Monday, December 09, 2013
Haji Habib-ur-Rehman, or Haji Sahib, who has been painting trucks, vehicles, and crafts since 1955, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
"They are everywhere. Those heavy-set Gods of the highway, those mammoth trucks in their entire jazzy splendor. The swirls, the motifs, the colours, the patterns, the tigers, the peacocks, the parrots, the lions, and the roses, the thick lashes on singular eyes, the lips, and (at times) the face of a politician, a star, thrown in for good measure ..." from Allah Rung Laave by Sonia Rehman.
Thanks to Nighat Mir.
Personal narrative on a journey to find the confluence of the Chicago River and the North Shore Channel
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I walked, without having given it very much forethought, nor having fortified myself with breakfast, nor even with sufficient tea, a distance of about 7 miles from my home to discover the confluence of the North Shore Channel and the Chicago River. The digging of the former waterway was completed in 1909 in order to bear the sewage from Chicago’s prosperous North Shore communities away from Lake Michigan and into the Chicago River. By that time the Chicago River was itself a marvel of engineering, its flow having been reversed so that all soluble, floatable and mobile waste ran west into the Mississippi watershed rather than into the lake.
Breakfastlessly I walked alongside this water, keeping the channel to my left for the first few miles then crossing over into the parks to the east of the channel. In many places buckthorn, a dominant invasive species in the Midwest, and by some accounts the most common woody plant in Chicago, is so dense that I only rarely saw water. At its densest the soil under these plants is litter-less and rivulets have rent passageways through the channel bank.
Although it was past 10 AM when I walked under the bridge on Lincoln avenue, a homeless man swiveled in his sleeping bag, his head almost fully submerged, trying, on that cold morning, to stay aslumber. His radio played a Christmas carol on low; a paperback best seller peeped out from one of his bags. A little further along a woman behind me asked if I had enough food to keep me going. I turned but she was talking to another homeless fellow so on I walked.
I had not checked on a map where the confluence occurred, nor did I have a phone that I could consult. I knew that it could not be too far since I had kayaked the Chicago River north of Addison, though that spot was still a few miles to my south. As I walked through a park near Foster Avenue, the Canada geese glanced up from their listless grazing, and I finally spotted the fork where the two waters co-mingle. I could not, however, get close as I was separated from the water by a chain link fence and by phalanxes of those invasive shrubs. I leaned there for a moment against a spindly hackberry.
A Great Blue Heron flapped down to the water’s edge. A little further along I crossed the bridge on Argyle and walked down to the water. I stood there for a while, and listened to some raucous mallards and looked across what I have been told is the only waterfall within Chicago city limits. The waterfall is concreted heavily and thus the Chicago River, which played no small part in making Chicago the city it is today, spills noiselessly and not especially beautifully into a combined channel with the discharge from the former open sewer. A family sets up deck chairs on the pavement on the opposite bank. Supposedly the fishing here is good. Other Chicagoans meandered by as if nothing was happening at all.
Though my achievements were perhaps of a more modest sort, the great German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt could not have been happier as he mapped the Orinoco basin, than I was at my seeing those waters run together. Mine was not a vast expedition, and my sacrifices were few. But whether I had been the first, or the millionth to see that sight, I had, nonetheless, discovered the meeting of the waters by dint of my own physical effort, and in the process had learned some small things about the workings of the world: spatial relationships between my home and those parks I know less well, their bridges and the streets that surround them. I learned of the tough wintering habits of some homeless people and those who will give them the time of day. I observed the ubiquity of riparian plants and what they can do to soil. I noticed the ways of ice on water, and the twinning of water and birds. And on the walk that returned me to my hearth, I learned about the limits of my own body, as I walked cold, cold streets for mile after urban mile.
This was part of an essay I first read at the Philosophy of the City conference held at Brooklyn College Dec 5th - 7th 2013. My thanks to the organizers Michael Menser and Shane Epting for such a stimulating event.
Google Zeitgeist: Annoying Philosophers, Weird Germans and White Pakistanis
by Jalees Rehman
The Autocomplete function of Google Search is both annoying and fascinating. When you start typing in the first letters or words of your search into the Google search box, Autocomplete takes a guess at what you are looking for and "completes" the search phrase by offering you multiple query phrases. The queries offered by Autocomplete are "a reflection of the search activity of users and the content of web pages indexed by Google". Considering the fact that more than five billion Google searches are conducted on an average day, the Google Autocomplete function has a huge database of search information that it can reference. This also means that the Autocomplete suggestions are quite dynamic and can vary over time. A popular new song lyric, the name of a viral video or a recent movie quote can catapult itself to the top of the Autocomplete suggestion list within a matter of hours or days if millions of users start search for that specific phrase. Autocomplete may also take a user's browsing history or location into account, which explains why it may offer a varying set of suggestions to different users.
Autocomplete can be quite annoying because the suggested lists of queries are based on their web popularity and can thus consist of bizarre combinations which are not at all related to one's intended searches. On the other hand, Autocomplete is also a fascinating tool to provide a window into the Zeitgeist of web users, revealing what kinds of phrases are most commonly used on the web, and by inference, what contemporary ideas are currently associated with the entered keywords. The Google Zeitgeist website reveals the most widely searched terms to help identify cultural trends - based on the frequency of Google search engine queries - during any given year.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) recently used the Google Search Autocomplete function in an ad campaign to highlight the extent of misogyny on the web. Searching for "women should…" or "women need to…" was autocompleted to phrases such as "women should be slaves" or "women need to be put in their place". The fact that Autocomplete suggested these phrases means that probably hundreds of thousands of internet users have used these phrases in their search queries or on web pages indexed by Google – a reminder of how much gender injustice still exists in our world.
A recent article in Slate pointed towards another form of bias unveiled by Autocomplete: Occupational prejudice. The search phrase "scientists are…." was autocompleted to suggest that scientists were either liars, liberal or stupid. I tried it out and received similar suggestions by Autocomplete:
I guess we scientists have been upgraded from merely being stupid to being idiots. I was curious whether other professions fare better.
Well, apparently bankers do not.
And doctors are not only as stupid as scientists, they are also overpaid, arrogant and dangerous.
I can understand that doctors are thought to be overpaid, but it is a bit of a surprise that folks on the web think that professors are overpaid, especially considering the fact that many of them have spent a decade or more in postgraduate education before they become professors and still earn far less than non-academic colleagues in the private industry.
Philosophers, on the other hand, are not perceived as being stupid by the Google Zeitgeist. They are wise and annoying with a tinge of depression.
The next time you contact your editors, please remember that they are people, too.
The fact that Autocomplete suggests these phrases means that they are frequently used in searches and web pages but there is no way to know who is using them and what the intent is behind their usage.
What does the Google Zeitgeist tell us about people of different nationalities?
Germans are not seen in a very positive light, but the prejudices regarding Germans being rude, cold and weird should not come as a surprise to anyone who watches Hollywood movies which love to propagate such clichés.
Interestingly, search queries suggest that both Americans and Germans may come across as weird and rude.
Maybe the web collective feels that members of all nationalities are weird and rude – even the Canadians, who are also known to be nice even though they are afraid of the dark.
When I queried the characteristics of Pakistanis with the "Pakistanis are…." Phrase, I was surprised by the fact that Autocomplete offered very different suggestions than those for Germans and North Americans. The latter were being described by adjectives such as rude, weird, nice or cold – but when it came to Pakistanis, the search queries instead focused on their ethnic identity.
Are Pakistanis white or not white? Are they mostly Indians or do they have Arab origins? The odd thing is that I have conversations around these questions with many Pakistanis, who often try to convince me that they indeed have "white" roots. Some Pakistanis I know – especially those who are proud of their fair skin color - frequently mention their possible Greek origins (dating back to the times of Alexander the Great and his invasion of the Indian subcontinent) conquests, others emphasize the fact that the people who currently reside in Pakistan may have had Arab forefathers when the Arabs invaded the Indian subcontinent. On the other hand, I also know plenty of Pakistanis who see themselves as people with a primarily Indian heritage. The fact that this is a hotly debated topic among Pakistanis suggests that maybe the internet queries suggested by Autocomplete were in fact based on queries or web pages of Pakistanis who are interested in discussing this topic.
When it comes to Arabs, their ethnic identity is also apparently a popular topic in internet queries, and again my personal interactions with American Arabs mirror the Autocomplete suggestions. I have often heard American Arabs mention that they feel they ought to be accepted as part the American "white" population ("Hello – I just received a phone call, Dr. Frantz Fanon is on hold for you on line 1).
I first thought that perhaps the desire to identify oneself with being "white" was a remnant of one's colonial past, but my search for "Nigerians are…" did not support this hypothesis.
The Web seems to hold extremely positive views of Nigerians – smart, intelligent and educated.
Moving beyond searches for nationalities, what characteristics do web users associate with members of other groups?
Well, religions do not fare well.
Christianity and Islam are seen as evil, full of falsehood and (oddly enough) may not even be religions.
In contrast, atheism is not labeled as evil. The suggested queries instead revolve around the question of whether or not atheism is a religion.
How about a cultural ideology?
Ok, Google Zeitgeist tells us that postmodernism is BS and dead.
The human emotion of Schadenfreude, on the other hand, is very much alive.
Autocomplete is not only a tool to identify biases and phrases used on the web; it has also become an inspiration for poets. The Google Poetics blog is run by Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo and collects Google poems, recognizing that Autocomplete suggestions sometimes contain a Dadaist beauty and are in essence prose poems. Inspired by their collection of Google poems, I sometimes enter words or verses from famous poems to generate Autocomplete's mutant versions of those famous verses:
Here is a Google Autocomplete poem based on "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas:
Do not go
do not go where the path may lead
do not go gentle poem
do not go my love
Do not go beyond what is written
And one based on the line "Let us go then, you and I" from T.S. Eliot's ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
let us entertain you
let us entertain you gift cards
let us play with your look
let us go then you and i
I would like to now close with a final ode to Google:
google is evil
google is god
google is your friend
google is down
Madiba, Mahatma and the Limits of Nonviolence
"And if you can't bear the thought of messing up
your nice, clean soul, you'd better give up the
whole idea of life, and become a saint."
~ John Osborne, "Look Back in Anger"
As the paeans for Nelson Mandela rolled in last week, observers might have been forgiven for thinking that it was not a single human being had passed, but rather an astonishing confabulation of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The narrative can be encapsulated thusly: a despicable regime unjustly imprisons a passionate activist for 27 years, who upon his release goes on to lead his nation into peaceful democracy and becomes an avuncular elder statesman, unconditionally loved and respected by all. But this narrative tells us little about who Mandela actually was, and why he acted in the world in the way he did. A brief examination of Mandela's involvement in the ending of non-violence and the initiation of armed struggle in the early 1960s serves to illustrate some of this nuance.
The perpetuation of the saccharine narrative is enabled by, among other things, the cherry-picking of Mandela's own words. One endlessly quoted passage has been the end of Mandela's opening statement at the start of his trial on charges of sabotage, at the Supreme Court of South Africa, on April 20th, 1964:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
This is stirring stuff, and worthy of being engraved into the marble of a monument, but only if you bother to read the preceding 10,000 words. In a far-reaching statement notable for its pellucidity, Mandela lays out the circumstances and philosophy that resulted in armed struggle against the regime.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto [we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC]. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
Without this context, Mandela's lofty concluding paragraph is as cheap as a Hallmark card. It's now clear to the reader exactly the lengths to which Mandela would be willing to go to die for his beliefs – not as a lamb to slaughter, but as a fiery revolutionary. It is difficult to conceive of Gandhi initiating such actions. But why was Mandela prepared at that point to resort to violence?
I am not gratuitously bringing up Gandhi's name. His example is especially instructive, since he lived in South Africa for 21 years, and it was in the course of resistance to discrimination against the Hindu, Muslim and Chinese minorities in that country that he first formulated the idea of satyagraha and non-violent resistance that would prove to be so effective, decades later, in India. And yet, as an exclusive strategy, non-violence failed in South Africa, or at least was found to be ineffective enough that, 50 years after Gandhi's initial experience, ANC leaders like Mandela were forced to conclude that armed resistance was in fact appropriate and necessary.
So why did Gandhi's strategy of nonviolence succeed in India but not in South Africa? In hindsight, we tend to see effective strategies of resistance as almost inevitable, partly thanks to their ennobling nature, but also as a result of the absence of any historical counterfactual. Hannah Arendt, who knew a thing or two about power, wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1969:
In a head-on clash between violence and power the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi's enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization but massacre and submission.
The thought experiment comes across as a bit clumsy – for example, this does not explain why nonviolence was successful in India – but the point is that context matters. In terms of South Africa, we know that the regime had only become more recalcitrant since Gandhi's efforts, which ended with his departure in 1914. There were many differences between it and the Raj, not least of which was the obvious fact that the South African regime was not colonial. South Africa's home population might have felt uneasy about the ongoing tactics, but the consequences of revolution were (at least presented as) nightmarish. Significant profits from resource extraction were also at stake. On the whole, the perception was that, since the whites had nowhere else to go, the screws could only tighten. Throughout the 20th century, virtually until the dissolution of apartheid in the early 1990s, a vast bureaucratic system of control permeated every aspect of South African society and ossified discrimination socially, culturally and spatially, often to absurd effect. (For an excellent perspective on the processes of racial classification, I commend to readers Chapter 6 of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, which delves into a system that at one point saw fit to reclassify one man's race no less than five times).
But it was not the passage of some new law that brought matters to a head. The precipitating event that buried the non-violent approach in South Africa was the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which left 69 dead. It was Sharpeville that catalyzed armed resistance by the ANC, but not in the way that one might think. That is, Sharpeville was not a case of "enough is enough," but at least partially one of internecine institutional struggle. If we take Mandela's words at face value, armed response was formulated as an ANC policy only after it was felt that all other options were exhausted. Certainly, the post-massacre crackdown by the regime saw the banning of political parties resisting the regime. On the other hand, and I believe much more importantly, Mandela undertook this action because he and others had recognized that events had begun outrunning the ANC.
Prior to Sharpeville, the pot had already come to a near boil. The march on the police station there had not been an ANC action, but rather one initiated by the Pan-African Congress, a splinter group that had recently broken off from the ANC. Both the PAC and the ANC had declared campaigns of resistance against the South African pass laws, which controlled people's movement around the country. (Incidentally, these were the same laws that had been the subject of Gandhi's protests, beginning in 1907, but by now were horrifically onerous and brutally enforced). Sharpeville was an action conducted by PAC supporters, and the police overreaction consequently led to the founding of the PAC's armed wing, which went on to target and murder whites as early as 1962.
Given these facts, it is easy to see that the terms of engagement had decisively changed. The PAC and ANC were driven underground, and the PAC had mobilized an armed response to kill whites. This returns us to the discussion of power and violence. At the end of her essay, Arendt writes:
Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals.
Mandela recognized this. The ANC could no longer function as an overt political force. However, it also had to present itself as a more desirable alternative than the PAC. But outrage over Sharpeville set up the distinct danger of all-out black uprising. The ANC had to defuse the situation while continuing to move forward on its goals. It had to remain a relevant force in a landscape that had been altered suddenly and irrevocably. As such, it was decided that the ANC's militant actions would be restricted to sabotage, and under no circumstances would it seek to take lives. By the time of Mandela's arrest, Umkhonto we Sizwe had conducted over 300 operations, almost all of which were against infrastructure and energy installations.
Note that sabotage is precisely what Mandela was charged with in 1964, and that led to his incarceration on Robben Island for the next 27 years. Mandela may have chosen violence, but, in keeping with Arendt's insight, strictly recognized it for its instrumental value, and chose to engage it in the same way that a smoke jumper sets a smaller fire in order to prevent a larger one from advancing. His actions allowed the ANC to remain credible and relevant in the decades that followed – had the conflict continued to degenerate into bloodshed, a full-blown civil war would have been very difficult to prevent.
Could Mandela have exercised a Gandhi-like sense of restraint? It would seem that entities like the PAC were no longer under his control and that the Rubicon had been crossed with the Sharpeville massacre. Historical forces have a way of becoming too overbearing – even Gandhi was powerless in the face of Partition, which he considered his greatest failure. Thus, one of the things that made Mandela the great leader was his ability to maneuver his organization into continuing relevance.
How successful the new ANC policy was in ultimately ending apartheid is an entirely different question, and one that I will leave to the historians. But it does bear mentioning that even this, fairly humane approach to armed struggle, was enough for the United States to declare the ANC a terrorist organization, and, in a somewhat baffling oversight, Mandela himself was not removed from the US terrorist watchlist until 2008, a full 15 years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize and serving as South Africa's first president. As for Gandhi, it is worth mentioning that his ashes were immersed not in the Ganges, as one might think, but in the ocean off the mouth of the Umgeni river, in his beloved South Africa. J.M. Coetzee, in his typically pithy fashion, may as well have been speaking for either when he recently wrote: "he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows."
Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?
by Dwight Furrow
Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.
Conflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.
The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. "Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are," wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a "moral taste" as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This "moral taste" is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.
It is easy to see why food might serve as an anchor for moral identity. We take food into our bodies. It is the source of our energy, a persistent pursuit, the focal point of family life. It hits us where we live. To quote Brillat-Savarin again, "The pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest".
But how important is "mouth taste" to "moral taste". Do particular flavors matter in determining what we commit to and what we reject? After all, it is Italy the Italians love (or more precisely the region of Italy from which they hail). That the combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano happens to be indigenous to Genoa is just an accident of history. If those flavors did not exist, some other flavor profile would serve to anchor Genoan identity. Similarly, the moral commitment to vegetarianism is what matters to the vegetarian. The preference for the flavor of vegetables follows behind, a habit made necessary by that commitment, a dessert to the main moral meal. Ideology trumps flavor, morality trumps aesthetics, or so it would seem. That is the conventional wisdom at any rate.
Social science reinforces this conventional wisdom. Thanks to the influence of Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu, much of social science treats food preferences as markers of identity or signs of social status, a kind of fashion statement that signals to others our commitment to certain values. Eating is not just eating but a form of communication underwritten by the conviction that one's own way of eating is the right way. Haute cuisine is about class distinction, French cuisine about national distinction, food taboos, about contrasts with the Other. The stylish couple at the corner table prefer Grilled Texas Nilgai Antelope--with Caramelized Apricots, Apricot Agri-doux, Glazed Couscous, Ginger Infused Apricot Puree, Asparagus Tips and Red Wine Jus—to a bowl of chili, not because it tastes better, but because it signals their status or aspirations. Compared to "moral taste", "mouth taste" pales in significance, a source of mere subjective enjoyment with no larger meaning, an empty cipher in a game of divide and conquer—at least according to conventional wisdom.
But conventional wisdom, this emphasis on "moral taste" at the expense of "mouth taste," gets the relationship backwards. A significant explanatory hurdle confronts the claim that food preferences are about signaling rather than savoring. Tastes change—rapidly in the modern world. Whatever role "moral tastes" play, they don't supply "mouth tastes" with fixed meanings. It is not obvious how relatively stable moral identities explain rapidly changing, unstable flavor preferences.
For example, what precisely is a vegetarian? A vegetarian is a person who eats no meat. But vegetarianism is in fact more complicated. There are lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, or lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat no meat but will eat milk and/or eggs. Some vegetarians will eat fish or seafood but avoid all other meat, but many people are semi-vegetarians eating dairy products and eggs as well as some chicken and fish but no red meat. Dietary vegans do not eat animals or animal derivatives but may use animals in other commodities. But ethical vegans refuse to use any animal product including dairy products, eggs, honey, wool, leather, cosmetics and in some cases avoid medical procedures that involve animal testing. Is vegetarianism an expression of a coherent moral identity or a loose collection of preferences for certain flavors or textures?
Vegetarianism not only exhibits substantial variation, it is also unstable. According to widely reported research, up to 75% of Americans who try vegetarianism go back to eating meat, and there is some indication that many of them ate some meat even while nominally committed to vegetarianism. Whatever the term "vegetarian" means, it is not a fixed identity. Is morality or aesthetics driving these changes?
The "mouth tastes" that signal national and regional identities are similarly unstable. Today our global fusion cuisines change rapidly, but the culinary world has always been in flux. Corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, chocolate, vanilla and chile peppers were all unknown outside the Americas until the 16th Century. Once transportation technology was sufficient to encourage trading (and plunder), these foods were rapidly incorporated into some traditional European and Asian cuisines. Potatoes are now a central ingredient in Indian cooking, and eggplants and chiles help define Thai and Indian cuisine. Tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are important to all European cuisines, as is rice which was imported by the Moorish Arabs when they inhabited Southern Spain. It is hard to imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but they did not appear in Neapolitan cookbooks until 1692.
We often think of French cuisine as a kind of cooking that powerfully reflects regional and local identities, and indeed French provincial cooking does. But the most influential French cooking, the dishes that have become well-known throughout the world, are for the most part the creations of professional chefs looking for new flavors and textures; they are not sources of regional identities. Béchamel sauce, created by Louis de Béchamel (1635-1688), was a mainstay of 19th and 20th Century fine cuisine, although today it is a routine ingredient in comfort food and family dishes, seldom any longer appearing in the recipes of trendsetting chefs. Similarly, sauce béarnaise, crêpes Suzettes, salmon with sorrel sauce, tropical fruit sorbets, flourless chocolate cakes, etc. are all the concoctions of top chefs, as were the creations of Nouvelle Cuisine that dominated French cooking for 30 years until recently. There are some exceptions. Cassoulet, bouillabaisse, foie gras, boeuf bourguignon, and perhaps magret de canard (duck steaks) were traditional, regional dishes that achieved international acclaim. But more often than not, change and innovation comes about because chefs are experimenting with new flavors and methods that may not be closely tied to regional traditions.
Where does this pressure for change come from? Why did Italians embrace the tomato in the 16th century, Americans the taco in the 20th. Why did France abandon their heavy spices in the 18th century and their heavy cream sauces in the 21st century in favor of lighter, fresher fare? What encouraged Americans to look to France for culinary inspiration in the 1960's when Julia Child made food TV a habit? Why did virtually the entire globe lose its preference for sweet wine in the mid-20th century and begin to embrace the dry styles that now dominate the industry (at least until the current fascination with Moscato)? Why do vegetarians vacillate so much in their sincere commitment?
It is hard to argue that a coherent value system or the signaling of a stable moral identity is at work in generating these shifts. Creating taboos, marking national identities, enforcing class distinctions, and standing on moral principle are all activities devoted to creating boundaries, not crossing them, drawing distinctions rather than erasing them. Food, by contrast, does a lot of crossing and erasing. Mouth taste is so fluid it seems to float free of moral taste, confounding rather than signaling, disrupting identities rather than reinforcing them.
There are many explanations for why tastes change. Health considerations, immigration, and socio-economic factors drive some change—historical change is seldom guided by a single factor. But sometimes change is simply driven by mouth taste. We find new tastes fascinating and want to experience them, and those that are genuinely appealing stick with us until we incorporate them into whatever symbolic identity we happen to be promoting at the time.
Of course, then we have to tell some story about why the change is deeply meaningful, not just a matter of taste. Moral inflation is after all the coin of the realm with an emotional payoff more robust than anything mere "mouth taste" can provide. But this crossing of boundaries is incompatible with the judgment that one's own way is the right way. If it were the "right way", why would we be so open to change? Our willingness to abandon foodways makes it hard to take seriously the food flags that people righteously wave. If a moral eater is signaling who she is, this identity persists only until a pungent, new flavor piques her palate. We may get an emotional charge from flag waving and food fighting but the object of discord has the persistence of a pop-up restaurant.
In the end, we probably can't escape the symbolic dimension of food because symbols are important and food is so readily available to be exploited by our need for meaning and self-expression. To keep a lid on our passion, it is useful to keep in mind that the power of any particular symbol will persist only until our taste buds object. And then we will have to find a new symbol and manufacture a new passion.
Thus, lying at the bottom of this symbolic dimension of food is the power of particular tastes and their ability to shape our moral ideals. If you want people to change their values, change their tastes. Show people that organic broccoli tastes better, and we are on our way to securing their commitment to sustainability.
Well, we can hope can't we?
Monday, December 02, 2013
The 400 Blows
by Lisa Lieberman
The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut's childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.
Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he's no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher's authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. "Speak up, or your neighbor will get it."
We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.
There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he's been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.
Truffaut's stepfather really did hand him over to the police. He was subsequently sent to a reform school on the outskirts of the city, the Paris Observation Center for Minors, a grim institution where corporal punishment was employed to keep the delinquents in line. Antoine is sent to an Observation Center in Normandy, near the coast. The routine is strict, militaristic. We see the young offenders marching two-by-two under the watchful gaze of the warden. No deviation passes unnoticed. Antoine is slapped for taking a bite of bread before he is given permission to eat, the blow delivered casually and without rancor. A simple transaction: one violation of the rules earns a slap.
More serious infractions, such as running away, earn a beating. A boy is returned to the institution, his face bruised and bloody, dragged past the other juveniles by his captors and locked in a cell. Truffaut suffered the same fate for attempting to escape and ended up spending several months in solitary confinement. He also underwent a series of psychological assessments. In the film, Antoine is warned by another boy not to let his guard down in his interview with the "spychologist." Anything he does or says in her presence will be noted in his dossier, his source cautions, together with "what everyone thinks of you, including your neighbors."
The Kids in the Cage
This scene, though not strictly autobiographical (in reality, the Center's psychologist became Truffaut's staunchest ally), is in keeping with the wartime undercurrents running throughout the picture. Harder to decipher is an incongruous detail the filmmaker inserted into an outdoor sequence at the reform school, where we see the warden locking his own small children in a cage, presumably for their own protection, as the young offenders pass close by for their daily exercise. Granted, the cage is a rather pretty structure, filigreed metal painted white, but the image echoes a key moment in the police station, when Antoine was taken out of the basement cell he shared with a male inmate to make way for some newly-arrested prostitutes.
The idea of an eleven-year-old boy being locked up with these immoral women was so unthinkable that he was removed to a cage the size of a phone booth for his protection. Film scholar Adam Lowenstein draws a connection between the image of the kids in the cage and the work of French director Georges Franju, whose horror films exerted a powerful influence on Truffaut. Franju liked to slip uncanny images into his work, "forcing a recognition with the disturbing historical events that haunt it." The past, in Franju's cinematic vision, was not safely past; events such as the German occupation and postwar purges, the round-ups of French Jews and their deportation to the death camps, continued to inform the present in myriad ways, not all of them conscious. Indeed, Truffaut said in an interview that he intended the kids in the cage as a tribute to Franju.
The persistence of past trauma in present-day awareness was also a central preoccupation in the films of Truffaut's colleague and mentor Alain Resnais. His documentary, Night and Fog (1955), was released during the Algerian war (1954-62), when French soldiers were accused of "doing over there what the Germans had done over here," as Albert Camus bluntly put it. The narrator's final words, scripted by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, stand as commentary on France's dirty war in the colony.
We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.
The bleakest moments of The 400 Blows seem freighted with political significance. Let us return to that notice on the wall of the police station about rat exterminations. The term used in the notice, deratissages, closely resembles the euphemism the French army employed when referring to their anti-terrorist raids on Algerian villages: rat hunts or ratissages. These operations entailed razing the village to the ground, rounding up suspected terrorists, and forcibly resettling the remaining inhabitants in barbed wire-enclosed camps. Some two million Algerians were expelled from their homes and interned under harsh conditions by French authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths from starvation, disease, or exposure.
Evidence of such inhumane policies, on top of the Gestapo tactics decried by Camus—torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians, summary executions—was impossible to ignore in the late 1950s, when Truffaut was making his film. No less troubling were the French government's efforts to suppress debate on the Algerian campaign at home. When the journalist and former Resistance leader Claude Bourdet published an editorial in 1957 critical of the war, he was arrested at his home in Paris, handcuffed and brought to the Fresnes Prison, strip-searched, and questioned for the better part of a day. Fresnes Prison was where the Gestapo had interrogated members of the Resistance; Bourdet himself had been tortured there in 1944 before being sent to a concentration camp, and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the two experiences. "When the doorbell rings at 6 a.m. and it's the milkman, you know you are in a democracy."
Discipline and Punish
The curtailing of personal freedom in the interest of security and public order would become the focal point of Michel Foucault's investigations into the disciplinary mechanisms permeating modern society. Working as a cultural attaché in the French foreign mission in Hamburg, he may well have seen The 400 Blows when it came out. The picture made quite a splash at the 1959 Cannes film festival, earning Truffaut the award for Best Director and a nomination for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, and it was Foucault's job to promote French cultural productions. Movies also happened to be one of the few distractions Foucault permitted himself, beginning in his student days at the École Normale.
Imagine the as yet unknown scholar, putting aside his work on the manuscript of Madness and Civilization (1961) to take in Truffaut's picture. He would have appreciated the "spychologist" line; Foucault himself had been subjected to psychiatric evaluations after his first suicide attempt. The film's spontaneity, an affront to the mannered traditions of French cinema—a tradition Truffaut dismissed as "cinéma de papa"—would have appealed to the iconoclastic philosopher. And it's tempting to regard the image of the kids in the cage as the proverbial grain of sand, the nucleus of the book that many consider the pearl in Foucault's oeuvre, Discipline and Punish (1975).
Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduces a walk-on character, Béasse, a thirteen-year-old orphan brought before the authorities in 1840 for vagabondage. The judge viewed the boy as a delinquent because he had no home and no steady employment. Idleness was a punishable offense under nineteenth-century French jurisprudence. Béasse understood his situation differently, however:
I don't work for anybody. I've worked for myself for a long time now. I have my day station and my night station. In the day, for instance, I hand out leaflets free of charge to all the passers-by; I run after the stagecoaches when they arrive and carry luggage for the passengers; I turn cart-wheels on the avenue de Neuilly; at night there are the shows; I open coach doors, I sell pass-out tickets; I've plenty to do.
The Béasses of this world, Foucault lamented, could not withstand the disciplinary system of "civilization" and "order" and "legality" that defined freedom as a crime, and yet the boy's joyful exuberance could not be suppressed entirely.
Hearing his sentence of two years in a reformatory, Béasse ‘pulled an ugly face, then, recovering his good humor, remarked: "Two years, that's never more than twenty-four months. Let's be off then!"'
The 400 Blows is punctuated with moments of joyful exuberance, but the ending suggests that there is no evading the regimen of the Observation Center. Antoine escapes, and we follow him as he makes his way to the ocean. He runs along the beach, dashes into the surf, then turns back. Where can he go? The camera zooms in on Antoine's expression, the final shot a freeze frame of his face. That lost look will stay with us for a long time.
Bara Imambara, Lucknow. A "complex built by Asaf-ud-daulah, Nawab of Lucknow, in 1784, also called the Asafi Imambara." Architect Hafiz Kifayat ullah Shahjahanabadi.
In honor of Syed Ali Raza, who would have been 100 on November 29th, 2013. He was born just outside this "city of Nawabs" and attended Shia College in Lucknow maturing into a most exceptionally gifted, unique, and principled man. Abbas, Azra, and I, along with our 4 older siblings are exceedingy fortunate to be his children!
by Maniza Naqvi
Mónica was introduced to me by her sister Isabel on the kind of clear October day when a sense of beauty mirrors its temporal nature. She appeared into my conscience, as Isabel and I walked past the Old Executive Building, past the White House, past museums and other buildings housing law firms, foundations, security agencies and lobby firms: past their plush and well-appointed interiors and busy, busy staff in the heart of the city.
Isabel and I used to work together; frantically trying to meet deadlines to get things done against timelines and schedules spanning several time zones and trying to secure funding for social safety nets cash transfers to the poorest people in a country in Africa. There hadn't been a moment to talk about anything else. In fact till about midnight of a date last year—we were doing just this in two separate locations on our computers, when she was cut off from where I was logged on to. She had retired that day and at midnight and as was the procedure, she was no longer part of the system.
Then, a few weeks ago, Isabel sent me an email and wondered if her book group could read one of my books: On Air. I knew she would have a hard time finding copies on Amazon and so when we met over lunch, I brought along a few copies of another one: Stay With Me.
As we walked to lunch she told me about how she was now working as a human rights activist in Argentina with the institution, her father, a celebrated human rights activist, had founded. I had no idea. "I consider myself a human rights activist, but you know how it is. I could not work with Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) before now because I had this job but in reality I had been supporting them in the past on a volunteer basis."
"Wow," I said, "Good for you!"
Then she told me about her sister, Mónica María Candelaria Mignone. Her sister worked in the slums of Argentina in 1976 with Catholic priests, nuns and several young adults to organize the poor. Her sister Mónica had been disappeared by the Military Junta on May 14, 1976. Mónica in 1976 was 24 years old. She became one of the 30,000 desaparecidos: the disappeared ones.
The Military broke into the Mignone's apartment at 5.00 a.m. in the morning—five men in plain clothes took Mónica away saying she was being taken for questioning to Palermo Barracks and would return in two hours. "Mónica said to my sister Mercedes: I won't need my make-up and gave it back to her. They said they were taking her for two hours to find out about another person and my mother asked if she could take money to come back by taxi and the men said yes and so my mom gave her a few pesos." The family stood there helplessly as Mónica was escorted out of the house by the men.
"As soon as Mónica was taken my mother and brother hurried out of the apartment to the apartment of her friends to find out if they were okay but they had already been taken." Then her parents went to the Palermo Barracks and the officials there denied having any knowledge about Mónica. Her parents went to the local police station to register a report and found that there were no witnesses to Mónica being taken except themselves—not even the police guarding a General's home in the building next door who should have seen her being taken—they were supposedly not on duty that night. Her father approached all his contacts and friends in high places and no one could tell them anything. No one seemed to know anything. Five of Mónica's friends were picked up that night while a sixth was picked up the next day.
"For years, my father and mother went to nearby beaches in the province of Buenos Aires to see if amongst the bodies that were washing up onto the shore perhaps one would be of my sister."
That was thirty seven years ago. A detailed account of Mónica having been disappeared and the Disappeared can be read (here) from the book "Behind the Disappearances: Argentina's Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations", by Iain Guest.
I could barely see in front of me as I sort of stumbled alongside Isabel while she spoke. All this time I had no idea about Isabel's sister or what concerned Isabel beyond our work. And Isabel had no idea that the book I wanted her group to read--written more than fifteen years ago and which I had brought with me to give to her----was in many ways---Mónica's story imagined, and set on the other side of the earth.
Over the chatter in the glow of warm lamps, of mirrors and yellow painted walls, the room bustled with cheerful business lunch patrons and the clatter and clanging of crockery and cutlery—while Isabel and I sat there talking about how and why Mónica has not yet been found ever since she disappeared 37 years ago, abducted before dawn from the bosom of her family on May 14, 1976. I kept thinking of the phrase in my novel: In my house, that night, when all was locked up, safe, concealed and the lamplight glowed upon my face and those of my sleeping family, when all was well, that night you broke in. You broke me.
Mónica has not come home. She has not been found there is no trace of her. Her father became a human rights activist in the quest to find his daughter. The entire family, including Isabel, her husband, her son, her brother, her sister, her mother and her father have since then made sure that Mónica will never disappear and that there will be justice for all the disappeared of Argentina. Isabel and her family are almost certain from the testimonies given by a few of the lucky ones that were freed that most probably Mónica was taken to the same facility at the Naval Mechanics School, ESMA in Buenos Aires, where the others were taken, the priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.
"Bergoglio knew of this." Isabel said to me. "He was the Jesuit Provincial for Argentina living in Buenos Aires—the slum district where Mónica had worked with a group of activist which included nuns and priests who practiced the Liberation Theology and who were helping people access basic services. A week after Mónica was taken, the two priests, whom Mónica knew since she was working in the same slum area (Bajo Flores) but in a different section had been arrested with several catechists. The Papal protection for them had been removed just days before they were arrested. Mónica was taken as were several of her friends. My father and mother went to everyone they could think of for help amongst the authorities and no one helped. They went to the Church. They approached the hierarchy of the Church including the Papal Nuncio, Pio Laghi, and pleaded for their help as did others but they, including Bergoglio, did nothing."
"Who is Vergoglio?" I asked. She looked at me surprised and repeated "Bergoglio." Pope Francis. He was part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church—he was the head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina at that time." I stared at her, shocked.
Vergoglio---as the name sounded to me when Isabel pronounced it is--Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, who was the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, who became Pope Francis. In 1976 Jorge Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina. He was part of the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Isabel told me about how in Argentina there was complicity of the Catholic Church that did not take kindly to Liberation Theology or the priests who practiced it. They opposed any idea that contradicted the status quo. In Argentina the Catholic Church supported the military dictatorship.
"There are even suggestions that bishops gave their blessing to General Jorge Videla and his fellow generals prior to the military coup of March 24th 1976. It's a matter of record that on the day of the coup, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires Adolfo Tortolo emerged from a meeting with the junta to urge his fellow citizens to cooperate "in a positive way" with the new government. He later went out of his way to deny that any human rights abuses were being committed in Argentina." (here).
Days later as I started writing about Mónica—I asked Isabel--- "Your father went to him, to Bergoglio—Pope Francis ---to ask him to help with finding Mónica and he refused to help?
Isabel said---"We don't know if my father talked to Bergoglio directly to ask for Mónica but he talked to hierarchy in the church—like the bishops----And he knew Bergoglio so it's very possible he did approach him as well---my father went to whoever he could possibly go to— he was doing everything he could do to find Mónica."
"So of course he was not going to leave any possibility out would he? But you are not hundred percent sure that your father went to Bergoglio?"
"No. What is a fact and my father said so in the trial of the Junta is that the Secretary of State at the time of Argentina who was a navy admiral told a friend of my father who was an ambassador to tell my father "Your friend Emilio does not know how valuable were his interventions for the release of Yorio and Jalics. And Yorio who met with my parents a couple of times after his release said the same thing, that they had been released due to my father not to Bergogolio."
Horacio Verbitsky, who is the President of CELS since 2000 and a journalist has written extensively on the role of Bergoglio during Argentina's dictatorship.
"Verbitsky also spoke to Mónica Mignone's mother Angelica, who asserted that the two priests "were freed by the efforts of Emilio Mignone and the intercession of the Vatican, not by the actions of Bergoglio, who betrayed them". Another of his interviewees, Yorio's brother Rodolfo, described Bergoglio as "a politician who loves power." Much the same comment, seemingly at odds with the new Pope's modest demeanour, was made last night on Argentine radio by Eduardo de la Serna, coordinator of a left-wing group of priests, who described him as "a man of power [who] knows how position himself among powerful people. (here and here )"
From Verbitsky's articles and interviews and those of others included in this article a controversial image of Cardinal Bergoglio now Pope Francis emerges of a highly political man with a sense of self preservation and advancement who opposed the poor-centric Liberation Theology practiced by Mónica and her companions. Here is a video on the making of Pope Francis: Conclave Episode 1 (here) and Episode two includes the details on Monica's disappearance (here)
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights advocacy in 1980 (while the military was still in power), wrote on his website that Bergoglio did not work with the dictatorship, but had also not spoken out strongly against it. "I do not consider that Jorge Bergoglio was complicit in the dictatorship, but I believe he lacked the courage to join our struggle for human rights in the most difficult moments." He wrote, voicing his hope that the new Pope "has the courage to defend the rights of the people in the face of the powerful without repeating the serious errors and even sins that the church committed."
"Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Friday that the accusations were false and "reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church….."There has never been a concrete or credible accusation," against the new pope, Lombardi added" (here and here)
Isabel's son Santiago del Carril interviewed the Nobel Laureate Esquivel recently on November 13, 2013 (here).
Santiago: Before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis you made comments calling his role in the last dictatorship "ambiguous" but later you supported him and said he wasn't complicit with the crimes of that era. What led to the change?
Esquivel: I never changed. (Horacio) Verbitsky accuses the Pope of being complicit with the dictatorship. I said that he wasn't complicit but also that he wasn't a bishop who actively spoke up against the dictatorship. Others were complicit. Bergoglio was a Jesuit leader, and very young —he didn't have access to the government. I learned that he would go to impoverished neighbourhoods to work with the people. This is what we need to value.
Santiago: If you compare the accusations of Bergoglio's complicity with General César Milani, the head of the army, they are similar because there is little evidence against them. Yet, you denounce Milani when he was promoted, and not Bergoglio. Why?
Esquivel: No, no, no—Milani is something else entirely. He is a military man. Bergoglio was chosen Pope in a very important moment for the Church, when people are fed up with it. We should at least wait a bit, to see what he does. But they immediately began attacking him. He cannot be accused of being complicit with the dictatorship. Maybe he committed errors like anyone else could have done, but complicity is something else. If there are accusations against Milani, they should be investigated. I don't know his entire history just like I don't know Bergogolio's.
Santiago: But you didn't say that with Bergoglio.
Esquivel: Look, Milani was part of the military structure, Bergoglio was not. I think he was a religious man who perhaps did not act with courage and I said that.
Santiago: Bergoglio was also part of a Church structure that was complicit with dictatorship.
Esquivel: If they freed Yorio and Jalics after six months, then he must have done something.
Santiago: Yet nothing was said about that until now, after he was named pope. It took 37 years for that to come to light.
Esquivel: Look there are many things that we know now. I did what I did, not only because of who Bergoglio is, a pastor of the church but also because he is fulfilling a mission. Up until now, he has changed a lot of things and is trying to reform the Church. If this man committed errors then it should be proven. But we should also try to protect the head of the Church, if not we will destroy everything.
Santiago: Some may find it difficult to understand how someone who kept quiet while thousands of Catholics were being killed in Argentina can be named pope? Don't you think that's a contradiction?
Esquivel: It was not necessarily like that. Nobody has the absolute truth. We are in a difficult moment. Now, we have this pope and if he made a mistake then he should make amends to the best of his ability.
The priest Yorio remembered one of his interrogator saying: We know you are not violent. You are not guerrillas. But you have gone to live with the poor. Living with the poor unites them. Uniting the poor is subversion." (here)
Cardinal Bergoglio the new Pope Francis seems to have taken on the personality of having been the man of the slums working for the poor in Argentina. Mónica and the priests such as Yorio and Jalics and others, it seems to me, knew, the path of Jesus. In looking up articles I found one which wrote about Pope Francis visiting a shrine in Rome frequently. The new Pope Francis has a special devotion to St. Mónica whose shrine he visited recently in Rome and which he visited on his trips as Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina (here).
Is it a crime to do nothing, and remain silent in the face of oppression even when one's entire reason for being is based on the supreme sacrifice for humanity? Questions persist about Bergoglio, and his role –about what he did or did not do during the Military Dictatorship of Argentina when he was a Jesuit provincial. "Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about him is that he survived, and flourished, occupying a prominent position in the Argentine church at a time when its leaders worked hand in glove with one of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century." Writes Nelson Jones in the NewStatesman (here) (more here)
"The priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, had come under suspicion for their work in the Bajo Flores slum district and for their association with a group of activists that included Mónica Mignone, daughter of a prominent lawyer, all of whom later disappeared into the regime's dungeons. The two Jesuits' work, and the liberation theology that inspired it, also attracted the critical attention of their superiors in the church, notably Bergoglio himself, who reportedly offered them a choice between leaving the slum or leaving their priestly ministry. Their license to minister was withdrawn by the then archbishop a week before they were seized. According to Verbitsky, whose book The Silence detailed the relationship between church and state in that dark period, the military took the church's action as a green light to have them arrested. What is undoubtedly the case is that there was a certain community of interest between the anti- communism of the military regime and the Church hierarchy's dislike of liberation theology."
Both men were released in October 1976 after five months of interrogation and torture in the notorious Navy Mechanics School, ESMA (where Fr Von Wernach served as chaplain). In The Jesuit, a collection of conversations between Bergoglia and the writer Sergio Rubin, it is claimed that, far from denouncing Yorio and Jalics, Bergoglio warned the two priests of the danger they were in and later intervened behind the scenes to secure their release. But this is contested. Verbitsky quotes Yorio (who died in 2000) as telling him explicitly that "Bergoglio failed to warn us of danger waiting to happen" and that "I have no reason to think he did something for our freedom, but rather the opposite".
As I learned more about Mónica's story I found many more articles including an article from May 14, 1995 in the Independent (here):
"Before dawn on 14 May 1976, five heavily armed men in army boots and civilian clothes broke into their Buenos Aires apartment building and hammered at their door. This is the Argentine army. We've come for Mónica Mignone," they yelled. Mr Mignone, a former university rector, was forced to let them in and watch as they roused his 24-year-old daughter, a beautiful, raven-haired educational psychologist, from her bed and led her away. Like many other parents whose children were detained that day and over the next seven years, he never saw her again. An official inquiry reported 9,000 missing. Relatives speak of 30,000."
"Nineteen years later, as a wall of military silence finally begins to crumble, Mr Mignone, now a leading human rights activist, believes he finally knows his daughter's fate. "She was lmost certainly interrogated for a few days, drugged, carried on to a military plane and dumped alive over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic," he said. Her crime? Apparently to have joined other young Catholics from a local church in helping to educate poor children in the Bajo Flores slums, a suspected breeding ground for leftist guerrillas."
Since the day Isabel and I met and talked about Mónica I've been reading her father's book, Witness to the Truth, The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina. In his book, Emilio Mignone, a devout Catholic himself, lays out the damning details of the complicity of the Catholic Church in Argentina and its Bishops and priests in helping and legitimizing the terror of the Dictatorship. In reading, Witness to the Truth and going through other articles about Mónica there is a clear connection drawn between the nationalistic religiosity amongst the henchmen of the Dictators and their use of the Catholic Church in linking nation and State with religion and the church's complicity in this. The same kind of language is being used repeatedly today to justify state sanctioned human rights violation and to justify war, surveillance, illegal detentions, renditions, drone attacks and extra judicial killings.
Emilio F. Mignone died at the age of 76 in 1998. From the time his daughter disappeared he had devoted himself to finding her and had become the leading and respected campaigner for human rights. He was the founder and Director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, in Argentina which was one of the organizations which devoted its efforts in documenting kidnappings, murders and torture by the military and trying to seek justice (here). He became a leading figure in creating the contemporary international human rights movement. Aryeh Neier, the former President of the Open Society Foundations and the founder and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and the former Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, writes about Emilio Mignone in his book, "The International Human Rights Movement: A History". Among other important details he writes about Emilio Mignone: "Many of those who knew him at the time said that after his daughter's disappearance there was nothing more the military could do to him that would deter him from pursuing investigations of their crimes." (page 253 here)
Today, despite all the news and coverage on war, torture, interrogation, surveillance, black sights, rendition, the rising religious and nationalistic rhetoric and so forth people continue to say--"No, that is too far-fetched! Such things don't happen! Not here!"
Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA the Naval Mechanics in Buenos Aires where the interrogations and torture occurred and where Mónica Mignone was most probably taken was in the heart of the capital city surrounded by cafes, offices and people going about their daily work and lives. Right there in the heart of the city.
I talked to my own sister about Mónica. We were sharing the same mirror one morning—putting on our make-up. She looked at me and said: Remember 1976—we were connected to Argentina in June a month after Mónica was disappeared. A month after Mónica was abducted the World Cup took place in Argentina. Mónica would have been in an interrogation center with thousands of others very near the stadiums in Buenos Aires, where the football games were being played which the whole world was watching on live telecast. Thousands of foreign fans, dozens of foreign journalists and TV crews were in Buenos Aires then. The whole world was watching clips of Argentines protesting—alongside the games. And amongst all of that merry making and games--- somewhere nearby were Mónica and thousands of others who had been disappeared. A year later it was Pakistan's turn July 5, 1977 and the Military coup supported by the same systems that supported the Dictators in Argentina and across South America and other parts of the world." I looked at my sister in the mirror. I thought of Isabel and her sister. And I thought of Argentina and Pakistan.
During the conversations I had while writing this article I heard, though I have not had the chance to verify this yet, that several of the US embassy officers in Buenos Aires who were there during the dictatorship were then transferred to the Embassy in Pakistan. It would make sense wouldn't it? Given the pattern of diplomatic transfers and who went where in just the last ten years, yes, it would make sense: The toppling of a democratic government and the installing of a ruthless military dictator fomenting religious nationalism for his legitimacy in the war against the then bogeyman of choice, communism. Yes, the same blue print of destruction.
None of us knows what is happening in the buildings we pass by every day—what activities are being performed there, who might be incarcerated there or interrogated there, what is being done there. None of us knows what crime is being committed—whose sons and daughters are being destroyed in the name of faithfully safeguarding the fatherland, the motherland, the homeland. No one seems to know anything. No one seems to want to know anything. But if you look carefully enough on the streets and in places where you are---there is always someone there hardly visible, almost disappearing into the crowd but still trying to get your attention, trying to get the attention of passersby pleading with them to wake up, pay attention do something. Mónica and her family keep asking us to do something.
Is remaining silent a crime when one has knowledge of wrong doing and when one has the power to do something to stop it? Complicity and silence, it seems, are essential skills and experience for so called leaders in a world of surveillance and security.
In the abduction and disappearance of Mónica, an intricate network of complicity, a willingness to remain silent played an essential role. Power legitimized by a definition of morality and family values kept in place by violence and surveillance and enhanced by technology, technicians, media, clergy and even medical doctors all played a role just like they do today.
Mónica lives in all those who know about her. Mónica is part of those who know the difference between faith and professing faith. Mónica cannot be disappeared because her family has refused to remain silent. They have refused to let go of their pursuit to uncover the reasons for her disappearance and because of their steadfast efforts to bring to justice those military officers who are still alive. The world and the people who believe in justice and have faith in humanity will continue to think about her as a daughter, sister and aunt as a person who tried to empower the poor. Mónica will never disappear. When we look in the mirror we should all think of Mónica.
Other writing by Maniza Naqvi (here)
Monday, November 25, 2013
Tomas Saraceno. On Space Time Foam. HangarBicocca in Milan, Italy, 2012.
"... is a multi-layered habitat of membranes suspended 24 meters above the ground that is inspired by cosmology and life sciences. Each level has a different climate and air pressure and will react to the movement of visitors through it. In a later iteration, the work will become a floating biosphere above the Maldives Islands that is made habitable with solar panels and desalinated water."
Why you can't buy a first class ticket to Utopia
by Emrys Westacott
Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, "premier" and "regular." To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over "regulars" for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.
The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.
Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.
My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.
Adopting the scientific attitude of an anthropologist set down amidst an alien tribe, I took careful note of all the privileges my exalted status conferred. For the uninitiated I hereby divulge the mysteries: priority boarding; a personalized greeting from the flight attendant; plusher seats wide enough to accommodate the fattest of cats; an extra foot of leg room; a pre-flight drink; a bowl of heated nuts shortly after takeoff; a heated chocolate chip cookie for dessert; and a hot wet washcloth with which to swab one's after-dinner face.
The extra room was pleasant. But what struck me most about the rest of the privileges was that they are essentially symbolic. They don't materially improve the experience; they just serve to remind you that you're in first class. This is presumably the purpose of heating the nuts, cookie and washcloth: to differentiate what you're getting from the pre-packed nuts, cookie, and scented towelette that the plebs in standard have to put up with. After all, if nuts are really so much nicer hot, why don't we eat them that way at home?
Obviously, the symbolic privileges are part of the airline's strategy to convince those who can afford it that first class is worth the price. Assuming that the market strategists know their business, the implications are depressing, although hardly surprising. It seems that some people are more likely to pay first class fares if the experience includes lots of little reminders that they are enjoying privileges extended to the few and not to the many. Possibly the airlines should try the experiment of allowing first class passengers to view via a webcam the less luxurious conditions endured by those in second class. After all, according to Thomas Aquinas, "in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned." (Summa Theologica, Part III, Supplement, Question 94)
So why do we accept class distinctions on planes and trains but not in the cafeteria?
The reason, presumably, is our concern that in schools the likely costs would outweigh the benefits, the main costs being the insidious harm we fear will be done to the fabric of the school community and to the way in which members of that community regard one another. Nor does this argument only hold for children in school. Few college presidents, no matter how much they desire extra revenue or harder working students, would countenance class distinctions of this sort on campus.
But then the obvious next question raised by the dining hall analogy is this: Does the current system on planes and trains carry a similar cost? Is our society subtly harmed by the institution of offering first and second-class travel options? And if so, do the harms outweigh the benefits?
These are not the kind of things that are easily measured. Even if clever social scientists managed to establish correlations between institutionalized class distinctions and lower levels of social solidarity, it would be hard to prove that one caused the other; so many other variables could be playing a part. But here is where some critical and suggestive philosophical reflection may be useful.
Defenders of the travel class distinctions have to do one of two things: either claim that there is nothing wrong with my modest proposal, or explain why the arguments against class distinctions in the school cafeteria don't hold on planes and trains. The first option is unappealing. A few bean counters might consider the cafeteria scheme a decent wheeze, but I assume most people would be moderately to mightily disgusted by it. This, I concede, is proof by "hypothetical evidence"—I hypothesize that if a school tried implementing the proposal there would be an immediate moral outcry. But this assumption strikes me as highly plausible. Critics could refute it easily enough by persuading lots of school principals to try the experiment. I predict they'll find few takers.
The other option is to break down the analogy. One difference between the two situations, it might be argued, is that whereas schools are not-for-profit public services, transport providers are commercial enterprises, so a different ethic prevails. The primary mission of United Airlines and the rest is to be profitable, and they'll naturally do whatever will help them maximize profits. That's capitalism. In fact, paying extra for first class travel is no different from paying extra for a nicer hotel room, a better view of the ball game, a front row seat at the theater, or for, that matter, a bigger house, a flashier car, and more fashionable clothes. We tolerate—even celebrate--the power of money in these and many other contexts. Of course, there are contexts where we would deem it inappropriate to let money do the talking. We wouldn't, for instance, allow rich people to jump the queue for surgery…oh, wait, scratch that. OK, we wouldn't think it right, even at private colleges, to give rich students who pay higher fees first dibs on over-enrolled courses, or more careful feedback on their assignments. But in a commercial setting we are usually comfortable with allowing money to talk.
This argument has some force. We do seem to tolerate paid-for customer privileges in a commercial context more readily than when the service is seen as a basic entitlement, such as education, or is provided by the state or some other non-profit agency. Yet the line here isn't sharp. State-owned (or subsidized) railways and airlines—Air India, for instance, or British Rail before privatization—have usually also offered first and second-class facilities. Public hospitals allow patients to pay extra for private rooms. So the onus is still on anyone who supports such practices to explain why they should not be extended to schools and colleges.
Another difference, and thus another possible flaw in the analogy, is that since class distinctions in transportation have been around a long time we have grown used to them. This very familiarity renders them relatively harmless. But if we were suddenly to introduce something similar in schools, the change would be striking, people would naturally pay much more attention to it, and for that very reason it would do more harm. Awareness of the distinction would be acute. It would be as if New York City were overnight to cordon off an especially nice section of Central Park where only "first class" visitors who had paid a surcharge enjoyed sauntering rights. The outcry would be deafening, and the damage to the social fabric of the city could be severe.
Here, too, the criticism of the parallel being drawn between class distinctions in different contexts has a point, but not a strong one. The assumption that what would be a pernicious novelty has been rendered harmless by longstanding usage is questionable—in fact it is question-begging. More fundamentally, though, both objections to the analogy can be countered by asking the question: Would the practice of having first and second class seating, first and second class service, first and second class waiting areas, etc., be part of what you consider an ideal society? If you could time travel forwards to visit the cleaner, nicer, friendlier world we are presumably trying to steer towards, would you expect institutionalized class distinctions to still exist? Or would you be deeply disappointed to find that they hadn't been eradicated?
I, for one, would be deeply disappointed. The battle cry at the outset of the modern campaign to make the world a better place to live was, as I recall, "Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!" I'll grudgingly grant that having the option of paying extra for certain privileges constitutes a sort of liberty (grudgingly, because an increase in freedom should mean much more than just greater consumer choice for people with means). But what about poor old equality and fraternity? How are these ideals served by institutionalized class distinctions? The obvious answer is that they are not.
Now admittedly, there are times when the means to an end involves elements that do not belong to the end—rungs on a ladder that one hopes eventually to discard. Utopia won't have burglar alarms or tax inspectors, but that doesn't mean we should dispense with them now. At present they play a necessary part in the attempt to build a just and prosperous society. But calling to mind our utopian ideals can still serve a valuable purpose; it prompts us to ask whether our current practices are helping us advance toward those ideals or are steering us away from them, perhaps unintentionally widening the gap between our reality and our dreams.
So the next time you find yourself tempted to plunk down that extra thousand bucks for a first class seat, confident that it will accommodate you comfortably no matter how many heated cookies you scoff, ask yourself this: Should we countenance institutionalized class distinctions of this kind? If we wouldn't support them in our schools and colleges, doesn't that suggest that there is something unwholesome about them? And if they don't belong to our vision of an ideal society and are not needed to move us forward, why not inch a little closer toward that ideal right now by scrapping the practice?
One day, perhaps, a kid will ask her mother: "Mom, is it true that in the olden days they used to let rich people get on the plane first while everyone else had to wait? And that the rich people got to sit in especially comfy seats in a special part of the plane where no-one else could go?" And the mother will be able to say, "Yes, sweetie, it's true. But that was at a time when everyone was focusing on liberty—which they understood rather simplistically as maximizing consumer choice in a free market—and had rather forgotten about equality and fraternity. Eventually they realized that these values mattered as well."
Love in the time of robots
by Thomas Wells
The robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.
Robots will allow us to economise on love
Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.
As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.
In addition to minimising transaction costs, corporate economic structures can also have positive benefits. In particular, many projects - child-rearing for example, or soccer matches - are most economically achieved by team-work. A team works together on many-hands problems and thereby achieves much more than the same number of individuals operating by and for themselves could. One can't organise team-work through the market because it is impossible to identify and directly reward the marginal contribution of each worker to the final outcome (whether producing thriving children or winning a soccer match). The corollary of this is that team-work requires not only suspending the individualistic 'homo economicus' logic of the market, but also inculcating an ethic of self-abnegating commitment in which individuals adopt the common goal of their 'family' as a goal for themselves, and do not shirk the sacrifices it requires of them. There are different psychological routes to establishing this disposition to self-less cooperation, including viewing the work itself as sacred, or feeling bound by honour to help one's co-workers. But in the family it is generally achieved through love.
The arrival of cheap robot-servants will allow households to produce consumption goods like meals and child-care much more efficiently, since the number of human hours involved will be much less. That means the standard team of two adults will no longer be required. There may not seem anything fundamentally new about this, since machines have been replacing human labour inside the home for a 100 years (e.g. washing machines). Such technologies have supported the rise of single adult households and the social emancipation of women. It turns out that when people can afford not to have to love another person, fewer of us do so. The key difference is that robots, unlike washing machines, will be smart enough to care, something that only humans used to be able to do.
Elderly nursing home resident with a Paro robot: Source
At least, robots will be able to simulate care. They will be able to perform care behaviour in attending to children, sick people, and the elderly without actually caring. They'll be able to offer companionship to lonely people without being companions, to listen and smile along to senile people's stories without understanding them, to help the hospitalised with their pain and distress without actually empathising with them. And so on.
Some people, and not only academic philosophers, quibble at the idea that such simulation is as good as the real thing. Not only on the same semantic grounds that they would argue that machine translation can't count as real translation. But also for its deleterious effects on human society. If we can have our elderly relatives cared for and 'kept company' by robots (which is the most developed use of sociable robots to date), we will be freed from feeling guilty for not spending time with them ourselves. Isn't that just an excuse to default on our moral obligations? This is the critique particularly brought by technology optimist turned critic, Sherry Turkle, in her recent book, Alone Together.
Perhaps the critics are right to focus on the ethics of using technology to economise on love, but that doesn't mean their answer is correct. Surely humans' capacity for love can be used for more important things than motivating unpaid drudgery. Let me pick up the feminist line that I began with. Care is at the root of the feminist critique of our society. Feminists note that the need for care, and thus dependency on others (in childhood, sickness, and old-age), is an essential and significant feature of human nature that 'masculine' political philosophers carelessly neglect in their modeling of just relationships between independent rational adult individuals. The fact that human beings need care, argue the feminists, generates a corresponding obligation on others to provide it. And this in turn requires consideration of how a just society should distribute and remunerate the burden of care work fairly among its members. In particular, we shouldn't just dump it on female family members.
Feminists have sometimes tried to make their case by talking up the moral significance of both care-work and dependency relationships, and asking that their intrinsic value be properly honoured by the rest of society. Yet it seems to me that wiping bottoms, whether they belong to babies or Alzheimers sufferers, is properly seen as a burdensome necessity rather than as dignified work. And that being in a condition of dependency on others is itself an indignity that most people strive to avoid. Humans deserve better. So if robots become sophisticated enough to perform such work then they offer us something tremendous: liberation from the burdens of care for both traditional givers (women) and receivers (especially adults reduced to dependency). We would be able to resolve the 'feminist problem' of distribution technologically rather than politically or morally.
By freeing humans from many of the burdens of care, robots will allow us to reduce our mutual dependency, and particularly our use of love to establish cloying moral obligations to meet those needs. Consider an earlier innovation with similar effects. Until very recently, people were forced to insure themselves against their disability and old age by raising enough children that at least one would be willing and able to support them. But that required parents to brainwash their children into an idea of 'love' clogged with moral obligations, turning them into an instrument for their parents' will. The invention of social insurance removed the threat of such poverty and immediately ended the need for such brainwashing. While one might miss certain aspects of the tradition of filial piety, it is hard to see the change as a moral failure. Love seems better - freer - when it isn't contaminated by self-interest, power imbalances, and coercion.
Robots as lovers
Robots won't merely ameliorate the need for human intimacy and thus the use of love for instrumental purposes. They also seem to have attractions as companions in their own right. So far the most sophisticated social robots are those developed to ease the loneliness of the elderly (unsurprisingly, ageing socially inept Japan is at the forefront). At least some people find these companion robots more attractive than humans: they are more straightforward to relate to and less demanding than ordinary ornery humans. But it seems to me that even in the most intimate sphere, and for psychologically healthy individuals in their prime, robots could eventually become more attractive than humans as companions.
Motorised sex devices are a hundred or more years old. There may still be some scope for improvement at that mechanical level, but I think the key innovation of robot lovers will be in pretending. Specifically, robots will be designed so as to allow their human owners to pretend that they are loved. And everyone wants to be loved.
Physically, this would require robots to look enough like a person (not even a very perfect replica) for humans to relate to. Cognitively, this would require robots to simulate the perfect lover, that is, the perfect worshipper. This lover asks about your day in a voice that suggests they actually want to hear about it. It agrees with you about what a bitch your boss is, and remembers that mean thing she did last year too! It remembers your birthday, but also all the things you like and don't like. It cooks wonderful things, and doesn't complain when you get fat. And so on. Basically, it's a Stepford wife.
Actual humans can't keep up this level of worshipful attention. It requires a degree of self-abnegation incompatible with maintaining one's own individuality. Focusing so much on another person's needs is also immensely cognitively demanding, and, since humans only have so many hours of high quality attention to spend in a day (or a life), it must come at the expense any other projects we might like to have. Humans want good lovers, but humans make bad lovers.
Even relatively primitive robots would make better lovers. They will not only be much better at attending to your needs, especially your emotional needs, with their sophisticated algorithms for reading your micro-expressions, their perfect memory, indefatigable attentiveness, and so on. They will also be much better at the emotional labour required of the perfect lover. That is, because they have no emotional states of their own to overcome, they will have none of the difficulties humans have in presenting the right emotional states at the right time to fit their lover's own needs and wishes.
One might agree that it would be exceedingly pleasant to be worshipped so comprehensively. But surely this ersatz version of love would satisfy only the laziest. People want to be really loved, not merely to be the object of a performance of love. So we would still want and seek the real love that only a human can provide.
I think this underestimates humans' ability to delude ourselves. Sherry Turkle's research showed how quickly people can come to treat their robot assistants as companions and pour out their hearts to them. (That's one of the things she found so disturbing.) Even the relatively primitive robots already developed can, with a few tricks like maintaining eye contact and smiling when we speak, give us the strong impression of a caring presence that cares about us and that we want to care about us. So I think it will be possible to actually fall in love with a robot, and not merely to enjoy their performance of love. And, unlike inter-human relationships, since there is only one prickly unreliable individualist in the relationship, it will probably be easier to stay in love with your robot lover.
We Be Monsters: Montaigne and the Age of Discovery
by Mara Naselli
Montaigne's essays are famously voluminous. He didn't cut text; he added it. The book is a monster. He said so himself: "What are these Essays if not monstrosities and grotesques, botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence, and proportion which are purely fortuitous."
Despite their prodigiousness, Montaigne's essays have enjoyed a popular reception in recent years. We love him for his genuineness, candor, and humility. We think of him as ahead of his time, the first blogger, just like us, trying to figure out how to live in the world. His introspection is a legitimation of our own. But what Montaigne was doing—writing about himself thinking about the world—was a radical rebellion that goes well beyond our own contemporary idiom of self and world. If we look at Montaigne within his historical context, his literary innovation is even more startling. His epistolary intimacy and authority isn't achieved through an elevation of what we now call the self. In fact, Montaigne's understanding of the self has a lot more in common with the Greek notion of the self than our own. For the Greeks the self was not an individual with unique qualities. Knowing oneself meant knowing one's place in the world, knowing how persons differ from gods. It meant knowing one's limits.
Montaigne lived on the cusp of epochal change. The limits that defined the European known world were dissolving in the age of discovery, and yet medieval ideas about how that world worked still dominated in Montaigne's lifetime. The sun, for example, moved around the earth. If you slept on a pile of gold, you would wake transformed into the body of a dragon. Storks lived only in free states. A balance of four basic fluids determined one's health. These beliefs organized a powerful and complicated environment into a divinely ordered whole. At the time, every creature, every detail of the natural world had symbolic meaning to be read as the Book of Nature, authored by God. To understand beasts and nature, to understand even one's own body was to understand God's will. Monsters and monstrosities, deformities of any kind were seen as punishments or omens.
In other words, the medieval world was a closed system. The boundaries—geographic, philosophical, and religious—were known. Nature was to be deciphered. Consider again the dragon.† It wielded power with its tail. Notice this illustration from a French bestiary, shown to me by the painter Jil Evans. She noted how the dragon's tail is drawn coiled up against the edge of the page, as if the act of rendering the creature also contained it. As with medieval maps that delineated the known world—terra incognita could only be imagined. There Be Dragons. Beyond the articulate reside the monsters.
So it was a particularly interesting choice of words, when Montaigne described his mind as a runaway horse, giving "birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, . . . that . . . I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself" (italics mine). It's well known that Montaigne suffered from melancholy. He was no stranger to grief. His particular complexion of humors (he thought of himself as a sanguine melancholic, common among men of learning) was considered vulnerable to genius or lunacy. So when he finds himself, in his scholarly leisure, not at ease, but at risk of losing control of his rational mind, Montaigne does not resort to the traditional cures—stones, plants, herbs, and the like. Nor does he turn to scripture or prayer or God, as doctors of his time would have advised. Montaigne turns to the mind itself. He observes and doubts its behavior. He keeps a record, as a scientist might, of his observations. Montaigne is writing to restore the mind's agency over his runaway passions. As contemporary readers we recognize the therapeutic dimension of writing to get a grip. But at the time Montaigne was writing, to write one's own mind—to write to the edge of one's own understanding, to the threshold between knowing and unknowing—was without precedent. Montaigne is containing the dragon, drawing its tail up against the edge of the page. He saw the threat of madness. He understood the moral dimensions of health—body and mind—and was writing to restore the rational soul. This is an ancient-medieval idea. That this would be achieved by a turn toward the self is not. Montaigne is not merely introspective. He is a natural historian of the soul.
As melancholia threatened Montaigne's inner world, exploration threatened the order of the medieval world. New creatures, continents, and peoples upset the comprehensive symbolic universe—they didn't fit neatly into the lexicon of emblems inherited from classical and biblical writings. What to do with such a menagerie?
Catalog it. Specimens were collected in cabinets of curiosity. Native peoples from the New World were captured and displayed. Travellers gave eyewitness accounts of monstrous creatures. In the mid-1500s, natural historian Conrad Gessner aspired to record and illustrate a comprehensive inventory of all creatures known to humankind. (The desire for encyclopedic knowledge, it seems, originates in a medieval aspiration for completeness.) His four-volume Historiae animalium included stories and descriptions from ancient texts, the established authorities, as well as new eyewitness accounts. Personal observation was emerging as a legitimate source of knowledge. It bears mentioning, Gessner's work produced a motley compendium of the fantastic. It included humanoid whales and satyrs, as well as unicorns and mermaids. Though even the horse, seen as a noble and tractable creature, is illustrated incorrectly, with doll-like features and a faint smile. The medieval way of looking at the world shaped even the most daily observations. Creatures recounted in Ovid or Homer were just as real as the sea monk (fishmen that looked like monks in vestments) thought to be seen by sailors at sea, or the cows grazing in the commons.
It wasn't just monstrous creatures and peoples that upset the intellectual order of the medieval world. After the fall of Constantinople, Greek texts, hitherto unknown in Europe, arrived in the West. Sextus Empericus, for example, one of the Skeptics important to Montaigne, was translated into Latin in 1563. While Montaigne never adhered to any one school of thought, thinkers like Epictetus and Sextus corroborated his deeper disposition to refuse to serve any one intellectual master. It was a Skeptic motto (What do I know) that Montaigne had inscribed on a medal he had coined for himself.
Montaigne doesn't trust others' opinions, nor his own. Just as Gessner's natural history shifted authority back to observation, the Greek practice of question and doubt shifted the locus of judgment back on the subject, rather than faith or obedience or revelation. "I have my own laws and my own court to judge me," Montaigne writes, "and I refer to these rather than elsewhere." Montaigne tested and retested his own judgment—a practice at odds with the divine totality of the medieval universe.
Montaigne applied these shifts in intellectual authority to his own inquiry. The discipline of natural history was familiar to him. He had translated the work of natural theologian and historian Raymond Sebond and visited the cabinets of curiosity of Felix Platter, whose collection included some of Gessner's own specimens and original illustrations for Historiae animalium. He knew a man who had traveled to what is now known as South America, and he interviewed a native chief who was brought to Europe. Yet when it comes to his consideration of "cannibals," he resists placing them within the European encyclopedic sense of order. The barbarians turn out not to be barbaric at all.
He declares "cannibals" no more savage than the Europeans themselves. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes. "We have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything!" Montaigne doesn't demean the native peoples. He elevates them. They are pure and closer to Nature. They are closer to the origin of humanity than even the Greeks, and he's irritated Aristotle, Plato, and the rest had no knowledge of them. Oh brave new world that has such people in't.
It's fair to say the Montaigne's fascination with "cannibals" produced its own problematic brand of primitivism. But when Montaigne encounters people who, at the time, were considered to be monstrous, he doesn't place them within the incumbent order. The received authorities Plato, Aristotle, and others—have nothing to say on the subject. So he turns the inquiry self-ward: Who are we? How do we know what we think we know? The encounter with the New World was for Montaigne an occasion to question collective assumptions. More importantly, he questions his own subjectivity. What were the assumptions of Montaigne's own thinking? What were his own native barbarisms and savageries? Montaigne is applying the Skeptics to the New World. An encounter with the unknown, with the malformed and strange, was for Montaigne an occasion to doubt his own thinking.
One of Montaigne's most famous essays recounts a visit to a fourteen-month-old "monster child." He doesn't divine warning from the child's deformity. He describes it. The child has one head and two bodies. It will take breast milk but spit out food. Two men and a wet nurse were "exhibiting [it] for its strangeness," he writes, "so as to make a penny or two out of it." It is not an easy passage—the child's arm was broken during childbirth, his mother, in all likelihood, was dead (it's hard to imagine a woman surviving that labor). His deformity is being hawked.
But for Montaigne, the monster-child is an epistemological problem, an occasion to consider how the human mind takes in strangeness. "What a man frequently sees never produces wonder in him. . . . But if something occurs he has never seen before, he takes it as a portent." As Gessner might have done, Montaigne makes an observation and records it. But he takes it a step further and discards the received wisdom. The ostensible subject of the essay—the monster-child—turns into an examination of judgment.
Oh what we believe! The two men and the child's nurse see a creature from which they can make a few pennies. His countrymen see an omen. Montaigne sees a deformed child who, for its strangeness, is turned into something else entirely. Montaigne saw how neatly our views ally with the order we have inflicted on the world. "There is nothing over which men usually strain harder than when giving free run to their opinions," he writes. "Should the regular means be lacking, we support them by commands, force, fire, and sword." This line was not speculative. As Montaigne wrote, the Wars of Religion raged around him, within striking distance of his own estate. He saw the barbarism ignited by religious fanaticism.
How do we read the world? How do we put it in categories and impose on it meanings that inevitably serve us in one way or another? "We need only get a hold of the thread," he writes, "then reel off whatever we want." Montaigne understood how one practiced thinking had consequences. If a man is seen as an animal, it's half a step away from enslavement. If a woman is seen as a witch, she is dangerous and must be contained. If we don't doubt, who are we?
Montaigne's essays accumulated purpose just as they accumulated text: they began as a labor of study, became a form of healing, and then an epistolary self-portrait for his loved ones. The essays generated a readership across Europe within Montaigne's lifetime, and he wrote until his death, at the age of fifty-nine. But the core of the essays, their unique qualities that have influenced centuries of thinking and literature, remained central throughout his writing: to investigate his mind and body's relation to the world. His essay on friendship, "De l'amitié," was inspired by his dearest friend, Etienne de la Boetie, whom he lost seven years before his retirement. The pronunciation of l'amitié echoes the French word l'âme, or soul. In which case it makes sense to think of friendship, the writing of essays, and the making of a soul as related endeavors. For in conversation with a friend, where we can be candid and true, we can together inquire and doubt and become ourselves.
The contemporary reading of Montaigne celebrates his introspection. But he is also looking outward investigating how he looks and how he thinks about what he observes. This is the radical innovation Montaigne offers us. When we encounter things that "surpass our knowledge," he writes, "I consider that we should suspend our judgment, neither believing nor rejecting. Many of the world's abuses are engendered—or to put it more rashly, all of this world's abuses are engendered—by our being schooled to fear to admit our ignorance." Montaigne added that interjected clause between the em dashes just before he died. You can see the accumulation of his thinking in action here. The authority Montaigne challenges is the medieval universe, symbolically ordered and ordained, full of miracles and prognostications. But what does he see when he turns his critical eye upon himself? Miraculous monstrosity: "I have not seen anywhere in the world a monster [monstre] more expressly miraculous than I am. . . . The more I haunt myself and know myself the more my misshapenness amazes me and the less I understand myself." What Montaigne means here is how unknowable we are to ourselves. The miraculous monstrosity of unknowingness. Montaigne refuses to consent to the encyclopedic aspirations of medieval and Renaissance thought. The self—his self—and the world are too unknowable.
Montaigne takes the impulse to be comprehensive and applies it not to what he knows, but to what he doesn't know. He investigates to the edge of understanding. This is what the essay does best. It is a form of inquiry that takes us into unchartered waters. For Montaigne this was an ever-expanding investigation of monstrous proportions. It is as if in his twenty-year endeavor, he was cultivating an ever-expanding self, taking in more and more of the world, not to catalog it, but to wonder at it. Montaigne is monstrous because the world is monstrous. He becomes of the world, known and unknown.
† Photo credit: Dragon image courtesy of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, KB, 128 C4, folio 94v. Used with permission.
Through A Printer Darkly
by James McGirk
James McGirk works as a literary journalist and is a contributing analyst to an online think tank. The following is an imagined itinerary for a tourist vacation twenty years in the future.
Seven days in the PRINTERZONE
June 20, 2033-June 28, 2033
A quick suborbital hop to Iceland courtesy of Virgin Galactic and then it’s all aboard the ScholarShip, a luxurious three-mast schooner powered by that most ecologically palatable of sources: the wind.
Weather-permitting you and twenty of your fellow alumni will set sail for the Printerzone. (The North and Norwegian Seas can be temperamental: in the event of heavy weather we revert to backup biodiesel power.) Our destination has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: it is both a glimpse at what our future might become should government regulation of printers come to an end, and a fantasy of life free from credit and ubiquitous surveillance. Together we’ll spend a week immersed in this unique community, on board an oilrig in international waters, using three-dimensional additive printing to meet our every need.
Joining us on this adventure will be Prof. Orianna Braum, an associate professor of Maker Culture at Stanford University; Alan Reasor, a forty-year veteran of the additive printing industry; and a young man who prefers to refer to himself by displaying a small silver plastic snowflake in his palm.
ITINERARY - DAY ONE
A colorful day spent traversing the Norwegian and North Seas… sublime marine grays and blues stirred by the bracing sea breeze. Keep your eyes peeled for pods of chirping Minke whales! Many are 100 percent natural.
Breakfast and lunch will be served onboard The ScholarShip by our chef Matthias Spork. Selections include: printed cereals and pastas, catch-of-the-day and a refreshing sorbet spatter-printed by his wife, renowned pastry chef Rebecca Spork.
Prof. Braum and Mr. Reasor will debate: Has Three-Dimensional Printing failed its Promise? Reasor will argue that in most instances economies of scale and the cost of raw materials make conventional manufacturing a more cost-effective solution than 3D printing. Prof. Braum will counter, describing industries that have been radically reshaped by printing—prosthetics and dentistry, bespoke suiting and fashion, at-home robotics and auto-repair—and suggest instead that government safety regulation and restrictive intellectual property licenses have done more to stifle innovation than costs. There will be time for questions afterwards. And then a brief demonstration of piezoelectric substrates: printed materials that respond to the human touch.
Following a hearty and delicious dinner prepared by the Sporks, we invite you for hot toddy and outdoor stargazing with our First Mate. The Arctic winds can be fierce at night, so you have the option of lighting the hearth in your cabin, and viewing a very special Skype broadcast—The Pink Printer’s Naughty Apprentice—which outlines in a most whimsical and titillating way some of the more adult uses of the three-dimensional printer.
(Please note that cabins containing occupants below the age of consent in their country of residence will not receive this broadcast.)
Drop Anchor in the Printerzone
After a hot breakfast ladled out by the Sporks, join your shipmates on deck for an approach unlike anywhere else on earth: a faint glimmer on the horizon gathers in size and sprouts shapes and colors, until the magnificent muddle that is the Printerzone fills our entire field of vision. Crumpled wrapping paper on stilts, a wag once said. Squint at this glorious mass, and beneath the colorful sprays of plastic and the pieces of flotsam and jetsam the residents have creatively incorporated into their homes, you just might make out the original concrete and steel beneath.
Your daily allowance of printer substrate will be issued to you in bulk so that you may trade it for trinkets. A rope ladder will be lowered from above. One at a time you will be hoisted to the Zone. There, our guide, the man who identifies himself with the silver snowflake (henceforth referred to as [*]) shall greet us. He is an interesting specimen. Ask of him what you will. The tour begins at The Workshop, a vast, enclosed “maker space” where P’Zoners (as they call themselves) exchange goods, plans for new designs and information. Barter your substrate for unique souvenirs. Take a class in creation. Then enjoy a sandwich lunch carefully selected by the Sporks. Food may also be bartered with the natives.
After lunch you may explore the Zone at your leisure or enjoy another spirited debate between Reasor and Braum. Printerzone: Model City or Goofy Aberration? Dinner shall be served in the Workshop, which at night transforms into The Wild Rumpus. Guests in peak physical condition may want to join the carousing. (N.B. Beware of custom-printed entheogens and other libations, which, while they may be legal in the Printerzone, are not necessarily safe.)
Fresh croissants and a mug of coffee are the perfect way to begin a crisp Printetrzone morning! Daring types may wish to join [*] and don a protective suit printed from the city’s custom printers, and sink beneath the waves for a romp on the seafloor and a look at how the city has evolved below the waterline. Printerzone’s silver suits are said to work as well in orbit as they do submerged beneath the waves. You may examine copies of a Vogue pictorial featuring the suits.
For those who prefer a more relaxed pace in the morning, there will be a bicycle tour of the Zone’s famous hydroponic orchid nursery, its orphanage and its medical clinics (notable, for, among other things, performing the first artificial face transplant). There will also be a chance to examine the city’s recycling system up close as it transforms unwanted printer output and even sewage and brine into the raw materials for printing. No stinky smells we promise!
(All printed foods served aboard the ScholarShip are guaranteed to be free from precursor materials that were made from human waste or potential allergens.)
For lunch, if you’re ready for it, be prepared to break some taboos. Guided by [*], the Sporks, rabbis, halal butchers, vegan chefs, and a number of other experts, you will be given a unique opportunity to eat—among otherwise offensive offerings—a perfect facsimile of human flesh, pork, dolphin steak, non-toxic fugu flesh, endangered sea turtle, and even taste the world’s most potent toxins in perfect moral comfort and safety. Less adventurous offerings will also be available for the squeamish.
During lunch, Braum and Reasor will sound off on the subject of: Whether Full Employment is Possible in a post-3DP World. Braum says printing in three dimensions will kill off the middlemen who camp out in many employment categories (the warehouse managers, the marketing men…); Reasor agrees, but thinks the unfettered labor will be absorbed by innovative new industries. There will be time for questions. Coffee too.
After lunch there will be a demonstration of one of the most potent technologies to emerge from three-dimensional printing: the cheap invisibility cloak. Then you will be joined by some of the city’s most outrageous tailors, haberdashers, wig makers, and costume outfitters. Design a more colorful, eccentric version of yourself and then top off your creation with a freshly printed invisibility cloak, so that you might attend the night’s festivities in absolute comfort. You need only reveal yourself to those you want to. Buffet dinner. Brandy against the chill.
(N.B. Printerzone security forces are equipped with night-vision goggles, so rest assured that you will be safe, but don’t get any antisocial ideas. There are some rules to abide by!)
Pondering the Printerzone
On our fourth day, after a healthy, all-natural breakfast lovingly prepared by the Sporks on the ScholarShip, we delve into the Printerzone’s more pensive side. [*] will lead us on a tour of the Million Memorials, the serene necropolis where the city’s mourners print chalky likenesses of friends and family they’ve lost, and missing objects and abstractions too. A quiet, haunting place. After a pleasing serenade by the P’Zone wailers, we picnic among the monuments, and hear [*]’s own story of loss—his young bride who slipped over the railing during a photo session and drowned in the ocean— and gaze at the spun plastic residue of a brief but happy relationship and afterwards, stroll back to The Workshop for a chance to barter for more amusements.
The subject of the day’s lecture (delivered, of course by Braum and Reasor) will be: Three Dimensional Printing in the Developing World. Printing won’t be the panacea we think it will because the developing world lacks the infrastructure to sustain itself; but surely the availability of items that would otherwise have been unavailable is valuable—but what about the cottage industries that would be eradicated by printing, wouldn’t that snuff out any printing-related development? Drink during the lecture if you like. Gaze longingly at potential mates if you wish to. This is a pleasure cruise.
After a brief question and answer session, a fittingly austere supper will be served, and [*] will introduce us to a non-profit initiative sponsored by the Printerzone: a crisis response team that will race to trouble spots and, without the needless hassle of lines of communication and supply, be able to provide surgical equipment, medicines and shelter at a fraction of the cost… cost? Yes, even this barter-driven economy is soliciting funds. Contribute what you will. The city’s orphans hand out orchids.
Snack before the Wild Rumpus. Serenade. Custom sex surrogates printed for an additional fee. (Please: No printing of lecturers, crewmembers, fellow travelers without their expressed permission, no skin prints using DNA within a 15 percent match of your own.)
At home in the Printerzone
Many of travelers wake on their fifth day beside a grim memory, manifest in the form of slightly abused piezoelectric plastic. You may find it cathartic to batter your unwanted surrogate to pieces, or, if you are the showy sort—enter the surrogate into the ring for gladiatorial combat. The festivities begin with a squabble between Braum and Reasor’s creations (one wonders at the tension between them), followed by a battle royal, and a moving speech by [*] about whether or not a surrogate has a soul. Each participant will be allowed to download a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for later review.
By now you’ve spent nearly a week looking up at the frills wrapped around the upper decks of the rig. Perhaps you’ve wondered what the lives of the residents are like beyond the Wild Rumpus or the Workshop floor. Today you’ll enjoy an intimate glance at their living quarters.
Some might find this disturbing. There are children here, you might say, how could one live like this? But they’re hardly cut off; well, maybe they are cut off from nature and history and dry land but not the ‘net. See the data goggles they wear? The tykes and pubers who strut about the Zone have come to see the boundary between what is virtual and what is not as a thing much more permeable than you or I.
Here the Internet is inside out. People print virtual things. Shudder at the home robots with their suction cup attachments. Are they vacuum cleaners or sexual abominations or both? Much of the home décor won’t make sense unless you’re jacked into the ’net. Too prone to data dropsy to peer through a lens? Ask yourself why this trip appealed to you in this first place, but fear not—there are gentle entheogens that replicate the experience of data being blazed onto your eyeballs.
Nighttime. Rumpus again. Dance and flail until you feel yourself dissolve into the communal flesh. The Sporks have taken the day off. Truth be told they’re disgusted with three-dimensional printing and what it means for their profession. Can you blame them? Who cares, you aren’t hungry. From perched up high, the Zone looks terraced and circular like a medieval etching of The Inferno. The Rumpus looks like the writhing of the damned. You think you see Braum and Reasor embrace. [*] sits beside you and tells you his given name was Virgil. Has he been drugging you?
Beyond the Printerzone
Someone wakes you up by firing a pistol in the air. That’s right, there are a lot of weapons here. This is a polite society. Ugh, the sunlight streaming into your eyes is sheer agony. Your neurons are crying out. Caffeine! Dopamine! Serotonin! You wobble out on deck. The Sporks are back. Thank God the Sporks are back. They pour you a mug of coffee. They cut you a grapefruit. Crackling bacon, the smell of bread baking.
[*] won’t look you in the eye, the sweaty creep.
Above you the colorful plastic printed houses look chintzy in the light. They hoist you up. Peek below. The ScholarShip is an oasis of sanity and earthtones. Everything else is Technicolor Burp. Can you really face another day of this? The medic gives you something for your throbbing head. A party assembles. Wrapped sandwiches for lunch and shot-glasses of Astronaut Ice Cream. A hardhat. That silver protective garb you’ll have to peel off afterwards. The place stinks of kerosene (that’s jet fuel someone will say.) There are men from NASA, and men from the Air Force, and men with helmets that look like they’re made entirely from mirrorshades. Cyclopses. You want to leave. There’s a faint but unmistakable rumble.
Reasor and Braum waddle to the front of your party. Another debate: Space Exploration is Three-Dimensional Printing’s Killer App. This time they both agree. Reasor thinks the way to reach for the stars is to print a massive cable and haul ourselves up. Braum says that’s great, but what’s better is that you can go anywhere in space and print anything you could possibly need. You can beam plans to the spaceship, plans for things that weren’t invented when the ship took off. Applause. Time for questions. Cups of coffee. Cookies.
Wonder what if printers were used to print infinite printers?
Clutch your mug. Look around. The top level is cold and metallic. Limp suits hang waiting, rows of silver helmets that look like Belgian Glass globes wink in the setting sun. Rockets: fins, nose caps, nozzles, streamlined bellies, lie, being assembled from spools of plastic. Dinner is splendid and sober. You remember little of it. There were candles. An ant walked across the table.
Tonight there is no Wild Rumpus. You sleep on the rig, beneath the stars but protected by an infinitesimal layer of plastic. A storm blows in. Electricity rips the Arctic sky. Rain pounds plastic but never touches you. You are woken by a helmeted Cyclops: “Some visitors decide never to leave,” he says, extending a gloved hand. It’s silver. “We’ll nourish you.” Behind the smooth surface you can just make out the blurry face of [*]
Wake to the smell of Sporks’ cooking. A printed snowflake has been placed beside you. Visitors may opt to extend their stay. Or leave and never, ever come back.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Homo Erectus, or I Married a Ham
by Carol A. Westbrook
My husband loves big erections. Don't get me wrong, I'm not speaking here about Viagra, I'm talking about tall towers made of metal, long wires strung high in the sky, and tall antennas protruding from car roofs. He loves anything that broadcasts or receives those elusive radio waves, the bigger the better. That is because he is a ham, also known as an amateur radio enthusiast, and all hams love antennas.
Amateur radio has been around since the early 1900's, shortly after Marconi's first transatlantic wireless transmission in 1901. Initially, radio amateurs communicated using Morse code, as did commercial radiotelegraphy, but voice transmission quickly gained in popularity. In order to broadcast on the ham radio frequencies, hams must obtain an amateur radio license from the FCC, and a unique call sign, their ham "name." Proficiency in Morse code was required in order to obtain an amateur radio license, but this requirement was finally dropped in 2003, which opened up the field to many more interested radio amateurs, my husband being one of them. As a result, the hobby is becoming popular again. There are local clubs to join, as well as national get-togethers called "hamfests" where there are lectures, demonstrations, equipment swap-meets, and licensing exams.
What do hams do? They communicate by radio. They use everything from a battery-powered hand-held transmitter to a massive collection of specialized radio equipment located in a corner of their home or garage, which they call their "ham shack." (See picture of my husband's ham shack, above, in his library). They talk to other ham radio operators, and participate in conversations that may be local or span the globe, depending on the radio wavelength, the power of their transmitter, and their antenna. And they erect large antennas, perhaps on an outside tower or the roof of their home.
Like Marconi, hams learn early on that it's relatively easy to send out a radio signal, but the distance it travels depends as much on the size and configuration of the antenna as it does on the signal strength. There is an art to constructing an antenna, and hams spend a great deal of effort on it. That is why hams are fascinated by antennas. They are the quintessential "homo erectus."
My husband's fascination was fueled by his boyhood days. In the 1950's he felt isolated from the outside world because his family's radio and TV could only receive a few stations, living as they did in an a valley surrounded by the Pocono Mountains. He learned that he could receive more stations by stringing long wires throughout the house, or on the roof -- creating his own makeshift antennas. This led to an engineering degree, an interest in telecommunications, and a ham radio license.
Our houses are festooned with antennas. We have long wires strung from roof to garage, a small tower on the hillside, four large parabolic dishes, from 6 to 11 feet in diameter, that receive signals from transmitting satellites... but that's another story. We even have a stealth antenna in our garden which, to the casual observer, appears to be just another garden ornament, nestled among the roses. (See picture) Unlike other "ham widows" I don't mind these antennas -- they are certainly conversation pieces. I do not have a ham license--I didn't past the exam, but then again I didn't study for it. But I often go along with my husband to hamfests, including the famous Dayton Hamvention, which takes place every May.
What is so appealing about ham radio? Why spend your time and money to buy archaic equipment and erect antennas and mess up your house -- when you can just call on your cell or Skype your friend? The answer is simple -- because you can. As a hobbyist, you cannot easily make a micro chip, or build a cell phone, or create your own internet, but you can assemble your own equipment and broadcast your own voice, around the world. Just like Marconi! What a high! What a sense of empowerment! And ham radio is a great hobby for youngsters who want to learn about the electrical and mechanical world, and enjoy the challenge of "getting out of the valley" using their own ingenuity and design. If you would like to learn more, contact the national association for amateur radio, the American Radio Relay League, to learn how to get involved, or visit their headquarters and museum at 225 Main Street Newington, CT 06111-1494 USA. You might get hooked, too.
Is it Time for a Libertarian-Green Alliance?
by Akim Reinhardt
In the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis received over 6% the vote. If he had not run, much of his support would likely have gone to Republican Ken Cuccinelli rather than Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who won by a narrow 2.5% margin. Last year's U.S. Senate race in Montana also saw a Libertarian candidate siphon off 6.5% of the vote, which was well above Democrat Jon Tester's margin of victory. And of course many Democrats are still apoplectic about Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader raking in nearly 5% of the national vote in 2000, most of which would probably have otherwise gone to Democrat Al Gore. As is, Nader's candidacy created an opening for Republican George W. Bush to win . . . the controversial Supreme Court case that in turn awarded him Florida, and with it the White House.
For many Democrats and Republicans, Green and Libertarian candidates respectively are far more than a thorn in the side. They are both a source and target of intense rage.
How dare these minor party candidates, who have no actual chance of winning the election, muck things up by "stealing" votes that would have otherwise gone to us!
Indeed, there is no hatred quite so fierce like that which is reserved for apostates or kissin’ cousins.
But for committed Greens and Libertarians, the response is simple. Our votes are our own. You don’t own them. If you want them, you have to earn them instead of taking them for granted. And if you want to get self-righteously angry at someone because the other major party won the election, then go talk to the people who actually voted for the other major party. After all, they’re the ones who put that person in office, not us. Instead of looking for an easy scapegoat, go tell the people who voted for the candidate you hate why they’re so wrong. That is, if you’ve got the courage to actually engage someone from “the other” party. It’s really not that hard. As Greens and Libertarians, we have civil conversations with people from other parties pretty much everyday of our lives. You should try it some time.
But aside from the presumptuousness, arrogance, and cowardice framing the attacks typically launched at us by supporters of the major parties, what really galls Libertarians and Greens about the above statement is not the false claim we "stole" your election. It's that we "have no actual chance of winning the election."
And just why is that?
Why is it that in this supposedly healthy democracy, no third party candidate has ever won the presidency, or even come close? Why have only a handful of third party candidates ever been elected the U.S. Senate? Why, in an era when Congressional approval ratings are in single digits and disapproval ratings are a staggering 85%, do the two major parties continue to hold a monopoly on membership? And why do the two major parties thoroughly dominate every state and local government in the nation to the point that many the former and most of the latter are one-party parodies of a real democracy?
It's no mystery why the United States has been in the iron grip of a political duopoly for the last 175 years, or even longer, depending on when you pinpoint the emergence of modern political parties. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as Duverger's Law.
During the 1950s and 1960s, French Sociologist Maurice Duverger noted that a two-party system is the likely outcome in electoral systems where plurality voting (a form a single winner elections) determines the sole representative of a district. That is, when voters get one vote each, and are allowed to vote for just one candidate to determine a single legislative seat, the likely long term trend is a political system dominated by two-parties.
It is the only law in political science.
The United States largely fits the Duverger model. A single politician wins each election, and most elections use a form of simple plurality voting commonly called First Past the Post: the candidate who gets the most votes wins the election; a majority is not needed.
Duverger's Law is not absolute; more of a principle than a law in the scientific sense, there are exceptions and qualifications depending upon the electoral system. But it generally holds true, and it certainly helps explain the U.S. political duopoly. Democrats and Republicans have had a stranglehold on American politics since the 1850s.
Indeed, the United States has been beset by political duopoly from the very beginning, even since before there were political parties as we understand them today. What historians refer to as the First Party System came about during the 1790s, when two proto-parties that were more like political factions first appeared on the scene: the Democratic-Republican Party that initially rallied around Thomas Jefferson, and which eventually became the modern Democratic Party; and the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall, which collapsed into a minor regional concern after the War of 1812.
A period of single party rule is not uncommon in new nations striving for unity. And after the Federalists crumbled, the U.S. was under the sway of a single, factionalized party during the so-called Era of Good Feelings (1816-25). But a true duopoly was soon in the offing.
Historians generally point to the evolution of the Democrats under the leadership of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren 1820s and 1830s as signaling the emergence of the first modern American political party in terms of organization and function. The formation and success of the Jacksonian Democrats was soon followed by the rise of the Whigs in 1833, who assumed much of the old Federalist mantle. The modern, duopolistic tone in American politics was set. In the 1850s, the Whigs melted in the crucible of slavery, but the Republicans emerged from their ashes in 1854.
Since the establishment of the modern American political duopoly during the 1830s, there have been several attempts at creating a viable third party. The most successful effort came in the 1890s with the People's Party, better known as the Populist Party. Formed around farmers in the South and Midwest who, in a variety of ways, were deeply troubled by the rise of capitalism, Populists focused on issues of debt, currency reform, and the strict regulation of big business, up to and including the proposed government seizure of corporate land for redistribution to the public, government-owned alternatives to private banking, and even government-run monopolies on vital industries such as communications.
That's right. Several generations ago, many of the people in what are today the reddest, most Republican, free-market, Tea Partying parts of the United States, actually advocated socialistic reforms to combat the consolidating effects, crushing debt, and boom-bust cycle of capitalism. They even advocated the introduction of a national income tax despite the U.S. Constitution then banning one.
The Populists ran James B. Weaver for President in 1892. He garnered over a million popular votes (8.5%) and 22/444 electoral votes. With the upstart party poised for a potential breakthrough in 1896, the Democrats stole the Populists' thunder by nominating William Jennings Bryan, who co-opted many of their issues. After substantial debate, the Populists also nominated Bryan, though he failed to acknowledge them. After Bryan lost to William McKinley, the People's Party faded as a national concern. However, over the course of the 1890s they managed to win nearly a dozen state governorships, several dozen Congressional elections, including half a dozen U.S. Senate seats, and scores of seats in various state legislatures.
Next came the the short lived Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, which resulted from a schism among Republicans during the 1912 presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt had stepped down from the presidency in 1909 after nearly two-full terms in office, and been replaced by his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. However, it wasn't long before Roosevelt was itching to return to the White House. He became publicly critical of Taft, and eventually challenged him for the Republican nomination in 1912. When that failed, he formed his own political party. Though closely associated with TR, in truth the Progressive Party represented something much bigger than one man's political ambition.
By 1912, the United States was at the height of its great period of reform, the Progressive Era, which the Populists had anticipated in many ways. Bubbling up during the 1890s, progressivism grew into a wide ranging set of social movement during the first two decades of the 20th century. America was awash with countless reform movements advocating everything from business regulations and labor rights to women's suffrage to political reform to the prohibition of alcohol.
While Roosevelt's Progressive Party received only spotty support from Republican stalwarts, independent and loosely affiliated reformers flocked to it. The party's platform called for a host of prescient, progressive reforms, including some which had been advocated by the Populists. Among them were: the registration of political lobbyists; the disclosure and regulation of political campaign contributions; social security; an eight hour workday; a minimum wage; a securities exchange commission; worker's compensation for job-related injuries; a constitutional amendment allowing for a federal income tax; an inheritance tax; a constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of U.S. Senators; and binding primary elections. The Progressives were also the only party in 1912 to support constitutional amendment guaranteeing women's suffrage. And during the heyday of Jim Crow racial apartheid, Roosevelt inflamed racists by inviting black delegates from outside the South to his convention, and by publicly dining with African Americans.
But like the Populist James Weaver 20 years earlier, even Teddy Roosevelt was unable to pull off a third party presidential bid. However, he did capture the second biggest portion of popular votes at 27%, ahead of Taft. Yet another third party candidate, Socialist Eugene Debs, took another 6%. On the electoral map, TR accrued 88 electoral votes, while Taft managed to win only 8. But Democrat Woodrow Wilson took the lion's share of electoral votes to win the presidency in landslide, despite getting less than 42% of the popular vote. The Progressive Party did manage to elect more than a dozen congressmen and several hundred state legislators during the 1910s, but by the end of the decade it was essentially defunct.
Duverger's Law has persisted in America, uninterupted, even with huge cultural groundswells like those seen at the turn of the 20th century. The many advantages available to established major parties have helped preserve the political duopoly, and the two parties have been very active in taking steps to maintain their joint control. For example, 42 of the 50 states have legally banned a vital tactic once available to third parties: electoral fusion.
Electoral fusion is the practice of smaller parties uniting with each other on an electoral ticket, or perhaps even uniting with a major party that needs help winning an election. Fusion parties will nominate the same candidate, so a vote for either party is a vote for both. This allows smaller parties subvert Duverger's Law by combining forces, or by riding a larger party's coattails. But this approach has long been illegal is most states, and in 1996 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such bans, thereby further crippling smaller parties.
Lacking a parliamentary system, and painted into a corner by the major parties, it is very difficult for smaller parties in America to gain representation in legislative bodies. Thus, neither house of Congress currently has a third party member; the 435 members of the House are entirely Republicans and Democrats, while the Senate boasts two "independents" among its 100 members, one of whom is a former major party member. The other, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is actually a socialist who runs as an independent, because the combination of third party repression and the legacy of the Cold War makes it political suicide to call oneself a Socialist in America.
Of late, it seems that the only viable way to overcome the American political duopoly to any substantial degree is to be a billionaire.
In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president against Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. Financing his own campaign to the tune of over $12 million, Perot raked in nearly a fifth of the popular vote. But he earned no electoral votes, and his Reform Party was a party in name only; in reality it was little more than a vehicle for his personal ambition.
More recently, billionaire Michael Bloomberg used his vast wealth to finance three successful elections as mayor of New York City. A political newcomer, Bloomberg was a Democrat with insufficient sway in the city's Democratic machine. So he used his wealth to bend the duopoly to his ends, becoming a Republican out of sheer political expedience, and emerging as arguably that party's most liberal elected official this century. Ironically perhaps, New York is one of the few states where electoral fusion is still allowed, and Bloomberg also used that tactic to his advantage. He funneled some of his money through the Independence Party, which helped him immensely during his first mayoral run in 2001.
At the moment there are quite a few small parties floating about, like stellar debris circling the twin solar orbit of the Republican/Democratic duopoly. Among them, the two small parties with the most followers and the most national name recognition are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.
I am a registered Green. I typically vote Green when that is an option, though it usually is not; the same political party that plays an important role in democracies across the globe has trouble getting off the ground in America while it strains under the oppressive weight of the American duopoly. But I am a registered Green because among the available choices, the Green Party best represents my ideals and interests. I have little in common with today's Republican Party, which is lurching ever rightward. And while I'm more apt to agree with the Democratic Party's center-right platforms than the far-right GOP, even those often do not jibe with my own center-left leanings.
Philosophically, neither major party is a comfortable home for me, which is enough for me to forgo membership in either. But perhaps more importantly, I believe that the very existence of the duopoly itself has a deleterious effect on American politics. And I believe breaking down that duopoly could potentially benefit the United States.
All of this has led me to wonder about the possibility of an unorthodox political strategy:
Is it time for a Green-Libertarian alliance?
At first glance, this seems ludicrous. After all, Greens and Libertarians are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. But then again, elementary political theory teaches us that the metaphorical spectrum of politics is like the spectrum of visible light: a circle. Go far enough in one direction and you just might come out on the other side.
Like most thoughtful Greens, I can't help but notice that there are some elements of libertarian philosophy that appeal to me. Likewise, I've met many Libertarians who are simpatico with certain Green ideas. While offering disparate economic policies, the two groups do have clear overlaps in both domestic and foreign policy.
With that in mind, I can't help but think that a political alliance might serve them well and help mitigate the duopoly's marginalizing effects. Could an alliance between these two outsider parties benefit them both? And if so, what would it actually look like?
The first step would be finding a way to make this odd couple pairing somehow palatable to both parties. The starting point is of course their mutual opposition to the duopoly. In addition to seeking a political advantage through some form of alliance, both parties can rally around the belief that the duopoly itself is a major contributing factor in the denigration of American politics and society.
Beyond political expedience and mutual antipathies, the two parties would need to find enough philosophical middle ground to make the pairing viable. And that could begin with the shared space at the intersections of Green social progressivism and social libertarianism. Both parties, though not always for the same reasons, do have several shared ideals in this area.
Shared general outlooks include: maintaining a wall of separation between church and state; supporting gender equality; supporting equal rights for GBLT people; and liberal interpretations of free speech. Both parties also both promote several specific policies, including: abortion rights; the right to die; ending capital punishment; scaling back (or eliminating altogether) U.S. surveillance of Americans; and ending the war on drugs. And in foreign affairs, Greens and Libertarians both favor tempering U.S. intervention abroad.
An amalgamation of these and other domestic and foreign policies may be enough to broach a temporary political alliance. But what would that alliance look like and what can it accomplish? In other words, to what extent can it help America skirt Duverger's Law?
Potential real politick advantages, which both parties could reap from a temporary, earnest, and skillfully implemented alliance, are manifold. Such an action could draw more attention to both parties and their platforms. It could increase both of their vote totals, perhaps culminating with electoral victories. And it could decrease their political isolation, advancing their fuller integration into American society, culture, and political life.
How would it actually work? That is probably the most complicated part.
In the 8 states where electoral fusion is legal, this is an important tactic to consider. From time to time, run mutually acceptable candidates on a joint ticket. Vote counts should at least double, and that in turn could lead to a snowball effect.
In the rest of America, both parties should begin a campaign to overturn oligarchic bans on fusion. In the meantime, however, the two parties could form an unofficial fusion. Essentially, they could trade votes. Each party could urge its members to vote for the other party's candidate when not running their own candidate. In other words, encouraging Greens to vote for Libertarians when there is no Green candidate and visa versa. Such consolidations could have the effect of boosting vote counts for both parties.
In presidential elections, the two parties might trade quadrennial cycles, so that both parties would unite behind each other's candidate in alternating elections. If either should reach the magical 5% threshold of popular votes, as Green candidate Ralph Nader almost did in 2000, that party would be eligible for public campaign financing the next time around.
Finally, aside from concrete political gains, real outreach may perhaps be the most productive thing that could emerge from Greens-Libertarian alliance. While the two sides will clearly never agree on many, or perhaps even most issues, coming together for planning and strategy sessions could undoubtedly help both groups as they design ways to subvert Duverger's Law, to pull America from the clutches of its slouching, snorting duopoly, and to breath real life into an increasingly broken political system.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Christopher Wool. Sans Titre, 2002.
Current show at Guggenheim.
musica universalis (天球の音楽)
by Leanne Ogasawara
Walking in vain up and down the aisles, I thought how we are indeed living in an age when consumerism has replaced citizenship. It was somehow really disheartening seeing all the "stuff."
But then, just as I was going to lodge a complaint, something amazing caught my eye...A McIntosh sound system with exposed tubes on display right in front of my eyes!! Is it possible, I wondered, that McIntosh somehow stayed in business and are still putting old-style systems out? Not surprisingly given the ecstatic look on our faces a sales staff member invited us to try out the system in their special sound room. And there as we sat in the sweet spot listening to Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes felt the soundwaves washing over us.
Nostalgically, I recalled how music used to be something you could feel in your tummy--something that traveled on the air making its way to your ears... My beloved probably would have preferred listening to Mozart on that sound system --but for me, I was transported back to Southern Africa, when a neighbor in Mafeteng used to listen at night to that album on an old record. It was in the early 90s and the sound really traveled...Music was such a part of everyday life there and what was not live singing and playing was on records and old casette tapes.
Uncompressed and amplified.
This all reminded me of a great show Robert Harrison did for entitled opinions with fellow Stanford professor Gabriella Safron on the history of listening."Generalizations are always problematic," he said, "but there is one generalization you can make about western civilization that won't get you into any trouble. And that is that Western civilization is one that thorougly philoscopic." That is to say that Western culture from very ancient times has priledged vision over the other senses. There is no question about this; from Plato's Ideal forms (eidos: visible aspect) to a Proustian vision, it was spiritual vision (and rational in-sights) that were thought to be the means to knowledge.
Harrison mentions being amazed at the way our video technology progresses constantly--while that of our audio continues to degenerate. This is also something that is unquestionably true. When I returned permently to California after twenty years, one of the many things that surprised me was how sound systems seemed to have disappeared. In Japan, we continued with a sound system and most of our friends has stereos. It was rare to listen to radically compressed digital music. Based on my own experience at least, I would say that Harrison is correct that while video technology has progressed in stunning ways, over those same two decades since I've been away our sound techology probably has degenerated. At least that is how it felt for me sitting at Best Buy--since the experience was one of pleasurable nostalgia.
The show on listening is fascinating and I highly recommend it. After discussing ancient Greek philosophy (vision) and the Hebew Bible (listening), Saffron discusses how difficult it is for us to even imagine a time when information was taken in mainly by sound. This was a world where there was a shared calendar too, and for example the liturgy was repeated every year like a clock and people let information sink in over time by listening over and over again. They discussed the way that ritual listening has all but disappeared from our modern lives.
Now, we prioritize new information and that is almost always taken in through independent reading. Saffron, who is a Slavic languages specialist, talks about the pleasure people must have in repeated listening. To hear something again and again. For Easter, she described the Orthodox tradition of greeting one another with the paschal greeting: Christ has risen, truly He is risen...
It is a kind of embodied knowledge and also an embodied know-how, and these are things that are inherently pleasurable (thinking of Csíkszentmihályi's work on Flow Experience). These shared and repeated experiences can-- by teaching us each to wait, as well as to beckon us to something beyond our own personal concerns and predilections-- give a shape to one's life and perhaps even impart a certain meaning.
I knew a man who a few years ago sat down under a Tree of Heaven in Northern Thailand and decided that he wanted to create a literary salon like the legendary one that had existed at the Heian Court in ancient Japan. A gathering place of aristocratic refinement, the aristocratic salon of the Heian court was a place where a small group of people devoted to the arts and other intellectual pursuits could come together and enjoy each other's company.
This appealed to my friend immensely. In a word, I guess, he was looking for stimulating conversation, and he thought that the Internet could actually make that a reality.
Think about it, he urged: here at our fingertips we have a technology that can put us in touch with thousands-- literally thousands upon thousands-- of people. With such a technology, it should only be a matter of filtering-- to find just the right handful of people.
The Heian Court-- It was a world where the most brilliant minds of the time gathered. In clothing so beautiful it boggles the mind, they wiled away their days exchanging gorgeous love poems in clouds of sweet-smelling incense smoke and fragrant blossoming flowers. Playing games, they would attend banquets where dances from Central Asia-- slowed way, way down-- were performed by the light of the full moon, and in Chinese-style dragon boats they floated around ponds drinking warm sake and moon-viewing. It must have been like living within a cloud of fragrant incense clouds and blossoming flowers.
They were not only connoisseurs of the highest rank, but they were performers of the arts as well-- as, of course, at that time "art" was not something to be viewed, but rather something to be practiced.
Just imagining how exquisite their world was-- who wouldn't be "green with envy?"
Well, you can probably imagine how my friend's experiment went....
But, wait, perhaps you agree with my friend that surely the Internet could bring together a small group of such like-minded people? Think about it, though. What would a salon like he was envisioning really require?
Well, an Internet connection for one. And then an interest and commitment to talking about art or other intellectual matters perhaps?
While certainly that would be a great place to start, however, I cannot help but feel that like most every other conversation I see online, things would before long peter out. Politics will always generate heated discussion, but real intellectual community? Just taking the Heian court as an example, I think something more is required. And that something more is, I suggest, a shared literary and cultural background. I honestly cannot come up with anything else that would serve as the necessary framework for the kind of conversation my friend was looking for.
Not only would the shared background ensure that the cultural, artistic and psychological associations were being made that are the hallmark of a true salon, but it is perhaps the only real way to achieve elegant conversation of the kind he is talking about.
In that sense, I think we have lost much in our increasing drive toward specialization. Not that long ago, a university education perhaps at the very least included a cursory reading in Greek mythology or Latin; Roman history and Western philosophy. I remember once sitting in a bar with a group of Japanese colleagues and someone mentioned "summer nights"-- and that was it, as if on cue, they all chanted in perfect unison the famous opening lines written by the Lady herself, Sei Shonagon
Natsu wa yoru. In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful
The words were a thousand years old. And, I thought, what line could a handful of random Americans repeat like that-- perhaps other than the Pledge of Allegiance?
And going back to Robert Harrison's Entitled Opinions show--for classical Japanese, a poem (uta) was written using the same character for "song"--since poems were meant to be sang, chanted, spoken or whispered....
New information was important to be sure, but what was always prioritized was shared motifs and internalized exemplars.
This brings me to my second point. Most traditional salon societies (like that at the Heian Court) had a strong emphasis on learning "by heart."
Westerners often disparage what they call "rote learning" but it does have a few merits. In fact, I would argue, that without this kind of "learning by heart," the shared cultural achievements of the salon would have been impossible-- because of course there was an undeniable emphasis on performing; for example, being able to reply with the perfect reference to an ancient poem, recognize the exact blend of aromatics, recall a historical precedent from the Continent, etc. These were all required abilities. And for better or worse, it is this that is one glaring difference between conversations in the blogosphere and what we read about in the Tale of Genji.
Memorization and learning by heart was, of course, always only the first stage.
Many never make it past this stage, sure, but, the internalization of knowledge ideally led to imaginative and creative conclusions. So that, for example, even today in Japan, the rules and conventions of writing calligraphy are rigorously taught. If a character is not written according to the rules, it is marked "wrong." This rule is upheld much further than elementary school. It is not, however, the end of the road. And, the same can be said of the traditional subjects as well-- in particular medicine, mathematics and philosophy: vast amounts of knowledge were bodily memorized taking years. This, however, was never the final goal. My calligraphy teacher used to tell us that the breaking of calligraphic rules are only beautiful or interesting in those people who have mastered the rules. Never the other way around.
This stress on internalization of exemplery models has a fundamentally different approach than modern styles of learning where knowledge is imparted systematically.
The Japanese philosopher I once worked with believed that modern Western model of systematized knowledge is based on a mind-body division (Descartes). Acording to this philosopher, in the pre-modern Japanese world, there was no division between mind and body in the language as "mi" and "karada" 身体 encompassed both mind and body. For that reason, he exaplained, traditional Japanese arts, like dancing and music, were taught by emulation. There was no breaking down of the whole into parts, not real systematization, but rather the pupil just copied over and over again the teachers example. It was, in fact, true bodily learning.
And it was this internalization of exemplary models and the repeated listening and speaking of shared knowledge that could lead to real wisdom through shared examples, texts and patterns.
A propos of all of this, a friend recently sent me Ames' introduction to the Art of War:
In contrast with its classical Greek counterpart where "knowing" assumes a mirroring correspondance between an idea and an objective world, this Chinese "knowing" is resolutely participatory and creative-- "tracing" in both the sense of etching a pattern and following it. To know is "to realize," "to make real." The path is not a "given," but is made in the treading of it. Thus, one's own actions are always a significant factor in the shaping of one's world.
I like this idea a lot of treading on a path as a way of knowing since it gets closer to a kind of Heideggerian (or Japanese philosophical ) notion of knowledge as understanding and fascination--not as efficient resource consumption or self-augmenting-- but rather as an embodied know-how and attunement to the "vibrations" of the world ~~~~~and the music of the spheres.
Black and Blue: Measuring Hate in America
by Katharine Blake McFarland
On Saturday, September 20, 2013, Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh man who wears a turban, was attacked by a group of teenagers in New York City. "Get Osama," they shouted as they grabbed his beard, punched him in the face and kicked him once he fell to the ground. Though Singh ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw, he survived the attack.
More than a year earlier, on a hot day in July, Wade Michael Page walked into Shooters Shop in West Allis, Wisconsin. He picked out a Springfield Armory XDM and three 19-round ammunition magazines, for which he paid $650 in cash. Kevin Nugent, like many gun shop owners, reserves the right not to sell a weapon to anyone who seems agitated or under the influence, and Page, he said, seemed neither. But he was wrong. Eight days after his visit to Shooters Shop, Page interrupted services at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, about thirty minutes southeast of West Allis, by opening fire on Sunday morning worship. He killed six people and wounded three others, and when local police authorities arrived on the scene, he turned the gun on himself.
Page, it turns out, had been a member of the Hammerskins, a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist offshoot born in the late 1980s in Dallas, Texas, responsible for the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses and the brutal murders of nonwhite victims. He was under the influence. The influence of something lethal, addictive, and distorting: indoctrinated hatred. We don't know the precise array of influences motivating the teenagers who attacked Prabhjot Singh. But even considering the reckless folly of youth, their assault against him—a man they did not know, a physician and professor targeted only for his Sikh beard and turban—reverberates down the history of American hate crimes.
Last fall, I attended a workshop offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center on hate groups in the United States. The workshop was part of an educational retreat for law enforcement and corrections officials, and was being held at a remote lodge in northern Ohio on one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, trees ablaze against a deep blue sky that betrays the blackness of space behind it. It was a strangely glorious setting in which to learn about skinheads. The dissonance was unnerving.
The man leading the workshop on hate groups was very muscular, a little shiny and a bit red in the face. Reminiscent of a cartoon bull, he is the kind of man I instinctively hope never to see angry. When I googled him before the presentation nothing turned up, but this anonymity is purposeful. Since the 1980s, SPLC has used the courts to undermine extremist groups, winning large damage awards on behalf of victims. Several hate groups have been bankrupted by these verdicts, rendering SPLC the occasional target of retaliatory plots. Thus, the low Internet profile and somewhat threatening physique of the workshop presenter, whose singular job it is to monitor these groups day in and day out. I found myself wondering about his family—what did his children know about their father's work, what did they think of it, were they safe?
Before the workshop, my knowledge of hate groups was limited, an epistemological deficiency afforded by privilege. I knew about the terror of the Klan in the 1800s, and their resurgence in the 1900s. I had studied, read, and heard firsthand stories of cross burnings and lynchings, sinister echoes of our nation's Original Sin. But my notion of modern-day extremism was based on the occasional unkempt white supremacist, rising up from his subterranean Internet world to buy a town. According to SPLC, the reality is more damning. Here's what I wrote down in my notebook during the workshop:
- There are more than 1000 active hate groups, including Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, and border vigilantes.
- This figure—this 1000+—represents a 67% increase since 2000.
- Since 44th President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813% from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.
- Only 5 – 15% of hate crimes are committed by actual hate groups.
In the margin next to this fourth fact, I scribbled three question marks and the words, how do we measure threat?
When I was six years old, my favorite fairytale was The Princess and the Pea. The Prince's search for a real Princess, a designation determined entirely by her sensitivity to a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, seemed remarkable. As an unduly sensitive child, I marveled at the notion that sensitivity could be the key to a happy ending. In my own life, even in those earliest years, sensitivity seemed only a liability.
But lately I've remembered the story in a different light, for its comment on what lies beneath. The ability of unseen, seemingly insignificant phenomena to affect the surface. A relatively small proportion of all hate crimes are committed by hate group members. But statistical insignificance might not obviate concern because numbers might tell only part of the story. I scarcely slept at all, the Princess said, I'm black and blue all over.
Here is a problem of statistical measurement: in 2008, two professors wrote a white paper that found no significant relationship between hate groups and hate crimes. "Though populated by hateful people," they write, " [hate groups] may be a lot of hateful bluster." But in 2010, Professor Mulholland at Stonehill College conducted a study that found hate crimes to be "18.7 percent more likely to occur in counties with active white supremacist hate group chapters."
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics out this year, victims are less likely to report hate crimes to the police than they were ten years ago, with only 35 percent of all crimes reported. The result is that thousands of hate crimes go uncounted each year. This study also found an increase in the number of violent victimizations (92 percent of all hate crimes are now violent), and an increase in the number of religiously-motivated crimes over the past 10 years.
In a somewhat complicated coincidence, the problem of inaccurate data collection was addressed by Prabhjot Singh in a New York Times op-ed he wrote over a year ago. He called on the FBI to stop categorizing anti-Sikh violence as anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic in their annual reports. He decried the popular assumption that all hate crimes against Sikhs are instances of "mistaken identity," wherein the attacker assumes the victims to be Muslim. A true and fair grievance. But a year and a month later, Singh was victimized in his own neighborhood in Harlem by a group of teenagers yelling, "get Osama."
How do we measure threat?
Just after the shooting at Oak Creek, and months before the workshop on hate groups, I attended an interfaith service at a Sikh Gurdwara to commemorate those killed by Wade Michael Page. Upon entering the Gurdwara, I was instructed to take off my shoes, which I did, and then a young woman handed me a scarf to cover my head. I was escorted to a long, white room, with an aisle down the center—women sitting on the floor to the left, men on the right, and an altar adorned with brightly colored tapestries and cloths at the front. The room was almost full, but I found a spot near the back. The women's headscarves—blood orange, deep blue, and scarlet—burned beautifully against the white walls.
The service opened with a Sikh prayer, and Dr. Butalia, the leader of this Gurdwara, welcomed us all in English. He expressed how much it meant to him and his community to be supported by so many visitors, and he asked all the Christians to stand. I stood up, along with the two Catholic nuns in front of me, and about fifteen others. When we sat down, he asked all the Muslims to stand. When the Muslims sat down, he asked the Jews to stand, then the Hindus, then the Buddhists, then the Baha'i, then the Jains, then the "various people of conscience." With each group that stood, the hard shell formed by the word "stranger" cracked and dissolved. Children ran back and forth across the aisle, holding hands, on important missions from mother to father and back again. Dr. Butalia described his friend, Satwant Kaleka, the leader of the Gurdwara in Oak Creek who died trying to protect his congregation with a butter knife. His voice faltered, "He was a peaceful man." Then we prayed for the man who killed Kaleka. We prayed for Wade Michael Page, naming him "a victim of hatred," and we prayed for his family.
Towards the end of the service, a speaker told us a story that went something like this: a long time ago, there was a king who sought to be the most powerful man in all the land. He went around proving his strength by breaking the branches off trees with his bare hands. A wise man saw him doing this and approached him. "‘Oh, you are very strong,' said the wise man, ‘but now, can you put it back together?' People who destroy are not powerful," the speaker said, "people who unite are powerful."
The earliest definition of the word "victim" dates back to the 15th century and connotes a holy sacrifice. By the following century, the word lost its exclusively sacred associations, and today four definitions are offered:
- a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency;
- a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency;
- a person or animal sacrificed or regarded as sacrificed;
- a living creature sacrificed in religious rites.
A person harmed by injurious agency. A person deceived by her own ignorance. A person sacrificed. It's too much to measure.
And there is no word or concept for "victim" in the Sikh tradition. After he was attacked, Prabhjot Singh's responses embodied the Sikh concept of chardi kala, which translates to "joyous spirit" or "perpetual optimism." He said that if he could talk to his attackers he would "ask them if they had any questions," and "invite them to the Gurdwara where we worship." He was also thoughtful about his one-year-old son: "I can't help but see the kids who assaulted me as somehow linked to him."
Numbers and naming can take us only so far. Sometimes causality defies quantifiable analysis and sometimes the relationship of one thing to another is indirect, cyclical, or statistically unlikely. A restless night, a confusing coincidence. Perhaps the question is not exclusively, or even primarily, one of measurement—the measurement of threat and causation, the correct category and quantity of victims—but a different question entirely:
Can you put it back together? I'm black and blue all over.
Getting over our fear of neurobiological psychiatry
by Grace Boey
What does the brain have to do with mental illness? The answer is – perhaps – a lot. Psychiatric drugs that affect brain chemistry have met with increasing success and acceptance over the past few decades, giving credence to the idea that fixing the brain might fix our mental problems. Growing amounts of research also suggest that many psychiatric conditions are linked to the brain. Though nothing as dramatic as a single “depressive switch” has been found, independent studies suggest that dysregulation of the cortical-limbic system plays a large role in major depression. It’s also been hypothesized that schizophrenia is a misconnection syndrome, or an underlying problem in the ability of different brain regions to send messages back and forth efficiently and accurately.
Yet, overly brain-based approaches to mental disorder face large amounts of backlash. For one, studies like the ones above are far from conclusive. Also, history has given us good reason to be suspicious of brain-based psychiatric theories and treatments (lobotomy, anyone?). Psychoactive drugs alone are often inadequate for treating mental illness, and most patients respond best to a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
Perhaps the biggest setback to neurobiological views of psychiatry is the following intuition: that we aren’t just our brains. A person can’t simply be reduced or equated to her brain, and to do so would dehumanize the patient. Viewing clinical psychiatry as a brain-fixing exercise ignores the fact that patients are people with feelings, stories and personal problems that have brought them to the doctor’s office in the first place. We can't just pump patients full of drugs, and then tell them to go home. The importance of this seems to be confirmed in the superior efficacy, in so many cases, of psychotherapy over drugs.
So, what are we supposed to do with all this neuropsychiatric research? It hardly seems that we should just ignore it. At the same time, we want to recognize that a patient can’t – and shouldn’t – be treated as just a brain. Lots of lip service is paid to how neuroscience and psychology are supposed to “work together hand in hand”, yet tugging intuitions on mental illness make it hard to articulate just why or how this harmony is supposed to occur. The current patchwork, “whatever works best” approach to psychiatric treatment betrays a widespread lack of grounding principles for the concept of mental disorder. As Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) puts it, “Patients with mental disorders deserve better.”
Symptoms versus causes
One big reason for all the confusion is this: psychiatry often focuses disproportionately on mental symptoms, rather than underlying causes (or, pathologies). Take, for example, The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is perhaps the most widely used diagnostic standard by clinical practitioners and insurance companies in America. DSM defines and categorizes mental disorders solely according to what symptoms are displayed, and determining whether someone has a mental disorder usually involves checking items off a list. According to DSM-IV, for someone to be considered depressed, she must simply meet at least 5 of a list of 9 symptoms – persistent depressed mood, diminished interest or pleasure in activities, weight loss, insomnia, agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death.
Why is such an approach problematic? In the rest of clinical medicine, we know that different diseases or disorders can produce identical symptoms (one only needs to watch an episode of House to get an inkling of this). Consequently, symptom-based treatment rarely gets to the root of the problem. For example, coughing is a symptom that can reflect anything from the common cold to tuberculosis. The diagnoses and treatments for the cold and tuberculosis are obviously very different, and we don’t think of them as being similar illnesses. What happens in the body of someone with tuberculosis is completely different from that of someone with a cold.
On April 29 2013, NIMH released (through Insel’s blog) a scathing critique of DSM. The statement affirmed what many had been complaining about for decades – that DSM lacked a valid way of defining disorders, concentrated entirely on symptoms, and held psychiatry back from catching up with the rest of clinical medicine. The way we carve up the vast field of mental disorders is wrong, or at least counterproductive. Here is an excerpt:
While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary … The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.
If the way we identify and classify mental disorders is mistaken, then it’s no wonder we’ve got problems developing effective treatments – both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic – for specific disorders. It’s no surprise either that we’ve had problems identifying neurobiological commonalities between patients with the same disorders. We’re pretty much just groping around in the dark.
NIMH proposes a new research approach, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC):
RDoC is a framework for collecting the data needed for a new nosology. … The diagnostic system has to be based on the emerging research data, not on the current symptom-based categories. Imagine deciding that EKGs were not useful because many patients with chest pain did not have EKG changes. This is what we have been doing for decades when we reject a biomarker because it does not detect a DSM category. We need to begin collecting the genetic, imaging, physiologic, and cognitive data to see how all the data – not just the symptoms – cluster and how these clusters relate to treatment response.
… Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system. … Clinical trials might study all patients in a mood clinic rather than those meeting strict major depressive disorder criteria. Studies of biomarkers for “depression” might begin by looking across many disorders with anhedonia or emotional appraisal bias or psychomotor retardation to understand the circuitry underlying these symptoms.
Such an approach would effectively help psychiatry catch up with the rest of clinical medicine. Nancy Andreasen, Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine, cites the need to conform to medical research’s iterative process of discovery:
In the absence of a pathological marker, the current definitions of mental illnesses are syndromal and are based on a convergence of signs, symptoms, outcome, and patterns of familial aggregation.
Finding the neural mechanisms of mental illnesses must be an iterative process; syndromal clinical definitions (or the phenomeno-type) are progressively tested, refined, and redefined through the measurement of neurobiological aspects (or the bio-type). This process is not fundamentally different from that used to study other diseases. The diagnosis of diabetes, for example, has evolved from the observation of glucosuria to multiple subdivisions based on age of onset, severity of symptoms and complications, degree of islet cell movement, and genetic factors.
Judging disorder with the mental, defining disease with the brain
So far, so good for the psychiatric revolution. But how does the “symptoms versus causes” debate affect the principles behind our concept of mental illness? In particular, what role can the brain play in psychiatry, and what roles can’t it play?
If we are to follow the NIMH’s lead, then mental disorders will ideally be defined and demarcated by patterns in brain structure and activity. Yet there’s strong reason to think that psychological functions will have priority in judging the presence of disorder. We’ll never be able to judge, just by looking at someone’s brain, whether there is a disorder at hand or not. Even if we perfect our identification and mapping of various mental disorders onto the brain, neurobiological correlations – or even causations – do nothing to change the fact that we had identified symptoms as disorderly to begin with. Major depression and schizophrenia were identified long before we developed any real capacity to study the brain. If not for the devastating mental symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, we wouldn’t think anything of the plaques and tangles it causes in the brains of its sufferers; we would simply look at such brains as having benign growths as opposed to being disorderly. It is simply not the case that we go around identifying deviant brain states, and then identifying them as mental disorders.
Derek Bolton, Professor of Philosophy and Psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings’ College London notes:
Structural neuroimaging studies are able to detect signs of neural abnormality or damage, such as atrophy … However … whether a brain structural abnormality matters in relation to psychological functioning can only be judged in these terms, in terms of the associated psychological functioning, not in terms of the physical characteristics of the brain as such. Structural abnormality of the brain does not necessarily imply abnormality in psychological functioning, and still less does the former capture what is mean by the latter.
Functional neuroimaging studies of people with some specified psychological condition indicate what neural areas and paths of connectivity are implicated in that condition. This methodology applies in the same way whether the condition in question is normal or abnormal … Analogous to the point just made about structural neuroimaging … whether a specified kind of psychological functioning is normal or abnormal is a matter to be judged in these terms, in terms of psychological or behavioural functioning, not in terms of the brain activity involved. By all means it is the case that if we are assuming that a specific psychological condition is a disorder then we may say in a derivative sense that the brain activity involved in producing it is disordered, but the inferential logic runs this way round, not the other: we do not see from the functional neuroimages that the brain activity (or the areas involved in the brain activity) are disordered, and then infer that the associated psychological functioning is a disorder.
It’s important to note that this issue crops up for physical disorders as well. Physical abnormalities are only considered disorders in virtue of their bad effects on the individual. Yet these effects are still distinct from the underlying disorders themselves – the inflammation of the bronchi that defines bronchitis is distinct from the chest pains, wheezing and excess phlegm that it causes. And insofar as pain is a mental state, then a significant number of physical disorders are disorders almost solely in virtue of a mental symptom – such as arthritis. Conversely, there are many clearly deviant physical conditions that aren’t seen as disorders, like polydactylism (an excess of toes or fingers). Having six toes on one foot is an anomaly, not a disease.
Principles behind integrated treatment
The kind of picture we have now is this: the psychological domain still has a role in judging the presence of mental disorder, while the disease is ultimately defined and identified in the brain. But our work here isn’t done – psychology and neuroscience still compete in providing treatment for the mentally ill.
One worry with holding the view sketched so far is that it puts one in the company of those who think psychiatry should be considered a subfield of neurology. This view is often seen as implying that psychiatric methods must mirror neurological methods; that is to say, psychiatrists should focus on treating brains, and the patient’s psychological states should only be important in giving symptomatic clues to the underlying disorder. Once a diagnosis is made, medicine for the brain is prescribed, and psychotherapy is inappropriate. The patient is, essentially, a brain to be fixed.
Such an objection has several problems. First and foremost, psychologically-based treatments like counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are capable of altering the brain itself. CBT for major depression seems to affect clinical recovery by modulating the functioning of specific sites in limbic and cortical regions. Effective CBT for phobia corresponds with a decrease in limbic and paralimbic activity, and effective CBT for OCD is associated with decreased metabolism in right caudate nucleus.
If that’s still too impersonal, then consider this next point. Many mental disorders seem to follow a diathesis-stress model, where a mental illness manifests when someone with the predisposition for it (or, ‘diathesis’) interacts with a stressor from life experience. Someone with a genetic predisposition to major depression, for example, may only develop the condition after a trigger event such as a bad relationship or the death of a loved one. This is why depression seems to be influenced by such a large number of factors, including psychological, social, environmental and genetic ones.
If this is so, then there’s a very real sense in which a therapist needs to engage with the patient as a person, and address his qualitative emotions and personal problems in order to help him clinically. Psychotherapy might help a mentally-troubled individual tremendously by helping him cope with the stressor that originally triggered her symptoms, allowing her to move on from an episode. Such therapy can also help a patient develop healthier psychological habits that prevent him from relapsing into bad states. Where the diathesis-stress model is applicable, overcoming personal problems is essential to clinical recovery. It’s hard to say that anyone is just paying lip service to psychotherapy here.
As it turns out, there is a principled way that psychiatric treatment can be an integration of psychotherapy and pharmacology (or other neurological treatments). Depending on the individual’s condition and needs, either one or a combination may be the best clinically valid course of treatment. In order to help a patient, a psychiatrist will often have to understand him as a person as well as a brain in order to treat him effectively. And even in cases where only pharmacological or neurological treatment is suitable, dehumanization of the patient is just as likely to occur as the impersonal treatment of someone with a broken leg. Doctors, in general, sympathize with broken legs, even though sympathy does nothing to heal a broken bone. Likewise, good psychiatrists sympathize with their patients in simple virtue of their mental and personal hardship, not because sympathy is needed for treatment. The claim that the neurobiological view of psychiatry is necessarily dehumanizing, then, is a straw man – one that we shouldn't be afraid of.
Monday, November 11, 2013
"The City of Denver asked the artist to create a monumental yet temporary work exploring the theme of the interconnectedness of the 35 nations that make up the Western Hemisphere. She drew inspiration from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s announcement that the February 2010 Chile earthquake shortened the length of the earth’s day by 1.26 microseconds by slightly redistributing the earth’s mass. A 3-dimensional form of the tsunami’s amplitude rippling across the Pacific became the basis for the sculptural form. Exploring further, Echelman drew on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) simulation of the earthquake’s ensuing tsunami, using the 3-dimensional form of the tsunami’s amplitude rippling across the Pacific as the basis for her sculptural form.
1.26 pioneers a tensile support matrix of Spectra® fiber, a material 15 times stronger than steel by weight. This low-impact, super-lightweight design makes it possible to temporarily attach the sculpture directly to the façade of buildings – a structural system that opens up a new trajectory for the artist’s work in urban airspace."
Thanks to Jeanne Ackman Rosen.
"A sphinx in search of a riddle."
~ Truman Capote, on Andy Warhol
About a month ago, following a rather dissatisfying evening, I found myself scurrying to the subway. I was crossing Astor Place in downtown Manhattan when I came across a strange scene. It was about midnight, and parked by the curb on a side street was a rental truck. I was approaching the front of the truck but I could see a small knot of people behind it, and they all seemed rather excited by what was going on. Like any good New Yorker, I'd thought I'd lucked into the chance to buy some nice speakers, 3000-count sheets or some other, umm, severely discounted merchandise. Wallet in hand, I came round the truck and had a gander, and realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
For the interior of the truck had been transformed into a jungle diorama. There were plants and flowers, which looked real, and stony cliffs, which did not. But there was a small waterfall that plashed gently into a pool, and recorded birdsong playing from hidden speakers, as well as the somewhat unnerving sight of insects and butterflies buzzing about the interior. Far in the background were painted a bridge, a sun, a mountain, and a rainbow.
As delighted as I was (because serendipity insists that such a discovery is always partly thanks to me), I still didn't really know what was up. Next to me was an Italian gentleman with an enormous camera, who had just about wet himself with excitement. "It's him! It's him!" he said, giggling like a schoolgirl. "Who?" "Banksy! We've been chasing after this all day." I don't really know what it means to chase after street art but, once Banksy's name had been floated, I realized that I'd stumbled across one of several dozen Easter eggs the reclusive artist had begun laying all over the city for the month of October.
This "residency," in Banksy's own words, is sparely documented on a website thrown up for the occasion, but the site doesn't reflect the kerfuffle caused by those who have come into contact with the works or their interlocutors. Without attempting to define the quality that makes art great, I will humbly suggest that, for the present discussion, it may be that it becomes a mirror in which society has no choice but to view itself. I realize how horrifically unoriginal this is. As a defense, consider that Banksy's anonymity makes this not just inevitable, but desirable. (Banksy's anonymity has led to understandably ripe amounts of speculation – although to say that Damien Hirst is responsible for Banksy is like saying Edward de Vere wrote everything attributed to that other artful dodger, William Shakespeare. Banksy may or may not be one person, but for him to turn out to be Damien Hirst would prove that we are living in a very cruel universe, indeed.)
Such a brutally enforced anonymity means we have already played into his hands. Banksy's work neither asks for permission or forgiveness, and the intrinsically ephemeral nature of street art generates a scarcity economy par excellence. This virtuous circle has continued its widening gyre, as the value of his works now far outstrips those of his contemporaries on the international art market. In turn, this gives Banksy a larger megaphone with which to sound his trickster yawp. In a sense, Banksy is a prime beneficiary of his countryman's dictum, "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."
So when everyone is talking about it, there's a good chance that what's really at stake is not Banksy's art, which at its best has the conceptual bite of an above-average New Yorker cartoon, and at its worst is just dead on arrival (two examples from the recent stint in New York include a kludgy reference to the Twin Towers, and balloon-letter throw-up of his name made from – wait for it – balloons). Nor is there anything very compelling in the yawning of the critics, as exemplified by Jerry Saltz, or the outrage of NYC's teeming graffiti underground, who are understandably upset at the idea of a British Invasion of their turf. Of far greater interest is what happens to the art once it has been put out there – that is, when the city's collective, chaotic decision-making apparatus swings into full force. To wit and in no particular order:
October 10th: Banksy's stencil, implying a beaver's responsibility for a parking sign broken off at its base, is co-opted by locals who promptly begin charging hipster Banksystas for the privilege of ogling said beaver.
Located in East New York, there is an entertaining video clearly demonstrating exactly whose neighborhood you're in. New York may not longer be the hotbed of quick-buck capitalism – that honor surely goes to Lagos, Mumbai, Mexico City and probably a half-dozen other global cities – but these guys could certainly smell an easy dollar. Banksy might not much care either, but he is switched on enough to know that people fight over his art. Putting one-of-a-kind pieces in public places is, in fact, an excellent way to egg on any conflict. Furthermore, put it in a hardscrabble East New York neighborhood and the resentment of certain locals towards white graffiti tourism is bound to bring results.
It's important to contrast this against another recent intervention. As I've already noted, in the case of Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument, hipster art tourism brought people to a South Bronx public housing project – people who would otherwise never venture anywhere near a place such as Forrest Houses. The difference is that Hirschhorn's installation was full of not just contradictions but also compassion and dignity. Banksy is clear about harboring no such interests. In fact, most of his pieces have already been removed: the Sphinx in the picture at the top of this article was trucked away the very same day, although not after nearly causing a fistfight or two. Those pieces not removed wholesale have been painted over by irritated owners, or brutally defaced by local taggers and writers. Only a few lucky ones have been ‘protected' behind Plexiglas.
October 13th: Banksy sets up a stand off Central Park selling authentic stenciled canvases for $60 a pop. The day's take: 8 sales for a total of $420. Note that the market value of these is estimated at about $20,000 each. Bonus points to the woman who haggled the vendor down 50% for two of the pieces.
This was rather sly of Banksy. On the one hand, we can lament how greatness is always under our noses, but it's the social signaling that really calls the shots. This is perhaps better known as the Joshua Bell school of behavioral psychology, where you are confident in your belief that you would have recognized him playing violin in the DC Metro. Recall the egotism that I implied always exists in serendipity. And yet how many thousand people walked by that stand on Central Park? As for me, I excuse myself because I'm rarely on the east side.
On the other hand, we could make a counter-argument around fakes. How could anyone know this was in fact real? This being New York, fakes are sold everywhere, and Banksy is certainly prone to being faked, as it's not hard to fob a stencil. It's really only the signature that counts – or rather being told that that is, in fact, the real signature. And those reassuring us of this provenance are the gallerists, the dealers, the appraisers and insurers and everyone who is in on the take in the art world. Banksy seems to be having a laugh at everyone's expense, actually, and the tourists, that most disposable of all New York street personae, come off not as the savviest, nor redeemed by the simplicity of their faith, but just the luckiest. Let's hope that the three who purchased the canvases all watch the news.
October 29th: A mediocre landscape painting is purchased from a Housing Works charity shop, the long-time AIDS advocacy organization. It is altered and then re-donated to Housing Works. Inserted into the landscape is a Nazi SS officer seated on a bench, admiring the view right along with us.
Jerry Saltz is right to call this "one of the oldest tricks in the modernist book." Recent examples include Star Wars meets Thomas Kinkade and monsters inserted in, yes, thrift store paintings. But to stop there misses the point dramatically. The original painting is decidedly Bob Ross and the intervention is not much better. The title – "The Banality of the Banality of Evil" – does not exactly inspire flights of admiring critical prose. What matters here is the context. On the one hand, the joke seemed to be on Housing Works, since they wound up prominently displaying it in their shop window. But as soon as the word got out, the organization put the hot ticket on its online auction site, and as you can see from the auction page, the bidding closed at $615,000 (have a closer look at the page – you know it's serious when Mr. Bob Dobalina pulls out at $155,000). This would have been one of the largest auction windfalls in Housing Works history, and it's pretty improbable that Banksy didn't know what he was getting up to.
The unifying feature in all of this is the commodification of art and, by implication, all of society. Once they'd figured it out, everyone wanted in. Even Stephen Colbert found himself in a supplicatory mood, although he wound up getting a Hanksy and not a Banksy. But seriously: Banksy, in his feigned show of anonymity and supreme indifference, asks us a rather important question. What kind of a city do we want to live in? The smash-and-grab mentality that Banksy's drive-by New York appearance has left us on tenuous ground. Even the Housing Works auction, a seemingly high note of lèse-majesté with which Banksy could have triumphantly completed his residency, descended into a bit of chaos, as it turned out that the winning bidder didn't have the money everyone assumed he did.
Aside from strewing ephemeral art crumbs around the five boroughs for us to fight over, I'm not sure what the final point of the exercise was. Banksy himself, in an interview with the Village Voice, said there wasn't any:
"There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."
Ok, fine. But as the recent title sequence he did for The Simpsons indicates, it's clear where Banksy's sympathies lie. It's a good old-fashioned street rebellion against authority, whether that authority is corporate or governmental. So the sign-off to his last piece really rankled with me: "Thanks for your patience. It's been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye." Forget the rest of the city – if there is anything that Banksy should be interested in engaging, it's the imminent demolition of 5Pointz, one of the greatest graffiti monuments not only in New York, but in the entire world. Hey guv, thanks for the laughs, but care to throw out a few rat stencils to help defray legal costs?
In any event, after I'd gotten my fill of the Banksy deposited off Astor Place that night, I wondered what would happen to the truck. Obviously, there hadn't been anyone in the cab at the time. I secretly hoped that the truck would just stay there, abandoned, until the generator expired and the city, exasperated, had to cart the truck off to whatever pound is such vehicles' destiny. We could have gotten a better nugget out of Mayor Bloomberg than some anodyne "it may be art, but it should not be permitted" (although one only pines for what Giuliani's reaction would have been, back in the good old days). Making a mess and forcing the authorities to clean up after him – now that would have been a proper Banksy.
Logic and Dialogue
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
In last month's post, we contrasted a formal conception of argument with a dialectical one. We claimed that a dialectical model must be developed in order to capture the breadth not only of the good arguments we give, but also the bad. To review, the formal conception takes arguments as products, specifically as sets of claims with subsets of premises and conclusions. These arguments are understood as abstract objects, and they are, as one might say, purely logical entities. By contrast, the dialectical perspective sees arguments as more like processes; they happen, unfold, emerge, and they take various twists and turns. They erupt, get heated, go nowhere or cover ground. In short, on the dialectical conception, arguments are events of reason-exchange between people. And just as there are rules for argument-construction as formal entities, there are rules for good argument-performance as interpersonal processes.
The first thing to note is that argument-as-process is a turn-taking game. Alfred and Betty may disagree – perhaps Alfred accepts some proposition, p, and Betty rejects p. They aim to resolve their disagreement through argument. They could, of course, resolve the disagreement through other means – Alfred could threaten Betty, or bribe her – but they, instead, decide to enact a means of deciding the matter according to their shared reasons. That's argument, and the point is to share and jointly weigh the reasons. That's where the turn-taking is important. Alfred presents his reasons, and Betty presents hers. They respond to each other's reasons in turn.
A few things about the turn-taking are worth noting. When the sides present their respective cases, they present arguments in the formal sense – they articulate sets of claims comprised by premises and conclusions. The other side, then, may accept the premises but hold they don't support the conclusions, or they may hold that the premises themselves are false or unacceptable. Or they may change their minds and accept the conclusion. In that case, the argument concludes: Dispute resolved. Otherwise, what the two sides do is give each other reasons and then take turns giving each other reasoned feedback about how to change their arguments so they can rationally be better, or how they can change their views to fit with the rationally better reasons. When it's well-run, argument is a cooperative enterprise. Hence it's not uncommon to use the term argumentation in discussions of the dialectical conception of argument.
The turn-taking element of argumentation makes the feedback process possible. And this feedback process is what separates argumentation from simple speechmaking or sermonizing. But there's no guarantee that things will work out like they should. Sometimes, there are misfires in argumentation. One common misfire involves misrepresenting the other side in providing critical feedback. The straw man fallacy occurs specifically when one side strategically misrepresents the other side's arguments as weaker than those they actually gave. Straw-manning is a dialectical fallacy par excellence – it is a failure of the turn-taking element of proper argumentative exchange; it's a turn that doesn't properly respond to the contents of the previous turns.
Turn-taking in argumentation also allows for particularly well-developed disagreements. Specific points of contention can be identified made explicit. One side can request clarification or challenge a crucial premise; the other side can respond by explaining things more clearly or introducing new considerations. In the process, well-run critical dialogue educates us in the matters that divide us. Of course, it is rare that critical dialogue yields tidy and complete resolutions to our disputes, but when argumentation is well-ordered, the opposing sides can emerge from their exchange seeing each other as reasonable and their ongoing conflict manageable. Moreover, the sides can come out of their argumentative exchanges knowing not only the opposition's side better, but with a firmer grasp of their own view. Argumentation can enhance both self- and mutual-understanding.
The problem is that some regard the enhanced mutual-understanding that argumentation can facilitate as something to be avoided. Those who hold that there is no reasonable opposition to their preferred views cannot see the other side's position as anything worth trying to understand; for them, all opposition is merely to be diagnosed and possibly condemned. The argumentative process for those with this perspective is more a battleground, an occasion for dispatching opponents. To be sure, if you disagree with someone, you argue with them for the sake of correcting them. But when one has one's defaults set on seeing all opponents as not merely wrong, but as stupid, evil, or irrational, it's hard to take their critical feedback concerning one's views as anything more than noise. Moreover, it will be hard to see what one offers in support of one's view as arguments per se, since arguments are what one offers to rational, well-meaning, honest people. If one's view is that those on the other side are none of these, then one's approach to discussion with them will be less a matter of giving and taking reasons but more like verbal combat. In such cases, what will matter is winning, not having the cogent case or well-framed objections or conceding to a good point. And so the fallacies of relevance, like attacking the person, invoking outrage, and fear-mongering will tend to prevail.
The lesson, of course, is that the dialectical conception of argument enables us to track how these informal tactics are deployed and why they are (while in the heat of exchange, at least) appealing. The dialectical conception also helps us to see that they are distortions of argumentation.
Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse are authors of the new book Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement.
Dishonesty in Theism
by Quinn O'Neill
It's a typical Thanksgiving. An elegant dining table is decked with Autumn decor, a large turkey, and all the trimmings. Family and friends have gathered round and bow their heads in prayer. Invariably someone will thank God for this lovely meal and I'll bristle like a cat that's been pet the wrong way.
On the surface, the expression of gratitude seems gracious, but it strikes me as logically incoherent and very obviously so. It's as if someone had expressed thanks for the elephant we're about to feast upon. "I think it's actually a turkey," I might suggest in bewilderment. "I mean, it looks like a turkey, it's definitely a bird, and I'm quite sure it's not an elephant." Of course no one mistakes the turkey for an elephant, but it seems just as strange to me, given the annual starvation deaths of millions of children around the world, to suppose that a fair and loving God could be to thank for our lavish feast. Are we to believe that God is responsible for the distribution of food in general or just in those communities where people have enough to eat?
Theism means different things to different people, but as I understand it, it is a conception of God as a supernatural agent who's involved in the governance and direction of worldly affairs. The theist God intervenes in earthly events, answers prayers, and blesses us with holiday feasts.
Theism is the norm both worldwide and in North America, and it spawns regular spectacles of absurdity. "Everyone pray that we'll have nice weather for our picnic this weekend!" a friend might suggest, as if a god who presides over the entire universe, with all of our planet's ruinous typhoons and tsunamis, would tweak the weather systems just to dapple our picnic blanket with sunshine.
When it comes to matters of life and death, appeals for divine intervention are common and the motivation understandable. Loved ones may call for prayers for the safe return of a missing child or for the recovery of a gravely ill relative. But why not pray that no child will ever go missing again or for an end to illness entirely? Would this be any less reasonable?
The logic that underlies theistic ideation bears resemblance to flawed mathematics. Some may find refuge for their alternative realities in postmodernism or political correctness, but in matters of logic and math, the truth of an assertion is independent of our acceptance and understanding of it. It is false that 2 plus 2 is 5, just as it is false that 3/7 times the cube root of 345.7 is 5. People may not know how to investigate the veracity of the latter statement or may not care to, but it is no less false. Even if you feel in your heart that it is personally true for you, it will still be false.
We can easily recognize the logical error in the statement "If God is omnipotent, then he must be tall". It's clear that this is a non sequitur, at least it should be clear. Here's another: "God is fair and willing to intervene and he will allow innocent men, women, and children to perish in natural disasters." I hesitate to suggest that it's trickier to spot the problem with this one, lest I seem condescending, but many people fail to see it. Despite the occurrence of natural disasters which cause the indiscriminate deaths and suffering of people and animals, many still believe in a fair and loving God who will intervene even for relatively petty causes - to sway the outcome of a football game, even.
The error in such views is readily apparent to anyone willing to examine them objectively. So apparent is the error, I believe, that such thinking is not just wrong but dishonest. To embrace a position that crumbles with cursory examination requires ultimately that we lie to ourselves. Either we tell ourselves that a belief makes sense to us when it doesn't or we refuse any contemplation of the matter. In the latter case, the dishonesty may be less obvious, but the behavior is telling. If we're confident that our beliefs will withstand critical examination, there is no need to shield them from it. To refuse to examine our beliefs is to know better.
Despite the dishonesty of professing belief in the patently illogical, it's atheists who are often viewed with distrust. In a 2011 study, Canadian and American adults were presented with a hypothetical scenario in which a driver damages a parked car and leaves the scene, then finds a wallet and takes the money. When asked whether the driver was most likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher, atheist teacher was the most common choice. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 43% of Americans surveyed would be unwilling to vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist.
Distrust of atheists may be rooted in the idea that moral values are derived from religion, such that rejection of religion would leave us either amoral or immoral. But the moral sense is largely innate, and often our moral values shape the way we interpret religion rather than being dictated by it. Some time ago, I found myself entwined in conversation with a Jehovah's Witness. When I asked how she felt about parts of Leviticus that seem to condone slavery, she explained that the practice was very different from what we understand by slavery today. It was, in her words, "a kind and loving sort of slavery". Slaves were well treated and actually free to leave if they chose. This may be a dubious interpretation, but it's not uncommon for religious adherents to embrace a nonliteral interpretation of scripture in order to adapt archaic teachings to more modern values.
Being largely innate, our moral sense is unscathed by the rejection of religion. Acknowledging the incoherence of beliefs that never made sense to us won't change what's important to us, how we feel about other people, or our tendency to empathize or feel compassion for others. If you aren't an aspiring serial killer or sadist today, accepting the improbability of an interventionist God isn't going to make you one.
In some cases, it may actually be adherence to moral values that necessitates the rejection of religious tenets. Once it's become clear that certain beliefs make little sense, continuing to embrace them as truths may feel dishonest. Eric Fromm, the student body president at Northwestern Christian University, recently "came out" as an atheist. In an article for the school's newspaper, he wrote, "I couldn't force myself to believe in God."
Sometimes there's a fine line between saying we believe and actually believing. As a child indoctrinated into Roman Catholicism, I was required to believe a lot of confusing things. The Holy Trinity was at the same time three people and one. The communion wafer was the body and blood of Christ despite its striking similarity in every respect to a small bread disk. Did I believe it? I said I did.
Saying we believe things that don't make any sense to us is like saying we believe that 2 plus 2 is 5. Whether we're willing to critically examine our beliefs or not, we know better; admitting it doesn't make us less moral, it makes us more honest.
Walk This Way: #1000UrbanMiles
More than 75 years ago Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865 –1953) wrote of the Pied Wagtail roost in Dublin’s O’Connell Street describing it as “undoubtedly the most interesting zoological feature that Dublin has to offer”. The birds moved into the capital’s central thoroughfare in the winter of 1929, settling into the plane trees on the north side of Nelson’s Pillar, a 121 ft. monument commemorating Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral of the British Navy and hero of Trafalgar. Over the following years their numbers rose to about two thousand. The wagtails survived the bombing of the pillar by former members of the Irish Republican Army in March 1966 (apparently most of the birds would take off for the gardens of the Dublin suburbs by the end of March) and the birds still populated the street when I was a child. They were finally banished from O’Connell Street in the early years of this millennium when the trees were removed to make way for The Monument of Light or the Spire, as it is more commonly called, a 398 ft. stainless steel column commemorating nothing.
In Ireland, Praeger is associated with the botanical investigation of that country’s wildest places. Less attention has been paid to Praeger as a proto-urban ecologist: a naturalist who spent most of his life in the city, who wrote extensively about his garden, and who devoted a chapter of his most renowned book, The Way That I Went, An Irishman in Ireland (1937), to Dublin and its environs. Not only did he write about the famous wagtail roosts in O’Connell Street, but he also provided records on the ferns on Dublin walls, and the plants on North Bull Island, a coastal conservation area in Dublin bay. He and a small team also surveyed and wrote extensively on Lambay Island a couple of miles off the coast, north of the city.
In addition to his urban interests, what appeals to me about Praeger is that though in many ways he was a fairly traditional natural historian whose extensive writings — in all there were 800 papers and twenty-four books — detail the distribution of plants in Ireland, he nonetheless wrote reflectively and lyrically about botanical field work as a pleasure for its own sake. Praeger raised walking to the level of exultation and methodology, and not conveyance merely. After all, his most famous book is The Way That I Went — not Where I Went and What I Found There.
I have been working on a lengthy essay on Praeger in recent months, having spent a week last February rummaging through his archives in the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin. During this time, the idea occurred to me that not only is there a Praegerian product (all those papers and books) but there is also a Praegerian spirit: a spirit of openness to the world, a type of attentiveness that Praeger insists one can cultivate only on foot. Working on this material, I decided that I would, as a type of sympathetic exercise, embrace Praeger’s peripatetic inclination, but employ it in a strictly urban direction, bringing together two parts of Praeger’s work and interests. I am proposing therefore, over each of the next five years, to walk 1000 miles in the city. I invite you to join me by planning a thousand-mile walk of your own in the city or town in which you live. Before you commit, let me give you a little more information on the great man himself and the significance of the 1000-mile annual walk.
Robert Lloyd Praeger was born on 25th August 1865 in Holywood, Co Down, in Northern Ireland. His interest in natural history was sparked by his uncle William Hugh Patterson (1835–1918), described by Praeger as “first tutor in natural science.” Patterson was one of the founding members of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club and also had interests in literature, archaeology, and folklore, subjects that were to be of lifelong interest to his young nephew. Praeger trained as an engineer in Queen’s College, Belfast, graduating with a BA in 1884 and a B Eng in 1885. However, rather than taking a full-time job as an engineer, which would have curtailed his interests in natural history investigations (which by the time he graduated from college were very extensive), Praeger worked instead on less time-consuming engineering contracts. In 1893, at age 27, having failed to secure a position in the Natural History section of the Dublin Science and Art Museum (the “Dead Zoo” as it’s called in Dublin), he accepted the post of Assistant Librarian at the National Library in Dublin. There, as Praeger later wrote, “surrounded by a quarter of a million books, I remained happily till the time came to retire.” Thus even though Praeger inclined to the country, he seemed to enjoy living in Dublin.
The librarian position gave Praeger excellent exposure in the city center to scientific facilities and colleagues, and importantly, gave him long annual holidays in which he toured around the country. Taking advantage of the facilities his work at the Library afforded him, Praeger added significantly to his field experiences, with a view to comprehensively updating the records of Irish plant occurrences. In order to execute his plans to update the Cybele Hibernica, the most authoritative work on botanical distributions at that time, Praeger estimated that he would need fifty days in the field for each of five consecutive years, each day consisting of twelve hours in the field, traversing twenty to twenty-five miles of diverse ground. This totals 1000 miles a year.
This early work resulted in the publication of the important monograph Irish Topographical Botany (1901). ITB, as it is known still to Irish botanists, superseded all previous accounts of the Irish flora with accounts of the distribution of plants on the island based upon those five years of Praeger’s work in the field.
Praeger’s hero in the matter of walking was the naturalist and literary scholar Henry Chichester Hart (1847–1908). From May 1875 till October 1876, Hart served as naturalist on HMS Discovery on a polar expedition, though the members of the expedition returned without having made it to the North Pole. At home in Ireland, Hart was known for his vigorous walking. In 1889 on a wager of £50 from the naturalist Richard Manliffe Barrington, Hart walked from Dublin to the summit of Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Co. Wicklow, and back again, a distance of about seventy-five miles, in a single twenty-four hour period. Praeger’s adventures were of a less arduous type: he simply walked, botanizing as he went. His skill in the field was such that he could identify even emerging seedlings on sight, allowing him to make rapid daily progress.
When Praeger later wrote that he possessed “a fairly extensive knowledge of every county in Ireland — particularly as regards its topography and botany,” he claimed that this was so because of his commitment to walking. The essence of walking as methodology, as Praeger described it, is to neither head for nor avoid picturesque spots. In describing the scientific results of such walks, Praeger often referred to them as “rambles” suggesting a sort of constrained Brownian motion (the presumably random locomotion of particles in a fluid) throughout the landscapes of Ireland. The field botanist, wrote Praeger, “ranges far over hill and dales, though there is good ground and bad ground, he never knows where an interesting or rare plant may not be concealed.” This is advice I have always found useful. The botanist may make her best finds at the end of the day and in the least likely of places.
The results of this tramping around Ireland was not merely botanical information on 600 or so species for each of the forty regional divisions of Ireland, but, more importantly for Praeger, it resulted in “extensive and intimate knowledge … of all those parts of Ireland which, being reckoned uninteresting, are to the majority of people unknown.” Tramping five-thousand miles across Ireland in his early years “equalized” his knowledge of the country: he became just as acquainted with the immediately attractive areas as those less familiar.
As a matter of practicality, Praeger routinely took the train, getting off at chosen points and walking to the next station. Walking accomplished the outcome of intimacy in a way that cars cannot. Admittedly during the years that Praeger was preparing Irish Topographic Botany cars were a rarity in Ireland. In fact the first car in Ireland was imported to Dublin 1896. It was not until 1911 that the number of cars, buses, and trucks in Ireland exceeded 5000. Praeger never owned a car. His objection to the car was a simple one. The car, Praeger wrote, “travels too fast for the serious observer.” For those whose minds are “jaded by with the meaningless noise and hurry of modern life…quiet wandering on foot along brown streams and among the windy hills can bring a solace and a joy that is akin only to the peace of God that passeth understanding.”
For all his advocacy of walking in wilder parts, Praeger recognized that being the “finite and worldly creatures that we are, we cannot exist long on that high plain.” After all, even at the peak of his fieldwork years, walking one thousand miles a year over a period of fifty days still left 315 days for other pursuits. For Praeger these days were, as we have implied, mainly urban ones. It is clear that in addition to his more celebrated walks in the countryside Praeger rambled throughout the city and had done so since he arrived there in young adulthood. For instance, when Praeger came to Dublin, he lived first with a family on the outskirts of the city in Dundrum. He walked or cycled these nine miles into town rather than taking the train. A few years later, after he married, Praeger moved to Rathgar, and he walked and botanized in the neighboring parks. A five minute walk from his house he recorded a new occurrence of the rare grass Milium effusum (wood millet). He discovered it in Bushy Park, the park where more than seventy years later I played as a child. It is the park that I visit every time I return to Dublin.
As for my own philosophy of walking: I am working on a style of walking characterized by a Praeger-inspired openness to seeing new things, but one that is guided by prior knowledge. That’s the kind of walking that I want to perfect. In order to do so, I have started my 1000-mile walk in Chicago. Though there are obsessive elements to my personality, clocking up one thousand mile tally is not an end in itself. Rather, I am primarily concerned with concern itself: I simply intend to pay attention as I go, and I imagine completing a substantial mileage goal will help in cultivating the right frame of mind. That being said, one thousand miles translates into an informidable twenty miles or so a week.
I will walk the neighborhoods, I will walk the parks, I will walk the forest preserves. I will hop on the El and, like Praeger, get off and walk the distance to the next station, or the one after. It is not important to me that I botanize all the way, though I incline towards noticing trees wherever I go. For me, at least, an attentive Praegerian spirit means not listening to music as I amble, or fiddling with my phone, or getting too mentally distracted with the small perplexities that besiege my work life. There is in this exercise an element of faith, at least for me: a faith that we have not found ourselves placed too late in this world to expect marvels, even in metropolitan places. Though I suppose this is faith lacquered with a commitment to paying attention.
A number of colleagues have started this with me. There’s Stanley Cohn, a professor of biology at DePaul who reports, wittily and sagaciously, on his Praeger walks via his newly-created twitter account. Lauren Umek, a PhD student at Northwestern, takes her walks to restoration research sites around the city. Cassi Saari, a young naturalist in our region, is also clocking up a thousand miles around Chicago, as is Evan Edwards, a philosophy graduate student at DePaul, and Kim Fry, an instructor in Environmental Science and Studies. Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director at the Field Museum, has joined us. Further away, Mary Ellard and Richard Ivey are walking in Washington State with a camera in hand and with Praeger on their minds.
If you feel inspired to take the challenge, please let me know. I would love to get 1000 doing 1000. Those of us who use social media use the hashtag #1000UrbanMiles to keep track of one another’s progress. By the end of the year I will create a website where those who care to can post their Praeger-inspired observations
Thanks to Gavin Van Horn of the Center for Humans and Nature for comments on a previous version of this essay. Picture of Praeger from: http://www.botanicgardens.ie/herb/books/inltos.htm and picture of Heneghan walking c/o Vassia Pavlogianis.
Tapping into the Creative Potential of our Elders
by Jalees Rehman
The unprecedented increase in the mean life expectancy during the past centuries and a concomitant drop in the birth rate has resulted in a major demographic shift in most parts of the world. The proportion of fellow humans older than 65 years of age is higher than at any time before in our history. This trend of generalized population ageing will likely continue in developed as well as in developing countries. Population ageing has sadly also given rise to ageism, prejudice against the elderly. In 1950, more than 20% of citizens aged 65 years or older participate used to participate in the labor workforce of the developed world. The percentage now has dropped to below 10%. If the value of a human being is primarily based on their economic productivity – as is so commonly done in societies driven by neoliberal capitalist values – it is easy to see why prejudices against senior citizens are on the rise. They are viewed as non-productive members of society who do not contribute to the economic growth and instead represent an economic burden because they sap up valuable dollars required to treat chronic illnesses associated with old age.
In "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America", the scholar and cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette ties the rise of ageism to unfettered capitalism:
There are larger social forces at work that might make everyone, male or female, white or nonwhite, wary of the future. Under American capitalism, with productivity so fetishized, retirement from paid work can move you into the ranks of the "unproductive" who are bleeding society. One vile interpretation of longevity (that more people living longer produces intolerable medical expense) makes the long-lived a national threat, and another (that very long-lived people lack adequate quality of life) is a direct attack on the progress narratives of those who expect to live to a good old age. Self-esteem in later life, the oxygen of selfhood, is likely to be asphyxiated by the spreading hostile rhetoric about the unnecessary and expendable costs of "aging America".
Instead of recognizing the value of the creative potential, wisdom and experiences that senior citizens can share with their respective communities, we are treating them as if they were merely a financial liability. The rise of neo-liberalism and the monetization of our lives are not unique to the United States and it is likely that such capitalist values are also fueling ageism in other parts of the world. Watching this growing disdain for senior citizens is especially painful for those of us who grew up inspired by our elders and who have respected their intellect and guidance they can offer.
In her book, Gullette also explores the cultural dimension of cognitive decline that occurs with aging and how it contributes to ageism. As our minds age, most of us will experience some degree of cognitive decline such as memory loss, deceleration in our ability to learn or process information. In certain disease states such as Alzheimer's dementia or vascular dementia (usually due to strokes or ‘mini-strokes'), the degree of cognitive impairment can be quite severe. However, as Gullete points out, the dichotomy between dementia and non-dementia is often an oversimplification. Cognitive impairment with aging represents a broad continuum. Not every form of dementia is severe and not every cognitive impairment – whether or not it is directly associated with a diagnosis of dementia – is global. Episodic memory loss in an aging person does not necessarily mean that the person has lost his or her ability to play a musical instrument or write a poem. However, in a climate of ageism, labels such as "dementia" or "cognitive impairment" are sometimes used as a convenient excuse to marginalize and ignore aged fellow humans.
Perhaps I am simply getting older or maybe some of my academic colleagues have placed me on the marketing lists of cognitive impairment snake oil salesmen. My junk mail folder used to be full of emails promising hours of sexual pleasure if I purchased herbal Viagra equivalents. However, in the past months I have received a number of junk emails trying to sell nutritional supplements which can supposedly boost my memory and cognitive skills and restore the intellectual vigor of my youth. As much as I would like strengthen my cognitive skills by popping a few pills, there is no scientific data that supports the efficacy of such treatments. A recent article by Naqvi and colleagues reviewed randomized controlled trials– the ‘gold standard' for testing the efficacy of medical treatments – did not find any definitive scientific data that vitamin supplements or herbs such as Ginkgo can improve cognitive function in the elderly. The emerging consensus is that based on the currently available data, there are two basic interventions which are best suited for improving cognitive function or preventing cognitive decline in older adults: regular physical activity and cognitive training.
Cognitive training is a rather broad approach and can range from enrolling older adults in formal education classes to teaching participants exercises that enhance specific cognitive skills such as improving short-term memory. One of the key issues with studies which investigate the impact of cognitive training in older adults has been the difficulty of narrowing down what aspect of the training is actually beneficial. Is it merely being enrolled in a structured activity or is it the challenging nature of the program which improves cognitive skills? Does it matter what type of education the participants are receiving? The lack of appropriate control groups in some studies has made it difficult to interpret the results.
The recent study "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project" published in the journal Psychological Science by the psychology researcher Denise Park and her colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas is an example of an extremely well-designed study which attempts to tease out the benefits of participating in a structured activity versus receiving formal education and acquiring new skills. The researchers assigned subjects with a mean age of 72 years (259 participants were enrolled, but only 221 subjects completed the whole study) to participate in 14-week program in one of five intervention groups: 1) learning digital photography, 2) learning how to make quilts, 3) learning both digital photography and quilting (half of the time spent in each program), 4) a "social condition" in which the members participated in a social club involving activities such as cooking, playing games, watching movies, reminiscing, going on regular field trips but without the acquisition of any specific new skills or 5) a "placebo condition" in which participants were provided with documentaries, informative magazines, word games and puzzles, classical-music CDs and asked to perform and log at least 15 hours a week of such activities. None of the participants carried a diagnosis of dementia and they were novices to the areas of digital photography or quilting. Upon subsequent review of the activities in each of the five intervention groups, it turned out that each group spent an average of about 16-18 hours per week in the aforementioned activities, without any significant difference between the groups. Lastly, a sixth group of participants was not enrolled in any specific program but merely asked to keep a log of their activities and used as a no-intervention control.
When the researchers assessed the cognitive skills of the participants after the 14-week period, the type of activity they had been enrolled in had a significant impact on their cognition. For example, the participants in the photography class had a much greater degree of improvement in their episodic memory and their visuospatial processing than the placebo condition. On the other hand, cognitive processing speed of the participants increased most in the dual condition group (photography and quilting) as well as the social condition. The general trend was that the groups which placed the highest cognitive demands on the participants and also challenged them to be creative (acquiring digital photography skills, learning to make quilts) showed the greatest improvements.
However, there are key limitations of the study. Since only 221 participants were divided across six groups, each individual group was fairly small. Repeating this study with a larger sample would increase the statistical power of the study and provide more definitive results. Furthermore, the cognitive assessments were performed soon after completion of the 14-week programs. Would the photography group show sustained memory benefits even a year after completion of the 14-week program? Would the participants continue to be engaged in digital photography long after completion of the respective courses?
Despite these limitations, there is an important take-home message of this study: Cognitive skills in older adults can indeed be improved, especially if they are exposed to an unfamiliar terrain and asked to actively acquire new cognitive skills. Merely watching educational documentaries or completing puzzles ("placebo condition") is not enough. This research will likely spark many future studies which will help define the specific mechanisms of how acquiring new skills leads to improved memory function and also studies that perhaps individualize cognitive training. Some older adults may benefit most from learning digital photography, others might benefit from acquiring science skills or participating in creative writing workshops. This research also gives us hope as to how we can break the vicious cycle of ageism in which older citizens are marginalized because of cognitive decline, but this marginalization itself further accelerates their decline. By providing opportunities to channel their creativity, we can improve their cognitive function and ensure that they remain engaged in the community.
There are many examples of people who have defied the odds and broken the glass ceiling of ageism. I felt a special sense of pride when I saw my uncle Jamil's name on the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist for his book The Wandering Falcon: He was nominated for a ‘debut' novel at the age of 78. It is true that the inter-connected tales of the "The Wandering Falcon" were inspired by his work and life in the tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands when he was starting out as a young civil servant and that he completed the first manuscript drafts of these stories in the 1970s. But these stories remained unpublished, squirreled away and biding their time until they would eventually be published nearly four decades later. They would have withered away in this cocooned state, if it hadn't been for his younger brother Javed, who prodded the long-retired Jamil, convincing him to dig up, rework and submit those fascinating tales for publication. Fortunately, my uncle found a literary agent and publisher who were not deterred by his advanced age and recognized the immense value of his writing.
When we help older adults tap into their creative potential, we can engender a new culture of respect for the creativity and intellect of our elders.
- Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Agewise: Fighting the new ageism in America. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Naqvi, Raza et al "Preventing cognitive decline in healthy older adults" CMAJ July 9, 2013 185:881-885.doi: 10.1503/cmaj.121448
- Park, Denise C et al "The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults", published online on Nov 8, 2013 in Psychological Science doi:10.1177/0956797613499592