. We seem to be heading for the day when we won’t have enough commencement speakers to go around.
And yet other indicators suggest that the college experience has never been more imperiled. Tuition has been increasing faster than inflation for more than 30 years. Some economists have begun to argue that college costs more than it is worth. Studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift suggest that the bottom third of students are not developing their analytical skills or thought processes in college, largely because not much is required of them. The fastest-growing parts of college budgets have nothing directly to do with teaching, but instead go to administrators and student affairs staff. In their efforts to shift enrollments to two-year community colleges, politicians like Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal have stated flatly that “most future jobs [in America] will require more training than a high school diploma but less than the traditional 4-year college degree.” More radical still are plans to break up degree programs into distinct, definable skills and to award badges for successful acquisition of each skill. Even institutions like Harvard and Stanford are hedging their bets on the future of site-specific four-year baccalaureates by sponsoring ambitious online projects.
How many Israelis ask themselves why they remain in a country that has become the most dangerous place for Jews?
Akiva Eldar in Haaretz:
Recently I had a heart-to-heart talk with a beloved relative who was born in this country, in an effort to persuade her to return and bring up her children in Israel. I was reminded of this conversation when I read the speeches made last week by the two leaders of the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at the graduation ceremony of the National Security College.
In his speech Netanyahu presented the five leading challenges that threaten the country: the Iranian nuclear program, the missile threat, cyber warfare, problems near the borders and the stockpiling of weapons in the region. He promised Israel would do its utmost to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He vowed that, to the extent that it is necessary, Israel would surround additional parts of the country with security fences, alter the composition of its forces and increase the defense budget.
Barak went even further in enumerating the disasters that confront us and could destroy us. The challenges we face, he said, are among the most complex and complicated that the state has faced in its entire existence. He warned that the Iranian nuclear plan could turn into an existential threat against the state, prophesized that neither diplomacy nor sanctions would be able to stop it, and promised not to remove any option from the agenda to thwart it. For dessert, the minister promised that Israel would not stand by idly watching while sophisticated weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
your white robe, falling open
as you call for your scroll
and ink stone, a brush
As your brush passes over the paper
my body shivers
How closely now you watch
at the open lattice
servant hurries away
the next morning letter
a spray of clematis
whose blossoms will
until they reach me
In the washbasin
your face is
the bridge that
the floating world of dreams
Now you are yawning
Now you are reciting
bowing to the wind
When the letter arrives
all the leaves of the maple
outside my window
I read your words
just once, then once again
bringing my fingers
lips, my hair
tucked back behind one ear
On the dawn's trellis
the scent of clematis
smell your fingers
The petals of my body
gather in your empty arms
How shall I respond?
The cry of the stag
the echo answers
from the empty mountains
as if it were a doe
you only what you know
of your teaching surrounds me
empty arms fill
Come night, the fragrant petals
fall in a heap at my feet
by Margaret Gibson
Spring 2002, Vol. 1 No. 1
Dan Lewis in Now I know:
What’s going on here? The Slinky comes with a small, barely visible jet pack which allows– no, wait. It’s just physics, even if counterintuitively so.
Let’s start with gravity. Drop something — a ball, your cell phone (which certainly happens all too often), a Slinky, or anything, and gravity will start to pull it down. That’s pretty straightforward. It’s why the top of the Slinky immediately falls once released, and it’s why we expect the rest of the Slinky to fall as well. But that’s not the only force acting on the Slinky. There’s also the tension in the spring.
From the perspective of the Slinky’s bottom, the tension is an upward force. Literally, the tension is pulling the bottom of the Slinky back up toward the top. When you are holding the top end of the Slinky, tension is what keeps it from unraveling entirely and falling to the ground as it stretches and dangles. When you drop it, the spring’s tension doesn’t just disappear, It’s still there and, in this case, pulling up at the same rate that gravity is pulling it downward. So the bottom stays in place as the Slinky compresses.
But in the end, gravity wins. When the top and bottom meet, the tension goes to zero, and the bottom of the Slinky joins the top in its descent back to the ground.
More here. And a bonus video:
Nine Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize of $3,000,000. Each.
Kenneth Chang in the New York Times:
The nine are recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Yuri Milner, a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon.
“It knocked me off my feet,” said Alan H. Guth, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was among the winners. He came up with the idea of cosmic inflation, that there was a period of extremely rapid expansion in the first instant of the universe.
When he was told of the $3 million prize, he assumed that the money would be shared among the winners. Not so: Instead, each of this year’s nine recipients will receive $3 million, the most lucrative academic prize in the world. TheNobel Prize currently comes with an award of $1.5 million, usually split by two or three people. The Templeton Prize, which honors contributions to understanding spiritual dimensions of life, has been the largest monetary given to an individual, $1.7 million this year.
The 10 best closing lines of books – in pictures
From The Guardian:
The Great Gatsby
by F Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s signing off after the death of Gatsby is my favourite last line in the Anglo-American tradition – resonant, memorable and profound. It is the magnificent chord, in a minor key, which brings this 20th-century masterpiece to a close. Somehow, it sums up the novel completely, while giving the reader a way out into the drabber, duller world of everyday reality.
by George Eliot
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” This passage is almost a credo – a lovely, valedictory celebration of Dorothea’s quiet life, after she has renounced Casaubon’s fortune and confessed her love for Ladislaw.
Humans might be hard-wired to 'love thy neighbor'
British psychologists from the University of Lincoln argue that people may actually be hard-wired to "love thy neighbor." In conducting the study, the researchers analyzed the behavior of contestants in first-round episodes of the BBC quiz show, "The Weakest Link." "In the show contestants must make a choice about who is the worst player based on two very different sources of information," study leader Paul Goddard, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, explained in a Lincoln news release. "The primary and most reliable source comes from the game itself. If one player gets all their questions wrong, it's a fairly straightforward decision to vote them off. The quandary for contestants arises when there is no clear consensus about who is the worst player, such as in rounds where several players get just one question wrong. In these circumstances, contestants have to rely on a secondary source of information -- their own judgment. This is where bias can really come to the fore."
The researchers calculated the probability of votes and compared these projections to what actually happened. The study found contestants showed a strong reluctance to vote for the person standing next to them. The researchers dubbed this pattern, 'the neighbor avoidance effect.' They noted this bias was stronger when the group of contestants didn't agree on which players was the weakest. When forced to make decisions, the study revealed people were less likely to vote off the people next to them and target other contestants who were standing farther away. The researchers said their observations drew parallels from a controversial social psychology experiment conducted in the 1960s. In this experiment, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram found people were more likely to punish people with an electric shock if they were in another room. If people were located in the same room however, they were more reluctant to administer this punishment.
pinker: the left critique
Pinker’s remarkable inversion of reality in portraying the post-World War II period as a “Long Peace,” with residual violence stemming from communist ideology and actions, points up the relevance of Chalmers Johnson’s comment that “When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes,…then ideological thinking kicks in.” It kicks in for Pinker with communist expansionism and U.S. “containment.” It also kicks in with his notion that communism, but not capitalism, was both “utopian” and “essentialist,” “submerge[ing] individuals into moralized categories,” and causing some of the worst atrocities of the modern period. (328-329) But weren’t the racism and anticommunism of the Western powers and in particular the United States “essentialist” ideologies in the Pinkerian sense, and wedded to the “full destructive might” of these powers? And didn’t these ideologies justify exterminations and massive ethnic cleansings of inferior and threatening peoples, replacing them with advanced peoples and cultures who put resources to a higher use? Weren’t Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and many other members of the Chicago School of Economics “free-market” ideologues?more from Edward S Herman and David Peterson at ZNET here. (h/t Gary L. Olson).
July 30, 2012
The Humanists: Chris Marker's Sans Soleil
Chris Marker (1921-2012), one of France's most influential filmmakers, one of my favorite filmmakers, died yesterday. In memory, we repost a Monday piece by Colin Marshall from a few years ago on Marker's Sans Soleil:
by Colin Marshall
His name is Sandor Krasna, and that's most of the information we have about him. All other qualities of Sans Soleil's verbose, peripatetic protagonist must be inferred from the wrong side of several layers of intermediation. Practically all the footage shown resides on film attributable to Krasna's camera, and practically all the words spoken reside on letters attributable to Krasna's pen. Krasna's shots are linked into a 100-minute collage atop which a nameless female voice, presumably that of Krasna's pen pal, reads the traveling cameraman's meandering, observational missives. The result is one of the most remarkable essay films ever assembled.
The trouble with whipping out the phrase "essay film" is, of course, the need to define the phrase "essay film". Why not just call Sans Soleil a documentary? The most basic objection is that, well, Sandor Krasna isn't real. He's a fictional character, just like his electronic composer brother Michel Krasna (credited with the score); just like his unidentified female friend, the recipient of so much correspondence. The movie has a whole, if small, cast of players that go unseen, existing only as text, voice, music and an eye through a lens. Marker's choices about how to convey these characters, like many of the choices that make up Sans Soleil, allow — and in fact, force — so much to be generated solely in the viewer's imagination. One might loosely describe the film as a travelogue through time and geography, from mid-1960s Iceland to early-1980s Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Japan, but only because those places are where most of Krasna's footage is shot and provide the raw subject matter for his ruminations. It's up to the mind, conscious or unconscious, of each individual audience member to construct the connective tissue between the shots, the words and the observations. It's not a non-narrative film, exactly; it's simply a film with an emergent narrative, one that differs from mind to mind.
The Immutable, Dusty Path
by Gautam Pemmaraju
He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.
The narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:
In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.
In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”
Book components however, Steedman continues, were not seen as the cause of such hazards during these early investigations. Lacking bacteriological insights, these early studies attributed the ‘diseases of literary men’ to the lack of exercise, poor air, ‘passions’, ‘excitement of ambition’, while failing to recognise that glues, leather bindings, paper and parchment, and thereby the book itself, could well be the cause for certain scholarly afflictions. Thackrah mentions ‘the putrid serum of sheep’s blood’, harbouring the bacteria that produces anthrax spores, which, Steedman reveals further, was used in bookbinding, and in describing it so, he “produced the most striking and potent image of the book as the locus of a whole range of industrial diseases”.
It was well over fifty years later in 1892, that Anthrax became a notifiable disease in Britain. The bacillus, however, Steedman continues, was first discovered in 1850 by Pierre Rayner and Casimir Davain, and its life cycle studied by Robert Koch in 1876. As its malevolence came to be commonly understood, archivists, book traders, and historians alike, Steedman writes on, began also to describe ‘red rot’ – a kind of powdery crumbling found in vegetable cured leathers and particularly in East India leather. (See this entry on ‘diseased books’).
These dangers may have been overstated, Gerald S Greenberg writes in Books As Disease Carriers 1880 – 1920, for the ‘evidence is slight’ that books were ever major carriers of epidemics, and:
In 1895 the Library Journal reported the death of one Miss Jessie Allan of tuberculosis widely believed to have been contracted from a contaminated book. Stating only that Miss Allan was associated with a "delicate organization" that did "much good work in a good cause," LJ sought to assure the library community (many of whom knew Miss Allan) that the real danger in such sad news lies in overestimating actual health risks posed by circulating books.
Writing on the French historian Jules Michelet’s visit to the Archives Nationales in Paris, Steedman invokes his oft quoted words describing the historian’s ‘act of inhalation’ that ‘gives life’ and ‘restores’ the ‘long deserted’ papers and parchments whereupon, “’…as I breathed their dust, I saw them rise up’”. Who or what rises up is ambiguous, Steedman argues, and rightly so, since it must remain indeterminate whether it was the manuscripts or the dead, or both, who were resurrected through the historian’s inhalation but,
…we can be clearer than Michelet could be, about exactly what it was that he breathed in: the dust of the workers who made the papers and parchments; the dust of the animals who provided the skins for their leather bindings. He inhaled the by-product of all the filthy trades that have, by circuitous routes deposited their end-products in the archives. And we are forced to consider whether it was not life that he breathed into the ‘souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past’, but death, that he took into himself, with each lungful of dust.
The general nature of dust can be distinguished in types, American pathologist T Mitchell Prudden writes early on in Dust And Its Dangers (1890): from the ‘swaying’ molecular dust that breaks sunbeams, the water dust of clouds, fogs & steam, and the ‘scriptural dust’, teleologically linked to the ‘origin and endings of mundane existence’. His concerns, however, shall remain practical he writes, more to do with the ‘fine dry particles of earth or other matter’, lest he should “fall foul of either primordial or ecclesiastical or pecuniary dust”.
In Hindu cosmology, from the Bhagavata Purana to the writings of the Theosophists, there are several thoughts linked to origins from dust - multiverses emerging and passing through the corporeal body much like fine dust through pores and cosmically wandering about like dust particles in the sky, not to mention the eschatological incineration of the world(s). Brahma’s inhaling/exhaling and cosmic expansion/contraction, giving birth to multiple realms and dimensions, are popular conceptions as well. The common thread here is that the material world is constituted of and ultimately reduced to dust, only to be then regenerated. Similarly, as worldly human endeavour creates and preserves archives, arbitrating power, access, and ‘social memory’, fragmenting anonymity and oblivion, it immutably archives dust. (Wolfgang Stöcker of Cologne has an organized collection of dust; here’s a review of G Thomas Tanselle’s book on the history of dust jackets; and a photo gallery of ‘biblical’ dust storms).
The ‘incomplete’ archive, at once revealing and excluding, Brian Teanor (see here) argues as he invokes Derrida’s ‘spectral’ structure of the archive, its apparent unity, only understood in a binary juxtaposition to that which is absent from it, is much like Shiva (more precisely, the Trinity or Trimurti), “a site of both preservation and destruction”. But this dyad itself, he further argues, is somewhat illusory, “because, in terms of the archive, preservation is never perfect and destruction is rarely complete”.
The fevered search for the revelatory archival record, consigned to a dark, gloomy and dusty corner, is an enduring popular image. An ‘origin’ is thereby revealed; a mysterious, till then mythic document, hidden amidst languishing records, that the ‘historian’ or the ‘hero’ miraculously extricates, ‘dusting’ it off, thumbing it with growing excitement to eventually stumble upon the secret illuminated by an otherworldly, spectral shaft of light. Much like the secret, the dust which rises up is also revealed by this irradiated shaft of light, allowing then a ‘form of writing’ Steedman argues, which is, “made by the documents themselves; what they forbid you to write, the permissions they offer”.
As Karen Buckley interestingly points out (see “The Truth is in the Red Files”: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture, Archivaria, 2008), the names used to synonymously indicate archives or repositories of some form in popular culture, are often ‘menacing’: the classified ‘Four-Zero Archives’ in Bourne Legacy, the ‘Ministry of Objectionable Materials’ in V for Vendetta, the ‘Information Retrieval’ and ‘Information Adjustment’ departments in Brazil, and the ‘Ministry of Truth’, in Nineteen Eighty Four. Pointing further to how archivists are often represented as ‘less than human’, automatons or fossils, or even robots, as is the guardian of the Worlfram & Hart Records Room in the TV series Angel who replies to a query on her characteristically encyclopedic knowledge with, “I’m Files & Records. That’s my job”, Buckley writes,
The three simple words “It’s my job”, constitute a telling statement: popular culture is very aware of the weight of authority that archivists bring to their role as society’s recordkeepers. Despite the usual stereotype of obstructionist fossils with no life beyond their narrow profession, popular culture has evidently also wholeheartedly embraced “the professional myth of the past century that the archivist is the…keeper of the truth” (citing Cook & Shwartz, Archival Science, 2002).
Students are often warned of ‘the cult of archive’, Steedman writes in the preface to Dust, prevalent amongst “certain historians and those sad creatures who fetishise them”. Warned off the ‘seductions of the archive’ and ‘entrancing stories’, they are instead instructed on the foundational value of documented evidence.
If there has been a democratisation of archives (online institutional records) through digitization, and even a insurrectional subversion of the State’s propensity for secrecy and subterfuge (see this excellent piece on Wikileaks and the ‘conspiratorial state’), there has also arguably been a transduced access between state and individual, allowing in turn, for meta-archival activity. Derrida’s prescient thoughts on these changing modalities, wherein “the institutional passage from the private to the public” is being routinely undermined by the internet, hinted at what we now see as dynamic and complex exchanges of random information, still and moving images, music and sound, public/private records, and multiple blends of data. The nature of the ‘fever’, its traits and tempers, its mobility and malevolence, has now mutated. If ‘bit rot’ (NASA reportedly has lost some early moon mission data; see also this), Facebook fatigue (causing ‘Archive Fever’ here), and the more traditional ill-effects of poor posture, lack of exercise, poor dietary habits and sleep cycles, blurred vision and headaches, not to mention hearing impairment and cell-phone radiation, are but a few of ailments linked to our contemporary lifestyles, we must consider further a reformulated nosology, classifying our physical maladies, our psychological ones, the real, the imaginary, and the ones in between, linked to our quotidian encounters with ever growing archives.
Steedman writes that Roland Barthes considered Michelet’s inhalation of dust at the archives as ‘ingestion’ and, “Michelet actually ate history, and that it was eating it that made him ill”. “This ingested History was also Death”, she writes on, and quoting Barthes here adds, “’Michelet receives History as food and nourishment, but in return, he gives up his life to it: not only his labour and his health, but even his death”.
Last year, wrapping up my work, I gathered up the documents and books (dusty ones at that) to return them to the librarian in the state archives. Finding her missing, I stepped out into the corridor but could spot no one. I waited for a while, hoping she may return soon, from a short break perhaps. I then left all the material on her desk with a note, walked down the long empty corridor leading to the exit. I began to hear a highly modulated, theatrical voice from a room ahead of me. I stopped to investigate. The staff of the archives, including the errant librarian, had all gathered there to watch a magician’s show. I too watched awhile, as the magician performed the “Water of India” trick, ‘restoring’ in some surreal sense perhaps, a languishing memory, and ‘what was lacking’ in my gaze.
There is no defense for a man who, in the excess of his wealth,
has kicked the great altar of Justice out of sight. —Aeschylus
Having done their green work
the grasses say to the sky,
The sky is blue and silent,
clouds tease. They slide
silently under a brilliant sun
hoarding their wealth
they are the Himalayas of heaven
cold and distant,
proud of their majesty,
joining and unjoining their vapors
among their kind alone
holding it to themselves
they are vacant
as an empty page
while the grasses
need psalms of moisture
they billow above dry prairies
counting their vaulted droplets
saving whole seas for their own
by Jim Culleny
America Must Lead
And those poor fools who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya? It’s a red herring! Why couldn’t they see that? Clinton herself was probably behind it, a brilliant ploy to throw us off her tracks. It was all part of her master plan.
No doubt she sandbagged the 2008 primary, which was obviously hers for the taking. Come on now. Do you really think some skinny, inexperienced black kid could beat her if she didn’t let him?
But why did she do it? Wouldn’t a foreign agent like Hillary Clinton be in a position to destroy America after achieving the presidency? Maybe.
But she’s smarter than that.
By deftly placing her stooge Obama in the White House, the controversy of his foreign birth, which she herself had manufactured, would soak up the spotlight while she went about her nefarious business of taking down America by trotting the globe and hatching her evil scheme with various world leaders.
It was diabolical. It was brilliant. And the evidence seemed so convincing. After all, “Barack Obama” just isn’t an American sounding name. And, you know, there’s that whole thing about him not being white.
Well, his mother was white, and he largely was raised by white people, but they were just a sleeper cell. That’s all you need to know, really. The best conspiracies are the simplest ones, and the rest of that story just kind of writes itself.
And we all bought it, fools that we were. God-fearing, hard-working, America-loving fools. But damn us all to hell, I thought. Clinton was the rogue all along. And I had stumbled upon the evidence by chance, while doing something that rarely yields any new information: reading.
I had found the clues in an article that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton published in the July 18 issue ofNew Statesman magazine. Of course it was full of the usual niceties about the United States being the
world’s most important country, and how it should continue to lead, and look out primarily for its own interests while doing so. The kind of modest, clear-eyed vision we expect our leaders to advocate.
But there was something insidious lurking amid all those pretty words: British spellings.
Some Americans, either in a head scratching show of Anglophilia or in some vain effort to sound erudite, have been known to adopt British airs. Perhaps spelling it theatre implies you attend it regularly, my good man. And no doubt, the items to be perused in a catalogue are far superior to those found in any mere catalog. But not all British forms make it to our shores. Even the most fawning and insecure Americans can’t abide certain spellings.
Some British words just look dumb.
The only neighbour Americans have are the Queen-worshiping Canadians living on the other side of the lawn hedge running along the 49th parallel. Nor do we think British jewellry is marvellous, even if the maker is quite skilful. And God help us should any blessed American mother ever carry a foetus to term. Third sign of the apocalypse if you ask me. Though I suppose it acceptable for British mummies.
So imagine my horror when I came across some distinctly British spellings in Secretary of State, or should I say Madame Foreign Secretary Clinton’s New Statesman article.
You don’t say? But wait. That’s not all.
We must also continue to prioritise our agenda and recognise important allies. And, if you can believe it, it appears we must mobilise.
Mobilise what, exactly, I cannot say. Probably four o’clock tea, or maybe a croquet match followed by scones and Pimm’s cups.
The implications of all this seemed quite serious. Who was MFS Clinton rooting for in the upcoming summer Olympics, I wondered. Had she played a behind the scenes role in getting the games to London, a city I now suspected she knew all to well? And was she silently jinxing Michael Phelps by wearing a Union Jack Speedo `neath her famous pant suits whenever he entered the pool?
What would we tell our children? Bad enough that Phelps wouldn’t be taking home precious, precious gold every time his graceful, orangutan-like arms stroked the water. The little darlings would already be in tears, vainly clutching the approved Disney product of their choice, hoping that would make it all better. Dare we grind their childish innocence further into the ground by informing them that the traitorous Hillary Clinton was behind it all?
I was awash in these and other vital questions when it suddenly dawned on me. Good god, man! This is more serious and complicated than it first appears.
Was it possible that I had been mesmerized to the point of befuddlement by the subtle intricacies of international cloak and dagger diplomacy? Could Rodham actually be on our side after all? Indeed, I slowly began to realize she wasn’t the culprit. Au contraire, Secretary Clinton had been victimized by those insidious Brits. How so?
Are you ready for this?
New Statesman is a British journal.
Insert knowing glance and slow nod here.
Those bastards. Those boiled tomato-eating, monarchy-loving bastards! They went in there and changed all her z’s to s’s. Son of a . . . They did that to her.
No. They did that to us.
They took her beautiful American words and made them stinky with limey rot. And what beautiful words they were.
Secretary Clinton made us proud. She told them all that it is “American economic, military and diplomatic leadership, which has underwritten global peace and prosperity for decades.”
That’s right. Our bombs make peace. And don’t you forget it.
Her article made plain that “American leadership is so exceptional” and that these great United States actually have “no alternative” but to lead the world to prosperity. In fact, it’s “required” of us, not only because it’s for the “greater good,” but because, well, we’re just richer and bigger bad asses than everyone else, and we want it to stay that way. I mean, other countries can help, even new kids on the block like China, India, and Brazil. But really. It’s all about us.
Wave that flag, Secretary Clinton. And do it proudly. Because no country has used its diplomacy and military so well during the last half-century as has the United States. Technically, I’m gonna call Vietnam a draw, but it did spawn a lot of great movies and books, so that kinda makes it a win. Seriously, have you seen Deer Hunter? Plus we totally won those under card bouts in Cambodia and Laos. And these two recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been really okay, sorta, maybe. You put that all together and you’ve got three major wars lasting more than thirty years in aggregate, with millions of dead people. That’s leadership.
And don’t forget Granada. Don’t ever forget Granada. Totally kicked ass on that one. Oh, and Panama was really good too.
Of course leadership isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about what you don’t do. Like when Clinton’s husband Bill was the main man, and he decided to do nothing about Rwanda while 800,000 people were slaughtered in the world’s worst genocide since World War II. Intervening just wasn’t in our national interest. It wouldn’t have helped us make money or cement our control.
You gotta prioritize. Can’t get all starry eyed just because you’re the richest, baddest thing around.
These are our Americans values, and Secretary Clinton expressed them with beautiful American words. But those heartless pigs at New Statesman made some of those words British. And in so doing, they almost drew us down a dark conspiratorial path, where we would have foolishly thought Hillary Clinton isn’t one of us, when it might actually be Barack Obama after all who isn’t from here.
Is that sorted out yet, or is Joe Arpaio still working on it?
Either way, the important thing is we now know we can trust Rodham. She’s on our side, and as a great American once said: We won’t get fooled again.
That’s Bush, not Townsend. Please.
And indeed, it’s time for us to lead. We have a responsibility. Global peace and prosperity are depending on us. And if you’re going to lead, you need to let people know you’re serious about it. You can’t let them mock you.
In other words, we need to show those Brits that you can’t shame the U.S. and getaway with it. They can mispronounce aluminum all they want. But so help me God, you need to recogniZe that the United States is not to be trifled with. And you most certainly do not insult a Clinton.
That’s something no American will abide. Not even The Dude.
We need to defend Clinton’s honor, and we should do it by honoring her vision. I think this calls for war. No doubt about it. It’s time to lead, as in lock n load.
Not only that, but it’s also the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the last time we showed the Brits what we’re all about. And if you ask me, we’re a good hundred years overdue. Sure, they’ve been on our side ever since, but don’t think they don’t resent us for it. I’m tellin’ ya, every now and then you gotta knock these sonsabitches around a little bit, remind `em who’s boss.
It sure as fuck ain’t France.
Now, I realize this might be a hard sell. There are all sorts a problems right these days, what with the economy and all the rest of it. Plus, some Americans won’t trust Obama with this one, and it’s kinda hard to blame them. Honestly, so far he’s only showed that he can end a war or continue an ongoing one, not actually start a new one. Personally, I think it’s a presidential right of passage, but not everyone agrees. So this might not fly.
But it’s okay. I have a plan B.
If we can’t punish the Brits militarily for their savage and malicious mangling of Secretary Clinton’s prose, then we can hurt them economically. That’s how leadership works. Shoot first, charge interest later. So it’s time for an embargo. And yes, this is gonna hurt us almost as much as it hurts them, but we have to make sacrifices if we want to show them we’re serious, and restore honor to the Clinton name. We need to implement an effective, targeted boycott of U.K. products.
No more imported British dramas.
No more Mystery! with their smart, sexy detectives. No moreDr. Who, thinking it’s in the same league as Star Trek. No more Masterpiece Theater. I don’t care if they spell it right. And, goddamn it, absolutely no more Downton Abbey.
We can let Game of Thrones slide since the guy who wrote the books and the sho w’s best actor are both American, but we have to put up a protective tariff to make sure HBO goes back to producing i
ts most violent and sexual shows here in America. And we should probably get a p e tition going to ma ke The Daily Showfire that one English guy.
Aye, it’s mostly shite anyway.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor.
The Gaffe that roused Blighty
by Sarah Firisen
With the Olympics coming to town
The British started to frown
The construction, the cost
The traffic lane lost
Our economy's already so down
You know it'll just get rained out
They've done what with the cycling route?
And the summer looks glum
Because tourists won't come
It's a fiasco without a doubt
Just as the grumbling built to its peak
And national spirits seemed bleak
The Olympics were given a lift
A real PR gift
An external, unwelcome critique
Yes, Mitt landed on Blighty's shore
With concerns and questions galore
"Is Britain prepared?"
The Romney declared
"How dare he!" the populace swore
And suddenly the people united
Everyone of them thrilled and excited
And they made clear to Mitt
We're all proud to be Brits
And the whole nation feels we've been slighted
As the sounds of Jerusalem swell
We're so proud of the land where we dwell
Just look at our Queen
And we love Mr Bean
Such a great show should all doubt dispel
Yes the Olympics have now come to town
And nothing will get the Brits down
It may rain, it may pour
But we know shore to shore
British pride never will drown
Cosmopolitanism and the Colonial Imagination
by Leanne Ogasawara
The other day on Facebook, I posted an article from the Atlantic, A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths.
In the wake of Aurora, I thought there was a lot that was of interest in the article. But almost immediately the first comment I got was the old “same-old” about how “different” the Japanese are and that, “Holding up Japan as an example of how the US should handle guns is quixotic in the extreme, as nice as it may sound.” He explained, “Japanese are raised to be docile subjects of their government while America is based on the idea that the citizens can rise up against a tyrannical government and overthrow it. Distrust of the government is as American as apple pie. To do that, you need weapons.”
Setting aside what I think is a really unfair characterization of Japan, I wondered why people are always so quick to think that there is nothing that could be learned from other countries. I am not speaking about my friend on Facebook but rather about a pattern that I have seen again and again after returning from two decades overseas. Granting that there are indeed different cultural approaches to issues of authority that would make passing gun laws more difficult here than say in Japan; but let’s face it; the right to bear arms doesn’t include the right to bear grenades, military drones or anti-aircraft, so why couldn’t assault weapons also be regulated? Of course, they can and to wit, they already have been regulated in the past by law. But perhaps more to the point, I think the Japanese case does have much to offer in terms of gun license procedures and accountability that we could learn from—different culture and history notwithstanding.
This unwillingness to be open to what other cultures can teach us is something particularly apparent concerning China, where the push for change is overwhelmingly one-sided, but even the stories we read in the media about Japan are mainly prescriptive concerning what Japan needs to do and how Japan should change to become more like the US ---with all but a few people seemingly unconcerned with the question about how we instead could learn and be changed by Japan. And, this is all the more maddening since we are so pushy exporting our own way of life. Indeed, fashioning the world in our image seems to be a significant part of the neo-liberal project and this push is done by politicians, by the media, by corporations and sometimes by intellectuals. Even in Japan, a country not in an adverserial relationship with the US but rather in a cooperative one, the pressure to conform to the Washington Consensus—particularly in terms of American style economic and financial systems, as well as to certain political values—is overwhelming.
I was recently at a conference in Shanghai on the topic of cities as one possibility for counter-balancing the hegemonic powers of nation-states and one of the participants who is involved in city branding projects at Macao University grew frustrated and said, “In China, we feel relentlessly critiqued and told how to change, and we try and change and become more Western but no matter what we do, it is just more criticizing.” I wondered whether she wasn’t thinking that with China on the rise and more people having been pulled out of poverty by a government than in any time in history, why there is so little talk of possible places where the world could learn from China—or perhaps Singapore …?
This very recent CS Monitor article by Daniel Bell is refreshing in the sense that it at least opens the door for a more two-way dialogue. I haven’t read the article yet, just noticed the inflammatory title, which you can bet was probably not chosen by the author, and then the comments.
Maybe there is really nothing to learn from places like China and Japan but I think being open to the possibility is more crucial than ever before in today’s world-- a world which is more and more linked and inter-dependent. This is especially important for a country that makes it its business to dictate to other countries how things should be—both politically but also vis-à-vis a media, which has helped create a market for seemingly unending prescriptive narratives. (What ever happened to just the facts ma’am? Journalists no longer seem happy with reporting for some reason and instead are tied to official narratives and worldviews).
Manan Ahmed has written very thoughtffuly about "empire’s way of knowing." He says, “Empires impart the belief that there is “a dominant ‘core’ that rule[s] over a conquered ‘periphery’” and that it is the “right of the Emperor to create and execute laws universally, i.e. absolute sovereignty.” What he is describing is the universal application of cultural values as the de-facto consensus.
Japanese scholar, Hatori Eiji (of UNESCO) is also interested in empire and put forward in the 1990s as an alternative to the "Globalization as Americanization" model, his UNESCO Silk Road Project positioned the “Silk Road;” so that:
Pax/Empire versus Silk Road
Monopoly Two-Way Trade/International Relays
Robbery Mutual Profit/Equal Partnership/Co-Dependence
Japan was, after all, on the terminus of the Silk Road and the nation experienced its greatest cosmopolitan flowering during the Nara period, when the Silk Road was in its heyday. In contrast to the modern "melting pot" of pluralistic societies we see today, people during Silk Road times are described as having interacted with each other from standpoints of their own unique city-cultures. Hattori's main point is that during Silk Road times, dialogues between cultures were two-way. That is, it was not a power relationship dominated by one side talking/dictating/taking/imposing but rather the Silk Road is being held up a model for two-way dialogue based on trade; one in which trade was an international accomplishment achieved by people from many nations working for mutual benefits cooperatively.
It is not that in Japan you don’t see critical media reports about China or the US, nor is it that Japan totally lacks hegemonic ambitions, but I think it can be said that there is less will to export its culture or to fashion the world in its image and more willingness to take up excellent models from overseas and be changed by foreign ideas and this is a basic stance held in most of the places I have lived or spent time in Asia.
From cutting edge recycling technologies and laws concerning the environment to education and business, there is so much we in the US could learn from the Japanese. In my work as a translator, in addition to telecommunications content, which despite Japan’s so-called “lost decade” Japan has invested massively in telecommunications infrastructure to the result that it has both the cheapest and the fastest Internet speeds on earth, I have also translated a surprisingly large number of documents which have also taken up geographic and cultural rootedness as themes. Whether in my work for the Japanese government; for academia or for business, again and again I have translated things which have called for a more relativized form of globalization. Themes from my work have included:
--From business: a rejection of American-style quarterly performance bottom lines and a commitment to local contribution and corporate responsibility as rooted firmly in plant or business city. Strategies have been in the form of a direct rejection of “American-style capitalist practice”. Right now, so thoroughly does Wall Street dominate in business that corporations in America find it hard to get out of this short term performance mentality. What is happening in Japanese companies now in their push to emphasize that stakeholders are not just shareholders could be a significant hint for addressing the American corporate excesses that we are seeing.
--From government:a commitment to reject American food practices from hormones in American beef to fast food. (The slow food movement is gaining momentum in Japan as well as in Europe. Indeed, Japan is naturally drifting ever-closer to Europe—away from China and the United States in terms of approach and sensibility). Japan has also taken recycling practices from Germany and improved upon them creating what is some of the most cutting edge technologies and practices on the planet. Translating on this topic (both in government but in business to), I have wondered again and again why we don't hear about this in the US.
--In Adademia: To see art history move beyond the categories and definitions imposed by Kant and the European tradition to embrace a traditional East Asian approach.
I am a great fan of the writing of William Dalrymple. In 2009, he had another thought-provoking article in The Guardian about the future of travel writing. One paragraph in particular caught my attention:
"It's no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by the last US administration was done by a group of men who had hardly travelled, and relied for information on policy documents and the reports of journalists sitting interviewing middle-class contacts in capital cities. A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people's existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.”
Reading this, I thought that nothing much has changed since the last Administration either and that US policy remains in the hands of a cabal of monoglots and cultural provincials. Ahmed also suggested that today rather than academic experts or those with any significant expertise in a given area and language, more and more it is journalists who are affecting policies. He wrote that,
Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.
Hannah Arendt looked at universalist narratives as being behind much of the political pathologies of her time and felt that being derived from abstract reasoning, which stands apart from the world, the universalist thinking aims to create blueprints for how we think the world “ought” to be; and that this becomes a political project that aims to manipulate how the world is to change it to how one thinks it should be. In that way, she urged people to be engaged with the world as it truly is—and it seems that in order to do that one must start with looking, listening and learning. For as Eiji Hattori said in a 2004 UNESCO speech, “Civilizations never clash. Ignorance does.”
Leanne Ogasawara is a writer who studied philosophy at U.C. Berkeley and Japanese literature as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has spent most of the last twenty years in Japan and also blogs at Tang Dynasty Times.
What A Country: After Wall Street Screws Us, 45% Of Americans Want A Wall Street Guy To Be Our Next President
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Leveraged buyout means you put a company in debt, and use the money you extract from it to partly buy the company. You also use this debt to pay yourself huge fees and get tax benefits. Basically you're looting the company, which is why many leveraged buyouts end in bankruptcies. The excuse these guys use for what they do is that they bring "efficiency" -- one of those meaningless hide-my-hypocrisy phrases like "free market" and "collateral damage."
So Mitt Romney is a dyed-in-the-wool Wall Streeter, engaged in one of its most egregious practices. He also has money stashed away in the Cayman Islands, may still have a Swiss bank account, has helped export jobs overseas, and is building an elevator for his cars. His wife drives a couple of Cadillacs, and he pays 15% in taxes.
He is what one may safely call a caricature of a Wall Street fraudster. The perfect plutocrat. So obviously slumming among us hoi polloi that he comes off as awkward. And he also happens to be a serious serial liar.
Yet 45% of Americans want him to be our next President. He bought himself his nomination, burying his rivals in negative ads, outspending them by a factor of 10 or more. And Americans are OK with that. They'd rather have a rich Wall Street guy run our country than anyone else.
Are we totally crazy? Didn't Wall Street just screw us? Didn't their gambling with our homes cost over a 100 million jobs around the world? Didn't their shenanigans screw up the retirement of millions? Didn't they cause the Great Recession?
And has any of them been prosecuted?
Hurrah for America! Let our next president be a Wall Street shyster!
Talk about Stockholm Syndrome. It's like we want our rapist to be our therapist. We're really happy to ensure that our democracy remains a plutocracy. Bring on tax cuts for the wealthy. It's perfectly OK that all the productivity gains of our workers should go to management (if our productivity gains were reflected in our earnings, the median income of American households would be $92,000 a year instead of just under $50,000 a year -- that's $42,000 a year that the rich are stealing from us).
Americans, the eternal victims. Bring the noose here, darling, and put it around my neck. Let me hang myself with my vote for Romney.
What can one say? The mind boggles. Are the white people of America really this stupid?
(Afternote: I have a book out, self-published at the moment, based on my many provocative posts to 3QD. It's called The Real Obama: Progressive Tiger or Wall Street Poodle? You'll never have more fun reading about politics. Only $12 -- order a copy here: lulu.com/product/paperback/the-real-obama-progressive-tiger-or-wall-street-poodle/18939747)
July 29, 2012
W.B. Yeats, Magus
Jamie James in Lapham's Quarterly:
If the paramount project of W. B. Yeats’ professional life was the perfection of the art of poetry, it was intertwined with a personal preoccupation, the study and practice of magic— not in any metaphorical sense, but the dedicated pursuit of supernatural powers based upon the ancient traditions of alchemy and necromancy, which began in his youth and persisted to the end of his long life.
Yeats wrote frankly about his vocation as a magician in several memoirs and in A Vision, a dense astrological treatise he labored over for twenty years. A Protestant Irishman in Victorian Britain, Yeats as a young man was pulled in conflicting directions, but the occult always trumped worldly concerns, because it was so deeply connected with his poetic craft. In 1892, when the Irish patriot John O’Leary admonished the twenty-seven-year-old poet for his devotion to magic at the expense of the Cause, Yeats answered:Now as to magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “weak” or otherwise because I choose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life…If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book [The Works of William Blake, with Edwin Ellis, 1893], nor would The Countess Kathleen [stage play, 1892] have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.
That’s plain speaking, which admits no ambiguity. If one would understand the works of the poet often described as the greatest of his age, it might seem necessary to come to terms with this lifelong passion. Yet apart from the prose works mentioned and a handful of supernatural tales in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, Yeats never directly addresses the practice of magic in the poetry and plays upon which his magisterial reputation rests. He alluded to it only rarely, with ambiguous metaphors and a select hoard of words charged with esoteric meanings.
Magic imbrued Yeats’ thinking so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the strands without rending the garment.
Live Through This
There are a few controversial pieces this week about rape. First, in reddit is a post from someone who claims to have been a serial rapist and a discussion that follows. (Warning: needless to say, it's disturbing. He seems to be a sociopath who claims to have now somehow managed to keep his sociopathology at bay.) Second is this piece in New Inquiry by Charlotte Shane (which has some graphic descriptions of rape):
In our society, we recognize this as rape, an act of violence that in all its permutations (date, stranger, violent, anal, oral, gang) is understood to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman — worse than a serious car accident, worse than a protracted divorce, worse than the death of a parent. It is regularly equated with being murdered. It is life-shattering. It is soul-destroying. If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives.
In my eight years as a sex worker, I’ve been sexually mistreated a relatively small number of times. For instance, I’ve been held down and penetrated without a condom twice, once vaginally and once anally, by separate men. The first was over so quickly that I was too shocked to have much of a reaction. He pulled out to ejaculate after maybe six rabbit fast strokes. It wasn’t painful. At that time I was providing so-called sensual massage, which means there was no implicit agreement for anything beyond a hand job. I was 22.
After he left, I gradually became furious. What I most wanted was not for him to serve jail time or face some retributive physical assault; what I wanted was the chance to berate him, to tear him down verbally for deciding he could use me, another human being, however he wanted and without consequence — ultimately, an accurate assessment on his part. I wanted to make him feel ashamed.
Then I mostly forgot about it. I didn’t quit my job. I didn’t stop enjoying sex.
The Ruins of Empire: Asia's emergence from western imperialism
Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian:
The unctuous belief that British imperialists, compared to their Belgian and French counterparts, were exponents of fair play has been dented most recently by revelations about mass murder and torture during the British suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to "lesser breeds outside the law" has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant" around the world. His apparently more intellectual rival Gordon Brown urged his compatriots to be "proud" of their imperial past. Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands.
Embracing such fantasies of "full-spectrum dominance", American and European policymakers failed to ask themselves a simple question: whether, as Jonathan Schell put it, "the people of the world, having overthrown the territorial empires, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the 21st"? After two unwinnable wars and horribly botched nation-building efforts, and many unconscionable human losses (between 600,000 and one million in Iraq alone), the "neo-imperialists" offering seductive fantasies of the west's potency look as reliable as the peddlers of fake Viagra. Yet, armour-plated against actuality by think tanks, academic sinecures and TV gigs, they continue to find eager customers. Of course, as the historian Richard Drayton points out, the writing of British imperial history, has long been a "patriotic enterprise". Wishing to "celebrate" empire, Michael Gove plans to entrust the task of rewriting the history syllabus to Niall Ferguson, one of the "neo-imperialist" cheerleaders of the assault on Iraq, who now craves "creative destruction" in Iran and whose "skilful revision of history" the Guardian's Jeevan Vasagar asserted last month, "will reverberate for years to come".
Read the rest here.
buckley, welty, percy
I’m wired, therefore I exist
From New Statesman:
Today if you are not often wired, you do not exist. Like radio and television in other times, the internet has become not only an indispensable tool but also a vital component of our life. It has become so useful, significant, and meaningful for variety of administrative, cultural, and political reasons that a life without it seems unimaginable in the twenty-first century. But the ownership of this interactive life is troubled: when you start seeing interesting advertising on your Gmail banner, personalised ads aimed just at you, your existence has begun to belong to others. At last count, there are now 2,267,233,742 users of the internet, that is, 32.7 per cent of the world population. While these numbers refer primarily to North America, Asia, and Europe, in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East its use is growing rapidly. However, there is a big difference between being online and being wired. This is not a simple semantic difference, but rather an existential distinction that determines our roles, tasks, and possibilities in the world today. Without suggesting a return to twentieth century existentialism (which arose as a reaction against scientific systems threatening humans beings uniqueness) philosophy must stress the vital danger that being wired can pose for our lives.
Not everyone who is online is also wired. The latter refers to those capable to finding a date or a job through social networks such as LinkedIn, downloading the latest episodes of True Blood, or purchasing self-designed Nike shoes; the former avoid these services. Using the internet just for an email account and cheap airline tickets does not make you technologically incompetent, but rather concerned for your existential distinctiveness, that is, autonomy. For the wired West the danger of the internet does not lie in going crazy from too many hours spent online, although this is becoming more common, but rather in considering a wired existence transparent, free, and vital for your life rather than an active threat. Although being wired assures you an identity on the web, that is, a position in the new wired world, it also frames your existence within the possibilities and limitations of the web. This is why Tim Berners-Lee, a founder of the web, recently pointed out how the “more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform—a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.”
Syrian war of lies and hypocrisy
Robert Fisk in The Independent:
Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I'm not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I'm referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.
While Qatar and Saudi Arabia arm and fund the rebels of Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's Alawite/Shia-Baathist dictatorship, Washington mutters not a word of criticism against them. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say they want a democracy in Syria. But Qatar is an autocracy and Saudi Arabia is among the most pernicious of caliphate-kingly-dictatorships in the Arab world. Rulers of both states inherit power from their families – just as Bashar has done – and Saudi Arabia is an ally of the Salafist-Wahabi rebels in Syria, just as it was the most fervent supporter of the medieval Taliban during Afghanistan's dark ages. Indeed, 15 of the 19 hijacker-mass murderers of 11 September, 2001, came from Saudi Arabia – after which, of course, we bombed Afghanistan. The Saudis are repressing their own Shia minority just as they now wish to destroy the Alawite-Shia minority of Syria. And we believe Saudi Arabia wants to set up a democracy in Syria?
Don't tell a camel about need and
Look at the big lips
in perpetual kiss,
the dangerous lashes
of a born coquette.
The camel is an animal
grateful for less.
It keeps to itself
the hidden spring choked with grass,
the sharpest thorn
on the sweetest stalk.
When a voice was heard crying in the
when God spoke
from the burning bush,
the camel was the only animal
to answer back.
Dune on stilts,
it leans into the long horizon,
the secret caches of watermelon
brought forth like manna
from the sand.
It will bear no false gods
not the trader
who cinches its hump
nor the tourist.
It has a clear sense of its place in
after water and watermelon,
heat and light,
silence and science,
it is the last great hope.
by Wislawa Szymborska
from Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak
No LOL matter: Tween Texting May Lead to Poor Grammar Skills
From Penn State Live:
"Overall, there is evidence of a decline in grammar scores based on the number of adaptations in sent text messages, controlling for age and grade," Cingel said.
Not only did frequent texting negatively predict the test results, but both sending and receiving text adaptations were associated with how poorly they performed on the test, according to Sundar.
"In other words, if you send your kid a lot of texts with word adaptations, then he or she will probably imitate it," Sundar said. "These adaptations could affect their off-line language skills that are important to language development and grammar skills, as well."
Why Do We Hate Seeing Photos Of Ourselves?
From Robert Gonzalez in io9:
You know what I'm talking about. There you are, clicking through your friend's Facebook album, when suddenly you happen upon a picture of yourself — or rather, a slightly less attractive version of yourself. The "real" you appears to have been abducted, replaced with some second-rate knock off. What gives? you ask yourself. Is that really what I look like?
Yes. Yes it is. But don't worry, there's a perfectly sound explanation for why the person staring back at you looks so very unfamiliar, even though that person is, well, you. And by the way: that funny-looking, ersatz-you in the photograph? They're actually more attractive than you think.
July 28, 2012
Where Does Nature's Wisdom Lie?
R. Ford Denison in Berfrois:
Consider wild rice, shown above growing near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Natural selection has been improving this species, by evolution’s criteria, for millions of years. Better-adapted plants (those best at extracting nutrients from flooded soils, defending themselves against pests and pathogens, and producing seeds in warm and cold years, in deep or shallow water), had more surviving offspring. Their descendants inherited those adaptations. So plant breeders developing new rice varieties (especially for farmers who can’t afford fertilizer or control water depths) might learn something useful from research on how wild rice faces similar challenges.
What about nature’s “lies”? Notice that wild rice grows naturally almost as a monoculture, not mixed with other plant species. Tropical forests, on the other hand, have much greater species diversity. Can we conclude that aquatic plants, like rice or taro, should be grown as monocultures, while tree crops should be grown as diverse mixtures of species? Or maybe cold climate crops should be grown as monocultures (many northern forests aren’t very diverse either), while tropical crops should be grown as mixtures.
These hypotheses implicitly assume that natural selection, or other natural processes, have improved the overall organization of natural plant communities, not just the individual species that live there. Most evolutionary biologists, however, tell us that natural selection is much better at improving trees than forests. This is especially true when the interests of individuals conflict with those of the community as a whole. A more diverse forest might be less susceptible to disease outbreaks, but that won’t stop individual redwood trees from growing taller and shading out competitors of other species. Similarly, the low diversity of wild rice stands doesn’t prove that more diverse plant communities wouldn’t be more productive, more efficient in the use of scarce resources, or more sustainable over decades.
Race, IQ, and Wealth: What the Facts Tell Us About a Taboo Subject
[A]n objective review of the Lynn/Vanhanen data almost completely discredits the Lynn/Vanhanen “Strong IQ Hypothesis” ["namely that IQ accurately reflects intelligence, that IQ is overwhelmingly determined by genetics, and that IQ is subject to little or no significant cultural or economic influence"]. If so many genetically-indistinguishable European populations—of roughly similar cultural and historical background and without severe nutritional difficulties—can display such huge variances in tested IQ across different decades and locations, we should be extremely cautious about assuming that other ethnic IQ differences are innate rather than environmental, especially since these may involve populations separated by far wider cultural or nutritional gaps.
We cannot rule out the possibility that different European peoples might have relatively small differences in innate intelligence or IQ—after all, these populations often differ in height and numerous other phenotypic traits. But this residual genetic element would explain merely a small fraction of the huge 10–15 point IQ disparities discussed above. Such a view might be characterized as the “Weak IQ Hypothesis”: huge IQ differences between large populations may be overwhelmingly due to cultural or socio-economic factors, but a residual component might indeed be genetic in origin.
We are now faced with a mystery arguably greater than that of IQ itself. Given the powerful ammunition that Lynn and Vanhanen have provided to those opposing their own “Strong IQ Hypothesis,” we must wonder why this has never attracted the attention of either of the warring camps in the endless, bitter IQ dispute, despite their alleged familiarity with the work of these two prominent scholars. In effect, I would suggest that the heralded 300-page work by Lynn and Vanhanen constituted a game-ending own-goal against their IQ-determinist side, but that neither of the competing ideological teams ever noticed.
Perry Anderson in the LRB:
All liberal democracies are significantly less liberal, and considerably less democratic, than they fancy themselves to be. That does not cancel them as a category. There is no reason to judge India by a higher standard than is complacently accepted in older and richer versions. The explanation of democratic stability in a society that is so much poorer and more populous is only to a secondary extent to be found in institutional restrictions common enough in the species. It lies in a far larger enabling condition. To see what this might be, a truly distinguishing feature of Indian democracy – one that sets it apart from any other society in the world – needs be considered. In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, but vote in larger numbers than the better-off. Everywhere else, without exception, the ratio of electoral participation is the reverse – nowhere more so, of course, than in the Land of the Free. Even in Brazil, the other large tropical democracy, where – unlike in India – voting is technically compulsory, the index of ballots cast falls as income and literacy decline.
Why then has the sheer pressure of the famished masses, who apparently hold an electoral whip-hand, not exploded in demands for social reparation incompatible with the capitalist framework of this – as of every other – liberal democracy? Certainly not because Congress ever made much effort to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice. The record of Nehru’s regime, whose priorities were industrial development and military spending, was barren of any such impulse. No land reform worthy of mention was attempted. No income tax was introduced until 1961. Primary education was grossly neglected. As a party, Congress was controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals, in which the weight of the agrarian bosses was greatest, and its policies reflected the interests of these groups, unconcerned with the fate of the poor. But they suffered no electoral retribution for this. Why not?
The answer lies, and has always lain, in what also sets India apart from any other country in the world, the historic peculiarities of its system of social stratification. Structurally, by reason of their smaller numbers and greater resources, virtually all ruling classes enjoy an advantage over the ruled in their capacity for collective action. Their internal lines of communication are more compact; their wealth offers an all-purpose medium of power, convertible into any number of forms of domination; their intelligence systems scan the political landscape from a greater height. More numerous and more dispersed, less equipped materially, less armed culturally, subordinate classes always tend, in the sociologist Michael Mann’s phrase, to be ‘organisationally outflanked’ by those above them. Nowhere has this condition been more extreme than in India.
The Beatles Complete On Ukulele
The opening of the London 2012 Olympics means the predestined end to one of the first blogs I ever loved. As its mission statement says, the music project's creators Dave Barratt and Roger Greenawalt released a new recording of a Beatles song featuring a different artist (and always, of course, a ukulele) every Tuesday since Obama's Inauguration along with an original essay about the song. The essays are conversational yet insightful with tons of interesting Beatles stories, so check them out on the righthand column archives. Here's a passage from their essay on "Within You Without You":
Mother Nature's Olympians crowned
The Olympics is a time to celebrate the world's fastest and strongest humans, but you can rely on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to put the best of human performance in perspective. They've just come out with their list of Olympians for the natural world — champions that range from the fleet cheetah to the humble fungus. "While celebrating the achievements of talented athletes across the world this summer, we should also take the time to appreciate these incredible species," the IUCN says in today's Olympian roundup. Here are some of the conservation group's medalists for 2012:
Sprint: Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) can bolt at 70 mph or more for short bursts, making them the world's fastest land animals. In comparison, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is credited as the fastest human, with a top running speed of 27.79 mph. Theoretically, humans could reach velocities of 40 mph — still short of the cheetah's personal best.
High jump: To even things out, cross-species-wise, the IUCN is measuring jumping ability in terms of body length. By that measure, a lowly insect known as the common froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) gets the high-jump crown. It can jump 115 times its body length, while the record for humans is just a little over 8 feet (2.45 meters). That's about 1.25 times the height of the record-holder, Cuba's Javier Sotomayor (6-foot-5 or 195 centimeters).
50 Shades of Green
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple. What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London. Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought. The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
twenty years dead but his ardor uncooled
If David Wojnarowicz were alive today he’d be turning fifty-eight in September. Who knows what his art would look like by now? But there is every reason to think he would have been one of the relative few to have graduated from the hit-or-miss East Village art scene of the 1980s and gone on to greater glory. His stencils, icons, symmetry, hot colors, homoerotic imagery, and street art all remain visible in the work of others now. His ghost is just about discernible around the edges of stuff by Gilbert & George, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, and I’m sure you can think of more. Of course, maybe if he’d lived he’d have taken several radical turns away from those tropes by now, but in either case he’d surely be getting retrospectives, awards, tributes—the treatment accorded a significant artist in the fullness of maturity. He was that vital, protean, fecund, original, and pioneering in his life and work.more from Luc Sante at Bookforum here.
From the Ruins of Empire
Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1889. This was nothing if not wishful thinking, and no one knew it better than the poet of the imperial Raj himself: indeed, that same year Kipling visited Hong Kong and bemoaned the likely impact of bringing railways and newspapers to China. “What,” he warned, “will happen when China really wakes up?” With the British empire at the zenith of its power, it was hardly an immediate worry. The Chinese might pride themselves on avoiding the fate of a “lost country” such as India, with its viceroys and its foreign empress, but the Qing dynasty was losing its grip and only a few years later the nationalist Boxer rebellion would be brutally crushed by a western expeditionary force, precipitating the crisis from which China did not emerge for half a century.more from Mark Mazower at the FT here.
how to write
Rule No. 1: Show and Tell. Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do. “And what do you have for us today, Marcy?” “A penetrating psychological study of a young med student who receives disturbing news from a former lover.” “How marvelous! Timmy, what are you holding there?” “It’s a Calvinoesque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo.” “Such imagination!” Show and Tell, followed by a good nap.more from Colson Whitehead at the NY Times here.
July 27, 2012
Joseph Young via (a cool new blog) Politcal Violence @ A Glance:
International politics is a tough thing to study. We can’t necessarily treat the interactions of states like a laboratory: perform a study, tweak, replicate, and then repeat. Yet, we want to explain the world, and sometimes even predict important outcomes.
For example, what should we do if a zombie hoard attacks? Dan Drezner has a plan informed by his experience as an international relations theorist.
Poliscifi, or the application of political science theories to science fiction, is more than just fun (it is fun, try it). Thought experiments have a long tradition in philosophy and allow us to overcome some of the problems associated with the difficulty of experimentation in international relations (field and laboratory experiments are gaining in prominence in the discipline, but that is for another post). After recently watching Falling Skies, Steven Spielberg’s dystopian alien invasion series [Spoiler Alert], I immediately began to poliscifi. What should we do if aliens showed up? What if they proved to be aggressive? What if we were horribly outgunned?
the sound of unsustainability
Over the three lengthy chapters that make up The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, Garret Keizer argues that life in our post-industrial era is the playground of the economically powerful, who carelessly inflict their refuse on the weak: “marginalized people, small creatures, and simple pursuits.” Noise, or “unwanted sound,” is the vector for this extended case study, and along the way it becomes something more than simply “unwanted.” It becomes an elegant cipher for the abundance of violence our civilization has not yet quelled or fully recognized. He reads a terrible richness in the ecological, social, and economical dynamics of machine noise’s interaction with life: small creatures terrorized by the din of a highway cutting through their habitat, airport workers forced to live under the flight path of the planes they service, and soldiers in the military “exposed to weapons fire and explosive devices that may produce sound levels as high as 185 dB.” Keizer believes an understanding of noise pollution in all its gravity gives the lie to any notion of a cleanly won modern world. “The extent to which we regard noise issues as ‘precious,’ in the pejorative sense of the word,” he writes, “is the extent to which we will squander those things we ought to hold precious in the positive sense of the word: fragile ecosystems, manual skills, local cultures, neighborhoods, children.more from Sean Higgins at AGNI here.
The painter’s best-known work, Portrait of a Man, which is in London’s National Gallery and is informally known as The Tailor—it shows someone with shears in his hand and a bolt of cloth before him—stands out in part because it is the rare Moroni where the sitter is actually doing something. (It doesn’t hurt that the man is good-looking, and the way he leans over a little, and turns to face us, gives the portrait a kind of inner spring.) But this London picture, which has the generally bare appearance of many Moronis—he doesn’t, like Holbein, make something luxuriant out of the space surrounding his sitter—conveys little about what it was like to be a tailor at the time. It presents if anything the idea of being a tailor (or of being a cloth merchant), and Michael Levey, in his 1987 The National Gallery Collection, astutely saw that the sitter, with his appraising look, might as well be taking “the spectator’s measure.” This is Moroni’s tone in his portraits in general: his people scrutinize us. What also feels fresh and modern—and capable of making earlier commentators believe there was something obdurate or lacking in Moroni—is the unusually straightforward, almost anonymous, nature of his realism.more from Sanford Schwartz at the NYRB here.
Ch'ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.
His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern
With what he was doing.
No application was needed
His mind was perfectly simple
And knew no obstacle.
So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
"For" and "against" are forgotten.
No drives no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.
Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.
by Chuang Tzu
trans. Thomas Merton
Drone Court Advantage
An incisive piece by Charles Davis in The New Inquiry:
Tritely declaring President Obama no different from George W. Bush, these nominally left-wing suppressors of the vote even adopt the same bigoted, “pro-life” language one would expect to find outside an abortion clinic in Kansas, proclaiming our commander-in-chief a “criminal” and “baby killer” all because he has killed a few regrettable babies as part of wars that much of the world considers criminal — a privilege, mind you, never denied any of his white predecessors. They even attack the president because he has had the temerity to protect the lives of American servicemen and women through the record-breaking use of drones, ensuring the greatest threat they face is carpal tunnel, not a bullet from an angry savage.
...Talking about innocent men, women, and children killed by our way of life isn’t going to bring them back, but it will undermine support among President Obama’s left-wing base. Indeed, while some pacifists confuse their personal beliefs with politically viable policy solutions — thinking, as blogger Adam Serwer puts it, that America should stick to “using banana creme pies or wifflebats in its defense” — President Obama is compelled to live in the real world. And there he must confront real threats, like a potential GOP takeover of the Senate, that require an active and politically unassailable foreign policy. Instead of dwelling on dead foreigners and arguing and bickering over which president killed which child, the left would do well to remember the huge advances in progressive rhetoric we’ve made these last four years. Instead of bashing the man who saved us from Sarah Palin, we ought to rededicating ourselves to addressing the most pressing problem the planet faces right now: defeating Mitt Romney.
After all, if you don’t like that Barack Obama possesses the unilateral ability to decide who lives or dies, imagine how insufferable that power would be in the hands of the former Massachusetts governor.
Read the rest here.
Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?
Not in any direct way. That is, it doesn’t provide an argument for the existence of God. But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against the philosophy called materialism (or “physicalism”), which is the main intellectual opponent of belief in God in today’s world. Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities --- if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”
Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things. No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism --- at least with regard to the human mind --- is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being ... including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.”
Explosive backpacks: Termites explode to defend their colonies
A species of termite found in the rainforests of French Guiana takes altruism seriously: aged workers grow sacks of toxic blue liquid that they explode onto their enemies in an act of suicidal self-sacrifice to help their colonies (see video).
The “explosive backpacks” of Neocapritermes taracua, described in Science today1, grow throughout the lifetimes of the worker termites, filling with blue crystals secreted by a pair of glands on the insects' abdomens. Older workers carry the largest and most toxic backpacks. Those individuals also, not coincidentally, are the least able to forage and tend for the colony: their mandibles become dull and worn as the termites age, because they cannot be sharpened by moulting. “Older individuals are not as effective at foraging and nest maintenance as younger workers,” says Robert Hanus, who studies termite biology at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague, and led the study. But when the workers are attacked, he says, “they can provide another service to the colony. It makes perfect sense to me because theories predict that social insects should perform low-risk, laborious tasks such as housekeeping in the first part of their life and risky tasks such as defence as they age.”
Dmitri Nabokov: His Father’s Best Translator
Lila Azam Zanganeh in the New York Times:
As an adolescent in Paris in the 1990s, I had listened as my mother, an Iranian exile, read English excerpts from “Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir of his early years in Russia and his life after the Bolshevik Revolution, in Crimea, Germany and France. Dmitri appears in “Speak, Memory,” both as an infant in Berlin, his tiny hand placed “starfish-wise” on his father’s, and as a 6-year-old at the port of St. Nazaire, on the last page, about to catch sight of the enormous yellow funnel of the Champlain, the ship the Nabokovs would embark on to seek refuge in America. When my mother read this passage to me for the first time, I recall clinging to its final image: “something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.” A secret trapdoor had suddenly opened. Reading was a matter of capturing a detail in a scrambled picture, which, once perceived, unveiled a new story, often richer and stranger than the one first imagined.
This, in my eyes, would prove to be true of Dmitri himself. Véra Nabokov was Jewish, which was why the family had been compelled to flee Europe in 1940 aboard the Champlain. This would be a second exile for the Nabokovs — in a space of two decades, they had escaped both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, each time by a matter of hours. Thus, Dmitri was the child of a revolution and a war.
Tom Friedman as Midwife
Belén Fernández in Jacobin:
In the aftermath of Pulitzer champ Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times offering, “Syria Is Iraq,” commentators have begun to question whether Friedman himself has not discovered the joys of Friedman-parodying.
As Matt Taibbi remarked at Rolling Stone: “This column today is so crazy I have to think Friedman is kidding.”
To put it in Friedman-speak, this is a Friedman column on steroids, a distilled cornucopia of his signature journalistic maneuvers.
Playing God: The Loving Psychopath
The United States is the deadliest wealthy country in the world. Can science help us explain, or even solve, our national crisis?
Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries blog at Scientific American:
While everyone agrees the blame should ultimately be placed on the perpetrator of this violence, the fact remains that the United States has one of the highest murder rates in the industrialized world. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks fifth in homicides just behind Brazil (highest), Mexico, Russia, and Estonia. Our nation also holds the dubious honor of being responsible for half of the worst mass shootings in the last 30 years. How can we explain why the United States has nearly three times more murders per capita than neighboring Canada and ten times more than Japan? What makes the land of the free such a dangerous place to live?
There have been hundreds of thoughtful explorations of this problem in the last week, though three in particular have encapsulated the major issues. Could it be, as science writer David Dobbs argues at Wired, that “an American culture that fetishizes violence,” such as the Batman franchise itself, has contributed to our fall? “Culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction,” Dobbs writes, “just as it does other traits.”
Perhaps the push arrived with the collision of other factors, as veteran journalist Bill Moyers maintains, when the dark side of human nature encountered political allies who nurture our destructive impulses? “Violence is our alter ego, wired into our Stone Age brains,” he says. “The NRA is the best friend a killer’s instinct ever had.”
July 26, 2012
The Checkpoint: Terror, Power, and Cruelty
Oded Na’aman in Boston Review:
One morning, when I was about four years old, I proudly announced from the back seat of my family’s car, “Mother, I want you to know that I am the first kid in my whole kindergarten to think inside my head rather than out loud.” The car slowed to a standstill as we waited for the light to change. My mother turned to me, smiled, and said softly, “How do you know you’re the first?”
I was speechless. With one brief question, she had made the world a stranger to me and made me a stranger in my own world. She unveiled a universe of goings-on, a whole new brand of human activity that everyone I knew—the friends I played with, my sisters, even my parents—was engaged in, which I could have no access to. I sat on the staircase that day in kindergarten, observing the other kids play. Using my recently acquired skill, I wondered silently, with unmistakable trepidation, “Who knows what they are thinking?”
I soon regained my trust and grew up believing in the people around me. I knew there were dangers, but I felt certain I was not alone and therefore not helpless in facing them.
Fourteen years after my big kindergarten discovery, I was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). At the West Bank checkpoints, the terror of other minds took over again. It occupied my soul.