Sunday, August 21, 2016
Yascha Mounk in Slate:
There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.
The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.
At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.
When despair for the world grows in me
by Wendell Berry
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
Brandon M. Terry in Dissent:
The most punitive, humiliating, and deadly forms of policing fall almost entirely on the poor, especially the black poor. And while the stigma of criminality disproportionately affects African Americans, so does the suffering that accompanies gangs, violent crime, and the underground economy. Neglecting these facts leads to bewilderment when appeals to racial solidarity around issues like criminal justice or gentrification fail to achieve the desired results. These failures of analysis evince such a lack of judgment that they are less likely to inspire sacrifices for the transformative programs of the left than encourage the risk-averse accommodation to the status quo. In the future, leftists of all races will have to make a sustained commitment to grassroots engagement that focuses on working-class and poor black communities, and that is more precise about the ways in which racial injustice and black disadvantage work in today’s America. This will require an ethos of humility and self-criticism that, over time, will generate more powerful ideas, arguments, and hopefully, coalitions. Trust and respect—and substantive political power—will only come from a mutually enriching process of engaging with and arguing over needs (like safety, income, and education) and values (that is, the ethics of punishment, ideals of masculinity, nativism, and so on) as well as policies. This project is difficult to pursue in the heat of a presidential campaign, and we’ve seen both Democratic candidates struggle to adequately address these intersecting issues. But it must command our attention in the post–Obama era.
Bayard Rustin once remarked that he was “eternally optimistic” that “people who become president . . . want to go down as great moral figures, and they make some real effort in trying.” In the horrifying event of a Trump presidency, we may have to revisit this judgment. But for the first black president at least, it seems appropriate. In trying to advance a particular view of racial justice despite political, cultural, and structural constraints, the Obama years reshaped the landscape of racial politics in a way that is difficult to have imagined just eight years ago. For better and for worse, this is our inheritance. How we navigate its perils will leave its imprint on the politics of race in America for some time to come.
Costica Bradatan in Aeon:
Failure is like the original sin in the biblical narrative: everyone has it. Regardless of class, caste, race, or gender, we are all born to fail, we practise failure for as long as we live, and pass it on to others. Just like sin, failure can be disgraceful, shameful and embarrassing to admit. And did I mention ‘ugly’? Failure is also ugly – ugly as sin, as they say. For all its universality, however, failure is under-studied, when not simply neglected. It’s as if even the idea of looking at failure more closely makes us uneasy; we don’t want to touch it for fear of contagion. Studying failure can be a contorted, Janus-headed exercise, though. With one pair of eyes we have to look into ourselves (for ‘moral’ or ‘cognitive’ failures, for failures of ‘judgment’ or ‘memory’), and with another pair we need to dwell on instances of failure ‘out there’, in the world around us. Fascinating as the former can be, let me focus here on the latter: the failure we experience in our dealings with the world.
Picture yourself in an airliner, at high altitude. One of the plane engines has just caught fire, the other doesn’t look very well either, and the pilot has to make an emergency landing. Finding yourself in such a situation can be a shattering, yet also a revealing experience. First, there are of course the cries, the tears, the whispered prayers, the loud hysterics. Amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, you cannot think of anything in any detached, rational fashion. For you have to admit it, you are scared to death, just like everyone else. Yet the plane lands safely and everybody gets off unharmed. After you’ve had a chance to pull yourself together, you start thinking a bit more clearly about what just happened. That’s when we might realise, for example, how close we can be sometimes to not being at all. And also that there is something oppressively materialistic, to an almost obscene degree, in any ‘brush with death’. Some faulty piece of equipment – a worn-out part, a loose screw, a leaking pipe, anything – could be enough to do us in. That’s all it takes. We thus realise that, when we experience failure, we start seeing the cracks in the fabric of existence, and the nothingness that stares at us from the other side. Yet even as failure pushes us towards the margins of existence it gives us the chance to look at everything – at the world, at ourselves, at what we value most – with fresh eyes. The failure of things, coming as it does with a certain measure of existential threat, exposes us for what we are. And what a sight!
From that unique location – the site of devastation that we’ve become – we understand that we are no grander than the rest of the world. Indeed, we are less than most things.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
Linda Tirado in Slate:
Because our lives seem so unstable, poor people are often seen as being basically incompetent at managing their lives. That is, it’s assumed that we’re not unstable because we’re poor, we’re poor because we’re unstable. So let’s just talk about how impossible it is to keep your life from spiraling out of control when you have no financial cushion whatsoever. And let’s also talk about the ways in which money advice is geared only toward people who actually have money in the first place.
I once read a book for people in poverty, written by someone in the middle class, containing real-life tips for saving pennies and such. It’s all fantastic advice: buy in bulk, buy a lot when there’s a sale on, hand-wash everything you can, make sure you keep up on vehicle and indoor filter maintenance.
From Medical Press:
Whether or not they aced the subject in high school, human beings are physics masters when it comes to understanding and predicting how objects in the world will behave. A Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist has found the source of that intuition, the brain's "physics engine."
This engine, which comes alive when people watch physical events unfold, is not in the brain's vision center, but in a set of regions devoted to planning actions, suggesting the brain performs constant, real-time physics calculations so people are ready to catch, dodge, hoist or take any necessary action, on the fly. The findings, which could help design more nimble robots, are set to be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We run physics simulations all the time to prepare us for when we need to act in the world," said lead author Jason Fischer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "It is among the most important aspects of cognition for survival. But there has been almost no work done to identify and study thebrain regions involved in this capability."
Benjamin Markovits in Literary Hub:
Is the US going to win another gold at men’s basketball? And what does it say about me that I care as much as I do? Not just that they win, but that they win big. For the first few months after leaving college, I traveled up and down Germany looking for a basketball job—and got my butt kicked by various European ballplayers (including a 17-year-old Dirk Nowitzki). But at least I was an American; that meant something. And in spite of all the first-hand evidence, I have kept this weird cultural attachment to the idea that this is something we do better.
Ok, so 12 years ago we lost in Athens. Manu Ginobili, whose Argentina side won the gold, said, “The rest of the world is getting better. The US is getting bored.” But there were other problems: young guys on the team, who were still learning the international game (Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James), an absence of jump shooters. But after that, USA Basketball got its act together and started putting together teams, complementary players with a history of playing together. And a new winning streak started.
The possible discovery of a new particle in Hungary, and its subsequent interpretation as the force behind dark matter, has kicked up some dust. However, something’s off about the Hungarian results…
Vasudevan Mukunth in The Wire:
It’s called the Atomki anomaly. ‘Atomki’ is the nuclear physics research centre at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Debrecen, Hungary, and the site of a certain experiment that first spotted the anomaly about two years ago. Though there are some doubts about what really has been found, the news of something being anomalous at all – a new particle? – has stoked excitement in a community desperately looking for something new. In fact, one interpretation would have us believe that, if other tests around the world are able to hold up the Atomki results, it could be a phenomenal new discovery: of a fifth fundamental force in nature, possibly related to dark matter.
In the experiment, scientists fire protons at a lithium atom. A lithium atom contains four neutrons and three protons. When it captures an extra proton, it transmutates from a lithium-7 atom into a beryllium-8 atom, 8 being the new sum of protons and neutrons: four and four. However, the stable beryllium atom needs five neutrons and three protons, so it starts to lose the extra proton’s worth of energy through radioactive decay. In this process, the beryllium-8 atom emits a photon that then decays into one electron and one positron (the electron’s antimatter counterpart).
We might look at Argentine literature as a breaking down into two camps. On the one hand there’s Borges: sophisticated, yet playfully ironic, and drawn to labyrinthine twists and turns. On the other there’s Julio Cortázar: a blend of Edgar Allen Poe and the French surrealists, with a bent for jazz-inspired improvisation. These writers are the big two in Argentine literature, celebrated on an international level, and yet both describe Argentina as outsiders looking in, having left their homeland for Europe. But then this dichotomy is disrupted by a third figure, not as well-known outside of Argentina: Roberto Arlt. A contemporary of Borges, Arlt is firmly part of the Argentine canon, having detailed life in Buenos Aires with an intimacy that neither Borges nor Cortázar ever achieved.
The son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Arlt grew up in an impoverished barrio of Buenos Aires, living in close quarters with the kinds of sketchy characters that would later appear in his novels. His formal education ended when we was only eight years old, at which point he quit school and began working a series of odd jobs around the city. He was a true autodidact, reading voraciously throughout his youth, and he eventually found his own language for tackling profound themes—a crude and colloquial language peppered with inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. Compared to the polished prose of Borges, Arlt’s writing comes off as the work of an incessant inventor, a welder and dock worker from a rough neighborhood who assembled his vocabulary from novels, manuals on engineering, and street slang. Naturally, this made him an easy target for critics who dismissed him as a bad writer.
Not all works of history have something to say so directly to the present, but Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” which deals with racial conflict, mass incarceration, police brutality and dissembling politicians, reads like it was special-ordered for the sweltering summer of 2016.
But there’s nothing partisan or argumentative about “Blood in the Water.” The power of this superb work of history comes from its methodical mastery of interviews, transcripts, police reports and other documents, covering 35 years, many released only reluctantly by government agencies, and many of those “rendered nearly unreadable from all of the redactions,” Ms. Thompson writes. She has pieced together the whole, gripping story, from the conditions that gave rise to the rebellion, which cost the lives of 43 men, to the decades of government obstructionism that prevented the full story from being told.
Ms. Thompson’s book has already been in the news because she names state troopers and prison guards who might have been culpable in these deaths. But the real story here is not any single revelation, but rather the total picture, one in which several successive New York governors are called to account as much as anyone on the ground that week in September 1971 in Attica, N.Y.
Whereas literary fiction has long valued carefully chosen distinct moments and their ability to become salvific, Kovačič seems to democratize life’s value and vacancies among every single lived minute. This might sound familiar. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Newcomers is a European saga published in installments that begins with the author’s youth and creeps outward, describing life with a rare acuity that not only captures both its dramas and banalities, but also considers them with equal significance. Like Knausgaard, Kovačič’s opus is animated by a matrix of shame. Like Ferrante’s, it depicts a rapidly changing geography and political climate, withNewcomers taking place in Slovenia directly before World War II and Ferrante’s series picking up in Naples during its almost immediate aftermath. The space Kovačič’s book occupies falls between the poles these two authors operate within: between the fetishized ordinariness of Knausgaard and the theater of Ferrante, Kovačič unfurls a ream of anecdotes and character descriptions, rambling, yet tightly told chronology of his family’s undeserved perdition as they descend deeper and deeper into moral and literal penury. Narration is synonymous with reliving. Unlike Ferrante or Knausgaard, two authors whose interrogations of daily experience sometimes yield half-formed answers to life, Kovačič denies his personalia any retroactive wisdom. Newcomersemancipates itself from conventional literary form, finding refuge in what his readers would now deem familiar modernism. The result is a text reluctant to open itself up. Like the war its characters are wading into by the end of the first book, Newcomersis not concerned with justifying itself. Therein lies its paltry transcendence.
Sophia A. McClennen in Salon:
This week saw the end of one of the most significant satire news shows in our nation’s history. But if you listened to what Comedy Central said about it, you’d think the show was anything but significant. According to network president Kent Alterman, the decision to cancel “The Nightly Show,” hosted by Larry Wilmore, was made because the show failed to attract young adults and had not thrived on social media: “We hold Larry in the highest esteem, personally and professionally. He brought a strong voice and point of view to the late-night landscape,” Alterman told Variety. “Unfortunately it hasn’t resonated with our audience.”
…And yet, despite the fact that Wilmore and his team offered our nation a historic first in satirical comedy, not everyone recognizes their accomplishments. In an uncanny coincidence, Wilmore’s show wasn’t just cut at the same time that we needed his humor as a foil for the hate-mongering of Donald Trump, it also came in the same week that Malcolm Gladwell released his latest podcast in the “Revisionist History” series: The Satire Paradox. As if anticipating Wilmore’s claim of success, Gladwell argues that satire really can’t have any positive impact. Analyzing the satire of Stephen Colbert when he’s in character, Gladwell suggests that politically motivated comedy can be read by opposing viewpoints in radically different ways. For Gladwell, if there can be more than one interpretation of satire, it fails. He then describes Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin as “toothless” and goes on to say that “her comic genius is actually a problem” since she’s so funny that she distracts the audience. It isn’t just that the ironic mode of satire can lead to misreadings that bothers Gladwell; it is also that it is funny. So funny, in fact, that it can drive the audience away from serious issues. That there is ample research suggesting that Gladwell is entirely wrong on this doesn’t sway his opinion at all. Gladwell would simply prefer straight debates about politics — without irony and certainly without laughter. Well, Gladwell is just as wrong as Alterman, the Comedy Central head.
Here and There
I sit and meditate—my dog licks her paws
on the red-brown sofa
so many things somehow
it all is reduced to numbers letters figures
without faces or names only jagged lines
across the miles half-shadows
going into shadow-shadow then destruction the infinite light
here and there cannot be overcome
it is the first drop of ink
by Juan Felipe Herrera
from Academy of American Poets
April 14, 2015
Friday, August 19, 2016
Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:
I am not an Orthodox Christian. (I am not an orthodox anything.) Among my immediate blood ancestors there is Scandinavian Lutheranism, Southern Baptism, and Mormonism (I am not just any Smith, either). I wound up in a private Catholic school, and as a strategy to make me fit in better socially I was caused to be baptized at the age of 13 (the strategy didn't work). My mother re-married into the reform Jewish world, and now on that side of the family bar mitzvahs and Passover are as important as any other dates on the calendar. My father, I take it, is a libre penseur, but often mentions how impressed he was by Thomas Aquinas's version of the cosmological argument (that there must be a first cause).
To this not totally atypical history of American mongrelism it should be added that I have spent significant portions of my life in the Orthodox Christian world, and have had many important life experiences within it, involving both love and death. These experiences have at times caused me to respond, at least aesthetically and perhaps even 'spiritually', to Orthodox symbols: to say inwardly, at the sight of a blackened icon, something like, 'I get it'.
If I may attempt to distill some sort of essence out of Orthodox Christianity in just a few words, it is the variety of Christianity that still takes love and death seriously, that continues to have its hand in the way these are lived by individual members of the church, and to actively and minutely prescribe the ritual forms through which they are to be lived. The Enlightenment never happened, there is nothing about sola fide, and religion remains deeply entrenched in, some might say confined by, ritual.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
“What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions?”
Darwin had a straightforward explanation: People, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor that grew limbs with digits. Its descendants evolved different kinds of limbs adapted for different tasks. But they never lost the anatomical similarities that revealed their kinship.
As a Victorian naturalist, Darwin was limited in the similarities he could find. The most sophisticated equipment he could use for the task was a crude microscope. Today, scientists are carrying on his work with new biological tools. They are uncovering deep similarities that have been overlooked until now.
On Wednesday, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago reported that our hands share a deep evolutionary connection not only to bat wings or horse hooves, but also to fish fins.
The unexpected discovery will help researchers understand how our own ancestors left the water, transforming fins into limbs that they could use to move around on land.
From The Nervous Breakdown:
Are the essays in this book eulogies?
Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.
What do you mean surprises? Can you give an example?
[Morgan] Well, when I started writing about Christopher Hitchens he had literally just died. I became very emotional as I wrote. The whole thing was written while crying, to be honest. I realized two things. One, that I had a lot of anger and resentment toward the man and two, that I actually loved him, in the non-romantic sense of the term. I realized that this love was generated by something other than the usual regard for his writing and argumentative skill. In fact, upon reflection, I realized that his writing and argumentative skill were, to my mind, overrated. That made my deep feeling of connection to the man all the more mysterious, a fact that pleased the hell out of me the more I thought about it. I tried to capture some of that in the essay, which, if it has any virtue at all, has the virtue of mostly refraining from restating the well-worn Hitchens clichés. The more I wrote about Hitch, the more I realized that I have no idea why he was such a powerful person.
“Not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.” This is the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and his stuttering, paradoxical lament, placed midway through the very story to which it cannot do justice, is a fresh unraveling: It undermines the book we are reading, which we now suspect to have failed, but it also defies its own prognoses for itself. In this way, even Sebald’s modest success—he has written a book he deems unwritable—is presented as a sort of failure. Unable to write effectively but unable to remain silent, Sebald, like his narrator, is condemned to speak unsatisfactorily.
The narrative in question, one of the four novella-length pieces that make up the masterful Emigrants, is a biography of a fictional painter named Max Ferber, a German expat whose parents perished in the Holocaust. (The character is modeled on the German artist Frank Auerbach, now a longtime citizen of the United Kingdom.) Like Sebald, Ferber works uncertainly, wavering between creation and destruction. He paints, then erases, until the vague beginnings of human shapes tentatively emerge, “evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.”
A villanelle, for those of you who don’t know the lovely form with its remarkable incantatory power, is a 19-line poem with a rhyme-and-refrain scheme that runs as follows: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and superscript numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2.
The history of the villanelle, from the Italian villanella, a rustic song, goes back to the 16th century. The French poet Théodore de Banville compared the interweaving refrain lines to “a braid of silver and gold threads, crossed with a third thread the color of a rose.” The complex form was fixed with Jean Passerat‘s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in 1606.
Here’s one more to add to the repertoire: “Self-pity” by a poet from the calm shores of Lake Michigan, Marnie Heyn, who has just published a collection of poems, Hades Lades, with The Writers’ Bloc Press.
For years my parents have told me about a photograph that shows my mother shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China under Mao Zedong. The photograph was taken in 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution began, but it was lost until a few weeks ago, when a barrage of Instagram notifications, texts, e-mails, and WeChat messages alerted me that the picture had been found. It had turned up on Facebook, of all places, in a post detailing the history of my mother’s grade school in Shanghai. (A point of recent pride: Yao Ming, the basketball player, was a student at the same school, albeit decades later). An aunt of mine who lives in Hong Kong forwarded the picture to my father, who then distributed it across the Internet.
In the picture, my mother is fourteen. Her hair is in a low ponytail and she has an accordion strapped over her shoulders. She wears a checked knee-length skirt, a white blouse, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes. Several rows of Chinese flags fly in the background; in front of these stand many smiling girls holding bouquets of flowers
David V. Johnson in Dissent:
The rhetoric of revolution is in the air. Democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders launched an impressive bid for the Democratic presidential nomination on a call for “political revolution” and, since conceding the nomination to Hillary Clinton, has redirected his campaign into a permanent organization under the same banner. Donald Trump succeeded in his insurgent campaign for the GOP nomination by tapping populist anger against Washington’s corrupt establishment. In Europe, far-right and -left parties have scored eye-opening wins in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Hungary, and Greece, and threaten to shred the fabric of the European Union and even some of its member states.
But all movements for revolutionary change inevitably confront the challenge of navigating (or disrupting) the institutions in which day-to-day politics is housed. Calls to end austerity, reform immigration, overhaul campaign finance, or correct massive inequality ultimately end up in the legislatures, executives, and courts. Radicals may seek to smash such institutions, but if they gain power, they face the Herculean task of building new ones.
The problem with revolutionary politics, in short, is that it tends to be naïve about political institutions. I can recommend no better corrective than liberal political philosopher Jeremy Waldron, and no better introduction to his thinking than his recently published collection of essays, Political Political Theory.
More here. (Thanks to Ali Sethi)