Monday, June 30, 2014
A Taste of EMPTY IDEAS
by Peter Unger
On June 16th, an interview of me appeared on this site that, initially, was supposed to be largely concerned with what’s in my brand new book, Empty Ideas, to be published officially, by the Oxford University Press, on July 14th. Well, as actually happened, most of the discussion ended up being about other things, providing little idea as to what’s actually in the book itself, and what it might mean for the importance of - or the unimportance of - a very great deal of mainstream analytic philosophy. In this brief piece, I’d like to do something to help rectify that.
First off, I should tell readers that Amazon.com has done a pretty good job with the first swatches of the book: there, you can see what looks to be more than 40 of the book’s first 56 pages. In just a few moments, the relevance of that will be made quite striking.
A central thesis of the book, perhaps its most central thesis, is this: Contrary to what has been supposed by Anglophone academic philosophers, during the last five decades, there has been offered hardly any new thoughts whose truth, or whose untruth, makes or means any difference as to how anything ever is as concern concrete reality, except for ever so many perfectly parochial thoughts, ideas about nothing much more than which words are used by which people, and how various of these people use these words of theirs — and nothing any deeper than that. (And, if it be required that the newly offered non-parochial thoughts be credible idea – at least more credible than their negations, or their denials, then what’s been relevantly placed on offer, in all these years, goes from hardly anything to nothing at all.) Rather, even while brilliant thinkers have offered thoughts meant to cut lots of concrete mustard, what’s been newly placed on offer, with any credibility, are just so many thoughts empty of import for concrete reality, that is, just so many concretely empty ideas. And, each of these concretely empty ideas owes its emptiness to its being analytic, in a useful sense of that term, so, what’s more, each of the offered thoughts are thoughts that, at least when correct, are just so many analytically empty ideas, each on a par with, in that way, the thought that someone can remember her old college days only if she went to college.
All that is spelled out, at least pretty well, I think, in pages of the book that Amazon offers for your free inspection, especially in the freely available pages comprising almost all of chapter 1.
(And, should those pages leave you a little shy of a firm grasp of what I mean to convey, your grasp should be pretty firm, indeed, if you also read the next pages Amazon provides freely, pages comprising most of chapter 2 of Empty Ideas. For good measure, on Amazon you’ll also get, for free, a good running start on what’s in chapter 3 of the book.) As is my hope, many of those reading these words, will jump over there - right now - and get a good look at that material, doing that before proceeding with any more of this present short piece.
In line with all that material, and at all events, in the rest of this brief piece, I’ll aim to add just a bit more, providing some central material from the next chapter in the book, chapter 4. While this won’t do anything even remotely close to giving an adequate idea of all that goes on in Empty Ideas, a book comprising 9 dense chapters, it may well, I think, convey the flavor of what goes on in about half the book.
Well, as best I can tell, the single most influential work in recent analytic philosophy – in at least the last half-century of mainstream philosophy - is Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. In chapter 4 of Empty Ideas, I discuss what’s meant to be a paradigmatic case of ‘deep worldly thoughts’ in Saul’s celebrated book — thoughts concerned not just with our use of names and other linguistic items, but rather with how things are with concrete matters that clearly transcend the reach of merely linguistic and semantic issues.
Toward that end, I first cite, and I then discuss at some length, a passage from the book — one that’s been read, time and time again, by almost all analytic philosophers, along with ever so many of their students:
In the case of this table, we may not know what block of wood the table came from. Now could this table have been made from a completely different block of wood, or even of water cleverly hardened into ice — water taken from the Thames River? We could conceivably discover that, contrary to what we now think, this table is indeed made of ice from the river. But let us suppose that it is not. Then, though we can imagine making a table out of another block of wood or even from ice, identical in appearance with this one, and though we could have put it in this very position in the room, it seems to me that this is not to imagine this table as made of wood or ice, but rather it is to imagine another table, resembling this one in all external details, made of another block of wood, or even of ice. 
Now, as many have noted, there are quite a few counter-examples to Kripke’s claim about the table and the block of wood, even if none is very devastating to the central thrust of what Saul was trying to place on offer. At any rate, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that the following more modest idea is correct: If something is that very table that Saul was indicating, then it absolutely must be something that, when it first existed, contained at least some of the matter that Saul’s indicated table itself first contained during its earliest moments.
Supposing that’s true, what are we to make of it? Does it provide any deep insight into the nature of tables — whatever that might be? Or does it signify some impressively fundamental feature of that particular table, as deeply worldly as can be?
In my discussion of the matter, I argue that nothing at all like that is in the works. Rather, if that (conditional) thought holds true — that ‘if-then’ thought — then it’s merely just another analytic truth, or a correct analytically empty idea. There are various lines of argument to that deflationary end. Here I’ll present — accompanied by a visual aid — the one that I’m guessing people will find most enjoyable to contemplate.
First, let’s get a handle on what philosophers take to be the persistence conditions for various sorts of individual things, most often contemplating quite ordinary individuals, like tables and chairs, rocks and stones, and so on. Often, these persistence conditions concern the matter constituting the ordinary individual in focus. Perhaps the most familiar case of this sort, at least among philosophers, is the case of the Ship of Theseus, an example whose origins go back to antiquity. Here’s a happily simple formulation of that case, which will hopefully allow readers to grasp things both rapidly and firmly:
Let’s suppose that a certain ship is entirely composed of 1000 wooden planks, each plank being precisely like all the others. Now, suppose that each day, the original ship loses one of its original 1000 planks, and with each time the lost plank being replaced by a new precise duplicate of it. And finally, in order for us to avoid problems raised by the likes of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, let’s suppose that each original plank is nuked shortly after its extraction from the original ship, its matter never available again for ship construction.
As many people would conclude, the resulting ship — the ship that’s there after more than three eventful years — is the same ship as the original ship, even though none of its original matter serves to constitute the ship that is now there before us. As regards the loss of its original matter, then, we may say that in a certain way, the persistence conditions of a ship are, as concerns its constituting matter, lax or lenient conditions. And, of course, just as it is with ships, so it also is with tables.
With that as background, even many who are quite innocent of philosophy should be well able to understand this swatch from Empty Ideas:
Correlative with the word “table”, I’ll now introduce a new word, “shmable.” Through my establishing the appropriate conventions for its doing so, with this new word we’ll latch onto a concept that, in many respects, is quite the same as the concept of a table. But, in certain respects, the concept of a shmable is very different from that ordinary concept. As I stipulate, in these following two respects the concept of a shmable differs from the concept of a table.
First, as concerns its requisite origination conditions, the concept of a shmable is rather more lax than (what we’ve supposed for) the concept of a table: As concerns whether a certain shmable currently exists, let it be one Sam, it makes no difference what matter was doing what when Sam first existed. As long as there was enough matter nicely enough arranged, and providing that there’s a nicely gradual transition from the shmable’s originating matter to how things are right now with Sam materially, with Sam now having just the matter that, in fact, it does now have, Sam certainly will have existed at the beginning of the transition, just as certainly as it exists right now.
Second, as concerns its requisite persistence conditions, the concept of a shmable is rather stricter than (what we’ve supposed for) the concept of a table: Unlike a table, a shmable can lose only a tiny bit of the matter constituting the individual. When there’s a very gradual changeover of the matter composing a shmable I’m confronting, then, after even just a certain small amount of that shmable’s matter is lost, that very shmable, [Sam itself] will cease to exist (leaving it open, in this discussion, whether at some still much later time, the shmable might again exist.) 
I’m pretty sure most readers are doing well at getting the hang of what’s going on here, and quite a few may anticipate what’s coming up next. Along with our ordinary concept of a table, and our non-ordinary concept of a shmable, it will be no surprise that we may also latch onto these two other concepts, allowing us — as it’s sometimes said — to box the compass here. With that said, it’s high time for me to display another swatch, and visual aid, from Empty Ideas:
One of the two concepts, which we latch onto with the new word strable, will be a concept with strict conditions of both our currently considered kinds: Strables must satisfy pretty strict origination conditions and they also must satisfy pretty strict persistence conditions. The other further concept has lenient conditions of both our currently considered kinds. We’ll latch onto this concept with the new word “lable,” whose initial “l” matches those of “lax” and “lenient”: Our newly noticed lables satisfy pretty lax origination conditions and they also satisfy pretty lenient persistence conditions.
For quite a few readers, it may be helpfully handy to have all four terms properly placed, each relative to the others, via a very simple and visually vivid table. Arbitrarily, I’ll have the vertical columns for this table representing the noted persistence conditions of the concepts – with one column for the ideas with strict p-conditions and with the other for the ideas with lax p-conditions. And, I’ll have the horizontal rows representing the noted origination conditions – with one row for the ideas with strict o-conditions and with the other for the ideas with lax o-conditions:
Of course, tables are no more realistic, or fundamental, than are strables, shmables or lables. 
As you may now readily agree, I trust, the Kripkean thought that a given table must be first made of at least some of the matter of which it actually is made, well — that’s on all fours with the Quasi-Kripkean thought that a given strable can’t possibly lose all of the matter that it now has and yet still exist, and the parallel Quasi-Kripkean thought about any given shmable.
Quite fully, they’re all concretely empty ideas, whose emptiness owes to their analyticity. Or, they’re all analytically empty ideas. And, as I show in my book, so it is with pretty much all else that’s in the core of mainstream analytic philosophy.
Peter Unger is a professor of philosophy at New York University.
 Naming and Necessity, pages 113-14.
 Empty Ideas, page 88.
 Empty Ideas, page 90.
On my interview with Peter Unger, and the value of Philosophy
by Grace Boey
Two weeks ago, 3 Quarks Daily ran an interview I did with Peter Unger, professor of philosophy at New York University. The candid conversation touched on several things, including Peter’s newest book Empty Ideas, and the value of philosophy. The piece caused quite a stir within the philosophical community, and generated a significant amount of online commentary — from sources more and less academic alike.
The aim of this follow-up piece is twofold. First, judging from some of the commentary, a brief clarification’s in order regarding the scope and nature of the book and interview (though Peter does much of that himself in his own piece today). Second, the interview has provoked a healthy online debate on the value of philosophical education and philosophy in general; as a young person just starting out in the field, I aim to add a little to this discussion.
About that interview…
One aim of the interview was, of course, for Peter and I to discuss his book. As the conversation turned out, the interview ended up covering a great deal of interesting things — but not representing the many specific and subtle arguments Peter makes in Empty Ideas. A better description of the interview might be that some of it makes for part of a terribly informal prologue (or epilogue) to the book. I encourage interested readers to take a look at Peter’s guest column today on 3 Quarks Daily — A Taste of Some Empty Ideas — to get a better feel of, and engage with, the book.
Next: much of the internet commentary invoked the value of philosophical fields such as moral and social philosophy. While I think this is a great debate, which I'll address shortly, it’s important to note the scope of Peter’s general critique: that is, mainstream Anglophone analytic philosophy. As he expresses in Empty Ideas, normative domains are off the hook:
I do not mean to say much about what’s been going on lately in absolutely every area of terribly respectable philosophical activity. To help you appreciate the range of my argumentation, I say that it’s aimed at what’s recently and currently regarded as analytic philosophy’s core: Certainly metaphysics, and also the most general and metaphysical-seeming parts of, or aspects of, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology. By contrast, my argumentation won’t concern anything that’s deeply normative, or fully evaluative, or anything of the ilk.
On the value of philosophy
Now that that's been taken care of: one debate that the interview addressed obliquely, or at any rate happened to spark off online, was about the value (or non-value) of philosophical study in general. My own reflections, as someone who's just graduated with an MA in philosophy, will be a take on this issue. As a young person just starting out, should I quit while I still can, or should I stay? Will I have anything to offer if I choose the latter?
Let me start by attempting to define philosophy. Doing this, accurately and succinctly to someone who doesn't know what it is, is a tricky task. With the multitude of philosophical subfields, many of which have become highly specialized, it's quite possible to follow goings-on in some areas while remaining largely ignorant of what's happening in others.
But as far as I can tell, what pretty much all these subfields have in common is this: they seek to question, clarify and cohere our assumptions and concepts behind things. Moral philosophy, for example, questions the assumptions behind our moral judgments; epistemology questions the assumptions behind what we think of as knowledge. At least in this sense, philosophy constitutes a practice of critical thinking that's distinct from the various kinds of content that have traditionally filled it out. And this is why there exists the potential for there to be the philosophy of pretty much anything — whenever we critically question fundamental assumptions about our beliefs, our activities, and the world around us, we are in the business of doing philosophy.
Now, there are always going to be debates over potentially-useful things or practices have indeed been applied to a valuable, justified end. Though debates of value in science and philosophy probably aren't completely analogous, charges of misapplication happen with the scientific method too — remember the great duck penis controversy? In a similar way, one might argue that the things academic philosophers think about are at best an unfortunate waste of time, or at worst a serious misuse of valuable university funds.
I'm the last person to rush to defend the value of all philosophy as currently practiced, if the number of why-are-we-doing-this moments I've had in philosophy classes is any indicator. In fact, in a very frustrated final paper for the graduate metaphysics course I took under Professor Unger, I wrote mostly about how I (thought I rightfully) found a large chunk of what we'd read over the semester uninteresting, and how I'd like to spend my time on bioethics instead. (Needless to say, Peter did not give me an A for that metaphysics course).
Renowned philosopher John Searle, in a great interview conducted by fellow philosopher Tim Crane, admits that current Anglophone philosophy is in 'terrible shape' because philosophers have 'lost sight of the questions'. But here is his advice for young philosophers just starting out:
Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at nights, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.
I find myself heartened by this advice. Though I've found myself yawning over large portions of metaphysics, there are subfields of philosophy I indeed find extremely fruitful, and philosophical questions that keep me up at night. Ethics — especially normative and applied ethics — is an example, though some of this may not be perceived as being particularly prestigious in the mainstream philosophical community. The works of classic heavyweights like John Rawls, Peter Singer, John Stuart Mill and the like have made profound differences to the way I live my life and treat others. I deeply respect the work done by philosophers and academics such as Larry Temkin, Joseph Raz and Michael Maniates. I believe good things can come out of these fields for others — especially if philosophers put in the effort to make themselves heard. And with an increasing portion of society enrolling in higher education, I don't think it's implausible to think it'll become easier for academia to influence society.
Beyond traditionally-defined academic subfields of philosophy, and outside academia altogether, I find it hard to believe that anyone could deny the value of critical thinking — or the 'philosophical method'. The practice of philosophy is a skill that can be honed by individuals, for the good of themselves and society. A philosophy PhD, MA or BA is, for sure, not for most people — but everyone can benefit from a well-conducted philosophy class or two. Philosophy keeps us on our toes, sharpens our beliefs and informs our worldviews. It surely has the potential to profoundly influence what we do with the rest of our time, and how we do it. Learning to think critically has a ripple effect.
It is with a mix of motivations that I hope to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and eventually work in academia. Some of these reasons are selfish, and some are not. First: I strive to do fruitful research and writing. Second: I hope to impart critical thinking skills to students, and I think universities are a good place to influence minds at critical junctures. Third, and this is entirely for myself: I just so happen love teaching, thinking about the things I get to think about in philosophy, and writing too. Though I know academia's not always that rosy, and that I have my own personal limitations to face up to, I believe I have a decent chance of doing alright by these agendas.
Maybe I'm still being a little too naive. Should I make it as an academic, perhaps I'll eventually lose sight of these goals, and become one of those professors who yaps away purely to stoke her own ego. Or maybe I'll become jaded enough to plunge right back into finance, the field I left some years ago in order to pursue philosophy. Or, perhaps I'll eventually do as my old professor Pete has opted to do: devote the bulk of my time and energy to collaborating with younger scholars on scientific research, in the hopes of making more difference in another field before I go (though, I suspect it won't be experimental moral psychology for me). Who knows what will happen?
Still, I don't intend to let the possibility of jadedness dash my current hopes for a fulfilling and fruitful career. The struggle against disappointment and the adjustment of expectations are things almost everyone experiences across career fields. So until someone, say, coughs up a couple million dollars to prove that the benefits of philosophy are really just a selection effect, I’m going to assume that people like me — who are nowhere near the top twenty — can have a treatment effect on others.
I imagine my inner working
will be more playful then than now,
less attention to survival paid,
finally getting to the sparkling black hole of day,
a moment of arrival: of at-once knowing and
I was told by a monk who’d kept silence for years
of when his inner dialog disappeared,
when his chattering selves came to accord
and all that buzzing skull talk
finished, fading, trailed off like
the tail of a fifties forty-five
spiral to infinity as if an engineer
were dialing down the gain,
spinning duality to mum mutuality:
the end of fire and rain
and what then, I said,
what was it like?
nothing to be said,
to be like
by Jim Culleny
The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy
by Jalees Rehman
We often laud intellectual diversity of a scientific research group because we hope that the multitude of opinions can help point out flaws and improve the quality of research long before it is finalized and written up as a manuscript. The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions.
The infamous "Orlic paper" was a landmark research article published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 2001, which showed that stem cells contained in the bone marrow could be converted into functional heart cells. After a heart attack, injections of bone marrow cells reversed much of the heart attack damage by creating new heart cells and restoring heart function. It was called the "Orlic paper" because the first author of the paper was Donald Orlic, but the lead investigator of the study was Piero Anversa, a professor and highly respected scientist at New York Medical College.
Anversa had established himself as one of the world's leading experts on the survival and death of heart muscle cells in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the start of the new millennium, Anversa shifted his laboratory's focus towards the emerging field of stem cell biology and its role in cardiovascular regeneration. The Orlic paper was just one of several highly influential stem cell papers to come out of Anversa's lab at the onset of the new millenium. A 2002 Anversa paper in the New England Journal of Medicine – the world's most highly cited academic journal –investigated the hearts of human organ transplant recipients. This study showed that up to 10% of the cells in the transplanted heart were derived from the recipient's own body. The only conceivable explanation was that after a patient received another person's heart, the recipient's own cells began maintaining the health of the transplanted organ. The Orlic paper had shown the regenerative power of bone marrow cells in mouse hearts, but this new paper now offered the more tantalizing suggestion that even human hearts could be regenerated by circulating stem cells in their blood stream.
A 2003 publication in Cell by the Anversa group described another ground-breaking discovery, identifying a reservoir of stem cells contained within the heart itself. This latest coup de force found that the newly uncovered heart stem cell population resembled the bone marrow stem cells because both groups of cells bore the same stem cell protein called c-kit and both were able to make new heart muscle cells. According to Anversa, c-kit cells extracted from a heart could be re-injected back into a heart after a heart attack and regenerate more than half of the damaged heart!
These Anversa papers revolutionized cardiovascular research. Prior to 2001, most cardiovascular researchers believed that the cell turnover in the adult mammalian heart was minimal because soon after birth, heart cells stopped dividing. Some organs or tissues such as the skin contained stem cells which could divide and continuously give rise to new cells as needed. When skin is scraped during a fall from a bike, it only takes a few days for new skin cells to coat the area of injury and heal the wound. Unfortunately, the heart was not one of those self-regenerating organs. The number of heart cells was thought to be more or less fixed in adults. If heart cells were damaged by a heart attack, then the affected area was replaced by rigid scar tissue, not new heart muscle cells. If the area of damage was large, then the heart's pump function was severely compromised and patients developed the chronic and ultimately fatal disease known as "heart failure".
Anversa's work challenged this dogma by putting forward a bold new theory: the adult heart was highly regenerative, its regeneration was driven by c-kit stem cells, which could be isolated and used to treat injured hearts. All one had to do was harness the regenerative potential of c-kit cells in the bone marrow and the heart, and millions of patients all over the world suffering from heart failure might be cured. Not only did Anversa publish a slew of supportive papers in highly prestigious scientific journals to challenge the dogma of the quiescent heart, he also happened to publish them at a unique time in history which maximized their impact.
In the year 2001, there were few innovative treatments available to treat patients with heart failure. The standard approach was to use medications that would delay the progression of heart failure. But even the best medications could not prevent the gradual decline of heart function. Organ transplants were a cure, but transplantable hearts were rare and only a small fraction of heart failure patients would be fortunate enough to receive a new heart. Hopes for a definitive heart failure cure were buoyed when researchers isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998. This discovery paved the way for using highly pliable embryonic stem cells to create new heart muscle cells, which might one day be used to restore the heart's pump function without resorting to a heart transplant.
The dreams of using embryonic stem cells to regenerate human hearts were soon squashed when the Bush administration banned the generation of new human embryonic stem cells in 2001, citing ethical concerns. These federal regulations and the lobbying of religious and political groups against human embryonic stem cells were a major blow to research on cardiovascular regeneration. Amidst this looming hiatus in cardiovascular regeneration, Anversa's papers appeared and showed that one could steer clear of the ethical controversies surrounding embryonic stem cells by using an adult patient's own stem cells. The Anversa group re-energized the field of cardiovascular stem cell research and cleared the path for the first human stem cell treatments in heart disease.
Instead of having to wait for the US government to reverse its restrictive policy on human embryonic stem cells, one could now initiate clinical trials with adult stem cells, treating heart attack patients with their own cells and without having to worry about an ethical quagmire. Heart failure might soon become a disease of the past. The excitement at all major national and international cardiovascular conferences was palpable whenever the Anversa group, their collaborators or other scientists working on bone marrow and cardiac stem cells presented their dizzyingly successful results. Anversa received numerous accolades for his discoveries and research grants from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to further develop his research program. He was so successful that some researchers believed Anversa might receive the Nobel Prize for his iconoclastic work which had redefined the regenerative potential of the heart. Many of the world's top universities were vying to recruit Anversa and his group, and he decided to relocate his research group to Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital 2008.
There were naysayers and skeptics who had resisted the adult stem cell euphoria. Some researchers had spent decades studying the heart and found little to no evidence for regeneration in the adult heart. They were having difficulties reconciling their own results with those of the Anversa group. A number of practicing cardiologists who treated heart failure patients were also skeptical because they did not see the near-miraculous regenerative power of the heart in their patients. One Anversa paper went as far as suggesting that the whole heart would completely regenerate itself roughly every 8-9 years, a claim that was at odds with the clinical experience of practicing cardiologists. Other researchers pointed out serious flaws in the Anversa papers. For example, the 2002 paper on stem cells in human heart transplant patients claimed that the hearts were coated with the recipient's regenerative cells, including cells which contained the stem cell marker Sca-1. Within days of the paper's publication, many researchers were puzzled by this finding because Sca-1 was a marker of mouse and rat cells – not human cells! If Anversa's group was finding rat or mouse proteins in human hearts, it was most likely due to an artifact. And if they had mistakenly found rodent cells in human hearts, so these critics surmised, perhaps other aspects of Anversa's research were similarly flawed or riddled with artifacts.
At national and international meetings, one could observe heated debates between members of the Anversa camp and their critics. The critics then decided to change their tactics. Instead of just debating Anversa and commenting about errors in the Anversa papers, they invested substantial funds and efforts to replicate Anversa's findings. One of the most important and rigorous attempts to assess the validity of the Orlic paper was published in 2004, by the research teams of Chuck Murry and Loren Field. Murry and Field found no evidence of bone marrow cells converting into heart muscle cells. This was a major scientific blow to the burgeoning adult stem cell movement, but even this paper could not deter the bone marrow cell champions.
Despite the fact that the refutation of the Orlic paper was published in 2004, the Orlic paper continues to carry the dubious distinction of being one of the most cited papers in the history of stem cell research. At first, Anversa and his colleagues would shrug off their critics' findings or publish refutations of refutations – but over time, an increasing number of research groups all over the world began to realize that many of the central tenets of Anversa's work could not be replicated and the number of critics and skeptics increased. As the signs of irreplicability and other concerns about Anversa's work mounted, Harvard and Brigham and Women's Hospital were forced to initiate an internal investigation which resulted in the retraction of one Anversa paper and an expression of concern about another major paper. Finally, a research group published a paper in May 2014 using mice in which c-kit cells were genetically labeled so that one could track their fate and found that c-kit cells have a minimal – if any – contribution to the formation of new heart cells: a fraction of a percent!
The skeptics who had doubted Anversa's claims all along may now feel vindicated, but this is not the time to gloat. Instead, the discipline of cardiovascular stem cell biology is now undergoing a process of soul-searching. How was it possible that some of the most widely read and cited papers were based on heavily flawed observations and assumptions? Why did it take more than a decade since the first refutation was published in 2004 for scientists to finally accept that the near-magical regenerative power of the heart turned out to be a pipe dream.
One reason for this lag time is pretty straightforward: It takes a tremendous amount of time to refute papers. Funding to conduct the experiments is difficult to obtain because grant funding agencies are not easily convinced to invest in studies replicating existing research. For a refutation to be accepted by the scientific community, it has to be at least as rigorous as the original, but in practice, refutations are subject to even greater scrutiny. Scientists trying to disprove another group's claim may be asked to develop even better research tools and technologies so that their results can be seen as more definitive than those of the original group. Instead of relying on antibodies to identify c-kit cells, the 2014 refutation developed a transgenic mouse in which all c-kit cells could be genetically traced to yield more definitive results - but developing new models and tools can take years.
The scientific peer review process by external researchers is a central pillar of the quality control process in modern scientific research, but one has to be cognizant of its limitations. Peer review of a scientific manuscript is routinely performed by experts for all the major academic journals which publish original scientific results. However, peer review only involves a "review", i.e. a general evaluation of major strengths and flaws, and peer reviewers do not see the original raw data nor are they provided with the resources to replicate the studies and confirm the veracity of the submitted results. Peer reviewers rely on the honor system, assuming that the scientists are submitting accurate representations of their data and that the data has been thoroughly scrutinized and critiqued by all the involved researchers before it is even submitted to a journal for publication. If peer reviewers were asked to actually wade through all the original data generated by the scientists and even perform confirmatory studies, then the peer review of every single manuscript could take years and one would have to find the money to pay for the replication or confirmation experiments conducted by peer reviewers. Publication of experiments would come to a grinding halt because thousands of manuscripts would be stuck in the purgatory of peer review. Relying on the integrity of the scientists submitting the data and their internal review processes may seem naïve, but it has always been the bedrock of scientific peer review. And it is precisely the internal review process which may have gone awry in the Anversa group.
Just like Pygmalion fell in love with Galatea, researchers fall in love with the hypotheses and theories that they have constructed. To minimize the effects of these personal biases, scientists regularly present their results to colleagues within their own groups at internal lab meetings and seminars or at external institutions and conferences long before they submit their data to a peer-reviewed journal. The preliminary presentations are intended to spark discussions, inviting the audience to challenge the veracity of the hypotheses and the data while the work is still in progress. Sometimes fellow group members are truly skeptical of the results, at other times they take on the devil's advocate role to see if they can find holes in their group's own research. The larger a group, the greater the chance that one will find colleagues within a group with dissenting views. This type of feedback is a necessary internal review process which provides valuable insights that can steer the direction of the research.
Considering the size of the Anversa group – consisting of 20, 30 or even more PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and senior scientists – it is puzzling why the discussions among the group members did not already internally challenge their hypotheses and findings, especially in light of the fact that they knew extramural scientists were having difficulties replicating the work.
Retraction Watch is one of the most widely read scientific watchdogs which tracks scientific misconduct and retractions of published scientific papers. Recently, Retraction Watch published the account of an anonymous whistleblower who had worked as a research fellow in Anversa's group and provided some unprecedented insights into the inner workings of the group, which explain why the internal review process had failed:
"I think that most scientists, perhaps with the exception of the most lucky or most dishonest, have personal experience with failure in science—experiments that are unreproducible, hypotheses that are fundamentally incorrect. Generally, we sigh, we alter hypotheses, we develop new methods, we move on. It is the data that should guide the science.
In the Anversa group, a model with much less intellectual flexibility was applied. The "Hypothesis" was that c-kit (cd117) positive cells in the heart (or bone marrow if you read their earlier studies) were cardiac progenitors that could: 1) repair a scarred heart post-myocardial infarction, and: 2) supply the cells necessary for cardiomyocyte turnover in the normal heart.
This central theme was that which supplied the lab with upwards of $50 million worth of public funding over a decade, a number which would be much higher if one considers collaborating labs that worked on related subjects.
In theory, this hypothesis would be elegant in its simplicity and amenable to testing in current model systems. In practice, all data that did not point to the "truth" of the hypothesis were considered wrong, and experiments which would definitively show if this hypothesis was incorrect were never performed (lineage tracing e.g.)."
Discarding data that might have challenged the central hypothesis appears to have been a central principle.
According to the whistleblower, Anversa's group did not just discard undesirable data, they actually punished group members who would question the group's hypotheses:
"In essence, to Dr. Anversa all investigators who questioned the hypothesis were "morons," a word he used frequently at lab meetings. For one within the group to dare question the central hypothesis, or the methods used to support it, was a quick ticket to dismissal from your position."
The group also created an environment of strict information hierarchy and secrecy which is antithetical to the spirit of science:
"The day to day operation of the lab was conducted under a severe information embargo. The lab had Piero Anversa at the head with group leaders Annarosa Leri, Jan Kajstura and Marcello Rota immediately supervising experimentation. Below that was a group of around 25 instructors, research fellows, graduate students and technicians. Information flowed one way, which was up, and conversation between working groups was generally discouraged and often forbidden.
Raw data left one's hands, went to the immediate superior (one of the three named above) and the next time it was seen would be in a manuscript or grant. What happened to that data in the intervening period is unclear.
A side effect of this information embargo was the limitation of the average worker to determine what was really going on in a research project. It would also effectively limit the ability of an average worker to make allegations regarding specific data/experiments, a requirement for a formal investigation."
This segregation of information is a powerful method to maintain an authoritarian rule and is more typical for terrorist cells or intelligence agencies than for a scientific lab, but it would definitely explain how the Anversa group was able to mass produce numerous irreproducible papers without any major dissent from within the group.
In addition to the secrecy and segregation of information, the group also created an atmosphere of fear to ensure obedience:
"Although individually-tailored stated and unstated threats were present for lab members, the plight of many of us who were international fellows was especially harrowing. Many were technically and educationally underqualified compared to what might be considered average research fellows in the United States. Many also originated in Italy where Dr. Anversa continues to wield considerable influence over biomedical research.
This combination of being undesirable to many other labs should they leave their position due to lack of experience/training, dependent upon employment for U.S. visa status, and under constant threat of career suicide in your home country should you leave, was enough to make many people play along.
Even so, I witnessed several people question the findings during their time in the lab. These people and working groups were subsequently fired or resigned. I would like to note that this lab is not unique in this type of exploitative practice, but that does not make it ethically sound and certainly does not create an environment for creative, collaborative, or honest science."
Foreign researchers are particularly dependent on their employment to maintain their visa status and the prospect of being fired from one's job can be terrifying for anyone.
This is an anonymous account of a whistleblower and as such, it is problematic. The use of anonymous sources in science journalism could open the doors for all sorts of unfounded and malicious accusations, which is why the ethics of using anonymous sources was heavily debated at the recent ScienceOnline conference. But the claims of the whistleblower are not made in a vacuum – they have to be evaluated in the context of known facts. The whistleblower's claim that the Anversa group and their collaborators received more than $50 million to study bone marrow cell and c-kit cell regeneration of the heart can be easily verified at the public NIH grant funding RePORTer website. The whistleblower's claim that many of the Anversa group's findings could not be replicated is also a verifiable fact. It may seem unfair to condemn Anversa and his group for creating an atmosphere of secrecy and obedience which undermined the scientific enterprise, caused torment among trainees and wasted millions of dollars of tax payer money simply based on one whistleblower's account. However, if one looks at the entire picture of the amazing rise and decline of the Anversa group's foray into cardiac regeneration, then the whistleblower's description of the atmosphere of secrecy and hierarchy seems very plausible.
The investigation of Harvard into the Anversa group is not open to the public and therefore it is difficult to know whether the university is primarily investigating scientific errors or whether it is also looking into such claims of egregious scientific misconduct and abuse of scientific trainees. It is unlikely that Anversa's group is the only group that might have engaged in such forms of misconduct. Threatening dissenting junior researchers with a loss of employment or visa status may be far more common than we think. The gravity of the problem requires that the NIH – the major funding agency for biomedical research in the US – should look into the prevalence of such practices in research labs and develop safeguards to prevent the abuse of science and scientists.
Graffiti is the most important art form of the last half-century…
by Bill Benzon
...though many don’t think of it as art at all, but as crime. After all graffiti – by which I mean the styles that originated in New York City and Philadelphia in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was born when kids and young adults began spray-canning their names on other people’s walls without permission. They were committing crimes, and some of them did time for it. Still do.
Art? Crime? Art? Crime? The question isn’t a real or least not a very deep one. Why can’t graffiti be both artistic and criminal?
Such mythical, but nonetheless real historical, figures as Taki 183 and Cornbread weren’t trying to make art. It’s safe to say that many of the early writers had never been inside the Guggenheim, the Met, or the Barnes and had never taken Art History 101 in college. They just wanted to get their names up, to be noticed. Not their real names, that is, the names on their birth certificates. But names they assumed for purposes of getting fame; names that had one significance within graffiti culture but that simultaneously were opaque and provocative to the outside world, names that told of another society walking the streets and claiming the walls.
As such graffiti was born outside the categories that had become conventionalized in mid-century Western culture. It just oozed up from the street. And THAT’S one reason graffiti is important. It’s so new it doesn’t fit.
Rime / Jersey Joe
Late in 1972 Jon Naar, a photographer, and Norman Mailer, a writer, were commissioned to do a book on graffiti. They took to the streets of New York City, Naar snapping photos, Mailer observing and interviewing, and the book came out in 1974: The Birth of Graffiti. It quickly became known as the bible of graffiti and copies were passed from hand to hand, spreading of the gospel according to aerosol.
Naar’s photographs were superb. Some captured the full sweep of the streets surrounding the writing; others were tightly focused on the letters. Naar established photography as an integral component of graffiti culture.
Though at the time no one knew that it would evolve into such a thing as graffiti culture, much less that it would spawn something that would be called street art – also on walls, but not necessarily aerosol, not based on the name, think Banksy. No one knew what it was. How could they? The world’s changing too fast for us to see it happen.
But Mailer, egomaniac and Pulitzer Prizer that he was, took it seriously. He told us about trips he took to art museums so he could contextualize the graffiti he saw on the streets, in subway stations, and on the cars. That is to say, he recognized that THAT contextualization, nothing less than Western capital “A” Art, was necessary.
He interviewed graffiti writers. One of them, Cay 161, told him, “The name is the faith of graffiti,” and Mailer slapped in on the cover of the book as a title. It’s all about the name, which, incidentally, is why they call themselves writers. That’s how you inscribe your name; you write it.
Mailer also interviewed the Mayor of New York, John Lindsey, who was trying to eradicate graffiti. And so it went for the next two decades or so, the writers vs. the City. The writers would do a car and the City would buff it, that is, apply a chemical wash to dissolve the graffiti.
In 1984 graffiti’s second bible appeared, Subway Art, by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfont. It documented the golden age of New York City graffiti, writers such as Zephyr, Seen, Kase2, Dondi and Lady Pink. By this time the writers had figured out how to make integrated compositions that covered an entire subway car; some even managed multi-car extravaganzas. We saw the flowering of wild style graffiti, pieces where the letters we so cut-up, twisted, and otherwise embellished that it was all but impossible to read the name.
But the name was still there, for the name is the faith of graffiti. Western art in the Renaissance arose from a reconceptualization of space and the artist and viewer’s relation to that space. That space was reconceptualized again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by impressionists, cubists, surrealists, and abstractionists, who reconfigured and ultimately abandoned the visible world. Now along comes graffiti and inscribes its art within, not a space, but a name.
The name as the axis and framework of the world. The conception is almost biblical. Is that what Mailer had seen in Cay 161’s statement?
By that time graffiti had become the visual style of hip-hop culture and hip hop took it around the world. Graffiti had become the first form of abstract art that attracted a large popular audience. Let’s run that by again: Graffiti is the first abstract art to achieve popular approval. That’s worth thinking about.
Are we on the threshold of a new culture, one that’s transnational in scope?
And then, on November 1, 2010, all hell broke loose. The Underbelly Project hit. As the New York Times put it, the exhibition:
defies every norm of the gallery scene. Collectors can’t buy the art. The public can’t see it. And the only people with a chance of stumbling across it are the urban explorers who prowl the city’s hidden infrastructure or employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The Underbelly Project was mounted in an abandoned Brooklyn subway station by Workhorse and PAC. Over a period of a year and half they brought a hundred or so graffiti writers and street artists into the station under cover of night and let them do whatever they wanted to a section of the wall. But they only had a night; time was precious.
At the end they brought in a photographer or two and a reporter so the story could be told, and the art be seen. But when the tour was over, they sealed it up so no one could get down there to see the art live and in person.
Fat chance! Did they really think that no one would find this long abandoned subway station? It was quickly found and others went in, some just to see, others to trash the place, and others to take more flicks.
It was the buzz of the graffiti and street art blogospheres. Graffiti and street art, together in one space! The very idea! – you have to realize that there’s a certain amount of antipathy between graffiti writers and street artists – it’s a long story, but trust me, the antipathy is real. It won’t last.
The whole thing just didn’t make any sense. Which, I warrant, is the point. It’s outside the of the friggin’ box, between the keys on the piano, in limbo. But real.
And now four years later we have The Mana Museum of Urban Art and rumor has it that some of the folks involved in the Underbelly Project are involved in this above ground legit enterprise. But how could they not be, given the scope of the two projects.
This Museum is on the other side of Manhattan from the Underbelly Project. It’s in Jersey City, in an abandoned ice factory. If you look at the photo in the previous link you’ll see that, in it’s present state, the building has graffiti on the inside. I have no idea whether or not the existing graffiti will be preserved or painted over.
Nor do I think it much matters. Graffiti long ago made its peace with impermance.
Have we made our peace with graffiti?
❖ ❖ ❖
A large and elaborate graffito is called a piece, derived from “masterpiece”. A group of pieces executed on the same wall at the same time is called a production. The production I’ve photographed for this article was made about a month ago and is in Jersey City roughly a mile south of the new museum. It was organized by Green Villain.
repairing in gold
by Leanne Ogasawara
For whatever reason, all of our conversations ultimately ended with him explaining why some aspect of Japanese culture was somehow extraordinary. And this time was no different. After thanking me for the pictures I had sent of our son, he said (apropos of nothing whatsoever):
日本文化の根底に、草木国土悉皆成仏があります。人間だけでなくすべてに心があるということ。これが大切やね。(At the root of Japanese culture is the idea that everything is on the path to becoming a Buddha. Not just sentient life but everything is on the path to Buddhahood.~~Rough translation, other possible translations welcome).
This idea (草木国土悉皆成仏) is from the Nirvana Sutra, and argues that even things like trees, rocks and other inanimate objects also have a Buddha-nature -- and therefore all things are precious.
It was exactly a year ago that I posted this 3Quarks daily piece about the enchantment of things and China's legendary Nine Bronze Tripods 九鼎.
From Xia to Shang
And from Shang to Zhou....
You know the story: Nine bronze tripods-- cast back in the mists of great antiquity-- were treasured by ancient Chinese Kings as a symbol of their right to rule.
Passed down from dynasty to dynasty-- for nearly 2,000 years (or so the story goes) until the time when the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, finally toppled the last Zhou King-- and rather than see their transfer to Shihuangdi’s new dynasty-- the last Chu King flung the nine bronzes forever into the River Si
Given their symbolic significance, Shihuangdi actively attempted to dredge up the sacred bronzes from the river, but it was to no avail; and scholars of later dynasties saw this as further evidence of the lack of moral virtue of the First Emperor.
I wondered if things have the power to move us in this way anymore? I mean, there was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical maps and with great quests for objects that held much power. Like mountains, certain objects had the power to draw people in. Relics, for example, were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns or recall the mystery surrounding the quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in the fragrance of these relics--where it is the perfume that is true-- not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity for becoming enchanted by things.
It is also a commitment to remember, right? (Poor, dear Henri Fontal!)
The other day on facebook, a friend reminded me of the scene in an old Zhang Yimou film, The Road Home, when a traveling potter arrives in the heroine's village. Asking whether anyone has something needing repair, he is asked to mend a broken ceramic bowl. Even though it would cost less just to buy a new one-- and money was tight-- still in those days people knew that tending memories and taking care of things was a virtue（美徳). And so he skillfully repairs the bowl. That scene had struck me too, and I told my friend that in Japan, I thought the spirit of craftsmanship is still alive and well. Having a heart to take good care of things (物を大切にする心) is related to concepts of divinity in things and to a natural piety. My best friend’s husband, for example, is really adept at repairing ceramics using gold lacquer and the repairs he lovingly labors over add to the interest or fascination of the the ceramic pieces themselves. Kintsugi.
Craftsmanship is something Hubert Dreyfus (my intellectual hero) has written about for twenty years. Contrasting craftsmanship with "technology," he says:
To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill, it strips away the possibility for meaning as well. To have a skill is to know what counts or is worthwhile in a certain domain. Skills reveal meaningful differences to us and cultivate in us a sense of responsibility to bring these out at their best. To the extent that it takes away the need for skill, technology flattens out human life. (All things shining)
I think it is true that if technology aims to make things easier, more convenient, and efficient; craftsmanship--in contrast-- generates embodied skills, discernment, and care; all things which used to be very central to the way people lived their lives. This still can be found in japan where 職人文化 (craftsman culture) is alive and well; and where people continue perhaps to value quality. The existentialist--like the Confucian or daoist--- prioritizes embodied know-how, and this is predicated on a worldview that does not emphasize a mind-body divide so that-- (as the brilliant Wang Yangming suggested by 知行合一) to know is to do and to do to is to know. This is what Dreyfus called embodied know-how. And by this he is bringing forth Heidegger's old concept--borrowed from the Greeks-- of Poiesis, which itself harkens back to a world where sophia means both wisdom and skill and where poetry was thought to be a form of craft or a practiced skill which not only warms the heart but sheds a special radiance on the subjects it celebrates (Bowra).
With all this in mind, I posted a wonderful video (see below) on the Japanese art of pottery repair with gold lacquer (kintsugi) to facebook. A friend remarked that,
When we were kids everything got repaired. All the wooden furniture were repaired and used forever. All the urushi items were repaired and used forever. All the Japanese clothes were recycled besides being almost universal size for adults. Something is wrong with the world if buying the new things is cheaper than repairing the old item.
Something is very wrong indeed. Because it is not just things that are being treated as "disposable resources." For people too--even our own selves-- are being thought of as a kind of resource to be used, I would argue. That the excesses of capitalism are undermining the health of this nation seems to be a fact. But there is an ontological component to this as well. And, as Turkish journalist Ibrahim Kalin aptly put it:
The point is that we as human beings are increasingly becoming part of a system that defines our humanity and morality according to instrumental value and nothing else. But reality offers more possibilities than use-value and will to power.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, reviewing Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God, echoes this unhappy conclusion:
The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. We are left, Eagleton writes, with “Man the Eternal Consumer.”
As Heidegger prophesized, then, is there really no escape from "man the eternal consumer," asks Sacks?
My astronomer is more optimistic. He thinks that erotic love is the last frontier by which a person can access the numinous. Beyond pure efficient istrumentalism, love is--as Badiou and Zizek write--all about madness and yes even violence. My beloved believes that purely practical people can still fall madly in love and that this experience is something --in today's world more than ever-- that is deeply hungered after. As always, I guess I am more pessimistic and agree with Zizek that it is gradually disappearing as well (as Badious says, "Love is not a contract between two narcissists"). For in a truly disposable culture what things or experiences will have the power to move us beyond the self? It's no surprise, I guess, that this dead-end in the search for meaning is where all roads end in ruins in Continental philosophy today....
Recommended: Andrew Baseman's wonderful blog, Past Imperfect, The Relic, by Guy de Maupassant, Treasure Hunting, an essay by Umberto Eco, and one of my favorite novels of all time, Umberto Eco's Baudolino (and Eco's anti-library by Nassim Nicolas Taleb).
Rosalyn Driscoll. Whether. 2012.
Wood and rawhide.
The World Cup: A Girl's-eye view
by Brooks Riley
In many ways, I never was. I'm more interested in dendrites than dentists, bosons than Botox, solar energy than SPF factors, cosmology than cosmetics, physics than fitness, Leibniz than Lagerfeld. On the other hand, I'm enough of a girl that if I do watch a sport, it's with the same bewilderment that a homeowner greets an intruder: Where did you come from?
Maybe I'm the wrong girl to write about a World Cup.
When I first moved to Europe, I was peripherally aware of the game we call soccer: It was all those short guys running around in their boxer shorts, trying to engender as much dexterity with their feet as they might have with their forbidden metacarpi--a preternatural challenge that could only end in heartbreak, or so it seemed. I even bought into the cliché that the game is boring (but never as boring, even for a reluctant neophyte like me, as American football, a stop-start time-waster where full-metal hulks huddle longer than they play, in a version of rugby for sissies). What did I know?
In the meantime, I've learned that the rest of the world grows up training their lower extremities to be as precise as a violinist's fingers on a fingerboard. And like violinists, they start early enough, so that by the time they reach the teenage years, talking with their feet comes naturally.
Like all games, soccer is a form of dramatic narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The climaxes come at strange times, though, not according to classic Aristotelian or Freytagian itineraries, but in breathtaking combinations of movement that were not even imaginable seconds earlier. Hubris and hamartia are teammates, equally responsible for goals and missed goals. Aesthetics comes into play: How often has the word ‘beautiful' been used to describe a kick, a save, a pass, the game?
The World Cup is the biggest theatre festival on earth—tragedy, comedy, catharsis, conflict, climax, denouement, pathos, bathos—it's all there. Subplots and intrigues abound (the Biter, the Head-butter, the Sepp). Costumes have their catwalk moment. Heroes fall and then rise again from the ashes of their past mistakes—or not. Anthems are sung with solemnity or abandon, or not at all. Most of the world gladly signs up for this cheers-and-tears roller-coaster ride of emotional commitments that have only partially to do with nationalism.
Jorge Luis Borges got it wrong (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118228/world-cup-2014-why-did-borges-hate-soccer). The World Cup is not about nationalism: It's about seeing how the game is played in different parts of the world. It's about cheering on Iran for its determined and nearly successful humbling of mighty Argentina. It's about cheering on the Netherlands because Arjen Robben also plays so magically for your home club, Bayern Munich, and Robin van Persie's gravity-defying goal just took your breath away. It's about cheering on those spunky little nations like Costa Rica and Uruguay, whose land mass and population would fit into the palm of your hand. It's about cheering on France, who have finally got their act together, or Ghana because they dared to endanger the German Juggernaut. It's about cheering on Nigeria, whose fans back home are paying the ultimate price for their enthusiasm--with their lives. It's about cheering for tiny clockwork Switzerland whose tiny guy Xherdan Shaqiri dazzled with a hat-trick of his own. It's about cheering on talent and determination, wherever it comes from.
Allegiances change from one minute to the next. In the game between Algeria and South Korea, I switched my allegiance to the Koreans in the second half, because they started to fight back against all odds, turning a rout into a respectable 2-4 loss.
If it were all about nationalism, the World Cup would shrink to an exclusive viewership of the few nations left over at the end of the month-long festivities. Maybe the USA will turn away if our boys go down in the next round. I hope not. What Americans have yet to learn is that it's not all about our team winning. It's also about process, the process of enduring, or crashing out, or daring to be better than you are. It's about looking out at the rest of the world for a few weeks. It's about loving the game itself.
Borges also seems not to have understood that club football is far more important to fans than the national teams, who only matter every 2-4 years. If Borges had been right, cheering for anything would be suspect (and his condemnation of sportscasters like killing the messenger). But cheering for a national team—or any team--is a short-lived and benign form of mass hysteria, less about power than performance, more about love than hate.
Soccer is a fluid game, constantly evolving: This is not just a better World Cup (many more goals in the first round), it's a different World Cup. The game itself has changed, and will continue to change. Tiki-taka is on the wane (the reign in Spain all but over). Attacking style has replaced defending style. The short guys have made room for a panoply of body types, from mile-high beanpole Per Mertesacker or the pec-packed Swedish giant Zlatan Ibrahimović (sadly missing from this party) to lanky Thomas Müller (‘He has no muscles!', protested that little guy of yore, Diego Maradona) or as former Brazilian star Giovane Élber says, ‘Look at his calves', implying you won't find them. What Müller brings to the game is an 11K run and the instinct to find the right place to be, at just the right time (4 goals in this Cup). Forget the body.
If the World Cup brings a girl like me out of the woodwork, it also engenders some great writing by people whose preoccupations usually lie elsewhere: Simon Schama's lively take on the Netherlands obliteration of Spain (in The New Republic, by far the best site for good writing about the Cup: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118166/world-cup-2014-holland-defeats-spain), Roger Cohen's worldly eloquence in the New York Times, Rowan Ricardo Phillips in The New Republic and The Paris Review, especially his expert analysis of Van Persie's impossible goal (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118172/world-cup-2014-anatomy-goal), or Karl Ove Knausgaard's ode to a Kafka lookalike (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118270/2014-world-cup-tribute-angel-di-maria-karl-ove-knausgaard).
I hope to read more from New York Times sportswriter Jeré Longman, whose reporting of the German victory over the USA in 2002 provided the motto that still keeps me going in all things: "Victory is a matter of relentless expectation, not delirious wish." Thank you, Jeré.
What am I doing tonight? I won't be doing my nails or deciding what to wear the next day. Instead, I'll be cheering on Germany, the boys of home who seem almost like friends. What am I doing tomorrow night? I'll be singing the Star-Spangled Banner with a tear in my eye. What's a girl to do?
Marketing Soccer to Americans
by Akim Reinhardt
It has been exactly 20 years since the United States hosted a World Cup, and just as long since the debut of Major League Soccer (MLS), the nation's homegrown professional soccer league. Two decades later, American interest in the World Cup continues to grow. Beyond that, however, soccer remains a marginal product in the marketplace of U.S. spectator sports.
There are many obstacles to soccer becoming substantially more prominent in the U.S. marketplace beyond the World Cup. But I believe most of them can be overcome, and the key is better marketing.
Several factors are often cited as major roadblocks to soccer becoming a major spectator sport in the United States. Some of them are indeed daunting, but some are misunderstood and not as obstructionist as commonly perceived. Regardless, they can all be overcome to one degree or another. The key is understanding that soccer, like all spectator sports, is a cultural product. And cultural products demand relevant marketing.
Let me begin by briefly listing the perceived major obstacles to soccer's popularity as a spectator sport.
- The U.S. marketplace for spectator sports is already saturated.
- Soccer is low scoring and Americans hate low scoring sports.
- Most Americans don't really understand soccer.
- Americans are turned off by the dives, fake injuries, and histrionics
- Most Americans won't embrace soccer because they perceive it as "foreign."
After briefly assessing each of these obstacles, I will make a case that they can be overcome with better marketing to American consumers.
1. The U.S. Marketplace for Spectator Sports Is Already Saturated
This is a very real obstacle to professional soccer becoming more popular in the United States. However, it can be overcome, as recent history shows.
In the United States, professional soccer labors in the shadow of what are effectively six other, well established pro sports leagues. In addition to professional leagues in American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL respectively), there are also two other professional leagues, one football and one basketball, masquerading as "college amateur" athletics. Taken together, these six pro leagues dominate the marketplace in U.S. spectator team sports, with the National Football League by far the most successful of the bunch. And that's not even counting popularity of pro golf, pro tennis, and NASCAR auto racing.
While the World Cup, as an event, is nearing the biennial Olympics in popularity, the year round marketplace for spectator sports in the United States seems saturated; it's difficult to imagine carving out more space in an American sports calendar that is already fairly well full.
But recent history suggests it is possible. First, the advent of cable TV and the internet has greatly expanded the U.S. marketplace for spectator sports during the last quarter-century, which helps to explain why it's so large to begin with. Americans consume far more spectator sports than they did in the 1980s.
Furthermore, it's important to remember that, like any market, the American spectator sports marketplace is dynamic. It changes over time. Products rise and fall. Older products falter and new products displace them. For example, American football shot past baseball in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. New products can also break through, such as NASCAR auto racing and mixed martial arts leagues, both of which substantially grew their audiences during the last two decades. Meanwhile, horse racing and professional boxing have been diminishing in popularity for years now.
Yes, the U.S. marketplace is crowded. But, with its small foothold already established, professional soccer can grow.
2. Soccer Is Low Scoring and Americans Hate Low Scoring Sports
Although a widely accepted truism, I think this is a phantom obstacle for the most part. This bit of folksy, conventional wisdom is based on an ahistorical understanding of the U.S. marketplace, and I flatly reject the notion that Americans won't embrace soccer simply because it's a low scoring game. Honestly, now. Millions of Americans watch golf. And auto racing. And fishing.
Yes, there are people in this country who watch fishing on TV.
And lest we forget, America's two most popular team sports of the late 20th century were quite low scoring. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, baseball was a fairly low scoring game, dominated by pitching and defense. And from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, American football was also a relatively low scoring affair; don't be fooled by a touchdown usually producing 7 points. If you counted a TD as 1, the typical NFL game back then was something like 3-1 with a few disappointing field goals sprinkled in.
Scoring has increased in both sports since then, as well as in pro hockey and basketball. However, increased scoring in American professional sports isn't the natural consequence of some Darwinian process. Rather, it is actually the result of marketing. All four U.S. professional sports leagues have changed numerous rules, tinkering with the games to heighten scoring.
That's not to say MLS should change its rules to increase scoring. Rather, I think the inverse is true: Americans have enjoyed low-scoring sports before, and they can do so again. There is nothing inherent in the "American character" that demands high scoring in spectator sports. It's a marketing contrivance that can be countered with better marketing for soccer.
3. Most Americans Don't Really Understand Soccer
This is absolutely true. It is a very real obstacle, but one that can be addressed through, you guessed it, better marketing. After all, delivering a specific, well-crafted message is central to marketing.
4. Americans are Turned Off by the Dives, Fake Injuries, and Histrionics
Make no mistake: Players blatantly faking injuries, and the accompanying histrionics, are a real turnoff to most American consumers of spectator sports.
Spectator sports are a form of theater, and in the theater of American sports, an important recurring theme is American machismo. American fans admire players who play through injuries and don't complain. So faking injuries, much less rolling around like a fucking four year old, is a big problem for many Americans. But this can be overcome with smart marketing, particularly in the MLS.
Soccer players are of course quite tough despite melodrama to the contrary. They endure their share of injuries and many play through pain. The MLS should make a concerted effort to market their players as macho, as strong men who play through pain and overcome obstacles. This is exactly the kind of thing that resonates deeply with the American audience in spectator sports.
For example, consider the recent marketing opportunity offered by Clint Dempsey's broken nose and black eye, sustained in the United States' opening game against Ghana. Not to be too crass about it, but hat's exactly the kind of thing the American media should have played up. Mix in Dempsey's quietly menacing demeanor, and you've got a natural tough guy Americans will admire.
Cracking down on dives and histrionics in MLS would also help, but even if that's not practical, marketing can overcome a lot on this count.
5. Most Americans Won't Embrace Soccer Because They Perceive it as "Foreign"
This concern unfairly panders to stereotypes of American xenophobia while also actually getting at the real heart of the issue. To understand how, it's important to mark the difference between "foreign" and "global."
Most Americans don't have any problem with the fact that soccer is a global game. I think it should go without saying that Americans generally love international athletic competition. I mean, mostly they love winning, but the mentality is, bring it on, world! That's how many Americans look at global competition. You know. Arrogant chants of "We're #1!" and "U!S!A!"
It's not always pretty, but the point is, if Americans are nonplused about soccer, it's hardly because soccer's a global game. Rather, the main obstacle to the soccer's popularity is that most Americans perceive it as a "foreign" sport, and that's a very different thing than being a "global" sport.
I am most certainly not using "foriegn" as a pejorative, nor to as a referent to American provincialism or xenaphobia. Rather, I'm using the word to indidcate that Americans simply do not see soccer as being part of their culture.
Americans have yet to embrace soccer as their own. They still don't see it as one of their own spectator sports. And so for now, as the World Cup's popoularity rises, most Americans are coming to view soccer as an exotic spectacle rather than a sport that is of and for Americans
If soccer continues to be marketed as foreign exotica, it will never move beyond occasional spectacle, garnering great attention once in a rare while. It will be akin to the many "foreign" sports Americans watch during the Olympics that are not popular here. The nationalistic thrill of international competition gives them a global context and a temporary entrepôt into American culture, but they have no permanent presence in the culture.
The luge? The biathalon? Bobsledding? Speed skating? The decathlon? That thing where horses jump over hedges?
Americans will plop themselves down in front of a TV and watch international athletic competitions every four years. But once it's over, those sports all but disappear from American sporting culture. Without better marketing, soccer will be little more than the most successful version of those sports.
The World Cup may very well keep growing in popularity. But for soccer to become something beyond a quadrennial spectacle, for it to earn a far more permanent and substantial space in the U.S. marketplace, soccer has to stop being "foreign."
Soccer needs to become "American." And it's not about invention. Americans didn't invent hockey, tennis, golf, or mixed martial arts, yet all of those sports have established a permanent presence in the U.S. marketplace and been been embraced by American culture.
Just like all of the non-European nations that have embraced soccer as their own, even though they didn't invent the sport.
Better marketing is the key to getting Americans to embrace soccer as part of their culture
Football is a religion. I hear it over and over again. One beer company even put together a clever marketing campaign based on the idea of making football a state recognized religion in Brazil.
I think it's an interesting comparison, but not from the perspective of spectator sports as a well of spiritual sustenance; that's just depressing. Rather, like religion, soccer is a cultural product that can be exported and marketed.
Consider Christianity for a moment. It has well over 2 billion adherents around the world, more than any other religion. And an important key to its success is marketing.
First, its marketing is aggressive. Christianity is a proselytizing religion, perpetually seeking to increase marketshare by chasing converts. And while aggressively marketing a cultural product doesn't assure success, it can help, especially when there is a lot of competition in the marketplace.
But the marketing of soccer in America has always been tepid at best. Aside from the World Cup, it has had a relatively minuscule presence in advertising and other marketing schema. I'm not suggesting FIFA send people to knock on doors and handout pamphlets proclaiming they'll burn in hell if they don't accept Pelé as their Lord and Savior. But soccer could benefit from a more active marketing campaign. There remains a small, loyal audience of American soccer fans, but that's it. More aggressive marketing could help it grow.
But more than marketing aggressively, soccer needs to be marketed smartly. And I dare say, the marketing of soccer as a cultural product to Americans has usually been, and continues to be, quite inept in many ways. As in, you probably couldn't do a worse job. To understand why, let's again consider the marketing of religion.
Christianity, like soccer, is a cultural product. As such, it isn't marketed or even practiced the same way among different ethnic groups and nations. Even right here in America . . . or rather, especially right here in America, there is a vast difference, for example, between the ornate, rigid ritualism of Catholic churches, the intimate, participatory nature of small black AME and Baptist churches, and the stadium-style spectatorship of evangelical mega-churches to name just a few.
Where would Christianity be in America if it were only marketed as The Church of England? Probably in the shitter. And the same elsewhere if not for the countless denominations and theological schisms shaping Christianity around the world.
A big part of Christianity's success as a global cultural product has been its flexibility. To be successful on a large scale, cultural products need to reflect local concerns and interests, at least to some degree. If a foreign cultural product is not integrated into a local culture, it will generally founder. Cultural products must be marketed in ways that appeal to local populations, instead of a rigid one size fits all marketing that is likely to constrict its appeal.
Yet soccer has been and continues to be marketed in America as a foreign cultural product, usually a British one specifically. Just look at the current World Cup.
ESPN and ABC (both owned by Disney), which are broadcasting all of the games in the United States, mostly rely on foreign play-by-play announcers. Non-Americans also fill many of the American color commentator and studio analysts slots, and even some of of the studio host positions.
Don't get me wrong. This is absolutely not about sucking up to American provincialism and xenaphobia, creating jobs for Americans, or some other right wing nonsense. It's not that "Americans hate foreigners." If you want that interpretation of soccer, go read some Ann Coulter.
Rather, I'm talking about marketing a cultural product to Americans. Most Americans still see soccer as a "foreign" sport. Not in a xenophobic way, but simply as a something that is not for them. It might be nice or interesting, but its detached from the culture to some degree. Like bidets or Tuvan throat music.
But if soccer is going to have greater success in the year round American marketplace, it needs to be presented to the American audience, and accepted by them, as an "American" sport. It has to become part of American culture.
In and of itself, of course there's absolutely nothing wrong with using British announcers for World Cup games. Anglophiles and hardcore soccer fans may love it. And maybe British and other foreign national announcers and commentators are the best in the business.
But good marketing doesn't call for the best announcers. Rather, it requires the best sales people.
The accents, some of them quite thick, are difficult for many Americans to understand. Meanwhile, foreign idioms and cultural gaps, like announcing the temperature in celsius instead of fahrenheit, or the distance run by players in kilometers instead of miles, subtly alienate most Americans. The issue isn't whether or not Americans should learn celsius (they should) or become more fluent in British dialect; it's about making your product appealing to the marketplace.
Furthermore, media need to take the lead on educating American audiences about the workings of soccer. Most Americans really don't understand the sport. Something as basic as the game clock counting up instead of down can be jarring to newbies. And most Americans are in an utter fog about more complex issues like the offsides rules or why some fouls get no card, some get a yellow card, and some get a red card.
Remember, all World Cup games weren't broadcast live in the United States until 1998! That's right. Even when the United States hosted in 1994, not all of the World Cup games were broadcast live here because not enough people cared. It's all still very new to most Americans, and the broad U.S. audience needs to learn the game before it can embrace it.
But the media currently often talk over their audience's head. In fairness to foreign announcers, it's hard for them to realize what he average American understands, and frankly, that's a bit much to ask of them.
But all of this begs the question: Are there not any qualified American soccer announcers who sound like they're from Nebraska? If there are, use them. If not, develop them. Christ, how many tens of millions are ABC and ESPN spending on this tournament?
Actually, the answer is about $50 million. And FOX will pay a combined $425 million for the U.S. rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
With that kind of money on the line, spend a little more and develop some announcers if you need to. And develop them with marketing in mind.
Similarly, nearly all of the American announcers and commentators in broadcast media, and many in print, currently use Brit-speak to discuss soccer. This is, I believe, a huge marketing blunder for the sport.
When the media use British jargon to discuss soccer, they build a wall between themselves and their potential audience. Is there any more effective way to continue defining soccer as a foreign cultural product instead of an American one?
Say "field" instead of "pitch," "zero" or "nothing" instead of "nil," "speed" instead of "pace," "clete" instead of "boot," and so forth.
This isn't about right or wrong. There's nothing "wrong" with calling the playing surface a "pitch" instead of a "field." It's just god-awful marketing.
American culture already has a very established sports vocabulary. When the mass media start using it, at least for generic terms, soccer will become more accessible to the American audience. Imposing foreign jargon just maintains barriers.
Taken together, it seems to me that the American media have been going about it all wrong, quite frankly. They've marketed soccer to potential American audiences as a fairly impenetrable and very foreign product. Continuing to define and market soccer as something "foreign" will create obstacles to broad popularity instead of overcoming them.
On the one hand, there is no question that slowly but surely, soccer is gaining some popularity here in the States. The recent nail biter between the U.S. and Portugal was the highest rated soccer game in American television history, ekeing past the Spain-Netherlands World Cup final of fours years ago. No doubt, airing on a Sunday evening helped. Ratings for the more important U.S.-Germany game, held on a Thursday at noon, were half that. And the ratings for the U.S.-Protugal game barely exceed the ratings for a generic, mid-season Sunday night NFL game.
And despite the growth in poplularity, soccer is still a source of complaints and butt of jokes for Americans in a way that established sports are not. Such is just one more sign that it has not yet been fully accepted in the U.S. as an American cultural product.
For Americans, the World Cup is now nearing the Olympics in popularity as a global athletic spectacle. Millions will indeed rally around the U.S. team so long has it has success on the international stage.
But after that, most of them will quickly return to utterly ignoring soccer as a spectator sport for another four years The vast majority of American sports consumers still have little or no interest in soccer beyond the quadrennial spectacle. If that is to change, improved marketing of soccer as a cultural product will be the key.
Akim Reinhardt is depressed about Mexico's loss to the Netherlands yesterday. His website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Edge of Tomorrow, Barack Obama's Sinking Poll Numbers, and the Endless Cycle of American Politics
by Matt McKenna
In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character inadvertently acquires the power to relive the day he dies, a day in which he dons a bullet-spewing exoskeleton and is eviscerated by aliens along with the rest of his fellow soldiers. With this plot device as its core narrative instrument, the film plays out like Groundhog Day meets Elysium except with a glowing extraterrestrial hive mind in place of Groundhog Day's Punxsutawney Phil and ham-fisted action sequences in place of Elysium’s ham-fisted allusions to contemporary class warfare. This isn't to say, however, that Edge of Tomorrow is bereft of social commentary. Indeed, the film uses its narrative structure to great effect in its criticism of the endless repetition present in American politics. Whereas Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with being airdropped into a hopeless maelstrom of human carnage, real-life Americans must repeatedly suffer the pain associated with witnessing the hopeless maelstrom that is the presidential election cycle.
Tom Cruise plays Private Cage, a demoted military PR sleaze ball who is press-ganged into active military service for reasons that aren’t particularly clear to me. Against his will, Cage joins the front lines of a counteroffensive designed to repel the ongoing alien invasion that has steadily been conquering Europe. Naturally, Cage's public relations background has left him unprepared for intricacies of alien combat, and he subsequently dies mere moments after his boots make contact with the beach. Fortunately for Cage, a splash of alien blood finds it's way onto his grimacing, five o'clock shadowed face, imbuing him with the handiest sci-fi trope of them all--time travel. With his newfound power at the ready, each time Cage dies, he immediately wakes up the previous morning with the memory of his deathday still intact. And so the plot unfolds predictably: Cage relives the same day over and over until he finally has a perfect memory of the battle and the skill required to destroy the alien horde.
Clearly, the parallels between Edge of Tomorrow’s plot and American politics are strong, even if the film’s ending is a bit optimistic. Most obviously, Cage's attempts to survive the day and break his time loop represents the United States' attempt to break free from the tight grip of its national politics, itself a cycle in which even if the political party in charge changes, the partisan hackery and divisive rhetoric never do. Whereas Cage is shot, crushed, and blown up during each iteration of his hellish day, Americans are bombarded by political ads, hoodwinked into watching trite political bickering on television, and even conned into giving money to the political parties that perpetuate this terrible national distraction. Director Doug Liman deftly utilizes this parallel to make the point that the United States is desperately mired in its current political environment, and the only way for it to extricate itself from this environment would be for the American electorate to have an eidetic memory of previous elections and therefore not to succumb to the tired political tactics that arise during each election cycle.
That Americans must have a photographic memory of political events in order for the United States to replace its frustrating political cycle is represented in Edge of Tomorrow’s training montage. This sequence cuts together clips of Cage improving his combat skills as he relives the day with the benefit of knowing how the battle will unfold. Most interestingly, in addition to becoming a more deadly soldier, Cage is forced to re-grapple with the same moral dilemmas over the course of the many iterations of his deathday. For example, there’s a moment early on in the battle where Cage realizes he can save the life of his comrade by pushing him out of the way of a crashing airship. As the montage wears on, however, Cage no longer bothers to save the man. After all, what’s the point? The doomed soldier will live again just as soon as Cage dies and reawakens. Later in the montage, Cage becomes so frustrated with his current situation that he gives up and decides not to fight at all. Through Cage’s frustration and moral conundrums, Liman empathizes with Americans who wonder how best to engage themselves in the political process. Should they vote for a Democrat this year? A Republican? Maybe a third party? Perhaps they should simply sit out the upcoming election entirely. Of course, the difference between Cage and a real-life American citizen is that Cage’s memory makes him a better fighter and brings humanity closer to victory. The same cannot be said for Americans in reality and the political cycle they endure. Despite its populace having experienced national politics continuously in four-year bursts, the political atmosphere in the United States remains defiantly stable.
It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Edge of Tomorrow has a happy ending. Eventually, the aliens are overcome by Cage’s ingenuity and the cycle is broken. American politics, on the other hand, show no signs of being overcome. Even when it appears as if a major change has hit the political scene--say the election of Barack Obama--the cycle continues and politics is not transformed. For example, despite moving into the White House with an absurdly high approval rating buttressed by Americans’ optimism in his ability to bring substantial change to political discourse, Obama’s poll numbers have since declined and are now indistinguishable from those of his predecessor. The cycle has unfortunately returned to its steady state. Even more disturbing, two of the early front-runners in the next presidential election are Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, owners of family names that are already represented in the list of American presidents. It is as if the political cycle has become so audacious that the names of our politicians needn't change anymore. Just as “Live. Die. Repeat.” is the logline used to advertise Edge of Tomorrow, “Bush. Clinton. Repeat.” might as well be the logline used to advertise the upcoming presidential election. Time will tell whether Americans will ever develop a vivid enough memory of its past elections to be able to alter the course of their country's politics, but in the meantime, Edge of Tomorrow is a pretty decent summer action flick, especially if you can grab tickets at matinee prices.
by Brooks Riley
Capriccio of Ruins
by Eric Byrd
Perhaps unique among France's many colonies, possessions, dependencies and departments outré-mer, Lisle has no foothold on the French Parnassus. Baudelaire's "dame creole" was Mauritian. Leger was born under the palms of Pointe-à-Pitre. And this mulatto isle never produced a polemicist of Négritude – we're obvious bastards, dark enough for chains but not black enough for pride. Lisle's sole literary monument is the work of the American Charles Wharburton, author of Alphonsine; or, The Siege of Saint-Christophe (1846). Wharburton was a didactic novelist of pastoral dilemma, of scrupulous parsons. Following a tour of the Antilles he published Alphonsine, his only novel set outside New England, assembled from notes, and from the Romantic demonism that lay all about his era. Wharburton's readers were affrighted and doubtless titillated by this tale of a Protestant missionary stranded on the nightmare isle, where he and the titular ward, dusky but redeemable, are caught between the bloodthirsty maroons and the depraved Creoles, between savage idolatry and the complicit Catholic church, with its gleaming black saints. Wharburton's surrogate desires only Alphonsine's salvation, deplores the mixing of races, and denounces plaçage as "a foul practice that supports a languid class of concubines in attitudes compounded of Gallic hauteur and Negroid indolence."
Such silly, bigoted old books are easy to come by, and help me to travel in time. I can see in Wharburton's half-novelized notes the exhibitory balls and parasoled promenades of quadroon courtesans: they're slow-moving, pouty, spoiled – and bred for pleasure as horses are bred for racing. Lisleans are now said – are proclaimed! – to have evolved beyond the béke and his Black Venus; are supposedly "overjoyed" – emotion for murals! – to abide as sexlessly interchangeable comrades in a puritanical police state ruled by a fatigue-clad guerilla chieftain. El Caudillo is decades removed from comradely struggle, displays a vestigial sidearm amid praetorian Kalashnikovs. For a time I was keeper of his looted pictures. He billeted his fighters in palaces whose fleeing owners had carried away nothing but trifles – a string of pearls, a monogrammed cigarette case destined for the pawnbrokers of pauperish exile. Soon the sensibility of imperiled revenue interrupted the desecration. Merciful Mehmed called off the pillage, and rescued or confiscated the private galleries. He sold abroad the great collections, as well as my father's modest, incipient portfolio of eighteenth century dessins (the heads of young girls and the lute-strumming fingers, disembodied, delighted one by the economy of their manifestation, the few swift strokes of their being). The strictly regional remainder, a rump gallery of touristic sunsets and forgotten worthies, was grandly christened the Musée Lisle. I was its curator before I was a conscript, a deserter, and a fugitive.
Resigned to the plunder and riot of a rebel army, infested by the disbanded soldiery, their camp followers and livestock, and all manner of fugitives, the most opulent precinct of Saint-Christophe was quickly degraded to that condition of quarantined wildness in which indestructible slums are tolerated. At times I will sound like Gibbon. I occupy an alcove in a partitioned palace. The makeshift walls are low, and when I stand I greet other tall men, and up on the high echoey vault cloud-throned figures still soar above our stinks. I have an entire window, a Louis Quinze commode, and a salvage of books. I share a plump putto with a couple that quarrels loudly and makes love silently, or not at all. In spite of the noise, and the pervasive preparatory fumes of peasant staples, this cell has moods I cherish. There are afternoons when a ceiba branch filters viridescent leaflight, and evenings in whose forgiving gloom I am a gentleman, the warped books plucked from garbage piles a manor library; and the photographs clutched in my wanderings are not the debris of an accidental family but a succession, dynastic, serene, the image of estate.
A carnival camera caught my courting parents, cloche and boater, bobbing in a painted dinghy, on playful billows. I am the boy contemplating a bard's bust – though as a child I did not read verse. My father's library, alma mater studiorum, contained massive furniture, voluminous histories, a great wheeled globe. I dreamt of writing a universal folio, Liber Chronicarum Mundi, with Lives of the Great and views of cities. It wasn't until my final year at university that a tattered motley of paperbound poets, the mother country's great syphilitics, suicides and opium-takers, showed me that a mere lyric – a footnote – could be made to hold worlds in the compress of its order. "A suggestive stanza is a narrow room painted trompe d'eoil," said Viktor Vladimirovich Seroff, in conversation. "Distant peaks, an infinite garden lane." Seroff is a forgotten poet. I knew him. He's an old clipping, jaundiced and brittle beside the studio mounts of my other memories.
The picture was taken the day I first saw him. A very bright day; slitted eyes, a squinty smile, crooked incisors. There had been a reading. It was summer of 1950. Despite the abyssal unresponsiveness of editors I was still versing, and conscious of contemporaries. El Caudillo's captured Shermans, vanguard of a thousand donkey carts, had entered Saint-Christophe in the spring. The poets and the audience were mixed groups, transitional, tense together. Old bohemians had come out to hear a caped graybeard declaim Theosophical visions, a crowd of soldiers to answer and repeat the semaphore slogans of an ersatz Mayakovsky. The rump of the bourgeoisie was also present. These naively patriotic professors and immovable matrons would come out for any Parisian, and the painted flock of well-brought-up girls, "the daughters of educated men," already knew of Seroff's glossy actorish looks. The one at my side nearly jumped when he strode on stage. He was a head taller than the others, darkly tanned, a fine-boned, sleek-skulled whippet of a man suavely balding at the temples, his hair wet-combed back from a magnificent brow. Seroff mentioned his forthcoming book (it would never appear). Tristia was the conventional, Ovidian title, a title belied by the serenity of the poems. When an exile lyrically laments his fate, we expect a plunge into the alien. Ovid was compelled to leave his tiled villa for a Scythian hut, Mowbray to case up his melodious English. But Lisle, or at least its capitol, was no desert. Saint-Christophe is an encyclopedic evocation, an erudite pastiche, consolation of fortune-seekers and second sons; a mirage of regretted domains. Seroff said nothing of weird natives or cruel skies. The poems of Tristia are about architecture and philology; the fantasy of innocent transmissions; the migration, not the imposition, of ornament. The World of Art. When he finished the young ladies looked disappointed. "Translation is that Greek pavilion / set in a banyan park" – mine was the only journal into which that was copied.
Seroff's home was France. He was too young to yearn with his parents for the birch alleys and pastel palaces of Baltic Russia. In Saint-Christophe he lived among other leftover refugees in a distant and dilapidated neighborhood, Frontière. It had been wild in the 1920s. "Frontière" recurs in the scratchy gramophonic cabaret wails. I see a Stenberg poster: the massive disembodied head of a pale-skinned, cold-eyed, scarlet-lipped and black-bobbed femme fatale, in the glow of whose sinister lunar perigee smaller figures dance tango, sip absinthe, and duel with daggers in red-lit streets. After the war Frontière was dusty, quiet, a perpetual siesta of shuttered houses and blazing, empty streets. The pavement was patchy and the vegetation eruptive, a resumption of jungle. Not-quite overgrown streetcar tracks alluded to a city. The Musée Lisle and its sole custodian had been deposited in the municipal library outpost. The librarians were loutish spoilsmen of a minor cultural commissar. They threw dice and swigged from a shared bottle while I read on the roof, or took my notebook to a table at a proletarian bar turned café litteraire by the refugees gathered there. They were all single men taking long lunches in the café's courtyard, lightened with wine or charged with coffee, gossiping in a federative French, enjoying the burble of the fountain and the shade of the trees in an exalted slacking from subsistence clerkships, from bleak digs. I came to be on nodding terms with quite of few Viennese satirists and untranslatable Poles, as we nursed our cups of plonk or rooted in the library's rubbishy collection, but I did not see Seroff until he turned up in one of the rare tours I was roused to lead. I found him standing among a troop of Boy Scouts or Young Pioneers, puerile paramilitants unnamed in that tentative Year One, before El Caudillo had selected his superpower patron. A talk I had only sketched in my head, on the novelty Negroes in noble and royal retinues, instantly replaced whatever it was I usually droned.
In the French portraits sitters command a variety of exotics (giantess, dwarfess, turbaned Moor), while the planters of Lisle have only slave boys in tiny jerkins holding or scampering after bits of garish fauna. Derrière elle un petit nègre tenant son éventail et sa perruche — so Gautier equipped his Muse. From the worthies I led them to the Black Venuses. These concubine generations were virtually monotonous, room after room of bare brown breasts and bright kerchiefs; to the boys' chagrin the only work I deemed worthy of considerate pause was an eighteenth century mulatto house boy, the domestic pastime of a girlish dilettante. The portrait is attributed to the teenage mistress of an inland plantation, European-born, a flower of finished poise imported by a wealthy slavewhipper and installed in the airy upper rooms of his whitewashed manse. I imagine her shut-in, constantly fanned, more ward than boss of the dollhouse staff, more alibi than wife to the master, who has been out there for so long in the society of his hounds, his horses, his slave wenches and their beige broods. When she tires ofClarissa and Chansons madécasses, or whatever composes the little library shipped with her, she takes a fancy to this kitchen boy, only a few years her junior. She adopts him as a playmate, grooms him as a page, strokes him as a pet – comme aux pieds d'une reine un chat voluptueux.I see hours of dress-up and playacting, a burlesque of the manners she was freighted to convey. She poses him in a pristine justaucorps – her husband's imported, nominal finery – and paints a mock-heroic portrait, perhaps after the memory of an ancestral gallery hung with the grave makers of her father's merrily squandered fortune. The gilet's intricate embroidery was too much for her drawing (one day, very suddenly, it was all so long ago: those lessons had given her a quiet hour of supervised sketching, Chardin-tranquil, between the harpsichord and the hiss of the dancing master), but her command of oils was equal to the probably rather simple intensity of his face: cold and superb, a boy pharaoh, his skin a smooth, even, very light brown, his eyebrows shapely streaks above the downward-looking, unmoving melancholy of his large brown eyes. When neighboring planters trek in for raucous stays the games stop and he is a servant again, though, with such beauty, the indignities of his station become marks of princeliness. At the banquet of cronies – the canaille of Europe become the lordly terrors of this wilderness, bawling and red-faced, "slowly dying of gluttony and the heat" – his required silence is a noble reticence, his servilely averted gaze a dreaming detachment from the gurgled wine and soiled bibs of his betters.
Thereafter I frequently visited Seroff's apartment, an oriel room in the House of Arts, née Palais Alberti. The House was a "university of the arts" established by the Ministry of Culture. Scholars lectured in a ballroom filled with folding chairs. Workers versified in literary labs. Resident composers traveled into the countryside and held microphones under the feebly singing lips of ancient ex-slaves. Everyone was eager to join these projects, exalted schemes dreamt up in the lull between tyrannies. Against the lofty clubbiness of the place, Seroff kept to his room. He received select callers, on a single day. I could infer the previous mardiste from an empty bottle, or a redolence of perfume. His things lay lightly on the monuments of a maid's chamber; his few books took chance gaps in a wall of popular romances. He did not pile the table with his manuscripts. I imagined a hidden bundle.
If I were the last visitor, we would stroll out into the evening and talk. We didn't mug friendship or orchestrate the marionette motions –supercilious surprise, nodding approbation, the steady gaze of unflagging interest – but roamed the city side by side. Tristia showed Seroff intimate with city's pompous vistas, and all the gardens and statuary, so I was surprised that he preferred the oldest warren of the old city, a sunless labyrinth of narrow alleys seemingly unchanged since the encamped chaos of first settlement: the dirt footpath beset by livestock, the fruit and fish stalls, the beggars clutching at your ankles.
"I'm tired of broad boulevards…fountain Neptunes…Versailles-vistas," he once shouted over his shoulder, an upset wagon having squeezed us into single file.
"Next you'll be composing in patois!"
"I have begun to study it," he said, facing ahead.
"Quae faciam paene poeta Getes!"
He glanced back, and conceded a slight smile from which I understood that however much the poems of Tristia meant to me, however much they dignified this tropical sea speck, they were but exercises, spells of dawdling before he got on with his work. He had written of Europe because he was not yet prepared to write of America.
For supper we would get fishcakes and a pint of rum from the fragrant portals of sagging shacks. Slightly less reserved, Seroff might describe his life in and escape from France, or his internment in Lisle – until we were enveloped in the din of a musical gathering, the kind of spectacle that entranced him. Drums made passerby into dancers; and there were the old men with guitars, their hoarse country woe accompanied by the spare sadness of a few plucked strings. An evening's trudge through such prosy ephemera would end at the outskirts, at the base of one of the ringing hills from which settlers used to descry English pirates. Even after greasy food and ardent spirits I would urge our climb. "Learned Poggius and a friend ascended the Capitoline hill" – and his second tolerant smile. From the heights we would survey the city on the plane of aspiration, a vista of copula crosses and dome-standing patron figures. At sunset this "sacred and festal" skyline would be awash with the gold of apotheosis, and the clouds – softly majestic, sun-fired cumulonimbi – had a static, painterly grace.
Cryptic thought in arch, drawling tones – I have composed this memoir without the hope of readers. But do not think me a hermit, or an underground man raving on the lower frequencies. Though at middle age, I have the physical strength and venereal torment of an active man. I still linger in the banyan murk of cruisy plazas, and lie seminude on the beaches. I found my Juana near the shell of the Yacht Club where, fifty years ago, my parents were pathfinder Jews. Her cohort, that pack of stray bitches, the bain turc of my poignant fantasies, was spread out on a blanket, comme un bétail pensif sur le sable couchées, and she was the only one awake in the nuzzling litter of brown bodies. Her price included a half-hour room. Flimsy shutters, gappy from rot, were all that shielded us from the glare and bustle of a market street, and the dim little room was loud with haggling voices and the creak of cart wheels. She removed her floppy-brimmed hat. Blue eyes in a brown face, kinky reddish locks. It was not unusual for single families on remote farms to melt into the clans of their chattel. Her smoothly muscled curves were soon slick and shining, bending, squatting, clenching and contorting on my lead, a world of muscular incident beneath an unwincing mask.
At first an object, briskly used; with persisting patronage, something like a companion. She accompanies my walks (or I hers) and I play the cicerone, evoking the builders or old owners of her rubbly trysting-places. Inside their storm-lashed hovels our forefathers nursed a mania for grandeur. Fantastically enriched by cane-cutting slaves, they commissioned a city. Fontebelli confected an entire Baroque district, frosted lemon and power blue. Benois found the Governor's residence a low house and left it, after thirty years, a sprawling compound of palaces with a Champ de Mars at its heart. Boughton was here as a young man; amid the erotic riots of Rococo he raised cool Palladian temples.
Juana's most lucrative beat is the Promenade, a stone concourse along which palaces rot. The weathered facades crawl with life – tiers of teeming balustrades. There are many women, some Juana's elders in the trade, others ready amateurs. Look too long at one and she'll beckon. I'm never tempted. I like the threadbare frocks drying on parapets. The meager wardrobes of our poverty mean that felinely sleek, coppery nudes lounge alert or sprawl napping in the dim recesses of flats.
Urbane boughs the shade civic stone, and the residents of this tropical city have comfortably paraded in silken breeches, in high collars, in heavily botanical Merry Widows. Juana strides on sexy stilts, her dolphin tautness sheathed in tangerine lyrca; the fabric follows every protuberance, the fleshy shelf of her buttocks, the hard hillocks of her unmammary pectorals. A recent incident will stand for our days. A shirtless old man, skeletal shoulders and a bombé belly, approaches and hands the presumed pimp a few coins. He points to the Italianate pile where he has a rat hole. We part at the grand staircase. The inner court, once a coolly delicious retreat – Leger's l'eau-de-feuilles-vertes – is thickly overgrown, and pungent with goats. Monte Caprino, Campo Vaccino. I re-enter and climb the stairs. In what must have been the music room, a maimed piano wallows on its belly, and a quartet of chairs, once grouped for delicate chamber entertainment, lies hewn for stovewood. They must be taught to revere what they can so easily destroy. Looking down from the gallery, the patio is a leafy pit, a humid crotch. Our ruins are nothing like those of Poussin or Lorrain – those ornaments of the campagna, wreathed with grasses, gently pervaded by great trees. The békés retained vigilant gardeners. They also painted the baseboards with turpentine to keep out cockroaches, and slumbered damply, fitfully, under gauzy hoods of netting. The enmeshed amour, teasingly veiled from a curious slave or a stalking spouse, was a durable trope of their curiosa.
Suddenly stepping into the corridor, her sheath peeled up her tits, Juana beckons for my handkerchief and, with knees turned out, demi-plié, daubs up the dribble. Her earthy manner is a necessity of business; she blushes at aesthetic nakedness. A cordially rivalrous bricoleur had me to see his latest assemblage. At first Juana bumped into things, but after adjusting her stilted gams and parade stride to the confines of the small musty room, the life-enclosing vitrine, she looked on quietly while I inspected the dueling pistols and the Childe Harold octavos, petted the stuffed monkey and mastiff. She began to sigh and fidget when I opened a portfolio of naughty prints: the rape of Europa, by various hands; Hokusai's fishwife, entwined with an octopus, her entrances simultaneously ministered; the muscular, male-modeled legs of Michelangelo's Leda; Petrov-Vodkin's Pasiphaë, just a red cow in a gold field – but of course I was overwhelmed by the image of the naked queen arranged inside, down on all fours in the dark, mashing her rump to the mounting hole. At Rembrandt's abduction of Ganymede – a crying baby pissing in fright – she buried her face in my arm and moaned, "Why does he show us?"
After a few weeks together she disappears, leaving me in the bereft pet owner's confusion – did it eagerly bolt, desperately free, or was it accidentally run down on its faithful way home, now panting its last in the ditch it crawled to, curled in? At first I believe the former. Of course she's fled. We are not Niccoli and Benvenuta. She's an orphan whore who doesn't know her age; I am a clinging customer who prizes rubbish. But after a few days sulking in my cell I go out into the streets, where I see the urchins running in their packs, feral and ribbby, suffering and healing while always on the move, always exposed to others' rage or desire – and then I know she's dead. The truth is some of both: she flees, but violent vagaries wash her back. I hear her whimper on the other side of the parterre and there she is, wobbling on weak legs, jaw clenched, eyes bulging but dry, one hand staunching a wound or indicating one, the other holding out a book – a book heavy to her shaky arm, a random, battered thing she found somewhere, a gift, an offering to quell rage I never feel, to secure succor I gratefully give.
After a year's carnival interlude El Caudillo introduced his tyranny. His first decrees were said to have to do with agriculture, the land – with the controversies of ownership and division of our fair country's legumés sanctifiés. El Caudillo is the son of a wastrel planter, so I thought he might consume his revenges in the stupid realm of cereals; but he did come for us. Under the old regime journalists were a suspicious and persecuted class; the attitude of new was no different, and it expanded the Fourth Estate to include anyone who attended university or wore spectacles – even apolitical aesthetes harmless in picturesque sinecures – and I was drafted into the army. My conscription was not unique, I was herded with the herd; but unlike the other men Shanghaied for slave labor in the countryside, I trailed a chain of illegal dependants, a shadowy family of civic nonentities being fed out of my ration book. These included a number of fast girls and parasitic boon companions, resourceful lowlives who could fend for themselves; but Seroff had no means of support, no other useful friends. He had been expelled from the House of Arts when it became the Writers Union – a barrack of court scribes. Offered membership, Seroff refused, and remained up in his room – serenely smoking while breaking and resetting a sentence – during the inaugural banquet at which rum was raised to Revolution by foreign clercs who shortly returned to safe homes in the democracies they had denounced here. I put him in an obscure flat – and went to the army worried it was not obscure enough.
A Chelyabinsk tractor, a puny puffing contraption dwarfed in the great forest, shows off for the cameramen, chins a tree and nudges it from a hundred-year grip. I saw this performed but once. After the cameras were packed away we cleared the jungle as the old slaves had, with machetes for the undergrowth, and two-man teams tugging toothy blades through fragrant trunks. Whipped oxen dragged out the stumps. Memorized poems, including some of Tristia pictured in slim columns of italic Garamond, were the Ju-Jus around my neck, the gris-gris in my pocket.
The aerial cross and untouchable goddess,
a standard for inheritors, teach us
that beauty is no mythological grace,
but the gruff carpenter's severe rule-of-eye.
Allusion, layered landscapes, "dreams from the field of culture" – I needed this out there, press-ganged with illiterates, wandering the primeval forest. We looked up from what we had cleared to a carcereal prospect of infinite bark. News of the world came as twisted fables blared by the lectors who ambled among us with bullhorns and satchels of party papers. El Caudillo's epic sermons took up the mornings; we spooned the midday slop to foreign reports of brotherly embrace or capitalist menace; and as the light dimmed we were read the proceedings of the tribunals then active across the land, summoning and condemning. They read out offenses and long lists of the guilty. We worked as quietly as we had under the dictator's harangues – until someone collapsed or cried out. For a few minutes after we heard each name as a name, a life and a fate, a being and its eclipse – and then the names would blur, bleed together, and melt back into the megaphonic drone. When Viktor Seroff flashed on the rolls of the dead I did not drop my axe.
I know now that my battalion labored from March 1951 until April 1952 – though out there I lived a dateless delirium occasionally relieved by rustic time telling. A young peasant's noting of avian migrations was the lucid order that kept me from charging the gunmen who slouchingly picketed our toil. For May Day we were trucked back to Saint-Christophe and drilled and taught parade order, wooden sticks held rifle-wise on our shoulders. It was not long before I escaped into the slums – never to goose-step past El Caudillo in the martial ballet, the fearsome prance of an official review.
Of Seroff I found neither trace nor testimony. The landlady had been arrested too. Neighbors, cowering in their holes, remembered nothing, or would say nothing. His books were gone – even if he had been able to take them he couldn't have kept them. He had told me, on one of our strolls, that during the war internees were forbidden to have books; and the new gang is surely as cruel as the old. He went on to say that, bookless in prison, he fell back on the ineffaceable schoolboy recitations, and on recent enthusiasms, to supply himself and his fellow inmates with song. I choose this image of his last days. Upright and unafraid, nourishing haggard spirits with the cultures he carries. I ignore the scenario of torture and madness. If his parents had remained in Russia he would have been that Petersburg professor whose vapory Onegin stanzas cheered an Arctic barrack. He is the unconquerable captive, chanting a perfect song in a savage place.
Every Sunday morning I watch three coarsely wigged, grubbily painted young men, clad in old dresses, tramp through the heat and dust of my street, bound for the Promenade. The Belle Époque mondaine in a driving ensemble of goggles, headscarf and duster; the flapper with aigrette in his sham coiffure; the shimmeringly gowned grandee lifting his skirt with pinching fingertips before a rivulet of sewage. El Caudillo's men had belted their bandoliers across looted finery, but long after that insolent festival these slum boys, brothers of whores and thieves, ignorant and uninstructed, on their own recover and revive these clothes, reanimate this regalia, and pool cosmetics the individual ration of which can never completely mask the bumps on a brow or the coarse grain of a razored cheek.
If the békés seem ridiculous because they wore neckties at the Equator, or because they collected opalescent Fragonards though beset by Rousseau's dark fronds; if they seem foolish in their surprise that the wretched of the earth should rise and possess their palaces, and the salt wind abrade the festive facades; then I will remind that, in building anything, we dare nature to resume her rights. The békés were glorious for a while. We know their care by the stateliness, the gaunt handsomeness, of their remains. Their coastal jewel is now not only despoiled, but defunct. El Caudillo is building a new capitol in the frondy hinterlands, a concrete, Corbusian utopia far from the syncretism of ports and the ornate civic structures of the past, so many badges of servitude to those insensible of their symmetries. In the new city the new man will be consoled by an apparent uniformity of habitation, will have a volkswagen for illusory mobility, a television for illusory communion – and, perhaps this is most important, he will be free from any culture not devised in the monoglot Marx paraphrase that is his master's brain. I sound vehement but I do not care. Go, and build, as you must; chance your monument in a jungle – but let some of us remain and read forgotten poets, and gather old frocks, and muse amidst the ruins.
Can't Win: Prominent Women and the Gendered Double Standard
by Kathleen Goodwin
If you haven't visited ladypockets.com, it's worth it for a laugh. In the words of creator, Katherine Fritz, "instead of writing the great American Novel, I made a fake fashion + lifestyle blog where I tell you where to buy Ruth Bader Ginsberg's earrings." Gems include a photo of Christine Lagarde gesturing from a podium wearing a flower-patterned scarf with the caption, "Frankly, if we had to deliver some less-than-sunny news about Eurozone inflation rates at the World Economic Forum, we'd opt to spread a little springtime cheer with this rose-print floral scarf too." As well as the familiar "Who Wore it Best?" trope, which includes adjacent close ups of Joan Didion and Harper Lee, both pictured wearing tortoiseshell glasses. My personal favorite is the feature on Angela Merkel, which incorporates a caption that reads, "She may have a doctorate of chemistry, but sometimes the key player in the European financial crisis lacks the basic science of how to flatter a tricky figure".
As Fritz explains, "the joke is evident" but while the site is obviously tongue in cheek, it deserves a bit of analysis. Is the gag how bizarre the captions read, where the accomplishments and intelligence of the woman in the spotlight take a backburner to her accessory choices and the cut of her pantsuit? When a woman is a world famous writer, head of a global organization, or an elected official; is it pertinent to comment on her color coordination? The joke is truly multi-layered in its absurdity, because it reveals a reality. Regardless of their career choice, all women in the public eye are subject to discussions of things that have nothing to do with their jobs and responsibilities. In the Author's Note of Hillary Clinton's recently released memoir she writes, "I considered a number of titles…My favorite was 'The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It's Still All about My Hair.'"
Powerful women are held under a microscope for their appearance and behavior in a way that men are not, giving the media and the public endless source material to scrutinize, and deflecting attention away from truly critical matters. Yet when women try to eschew the rigid expectations of femininity and assume typical masculine attitudes and practices, they face an equally strong backlash. The result of this obvious double standard is what I'd characterize as a "can't win" dilemma that all women, regardless of their recognizability, contend with on a daily basis. Women are regularly criticized for being both "too masculine" and "too feminine" and conversely also face criticism for not acting feminine enough or not adopting sufficiently masculine characteristics.
This gendered lens is obvious when it comes to appearance; the media would never spend time covering the shoes Obama chose to wear to a state dinner, nor would the public deem this a matter of significance. However, when it comes to other personal matters, such as a person's family life, this double standard is applied most viciously. Specifically, the public's inclination to judge prominent women as adequate mothers and to use maternal ability as a basis to vet a woman's ability to perform other tasks. Meanwhile, men rarely seem to face scrutiny for being uninvolved fathers, and fathering capabilities are not typically part of the necessary criteria by which the public determines a man's worthiness.
Mary Barra, who was appointed the first female CEO of General Motors at the beginning of 2014, has recently been subject to a harsh media gaze, justifiably so in the midst of controversy pertaining to preventable deaths caused by faulty GM cars. But as John Oliver explores in his May 18 episode of "Last Week Tonight", the media has latched on to Barra's gender as legitimate grounds to criticize GM, instead of focusing on the obvious morally corrupt practices of the company, which should transcend the chromosomal makeup of the person in charge of it.
Oliver shows a clip of "CBS This Morning" where a commentator has the audacity to remark about Barra, "She's a mom with two kids. Her first responsibility isn't as CEO of the company, it's [as] a mom with two children and she could personally relate to those people who lost their family members". Oliver responds to this clip with his usual pointed sarcasm, "Right, because everyone knows that people without kids could barely give a shit when thirteen people die." Beyond the obvious absurdity of the commentator's words, the implied double standard suggests that it is permissible or even expected for a female CEO to prioritize her family, when it would certainly never be suggested that a male CEO should attempt to do the same. In reality, considering the weight of the scandal that GM is facing, it is neither socially or professionally acceptable for its CEO to be framing this controversy in terms of his or her own family, the discourse should be about preventing more deaths and making reparations for the ones that have already occurred. I admire that throughout this 10 minute segment Oliver spends the majority of the time ripping into GM for its negligence and poor handling of its public image and comparably less time making this news story a lesson on gender norms. He points out the blatant hypocrisy, but doesn't fall into the same trap as the sexist mainstream media, where Barra's being a woman and a mother becomes the focal point instead of corporate responsibility.
In the political sphere, we are obviously in the midst of a Hillary Clinton centric news run, but other high profile female politicians have also been subject to criticism that their male counterparts would certainly never face. For example, Wendy Davis, the Texan democrat who became a household name literally overnight one year ago when she delivered a filibuster in the Texas senate to block a restrictive abortion bill. Davis is currently approaching the critical months of a run for the governor of Texas, already a fierce battle in a historically red state. Davis has intelligently built a campaign along the lines of her narrative as a hard-working single mother who has overcome the same sort of obstacles that Texans face today, and less on her principles as a democrat. This tact, while seemingly successful in persuading some voters, has left her open to criticism of her personal choices.
By the age of 21 Davis had lived in a trailer park, dropped out of college, and was the divorced mother of a two year old. By the age of 27 she was married again, now a mother of two, and enrolled at Harvard Law School. Nine years later she was elected to the Fort Worth City Council, and nine years after that to the Texas senate. It is the sort of pulled up by your own bootstraps tale that the American public loves, even before Davis became a hero for fighting for women's abortion rights by speaking for eleven hours straight without even bathroom breaks. And yet, Davis is subject to cynical and laughably targeted scrutiny— Robert Draper contacted her now ex-husband and daughter to specify exactly how often Davis traveled from Massachusetts to Texas during her time at Harvard Law to visit her two children for a piece in the New York Times Magazine in February. He printed this account after a number of Texas newspapers published conflicting numbers:
"[Davis] said, her commuting routine was ‘10 days at school followed by five days at home.' Her daughter Amber remembers differently, telling me that her mother ‘flew down every two weeks to be with us' for ‘a long weekend.' In Jeff Davis's memory, ‘Her goal was to come back every third weekend. And she didn't. I'd say once a month would be closer.'"
Is the NY Times really taking the time to determine exactly how often Wendy Davis saw her daughters over a three year period when the significantly more newsworthy angle is that Davis was admitted to Harvard Law School in the first place? Draper, unfortunately falls into the same trap that Oliver barely avoided, he later makes it clear how absurd it is to be squabbling over these details, but he gives the subject validation by using line space to verify the specifics— as if Davis's ability to be governor depends on the total days she spent with her children nearly twenty-five years ago. It's akin to discussing Christine Lagarde's choice in scarf at the World Economic Forum instead of the European debt crisis. And it is, unfortunately, the kind of attack that only women seem to face.
As Jill Lepore cuttingly writes in the New Yorker, "By the standards applied to Davis, who left her two young daughters with their father so that she could go to law school, most candidates elected to office in the United States in the past two centuries abandoned their children." The double standard is palpable— men and women can't win elections without putting their personal life in the open and yet this gives the public permission to scrutinize their personal decisions. Women, far more often than men, can't seem to win when held up to this test. The criticism comes from both sides of the aisle and is not just restricted to being an insufficient mother, female politicians have also faced backlash for focusing too much on their families. Draper's article redeems itself in part by discussing this hypocrisy and quoting the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christie Whitman, who "recalled having herself been chided for spending time on vacation with her children after her primary race for governor — proof of lacking fire in the belly — just as Davis is now being condemned as a maternally deficient careerist for not spending enough time with hers."
It's a hopeless catch-22 for female politcians, who gain votes by prioritzing family issues, but are critcized in turn for their inability to be both super-mom and a super senator. And why when well-known fathers go away for school or on vacation no one seems to care if their children were present? As Draper writes, "no one ever stopped [Bill] Clinton, Bush or Obama in his biographical tracks to say: ‘Wait. If you were out there, conquering the world, then you could not have been here, with your family.'"
It is naïve and unrealistic to expect the public to view both men and women solely for their intelligence and abilities, rather than their personal lives. In fact, I do agree that a person's individual decisions and experiences can, in specific circumstances, reflect her moral core and her ability to excel at other sorts of jobs. However, the change that I ask for is two-fold, 1) that we, as a society, don't allow dialogue on someone's personal life overshadow our ability to respect and trust her as a CEO or a politician or in any other position and 2) in the cases where personal lives are pertinent, that we don't allow men and women to be held to blatantly different standards.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
A Case of Mohammad Hanif
From The Daily Star:
Mohammed Hanif is a Pakistani writer and journalist. Trained at the Pakistan Air Force Academy, Hanif has an inborn talent to hit the mark with his genius writing. His debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes won the 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the 2009 Commonwealth Book Prize in the Best First Book category. The novel uses the event of Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq's plane crash in 1988 as a spring-board to delve into the conspiracy theories behind it. His second novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, the story of a hospital nurse in Karachi, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
In this interview with the SLR editor, Mohammed Hanif talks about the mystery of babies, an occasional need to shout from rooftops and reminds Dhakaites how important it is not to take even a bit of freedom for granted.
SLR: How has your writing sensibilities been shaped by your earliest reading?
MH: There were about two and a half books in the village where I grew up. Colonel Mohammed Khan's Bajang Amad - the memoir of a Punjabi officer in Second World War - was very funny, very exotic. The second one was a collection of miracles performed by Muslim saints; fantastic. We also used to get a free government-published magazine by the Family Planning Ministry. It was quite mysterious because you never learnt how babies are made. And then there was China Pictorial everywhere. I am sure every little bit that I read influenced me.
SLR: You are both a writer and a journalist. We all know the responsibility a journalist has. Do you think you have a responsibility as a writer from Pakistan?
MH: I hope not. I mean I should try not to bore my readers or lecture them because that I can do as a journalist.
ultra violet (1935 - 2014)
Tinker: John Forshee
Gavrilo Princip, Conspiracy Theories and the Fragility of Cause and Effect
Ashutosh Jogalekar in Scientfic American (Achille Beltrame's illustration of the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip (Image: Wikipedia)):
When you read the story of the shots that led to World War 1, what strikes you is how staggering the gulf between cause and effect was, how little it takes for history to change, how utterly subject to accidental and unlikely events the fickle fortunes of men are. Reading the story of Princip and the Archduke, one sometimes gets the feeling of being no more than wood chips being cast adrift on the roaring river of history.
The dark comedy of the assassination of the Archduke and his wife is succinctly narrated in skeptic and writer Michael Shermer’s highly readable book “The Believing Brain“, and the story is as good an example of the roots of conspiracy theories as any other. It sheds light on human psychology and illuminates conspiracy theorizing in all scientific quarters, ranging from creationism to climate change denial.
Shermer recounts how, on that fateful day, six conspirators waited in the shadows to carry out their deed. When the Archduke’s motorcade passed close by, the first two conspirators failed to take any shots because of the crowds and an inadequate line of sight. The next conspirator managed to throw a bomb at the Archduke’s car but it simply bounced off and fell into the car behind. The two conspirators quietly disappeared while the third tried to commit suicide by ingesting cyanide but simply vomited and was captured by the police. Unlucky Princip and the other two insurgents gave up and sauntered away. Meanwhile the Archduke made it all the way to the city hall and gave a speech, expressing outrage to the mayor that he had just been subjected to an assassination attempt.
Since the Archduke had just expressed outrage at an attempted assassination, he should have known better than to drive back the same way he came. However it seems that only one of the generals in his entourage suggested taking an alternative route back. But in the heat of the moment, for some reason this timely advice was not communicated to the driver who decided to again drive back through the city center. While this was happening Princip had purportedly given up and was hanging around a bakery, maybe enjoying a pastry. However when he saw the car return on the same route the opportunity was too good to pass; more so since the transmission seemed to be jammed and the driver could not back up. The rest is very much history.
St Paul, Caravaggio and the agonised Catholicism of Pasolini
Ian Thomson on Pier Paolo Pasolini's St Paul: a Screenplay; translated by Elizabeth A Castelli, in The New Statesman (Photo: Mondadori via Getty):
San Paolo, published posthumously in 1977 and presented here for the first time in English as St Paul, is Pasolini’s screenplay for the life of the apostle. Drafted in 1966 and subsequently rewritten, it was intended to be a sequel toThe Gospel According to Matthew (1964), shot in the lunar landscape of Italy’s Basilicata region. The screenplay, with its New Testament voice-over, typically mingles an intellectual leftism with a Franciscan Catholicism: blessed are the poor, for they are exempt from the unholy trinity of materialism, money and property. The film was never made, for lack of funds.
Pasolini’s solidarity with the poor was at heart romantic. La ricotta, his 35-minute episode in the collaborative film RoGoPaG (1963), features Orson Welles as an American director shooting a film in Rome about Christ’s Passion. Stracci (the name means “rags”), the sub-proletarian actor who plays the part of the good thief, dies on set from a case of real-life starvation. For all its manifest compassion, the film led to a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini on blasphemy charges. Over a tableau vivant inspired by a Caravaggio-like painting of the Deposition, Welles cries out sacrilegiously: “Get those crucified bastards out of here!”
Like La ricotta, St Paul champions those who have been disinherited by capitalism and the “scourge of money”. Pasolini believed that the consumerist “miracle” of 1960s Italy had undermined the semi-rural peasant values of l’Italietta (Italy’s little homelands). In the director’s retelling of the Bible, Paul stands as a bulwark against the “corruption” brought to Italy by Coca-Cola, chewing gum, jeans and other trappings of American-style consumerism.
Nevertheless, as the former Saul, a Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, Paul was an ambivalent figure for Pasolini.
In Conversation with "House of Cards" Creator Beau Willimon
“The Skeleton Crew”: How a motley band of amateurs solves cold cases online
Laura Miller in Salon:
The idealistic notion of an army of smart volunteers taking to the Internet to help solve crimes suffered a serious knock last year. That’s when cocky amateur detectives at Reddit.com took it upon themselves to scrutinize photos snapped just before the Boston Marathon bombing in search of likely “suspects.” Crowd shots were posted to the Web, complete with incriminating circles and arrows pointing to innocent spectators, many of whom just happened to have brown skin. When the FBI released closed-circuit camera images of the actual perpetrators (neither of whom had been fingered by the Redditors), some site members then went on to argue that one of the suspects was Sunil Tripathi, a missing college student later found drowned in Rhode Island. It was a clueless, hurtful and potentially dangerous performance that did not bode well for the future of crowdsourced law enforcement.
Let Deborah Halber’s “The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases” stand as a partial corrective to the hubris of the Redditors. Halber, a science writer, recounts how a motley band of committed hobbyists have devoted countless unpaid hours to linking unidentified human remains with missing-person reports. The case that serves as her framing device — “Tent Girl,” a young woman whose body was discovered wrapped in a striped tarpaulin off Route 25 in Scott County, Kentucky — was 30 years cold when a factory worker named Todd Matthews matched her to a listing posted by a woman in search of her long-lost sister.
Matthews solved that one all the way back in 1998, when the Web was young. As Halber reveals, listings of missing persons and unidentified bodies were among the first things average citizens wanted to put on the Internet. It turns out there are a lot of unidentified bodies out there. No one can say for sure how many because real-life law enforcement organizations are much less proficient at collecting and sharing information than the ones on TV.
jimmy c. newman (1927 - 2014)
The Buried Rib Cage
Eve slipped from its arced ridge-
the only body part
......do evil with:
the eye, the hand,
the ribs are modest
shy crests, ticklish,
.......... an open fan,
not quite sexual, yet not putitan:
.................. -yawn, moan-
Soul breathes through its comb.
by Eve Grubin
from Morning Prayer
Sheep Meadow Press, 2005
Bad Chompers & Bum Tickers
Rebecca Kreston in Discover:
Periodontitis is a chronic bacterial infection of the scaffolding of teeth, including the gums, connective tissue, and jawbone that surround and encapsulate a tooth. It may well be one of the most common diseases of man: in the United States, anywhere from 30 to 50% of the adult population has a mild form of the disease, while an additional 5 to 15% suffers from a severe form (1). That disease begins with dental plaque or calculus, a layering and mineralization of pathogenic microbes that thrive in the dark, wet, and (occasionally) nutrient-rich crevices of our mouth. Over 500 microbes have been implicated as residents of these so-called periodontal pockets, those clefts and rifts between tooth and gum, forming complex biofilms and microbiotic communities of Gram negative rods, Gram positive cocci and rods, and spirochetes (2). Periodontitis can incite additional infections: burrowing tooth cavities or caries; gingivitis, an infection of the fleshy gums; and, most severely, destruction of the alveolar jawbone that props the teeth (3). But periodontitis is not just a local infection, limited in its effects to the body’s entranceway. It goes beyond the pearly whites and has the potential to wreak havoc farther afield, upon our thrumming arteries, heart, and brain (3). The microbes responsible for periodontal disease assist in forming atherosclerotic plaques, which travel in the blood and set up shop in arteries (4)(5). One bacteria commonly found in our mouths and which is responsible for oral disease is Porphyromonas gingivalis. But outside the oral cavity, this bacteria can attract vital cells responsible for blood clotting, platelets, which in turn can form thromboses, leading to the embolisms responsible for heart attacks and strokes (6).
When the severity of periodontal disease was directly measured in a 2006 Swedish study by counting existing pockets of infection and decay, it was found to be associated with hypertension in a dose-dependent manner (7). In other words, the lack of oral maintenance that allows build-up of bacteria on our chompers allows a similar build-up in less visible but far more life-threatening locales as well.
Boyhood is a battlefield: The dangerous expectations of early masculinity
Judy Y. Chu in Salon:
I conducted my study against a backdrop of literature that highlighted ways in which pressures for boys to conform to conventions of masculinity could negatively impact boys’ development. Research on girls’ development conducted by the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development during the 1980s and early 1990s had inspired a resurgence of interest in boys’ development during the late 1990s. Specifically, revelations regarding the centrality of relationships in girls’ lives and the relational nature of girls’ development called into question traditional models of human development that promote individuation and separation in the name of growth, health, and, for boys, manhood. Following the studies of girls, a number of books focused on how boys’ socialization — towards masculine ideals that emphasize, for example, physical toughness, emotional stoicism, and projected self-sufficiency — may lead boys to devalue and disconnect from their emotions and relationships.
While this popular discourse on boys has been helpful in drawing attention to possible problems pertaining to boys’ gender socialization, it has been limited by its tendency to pathologize boys and problematize boys’ development. For example, most of these books are based on clinical populations of boys and adopt a diagnostic approach to understanding boys’ development. Starting from the assumption that there is something wrong with boys, these books emphasize their alleged emotional and relational deficiencies (as compared to girls) and aim to identify what is wrong and who or what is to blame. Boys’ emotional capacities and relational strengths are rarely mentioned, much less addressed. Furthermore, these books do not account for group and individual differences in boys’ socialization experiences and outcomes, including how some boys manage to thrive, and not merely survive, within the same contexts that can be debilitating for other boys.
Saturday, June 28, 2014
The Only Government I Know
Vesla M. Weaver in The Boston Review (Photograph: Thomas Hawk):
I met Renard in an unadorned room in a Catholic Charities building in New Orleans. Twenty years old, with a broad smile under chubby cheeks dotted with freckles, Renard is one of two dozen or so men and women who gather there regularly for Cornerstone Builders, a small Americorps program that provides community services jobs and training to ex-offenders. A few weeks before we spoke, Renard was released from prison where he was serving time for possession of marijuana and a firearm; he is still under correctional supervision. “They givin’ you ten years to mess up,” he says. In addition to the two and a half years in prison, he must complete two and a half years of parole and, after that, five years of probation.
Renard doesn’t think about the government in the way you or I might. Lots of Americans worry about too much government or too little. For Renard, there is both too much and too little. Until Cornerstone Builders came around, government had always been absent when he needed help, but ever-present otherwise.
“The government is hard,” he told me. “We’re free but we’re not free.”
Xavier, a long-time friend of Renard’s who joins him at Cornerstone Builders, has never been given a prison sentence but nonetheless described a life hemmed in by police and jails. Diagramming with saltshakers on the table, he showed me how a police station, courthouse, and jail encircled his neighborhood. Most of his family and friends have had contact with the criminal justice system, which he calls the “only government I know.”
When you meet people such as Renard, you see the human face of a system of punishment and surveillance that has expanded dramatically over the past fifty years. At this point, the facts of mass incarceration are well known. Families have been separated from fathers, sent away in greater numbers, for longer terms of imprisonment, seemingly without regard to the nature of their offenses. Millions have been economically and politically paralyzed by criminal records, which stymie their efforts to secure jobs and cast ballots.
But there is more to criminal justice than prisons and convictions and background checks.
Most people stopped by police are not arrested, and most of those who are arrested are not convicted of anything. Of those who are, felons are the smallest group, and, of those, many are non-serious offenders. In some cities, the majority of those who encounter criminal justice have never been found guilty of a serious crime, or any crime, in a court of law. Based on research in several cities across the country, my colleagues and I estimate that only three out of every two hundred people who come into contact with criminal justice authorities are ultimately convicted of violent crimes.