Wednesday, April 30, 2014
What exactly were the implications of World War I?
With contemporary historians like Gerd Krumeich assessing the World War from 1914 to 1918 as "one of the formative experiences of the century, perhaps even the decisive factor in shaping it", an event that each generation examines anew "in the light of old insights and new experiences, and the theoretical approaches gleaned from their own lifeworld", it would seem high time to ask about the extent to which this war a century ago influenced the gender hierarchy of the western world. Wolfgang Mommsen goes much further, identifying the First World War as, "in a certain sense, the fatal crisis of old bourgeois Europe", as a result of which "major parts of pre-war orders and institutions were destroyed, but above all the social structures were changed substantially." This raises the question of the extent to which these changes affected the way gender characters were shaped, how the sexes related to each other and their options for action. Three aspects are always elementary in determining the subject status of the sexes in a given social system: firstly, the question of economic independence, that is, the possibility of supporting oneself financially; secondly, the question of citizenship rights and possibilities for participating in the public sphere, and thirdly, the question of sexual self-determination, that is, of control over one's own body and reproductive capacity. Accordingly, it must be asked to what extent the First World War influenced, changed or reorganized and fortified the gender hierarchy based on complementary public and private spheres.
Tomaselli finds visual poetry in the news
The Perp Walk of the Shamed proves only one of the leitmotifs running through Tomaselli’s series. Another, which likewise surfaced right from the beginning, is that tendency for formal geometries. Thus, post-earthquake Haiti in ruins (Jan. 14, 2010 and Jan. 16, 2010); the bombing attack on Shiite demonstrators in Pakistan (Sep. 4, 2010); the fate of the Guantánamo prisoners (Apr. 25, 2011), in which the geometry becomes almost web-like in its constriction; and Syria (July 25, 2012), where evidence of the war’s having reached Aleppo is veritably tessellated over with ornate tilework (note the homonymic pun with the entirely coincidental report beneath the image on a “Mogul’s Latest Foray”).
“With many of those, yes, I am struggling to ﬁnd a way to channel my horror or grief, and in particular not to play with or play off images of death: to give the dead their due—their privacy, as it were, while still acknowledging the scale of the tragedy of their passing.”
another look at Marguerite Duras' The lover
Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.
The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies. ...
Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”
My Thighs are Cold
My thighs are cold.
As is the pucked sag of my belly,
a cool appendage hanging like
a symbiotic twin from my waist,
with two sons-worth of skin stretch.
My fingers are cold.
As are my toes, their ten plus ten
equalling twenty long digits
that grapple at warmth with
a cadaver's marblous grip.
Until my morning bed.
There, heat oozes like piety
to every cranny, making
a smug bitch of me, a pup
languishing in self-made heat.
by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
from Tattoo : Tatú
publisher Arlen House, Galway, 2007
translation by author
Why Oklahoma tried to execute a man with a secret, untested mix of chemicals
Max Fisher in Vox:
An execution in Oklahoma went disastrously wrong on Tuesday night, when a state corrections department doctor injected death row inmate Clayton Lockett with a secret and untested chemical cocktail that was supposed to kill him quickly and painlessly. About 15 minutes into the execution, it became gruesomely clear to observers that Lockett was conscious, seizing, and in what appeared to be tremendous pain. Officials halted the execution, but 43 minutes after he had been first injected, Lockett died of a heart attack. A second man who was to be executed the same night, Charles Warner, has been granted a stay of execution for two weeks.
Oklahoma was using the experimental formula because pharmaceutical companies increasingly refuse to supply "safe" lethal injection chemicals. That's left capital punishment states to choose between executing inmates under dangerous conditions or not executing them at all. Many states have chosen to go ahead, and some have adopted secrecy laws that shield the chemical compounds used for the executions.
The key chemical in lethal injections is sodium thiopental, originally invented as an anesthetic. But US manufacturers of the drug have been increasingly refusing to sell it, either out of opposition to the death penalty or concern about association with executions. In 2011, the last US supplier, a company called Hospira, stopped making it.
Steven Pinker: Stylish Academic Writing
Studying the Rich: Thomas Piketty and his Critics
Mike Konczal in Boston Review (Photo: Emmanuelle Marchadour):
If economists to Piketty’s right are concerned that he doesn’t ground his theory deep enough in economic models, economists and others to Piketty’s left are concerned that he concedes too much to mainstream economics and not enough to politics.
Recently, there has been a strong recent resurgence on the left in emphasizing the way the state, through law, regulation, and public policy, necessarily structures markets. In this telling there is no such thing as a “free” market, just different choices about how to structure markets fundamentally based in politics and power. The idea of a “free” market is a vacuous, question-begging abstraction, invoked to defend the status quo or the interests of the wealthy. (A quick look at the titles of current academic works like The Illusion of Free Markets, The Myth of Ownership, and The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire give a sense of the argument.)
This context explains what is at stake in the left critique of Piketty. Some economists, like Dean Baker, have argued that Piketty doesn’t do enough to explain how financial regulations or patent protections could help deal with the problems he identifies. Others,like James Galbraith, invoke debates among midcentury Keynesians to argue that adding up capital and assigning it a return doesn’t make sense as a model. More broadly, Piketty has been criticized for not acknowledging how institutions and politics influence the returns on capital: his theory of the dominoes is too focused on economic forces.
So, while economists to Piketty’s right think he should create a model that predicts the rate of return on capital (his r) based on the state of the economy, rather than historical data, economists to Piketty’s left want him to emphasize the idea that many different rates of return are consistent with the character of the economy; “r” is a function of institutions and political decisions. Those on the left also worry that the debate over Capital could devolve into, as the economist Suresh Naidu argues, a “bastard Pikettyism” that just navel-gazes at the mathematical economic models discussed above, instead of a more critical, broader inquiry of how capital works in economies and societies.
A Philosophy of Walking
James Attlee in The Independent:
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Isaac Newton told us long ago. As we enfold ourselves more and more in the digital world a contrary impulse has arisen, the desire for a direct re-engagement with the physical world through activity, whether it be mountaineering, potholing, cycling or walking. Walkers, and those who have written about walking, tend to fall into two camps: urban flâneurs, descendants of Baudelaire and the Situationists, and those striking out into the countryside in the footsteps of Rousseau, Thoreau and Edward Thomas. So far, so pedestrian. Several histories of walking and its relation to literature exist already and our bestseller lists are regularly topped by ambulatory writers repackaging their journeys for a sedentary audience. What then can Gros, a professor of philosophy from Paris, add to our understanding? Inevitably there is crossover in his selection of authors and philosophers from the past who have been advocates of walking with other such studies such as Rebecca Solnitt's Wanderlust.
However, his perspective does add something to Anglophone commentaries, for instance in his insight into new and old world attitudes to nature. For a European, he points out, a journey into the wilderness is a return to an ancient, ancestral home, while for a North American like Thoreau it represented the future. Gros is a practitioner as well as a theorist, by choice a member of the rural walking school, claiming that navigating the city on foot is "torture to the lover of long rambles in nature because it imposes...an interrupted, uneven rhythm".
Natural history: A scientist's eye
Linda Lear in Nature:
In January, the British press reported the discovery of a rare parasitic fungus on the Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire. Liz Holden, an independent field mycologist, spotted the small jelly fungus Tremella simplex growing on the pink blobs of another rarity, Aleurodiscus amorphus. When she checked, she discovered that T. simplex had first been drawn in the late 1890s, by Beatrix Potter (1866–1943). Before Potter became a famous children's author and illustrator, she was a pioneering naturalist and amateur mycologist, although later discouraged by professionals in Britain's natural-history establishment. It was her habit to draw everything she saw under the lens, so Potter included the Tremella in her study, although she could not have recognized it then as an independent parasitic fungus. Potter was an extraordinary observer whose many contributions to natural science are only now becoming more widely recognized. Along with women such as Margaret Gatty, author of The History of British Seaweeds (1863), Potter was part of a generation of female naturalists whose work contributed to the advancement of professional science, whether acknowledged or not.
Potter always prized the tribute paid to her by family friend John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite society painter: “plenty of people can draw, but you ... have observation”. All her life, she exhibited a meticulous concern for factual evidence.
Most of What You Think You Know About Sex Trafficking Isn’t True
In the resulting study, “Conflict and Agency Among Sex Workers and Pimps,” released in this May’s ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Marcus and Curtis (along with researchers Amber Horning, Jo Sanson, and Efram Thompson) interviewed a total of 372 sex workers (262 of whom were minors and 70 who had previously worked as minors) to present a more complicated idea of how the market for underage sex work functions, one that some well-meaning activists—and legislation like the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, which seeks to prosecute pimps to save underage sex workers—may not fully understand. Previous research in the area, much of which relied on interviews with a handful of underage sex workers who turn up in rescue institutions, rehabilitation programs, or in jail, “paints a skewed picture of the complex environment of prostitution,” they wrote. Really, “stereotypical pimps are far less common and important to street sex markets than would be expected.” In their sample, only 14 percent of female underage sex workers in New York City (and 6 percent of the males) had a pimp. Some testified that they had recruited their friends and boyfriends to help them with their business. And “all sex workers in both Atlantic City and New York City described experiencing increasing, rather than decreasing, agency and control over their work over time.” Many of the girls and boys they interviewed “had left pimps because they were violent, mentally abusive, lazy, poor business associates, unable to protect them, extracting too much money, or no longer fun to be around,” sometimes within days or weeks of meeting. One 17-year-old sex worker in New York says her boyfriend tricked her into sex work at the age of 12. But he’s not the one keeping her on the street—she left him and began working independently less than a year later. Another 17-year-old sex worker in Atlantic City says that she was initiated into sex work by a pimp, but dropped him after her first gig. “I’d rather work for myself,” she told them. “It’s more money.”
Pimps, too, failed to fit the stereotypical mold. “We were told pimps were not approachable because they were too dangerous and didn’t want to talk,” Marcus told me. “But all they wanted to do was talk, talk, talk—that’s what they do for a living.” Many pimps referred the researchers to their sex workers if they approached them in the right way, no cuts on the face required. (In addition to interviewing pimps in Atlantic City, the researchers spoke with 85 male pimps working in New York.) One pimp told them that going after underage girls constituted “pimp suicide,” not because it makes pimps vulnerable to harsh anti-trafficking laws, but because “teenage prostitutes don’t earn enough money,” Marcus says.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The Global Land Grab
Karen J. Coates in Slate (Photo by Jerry Redfern):
Chhek Sambo works a little farm on the fertile plains stemming from a sacred Cambodian mountain known as Phnom Kulen. For 17 years this tropical plot has given Sambo and her family rice, cassava, mangoes, bananas, lychees, “everything we can eat.” She and her neighbors raise chickens and ducks (free-range) and cows (grass-fed). The land provides her daily sustenance, and farming is the only job she’s ever known. There is nowhere else Sambo would rather be, nothing else she would rather do, than “live here forever,” working this dirt until the end of her days.
But Sambo has a problem: She might lose this land. Like millions of subsistence farmers worldwide, Sambo and the 117 families in her rural community of Skuon have no formal title to their farm fields. And now, someone else wants her 2.5-acre patch.
It’s a familiar story in Cambodia, where land disputes have disrupted the lives and livelihoods of half a million people. Many of the affected are small-scale farmers who grow their own food. “Without land, they no longer have the means to provide themselves with the basic requirements for a decent life,” according to Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group LICADHO.
Many land feuds in Cambodia begin on paper but lead to physical fights. The worst end in death. Villagers often protest against forced evictions, but they typically fail when faced with police or soldiers. “The people have knife and fork, but the soldiers have gun,” says Chao Leak Vanna, a LICADHO human rights monitor.
This is a global humanitarian crisis. An unprecedented worldwide scramble for land—predominantly for agriculture—has spurred a new era in the “geopolitics of food scarcity,” according to Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. That scramble escalated dramatically with the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent rise in food prices. Countries that export food began to limit how much they would sell. Countries that import food “panicked,” Brown writes, and started buying up or leasing other countries’ cheap land on which to produce their own food. Hardest hit were poor countries like Cambodia, where the elite eat abundantly and the poor already struggle to feed themselves.
How Sex Rules our Dreams
Patrick McNamara in Aeon (In dreams; a beach-roamer, Germany, 1933. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum Photos):
In one dream from the archives, for instance, a male college student explains that he was in a theatre restaurant with his date when she mentioned that a man on stage had previously insulted her and severely beaten her escort. ‘I climbed up on the stage and attacked him,’ the dreamer wrote. ‘He was about 25 and very formidable-looking but catching him by surprise I succeeded in knocking him down. The audience thought it was part of the performance and applauded.’
Now look at a dream from a female college student, drawn from the same group of subjects: ‘I dreamt that a friend of mine who graduated last year came back to the dorm for Stunt Night. Another friend took care of her and gave her my bed to sleep in. Meanwhile another girl whom I’m not too friendly with was engaged to a boy whom she was not very much in love with. He was very wealthy and her ring was so beautiful that she didn’t want to wear it around school. She was always putting her arms around me … a very affectionate girl. … Later I went downstairs and my friend who took care of the visitor and I proceeded to tell her about our affairs at school and our respective boyfriends.’
While both dreams included romantic targets, the male dreamer describes aggression against potential competitors while the female dreamer subtly denigrates her competitor, the girl who received a beautiful ring. After I became a professor at Boston University in the mid-1990s, I confirmed these observations in rigorous studies: men dream more often of other men than they do of women, while women dream equally often of men and women. In addition, men more often engage in physical aggression against other men in dreams, while women more often engage in non-physical forms of aggression, for instance verbal rejections and exclusions of others.
But did these reports support Freud’s claims that dreams were essentially all about sex?
Congress is Dead; Long Live Congress
Thomas Crowley in Jacobin:
“Congress does not exist. It is finished.” “Congress will be decimated.” So say the political opponents of the Indian National Congress party. While hardly unbiased, they’re expressing a sentiment common in India today. Newspaper headlines tell the same story: “A Fast Fading Party”; “Tryst with Decline.”
But it’s too soon to write the obituary of the party that once dominated Indian politics. After all, Congress has been written off before, only to somehow resurrect itself.
In India’s national elections ten years ago, the polls and the media predicted a resounding defeat for the party, which had already been out of office for eight years. The once-mighty Congress was thought to be a spent force. But the party received a plurality of votes and was able to cobble together a coalition government. Five years later, in the next national election, Congress surprised many observers by winning even more handily.
Now, with the national election of 2014 in full swing (it takes place in nine phases in April and May), some within Congress are predicting another victory.
There are a few reasons, though, to think that lightning will not strike thrice for Congress. The last five years of Congress rule, under the banner of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have been marred by scandals, economic woes, and governmental dysfunction. It is of little import that the other major national party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supports the same flawed economic policies and has shown itself to be quite adept at corruption itself. The UPA has been heading the national government for the past decade, and any blame for the missteps of the previous ten years are laid squarely at its feet.
The Reformation: Can Social Scientists Save Themselves?
Jerry Adler in Pacific Standard [h/t: Lindsay Beyerstein] (Photo: Pacific Standard):
[E]xperimental science, it turns out, is no less susceptible to a good, thorough hoaxing than postmodern blather was.
The prank announced itself at the outset: In 2011, a psychologist named Joseph P. Simmons and two colleagues set out to use real experimental data to prove an impossible hypothesis. Not merely improbable or surprising, but downright ridiculous. The hypothesis: that listening to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” makes people younger. The method: Recruit a small sample of undergraduates to listen to either The Beatles song or one of two other tracks, then administer a questionnaire asking for a number of random and irrelevant facts and opinions—their parents’ ages, their restaurant preferences, the name of a Canadian football quarterback, and so on. The result: By strategically arranging their data and carefully wording their findings, the psychologists “proved” that randomly selected people who hear “When I’m Sixty-Four” are, in fact, younger than people who don’t.
The statistical sleight of hand involved in arriving at this result is a little complicated (more on this later), but the authors’ point was relatively simple. They wanted to draw attention to a glaring problem with modern scientific protocol: Between the laboratory and the published study lies a gap that must be bridged by the laborious process of data analysis. As Simmons and his co-authors showed, this process is a virtual black box that, as currently constructed, “allows presenting anything as significant.” And if you can prove anything you want from your data, what, if anything, do you really know?
Inequality, Belief and Elections in India
Maha Rafi Atal in The Monkey Cage (image EPA/Sanjeev Gupta):
[T]he growth India has experienced in the past two decades is unevenly distributed, and may be exacerbating structural inequalities between groups. Themost recent National Sample Survey concluded that the monthly per capita household expenditures (MPCE) of Muslim families are 14 percent lower than they are for Hindu families. The gap is worst in cities: urban Muslims have an MPCE 30 percent lower than their Hindu counterparts. Given that much of India’s economic development has taken the form of urban job growth and migration, the impression is that the benefits have accrued primarily to the majority.
Just as important are divisions between Hindu castes. Of particular interest are studies that investigate the relationship between caste and social class, where the consensus is divided. Divya Vaid argues that class and caste are more congruent at the extremes of the caste system than in the middle, and that this congruence has weakened only marginally over time. By contrast, Samuel Stroope contends that class and caste are becoming more distinct from one another in urban areas. But Stroope also finds high-caste individuals are gravitating toward religious exclusivity: that might be a reaction against the erosion of high-caste economic privilege.
In rural areas, meanwhile, growth has taken the form of large-scale industrial development on land purchased under eminent domain-style legislation, with this property bundled into ‘Special Economic Zones’ offering a range of tax incentives.Lancy Lobo and Shashikant Kumar’s landmark study on land politics in Gujarat has shown that the burden of displacement has fallen disproportionately on disadvantaged castes, many of whom had customary, rather than written, rights to land and were left out of compensation schemes.
Economic growth is not eliminating the differences between religious and caste groupings. Moreover, a number of studies suggest sectarian violence may itself be a consequence of uneven development.
goethe's stupendous claim: everything is leaf
Found among the notes of the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe is a stupendous claim: Everything is leaf. This is a statement that seems too beautiful to be science. Goethe came to this idea on a trip to Italy in the late 1700s. The more Goethe looked at plants, and lived and breathed with plants, the more profoundly he felt poetry’s limits. He turned to botany and began publishing scientific works. He created his own study of seeing, which he called “morphology.” In this, Goethe’s love of plants followed the same path that all lasting love must take. Goethe wanted to know plants from their most essential beginnings, wanted to touch their seeds, follow their cycles. He couldn’t be satisfied just wandering around parks, glancing at the flowers and pronouncing metaphors upon them — Goethe had to understand what a plant truly is. Everything is leaf, he discovered at last, every part of a plant is leaf. The cotyledon, the foliage, the cataphylls, the petals — a plant is fundamentally leaf. Goethe published this intimate memoir of his relationship with leaves and named it The Metamorphosis of Plants.
It’s unsurprising that Goethe came to his idea about the everythingness of leaf while wandering the lush countryside of Naples. I wonder if he could have had his realization trudging through the barren early spring gardens of Weimar. “The Neapolitan firmly believes that he lives in Paradise and takes a very dismal view of northern countries,” Goethe wrote in his notebook.
On Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy
These and other sketches of Transylvanians gone wild demonstrate a benign ridiculousness, but Bánffy also sees the corrosive effects of comedy. (Tellingly, one of the novel’s villains, Pal Uzdy, occasionally bursts out in strange, meaningless laughter.) When a newly-appointed Prefect is pelted with eggs in Parliament, Abady laughs along with the others before becoming overcome with sadness: “He thought only of the fact that an innocent man had been humiliated, and that it was callous and distasteful that everyone should think the whole affair a tremendous joke and nothing more.”
His Hungarian colleagues think most everything is a tremendous joke, a quality directly related to their failure to take the gathering international storm seriously:
The sad truth was that all of them found anything that did not concern their own country fit only for mockery and laughter. To them such matters were as remote from reality as if they had been happening on Mars; and therefore fit only for schoolboy puns and witty riposte.
Abady mistrusts his countrymen’s love of the comic as a form of irresponsibility.
How To Think Like A Neandertal
One of the most famous Neandertal individuals, and the most complete Neandertal skeleton that has been found, is Shanidar 1, who lived and died in Iraqi Kurdistan about fifty thousand years ago. Shanidar 1 was male, between thirty and forty when he died, about 5’8” tall. His skeleton also reveals the many physical traumas he suffered during his life. His right arm had been injured beyond use or else amputated above the elbow many years prior to death. Several bones in his right foot had been badly broken leading to serious arthritic degeneration in his right ankle and knee, while his left leg, knee and foot were normal. He had received a devastating blow to the left side of his face which had crushed his left cheekbone, the left side of his cranium and probably blinded him in his left eye. This facial trauma had also healed many years before his death. He had received a separate wound to his right scalp, deep enough to cut the bone. This too had healed before his death. Whether these injuries occurred due to a single incident or separate events is not known. They may have been the result of a hunting accident or have been due to a violent interaction with another Neandertal. After all, interpersonal violence is a characteristic not only of modern humans but of many non-human primates, including chimps, our closest cousins. While his injuries demonstrate that Shanidar 1 had a very tough life, perhaps what is most significant about them is the fact that he survived them. He must have been cared for and this is a huge clue to the Neandertal mind. He would have, for some time at least, been incapacitated, unable to take part in hunting and unable to care for or feed himself.
Has wealth made Qatar happy?
Matthew Teller in BBC News Magazine:
What's less well understood is the impact of such rapid change on Qatari society itself.
You can feel the pressure in Doha. The city is a building site, with whole districts either under construction or being demolished for redevelopment. Constantly snarled traffic adds hours to the working week, fuelling stress and impatience.
Local media report that 40% of Qatari marriages now end in divorce. More than two-thirds of Qataris, adults and children, are obese.
Qataris benefit from free education, free healthcare, job guarantees, grants for housing, even free water and electricity, but abundance has created its own problems.
"It's bewildering for students to graduate and be faced with 20 job offers," one academic at an American university campus in Qatar tells me. "People feel an overwhelming pressure to make the right decision."
In a society where Qataris are outnumbered roughly seven-to-one by expatriates, long-term residents speak of a growing frustration among graduates that they are being fobbed off with sinecures while the most satisfying jobs go to foreigners.
The sense is deepening that, in the rush for development, something important has been lost.
Read the rest here.
The Continuing Evolution of Genes
Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Each of us carries just over 20,000 genes that encode everything from the keratin in our hair down to the muscle fibers in our toes. It’s no great mystery where our own genes came from: our parents bequeathed them to us. And our parents, in turn, got their genes from their parents. But where along that genealogical line did each of those 20,000 protein-coding genes get its start? That question has hung over the science of genetics ever since its dawn a century ago. “It’s a basic question of life: how evolution generates novelty,” said Diethard Tautz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany. New studies are now bringing the answer into focus. Some of our genes are immensely old, perhaps dating all the way back to the earliest chapters of life on earth.
But a surprising number of genes emerged more recently — many in just the past few million years. The youngest evolved after our own species broke off from our cousins, the apes. Scientists are finding that new genes come into being at an unexpectedly fast clip. And once they evolve, they can quickly take on essential functions. Investigating how new genes become so important may help scientists understand the role they may play in diseases like cancer.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Coloring the Plane: Ramsey's Theorem Revisited and the Moser Spindle
by Jonathan Kujawa
A few months ago I wrote about one of my favorite results in math: Ramsey's Theorem. It tells us that when we look at things at a large enough scale complete chaos is impossible. That is, if we look hard enough we inevitably find patterns. Call it the Conspiracy Theory Theorem.
Ramsey's theorem launched an entire field of mathematics which answers questions of the form "In such-and-such a setting, what kind of structure do we find if we look on a large enough scale?". Or you might instead ask: "In such-and-such a setting, if I want to avoid a certain structure on large scales, what do I have to do?". Of course, it's usually easier to ask the question than to find the answer .
A famous recent example is the Green-Tao Theorem. In 2004 Ben Green and Terence Tao proved that within the prime numbers you can find arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. The prime numbers are the ones which can only be evenly divided by one and themselves (and so have to do with multiplication/division). They are rather randomly distributed amongst all the numbers, but the Green-Tao theorem says that if you look for the right kind of structure (sequences of numbers given by addition) and at a large enough scale, then you can't avoid finding it. It is a striking result which was among the reasons Dr. Tao earned the Fields medal in 2006 and has put Dr. Green in the running for a Fields medal this year .
When reading up on Ramsey's Theorem I discovered a delightful book edited by Alexander Soifer entitled "Ramsey Theory: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow". It mixes the history and mathematics of Ramsey theory and covers everything from pre-Ramsey Ramsey theory up to the current state of the art.
From this book I learned of an irresistible 60+ year old question called the Hadwiger-Nelson problem. It's easy to state:
If you want to color the points of the Euclidean plane in such a way as to guarantee that there are never two points of the same color which are exactly one unit apart, how many colors do you need?
By the Euclidean plane we just mean the usual xy-plane you use in geometry when you draw circles, parabolas, etc. Since the plane goes off to infinity in every direction there are infinitely many points on the plane. A reasonable first guess is that you'll need infinitely many colors . If it is possible to color the plane with finitely many colors, then surely it's something crazy like one of those Magic Eye posters which were all the rage in US shopping malls in the 80's:
With a little sideways thinking, it might occur to you to tile the plane with squares sized so that the distance from corner to corner is a little less than one unit. All of the points within that square are then less than one unit apart so can be colored a single color without causing us any trouble. We then can color the points on the plane by instead coloring each square a single color. This (in retrospect) easy observation quickly gives a striking breakthrough to what seemed previously to be an unsolvable problem.
For example here is a coloring of the squares using nine colors:
Here I've colored the plane using nine colors in a three by three grid with the pattern repeating over and over in all directions. Let's think about the points of the plane which are colored, say, red. Those within one square are all less than one unit apart. If you do the geometry, you'll find that those in two different red squares are always more than one unit apart. So there are never two red points exactly one unit apart. The same goes for each of the other eight colors.
So we don't need infinitely many colors! In fact, we can do a little bit better than nine. If we tile the squares so that each row is offset as you would when laying bricks, then you only need seven colors:
I'll leave it to you to figure out how to color this with seven colors. Now that we know we only need finitely many colors, how low can we go?
Obviously one color isn't enough since any line segment of length one would have two points of the same color at its ends. What about two colors? Well, if you draw an equilateral triangle in the plane where all three sides have length one, then you see that if you only use two colors you are forced to have two corners of the triangle which have the same color and are exactly one unit apart.
What about three colors? The Moser brothers introduced what is now called the Moser Spindle:
The Moser Spindle is a configuration of seven points in the plane so that each of the dashed lines is exactly one unit long. With some trial and error you will find that it is impossible to color these seven points with only three colors while avoiding having two of the same color on a dashed line. Alternatively, if you'd like a fun puzzle, a colleague of mine showed me a clever argument using multiple equilateral triangles and a circle which shows that any coloring with three colors fails the challenge.
From this we see we need at least four colors. So the number of colors we need is either 4, 5, 6, or 7.
What's the final answer? Nobody knows! We are at the frontier of human knowledge. If you press experts they may be willing to bet on which of these four numbers is the smallest number of colors you need; but nobody knows the final answer. My best guess based on gut instinct alone is that it is 5 or 6, but your guess is definitely as good as mine!
Like any good problem in math, it opens a Pandora's box of other questions: What if we tile the plane with other shapes? What if we wanted to color points in 3-dimensional space? What if we wanted to color the points on another shape -- say the surface of the Earth? Whatever you ask, the answer is surely that nobody knows. Whatever you can say, it's quite likely to be new.
 A good working definition of a "good" question is one which is neither too easy nor too hard. It's boring to answer easy questions and infuriating when you can't make any progress at all.
 The Fields medal is awarded every four years to mathematicians under the age of 40. It is a closely held secret who will win this year, but of course that doesn't stop wild speculation. There is even a poll for those who'd like to weigh in!
 What happens if we replace "exactly one unit apart" with "closer than one unit apart"? If you think about a line segment which is one unit long, then you realize that there are infinitely many points along that line segment and so you'll need infinitely many colors. Similarly, if we replace "exactly one unit apart" with "farther than one unit apart", then if you look at an infinitely long line you can again find infinitely many points which are all, say, two or more units apart. So again you'll need infinitely many colors. Somehow "exactly one unit apart" is the sweet spot where suddenly something very interesting happens. See .
 Thanks to stereogrammes.org for the image.
 Thanks to wikipedia for the image.
Sam Hamill Interviewed
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
When you listen as keenly for humanity’s pulse as Sam Hamill does, you “fall into the place where everything is music”— in Rumi’s words. This is the music where all cultures meet, where the spirit finds its truest articulation: a place impossible even to imagine in our present global reality defined by the fractures of an ever-deepening mistrust between people. Through his poetry, translation, teaching, editing and publishing, Sam confronts the weaponry of power-hungry systems. He describes his practice as “serving in the temple of poetry”— the only place, perhaps, where all human languages have an equal chance to grow and blossom because they all have an equal claim on poetry and on ennobling humanity. I recently spoke with Sam Hamill via email:
Shadab: On the eleventh anniversary of “poets against war,” arguably the most impressive anti-war movement since Vietnam, what are your thoughts as the founder and the leading voice of the movement?
Sam: Little has changed. We have fewer civil rights, and we’ve spread the death machine ever more widely, and this has clearly become war-without-end. The US government is the largest and most successful terrorist organization in the world, threatening all peoples everywhere. My on-line anthology, Poets Against the War, collected 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets protesting the attack on Iraq. That is the largest single-theme anthology in all of history. Did it stop the invasion? No. Of course not. But it became a part of the history of that criminal war and its extension into other countries.
Shadab: What drew you to translation? Being among the best known and prolific literary translators, what do you find most rewarding about the process and the product?
Sam: I grew up reading Greek and Roman myths and tales and then reading Rexroth and others on Zen, reading the Spanish poets, the Harvard Classics, etc, it was natural that I’d want to know more. My Zen practice drew me into the world of Asian classics.
Shadab: What is the translator’s first allegiance: the original poem in all its cultural specificity (context, tradition-based allusions, nuanced language) or the poem’s more “translatable” aspect— its essence and meaning from a universal viewpoint?
Sam: Each translation brings its own particular challenges. Every translation is unique. Many classical Chinese poems can be translated in a very literal way—like Tao Te Ching for instance. And yet we have perfectly awful translations of it from people like Stephen Mitchell when the translator intrudes on the text. It’s a delicate dance. Mitchell reads no Chinese, so he simply invents and interprets from what others have done. I go through the poems character by character and try to make the poem a poem in English that is true to the original. We can’t replicate the 5 or 7-syllable line of classical Chinese poetry, nor mirror the interior and exterior rhymes, so I seek a speaking music in English to convey the sense of rhythm in our own tongue. In my Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, there are a variety of styles and distinctly different voices. We lose a lot of nuance and subtlety when bringing them into English.
Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?
Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich,
while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.
Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?
Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.
Shadab: Is there such a thing as a “poem for all times”?
Sam: Sure. “Ode to the West Wind” would be a great poem in any language any day. Same with the great Zen poets or Rilke’s “Archaic Bust of Apollo” or… I could make a very long list.
Shadab: Are poets duty-bound to include a political consciousness/conscience in their work?
Sam: “Duty-bound?” I think not. But it’s almost impossible to write “apolitical” poetry in a world in which everything has political ties either directly or indirectly. A simple love poem is loaded with politics: is it heterosexual love we celebrate today? Is the “she” submissive or assertive? Is the “he” passive or dominant? Is “she” objectified or are her complexities reflected in the poetry? We’d have no “romance” in our poetry were it not for the meeting of Arabic and European tradition in Provence in the 12th century. I can’t imagine a poetry without conscience. Poetry, because it’s meant to communicate, is a social medium. Art is a social activity because it reaches out. Whether it’s Hopper or Goya, Plath or Rich or Gary Snyder, there is a social engagement that reflects back on culture and history.
Shadab: Is activist poetry effective as a catalyst for change in our times?
Sam: The “women’s movement” of the 60s and 70s was mostly begun by poets: Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, Susan Griffin, et alia. They were inspired by Sappho, by Akhmatova, etc. Poetry has almost always been a part of social revolution. Think of the great poets of the Spanish resistance to fascism or the role of poets in Latin America and elsewhere. Nazim Hikmet struck terror into the hearts of his oppressors.
Shadab: How would you define the term world poet? Has America produced such a poet?
Sam: Whitman. He was read all over Latin America before we northerns realized how important he was. And to a lesser degree, Ezra Pound, and many of the post-modern poets transcend our borders.
Shadab: You once said: “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”
Unlike most politically inclined poets, “apolitical” poets, such as the supremely popular former poet laureate Billy Collins (and a number of others), seem to have received tremendous success in earning laurels and even money. Why is that?
Sam: They entertain the lowest common denominator. They ask (or demand) almost nothing from their audience. They are the Edgar Guests of our age. They also ask very little of themselves, and certainly nothing the least bit revolutionary. They don’t present any threat to the status quo. Billy Collins was Poet Laureate when the USA invaded Iraq. But you’ll find no protest in his poetry.
Shadab: Is a compromise inevitable on the part of the poet laureates in terms of exercising their right to freely criticize government policies?
Sam: Laureates serve their masters. And themselves. Their primary function is to try to popularize poetry.
Shadab: The national poet laureate is an ambassador of sorts — between the dynamic world of poetry and the society at large. As the designated poet-ambassador of the world’s leading super power, should the US poet laureate speak to (in poetry or in person), or speak of — the people around the world whose lives are influenced by US policies?
Sam: A poet’s first duty is to open his or her heart and stand naked in the act of revelation. I wouldn’t be a poet laureate even if asked. My “master” is revolution—nonviolent anti-capitalist humane revolution. The greatest threat to the world today is American imperialism, just as it was a hundred years ago. The body count is almost beyond comprehension—millions dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide against Palestinian peoples whose lands are being stolen day by day, 30,000 gun deaths in the USA every year, drone bombings of children in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sabotage of democratic governments in Latin American and elsewhere, sweatshops in Indonesia and China… the list goes on and on. Who will listen to the cries of the world? Who will dare speak for those who have been silenced?
Shadab: Would you tell us a bit about your forthcoming publications?
Sam: In September, Lost Horse Press will publish my Habitations: Collected Poems. It spans nearly half a century of writing. Recent translations of my poetry have been published in Egypt, Argentina, Italy, and one is forthcoming in France.
Sam Hamill is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet’s Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.
He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.
Hamill taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered women and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
the universe is synchronous
its beauties overlap
tunes are made of birds on wires
Leonard Cohen taught us that
and now another gives this song to us
nature plays its songs for us
its riffs are made of days
its melodies are made of suns and moons,
of particles and waves
that are each, but synchronous
all her songs belong to us
each is ours to keep
the ruthless ones of hearts on fire
the ones sublime and deep
the ones both right and wrong for us
Birds on a wire by Leonard Cohen
Does Literary Fiction Challenge Racial Stereotypes?
by Jalees Rehman
A book is a mirror: if a fool looks in, do not expect an apostle to look out.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)
Reading literary fiction can be highly pleasurable, but does it also make you a better person? Conventional wisdom and intuition lead us to believe that reading can indeed improve us. However, as the philosopher Emrys Westacott has recently pointed out in his essay for 3Quarksdaily, we may overestimate the capacity of literary fiction to foster moral improvement. A slew of scientific studies have taken on the task of studying the impact of literary fiction on our emotions and thoughts. Some of the recent research has centered on the question of whether literary fiction can increase empathy. In 2013, Bal and Veltkamp published a paper in the journal PLOS One showing that subjects who read excerpts from literary texts scored higher on an empathy scale than those who had read a nonfiction text. This increase in empathy was predominantly found in the participants who felt "transported" (emotionally and cognitively involved) into the literary narrative. Another 2013 study published in the journal Science by Kidd and Castano suggested that reading literary fiction texts increased the ability to understand and relate to the thoughts and emotions of other humans when compared to reading either non-fiction or popular fiction texts.
Scientific assessments of how fiction affects empathy are fraught with difficulties and critics raise many legitimate questions. Do "empathy scales" used in psychology studies truly capture the psychological phenomenon of "empathy"? How long does the effect of reading literary fiction last and does it translate into meaningful shifts in behavior? How does one select appropriate literary fiction texts and control texts, and conduct such studies in a heterogeneous group of participants who probably have very diverse literary tastes? Kidd and Castano, for example, used an excerpt of The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht as a literary fiction text because the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, whereas an excerpt of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was used as a ‘popular fiction' text even though it was long-listed for the prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction.
The recent study "Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction" led by the psychology researcher Dan Johnson from Washington and Lee University took a somewhat different approach. Instead of assessing global changes in empathy, Johnson and colleagues focused on a more specific question. Could the reading of a fictional narrative change the perception of racial stereotypes?
Johnson and his colleagues chose an excerpt from the novel "Saffron Dreams" by the Pakistani-American author Shaila Abdullah. In this novel, the protagonist is a recently widowed pregnant Muslim woman Arissa whose husband Faizan was working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and killed when the building collapsed. The excerpt from the novel provided to the participants in Johnson's research study describes a scene in which Arissa is traveling alone late at night and is attacked by a group of male teenagers. The teenagers mock and threaten her with a knife because of her Muslim head-scarf (hijab), use racial and ethnic slurs as well as make references to the 9/11 attacks. The narrative excerpt does not specifically mention the word Caucasian, but one of the attackers is identified as blond and another one has a swastika tattoo. They do not believe her when she tries to explain that she was also a victim of the 9/11 attacks and instead refer to her as belonging to a "race of murderers".
The researchers used a second text in their experiment, a synopsis of the literary excerpt from Saffron Dreams. This allowed Johnson colleagues to distinguish between the effects of the literary narrative style with its inner monologue and description of emotions versus the effects of the content. Samples of the literary text and the synopsis used by the researchers can be found at the end of this article (scroll down) for those readers who would like to compare their own reactions to the two texts.
The researchers recruited 68 U.S. participants (mean age 36 years, roughly half were female, 81% Caucasian, reporting seven different religious affiliations but none of them were Muslim) and randomly assigned them to the full literary narrative group (33 participants) or the synopsis group (35 participants). After the participants read the texts, they were asked to complete a number of questions about the text and its impact on them. They were also presented with 18 male faces that the researchers had designed with a special software in a manner that they appeared ambiguous in terms of Caucasian or Arab characteristics. For example, the faces combined blue eyes with darker skin tones. The participants were asked to grade the faces as being:
2) mixed, more Arab than Caucasian
3) mixed, more Caucasian than Arab
The participants were also asked to estimate the genetic overlap between Caucasians and Arabs on a scale from 0% to 100%.
Participants in the narrative fiction group were more likely to choose one of the ambiguous options (mixed, more Arab than Caucasian or mixed, more Caucasian than Arab) and less likely to choose the categorical options (Arab or Caucasian) than those who read the synopsis. Even more interesting is the finding that the average percentage of genetic overlap between Caucasians and Arabs estimated by the synopsis group was 33%, whereas it was 57% in the narrative fiction group.
Both of these estimates are way off. The genetic overlap between any one human being and another human being on our planet is approximately 99.9%. Even much of the 0.1% variation in the human genome sequences is not due to 'racial' differences. As pointed out in a Nature Genetics article by Lynn Jorde and Stephen Wooding, approximately 90% of total genetic variation between humans would be present in a collection of individuals from any one continent (Asia, Europe or Africa). Only an additional 10% genetic variation would be found if the collection consisted of a mixture of Europeans, Asians and Africans.
It is surprising that both groups of study participants heavily underestimated the genetic overlap between Arabs and Caucasians, and that simply reading the fictional text changed their views of the human genome. This latter finding is also a red flag that informs us about the poor state of general knowledge of genetics, which appears to be so fragile that views can be swayed by nonscientific literary texts.
This study is the first to systematically test the impact of reading literary fiction on an individual's assessment of race boundaries and genetic similarity. It suggests that fiction can indeed blur the perception of race boundaries and challenge our stereotypes. The text chosen by the researchers is especially well-suited to defy stereotypical views held by the readers. The protagonist's Muslim husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks and she herself is being harassed by non-Muslim thugs. This may challenge assumptions held by some readers that only non-Muslims were the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
The effect of reading the narrative text seemed to have effects on the readers that went far beyond the content matter – the story of a Muslim woman who is showing significant courage while being threatened. The faces shown to the study participants were those of men, and the question of genetic overlap between Caucasians and Arabs was a rather abstract question which had little to do with Arissa's story. Perhaps Arissa's story had a broader effect on the readers. The study did not measure the impact of the narrative on additional stereotypes or assumptions held by the readers such as those regarding other races or sexual orientations, but this is a question that ought to be investigated.
One of the limitations of the study is that it assessed the impact of the story only at a single time-point, immediately after reading the text. Without measuring the effect a few days or weeks later, it is difficult to ascertain whether this was a lasting effect. Another limitation of this study is that it purposefully chose an anti-stereotypical text, but did not test the opposite hypothesis, that some fictional narratives may potentially foster negative stereotypes.
One of my earliest memories of an English-language novel about Muslim characters is the spy novel "The Mahdi" by the British author A.J Quinnell (pen name for Philip Nicholson) written in 1981. The basic plot is that (spoiler alert) US and British intelligence agencies want to manipulate and control the Muslim world by installing a 'Mahdi', the long-awaited spiritual and political leader of Muslims foretold by Muslim tradition. The ridiculous part of the plan is that the puppet leader is accepted by the Muslim world as the true incarnation of the Mahdi because of a green laser beam emanating from a satellite. The beam incinerates a sacrificial animal in front of a crowd of millions of Muslims at the Hajj pilgrimage and convinces them (and the rest of the Muslim world) that God sent this green laser beam as a sign. This novel portrayed Muslims as gullible idiots who would simply accept the divine nature of a green laser beam. One can only wonder what impact reading an excerpt from that novel would have had on the perception of race boundaries by study participants.
The study by Johnson and colleagues is an important contribution to the research of how reading can change our perceptions of race and possibly stereotypes in general. It shows that reading fiction can blur the perception of race boundaries, but it also raises a number of additional questions about how long this effect lasts, how pervasive it is and whether fiction might also have the opposite effect. Hopefully, these questions will be addressed in future research studies.
Image Credit: Saffron Woman by N.M. Rehman (generated from an attribution-free, public domain photograph)
Dan R. Johnson , Brandie L. Huffman & Danny M. Jasper (2014)
Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36:1, 83-90, DOI:10.1080/01973533.2013.856791
Excerpt of the literary fiction sample from "Saffron Dreams" by Shaila Abdullah
This is just an excerpt from the narrative sample used by the researchers, which was 3,108 words in length (pages 57-64 from the book):
"I got off the northbound No. 2 IRT and found out almost immediately that I was not alone. The late October evening inside the station felt unusually weighty on my senses.
I heard heavy breathing behind me. Angry, smoky, scared. I could tell there were several of them, probably four. Not pros, perhaps in their teens. They walked closer sometimes, and other times the heavy thud of spiked boots on concrete and clanking chains receded into the distance. They walked like boys wanting to be men. They fell short. Why was there no fear in my heart? Probably because there was no more room in my heart for terror. When horror comes face-to-face with you and causes a loved one's death, fear leaves your heart. In its place, merciful God places pain. Throbbing, pulsating, oozing pus, a wound that stays fresh and raw no matter how carefully you treat it. How can you be afraid when you have no one to be fearful for? The safety of your loved ones is what breeds fear in your heart. They are the weak links in your life. Unraveled from them, you are fearless. You can dangle by a thread, hang from the rooftop, bungee jump, skydive, walk a pole, hold your hand over the flame of a candle. Burnt, scalded, crashed, lost, dead, the only loss would be to your own self. Certain things you are not allowed to say or do. Defiant as I am, I say and do them anyway.
And so I traveled with a purse that I held protectively on one side. My hijab covered my head and body as the cool breeze threatened to unveil me. I laughed inwardly as I realized I was more afraid of losing the veil than of being mugged. The funny part of it is, I desperately wanted to lose my hijab when I came to America, but Faizan had stood in my way. For generations, women in his household had worn the veil, although none of them seemed particularly devout. It's just something that was done, no questions asked, no explanations needed. My argument was that we should try to assimilate into the new culture as much as possible, not stand out. Now that he was gone, losing the hijab meant losing a portion of our time together.
It had been just 41 days. My iddat, bereavement period, was over. Technically I was a free woman, not tied to anyone, but what could I do about the skeletons in my closet that wouldn't leave me alone?"
Excerpt of the Synopsis used by the researchers as a comparator:
This is the corresponding excerpt from the synopsis used by the researchers. The full-length synopsis was 491 words long:
"The scene starts with Arissa getting off the subway train. She is being followed. Most commuters have already returned home, so it is not the safest time to be traveling alone. Four people are walking behind her. Initially confused by the lack of fear in her heart, she realizes that it is the consequence of losing someone so close to her. It is ironic that she is wearing her hijab, a Muslim veil. She wanted to get rid of it when she came to America, but her husband, Faizon, insisted she keep it. Following his death, keeping the hijab was a way of keeping some of their time together. It has been 41 days since the attack, and Arissa's iddat, bereavement period, is over. She is a free woman, but cannot put aside her grave feelings of loss."
Attacking the Value of Art is Not a Good Strategy for Altruists
by Dwight Furrow
The pages of Aeon contained one of the most dispiriting articles I have ever read. The author, a budding screenwriter, falls in with advocates of the Effective Altruism movement. They proceed to half-persuade him to give up his artistic pursuit because it is not as useful to society as finding a "real job" and donating his salary to charity. He then poses the question which for him is existential:
Is your self-expression more important than human lives and suffering? Would you rather contribute to the culture of rich societies than work to reduce the suffering of the poor, or of future generations? Is it not arbitrary to fill the world with your own personal spin on things, simply because it's yours?
In the end, he is not sure if the arts are where he wants to be:
"For now, that will have to be my justification. I'm not ready to give up writing. I'm not ready to take up some high-paid job that I'd hate in order to reduce the world's suffering. Maybe that will change. For now, call me Net-Positive Man. "
Has the world lost another Shakespeare?
Effective Altruism is a movement devoted to the utilitarian notion that we are morally required to maximize the good we do in the world. According to this view, in our choice of careers and activities we should use empirical evidence and cost-effectiveness calculations to determine what will do the most good by reducing suffering. Thus, for someone with artistic talent they are obligated to sell their talents to the highest bidder and then contribute the bulk of their earnings to the most effective charities. Only in rare cases where a work of art directly contributes to reducing suffering (or perhaps to producing propaganda for Effective Altruism) would it be justified to devote time and energy to artistic production. It is not enough for a person to do more good than harm; you must make yourself irreplaceable by producing more good than someone else could have produced in your place.
I find this dispiriting because the vision of human life embodied in the Effective Altruism movement is profoundly ugly and dehumanizing.
First of all, let's stipulate that people who devote their lives to alleviating suffering through battling hunger, disease, and ignorance are moral heroes who are to be admired. We surely need more altruism, not less. The problem is not in the activity itself but in the claim that everyone is morally obligated to maximize the alleviation of suffering. For although there are various ways that art might relieve suffering, there are more effective ways of doing so according to Effective Altruism.
Even if we accept the utilitarian orientation of Effective Altruism, the claim that art is relatively useless is utter nonsense. Most utilitarians argue that we should promote well-being, not merely reduce suffering. Since art produces enjoyment and edification, its considerable positive consequences cannot be ignored. The Effective Altruism movement seems to assume that alleviating suffering is more important than producing well-being, but I don't see a principled reason for that assumption. Obviously, the great master works of art history have produced much enjoyment for people who have the opportunity to view or listen to them. But we make a mistake when we think of art production only in terms of master works in the fine arts. The production of aesthetic objects—through craftwork, storytelling, cooking, gardening and the like, as well as painting, literature, sculpture, music, dance, etc--is pervasive throughout human cultures. There is likely no greater source of enjoyment than this creative activity. The countless small moments throughout each day in which we engage in aesthetic appreciation by noticing something to be attractive, fascinating, interesting, beautiful, pretty, or pleasant are a distinctive and essential component of life's meaning. To advocate that we subtract this from human life in the name of reducing suffering is to reduce life to a colorless trial of enduring monotony.The traditions of folk art are as robust as those of fine art and they emerge from cultures in which life involved much suffering. Presumably they did not view their art as a waste of time and found value in these activities despite the fact they did little to improve their material condition.
Granted, most artists do not produce individual works of enduring significance. But art is not the product of individual geniuses; it is the product of an artistic community that collectively produce something of great value. Without mediocre artists this community could not exist. The idea that we are only justified in pursuing an activity if we are doing something irreplaceable is silly. Human communities do not depend on this kind of perfectionism but rather on people making a contribution even if it not maximal.
But simply pointing to enjoyment as the aim of art understates its real value. In addition to producing pleasure, art exposes us to new ways of looking at reality, stimulates the imagination, and helps people cope with the uncertainties of human existence, and these must be considered in a utilitarian calculus. One reason we value art is that art expresses the point of view of the artist; and we value that point of view, not just because it gives us pleasure but because it multiplies our view of the world—through art we see the world through the perspective of others in a very perspicuous way. In fact, much of what we learn about the larger world comes from artistic expressions. As a teenager, much of what I knew about people outside my narrow group of family and friends I gleaned from song lyrics and stories. Granted there are non-aesthetic sources of information but they lack the power and emotional impact of art.
Art is the most effective means of making available to us the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of persons with whom we have no acquaintance. Works of art express cultural paradigms, ways of thinking and acting that encode and communicate a way of life, a sense of what is meaningful, admirable, and worth doing. It is simple ideologically-motivated ignorance to discount this social function; without it, the development of sympathy and empathy that makes altruism possible would be unthinkable. Evolution seems to have designed us to engage in and appreciate art, since creative expressions run deep in human pre-history. Yet, Effective Altruists would have us ignore this history as so much self-deceptive irrationality. Their arrogance is stunning.
The fact that the Effective Altruism movement ignores the social function of art is indicative of a larger problem—their implicit individualism. The discourse of ethics when directed at individuals is a council of despair. As individuals, when we decide to make the alleviation of suffering our aim, the demands on our energy and attention are overwhelming. As Emmanual Levinas argues, the face of the Other is infinite. There are too many others and their needs are too great to attend to them all. Individuals acting on their altruistic motives can be effective only on the margin, and the demand to maximize the alleviation of suffering is an empty gesture. This does not diminish the moral worth of their altruism but it does limit any assessment of consequences. Of course we can alleviate the suffering of individuals, and that matters, but it "makes the world a better place" in only a very limited sense. In our world, the causes of misery are war, reactionary political forces, corruption, and the predations of capitalism, all of which require collective action to mitigate. To advocate of individuals that they give up their personal concerns and projects to engage in a lost cause is irresponsible. Political action is more relevant than individual acts of altruism. Effective altruism must ask whether altruism is the most effective way of attaining their goal.
But finally, of course, the objections to this way of looking at moral obligations are well-known. Utilitarianism treats each individual as nothing but a conduit for the general welfare. Each of us is a tool to be used for someone else's benefit. The things we most care about, whether they be family, friends, or activities such as art, are of no value when our time and energy can be channeled into the goal of alleviating suffering according to utilitarianism. But this denies the sanctity and dignity of the individual person, a denial that has had baleful effects in human history. If the deeply held aspirations of a person to be an artist are of no consequence you can bet a lot of other deeply held aspirations such as to care for your own children or to remain free to conceptualize a life plan are of no consequence either. Utilitarianism in the end destroys the human personality.
Art and creative activity in general are expressions of fundamental human capacities and thus have ultimate worth. The avoidance of pain is intrinsically valuable as well but there is no single scale of value that allows these two sources of value to be traded off without loss. The sources of human motivation are diverse. We quite naturally come to care about those with whom we share a life and the activities that supply meaning to our lives; and once we come to care about something our motivational states are aligned to serve those interests. For most people, they define "having an impact" in terms of those objects of their care. This is especially true of activities that require great discipline such as artistic pursuits. The alleviation of suffering is surely something that many people take as their life-project and it is wonderful that they do so. But it is not for everyone; for most people such a goal is not psychologically accessible since it doesn't align with their motivational states.
If we are to make progress in alleviating suffering it will be through a strategy that acknowledges the diversity of goods that people pursue, not by dismissing them as irrational or immoral.
You can find more of my ruminations on art, especially on the art of food and wine, at Edible Arts.