Suicide, Strictly Speaking

by Gerald Dworkin

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787), depicting Socrates prepared to drink hemlock, following his conviction for corrupting the youth of Athens.

In 1998 I was a co-author of a book called Euthanasia and Physician-assisted Suicide: For and Against. I was for; Sissela Bok was against. The point to note here is that the title used the concepts of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Euthanasia is no longer invoked by proponents of medically-assisted dying (hereafter abbreviated as AD) as all such measures explicitly prohibit the physician from administering the drug which causes death. Assisted-suicide is currently banned from their vocabulary by all groups advocating for AD.  

I have been an advocate, and an activist, for passing legislation implementing AD in California (successful) and Illinois (on the political agenda). But I have some problems with the idea that AD should be excluded from the category of suicide. This is my topic today.

Advocates of AD have two reasons for their  linguistic avoidance. 

The first is a purely tactical matter. We are trying to get a social policy enacted and many people who might be won over have personal and religious objections to the very idea of suicide. They may believe that our lives belong to God. They may believe that there is a social stigma attached to suicide no matter how justified, in some cases, it may be. They may feel that the many cases in which suicide is committed by persons who are clearly psychologically disturbed and not capable of making rational decisions will be , mistakenly, extended to what they think are reasonable cases. They may fear that the idea that all suicides are sinful or irrational or cowardly will be applied to their loved ones if they commit suicide.

Since all these, in my view mistaken, attitudes will make it harder to get political support for legalising AD, I see this linguistic choice as a reasonable tactical proposal. Read more »

Learning to Laze

by Eric J. Weiner

From Saint Pélagie Prison in 1883, Paul Lafargue wrote The Right to Be Lazy, an anti-capitalist polemic that challenged the hegemony of the “right to work” discourse. The focus of his outrage was the liberal elite as well as the proletarians. His central argument is summed up in this quote:

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

Quite a bit has changed since he wrote his polemic, yet I think there are some important insights that still resonate in the 21st century. Unlike the industrialism that informed Lafargue’s critique of the bourgeoisie’s work fetish, time at work in the 21st century is no longer primarily experienced in the factory or small brick-and-mortar business. In today’s knowledge economy, we celebrate a form of “uber” work where workers “enjoy” the flexible benefits of constant connectivity, borderless geographies of work/time, and schedules unconstrained by days-of-week or time-of-day. Workdays blend into work-nights which slide into work-mornings without beginning or end. Not unlike techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that leverage the power of time to (dis)orient, in our current historical juncture time is erased leaving workers without a sense of place; there is nothing to distinguish Wednesday from Sunday, Monday from Friday. In this new timeless workscape, the old adage TGIF is meaningless, an artifact as quaint as the vinyl record or paper road maps. Within this environment, workers struggle to adapt to this new model. For example, people still claim to need more time, yet in the 21st century postmodern workscape, time no longer has a meaningful referent. It simply floats above labor signaling neither a beginning nor end. Clocks likewise have become a quaint, antiquated technology of a mechanical era, yet they are still ubiquitous in most work-spaces. In this new workscape, clocks don’t measure time in order to determine the value of one’s labor on an hourly, weekly, or annual calendar. For uber-workers, the clock never gets punched because it doesn’t really exist in the context of their flexible workscapes. At most, they can orient workers to meet up for lunch or for that rare occasion when a body-to-body meeting is desired (it rarely is). They also, in the form of a wrist watch, can represent a kind of retro-cool, a form of cultural capital, especially when the watch is an “automatic”!

Uber workers are “free” to take a break yet no one can or actually does because “taking a break” requires one to be at work somewhere, anywhere. Today’s uber-workforce has no indigenous location, no point of reference in time and space and therefore no recognizable beginning or end. Without this geography of labor, workers are always “on,” and never “off.” This constant state of work is then described as a form of freedom. Read more »

Replacement therapy: on some recent developments in and about “France”

by Rafaël Newman

“GALERIE VOLTAIRE”, photograph by the author, Toronto 2018

Herta Müller, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, was born and raised in a traditionally German-speaking region of Romania. When she moved to what was then the German Federal Republic in 1987, she was eagerly asked by strangers hearing a Latinate inflection in her German whether she was French. When she told them that she was in fact Romanian, she recounts, she would watch as the expectant glow faded from their eyes.

There is a similar case of mistaken identity in Greta, a new film by Neil Jordan, in which the phenomenon is a deliberate plot point: apparent French nationality masks a lowlier, positively sinister Eastern European provenance. Jordan also made The Crying Game in 1992, a film notorious for a certain gasp-provoking reveal, whereby gender ambiguity and assumed identity serve as an allegory of the Anglo-Irish relations that are on the political periphery of what is otherwise a picaresque romantic comedy. In Greta, an assumed French identity is merely one of several burlesque symptoms of mental illness, as the film out-camps serial-killer forebears like Psycho and The Vanishing to produce a solid genre flick. But the certainty with which Jordan deploys presumed Frenchness as a lure and a lull to an Occidental sensibility on guard against the Iron-Curtained Orient is a reminder of the role France and French culture have long played in the Western imaginary: that of a reliable signifier of elegance, glamour, and sophistication, and an apotropaic talisman wielded against the less presentable elements of the Europe family.

This last propensity of Frenchness was a source of confusion for me when, a prepubescent visiting Paris in the early 1970s, I attempted to assimilate the evident grandeur of the métropole, and the globally intimidating power of its culture, with the French world I had been familiar with to date, namely the Montreal of my birth: a city divided on linguistic lines, whose francophone majority seemed to me edentulous and impoverished, quietly wracked with resentment at anglophone overlords who had long since forfeited bragging rights won two centuries earlier on the Plains of Abraham and were in the process of being outnumbered by an ascendant starving class still practicing a “revanche des berceaux”, or revenge of the cradle, initiated in the 18th century. Read more »

SCOTUS Says No To Politics

by Michael Liss

The Supreme Court doesn’t play politics.

In what was destined to be an inevitable ruling, by an inevitable 5-4 vote, inevitably written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court decided, in Rucho v. Common Cause, that it couldn’t decide how much “partisan” gerrymandering was too much partisan gerrymandering. So it wouldn’t. Case closed.

Rucho is an extraordinary decision, with the potential, over the next 10 years, to change fundamentally the way we experience democracy. That may seem to be a radical statement, but it is absolutely true: Political parties now have a virtually free hand, once they obtain control over a state government, to redistrict as they see fit in order to retain that control. The Supreme Court is not completely out of the game—Roberts did acknowledge that they might still review gerrymandering based on race, or on “one-person, one-vote” grounds, but, by order of the Chief Justice, the Courts will be closed for a permanent federal holiday if the gerrymandering was done for the purpose of political gain.

This is an earthquake, which will, no doubt, lead to a further arms race between the parties. As Republicans control more states (Kyle Kondik, writing for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, cites research indicating that Republicans control redistricting for 179 Congressional Districts, Democrats only 49), the advantage will be theirs. Many critics on the Left are suggesting that the conservative majority on the Court chose this path for precisely this reason. I prefer not to be cynical. Rather, I just want to point out the obvious: The real losers will be the center of the electorate; mainstream, moderate voters who find their concerns completely ignored because the more “safe seats” there are, the more influence primary voters (who tend to be far more doctrinaire) will have. This will inevitably lead to more radicalized government answerable to fewer and fewer people, and even more alienation. Read more »

Among the Godly

by Akim Reinhardt

Several co-workers, all of whom have Ph.D.s. An old friend who’s a physicist. Scads of family members of both blue and white collar variety. Numerous neighbors. And of course the well dressed, kindly old women who occasionally show up at my door uninvited, pamphlets in hand.

One can point to general trends about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the less-educated as likelier to believe in God than those full of book learnin’ or living the good life. But But when the vast, vast majority believe, the believers represent a thorough cross-section of society. And so my daily existence, and that of many if not most atheists, involves sharing interactions and ideas with all sorts of people, wealthy and poor, old and young, male and female, well educated and not, who embrace magical thinking to one degree or another. Who believe either quite vividly or a bit vaguely in a supreme, celestial being or force with at least some degree of sentience and even an agenda. A god who sees and hears us. And perhaps a soul or spirit within in us that lives on after our bodies have given out, some ethereal expression of immortality, some mechanism of continuity after this go-around is done, some medium of transcendence into a heavenly (or hellish) destiny, or perhaps into another corpus, whether animal or human yet unborn, and from there a fresh start.

We, the atheists, the ones who, if you are anything like me, cannot believe even if we desperately want to because we find it patently unbelievable, are a small minority around the world. Here in the Untied States we number a scant 3%.  All around us, a great majority run the gamut: agnostics (only 4%) who may one day end up like us; a growing number of people who just don’t think about it all that much until they end up in some proverbial foxhole; conscious believers, such as my friend the physicist, who might be like us in countless other ways; hardier believers hungrily gulping up the magic; and ever up the scale eventually peaking with a small number of badly broken and certifiably insane people who think they themselves are this or that saint or such and such deity. Read more »

Gender-Bending Rock Stars: Counter-Tenors, Castrati and the Wild and Crazy Baroque

by Leanne Ogasawara

One God, One Farinelli…

Stepping onto the stage, the singer draws in a long breath as he gazes out across the audience. For a moment, he is blinded by the light of innumerable candles. So lavishly lit, it is a miracle that the theater didn’t burn down more than it did over the years. Over a hundred boxes rise up in six tiers in front of him; each box with a mirror affixed on the front reflecting the twinkling light of the two candles placed on either side. The singer can just make out the bejeweled king and queen sitting in their royal box with its gigantic gold crown hovering above. This was the Teatro di San Carlo in the Kingdom of Naples, considered during the 18th century to be the greatest opera house in the world. And on this night, people had come from far and wide to hear Farinelli sing— Farinelli, the famed castrati singer, who drew great crowds and commanded princely sums wherever he performed.

But what a price he had paid to stand on this stage.

The deplorable practice of mutilating young boys to preserve their adolescent voices began in Italy as early as the 12th century. But castrati voices are something we associate most closely with 17th-18th century Baroque music.  At that time, women were not allowed to sing in church or on stage in the Papal States, and so the practice began of seeing men singing the roles of women. But this was not like in Japan in Kabuki theater, where you still see men exclusively performing the roles of women; for in Italy these were not men dressed up as women –but rather were those who had undergone castration as children. The church alone cannot explain the huge popularity of their voices throughout Europe. In Naples or London, for example, women had never been banned from appearing on stage, and yet castrati regularly appeared alongside female sopranos.And they were wildly popular. Rock stars, is how we would describe them today. Read more »

Portland’s Street Battles & The Purity Problem

by Robert Fay

A scene from the 1990 film version of the novel “The Sheltering Sky.”

Kit Moresby, the enigmatic heroine of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky sits in a café in a French colonial city in North Africa. It’s 1949 (or thereabouts) and on the terrace Arab men wearing fezzes drink mineral water and swat flies. Kit and her American companions have just arrived by freighter and they sip Pernod and discuss their initial impressions. They are planning on traveling into the Bled, the vast interior, where they hope to find lands and people untouched by the war and the contaminates of European civilization.

These three are the opposite of the “ugly American” stereotype of the post-war era. They are pessimistic, worldly and bored with America. If anything, their Americanness is revealed in their unwillingness to accept that life and suffering could possibly be synonymous. They are world-weary Bohemians who recognize the America of the 1950s will be a consumer-orientated project. These characters are, in a certain sense, proto-Beats, and in fact the actual Beat writers, men like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac admired Bowles and eventually befriended him.

“It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone,” Kit says. She is a woman of omens. A person of great strength, yet because of the restraints of the era, must admit “other people rule my life.” She wants to truly live, to push aside the veil separating her from raw experiences, but she is fearful and superstitious. “The people of each country get more like the people of every other country,” she says. “They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture—nothing, nothing.” Read more »

Two kinds of psychophysical reduction, part 2: physical

by Dave Maier

Ted Chiang’s (very) short story “What’s Expected of Us” (collected in his recent Exhalation) tells of an unusual device called a Predictor:

Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they are playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it’s easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can’t. If you try to press the button without seeing a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterward, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There’s no way to fool a Predictor.

This is because the device sends a signal back in time, flashing at time t if and only if you press the button at time t + 1 second. Your push causes the flash, even though the flash appears first. No guesswork necessary; that’s how the device works.

In the story, many people, including the narrator himself, take the Predictor to be a demonstration of the unfortunate fact that they have no free will, and that, as the narrator puts it, “their choices don’t matter.” I can see why they think this, but I’d like to try to undermine that intuition here if I can, since it underlies much of the non-science-fictional debate about free will and physical reduction that we started last time. (Note: we will not be solving the free will problem here today, nor do I claim originality for this line of thought; on the other hand, all infelicities in the exposition are my own.) Read more »

How I Became a Drug Dealer

by R. Passov

Johnny spoke softly in a voice just past the threshold of manhood. His smile, mistaken for charm, was longing. I could see the pentimento of the child still in him.

One day I watched a conversation that confirmed my suspicions. Johnny had returned from somewhere Big Greg had sent him. He danced as he spoke, swinging a long arm up over his head, around and down.

“The dude’s wife’s right there. I grab his guitar and bust it all up. Broke that shit right in front of em. Yeah, I said, this is what I mean.”

He had tried to be violent but in the retelling I could see his heart wasn’t in it. “Davy doesn’t play guitar,” Big Greg said. “Where the hell did you go?”

To the wrong house.

He was tall but thin. Black, but feline. Not black like the men he hosted when he had his apartment. Men who turned the living room into a weight room, sitting on benches all day doing curls, out of prison but still in. Johnny wasn’t like that.

Though I didn’t know of Lou Reed, didn’t have a radio, or a stereo or even a record, Johnny belonged in a Lou Reed song. He wanted to be a colored girl.

I know that now. Then I spied his gentleness, his out of place-ness, his role playing, that he lived between lives. Someone with you and somewhere else at the same time. Something children see but not adults.

He and Big Greg wore their green shirts, sleeves cut off, Alexander and Diles marked in black over their hearts. I decided to believe their experience in war freed them of law. Read more »

An Improviser is Born

by Bill Benzon

I was improvising before I’d learned the word, but I wasn’t systematic about it until years later. I suppose for a time the word had a bit of a mystique about it, as it does for many. After all, the norm in Western musical practice has been to read music that someone else, the composer, had written. The composer is the authority; you are a mere conduit; and improvising, where you (shudder) make it up yourself, that’s VERY mysterious.

* * * * *

You mean, no notes in front of you. Just make it up?


And it comes out OK?

Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends.

Isn’t that very brave and dangerous?

No. Do you speak from a script?


Well then, there you have it. Don’t need a script for music either.

* * * * *      

I started taking music lessons when I was ten years old. My earliest teachers taught me to read music, and only to read music. So that’s what I did. But at some point, I forget just when, I decided I wanted to play simple tunes that weren’t in lessons. I decided, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do it. I do remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I was particularly taken with the theme song to a series that played on Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV show. I forget the name of the series, but it was about mountain men and the song had wistful lyrics about living in the mountains. Read more »

On the Road: Outside, Peering Back

by Bill Murray

What you pay attention to depends on where you are.

“In an old city, a tourist hears the rumble of wheels over cobblestones that the native does not and notices sound bouncing differently between walls more tightly constructed than in spacious American cities.” – Alexandra Horowitz

She’s right. With the clatter of hoofs from horse-drawn carriages-for -hire in the tourist-center of Dresden a couple of weeks ago, you could see it; the locals plodded on; the tourists perked up and searched out their source.

With sound, personal space is different in different places, too. On the 13th floor of a 21-floor building in Ho Chi Minh City in April, we might as well have been invited guests in the skybar above us. Live Viet Pop invaded our personal earspace the same way a plane flies over your house’s airspace. With utter impunity.

Something else about listening: silence is a sound of its own. After a month in Vietnam, the silence of the Finnish lakeshore, where we are now, is music I was overdue to hear.

Not that it’s entirely silent. Birch leaves rustle like fresh linen sheets. Gulls shriek and shriek at constant calamities. Is there a more easily affronted creature?

On our waterfront this year we have three flocks of ducks, a grebe with an astonishing trail of a dozen babies, and a swan couple with a brood of five. They are doing what they do, growing kids each day, adults teaching kids how to be water birds. Read more »

Sunday, July 21, 2019

He Hears America Singing Guns N’ Roses

Troy Jollimore in the New York Times:

“America’s epic,” the poet Campbell McGrath writes, “is the odyssey of appetite.” It’s a good line, both clever and seductive, though in the wrong hands it’s the sort of thing that could be merely reductive. But McGrath knows the ins and outs of appetite as deeply, and as thoroughly, as he knows the highways and byways of America. He has spent decades exploring both. “Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems” is a rich and invigorating sampling of the poetic results of these explorations.

America is McGrath’s primary subject, as it was Walt Whitman’s. (There are few poets today who seem to have inherited such a healthy measure of the Whitmanic spirit.) Like Whitman, like America, McGrath ranges in his work from the beautiful to the brash, from the expansive to the intimate. It encompasses sprawling vistas, urban conflagrations and tiny, tender dioramas. Because he loves driving cross-country, it is, too, a poetry of motels, small towns, remote outposts and roadside attractions.

More here.