Tuesday, June 30, 2015
To Save California, Read “Dune”
Andrew Leonard in Nautilus:
Fifty years ago science-fiction author Frank Herbert seized the imagination of readers with his portrayal of a planet on which it never rained. In the novel Dune, the scarcest resource is water, so much so that the mere act of shedding a tear or spitting on the floor takes on weighty cultural significance.
To survive their permanent desert climate, the indigenous Fremen of Dune employ every possible technology. They build “windtraps” and “dew collectors” to grab the slightest precipitation out of the air. They construct vast underground cisterns and canals to store and transport their painstakingly gathered water. They harvest every drop of moisture from the corpses of the newly dead. During each waking moment they dress in “stillsuits”—head-to-toe wetsuit-like body coverings that recycle sweat, urine, and feces back into drinking water.
Described by Dune’s “planetary ecologist,” Liet-Kynes, as “a micro-sandwich—a high-efficiency filter and heat exchange system”—the stillsuit is a potent metaphor for reuse, reclamation, and conservation. Powered by the wearer’s own breathing and movement, the stillsuit is the technical apotheosis of the principle of making do with what one has.
Someday, sooner than we’d like, it’s not inconceivable that residents of California will be shopping on Amazon for the latest in stillsuit tech. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but in California in 2015, the future is now. Four years of drought have pummeled reservoirs and forced mandatory 25 percent water rationing cuts. The calendar year of 2014 was the driest (and hottest) since records started being kept in the 1800s. At the end of May, the Sierra Nevada snowpack—a crucial source of California’s water—hit its lowest point on record: zero. Climate models suggest an era of mega-droughts could be nigh.
Which brings us to Daniel Fernandez, a professor of science and environmental policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, and Peter Yolles, the co-founder of a San Francisco water startup, WaterSmart, that assists water utilities in encouraging conservation by crunching data on individual water consumption. Fernandez spends his days building and monitoring fogcatchers, remarkablyDune-like devices that have the property of converting fog into potable water. “I think about Dune a lot,” Fernandez says. “The ideas have really sat with me. In the book, they revere water, and ask, what do we do?” Similarly, Yolles says, “I remember being fascinated by the stillsuits. That was a striking technology, really poignant.” And inspiring. The fictional prospect of a dystopian future, Yolles says, “helped me see problems that we have, and where things might go.”
Ignorant Good Will
Rick Perlstein reviews Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, in The Nation:
Burrough begins Days of Rage with the story of the New Left’s first convert to armed struggle, an oddball named Sam Melville, who started bombing random Manhattan banks shortly after enjoying the music at Woodstock and later died in the uprising at Attica. But the best history is always about the backstories—the flashback reconstructions explaining how a mentality that may strike us as alien today made perfect sense in the minds of those who shared it at the time.
Consider Mutulu Shakur. Born Jeral Williams in 1950, he became an early proponent of the Republic of New Afrika movement. His career as a militant began in a hospital. In 1970, members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers that started as a street gang, occupied the auditorium of a tumbledown hospital in the South Bronx to protest its inadequacies. They demanded a heroin clinic. Harried hospital administrators were amenable; they needed a heroin clinic. So they let the Young Lords start one. Nourished with nearly $1 million in state and city funds, Lincoln Detox soon grew into the South Bronx’s largest drug-treatment facility.
Its program prescribed a theory popularized by Malcolm X: “that the plague of drugs was a scheme concocted by a white government to oppress blacks,” as Burrough puts it. Shakur started volunteering; his specialty was acupuncture. Another part of the treatment was studying a pamphlet subtitled “Heroin and Imperialism,” which advised that a commitment to armed struggle was a more effective analgesic than methadone. Lincoln Detox soon became what Burrough describes as “a kind of clubhouse for New York’s radical elite”; for instance, medical supplies purchased with government funds—“by the truckload”—were turned over to the Black Liberation Army to assist it in its campaign of murdering cops. Crazy stuff, to be sure. But in the South Bronx of the 1970s—where cops were heavily involved in the heroin trade, and building owners found it more profitable to torch their property for the insurance than to rent it out—it’s easy to understand why taking the fight to the police seemed a more realistic route to social change than voting for Hubert Humphrey had been in 1968.
The economic consequences of austerity
Amartya Sen in The New Statesman:
Why did Keynes dislike a treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers (surely a good thing)?
Keynes was not, of course, complaining about the end of the world war, nor about the need for a treaty to end it, but about the terms of the treaty – and in particular the suffering and the economic turmoil forced on the defeated enemy, the Germans, through imposed austerity. Austerity is a subject of much contemporary interest in Europe – I would like to add the word “unfortunately” somewhere in the sentence. Actually, the book that Keynes wrote attacking the treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was very substantially about the economic consequences of “imposed austerity”. Germany had lost the battle already, and the treaty was about what the defeated enemy would be required to do, including what it should have to pay to the victors. The terms of this Carthaginian peace, as Keynes saw it (recollecting the Roman treatment of the defeated Carthage following the Punic wars), included the imposition of an unrealistically huge burden of reparation on Germany – a task that Germany could not carry out without ruining its economy. As the terms also had the effect of fostering animosity between the victors and the vanquished and, in addition, would economically do no good to the rest of Europe, Keynes had nothing but contempt for the decision of the victorious four (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) to demand something from Germany that was hurtful for the vanquished and unhelpful for all.
The high-minded moral rhetoric in favour of the harsh imposition of austerity on Germany that Keynes complained about came particularly from Lord Cunliffe and Lord Sumner, representing Britain on the Reparation Commission, whom Keynes liked to call “the Heavenly Twins”. In his parting letter to Lloyd George, Keynes added, “I leave the Twins to gloat over the devastation of Europe.” Grand rhetoric on the necessity of imposing austerity, to remove economic and moral impropriety in Greece and elsewhere, may come more frequently these days from Berlin itself, with the changed role of Germany in today’s world. But the unfavourable consequences that Keynes feared would follow from severe – and in his judgement unreasoned – imposition of austerity remain relevant today (with an altered geography of the morally upright discipliner and the errant to be disciplined).
For Couples, Time Can Upend the Laws of Attraction
John Tierney in The New York Times:
There are hundreds of romance novels in a category that some have named “Plain Jane and Hot Stud,” a theme that was equally popular when Jane Austen wrote “Pride and Prejudice.” Tall and good-looking, endowed with a “noble mien,” Mr. Darcy initially denigrates Elizabeth Bennet’s appearance: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” He notes “more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form.” Even worse for the rich Mr. Darcy, her family’s social status is “so decidedly beneath my own.” His initial reactions make perfect sense to evolutionary psychologists, because these preferences can improve the odds of passing on one’s genes. Beauty and physical symmetry are markers of a mate’s health and genetic fitness; status and wealth make it more likely that children will survive to adulthood.
...In the 2012 survey, people were asked a version of the famous question in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century poem: “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” A great many, it turns out. In the survey, 33 percent of men and 43 percent of women answered yes when asked if they had ever fallen in love with someone they did not initially find attractive. Dr. Fisher terms this process “slow love,” and says it is becoming more common as people take longer to marry. “Everyone is terrified that online dating is reducing mate value to just a few superficial things like beauty — whether you swipe left or right on Tinder,” she said in an interview. “But that’s just the start of the process. Once you meet someone and get to know them, their mate value keeps changing.” When the survey respondents were asked what had changed their feelings, the chief reasons they gave were “great conversations,” “common interests,” and “came to appreciate his/her sense of humor.” All of those factors contribute to Mr. Darcy’s change of heart in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Go Ask Alice: What really went on in Wonderland
Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:
Who reads “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? The answer used to be: Anyone who can read. From the tangled tale of mass literacy one can pluck a few specific objects—books that were to be found in every household where there was somebody who could read and people who wanted to listen. Aside from the Bible, a typical list would run like this: “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” to which were later added “The Pickwick Papers” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Notice that Alice is not the sole adventurer. Every one of those titles contains the leading character, whose fate is to go on a journey, and whose mettle is tested in the process. Each explores a different landscape, or body of water, but all five traverse what you might call the valley of the shadow of life, profuse with incident. Three of the writers were men of God, and the two others began as journalists. Had you asked any of them to take a creative-writing course, the door would have closed in your face.
But who reads the Alice books nowadays? Everybody knows Alice, but that is not the same thing. There are countless ways to know something, or someone, without firsthand evidence, and Alice, as familiar as a household god and as remote as a child star, is a prime case of cultural osmosis. Having seeped through the membrane of the original books, she has spent the past century and a half infusing herself into the language, and the broader social discourse; as a result, we can all too easily picture her, quote her, or follow her example in the nonsense of our own lives without having read—or even feeling that we need to read—a word of Lewis Carroll. Yet the need is more urgent than ever. Carroll wrote with a peppery briskness, impatient of folly, and always alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb:
“You know very well you’re not real.”
“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.
“You won’t make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there’s nothing to cry about.”
“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said—half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous—“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”
“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.
The second half of this exchange was used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to “Vile Bodies,” in 1930, and the tone is a perfect match for the chill, directionless frenzy of Waugh’s personae. But Tweedledum’s question is, if anything, more pertinent still to our epoch, when the capacity to weep, whether in triumph or disaster, is a heartfelt imposture that has proved de rigueur, not least in the realm of the reality show—a term, by the way, that would have caused Carroll to sharpen his pen like a carving knife.
Monday, June 29, 2015
The Winners of the 3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2015
Jonathan Kramnick has picked the three winners from the nine finalists:
- Top Quark, $500: Joanna Walsh, Ventimiglia
- Strange Quark, $200: David Kurnick, The Essential Gratuitousness of César Aira
- Charm Quark, $100: Sarah Blackwood, Editing as Carework
Here is what Jonathan had to say about them:
This is a great time for public art writing and literary criticism, with new venues of review and discussion popping up all over the internet. The essays I picked all in one way or another present the intimate and individual experience of an artwork in compelling, public language. That is not an easy thing to do.
Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today—just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Jonathan Kramnick for doing the final judging.
The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by Sughra Raza, me (using a photo by Margit Oberrauch) and Carla Goller. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!
Details about the prize here.
"the best picture in the world"
I recently found myself marooned with a large group of astronomers in a remote 11th century abbey in Tuscan countryside. Despite the picturesque beauty of the landscape not to mention the abbey's splendid library; still the days (I must admit) stretched on and on…
I guess it's true that google is making me stupid, but I discovered that it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to read for hours on end. And without any wireless nor any real means of getting myself back to civilization, I decided to hatch a means of escape. It wasn't all that hard actually, it was just a matter of reminding him (the astronomer with the driver's licence) that located not all that faraway from the abbey was what has been called "the best picture in the world."
Has anyone else read that wonderful essay by Aldous Huxley called "The Best Picture?"
It is a brilliant essay --and the title says it all. But, wait, you ask, how can there be such a thing as "the best picture" in the world? Isn't it an absolutely ludicrous suggestion to make?
Of course it is, and this is not lost on Huxley--for as you can see in the essay, he addresses this absurdity immediately:
The greatest picture in the world…. You smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world's best painters,eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste.And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one. Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven's dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonourable.But one can be dishonourable towards one's publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.I like this last sentence very much. First of all, I also enjoy compiling lists… from the best essays to my favorite restaurants, I find such lists (and declarations of things that are "the best") to be somehow really interesting. And Like Huxley, not only does Piero top my list of best painters, but in a similar vein, I also perhaps delude myself into thinking that my lists are not merely subjective pronouncements but rather are based on some mind of shared standards of taste and virtue. Touching on two notions dear to my own heart, I think Huxley rightly bases his judgement on the idea that there are Platonic ideals at work in art appreciation and that exposure to art works that express closely such ideals have an uplifting and transformative effect on people. When I studied tea ceremony, for example, the notion that the appreciation and handling of beautiful objects had a morally uplifting element was fundamental-- that is, the beautiful was conflated with the good during the lessons. I therefore agree with Huxley that part of the reason that a particular work of art can be said to be morally, spiritually or intellectually uplifting is related to a kind of fidelity to integrity (to a shared ideal).
Anyway, the famous Piero della Francesca trail started just down the road from the foot of the hill where our abbey was located, in the wonderful town of Arezzo about an hour away. It was there that the young Piero was called upon in 1457 to finish decorating the apse of the Basilica of San Francesco, stepping in to complete the frescoes after the original painter commissioned to decorate the space in the basilica died.
Arriving at the church first thing in the morning as soon as things opened to tourists, we were allowed an hour and a half in the apse with the frescoes. (At busy times, tourists must content themselves with a 25 minute limit). Piero's pictures mainly remain where they were painted and this is what is often cited for why his name was lost to obscurity until comparatively modern times. For unlike Titian or Rembrandt, one has to travel to see his work. In John Pope-Hennessey's wonderful essay, called the Piero della Francesca Trail, he suggested that if Piero's work had been dispersed in the way Botticelli's had, it would be Piero who would have left the greater mark on history--being the better painter after all.
Once discovered from obscurity, however, his pictures would go on to inspire many modern painters--from Cezanne to Seurat (story of that interesting history here). Surprisingly modern, there is something indescribable about seeing his work in situ. We couldn't immediately find the church though. Resembling nothing more than a huge barn, an elderly lady sitting on a bench caught my eye and motioned for us to turn around, pointing at the church.
Walking in, we both were completely overwhelmed. I had never heard of the Legend of the True Cross before--and was surprised to learn it was a favorite of the Franciscans. A medieval story, it tells the tale of the Cross--from its beginnings as the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden (!!); the wood was then transformed (after being buried with Adam) in the building of the temple of Solomon. (Not surprisingly, it was the Queen of Sheba, who divined its future use and thereby warned Solomon that the future savior of the world would be killed using this very piece of wood). This, foretelling the end of the Jewish kingdom, Solomon hid the wood in a swamp. From Sheba to Saint Helena and the battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, the tale of the true cross is an absolutely mind-boggling story that Piero somehow turned into an intellectually stimulating tour de force that had my astonomer and I utterly speechless.
Indeed, we were totally hooked on his work by the first stop on the Piero Pilgrimage. (It was here, incidentally, where I accidentally flushed my camera down the toilet thereby proving that real journeys are seldom as easy as one hopes). Sigh~~
After recovering from the wonderful shock of the frescoes and the loss of my camera, we had pizza before heading on to the second stop to see the fresco that Huxley declared was the "best picture in the world."
Located in what was basically the spot where Piero painted it, in the old town hall in the city of Sansepolcro, this also happened to be the painter's birthplace. Waiting for the museum to re-open at 2:30, we strolled around the quiet town, stopping to sit in front of a statue of Piero, erected to honor the town's greatest son in the town park, barely making it back to the museum before a rain shower hammered down on us, a harbinger of more trouble ahead. At this point, though, we were still quite excited to finally be able to see Huxley's favorite picture.
The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca-- There is an absolutely wonderful story attached to this fresco that ocurred during WWII. Bombing the city, the British artillery officer in charge could not get the name Sansepolcro out of his mind... "Sansepolcro, Sansepolcro," he wondered, "where had he heard the name before?" It took awhile but suddenly he remembered where he had heard that name. It was an essay he had read many years earlier by Aldous Huxley in which the author declared that the best picture in the world could be found in this very place that he was now shelling!
What a surreal moment that must have been. The officer immediately ordered a halt to the bombing. He then made his way unopposed into the town. Locating the town hall, he stood before the Resurrection which had miraculously survived the building's roof caving in!
"We need no imagination to help us figure forth its beauty,'' Huxley wrote. "It stands there before us in entire and actual splendor, the greatest picture in the world."
What was once the town hall is now the Museo Civico. However when we were finally let in, we had to console ourselves to look at the picture in bits and pieces as it was undergoing restoration. With the entire top half obscured behind scaffolding that we could simply not move around, we could not see Christ's face at all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and swearing to ourselves that we would just have to come back and see it another time, we moved on to see Piero’s oil, Madonna della Misericordia (The Madonna of Mercy) located in the adjacent room.
The final part of our journey involved a wonderful drive through the mountains to Urbino.
While not quite as curvy, the drive reminded me something of the famed Irohazaka road in Japan. Famous as a spot for viewing the autumn foliage, the Irohazaka was also a Buddhist pilgrimage route for pilgrims heading up to Lake Chuzenji. For both Huxeley and Pope-Hennessey, the road to and from San Spulchro is definitely part of the great adventure and allure of the Piero Pilgrimage.
Huxley says this:
BORGO SAN SEPOLCRO IS NOT VERY EASY TO GET AT. There is a small lowcomedy railway across the hills from Arezzo. Or you can approach it up the Tiber valley from Perugia. Or, if you happen to be at Urbino, there is a motor 'bus which takes you to San Sepolcro, up and down through the Apennines, in something over seven hours. No joke, that journey, as I know by experience. But it is worth doing, though preferably in some other vehicle than the 'bus, for the sake of the Bocca Trabaria, that most beautiful of Apennine passes, between the Tiber valley and the upper valley of the Metauro. It was in the early spring that we crossed it. Our omnibus groaned and rattled slowly up a bleak northern slope, among bald rocks, withered grass and still unbudded trees, it crossed the col and suddenly, as though by a miracle, the ground was yellow with innumerable primroses, each flower a little emblem of the sun that had called it into being.
It's true, the Apennines are stunning and the valley pass was filled with wild flowers. It definitely makes my lists of favorite drives of my life! (and it does not take 7 hours as it did in Huxley's day--though it is a very narrow and trecherous mountain road!)
Arriving at the lovely hilltown of Urbino we saw what is perhaps Piero's most discussed and famous picture: the Flagellation of Christ. (this is another work of Piero's considered "one of the world's best ten." The controversy about this one stems from the three men at front. The conventional interpretation is that this is the flagellation of Christ by the Romans with Pilate looking like the Ottoman Sultan to the side... It is a very intriguing but mysterious picture done in oil and tempera on wood. Who are those three people and why are they so oblivious to the cruelty going on in, wonders one of the the characters (on their own Piero Pilgrimage) in John Mortimer's novel Summer Lease.
There are countless interpretations. Pope-Hennessey, for example, doesn't think it is Christ at all--but rather Saint Jerome:
As a young man St Jerome dreamt that he was flayed on divine order for reading pagan texts, and he himself later recounted this dream, in a celebrated letter to Eustochium, in terms that exactly correspond with the left-hand side of the Urbino panel.
A great ascetic, there was one thing Jerome found it hard to give up: Cicero. A great admirer of classical culture, the saint often read the Bible and Stoic philosophy back to back. That is, until he had his infamous dream where he was flogged before God and declared to be "Ciceronian rather than Christian!"
It is such a brilliant dream---plagued by his guilty pleasure of reading Cicero, the saint vows afterward to keep a better perspective when it comes to philosophy.
This would explains the classical sculpture. Pope-Hennessey goes on to claim that the three men on the right are an angel and two scholars who are discussing the merits of classical and patristic literature in relation to Saint Jerome's dream. Hmmm.....(this short video sums things up). It is a wonderful picture and I definitely prefer the Pope-Hennessey explanation (the Ottoman looking Pilate is hard to explain no matter what).
Piero the great: James Hall, in reviewing Larry Witham's new book, Piero's Light says,
Modern critics have compared his mesmerizingly aloof madonnas to Buddhas; his sentinel saints to Egyptian statues; and his consummate micromanagement of light to that of Vermeer. The American painter Philip Guston observed: "His work has a kind of innocence or freshness about it, as if he was a messenger from God, looking at the world for the first time."
It is true that his work is both evocative of ancient sacred art (especially the serenity and deep spirituality of Buddhist sculpture) at the same time as it is surprisingly modern. A great mathematician and dedicated Platonist, Piero is revered in Italy as an early Renaissance genius. Like Leonardo. It will come as no surprise to hear that Larry Witham's new book posits that it is precisely the painter's research into the "sacred geometry" of Plato that makes Piero's work so accessible to us today.The pure geometric shapes and incredible skill in portraying light and color has made him a favorite painter of many modern artists. And, indeed, there was a time when the Piero trail was something of a cult journey.
Differing from Huxley, Pope-Hennessey's favorite Piero is the Brera Madonna, which I am hoping to see in Milan next week. He describes the picture as being of an incomparable subtlety in the lighting, spacial structure and the beauty of the imagery. I have to say that for me it was the True Cross fresco cycle--in particular Constantine's Dream panel of the True Cross fresco series.
These paintings suspended within the stones of the church walls have a three dimensional quality that painting on wood or canvas simply lack and this particular panel of the Dream of Constantine has a night-time intensity I have probably never seen in a painting before. It must be decades ahead of its time--if not centuries? Almost like a hallucination, the fresco seems to jump off the wall in front of the eyes; other-worldly, dreamlike, it is hard to believe these works are so old.
Pope-Hennessey ends his essay on the Piero della Francesca trail in quoting Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation, where Sontag says:
"What is important to me now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum content out of a work, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there... the aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art--and, by analogy, our own experiences-- more rather than less real to us."
The fate of our times, Max Weber bemoaned, is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. Some say it is science and art which alone have the power to re-enchant us with the world. (Maybe that is part of the vision of this blog?) I do think it's true that science and art can "save" us in this way... For me, there was something truly wonderful about following in the footsteps of an artist--in "pilgrimage." Especially since the pilgrimage involved seeing the works mainly in situ, in the places where they were originally created. I really did feel my senses coming alive in the way Sontag suggested is so necessary for us now. But it was not just that. For being on the trail in this way allowed me to understand what Pope-Hennessey suggested at the end of his book-- that on a subconscious level the tourist who follows on the Piero route (like the Leonardo route) becomes able "of explaining the phenomenon of the trail and the pertinacity with which it is pursued." The thrill of the journey and the quest...This is a marvelous form of re-enchantment with the world, don't you think?
We didn't see the Madonna del parto or go on to Rimino, which are also part of the classical Piero Pilgrimage (someday we will go back and finish it); we did see the Urbino Madonna (Senigallia Madonna--with a Christ child very reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture) and the wonderful double portraits in the Uffizi, the splendid portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino.
The Horses of Chauvet
the horses of Chauvet
lope through a cave
eloquently old and new
true and lush
as the love and lust
our progenitors knew
by Jim Culleny
Burning My Confederate Flag
by Akim Reinhardt
To be born in America in 1967 is, to some degree, to fall through the cracks.
The Baby Boom was most certainly over by then, its most senior elements old enough to vote and drink. But the Millennials, now the focus of every drooling advertising executive and marketing guru, were naught but twinkles in the eyes of their Boomer sires and dames.
Bookmarked between bigger generations, being born in the late 1960s and early 1970s meant you were conceived and suckled amid the tumult of the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests; in (cloth) diapers when the moon landing occurred; discovering kindergarten as President Richard Nixon’s Plumbers were bumbling the Watergate break-in; and learning to read when the final U.S. helicopters evacuated Saigon.
To be born in 1967 means that when the late 1960s and early 1970s were becoming iconic, you were there, but you weren't. You didn't get to partake in the Summer of Love. You're what it spit out.
Thus, when coming of age, many important things were very familiar to you, but their meanings were muddled. Cultural symbols like bell bottom jeans and rubber Richard Nixon masks were still common enough to be lodged in your consciousness, but deeper insights were lacking. By the time you were waking up in the late 1970s, they seemed to be little more than goofs, unmoored from the bloody anti-war protests that divided a nation, or the collapse of a presidency that shook Americans' faith in their government.
Sure, we understood our own moment well enough. Late Cold War and early computers. AIDS and acid rain. Crack cocaine and homelessness. But the gravitas that had conceived us was by then little more than parody and catharsis. Black Power surrendered to Blacksploitation. Protest songs gave way to disco and synth pop. Vietnam was reduced to Rambo.
And if the late 1970s began glossing over so much of what had immediately preceded it, then the 1980s buffed it into a smooth, porcelain sheen. In pop culture representations of the 1960s and early 19790s, substance had been overtaken by style. Symbols, absent their meaning, were rendered fashion accessories and punch lines. A case in point was the Confederate flag.
Maybe it was different in the South. It almost certainly was, I suppose, at least to some extent. But growing up in a Jewish-Irish section of the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Confederate flag was little more than a rarely seen piece of kitschy exotica. It was about as common as a Don't Tread On Me Flag in the pre-Tea Party era, and seemed to carry about as much meaning, which was almost none. It came across as gaudy and irrelevant, a relic of some bygone era.
If the Stars and Bars, which looked like the redheaded stepchild of Old Glory and the Union Jack, was to be taken seriously at all, it was only as a token of the losing side in the Civil War more than a hundred years earlier. But beyond that, on the rare instances the banner caught your glance, it was merely cartoonish.
The Confederate flag was something you associated with Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was painted on the side of a hot rod in the bubble gum TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. For a teenager in the Bronx in the 1980s, if the Confederate flag signified anything at all, it was drunk people in cutoffs.
Which is all just a long winded, and perhaps self-rationalizing explanation of why I bought one at a tourist trap in 1985.
Our senior year of high school, three friends and I piled into a small, brown Toyota Corolla and drove from the Bronx to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Only two of us knew how to drive a stick. Only one of us had a license.
Our parents were a bit tentative about the whole thing, but when we rotated a smattering of well timed lies among them to tweak the details, they all signed off.
My dad took me down to the bank, got me some traveler's checks, and instructed me to find a good hiding spot in the hotel room for my cash; I elected to stash it above a drop ceiling tile. Another dad, a thickly accented German Jewish immigrant, urged us to be safe and responsible, passing his son a string of condoms through the car window just before we hit the road.
It was a different time.
Our parents had suggested we stop in North Carolina the first night, as it was about halfway and they didn't want us driving tired. But we were young and full of steam, and we plowed on. Late that first afternoon, we crossed the North Carolina-South Carolina state line and pulled into a tourist trap whose billboards we'd been mocking for miles. It's called South of the Border.
For those unfamiliar with the I-95 jaunt down the East Coast, South of the Border is a massive, Mexican-themed rest stop that's been around since the 1950s. It's also got a lot of Southern tchotchkes, and it was there that, on a lark, I purchased a polyester Confederate flag for a couple of bucks.
I thought Daisy Duke was hot. I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and a few other bands of that ilk. I stuffed the flag into my bag, we crowded back into the Corolla, and continued embarking on our comically misguided adventure.
As the years went by, my flag languished. To be perfectly honest, I have almost no recollection of what I did with it over the next decade. I assume I hung it on various walls and draped it over random objects. But then again, it may very well have remained stuffed in the corners of closets much of the time. It made virtually no long term impression on my life. Rather, the object remained true to its origins: another meaningless piece of crap picked up at a tourist trap while on vacation. The very first, in fact, that I could ever lay claim to, and I quickly learned the lesson: Don't bother.
By the late 1990s, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, earning a Ph.D. in history. I had my own place, a spacious 1 BR with beautiful wooden floors, a living room and a dining room, faux Dutch molding on the ceiling, and both a front and back porch.
The back porch was really more of a mud room off the kitchen and it led out the back door. The front porch, however, was reasonably large and screened in. Being the bearded heathen I was, I squandered this pleasant space, using it to stow random crap and to house the litter box for my two cats. Since the screened porch was perpetually ventilated, I allowed myself to change the litter far less often than I should have.
One day, while scooping the poop, I noticed the old Confederate flag, crumpled in the corner and enmeshed in cat hair. I picked it up. It stank. Perhaps the porch wasn't ventilating as well as I'd presumed. Time for this thing to go, I thought. But let's do it in style.
I phoned up my friends and told them I was having a flag burning party. Come on over. We'll drink whiskey (that's about as far as my party planning skills generally take me), and at the stroke of midnight, I'll burn my Confederate flag while playing "Sweet Home Alabama" by Skynyrd.
Now that I was a history graduate student with a better understanding of the past, it seemed like a just ending for this troublesome symbol. It seemed like an appropriate demise for a piece of tourist trap ephemera. It seemed like a good excuse to have a party.
My friends arrived. We drank some whiskey. Mostly we drank cheap beer. And as midnight approached, I placed a Skynyrd album on the turntable and dropped the needle. I went out to the front porch, stood beside the litter box, held the Stars and Bars aloft, and flicked open my zippo.
The song had barely gotten underway before it was all over. I didn't stop to consider that polyester is, after all, that most petroleum based of all our beloved synthetic fibers. Nor that cat hair, of which there was a considerable coating, is also quite flammable.
When you think of a flag burning, you probably envision some angry protestor waving the flaming banner over and over in a display of fierce and dangerous recalcitrance. This, however, turned out to be more like Wile E. Coyote getting burnt to a crisp in no time flat.
It was all a bit anti-climactic. The song still had quite a ways to go. I went back inside, lifted the tone arm prematurely, and popped a tape in the cassette deck. Time to move on, lest the party end as quickly as the flag had.
The ashes remained on the front porch, amid the clutter and litter, until I finally cleaned up the apartment on my way out in 2000.
Symbols, of course, can mean many things to many people. Such is the very nature of symbols. And when those symbolic meanings clash, negotiation is sometimes in order.
In 1995, just before moving to Nebraska, I was best man at a Hindu wedding. Learning that I was half-Jewish, the groom's side assured me they would cover up the Hindu swastika that is used in one of the rituals. Hearing of this, I sent word that I understood the Nazis had misappropriated this ancient symbol from India, and that I would not be offended in the least by its presence. They covered it anyway, out of respect for me.
Shortly thereafter, while studying American Indian history, I learned that the swastika pattern appears in numerous cultural displays across Indigenous North America. In fact, it was so common in Dene (Navajo) woolen tapestries, that during World War II, the United States made them disown it.
However, the various symbolisms of the Confederate flag are not nearly as far flung as the global reach of the swastika. It's pretty much just an America thing, and the palette of meaning is much more limited.
It was the emblem of the rebellious Confederacy during the Civil War. Afterwards, it slowly faded from view, particularly outside the South, remaining in American memory with pretty much just that one meaning. Then, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists proudly resuscitated the Stars and Bars. It became ubiquitous in the South again, re-emerging as the symbol of modern racism.
Instead of just representing the Civil War of the 1860s, the Confederate flag was now waved to assert "states rights," a common and flimsy excuse for maintaining legalized segregation. And in this effort, the flag once again represented a failed cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South and in those parts of the West where it was also on the books.
After the Civil Rights movement asserted itself during the 1960s, and the bloody battle over Jim Crow ended, the Confederate flag's symbolic meaning was finally able to become a bit fuzzier. It could represent the Civil War. It could represent a modern white supremacy. Or it could, more innocuously, represent a somewhat generic pride in the South's rich heritage, culture, and traditions.
And of course, as the number of symbolic meanings grew, meaning itself could melt away into the vagaries of fashion and pop culture. It was in this sense that the Confederate flag often got waved at rock concerts, or painted onto the side of a car in a TV show, or purchased at a tourist trap during a truly epic and ill-advised Spring Break fiasco.
Consequently, there is a temptation to say we must emphasize the context. Just as there was no need for that Hindu family to cover up their swastika in my presence, and just as it was wrong for the federal government to strong arm Denes into disowning the swastika, isn't it also wrong for us to now demand that the Confederate flag be erased from official display in the South Carolina state house?
It is not wrong for us to demand that, in light of a Confederate flag-loving racist slaughtering black churchgoers in South Carolina, that the state of South Carolina finally remove this longstanding emblem of racial hatred and repression from its official public display.
For starters, the Stars and Bars is not some ancient symbol cris-crossing world cultures ranging from the Indigenous Americas to India. Rather, it is a uniquely American product, barely 150 years in age.
Second, while we can talk about fuzziness and innocuousness all we want, the simple fact is, the Confederate flag had only one real meaning for about a century. It was the calling card of the Confederate States of America: a would be nation state born from the Southern elite's desperate effort to retain slavery, and the destruction of which is the only reason the United States completely abolished slavery in 1865.
Furthermore, the Confederate flag's rebirth in the 1950s and 1960s was most certainly not fuzzy or innocuous. It was part of a segregationist program. It was the logo of racism. The fuzziness and innocuousness only came later, during my own lifetime, and I'm really not that old.
So on the one hand, I don't have anything against the harmless, reasonably innocent, though perhaps mildly misguided individual who sports a Confederate bumper sticker to announce their love of fried food and bent vowels. Many people, both black and white, love the South and, for reasons that actually make a lot of sense to me, would rather live there than in the North or West. The music, the food, the weather, the sweet tea, and most of all, the people.
However, I also understand the history of this very troubled symbol. And over the years, I have also met and talked with a fair number of very serious racists for whom the Confederate flag symbolizes the goal of initiating a RaHoWa (Racial Holy War) that "cleanses" America of blacks and other non-whites.
Furthermore, I also understand that the Confederate flag was originally flown atop the South Carolina statehouse dome only as recently as 1962, and it was not placed there innocuously or in a moment of fuzziness. Rather, the South Carolina state government raised the Confederate flag as a resentful, nasty, stubborn statement in support of American apartheid. And so it never should have gone up to begin with, regardless of the playfulness it represents to some people nowadays. That it has fluttered this long above a government building is both an insult and an embarrassment.
So I'm glad that not only is the state of South Carolina finally debating removing the Confederate flag from its statehouse, but that this movement of questioning the flag and other Confederate memorials has spread into the wider culture and become part of the national debate.
I'm glad that the nation's oldest maker of Confederate flags has announced it will cease production of them.
I'm glad that retailers including Amazon, Ebay, Sears, and even Arkansas' own Wal-Mart, have announced they will no longer sell the Confederate flag.
I'm glad Warner Bros. will no longer sell Dukes of Hazzard toy cars with a Confederate flag emblem.
And I'm glad that I burned my two-bit polyester version many years ago.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
C-print, edition of 7.
American politics as the clash of symbols
by Emrys Westacott
My Facebook profile describes my political views as "very liberal." In the US this is a shorthand way of indicating that I support gay rights, government-run health care, stricter gun laws, abortion rights for women, abolition of the death penalty, reduced military spending, environmental protection, campaign finance reform, the United Nations, Charles Darwin, the Toyota Prius, and higher taxes on people richer than me.
When I get together with other very liberals—which is quite often, since I'm married to one—a favorite topic of lamentation is the blindness of our political opponents. Why don't they get it? Why don't they see that we'd all be better off if we spent more on education and less on weapons systems; that if they really want to see fewer abortions they should support rather than oppose sex education in school and universal healthcare; that violent crime in the US is more likely to be reduced by having stricter gun control laws than by increasing the number of executions.
Our discussions of such matters follow a predictable course. After a round of annoyed tongue clicking, irritation gradually mounts until we reach a crescendo of infuriation and incredulity, from which we subside, with much headshaking, onto the soft but comfortless pillow of our usual answer. Why don't they get it? Because, to quote Samuel Beckett, "people are bloody ignorant apes!"
I believe something like the same kind of incredulity characterizes the view that many Europeans have of American politics. Whether the issue is denial of climate change, teaching creationism, resisting even minimal gun control, or opposing a more efficient health care system, the first impulse is to shake the head and ask, "How stupid can you get?"
As an explanation of why millions of people don't agree with me, the "ignorant ape" hypothesis has the virtue of simplicity. But I can't help feeling that it lacks depth. After all, in other areas of life conservatives aren't any more stupid than me or my fellow VLs. They make perfectly good parents, neighbors, and colleagues. So why do our wonderfully cogent arguments have so little purchase on their thinking?
I believe one key reason is that when it comes to political topics and stances, rational cogency often counts for less than symbolic meaning. In any debate, on any topic, the ideal is for the outcome to be determined entirely by the force of the best evidence and arguments. Indeed, submission to the argument is largely what we mean by scientific or scholarly objectivity. But submission to the argument seems to be less common in politics than in most other spheres. Instead, it is the symbolic significance of a political position that often decides whether a person endorses it or rejects it. This is true in every society; think for, instance, of the headscarf controversy in France. But it is perhaps more true in the US than in most other developed countries because for some reason symbols seem to play a bigger part in American political culture.
· Gun control The symbolic significance of the issue derives from the symbolic meaning of guns. And guns symbolize many things: the frontier; hunting; masculinity; martial values; rough and ready justice; self-sufficiency; the individual versus the state; strength; power; toughness; courage. So stricter gun control laws are seen as assaults on these values along with the traditions and identities steeped in them.
· The death penalty Support for capital punishment expresses and symbolizes a commitment to biblical law, natural justice, traditional justice, individual responsibility, just deserts, tough-mindedness, and clear-cut thinking about morality, crime and punishment.
· Same-sex marriage Opposition to this symbolizes affirmation of heterosexuality, traditional gender roles, the traditional family, tradition in general, old-time religion, the "natural," the "normal," and a moral outlook based on these.
· Immigration A "tough" attitude on immigration (e.g. making the Mexican border more secure, denying illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, requiring police offers to check the status of anyone stopped on suspicion, requiring all transactions with government to be conducted solely in English) symbolizes identification with "true" Americans, distrust of things foreign, and a preference for preserving a white majority in the population as a whole.
· The Keystone XL Pipeline This proposed pipeline would transport oil from the oil sands of Alberta to Steel City, Nebraska. To environmentalists it signifies callous, economically motivated indifference to environmental dangers; to its defenders it symbolizes an affirmation of capitalism, free enterprise, freedom from government interference, and sticking it to the tree huggers. "Drill, baby, drill!" the Republican mantra during the 2008 election, stood for something similar with reference to the idea of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, as well as for the frontier, self-sufficiency, toughness, and (with a nod to Freud) masculinity.
The same sort of symbolic charge electrifies many other issues: abortion; euthanasia; posting the ten commandments in schools or courthouses. And sometimes it is symbols themselves, understood as symbols, that are the subject of controversy. The confederate flag is an obvious example of this that has recently been in the news. Those who favour flying the stars and bars claim it honours the cultural heritage that they identify with as well as their ancestors those who fought bravely under it. Critics see it as a symbol of racism and oppression.
I am not saying for a minute that all these debates are unimportant, or that they are purely symbolic, or that the policies being debated don't materially affect people's lives. Nor am I saying that those committed to one side or the other are insincere. But I do believe that the symbolic dimension of the controversies is the main reason they are so intense and the participants so entrenched. We hold onto symbols like precious objects; and like Gollum's "precious," they come to exercise a hold over us.
In some instances, the essentially symbolic nature of the political stances in question is apparent from the lack of expected consequences that follow from one side or the other winning the day. For example, in New York State, the incumbent governor Mario Cuomo was unseated in 1995 by George Pataki. The death penalty was a major issue in the election: Pataki was for it, Cuomo opposed it. Shortly after his victory, Pataki signed a law permitting capital punishment by lethal injection, following which, between 1995 and 2004, when the New York Court of Appeals declared the law to be in violation of the state constitution, there were exactly zero executions in the state of New York.
Another example of a different sort. Bill Clinton was in favor of abortion being legal and approved of Roe v Wade. George W. Bush opposed legalized abortion and supported the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v Wade. For many anti-abortionists, this was (and still is) a decisive issue. Yet from 1990 to 2000, when Clinton was president, the number of abortions performed each year in the US dropped by over half a million (from1,359,146 to 857,475). Under Bush's presidency, from 2000 to 2008, the number went down by less than 32,000 (from 857,475 to 825,564).
While the issues are diverse, the symbolic meanings of the positions people adopt form overlapping clusters. Because of this we assume that people who agree with us on gun control will also agree with us on capital punishment or affirmative action. If they don't endorse the whole package, so to speak, we often feel that they are betraying the cause.
Obviously, progressive types do not have a monopoly on Reason; they, too, are also often swayed by the symbolic force of political stances. For many environmentalists, nuclear energy symbolizes extreme technological danger, even though it may, in reality, be one of the most feasible ways of greatly reducing energy-related emission of greenhouse gases. Support for affirmative action symbolizes sympathy for the oppressed, commitment to equal opportunity, and recognition of past and present injustice; consequently, many liberals automatically distrust evidence suggesting that affirmative action may not have the effects it is intended to have.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that over the past few decades symbolism has played a greater role on the right than on the left of the American political spectrum. I realize that to some this will sound both arrogant and condescending: we defer to argument and evidence; they are in thrall to the emotional power of symbols. Yet I think it is true. And I think there is a reason for it.
Underlying all these debates is a struggle over which aspects of modernity to embrace and which to resist. The stances taken both symbolize and are informed by sets of values, and on the whole it is liberals who identify more with the characteristic values of modernity such as secularism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and respect for science. These values hail from the Enlightenment, which sought to elevate the use of evidence and argument in reaching one's conclusions over alternative ways of thinking that rely on appeals to scripture, appeals to tradition, and thinking associatively through symbols.
Again, I am not denying for a moment that the issues we debate and the stance we take often have symbolic importance for all participants. But the rationalistic ideal of injecting into politics the sort of respect for evidence and argument that we expect to find in the sciences is a more integral part of the liberal agenda. And that makes a difference.
 Numbers taken from the US government Centers for Disease Control as reported in "Abortion Statistics: United States Data and Trends [http://www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/statsre.jpg]
by Brooks Riley
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Jurassic World and the World Wide Web
by Matt McKenna
Welcome, dinosaurs, to the pantheon of horror film monsters including zombies, sharks, and aliens that have been subjected to the sci-fi trope of genetic-engineering-gone-too-far. To be fair, it's hard to blame directors of horror sequels for invoking this narrative cliché--how else are they expected to make their follow-up films interesting? Must they be forced to produce another movie in which the exact same monster plunks around and kills yet more people in precisely the same fashion as it did in the original? Of course not. Sequels have to be spiced up somehow, and the best way to do that is to make the scary monster scarier. And to make a scary monster scarier, a director has but two options: either add more scary monsters (e.g. there is one alien in Alien, but there are many aliens in its sequel) or dial up the intelligence of the scary monster (e.g. the shark is a simple killing machine in Jaws, but it becomes emotionally complex and vindictive by Jaws IV). Genetic engineering comes in as the convenient means by which one of these methods is enacted. It was therefore only a matter of time before Hollywood created a blockbuster film about scientists creating a gifted and talented dinosaur rampaging about eating people. Jurassic World is that film, it's not bad, and it's also a strikingly good metaphor for the current state of the World Wide Web.
In Jurassic World, the dinosaur-filled theme park of the first film in the franchise has reopened after having miraculously recovered from the disaster that occurred decades prior. To no one's surprise, history repeats itself when a dinosaur escapes and eats a slew of park guests. However, this escaped dinosaur isn't just any old dinosaur--it's a genetically modified ultra-huge and hyper-smart murder monster. As expected, the second and third act of the movie consists mainly of the human characters yelling "run" and "go" and really just a lot of yelling in general as CG dinosaurs wriggle around and eat things.
The most straightforward take on this film is the meta reading where we are invited ponder how very much like the genetically engineered dinosaur Jurassic World is itself. As the reading goes, just as we the audience demand scarier monsters in our sequels, so too do the characters of Jurassic World demand scarier dinosaurs in their fictional theme park. Hence the park's shareholders hire scientists to build these genetically engineered monsters to wow their fickle audience. But this reading of the film comes up short because these new, synthetic dinosaurs haven't really changed all that much from their (relatively) "organic" predecessors. Sure, Jurassic World's genetically-modified Indominus Rex is beefy and apt, but the whole shtick of the original Jurassic Park was that park's caretakers underestimated the dinosaurs' intelligence, which led to their escape, their eating of everybody, etc. That hasn't changed in the new film: the caretakers still underestimate the intelligence of their dinosaurs, and that is still why they escape, eat everybody, etc. Frankly, it doesn't matter which film we're talking about; in both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, if a dinosaur is after you, it will probably outwit and eat you. In other words, the difference between a dinosaur in Jurassic Park and a dinosaur in Jurassic World is mostly meaningless like the difference between infinity and infinity plus one.
I therefore think it's safe to chuck the Jurassic World-is-self-referentially-commenting-on-the-state-of-blockbuster-movies interpretation. To see what the film is really about, we must first uncover the biggest difference between the first film in the Jurassic Park franchise and the most recent one, which ends up being fairly obvious once you are able to peel your focus away from the dinosaurs. The biggest difference between Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is not the size of the dinosaurs in the park but rather the size of the crowd of visitors in the park. One only need look at each film's body count to get an idea of the difference in the volume of humanity inside the park: only five human characters are killed in the first Jurassic Park since there are only a handful of visitors on the island available to be eaten. By contrast, in Jurassic World, countless unnamed characters are bitten, stomped, devoured, and dropped from immense heights, which makes sense because we're told that the park runs through 20,000 visitors a day.
Here comes the analogy: the growth in Jurassic World's theme park population is a reflection of the growth of the World Wide Web's population. When the first film was released in 1993 there were only 14 million Internet users. Today in 2015 there are nearly 3 billion Internet users. With both Jurassic World and the Web, this larger crowd has made for a less interesting virtual environment. Indeed, the fun of the original Jurassic Park was that the dinosaurs on this island existed merely as a proof-of-concept, an experiment rather than a bustling zoo. When the protagonists of the first film visit the park, it is nearly devoid of humans while being utterly full of potential. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are impressive, sure, but the absence of humanity on the island is what makes the park wonderful and terrifying since the audience is left to speculate as to what monsters may be waiting behind the next fern. In Jurassic World, the park has been populated with humans, its scares have been literally mapped out on kiosks, and the audience isn't invited to speculate as to what may be waiting behind the next fern since we're explicitly told--it's genetically modified dinosaurs--surprise! Admittedly, knowing there's a genetically engineered monster lurking somewhere on the island is a scary concept, but it's not nearly as scary as not knowing what's on the island at all.
The Internet has had a similar trajectory. In the 1990s, techno-optimists thought the Web would upend modern life. Innovation made possible because of the Web would ensure perpetual economic prosperity, an individual's freedom would increase as they gained greater access to information, and traditional hierarchical organizational structures would dissolve in favor of distributed systems that mimicked the distributed systems of the Internet itself. The optimism directed towards the 90s-era Internet mirror the terror derived from the original Jurassic Park. The glory of both the 90s-era Internet and 1993's Jurassic Park were in the potential for what may unfold in the future. But now in the post-dot-com bust days, the paragon of Internet success is Uber, an cab service valued at over $40 billion dollars. Other hot tech startups include a hoard of food delivery companies and services that promise to provide faster shipping. Turns out, the modern Internet is less useful for fomenting revolutions and more useful for providing driving logistics and ordering take-out food, which is almost as underwhelming as the park in Jurassic World being filled with slightly bigger dinosaurs from the ones we saw on screen twenty years ago.
I admit Jurassic World isn't a bad film, and the modern Internet isn't completely frivolous. However, it's hard to shake the feeling that Jurassic World didn't (and probably could never) live up to the terror created by the original's limited scope. Similarly, the modern Internet didn't (and probably could never) live up to the lofty aspirations set upon it by its more fervent 90s-era supporters. Both the Jurassic Park franchise and the Internet took the next logical evolutionary step in expanding their reach from the small cadre of privileged visitors/users to the masses, and the result is we learned that our 90s-era optimism might have been a tad unfounded. And just as our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with the blathering of people we don't care about, so too is Jurassic World filled with the howling screams of devoured extras we don't care about either.
Santa Maria della Scala
by Sue Hubbard
It’s Easter and the museum is empty. Nothing but relics
and saints’ bones – a thumb, a foreskin – it’s impossible to tell,
in their ornate reliquaries, what things are – and holy of holies,
a sacred nail. There’s also a gilded gospel from Constantinople
enamelled in cobalt blue. Tiny Byzantine figures: cobblers,
farriers, bakers and monks stuck forever In the 11th century.
Once this maze of crypts housed weary pilgrims and the sick.
Wet nurses suckled abandoned infants for a fee.
Sorore, the shoemaker-founder, so my guidebook tells me,
died back in 898. Being here, certainly, gives you time
to contemplate the brevity of it all. To wonder where
this strip of cloth, a fragment of the Virgin’s belt, has been
these many years, and whether all truth contains
a contradiction – so even though I know there’s
no heaven, if I stand here long enough,
I’ll, maybe, learn the art of prayer.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Motion Picture Genocide by Robert Banks
BRUCE CHECEFSKY // WITCH'S CRADLE
miriam schapiro (1923 - 2015)
An End to the Blackmail
Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Jacobin:
After five months of hard bargaining, our partners, unfortunately, issued at the Eurogroup the day before yesterday an ultimatum to Greek democracy and to the Greek people. An ultimatum that is contrary to the founding principles and values of Europe, the values of our common European project.
They asked the Greek government to accept a proposal that accumulates a new unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.
The proposal of institutions includes: measures leading to further deregulation of the labor market, pension cuts, further reductions in public sector wages and an increase in VAT on food, dining and tourism, while eliminating tax breaks for the Greek islands.
These proposals directly violate the European social and fundamental rights: they show that concerning work, equality and dignity, the aim of some of the partners and institutions is not a viable and beneficial agreement for all parties but the humiliation the entire Greek people.
These proposals mainly highlight the insistence of the IMF in the harsh and punitive austerity and make more timely than ever the need for the leading European powers to seize the opportunity and take initiatives which will finally bring to a definitive end the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a crisis affecting other European countries and threatening the very future of European integration.
Fellow Greeks, right now weighs on our shoulders the historic responsibility towards the struggles and sacrifices of the Greek people for the consolidation of democracy and national sovereignty. Our responsibility for the future of our country.
And this responsibility requires us to answer the ultimatum on the basis of the sovereign will of the Greek people.
A short while ago at the cabinet meeting I suggested the organization of a referendum, so that the Greek people are able to decide in a sovereign way. The suggestion was unanimously accepted.
Tomorrow the House of Representatives will be urgently convened to ratify the proposal of the cabinet for a referendum next Sunday, July 5 on the question of the acceptance or the rejection of the proposal of institutions.
I have already informed about my decision the president of France and the chancellor of Germany, the president of the ECB, and tomorrow my letter will formally ask the EU leaders and institutions to extend for a few days the current program in order for the Greek people to decide, free from any pressure and blackmail, as required by the constitution of our country and the democratic tradition of Europe.
Humanist among machines
Ian Beacock in Aeon (Photo by Marvin Lichtner/Getty):
He was an expert in world civilisations who made the cover of Time magazine in 1947, praised for writing ‘the most provocative work of historical theory… since Karl Marx’s Capital’. But in September 1921, long before he was the most famous historian in the world, a young Englishman named Arnold Toynbee boarded the Orient Express in Constantinople, bound for London. Fresh from a nine-month posting as a war correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, Toynbee scribbled down reflections about the shadow side of progress in his notebook, while the Balkans passed silently outside his window. Modern technology had changed the world for the better, he observed, but it could also wreak great havoc; there was always the risk that ‘the machine may run away with the pilot’. Human mastery of nature came at a price: in 1921, Europe’s battlefields were still cooling from the heat of industrial warfare and the blood of millions dead. They whispered the terms of this Faustian bargain to anyone who would listen. In the roaring 1920s, not many people were listening.
Europeans wanted better lives and they were certain that scientific progress would provide them. After the devastation of the Great War, rationalisation ruled from London to Moscow: empirical methods and new technologies were adopted to streamline everything from cityscapes to national populations, intellectual work to household chores. Many administrators and activists believed that there was no problem (material, institutional or social) that couldn’t be engineered away.
Sound familiar? Our times are confident, too. We’re optimistic that scientific thinking can explain the world, certain that the solutions to most of our problems are a quick technological fix away. We’ve begun to treat vexing social and political dilemmas as simple design flaws, mistakes to be rectified through a technocratic combination of data science and gadgetry. Progress is no longer a dirty word. The most influential prophets of this creed are in Silicon Valley in California, where, to the tune of billions of dollars, the tech industry tells a Whiggish tale about the digital ascent of humanity: from our benighted times, we’ll emerge into a brighter future, a happier and more open society in which everything has been measured and engineered into a state of perfect efficiency.
And we’re buying it.
The Man At the Gate
Virginia Woolf in Berfrois:
The man was Coleridge as De Quincey saw him, standing in a gateway. For it is vain to put the single word Coleridge at the head of a page — Coleridge the innumerable, the mutable, the atmospheric; Coleridge who is part of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley; of his age and of our own; Coleridge whose written words fill hundreds of pages and overflow innumerable margins; whose spoken words still reverberate, so that as we enter his radius he seems not a man, but a swarm, a cloud, a buzz of words, darting this way and that, clustering, quivering and hanging suspended. So little of this can be caught in any reader’s net that it is well before we become dazed in the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge to have a clear picture before us — the picture of a man standing at a gate:
. . . his person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence, his complexion was fair . . . his eyes were large and soft in their expression; and it was from the peculiar appearance of haze or dreaminess which mixed with their light, that I recognized my object.
That was in 1807. Coleridge was already incapable of movement. The Kendal black drop had robbed him of his will. “You bid me rouse myself — go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together.” The arms already hung flabby at his side; he was powerless to raise them. But the disease which paralysed his will left his mind unfettered. In proportion as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned. To confess, to analyse, to describe was the only alleviation of his appalling torture — the prisoner’s only means of escape.
Thus there shapes itself in the volumes of Coleridge’s letters an immense mass of quivering matter, as if the swarm had attached itself to a bough and hung there pendent. Sentences roll like drops down a pane, drop collecting drop, but when they reach the bottom, the pane is smeared.
The Little Vagabond
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We'd sing and we'd pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,
Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.
And God like a father rejoicing to see,
His children as pleasant and happy as he:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.
by William Blake (1757-1827)
from Songs of Innocence and Experience
Dover Thrift Editions
The Mystery of Marriage
Alice Gregory in The Atlantic:
My husband and I got married last fall because we wanted to have a party. I doubt our friends, our family, or anybody else we know would have been surprised if we’d never done it at all: if we had continued living together, loving each other, one day having children, all without exchanging rings. The wedding was ideal—great cake, accessible by subway—but our life didn’t change after it was over. It never occurred to us that I would take his name; I didn’t want to (and didn’t) get pregnant. We live in the same small Brooklyn apartment we’d lived in before, and our finances are still only haphazardly half-combined. We weren’t expecting that our affection would either grow or diminish, and it hasn’t. Getting married wasn’t a romantic leap; neither was it merely, or even mostly, a pragmatic step. Whatever it was—delightfully unnecessary wrapping on an already very good present, perhaps—we made sure that there was more than plenty to drink. We represent the demographic (white, heterosexual, college-educated) that looked poised to lead an exodus from marriage and its fusty shackles as the family-values debate raged. But now, when data suggest that fewer Americans—across the income spectrum—are getting married than ever before, our cohort is playing the opposite role. We are the group most likely to wed, as marriage rates among lower-income men and women without college degrees rapidly decline. We’re also among those who count least on the symbolic and actual benefits of the institution: my husband and I aren’t battling for social validation of our love or for the conditions of middle-class stability.
...Arriving not just at the peak of wedding season but also amid this newly vocal worry over the marriage gap, The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales From Adam and Eve to Zoloft is an especially well-timed counterpoint to all the earnest, alarmist policy talk. Scaled for an oversize Restoration Hardware coffee table, the glossy anthology presumes to be preaching to a converted, yet far from reverent, audience: readers ready to examine, from an amused anthropological distance, the best, worst, and most equivocal aspects of marriage. The book’s editors, the long-wedded writers Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, aren’t wringing their hands over a cultural crisis or a precarious social rite, or trying to hammer out a marriage-promotion agenda. Rather, their trove of artifacts, collected over six years, is a revelation of the resilience, persistence, and capaciousness of, to quote Gabriel García Márquez, “the conjugal conspiracy.”
Can an Algorithm Hire Better Than a Human?
Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times:
Hiring and recruiting might seem like some of the least likely jobs to be automated. The whole process seems to need human skills that computers lack, like making conversation and reading social cues. But people have biases and predilections. They make hiring decisions, often unconsciously, based on similarities that have nothing to do with the job requirements — like whether an applicant has a friend in common, went to the same school or likes the same sports. That is one reason researchers say traditional job searches are broken. The question is how to make them better. A new wave of start-ups — including Gild, Entelo, Textio, Doxa and GapJumpers — is trying various ways to automate hiring. They say that software can do the job more effectively and efficiently than people can. Many people are beginning to buy into the idea. Established headhunting firms like Korn Ferry are incorporating algorithms into their work, too.
If they succeed, they say, hiring could become faster and less expensive, and their data could lead recruiters to more highly skilled people who are better matches for their companies. Another potential result: a more diverse workplace. The software relies on data to surface candidates from a wide variety of places and match their skills to the job requirements, free of human biases. “Every company vets its own way, by schools or companies on résumés,” said Sheeroy Desai, co-founder and chief executive of Gild, which makes software for the entire hiring process. “It can be predictive, but the problem is it is biased. They’re dismissing tons and tons of qualified people.”
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Decoding the Remarkable Algorithms of Ants
Emily Singer interviews Deborah Gordon in Quanta:
You called the harvester ant algorithm the “anternet.” Why?
I worked with Balaji Prabhakar, a colleague at Stanford, to figure out the algorithm that the harvester ants are using to regulate foraging. He pointed out that the algorithm is similar to the Transmission Control Protocol, which regulates data traffic on the Internet to make sure that data don’t go out unless there’s enough bandwidth. Both systems use simple, local feedback to regulate activity. I think we might be able to find other algorithms that ants use to solve engineering problems that we haven’t thought of yet. I am interested in the idea that evolution might produce different algorithms in different systems to solve the same problems.
But for evolution to produce algorithms that help the colony, evolution must work at the level of groups, not just individuals.
From the perspective of evolution, the colony is really the individual, because it is the colony that reproduces. Ants don’t make more ants, colonies make more colonies. So if we think about how ant behavior evolves, we have to look at colonies.
How do decisions made by individual ants alter the behavior of the colony as a whole?
In the desert, water is an important constraint. Ants lose water just being outside and meandering around. But they get their water from the seeds they eat, so they have to spend water to get water. No individual ant is making the decision to save water and stay home. But small differences in how ants respond to interactions can add up to big differences in how colonies forage, which in turn affects how many offspring colonies have. We found that natural selection favors the colonies that conserve water. I call it “the rewards of restraint.” I think this is the first study that’s been able to track the evolution of collective behavior in a natural population of animals. A simple, local behavior — how ants respond when one meets another — is being selected for because of the outcome for the whole colony.